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    Faith and Loyalty, Chapter 1

    Officer of the Hydell Order Max Coilin narrowed his eyes as he closed the gap on the last remaining Mordena Blade despite its best efforts to shake his attentions. "That's right, heathen," he muttered, pulling his lips back into a contented snarl. "There's no escaping just punishment for your crimes against the Natural Order."   "Talking to yourself again, Maxi?" Initiate Coral Coleman teased, her fighter tightly pressed into formation with his own. "You know it can't hear you."   "Doesn't matter, Initiate." He brushed his claw lightly over the joystick, gently caressing the firing mechanism. "It's important to tell the universe the reasons for an execution. Otherwise the universe may think we joined the Militants because we enjoy killing things."   Coral snorted. "Who doesn't?"   His fighter's forward guns lept to life at his command, Coral's joining soon after from his right, the Blade fracturing beneath their joint attentions in a brief but impressive blossom of flame and fury.   Max switched his next sending to include their carrier, the VTD Eternal Covenant. "That's the last of them. Dauntless Squadron requesting permission to come home."   "Nice work out there. The Conclave will be pleased. Permission granted, welcome home."   The Eternal Covenant beckoned in his cockpit window as he turned, a glittering welcome from the cold Void of space. "Nothing like the satisfaction of a job well done."   "I'm rather fond of the killing part, myself." Coral's voice carried an uncharacteristic coldness, and Max felt his blood run chill at the venom in her voice. "Do you think Blades feel pain?"   "I... Why would you say such a thing?" This wasn't the kindhearted Coral he'd come to know.   "I hope so."   "...Coral?"   "I hope they die screaming."   Max sat up, the canid's own scream strangling itself in his throat at the unexpected pain of his head connecting with the empty bunk above. "Traitorous heathen," he cursed under his breath, tenderly poking the point of impact.   "Nightmares again? I can get you something for that." The calming voice of his personal prison warden, a deceased Mordena dracoling, cut through the groggy fog of his thoughts and the dark of his cell. What had their Grand Navarch introduced him as again? Chief Cal Barthik.   "I'm fine," Max growled back, still poking the growing bruise.   "You don't seem fine. And haven't been, for at least a week now."   "As if you care."   "I do, actually." Cal's holographic projection slowly emerged, a faint welcome light in the darkness. "I told you, I'm an empath. You've felt a lot of things these past weeks. 'Fine' has never been one of them."   It was true. His open defiance of the Mordena's Grand Navarch had earned him his own solitary cell far away from the rest of his squadron, not to mention the full weight of the necromancer's personal attentions. And when finally granted breaks from the otherwise endless questioning he'd been given over to Cal each time, apparently one of the pilots his squadron had killed in their latest raid just before the Mordena's full scale attack which had landed him in this Hell of an existence in the first place. How many weeks has it been? With no window to the outside universe, he'd lost track.   "What do you need? How can I help?"   Curse the heritics, this Cal is relentless. Max fixed him with a glare, before softening. But maybe I can get some answers. "Do Blades... feel?"   "Emotions?" Cal's ear fins fluttered in surprise. "Yeah, of course they do."   "No, I mean... touch."   "Oh." Cal narrowed his eyes. "They're organic fighters, as alive as you are. Of course they can feel. Would be rather difficult on their Dancers otherwise, if the Blades couldn't feel where they were."   Dancers. Max still wasn't sure what Cal meant by that word, and almost changed the topic to ask, but stopped himself. Not important right now. "Can they feel pain?"   "Yes."   Max exhaled sharply, waiting, but Cal didn't elaborate, the dracoling's red eyes shining back not the fury Max knew he deserved but rather a deep sorrow. It was Max himself who finally broke the silence.   "I'm sorry. About your Blade."   No answer.   "I hope it was quick at least. I hope it didn't suffer."   "She."   "Excuse me?" Max blinked.   "Lieutenant Alyssa Gerwick. She." Cal's red scaled face twisted into a sad smile as his hologram shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. Outranked by my own Blade."   "Oh." Max wasn't quite sure what to say to that, and apparently neither was Cal, as the two existed in the awkward silence as the minutes stretched onward.   It was Max who broke the silence once more, folding his claws in his lap as he bowed his head in Cal's direction. "I'm sorry."   "Me, too." Cal blinked in the ensuing silence, and Max was beginning to wonder if he should speak again, but this time it was the dracoling who continued. "I don't know why she decided not to come back this time. We worked really well together, us and the Yinits... Saved a lot of lives. We were a team. Why would she want to abandon that?"   "This time? How many times has she died?" The Order was known for resurrecting their own valued dead for the Ordained Ascended, of course, but that had always been the decision of the Ascended Conclave, not the individual. And once a True Descendent was identified to join the Ordained, leaving was never an option freely given.   Cal's brows furrowed. "Eight? I think? She was a Blade before I knew her."   "And she got to choose whether or not to come back? Every time?"   "Everyone gets to choose." Cal tilted his head, ear fins cupping toward Max with curiosity. "What in Void's name are they teaching you guys about us?"   Max sighed. One more doubt on the list. He had to admit he'd amassed quite a few since his imprisonment. As a True Descendent of Fillimet he'd been taught that resurrection after death was a reward to be earned through devout service to the Conclave, and that all others returned from the dead were a disgrace to the Natural Order, a heresy to be wiped out of the universe.   But why is the Conclave's choice more important than an individual's choice for themselves? It had made sense to him to have a central group deciding whether or not an individual could return to the mortal plane after death, otherwise the dead would outnumber the living. But what if they don't want to come back? He'd seen the Conclave override that, too, and it hadn't seemed proper.   "Do you always get to choose? Even if your Grand Navarch disagrees with your choice?"   "Yes."   There was no hesitation in the answer, and Max found himself squeezing his eyes shut, hands clasped firmly in his lap, his voice barely a whisper. "Do I get to choose?"   "Ask him yourself."   At the amusement in Cal's voice, Max looked up to find himself face to face with the necromancer responsible for fracturing the belief system that had sustained him his entire life. He felt what little of his resolve remained dissolving beneath Shane's intense orange stare, his breath catching in his throat under the now-bright lights of his cell.   "Good. You're already awake. Let's begin."

    Cover image: Planet Moon Solar by LoganArt


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    Sage Dylonishere123
    R. Dylon Elder
    8 May, 2022 17:55

    Ooooo excellent start. Had me sucked in from the get go, even with the kids playing as loudly as they do. That is no less than skill! I really the exchange here, how max is questioning everything with each truth he learns. Well done.

    8 May, 2022 20:12

    Thank you so much! I had a great time writing this one. I love these characters.

    Lead Author of Vazdimet.
    Necromancy is a Wholesome Science.
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