In waves of three and dressed in black, the mourners carried the casket down the rocky hills, towards the beach. It was a simple sort of casket, rose-colored wood from the nearby forests, with only a small corporate logo to mark the corpse that laid within. Nor was the ceremony that awaited the dead man in any way adequate to the size of the life he had lived, at least not in the opinion of Benjamin Sakobi.
He watched the procession struggle amongst the tufts of brown grass and blasted, black rock. For reasons he had never really understood, House Hexacomb kept to their ancient company traditions, so that only women may carry their dead executives to the ocean. And while they all wore the Nightcloak, obsidian robes with grey veils over their faces, Sakobi knew that underneath they were soft, corporate women unused to such physical toil.
Knowing the deceased as he did, Sakobi was sure the old man would have preferred his warriors bring his carcass to the sea, but the Board would not allow them to even know of their great leader’s death. The League was at a crucial juncture, and their army was integral to the coming journey. Losing the head of a major house might prove disastrous – something Sakobi had warned the entire Board about only months ago.
We are all in the season of the assassin now.
“Do we ever love enough?” a voice came from behind him.
Sakobi turned to see no less than the CEO stepping over the rocks to join him on the bluff. He was a thin shape of black in front of the low sun. His voice, impossible to place a distinct accent, came out in even-toned waves.
“Mr. Montessori,” Sakobi said, inclining his head in a properly somber greeting.
“High Father,” the man replied. “I would have thought you’d be performing a ceremony of some sort.”
“For almost any of the other houses, yes,” the priest answered. “Hexacomb allows for little religion in the way they lay their dead to rest, however. A strange company, really.”
“Yet storied in centuries of wealth and valor,” Montessori added. “It’s a lesson my father often reminded me of. Success allows one to change, to stand apart from the others. Steven was just such a man.”
Sakobi looked back to the casket. The women were up to their knees in the water as they guided it to the tow boat that would carry it into the sea.
“I assume you’re here to talk about what this means for all of us?” the priest wondered. “I myself have been able to think of little else. So many of my fears have come true. So many omens.”
Standing closer now, Montessori’s smile was placid, the elegant lines in his olive-colored skin moving while light danced in his eyes. A man who has ruled the mother corporation for longer than anyone can remember, both by charm and by steel, Sakobi reminded himself. It was easy to feel at ease around the CEO, it was Montessori’s nature to permeate a sense of relaxation. But Sakobi knew a wolf when he came across one.
“I’m here to see a very old friend off, High Father,” he said. “When you’ve lived as long as I, your peers disappear. Every year I learn to mark their passages more and more.”
The casket successfully attached by a white rope, the boatmen began to row out into the bay. It was low tide and the waters were quite calm, a moaning and shifting gray sea laid out before the dead man. But the way Steven’s coffin clamored along the small waves felt somehow disrespectful to Sakobi.
“He should have been laid to rest in a mausoleum, interred and honored with marble,” Sakobi said. “This is like some Viking ritual, for the love of God. Border-line pagan.”
“Oh, no need to worry about that, Benjamin,” Montessori said. “There’s no body in that coffin. Steven’s remains have been… well, preserved, I guess you could say.”
“Yes. We’ll have a ceremony soon, once the news can be broke. We’ll let the whole corporation mourn for him as one. They’ll sing his name, toast him at the bar that night, name their offspring after him, all of it, and it will be beautiful, my friend.”
Sakobi couldn’t suppress a snort.
“He’d have hated all of that,” the priest said.
“True,” Montessori conceded.
“We live in the time of judgment, Mr. Montessori,” Sakobi said. “The Lord is challenging us as a race in a way He never has before. He has turned the earth itself against us, He has winnowed our kind down to desperate numbers. If ever we needed to live our lives the way He has ordained us to --”
“Perhaps the quicker version, Benjamin.”
“Steven should be bathed in the sacred oil, laid before the alter of the New Dawn and presented to our Lord God for final judgment before his spirit passes! As it is written.”
“HaHA!” Montessori laughed and clapped a hand on the priest’s shoulder. “I always forget the odd things you men of the cloth get worked up about. I mean no offense, truly.”
He reached inside of his robes and produced a pewter flask. He unscrewed the top with a swift familiarity, raised it towards the departing coffin in salute, and then took a swig.
“In the end,” he continued, grimacing from the liquor, “Steven was a warrior more than anything else. All his life was a long battle. And in my experience, a warrior believes in whatever god promises victory.”
“They all do that,” Sakobi muttered. “That’s what gods do.”
“Yes. Yes, they do.”
From across the hills came a loud crack, a sound that echoed off the rock walls. Sakobi couldn’t stop himself from flinching, though the CEO only rolled his eyes at the noise.
“Speaking of the strange habits of warriors,” he sneered.
“Was that – was that gunfire?” Sakobi said, incredulous.
“Indeed,” Montessori replied. “While we’ve been able to keep Steven’s death a secret from most, his household fighters are the ones that found his body. Loyal men and women though, they’ll keep it quiet.”
“You call that quiet?” Sakobi said. “Those fools are going to get themselves killed! Where did they even get the ammunition?”
Montessori waved off the comment, his black silk sleeve rippling as it moved. “Oh, all the generals keep hidden stashes of the old weapons, hoping against hope that one day they can be relied upon. Steven’s warriors are a fatalistic lot anyway, some of them probably wouldn’t mind blowing off their arms in some sort of stupid fucking tribute. Soldiers being soldiers and all.”
As if on cue, another report of gunfire rang out, followed by a second, different blast. Montessori sighed.
“I hope it wasn’t one of the better fighters. Nothing sadder than a one-armed swordsman.”
Sakobi was in awe of the foolishness of the Hexacomb warriors. He reminded himself of the general fatalism that had possessed the entire city of Hull the last few months – ever since scouts reported on the horde crossing the Pacific Ocean. Corporate secrecy turned out to be anything but, and soon enough it seemed everyone knew that the Black Tide was coming to wipe out the last western city of man.
“We’ll soon need every sword we have,” Sakobi bit out.
Montessori’s eyebrow arched up. “Oh? I see you’re taking Minister Borneo’s stance. Stiff upper-lip and last stand and all that.”
Sakobi couldn’t say he agreed on much with the Minister. Borneo was an atheist through and through, and as the commander of the joint corporate forces he had a wide pulpit to spew his empty thoughts and empty philosophies from. Still, the man knew matters martial, and his assessment had been grim. The numbers were bad, and the numbers never lied, even if men loved to.
“Do you think so little of our chances?” Sakobi asked. “Borneo’s last report put our forces near a hundred thousand swords.”
“An exaggeration, to be sure,” the CEO replied. “But that’s not the point.
I’ve learned to put my trust in deeper sciences than spies and numbers.” A strange gleam showed in his eyes. “Would you like to see the counsel I’ve chosen, High Father?”
“Counsel other than your fellow Board members? Other than the light of the New Dawn and the words of your generals?”
Sakobi thought on that for a moment as if guessing the answer to a riddle. “Do you mean the satellites, Mr. Montessori?”
Montessori only laughed. “Come, follow me.”
The CEO and the High Father descended the hill, the wind whipping at their robes. Before them was a long plain, a flat pan full of brown grass and steel rectangles. The terminus points went on for miles and miles, A1A to Z524Z, though their traffic was light at that moment. Sakobi had himself called the environmental department and instructed them to issue a surface warning to ensure privacy for Steven’s funeral.
The air tasted normal enough to him. Nuclear corruption and the vapors of Mount Rainier were always there, but no more than usual. Nothing he couldn’t have scrubbed away from his lungs once he was back in his giant hole in the ground, he thought sourly.
“I truly don’t think we love enough, High Father,” Montessori said, as if picking up an old conversation.
Sakobi merely grunted in reply. The path was steep at points, and the priest was feeling his age more and more. Steven had lived for hundreds of years, but he had none of Sakobi’s challenges, none of the obstacles God saw fit to place before him. At eighty-nine the grave didn’t seem so far away, he had to admit.
“You disagree?” Montessori pressed.
“I don’t believe there’s an accurate way to tell how much one loves,” Sakobi bit out. The walk up had been masked by his grim desire to see Steven’s body cast out into the sea. His need to watch the man’s last remains disappear had been desperate – a need Montessori had now revealed could not be satiated until their cover-up was over. Without that closure, the path back down the hill felt particularly brutal.
“Nonsense,” the CEO said as he took Sakobi’s arm. “Lean on me, High Father, I can see you’re struggling. Less time kneeling perhaps, more at the Preservation Centers?”
“Those horrid things,” Sakobi said with a sneer. “If I were not kneeling, Mr. Montessori, if I were not supplicating myself before the Lord, I wouldn’t be receiving the visions He has shown me.”
“Such visions!” Montessori said.
“Do you doubt them?” the priest snapped.
“How could I?” Montessori replied, still all smiles. “You saw the Black Tide cutting through Europe well before the satellites, did you not? You warned me of House Dessault’s treachery, and now we see you were right to fear for the lives of the Board.”
They neared the foot of the hill, where Sakobi’s acolytes waited with two horses. The absence of any House Khotiaas swords or adjuncts surprised the priest, but Montessori was known to move mysteriously even within his own company.
“You believe Steven was assassinated then?” Sakobi asked.
“I do not,” Montessori said. “I believe Steven was tired. Tired of looking at this place, tired of war, tired of my face maybe, definitely tired of you and your church… I think when death came for him, Steven held his arms out, relieved.”
The acolytes helped Sakobi up into his saddle while Borneo hopped up into his with the ease of a young man. Soon they were both trotting back towards the terminals as a crimson sun peaked beneath the clouds on its way down into the Pacific.
Montessori didn’t make for the city’s main entry points, where most of the corporate and church offices were, but instead sped his horse’s gait and pushed east. Sakobi followed, but felt a sense of foreboding. He had left his acolytes behind, not wanting to offend the CEO, but a priest without the swords of his guard was unwise these days.
The ride went on far longer than Sakobi had even feared it might. Darkness was settling over the Corporate Plain, though a sinister gleam remained to the steel terminals, looming in the dusk like barrow graves. There were shapes of riders in the murk, patrols and messengers, yet Sakobi felt he and the CEO were invisible somehow – that they were already ghosts, haunting the grim collection of fools they had ruled over for so long.
Are we even worth saving? He wondered sometimes, he really did. When he looked at the maps and satellite reports, when he saw how his kind clung to their diseased home, it all seemed so pointless. As if they were fighting a battle they had lost before they were even born.
Montessori brought his horse to a stop at last. They had reached the furthest point of Hull, one of the three underground cities that the last Corporation called home. Sakobi had never been this far east since they had all moved underground thirty years ago. He could see the skeletal trees of the Withered Forest not far off, the last bit of buffer before the Upper Wastes began. A thick fog hung about their emaciated trunks like gossamer.
“What terminal is this?” he asked. His voice felt small in the great open space, with the wind howling across the plane.
“These last dozen or so are un-numbered,” Montessori answered as he dismounted. “Most of it is for record-keeping and storehouses, but there are a few we maintain for… business reasons.”
Out of the terminus’s port came three sentries, all wearing the black and gold armor of House Khotiaas. They gleamed onyx in the red dusk, holding long spears with one hand while the other rested on hilts of swords dangling from their hips. Sakobi knew the black pauldrons were made of pure omni-steel, as well as their vembrace and grieves, but he also knew they were more for show than actual combat. Beneath the armor, the warriors wore their true protection, each clad in a golden-tinged Aegis – form fitting body armor capable of turning blade and arrow, even bullets in the grand old days. An Aegis was a relic of the old Corporate wars, when the Guild of Weaponsmiths were in the apex of their glory. Now the ancient armorers were vanished, or in hiding some said, and only the warriors of the wealthy houses possessed their unparalleled works.
House Khotiaas were certainly wealthy. While all the houses combined to make up the Grand Army of the Corporation, no other house boasted as many great raiders and captains as Khotiaas, save perhaps for Hexacomb – though without Steven their power was now lessened.
Montessori exchanged a few terse words with the guards before signaling Sakobi to follow. They guided their horses through the open terminal, down the rubber-lined ramp that lead underground. The smell of circulated yet stale oxygen filled their noses, though the CEO’s carefully neutral grin never wavered.
What’s he so excited about? Sakobi wondered. He’d known Montessori for close to forty years and had learned to read the man’s subtle moods as well as anyone. Beneath his ever-present façade was a barely noticeable anxiousness.
I dislike everything about this, the priest thought. He has some secret he means to unveil, and I don’t know what it is. God has sent no vision I can discern. Beneath his robes, his hands traced the holy sigil of the Vestigial Redeemer.
Three levels down, they dismounted and stabled their horses amidst the smell of hay and shit. A young salary-man in a crisp suit approached them, handing them each a cup of tea. He wore a Khotiaas badge upon his jacket lapel.
“The Board are present and await you in the Parmaloue room, sir,” the boy said in that weird accent those born underground had developed.
“Excellent,” Montessori replied. He clapped the youth on his shoulder and leaned in closer. “And Mr. Torbin? Any message from my old friend?”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Torbin says the House Musashi will not bend. He says he is prepared to have his sons negotiate.”
Sakobi cocked his head. “What negotiations? Surely you’re not planning on taking over Hexacomb stock this soon?”
“You worry so much, High Father,” the CEO said, though Sakobi thought he detected the hint of annoyance in Montessori’s dark within dark eyes. “Your questions – all of them – will be answered in only minutes.”
They walked on through steel-shod corridors. Unlike the other terminal points, there were no faux-windows bearing holographic images of gentle sunsets or sleepy, snow-covered hills, depending on the season. This was no civilian fortress, but an austere, hidden place. This is where Montessori keeps his secrets, Sakobi felt sure of it.
After a wordless few minutes, they reached a door with nothing to identify it save a black decal of a honey comb. Montessori pressed his thumb to a sensor plate, and the door opened. Once it would have been an instant blur of speed, but it was a lucky thing if the electronics worked at all these days. Sakobi had all the sensor plates removed from his parish arcology after being stuck in a room for three hours, but Montessori evidently still trusted the old technologies in his domain. The CEO strolled in, giving Sakobi a strange smile over his shoulder.
Inside, seated around a half-crescent table of blackest oak, waited the ruling Board of the last corporation. Twelve Houses (two of whom Montessori and Sakobi himself represented), twelve banners hanging from the ceiling behind each head of house. It was a long room, more of a hall if anything, and each house’s honor guards lined the walls in their respective colors. The old childhood rhyme to remember the great companies came to Sakobi’s mind, but he hardly needed such devices to remember the men and women who ruled the Corporation.
The foremost seat was empty under the Khotiaas banner, but beside it there sat the ancient, crumbling figure of Henry Torbin, CEO of House Hilmarsson. Whatever arts had preserved Montessori had clearly not been worked upon Torbin. He looked every day of his one-hundred and ninety-two years. Rheumy, glazed-over eyes watched Sakobi, but the rest of his sagging face was covered by his plastic breathing apparatus. Liver-spotted hands clutched at his chair’s arms and shook from the struggle of age, the lingering creep of expiration so close at hand. Nonetheless, House Hilmarsson sat mighty in the affairs of the Board.
Curt nods, tightened lips, even a few out-right glares were what greeted Sakobi from the next few chairs. I am not loved by many of these men and women. Even more have turned away from the faith now.
Kari St. James of the House of Smoke and Stone, with his snow-white beard and cedar colored skin had never really cared for the faith of the New Dawn, and often spoke out against matters religious. An order started by pagans and virgin fornicators, the priest thought to himself.
Beside him sat Diane van der Pol of House Blue Rock, Victor Adimbe under the green banner of House NEG, and the cosmetically beautiful Selene Chamberlain, she of the Ascendent Star, crusher of the last European army, covered in more war glory than any other at the table. Those three would remove the House of the Faith of the New Dawn from the Board if they could. Possibly Sakobi’s head while they were at it. God-fearers, he sniffed. A faggot, a faltering house, and a plastic crone.
A new face to some of them sat beneath Hexacomb’s banner, a much younger man than the others, clad in a blue and gray officer’s uniform. He was not unknown to Sakobi, however. Steven’s master of spies, Robert Gilson. That Hexacomb had chosen him to sit in their dead leader’s chair was something of a shock. It did not bode well in Sakobi’s mind.
Houses Llewyn-Meyers, Dassault and Skye Resilient were their own triumvirate, worshippers of the Corporate way, and desperate for the wealth lost to them from the wars and disasters. Once, they had all happily existed alongside the church, the banks and land barons keeping the Faith in that empty way so many did. Now they treaded polluted water, praying for the return of money and opulence. The biggest fools at the table, Sakobi might pity them if they had shown any sense and sought out the redemption of God. Only He was an escape, only He offered salvation from the dying earth.
Last at the table was House Musashi, and a great fury sat upon the brow of Desmond Kii, their great leader. As old as any company or order on the Board, Musashi held the gauntlet close, ready to draw the blade to several of the other houses. Desmond’s lips trembled in anger as he glared at Montessori. In his hand he clutched a print-out, the paper making a crunching sound while his thick brown fingers curled and relaxed.
“What have you got there, Desmond?” Montessori said with a smile that seemed ready to turn to laughter.
Lord, his eyes are twinkling, Sakobi thought with some alarm. He can see all of House Musashi seething, and he’s goading them from the start. The priest felt a premonition at that moment as he looked at his own seat, beneath the ivory cross of the New Dawn. I must not sit down. There is menace in this room.
“I have news of Magadan City,” Desmond growled. “It was sent a month ago. Our servers only now received their last message.”
Montessori sat in his chair and crossed his legs in a rush of silk. “I’m afraid our friends in the Cult of Science – as well as Mr. Sakobi and the church – have been proven correct. The old technologies…”
“I know all about the machines,” Desmond snapped. “We all do, Montessori.”
“There’s really no explanation I can give you, my friend,” the CEO said. “We don’t know why one computer works, but another won’t. Some oil is fine, some will burn an engine out. A bit of a mystery, really.”
“I’m not here to talk about machines, and you fucking know it. The Russians have sent a final message.”
Montessori nodded. “Yes, I imagine their computers were having similar troubles. I know their satellites haven’t operated properly in -”
“God damn it, I know you’ve read this report,” Desmond said, shaking the paper in his clenched fist.
“I’m sorry, you said it was a ‘final message’ from Magadan City?” Diane van der Pol said. “Has something happened?”
“Yes.” Desmond bit the word out with a stern finality. “Magadan City has been over-run. Its towers have been burned, and its people put to the sword.”
He reached into the pockets of his kimono, and many in the room tensed. The house warriors, lined up against the walls and well away from the table, had their hands to the hilts of swords.
But Desmond pulled out a thumb drive, sliding it across the table. Montessori made no motion to pick it up, only continuing to smile at his rival.
Sakobi however, leaned down and snatched up the tiny black rectangle.
“Video feeds of the arcology in Magadan City’s final hours,” Desmond informed them all. “The Black Tide has butchered them all.”
A chorus of unsettled murmurs broke out. Victor Adimbe wouldn’t even accept the news at first.
“Ridiculous,” the head of House NEG protested. “Our satellites last tracked them somewhere in Iberia! The entire waste of central Europe separated those savages from Magadan. Uncrossable.”
Desmond’s expression indicated how little time he had for a man such as Adimbe. “You’re a fool if you think their reach hasn’t grown long. They’ve killed every last settlement and outpost left over there, and a month ago they finished off Magadan City.”
“A month ago?” Olaf Olsen-Meyers of House Llewyn-Meyers said, panic rising. “This happened a month ago?”
“Yes, a fucking month ago,” Desmond replied. “Meaning the Black Tide now has the Russian fleet.”
“And you know this for a fact?” Montessori asked him. The CEO was far calmer than any other in the room, and Sakobi suspected the man knew every piece of this shocking news already.
“What does it matter?” Desmond demanded. “They’ve finished off the last city that stood between them and the ocean.”
“They will come for us,” van der Pol said.
A wheezing sigh came from Torbin. “They are mindless savages,” he said with some effort.
Behind him, his “sons” lurked in finely-cut suits, their bald, tattooed heads shining under the halogen lamps above. One of them repeated the word “savages” in a clipped tone as his twin nodded.
“Al evidence shows them to be a starving band of fall-out survivors,” Selene Chamberlain pointed out. “A massive horde of cannibals and death-worshippers. Not unlike the old Sons of Death, really.”
From the end of the table, Robert Gilson snorted his disdain for her words. “Spoken like a woman who fought all her battles in Europe,” he said. His tone was casual, his face handsome and kind, but a master of spies never took off their mask.
“The Sons of Death were death-worshippers for certain, yes,” he continued. “But there was nothing mindless about them. Many of the Houses at this table lost armies and cities to them. And all but House Hexacomb fled before their advance.”
“Yes, you only set off a nuke to separate yourselves from them,” Chamberlain retorted. “How noble of your proud house.”
“And why does this spy sit in Steven’s chair?” wondered Kari St. James.
“I’m glad you brought up the Sons of Death, Selene,” Montessori said, ignoring St. James’s question. “It brings to mind an old friend, and his supposedly hidden city. The neo-myth of the last city in the east – Freehold.”
“Freehold?” van der Pol repeated, her eyebrows coming together in confusion.
“Freehold,” Montessori said again. “The shining city by the sea, ringed in swords and spells, obscured from satellites and nomads alike.”
Desmond grunted. “Magadan City destroyed, our enemies on the move, our technologies failing, and you want to talk about Freehold? And where is Steven?”
Gilson shrugged to that. “Not here. And to be clear, Mr. Kii, we’ve known about Magadan City for weeks. So has Mr. Montessori, Mr. Torbin and Mrs. Chamberlain.”
Desmond’s big hand slapped the table, sending a shudder down the wood. His bannarets and barons gripped their swords and moved closer to their lord. Sakobi felt the air grow thick with tension, the sucked-in breath before the shout.
“Explain yourself, Mr. Montessori,” the head of House Skye Resilient, Juan Pablo Rangel demanded. Other heads of houses were pulling back from the table or even standing up, looking to their own warriors and doing the math.
“Good news/bad news, Desmond,” the CEO said. “You’re right. The so-called ‘Black Tide’ are indeed on their way, desperately longing to kill and consume all of us.”
The Board began to murmur and moan, but Montessori pressed on with a species of glee.
“But we will not await their pleasure,” he said, raising his voice over the buzz. “We will take our Houses, our Grand Army, our people… and travel east, to take the city of Freehold as our new home.”
Almost every head of house was shouting, pleading or threatening. Desmond Kii’s face just paled however, and he reached inside his kimono again. His eyes locked on Montessori’s perfect grin.
“Impossible!” House Blue Rock protested.
“We cannot go that near to the wastes,” the House of Smoke and Stone warned.
“Half of our people will die, Montessori!” House Dassault cried out.
Gilson’s laugh cut through the shouting, and all eyes turned to the man. His eyes, brown and smiling, moved from face to face.
“None of you are wrong, not really. But you’re not worried about the right things.”
“Edric Thorsson,” Juan Pablo Rangel hissed. “The Sons of Death. They’ll never let us get close to that city.”
“Pfft,” Montessori waved away the concern with his ringed fingers, glistening with diamonds. “Let me worry about that.”
The CEO stood, clearing his throat to quiet the room.
“Gentlemen, ladies,” he said with a hint of ceremony. “I understand your concerns. I understand and I have predicted them. But this pilgrimage – and let us call it thus – must happen.”
“Pilgrimage,” Desmond said. “You sanctimonious piece of -”
“Believe me, I know this upsets most of you,” Montessori went on. “I know you think it will prove impossible for you and your houses.” His black on black eyes flashed back to all the House warriors lined against the walls, arrayed in their different colors of armor and finery. “But as I said, this must happen. Which is why we’ve bought your COOs and CFOs, your directors, executives, vice-presidents, even the junior execs.”
Sounds of outrage spread down the table, but Montessori was all but laughing.
“Hell,” he said, his teeth shining like polished ivory. “We even bought your swords.”
It happened before Sakobi could even register the strikes. The House Blue Rock paladins surged towards their leader, swords flashing from their scabbards.
Diane van der Pol’s scream gargled as the blades bit into her neck.
The bankers and money-worshippers died fast and brutal. Their warriors disemboweled and decapitated them with a palpable glee, the violent joy of men knowing they were moving up the ladder.
Victor Adimbe managed to kill two of his fighters, using a dagger he had under his tie, but a third caved in his skull with a battle axe. Brains and blood showered the table as his body jerked and fell.
Kari St. James was no pampered executive, though. He spun away from the Khotiaas men at arms with a flash of light. He brought no warriors of his own, nor carried any weapons, but the men and women of the House of Smoke and Stone had other powers at their disposal.
St. James moved to the left, but was suddenly somehow behind the warriors. He pulled a dagger from the nearest man’s belt and buried it in his neck, where armored plates met and were weakest. As the blood sprayed, the old warlock turned and brushed a long-nailed hand across another of his attacker’s chest, as if cleaning some dust away.
Where his fingers had been blazed a line of white phosphorous, and the Khotiaas warrior caught fire. He screamed wildly, knocking into two of his fellows as they tried to put the white flames out, only to find their own hands burning.
Arrows came from all sides. Kari St. James dodged some, others seemed to pass through him, but several bolts lodged in his throat and chest. He fell back against the gore-covered table, grunting.
Selene Chamberlain herself pounced for the kill, pulling a thin blade from her hair. Her long auburn tresses fell down her shoulders as she drove the dirk into the warlock’s eye.
Sakobi gasped from the shock as he pressed against the wall. He was too scared to run as the heads of the houses were slaughtered, men and women who bore names that were centuries deep in power and prestige. Companies that had survived the wars, the famines and plagues that emptied much of the planet and brought low the once proud civilization they had ruled, all fell beneath the blade as Montessori watched with a gentle smirk and placid gaze.
Desmond Kii’s lords could not be bought though. They were proud men from old families themselves, wielding swords of renown handed down from fathers and mothers who had fought in countless wars. They formed a circle around their Duke and cut down the other house warriors as the arrows glanced off of their Aegis.
His own sword singing, Desmond roared and made for Montessori. House Khotiaas warriors fell before his rush like wheat from the scythe.
“Kill them all!” he cried to his barons and bannarets.
Sakobi was sure Desmond would reach the CEO. He threw aside Montessori’s guard and lunged, his sword coming down in a gray flash.
Another sword met it, the clash sending shudders down Desmond’s arms.
Robert Gilson stood between Montessori and Desmond, tall, young and wielding a bastard sword in his leather-clad hands.
Behind them, Torbin’s sons pounced on the House Musashi warriors. The twins fought with equal parts ferocity and unnatural symmetry, weaving through the Musashi lords like dancers. Ribbons of red followed their movements and the well-armored fighters began to sag from many wounds.
“Yield, old father,” Robert Gilson told Desmond. “Yield and you and your family can take exile. I give you the word of House Hexacomb.”
“You lying little cunt,” Desmond seethed. “Steven should never have trusted you.”
With that, their swords separated, then met again, over and over and with such speed and ferocity that Sakobi couldn’t tell who was on the attack and who was on the defensive. They moved back and forth, side to side, steel screaming against steel.
Torbin’s sons had finished the Musashi fighters. The last died having his throat ripped out by one of the twins’ own teeth, and Sakobi made the sign of the Trinity with his trembling hands.
Only Gilson and Desmond remained, and the blood-splattered room grew still and watched their dance unfold amongst the torn and trampled banners. They grunted and hissed through clenched teeth, their feet stamped and slid as they tried to decode each other’s pattern.
Desmond was a fighter with a storied name, a brutal, glorious history, and a level of fame only Steven could have claimed to eclipse. His sword, forged by the lost guild of Weaponsmiths in their secret forges, cut and parried as an extension of his arm, every move calculated and capable of killing.
Robert Gilson was clearly Steven’s pupil, however. He was a match for the old man’s skill, and faster still, hungrier and smarter at once. The sculpture-like cheekbones of his face worked and his lips pressed together in a composed hyper-concentration. His art was the greater.
He smashed aside Desmond’s defense and laid a deep cut down his chest. The old man staggered back, gasping, but the younger didn’t hesitate.
Gilson dodged a weary strike, came in under Desmond’s guard, and brought his blade up in a powerful thrust. The sword went in under Desmond’s chin and pierced through the skull.
The Duke jerked and dropped his sword as his eyes rolled to white. Desmond gave a last groan before the Hexacomb man pulled his sword free and kicked the body aside. Gilson stood over the corpse, breathing heavily and watching Desmond’s blood run out onto the floor. If killing so famous a swordsman meant anything to the spy, he showed little emotion as proof.
The stillness of the room felt more terrible to Sakobi than the actual carnage had. What now? he wondered, looking at the surviving Board members. Montessori and House Khotiaas, Torbin and House Hilmarsson, Selene Chamberlain and her Ascendant Star, and blood-covered Robert Gilson, new leader of House Hexacomb. They were all that was left, five Houses to rule the last Corporation.
Will they kill me now? Has some Cardinal betrayed me? Usurped my place for gold and power?
But Montessori’s attention was all on Gilson. Chamberlain and Torbin as well. Behind the young man, the Hexacomb warriors stood ready yet unmoving, as they had done so during the assassinations.
“As ever, you are an enigma, Commander Gilson,” Montessori said. “Your house remains impenetrable to espionage. We truly didn’t know which way you would go on this.”
“Steven is dead,” Gilson replied.
“Hail the honorable dead,” the Hexacomb warriors intoned.
Montessori raised his eyebrows. “And that means…?”
Gilson wiped clean his blade on Desmond’s kimono before sheathing his sword.
“You mean to move the army east, to Freehold?” he asked.
“As I said, the army and our people,” Montessori replied.
“The civilians won’t survive.”
“Some won’t,” Selene Chamberlain said. She sat back in her seat, crossing long, perfect legs. “Many will, though. Enough, certainly. We’ll go through the Canadian pass. It will take longer, God knows. But the old rail system remains intact.”
“You’ll be going very near the ice wastes,” Gilson said. “That is a place better left un-visited.”
“We agree, my friend,” Montessori said. “Trust in my skills to navigate the pass.”
The CEO narrowed his eyes in a brief flash of annoyance. “I tell you, Commander – we will reach Montreal within the year.”
“Montreal is barely more than a ruin,” Gilson retorted. “And that ruin is crawling with Black Hearts. Rafa Reina still rules there.”
“Edric Thorsson and his Sons broke the Black Hearts twenty years ago,” Montessori said.
“A lie spread by Rene Verner,” Gilson said with a shake of his head.
That brought a particularly wide smile to Chamberlain’s face. She looked to Montessori.
“He always was very good at lying,” she said. “It’s nice to know he hasn’t lost his touch.”
Montessori shrugged. “I’m not worried about Montreal or Rafa Reina. If need be, we’ll let Borneo blood his new troops pacifying the city before our arrival. And then… Freehold.”
“And you’ve found Freehold? They say all roads to it are bent.”
“We’ve found it,” Montessori answered. “Years ago, really. But now is the time.”
“The time for war?”
“Not with Freehold,” he replied. “The Sons of Death are no more. There will be no blood when we reach the city gates.”
Gilson let his eyes trace the puddles of blood and gore and dead Board members surrounding them all. “You believe so?”
“I know so,” the CEO said. “Rene Verner runs that city. More so than the infamous Mr. Thorsson. And Rene and I… well, we go way back, Robert. He assures me, Freehold will welcome their incorporation.”
Gilson looked back at the other Hexacomb fighters, grim fighters in blue cloaks and silver helms. They shared a look before the spy turned back to the surviving Board members.
“House Hexacomb will make the journey,” he announced.
“I thought you might,” Montessori said.
“But we remove ourselves from the Board, such as it is.”
This displeased the Board members, though Sakobi hadn’t moved a muscle since the fighting stopped.
They’re going to kill me, the priest thought.
“You don’t get to ‘remove’ yourself from the Board,” Torbin wheezed.
“We do and we have,” Gilson answered him. “If you resist, there will be war.”
“A war?” Chamberlain exclaimed, incredulous. Torbin’s sons laughed.
“Understand,” the young spy master said. “We’ve known of your intentions for months. We saw you buy the lesser lords and junior executives. We know that even as we speak, raiders from all of your houses are descending on the House Musashi arcologies, butchering them root and stem.”
“You are correct,” Montessori said.
Gilson’s hand casually lowered back to his sword hilt. The lords of Hexacomb breathed as one.
“You will not find House Hexacomb unprepared. Move against us and there will be war.”
“A war you cannot win,” Chamberlain snorted.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Gilson conceded. “But we’ll bleed the hell out of you, until you show up at Freehold’s gates as beggars and refugees, not conquerors.”
There will be war, Sakobi knew it. Steven is dead. This master of spies probably killed him. And now he’s mad with power. There will be war.
Montessori put his hand out, though.
“In light of our recent downsizing, I see no reason House Hexacomb cannot remove themselves from the Board, provided they stay true to our shared goals.”
“Excellent,” the CEO said, satisfied. “How will you proceed? Where does House Hexacomb go from here?”
Gilson showed the hint of a smile, the deal completed. “Many of our men-at-arms already serve with Minister Borneo and the Grand Army. We’ll join the rest of our strength to his.”
He looked at his men long, and they nodded, gave little grunts of assertion, or even smiled back at him.
“War is upon us,” Gilson said. “And we no longer desire to play at business. We are warriors.”
While the other Board members gave their agreement, Montessori looked at Gilson strangely.
“Not you, Robert,” he said. “You are a spy.”
Shrugging, Gilson replied, “A spy is another sort of warrior, Mr. Montessori.”
“Yes!” Montessori laughed. He clapped his hands in joy and looked to his surviving fellows.
“It’s settled then!” he exclaimed. “We go forth on that trusted old tripod.” He gestured to Torbin and Chamberlain. “Us, with all our companies and wealth,” he nodded to Gilson, “Hexacomb and Borneo with their armies -” and lastly he looked to Sakobi, “and the High Father with the Church. Just like the good old days.”
Sakobi found his voice at last. “What… what would you have of me?”
“To be the shepherd, of course,” the CEO said with what might have been a hint of derision. “Gather your flock, High Father. Rattle their cages! Tell them all – God’s will is here, and it is to move east, to find the hidden city.”
“The last war is coming, friends. And it will be fought outside the gates of Freehold.”