I: Sparky and the Scrivener
The Ghost hovered a few meters above the small campfire and tried, again, to explain the rules. The Lightbearer chewed on a bit of tough gray root. He had softened it over the fire and its sour flavor had mellowed into something approaching black pepper. To his surprise, he found himself enjoying it. He interrupted his Ghost. "You've explained how it's supposed to work, and I've explained that I don't care," he said with playful finality. "I don't like any of the names you've suggested. And either we both get new names, or neither of us do." The Ghost flew down to eye level, where its shell appeared iridescent purple in the firelight. "I have had several good names already," it replied. "I enjoyed some of them quite a bit." The Lightbearer shook his head. "You said I had a name before as well, but you won't tell me what it was." "Can't," it corrected him. The Lightbearer fell silent. The Ghost emitted a static sigh. "Purely as a hypothetical exercise," it said carefully, "what would you name me?" "You are… a light in the darkness," the Lightbearer began, and paused. He stumbled over the sudden weight of his words. From the beginning, this little Ghost had been the only thing keeping him going. It seemed every Guardian he met had little interest in him except to hold him accountable for the unknown sins of his past, but this almost unbearably earnest Ghost had mended him again and again. It nourished him with its encouragement and its inexplicable single-minded faith in him. It showed him compassion. Sometimes, when he writhed awake with a hot knot of nameless anxiety in his belly, the Ghost would rest on his chest and hum to him until he fell back to sleep. The Lightbearer took a breath to regain his composure. "And thus, I name thee Sparky." The Ghost emitted a pained groan, contracted in the air, and fell to the ground, where it lay facedown in the leaf litter. The Lightbearer smiled. "I'm sensing some reluctance, Sparky." The Ghost gave the barest pulse and rolled itself over in the leaves—a tiny, lazy movement. It dimmed its light to a bare flicker. "It's terrible," it said flatly. "Picky," the Lightbearer sniffed. "Very well. I can do better." The Ghost warily resumed hovering. "How do you feel about Gleam?" he asked. "Flash? Or maybe Glint?" "Glint?" A rainbow of colors played across the Ghost's eye. This usually meant he was calculating complex enemy behavior, determining combat outcomes, or mapping hundreds of bullets and their millions of possible trajectories. "Oh, I like Glint!" The Lightbearer drew to his feet by the fire and bowed deeply. "Then it is an honor to meet you, Master Glint." He reached out a finger and wiggled one of Glint's points in greeting. The absurdity of the gesture delighted the little Ghost. "And now that you have a name," said the Lightbearer, "perhaps I will be more open to ideas as we search for mine." Glint dipped in the air, acknowledging his partner's progress. The pair smothered their fire earlier than usual that night. The next morning, a passer-by saw Glint's Lightbearer without his helmet. The Titan beat him mercilessly with her flaming hammer, snapping his collarbone and crushing his pelvis. He died hours later of internal hemorrhage. Glint brought him back and the pair traveled in silence for a long while.
The Ether pipes rattled their arrhythmic beat as they greeted a new arrival in the Spider's lair. He entered with hesitance. Gold eyes flitted around the room like a nervous animal. His clothes were those of a traitor. The white shawl of a funerary covering draped across shoulders that hunched downward as if a heavy burden rested on them. He was thin from hunger, broken by the cruelty of a face he did not recognize, but others reviled. Out of "compassion" he was given a space to rest: a modicum of privacy amid the rattling pipes. The Spider, with one hand at his mouth, perched so far forward on his throne that it dipped down toward the floor. "Nothing? " he asked one of his lieutenants, who offered a wordless shake of his head in response. "And you're sure? This isn't just some…" Spider waved one hand in the air, as if gesturing to his point. "Some clever ruse?" The silence that Spider was met with may as well have been a resounding affirmative. "Fascinating." Spider grunted as he slid forward off of his throne. He landed on the floor with surprising grace, but when he walked, it was with an ambling gait—a feigned weakness. He dismissed his lieutenant with a flippant gesture and traipsed toward the nearby storage room. The pipes were quieter in there, but only just. Seated on the floor, wrapped in the tattered white cloth of his burial shroud, the man once known as Prince Uldren Sov looked up to the wide shadow Spider cast in the doorway. He rose to his feet, then bowed. "Baron," he said mistakenly, unaware that Spider neither held no such a title, nor led a great house. Spider's response was a smug laugh, though he tried to temper it behind smiling words. "You look like the underside of a Dreg's boot," Spider opined as he glided into the room with a silence that belied his stooped posture and uneven gait. His guest—a Lightbearer, no less—turned to his Ghost in a moment of uncertainty. "We've had better days," was the Ghost's response. Spider restrained himself from criticizing the Ghost for intruding on the conversation and pointedly ignored him. "My boys said they found you adrift in space, that your ship ran into some… debris," Spider said. "Awful generous of them to… retrieve you." The Spider circled, slowly, blue eyes glowing in the gloom of the dimly lit space. Up close, he carefully assessed the Lightbearer's posture, his expressions, and even something as intimate and subtle as his scent. "How long were you trapped up there, in the vacuum? Dying and being reborn… over and over again?" The Lightbearer slouched, and his gold eyes averted to the floor at the memory. "Long enough to know what eternity feels like. Long enough to know I'd never escape without…" he looked up to Spider, to the glow of those Ether-infused eyes. "Without help." "That's me," Spider said eagerly, "very helpful. Very helpful indeed." Now sure that the Lightbearer didn't recognize him, Spider ambled up close and took an assessing look at his new guest. "I don't think I caught your name," he added—one final test. "I…" The Lightbearer didn't know how to answer. His Ghost was silent too. "I don't have one." It took all of Spider's energy not to burst out in gleeful laughter. "Well, that won't do," Spider insisted as he laid a hand on the Lightbearer's shoulder. "That won't do at all. I won't have someone in my care…" and Spider was careful to emphasize that word, "without a proper name." With a sly tone, Spider moved in closer and suggested, "How about we try one out? Just for a little while. You and me." His voice lowered, gravely and hushed. "What do you think about… Crow?" The Lightbearer's eyes showed no recognition. The Spider's shone with predatory intent.
III: Just a Kindness
The Warlock could handle the war beasts. The Cabal Legionaries were slow enough that she could thin their numbers in the open. Even the massive Centurion wouldn't be an issue once it was alone. But there were three Psions up on the ridge with their rifles trained on her position, and if she moved from behind her boulder, she was finished. Druis knelt in the coarse red sand and cursed under her breath. She hadn't expected this much opposition. She didn't have the energy to teleport. Getting out of this was going to be painful. She took a deep breath, formed a roiling Void grenade in her hand, and— An explosion erupted from somewhere on the ridge. Gunshots – not the ozone pop of Cabal Slug Rifles, but the sweet crack of old-fashioned black powder. The Centurion barked orders at the Legionaries, but panic quickly won out over commands. Druis heard their guttural cries as something picked them off. Another explosion and the baying war beasts fell quiet. The gunfire drew closer, the Centurion bellowed… and then nothing. Druis cautiously poked her head out from behind her boulder. The Cabal squad lay in heaps around the gully. Remnants of Psions littered the ridge. The air was heavy with thick smoke and the smell of black oil. In the midst of the carnage, a lone Hunter holstered his weapon and stepped over a corpse. He walked with tight efficiency; no movement wasted. He was graceful, even for a Hunter. Druis stepped into the open and raised a hand in greeting. "'Hoy, Guardian!" she called. "I appreciate your handiwork! The name's Druis, and you just saved me a lot of trouble." The Hunter's expression was hidden by his heavy helmet. He gave a perfunctory wave and knelt to examine the Centurion's weapon. Now that she was standing, Druis realized she was a full head taller than the Hunter. Suppose everyone seems tall when you're cowering behind a rock, she thought. She pulled off her helmet and let the fresh air cool her slate-blue skin. Her dark hair limply unfurled from where it was piled atop her head. She fixed the Hunter with her golden eyes and smiled. "I signed up for a simple salvage run," she said. "Transmat some supplies, run 'em to the City. I've had a headache all morning and didn't want anything loud." The Hunter nodded without looking up and pulled a sparking catalyst from a Slug Rifle. Druis chuckled. "It's okay," she said, nudging the body of a fallen Legionary with her boot. "You don't have to talk when you can shoot like that." The Hunter paused, then stood and faced her. "I am… they call me Crow," he said, "and I am glad I could be of some help." The Hunter's voice was soft and refined, and while it had a frosty edge, it was not unfriendly. "Not as glad as I am," Druis said. "The last thing I needed today was to take a rez with this headache. I told the Cabal that, but they wouldn't listen. Rude of 'em." Crow laughed politely. "That I can understand. After being brought back, I feel out of sorts for hours." He turned to look for more Cabal weapons and something caught the Warlock's eye. She whooped. The Hunter looked up, ready. "I'll be damned!" cried Druis, pointing to his arm. "You're Reefborn, aren't you? Earthborn here, but you and me, we still go way back!" Crow looked down. A strip of leather had been torn from his gauntlet, and beneath it, his own grey-blue Awoken skin could clearly be seen. When he looked up, Druis had nearly closed the distance between them in a few long strides. His hand hovered over his weapon before the Warlock clapped him on the back. "Figured you for one. It was your voice and the way you move." The tall woman playfully juked from side to side. Crow was quiet. Druis wished she could see the helmeted Hunter's expression. To her relief, there was a beep from the tracker on her belt. "Finally, some good news," she said. "We're right on top of the supply coordinates." She scanned the area and located the tiny supply ship half-hidden by a rockslide. "Since you kept this cargo out of the hands of the Cabal, I'd say you're entitled to a cut." "That won't be necessary," Crow said. He shifted his weight and hid his exposed arm behind his back. It was the first awkward movement Druis had seen him make. "I didn't say it was necessary," she replied. "Just a kindness between two bright-eyed Awoken. Won't be a minute." She ducked into the sand-filled hold of the tiny ship and found the shipping crates. Dim red lights blinked on their panels—the seals had broken long ago. She pried the lid off of the closest one. Inside the grime-covered bottles, the liquid still shone with a gentle orange glow. She uncorked one, wiped the neck clean against her vestments, and took a sip. It was bright with honey and salt and burned her throat with a clean, gingery sweetness. "We're in luck!" Druis called as she hopped outside with the bottle. But the Hunter was gone. Druis placed the bottle on a flat stone and took a seat next to it. Though she did not expect her companion to return, she waited, busying herself by picking dried blood from the velvety hem of her garment. Finally, she sighed, slapped her palms on her thighs, and reached for the drink. "To Crow," she shrugged.
He wasn't afraid of the Scorn at first. Like anyone else who could spare the bullets, Crow had picked off a few dozen at distance when he found them in the open. Glint had told him they were related to Eliksni somehow, which made sense—they moved like Eliksni—but they just wouldn't stay dead. When their raiding party hit one of the Baron's storehouses, he immediately sent Crow after them. He said the Scorn were "bad for business," but Crow could tell by his benefactor's wet wheezing he wanted revenge. Crow was stealthy. Careful. But the Scorn could smell, or sense, or something. He was forced to move deeper into their territory, picking his way through welded-together ship husks as the creatures searched for him. They had herded him into a kill box: a derelict ship with one way out. Then they started coming inside—and Crow found he much preferred fighting them from hundreds of yards away. The Scorn were rotting flesh pressed tight beneath metal, their bodies webbed with scars and fields of boils, malformed flaps of muscle bolted crudely into place, clumps of brown cloth balled into weeping sockets. Crow reloaded his revolver and dropped three of the smaller ones. Their helmets were thinner, or their bone structure softer—either way, one shot was all it took. The air was filled with the sour smell of wounds festering beneath brass. Chains dragged against metal to his left and Crow spun. A hulking form was pulling its way through a gap in the ship's hull. Crow fired. Some of the blue pustules that ringed the creature's shoulder burst open. A thin gas rose from the wound and released an acrid smell of cold solvent. He unloaded into the thing's body, corking the tunnel with its corpse. Two Stalkers pressed through another gap and moved to flank him. He backpedaled and reloaded, fully aware he was being pushed farther into the corridors of the ship. He turned in time to catch sight of a flaming thurible and ducked, but it collided with the side of his head. His ears rang and his revolver clattered to the floor. The Stalkers hooted in excitement as something tackled him. It was one of the big Raiders, its four ropy arms bound with filthy belts. He struggled and felt the leather straps along its forearms twist and crunch. They were caked with dried lymph. The Raider was on top of him, mouth howling below its featureless metal faceplate, pinning him to the ground with its larger arms while the smaller two tried to bring its rifle up for a shot. A jagged claw tore through Crow's cheek as he writhed and kicked in the Raider's grasp. He wrestled the rifle away from his chin and forced it in the direction of the two Stalkers. He groped blindly until his fingers found the trigger; the burst of fire hit the Stalkers and they fell in a screeching heap. The Raider roared and twisted the rifle from Crow's grip and flung it away. Freed of the weapon, its frenzied subarms tore at Crow's stomach. He felt claws catch and tear his own leathers, and then they were through, and his waist was slick with blood. Gibbering madly, it pulled him closer to its misshapen teeth. Thin mucus poured from somewhere under the metal faceplate. Down through the thing's lipless chittering mouth. Down into Crow's face. And then he realized the creature was speaking. There was a long moment of horror followed by one of pure revulsion. It was one thing to be torn apart by a mindless creature of madness, but this… this would not be allowed. Crow felt the Light surrounding him more solidly than the arms of the Raider. He kicked off the creature as if underwater and felt his torn stomach lurch. The Raider's arms closed on nothing. It looked up in rage as Crow's shifting form tumbled away. With one hand down on the rusty deck of the craft, Crow steadied himself. The Light rose from his body like steam. Knife, he thought, and some of the dissipating energy became a blade in his hand. He stood. The Raider charged forward, clawed hands clattering against the ground as it skittered toward him. Crow feinted left and pulled his arm across his body, then pivoted and dropped to a knee as he let the knife go. The blade was in the creature's chest and the blade was Light and the creature became flame. The smoke was pure, the ash clean. The Light was Crow's weapon, and as he walked out of the ship, it was the Light that roared again and again and again from his hand. It was the Light that drew Glint to Crow as he walked like a pillar of flame in the night. And it was the Light that kept Crow from madness, even as the voice of the thing echoed through his mind: "fatherfatherfatherfatherfather"
VI: Revenant's Switch
The Ether pipes were howling. Spider sat hunched to one side of his throne, head in hand, when Crow returned from the field. "Baron," Crow addressed his ostensible benefactor. The Spider looked up and wordlessly beckoned the Lightbearer over. Upon reaching the throne, Crow took a knee. "What was it we talked about before you left?" Spider's rhetorical question sat like a weight of stones on Crow's shoulders. Crow didn't look up, and when he started to answer, Spider cut him off. "Guardians can't be trusted," was Spider's reminder. "They can be useful, they can be powerful, but never trusted." "Baron, I only thought to—" "No!" Spider bellowed. "You didn't! If you thought about anything, you wouldn't have exposed…" Spider caught himself, words turning into a snarled grumble as he laid back in his throne. "You screwed up." Crow, head bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, said nothing. He knew the Spider's anger, knew his displeasure, and knew his wrath. He held no desire to face it again. "But maybe there's some…" the Spider hesitated and chose his words carefully, "…wisdom, in your defiance. The Guardians are too good a resource to cast aside, especially on matters beyond our mutual—ah—expertise." It was only then that Crow looked up, questioningly. For a moment, he felt humbled pride. Perhaps, he believed, that act of defiance had broken through to Spider, revealed Crow as more than a convenient Lightbearer. The Spider held out one hand. "I have an idea to… protect you." His offer sounded sincere, even if Spider meant his investment and not Crow as a person. "Send Glint over." Crow grew tense, looked away, and then thought better of testing another act of defiance so soon. With a nod, he showed his compliance as Glint manifested at his side. The ghost fixed on Crow with a nervous look, then flew up to Spider. "What… do you require?" Glint asked. Instead of answering, Spider snatched Glint out of the air with one hand. Glint shrieked and Crow stood swiftly, but just as swiftly saw the Arc-pikes of Spider's guards thrust at him. Spider made a clicking noise in the back of his throat and reached for a set of tools nearby. Tools used to pry open the shells of dead ghosts. They would work on living ones just as well. "What are you doing?!" Glint demanded, fear in his voice. Crow stood frozen, having faced Spider's punishment before. But this… this was his Ghost. A part of Crow also feared that perhaps he was misreading the situation. He was so certain that Spider would never do anything to permanently hurt him. But when the Spider shocked Glint into paralysis with a small, needled tool, Crow was disabused of that certainty. "Stop!" Crow cried as Spider wedged a flat tool between Glint's shell plates. "No!" With a snap, Spider popped one of the casings off. Then he looked up to Crow and switched tools. "Don't worry," the Spider said in soothing reassurance that flowed like ice through Crow's veins. "I'm just going to make some… modifications," he said, igniting a cutting torch. "To better protect you… from the world."
VII: Broken Wing
Glint's shell showed the scars of Spider's implements. "I'm so sorry." Crow's voice was barely a whisper. For all his strength as a Lightbearer, he looked small seated on the floor in his den, illuminated by the pale glow of a solitary lamp. Crow cradled Glint in his cupped hands. The ghost's monocular eye stared up at him and flickered weakly. "I'm so, so sorry." "It's all right." Glint couldn't blame Crow. "I—I think I'll be fine. Spider is…" he had to cautiously choose his next words, "…very skilled with modifying Ghost architecture." "He put a bomb inside you!" Crow hissed, his voice cracking. "But I'm still here. Still with you," Glint reassured. "And you still have the Light. That's what matters." Crow looked up to the ceiling, unable to bear the sight of the damage done to his Ghost. He was silent, the room was silent, save for the damnable rattling of those pipes. "I put you in this position," Crow said quietly. "I let this happen." "You had no choice. We can't change the past," Glint said as he floated up out of Crow's hands a little crookedly; like a bird with an injured wing. "We can only look to the future." Crow forced himself to gaze down into Glint's single, flickering eye. "My future is with you. You're all I have. The only person who…" he lowered his voice, afraid Spider might overhear them. "The only person who cares about me." "You won't ever know who cares about you until you meet them," Glint contested, then floated closer to Crow's face. "You aren't a prisoner," he added. "You… you could leave. Live a normal life. Without the Light." Crow's jaw tensed, teeth clenched together. "No," he said through them. "I won't abandon you. You would never do that to me." The Ghost looked away in thought for a moment and then bobbed up and down. "You're right," he said as he turned again to face his Lightbearer. Glint floated in and softly tapped his shell to Crow's nose. "I'll never leave you." Crow reached out and gently took Glint into the palm of his hand. "We're all we have," Crow whispered, pulling his knees in close, and Glint even closer. "Spider will never let us go…" "…but at least we have each other."