I. The Hopeful Legion
Val Ma'rag had been "stationed' in the place the Humans called a dead zone for years now, though he had no commander, no handler . He held the territory on his own, defending it from the stinking, vermin Hive. They reminded him of the tiny red beetles that crawled around in the dust where he'd come up; the ones that swarmed war beast pens and crept into woven clothes. The best way to get rid of them, his mother taught him, was to hold a flame close to the seams of their shells. They snapped and popped in the heat. He found the same to be true for the Hive. By now, he'd stopped expecting anyone to come for him. Their invasion had become a death sentence; one he had accepted by the nature of his position. He would die for the Legion, with or without the promise of reward. As Val Ma'rag listened to a transmission from the Empress Caiatl, he thought about how far he'd come since he was recruited. Since he was pulled out of the poorest rural district on his planet. With this new challenge—with the new empress sending her call out into the system—he could go a lot farther. /// Europa was cold. Basilius was no stranger to cold—he'd been stationed on Mars before it disappeared, before his Valus sent him and his reports off-planet on a recon mission. He didn't care for intel or resource gathering, but a Valus is law. Or at least, he was. After a false start on Nessus, they'd brought the cruiser to Europa. The icy moon was crawling with thieving Fallen, but there were secrets buried in the ice. Dainty Human technology. It didn't interest him, but the Psions loved to tinker, and they insisted there was something here worthwhile. Something that could catch the attention of an empress hoping to regain favor with her scattered people. Something that might win a soldier like him, with no valuable titles or reputation to his name, a new level of recognition. And the respect he deserved. /// As the voice of their so-called empress droned on from a beat-up radio, the soldiers ate. Commander Dravus picked at the bones of a roasted bird, gun laid across his lap. The little red-violet winged creatures on Nessus didn't have much meat on them, but they were challenging and satisfying to trap. "What's she mean, 'ancient rites'?" a young Legionary asked. The commander looked up. "Old-timer traditions?" she went on. Dravus snorted. "An honored tradition," he said. "Beloved by the Praetorate . Warriors take on challengers to prove their battle-worth." He eyed her. "Calves like you wouldn't remember that." "Is it open to anyone?" the Legionary asked. He laughed. "Well," she growled. "Are you taking challengers?" She squared her weight. "You can start with me." Dravus looked the bold youngling up and down, calculating the effort. He had no great desire to impress the disgraced emperor's pampered daughter. The leader he knew and served was the dominus , dead or alive. But maybe there was money to be gained from this. He wouldn't turn his nose up at the prospect. He tossed the bird bones aside, lifted his gun, and fired a shot right into the Legionary's belly. She fell. "I win," he said. /// They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she'd risen far above her station in a fraction of her lifetime. They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she pulled things from her mind that should be out of reach from memory. They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she grasped for everything she could not have. It was all true. On the strange terrain of the Nessus centaur, Ixel had extracted herself from command. The Valus had been uncreative, small minded. He hadn't seen the value in the Vex technologies that might amplify Ixel's unique Psionic talents. So she killed him and poached the unit's best fighters. Hard to say if this competition was open to traitors of the empire. And yet somehow, this new empress, foolish though she was, might be inspired by bold action. Not to mention the things Ixel could pull from the prediction engines. Intelligence beyond the empress's imagining. They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because her ambition was limitless.
II. The Cost of War
When Xivu Arath came for Torobatl , Caiatl was unprepared. They all were. She'd watched her people, bred for battle and victory, fall to a force that dwarfed their armies. She'd watched her beloved city burn. Caiatl learned from every failure. From this one, she learned two things: First, that warriors were not game pieces, no matter how much her generals enjoyed bickering over war tables. And second, that a society of warriors could not hope to beat a god of war at her own game, and by her own rules. There were shades of victory. Escaping their homeworld with so many survivors was a victory. Regaining their army was a victory. Avoiding an all-out war with the Guardians would be another. Except the Guardians would not negotiate. She hadn't expected it. She'd thought that after Ghaul's attack, they would do anything to avoid another war. Catastrophe seemed to befall this system time and time again, if the Red Legion scribes stranded here were to be believed. So why did the Guardians refuse a way out? She knew why, of course. It was why she'd waited so long before giving the evacuation order in Torobatl. Why she'd been mesmerized by the towering form of Xivu Arath crushing thousands of years of civilization beneath her chitin boots. Denial. Pride. But Caiatl had grown since then. She'd counted her losses. Calculated constantly. Always working the numbers, never losing sight of who they represented. The Guardians would have to grow as well, if they wished to survive. For there were gods walking through this world, and the battle against them would not be won through denial and pride. They would have to cut a new path.
III. Amanda Dreams
A spot of rust on the Shotgun. A hole in the ground—down to hard clay. A pool of rust on her mother's weather-beaten jacket. Hacked-apart roots grope toward her, peacefully sleeping. A gnarled hand on her shoulder. A gnawing pit in her stomach. Was it hunger or grief? Her father's cough, cough, cough in the background. An endless stream of broken vehicles. Rusted skeletons in their cockpits. They sing a low song through toothy grins. A nameless tune—the sound that follows flickering lights. Is one of them Lucia ? She holds his swinging hand as they trudge down the road. The rough callouses like spots of rust. The cough, cough, cough of the cart bouncing behind them. The hole in her shoes is growing. He drops her hand to cover his mouth. What color were her mother's eyes? She frets at her forgetfulness. The parade of skeletons stretches ahead. Behind, her father puts his hands on his knees. He struggles to breathe. Were they brown? Her father's hands on his shoulders, crossed over his chest. Who closed his eyes? Who dug the hole? A stray Shotgun shell in her pocket. She runs her thumbnail along the ridges. A totem against forgetfulness. Her hands ache with spots of rust as she pulls the cart, alone. Amanda Holliday wakes with a shuddering gasp. The Last City hums a nameless tune around her. The Traveler hangs above, as pale as death.
IV. Guardian Angels
"Since we're undercover, you know what I need? A disguise shell . Something… mysterious." Glint hovered eagerly over Crow's shoulder, his shell flaps tilted encouragingly. "We should go see Tess ." "First of all," Crow muttered, "we're not undercover. This mission is reconnaissance, not infiltration." "Of course," Glint chirped, "but—" "Second of all," Crow continued, "I'm the one who needs a disguise, not you. Nobody knows who you are." "That's not true," Glint protested. "I've been around for hundreds of years! I've met everybody." "As 'Pork Bun' or whatever it was," Crow gently teased. "Nobody in the Tower knows you have a new Guardian." Glint whirred in a low tone, which Crow had learned to interpret as grumbling. The Awoken Lightbearer ignored his Ghost's petulance and checked the position of the sun. He moved a few feet further into shadow before refocusing his attention on Commander Zavala. The last thing Crow wanted was for the Titan to spot the binoculars' reflection. It had been like this for the past week. During the days, Crow would cover Zavala from afar with his Sniper Rifle, vigilant for any unusual transmat signatures or the faint shimmer of cloaking tech . At night, when visibility was restricted, the pair would creep into the Tower and act as the commander's invisible bodyguards. Crow burrowed further into his new Hunter cloak. It really was a beautiful garment, he thought. He admired the fine fabric, chosen by Glint and gifted to him by Osiris. Recalling their generosity made him feel suddenly guilty about his stinginess. Crow sighed. "Fine. After this mission, once we know Zavala is safe, we can get you a disguise." Glint scooted in front of Crow's face, his mechanical iris suddenly magnified through the binoculars. "Can we really?" "I suppose," Crow murmured as he tilted his head to see past the bobbing Ghost. "But not because you need it." "Because we're friends," Glint stated matter-of-factly. "Sure. Rare friends. Maybe even cheap, legendary friends." Crow smiled at his Ghost. "But not exotic friends. You'll have to find a new Guardian for that." "You're the best," Glint hummed encouragingly. "No matter what Lord Saladin says." Crow snorted at the mention of the Iron Lord. "We're all on the same side. Sooner or later, Saladin will realize it, and start treating me like a real Guardian." "Don't worry," Glint chirped, "with the legendary Pork Bun by your side, how could he refuse?"
V. The Restless Dead
Ikora approached Zavala at his post in the Courtyard. He was looking out at the City the same way he always did, even before he was commander: with a blend of fierce determination, love, and dread. A combination Ikora knew very well herself. She stood next to him, resting her hands on the railing, looking up at the Traveler and the stars. "They say that before the Collapse, cities were so bright that they outshined the stars," she said quietly. It was no surprise to her when he said nothing. Living for hundreds of years didn't endow you with deep understanding of another person, it turned out. Close and steady partnership did. She knew him by now. He held his fears close to his chest, protecting the people he cared about. But with time, with patience, he would let her see. Sometimes. So she waited. "I keep seeing his face," Zavala murmured after a long silence. Ikora looked at him, her expression falling. When she spoke, her voice was soft with grief. "Cayde?" "No," Zavala said. He gripped the railing with both hands, a gesture of frustration and self-doubt. "Uldren Sov." Ikora straightened, surprised. That sharp feeling of being caught off guard , of realizing you'd missed something, froze her for a moment. "What do you mean?" she asked cautiously. "In the Tower," Zavala said. "In crowds…" He hesitated. "I saw him… in the gardens. He called out to me. To warn me about the assassin." Silence again. Zavala exhaled slowly. "Do you ever listen to the old Golden Age stories Eva tells during the festival? About apparitions of the dead?" "'Ghosts,'" Ikora said quickly. "That's what they called them. But those are fairytales." Who needed ghost stories when the dead could already get up and walk? She watched Zavala sidelong . Waiting for him to say it. Waiting for him to ask. "I don't know why my mind goes to folk stories. I suppose because the alternative is…" "Too hard," Ikora interrupted softly. "Too hard to imagine." Zavala closed his eyes and nodded. Neither of them said anything for a few minutes. Eventually, Zavala broke the silence. "But if he were back, we would know," he said. Ikora stared straight ahead. She felt him watching her, checking her. He was so tired. So, so tired. He would trust whatever she said. She reached to put a hand on his shoulder and said, gently, as her gut twisted with guilt, "We would know." Zavala placed his hand over hers. They stood together, looking out at the Last Safe City of Earth, with a profound distance between them that Ikora had never felt before.
"I never could understand you Psions." Lord Saladin gazed broadly over the precipice of the wall at the rocky wilderness below. Nearby, Osiris watched the Psion prisoner, restrained by a set of centuries-old iron shackles. Saladin continued, "You were conquered by the Cabal. And in the face of a superior military force, you did what you had to do to survive. There's no shame in that." The Psion flared their moist facial flaps and fixed their lone eye on the Iron Lord . Saladin wondered whether they were glaring in defiance, or struggling to breathe without their helmet. He marveled at their repulsiveness. "But even after Calus fled, and Ghaul was defeated, you still grovel before tyrants like Caiatl. If you rose up, you could taste true independence instead of the patronizing scraps that she offers ." Saladin shook his head in contempt. "Your power is wasted by cowardice." In the silence that followed, the Iron Lord noticed a curious change in the surrounding atmosphere. The air filled with a sharp frequency—not a sound, but a high-intensity vibration that seemed to emanate from inside his own head, like a blossoming migraine . Osiris chuckled. "Our friend disagrees." Saladin snarled and grabbed the Psion by their shackled wrists. He dragged his prisoner to the edge of the wall and held them over the precipice. He was amazed at how light they were without armor, like a scrawny little bird. Osiris sniffed in distaste and looked back toward the Last City. He doubted Saladin's ham-fisted style of interrogation would work, but the Psion had resisted his own subtler approach. "Where did they get the Light-dampening tech ? How did they modify the prediction engines ?" Saladin snapped. The Iron Lord held firm as the Psion struggled weakly in his grip. "Where are they? Where's the rest of the cell ?" The Psion's lone eye fluttered wildly, and Saladin felt a sudden rush of vertigo, as if he was the one with the hundred-meter drop beneath him. The Titan steeled himself. "We will find them eventually. You can't control that. The only thing you can control now is your own survival. Tell us where they are." The Psion began to tremble, like an animal shivering in the cold. But they said nothing. Instead, they assaulted the Iron Lord with another wave of vertigo. The wall felt as if it were flexing and tilting beneath the Titan. He growled through clenched teeth. "Last chance: where are they?" Suddenly, Osiris was at Saladin's side. The vertigo broke. "Lord Saladin," he urged. "This is a waste of time. You of all people should recognize unrelenting stubbornness when you see it." "You're right." Saladin regarded the Psion with quiet admiration. "If the roles were reversed, I'd rather die than betray my loyalty." The Iron Lord gave the Psion a nod of respect, and then effortlessly hefted them over the edge. In the split second before gravity took hold, Lord Saladin met the Psion's gaze. He suddenly saw himself reflected in the creature's Y-shaped pupil: a ferocious ogre in metal armor, filled with violence. A dull primate, infused with godlike power. A fragile mind cursed with immortality. Saladin felt the creature's terror. But he also felt the expanse of the Psion's ancestors yawn forth beneath him. He felt their hands reach up to embrace him in a comforting void. He heard the ringing chorus of their timeless harmony call to him. A kaleidoscopic array of emotion surged through his heart, such that he'd never known as a Human. For that fleeting moment, he was at peace. . . . Then the Psion was gone, and Saladin was alone with Osiris once more.
VII. The Imperial Throne
Caiatl sat on a high-backed throne embellished with ornate carvings and rare metals. It had been salvaged by dutiful courtiers in the last hours of her homeworld . The empress thought it looked preposterous on the bridge of her warship. She would have jettisoned the gaudy antique out an airlock if not for Taurun. Her prudent counselor advised that the throne not only conferred authority, but was also now a relic of an endangered species. Any memento of their culture, no matter how trivial, was invaluable. Having lost the Red Legion, their dominus , and their homeworld, Caiatl's people needed tradition to galvanize them. They needed the touchstones of their past to carry them into the terrifying future. They needed to feel like they were still Cabal. Caiatl considered the throne in context of the decision before her. The leader of the Vanguard had offered to settle their dispute with a Rite of Proving . It would preempt an exhausting war of attrition with a single, decisive engagement. An exceedingly clever tactic she had not considered. The Rite of Proving was once a simple trial-by-combat, used to settle disputes between neighbors. However, like the throne, it had been embellished beyond utility. By the end of Calus's reign, the Rite had been corrupted to allowed advocates, bureaucrats, and politicians to sway its outcome. Despite Caiatl's contempt for the bygone relics of the failed Cabal Empire, Taurun had prevailed upon the empress to honor them. Not for her own sake, the counselor reasoned, but for the sake of the survivors. "Taurun. I've made my decision. We'll put forth Ignovun as our champion… inside the Halphas Electus . We'll see how much Light the smallmen have left once they fight their way inside." "Yes, My Empress." Though the wily counselor's face remained implacable, she continued. "It's my duty to mention that this decision will not be universally welcomed." "I would have thought you in favor of honoring tradition." Caiatl flicked her tusk-ring in annoyance. "It's a decision the majority will embrace." "This is true, My Empress." Taurun paused, choosing her next words carefully. "However, some commanders, like Ixel, the Far-Reaching , believe that victory is close at hand. Leaving the outcome to a Rite of Proving will endanger their glory." Caiatl snorted derisively. "They would sacrifice us all for a moment of vanity. You know as well as I that we can ill-afford this campaign. We must regroup for an even stronger foe." Taurun hazarded the slightest of raised eyebrows. "With respect, it seems as though you value conclusion over victory." Caiatl raised her tusks and lowered her brow. Taurun took a nervous step backward. "There's something more important than victory at stake here." The empress ran her hands over the ridiculous throne. "We will honor tradition. We will accept the Rite of Proving. And we will win or lose it as Cabal."