Hey there, book fans!
We all know I like to ramble (and am maybe even a bit pathologically incapable of NOT doing so)…
But holy scud buckets, am I excited to finally share a bit of this story with you!
So, without adieu, let’s get to it!
SHADOWS OF DIVINITY
Chapter 1 – Apostate’s Folly
For ours is not to ask, but to serve.
That’s what they’d always told us, at least. Which is why I didn’t ask when I once again found myself hunkered down behind a slug-riddled skimmer, gritting my teeth as another good twenty or thirty softsteel slugs smashed into the vehicle’s rigid polymer plating. I just squinted against the sunlight, gauging distances and angles, counting rough numbers in my head.
Then I spun from cover and dropped two of the rebel bastards in the space of one breath.
The rifle kicked in my hands. Two red-garbed forms dropped.
The rest opened fire.
I was already back behind the skimmer, adjusting my grip on the rifle, wondering if I could shift forward and manage a clear shot from the hood. The loud clang of a slug ricocheting from that direction said no.
For now, they had me pinned.
So I dropped back down to sit out another wave of angry softsteel, studying the patterns of brilliant sunlight that poured through the cracks between the sprawling towers of the city.
Notwithstanding the half-dozen men trying to kill us, it was actually quite the beautiful day. And besides, it wasn’t like these particular apostates were much of a real threat.
Still, no excuse to be anything less than perfect. Through discipline, divinity, after all.
No sooner had the mantra run through my head than a throat cleared beside me, and I looked over to find Johnny closing down the mint green message display of his palmlight with a quick curl of his fingers. He sighed and scooped his own rifle up from the ground—the very antithesis of discipline. When he spoke, his tone was nonchalant, as if we weren’t sitting there amidst a hail of apostate gunfire.
“But seriously, man, he’s definitely up to something. And can you blame him? Kublich’s servitor is stupid hot. I mean, have you seen the swells she’s packing underneath—”
He went still, mouth still hanging open, frowning up at the tiny explosions of debris where slugs were still pelting into the permacrete wall we sat facing.
“Underneath Kublich’s… files?” Johnny shot a sidelong glance at me and cleared his throat again. “I mean, uh, lovely lady. Great servitor, I’m sure.”
“My father is not—”
Something crashed just over our heads, and what little glass remained of the skimmer’s last window rained down between us. For a second, we both tensed. But the incoming fire was slowing down. Another few shots, and it died completely.
They were waiting.
And so was Johnny, who was watching me expectantly with those blue-green eyes that made the color of his hair—very obviously red, even trimmed to Legion regulations as it was—stand out that much more.
“My father is not running around with the High Generals’ servitor,” I hissed. “He . . . He wouldn’t do that to my mom.”
The skeptical arch of Johnny’s fiery-red eyebrow let me know just how naive I sounded. But it was true, dammit. It had to be.
And besides, we had more pressing issues.
Except now Johnny was laying his rifle in his lap. Holding my gaze all the while, he pointedly raised his hands up in front of his chest and made a series of emphatic squeezing motions, as if cupping handfuls of imaginary—and bountiful—bosoms. He cocked his head, his expression warring between an apology and a sophomoric, Right? Riiiiight?!
“You’re an idiot,” I sighed, shaking my head. “And you’re gonna get us killed.”
Johnny affected his best offended face. “C’mon, broto.”
He turned to peek around the rear of the skimmer. The storm of gunfire renewed almost immediately, and Johnny quickly scooted back into place beside me.
He shrugged it off.
I fixed him with a glare.
“Okay,” he sighed, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you, buddy. Now let’s go bag us some blasphemers!”
“Johnny, wait!” I cried, but he was already in motion.
He bounced to his feet and made for the next skimmer down the walkway with a sloppy diving roll. Sloppy as it was, though, and rough as the landing looked, Johnny was back up in no time, shooting me a grinning thumbs-up from behind his new cover as a fresh blaze of gunfire kicked up dust and debris all around him.
Such an idiot.
But that idiot was my friend, and my friend needed some cover.
With the apostates focused on Johnny, I was clear to pop over the slug-riddled skimmer hood and drop two more of them. The rest quickly turned their fire back on me, and I ducked for cover. Before I even had time to give him the sign, Johnny capitalized on the opening, leaning out to take down another apostate while they were focused on me.
He could be a lot for some people to handle, but Johnny was damn reliable in his own way. And a crack shot to boot—I had to admit that much.
I skirted away from Johnny’s position and around the front end of my skimmer, trying to get a clear angle at the remaining hostiles. The sound of Johnny’s taunts and jeers followed me all the way as he applied liberal blindfire to keep our enemies’ attention fixed on him.
I got in position and leaned out long enough to take down another man.
Two more left.
Off to the right, Johnny emerged from cover with a cocky assuredness that made my stomach fall.
“Johnny!” I snapped.
He wasn’t listening.
His first burst cut our enemies down to one. The second burst never came.
Instead, Johnny jerked back, the gray fabric over his left shoulder staining dark with blood. He tried to raise his rifle one-handed, but two more shots punched into his chest. He fell to his knees, clutching at his belly, dark blood running from his mouth.
“Dammit,” I growled.
Every damn time.
I stowed my anger and gunned down the last apostate with cold precision. Then I strode back around the skimmer toward Johnny and his slowly growing patch of bloody permacrete.
Nothing moved along the sun-soaked street. Nothing but the smoke winding up from the piles of burning debris our grenades had birthed at the beginning of the engagement.
They’d been twelve at the start. The magic number. Now they were zero—the other magic number. In the wake of the cacophonous gunfire of the past few minutes, the silence that hung in the air was particularly somber and profound, broken only by the sounds of my boots on the pavement and the crunch of shattered glass underfoot.
I came to the spot where Johnny lay unmoving on the sidewalk and stopped, staring down at the bloody exit wounds on his back.
“You’re an idiot,” I finally said.
The sound of Johnny’s laughter rolled into my ears, though the body on the ground remained perfectly still. The effect was rather unsettling.
I straightened the fingers of my left hand to wake my palmlight and keyed a command on the azure holodisplay that appeared across my palm. The world of the sunny street momentarily flickered then rapidly disintegrated into the dark, empty space of the sim’s default state. Johnny—or his projection, rather—stood a few paces from where his simulated death throes had occurred, shaking his head.
“Man,” he said, “those death animations are just too creepy… Gets me every time!”
“That’s only because you get yourself killed every time,” I pointed out.
Johnny shrugged. “We can’t all be as good as the mighty Haldin Raish, can we?” He extended his hands toward me in a gesture of mock reverence. “Ladies and goodfellows, the shining new star of Sanctuary. The son of the honorable Lieutenant Martin Raish and—”
“All right, all right.” I cut him off with a raised hand, resisting the urge to remind him that, even in our personal hours, these stunts of his still cost him points in the eyes of the Legion. “Just don’t pull that crap at drills or they’re gonna give you the boot and hand you over to The Sanctum. Then it’ll be nothing but mops, candles, and praise be to Alpha for you.”
Johnny made a face of mock horror, and we shared a small chuckle.
His expression sobered to a serious look that I saw him wear only on rare occasions.
“Seriously, though, Hal,” he said softly, “I know you don’t wanna hear it, but this thing with your dad . . . it doesn’t look good.” He dropped my gaze. “I’m sorry, man. I’m just trying to be a good friend, here.”
I consciously unclenched my jaw and relaxed the toes that had flexed tight against the soles of my combat boots. He was right. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t even want to think about it—let alone discuss it.
“I know,” I said finally, doing my best to shut out the stream of unsettling possibilities rushing through my mind. “I just . . . I really don’t think he could do that. To my mom, or otherwise.”
“You’re probably right,” Johnny said, though I could tell he couldn’t quite convince himself. He glanced at his palmlight and wrinkled his nose. “Anyhow, guess we better call it quits for now. Show’s starting soon.”
I grimaced. “Praise be to Alpha. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That you will, my friend,” Johnny said, finger poised over his palmlight. “Try not to suffocate under all those heavy thoughts of yours before then.”
I thudded my chest in a sarcastic salute, and he killed the connection, vanishing from sight and leaving me alone in the open, plain gray space of the sim room.
For a minute, I stood there considering what he’d said.
My father had been behaving oddly for the past several weeks, there was no question about that. He’d always been a busy man, of course. Being a Lieutenant and a Alpha-blessed hero of the Legion came with a full schedule. But lately, it’d been excessive. The hours he put in were never-ending. When he did manage to make it home for dinner, he looked disgruntled—his eyes bloodshot, his boots unpolished.
Worse, I’d stumbled onto more than one whispered argument between him and my mom of late—which, while not completely unheard of, was absolutely not the norm.
Something was up. But an affair?
I didn’t buy it—wouldn’t buy it until I had damn good reason to.
For the time being, I turned my thoughts to steeling my stomach, hung my practice rifle and sim mask on the wall, and headed down the hallway for the living room, preparing myself for the evening’s morose show.
I found my mom nestled up in the living room with her tablet and stylus.
“Writing?” I asked, settling down on the opposite end of the couch.
She looked up from under her neat brunette bangs and favored me with a warm smile. “An optimistic use of the word, but”—she frowned down at her tablet—“I suppose so, yes.”
I only ever used that word when it was just me and my mom. To his face, it was always Father, or Lieutenant. Not because he demanded it. It had always just felt right that way.
“No Dad,” Mom confirmed with a little shrug of her eyebrows. “He should be home soon, though,” she added with a glance at her tablet. “He’ll want to watch.”
On that note, we both turned to the thin screen adhered to the opposite wall, which was already tuned to the WAN’s live feed. The shot rotated through multiple angles of the Great Hall of the White Tower as the good citizens of Divinity filed in, preparing to dutifully witness the execution of one Andre Kovaks for his crimes against Enochia, as decreed by The Sanctum.
The poor bastard.
Not that I didn’t think Kovaks was a criminal. The evidence against him didn’t leave room for argument there.
Amongst other things, he’d committed half a dozen different break-ins, most of them involving offices belonging to Enochia’s premier biotech giant, Vantage Corp. On the last one, he’d been apprehended trying to steal something directly from Vantage’s main lab facility. How in Alpha’s good grace Kovaks had gotten past the place’s fortress of a perimeter, I could only guess, but the fact that he’d badly injured a few of Vantage’s private security force hadn’t helped matters for him.
No, it wasn’t that Kovaks was innocent. It was just that he was clearly mad as a softsteel sipper.
The Sanctum had branded him a terrorist and sentenced him to die for his heresy. Personally, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t simply a room at the medica and the ear of an attentive soothsayer he needed.
I hadn’t had time to follow the story completely, but the base had been alive with chatter these past days, and I’d at least caught the replay of the broadcast where they’d aired the audio log they’d found during Kovaks’ arrest.
From what I’d heard, the guy clearly believed some serious corruption had penetrated the ranks of the Legion, and even The Sanctum. Maybe as high up as the High Cleric himself.
It was almost certainly bullscud, of course. But at least Kovaks had sounded marginally lucid up to that point. If he’d ended it there, I might’ve even found his claims half concerning. But instead, he’d smoothly continued on to the wild stories about malicious aliens infiltrating Enochia and how The Sanctum and the Legion were going to take over the world and trample the peoples underfoot.
At that point, I’d had to laugh.
Maybe Kovaks had missed the part where The Sanctum and the Legion already had taken over Enochia. He’d definitely missed the part where our service in the Legion—and the service of those before us—had been the very thing that kept the world peacefully spinning along for the past thousand years.
And as for the alien invasion thing… well, that part didn’t really seem to merit response.
So was Kovaks crazy?
Sure. Dangerous, even.
But did any of that mean he deserved to die for being delusional?
The warmth of my mom’s hand finding mine informed me my moral dilemma did not go unnoticed. I gave her a weak smile and focused back on the screen.
At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what I thought. For mine was not to ask, but to serve. Even if those words did make my skin crawl at times. But that didn’t matter either. Because, once The Sanctum spoke, it didn’t matter what anyone thought.
Who were we to question the will of Alpha?
I shot a furtive glance at my mom and saw some shadow of my doubts mirrored on her face. She was wearing that soft frown she got sometimes when she thought I wasn’t looking—the one my father always seemed to meet with a significant look or a hushed whisper.
That frown made me nervous in a way I’d never really understood.
But before I could dwell on it, she turned to me, jostling me out of my rumination, and gave my hand a reassuring pat. “Alpha is wise, sweetie.”
I made a face. “I’m less than three months from being a full legionnaire, Mom. I think we might have to drop the sweeties.”
She cracked a smile and was about to protest when a gentle tone chirped from the entryway behind us, announcing my father’s return. When he strode into the living room, he looked exhausted.
“Come,” my mom said, swinging her legs off the couch and patting the vacated cushion between us. “Sit, Love. You look exhausted.”
For a second, he considered the armchair to the right of the couch, but then he came, plopped down between us, and started working on the stiff muscles above his prosthetic leg with strong thumbs. My mom, as she usually did, took over for him, and he let out a contented sigh.
“Easy, guys,” I said, squirming further onto my side of the couch. “We’re about to watch a man be executed, remember?”
I’d meant the comment to be light, joking, but of course it wasn’t. We were about to watch a man being executed. Remember?
Praise be to Alpha.
Our collective attention shifted to the screen, where the WAN’s darling field reporter, Barbara Sanders, was discussing the details of Kovaks’ case and the mood in the White Tower as they awaited the High Cleric’s arrival in the Great Hall. It was a grim task, but she handled it with respect. Behind her, down on the main floor of the hall, hundreds of people had amassed now. Legion soldiers and officers. Sanctum clerics and acolytes. Praetors. Civilians of all vocations. Everyone come to bear witness.
“Did you try the new sim build yet?” my father asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was legitimately interested or just trying to disperse the cloud I’d accidentally cast over the room.
“Yeah. Johnny and I just cleared it.”
He watched me expectantly.
“Okay, Johnny went demons to the wind and I cleaned up after he got himself shot.”
That put a dark frown on my mom’s face.
My father tried mirroring her frown but didn’t quite succeed at extinguishing the amusement in his eyes. “That sounds more believable.” He sobered. “Johnny needs to be more careful, Hal. You both do. You won’t be tyros much longer. Someday, maybe soon, those won’t be simulated slugs flying at the two of you.”
The sentiment did nothing to alleviate the shadow on my mom’s face.
Much as she supported our service to the Legion, I knew there was a part of her that detested the thought of us risking our lives for peace. A part that yearned for a world where the peace of Enochia could be maintained in a manner devoid of violence. Which was fair enough, I supposed, as applause in the Great Hall drew our attention back to the screen.
But that just wasn’t the world Alpha had built for us.
In the growing thunder of claps and cheers, Barbara Sanders gave her last few kind words for the peace of Andre Kovaks’ spirit, her dark eyes somber and sincere beneath her dark curls. Then she signed off, and the feed switched to a view of the High Cleric emerging at the top of the Great Hall’s gigantic four-tiered dais.
The ancient man looked frail in his pristine ceremonial robes of white and gold. Kind of ironic, seeing as he probably had more power at his fingertips than any other man or woman on Enochia.
Two tiers below him was an equally ancient-looking gallows—the same gallows that had been used throughout the centuries of The Sanctum’s reign, or so they said. Andre Kovaks stood atop the worn wood, adorned in black ceremonial robes that were emblazoned across the chest with a great red serpent.
Beneath shaggy dark hair and a grizzled beard, he looked haggard, his eyes wild. He was shouting something, but the feed’s audio must have been coming directly from a voicer up on the High Cleric’s dais. Kovaks shouted on in futility, his words nothing more than silent, frantic animations of his lips, until the feed cut to a close-up of the wizened head of The Sanctum.
In a calm, thin voice, the High Cleric began.
The words, for the most part, were familiar ones. He spoke of the importance of structure and stability on Enochia. The essentialness of duty and, above all else, of faith.
Familiar words, sure. Especially for a Legion family like us. But Alpha’s wrinklies, did the High Cleric know how to drive them home.
My parents watched attentively beside me, my father leaning ever-so-slightly forward until the High Cleric finished his spiel and, as was custom, granted Kovaks leave to deliver any last words. Kovaks had a lot of them. And most of it was every bit as loopy as his alien invasion conspiracy theories had been.
I turned to exchange a look of disbelief with my father only to find him even more riveted to the screen than he’d been during the High Cleric’s speech. Something about his expression struck me as odd. But, given the outlandishness of Kovaks’ current display, maybe it shouldn’t have.
The High Cleric allowed Kovaks’ frenzied ramblings to continue for ten seconds or so before he cut the feed to himself.
“Alpha grant you peace, Andre Kovaks,” he said, extending a hand toward the hangman.
Kovaks didn’t die neatly. Sometimes they don’t. But a minute later, he hung limply from the tight rope all the same, his sway slowly diminishing alongside whatever life was left in his unconscious body.
It didn’t sit right in my stomach. It never did.
But ours was not to ask.
I turned to my father, the man who’d taken me to observe my first Sanctum execution when I was only twelve. Who believed so completely in the Legion and his service to Alpha that I’d heard it told around Sanctuary he actually gave thanks when Alpha allowed him to sacrifice his leg to save the lives of his old fireteam.
Except I didn’t see that belief now—that resolute certainty that it was divine justice that had just been served.
All I saw was unease. And doubt.
“I think…” he said slowly, standing from the couch. He took a few steps toward his study before seeming to remember we were there. “I need to get some work done before supper. You two go ahead if you’re hungry.”
I traded a surprised look with my mom.
“All is right, love,” she replied, though her hazel eyes were full of concern as he tromped off down the hallway.
I watched him go in silence, Kovaks’ limp body swaying in my mind’s eye as I wondered what the hell the madman had done or said for his execution to have shaken my father’s rock-steady foundations like that.
Something was most certainly up.
And, despite the immortal wisdom of Johnny Wingard, I was pretty sure it wasn’t something as simple as an affair.
That’s it for now, folks. But boy, is there a whole hell of a lot of adventure yet to come.
It’s gonna be a good time.
While I’m getting things ready to publish and working on the next book, though, I’d love to hear what you think of the story so far!