Ronin Sequence

GOLGOTHA - PART SIX

In an elevator as old as the stones themselves, they rode up to the cathedral's central dome.

Stepping forth, the Ronin found himself in a wide and well-appointed plaza. Across from him was an open marbled balcony. Through its open doorway he glimpsed clouds of black smog, the ranked masses of the besiegers, all the screaming tumult of war.

Turning away, he was led by Brother Kesteven to a broad staircase leading up to a mezzanine at the dome's apex. This was the cathedral's highest point – the pinnacle of Parnassus.

Here, a table was laid out bearing a model replica of the city, its tiers and levels perfectly matching the heavenly spheres engraved on the dome above; there, the three tiers of the city were divided into sectors – nine in all, with the cathedral itself forming a 10th, crowning sphere. And just as the graven image of the dome showed demonic forces amassed on all sides of heaven's vault, the model city was likewise surrounded by crude wooden pieces representing the forces of the Beast.

At the head of the table stood the Archon, flanked by his nine knight-commanders, gesturing animatedly between the various sectors. As the Ronin mounted the head of the stairs and Brother Kesteven stepped forwards with his head meekly bowed, the Archon looked up with a smile, his eyes flashing brilliantly, and made a sweeping gesture over the replica of his kingdom.

“Very well, my paladins – you have your orders. Stand firm at the barricades with your faith for a shield. So long as the god-light shines above us – so long as we stand in alignment with the forces of heaven – the Beast shall never prevail. Now. Let each of you come forwards and receive the Holy Sacrament.”

Saying this, he met the Ronin's eye and gave a slight nod. Then he turned about and went to the low altar that dominated the far side of the mezzanine. Here, arranged between a sword whose pommel formed a cross and the image of Christ above it, was a metal frame of ornate design. And within the frame, too drugged and senseless to protest, was a white lamb, its eyes wide with terror.

Leaning down, the Archon blessed the creature, his face solemn and uncreased as he recited the liturgy. Then, taking the sword from the altar, he slit the creature's throat in a single, practised motion. The lamb writhed in agony and terror. But the Archon held it with a gentle firmness and its blood flowed richly over his pale hand. Handing off the sword, he received a golden cup, and this he held gently to the creature's neck, catching the blood as it flowed forth.

The lamb shuddered once, terror fading from its eyes. Then it was dead and the Archon turned away to take up his blood-stained sword once more. With a gesture he summoned the nearest knight-commander, who stepped forwards to kneel before the altar.

The Archon held out the chalice of blood, into which the commander dipped two fingers, anointing a bloody cross on the crown of his tonsured head.

“Atonement for your sins.” The Archon's voice resounded from the golden dome.

“Blood shall wash out blood.” Came the reply.

Lowering the cup, the Archon raised the sacrificial sword, twisting it so that its silvered surface caught the light. Then he touched the blade first to one shoulder and then the other.

“May the sword of Christ bless and keep you, my son.”

“Amen.” Came the reply, the knight-commander crossing himself as he rose.

Eight more times the ritual was repeated, each knight-commander of the holy diocese receiving the Archon's blessing. Finally the last man rose and the Holy Father stood alone before the altar. For a moment his eyes rested on the Ronin, thought and emotion moving in their depths. Then he turned to smile at his gathered knights.

“My children, I would speak alone with our friend. Go with my blessings and return to your commands. Through blood and humble sacrifice, God's will shall prevail.”

“We surrender to the Lord's will.” The knights intoned as one.

Saluting in unison, they then trooped one by one down the stairs, Brother Kesteven following in their wake.

Presently, the Ronin and the Archon stood alone beneath the dome, each looking in silent appraisal at the other. With a knowing smile the Archon gestured towards the table.

“Come, be seated, my son. You must be hungry after your long ordeals.”

With a slight bow the Ronin seated himself at the table where the remains of a meal was arrayed on silver platters.

“I hope you will excuse the humble quality of our fare.” The Archon said, pouring out a goblet of wine for each of them. “We are at war and must conserve our stores as best we can.”

“Your hospitality is appreciated.” The Ronin replied in between mouthfuls. Before him, the Archon smiled indulgently, his smooth features reflected in the golden patina of the dome.

Soon the food was entirely gone and the Archon watched in amused silence as the Ronin drained his goblet at a gulp. For long moments nothing was said. Then, seeing that the first move was his, the Ronin leaned forwards carefully.

“I must confess, I do not know where to begin, Lord Archon. I am simple man, or so I hope, and a stranger to this world. I see that you are the master of this city – perhaps you would indulge me by explaining something of it and of the godscape upon which it stands?”

The Archon sat back with a laugh, his eyes flashing.

“You are direct, then, for all your politeness. Good. In that case I shall answer you in the same manner.”

He gestured towards the model of the city where it sat at the centre of the table.

“The city is as you see it, as am I and the 'godscape', as you call it. More precisely,” he added, assuming a serious air, “the godscape represents the kingdom of God, weighed down by sin and thus prevented from ascension. I am the Lord's chosen representative in this place, set to the task of ordering creation, and in doing so, wiping out both the Beast and another foul wretch, known as the Deceiver, who resides in the far north of this place. Once we succeed in bringing creation fully under God's will, then our ascension to the kingdom of heaven shall be assured. You see here in Parnassus the results of long efforts to accomplish this.”

It is as Ibu said then, the Ronin thought dully. A failed modality, divided against itself.

“Indeed, My Lord.” He replied. “I see a city ordered in all matters by your will.”

“Not my will.” The Archon blinked. “The Lord God's will. I am but his worldly servant, you understand – the shepherd of his flock. The Beast destroys. The Deceiver deceives. Only through my rule does the Lord's strength and his mercy find balance; only through my rule will the godscape be properly ordered.”

“And how, My Lord, do you know the Lord God's will?”

“I am the Holy Father – Christ's minister on this low, earthly plane. It is my place to know such things.”

The Ronin gave a slight bow. The Archon smiled, a gleam of steel showing in his eyes. Several moments passed before he spoke again.

“You present yourself as a simple and humble man, Ronin of Edo. A person of no great significance. And yet I am not convinced that this is the case.” He smiled. “I am privy to the Lord God's will in all matters. But sometimes it takes time to see clearly what the Lord has set before me. You, for instance, I have not quite deciphered yet, though I know the Lord sent you here for a purpose. I see in you a warrior, sworn to uphold the divine order. A warrior who has turned his back on his calling. A thing of sadness and shadows. Tell me then, Ronin, how you came to be here and what it is that you want?”

The Archon's words, delivered with a gentle smile, nonetheless found the knot of agony that was the Ronin's heart. He forced himself to smile in turn, the sound of Himeko's screams ringing in his ears.

“I came here in search of a power source.” He replied softly. “A power source such as that of the crashed ship beneath this city; the ship your people have cannibalised to craft your walls and defences. At its heart may be found a reactor core. If you will allow me to siphon off some of its power then I shall depart this place, taking with me as many damned souls as I can.”

The Archon could not mask the reaction that this statement provoked. It flashed across his face and his eyes grew as bright and hard as diamonds. Then the moment passed, like a cloud moving across the face of the sun. He leant forwards once more.

“My son, no soul is damned so long as Christ's light shines down from the heavens. Even the most troubled of us will find salvation, if only he has the courage to submit to God's will.” His eyes met the Ronin's and he gave a slight nod. Then he gestured towards the model city.

“You evidently know something of the city's origins then. And with it, no doubt, the secret of my children, who fell down from the heavens to be tested on this godscape. Yes,” He smiled in response to the Ronin's bland gaze. “There is a ship. It lies buried down there, half-forgotten after nearly a hundred generations. Half-forgotten, but still functional. I could allow you access to the power source. I could allow you to leave the godscape and I could even allow you to take my children with you. But you must understand, Ronin of Edo, that escape from the godscape is no escape from damnation.” He shook his head slowly. “For it is here, on the battleground between good and evil – here, where the Beast and the Deceiver vie for one's soul and Christ's light shines from above – that the lost and the troubled find their best chance of forgiveness. Only through submission to God will salvation be found.”

He leaned back into his seat, the knowing smile of a schoolmaster fixed in place.

For long moments the Ronin was still, evidently deep in thought. Then he rose silently from the table.

“No doubt you know your children's interests better than I, Holy Father.” He said, giving a deep bow. “But these are not interests I share in. I have my own struggles, quite apart from those of the godscape. I therefore request access to the power source.”

For a moment the Archon was perfectly still. A strange look spread across his face and his hands twitched in his lap. But before he could utter a word there came a distant roar of thunder and the tower was wracked by a sudden spasm. The ground gave an ominous lurch. The replica city was sent crashing to the floor, wooden pieces flying everywhere. There was a shroud of falling dust. A crack spread across the dome and bells tolled urgently in the distance.

The Archon leapt to his feet, the Ronin's words forgotten even as another tremor struck the tower.

“What?” He cried, gripping the table's edge. “The cloister bells-? But that means-!”

There was a clattering of footsteps from the tower's lobby – Brother Kesteven's voice rang out urgently below:

“Holy Father! The walls – come quickly!”

The Archon was already half-way down the mezzanine steps, his robes billowing behind him. He hurried past the helpless knight and out onto the balcony that overlooked the city, the Ronin a silent shadow behind him.

Far below them the city was quaking, cracks appearing along streets and buildings as the godscape beneath them writhed in agony. Beyond the walls, the smog of war had cleared to reveal a strange and terrible sight.

The pit the Ronin had glimpsed before now stood wide and clear before the walls. At its deepest point were revealed the twisting black intestines for which the Beast's horde had dug, and it was into these entrails that the work-crews had forced the siphons of their hoses. The hoses ran in lines to the pumphouses arrayed before the city walls. From here, further lines of hoses extended, and it was from these, wielded by teams of bone-clad ghouls, that gouts of yellow-black bile were spurting, pumped from God's guts to pour by the gallon onto the walls of Parnassus. Everywhere the bile fell great poisonous clouds were rising, Parnassus' emerald walls running like wax beneath the corrosive juices.

From the far distance, a hundred leagues or more to the north, a great roar of agony rolled, seeming to carry on the wind. An instant later another tremor struck and the tower swayed alarmingly beneath the Ronin's feet as the godhead writhed in agony. He felt a pressure at his elbow – looked down into the Holy Father's face.

“You want the power source?” The Archon hissed, his voice grown hard and insistent. “You want to know the stakes we are fighting for? Then come with me, and I shall show you.”

Taking the Ronin's arm, the Archon drew him irresistibly towards the elevator.

 

***

 

The elevator descended, down through the strata upon which Parnassus was built. Like a coffin swallowed by the hungry earth it sank from the noise and tumult of the city, down into lightless depths.

The minutes passed in a mechanical hum, their breath condensing on the cold, damp air.

Then the elevator doors opened with a sigh and the Ronin knew himself in echoing darkness.

For a moment there was only the drip-drip sounds of cave-water. Then there was a rustle at his elbow, the tapping of a finger on plastic. An orb flickered and burst into life before him: a faint blue glow radiating from the elevator walls out into the darkness beyond.

“The undervault.” The Archon said, his eyes glinting by the light of the glow-orb. “Above us, the kingdom of God, stretching up towards heaven. Down here, the foundation upon which the kingdom rests. Down here, the power source you seek. And with it, the thing that will save Parnassus. Come.”

The Archon stepped forwards into darkness. A moment later, the Ronin followed.

He moved off through the shadows, only the dull glimmer of the glow-orb hanging before him.

Behind him the metal shaft of the elevator thrust down through the rock, an intruder into the ancient chamber that formed the cave's entryway. From here, lines of cables trailed, snaking past his feet and away across the damp stone floor, down into the echoing depths below. Somewhere far above, the Ronin knew, the forces of the Beast and the Archon were locked in deadly struggle, swarming together like ants amidst the ruins of the city walls. Down here there was only cool, damp stone. A place of quiet darkness, hollowed from the bedrock by the unending tears of God.

There was a distant rumble. The ground lurched beneath his feet.

Then all was still again and he was entering into a low grotto, dimly lit by the Archon's light. At the far end a section of broken cave-wall pressed up against a pitted metal hull. And in the hull, a few feet above the cave floor, was the ancient circular airlock that marked the entrance to the ship. The Archon stood before it, awaiting him. To his side a plinth rose from the ground, topped by a weird and bulbous form. As the Ronin approached, the Archon dropped the glow-orb into the thing and light streamed out, casting weird shadows across the wall. Squinting, the Ronin saw that the plinth was mounted by a stone head in the likeness of the godhead's features, blue light now glowing ominously from its weeping eyes.

The Archon regarded him solemnly, his face showing tiredness and, the Ronin thought, a certain watchfulness.

“Zeir Anprin. The Lesser Visage.” The Archon explained, his hand resting on the stone skull. “Guardian Of The Inner Sanctum Of Glory. A little primitive, perhaps. But they were a godless people before they found this place. And we must not judge those ignorant of God's will for their lack of understanding.”

As the Archon spoke, the Ronin noticed the figures carved into the wall just above him: a robed priest, staff and sword in hand, standing firmly over two other figures – the horned, hulking outline of the Beast and the smaller outline of a human figure, unremarkable but for its large, bright eyes.

“It is only they who know God's will and turn their faces from it who are deserving of blame.” The Archon added softly. “For they give service to the Beast and voice to the Deceiver. And it is they whom we shall destroy.”

His hand moved across the back of the stone head; there was a pneumatic groan, the hiss of leaky pistons. Slowly, the airlock door revolved, its crease coming to vertical. With a groan its edges eased aside to reveal a disc of perfect darkness. Vapour appeared a moment later, flowing from the disc and out across the chill cavern floor.

“Come then, Ronin of Edo, and I shall reveal to you that which you have come to see.”

This said, he turned aside and led the way into the echoing chamber beyond. After a moment of hesitation, the Ronin followed. He stepped across the threshold and a wave of heat overtook him. There was a buzz and clank of activity; one by one, unseen lights came to life, revealing the space before him. He cast about. From the grated floor beneath him, steam rose in a wreathing vapour, obscuring all before him. On all sides columns loomed through the mist. Ahead, the Archon's clanking footsteps came to a halt. Sounds of clacking and whirring were heard: a green luminescence pierced the vapours. Then the Ronin came forward, emerging from the vented steam onto a circular platform at the chamber's centre. Here, the Archon was bent low over the circular console that occupied the dais, his face lit from beneath by the green glow that emanated from all the exposed places of the console. He looked up as the Ronin drew near, the green light glinting queerly in his eyes.

“Halt.”

The word was a command. The Ronin stopped in his tracks.

“Ronin of Edo. You find yourself in the Holy of Holies – The Inner Sanctum Of Glory. What you see and hear here will change your perceptions forever. You will never speak of it to another living soul.”

The Ronin said nothing to this. A moment passed and he gave a slight bow.

“This is the central node of the ship – its intelligence and calculatory power.” The Archon continued. “In here lies the supreme achievement of man. For here, using all the knowledge at their disposal, the ancient ones who fell from the heavens were able to record the very thoughts of God.” His eyes glowed with triumphant force. His hand moved, flipped a switch-

The green light blazed. There was a flickering through the haze, a great groan of despair-

Then the very face of God hung above the console.

It was great. It was terrible. A skull like a marbled tomb. An idol to pain and power, dismal green light reflected in its eyes.

“Arich Anprin.” The Archon said. “The Greater Visage Of God. A ghost caught in amber. An echo of the divine mind. An echo within the reach of mortal minds. And with it,” he added solemnly, “the history of the godscape and all that came before it.”

The Ronin said nothing to this. He was looking into its eyes, into wells of pain and terror that seemed to have no limit. At its side, the Archon's head hung like a moon in orbit, glowing in the sun's cold light. The godhead's eyes bore into the Ronin's. After a moment's silence, it spoke a single word, a sound like the gasp of a dying man-

“Redemption.”

Then it flickered and passed into nothing. From the console came the sounds of whirring. Then another image hung suspended. A mortal face wracked by the same torments of the godhead, its eyes wide with terror and despair. It was a face the Ronin recognised.

“Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” The Archon breathed. “The alpha and the omega – the greatest and final prophet of God.”

The vision above the console seemed to pull back and the Ronin saw now the scene on Golgotha hill, Christ hanging naked on the cross, only a crown of thorns to mark him. Storm clouds gathered above. The centurion held his spear primed for the death thrust. But Simon, Jude and the others were bearing down upon him, a rock in each clenched fist-

“Our lord was saved.” The Archon whispered. “And with him, the living testament of God's will. For though the heathens had tried to destroy him, frightened by the truth of his words, God was in him and they could not resist his will.”

The images changed with the Archon's words, their light blazing through the mists of the sanctum.

Blood and flames. Marching feet and the war-cry of the righteous. A flash of lightning reflected on a thousand raised swords. The images chased each other across the blank canvas of the Ronin's face. Faster and faster they shifted, until there blazed suddenly the scene of a golden hillside rising above a city of white marble. There a man in purple robes knelt weeping before the gaunt figure of Christ, his golden crown in his hands. Christ's hand clutched only his sword. At his sides, his disciples stood proudly. Behind him, stretching for miles, a great massed horde, dirty, disordered and ravenous for blood-

“Give me your poor, your sick and your unloved.” The Archon's whispering voice came. “Give me the love of the people, and I shall make you a sword... First, the Romans were made to kneel. And after them, the world and all its empires.”

The Ronin saw a planet of oceans and landmasses hanging suspended in the dark. He saw the green and white colours of Parnassus that swept like a flame from the holy lands and out across the globe. And from the console an echo seemed to resound, as of a billion voices raised in unison all across the millennia-

They will surrender to God's will. They will surrender to their Lord.

“After Christ came his apostles.” The Archon spoke quietly. “A dynasty of divinely ordained rulers – Archons, like myself. Each did their best to root out evil, to bring the world into harmony with God's will. But always there is the impulses of the Beast, the lying words of the Deceiver, waiting to creep from the shadows...”

The Ronin saw a candle-lit room in which two lovers embraced. He saw an elderly man etching symbols in the dust of a crowded street while a crowd gathered to hear him speak. He saw a blindfolded man being led into a moonlit chamber by cloaked figures, strange symbols on the wall-

In each scenario they appeared: the knights of Christ, the symbol of a fist clutching a cross emblazoned on their tunics. Swords and censors in hand, they came forth, ready to strike out the sin that had reared from the abyss.

“All throughout the ages the Church sought to harmonise the world. To bring about the kingdom of heaven. And as the world developed, as the secrets of spirit were unveiled and mastered, the day of reckoning drew near.”

A vision burst forth then, of a city of elegant glass towers and rigid streets, filled with monuments and sculptures of the saints. Above the city hung suspended a divine image: the god of the godscape, the figure of Christ, gaunt and iron-willed, his arms outstretched. And from every street and building human souls were pouring forth, floating upwards to join with the MODALITY of Christ-

“But the world had not been redeemed.” The Archon's voice came bitterly. “For all the Church's efforts, wickedness still walked the face of the earth. The Modality of Christ could not ascend to heaven. Instead, it was sundered.”

Before the Ronin's eyes, souls poured up in an ocean of light to unite with Christ. But something was wrong. The MODALITY's eyes grew wide with pain and shock, its face twisting in fear. Pulsing emanations filled the skies. Explosions of spirit and matter, phasing together in plasmic agony. Cities fell and the oceans boiled. There was a flash and a crack, an eternal groan of torment-

Then the planet was gone and there hung only the tortured form of the MODALITY, floating through space forever while the stars went out like candles and the universe grew cold and dim. There came a final image of the MODALITY craning its head forwards as the debris of the planet began to collect on its chest. And as the tears began to flow from its eyes, its mouth opened slightly and it belched forth a trio of forms. The Ronin saw there a thing of blackness, buzzing and keening with rage as it groped its blindly way forwards. And by its side, gasping and shaking like a newborn, a man, tall and hairless, his eyes large and bright. And behind these two was a third form, a person the Ronin could not quite make out-

The image faded and the Ronin saw no more. The room was as before. Vapour flowed up through the grated floor, dully lit by the greenish light of the central node. The Ronin knew that he stood not in a holy sanctum, but on the deck of an ancient starship. The vapour that rose from below was steam, its scent tanged with the telltale scent of fusion. He cast his eyes down. Somewhere below, he knew, was the ship's reactor core.

“Finally they came forth. The Beast and the Deceiver.” The Archon intoned. “The twin personifications of evil: blots on the godscape, holding it back from ascension. The godhead's failure to ascend was a tragedy. But in it were borne the seeds of redemption. For now the Lord Of Animal Lusts and the Lord Of Lies take definite form. And their destruction is all that is needed to bring the godscape into harmony.”

The Ronin looked up. The Archon was as before, leaning over the console, his eyes fixed on the Ronin's face.

The Ronin gave a bow.

“Then, my Lord Archon, you have your task laid before you. Just as I have mine before me. Time grows short. The power-source – I presume it lies below?”

The Archon said nothing to this. He stared at the Ronin for long moments, his expression unreadable. Then he straightened, lips moving, as though weighing his response.

Wordlessly, he nodded towards an unseen corner.

The Ronin bowed again. Then he turned aside and stepped through the mists. An open hatch appeared before him, its laddered stairway leading down into the gloom below.

Down through the mists he descended, the clanking of his footsteps echoing from the walls. Behind him, the Archon was a silent shadow. The heat built with every step and steam rose in thick plumes about him. Red lights flashed through the mist and there came the hissing of a vent.

The stairs gave out and the Ronin found himself on a corrugated gangway, a humming red light looming before him.

“What you seek lies before you.” The Archon's voice came quietly from behind him.

Through a blast-sealed door that whirred and cranked, the reactor core awaited: a star in miniature, still throbbing with power after long centuries of life. Hanging suspended behind a shielding membrane, it thrummed and seethed, its energies rushing upwards to the city far above.

The Ronin skirted the chamber, eyes searching in the red light of the star-

From out in the corridor the Archon's voice came softly.

“There are few who could witness the destruction of an entire civilisation and remain unmoved. But you have witnessed such tragedy before, haven't you, my son?”

The Ronin's foot brushed something and it rolled slowly across the floor. He bent down, squinting through the coolant steam. Something shiny. A metal cylinder. It hit the wall, rolled back towards him. A power cell. He reach to pick it up.

“Yes,” he said.

“Yes. I thought that you had.” The Archon returned softly as the Ronin turned towards the reactor core. “It is written plainly on you – a weariness of the soul. There are few things that will do that to a man: to cause such pain that he turns from life itself.”

At the base of the reactor was a series of panels. The Ronin's hand groped blindly-

Nothing. Nothing. There. A series of ports, each shaped to admit a circular connection. He tried the cylinder. Nothing. He flipped the power cell around. Sweat poured down his face. Water dripped from the armour. It was unbearably hot. Click. The cell slotted into its cradle, a flashing red light showing on its side.

“Everywhere the lights are going out one by one. The universe nears its death.” The Ronin said, wiping the sweat from his eyes.

“Ah, but you've seen it first-hand, haven't you, my son?” The Archon returned. “You have, in fact, acted as the instrument of destruction. You abandoned your people. Abandoned reason and sanity. Abandoned her. And now you have abandoned your warrior's creed, abandoned your very identity. It is out of shame that you shrink from the challenge now presented to you. Shame, and also fear. Shame for your failure to uphold your honour. Fear to risk failure again.”

The Ronin said nothing. The charging light began to flicker – red, green, red-

The Archon uttered a low chuckle.

“Do you really think it a coincidence that you find yourself here? A fallen warrior finds himself stranded on a fallen world, not unlike his home – stranded on a world that teeters on the edge of destruction. No. There are no coincidences. It was God's will that you come here. For only here may your redemption be found. You wish to know why I brought you down here? To make you understand. You are what is required to wipe evil from the face of the godscape and bring about ascension. You are our deliverer, sent by God himself!”

The light on the power cylinder showed a solid green. The Ronin pulled it from the port and turned to face the open doorway. He saw that the door had opened inwards; that it was heavy and could not be quickly shut. He took a step forwards. There was the Archon's shadow, falling across the threshold.

“I sense the doubt in you, my son. You no longer trust yourself to do what is right. Well then. Do not trust yourself. Place your trust in God and surrender to his will. Accept Lord Jesus Christ as your master. Give me your sword and soul. Lead my forces against the Beast and the Deceiver. Only this way will you find redemption!”

The Ronin stood motionless, his brows creased in thought. For long moments nothing was said.

“Well?” The Archon's voice echoed angrily from the walls. “What is your answer?”

The Ronin sighed.

“You are right, Holy Father. I have shirked my duties. I have avoided what is hard and I have chosen what is easy. I have suffered evil to multiply. Now I must take my stand. Now I must uphold proper order. I will not suffer evil to go unchallenged any longer.”

The shadow made a slight motion.

“Then come forth, my son, and be reborn.” The voice said softly.

The Ronin stepped forwards, drawing his wakizashi from its sheath.

“I served tyranny once before, believing it to represent the highest good. I shall not make that same mistake again.”

The blade glimmered in the reddish light of the reactor. For a moment, the Archon was silent. Then, as the Ronin appeared in the doorway, blade in hand, he uttered a sigh.

“Very well then, my son. You have made your choice.”

For an instant, all was still.

Then the Ronin's was flowing forwards with set face, the blade slicing through the air, a motion perfected over lifetimes-

The Archon's hand moved.

There was a flash and crackle of light. A downwards humming pull. The Ronin stumbled, let out a roar, his limbs struggling against enormous forces-

The energy field flickered; settled into fixity. The Ronin hung suspended, a fly trapped in amber, his limbs frozen. The sword in his hand vibrated, eased slowly from his hand – Thwing! – It struck against a metal nodule and stuck there, completely magnetised.

The Archon stepped carefully into the mag-field. He drew up before the Ronin's snarling features, leant forwards to examine the scales of the O-Yoroi armour.

“I wanted all of you.” He said softly. “But I will take what I can get.”

He turned sadly away.

“My knights – come! A heretic has entered our sanctum!”

There was a moment's silence. Then came the thunderous clanking of steel toe-caps on grated metal. The stairs rattled and shook. One by one they appeared through the gloom: the looming forms of the Temple Guardians.

Brother Kesteven stepped forwards into the light.

“My Lord. What is your will?”

“You have seen how the Ronin's armour operates. Kindly remove him from it.”

Brother Kesteven turned to the Ronin, a smirk playing around his lips. Slowly he removed an armoured gauntlet, extended his arm into the mag-field-

“Do it and I swear I shall kill you.” The Ronin snarled.

The Knight's hand found the right spot. The scales groaned aside. The Ronin tensed, ready to strike. Then he was falling from the armour, down onto a knee that slammed cruelly into his face.

In the next instant he was on the ground. Heels and wooden staves beat a staccato rhythm on his head and torso. He tried to rise, roaring for blood. A hammer-blow to the skull. Another. Another-

Then he was bloodied and limp, being dragged towards the stairs.

The Archon stood admiring the armour. The mag-field was deactivated and it fell to the floor before him.

“A thing of tremendous power and beauty. Have it taken to the forge.” He said, turning to his knights. “Brother Reynauld will know what to do with it there. Now tell me – how goes the siege?”

Brother Kesteven stepped forwards importantly.

“My Lord, we are holding them at the first level for now. But they have the numbers and we will not restrain them much longer.”

“You shall not have to, my son. The replicators will do their work. Within the hour we shall have a hundred sets of battle-armour just like this one. Now, as for the prisoner-”

He turned to regard the Ronin where he was being hauled, limp and bloody up the stairs.

“Take him to the main square and nail him to the cross. It is time we showed our enemies what fate lies in store for those who oppose God's will.”

If the Ronin had heard these words, he gave no sign. Blood roared in his ears and a whiteness was before his eyes. And in them, he heard and saw the wings of death, rushing down upon him.

Christopher Moiser