The first thing you noticed about the Sanctum Majoris was the heat. Within seconds of stepping off the black-painted Cardinal helo that the Order had “acquired” at some point, Harold Moore felt rather like baked potato. The Talon Steel armor Moore had been required to wear for the occasion just made the Jerusalem heat worse. Moore hurried into the shade cast by the looming shadow of an enormous statue.
The second thing you noticed about the Sanctum Majoris was that any Allied art historian would give up their firstborn to spend five minutes in the fortress-monastery. Moore moved from shadow to shadow cast by the great statues lining the grand walkway to the Steam Cathedral itself. The statues were of Triumvirate members, Grand Masters of the Templars and Hospitallers, and noted heroes of the Order. Elaborate banners of the Order’s component sub-orders, more than a few coats of arms, and more than a few commemorating some campaign or other, hung between the statues. The craftsmanship involved in making any of the banners or statues would make an average artist weep.
And the third thing you noticed about the Sanctum Majoris was that if you put a foot wrong, you would die in moments. Atop every battlement was a powerful weapon set on a rotating mount – some were anti-aircraft rocket batteries with clockwork auto-loaders and enough ammunition to make even the Allied air fleet think twice. Some were enormous bombardment cannons or mounted two or even four or six long range cannons designed to crack most tanks with ease and give even an Apocalypse Tank or King Oni pause. In the battlements themselves were machine gun and automatic crossbow nests, and at least three were trained on Moore at any given moment.
Reaching the looming bulk of the Steam Cathedral was thus something of a relief. It would have been a classic work of Gothic architecture were it not for the fact that the cathedral was built of metal rather than stone, and if one overlooked the boiler wing that spewed great pillars of smoke into the desert air. Above the main entrance to the cathedral itself was a banner depicting the great seal of the Order of the Talon: the shield, black and white in quarters, with a gold eagle swooping in for the kill. Beneath the seal itself were three simple Latin words, the motto of the Order: Victorus aut Mortis.
Victory or Death.
Moore stepped into the atrium of the Cathedral, grateful to be out of the summer heat, but his armored and heavily armed escorts gave him no time to gawk at majestic and ornate interior of the Steam Cathedral. Instead they hurried him into a side hall and slipped a black cowl over Moore’s head and pulled it down, effectively blinding the officer. How long he was hauled through the corridors and staircases of the Steam Cathedral he had no idea, but when one of his escorts finally removed the cowl, Moore found himself in a place he had heard of only in rumors: the Grand Council Chamber.
There was no way to tell where the room was. There were no windows, and the chamber was only marginally lit by a series of candles spaced throughout the center of the room. The center of the chamber was filled with a great circular table depicting the emblem of the Order, around which thirteen men and one woman were seated. There was one empty seat.
Moore tried to conceal his reflexive gulp. Albin Canavan, who had been Moore’s advisor and, just maybe, his friend, had told Moore of a simple fact: the Order’s Crusaders were part of the Grand Council by necessity. That did not mean they were well-liked. And as Moore watched, the table detached itself from its rim and descended into the floor, presumably part of some clockwork mechanism or other. The Council remained seated at what was now a thin ring-shaped table, but then one section of the rim also withdrew into the floor, and the chair along with it. The empty chair, to be precise.
“Enter.” One of the Councilors commanded.
Moore stepped into the center of the Council through the offered space, and although he tried to remain calm, his heart began to race. Albin Canavan was seated around the table, of course – a wiry red-headed Irishman, speaking in whispers with a man to his right. Moore recognized the latter as the legendary Saint Veritan the Thunderer, an old man who looked all too capable of wiping the floor with men a quarter his age should it be needed. Canavan had described the rest of the Grand Council to Moore, and he found himself looking around the table nervously at the others.
Lady Maria was a distinctive figure, of course, the only woman on the Grand Council. Under other circumstances Moore would likely have found Maria quite beautiful, but her position and role as the voice of prophecy on the Grand Council killed any such thoughts as quickly as they arose. Beside her was the Templar Champion, Claude Leland, a tall and handsome Frenchman with eyes of cold iron. Nor was he the only Templar on the Council. The Grand Master himself, Adrien Poisson, gave Moore an appraising look with his one eye – a patch concealed where the other had been. The master of the Templars had more scar tissue on his face than healthy skin, and rumor had it that Poisson had lost his eye to no less a monster than the Shogun Executioner itself. Moore had no difficulty believing it.
Erik Svensgaard, Master of the Forges, was difficult to mistake for anyone else. Svensgaard was a bull of a man, massively broad across the shoulders and whose at bare minimum two and a half hundred pounds were pure muscle and bone. Karl Fischer was a short and rotund man who didn’t look like he had any place in a meeting like this, but according to Canavan, underestimating Fischer was a fatal mistake. It was easy to not underestimate Guiseppe Margottini, the Grand Inquisitor, however – Margottini and his armor might have been carved from a single block of stone, so little color was in either, and he was about as expressive as a statue.
Dr. William Pollard and the thin, bespectacled Bronislaw Kaczmarket, respectively the Order’s head scientist and the High Apostle, were conversing in quiet whispers, but Moore couldn’t turn around to look at the other members of the Council – the commanders of the Michael, Uriel, and Remiel cells, and one other figure framed in shadows.
Just as Moore’s frayed nerves were about to break, however, Lady Maria stood.
“Harold Geoffery Moore, knight of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta and Brother-Captain of the Order of the Talon, you have been summoned before the Grand Council of the Order for your actions in service to the Lord God. Do you swear in the name of the Lord to speak in absolute truth before this council?”
“I do.” Moore’s answer was more of a squeak than a firm declaration.
“Do you swear your life in service to the Lord God and this Order?”
“And do you swear to uphold the mandates of this Council in all things and all times?”
“Then let us proceed.”
Lady Maria sat down, and the Grand Inquisitor rose.
“Harold Moore, you were recommended to this Council for your skills as a battlefield commander. Your history of service in the Peacekeeping divisions of the Allied Nations was exemplary, but you were held responsible for military defeats that you do not believe were yours.”
“That is so.”
“You have stated before that you consider your service to the Lord God to be atonement for those military defeats, even though you deny responsibility for them?”
“That is so.”
“You shoulder the burden of weakness in others, and hold their failure as your own.”
“That is so.”
“I am satisfied.”
The Grand Inquisitor returned to his seat, and Adrien Poisson rose.
“Your service to the Lord has not gone unnoticed by this Council. Your glories are many, and your faith pure. This Council was convened to recognize your service, and grant you a boon for your achievements. What is it that you wish, Sir Moore?”
Moore gulped again. “Only that I may continue to serve the Lord in whatever capacity I am able, if the Order would have me still.”
“And you will accept this Council’s decision?”
“Then I hereby motion that Sir Harold Moore be elevated to the mantle of the Crusader, and placed in command of the Sariel Crawler Cell. How does the Council respond?”
What happened next, Canavan had not warned Moore about. Every candle in the room died simultaneously, plunging the room into absolute darkness. Still, Moore fought to remain at least partially calm and in control, intimidating as the Order’s rituals were.
Then, just as suddenly, the candles reignited and Lady Maria was standing before Moore in the middle of the chamber, an ornate and masterfully crafted sword in hand… but not her characteristic greatsword.
“Kneel.” Maria commanded.
Moore did so, unable to shake the thought in the back of his mind that Maria’s next move would be to remove Moore’s head with her sword.
Instead, she plunged the sword downward and into the ground before Moore – his eyes went wide as he realized that the sword had been driven into a cunningly concealed slot in the Talon seal.
“This sword is now yours, Crusader Moore, as is a seat at this Council. Welcome to the Chamber Paramount.”