Judging by the tiny tears in her prisoner's garb - Ensign Ayame Yoneda of the Imperial Mecha Corps could not think of her brilliant blue robe any other way - it had been nearly two months since her capture and imprisonment following the disastrous incident at Rebun Island. That Ayame's capture by this "Order of the Talon" had been the result only of her own recklessness stung still.
Her reckoning of time was not certain. She had been sedated during the voyage from Rebun Island to wherever she was being held now, as had the other Imperial soldiers taken prisoner during the battle. Their captors had taken all of their clothing and equipment, and had been very thorough about it, completely shaving the prisoners and subjecting them to powerful electromagnets. The latter had been especially painful in Ayama's case: as an Imperial mecha pilot, she had a series of subdermal implants that helped her interface with and control her bound machine. Ayama's Kitsune had met its end off the coast of Rebun Island, blown to pieces by a disguised Talon escort vessel. Ayame Yoneda herself had barely survived the destruction of her mecha, and the semisentient machine's death wail that had echoed through her implants and completely incapacitated the pilot.
She had made five escape attempts to date, one on the transport ship and four in the new prison complex she had eventually been brought to. Where it was, she did not know save that it was somewhere in a desert. Although the prison compound was walled off by tall stone-and-steel construction, the dust, inescapable heat, and bronzed skin tones of the guards made the evaluation of local climate certain. In that respect, the shimmering blue of the prisoners' heavy robes made sense. Their clothing would be easy to spot in the desert, even at very long range, and the weight of the cloth meant that heat exhaustion was a very real danger. Shucking the robes, Ayame had discovered during one of her escape attempts, was no more practical an option. The desert sun scorched her ivory skin, and her captors had given her no other clothes beneath the robe. Going naked into the desert would probably be ruled "suicide" by most coroners. Her third escape attempt here had involved strangling one of her captors into unconsciousness and stealing his uniform, but that worked no better. A bald young Japanese woman kept out of the sun stood out very starkly indeed in this compound.
Their security precautions were the only things about her captors that made any sense. Between three and five times a day, she and the other prisoners were escorted to a chapel where an old man in the robes of a priest would preach to the prisoners and pray for them. His Japanese was only marginally fluent. Afterwards, Ayame was taken alone to a small stone chamber where she was invited to meditate and pray for forgiveness for her idolatry and war against the faithful. Without fail, each evening before returning the mecha pilot to her cell, the old priest would come by and ask if Ayame had sought God's forgiveness. If she did, the priest assured her, all would be forgiven and she would be permitted to earn redemption. He did not respond when Ayame noted that her fellow Imperial soldiers dwindled week by week: from nearly two dozen, now there were no more than ten at the compound.
No prizes for realizing that her captors were religious fanatics of the Christian variety. Fanatical, but not stupid - or at least not completely stupid. They had adapted to every one of Ayame's escape attempts, sealing holes in their security and their guards behaved more intelligently. More importantly, these were the people who had managed to invade the home islands, pillage a military research facility, and bushwhack the response force in a battle that, Ayame realized in hindsight, had not been remotely fair to the Imperials. And yet... as a Kitsune pilot, Ayame's implants included a translator module, and she had repeatedly tried to ask the old priest about the "Order of the Talon." He disavowed any knowledge of such an order: this place was merely a monastery for heretics thought capable of redeeming themselves. Nothing that had happened since Rebun Island made any sense.
And so Ayame Yoneda watched and waited for the inevitable crack in her captors' wall of secrecy. Little to none of her experience since her capture was an accident, she suspected. But how it made sense, and to whom, were questions she still lacked an answer for.
One tear, just a small rip of sapphire cloth, for each night in this prison. It kept Ayame sane. Nothing else seemed to change in this place besides the dwindling number of Imperial prisoners and the old priest's sermons, which Ayame had long since learned to ignore. The pilots of the brand-new Nezumi mecha could actually turn off their senses entirely via the specialized implants gifted to the artillery pilots, allowing them to focus so intently on their task. Learning to ignore rambling old people, however, was a skill anyone could acquire.
The caveat is that to ignore someone, you must focus on something else, and while Ayame spent much of her time looking for opportunities to escape, an echo of her Kitsune's AI-driven nature remained. Inquisitive, detached, and methodical.
Fact: Long-term escape from this facility is virtually impossible without securing motorized transportation.
Fact: By this time, the Empire will have declared me Missing In Action.
Fact: By bushido code, capture and surrender are of the highest disgrace.
Fact: Even if I return to the Empire...
No. She would not dwell on that.
Observation: I have seen no ground vehicles since my arrival.
Analysis: Securing motorized transportation may not be possible.
Fact: It is still the best option.
Ayame sighed. Unbidden, a thought struck her.
Hypothesis: Playing along with these fanatics may yield better opportunities to escape.
Fact: After four escape attempts, security here has become very tight.
Fact: Prince Tatsu's Fourth Axiom: When the conditions of an engagement become untenable, change the conditions of the engagement.
Supposition: What if these fanatics are correct?
Fact: The Emperor is divine. He is a living god.
Fact: The Emperor is dead.
Fact: As far as I know, the entire Imperial lineage is dead.
Fact: Even death may serve a god's purposes.
Inquiry: Does it?
Inquiry: What is the difference between a god and "the" God these fanatics worship?
Fact: Their Bible does not stand up to scientific analysis.
Inquiry: Isn't that the entire point of spirituality?
Fact: Ignore all of the above. These men attacked Imperial soil and killed numerous Imperial citizens.
Fact: So did the Allied Nations. The Emperor now hails them as allies and brothers.
Hypothesis: Not even the Emperor believes his own words.
STOP. THIS IS WRONG. Ayame slammed her fist against the stone wall of her cell in sudden confusion.
Hypothesis: This is the entire point of the captivity. To make me doubt myself.
Supposition: It's working.
Fact: IT WILL NOT.
Metaphor: Like a crack in a dam.
Supposition: But what if...
Ayame's sudden confusion was noted by a guard outside the door, and word was swiftly passed along to the two men in command of the prison.
"Her implants would have detected an overt attempt to distort her thought, wouldn't they?" One asked.
The other nodded. "Everyone but the grunts and engineers get that treatment in the Imperial army, or so I've been told. Mainly intended as a countermeasure against chemical warfare."
"Chemical warfare? I suppose that's what this is. They all break eventually."
"True, but making someone susceptible to suggestion is a long way from bringing them around. No way to directly control someone without breaking their mind, and that's not what this place is after, is it?"
The man opened a bottle of liquor and poured glasses for both men. "No. I'm a priest more than I'm a doctor, Captain. Small doses over a long period of time will make someone open to suggestion and begin to break down their inhibitions, but that's a long way from mind-controlling someone. If a man or woman is going to open their heart to God, it must be by their choice alone, with a willing and joyous heart."
"I don't think that's likely, father. The Empire breeds some of the worst hard cases I've ever seen. We didn't leave anything sharp in her cell, did we?"
"Please don't call it a cell." The priest shook his head. "This is a mental hospital, Captain, a place of healing and restoration. I must admit I'm surprised the Allied Nations are so open to our approach to deprogramming the more mentally incapacitated."
Brother-Captain Magnusson smiled. "So long as our involvement remains quiet, father. Desperate times require desperate measures, especially in the battle for the human soul. Too many people don't understand that. Would that we could save them all."
The Sanctum Majoris, Jerusalem
"Why did you call me in on this?" Masoko Okamura complained. "I'm a shipwright, and I'm supposed to be in Malta, overseeing the reconstruction of the Revelation. I'm no doctor."
"Correct." Grand Inquisitor Guiseppe Margottini answered. "You are, however, the only native Imperial citizen with the clearance necessary to observe our guest."
"Guest." Okamura spat the word like a curse. "You mean our prisoner. If I had any idea what you had in mind when you asked me to act as an observer, I would have said no."
"I asked you only in the sense that you had an illusion of choice." Margottini noted. "You struck a bargain with the Inquisition to return to your family, disastrous as your errand was, and your participation here was the price selected. I will leave you to your toys soon enough, shipwright, but for now, tell me what you know and have seen."
"I don't know anything for certain. Propaganda is difficult to distinguish from fact in hindsight. The Empire wanted the two to be treated as one and the same."
Margottini's voice cooled. "You are beginning to test my patience, shipwright."
Masoko raised her hands in surrender. "I just wanted you to know that I am not and cannot be completely certain of my observations."
"Well, psionic capability is supposed to be a matter of training more than anything else. Some people might have an unusual talent for it, or a knack for certain ways of using it, but supposedly anyone can learn to do it, and women are supposed to be significantly more likely to develop psionic capabilities. All Imperial citizens are screened for psionic potential by age twelve or so, but apparently very few people were accepted. I don't know why. I wasn't selected for the program and I never heard of anyone who was. I left the Empire before the Yuriko Omega debacle."
"Interesting." Margottini stroked his beard in thought. "Your observations on our guest?"
"I think your tests are barbaric and inhumane." Masoko answered sharply, then softened. "His precognition clearly isn't perfect by any means. Seems to be more reactive than anything else, recognizing potential threats to himself. It can be fooled, and it can incapacitate him if his premonitions are strong enough. But that's nothing the doctors couldn't tell you."
The Grand Inquisitor nodded. "They say Yuriko Omega first displayed her abilities at a young age, correct?"
It was Okamura's turn to nod. "Supposedly she destroyed her entire home village when she first manifested her powers, and was taken by the Empire for her own safety as much as anyone else's."
"What powers does the Empire attribute to Yuriko?"
"Telekinesis, mostly." Masoko thought for a long moment. "Telepathy. That's about it, though."
"Not that I ever heard about. Imperial propaganda usually showed Yuriko crushing an aircraft carrier like a can of soup and similar feats of strength. Lots and lots of stories about her fairly literally melting brains. But no, never heard of her seeing the future."
"And she displayed these talents even before her training, if erratically?"
"According to the stories, at any rate. Interest in who Yuriko Omega actually was... was not encouraged."
"I see. You are dismissed, shipwright."
Both shipwright and Grand Inquisitor had very different thoughts as Masoko Okamura departed for the stolen helicopter ready to take her to the Order's main shipyard. Masoko Okamura wondered what it all meant.
Guiseppe Margottini knew. The potential military applications of unlocking these so-called psionics that God had so obviously gifted His children with was obvious, and the basis on which Margottini had proposed the original operation to the rest of the Grand Council. Oh, it could and perhaps would have very interesting applications for the spies and iron-mongers, of course, but Margottini's interest was altogether different. This Imperial captain was hardly the first precognitive the Order of the Talon had encountered, after all.
Guiseppe Margottini thought about a young woman - a girl - gifted with extraordinary abilities and found by an organization that promised to take care of her. He was not thinking about Yuriko Omega.
Location Unknown, Five Days Later
Fact: By bushido code, the fate of those who surrender is exile or death.
Fact: By bushido code, if taken prisoner, the only way to redeem yourself is to die valiantly attempting to escape.
Fact: My captors are not interested in letting me die during escape attempts.
Hypothesis: There is no way this is going to end well for me.
For five days, Ayame Yoneda had stewed in the juices of her own doubt and insecurity. The other Imperial prisoners had vanished, leaving Ayame alone with the nagging sense that her captors just might have a point. Certainly they were humane to their prisoner: starvation was not an issue, nor exposure to the elements or other forms of degradation.
Fact: They are attempting to break me.
Observation: This is simply a more subtle approach.
Almost everyone had doubts about their beliefs and decisions in life. Only a rare, precious - or seriously delusional - men and women did not.
Hypothesis: This is how they're trying to break me: letting me break myself with my own doubts.
Imperial rescue seemed unlikely. It had been two months since her capture, and the nearest deserts to the home islands were in Allied or Chinese territory.
Inquiry: Do they even know I've been captured?
Memory of her imprisonment after the battle, aboard the transport. The Japanese woman working with the raiders, stating that the Empire would never tolerate such a blow to its pride, and thus would not acknowledge the raid ever took place.
Supposition: She was correct.
Hypothesis: Rescue is not forthcoming because the Empire has not acknowledged the raid.
Hypothesis: Mother and Father have been told that I was killed in honorable combat.
Wait. The man outside Ayame's door was not one of her usual captors. It was a man, tall and muscular, wearing matte black combat armor of some sort that Ayame didn't recognize. He wore his blond hair long, for a man, and had a matching goatee. He spoke English, tinged with the accent of northern Europe. On his right breast, however, was a symbol Ayame hadn't seen in two months. A gold silhouette of an eagle, claws outstretched...
"Yes." Ayame answered simply.
"I am Wilhelm Magnusson. I was the second-in-command of the raid on Rebun Island."
That got Ayame's attention. Still, best to tread lightly with these fanatics...
"What do you want?" Ayame asked simply.
"To talk." Magnusson answered with equal simplicity.
"I'll explain. Get up."
Ayame did, and Magnusson began to lead the Imperial ensign through the curiously vacant corridors of the facility.
"I imagine you have a great many questions for me." Magnusson stated as they walked. "I'll answer them as completely as I can."
Fact: He's lying.
Fact: He has no intention of being completely honest.
Observation: He's not practiced at it. Body language doesn't fit.
"Why did you attack Rebun Island?"
"Are you asking why we attacked Rebun Island specifically, why we attacked the Empire to begin with, or why we attacked your response force?"
Observation: Not a practiced liar, but not stupid.
Hypothesis: He may in fact be a military officer.
"Start with the second." Ayame suggested.
"Because the Empire was the logical target to accomplish our objective, and an overt but small-scale military attack offered the best odds of success."
Fact: Prince Tatsu's Second Axiom: The outcome justifies the deed.
"What was your objective?"
"Only the Crusader was briefed on the strategic objective. As Brother-Captain, my duty was to lead our military forces against the Empire's and defeat first the defenders of the military research facility, then the response force."
Fact: He is telling the truth.
Hypothesis: His organization compartmentalizes information.
"Why did you capture me?"
"Because you survived the destruction of your walker and would almost certainly have drowned. We do not leave men or women, even enemies, to die if it can be helped. Every life is precious."
Fact: The Japanese woman aboard the tanker recited that last statement as well.
Hypothesis: They intend to convert me to their cause.
"What happened to my fellow prisoners?"
"Your captain went to a separate, high-security facility. Your other comrades came to term with things and were relocated. You have held out beyond most reason, and your escape attempts displayed exemplary courage and cleverness."
Observation: Immediate hypothesis gains more weight.
"Do you really intend to turn me into another one of your mindless fanatics?" Ayame asked quietly.
Magnusson paused for a moment, eyes wide for an overly long second before he clamped down. They had arrived in the vacant chapel of the prison, and Ayame relished that small note of surprise on his face. If he could be surprised, he was not in complete control of the situation.
"As a matter of fact, no."
It was Ayame's turn to betray surprise.
"Mindless zeal is not a resource we are short of." Magnusson elaborated. "You're too smart for that in any event, no doubt thanks in part to the chips in your brain. Funny thing about mindless fanatics. They fight very bravely but die very quickly. We prefer zeal that is neither blind nor mindless."
"You still expect me to betray the Empire." Ayame noted.
"I do." Magnusson agreed. "But let's be frank. There is a world of difference between betraying a political nation-state and betraying what that nation stands for - or is supposed to stand for."
Observation: This is true.
Fact: He is playing games with me, trying to bring me around to his way of thinking.
"Prince Tatsu's Eighth Axiom: Once you betray what you believe in, you can never regain your honor."
"Honor. Funny idea." Magnusson laughed softly. "What's honorable about sneaking around in an invisible war machine, then picking off hapless targets with a sniper rifle?"
"If you step onto the battlefield, you know the risks you take." Ayame recited another aphorism from the academy.
"Ah. Never was familiar with the bushido code. Too hypocritical for my tastes." Magnusson shrugged. "You seem to know where I'm going with this, so I'll cut to the chase: the Order of the Talon could use you."
"So what is the Order of the Talon?" Ayame asked.
Magnusson thought for a long moment before answering. "We're the watchmen. Most of the powers of the world are content to fight in daylight over petty issues of territory and economy, caring little for the people hurt in the process and what slips in during the chaos of war. We're the ones who patrol those darkened alleys at night, battling things in the dark that the world never hears about and wouldn't care to know. I can't blame them. They don't want to admit that there are more things in heaven and earth than their philosophies have room for, much less that those things are an all too real danger to everyone and everything. That's where we come in. We're the night watch, the men in black, the guardians in the shadows. Ayame Yoneda, you are brave and clever and skilled. Your attack on our transport was doomed, but it was brave beyond all measure. You've fought valiantly to escape your imprisonment. I would be honored to greet you as a sister of the Order rather than as a prisoner."
Fact: It is a very tempting offer.
"Would I be required to serve your God?" Ayame asked softly.
"Everyone serves the Lord God, whether they know it or not." Magnusson shrugged. "It is between you and God, Ayame Yoneda. We grew out of the conversion-by-the-sword phase a long time ago."
Then what?, Ayame wondered. Then what? Then she knew.
Ayame's knee rammed into Brother-Captain Magnusson's unarmored groin, then pistoned upwards to catch the officer on the chin as he reflexively doubled over in reaction to Ayame's first strike. Magnusson reeled, and the Japanese woman delivered a horizontal chop of the arm to the fanatic's exposed throat, taking him utterly out of the fight for at least a minute or two.
As she thanked... something... for remembering her academy lessons so well, Ayame was already moving, looking for an escape route.
Elsewhere, the Same Day
The modified Dominion gunship flew in near-total silence over the mountains, enjoying the quiet ride that was one of the quirks of da Vinci-style aeroscrews. The silence was less comfortable in the gunship's cockpit, where the flinty-eyed pilot couldn't help but keep glancing at the beautiful young woman in what was normally the gunner's seat. Lady Maria ignored her bodyguard, eyes fixed on the horizon ahead. Behind them, four men and their elaborate combat equipment sat in silence, in what was normally the gunship's ammunition storage. Until such time as a proper aerial transport was approved, modified gunships and surreptitiously acquired transport helicopters of Allied and Soviet design served as the aerial personnel transports of the Order of the Talon.
Claude Lalande did not like the assignment one bit. Lady Maria's enigmatic orders didn't bother him - he had been obeying her frequently nonsensical and occasionally contradictory directions for years now - but the fact that Lady Maria had spoken to Adrien Poisson, Grand Master of the Templars, for some hours beforehand did bother him. Usually Lady Maria was forthcoming about her intentions, and her instincts - or visions - had been right more often than not over the years. But this time, she had not confided in Lalande, about the mission or her conversation with the Grand Master. Templars, including Lalande himself, were used to spooky orders and mysterious missions, but all the same...
Lalande worried about Lady Maria. She had been... preoccupied... ever since the new year, though her odd behavior had begun earlier than that. Leaving for the United States with Crusader Moore without telling her sworn bodyguard? Refusing to speak of what transpired during that sojourn? In the two weeks since the new year, Maria had declined to speak and hold lively debate as she had so often done before. Oh, she came out to spar with Lalande and whoever else was at the Sanctum for several hours each day to maintain her skill with the blade, but even then she seldom spoke. None of the usual, friendly banter over a hard day's practice, or at Mass each morning and evening.
To some extent, Lalande supposed that had something to do with the influx of female recruits to Jerusalem, whom Maria went out of her way to meet and encourage. Lalande was her silent bodyguard at such times, watching Maria offer words of encouragement and praise. She also, curiously, encouraged them to not forget who they were in service to the Order. Lalande didn't understand that. The Order was a significant part of who he was. He simply could not grasp the notion of an identity separate from service to God and the Order, and the very thought of that idea troubled him. He wanted to ask her what she meant, ask her why she did what she did - and, perhaps, whether she was ever lonely in her thoughts and work as he himself often was.
Lalande shook his head. Lady Maria's actions and words were above questioning. She would act and speak as God willed her to, and that was that. In the meantime, Lelande needed to focus on piloting the transport. They were deep in Allied territory, heading for a remote Allied facility with orders to avoid violence at all costs. What a remote facility it was, too.
The Atacama Desert was one of Earth's more hellish locations, and a good place for those who did not wish to be found.
Atacama Desert, Ten Minutes Later
Fact: Four guards down.
Fact: Magnusson has raised the alarm.
Fact: This is going to be tricky.
Multitasking was never a problem for mecha pilots. Ayame took down another guard with a sweeping low kick to knock him off his feet, then stomped hard on his throat. Not remotely elegant, but sufficient for the task. No sooner did she finish the guard than she resumed sprinting towards the prison's motor pool, mainly consisting of civilian Ranger variants. Her suspicions of the prison's location were correct: the facility was somewhere in a remote desert. Not that that narrowed things down much.
Observation: GPMV-2C1 Ranger.
Fact: Standard civilian variant with superior performance in rugged terrain.
Hotwiring an Allied vehicle was not what Ayame's transducer implants were intended for, but they did the job. For that matter, she had never been trained in the controls of Allied vehicles, but the Ranger was an elegantly simple model. In other words, it had a gas pedal, a brake, a lever for park, drive, or reverse, and a fuel gauge. A speedometer had apparently been considered an unnecessary and strictly optional accessory. Ayame yanked the lever to drive and pressed hard on the accelerator. With a throaty roar, the Ranger sprung to life.
Ten minutes later, Ayame was convinced that Allied servicemen deserved a medal of some sort simply for surviving a Ranger for any length of time. Imperial vehicles were smooth, quiet, and graceful. If a passenger didn't look out the window, they would be unaware they were moving at all. The Ranger was a wild, unstable beast of a machine that fought valiantly against its driver for control and more than once threatened to eject Ayame out of the vehicle entirely. With no frame of reference, compass, or other way of knowing direction, Ayame picked a direction at random and pressed the gas pedal as far as it would go. She was not, however, alone. Three other Rangers were in pursuit, and Ayame's eyes widened as machine guns opened up.
Tracers stitched an impact pattern to the left of Ayame's vehicle, then began to curve towards her vehicle as the gunner walked his fire into the target. It was a simple and effective way of targeting weapons as imprecise as machine guns, and one Ayame's intensive training in a Kitsune had taught her how to defeat. She simply stomped on the Ranger's brakes, kicking up a massive dust cloud and, more importantly, slamming the rear of Ayame's Ranger directly into the front of the firing enemy. Seatbelts had also been considered an optional extra on Rangers, and the driver of the pursuing vehicle was hurled through his windshield and into the dust.
Ayame opened her driver-side door and rolled out of the vehicle as the now-crashed enemy Ranger's gunner recovered. A quick check of the driver revealed that he was unarmed. His gunner was both more and less fortunate. Fortunate in the sense that he had a gun. Unfortunate in the sense that he was unwilling to shoot Ayame through her new, slightly used human shield, and that gave the Imperial all the time she needed to get close enough to the gunner to disable him with a few well-placed blows and retrieve his sidearm.
Fact: The heavy machine gun could be useful for making a stand.
Fact: There are still two more Rangers.
Fact: The odds are not in favor of standing and fighting.
Fact: The dust cloud is already dissipating.
More tracer fire confirmed her fears.
Fact: It is too late.
Well, that was an abortive car chase if ever there was one...
One of the Rangers exploded. Ayame stared as a giant in silver armor strode casually through the wreckage, pausing only to snuff out part of his black tabard that had caught fire.
Fact: I am starting to get really tired of that golden eagle emblem.
The other Ranger died seconds later. A smaller figure in shining silver, with a long red cloak whipping behind her, ran headlong into the vehicle and drove a glittering broadsword through the engine block. Even as the rover died, the argent figure jumped up and landed on the Ranger's hood, crushing the already-disabled engine. The sword flashed twice more, and the Ranger's crew died.
Ayame raised her newly acquired pistol hesitantly at the new arrivals. She remembered men in similar armor from Rebun Island, whose archaic armor had nevertheless shrugged off kinetic-burst fire.
"It looks like she survived, my lady." The argent giant announced, leveling his snub-nosed weapon of unknown design but proven power at Ayame. "You were right."
The smaller figure nodded, and now that it drew closer Ayame saw that it was a woman, wearing armor of similar design to her comrades and armed with a glittering broadsword. Her Arabic features would probably qualify as beautiful if there wasn't blood splashed across them.
"Ayame Yoneda, Ensign of the Imperial Mecha Corps, assigned to Reaction Force Nine and the Second Mechanized Legion." The woman was not asking a question, then she bowed to Ayame. "Rebun Island was a mistake, Ensign Yoneda, and I deeply regret that you have become involved in this. Your family has been told that you died heroically during the assault, and you have been posthumously awarded the Dragon Star, Second Class. Your brother was killed during the initial attack on the research base, attempting to cover his fellow inductees in the testing labs as they tried to escape during the initial attack. He has been posthumously enrolled in the Order of Yuriko."
Ayame was stunned. She hadn't even been certain Rebun Island was where her little brother had been taken for psionic training...
"Do not blame Brother-Captain Magnusson for the assault." The woman continued. "He was only following orders, and he told you the truth when he spoke of our Order and our task. He did not tell you that there are some in our Order who have forgotten what makes us different from the shadows we fight. They have become kin to that which they are supposed to combat. You reject association with such people and rightly so. I would not be speaking with you today if you were not the woman of integrity and honor that your actions proclaim you to be."
"What do you want from me?" Ayame asked warily.
"Only that you be who you are." The woman answered. "I simply offer you a choice, Ayame Yoneda. You can remain here, miles from civilization and any source of water, or you can join our stand against the dark."
"Not much of a choice." Ayame observed dryly.
"You always have a choice. Your belief in honor, courage, and integrity has found willing ears amongst us. You call men and women who uphold such things samurai. We call them knights. It is not the custom of the Knights Templar to accept women for training, but the Grand Master has expressed an interest in meeting you. Perhaps it is time for them, too, to change. All I ask you to change, Ayame Yoneda, is what you live for. The world, or God?"
Ayame thought about it. For nearly ten minutes, they were a frozen tableau, with only the smoldering flames of the wrecked Rangers and the desert wind to hear.
Lady Maria extended her hand.
Ayame Yoneda took it.
The Sanctum Majoris, Six Days Later
"Uh oh." Harold Moore observed. "Lady Maria is back, and she looks pissed."
"Got any popcorn?" Albin Canavan agreed. "She, Lalande, some Templars, and a new recruit just got in from South America. This should be interesting."
The dining hall for the upper echelons at the Sanctum Majoris was busy in the morning, serving breakfast to dozens of the Order's senior priests, commanders, and other operatives, and was normally quite noisy. The moment Lady Maria, dressed in full battle armor and bearing her sword and cloak, opened the doors, however, all conversation ceased.
"Grand Inquisitor Guiseppe Margottini!" Lady Maria declared, "Stand and be held accountable for your actions! I know you were behind the attack on the Imperial psionic research center in November, and the blood of innocents is at your feet!"
"It is always a pleasure to see you, honored lady," The Grand Inquisitor announced as he rose, "But the matter of which you speak was approved by vote of the Grand Council. Do you intend to also take Doctor Pollard to task? Or perhaps the Grand Masters? Or any of the other members of the Grand Council who voted in favor?"
"I do not intend to strike you down, Grand Inquisitor." Maria replied coldly. "It is the Lord God's judgment you need fear, not mine."
"Then why make such a fuss?" Margottini's smile never left his lips. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Are you truly without sin, honored lady?"
"It is altogether fitting that you were the lead voice in building this sanctuary." Maria's voice dripped acid. "For thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech and of a hard language, but to the house of Israel; Not to many people of a strange speech and a hard language, whose words thou canst not understand. Surely, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee. But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted. Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house."
And with that pronouncement, Lady Maria turned and left the dining hall, leaving a stunned crowd in her wake.
"Wow." Canavan murmured to his breakfast companions. "That's actually in the Bible?"
"The book of Ezekiel, chapter three, verses four through nine." Arianna Martella confirmed. "King James version."
"Hoooo boy." Moore observed. "I get the feeling we'll be dealing with the consequences of this morning for a while."