The Conquered

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Falling by John Murdock (Sunday, April 29, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Nom De Guerre by Crimson Tao (Sunday, May 20, 2007)

(posted Sunday, April 29, 2007)

Vae victis! "Woe to the conquered!"

Sera had kept careful track of the days, hours, minutes. They had been here for one month, three days, sixteen hours and forty four minutes. It had taken them nearly a week of it to trek, with the rest of the insurgents, "up-country" to the secondary headquarters. Outwardly she remained calm; she did her part playing rearguard, she ruthlessly eliminated those enemy scouts who happened to cross their path, though in her heart she begged their forgiveness. This was not Paragon City. They could not afford to be merciful. She had been forced to be that merciless in the far, far past. It had not troubled her then, for she knew, because she could see the paths of the futures, that mercy would bring ruin. She did not know that now. Each death at her hand made her ache.

But greater still was the ache of imagining what John must be enduring. By now, he must be sure they were dead. Worse than dead, lost forever. And now he was dying inside. Every day that passed would only increase, not decrease, that pain. Past hope--her love, her love was dying, and she could do nothing.

And she--to be honest, there were hours that she thought, if she had not had the children, she would have taken on the Fallen by herself. They could slay her, but they could not hold her spirit here she was sure; in death she would be with him again. But if she fell, the children would surely die. But if they never could return, what was the point in living? He would die and she would die, and then the children--

But then she took hold of herself, reminding herself over and over, that this was the despair, the hopelessness that They fostered. She must believe. She must hope. Every night, she stood out alone, looking up at the veiled stars with tears blurring her vision, and tried to send that hope to him.

This place destroyed souls. She could feel them, all around her, held here forever by the despair in which they had died, a despair that offered nothing but the bleak and barren, blasted existence of those who truly had lost all hope.

And--would John be trapped there too, dying in despair? His heart and soul flayed and drained, until he fell prey to the Fallen themselves, conquered at last, as the souls here were conquered?

My love, my love, no matter where you go, I will find you! Though it be into the deepest pits of the Fallen, she would go there and she would find him, and she would win him free again. She had to believe that. She must believe that.

None of this did she betray to the children; not the despair, and not that she felt herself shredded with this loss. But the hope--she fed them on it, as best she could, to counteract that terrible resignation she felt in the entire troupe.

Masada, she thought, more than once. This group was marching to its own Masada. But when they had fallen, to the last man, woman and child, there would be no one to remember.

Of the Sarge, she saw but little. General Zach, however, spent a strange amount of time with Astra; at least three times during the journey, she saw them walking together and talking. At first, she thought it was because Astra was now the group's chief healer and he was making sure she was doing everything she could for his people. But after the third time, she caught him looking oddly at her, and suspicion bloomed. She was greatly tempted to lower her shields to sense his feelings, if not his actual thoughts. Surely Zach was not--interested--in Astra? Or was it only that he was learning from her about the Zach and Bella of their world?

She still had not learned the answer to that when they reached their goal; by her reckoning, they were probably somewhere in the northern Appalachian mountains. The number of deserted small towns depressed her; the only time that she encountered the Sarge was when they passed through one. He sent out forage parties, looking for forgotten stocks of canned goods. Ratt was frighteningly good at finding such things, and so were Aedan and Astra; Ratt used his knowledge of Praetorian Earth and memories of living as a scavenger, Aedan and Astra used their symbiots' Kheldian senses. Sarge intercepted her as she came in, relieved of her shift as rear-guard, to thank her.

"The kids're makin' a difference," he said, eyeing her measuringly. "I--don't hold with some of their talk but--" Then he shrugged.

She eyed him steadily. "What talk?" she asked.

He flushed and looked both uncomfortable and defiant. "Just--talk. I don't hold with supernatural stuff."

Ah. "You do not believe that the conquerors of your world are the Fallen From Grace," she said, steadily. "And you do not believe that I--am, or was, their counter."

He barked a short laugh. "An angel? Hell no. An' don't you go spreadin' that you are, either. I don' want--"

"The last thing I would do is to undermine your authority," she said softly. She glanced quickly about, and saw, and sensed, that they were still alone. "It is why I have not appeared thus--"

For one moment, she let her true form show. He blinked, and shook his head, frowning. "Lots of people c'n create hallucinations, ma'am. Best not do that to anyone else."

No point in brushing him with a wing; he would only take that as an even more cunning illusion. "I am what I am," she replied, bowing her head. "What you believe does not matter to that one simple fact. I will be what I am regardless of your belief. But I will not, if that is your order." But if she could not get him to believe in the Fallen, how would she get him to believe in what They were doing, and why? That was the key to this entire struggle! Half the power of the Fallen lay in the deception that they were something other than what they were--if people knew, they would understand all the weapons that they still had, weapons of love, compassion, friendship--and above all, hope--

But if they could not regain that hope--then the Fallen would win.

"I dunno what you are," he said, tone suddenly harsh. "I dunno even if we c'n trust ya. But Vic'll know. An' you better be straight, 'cause--well, you just better be."

With that, he turned and marched away, abruptly. She sighed, feeling that heavy weight of despair falling over her again. Somewhere, her John was dying by inches. They were conquering with despair, and she was helpless to stop it. Angrily, she struggled, and cast it off. No matter where you go, I will find you... It had become her mantra, the invocation of John, of hope and determination.

She knew Sarge was keeping her deliberately in the dark about how close they were to their goal. She couldn't blame him. If she was a plant....

But it came as a shock when, that night around the campfire, there was a stir, and then a cheer from the edge of the camp. She looked to one of the men she regularly shared her patrol with. "What?" she asked.

He grinned, relief on his face. "Just the patrol from HQ--the new HQ," he said. "We'll be there by noon tomorrow; they came out to meet us, just to make sure everything's okay."

The commotion neared, and Sera and her family stood up, all but JJ, who was with the other injured and weak who were not able to walk. Somehow she was not surprised to see Sarge escorting a tall, bald man, bronze skin so dark it was almost a dark red, and with the lower half of his face shrouded in a scarf, with a petite blond at his side. Both of them had automatic weapons slung at their backs; the tiny woman also had a sword and wore archaic looking leather armor.

"So where's this family I'm supposed to vet?" she was saying to Sarge as they neared the campfire--just as the group around Sera parted to give them a clear view of the little family group.

Vickie Victrix looked in the direction that Sarge was pointing. Sera stepped forward, away from Ratt and Aedan's instinctive sheltering of her, saw the woman's eyes narrow, then grow as big as saucers as the crowd silenced, waiting her verdict. "Holy shite--" Vickie breathed.

Hands went to weapons, but Victoria Victrix was across the space between them in a flash. She went down to one knee before Sera, her sword out of its sheathe and held out, pommel first. "Hail to thee, thou of the First and Fairest," Vickie said, head bowed in deepest respect, her words full of awe. "My sword is thine to command."