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Angels Ascending - 10. Part Ten

Chapter Twenty

     

Last Chance

     

The men of the fleet did not fully understand why their Admiral had ordered them to abandon Aquanos to the Centurions, only that the hated Inquisitors had accused many of their popular officers of heresy. If they were not rescued, they would be burned at the stake in front of the Church of the Mother, in Meltor.

The navy, unlike the land-based army, was a tight knit community made up of sailors whose families had served in the fleet for generations. With over a hundred of their officers kidnapped by the most hated institution in Jadoor, the sailors and marines had all agreed to make the rescue attempt.

That loyalty made Admiral James proud of both his men and his choice to follow in his father's footsteps. Captain Harper, his confidant and replacement for Kyle, kept reassuring him that they would arrive in time. Still, James had a standing order that he was to be told as soon as the main island of Jadoor came within sight.

Two days from the port city of Koor, James ran into a flotilla of cargo ships waving Jadoor's black and white colors, heading in the same direction as his fleet. Having sent Harper off in the long boat to find out what the ships were doing, James learned that they were loaded with the Centurion survivors of Eb.

Wanting to see what had happened to those brave men after so many months marooned, James boarded the long boat with Harper and was rowed to the closest of the cargo ship.

Taken down into the hold, James was shocked at what he saw. Instead of the strong fighting men he had become used to seeing when fighting the Centurions, he found the ship loaded with men who looked like tall skeletons, their stomachs so caved in that the round core holding their anima fluid could be seen sticking out.

Using the ship's translator James learned that the Centurions had run out of food two weeks after their failed attempt to escape. That was over two months ago. Since that time they had lived off what fish they could catch and the leaves and bark off the trees. For the twenty thousand men that had been left after the last of their ships had been destroyed, it had been a slow starvation even for a people who only needed to eat once a week.

"Why did we not help them sooner?" was the only question James could think to ask the ship's captain.

"They were being used as hostages, from what I understand," the captain replied.

"What do you mean?"

"We used them as bargaining chips with the Centurion army holding the Federation capital of Sol. By agreeing to let the Eb survivors free, one of the commanders led a revolt that resulted in us recapturing the Federation capital."

"A Centurion turning against his own?" James asked surprised.

"Yes...his younger brother was one of the men trapped on the island."

"Did he survive long enough to be rescued?"

"Yes...he is now dead however. After learning what his brother had done, he killed himself."

"But his brother was only trying to save him!" James shouted, not understanding Centurion logic.

     

"Well, from what I have heard, thousands of the Centurions holding Sol died because of this brother's betrayal. The younger brother just could not live with the shame of being the cause of so many deaths."

     

"What is going to happen to the Eb survivors now?"

     

"They are to be spread out among the different monasteries on the main island. There, the monks will nurture them back to health. If the war is still going on by the time they recover, they will be held as prisoners of war until the conflict ends. After that, they will be allowed to go home, or what is left of it once the Federation is through with the empire.

     

"Have you been feeding them well?" James asked, not noticing a lot of food around.

"No...the monks told us to be very careful. Men in their condition could easily eat themselves to death."

"Eat themselves to death? Look at them." James pointed at the hollowed out men.

"The monk healers were very insistent that we not feed them a great deal, something about their bodies having forgotten how to eat.

"Just make sure that they are well taken care of," James warned, feeling some blame for the men's condition.

"Aye, I will, Admiral." The captain nodded as James got back into the long boat.

His mind must have been consumed by the horrors he had seen on the cargo ship, because James did not notice that the boat was not heading back to his flagship, but instead to a different ship. It was only when he climbed up onto the deck, and noticed the different crew, that he knew something was not right.

"Why did the boat bring me here, and not to the flagship?" James asked Harper.

"See that spot of land ahead of us?"

"Yes, it looks like the coast near the city of Koor."

"Yes and that is why I must take you prisoner now."

"What?" James asked, shocked, seeing the crew members draw their swords.

I am an Inquisitor, Admiral," Harper confessed. "And the orders given to me by High Inquisitor Warren were clear. We were to allow you to reach sight of Koor before arresting you on charges of heresy."

"But Harper, you are one of my own men. How can you betray the fleet like this?"

"I am sorry, Admiral but a few years ago I was in the same place you are now, in the hands of the Inquisitors. All I can tell you is that it would be better if you just did as Warren asks you."

"Harper, did he torture you... is he blackmailing you like he is me!"

"All I can tell you is that he showed me the true path the church must take. Now, Admiral...will you surrender your sword and knife?" Harper asked, almost too calmly, as if he were in a trance, his arms outstretched to receive the Admiral's weapons.

"Commander, I order you to come to your senses and stand down!"

"I am sorry, Admiral, but I just cannot do that. The...the punishment I would face if I fail his grace would be worse than anything you could possibly imagine. So hand over your weapons!" Harper said more sternly.

Seeing he had no other choice, James undid his sword belt and handed it over to one of Harper's men.

"And the knife you have hidden in your boot," Harper insisted, signaling with his blade.

"I see you do not miss much. Makes sense, as you are a spy."

"No...I have learned that you find out more about a man after you have slept with him. The knife fell out of your boot once, when you were in a hurrying me to bed."

"I see," James nodded, pulling out the knife and handing it over to Harper. "Is that all you felt when we were in bed together? That I was a prize for your High Inquisitor?"

"No. To be honest, I am very fond of you, Admiral, and it hurts me more than you know that I have to do this. My loyalty to the High Inquisitor supersedes any feelings I have for you, however. Now, if you will follow my men, they will take you to a holding cell, where you will stay until we reach port. From there, an armored carriage will take you to Meltor, where the High Inquisitor is expecting you.

As he was led away, James gave the commander some parting words. "Harper, I do not know if my men will forgive you, but knowing what the Inquisitors do to men like us... I forgive you. When the time comes, try to remember who your true friends are."

"I wish I could accept your forgiveness. Maybe after Warren gets what he wants from you, things can return to normal. Until then, however, you are my captive," Harper replied as he watched his Admiral being led away.

Standing by the railing on the deck, Harper watched as the port city of Koor grew larger. He hated that he had betrayed James because he was not only a good leader; he was a good man as well. All he could hope for, however, was that the Admiral would give Warren what he wanted. He did not want James to go through the "breaking" process he had gone through to get him to betray the leader of the fleet.

Seeing the blue fire on one of the docks, Harper ordered his pilot to make for it. From there, James's chances of being rescued by his men would shrink to nothing, as he would then be in the hands of the High Inquisitor's best assassins and torturers. Inside that armored carriage, Harper knew, James would find how a man such as himself could be broken. Letting out a deep sigh, Harper once again cursed himself for being so weak.

     

Chapter Twenty-One

     

The Harvesting

     

After searching the empire for every single Legatio he could find, Xavier had a harvest of over twenty thousand. All of them were now trapped in the Legatio quarter, a part of the capital normally housing only five thousand. Already, he had the remaining Famulus tearing down the mansions to build more functional apartments. Next to the large baths and gym he was also building what he called the Palace of Pleasure. Inside, he filled it with over two thousand women. Once a week each Legatio was required to spend a night in the palace. In return, he was handed a colored wooden chip with a hole in the middle that allowed a string to be tied through it. Each week the color and shape of the chip would change and, if one did not have the right chip, he was not allowed in the baths or gym, and did not receive rations. Going to the Palace of Pleasure more than once a week earned copper chips that acted as currency. With those, the Legatio could buy the few luxuries Xavier allowed into the Legatio quarter that was now looking more like a ghetto.

Finally, there were the gold chips. The Centurion guards kept detailed records of which women the Legatio bred. In a month's time the woman might have slept with dozens of different men, but all of them would get credit if she became pregnant. Gold chips were given if a woman became pregnant and, the more gold chips a Legatio earned, the better the housing and food he was given. The women, for their part, were rewarded by being able to spend their pregnancy away from the capital at one of the confiscated Legatio country estates. This reward system guaranteed that the women would report any Legatio who came to the Pleasure Palace but refused to perform.

Just as there were rewards, there were consequences. If you failed to show up at the Pleasure Palace once a week, you went without food. If you failed to earn a gold chip each month, you would lose what little housing you had. If the lack of performance continued, then Xavier's threat of sending you to the slaughterhouse was very real. To prove it, Xavier had the anima extracted from every Legatio over the age of six hundred.

There was, of course, a way to escape all this, and that was to find some ranking Centurion officer to take you on as a lover and servant. This meant better quarters, food and clothes. Many of the younger Legatio chose this route.

In one month's time there were twelve hundred future Centurion fighters waiting to be born in eight to nine months. Things were finally falling into place for Xavier and his Demon, Armageddon.

Xavier only wished he dared to move against Grecoron, Lord Commander of the Gate. The fool had allowed thousands of fleeing Legatio and Famulus to pass into Qul Tos and barred the men he had sent to capture them until it was too late to give chase. To make matters worse, the rumors had it that the Speaker, Treasurer, and Defense Minister of the Senate had all been among the evacuees. Xavier did not have to guess, to know that those three fools would run to Field Marshal Darius and ask him to return to Domus. If that happened, Xavier would have to find a way to remove Grecoron and his men from command of the Gate. If Darius' legions were allowed to travel through the mountain pass, then Xavier would have to fight a war-hardened army on the open plains of Domus, not something he felt confident in doing.

Feeling the need to compromise, Xavier wrote his fellow Field Marshal a letter, making him an offer he was sure would end the threat from the Eastern Army.

Tying the message to a pigeon's leg, Xavier watched as the bird flew toward the Jasper Mountains and the kingdom of Qul Tos.

     

     

When the Inquisitors were not using the instruments of their craft on him, James remained gagged and chained to the wall of the armored carriage, opposite the narrow slit of a window that was the only source of light and air.

James could remember as many as three of the black-robed men torturing him at the same time, letting the fear of not knowing where the pain would come next build. They would whip him with a scourge, tearing at the flesh of his skin. They would then pour vinegar over the wounds, making James feel as if he was being eaten alive.

At night there were hot pokers, pressed against his stomach and inner thigh, leaving dark brand marks on his skin. None of that was as frightening as when they made him watch as they peeled away his fingernails and then poked the soft tender skin with the tip of a sharp pin. Still, throughout it all, James did not accept their offer to join them, to accept their so-called healing arms and enter the Inquisitor brotherhood.

James did learn one thing through it all...that if Harper had gone through the same treatment he was suffering now, there was no way he could hold a grudge against the man. He would have given in as well, if he did not have one thing to keep him going...the Inquisitors' promise to see him and Kyle burned together if they did not break. That single statement told James much. It told him that Kyle was still alive and that, if he were being treated the same way, that he was fighting the Inquisitors as well. Believing that, if his young commander could resist, he could too, James fought the Inquisitors at every chance.

The day finally arrived when the carriage came to a final halt and the metal-plated door opened to show the obsidian-tiled palace of the High Inquisitor, a black lighthouse built just outside the city walls.

He was led to the top of the tower, to a room whose walls were made of emerald green glass, the fire in the middle causing a sickening beacon to glow out over the water. In the room, Warren was sitting on an iron throne and, at his feet, was Kyle, his face swollen and purple with bruises.

"Kyle!" James shouted on seeing his lover.

"..." Kyle remained silent, but turned his blackened eyes to return his Admiral's gaze.

James tried to struggle against his bonds to reach Kyle, but was tripped by the end of a spear by one of Warren's guards. "Kyle!"

"Now, now, Admiral, your dear companion is under instructions not to speak, if he wants to keep his tongue that is." Warren chuckled.

"What do you want, you bastard?" James shouted, his face down on the floor.

"I want you to order your men to seize the capital and bring me the head of the High Priest. Your armies are already on the march and will be here in a matter of days."

Just at that moment, Niles, dressed in his black and gold robes came up the stairs with his Templar guards. "What have you done, Warren!"

Warren stood up and walked toward his rival, arms open as if in friendship. "Your Grace..."

"Why is there an army marching on the capital...and why is it made up of our own men!"

"Heretics, your Holiness, all of them."

"You are telling me that our entire naval force is made up of traitors?" Niles asked in disbelief.

"Not all of them...just their officers. I found them involved in debauchery of the worst sort. I had no choice but to arrest them."

"But their men are now marching on the Capital!"

"You have your Templar guards. The city should be well defended."

"Defend yes, but I do not have enough men here to prevent the city from being besieged.

"The church has its largest grain stores within the city walls," Warren replied.

"Stop it, you fool. Do not pretend I don't know who you have on the floor next to you!" Niles pointed to James.

"Yes...and you should be thanking me. It was my men who captured this traitor as the fleet was making its way to Koor. Without him, the army approaching the capital is nothing more then a mob. All it will take is your divine word to bring them back to the Mother."

"So you hope," Niles spat. "In the meantime, I want the Admiral and his men in my custody."

"But they must stand trial, High Priest."

"They already have...by the action of their men. I find the Admiral and his officers all guilty."

"Church law forbids that!" Warren said as he gripped the sword handle of his cane.

Seeing that both their guards had grabbed the hilts of their swords, Niles decided the tension in the room needed to be lowered. "Fine...they will stand trial. Thank you for reminding me that the law of the Mother must be respected. I will see that the trials begin tomorrow. It should only take us a few days to find them all guilty. Enough time to build a grand fire to burn their befouled souls."

"Very well, your Holiness. Once again you speak with wisdom."

Now that he had given in to one of Warren's demands, Niles was ready to make a demand of his own. "High Inquisitor, I want the prisoners sent to the cells under the Church of the Mother. The traitors will be here soon and your tower lies outside the city walls. It would be a shame for you to have gone through all the trouble of capturing these heretics, just to have them rescued from divine judgment."

Seeing no way to protest, Warren nodded his head, allowing the Templar guards to pick up the Admiral and Kyle, carrying them out of the tower and thrown into the back of a wagon.

"I'm sorry," Kyle whispered into James's ear.

"It's not your fault. If I had given Warren what he wanted, none of this would have happened," James tried to say calmly. The jostling of the wagon just reminded him of how much pain he was in.

"I guess it will be over soon."

"Not if my men have any say about it."

"So it's true. The fleet has come to rescue us."

"Yes. If Niles does not give us back to our men, there will be civil war, just as Warren wants."

"So no matter what, he will win anyway."

"Not if I can help it," James grunted, remembering that there was going to be a trial. If he was going to be burned, he was going to take the High Inquisitor down with him.

     

Copyright © 2013 JMH; All Rights Reserved.
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