Rennock’s hands pulled at their bindings, muscles constricted from lack of oxygen. The cord about his throat cinched tighter, collapsing his trachea in a slow deliberate motion. He wrestled the reflexive panic of his body and focused beyond, to a distant light transcending the thickening darkness.
You fought the good fight. You finished the course. You kept the faith.
His head snapped, stung by the sweeping arc of a steel rod against his cheek. Electric pain shredded the haze that had cocooned his mind. The light died. He gagged, fighting a guttural, retching nausea.
“I’ll break you.” An invader appeared before him, face contorted, teeth bared. “Tell me where your remnant friends are hiding!”
Rennock glared, twisting a bloodied grin.
“Insolence!” The assailant’s voice became shrill, like a cat aflame. “I could kill you!”
“And he’d let you, without uttering a word.” The staccato sound of feminine steps echoed above the torture. A woman in uniform approached. “You fool.” She pushed the soldier away. “Leave us.”
Rennock straightened, air returning to his lungs in a labored wheeze. He grimaced, a swollen eye distorting his vision, as he strained to match the face and familiar voice. The figure, petite, but wielding a commander’s authority strong enough to send grizzled warriors scurrying, moved into view.
Her breath caught. From behind loose strands of blonde hair, green eyes softened. “I’m— they’ve no idea who you are.” Her jaw stiffened. “This man,” she spoke with the firmness, “is the hero of Sarschelles.” She reached for a pitcher, filling a glass. “Former commander of the Emperor’s Elite Guard.”
Rennock stared through the windows toward his crippled world. An appalling, familiar sight. There was a time he’d caused worse. Much worse. Following orders. But that was before.
She knelt by him, holding the water to his mouth.
He turned away. Her nearness felt tempting, forbidden; her perfume a reminder of sins long forgiven. The fluid glistened in her hand. He squinted, avoiding the memories, dried blood tearing at his lashes. “Mira—” His speech was scarcely more than a battered whisper. “It isn’t water that sustains me.”
Plumes of smoke, like savage scars, rose from the city below. Occupying soldiers clad in black fatigues moved into disheveled buildings, weapons raised. A woman ran, screaming. Gunfire erupted, penetrating and lethal. She collapsed.
Mira flinched. “Senseless.” She leaned toward Rennock. “Say one word and the remnant would surrender.” Her fingers traced his shoulder. “Work with me to end this. You and I, we’d rule together.” She stroked his hair, touching his face. “You used to want me.”
Rennock closed his eyes. Heat surged through him, dark visions of a life gone by. “I love you.” He forced a swallow, hard and sore. “But the Spirit’s called me to a different path.”
She rose, stumbling as if shoved. “Different?” Soldiers lingered afar, watching. Her chin lifted even as moisture rimmed her eyes. “You have to help. Or—” Needles pierced her voice. “You take the throne. Serve the emperor in my name.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you.” He shifted his stare toward the destruction. “But there is more to us than this.” He pressed forward. “I serve the one true ruler.”
A trembling lip belied her façade. She faced the windows and the scars that tore the horizon. Her body shuddered beneath the pleated fabric of the imperial uniform. “Who?”
“Jehovah-Sabaoth. The Consuming Fire. Let me show Him to you.”
Mira splayed her fingers, pressing against the deepening sky. “There’s no hope for you.”
“Hope is all I have.”
“Don’t you see? You’ll be dead and the remnant will be found anyway.” She spun about, gesturing to the crumbled structures. “I can have this city flattened in three days.”
“In three days it will be rebuilt. Mira, let me tell you of true strength.”
She vacillated between the devastation and Rennock. Her mouth opened, cheeks flushed. For a moment she seemed unsure, at the cusp of revelation. Then, nothing. “I wash my hands of you.” She turned away.
He was seized, thrown to the casement, the city a conflagration below. The garrote twisted, intense, immediate. He dropped to his knees.
The edges of his vision faded and the cottony rhythm of waves engulfed him. The light returned, glowing on the tops of distant mountains, building into an inferno. His gaze widened. Through the flames, an army advanced.
The forces of heaven.
He smiled as his eyes dimmed.
The ground trembled at the sound of a trumpet blast.
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