Episode 47: The Lord Ascendent

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Renic has completed Gallow's first task. Now, he must finish the second half.

“Your Imperial Majesty, I am Commander Renic Tau, acting executive adjunct to the Fleet Marshal. I have orders to see you safely evacuated off-planet until military police and the Navy can secure the capitol compound and city.”

High Imperius Edwin Sevent looked up from the over-sized datapad he had been reading in one of the many white-and-gold velvet chairs in his residence study, breakfast table with half-eaten food next to him along with two of the Imperial Guard standing at attention on the far wall. 

Sevent was awake and out of bed. Dressed, even. That had surprised Renic. Perhaps the blast from across the compound had awoken him. He wore the same, stark white, flowing robe with golden embroidery that he was always seen wearing on the news vids, with its high collar and golden belt that contained his overflowing midsection. Even the traditional coronet sat atop his balding head. The fact that he still wore this getup even in private—and had put it on while knowing his capitol building was in flames—was both predictable and pathetic.

Sevent gawked at Renic and the escort squad of twelve Kestris Marines that stood at the arched doorway of his study—Kogan and eleven of his top operators in disguise—with one of the fancily uniformed Imperial Guard standing with them.

“Off-planet? Gallow is overreacting. None who wish me harm could make it in here.” Sevent turned to the guard who had escorted Renic from the palace steps. “Humphrey, is what the commander says true?”

The guard—apparently named Humphrey—cleared his throat. “Yes, your Majesty. It does appear that we’ve been ordered to accompany the commander.”

Renic painted on a look of dire concern, furrowing his brow and pressing his lips into a flat line. The Imperial Guard at the palace had initially balked at Renic and his squad. The Captain of the Guard on shift, Humphrey, had been summoned to review the orders. After a moment of confused skimming of the official order from Defense Minister Archer, he had relented and escorted Renic and his team inside.

Renic stepped forward and nodded politely. “I understand that this is irregular, your Majesty. But the Defense Minister is the highest ranking civilian when it comes to matters of non-military Imperial security, and she does have the power to insist that you and your Imperial Guard accompany me into orbit. It’s all in the edict you wrote shortly after the Starview Station attack. I’m sure you remember.”

Renic held out a hand and one of the marines handed him a datapad, which he then handed to Humphrey, who rushed it over to the High Imperius. Sevent glanced at the screen, muttering something as his eyes scanned back and forth. Renic watched, resisting the urge to smile at the foolish man. Sevent would see that the order was legitimate. According to Imperium law, in a time of crisis when the safety of the sovereign could not be guaranteed, the High Imperius could be moved into military custody whether he wanted to go or not. 

 Renic spread his hands apologetically. “Your Majesty, it is only for a short period, and I’ve been assured that you will be given full access to the Terminus to establish your command center to navigate this crisis. Available members of your central council are being escorted as well.” Renic paused. Sevent glared back at him, making no attempt to rise. He apparently required a little more leverage to be dislodged. “Your majesty, there are credible threats to your safety, and given how easily the capitol was breached, there is no telling how easy the palace could be as well. They could already be here. Please, your Majesty, if you would.”

The two Imperial Guard who had been in the study stepped a little closer. They wore the gaudy white-and-gold trimmed uniforms, each holding the ceremonial halberd that doubled as an energy weapon. Renic had been very clear with his disguised operatives; the Imperial Guard may look frivolous, but they were trained soldierse, not to be underestimated or provoked until aboard the Terminus.

Sevent shooed the datapad away, then set the oversized one he’d been holding onto his breakfast table. Renic could see what was on the screen—a local Kestris City news feed showing a recording of the capitol. A scoff of disgust caught in Renic’s throat. The man looked to the news vids for his intelligence when he had access to the entire government’s breadth of instant briefings.

Renic took a step forward, adding a layer of urgency to his voice. “Your Majesty, I can assure you that every measure of comfort and convenience has been taken. Your executive shuttle has been prepped and is just outside the palace now.” Renic bowed his head, voice reverent. “I promise, it will be a painless trip.”

Sevent harrumphed. How anyone could take this man seriously was beyond Renic. Whatever dignity the man held when he was coronated had long since drained away.

“Fine,” Sevent said as he stood. He gestured for the Imperial Guard to join him. “Please be sure to remember that when I am aboard any vessel, I am the highest ranking officer of both the government and military.”

Renic bowed, his marines forming a rectangular escort pattern around him, Sevent, and the three Imperial Guards. Outside the study, another ten Imperial Guard trotted toward them, assault halberds held high. The marines parted, allowing the white-and-gold guard in their elaborate uniforms to form up around their singular charge.

“I still don’t believe this is necessary,” Sevent muttered.

Renic bowed his head with exaggerated reverence. “I am certain your cooperation is appreciated, your Majesty. I will send a message to the Terminus. You will receive a welcome worthy of your position as leader of this empire.”

The statement was not a lie, though Gallow’s assessment of Sevent’s worth may differ from what the High Imperius is expecting.

Sevent stopped abruptly, his guard stutter-stepping to avoid running into him. He scowled and squinted at Renic’s uniform, speaking as one might address a butler.

Commander, once aboard, I wish to address the people. Please have my podium and decor transported as well. Full regalia. Banners. Standards. Pennants. I must appear no less inspiring than if I were here at the palace.” Sevent paused for a moment. He snapped his fingers at Humphrey. “Have my stylist brought aboard the Terminal as well. The lighting is always so dreadful on these warships.”

Renic nodded emphatically. “Of course, your Majesty. I will ensure that the ‘Terminus’ receives your exact specifications,” Renic said, nodding and correcting Sevent’s name for the ship. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Sevent snorted. He was being evacuated under the guise of credible threats to his safety, but instead of inquiring about these threats, Sevent was worried about dragging his tapestries and flagpoles into orbit so he would appear no less regal while he blathered on the vids. At least the man was consistent—hollow and meaningless to the very end.

Renic forced a smile and bowed his head again, imagining what it would feel like to strangle the life from this slovenly wart. He would inform Gallow that Sevent had resisted. That the Imperial Guard opened fire. That there was no other option than to deliver the High Imperius rolled-up in a tapestry rather than alive as requested.

Renic gave a nod to his operatives in their marine disguises, and the entire group moved forward, forced to match the speed of the plodding High Imperius.

The group exited the palace and into the courtyard where the High Imperius’s shuttle had hastily landed between a row of stone benches and decorative fountains. From here, the column of smoke could easily be seen, stretching upward from the capitol, a black scar splitting the lavender dawn sky in two. Klaxons could be heard blaring over the hidden speakers embedded in the decorative light-poles that lined the ground lanes. Overhead, emergency response vehicles violated the prohibited sky-lane restrictions as they raced toward the capitol.

Renic smirked; the rumor of additional explosive devices he had circulated to law enforcement and the news organizations would keep them occupied for some time. The smirk faded as Renic thought back to Gallow’s insinuation of having a deep network of spies and saboteurs. Maybe there were more explosives Renic had not been told about. He quickened his pace, just to be safe.

The din of the surrounding chaos was soon drowned out by the whir of the executive shuttle’s stabilizer drives. Sevent raised a hand to his face, shielding his eyes dramatically. At the front of the group, the disguised operatives parted to allow the Imperial Guard and High Imperius to walk up the gently sloped ramp. They all saluted as their passengers entered; the salutes were not returned. Renic followed last, giving the capitol compound one last scan from the top of the ramp, the final battlefield where not a shot had been fired.

Renic smoothed his uniform jacket and adjusted his cuffs as he entered the shuttle. His operatives followed, shuttle ramp receding and door swinging closed. This was the last time Renic would be lifting off from an Imperium-controlled Kestris. From an Imperium anything. For whatever it had cost Renic, both personally and professionally, they had done it. Sevent and his entourage were trapped; the crew of the shuttle had already been replaced by members of Gallow’s honor guard.

They had captured the Imperium.

Gallow’s eyes flitted back and forth across the view of his transparent, retractable vidscreen that spanned the length of his desk, taking in the real-time footage from across the empire. A slow exhalation emptied his lungs. He was watching a type of ballet—the coordinated efforts of his fleets all executing their orders precisely, dancing to a choreography that was part divine, part strategic brilliance on Gallow’s part. The Creator had willed Gallow to course-correct this tiny pocket of the universe once called the Imperium, and while this event was only a blip in the grandest scheme of existence, it was Gallow’s blip.

The vidscreen showed tactical maps of fleet movements around each of the eleven Imperium plants. His ten chosen fleet leaders had been assigned a planet to besiege, forming a spherical grid of warships around each system, stopping all incoming and outgoing travel until allegiance was pledged to President Erin Archer, first executive leader of the New Kestris Republic. Or should it be called the New Republic or Kestris? Gallow scoffed at the question. Those types of worries were the sort of frivolity Sevent cared about. Archer could call the republic whatever she wanted once the planets’ governors agreed to follow her.

The moment Gallow had received word that the High Imperius was en route to the Terminus, he’d authorized his fleet leaders to send commands to their assigned governors: pledge immediate and unconditional allegiance to President Archer and the New Kestris Republic or be forcibly removed. Some capitulated right away—specifically, those three already loyal to him he’d given advanced warning to. Two others were stalling, claiming they were not prepared to make any sort of declaration until further detail was provided. The remaining five had dug in their heels, claiming the dissolution of the Imperium rendered any claim of territorial ownership by the so-called “republic” illegitimate, and that this was a declaration of war. 

Dai’Reen, the planet known both for its opulence and taste for luxury—as well as being the empire’s leading arms supplier and location of shipyards—was being particularly obstinate. It was no matter. A single planet, no matter how well-defended, would succumb to the Terminus and Gallow’s fleets eventually. As soon as he could break orbit from Kestris in the coming weeks, the Terminus would be able to pay a visit to any planet who resisted. And after that, any planet in the Fringe who resisted assimilation as well.

Gallow smirked. The challenge was not in defeating them, but in applying only enough force to subdue without laying waste to the cities and people below. It was not yet time for total war. Besides, a new government must have people to rule. There was no point in inheriting a sector of corpses and rubble.

Real-time intelligence briefs showed the confusion was reaching its peak, for both the population of the Imperium as well as populations across the sector. Along the far edge of the screen was a text readout of newsvid reactions across the sector. The questions scrolled by: why was the Imperium Navy laying siege to its own people? Was the empire under attack from the Sellacans, or from Fringe activist groups? Had the Red Kestrels managed to secretly form a coalition that could stand up to the Imperium and its fleets? Who was the Navy protecting the planets from? All questions would be answered soon. 

A notification appeared in the upper corner of the screen. It was a simple message: the executive shuttle carrying Edwin Sevent had just cleared low-orbit and was on an intercept path with the Terminus. There was no stopping the final execution of the plan. It was on an irreversible trajectory toward its final, ordained destination. 

Gallow tapped a button on his desk and the vidscreen retracted back into its hidden slot. He stood and crossed to his bedroom, coming to a stop at the wardrobe against the wall. Its door slid aside at the press of his hand. In it hung several uniforms; his traditional Navy whites he had not worn in years, his unadorned blue uniforms, and a selection of civilian clothing he could not remember when he’d last worn. 

Gallow pushed his musings aside as he also pushed aside the uniforms of the past. Hanging in a sealed garment bag was the symbol of his future. Gone was the blue, replaced by muted gray and black, as unadorned and humble as he hoped the new republic would be. 

He gingerly lifted the bag off the hanging rod and laid it over the edge of his bed. He removed his blue, Imperium uniform and placed it next to the bag. 

It was nearly time. But first, he must prepare his mind. Soon the religion of the Creator was brought back into public discourse. Those who wished to follow would be free to do so openly, himself leading by example when he made himself head of the state religion.

“Lights, ten percent.”

 Gallow walked to the hidden door of his prayer chamber, speaking the phrase only he knew in the ancient, dead language. The pair of glowing white circles appeared on the wall. Gallow placed his hands against them and closed his eyes, willing his breath and heart rate to slow, clearing his mind. Gallow knew that if the Creator did not approve, the door would not open no matter how much he meditated. If this was not the Creator’s will, the door would not open.

A thin line, as tall as Gallow, appeared on the featureless wall, outlining the hidden doors which then slid aside. This was the Creator’s answer. An exhalation of relief escaped Gallow’s lips. He had not doubted the Creator’s will, but there was no knowing the mind of a higher power. Great people throughout history had been tested by the divine only to have their final act thwarted once they had proven their willingness to follow through. Gallow had a feeling there would be no last-second reprieve for the final deed he must commit. This was merely a confirmation.

The chamber was just as he’d left it. Kneeling pad; plain, low table used as an altar; small chest containing his most precious possessions. He knelt, the chamber’s door closing behind him, sealing him away from the Terminus, the Imperium, the entire universe.

Gallow opened the chest, pulling out the sacred items. The stuffed bear, the container of powder, and the simple military dagger that went back to Gallow’s first years in the Navy. Before his family, before their loss, before becoming who he was today.

He picked up each item and laid them on the altar with a gentleness reserved only for this ritual. He carefully removed the lid from the powder’s container and scooped a small heap of the white substance onto his fingertip, then rubbed it onto the gums beneath his upper lip.

Gallows closed his eyes and could feel the powder’s effects flow through his blood, flooding his mind, decreasing the circumference of the universe from the chamber down to just the immediate space around Gallow and the altar. Nothing but blackness surrounded him. No thoughts entered his mind, only sensation. 

Gallow’s hand drifted to the stuffed bear and he felt its fluffy texture against his palm. He pressed gently, feeling each fiber cross the ridges of his fingerprints. A warmth radiated from the toy and spread up Gallow’s arm, into his chest, throughout the rest of his body. Golden light filled his mind’s eye. There were no thoughts, only an overwhelming sensation of calm and reassurance. It was the silent approval of both his Creator, and the one person Gallow himself had created, and then lost.

Gallow slowly opened his eyes, the chamber now a bright, limitless plane of existence with no walls and no boundaries. Only sensations. Beyond the altar, he could see a figure, small and meek, standing silently in the distance, a golden aura outlining his body. Sadness crushed down on Gallow’s chest. No matter how hard he tried to focus, the figure of his son remained difficult to see, as if Gallow was watching something out of the corner of his eye that moved whenever he turned to look. 

All he could do was absorb the sensation, savor the vision, and wait. His son’s name came to his lips, but he would not speak it. Not yet. Not until he succeeded and knew that he had secured his reward. This divine gift of being reunited with his son.

An unknowable amount of time passed. Gallow had not blinked, had not moved. He let himself perceive his son’s presence, and, though he wished to communicate, to know more, to hear his son’s voice, that was not what the Creator wished. This spectral visage was all he would be allowed until he finished his task.

Just as it always did, the figure began to fade, the golden glow receding, taking him back to whatever peace he had found. The serrated farewell and loss sliced through Gallow’s mind. The pain was the price, and one he paid willingly. As long as he did what the Creator wanted, the Creator would give him these moments of refuge from his loneliness. When the time came, Gallow would join his son, also at the Creator’s will.

 Gallow raised his hand from the bear. The next inquiry was of a different nature. In order to create a new republic, the old empire must be destroyed. That charge fell on Gallow. He placed his hand on the final item—the dagger. 

He lifted the silk cloth to reveal the weapon, then placed his palm on it, just as he had with the bear, and waited. Where the bear had been warm, the metal was cold and lifeless. 

A moment passed. Then another.

Then another.

Gallow settled himself purposefully onto his heels, meditating more deeply. Yet, the dagger felt dead. No golden light, no sensations, no message. That was surprising. Gallow took another slow breath, letting his mind sink deeper. He must let go.

He sat, hand outstretched, motionless in the chamber. Slowly, the presence of the walls, the frigid floor, the Terminus around him, all began to come back into existence. The powder’s effects were waning and still no sign.

Gallow exhaled. Commander Tau would be arriving with the High Imperius soon. He must leave the chamber at some point to carry out his final task. Perhaps the lack of any sensation was the message, a contrast to the warmth, a signal that carrying out this execution of the empire was Gallow’s responsibility—and burden—to shoulder, his choice to make. The Creator’s will was unknowable.

Yes. That was what it was. As a show of faith, Gallow must be willing to act even without guidance or any divine revelation. Acting when one was filled with the spirit of the Creator was easy. Acting when one felt the cold of lifeless metal beneath their palm, that was difficult. That was why Gallow had been chosen; he was willing to do the difficult things.

The urgency of Gallow’s worldly task beckoned. Forcing his consciousness back to the surface, he grabbed the dagger by its hilt, closing his fist tightly around it. The handle bit into his skin. The Creator may not have sent him a message, but the familiar feeling of cold metal did.

He slammed the dagger back into its scabbard, then gently placed the stuffed bear and the powder container back into the chest. The dagger would not be returning to this place, today or ever.

Gallow rose, still clutching the weapon in his hand. The doors to the chamber opened back into his bedroom. He gave the small room one last look. Whatever comfort he had felt was gone. All that remained was the hollow fatigue he always felt after performing the ritual.

“Lights, full,” he said, moving to the bed where he had laid the unworn gray uniform. The republic’s uniform. It had no insignia, no medals, no adornment, meant only to focus attention on the wearer’s reputation.

Gallow removed the uniform and placed it atop the bag. Fatigue permeated his body. He pulled off his undershirt, exposing his many scars. The scars would remain, but what had once been a stone-like physique would not. Muscle was softening, slumping, shrinking. Not enough for most to notice, but to Gallow, it was an unforgivable flaw. Cellular rejuvenation could only take a body so far. Time caught up to everyone. 

He crossed to his desk and retrieved the injector with his mix of hormone boosters and stimulants. He jammed the injector into his upper chest and depressed the activator, holding it past the recommended safe dosage until it was empty. The drug flowed into his body and he dropped the expended injector back into the drawer. The drug would make all of his senses so hyperactive that the memory of today’s task would be burned into his mind forever.

The surge from the injection pulsed through Gallow’s veins. He pulled on the new uniform pants, cinching the hidden belt in the waistband. Next was the jacket. Atop each sleeve were glistening black shoulder caps, arcing over his muscles like the armor of ancient warriors, and thick around his forearms were armored bracers that matched the shoulder caps, stretching from wrist to elbow.

The hidden fastener slid silently up the center of the jacket, joining the two black-hemmed edges up to the collar that encircled Gallow’s neck. He wrapped the uniform’s thick belt around his waist, its front buckle a shining black square. Finally came the knee-high boots, polished to a mirror sheen.

Now dressed, Gallow reached into the bag and pulled out the essential item reserved only for him that finished his transformation—a cape of lustrous black fabric, it’s material flowing as if space itself had been harvested. He swung it up and over his shoulders, affixing the ends beneath the shoulder caps. The cape cascaded down his back to the top of his boot heels. He now looked the part of the ancient conqueror, fueled by purpose and guided by divine rite. 

Fleet Marshal Gallow was gone. In his place, stood… Lord Ascendant Gallow, first protector of the Republic and servant to the Creator. Yes, that is who he was now.

Gallow could feel his muscles swelling from the injection, burning away the effects of the powder, quickening his heart rate and his thinking, making everything in his vision sharp-edged and clear. He tucked the dagger into his belt, hidden beneath the cape. His expression hardened. He inhaled, puffing out his chest. Beckman Gallow, remorseful father faded away, leaving only the betrayer, the usurper, the killer, the savior.

Gallow pushed all other thoughts from his mind. He crossed his sitting room and tapped a button on his desk’s virtual control panel, connecting to Captain Alaudae.

“Captain, form up the honor guard at my quarters. Assault armor, weapons hot. It’s time to welcome our guest.”

Gallow squared his shoulders and marched toward the exit. He felt the slightest tug of resistance against his movement. A flicker of hesitation stabbed his mind. He stopped, the black fabric of the cape fluttering forward around him in its endless void.

A growl of irritation emanated from Gallow’s chest. It had just been air resistance from the cape. His eyes shifted to where the prayer chamber was hidden behind the wall. It was the air drag from the cape, something he’d need to get used to.

It was not doubt he had felt. No. This was right. This was his test.

Renic watched from the interior of the executive shuttle as the main doors slid open and the gangway extended from the exit hatch. The Imperial Guard exited first, proceeding to the hangar floor and forming a row on each side of the gangway, halberds still stiffly at their sides. The High Imperius exited his private cabin and walked to the hatch. He stopped at the top, standing silently and staring defiantly out into the hangar.

Renic nearly laughed. This was Sevent’s attempt at a power play? The fleet marshal had waited this long. A few extra seconds would not cause dismay.

The High Imperius resumed his descent, head held high as he proceeded down the carpet-lined gangway from the opulent white-and-gold shuttle onto the hangar floor. All ships had been relocated from this hangar and everyone but essential personnel barred from entrance. 

Renic stood and walked to the shuttle’s exit, stopping to watch from the top of the ramp. Only Gallow and his honor guard were there to welcome them, all dressed in the black and gray uniforms of the Republic. They stood, spread out in formation well in front of the ramp. 

The honor guard outnumbered the Imperial Guard two-to-one, and due to Sevent’s insistence on proper decorum, his own guards were instructed to always keep their eyes forward, never acknowledging anyone’s presence but his own. Otherwise they might have noticed that Gallow’s honor guard were wearing body armor beneath their uniforms, the telltale creases of the plating making the uniforms bulky. Or perhaps they did notice, but decorum prevented them from addressing Sevent directly. It didn’t matter much at this point.

Gallow stood, transcendent in his Republic uniform. Renic felt his breath catch in his injured throat as he noticed the cape flowing off Gallow’s shoulders. Even Renic was momentarily taken aback by the grandeur of the endlessly black fabric billowing around the fleet marshal.

“His Majesty, High Imperius Edwin Sevent,” the foremost Imperial Guard called out to the mostly-empty hangar. Sevent strode across the metal floor, taking in his surroundings with the same smug expression as if he were leading a parade and throngs of loving fans were showering him with praise.

Sevent stopped and spoke across the distance to Gallow. “Fleet Marshal, where is the defense minister? I was expecting to be greeted by both of you.” He sighed. “I take it the chambers have been prepared for me? I wish to address the empire. What is the status of my regalia? I was whisked away by your… your whatever, and my attendants had no chance to see that my necessary accoutrements were transported. If you insist on me being here, I must be able to run my empire unimpeded, which means all appearances must be upkept!”

Gallow smiled, clasping his hands beneath the magnificent cape. Renic continued to watch from the top of the ramp, hidden in the shadow of the shuttle’s interior as he awaited the signal. The other passengers in the shuttle, council members, minor politicians, other Imperial attendants, knew they could not disembark until the High Imperius exited the hangar. He soon would, though not as they expected. 

Gallow strode forward, cape billowing as he did. His voice rolled through the cavernous hangar like thunder. “Edwin Sevent, you are hereby placed under arrest on the authority of President Archer of the New Kestris Republic, and by me, the Lord Ascendent of the Republic, for the crimes of dereliction of duties, treason, sedition, conspiracy, sabotage, and failing to maintain the strength of this empire. You are hereby stripped of all rank, appointment, and privilege by the rights of the Office of the President.” Gallow paused, lowering his chin slightly. “And by the will of the Creator.”

Renic’s eyes narrowed. ‘The will of the Creator.’ That phrase was the signal.

He turned, nodding to the marines inside the shuttle. They all stood, leveling their bolt rifles at the passengers, barking orders to remain seated and keep their hands visible. Most of the politicians and council members complied. A few shouted in protest, demanding to know what was happening. One of the council members—a trade secretary, if Renic recalled correctly—tried to stand and exit the shuttle. The stock of a bolt rifle slamming into his cheek quieted him and the rest of the passengers. They’d chosen this line of work for the power it afforded them, not to endanger their lives playing hero. No one on this shuttle would be putting themselves in jeopardy for Sevent. Renic returned his gaze to the hangar below.

Gallow’s honor guard rushed forward, raising their weapons to the Imperial Guard. Energy blasts erupted from theirs bolt rifles, the rapid succession of bolts creating a strobe effect in the hangar, the crackling sound bouncing off the walls. Each member of Imperial Guard fell where they stood, their halberds clattering to the ground, unfired. There would be no battle, no back-and-forth volley of bolts. It was a trial and execution at the hands of—what Gallow appeared to have christened himself as—the Lord Ascendant.

The honor guard stepped over their fallen, costume-clad adversaries and encircled the former High Imperius, leveling their weapons at his chest. It was time for the final judgement.

Renic turned and faced the interior of the shuttle. “You are all being detained under order of President Archer and the New Republic of Kestris. Remain seated. This is for your own safety. You are not being charged with any crimes.” Renic grinned sardonically. “Yet. My people are authorized to use lethal force to ensure compliance and safety. There will be no other warnings.”

Renic nodded to his operatives and proceeded down the ramp. He’d delivered Sevent, and he wanted to see the task through to its end. He kept himself behind the honor guard, close enough to witness but far enough he would not be conspicuous.

The honor guard had Sevent surrounded. Gallow stood in front of him, hands still clasped behind his back, his cape flowing off his shoulders like liquid night.

“Gallow, what–what is this?” Sevent sputtered. His head jerked around, looking for an ally, finding only a wall of uniform-clad honor guard. “I am the High Imperius and I order all of you to stand down! Stand down!”

No one responded; Renic knew that feeling. Sevent’s shouts echoed in the hangar. The cries died out, replaced by an echoing whimper that faded into nothing. Sevent shook his head, his eyes darting back and forth like cornered game.

Gallow took a step forward, forcing his prisoner to take a step back. “Everything is over, Edwin. You squandered your rule. You will be remembered as the man who took an empire that emerged from a hard-fought war, a war I fought in and won for you, and nearly drove it into decay. By the Creator’s grace, I have saved it.” 

Gallow took another step forward, nearly on top of Sevent. The whimpering man attempted to step back again, only to bump against one of the immobile honor guard. Gallow leaned forward, face almost touching the High Imperius. “Know that it was the Creator’s will that ended your reign. And life.”

Gallow’s hand thrust forward from beneath the cape. Renic caught himself twitching at the movement. Sevent gurgled something unintelligible as Gallow’s arm thrust upward once, twice, three times, the muscles of his arms and chest rippling beneath the muted gray fabric.

Sevent fell to the ground with a rag-doll thump, blood beginning to soak the front of his white-and-gold robes as he wheezed out a final, breath through perforated lungs. Visible now in Gallow’s hand was a double-edged dagger, a standard-issue military weapon from decades past. The blade was slick, but the multiple, absorbent layers of fabric Sevent wore had kept Gallow’s hand free from blood. Gallow tossed the weapon to the ground next to the dead Sevent, cape gently billowing and coming to rest around him like a shroud.

Gallow closed his eyes, taking a breath, his enormous chest expanding and falling. When he opened his eyes, his face was impassive and calm. Contemplative. He nodded down at the body of Edwin Sevent, former High Imperius, current victim of Lord Ascendant Gallow.

 “Have the body and everything else incinerated immediately. The weapon as well.” Gallow waved his hand over the fallen Imperial Guard. “See that these guards are identified and pardoned, and that their bodies are returned to their next of kin. Make note that they died with honor, carrying out their duties to the end. Have their families compensated out of Sevent’s seized assets.”

One of the honor guard stepped forward. “Yes, sir. Immediately.” He nodded back to the shuttle. “The other passengers, sir?”

Gallow glanced back at the executive shuttle, a grimace on his lips. “Take them to the brig. Archer can decide how she wants to process Sevent’s regime. Political prisoners and our new judicial system are not my concern.” 

The honor guard nodded. Gallow turned and walked toward the hangar exit, the rest of his honor guard close on his heels, cape billowing behind him as he marched.

There was no celebration. No victorious cheer. Nothing. Gallow had given the disgraced High Imperius the end he deserved. Edwin Sevent would be disposed of with no fanfare, finding in death the exact opposite of what he sought in life.

Renic stepped into line behind the honor guard, walking just fast enough to catch up to Gallow at the front of the line. He had one last request. There would be no better time to approach Gallow than this moment. Forcing the memory of his own near-execution from his mind, Renic stepped to the front of the line.

Gallow spoke, unprompted. “Well done, Commander. I am pleased to see your better judgement returned to you,” Gallow said, his voice rolling out with its distant-thunder tone. 

Renic bowed his head, forcing an expression of gratitude. “Thank you, ah, Lord Ascendent. I am proud to have redeemed myself in your eyes, and I look forward to supporting the Republic with my complete allegiance.”

“I trust you will, Commander.” Gallow returned his eyes forward. Renic quickened his pace, clasping his hands behind his back as he regained Gallow’s attention.

“Sir, one request if I may?” he said, the echo of his crushed arm, throat, and ribs heavy on his mind.

Gallow stopped and pursed his lips, giving Renic a near-imperceptible nod.

“Thank you, sir. If I have served you as required, I would like to return to the surface and resume my proper duties as Commander of the Naval Special Investigation Division, my priority being to secure the former Imperium intelligence community and to quarantine all yet-to-be processed assets.”

Gallow’s head tilted, eyebrows lowering as if he had misheard the bland request. “Granted, Commander. See to it,” Gallow said, his bemused disinterest unhidden.

“Thank you, Lord Ascendent,” Renic said, bowing.

Gallow shook his head as he strode away, honor guard in tow. Renic turned, a wry grin on his face. He’d had enough of the Terminus. The thought of commanding the Naval Special Investigation Division unimpeded by Gallow’s eye bolstered his mood. A legitimate posting, his own division to lead, resources and power at his disposal, no more errand-running and thankless black-ops. Renic was the master of his own concerns now, and his first concern was paying a visit to his former agency for their final reckoning.

Samantha might have slipped out of his reach, but that did not mean revenge had.