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Dies Irae

Fire in space flows like water. It laps and curls and licks in all directions, consuming whatever substance it can in the brief ecstasy of ignition before whipping out of existence leaving a thin fug of carbonized nebula. Ulric could see all his ancestors in the heart of the firestorm, every one of them for an instant eternity as the furnace-flower grew and spiraled.

Faces became sparks and fireballs and blooming incandescent shapes boiling past him, visions in energy and light. Scenes of destruction, scenes of tragedy, as if the whole war had been made incarnate - a theater inferno to play out the brutal history of his life...

He watched in paralyzed horror as he fell into the heart of the maelstrom, reds turning orange turning white turning blue as he was impelled through the cataclysm towards its center, the impossible sounds of the firestorm rending his ears until he could take no more.

And all at once, as Ulric closed his eyes to shut out the fury, there was silence and he was alone. He sat at the head of a great hall. He looked about him - the high walls, vaulted roof and palatial decoration stretched hundreds of feet into the air and on either side. Ulric stared into the distance where through a sweet-smelling mist of incense he could barely make out the end of the room, closed by massive ornate doors. His own seat seemed high and at the focal point of this gothic vestibule.

Seated congregation-like at benches and pews from the distant far end to the front of the hall were a multitude of people. It seemed at once strange yet obvious that as he looked upon each one, no matter how distant, he could perceive their faces as if they were at his side. And like the inferno, dead or alive they were all here.

At the back, his mother. The traditional white locks of clan Andromedeus falling about her shoulders, the black veil hiding her features from view. His foster-sister, still bearing the marks on her face of the wrath of the Keepers. MaKi Chui-soi, the huge silent Solesian warrior who had been his personal instructor and confidant of clan andromedeus until the day he took a splinter-dart through the shoulder blades that had been meant for Bellmont himself. And Ilia, the sweet rivers of her red hair framing her pale skin and eyes that were the very mirrors of her beautiful green homeworld where they had first met...

The procession of faces went on. Past lovers. Friends, comrades at arms, Rino Svet, the impossibly young pilot who had sacrificed himself diving into the bridge of a destroyer that his squadron might escape. Diarmid McIver with his radiation-scarred features... generals, admirals, ensigns.... Ulric began to realize that there were far more people to look upon than the hall could hold. As his eyes searched he found people he'd never met, and yet instinctively knew their names and the stories of their lives. Aran Mig, the farmer from drydoon who'd been travelling home from the MonMarten tradefair and seen from afar the blossoming energy of gunfire from his ranch and known that instant that his family were dead - Kitha Gregor, a nurse from the 21st Treadway Station, tears running down her cheeks as she'd tended the radiation burns of teenage boys calling themselves fighter pilots...

Although he could perceive all these details in sharp focus, his eyes roved about the crowd ever quicker, growing aware of an expectation in them all, a need for him to do something, to complete something... Suddenly he was aware that he was holding something in his clenched right fist. The desire to know what it was strong, but something in the back of his heat was nagging at him to keep his fist closed. The more he wanted to open his hand, the more he became convinced that what it held was too dire to let escape.

As he sat looking at his fist , the fear became pain, and the pain became agony. Whatever he was holding was burning through him. he sweated and trembled and grasped his right arm with his left, and just as he began to think that he should die right here holding this terrible thing, he glanced once more at the sea of faces... And as his eyes flicked from one to the other, each in turn gave him an almost imperceptible nod. A reassurance from a million hearts.

So he opened his hand, and there was the inferno. The phoenix flower rose about him and consumed him in its fury, and the pain became more than pain, the light more than light until he understood the both of them and the power and the light and the pain blurred into one. As the people rose to their feet, blanched by the incandescence and every one of them smiling with a heartfelt satisfaction.

He knew now not to be afraid - for he ''was'' the firestorm...

... A rush of air that he thought might kill him turned out to be his own grating breath against the musty pillows. Something was gripping him, incessantly worrying him... "Ulric. Wake up. Youre dreaming again". The burly warrior was shaking his shoulder and glaring at him. "Hells teeth boy, you've a shout that'd raise Lucan himself."

Ulric pawed the sheets aside and rubbed his eyes, putting a hand to his chest to feel his still pounding heart. "Sorry Reus. Hope I didnt wake you..." the large man stood, stooping slightly in the confined spaces of the officer's quarters "it's as well you did, lad..." He paced over to the terminal on the far wall. Something was obviously amiss - Reus twined and played with his beard in that pensive way that demarked any occasion he confronted that did not involve unarmed combat to the death.

"The keepers are here, Ulric. They want to see you." he said without turning. "Do you think..." Ulric swung his legs out of the bunk and rubbed his face. "Maybe so, Reus. Maybe it's time at last." Reus's grizzled face fell noticeably at this. "ah Ulric. 'S a sad day when we lose you to those snakes." Ulric got up from the bunk and moved to pour some Spani Juice from the flask at the table. Reus turned to face him, "you know you will have no more loyal servant than I when..." he glanced about the room, this huge man afraid to utter these simple words aloud - "...when you become emperor " he hissed.

Ulric glanced over the rim of the glass. "Youd think by the way you mourn that I'm shipping out to the kaladar mines! Does it pain you so, old friend? Have I not been prepared? You think me unready for the task perhaps?". Reus grinned ear-to-ear, his barrel chest swelling and making him look even more a caricature of some archaic warlord. "Hephaestus himself couldn't have forged Antares a better sword. Where you walk people will follow. You must meet the Keepers, they're docking now."

He clapped Ulric on the shoulder, flashing the war-god grin again before striding out of the room. Ulric tossed down the rest of the drink and had begun to prepare himself when Reus poked his head round the door one last time - "...and this would be a dress occasion, boy, so I'll see some spit-and-polish on your brass! Now shift it!"

Nerving himself against his fears, Ulric signaled at the door to the captain's chambers. The mechanism hissed and the great bulkhead swung upwards to reveal a simple room with a desk and chairs, the captain seated behind the desk, and in front of him...

The captain stood and snapped a salute - "Commander Tovengard," there was a slight tremor in his voice which Ulric has never heard before "...these men request an audience, their security request identification checks out at the... uh.. Highest level.."

The two shadowed figures rose and turned to face him. Both were almost identical, their gaunt features taut over sharp bones - the faces of men who wish to forget, but must remember everything. Ulric marveled at their pale countenances, their single bleached-white top-locks that crowned their otherwise shaven heads and their dark cloaks. Something about the demeanor of the pair suggested faintly that one should be extremely polite to them or suffer something unspeakable involving knives.

"Captain. I think it would be best if we were left alone." "As you wish, Commander," the captain left his desk and made for the door, glancing back at Ulric briefly before deciding that discretion was the better part of duty. The door hiss-clicked and shut behind him.

"Marius Lucan Andromedeus..." intoned one of the men in a voice which quietly filled the room. Ulric flinched slightly. "I know very well the burden which I bear, Anaeus. Spare me your dogma." the thin man bristled "your contempt for your family is most unbecoming, Marius... have the Keepers failed you so badly that I shall have to execute my utmost directive?" Ulric snarled at him "you forget yourself, Keeper..." Anaeus simply gazed back at him for a long moment with the faintest hint of a smile.

Ulric's mood broke and his face softened. "I'm surprised it took you so long to track me down, Anaeus. Getting slow in your old age?". The evocator smiled at him, a thin humorless expression "the slow knife cuts deepest, Marius. We are patient. You know why we have come?"

Ulric took the captain's seat behind the desk, and the two robed men sat down also. "Yes. I suspected it might be soon." Anaeus leaned forward, hands on the desk - "what are your intentions, Marius? You know the double destiny we hold over you... if you would be emperor then the time is now. If you have not yet tired of your childish games of hide and seek..." the silence formed the required images of swift flashing pain...

Ulric sighed and closed his eyes. He was not afraid to die, but he was not enamored of the task that lay ahead. For years he had lived with this schism. His loyalty to his family was paramount, to Antares, unquestionable. But the years of training, education and preparation had soured him against his destiny as they would have any young boy being taught against his will and he had eventually simply fled with only his trusted companion Reus, formerly Gustavus Reus Haitius, son of the infamous general Atrus Haitius of Ixion. Together they had enlisted as regular crew and lost themselves in the Antarean war machine.

He had reveled in those days. There was nothing to trouble him but the rush of combat and the thrill of war. He had hidden from the heavy fate which hung over him for almost ten years - but he had never forgotten it. He was not other men. He was not even himself. He had been living as Ulric Tovengard. Pilot, captain, commander, warrior. The friends he had made and lost and the things he had seen had hardened him into the Antarean Empire's greatest commander. The battle of Halifax had seen him return to Laguna a hero throughout the empire. From that moment he was chaff on the breeze of history. Borne along with such violence that he could never return to the life of a simple soldier, to the city of Seca on the grassy shores of his beautiful adopted homeworld, to Ilia and their apartment over the bay...

He screwed his emotions into a tight black ball and pushed them to the bottom of his soul. There was the work of gods to be done. "I'll not discredit you, Anaeus. I'll be your damned emperor, and the whole league will shake with my name." he realized that his right fist was clenched hard. "Forgive my flight, old friend. I know what it cost you and I am truly sorry. I have tasted my freedom. Now I am ready." he rose to his feet.

Anaeus leaned back and peered up at him. "Dont be so bitter, Marius. Antares needs a warrior emperor once more. The interminable politicians have been selling pieces of Antares for too long. I fear they have become fonder of their subsidies than the Federation. Indeed I believe that should a new emperor come to power and the old laws be restored, a few of them may even find that they're suddenly regarded as... rather treasonous." he smiled the thin smile again, this time obviously more heartfelt.

Ulric couldnt help but smirk along with this comment. There were a few, definitely who could be brought down a notch. But he held a healthy respect for freedom of speech, even in those whose speech was noisome and obnoxious. "Therell be none of your long knives, jephut-kai. The object of war is peace, no matter how fiercely you fight. Treachery breeds treachery".

Anaeus folded his arms indignantly "we are in for a rough ride with such a paradigm of morality at our helm, no doubt. Come. We must leave at once for Antares."

As the suspended bulk of the Dawn Star receded behind them, Ulric looked out upon the luminescent world of Laguna for the last time. Ulric was no more. From this day forth he was Marius Lucan Andromedues XVI, emperor of Antares, Grand-Legate of the Imperial Navy.

Although the federation didn't know it yet, it was about to become an empire again. There were battles to be fought and blood to be shed, grudges to avenge and retribution to be sought. A smile grew upon his face as he relished the conflict to come. For all his talk of peace, he was a warrior, and had just been given the ultimate weapon - power. In many years he would look back upon himself on this day and curse himself for how he felt, cry shame upon himself for his bloodlust and his vengeance.

Because in his heart he ''was'' the firestorm.