by Daniel Ksenych
"The meet goes down tonight."
Bran hands the dossier across the table to Galahad and continues.
"We've conducted some auric surveillance on him, ran a few dream traces. Our rough archetypography suggests a strong Warrior arcana."
Galahad looks up from the plain brown folder. The sheets of paper inside are covered in cipher. Bran has scattered some aetheric chaff around their table in the coffee shop -- no one can hear them speak unless Bran wills it -- but Galahad still responds quietly.
"I'll expect a fight."
Bran's eyebrows furrow slightly, his mouth tightens. He sips his coffee, clears his throat.
"Command expects one, Galahad ... "
And he knows what's coming.
"... the orders are for termination."
His breathing slows and the darkness behind his eyelids unfolds into a deeper blackness, more vast, like the space between stars. He sends a shape into part of his mind, feels it begin to hum.
He feels the part of his mind relax and begin to stretch out into the darkness.
Jonah is asleep and dreaming, but he's learned never to sleep too deeply. He hears someone enter the room. He tries to stay cool, sits up quickly, snatching his fetish from under the pillow, brandishing it menacingly. The figure is standing at the foot of the bed, unflinching. Jonah recognizes him.
"Oh, Galahad. It's you."
"I've got something on tonight. I could use a reading."
Jonah lights a candle and some incense. They help him relax. It's no problem doing a quick spread of the cards; it's Galahad that makes him nervous. Jonah fishes his deck out of his satchel and begins to shuffle.
"Y'know Galahad, I ran another astral search on your ID last week." Jonah's not sure he should be sharing this, but when he's nervous he can't stop blabbing. "No one's talking. You must be working seriously deep cover, huh?
"C'mon Galahad, we've worked on and off for a year now. What's your story?"
Thirteen years ago, Alexander is standing in the burnt-out warehouse with Bran and Celeste. He is seventeen years old and for the last three he has been an apprentice operative for Terra Infirma. Everything is about to begin for him.
Celeste tells him that he has passed the required rites of initiation and that he is being promoted to field agent. She says he can now choose his name. Command has performed the necessary divinations and they have determined his posting. As a field agent he will have no more contact with Terra Infirma; nor will he have any close ties outside the group. He will report only to Bran, his liaison officer.
He will miss his few friends, his tactical sorcery instructor Hermes, even Sanford, who oversaw his pain training. But he is proud and excited.
He has heard stories about Bran. One of TI's oldest operatives, though he looks no more than thirty. Bran is smiling at him. So is Celeste.
Galahad smiles back.
"So who're you working for? A Guildmage?" Jonah keeps shuffling, trying to lighten his tone. "Angels? Demons?" His chuckle sounds self-conscious.
Galahad turns from the window, the silver moonlight on his face shifting to the yellow-orange of the candle flame. Jonah stops shuffling.
"Depends if I've had my morning cup of coffee."
Jonah slouches slightly with relief when he sees Galahad smirk. He lays out the first card.
"The Janus Blade. You're of two minds about tonight. Or is it trust? You don't trust me?"
"I don't give you that much thought."
"Uh... OK. Well, next card. The Sanguinary Well. Whatever you're up to tonight there's going to be bloodletting. Lots of it.
"And you can trust me on that."
Seven years ago, Galahad and Bran are standing in an alley. They have the three rogue sorcerers cornered. Galahad has his pistol out, Bran is standing casually with his arms folded. They're running a low-grade enchantment to make their voices echo slightly, for effect.
"Omar. Skitz. Krieger." Bran is letting them know that he knows their names, knows who they are. "You have been charged with unsanctioned use of the Prima Ecclesia. We order you to surrender yourselves into our custody."
Omar grins. Skitz's tattooed face tenses in concentration. Krieger gives their answer.
Bran smiles. "All the better."
Skitz starts chanting. A stiletto, rune-engraved, appears in Omar's hand. Galahad squeezes the trigger. Omar begins to spring forward as Skitz's head caves in, blood misting the air. Bran suddenly shifts his posture, assuming his casting stance.
Omar is fast, enhanced somehow, and he's almost on them and Galahad can't get a bead on him. The stiletto darts out, but Galahad hears Bran utter a linguistic-sigil and watches as a fractal pattern of red flame swallows Omar's head.
Krieger is running before Omar starts screaming. Bran glances at Galahad. Sight the target, squeeze the trigger.
The air in the alley smells of gunpowder, blood, and burnt flesh. Galahad looks at the three corpses. His shoulders slump as he runs a hand through his hair.
"Shit Bran, I'm not cut out for this."
He feels something connect in the vast darkness. The channel is open. He sounds out the access mantras and feels a pulse in his mind. Access granted. He visualizes the security mandala. Channel secured.
He folds the part of his mind into a particular shape.
Requesting Celeste's private line.
Galahad sits on the edge of his bed. His gun is cleaned and loaded. He has run through his forms and activated a routine spell that heightens his senses.
He has done all this so many times before. He feels tired, doesn't want to do this. He has his orders.
Two years ago, Bran sits beside Galahad on the park bench.
"How're you doing, Bran?"
"Fine. The Brotherhood hit?"
"What's the matter, Galahad?"
"I'm... tired, Bran. That's all."
"We all get tired."
They sit for a time.
"Mr. Still contacted me, Bran. Made me an offer. Light surveillance, low-level disinformation, occasional magical support. I... thought you should know."
"Turn over my contacts with Terra Infirma."
He feels Celeste out there, in the darkness. He thinks to her.
It seems our doubts about our agent are warranted. He's going over tonight.
Tonight. Galahad arrives at the warehouse, walks up the steps, gently pushes open the door. The man standing inside is dressed in a suit, his head shaved clean. One of his eyes is silver. He is not the man Bran sent him to meet.
"Hello Mr. Still... "
Mr. Still smiles. He is not alone.
"... Hello, Bran."
Galahad looks at Bran, his only contact with Terra Infirma for thirteen years. His only ally, his only friend.
Earlier tonight, Galahad watches Jonah draw the last card. The Iron Gallows. Jonah tells him it signifies betrayal.
Two years ago, sitting on the park bench, Bran tells Galahad not to worry. Mr. Still makes that offer to everybody.
And right before he left, on Bran's orders, to come to this meeting, Galahad hears Celeste in the darkness of the psi-comm trance telling him that she will order Bran's termination.
No. I'll do it. Just send back-up.
Bran looks at Galahad and can tell he isn't surprised.
"You knew... and you came anyway."
"I have my orders."
Mr. Still asks, "Well, Bran?"
Galahad can see how tired Bran looks, how old he feels. How hard he is fighting to keep back an apology.
"He's all yours, Still."
Mr. Still's Shadowguard deactivate their cloaking glyphs. A tearing sound echoes throughout the warehouse and suddenly eight soldiers are standing behind Mr. Still and Bran. Their black body armor is coated in a resin that distorts light; their forms flicker and blur. Their rifles are powered by alchemical batteries; the tips of the barrels emit a faint, phosphorescent glow.
Galahad is staring at Bran.
The Terra Infirma tactical squad makes the hyper-dimensional jump, materializing behind Galahad. Their teleport spell is coded with strategic infiltration wards; enchantments that render the Shadowguard's armor and weapons inert. The six operatives draw their guns and attack.
Bran is staring at Galahad.
The Shadowguard lose four soldiers to gunfire before they can close distance and go hand-to-hand. Mr. Still is the first one shot.
Galahad draws his gun.
The TI agents are trained in a style of martial arts whose forms, when combined with specific mantras, generate a neurological scattering field around their opponents. The Shadowguard soldiers suddenly find it very hard to think, and the agents descend on them.
Bran enters his casting stance. His larynx contracts, his mouth opens.
Galahad sights the target. And squeezes the trigger.
"Good work, Galahad, you bagged a traitor. Expect a medal."
The tactical squad is preparing for the return jump to TI Base Delta. Galahad is staring at Bran's body, the blood leaking from his head.
"For now, return to your safehouse..."
Galahad holsters his pistol and starts walking to the door.
"... and await further orders."
Story copyright © 1999 by Daniel Ksenych <firstname.lastname@example.org>