By Misfire Anon
Yes, I was the one to send him off to Relay 314. We held the ceremony in the morning, Parting of the Fleet, stiff salutes and a glass of farewell before the chorus. Pretty good for a rapid deployment, I can tell you that. I know that’s not what you came here for. Just hold on.
The night before, we were all camped out near the spaceport. Everything was ready to go – I’d just made sure of that about ten minutes beforehand. There was a shipment of UAVs that somehow got lost en route, and it took us the better part of an hour to track it. Turned out there’d been a misunderstanding at the gate. I had to personally resolve the issue, since that particular shipment included some incredible biometric sensors, and the lab we ordered them from went haywire with panic. We sorted it out, though.
Anyway, I was walking back to the cabin when I saw Desolas – General Arterius – out and about, as well. Could barely catch his silhouette in that black cloak. He was coming from the direction of a whole village of camped-out soldiers. Someone got lucky tonight, I thought. So I debated whether or not to greet him. I did, in the end. I walked up to him and called out his name.
Of course it wasn’t him. But you knew that already.
Desolas never talked about his brother much, and I had never met him in person, either — before that night. Naturally, it was as obvious to me as it would be to you that they were blood.
“I’m not Desolas,” he said.
“Apologies.” I searched my mind in vain. A name. Had Desolas ever dropped a name? I’d forgotten. The drumming of my fingers on my pistol helped me focus, try to remember.
“Saren.” He coughed nervously. Or perhaps it was because the night was cold. “Saren Arterius, sir.”
“Going to see Desolas?”
“Yes.” He paused. “Don’t worry about it. I get that a lot.”
Now that I could look beneath the hood, it was startling to see the differences – a slightly shorter face, mirror eyes – but there were so many similarities that they may as well have been the same person. I felt a bit better about myself. I’d worked with Desolas for over two years by then.
“I’m retiring for the night,” I said with a smile. “Let’s head there together.”
Sometimes you look back on things and you can only cringe. Of course we would head there together. Desolas and I shared the same prefab. There was no reason not to. I promptly blamed it on the stress of preparing two divisions in as many days. Along with the usual headache that was working with the cabal representatives. And I could catch a glimpse of cloth under the hood of his cloak.
Saren didn’t say anything. In the years after, I’d grow accustomed to that, but back then I fancied myself a good judge of character and thought that Saren had a particularly shy disposition. I let him be. The glare of the floodlights blocked any view of the moon, so I took the time to see if there were others about. As far as I could tell, we were alone.
When we got there, Desolas was waiting.
“Saren,” he said by way of greeting, as if receiving a friend rather than a brother. “Baratus. The shipment…”
“Taken care of. Ilaius almost died of anxiety.” I tried to make light of the atmosphere. I didn’t know why, but even the floodlights seemed to have dimmed, and the night was silent.
“I only just heard about it. I’m glad it’s not serious.” Indeed, there was a datapad on the table, tracking high-level messages from the camp chatter. There were also two swords.
“But you’ll have to excuse me,” Desolas continued, standing up now. He was only in his underarmour, yet he looked as if he intended to head out, a sword in each hand. “I’ll be quick.”
I raised an eye ridge. “At this hour?”
“No better time.”
He did go out, passing Saren on the way. I was able to see the exact moment when he tossed one of the swords – steel edge, not by any means light – and Saren caught it in a reverse grip, switching to a forward grip with an easy swing of the wrist, missing my table by centimetres. I followed.
They didn’t go far. Only to the half-light behind one of the camp’s major arrays. A wind was picking up; I was glad I’d taken an extra jacket. Saren, however, dropped his cloak. I was expecting something strange underneath, like a cabal uniform, but he was in the standard-issue set.
He paused to scratch his ear. Then, I realised he was pulling out something vaguely wet and metallic. I looked away.
“I know you don’t mind,” Saren said, broadcasting his voice over the wind. “It’s for me.”
“Take your time,” Desolas replied.
I’ve held myself back long enough. “What is this about?”
“A bit of relaxation.” But there was a light inside his eyes I can’t describe.
“You’re leaving tomorrow.”
I had to stand aside, because Saren approached now, his amps safe in a case buried among the folds of his cloak. He held an unsheathed sword.
“It’s been a long time,” he said haltingly.
I mistook it for shyness again.
“It has.” Desolas drew his own weapon, looked at it, the keen edge and the worn grip. And then he looked up with a smile. Just like yours. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”
“If you are.”
I knew the cabals trained their own with a variety of methods, but I was curious. Were their duelling skills up to par? This was a perfect test. They were almost identical, after all. I was slightly bothered by my own thoughts, but chose not to dwell. Because in the mean time, they’d stepped closer to the ready position, blades crossed, knuckles almost touching.
Saren whispered something, Desolas whispered something back. Then, it began.
I couldn’t catch the movements of their bodies very well – it was dark, and they were quick – but I could see every silver arc slice the air. Desolas had excellent form. I’d sparred with him myself, on occasion; I knew his style.
This wasn’t his style at all.
Instead of the metallic reverberations you’d catch at most gyms, the jarring clang of steel on steel, there was the sound of swooping blades, barely masked by the night wind. Neither of them parried often. They only sought to out-reach, out-circle, and, I finally realised, out-smart the other.
I didn’t know what kata it was – you probably do. Only that it was not taught when it very well should’ve been. Every one of those one-armed swings could easily remove a limb, a fringe blade, and they were going faster and faster. Sometimes, they were even back-to-back, blades crossed, and other times they walked calmly around each other. I’d catch reflections of Saren’s silver eyes every so often. Predatory eyes. They would look all over, trying to find the smallest opening, but he’d be denied because Desolas would always break the truce and dive at his brother.
I eventually found some patterns, and I judged Desolas to be the better of the two. It looked as if he had more of a grip on the basics; he was steadfast even in the midst of that whirlwind of blades, whereas Saren had a few staple moves, and many more experimental ones that didn’t have much effect.
Until he pulled out a good one.
He parried Desolas’ down swing and somehow redirected it to the side; there was the sliding of metal on metal for a second too long and it grated on my ears. Desolas returned with a sweep towards his legs. Saren went for his neck.
And then he froze.
Desolas’ sword was at Saren’s thigh, and if he’d continued the stroke, Saren would not have made it to 314. But I could see blood flow down and drench the collar of Desolas’ shirt.
“Saren!” I shouted.
He turned slowly. Only his head; nothing else. His sword arm was perfectly still. Desolas, on the other hand, dropped his weapon, stirring up a puff of dirt. You’re nodding. You understand what I mean.
“You got me,” Desolas said, and pushed the blade aside. “Well done, Saren.” And when Saren still refused to respond, he sighed and took the sword from him, gently, and dropped it beside his own.
Only then did Saren react. “I didn’t mean it.”
“I believe you,” Desolas said. He was patting his brother’s back, sort of like this. “You’d have to do better than that when you do mean it,” he chuckled.
“I’m used to—“
“I believe you,” Desolas repeated. And that was the end of it.
That’s not the end of it. Not exactly. But what remains, I think, is less important than first impressions.
A week after they erected the monument at the Temple site, I asked him to spar with me. Two months after that, I recommended him for the Spectres. And you know the rest.
Wait. Don’t go yet.
There is one other thing.
Before he left for Spectre evaluation, he entrusted this to my keeping. It’s served me well over the years, though I never did manage to master that elusive kata.
I’d like you to have it, Nihlus.