"The Length of a Chain | Part I"
"Jolyon, my man," Uldren Sov whispers, "you and I are going to take the Black Garden."
"Oh yeah?" Jolyon Till the Rachis, famous among Crows, sniper, scout, and teller of tales, lies full-sprawl prone at Uldren's side. The scrubbed-down length of a Supremacy rifle, snugged against his shoulder, nearly doubles his height. "I heard you and I were gonna float Saturn in a bathtub."
"I'm serious, Jol."
"And you'll be dead serious if you go to Mars, har-dee-har-har. Target range 2,900 meters. Wind and rotation?"
"Wind 21 kph from your three o'clock. You are two degrees off spin-north. I'm going, though, I really am. You've got to come! You'll never live it down if you miss this one."
"I'll never live anything down if I'm dead! Shot ready."
"Send it," Uldren says. The Supremacy booms and kicks into Jolyon's shoulder. Uldren doesn't even bother to check that it's a bull's-eye. "You've been with me on all the big ones, Jol. I can't do it without you. Besides—" He opens his hand to reveal the ejected cartridge, snatched from midair, cobra quick. "If we don't do it, some Guardians will, and the next thing you know, Mara will be inviting them in to do Crow work."
Jol rolls onto his right flank to regard Uldren. The Master of Crows grins his winningest; Jolyon Till the Rachis squints and slaps the mag release one-handed. Uldren catches it. "You're a lot like your sister," Jolyon sighs, "except that when she plays dirty, she doesn't smile so big."
"I got all the charm in the family." Uldren waits patiently for Jol to work the bolt and eject the chambered round. He usually wins this little game—usually—but sometimes Jol surprises him. "Nobody's ever been inside the Garden. Imagine what we'll find."
"They're all nameless when nobody's named them, Jol! Nobody's ever been! Isn't that enticing?"
"No. Because your sister's forbidden it, Uldren."
"That," he says, cheerfully, "is how I know it's worth doing." And because the Awoken people will thrill at another tale of his narrow survival. Mara's never really understood how much heroes matter to people. A Queen is an indispensable thing; but a hero, now, you know what he wants, when he's lost, when he's won.
"The Length of a Chain | Part II"
Their departure is meant to be secret. "Nobody will turn out," he assures Jol. "We'll slip away at zenith. By the time anyone catches on, we'll be aerobraking into Meridian Bay!"
"You're insufferably cocky," Jol says, "and by the time we go, the whole city will know you're up to something."
"They will not."
When they set out for their ship, they find the promenades and galleries aswarm with cheering throngs of Uldren's fans and followers. He waves and waves, turning, grinning, in a better mood than he will maybe ever be again. And if one dark mote burns within him, it is the fear and certainty that these people love him only because he is closest to their Queen. Do they ever ask themselves why he's constantly breaking her rules? Why he always ventures so far from her?
He wants his sister's approval. He knows and accepts that. But he wants her approval for something she did not anticipate, did not plan or foresee, and did not account for: he wants her to thank him with surprise.
If you hurl yourself away from someone to test the length of your chain, you cannot know the chain's length until it draws you short. Does that make sense? Uldren thinks so. Uldren is afraid so. Either he is truly free of his sister—free to choose to stand at her side, to choose of his own free will—or the chain is longer than he has managed to run.
"At the Gate | Part I"
Give Uldren Sov the chance to torment a Guardian, and he will take it faster than you can shout, "Rasputin shot the Traveler," an opinion he lobs into Guardians' minds whenever he can. He hates the Traveler's horseflies the way anyone would hate an infant godling issued with coloring-book morality and a whining, know-nothing paperweight; they are self-righteous, cocksure, callously instrumental intruders in a system they don't need to understand. He hates that most: the ability to move through the world without caring about how it works.
So he's done everything to Guardians he can think of—shot them up, shot them down, sent them on doomed quests, dunked their Ghosts in intolerably stinky selenophenol, drilled holes to bury their obnoxious patrol beacons inside solid rock, tricked them into disassembling mighty weapons.
But every time he gets into a gunfight, he wonders what it must be like to do this without any sheer raving terror.
"Jolyon!" he hisses, as the Goblin downslope lobs another slap grenade his way. "Jolyon, where are you?"
The grenade detonation pops Uldren's ears and pushes ozone up his sinuses so hard that he sneezes. The Goblin fires at the sneeze. Glassy shards of melted sand ricochet off his cover and shatter into chiming airbursts. He is three hundred meters upslope. Guardians, armored Cabal, and fearless Vex may fight at point-blank range; mere mortals still hang back so far they can barely see their targets. The infernal thing about Vex is that they teleport. Uldren's not sure if he's pinned down by ten Goblins or one.
A bullet cracks past.
"At the Gate | Part II"
Radiolarian fluid splashes on the sand. "I got it," Jolyon radios, breathless, "but I'm pretty sure I also got made."
Confirmation arrives in a fusillade of Cabal mortar shells, smart munitions that home in on the sound of the rifle shot. Usually the Cabal do not waste them against Vex. Some Centurion must be eager to use her toys on a target that won't teleport away. Uldren sucks air in relief when Jolyon clicks his transmit switch to signal he's OK.
Uldren gets up, panting. He can just see the gate to the Garden. Everyone knows where it is, sure, it's just getting inside that's the trick—
The air blurs. A roiling cloud of vacuum flux blocks his view, and then, in a blast of discharge, a Vex Minotaur strides into existence. Uldren curses, throws a jamming grenade, and runs.
"There has got to be a better way to do this," he gasps. "Any ideas?"
"Only the one you don't like. Thread the Gate with a ship coming in at Mach 20."
"The Gate's not active! Even if we made it through the Cabal guns, we need to trick the Vex into opening the door!"
"That means killing a Gate Lord with just our personal weapons—"
"No, it doesn't," Uldren breathes. "I have a princely idea." This is what Uldren lives for. Skittering past death, brushing its whiskers, leaping away from that toothy maw. "Break contact. We need stealth now. Then we need to pick a few unfortunate targets…"
"Through the Gate"
They crawl belly-down across the Martian desert like worms. Active camouflage ponchos break up their outlines. The roaming Cabal Harvesters growl on the horizon. For the last eight hours, Jolyon has been picking off Cabal infantry with his rifle, fleeing the eruption of automatic counterfire. Uldren has listened on cracked battlenets as mightier weapons are invoked and brought to bear. The war machine is now inflamed, swollen with outrage.
Jolyon touches Uldren's ankle. Fingertips drum out code. How far?
"Fifty meters," Uldren whispers. "If the Vex know we're here, they haven't—"
The air prickles. Subsonic groans of power stir in the sand. Something mighty awakens above them. "Never mind," Uldren mutters. The Vex have now reacted.
He throws off his poncho, rising with revolver and deflection grenade in his fists, screaming challenge. Jutting from the Martian desert before them is the canted, fringed hoop that is the Black Garden's Gate, huge enough to swallow a Fallen Skiff. It thrills with infinite energy.
Out of that aperture emerges the behemoth silhouette of a Vex Gate Lord, metal and mind crashing together, self-assembling, ready to defend this secret place. The Vex are born here, in the sense of baptism: consecrated to the service of some terrible purpose that the machines found within.
"Hey, big guy!" Uldren shouts. "Over here!!"
Calmly, carefully, Jolyon Till the Rachis begins to fire his rifle straight up into the sky. The reports of the Supremacy's huge cartridges spill out across the dunes.
The Gate Lord towers above them. Uldren whoops and hip-fires a couple rounds into the sand at its feet. "Can you dance, sir?" he bellows. "Have you got the footwork?"
Inside the Vex entity, there are mighty algorithms constructing a model of this merely temporal place, calculating potential threat, weighing the utility of weapons discharge against the good that power might do elsewhere. This computation is the only reason Uldren's still alive.
The bone mic tuned to Cabal tactical channels wakes up at Uldren's throat. They have localized the sound of Jolyon's rifle and are responding. He hollers up at the Vex behemoth and starts to jig. "It's going to rain on Mars! It's monsoon season in Meridian Bay! Did you see the forecast?"
He grabs Jol by the hand and pulls. Together they sprint toward the Gate Lord and its charge. The Vex machine must know what's coming—but it has to weigh the certainty of Cabal against the tiny possibility of these microbiotic motes slipping into the Gate.
The Gate Lord raises a weapon to obliterate them.
They skid into the Gate's threshold, and Uldren activates the deflection grenade so hard he nearly breaks his thumb. A perfect sphere of topologically defective space-time blinks into being around him. He holds Jolyon close, and together they calm their breath. The barrier is impenetrable, but it will not last long. Until then there is only so much air to breathe.
Outside, the full fury of a Cabal fleet carrier lands on the Gate Lord.
When the barrier fades, the Gate Lord is dead, and Uldren and Jolyon are no longer on Mars.
"In the Garden"
Uldren and Jolyon huddle together, shivering beneath a canopy of white tongues. The rain pours down. Uldren can't tell where it comes from, exactly—somewhere up in the green mist? But the rain falls and falls; and he and Jolyon turn their heads up to drink, here at the bottom of a chasm between two flower fields, where the Garden's immaculate surface divides into tropical fetor.
"Everything grows here," Jolyon mutters. "Look at your nails."
Uldren studies his hand. He has a dreadful image of his fingernails developing into tight down-curved loops that curl around back into his fingers, completing a hideous circuit to their root. It's awful and yet it's wonderful, in a transgressive way, in a newborn-screaming way. It speaks to him of new and secret things happening here. "They're dirty," he says, "but I trust you'll forgive me on that account. Rain's not letting up. Shall we move?"
"Aye." Jolyon hauls himself up with a fistful of slithering vines. They try to coil around his wrist. Tiny teeth shaped like letters saw at his skin. He stares at them, starts to say something, and jerks his arm away.
"Are you all right?"
"For now," Jolyon mutters. "For now."
They move down the length of the chasm, green mist swirling overhead, ankle-deep in a wet compost of flower petals and rich black soil. Wide, flat beetles with arching horns wrestle in the earth. Uldren flips one on its back. The beetle has no interior: seen from below, it is just a hollow shell. Jolyon pulls up a fern, and its roots are the branching metallic threads of a circuit board. Tiny squirming things shaped like wet microchips mill in the exposed soil.
"I don't like this place," Jolyon whispers. "We should get back to the surface…"
He means the Garden's surface, the manicured sectors of red flowers that stretch away toward a distant mesa. But it's far too Vex up there, Uldren thinks. They've been in here, gardening, moving earth, making walls, building their ancient constructs of stone and light. Trying to tame this place.
"It's life," he breathes. "You're right, Jol. Everything grows here…"
He cannot let this place be killed. He cannot let it be looted and overthrown like everything else that doesn't fit into the narrow binary dogmas of the Traveler's undead warriors. Excitement seizes him and he runs ahead, sloshing through the muck, laughing aloud.
"Uldren," Jolyon shouts after him, "what are you looking for?"
"I don't know!" he cries back. "That's what's so incredible! I can't know!"
"On the Hunt"
They track the last Cabal soldier from the place of carnage, onward through the flower fields, following the dribble of black oil that escapes the wounded Legionary's pressure tourniquet. Uldren moves with cold, vicious anger. War here in the Garden. Petty, detestable war, brought into this place by some blundering Cabal expedition. They deserved what they got. The Garden must be left to tend itself, mustn't it? It must be allowed to evolve its secret fruits…
The terrain dips. The red flowers fade away to low, woven grasses. The wind whispers… soft words, sentences with just the beginnings of syntax, the cadence almost musical. "Brain stain," Jolyon whispers, fearing infection by a contagious idea. "We should…" But his voice trails off as Uldren pushes ahead, down into a low vale, slipping easily through tangled undergrowth. Vex. There are Vex here, dozens of Goblins and Minotaurs, still as statues and covered in moss, in a ring like some robotic henge. They are singing in faint, wraithlike notes of inhuman clarity. Uldren knows what this place must be.
The Cabal Legionary huddles behind a stone. Uldren creeps forward. By the time the wounded bellowing thing knows he's there, he has a knife pressed to its helmet, right above the cleft of its lips and the soft tissues below. "Don't move," he says, in Ulurant. "Don't speak. This knife is atom-sharp."
"I can tell," the Legionary grunts in its native tongue. "It's roight up in me eyes. Practically shavin' me bristles."
"Do you know where you are?"
"Just abou' the worst place anyone's ever gone?"
"You say that because you can't smell the air," Uldren says. "It's sweet. Like pollen and thunder. Why did you come here?"
"Not by any chance of oir own, ser. The milk robots abducted us."
The whispers have taken on a soft hint of Ulurant grammar, confirming Uldren's suspicion. This is a place where abstract patterns war for survival, fighting to propagate themselves by preying on each other. The Vex are singing to see how the Garden changes their song, and even this conversation has fertilized the air. "Why are they here? What do they want?"
"They come 'ere to pray, ser. They're makin' vessels ou' of themselves. They're the wors' things ever to be, ser. They 'ate existence."
"How do you know this?"
"Oh, frum the seeds, ser," the Legionary says. "Do yeh see them?" And without hesitation or second thought, he punches the emergency medic release on his helmet. The pressure seal breaks and a ring of black gel sprays out, hissing. The Legionary slumps over. His helmet tumbles into his broad lap.
Beneath the layer of gel, the whole surface of his skull has the pitted texture of a strawberry. Thousands of tiny seeds glisten in the Cabal's flesh. Uldren brushes the skin in fascination.
"Uldren," Jolyon radios, "I really don't like the expression on your face."
"This place has secrets," the prince murmurs back. The bone mic feels cold and inorganic, poorly mated to his flesh, compared to the warm, close-packed pits of the Legionary's deformed skull. "So many secrets… They grew in him, Jolyon. The Garden grew its secrets in him."
"Who gives a rat?" Jolyon snaps. "Your Highness, we've got to get out of here. Before whatever happened to them happens to us too!"
He's afraid of secrets, Uldren realizes. The unknown terrifies him. Which is very sensible. Very rational. The attitude of a good scout, a good soldier, a survivor.
But Uldren can't stop imagining how astonished Mara would be at this place. What if he could bring her here? What if they could explore this place together?
"After the Heart | Part I"
"Mara, I picked you flowers."
The Queen's retinue parts before Uldren. Astonished eyes flicker between his face, his wounds, and the potted flowers cupped in his hands. Some of them see a madman and reach for weapons before they remember that this is Uldren Sov, Prince of the Awoken, beneficiary of the Queen's limitless indulgence.
"Asphodelia is its name." He kneels and offers it to his sister. "It grew only in the Black Garden… until today. We will plant it here, in our dominion, where I know it will take root and flourish. It will remind the people of our twin heritage."
For a terrible moment, Mara is unreadable. Then she smiles and beckons. "Our brother has attained the Black Garden and returned to us. Come forward." She peels a single petal from the flower and lays it across her fingertip. Holds it up to the light. "Magnificent. Illyn, see to it."
She passes it off. Uldren swallows protest. He'd hoped she might plant it herself.
Afterward, in private, she is silent and still. He tells her everything he remembers. "Did you see the heart?" she asks, softly.
"After the Heart | Part II"
"The heart…" Uldren considers his sister's question. After a while his memories become confused. He was running through a thorny grove, and the branches and prickles were tearing at his cheeks. Huge wet fruits slapped against his shoulders and detonated in overripe pulp. Fruits shaped like heavy, swollen Ghosts. He was huddled with Jolyon beneath a thick cobweb, holding his breath, as they listened to voices argue just outside. His heartbeat… was it his heartbeat? Or another's?
He was in an apartment block. He remembers that. He was sitting in the laundry room, a place with a black-and-white checkered tile floor, watching his crows tumble over and over in the dryer, black feathers flurrying, beaks clacking. A big old female Cabal sat in the tub to his left, scrubbing her back with a wire brush. A Vex Goblin with the face of Alis Li in its stomach stood behind the counter, selling detergent. "Uldren," she said, "you've got a hole in you." The Cabal grunted in agreement. He looked down at himself and there was a hole in his hand, black and perfectly round. His dryer ran out of time, but his crows were still wet.
"Uldren." Mara, shaking him. She does not ordinarily touch anyone. "Did you see the heart?"
It seems the most natural thing in the world that a garden should have a heart. "The Vex infest the place," he says. "It gives them something they crave. It… grows them toward what they want to be."
"You didn't answer the question," Mara says coolly. It's a perfectly sensible observation. It's the strangest thing Uldren has ever heard her say.
"Whatever the heart of that place is," he says, pacing, "it's a seed, I think, a seed left behind to grow. Like a… a node of Glimmer. Or…" The idea strikes him as a thunderbolt. "Or a tripwire. Bait to attract those who seek out and destroy what they don't understand."
Bait for Guardians. Bait to mark some milestone in the Traveler's recovery.
"I told you never to go there," Mara says. Her eyes burn. She draws her cloak tight. "Are you not devoted to me?"
"Sister," he says, "of course I am."
"Yet you defy me."
Yes, Uldren thinks. Yes, aren't those the same thing? How could you care at all for something that never surprises you?
He feels suddenly, utterly alone.
When he sees Jolyon in the arsenal, the realization of his own sheer unbelievable inconsiderate disgraceful boorishness makes Uldren gasp aloud in horror. "Hey," he calls, roughly. He's not sure how to apologize. He hasn't spoken to Jolyon since they returned from the Garden. He didn't commend Jolyon to the Queen or throw him a fete for his bravery or even ask if he was sleeping all right after… after everything. He forgot about him.
"Hey," Jolyon says, not looking up. "You weren't at the range yesterday."
"Oh, you don't even need a spotter," Uldren says, trying to tease him. But it comes off flat and dismissive. "I've been, uh." Dreaming. Recording his dreams. Poring feverishly through the Origin Libraries, searching for confirmation of what his heart wants so desperately to be true. The future of the Awoken could lie in that Garden. There is a wellspring of Light on Earth, a blinding beacon that will only grow brighter. The Awoken will not survive, not as they are; Mara's vision and the truth of their origins will be lost, diluted by the anodyne philosophy of those Cityborn ideologues. The Guardians will kill everything they find.
What if the Garden is the Traveler's antithesis? What if the Awoken can find in that Garden a new place of balance, an equipotential between the darkness and the light? As the light brightens the shadows deepen—
Jolyon is saying something. "Sorry," Uldren grunts, fussing with his revolver. "What was that?"
"I said, we should talk about what happened in there."
"Yes!" He realizes now how afraid he was that Jolyon wouldn't see the significance of the place. Revulsion and fear, yes, natural responses, but he must see past them. "Yes, we've got to record all our observations before they fade. I should've asked you sooner—"
"Uldren, I don't want anyone to know what we saw."
"Oh." This kindles a little bonfire of warmth in his gut. "Of course. No one else has to know. Our shared secrets, hm?"
"I wish I didn't remember what I saw," Jolyon says, fumbling his rifle's firing pin. It hits the floor like a dull chime and rolls under his bench. He doesn't go after it. "And I don't keep secrets."
Uldren thinks about this for a moment. The profound truth of it hits him like a cold wind. "You don't, do you?" Jolyon knows exactly where he was born, to what lineage. His capabilities as a marksman are public record. As one of Uldren's Crows, he flies dangerous surveillance missions, but he is not a covert operative. Uldren knows… everything about him.
"You gonna be on the range tomorrow?" Jolyon asks, too casually. "Thought we might shoot a few magazines."
"Not tomorrow," Uldren says. "I have work to do." He is already trying to imagine how Mara would react if he tries to turn the Oracle Engine on the Garden. The things he might learn… the things she will surely want to know…
"After the Fall"
She is gone. He lives now in a state of perpetual dread. He hates the future, because he fears it—he fears its emptiness, and he cannot imagine lonely eternity without her. As he staggers down the edge of a Martian chasm, he can feel the drop calling to him, begging him to join her. To end it all. The heat of the place soaks him in sweat. The dead chassis of one of his old Crow drones, slung over his back, feels like it's compressing his ribs, pushing his lungs up against his sternum, expelling his breath.
He needs the drone to fix his ship. Again. He must get off Mars. He must start looking for her.
The weight of the Crow drone slams him down on hands and knees. His vision swims—stars and shining Harbingers soaring through the ring plane and a wall of terrible light—and he sees the moment the Dreadnaught took everything from him, the moment his sister finally, absolutely, utterly ran out of secret plans. That instant when all sound ceased and he screamed denial and yet—in spite of his soul's plea to die with her—reached for the deflection shield that saved his life.
He crawls until he can rest in the shadow of a dead Vex block.
He crashed in the Candor Isles, not so far from the Gate to the Garden. The place where he saw another path for the Awoken. Why had Mara never accepted his invitation?
He has been hearing her. Thirst hallucinations, surely. But there is that hum, that whisper, that thrill of starlight in his skull…
A flock of his Crow drones found his crash site and repaired his fighter. He made it halfway to orbital velocity before a Cabal gun clawed him out of the sky and sent him crashing down in Hellas Basin. Now his Crows are dead and the fighter is probably beyond repair. And his sister is gone. His sister is GONE. And he followed her and all his people followed her because he and they were sure she had a PLAN she always had a PLAN something better than DYING BY THE THOUSANDS FOR A CITY THAT DOES NOT CARE.
He should go home. He should go home. If he can find a way. But will he have the strength? He cannot be the champion they loved. He cannot restore their faith in the purpose of the Awoken, or in his sister's design. He no longer believes.
This world is a carcass now. The scars of the Guardians' passage. Cabal fortresses reeking of decay, littered with flesh and bone and broken armor. The shattered chassis of Vex littering the sands. A place of death, death and war, a war that tilts on the fulcrum of the Traveler, brought upon it by the puppets of that Traveler, that fulcrum of war.
There is something in his eye. He blinks and blinks, trying to rub it away, and as he does, he struggles to hear her, to sense that prickle of starlight under his skin. She will tell him he is on the right path. She will tell him she's still alive.
He feels nothing.
When at last they drag him before the Kell, he has already been transformed by weeks of abuse, weeks of beatings and forced runs and animal-pen conditions, into a happy man.
The mighty Kell of Kings tells him, clearly but not concisely, what it thinks of him. Prince Uldren of a ruined house, lesser of two siblings, bested by Skolas, blinded by Variks Less-Than-Dreg, squanderer of fleets, last of the Awoken nobility, last of his kind.
When Uldren looks up at him, he does not even need to speak the truth. The Kell of Kings has named Uldren, and in doing so, it has named itself. The broken ruler of a broken house. The Last Kell.
"You can do what I cannot," the Kell tells Uldren. "You broken, beaten thing. You have no pride, so you will lose nothing when you give the word that must be given. It is twilight for the Fallen, and we must lay our banners down."
And to the groaned and growled protests of its court, the Kell of Kings kneels to Uldren. "I bow to thee," it says, "for in thy downfall and disgrace thou bearest the weakness we cannot. Thou shalt tell the Eliksni to tear off their banners. Thou shalt tell them that we must all surrender to each other. We must give up our rivalries, or we will not survive. Wilt thou do this for one dying people, Prince of another?"
He will do it. He will gain soldiers, and ships, and resources to begin the search. He found them, he himself, by risking everything and surviving. As he always does.
He feels her in his heart. She is still out there. She needs him more than ever. In the pit of his suffering, her voice came clearly to him—like the way she once appeared to him while he was being beaten to a pulp in a zero-g brawl. She is out there waiting for him, and everything will be all right. He will be there for her. It will be all right.
"Fanatic | Part I"
She's been silent too long.
The whole solar system groans with the bruises of war. Uldren lives in constant suffering, a numb, scowling pain that drives him to Ether and worse distractions. He has never felt the Light this strong. He has never known pain so deep. How many centuries with his sister? And how quickly he's disintegrated without her…
Why won't she speak to him?
The Reef burns around him. Shattered asteroids and cracked habitats spill bright flakes of debris. There is nothing quite so stark and brilliant as sunlit wreckage in vacuum. The Reef is huge, huge, but dense too, its structures and people gathered in tight clusters against the vastness of space. Oryx and the Red Legion ripped great holes in the Reef. Oh, if only Uldren had told Petra that Trau'ug's Broken Legion was a Trojan horse; but Uldren has nothing to give to a "regent" who surrenders her people to the Traveler. She has always wanted Mara's approval, little Petra. Always wanted to ingratiate herself. But she's never understood what Mara respects; she's never been willing to take the hard road to Mara's trust. That's why Mara doesn't speak to Petra.
But Mara has not been speaking to Uldren either.
He kicks off the wrecked hull of the corvette. He and the Kings have been raiding the Asteroid Belt, knocking out shipping headed for Earth, trying to further destabilize the Reef. Uldren has killed his own subjects, and at first that left him wretched with guilt, curled up in the hard cell where he sleeps. But didn't Mara lead thousands of her subjects to their deaths for a still enigmatic greater good? How is this any different?
She has always intended her people for the altar. The Awoken are pawns in her design. It's up to Uldren to set that design back on track.
"Mara!" he shouts up into the starlight. He has come too far to beg now. He's done too much. He demands her answer: "I'm not angry. I forgive you for… for sacrificing yourself to save them. But you must answer me now! Am I on the right path? Am I nearer to finding you?"
He has the House of Kings as allies. His raids on the Reef have forced Petra to pull back, consolidate, focus on protecting her citizens instead of collaborating with the Guardians. But is he any closer to Mara? Has he… can he trust himself to do this?
He always wanted to surprise Mara. To make her recalculate her plans.
But it would help him so much to know that she foresaw a little of this—to be certain he's headed the right way…
"Mara!" he cries, blinking against the persistent soreness in his right eye. "Sister, have you forsaken me?"
Something answers him!
"Fanatic | Part II"
Just a whisper, just a brush of reassurance, just a quaver: …Uldren, my rescuer…
He follows the voice. The violence of his thruster burns bruises his body. Down from the tumbling corvette to the harnessed asteroid below, where shattered Servitors and the wreckage of Shanks mark the site of a losing battle: Guardians ambushing a Fallen party.
His suit's chemoceptors detect a trace of Ether. He follows it in.
And there it is. A Fallen Archon, crumpled in the dust. Ether hisses through entry and exit wounds cauterized by brutal Solar flames: the mark of the Golden Gun. Uldren hisses in disgust as he traces Guardians' footprints in the dust. They must have sprinted off together in a rush, no doubt to farm some other site where Skiffs were coming down with mining parties.
He triages the Archon's wounds. Mortal. The victim is shaking now, trembling under Uldren's hands. He wants so badly to do something, anything, to ease the poor soldier's passing. To have the power some say his sister had, to save just by proximity—
Does he wish it? Does he wish to save this poor thing?
He does! He does!
His eyes burn with sympathetic tears as he works to bind the Archon's wounds. His hands are quick and gentle, and he weeps with the strength of his hatred for the Guardians that did this. As tears stain the Archon's wounds, the Ether roiling through Uldren's fingers slowly grows heavier, darker, more noxious. He does not notice.
Finally, he leans back to smear his knuckles across his eyes—sore, they're always so sore. Under the unmarked helmet, four dead eyes open in wonder. The Archon croaks a word, a broken leftover of a dying hallucination, calling out to whoever he wanted to see welcoming him into the afterlife: "Dad?"
He has come to the realization that it no longer matters if he doesn't know what to do or if he's doing the right thing. What matters is that he wants. If he wants to find Mara and save her, if he wants to do the right thing fiercely enough, if his intentions are good and powerful, he will find the way; he just has to believe in himself. No more paralyzing analysis, no more painful regrets—he has to go forward without doubt.
The Awoken are a beautiful creation. He must keep them safe. Secrets are safe.
"Sister?" he asks the wall of his quarters. Lately, in between bouts of euphoria, he's been sleeping too long. Sometimes it takes him an hour to get to his feet, and another hour to make himself don his armor. Wasn't living easy, once? Couldn't he do things just by wanting to do them? The spark has gone out of him, the spark of the possibility of Mara's trust. He needs it back.
Come home, the wall tells him. It's time to come home and take your crown…
He leaps to his feet. Yes! He wants something again, wants more than to lie here numbly—he wants to show his face to his Awoken people. He wants the fanfare played at his welcome, he wants to make a speech accepting the Kingship, he wants to terrify and stir his people with the ferocity of his need to save Mara. The Awoken have survived so much. He will tell them that they do not need to survive anymore; that the end is coming, the end of the long plan.
He goes to the Ketch's bridge. "What news from the Reef?" he barks. A Shank casts the sound into his ears.
Petra's voice. Petra who dares to try to replace what does not need replacing. "Cayde, the targets are in the crater now. My fireteams are in blocking position. Whoever you've got, call them in."
Guardians. Petra and the Guardians working together. Did Mara ever want this? Uldren thinks not. Is it possible that he's too late? That the Awoken are… no longer Awoken? Lulled by the absence of his sister into the Traveler's trance…?
"Set a course for the Vestian Outpost," he snaps, rubbing at his eyes. "Prepare Skiffs for a camouflaged insertion. We will put an end to Petr–"
"What are you doing?" a Captain of the Kings growls in his ear. "The House of Kings is very satisfied with the state of the Awoken demesne. And if we interfere, we will certainly attract Guardians…"
Insubordination. She would have never tolerated this. "Ah," Uldren says, careful to keep his voice light. "Yes. Of course." The itch in his eyes resumes, and he discovers that he has a new desire. A new thing he fiercely wants.
The Archon he saved is named Fikrul, and he worships Uldren like a father and a god. Uldren understands, now, what brought them together. They each see a future for their broken people… a future that cannot be obtained by looking back. Fikrul tells Uldren how the Fallen have been crippled by their dependence on machines; how they have clung to tradition instead of hurling themselves into the abyss, seeking rebirth through extinction into a new species.
"I feel the same," Uldren tells Fikrul, whittling a tiny model Galliot from an ingot of steel. "We say we exist on the thin line between dark and light, Fikrul. But my people have always been easily led astray."
"What future do you see for Awoken?" Fikrul asks him.
What future? After he finds and saves Mara? He realizes that he doesn't care. He's spent so many centuries stalking the perimeter of Awoken society, fighting off challengers, spying, sneaking, doing Mara's dirty work… Nothing has value except in its relation to Mara's plots.
Not even himself.
"They can die for all I care," he says, with a viciousness he never expected of himself. Didn't he want to save his people? No, no. Mara was willing to destroy them for her purposes—the Awoken have no value at all except in service of her design. "If some part of them survives… it will be the worthy part."
Does he wish for Awoken extinction? Is that what he truly wishes?
"We have work to do," he tells Fikrul. "The House of Kings has become, ah, inconvenient to my plans. I wish to…" He wags his knife. "Divest."
Fikrul looks up sharply from his own knives. Dark Ether seethes like mist around his face. "It is time? We show them the future now?"
"Honorless, at the end," gasps the former Kell of Kings. "Faithless and false. Your sister's will kept us from the Great Machine, Uldren Sov. She challenged the Wolves by right of noble lineage. But you… you skulk in shadows and filth. You hide behind your bruises like a Dreg."
"Funny you should mention that," Uldren sneers. He knows he's sneering, but this worthless thing deserves it. What did the Kell of Kings ever want? To go backward. More Servitors. More machines. More of the past. Uldren sees now that extinction is only the beginning: that the bones of what you become can act more powerfully than the flesh of what you leave behind.
Shattered Servitors and dead Fallen loom in Ether-frosted mounds behind Fikrul. He comes forward silently, hulking, horrific, his headdress gridding out the firelight into blocks of shadow and smoke. He carries two shock daggers.
"We are the last of our kinds," Uldren tells the Kell. "My sister is gone. So is the idea of your Great Machine. The difference between us?" He leans in to hiss. "My sister's coming back."
In four swift cuts, the Archon of the Scorned Barons docks the Kell of Kings. Uldren tears the House of Kings sigil hanging from the new Dreg's belt and holds it high for all to see. "The Kings are dead."
"Long live the King," comes Fikrul's reverent growl.
After that, Uldren and Fikrul part ways, for a time.
Fikrul goes to his bloody work, reshaping Fallen society the way a hammer reshapes a spider—and drawing certain useful elements to him.
Uldren resumes his lonely search for Mara. He remembers a time long ago—scouting with the Crows, scouting with a young Corsair who wanted nothing more than to be defined by her wrath…
Perhaps Petra can be saved, too.
He finds her in Thieves' Landing. What is she doing here? Mara never would've stooped to this, trading information with a criminal in the lowest places of—
"So few of us remain," he tells her, and in that moment, seeing the shame in her, he knows she is too far gone. She cannot be saved.
That night, he weeps for Petra. Mara comes to him in the darkness. She has heard his sorrow. He looks up in wonder: his sister, sending her will and wisdom to watch over him. He knows then that it will be all right.
"Free | Part I"
"Admit it! Admit that you trapped my sister in the Dreaming City!"
"I did not," Illyn says. "She is not trapped, Uldren. She is dead."
Uldren knows the truth now, and he wants things to be right; he wants it so fiercely that he knows nothing he does in pursuit of this want can be wrong. "Witch-lies," he spits, venomous. "She is alive!"
Illyn measures him in silence for a while. Then: "We knew you would come," she tells him, with quiet calm defiance. "You're lost, Uldren."
"You knew I'd come, but you never searched for me? My sister would take your eyes for that."
"Your sister needs nothing from us now, Uldren. Not even you."
The rage is almost enough to make him kill her. But he knows Mara wouldn't approve. She is with him now, she is substantial if not corporeal, and she dances at the edge of his sight. You're so close, she whispers. Free me from this place, Uldren Sov…
"You've gone mad," Illyn says, with repulsive empathy. "I almost did too, when I knew she'd gone. Why do you travel with that… thing? What have you come to do?"
"I've come to finish it," Uldren tells her. He even tries to smile, because he is being honest. He's telling the truth. "I've realized I was a fool to try to surprise her. We all exist through her design, Illyn. We all act only by her consent. I'm going to save her, because she needs me to save her. When she needs me to die, I will die. And when she has completed her great design for the Awoken, the Awoken will die, too. It is the reward we so richly deserve, for we owe everything to Mara. It would be… wrong for us to outlive our purpose. Trust me. Life without her is worse than… worse than…"
He chokes on it. He can't describe it. At the edge of sight, Mara watches him with all the heartbroken concern and tender care he has always wanted from her.
That evening, he surrenders himself to the Reef.
"Free | Part II"
They take him in with a full strike team, and one of the snipers, joining Uldren and his jailers at the extraction point, looks him full in the eyes, like he's asking a question. A tall man with a long rifle. Narrow intelligent eyes. Handsome. Is he… did Uldren want something from him, once? Something important? Uldren absently rubs his eyes as he stares at him. He frowns. But he can't figure it out.
They take him to a discreet landing dock on one of the lower levels of the Prison of Elders. When his containment unit hisses open, the glow and the mist silhouette an Exo with glowing blue eyes and a woman with her weapon drawn. Petra herself.
She stands there in silence. He knows she wants to kill him. He knows she wishes him to say, "You've done well."
"She speaks to you?" Her words are curt and direct. "What does she say?"
Uldren closes his eyes and lets Mara's voice wash through him. He is here in the heart of Petra's strength, in the prison she has so carefully tended as everything else falls apart. He is weak and he is bound. These are the strengths his sister never possessed: the endurance of humiliation, the survival of defeat.
"She says…" He lifts his head to meet her gaze and watches her flinch. She holds him in her weapon's sights as she withdraws, step by careful step. The Exo steps forward to hood him with a black bag. "She says…"