|Volume 5: Among the Stars, like Giants||Part II: Tales of Valen|
THE Byzantine Mountains, north of the Capitol, Centauri Prime.
The Earth year 2263.
There was snow, and thundering winds, and lightning. There was sleet and hail. A great poet had once called the Byzantine Mountains 'a place the Gods thought was so beautiful they have been fighting over it since the dawn of times.'
It was not a place travellers came to. It was certainly not a place aliens came to.
But should anyone be outside in the typically furious storm, and should such a person be able to see more than his hand directly in front of his face, they might witness a tall, aristocratic-looking human walking calmly and casually. The human was wearing no cold-weather clothing, and somehow his tall hat did not blow off in the savage wind. In fact, he showed no more sign of exertion than if he had been walking through a calm quiet park on a balmy afternoon.
Sebastian was looking for something. He knew exactly where it was. It would take a great deal of cunning and ingenuity to hide anything from him once he deigned to go looking for it. In any event, he had something to guide him this time. His left hand held an antiquated, silver-topped cane, but his right hand was closed tightly around something else. Occasionally an orange light shone from between his fingers.
He continued walking, feeling no need for sleep or refreshment. Finally he stopped, and looked hard at a sheer rock face directly before him. He could not have been thinking of shelter, but the expression on his face clearly showed he was thinking of something.
Hitching his cane under his right arm, he walked forward, left hand raised. He touched the cold rock, and his face took on an expression of infinite concentration. Taking back his cane, he raised his right hand.
The orange light that came from between his fingers was brighter now, and stronger. He opened his fingers, careful not to drop the small orb he held.
There was a blinding flash of light. He did not even blink. The wall of rock disappeared and a dark chamber opened up before him. He stepped forward, and the darkness enveloped him.
Once he was inside the illusory wall of rock reformed behind him, but he could see that it was not entirely dark. There were many tiny pinpricks of light. Walking closer to one, he saw a globe, with something trapped inside. A small, ethereal Centauri soldier, beating vainly against the walls of his prison.
Sebastian smiled. He had found the Soul Hunter's base at last.
Now all he had to do was find the next part of the trail, and follow it back to Sinoval himself.
With infinite patience, he settled down to his task.
* * * * * * *
Cathedral, on the edges of perception.
"I often try to imagine what it must have been like. I know what it is to be a leader, and yet I believe.... no, I know.... Valen had something I lack. He knew what it was like to love someone. And not just one person - many people. I envy him that.... sometimes.
"That was where he was so different from me. He loved. That made him an outstanding leader in peacetime. He could bring people together, make them see common blood, common goals. He did so with love, not fear. Myself.... I have only fear. It will serve for now, but not forever. Any alliance I could create would last only so long as the war it was created to fight.
"That will have to be enough, of course.
"Sometimes, though, I do wonder...."
"Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much."
Sinoval started, looking towards Ivanova. He had been so engrossed in the story, the words, that he had almost forgotten his audience. "I am sorry?" he said.
She smiled. "Nothing. I'm listening."
He nodded, almost imperceptibly. "A Warleader must be.... stone. As iron. Cold, unfeeling. You know that you are sending your soldiers into battle, to fight and kill and die. Once there is empathy then.... once you feel each and every death, there will come a time when you cannot function.
"I can see the way you are looking at me. Yes, I know now why Lorien sent you to me. I will not forget. My words and my beliefs do not invalidate any of that. It is just that....
"I see why you are fighting. I see why they are fighting. All of them. That is what the Vorlons do not see. They do not care. I do, but I still realise that they may well all die. Even you. But all those who die do so for a greater cause. Not for a whim or a fancy, but because they have to choose sides in a war far greater than any of them. They have a choice, just as they have always had. I am merely showing it to them.
"If they choose to die for this cause, then.... the galaxy has always been an imperfect place, but they are doing right. But I ask you this, how can I lead any soldiers to war if I know - and if they know - that I will bleed for every drop of their blood that falls? If I succumb to emotion.... thank you for finding that amusing.
"If I succumb to emotion, I lose the ability to fight the war, and then I betray them all.
"But as I was saying, Valen did succumb to emotion. He was an excellent leader in peacetime, far better than I could ever be, but in war.... ultimately that would be his undoing.
"And so he left. Seeking.... I do not entirely know what. Peace, understanding, perhaps even a chance to be rid of the Vorlons for a time and do something that was not controlled by them. I do not know.
"Of course, that led to...."
Sinoval stopped, frozen for a moment. Ivanova sat up. "What?" she asked. "What is it?"
He stirred. "Nothing. Just a.... tremor. Something through the Well." He paused, deep in thought. "I believe the human expression would be that someone has just walked over my grave."
Ivanova would have laughed, but it was not funny.
* * * * * * *
The year 337 since the ascension of Shingen, the fourth year of Valen's arrival.
The beginning of The Lonely Year.
A planet named Iwojim.
He looked at the shuttle calmly, no sign of his burning rage showing in his eyes. It had brought him across the vastness of space, far from Babylon 4, far from memories and sorrow, far from the past and the future.
"How did it end? How did it all end?"
He closed his eyes and saw that terrible battle again. The Shadow ships screaming and raging, the screams of the dying, the death throes of an entire world. And he never knew the outcome.
"And I never will."
And he saw their faces, all their faces, mixing and swirling and becoming one. Delenn and Nukenn. Rashok and G'Kar. Zarwin and Zathras and Cathrenn and Tulan and so many moving around him.
Catherine and Derannimer, their faces flickering, until they became as one. One face. One spirit. One love.
"That was it. You could not tell me, but I knew. I think I always knew.
"Catherine was lost in the time stream. It was easy to think she had come back here.... that you had saved her, made her Derannimer somehow, perhaps the same way you made me Valen, but no.... that is too easy.
"It is not that Catherine became Derannimer, is it? It is that Derannimer becomes Catherine. Minbari souls. Human souls. Becoming as one. Merging, mingling. I.... began this, but I will not be the first, will I?"
The dry, dusty winds of this inhospitable planet are his only answer.
"She will. Derannimer will die, and her soul will return to the ether and she will be reborn, perhaps a hundred times over the next thousand years, but ultimately she will become Catherine.
"Was it all a lie? Did you arrange it so that I would meet and fall in love with her? With either of them? Does it matter?
Still there was no answer. From somewhere, very quietly, there came the sound of ticking.
"Can you even hear me?"
He nodded. He could feel them. He could always feel them, but perhaps he was too far away for them to reply. Perhaps he was truly alone at last.
Alone somewhere he could think. Somewhere he could think of Catherine and Derannimer, of Zarwin and betrayal, of Marrain and Parlonn watching their world dying around them.
Valen turned and walked away, into the grey wilderness. He had not travelled more than a hundred seconds when his shuttle exploded into flames behind him.
* * * * * * *
At the end of the third year since his arrival, Valen disappeared from Anla'Verenn-veni without trace. No whisper spoke of his passing, no echo of his footsteps, no sight of his presence. He simply.... ceased to be.
Once it became apparent that he was not going to be found, his closest companions formed a hasty council. Marrain, Parlonn, Derannimer, Rashok, Nukenn, A'Iago Mar-Khan, Kin Stolving, Zathras and a few prominent figures of the religious and worker castes.
There was much arguing, hardly surprising with personalities as volatile as Parlonn's there, but ultimately Derannimer's will prevailed. They would have to continue on his path, pursue his wishes, and wait for him to return.
Some, especially Marrain and Parlonn, remained unconvinced. The two of them were growing increasingly isolated from the rest of Valen's council. Both were anticipating a victorious world of peace that had no need for either of them, or for the warriors that followed them. True to Parlonn's prophecy, many warriors from both clans were dying, either from secret morr'dechai, or in suicidal charges against the Enemy.
Another principle Derannimer supported but which both Marrain and Parlonn objected to was to make public the news that Valen had disappeared. Surprisingly, Zathras swung the vote on that matter.
"If there is anarchy without him," the strange alien was reported to have said, "then what is point of him being here? Any leader can create goodness for one generation. But great leader needs great followers for there to be goodness afterwards."
And so Valen remained.... elsewhere, while his council sought to continue the war without him. There were initial problems, culminating in the disastrous Red Star Battle where over three hundred lost their lives, including A'Iago Mar-Khan. The aged Markab refused to evacuate his dying ship, remaining instead on the bridge, watching silently as the stars around him turned red in homage to the blood shed.
But eventually unity returned, and with it victory. Marrain led a brilliant counterstrike against the Enemy at Suio-Zanbato, while Parlonn sought to outmatch him in victory, harrying fleeing Shadow ships through hyperspace. Without Valen to eclipse them, they fought harder and more bravely than ever before.
But they were still warriors, and they were still sworn to serve their lord. Even without that solemn vow, there was one thing they could not have refused, the one thing they had in common besides their lord.
From An Account of the Shadow War, author unknown.
The book was declared heretical in the Year 229 of Valen's Coming,
and all but a handful of copies destroyed.
* * * * * * *
He was standing before a lake of crystal clear water, his reflection shimmering in the mirror glare beneath him. From the hill, she knew he could see far out across the world. He could see everything, except the one thing he most wanted to see.
Silent tears rolled gently down his face.
He could not see her, although she was coming closer to him. She was standing in the boat, wearing a gown of purest white which fluttered in the breeze. Nemain, faithful Nemain was rowing, not looking at her, or at him, but at the water.
Behind him the sun was setting.
The still water of the pool reflected the dying sun. He was standing there waiting, always waiting. Waiting for her.
Why could he not see her? Was he looking for her, or for someone else?
Someone else was in the boat with her, standing behind her, but no matter how much she twisted and turned she could not catch a glimpse of the person's face. It was a woman, she knew that, but not Minbari. She was of no known race.
He was looking up, directly at her, but he still did not seem to see her.
Behind him, it was dark. She looked closely, curious to know how the sun had come to set so quickly.
A hand reached out from the darkness. He was still looking for her.
Derannimer woke from her sleep, staring up at the ceiling, still seeing the sun setting across water.
Then she rose.
Nemain was in the next room of course, as always. He was meditating, but he broke off and looked up as she approached.
"I need to talk with Marrain and Parlonn," she said simply.
* * * * * * *
He was standing before a lake of crystal clear water, his reflection shimmering in the mirror glare beneath him. The water filled his horizon, encompassing his vision and his dream.
Without knowing why, he took a step forward. The water held his weight, supporting him. He began to walk, not knowing where he was walking to, or why, knowing only that he had to walk.
The water began to look dusty and grey and muddy, but he kept walking. It was becoming more and more solid. With every step he took, the air became thicker. Soon he was choking on the dust. His steps grew slower and shallower and he trembled with each breath.
Then he looked down and saw that he was not walking on water, but on sand and dust. There were marks in the sand, footsteps leading on and on, beyond the reach of his vision. He turned to look behind him, but there was nothing there. Not emptiness, not blank desert or crystal lake. Nothing.
Having nothing else to do, he continued walking forward, following the trail of footsteps. It never occurred to him to go in a different direction.
Figures appeared before him. Derannimer was there, standing looking into a tall mirror. Catherine's face looked back at her. He walked up to her, and then he realised it was Catherine looking into a mirror, with Derannimer staring back at her, mute eyes pleading.
"You have to keep going," Catherine said. "He's waiting for you."
"Who is?" he began, then stopped when he realised he was speaking English. He looked at his hands, and they seemed.... different. He reached up to touch his head, and found hair where his headbone should be.
"Who am I?" he asked.
Catherine shook her head. "It's a little late to ask that," she said.
"Besides," Derannimer said, this side of the mirror again. "I don't know."
"Neither of us does," Catherine added. "No more than we know who we are."
He left them, and continued walking. A structure came into view, growing larger with every step. It looked like a temple, a shrine, a combination of Minbari and human design. Zarwin was sitting outside it, looking at a small, fenced-off patch of ground.
He walked closer, and saw a Japanese rock garden, except that Zarwin had destroyed the rocks. They were in pieces.
"Forgive this one, Z'ondar," he was saying. "This one does not understand."
He entered the shrine, nodding to Marrain and Parlonn who were standing guard at the entrance. Marrain's skin was blackened and charred, and his eyes were torn from his skull. Blood pumped slowly and rhythmically from a gaping wound in Parlonn's chest.
Neither of them said anything as he entered the shrine.
His eyes were hurting, and he realised he was crying tears of blood, one from each eye, cutting deep grooves in his cheeks.
Someone was there, standing tall before a small reed mat. He knelt down on it and pulled the dechai from his belt. The small blade slid out from the hilt, and he grasped it in both hands, wincing as the razor-sharp edge cut his flesh. He placed the tip over his heart, and looked up.
Valen took the main blade in his own hands, and provided the momentum that drove the dechai into Jeffrey Sinclair's heart.
And then he woke up, the thick dust heavy in his mouth. And for a long moment, he did not know who or what he was.
* * * * * * *
Marrain looked up at the black cloud covering the heavens. Studying it closely, he could see that it was many different clouds, all moving and mingling and coalescing. Shapes flittered into view - small, fine lines of white forming images against a black and midnight sky.
Unfortunately, it was a little past noon. Marrain was not sure how much of the cloud was the result of the Shadow bombardment of the planet and how much was smoke from the flames consuming the city.
The city was called Delphis, the only sizeable settlement on the world, a colony also called Delphis. The colony was less than ten years old, and it did not look as if it would survive another year, let alone another ten.
The screaming had subsided, the violence having moved to another part of the city. The wild-eyed madmen had seen enough of their number cut down by himself and Parlonn to know to search for easier pickings elsewhere.
"Valen would hate this," he said, speaking largely to himself.
"Far too chaotic for him," Parlonn agreed. "But then.... I would not be surprised to find him here, doing what he can to help, and criticising us for not doing enough."
Marrain snorted. The two of them continued their walk through the deserted, smoke and smog-filled streets. "What can we do? Show me one warrior, even one Ranger that we can spare and I will bring him here. We should not even be here. This is a doomed world, and these are doomed people. They should simply face death with honour, and gain a better standing in the next life."
"Valen would hate you for saying that."
"It is practical. He might consider it heartless, but it is still true. We offered these people a chance to return to Minbar. We even offered to escort them home safely. They chose to stay. Now they are learning the price of stubbornness."
"They chose to stay because Valen promised them safety."
"What good a promise you cannot fulfill?
There was a silence, broken only by the distant screams and the nearby sobbing. The body of an elderly worker lay in the street, torn apart. Neither warrior paid it any heed. They were looking for living threats, not dead bodies.
"We should not be here," Marrain said, after a while.
"I know," Parlonn replied.
"There why are we here?"
"You know the answer to that."
"Yes, I do."
"You cannot say no to her, either."
"I have never been able to say no to her."
"You are in love with her, aren't you?"
"Of course I am, but in a different way. I saw her grow, remember. I trained her, I protected her. I always knew that one day I would see her married to someone - a fine, tall, strong, handsome warrior who would love and honour her. I never imagined she would marry someone like Valen."
"She hasn't married him yet."
"She will. You know that."
"Yes, I know that."
"Whatever we think of him, he will be a good husband for her. You must accept that much."
"I do. It would be easier if I did not, but...."
"You would also be a good husband for her. I would not have opposed your suit.... before."
"That does not make it any better."
"I know. Some things simply are."
"I know. We have one thing, at least. When it is over...."
"When it is over."
Marrain looked up. The temple before them was a small building, simply constructed. In time it would doubtless have expanded to rival the Temple of Varenni at Yedor, but for now it was a small, slight building, a simple place of worship and faith.
It was also the only building on Delphis that was not burning.
"This looks like the place," he said. Parlonn nodded.
They walked up the steps together and pushed the door gently. One person was inside, sitting cross-legged in front of the altar. She looked up as the door opened. There was a terrible sadness in her eyes.
"Welcome, both of you," she said. "I have been expecting you."
* * * * * * *
I was wondering when you would show up.
We have always been here.
And where is here? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know.
You cannot run from your shadow, or from your mirror. You can only run from your footsteps.
And everywhere I go, they are there in front of me? Is there any point to all this? I couldn't save Zarwin, I won't be able to save Marrain and Parlonn. I see the future, and there is nothing, not a single thing I can do to prevent it.
You cannot prevent what has already happened from happening again any more than you can prevent yourself from casting a shadow.
Who am I?
The ghost of the future, the hope of a people, the fourth edge to the sword. You are whatever you choose to be.
There is no choice.
There is. But only one.
And if I want more than just one choice?
And if the darkness wants to be the light? And if the fallen want to rise up once more? If you were to go and tell them - tell the Betrayer and the Traitor their fates - would they believe you? Would you avert what you know must be?
I can try! I can.... do something!
I mean, I can do more.
You stand on top of the highest mountain in creation, and you cry that you wish to stand higher. Billions live and die at your word, and that is not enough. Your name shall be remembered for a thousand years, and yet you wish it to live longer?
You know that isn't what I want. And who are you, anyway?
That is not a question for you to ask.
Are you Ra-Hel?
Some call me that. A name is no more than a mask.
They call you the King of the Gods. Is that true?
I am Light Cardinal. To some, they are the same. But a title is just a name, and that is just a mask.
Then who are you? Strip away all the masks and the names and the word-games, and what is left?
That question is for you to answer, and you alone.
The voice left him, and he was alone once again, sitting beside the faint warmth of a flickering and dying fire as the night sky settled over the world he had taken for his own.
* * * * * * *
Marrain was the first to move, taking a step into the temple. "You are the Oracle?"
"So some call me," she replied. Her voice was.... strange, as though she were speaking a different language from the one he was hearing. She looked Minbari, but she wore no clan symbol, no caste markings, no evidence of ties to anyone or anything. Even the lowliest worker had a fane to call his own.
"We have been sent to find you," Parlonn said.
"Look for the world crouched in shadow, with a single spark of light. A place of deserts and dry wind, where an endless cycle of footsteps crosses the globe. He has gone there to be alone, to think and to meditate and to come to terms with who and what he is."
She looked up. Her eyes seemed to dazzle both of them, a hypnotising swirl and spiral, knowledge and power and an infinite sorrow. "Look for the system you call Minneyar. The fourth world from the star. You will find him there, and it will not be hard. His very presence will light up the entire world."
"You knew what we were going to ask," Marrain said. He was not surprised.
"Of course, just as I know everything else. I have told you what you came for. I have given you the information you need to pursue your rôles in this galactic passion play. I have saved the future and doomed the present and I have fulfilled my last, solitary purpose in this worthless life.
"Now, leave.... for your own salvation."
"Who are you?" Parlonn asked. He could no more leave than he could have lain down and died.
"No one. Nothing. A forgotten and discarded memory. One futile stand for what I thought was right, for an ideal that should be held above all else. I was a singer, and a shaper. I dreamed, and I made those dreams real.
"And now I am nothing. A simple relic of the power of mortal belief."
"You know the future?" asked Marrain.
"I know everything. I know that I will tell you to leave, and I know that you will not."
"Will she love me?" he asked, a passionate urgency in his voice.
The Oracle closed her eyes. "Will she love me? Which of us shall win? What will the future bring? Who will stand alone? Are these the questions you wish to ask? I beg you, just as I know you will not listen.... leave now! Do you really want me to deny you the only happiness you will ever have?"
"Will she love me?" Marrain asked again.
"Yes," the Oracle replied. "She does already. But she will never love you as you desire, and she will never love you more than she loves him." More softly, she continued. "I tried to warn you."
Parlonn looked at her. "Which of us shall...." Marrain grabbed his arm. He looked at his friend, and nodded. "I withdraw the question," he said solemnly.
"It is too late," she replied. "I see your future. Bound together by love and hatred and honour, you are linked, a karmic connection from past to present to future. Yours is a tragedy that will be repeated over and over again.
"You will not listen, you will not heed. You do not want to hear me. No one ever does.
"That is my curse.
"I stood against my masters, against the order, and they punished me for it.
"Now you know, and now you will leave. You will live, and you will strive, and you will fight, and all of your striving and struggling and fighting will be for naught, because I know what will become of you both.
"Now you will leave."
They left, and within an hour they had almost forgotten ever having seen her, remembering only what they wanted to, what they had to.
This is not her story. This is theirs.
* * * * * * *
He awoke from his dream to feel a dark shadow across his soul. It was a dream about Catherine at the Academy, both of them so young. They were on their first date, to see a Reebo and Zooty comedy, but they had left half-way through because the man in front of them was talking too loudly. They were walking on the riverside path that led back to her dorm, and he was looking into the water, trying to think of something to say.
Then he paused, seeing Valen's reflection staring back at him. He looked up, and they were not walking back to her dorm but heading for Yedor, and he was not walking with Catherine, but with Derannimer.
It was cold as he struggled to wakefulness, and he moved to re-start the dying embers of the fire. That was when the shadow moved at the edge of his camp.
He flung himself aside, instinct taking over from rational thought, and the thrust merely tore a part of his robe. He rolled and staggered to his feet, but the thing was on top of him, moving with a speed not born of any natural reflexes.
His hand shot up and caught the creature's downward strike, holding it locked there, the creature's claws a finger's-breath from his face. He looked up into its face, and saw nothing. No expression, no hope, no dreams, no memories.
He had heard of the Faceless, assassins created by the Shadows. One of them had massacred three of his Ranger bodyguards two years before, only to be killed by Marrain. But Marrain was not here to save him this time.
Fate will not let me die, he thought absurdly, before instinct took over once again. Straining with all his strength, he forced himself to one side and rolled from beneath the Faceless's grip. Darting backwards, he gained enough momentum to force himself into a standing position. As the Faceless moved forward in a blur of motion, his denn'bok appeared in his hand. He had thought he had left it behind, but he had discovered it by his side when he woke here on the first morning.
Thought surrendered to motion, and he knocked aside the Faceless's first attack, slamming a blow into the creature's side. It lashed out in retaliation, and this time its claws pierced his neck, drawing blood. Spinning on his heel, raising the pike, he turned to face its next attack.
The denn'bok connected with the creature's neck in a sickening thud, and it fell. A sharp blow to the head, and it did not rise.
"Thank you, Zarwin," he said. "You trained me well."
Except that he had not, of course. The Tak'cha had taken his incredible skill with the weapon to be a sign of divine favour, never guessing the truth. He had known how to use the weapon long before he had ever met Zarwin.
A ghostly spirit of light shimmered into view on the other side of the fire.
<That was merely the first. There will be others.>
He touched the wound in the side of his neck. A shallow cut. It would stop bleeding soon.
But the claws of the Faceless were poisoned. One of his Rangers had survived the earlier attack, but been cut. He had died screaming in agony three days later.
He looked at the Vorlon's ghost-image, then down at the creature's body. The face was empty. It was nothing but a cypher, nothing but a ghost.
He looked back at the Vorlon.
"Let them come," he said simply.
* * * * * * *
Derannimer had not slept for days. She was functioning purely on willpower. They were all worried about her, she knew. Parlonn, Marrain, Nemain, Rashok, Nukenn.... They knew the same thing that she knew.
The Minbari people needed a symbol. Valen was gone, but she was his most beloved. She could carry on his legacy, and she knew that one day she would have to, but not today.
She would find him, and bring him home.
"You have been told this," said a familiar voice.
"I know," she replied, looking at Kin Stolving. The Ikarran was standing opposite, looking at her. She wore the Ranger robes now, having sworn to continue A'Iago's teachings.
"They all say you do not have to go."
She nodded, once and once only. "I know this. I will support you, even if the whole galaxy opposes you."
"Thank you," she said.
Tulan appeared at the door. She turned to him, and he bowed. "Lady," he said. "The fleet is ready. We await your command."
Derannimer looked at him, and then at Kin Stolving. Then she closed her eyes and imagined the stars outside. They formed into an image of Valen's face. The Oracle had told Marrain and Parlonn where he was, as she had known. She had always wanted to go to the Oracle herself, but ultimately she had been too afraid.
She opened her eyes, and spoke with the steely determination of the future leader of the Minbari people.
* * * * * * *
The sky became black. The desert winds carried the screams of the hunters. Night whispers fell silent. Fever dreams died.
He stood beside a cave, looking over the whole desert. He could see them coming.
The Shadows had come for him.
* * * * * * *
No one spoke the words, but they all knew.
They were going to war.
They looked with feverish, almost hallucinatory eyes at the three who led them. Derannimer, most beloved of Valen, daughter of the heavens, whose voice fired them and whose love inspired them. The prophecy spoken at her birth said that the man she would marry would have lordship and dominion over all Minbari, and they believed it. All of them believed it.
And beside her were the greatest warriors of the age. Marrain, the Stone Warrior, as hard and resilient and enduring and unshakeable as the earth itself. He stood and did not fall. Though his foes cascaded around him, he remained there, the rock. Whispers were spoken of his survival at Markar'Arabar, of Giseinotoshi, of Suio-Zanbato. He would not step back, he would not fall.
And then came Parlonn, the raging inferno, before whose fury none could stand, who moved as the flame, flickering and dancing, his enemies consumed by his righteous anger. He destroyed and shattered and burned his foes, acting always in the service of his lord.
Tulan, son of Nukenn of Zir, looked up at them as he prepared himself for war. The Enemy was coming for his lord, for all their lords. Valen must not be allowed to fall to the Darkness, he would not permit it. He lived for the One, he died for the One. He would stand on the bridge and none should pass. He was a Ranger, a soldier fighting a war for the only cause that mattered.
They moved among the soldiers, whispering private words to each one. Derannimer spoke of compassion and love, Marrain of strength and resilience, Parlonn of fury and power.
Tulan looked up and found himself meeting Marrain's iron-grey eyes. The Stone Warrior seemed to study him for a long moment. Finally, he spoke.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"I am ready to die," Tulan replied simply, earnestly.
Marrain seemed about to say something, but he did not. He passed on, and Tulan could not read the emotions in his eyes.
They arrived at the planet named Iwojim, the fourth world of Minneyar. Shadow ships were in orbit there, but they were expected. Black specks moved on the world below, and they were sought for.
With no thought, with no word, with no signal, the battle began.
* * * * * * *
His skin was torn and broken, his lungs filled with fire. His body burned, his eyes saw only death. Blood and ichor stained his hands, the legacy of hours of ceaseless flight and battle.
For over two days of this dead planet, they had been hunting him. The Faceless assassin had been only the first. Others had followed. One of their Beasts, the Wykhheran, massive in the night sky, roaring its fury and its power, had come for him. Marrain and Parlonn had once saved him from one such on Anla'Verenn-veni, but they were not here this time.
He had finally killed it, but its claws had cut deep grooves in his side and leg. He knew the assassin's poison was already within him, but he resisted it as best he could.
The Zarqheba had come next, hordes dark and terrifying against the sky. They screamed and they destroyed and they blackened the horizon with their numbers. One or two had located him, but he had killed them. He had wasted precious seconds closing the eyes of the dead creatures, not wanting their terrible intelligence and understanding looking back at him.
He kept moving, sleeping in snatches. He should have collapsed before now, he knew it. His body should have given in, even though his will did not. The Faceless's poison should have claimed him, but it had not. He suspected the involvement of another.
"It is you, isn't it?" he whispered in private, solitary moments. Whether he expected an answer or not, there was none, and he was alone.
The next foe they sent against him was the worst by far.
The Minbari warrior stood clear against the featureless horizon of the desert, walking slowly but purposefully in his direction, his footprints standing out sharply in the dull dust and sand. He let the warrior approach, and saw that he bore the symbol of the Wind Swords.
"You do not need to fight me," he said simply, as the warrior arrived.
"When I swore fealty to my lord, I did not recall a clause that would permit me to break that oath," the warrior replied. "Was there any such clause in the oaths you compel your Rangers to swear?"
"No," he replied simply.
"I serve Hantiban, Warleader of the Wind Swords. He commands that I bring him your head, and I am sworn to obey."
"You don't have to do this."
"Yes, I do."
"At least tell me your name."
They fought, and the warrior fell, his dechai tumbling from his stiffening fingers. The victor looked angrily at the sky, and saw sparks of light. A great and terrible anger filled him, although he could not say why. It simply was.
He simply was.
What right had any of them to compel others to obey them? What right at all?
<It is the only way,> came the echo of a voice.
"It should not be," he replied. "It should not be the only way at all."
* * * * * * *
Tulan of Zir was the first into the shuttle to escape the orbital firefight. He could see the Shadow ships surrounding them, black and terrible against the midnight of space. He wanted to fight them, to prove his valour, to prove his service to Valen, but he knew that was not the way.
That was one thing A'Iago Mar-Khan had taught him. Sometimes the true service was to set aside what you thought was right, and do the thing your lord required of you. Valour compelled him to stay and fight. Necessity and service forced him to go to the surface and find Valen. It mattered nothing if they won the battle here, and Valen died on the world below.
He thought of his father. Nukenn did not want him here, he knew that, but this was a duty, a solemn and serious one, a greater duty than any of his family had ever borne.
Besides, how could they lose? This was a holy cause to save their lord. He would stand and fight beside Marrain and Parlonn themselves, while the Lady Derannimer commanded the fleet in the heavens. The galaxy itself would stop to aid them.
The shuttle touched down, the doors opened, and Tulan of Zir, Ranger in service to Valen, was the first to rush out and face the battle.
* * * * * * *
"I am Jeffrey Sinclair, a man of Earth, a human, a soldier in service to my people."
The darkness swamped him.
"I am Valen, Minbari not born of Minbari, a prophet, a leader in service to my people."
He fought back, burning with every breath, dying with every step.
"I love Catherine Sakai, who knew me and loved me and mocked my shortcomings with gentle sarcasm."
He gave ground grudgingly, each step bought with blood and fire.
"I love Derannimer of the Fire Wings, who thinks she knows me and who accepts her destiny and fights her suffering with equal passion."
He saw the reinforcements come to aid him. He saw who led them.
"I have served my people as none other."
He saw the stars in the sky above.
"I am the One who Was."
He saw the massive Shadow step through to face him, its shell mottled, bone-white. He saw it bow its head.
He saw it move forward.
* * * * * * *
There were so many of them, too many of them. It was all they could do to stay alive, still less move to find Valen.
Snapshots, images from the Battle of Midnight's Blood.
Tulan of Zir, his Ranger uniform in rags, his body broken and cut and torn, his denn'bok raised with proud arms and strong hands.
Derannimer of the Fire Wings, standing tall on the flagship of the fleet, ordering charge after charge on the Enemy while the man she loved fought for his life.
Marrain and Parlonn, Stone and Fire, standing back to back, surrounded by a ring of the Enemy. Wykhheran and Faceless and Zarqheba and treacherous Minbari, and horrors a thousand times worse, a million years older.
Rashok of Dosh steering his flyer forward, seeing death in every second, but remaining true and valorous.
Valen facing the White Shadow, unknowingly face to face with a Priest of the Fallen Midnight.
The ghosts of light, flittering and dancing, just to one side of mortal view, waiting.... waiting for the call.
* * * * * * *
<We are not your enemy.>
The voice was a hoarse whisper, the sound of dry wind rustling over an ancient battlefield, the sound of a dying man breathing his last, the echo of a final oath spoken centuries before.
He said nothing.
<You are strong now, stronger than ever before. You have grown mighty and proud. You have made others strong. We are not your enemy. We are your saviours.>
There was a buzzing in his mind, the sound of ice melting into a pool of blood, of mighty wings beating a slow and rhythmic chorus.
"You have tried to kill me."
<And you are stronger as a result.>
"If I try to kill you?"
<You will succeed and die, or you will fail, and we will grow stronger. There is no shame in defeat, there is shame only in failing to learn from it.>
He laughed. The flapping of wings grew louder, the song nearing its climax. "If you listened to that.... if I thought for one second you would learn from your mistakes, then I would end this now, and let you go....
"But you will not learn! You will never learn! A thousand years will come and go, and you will come back, and you will have learned nothing in the meantime, not a single thing! Listen to your own words, and maybe then can come understanding. For both of us."
<My words bring me few friends amongst my people, but I believe in them. Look at yourself, Light-Child. Look at yourself and look at your people and ask yourself if you are the worse for what we have brought you. There is a greater enemy than we are. Join us against them, and you will become stronger still.>
"I know that," he whispered softly, as the sound of beating grew even louder. "I know all of that, and I know what will happen.
"You led me to this, didn't you? To this meeting, to see. In spite of everything you knew would happen, you pushed me to this choice."
<There is a choice,> the voice came, to him and him alone. <There is only one, but that is still a choice. Make it, and prove to us that you are the One we expected.>
"You know what will happen, what has to happen. Is that it? Am I to be as powerless as ever?"
<No. You have the choice you always had, the choice you would always have had.>
He looked at the bone-white Shadow before him. "I'm sorry," he said. "My answer was always preordained.
The beating of heavenly wings stopped, but for one instant only. Then it became the crack of thunder. The skies were filled with light, rising and growing and spreading. The Enemy saw this and fell back, afraid, terrified, having staked everything on the gamble of one of the holiest of their preachers and seeing it all collapse.
And the man did nothing. He simply watched.
* * * * * * *
Back to back, the two greatest warriors of the Minbari fought. The Enemy dead were piled in great mounds around them, but so were their own dead, Rangers and honour guard alike. The last stand had fallen to Marrain and Parlonn, as it had so many times before and now for the last time. They might as well have been the last Minbari left alive.
Marrain was singing, his deep voice carrying words of great and sorrowful loss. Only he knew that Berevain had sung that song, a song of her ancestors in days of old.
Parlonn was shouting. Names and deeds and dates. His ancestors, far back to the dawn of history. So many great deeds to live up to, so many great warriors whose blood coursed within him.
The words of the Oracle hung over them both. Her mournful pleas, her sad knowledge of what was to be. Parlonn, the more thoughtful, the more introspective of the two, remembered them well.
Darkness blanketed the earth and the sky. The world was dead, and soon they would be dead too. Marrain's solid presence was at his back, but they were both only mortal and soon one of them would fall, and then it would all be over.
That would be the way to prove it. If they were never to have their final duel, then let this be it. Let the victor be the last to fall in this place, at this time. Parlonn ceased his litany of his ancestors, ending with Shingen, and made to voice this thought to Marrain.
Then came the light, and his lungs filled with blood.
One wound too many, one of the Enemy past his guard, one error born of fatigue and pain and injury.
One too many.
He slid slowly to the ground, blood filling his mouth, his eyes dimming. As his grip weakened around his dechai, Parlonn, Warleader of the Fire Wings, glanced up.
And he saw the sky fill with light.
His last thought before the pain swamped him was that the light was in his eyes, and would render him useless for the battle.
* * * * * * *
The Priest of the Fallen Midnight looked at him. Its guard had fled, scattering before the onslaught of the light. The Ancient Enemy, the cursed Lords of Light and Stasis and Stillness had planned this well. A trap, or perhaps a test, or more likely both.
<Who are you?> it said at last, a deliberate mockery of their question.
The Minbari looked at it slowly. "Whoever I have to be," he said finally.
* * * * * * *
Tulan moved as if every bone in his body was shattered. Most of them were. He was bloodied and marked and scarred for life, but that did not matter. He was a Ranger, and he had sworn to serve. The warrior caste were not the only ones who knew how to fight and die for their lord.
The sudden surge of light across the sky had reinvigorated him and he moved more quickly, weaving his path through the stricken and fleeing Enemy. The pain of his shattered bones did not trouble him now, and he knew on some subconscious, primal level, that he would not live for it to trouble him later.
Through the thick of the fighting he saw Marrain and Parlonn, standing back to back, weaving a ring of death as they moved.
He saw Parlonn slide and fall, too many injuries claiming him.
He moved forward, desperate to reach Marrain before the remaining Enemy could claim him.
He did not see the Faceless appear from the mass of the dead, nor did he feel the cold, cold knife blade slide into his back.
He died face down in the blood-stained desert sand, his eyes not seeing the light which filled the sky above him.
* * * * * * *
<I have lived untold centuries of your time. I have served the Pale and Silent King all these years. I have served the cause of Holy Chaos.
<I have worshipped in the presence of the Eldest.
<Remember this, mortal. Remember all of this, when we are gone. When they are gone. Remember what we have brought you.
<Remember what you have seen.>
"I will," Valen whispered.
* * * * * * *
There was no pain. Parlonn had expected pain. He had expected to die in battle.
He had hoped to die knowing who was best.
"The light," he whispered, looking around with blood-filled eyes. He coughed. "The light...."
"He has done it," Marrain said, anger clear in his tone. "This is his work."
"I know. Help me up."
Parlonn leaned on his friend's arm and staggered to his feet. Around him the ranks of the Enemy were cowering back, demoralised and disorientated, stunned by the light above them and the courage before them. A skilled warrior could clear a path through them, and head for the source of the light.
And head for Valen.
"Go," Parlonn whispered. "Go."
"You think I would leave you here?"
"I am dying. Give me this last satisfaction. You were better. I can see that. But give me a death worthy of a warrior, the death of blood and a circle of foes and a raised weapon."
"You would always have had that."
"Now go. Find our lord and bring him to safety. He is our lord, Marrain. What was this for, if not to find him?"
"For her," Marrain spat. "It was only ever for her.
"I will remember you. They all will. I will see to it."
He turned and left, moving with a speed unknown and unnatural to the Stone Warrior. Parlonn turned to the ring of his enemies, watching as Marrain cut through them effortlessly, moving on towards the source of the light.
Parlonn began to sing the battle song of Shingen, of his ancestors, coughing blood with every note.
The circle of enemies, their confusion broken, moved to attack.
* * * * * * *
<You think you will win?>
"I know we will."
<No. Not just for a thousand years. In the end. When all is dead, when the galaxy itself dies.... when we and the Vorlons are long dead, dust and ashes.... do you think you will win?>
"I don't know," he replied truthfully.
<There will always be chaos. The random, the anarchic, the unforeseen. We will be there, in that. Always.>
He prepared a reply, but there was no opportunity for one. The Priest of the Fallen Midnight died in that instant, a dechai driven directly into its skull. For one single moment it stood there, the light in the sky seeming to reflect off its bone-white chitin.
Then it fell, crumbling to the ground. Behind it stood Marrain. His stance was that of a warrior, his eyes were dead and merciless. For a moment Valen thought his liege-man would attack him, but then he lowered the weapon.
"The darkness is everywhere," he said stiffly.
Valen smiled, wryly and ironically. "I am never in darkness. I bring my light with me." He reached out a hand, pleading, for one last moment hoping beyond hope that things could be changed. "As do we all."
Marrain looked at him for a long time, but did not take his hand.
"Come," he said. "It's time to get you to safety."
Valen could only nod.
* * * * * * *
Like most engagements of the Shadow War, the battle was known by many names. The most common, and certainly the most poetic, is the name The Battle of Light at Midnight. It marked a great turning point in the war.
The cost of the battle was high, but it was deemed acceptable. Valen had been captured by the Enemy, and his armies had gone to rescue him. Many had died, but Valen was returned to them.
The Minbari did not lose another battle. The Light at Midnight would shine the road to Z'ha'dum, over three years later.
From Darkness, Fire and Honour: The Military Campaigns of the Shadow War,
by Sech Akodogen of the Star Riders, published in the Earth year 1848.
* * * * * * *
Derannimer had stopped crying for now, although Valen knew that she would never be entirely free from her grief. She had known Parlonn all her life, loved him as a brother. He was the last link to her father. And now he was gone.
Anyone who could see the future would know better, but it was hard to reconcile that knowledge. Parlonn would return. Valen knew that, but no one else did, except Zathras. No one else could know. And would that knowledge of tomorrow assuage the grief of today? He doubted it.
"I love you," he said softly. It no longer mattered whether he loved her or Catherine. He had tried to find some sort of understanding, but most of it had eluded him, as he knew it always would. There was one thought though, and that was that he could not endure it alone. Parlonn would betray him, and so would Marrain.
But she never would. She would be with him always, and carry on his legacy.
He could not let her do that blindly. He could not let her be trapped by the chains of destiny and necessity. She would have to know, exactly as he did. She would have to choose. Nothing else mattered. He had accepted his own rôle as slave to the future. She would have to be given the choice to do the same.
"Derannimer," he whispered, and she looked up into his eyes.
"There are some things I have to tell you.
"You may not like them...."
* * * * * * *
All was still across the planet, now dead once more. The battle was over, the light in the sky had faded. The bodies of the dead - Minbari, Shadow-created monstrosity, Priest of Fallen Midnight.... all lay still and motionless.
All but one.
Parlonn's eyes opened.