Val Ma'rag had been "stationed' in the place the Humans called a dead zone for years now, though he had no commander, no handler . He held the territory on his own, defending it from the stinking, vermin Hive. They reminded him of the tiny red beetles that crawled around in the dust where he'd come up; the ones that swarmed war beast pens and crept into woven clothes. The best way to get rid of them, his mother taught him, was to hold a flame close to the seams of their shells. They snapped and popped in the heat.
He found the same to be true for the Hive.
By now, he'd stopped expecting anyone to come for him. Their invasion had become a death sentence; one he had accepted by the nature of his position. He would die for the Legion, with or without the promise of reward.
As Val Ma'rag listened to a transmission from the Empress Caiatl, he thought about how far he'd come since he was recruited. Since he was pulled out of the poorest rural district on his planet. With this new challenge—with the new empress sending her call out into the system—he could go a lot farther.
Europa was cold. Basilius was no stranger to cold—he'd been stationed on Mars before it disappeared, before his Valus sent him and his reports off-planet on a recon mission. He didn't care for intel or resource gathering, but a Valus is law. Or at least, he was.
After a false start on Nessus, they'd brought the cruiser to Europa. The icy moon was crawling with thieving Fallen, but there were secrets buried in the ice. Dainty Human technology. It didn't interest him, but the Psions loved to tinker, and they insisted there was something here worthwhile.
Something that could catch the attention of an empress hoping to regain favor with her scattered people. Something that might win a soldier like him, with no valuable titles or reputation to his name, a new level of recognition.
And the respect he deserved.
As the voice of their so-called empress droned on from a beat-up radio, the soldiers ate. Commander Dracus picked at the bones of a roasted bird, gun laid across his lap. The little red-violet winged creatures on Nessus didn't have much meat on them, but they were challenging and satisfying to trap.
"What's she mean, 'ancient rites'?" a young Legionary asked.
The commander looked up.
"Old-timer traditions?" she went on.
Dracus snorted. "An honored tradition," he said. "Beloved by the Praetorate . Warriors take on challengers to prove their battle-worth." He eyed her. "Calves like you wouldn't remember that."
"Is it open to anyone?" the Legionary asked.
"Well," she growled. "Are you taking challengers?" She squared her weight. "You can start with me."
Dracus looked the bold youngling up and down, calculating the effort. He had no great desire to impress the disgraced emperor's pampered daughter. The leader he knew and served was the dominus , dead or alive. But maybe there was money to be gained from this. He wouldn't turn his nose up at the prospect.
He tossed the bird bones aside, lifted his gun, and fired a shot right into the Legionary's belly. She fell.
"I win," he said.
They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she'd risen far above her station in a fraction of her lifetime.
They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she pulled things from her mind that should be out of reach from memory.
They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because she grasped for everything she could not have.
It was all true. On the strange terrain of the Nessus centaur, Ixel had extracted herself from command. The Valus had been uncreative, small minded. He hadn't seen the value in the Vex technologies that might amplify Ixel's unique Psionic talents. So she killed him and poached the unit's best fighters.
Hard to say if this competition was open to traitors of the empire.
And yet somehow, this new empress, foolish though she was, might be inspired by bold action.
Not to mention the things Ixel could pull from the prediction engines. Intelligence beyond the empress's imagining.
They called her Ixel, the Far-Reaching because her ambition was limitless.