Evening’s Empires: A Short Story
The Trues had conquered Ceres, the Koronis Emirates, and half a hundred lesser kingdoms and republics, and as they began to probe the defences of Mars the Czarina dispatched twenty of her paladins to search for the armill of one of her ancestors, which was believed to augment the wisdom of its wearer and control secret caches of powerful weapons and squads of shellback troopers from the long ago.
After adventures in the deserts and mountains of the red planet, fighting bandits, dust ghouls, and rogue gene wizards and their monstrous offspring, the paladin was riding through the trackless forests of the Hellas Basin when she discovered a circular lake with a slim, bone-white tower rising from its centre. As she approached the slender bridge that arched between shore and tower, another rider came out of the trees and challenged her: a rogue paladin whose armour, like hers, had lost its devices and beacons to battle-damage and sandstorms. They drew their vorpal blades and spurred their chargers and flew at each other. Their chargers bit and mauled each other and collapsed; the paladins fought on into the night. Sparks and flames from their clashing blades lit up the lake and the tower, and the red rain of their blood speckled the stones of the shore. Both were grievously wounded, but neither would yield. At last, the paladin dispatched her enemy with a killing thrust, but when she wrenched off his helmet she discovered that he was her own brother. As she wept over his body a man dressed in black furs appeared. He gathered her into his arms and carried her across the bridge, into the tower. She glimpsed the armill, a slim platinum bracelet set on a bolster inside a crystal reliquary; then its guardian carried her down a spiral stair to a basement room, stripped off her damaged armour, and lowered her into the casket of an ancient medical engine.
When the paladin woke, she was hungry and thirsty, and very weak. The room was dark, the stairs were blocked by rubble, her armour was gone. After she clawed her way out, she discovered that the tower was in ruins. There was no sign of the reliquary and its guardian, and the lake was dry and the forest all around was a wasteland of ash and charred stumps.
She had been asleep for a century. Mars had fallen to the Trues. The Czarina and her family were long dead; her battalions and her ships were destroyed or scattered. The last paladin dug up the grave of the brother she had killed, put on his armour, and went out into the world and waged a long and terrible war against the conquerors of Mars. She was a fierce and relentless enemy, driven by remorse and guilt. She killed everyone who pursued her, including five suzerains, and raised an army of brigands and sacked the ancient capital. But nothing could atone for the mortal sin that had derailed her quest. When she and the tattered remnant of her army were at last cornered in the Labyrinth of the Night by five squadrons of elite shock troopers, she died with her dead brother’s name on her lips.