The kneelers in the throne room of the Necropolis held their pose for a long moment, just long enough for the full weight of the consequences Riddick had just cursed himself with to register.
You keep what you kill. And he'd just killed the genocidal army's Lord Marshal. Fuck.
He wouldn't have bet on them honoring that creed now, not with the First Among Commanders in active competition for the same job. On the other hand, he wouldn't bet on his odds of escaping the Armada alive if he rejected it, either. He might outclass most of their warriors one on one, even fifty on one, but there were a hell of a lot of them. And he wasn't exactly at his best.
Riddick passed an armored glove down his face, then lifted his eyes to the genuflecting men and women in front of him, and wondered what the official etiquette was in this situation. Not that he was given to following rules in general, but knowing which were in play was half the fun of breaking them. And playing along would at least buy him time.
For what, he'd have to figure out as he went along. What else was he going to do? The only home he'd known for the last five years had been invaded by bounty hunters; the last living humans he might have called friend were either dead on the streets of their home planet or cooling at his feet; and what had the universe ever done for him, anyway?
Lord Vaako rose again as their gazes met, and supplied the next step for him. "Lord Marshal Riddick. What is your first order?"
He would have expected a question like that to be followed by a pause for answer. But Vaako, probably worrying how Riddick might fill it, took that on himself, too. "Shall I have the convert taken back to the priestesses, or ejected into space with the other ... garbage?" His gaze tracked down to Riddick's feet, then over his shoulder toward a cleared space behind the kneeling masses where a pair of servant-types in dark, flowing garb quietly rolled Zhylaw's corpse onto a stretcher.
Priestesses. Or garbage. The implication took a moment to register; then Riddick glanced back down at Kyra, slumped at his feet, still warm from her last breath. Long curly hair pulled back into a braid and dark wounds on either side of her throat: she was almost unrecognizable either as the fierce woman who'd raged at him on Crematoria or the defiant youth he'd met on Hades. But despite the outer trappings, she'd still been his pack.
Bait like that, there'd definitely be a cost. Probably wanted to keep his position, after his obvious betrayal of the last Lord Marshal. But the fact that Vaako had presented the option at all was ... intriguing. Maybe his past experiences weren't as inapplicable here as he'd thought.
"Priestesses. Seems a waste to lose my best lieutenant before she even has a chance to join the fight," Riddick replied, voice low and rumbling with a hint of threat.
Vaako inclined his head and made a quick, sharp gesture. A pair of the guards nearest him, low-rankers clad all in muted silver and black with the anonymizing helmets Riddick had used to secure his own covert entry, swiftly scrambled to their feet and moved to lift Kyra from the floor.
Riddick carefully didn't stare at the blood pool left behind on the floor, or the footsoldiers as they carried her away. Vaako – now, by right of his acceptance of the other man's right to make the offer, his First Among Commanders, if his read here was right – was clearly the more imminent concern.
Riddick would wager a guess his Lady had been behind Vaako's move on the throne ... and failed to appreciate its outcome, from the curdled look of apprehension on her face. Power was always a draw to a certain type; if it'd been her holding the halberd, she'd probably have gone for him next rather than kneeling at his feet. But her husband was apparently a believer in the system: there were always a few in every Slam. It had been the Faith thing that had thrown him. But it was just another kind of hierarchy in the end.
"How stands the Legion Vast, Commander?" he asked, leaning into the role.
"The ranks have been restored, and the Conquest Icons stand ready to cleanse the surface of Helion Prime at the Lord Marshal's command," Vaako said, crisply. A pinching at the corner of eyes and mouth suggested he knew Riddick wasn't likely to give that command; but he continued on despite that, once again offering more information than Riddick had asked for. "Our Elemental guest also awaits final disposition."
Elemental guest? The Air woman from the Imam's. The one who'd spoken of balance, and asked if there were any others like him. If she was still alive, then there was a reason.
Not that Riddick didn't already have reason enough to confront her. If she'd never come to Helion Prime, things would be very different. Maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different. Even before revenge – and the greater good could go fuck itself – choice mattered, and like everyone else with a scrap of authority he'd ever met, she'd done her best to make his for him. Second piece of bait: definitely leading up to something. But he'd take it, for now.
"Aereon," he replied, lip curling. "Good call. Bring her to me – somewhere private. And cancel the cleansing – I've got other plans for the planet."
Vaako gave him a sharp bow, dark eyes glinting with satisfaction. "As you wish, Lord Marshal. Follow me."
Riddick fell in behind the man as he turned to go, and met the eyes of each of the other Lords Commander, rising finally to their feet, as they passed. None of them looked happy, but none seemed ready to buck both him and Vaako yet, either.
Good. Whatever happened next, that would give him room to move.
Already a step up from any Slam he'd been sent to before. Maybe this time, he would get to take something more than just his freedom with him when he shook its dust from his feet.
The room Vaako led him to was all silver metal, Void-dark draperies, and sharp-edged statues, like the rest of the Armada's décor. The smaller throne and data display – clearly meant for the Lord Marshal's use – were no surprise to him either, nor the clamp on the floor ready for a visitor's chains. The Air Elemental's arctic gaze as she coolly stared back at him was of a piece with all the rest of it, and made him glad he'd put his goggles back on before they met up with the soldiers escorting her there.
Riddick usually listened to his animal side when it gave him a warning. And a scene more designed to suppress every hint of free will under a blanket of cruel, unfeeling civilization, he had yet to find.
"'Unless the universe can rebalance itself,' you said," he drawled, tilting his head as he returned her stare. "So how'm I doing with that?"
"Surprisingly well for a man educated in the penal system," she snapped back, a bland smile curving her mouth.
Fronting with him, obviously. There was an unmistakable air of satisfaction in the crispness of her voice and the uprightness of her spine, despite her annoyed attitude. As if she took personal pleasure in what had happened in the throne room. Riddick's eyes narrowed as he considered that; just having dragged him to Helion Prime on a million and a half bounty seemed a bit much for that reaction.
Though that also raised the question of how she'd been there to issue the bounty in the first place. If she'd really been touring the universe just to ask folk if they'd ever met anyone who'd been strangled at birth, what were the odds she'd find the house of Abu al-Walid? Had mystical calculation really put her there? Or something a little more ... involved?
"You were looking for a Furyan," he said, spreading gauntleted arms wide. Well, you got one. "Mind filling me in on why?"
"You know why," she parried, raising one milk-pale brow.
"Spell it out for me," he growled. "One of your kind made a prophecy."
Elementals were a secretive race, but there was a reason they usually popped up in the role of seer in interstellar fairytales. He wondered how many of them had had 'self-fulfilling' as a feature.
He smile faded into an intent frown. "A foretelling," she admitted after a long moment, conceding the point. "A prediction. I spoke to the Necromonger Commander who would one day become Lord Marshal Zhylaw, and told him a child would be born on the planet Furya that would someday cause his downfall."
Yeah, he'd called it. There had to be more to it, though. "I wasn't who you were expecting," he continued. The Imam's friends wouldn't have asked if he'd met any others like himself, if she had. Too much a roll of the dice for that to have been the original plan. "You thought the Furyans would stop him."
"I calculated they had the best chance. He was by far the most dangerous of the previous Lord Marshal's lieutenants; the odds that he would not rise to the throne next were quite negligible. Among the possible worlds in his path, Furya was by far the most prepared to face such a threat; certainly more than my own, which would be next if I did not advise him. And even if they did not succeed, any survivor would be ... particularly well positioned to pierce the defenses of a man who had seen the UnderVerse," she elaborated. Aereon's eyes dipped to his chest at the pause, right where the shape of a hand burned beneath his breastplate in iridescent light.
So she knew even that. Cold, but exactly the kind of brutal calculation he'd been suspecting. Fitting, then, that it gave him the excuse to deal with her in kind.
"Speaking of odds. How do you think that's about to work out for you?" he asked, lip lifting in a snarl.
Amusement touched that icy gaze, adding to the crawl of irritation along his nerves. "I think that if you want further answers about what is to come next, then you will seek out the one the Necromongers hold in their deepest cells," Aereon replied. "Your First Among Commanders will surely know where that is, if not who; she is one of the most deeply held secrets of each Lord Marshal in turn. He will not deny you access."
A weight settled in his stomach as Riddick realized they'd finally reached the real reason for her manipulations. Each Lord Marshal in turn. Even if cryo was involved, that was a time measurable in centuries. Whoever the Elemental spoke of couldn't have started out an ordinary example of humanity. Why they wanted her, he doubted she'd say; what mattered was that Aereon's people wanted her.
The other shoe dropping. Good thing he wasn't ordinary, either.
He gave into his instincts and palmed one of the knives worked into his borrowed armor, then shot a glance toward Vaako, who still stood sentry to one side of the room.
"Vaako?" he asked.
The Commander looked nearly as wary as he had in that brief moment before he'd knelt before the throne. "She speaks the truth," he said slowly, "though I do not know how she knows of it. The Slayer, like the Underverse, is for the eyes of the Lord Marshal only."
"Slayer, huh," Riddick snorted, eyeing the Elemental further. Then he nodded sharply. "Have someone take her back to containment. We'll decide whether she goes out with the garbage too, later. Then take me down to meet this secret. Something tells me it's going to be interesting."
Vaako nodded in acknowledgement once more, then obeyed, considerably more guardedly than before.
When Aereon had spoken of the Armada's deepest cells, she hadn't exaggerated. Dame Vaako had called the Lord Marshal's ship the Necropolis, spoken of it as a cathedral that had been sheathed in hullmetal and lifted to the stars, and it definitely showed in the catacombs beneath the throne. A maze of twisty passages, walled in what looked like actual stone, led to a series of dark holes not much bigger than the cages on Crematoria. Only one was occupied, electronic door lock active and a faint spill of light issuing from beneath.
Riddick stepped up even with it and nodded to Vaako, his intention clear.
The Commander swallowed, then set his hand to the lockplate and stepped back, eyes averted as though to make sure he didn't see whatever was inside. Still playing by whatever esoteric rules drove him.
Useful, for now. What the opening door exposed within the cell though ... struck Riddick at first sight as less so.
An active cryotube half-filled the room: a much more intensive system than the usual needle-in-the-vein prep that modern travelers used to skip the long jumps between stars. The regular drugs slowed metabolism to a crawl, left most people deep under for the duration, beyond the reach of even dreams. Cryotubes like this one were another step beyond: old tech, from the first migrations out from Earth, adding extreme cold and fluid suspension to the mix. You could slumber a hundred years in one of those and wake maybe a hundred days biologically older, at most. But even the most suppressed human mind usually failed to deal long-term with that level of sensory deprivation. There was a reason they'd mostly gone out of use.
The woman inside would have been much slighter than him, even well fed and awake: probably tall enough to come up to his collarbones and built with whipcord muscle, not bulk. She was all over pale, hair a few shades darker than Aereon's but much lighter than Vaako's, and had gone in wearing light, flowing garb even less armored than the Armada's priests.
There was nothing else in the cell: just a chair set facing the cryochamber. It was made of dark, heavy metal and anchored straight into the floor, so out of step with the rest of the shiny, lethal decorating scheme that it had to have been put there with definite and immovable intention.
He stepped in, letting the door shut behind him, and considered the control panel on the chamber. There was a keypad just below the display showing the woman's vitals; he considered it, then went with the obvious.
Eighteen letters, minus the spaces. A little long, but the only reason he was here. The panel blinked, then lit up in acceptance, and aging machinery began to kick into motion: you keep what you kill.
"Huh," he said under his breath. Then he settled into the chair to wait, tapping the blade he'd palmed against his thigh. Fortunately, it wasn't likely to take long; the machines had been built as much for efficiency as endurance and expediency. Had to be, when the first ships that used them took decades just to reach the next star, and even the engineers and medics were among the sleepers.
She was aware long before the awakening sequence finished: posture braced for the return of gravity, eyes opened as soon as they were clear. Another sign, if he'd needed one, that she was something special. She couldn't speak with the thick door still walling them apart, but she could look, and did, eyes scanning over every inch of him from boots to knife to the goggles concealing his gaze.
Interesting, indeed. He removed the goggles and stood, returning the favor as the last of the fluid drained away into the bottom of the chamber. Even with the glass still between them, she blazed with energy to his unshielded gaze, like a human-shaped shell with a bonfire at its heart.
She was still dripping when the door slid open, shoulder-length hair slicked back from her face, but that affected her about as much as it would have him: the sharpness of her stance as familiar as the shrewdness of her gaze, a little like looking into a mirror.
Definitely not an Elemental herself, then; between their tricks and their obsession with 'balance', they weren't known for their capacity for violent action. But if that woman wasn't as deadly as he was, Riddick would eat his armored boots.
Someone worthy of the name Slayer. But if he had to guess, it wasn't the one she was born with. "Got a name?" he asked, smiling at her in wry challenge.
Her mouth pursed in annoyance. "Do you?" she replied.
Definitely a woman's voice; and one used to the habits of command, from the strength of her tone. Not an ounce of fear in her scent either as she continued. "Which one are you, anyway? Is it the Seventh Lord Marshal, now? Or the Eighth? I kind of expected the last guy's favorite tag-along next."
He raised an eyebrow in query; in silent answer, she glanced toward the door – no, the wall next to the door. Probably where Vaako was standing on the other side. She might not know his name, but she knew he was there, somehow. Apparently recognized him, too.
"Beat him to the punch," Riddick replied, bemused. "Prophecy thing, apparently. An Elemental told me that I'd find you here, and he showed me where."
She scoffed at that, stepping out of the chamber with fluid grace; in the confines of the cell, she was barely an arm's length away from him now. Precision in every movement, like a dancer or a warrior: definitely a woman in touch with her own animal side. "Balance keepers. I really wish I'd followed through on that ribcage hat, all those years ago. No matter what 'verse I'm in, they're all the same."
Not a word of that made sense – other than the fact that she might have come from their Underverse. "So if you're no friend of Aereon's, then why'm I here?"
"She sent you. Not ... anyone else." Her gaze traveled over him again, lingering on the lack of purification scars at his throat this time. "They didn't do the neck-stabby thing until the third guy, you know; the one who decided one world of worshipers wasn't enough. But they always do it, now; they like to brag about how easy it makes to keep the converts loyal. Why are you here if you're not a Necromonger?"
"Wasn't, before. But apparently you keep what you kill." He spread his arms wide: what can you do?
If he'd thought she was interesting before, the animation that flooded into her at that admission was like the difference between night and day. A bonfire; no, she was a supernova barely leashed.
"Prophecy, you said. So was this the kind of prophecy that's about endings, or beginnings?" she asked, stepping forward again until she was standing practically on his boots.
Something told him she'd been waiting a damned long time for this. And that he really had very little reason to stand in her way. "Endings, for some. My people. And now the fucker that killed them. Didn't really say much about what came next."
"Open-ended, huh," she said softly, eyes predator-bright. "You have any feelings one way or another about their so-called Faith, then?"
Riddick ran through the things he'd heard the Necros say on the subject: "You keep what you kill. Convert now, or fall forever. Cleanse this 'verse of life, and rise again in Underverse." He shrugged. "Not like this universe is any great prize. But my place in it is mine. I don't see why I should be in any hurry to give it up. Or take anyone else's away from them – provided they don't get in my way."
"Even if it's perfect?" she asked, strangely intent. "Even if everyone you ever lost will be there waiting?"
He couldn't help but picture Fry, then: There's gotta be some part of you that wants to rejoin the human race. The Imam, when the cops burst into his home: Will you wait one minute to save worlds? Kyra, back in the throne room, if Vaako had been bluffing: I was always with you. I was.
Then he shook it off, irritation rising to compete with intrigue. Riddick raised his empty hand, intending to wrap it around the woman's throat: not to kill, but to warn her just whose mind she was trying to fuck with.
She caught it before he could, one slender arm sweeping up lightning-fast to block, smacking against his with enough force to bruise. And more: her other hand caught at the knife as he cut out at her in reflex, fingers seizing his with unexpected strength. The blade fell from his fingers as she put pressure on the joint; he flexed his arm to jerk free, but won only a slightly loosening of her grip, leaving their hands clasped together between their chests.
He snarled. "If they died in due time, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean," he growled darkly, glaring down at her. "If they ended up the same place I did; which no god worth their prayer would do to their followers. Not a one of 'em would thank me for it. And what the hell would I do in Paradise?"
She didn't relent. "Even if it offered you infinite power?" she demanded.
He curled his lip in contempt: both at the concept, and at the obvious test. "Sure didn't seem to do the last guy much good."
She twisted her body for a sweep kick, pivoting around their locked arms to aim one petite foot at his chest; he dodged, pulling her with him, and turned to throw her up against the wall of the room. Somewhere between the intent and the motion, though, she blurred away from his grip: not like Zhylaw had, throwing his quicksilver shadow ahead of him, but through pure speed. Dainty toes kicked the knife to a corner, then shoved against the chair taking up so much of the space to launch their momentum in a different direction, and before he knew it he was against the wall instead, side of one hand pressed like a blade against his throat. Almost as if to warn him who he was trying to fuck with.
"Wouldn't have done you much good either," she said, with transparently false cheer. "I've been through their Underverse, trying to rescue people from – somewhere else. It isn't really a Paradise; it shows you what you want to see, to lull you into believing its other lies. The people you meet there aren't really your friends; they're part of the illusion, figments of your own mind. The power it offers comes at the cost of your soul, and only continues as long as you keep feeding it energy from lives taken in its name."
Riddick tested his strength against hers again, pushing her away; he budged her just far enough for her to shift her balance, bracing her other hand against his chest – just where a certain vision had done the same, back on the hellworld where the only other Furyan he'd ever met had walked into molten air rather than serve the Necromongers one moment longer. We all began as something else.
Her breath caught, almost as if she felt it too, and her expression wavered in sudden uncertainty. Riddick took the opportunity to finally break free of her grip. "And I suppose I'm the first one you've told this to," he drawled as he shoved her away from him.
"Of course not," she replied acidly, catching herself against the back of the chair. This time she stayed put, expression falling in tired lines. "I told Covu exactly what that place was. But he was already Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs before his ship caught me coming out of the portal, trying to get back to my original universe. He heard what he wanted to hear. And every Lord Marshal since has thought the cost was worth the prize."
"Until me," he said, thoughtfully. So that was why the test. Though he had to wonder why she'd bothered to set it. Purification scars aside, how could she know he'd be any different?
"You didn't bring the binders," she answered unasked, one corner of her mouth pulling up. "And you asked my name. It's Buffy, by the way. Buffy Summers."
"Richard B. Riddick," he replied, amused. "Call me Riddick. Vaako out there, he called you Slayer."
Buffy snorted. "I fit better into the mythology that way. Couldn't actually let me talk to the minions; I might disrupt the little death cult they got going. Better to keep me as a symbol; a holy harbinger or something. By the time they made it to Underverse and started looking for another galaxy to conquer, even I might have gone crazy enough to point the way back home."
"Suppose that's why the Elemental sent me your way. Thought she could use your truths to break this army. Just in case setting me up to kill the Lord Marshal wasn't enough."
She laughed at that, a sharp, bitter sound. "Of course she did. Balance avatars: they all run on calculations. But they miss the little things. They've believed in this bullshit for centuries now; all these tin soldiers are not gonna turn on their heels just because I say so. They'll say I'm an impostor: kill the unbeliever."
Riddick tilted his head at her. "And yet you don't sound like a woman who's given up."
A smile, slow and sharp as the blade of a knife, curved across Buffy's face. "You don't break an army like this one by rapping it across the nose and telling it to go home. You give it an irresistible target. You lead it all the way there, just to make sure. And then you shatter them when they're least expecting it."
The mark on his chest stung in a rush of sudden heat: the Rage of Furya, resonating with the words. Irresistible target, huh. Just so happened he had one of those in mind: Quintessa, home of a certain Elemental.
Vaako would do most of the job for him, if Riddick told him that was where he wanted to go. Give Kyra time to recover, and a chance to play her favorite game. And he didn't think the woman in front of him would object either, from what she'd said so far. Especially not if she had the know-how to back up the plan.
"Sounds like the voice of experience," he said, more intrigued than ever.
"Something like that," she replied, lightly. "So are you going to let me out of here, or what?"
He might almost think he was in that wish-granting Underverse of hers already, if not for the disheveled tangles forming in her hair and the wrinkles in her garb; he didn't think it could have conjured up a more perfect woman for him if it had tried. And that wasn't just the five years alone on an ice-world talking.
"Oh, this I've got to see first-hand. But there's one more thing we gotta negotiate, first," he replied, smirking. She'd been close enough for him to track the speed of her pulse during that little hand-to-hand grapple; he didn't think he'd been mistaking the signs. Might as well aim to have his cake and eat it, too.
"Yeah?" she replied, warily. "And what's that?"
"Culture like this one," he shrugged nonchalantly. "If you wanna lead with me, you gotta share power. Think there might be some currency in their new Misbeliever Lord Marshal landing Covu's Harbinger as his Dame?"
Her eyebrows shot up at the question; but she looked him up and down again too, and didn't back away when he stepped forward to close the space between them. "And by Dame you mean...?"
Riddick tilted Buffy's chin up with one rough finger, then smirked at the warring irritation and curiosity in her gaze. "What do you think?" he said, then leaned down to slant his mouth over hers.
She stilled under the touch for one hesitant moment – then opened her mouth in turn, dragging her teeth against his lower lip and snaking an arm up around his neck to pull her up against him. His hands slid under her thighs to hold her in place as the kiss deepened – and then broke, leaving sparks of passion sizzling in the air in its wake.
"Promising," he murmured, grinning down at her. "So what do you say, Dame Summers?"
She bit her lip, then smiled again, sharp and sure.