Sweet Susie’s fury at Jale’s deception blew itself out like a summer thunderstorm. She cursed Jale for a gullible, lying idiot. She offered to ventilate Jale’s foolish head, as a few openings into her thick cranium couldn’t hurt matters and might let in a bit of sense.
Jale accepted all this quietly, with equanimity and humility. Every so often she glanced at Christina while Sweet Susie railed. The void warlock had produced a coin from somewhere and was playing it along the backs of her fingers, rolling it from one side her hand to the other and back, while she stared off into the darkness. Christina appeared calm, but wouldn’t catch Jale’s eye.
Finally, when Sweet Susie took a breath, Jale asked: “Would you like to see the transmitter?”
Susie blew out the breath she’d just taken and stuck out her hand instead of saying anything. As Jale dug in her backpack for the device, Christina got up from her seat and walked over to them. Jale found the transmitter and handed it over to Sweet Susie. Susie examined it for only a few seconds before handing it to Christina and walking away to stand at the very edge of the cliff.
To break the silence, Jale explained to Christina how Lakshmi said the thing worked. Christina asked a few questions about specifics of how it worked and, of course, Jale could only respond with embarrassed admissions of ignorance. Christina finally nodded, handed the transmitter back to Jale, and walked away toward the doorway leading to the Templar’s Well. “All right, let’s get moving,” Christina said.
Jale followed and Sweet Susie fell in beside her. “Lakshmi put you in a bad spot, Jale, no doubt,” Susie said. “But keeping this from us until were inside the Vault was wrong. We want to be here just as much as you. There was no need to hide things from us to keep us committed to the mission.”
“I know it looks that way, Sweet,” Jale replied, her voice quiet with remorse, “but that never occurred to me. I was trying to keep it secret from the Hidden.”
“Aside from Lakshmi saying it, what makes you think the Hidden were watching us?”
“Nothing! I never even suspected it. But, they’re hidden. It’s in the name.”
Christina clucked her tongue in disgust. “You’re a student of philosophy, Jale. You know circular logic when you hear it. Lakshmi gave you bait, for her own purposes, and you took it for your own purposes. Don’t dress it up as anything else. We just have to hope that our interests and Lakshmi’s interests are closely enough aligned that the transmitter, or whatever it is, will actually help us.”
Jale didn’t respond, and the group continued on in silence for quite a while. The cavernous space around them ate the small sounds of their footsteps. Following the route taken by the raid party that had defeated Atheon, they found themselves on a clifftop overlooking the Templar’s Well.
A pinprick of pure white light shone up from the center of the Well below them. There was no movement or sign of opposition. Jale thought she could hear singing. The voice was male, a rich tenor that reached out to her in a completely unexpected way. She couldn’t make out the words of the song, but she knew she wanted to hear more. Jale smiled and looked at her friends. “Let’s go. I think it’s coming from the light,” she said and leapt down.
“Jale, wait! What light?” Sweet Susie said and jumped after Jale.
Christina didn’t move. “Something’s wrong, Susie. I’m staying here to watch for snipers. If the Confluxes or the Oracles appear, I’ll call them out. I don’t know what Jale is seeing. The entire area looks empty to me.”
The light became piercingly bright as Jale got closer to it. It didn’t blind her, though; instead, it revealed more and more of her surroundings. She could see how the stone and metal had been joined together. She could see meaning in the patterns that had been engraved into the floor. The history of this place and its construction seemed to be laid out before her, made plain by the light in the Well.
She walked on, tempted to close her eyes and just listen to song. The voice was stronger now and she thought she could make out some of the words. The source of the light began to take on form. It had angles that didn’t make sense to her eyes. She reach out to touch it and suddenly recognized the song. It was the War Hymn.
“There’s a massive tachyon burst streaming through here!” Christina’s ghost yelled to her. “That means—“
“Confluxes! Sweet Susie, prepare for incoming!” Christina screamed out. “The Templar is still here, the Confluxes are forming!”
All of Venus started shaking around her, and Sweet Susie’s jaw clenched in momentary terror. She was wondered if all that rock above them could come crashing down and obliterate them. That was the worst death she could imagine in the moment. Since she’d been resurrected and become a Guardian, she’d known that she would die fighting. Death in battle she could accept. Buried and helpless, powerless, was too awful to contemplate.
Jale was just standing there, her left hand stretched out to empty air. “Jale! Wake up, we need you!” Sweet Susie slapped Jale’s helmet and voltage discharged from her fingers, rocking the warlock’s head back. Jale stumbled backward and fell. Light began flooding the platform around them, the various pillars and walls casting stark black shadows over the two warlocks.
Christina’s head swiveled from left to right. She considered angles and firing lines, then she jumped into the Well. “I count twenty-three Confluxes, Sweet. I don’t know how we’re going to defend that many. I’m coming down. I won’t be able to do enough good from up here without a sniper rifle. What’s Jale’s status?”
“She’s stupefied or in a coma or something. We may have to do this on our own. Did you say twenty Confluxes? We’re going to have to move quick to defend that many. The Guardians who killed Atheon only reported three Confluxes here.”
“Twenty-three,” Jale suddenly said, her voice clear but unfocused, “a prime number. That’s interesting.”
Sweet Susie turned from the top of the steps. She’d left Jale in the depression at the center of the Well and gone to meet Christina. Now that Jale had spoken, she started back down toward her. “It’s about to get very interesting indeed. Where did you get that?”
Jale’s left arm was now bathed in blue-white light. What appeared to be a diamond shaped plate a meter across in size sat on the same arm. “You couldn’t see it? How could you miss it? It was giving off so much light, I could see everything. Could you hear the song?”
Christina landed beside Sweet Susie. “We don’t have time to discuss what happened, we have to move! The Confluxes are formed and the Vex will be trying to get into them any second.”
Sweet Susie nodded. “Christina and I will defend eight confluxes each. That leaves seven for you, Jale. I’ll take the right, Jale, you’re in the center, Christina, you take the left. Look for chokepoints and try to get as many as you can with grenades. Call out Hobgoblins as you see them. Jale, you’re on sniper duty. Watch everything, always be moving! Keep them out of the Confluxes or the energy discharge will kill us. Go!”
Sweet Susie and Christina bounced off in opposite directions, leaving Jale to cover the middle. The relic shone on her arm. It didn’t weigh her down at all, and though it gave off considerable light, there was no heat. Examining it more closely, she could see that its central structure was diamond-shaped, with antenna-like protrusions coming off two sides. It was made of some kind of silvery metal. At its very center was a dark symbol shaped like an hourglass. She tilted the relic at a different angle to get a better look at the symbol. It wasn’t an hourglass. It was the pupil of an eye, and it was looking at her.
She gasped, and the impression of the relic looking at her was gone. It still felt powerful and strange, but not aware. That was a relief.
The Vault surprised them again. With no warning, each of the twenty-three Confluxes began vomiting out a torrent of Harpies, the flying pyramidal shaped Vex units. They flew in strange geometric patterns, shifting and grouping like a flock of birds guided by design rather than instinct.
As the Harpies’s guns opened up on the surrounded warlocks, rapid fire red bolts peppering the Guardians’ shields, Sweet Susie felt only calm. “They’re not going to the Confluxes, they’re coming out of the Confluxes. I’m going to clear a path to the both of you. Form up on me!”
Her mind did the trick of calling the storm. Arc energy convulsed out of her. She rose off the ground and swept forward, Harpies exploding all around her. The patterns they’d made in the air became designs written in flame.
Christina and Jale sprinted toward Sweet Susie and the protection of the arc energy flowing out of her. Jale was closest and was by her friend’s side in a couple of seconds. Christina felt herself being pummeled by concentrated fire from the Harpies. Jale and Sweet Susie saw Christina’s shield fail. The void warlock’s voice was stressed but not panicked. “I’m not—“ but her voice was cut off as she fell under the rain of fire.
Christina’s body jumped and juddered as the Harpies shot her corpse. Jale used the misplaced concentration of her enemies to begin picking them off with rapid but precise shots from her scout rifle. The central red eye of the Harpies made for a satisfyingly obvious target.
Sweet Susie descended to the ground and the energy that had been pouring out of her fizzled out in a staticky gasp. “They’re still coming out of the confluxes. How do we destroy them?” she asked, her voice tight. She raised the red and black pulse rifle known as the Red Death. The weapon was infamous and Sweet Susie could still hardly believe the Cryptarch had let her have it. Its history was liberally splashed with death and destruction. But that was what she needed now.
They needed to cut off the incoming flow of Harpies. Jale desperately tried to recall everything she knew about confluxes. They were altars and doorways for the Vex. They linked to the Nexus in some way that Vex units could utilize, but that did not admit Guardians. These confluxes were working in reverse of the ones that had been observed everywhere else, in that Vex units were coming out of them instead of going in. That meant they were converting energy to mass at a terrific rate. She started trying to do thermodynamics calculations and then shook her head in frustration. “I’m just going to try to kill them with fire!”
Jale tossed two solar grenades into the nearest conflux and watched with satisfaction as the energy matrix stuttered, flared, and then went out. “Yep, that worked!”
The Harpies could not hurt Sweet Susie quickly enough to counteract the vampiric effect of Red Death. The arc warlock moved quickly and deliberately, observing enemy fire lanes and avoiding them. She used their numbers against them by shifting so they had to reposition or risk hitting each other. Sweet Susie exploited every lull in fire to take down more of her enemies and replenish her own body and shields. “This is what it feels like to be a god,” she thought. The burns that penetrated through her armor to her skin were healed as the Harpies crashed to the ground and exploded under her gun.
With the majority of the fire directed at Sweet Susie, Jale was able to take a few potshots and then get to Christina’s inert body. The dead Guardian’s ghost hovered over her. Jale concentrated for a moment, reached out to the ghost and in a flash Christina was back up. “Throw grenades into the confluxes,” Jale explained briefly, before running off to burn down another of the Vex energy constructs.
A protracted battle of attrition ensued. Fewer and fewer Harpies appeared as the confluxes were destroyed. Jale nearly forgot about the relic glowing on her arm until an enemy round hit it and was absorbed harmlessly. After that she used it as shield.
Finally, only one conflux remained. Bits of silicon and carbon fiber crunched underfoot like frost on grass. The Templar’s Well was theirs, claimed by combat once again.
Jale raised her hand to throw a grenade into the remaining pillar of woven energetic particles that comprised the conflux when her ghost interrupted. “Give me a moment to examine it, please.”
She dropped her hand and the ghost zipped over to the conflux. Christina and Sweet Susie’s ghosts followed. They circled the Vex construct for almost a minute, stopping intermittently and chirping quizzically to each other. Sweet Susie heaved a sigh of impatience. “Come on, Ghost. What’s so interesting?”
The trio of floating computers stopped and looked at each other. They gave a funny little unanimous nod and then turned as one toward the Guardians. “You’re not going to like it,” Jale’s ghost intoned.
“Get on with it,” chivvied Sweet Susie.
“As you know, the confluxes are transfer nodes. Somewhat analogous to an I/O node on a computer, except they operate in four to twenty-two dimensions depending on their function. These particular confluxes were transferring in Harpies from the sacrifice points witnessed on various different planets for years.”
“Wow,” Christina said, “so those flying rust buckets were from a bunch of different times and places?”
“Yes. That’s not the bad part, though. The energy that you fed back into them from your grenades—that went directly to power the Templar and its basically invulnerable shield.”
Sweet Susie swept her gun up. “Is it coming here, now?”
Her ghost gave the impression of wincing. “No. The energy was transferred to an earlier temporal instance of the Templar. It apparently required the energy to engage in a combat sequence.”
Jale’s stomach dropped. “Wait. Are you telling us that we just helped give the Templar power to fight Guardians in the past?”
“I told you that you weren’t going to like it. We can dismantle this conflux, disperse its energy into the surrounding environment here, but it’s going to take a while. Get comfortable.”
The Guardians sat and rested while the ghosts puttered and scanned the conflux. No other harpies emerged. Watching the conflux’s light dim, Sweet Susie asked, “So where did you get the shield, Jale? And what music were you hearing?”
“I really don’t know how you could have missed it. It was giving off enough light that it could have been a small star! I think the song was coming from it as well. The War Hymn of the Firebreak Order of Titans. I’m pretty sure this is one of the relics described by the second raid party. The raid party that destroyed Atheon.”
“We couldn’t see the relic or hear any music, Jale,” Christina said.
“Well, you can both see it now, so it isn’t a hallucination. Or, if it is, it’s a group hallucination. Side note, can either of you name a famous titan who was a member of the Firebreak Order?”
When both Sweet Susie and Christina shook their heads Jale continued. “Kabr,” she said, her voice filled with satisfaction and excitement, “the leader of the original fireteam that tried and failed to take down Atheon, becoming lost in the Vault in the process.”
Jale’s companions looked at each other and then back at her. “What do you think it means?” Sweet Susie finally asked.
Jale’s reply was almost jubilant. “I have no idea!”
Eventually, the group moved on, descending farther into Vault. Compared to the challenges faced by the other Raid parties, they’d encountered very little resistance so far, Jale reflected. The Vex were, by nature, difficult to comprehend or defeat. They turned their losses into advantages in unexpected ways. Time was always on their side.
Christina was leading the way, and her companions had to come to an unexpected standstill behind her when she suddenly stopped walking. “I have a confession I need to make.”
“Geez, what now?” Sweet Susie groaned.
Christina sighed. “I’m terrified of the Gorgons. We’ve all faced enemies that could have killed us. Really killed us, taken our ghosts and stripped the Light from us. But, if we correctly understand what they do, the Gorgons are different. They can erase you from existence. I will never have been. Or, they might erase one or both of you, in which case I’ll be left alone down here. Nothing else we know about the Vault scares me as much as those things.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Finally, Jale spoke up. “I don’t know what we’ll find when we go out there. But I know there’s no one else I would rather have with me. If something strange and horrible happens to you, Christina, it’s going to happen to me as well.”
Christina nodded and hoped that her voice didn’t sound thick with the tears that she felt coming, but wouldn’t let out. “Thanks, Jale.”
“And I promise that if the Gorgons eat the both of you, I will use that opportunity to run like hell,” Sweet Susie interjected. The group laughed and the tension broke. They continued on into the gray light of the Gorgon’s Labyrinth.