Praetor: A Tale of the Imperial Guard
Written by Dannell Lites, Edited
A TALE OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
I am Mouli Senah Kallark
Bel Farsi. I am called many things; Praetor Pontifex, The Emperor's Shield and
Fist of The Imperium. I am best known as Gladiator. But my *name* is Mouli. It
means "Loyal One" and I am justly proud of it. I am the last of my
kind. Search among the stars and you will not find my like anywhere. They are
all dead. The Shi'ar found me buried deep among the ancient asteroid ruins of a
destroyed planet and cloned me. They will not tell me about myself or what they
know of my vanished people. It may be that they know nothing. But, I suspect
they are afraid. This is shameful to me. I wonder what I have done to deserve
their punishment. I am loyal. In an unending line that goes back for over a
thousand generations there have been Gladiators who served the Imperium. When
one dies they make another. I am a soldier. I have no other purpose. I have my
duty and I obey it.
But I do not always enjoy it.
Deathbird tasks me. The sister of Lilandra,
the Majetrix Shi'ar, is mad. But I am bound to serve her. Her brother the
Emperor D'Ken was mad also and yet, I served him faithfully as well. But the
Shi'ar no longer speak of him. There is madness in the Royal House of Neramani
and no one will speak of it. Deathbird is petty and cruel but I endure her many
slights and her verbal abuse. I say nothing. She fears me and so must constantly
prove to herself that I am no threat with these endless, meaningless small and
hurtful things. She will make me bow before her and publicly acknowledge her
station. This is irksome. I am not vain. Proud, yes, but not vein. Gladly would
I give her proper obedience ... did she not *require* it of me. But power such
as mine is a frightening thing. These hands can move mountains, lay waste to
Yes, Deathbird is right to fear me.
My temper is quick. I know this about myself.
It has been the death of more than one Gladiator. When I was young my teachers
were very strict with me. "Govern yourself, Kallarch," they demanded
of me. "You will be the better for it." They did not say, "Unless
you do you are dangerous." They did not have to. It was not necessary.
And, above all, they are very *wise* men, my
Hala is ... disturbing.
I am bound to the Shi'ar by blood and my own
will. To be an obedient soldier is my pride. It is the heart of what I am. I
have never desired to be ought else. And still these Kree trouble me. They are
stubborn and stiff necked. But there is pride in this futile resistance of
theirs. This is a thing that I understand, this pride.
"You wouldn't understand," my mad
mistress sneers at me when I ask why they must die. "You are not Shi'ar."
No, I am not.
But Deathbird does herself no great service
to remind me of that.
I wonder ... My unknown people ...
Would they have resisted the Imperium as the
Kree do? Would they have succeeded, I wonder? Perhaps it is my pride that
speaks, but if I am any example, the Shi'ar would have found them no soft
target, I think.
Such thoughts are heresy, I know this. But
they prowl my dreams and my waking hours alike, persistent beasts of prey. They
plague me these Kree. Why will they not do the sensible thing and surrender?
Cease these foolish struggles of theirs? The Guard is restless. We are warriors,
not jailers. The others chafe and complain under Deathbird's lash. Matters are
uneasy. But still they obey me. They have not, any of them, fallen so far as
*that*. Am I not their Praetor, after all? Never before have I failed them.
Oracle, the Lady Sybil, warns me of the
future. "Mouli," she says to me in confidence, "none of us are
happy. Can we not go home? Away from this madness?"
And I have no good answer for her.
"Lead us Home, Praetor," demands
Lead us ... Lead us ...
But where shall I lead them? Where *is* our
Home? Where is *my* Home?
"Your heart knows, Mouli," replies
Sybil. "Listen when it speaks to you."
Even when it speaks treason?
"You trouble me, woman," I growl.
"But you will heed me," she
prophecies merrily, "will you not?"
"Because it is my pleasure!" I snap
at her, annoyed, as ever, by her certainty and my own transparency.
"And you will aid the Kree?" she
asks, less sure of this. I am pleased by that.
"Because it is my pleasure!" I cry
and stamp my foot. Her laughter is like music, high and clear and most pleasing
to my ears. Her lover's kiss is like starlight deep and soft and sweet upon my
"Brothers!" she chuckles, to the
rest of the anxious, waiting Guard, "we have misjudged him. Our Praetor
will not lead us Home because it is his duty ..."
"No!" I snarl, growing more wroth.
"... Our Praetor will not lead us Home
to aid the Kree . . . "
" ... Our Praetor will not lead us Home
even to spite the mad Viceroy Deathbird ... "
" ... Our Praetor will lead us Home ...
because it is his pleasure ... "
Clever, clever woman! To so use my own pride
against me. Sybil knows me well. My eyes narrow in irritation.
"Thy mother was a Skrull .. . " I
mutter weakly in Old Shi'ar. The Lady of Shi'ar only laughs her tinkling laugh
"Careful, my love," she advises
archly, murmuring into the bright flesh of my neck as she caresses me with her
small, gentle hands. "What, after all, does that make *you*?" My
deeper laughter joined hers and for a good long time silence reigns between us.
Words are clumsy things at times. Any good telepath will tell you that. And
Sybil is the best. There are none better in all the Empire. She sighed and
settled into the hollow of my shoulder.
"Mouli, please," she pleaded
softly, "Take us Home. Before it's too late. Before we lose
So be it, then. A soldier is also a man and a
man has many duties; to his superiors, to others ... and not least of all to
himself. I have forgotten this. My teachers fought long to teach me restraint
and honor and they have triumphed in this matter.
But, I do not think they would admire their
My teachers taught me many things; loyalty
and the arts of a fighting man. I am a fine tactician and the history of warfare
is well known to me. I was carefully trained. I was to be the Emperorís Shield
and the Fist of the Imperium and so my teachers took great care with me. From my
infancy I heard stories of other Gladiators, my predecessors and longed to
imitate their great feats of heroism and glory.
"Patience, small one," they smiled
at me for they were fond of me in their way, "you will take your place
among them one day. But first you must learn." And so they schooled me in
my hard lessons of fealty and war. When I failed them they punished me with
remorse and guilt. They had no other weapons.
"We are very disappointed in you,
Kallach," they told me. "Are gratitude and forthrightness so foreign
to your nature that you cannot learn them? For shame!"
They did *not* teach me that honor comes in
many forms. And glory ...
For millennia a Shi'ar Commander who brings
ignominious defeat to the enemies of the Imperium has enjoyed the triumph of a
Blooding. With great pomp, he or she is celebrated throughout the Empire in song
and dance by the greatest artists of the day at a tumultuous public Festival.
The Vizir draws their blood and that of the sovereign and they are joined with
the reigning Majestrix. In ancient days it was an actual marriage of state. I
was 15 the first time it happened to me, the proudest day of my life. Leading
the Fleet for the first time, I left the Illyrians bleeding and broken in my
wake. I drew my blood with a fingernail, the Vizir drew D'Ken's with a knife and
bound the wounds together with a white cloth, soon stained with our mingled
"We are one, Mouli Senah,"
whispered my Emperor fiercely in my ear.
But I remember other things, too.
Approaching the waiting Emperor in my
triumphal aircar, my ceremonial armor gleaming golden in the bright sun of
Chandiliar, I can yet hear the voice of the common soldier at my back. Dressed
simply to reflect my humble origins, he, too, whispers in my ear ... reminding
me that all glory is fleeting.
There are many things, it seems, that my
teachers never taught me.
For, above all things, my teachers were
"There is illness among the Guard,
Viceroy," I tell Deathbird, "we must return to Chandiliar and medical
attention." Her private aerie is sumptuous, yet at once stark and wild as
she herself. On savage wings, the sister of Lilandra glides to my feet, standing
as tall as she can. Her anger is sharp and shrill, like her voice.
"Traitor!" she shrieks at me and
breaks her hand when she slaps me. I do not prevent her. The crack of her
delicate bones is strangely satisfying. To her credit, she does not cry out when
she realizes her mistake. She never lacked courage and I admire that. "You
will not be allowed to leave, Gladiator! I am Viceroy here and I forbid
it!" Her other hand moves to strike me once more.
On the other hand, she is a great fool and I
do *not* admire that. It is child's play for me to catch her hand and hold it
still in midair despite her hardest struggles.
"Have a care, Viceroy ... " I
caution her in a voice brimming with gentle solicitude. "You still have one
good hand left. I wouldn't want you to injure it as well." When I release
her, she glares at me but lowers her hand.
"I have already spoken to the Majestrix,"
I say gravely, "and she agrees that the danger is great. The Guard must
withdraw. On her orders." She discards the holovid containing her
sisterís formal order with a negligent flick of her wrist.
Deathbird regards me with covetous eyes from
crown to sole. Although I do not enjoy being thusly unclothed in the imagination
of such as she, I make no outward protest. Her imagination is where such things
"And you, yourself, Praetor?" comes
her mild inquiry, unexpectedly gracing me with my well earned title. "You
are well?" Her smile is mocking, furious. My lips thin in suspicion. What
is she after? I am not subject to the ravages of disease. Whatever ills my
people may have suffered died with them. Deathbird knows this.
"Yes, I am well."
Deathbird pounces upon my reluctant admission
like a goshawk on its helpless prey. "Good! Then the Lady Sybil will led
the Guard back to Chandiliar and treatment for their ... malaise ... *You* will
remain here and serve me." I watch the malicious gleam in her dark eye grow
and fester like a neglected wound. Caught in a trap of my own clumsy devising, I
can only grit my teeth in frustration. So, I am to be hostage for the release of
the Guard. Very well. I am not a devious man. Sybil would tell me that I should
have foreseen this and she is right. No, I am not subtle.
But I *do* learn most quickly. All my
teachers remarked upon it.
It occurs to me that if I remain on Hala
there is much that I may do here. These Kree are in need of ... help, Help that
I may give them ... a raid that succeeds by a hairsbreadth because I am not
*quite* fast enough ... a slip of my too trusting lips in the right ear ... a
losing battle against overwhelming odds where even *I* must retreat ... And her
sister will be the one Lilandra holds responsible, in the end for these
disasters. Deathbird is correct. *She* is the Viceroy.
For the moment.
No, I am not a subtle man ...
But I *am* very powerful. There is no one
here who can stop me, after all.
I bow before the Viceroy Deathbird, the
sister of the Majatrix Shi'ar, with a flourish of my cape and a smile.
"It would be my honor to stay and serve
you, Viceroy," I assure her. Pleased with herself, she dismisses me with a
wave of her smarting hand and calls for a healer. On my way out the door my
steps are light, almost buoyant.
My teachers labored diligently to craft me as
I am. To instill in my heart a sense of responsibility to something greater than
"Kallarch," they told me again and
again, "you must always listen to the voice of your honor. And your honor
is to serve the best interests of the Imperium. You must never forget
And, above all, my teachers were *wise* men.
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