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First and Always

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When the dying started-- when the Lords Commander gathered before the Lord Marshal to demand satisfaction for his latest heresy-- Dame Vaako fell in the first wave.

Not because she charged in with a weapon of her own. She was too shrewd for that; Vaako would never have married her, or risen so far in rank, if she were as blunt an instrument as the average Necromonger warrior. But she was there on the fringes of the crowd, waiting for Toal or the Scalp Taker or one of the others to succeed where the former Lord Marshal-- and Vaako himself-- had failed. Dame Riddick found her, the subtle knife to the Lord Marshal's ruthless blade, and put her down swiftly with a blunt chop to the throat.

It might not have been fatal; Vaako hadn't dared move to check. But if she was dead, she hadn't perished alone. From his position, on one knee at the foot of the thrones, Vaako hadn't seen most of the Commanders as they fell. But he'd heard their death cries, the crackle of plasma and the sounds of blades sheathing in human flesh, as the wave of death moved across the great audience chamber of the Necropolis.

When it finished, when the only sound that reached Vaako's ears was the harsh breathing of Riddick and the woman he called Slayer, he looked up at last to meet the eyes of him who sat on the throne. Riddick's gaze was as silver as Zhylaw's shadow had been, those years after he'd returned from his pilgrimage to Underverse-- as though Riddick had somehow taken the power of the Threshold within him without ever crossing its portal.

Vaako had been on Zhylaw's campaign to Furya; a new convert himself at the time, unaware that Zhylaw had been acting independently of Lord Marshall Kryll's orders. He remembered the ferocity with which its people fought, and he'd seen the energy that lived within Riddick in action on Crematoria. He'd witnessed the blades'-end courtship of Riddick and his even deadlier companion... and he recalled what his own dame, Ibris, had said of the Elemental's prophecy.

The warrior's downfall. He was beginning to suspect that it had actually been the downfall of the warriors, plural.

The Faith had, after all, changed a great deal since its beginnings on the world of Asylum. Covu the Transcended had taught only that his followers were duty bound to remain alive until the known 'verse was swept clean of all human life; it was his successors that had built a ship around the Necropolis and taken a more... active... approach to conversion. It had occurred to Vaako, watching the spectacle of a breeder who could outmatch any hundred of his Necro brethren with his own hands alone, never mind hers, that perhaps the pair had been sent to correct the Necromonger path back to its beginnings.

"Well, well," Riddick said, staring down at him. He tapped the bloodied blade of his knife against his hand, the same one he had used to slay Irgun. "Looks like Lord Vaako lost his nerve after all."

Slim, callused fingers traced up the side of Vaako's throat and along his cheek, announcing Dame Riddick's presence. Vaako refused to react, glancing up at her next-- the living embodiment, if he was right about the prophecy, of Due Time. Like the lionesses of Furya, distilled into one woman.

"No," she replied thoughtfully, green eyes narrowed. "He doesn't look nerve-y to me. He looks like he's found something he wants more than the throne."

"Think you're right," Riddick said, stepping closer. The blade shifted from his palm to catch its point under Vaako's chin, guiding his gaze back in Riddick's direction. "You gonna tell me what that is?"

Vaako stared a moment into those silvered eyes, long enough to emphasize that it was his choice to do so, then rose slowly to his feet, holding his hands open and empty. "First and always, I am a Necromonger Commander."

"That supposed to be an answer?" Riddick replied with a frown. He pressed his knife closer as he spoke, raising a faint line of blood along Vaako's throat.

The trickle as it bled was more distracting than the pain. "Necromongers covet death. But there is a right and proper moment for any death. And this isn't mine."

"Really," Riddick replied, making a show of looking around at all the armored bodies on the floor. "You people kept asking me to 'take us to the Threshold'. So I did. I gave you all the choice to go in yourself, or force us to send you the hard way. None of you chose the former. Seems proper to me."

He clearly didn't understand. But he was the instrument of prophecy, not a priest of the faith; it fell to the First Among Commanders to educate him, as it should. "It is the duty of every Necromonger to bear witness as the known 'verse is swept clean of life. It is the destiny of every Necromonger who dies in due time to rise again in Underverse, on the other side. But no living Necromonger except a Lord Marshal or his successor may cast his eyes upon Underverse directly. I would choose Transcendence-- but not ahead of my time."

"He really believes that," Dame Riddick said, eyeing him with a frown.

"Can't kill me, can't go to Underverse if you don't do it right, so what, you want me to appoint you my successor?" Riddick threw back his head and laughed, a rich, mocking sound.

"Take me to the Threshold yourself, and the Guardian will admit me as such," Vaako confirmed, not that he expected-- or hoped-- Riddick to choose that course. "Then you may do what you will, so long as you interfere no more."

"And if you come back out to find your Armada all drifting dust?" Riddick snorted. "I never pretended to be anything but a better killer. But there'll be no more Furyas, or Helion Primes. Even I have my limits."

Behind them, one viciously dressed body stirred, and Vaako took a deep breath. "It only requires one to bear witness," he admitted. But there was another, better option-- if they could be persuaded. "But if you would not have any more Furyas... then you are best placed to prevent them here. The first Lord Marshal conquered no other worlds; required no purification; and did not forbid breeders. Cross the Threshold now, and decree afterward that you mean to restore the Faith of Covu, not echo other Lord Marshals' mistakes-- and the majority of the Legion Vast will follow."

"Including you, you're saying." Riddick exchanged a long glance with his Slayer. Then he slowly lowered his knife from Vaako's throat. "Suppose it would be a challenge."

The Slayer stepped up to his side, setting her hand on his arm. "But he won't go alone."

Setting a new precedent from the start. One Ibris might even forgive him for allowing-- eventually. Vaako had learned a little subtlety at her side.

"Lords Marshal," Vaako agreed, bowing deeply.

"First Among Commanders," Riddick replied, tone wry.

"All right, then. The Threshold won't cross itself. Show us the way."