Jael Vega considered her next few moments. Her black pencil skirt and single-breasted blazer felt repressive compared to her usual fatigues and tank top. It was the Ministry’s formal uniform, and considering the occasion, she thought it fitting. If this was her last time wearing the unflattering suit, she wanted to appear neat. Her bare legs sprouted fresh new chill bumps despite the room’s warmth. An odd sense of unfamiliarity rested heavily within her as she slipped on a pair of low matte black leather heels.
Paladins were not exactly known for refinement.
Most would think she never knew what a dress was or be acquainted with a comb and brush. There wasn't a requirement for the Ministry’s most fierce warriors to be concerned with personal appearance or manners. They were killers first, expected to remain unseen in the shadows. They were the unknowable hand of God, His righteous Sword of Judgment and Wrath. What use would there be to be seen when they weren’t supposed to be?
Jael pulled her hair through a rubber band loop, testing its endurance in holding up the heavy dark tresses.
Earrings or no earrings?
Would it matter if she appeared in the Grand Hall as nothing like herself?
It might be possible to influence the Arbiters into not seeing her as a mindless executioner. She needed them to see her as part of them, as a fellow servant of the Cross. She did not cause the deaths of her comrades, nor did she escort dozens of kidnapped victims to their end on that brutal night. There wasn’t a premeditated plan for the actions she took. Before she could react, her entire squadron was besieged, leaving them with no choice but to torch the entire building.
Jael took a deep breath.
She walked out of the small room that had been her home for the past four months. The room was cozy enough, equipped with a single bed, a desk, and a chair. It was a far cry from her loft apartment in the city. A footlocker sat at the end of the bed, acting as one additional space to store her belongings. A small wooden cross hung over the headboard, reminding her to recite her prayers routinely. When she was first sequestered in the room, she remembered kneeling and reciting the three blessings in the morning before breakfast. She recited two in the afternoon before lunch, two more in the late evening, signaling supper, the evening prayer, and the final late prayer requesting forgiveness for sins committed without her knowledge. As the days became weeks, she shortened the frequency of the prayers, relegating them to only two in the morning, one for lunch, and the last before dinner. As of a week before, she recited only the evening prayer, requesting forgiveness for being a lowly wretch and pleading for mercy at the time of her judgment.
A man leaned against the wall with his arms, and legs crossed. Jael recognized him immediately from the well-worn bomber jacket encasing him. She fought the urge to run and hug his neck. After so many weeks of solitary confinement with only the painting of Jesus and the occasional attendant for company, she was grateful to see a familiar face.
“Sir Cassius Rhys,” Jael greeted.
Cassius looked up and gave Jael a once over. His light gray eyes held her a moment before relaxing into a casual smile.
“Dame Vega… You look like hell.”
“Thanks,” Jael answered deadpan. “I’m glad to see you, too.”
Cassius, noticing his mistake, turned pink around his ears. Were his sandy blonde hair an inch longer, she might have missed the telltale coloring of embarrassment. He quickly smoothed the moment over with a charming grin and a change in positioning.
“The High Council has convened in the Grand Hall. I think you’re the last to be questioned. The rest of us have already sat for the inquiry.”
Jael shrugged a response then began down the corridor. Cassius fell in step with her as they walked towards the Grand Hall.
“I doubt worrying about it will help my cause.”
“Henri will help you,” Cassius said resolutely.
Jael did not hide her doubt with this statement. Her expression twisted more into the worry she was trying desperately not to feel as they walked. She wanted to remain stalwart like her training guided her to. However, none of what she saw in the black corners of the streets and the hidden hollows of abandoned buildings felt as nerve-ending as the long walk towards arbitration. Her heart padded a few beats faster than her feet desired to step.
“He will talk with the Council and get them to understand,” Cassius said.
Jael only half listened. Her thoughts traveled back to the night her team was ambushed by a band of low-level thugs and mutated monsters. She could hear the loud rattle of gunfire peppering the night and ricocheting off metallic structures. Orange sparks highlighted the positioning of her squad.
Eight men, all trained Paladins.
Two newly indoctrinated recruits.
They were outnumbered five to one within seconds. What information could have been saved from the mission was lost in the haze of gunfire…
They stood outside the large double doors of the hall. Jael stared at the brushed nickel handles.
“I should be in there with you,” said Cassius.
“ It was my decision.”
“It was the right decision,” said Cassius. He reached for her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
Jael breathed out again, this time much more shallow and shaking. Cassius intercepted her hands before she opened the doors. He held Jael's shoulders firmly and turned her to face him.
“You’re not alone, Jael. I’ll be right here with you, no matter what.”
Jael nodded slowly.
Cassius let go and took a step back. “Be strong…”
Jael squared her shoulders and pulled open the doors.
A simple wooden armchair sat at the center of a large cavernous room. Heavy drapes lined the walls, hiding mysteries behind the thick folds. On the opposite side of the room, a panel of men and women arbiters waited at a long blanketed table. Their faces were barely visible in the dim light emitting from strategically placed candles positioned on the wall behind them. She swallowed the newly formed lump in her throat before easing into her seat. The darkness pulled in closer, hugging the sides of the chair and pooled at her feet.
On the far right wall, a projection screen parted the curtains before blinking on. The screen displayed Jael’s profile and performance evaluation. Many of her missions were labeled successful, while a handful resulted in unsatisfactory results. The final mission read FAILURE in large, scarlet red lettering. The profile photos of the two knights killed in action showed below the status. The recruits were young men, only twenty-three at the oldest. They were a part of the new flood of Spring recruits to The Ministry. Jael remembered the eager boys as they stood in line to be reviewed by their new team lead commander.
“They get younger by the day,” Jael said, leaning over to Cassius. They watched as the recruiting line performed routine drills.
“They aren’t any younger than we were when we were called,” Cassius pointed out.
“Some of them are teenagers. They can’t possibly know what they are getting into here.”
Jael’s gaze found a girl that couldn’t have been over fifteen years old.
“They will not be ready when the time comes. They’ll be slaughtered.”
Cassius turned to Jael. “You don’t know that. We started just like them and now look at us. We’re old vets compared to most others.”
“If you ask me, none of them have the will to do this and live.”
“Like it or not, these are God’s chosen soldiers. We’re not here to debate whether they can or should. We’re here to make sure that they do—”
“Dame Jael Vega.”
Jael looked up. A woman’s monotone voice projected over the expanse of the room, sounding sharp and forceful.
“Level Five Paladin and squad leader of Sect Seven-One-Three-Nine. You have been charged with gross negligence and the reckless endangerment of unarmed innocents during a failed field mission. Because of your actions, five innocents and two knights were lost. Sir Eric Augustus Teague and Sir Phillip Devon Morris were the two men under your command and killed in action. Their deaths were a direct response to your deliberate disobedience to standard protocol and improper field leadership.”
Jael gripped the arms of the chair. The eyes of her fallen comrades burned the top of her face with hot guilt. She remembered their smiles just before they loaded into the carrier van taking them to the target site. It was their first official outing with the sect. After two years of grueling training, they were proud of themselves having graduated together and assigned to the same team. Jael considered separating them and force pairing them with more senior officers. However, given the mission was not an engagement one, she saw no harm in allowing the two friends to support one another.
“This inquiry will consist of questions to be answered in a yes or no response. Do you understand?” asked the female arbiter.
Jael nodded then croaked out a “Yes.”
“Did you understand this mission was not an engagement assignment with the targets identified in Case File Twenty-Three-A?”
“According to the mission profile, you were directed to collect intelligence and report anything found at the target location to your supervising office.”
“It looked like a surveillance drop,” Jael began. “We were directed to go in, sweep the site, and bring back whatever information we found.”
“A simple yes or no will suffice,” the female Arbiter responded flatly.
Jael felt her stomach tighten as she adjusted in her seat.
“Yes,” she said stiffly. “Normally we don’t do reconnaissance. Other teams do that ahead of time. We were prepared to engage if we had to.”
“Jael Vega,” began the female Arbiter. “According to your Commanding Officer, you were to locate the site of a proposed illegal farming facility and confirm reports made by the first recon team.”
“You were directed not to engage the targets or attempt any contact before a backup division could be summoned to aid in the advance if necessary. Is this correct?”
“You were to wait for further instruction from your commanding office before performing any further action. Is this correct?”
“So why was it reported that you ignored these directives, breached the perimeter, and engaged the targets?”
“We came under attack before anyone could react,” Jael defended. “They were all over us in seconds. We had to—“
“Five souls were being sold to the demon predators. Their lives were in the balance,” the female arbiter accused. “Instead of following orders, you lead your team inside a hot zone too dangerous for you to handle, causing the deaths of the innocent and two recruits only two months assigned to your command, Dame Vega.”
“We were given information about the warehouse,” Jael began slowly, trying to control the anger boiling deep in her gut. “We were told there would be small arms, nothing out of the ordinary. We were prepared to take on the counter if necessary. We didn’t know it would be heavily guarded. The intel we received never supported that. We moved into the interior and did a perimeter scan when… Somehow… They detected us. They knew we were there.”
“Why did you order the building burned?”
This voice was from another arbiter at the table. This one was male. His voice was soft but still firm, like the first arbiter.
“They took the people further inside the warehouse. We couldn’t go after them. They were as good as dead already. There was no time to wait for instruction. We had to fight our way out.”
“How did Eric and Phillip get killed?” asked another arbiter.
Jael turned to the voice and addressed the shadow male silhouette.
“They were pinned down next to a dumpster. I ordered the team to fall back. My second and I laid down cover fire to give the rest time to retreat. There was an explosion. I didn’t know at the time what happened. All I heard were screams. Some from my men, some from the things chasing us. I never noticed they weren’t part of the retreat.”
“When you made it to the van, was there a headcount done?”
“We were under attack even while driving away. I barely made it back in myself before the doors closed. Some of my men were slashed open. We were critical. There wasn’t any time… We just…We couldn’t…Those things…They weren’t like anything I’ve ever encountered before.”
“The report identified them as demons,” the first female arbiter ventured.
“I’ve fought demons. Demons don’t manifest in corporeal form. They can only take the form of the beings they possess.”
A camera positioned in the alley caught the visual of Jael’s team running from the warehouse. Three monstrous beings scaled the sides of the building in hot pursuit, while a gang of armed men fired down the street at the team. The video showed Eric and Phillip taking cover behind a dumpster.
A man threw a grenade toward them.
Eric and Phillip appeared not to notice the bomb. Their attention was drawn elsewhere as they fired up towards the sky. Suddenly, an enormous claw reached down and swiped at Phillip, knocking him backward. Eric barely had time to realize he was standing directly over the bomb before it ignited, engulfing him in a plume of red-orange and white flames.
“These beasts. What did they look like? Can you describe them?”
Jael shook her head, trying to dislodge the memories of that night stubbornly wedged between her subconsciousness. Since that night, she could not leave the alley where all kinds of nightmares seemed to manifest from the darkness.
“It was very dark. Hard to see. I couldn’t tell what we were fighting, but whatever it was, it knew we were there and it was ready for us. The attack was too coordinated for it not to be planned.”
“How would they have known we were coming?” asked the male arbiter.
Jael shook her head. “Maybe our communications were intercepted. Maybe someone tipped them off before we got there—“
“Are you saying someone within the fold is working with demons?” asked the first arbiter in a near accusatory manner.
“No. What I’m saying is that we had no choice but to react to the circumstance. We didn’t intend to engage… But because of what happened, we had to defend ourselves. We were trying to get out. To live!”
“Because of your brash action, we have no choice but to recommend you be de-commissioned as a Paladin officer and excommunicated from the Ministry,” said the first arbiter.
“Wait-What!” Jael nearly rose out of her seat in alarm. “Why-How? I just told you what happened and why we did what we did! Why am I being excommunicated?”
“You are responsible for the deaths of five innocents and two knights under your command. The deaths of the innocents alone call your office into question. The deaths of your defenders are more than enough to have you stripped of your badges and grounded permanently. Then there is your record of performance to be considered—“
“My record is more than honorable,” Jael intercepted. “I and my team are the only sect with the most successful assignment completions in all the Ministry. My performance by itself is better than this organization has seen in a millennium.”
“Rightly so, but your attitude and course have been most atrocious and not representative of a Paladin Knight,” the first arbiter bit back. “The only reason you still hold your office is because of your association with Bishop Henri. Had he not spoken for you, it is doubtful you would have made it even this far in your service to The Cross.”
Jael trembled with fury. She wanted to speak but knew her words would only cause more problems. She clenched her jaw and breathed deeply, then blew out the heavy air to fan the sneer spreading across her lips.
“Dame Jael Elizabeth Vega. You are de-commissioned as a Paladin Officer of The Ministry. You are charged with willful negligence and disobedience to the order of your lead command while in the service of your Sovereign. Your actions spilled the blood of innocents and betrayed the trust of God’s anointed soldiers. For this, you will be taken from this place of Holy arbitrament and delivered to the hands of the Law of Man. You shall stand trial for the desecration of a public building and answer for the deaths of those found within.”
Jael felt the floor drop beneath her and all that was within her standing up in protest plummet through the hole. Her jaw hung low, hoping to release the scream bubbling within, but nothing came out. The air that she pulled in moments before was now trapped at the back of her throat. The words she needed to speak were also frozen as her body sat locked in place.
“Your atonement will be paid for however many years you are sentenced. Upon your release, you will be free to go about your life however you see fit. Yours is no longer the Ministry’s concern from this moment on. You are released from your service to The Cross. May God be with you.”