Chapter 41

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Beneath the swollen, red sun of Gacrux, on a tempestuous world of towering volcanoes and shifting continents, the order of the Flame Monks came to be.  Forged under the light of a dying star, schooled from their first breath until their last in the harsh lessons of existence, they learned to treasure life, above all else.  And they swore—upon the sacred flame for which they were named—to protect it, at all costs.

Life however, is fragile and its dangers legion.  The monks soon realised that more than mere words and good wishes would be required, in its defence.  Long were the discussions among the elders, the wise women and men, as how best to safeguard its ephemeral flickering flame.

Diplomacy, claimed some, should be their focus: negotiation, discussion, treaties—statecraft would be the means by which lives were saved.  Others argued for philosophy—exploring the ineffable enigma of existence, in order to foster harmony among all.  Still others asserted that economics should be the answer—full bellies and bulging pockets would be the path to peace.

Meritorious ideas all, the worth of which their proponents argued long into the night.  Finally, with the debate at an impasse, and no resolution in sight, a single individual rose to speak.  All fell silent, for this wizened and diminutive figure was the first and foremost of the Flame Monks, the man who had single-handedly initiated their order.

His name was Bob.

Serenely, the wise, old eyes regarded his flock, in silent contemplation.  Then, surrounded by the hushed reverence of his followers, Bob spake unto the multitude, thusly—

"What up, peeps?  Okey-kokey, let's see what we got here.  Diplomacy?  Meh.  Economics?  Oh, puh-lease. Philosophy?  Hmm . . . yeah, I can see that."

For a few moments, stunned silence reigned, before hushed murmuring broke out among the assembly.

Bob frowned.  "Hey, shut it, you guys.  I'm not done.  Philsophy's great and all.  We'll philosophise like bosses.  But it's not gonna be enough.  There's one more thing we're gonna need, to protect life.  One more little skill we're gonna have to learn."

"What must we learn, oh great one?" asked a brave soul among the multitude, her voice wavering.

Bob grinned.  "How to kick some serious arse."

And so, with that seminal decision made, the monks got down to it.  From dawn until dusk, and oftentimes beneath the wan, red light of their homeworld's moons, they trained.  Tempered and honed upon the anvil of their own fierce determination, they first became good, then they became great, and finally, in the fullness of time, they grew to become the most awesome warriors the galaxy had ever known.  With a side serving of philosophy thrown in.

But not warriors of conquest.  Never soldiers of fortune.  The spoils of war held no attraction for the Monks of the Flame.  The protection of the weak, the salvation of the oppressed, the development of the robe that didn't ride up; these were the goals of their order.  The galaxy was large and the monks were few; they could never hope to right all of the multitude of wrongs unfolding across a thousand star systems, nor avoid the occasional accidental mooning.  Nevertheless, untiring in their remorseless pursuit of justice, they did what they could.  They defeated dictators.  They toppled tyrants.  Their 'Gacrux's Smokingest Flame Monks' calendars sold by the million.  They made a difference.  And in time, they became legend.  Their position as the galaxy's preeminent fighters was unchallenged and undisputed.

Until, that is, the advent of a new adversary.

From a frozen, seemingly lifeless world, illuminated by the binary blue suns of Acrux, the Ice Warriors burst forth, the mystery of their origin matched only by the enigma of their anatomy.  Heedless of the apparent impossibility of their physiology, let alone their very existence, they spread throughout the galaxy like wildfire, hiring themselves to the highest bidder—as mercenaries, as assassins, as bodyguards—as basically the most lethal living weapons that money could buy, completely bereft of morals or conscience.

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