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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 14

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 22 June 2020 03:10] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 13 June 2020 18:09]

Last of the Fallen


Connor watched them all file into the Conference chambers; he had no real desire to sit in on this one. Poor Alec seemed to have his hands full enough as it was without having to explain every move to the Council.

Connor shrugged, turned his attention back to Marcus. "So, kiddo, what do you want to see first?"

The younger man stopped gawking at everything, lifted a shoulder of his own. "I don't really care. As long as it isn't with them."

Jamie, thirty feet away, bit her lip, looked ready to cry. Marcus didn't bother to look, started away. Connor paced along, pointing the boy into the library. "Kinda harsh, wasn't it?"

"No," he studied the rows of books and microdiscs, the angry look on his face almost fading, until he flung himself down in a chair. Connor straddled another, scooting it up next to Marcus. "I thought I loved her. And then I find out I'm some kind of sick… assignment. She wasn't interested in me, just in protecting my dad- someone else who's been lying to me for years."

"Life would be a lot easier if it was the way we wanted it, Marcus," Connor replied. "But the reality is that things happen for reasons we don't understand. Your dad kept his peace about the truth because he didn't want you caught up in… this…"

He gestured at the expansive library. "There's stuff out there that isn't very pretty. And until tonight, your dad and the people he works for were convinced they were the only line of defense against a vastly more powerful foe. Something they only knew about, but couldn't form a defense against."

Marcus snorted. "You seem to be capable of handling it."

"Listen, Junior, my first time here, I went gibbering to the funny farm, just like everybody else. Only guy who ever didn't's the dude running the show now," Connor smiled. "You learn to cope with the weird. Believe me, after some of the things we learn about ourselves in the Order, aliens are kinda tame."

He paused. "Look, Marcus, I don't want to sound like I'm sticking up for how they went about it, 'cause I'm not. But I've lived with a pretty big secret myself for a long time now. I'm sorta on the other side, and let me tell ya, it can really suck. You can't get close to anybody on the outside because it will compromise them, and you can't bring anybody in because it'll compromise you. It's a vicious circle, and it doesn't leave much room for options.

"It can get to be too much. Comes a point where you gotta decide something: whether the person you know and have grown to love outweighs the lies that come along with being who or what you are. You're lucky- her answer is yes. You are so important to her that she wants to do whatever she can to stay with you."

Another snort. "She's twenty-four, man. What the hell's she doing hanging around with me?"

"I dunno. Ask her."

Marcus threw his hands up. "How can I trust what she says?"

Connor grinned. "Decide you can. Go from there."

"It isn't that simple…"

"Sure it is. You're making it too hard," Connor got up, pushed his chair back against the table. "Want some advice?"

Marcus nodded.

"Love is that simple. Don't make it more complicated than that. You love this girl, don't you?"

Marcus nodded again.

"Then that's where you start," he slapped the boy's shoulder. "You think she'd be following around after you, acting like her heart's been ripped out, if she didn't love you? Kid, I'm a rock star, and I don't get that."

The boy slumped down in his seat. "What about the powers?"

"What about them?" Connor replied. "She's never used them against you in any way; why would she start now? Besides, as far as you go, I have a feeling you aren't going to be using those hypos we gave you. And I'll tell ya, you'll be more than able to hold your own once we're done with you."

Connor started away. "Think about it. If you're still hung up about the powers, I'll have Gabriel come talk to you; he's in the same boat you are. He'll know what to tell you."

Connor opened the door, poked his head out, craned his head back in. "Marcus. They're finished; come on."

Jian spotted Connor, came over, smiled at Marcus. His brother folded his arms. "That was quick. What happened?"

Jian sighed. "Nothing good. The Protector had an outburst, Sergei had an attack of conscience, and the Colony Elders and the Augurs found out the Triumveres broke the Compact."

Connor winced. "Ouch. How's Mikey taking it?"

"As well as could be expected. It didn't turn into a shouting match. Well, not too badly," Jian looked Marcus over. "Feeling better, kid?"

The boy gave a brief nod. "I guess. Mr. McDonough gave me some good advice."

Connor groaned; Jian burst out laughing. "Marcus, look, do not call me Mr. McDonough, okay? Call me Connor. Mr. McDonough's my dad."

"Mr. McDonough!!" Jian hooted, slapping Marcus on the back. "Kid, you are great! That… that's the funniest thing I've ever heard!"

Marcus finally cracked a smile. Jian gave his shoulder an affectionate shake. "He tell you to hang in with the girl? Good. Despite the fact that he's a world-class pain in the ass, Connor does give good advice."

"I don't know how to take that," Connor mumbled.

"It was a compliment," Jian chuckled. "I think."

"You think? Lissen, goober…"

Gabriel walked up, cleared his throat. "Guys, save the slapstick for later, huh? Mr. Sheridan, are you feeling any better?"

"Yes, sir," Marcus actually was, much to his surprise. All three men smiled his way, Gabriel gesturing him ahead of them.

"Come along, then. Your father is asking for you."

They caught up with Carter outside the temporary quarters he'd been given. The two Sheridans embraced, Jian and Connor fading while Gabriel waited patiently.

Carter pulled back slowly, fixed his gaze on Gabriel. "Thank you, Commander."

Gabriel inclined his head. "Of course, Doctor. Your quarters are ready for you; your mother and younger son will be arriving in a few minutes. If you need to contact Dr. Ryan, please page Ops; they'll pipe your signal through. All you need to do that is tap the large unit marked commpanel in your quarters."

The door slid open, Gabriel leading them inside. He pointed. "Bedrooms are through there, one for each adult and a room for you boys, Marcus. The unit on the wall there is the food replicator; on the desk is an archival link. The commpanel is in the next room, and the head is beyond it. For the time being, I'm afraid we are limiting your computer access. That's strictly a security precaution, but it shouldn't hinder you too much in what you wish to find out."

Carter slumped down in a chair. "Thank you… really, thank you. For everything."

Gabriel nodded. "Things will work out, Doctor. Have some faith."

He withdrew, leaving the Sheridans alone. Carter leaned his elbows on the table, tried a wan smile at his son. "Tough day, huh?"

Marcus nodded. "They called me an emergent, Dad. I'm like they are."

Carter nodded in turn. "I figured. After meeting these men, it's the only scenario that made any sense."

Marcus looked around, spotted the hypo case sitting on a countertop. "They wanted me to take a special drug, but Mr. McDon… I mean, Connor, he said I probably wouldn't have to now. I think they want me to be one of them."

"Is that what you want?" Carter said quietly. "To become one of these… Knights of the Order? If they ask you?"

"Geez, Dad, I don't know," the boy sighed. "The whole world's turned upside down in the last two days. Nothing makes sense anymore."

"I wanted to tell you, Marcus," Carter's voice was still quiet. "I wasn't allowed to, but I still should have told you. Then, after your mother, the need to keep you and David out of that part of my life became even more important. I lost her, and it almost broke me. If I lost either of you boys, it would have destroyed me."

"Yeah, Dad, I know," Marcus rubbed his face with his hands. "Dad, you didn't know…?"

"No, son, I didn't," Carter's voice turned hard. "Perhaps I should have guessed, but I didn't know."

"So… what do we do?"

"So what are we going to do?" Josie demanded. Jeannette stopped studying the commpanel, threw an angry glance at her sister.

"How should I know? Nobody prepped us for this!" she snapped. "God Almighty, all three of us go and fall in love with our protectees…! Stansfield is going to have an absolute fit!"

Jamie's lip curled away from her teeth. "I didn't plan on this, damn it! So how about you start caring less about what Stansfield is going to do and tell me… tell me how to get him back…"

She finally gave in and started to cry, burying her head in her arms. Josie sat next to her, stroking her hair, murmuring comfort. She speared Jeannette with a nasty glare. "Nice work, smartass. That was a big help."

Jeannette tossed her head angrily. "You're a fine one to talk. You're the only one who…"

"Who what?" Josie demanded. "I'm never going to see Davey again. I'm never going to be there to take care of the three of them ever again! I love all three of them, and this is killing me! I wanted to tell them the truth months ago!"

"Yeah," Jeannette said, coming over to sit with them. "Yeah. This pretty much sucks all the way around."

The chime to their quarters sounded. A moment later, the towering redhead that had been in the conference room- Jeannette thought someone had called her Morrigan- stuck her head in the door. "Excuse me. May I come in?"

Jeannette nodded slowly. She came in, stood a few feet away from the table, clasped her hands behind her back.

"I am Morrigan, special operations commander for the Order. So," she began. "It seems the three of you have had a bit of a day."

Josie goggled, letting her hand fall from Jamie's hair. Jamie sniffled, dragged her hand across her face, blinked her eyes clear. Jeannette hung her head, staring at the floor.

"As bad as this was, it is going to get worse," Morrigan continued, snagging a loose chair, perching on it. "Much worse. You three are neck-deep in a war older than civilization on your world.

"What remains now is the question of what you're going to do about it."

"Collins didn't sound as if he were giving us a choice," Josie said.

"The Archon," Morrigan replied frostily, giving Josie a not-kind look, "is ultimately a pragmatic man. He is also a wise man. He sought to deprive you of your abilities out of a sense of responsibility to the three of you. He has no desire for innocents to die in this conflict.

"However, you three also offer an unusual opportunity, should you elect to pursue it. Your abilities and training would make you valuable additions to our cause. It might be possible for you to convince him that you would be a worthy compliment to the forces of the Order. And perhaps help to assuage the guilt of Dr. Brooks, set her fears concerning her formula to rest."

She fixed each woman in turn with those hawk's eyes. "He is a better man than you will ever know. She is as incredible in her own way. Either would be an invaluable ally to you; both together would be a resource you would be foolish to turn aside. With their aid, you needn't fear any type of repercussions concerning your breech of duty, perhaps find the means to return to your happiness."

She rose. "It is something to consider. I would advise you to think carefully about it. It may be the decision that changes your lives."

She walked to the door. "There is a clothing faber in the other room, should you need other garments. Think about what I said; I would imagine the Archon will be by to speak with you at some point."

Gabriel was leaning against the wall outside the Hamackers' quarters when Morrigan came out. He fell in beside her, reaching for her hand; for the very first time, there was no hesitation, just a firm grip on his offered hand. His eyes widened.

"I'm tired of hiding it," she said softly. "He continues to teach me. I'm ten thousand years older than that foolish boy, and he teaches me something every time I see him. It's infuriating; one would think I would have a better handle on myself by now."

Gabriel chuckled low in his throat. "Join the club; I have the same problem. Not that I'm complaining about the latest lesson."

She lifted his arm and draped it over her shoulders. "You always were a quick study, Gabriel. I'm glad you're here."

"I am too," he steered her into his quarters, held a chair away from his dining table for her. "Will you join me for supper?"

"Of course," she kissed him deeply before she sat, watched him move to the rep station. "You should ask Alec for lessons on how to cook."

"That shows how much you know," he sniffed imperiously. "I am quite an accomplished chef, thank you. Which is doing better than you; you blew up your last replicator as I recall."

Morrigan chuckled warmly. "I suppose that's true."

Gabriel returned with two glasses and an actual bottle. "I see Alec's been talking to Michael. Very good vintage, Chateau Ste. Michelle '91."

He poured her a glass, handed it over, served himself. Morrigan sipped, rolled the rim of her glass along her lips. "How do you think it went?"

Gabriel set his glass down. "It could have been worse; I think he was expecting one of the others to object to this strategy. I don't think he was expecting the Elders going ballistic."

She grunted, a very elegant sound. "I wasn't either. That was unpleasant."

"We're too used to Somack, Torik, and Sorala," Gabriel got back up at the replicator's insistent beep, drew two plates from the console, set one in front of Morrigan. The scents of trout almondine wafted up to her nose. "We forget how much they've mellowed over the past few millennia. I think the Elders were a bit of a slap in the face."

Morrigan nodded, sampled her supper. Her eyes widened. "This is superb."

"Thank you," he took a bite of his own. "I stole Alec's replicator menu. I'm planning on absconding with Jian's as well, as soon as he programs one of his units."

She laughed; he loved that sound, that and the way she generally looked at him when she was finished laughing. "You four are quite the little gang, aren't you? Between you, you have every angle covered."

Gabriel gave her a small smile. "We try. He worries me, of course. But now that Connor's home and Jian's back, maybe we can keep a rein on him, stop him from torturing himself over the cullings."

"A difficult proposition," Morrigan laid her fork down, balanced her chin on her palm. "His guilt is an almost physical force, and I doubt it stems solely from being in Montana when the Kaldec attacked. Doctor Brooks… Julia… has his well-being at the forefront of her mind. His thoughts, what I can glean, are consumed with vengeance. Very little else in most instances."

Gabriel took a sip of his wine. "He's had a tougher time than most. I always assumed he'd made his peace with it, but I get the same sense of him you do. The rage has always been there; right now, it's starting to boil over, pushing at the surface. I have no desire to be there when he loses control; it's almost enough to make me pity the Kaldec."

He paused. "Perhaps not. I admit I was getting to the point where I was hoping they wouldn't come. Particularly after Alec's arrival."

Morrigan laid her hand atop his. "There's no shame in not wanting to be in his position. He doesn't want to be in his position."

"He also had me volunteer him for it," Gabriel pushed his plate away, cupped Morrigan's hand in both of his. "He said something at the Citadel, that he didn't understand how I could hate him so much to curse him with this burden."

"Oh, love, that had nothing to do with it…"

"Didn't it? Right up until the Council meeting, everyone was looking to me to set things right. Instead, I lose my temper, break the Compact, and then turn around and pawn it off on Alec. In my place, he would have taken charge right then and there."

She nodded quickly. "Of course he would have. It's what he does. He may rail against it at the top of his lungs, but he was born to do this. Born to be the Archon, to be the salvation of us all. Not by being the perfect leader, but by demanding that the rest of us become all that we can be. By pushing us past our own limits, finding what it is we really can do."

Morrigan's fingers traced his cheek. "Love, it would have happened this way whether you had done what you had or not. I've known for years this was coming, ever since he bested me in the Challenge Court. Especially after that farce of an inquest. We need him now, to be what he is. The same way we need you.

"He leans on you for everything. You, and Jian, and Connor, and Julia. The rest of us, he has to let us prove ourselves to him again; until we do, he must have you to back him up. Something you do without even thinking about. You were as empty without Jian and Connor as he was. All four of you are now whole, and I must tell you, it makes you even more appealing."

She scooted out of her chair, plopped in his lap, brushed her fingers through his hair. "You should let this grow out a bit. It would suit you more."

She started kissing his neck, her hair tickling along his shoulder. Gabriel buried his own lips at the base of her exposed neck, getting her to shiver slightly. Morrigan switched to nibbling his ear while he worked on hers.

Before they could get too intimate, the commpanel chimed. He sighed, let his forehead drop against her shoulder, patted her fanny. "Gabriel here. Go ahead."

Fortunately, it was audio-only. "Commander, I have an incoming signal from the Citadel. It's coded for the Archon, but it's a holofreq. Do you know where he is?"

"I do not, but I'll go find him. Please relay the signal to my holopod; I'm on my way now," he slid Morrigan gently off, gave her a gentle peck on the cheek. "I'm sorry, my love. But duty calls."

She hugged him tightly. "I understand. I should go check on the Hamackers anyway."

He ducked his head. "Will you be here tonight?"

"Of course," no hesitation whatsoever. "Where else would I be? I'll have that Technician move my things in here, first chance he gets. If everybody knows anyway, we might as well be open about it."

He smiled. "Good."

Connor followed Jian to the gym, Brennan McNamera and the new meat heeling his every move. Everyone other than Connor was in sweats, all of the newbies and Brennan carrying practice lances.

Jian motioned them all in, pointed to the mat. Connor sealed the door, came over, folded himself cross-legged on the mats next to Jian.

The man looked the newbies over. Dan Curry, six-foot nine and the trimmest two-eighty Connor had ever seen, towered over Rick Maddux even seated, the bigger man almost literally two of the other. Brennan sat in the center of the little semi-circle, blocky Scott Abernathy folded up next to him. Rounding out the group was Adam Fah, barely five-ten, built with a runner's grace rather than the linebacker size of the boy sitting next to him.

Connor and Jian had discussed the new recruits briefly, only coming to one conclusion, one that they hadn't been able to act on yet. But things were moving ahead, forcing them to begin now, rather than waiting to take the boys to the Citadel.

"Gentlemen," Jian began, gazing slowly around the circle. "I understand you all have some knowledge of what is coming for you, but we wanted to take this opportunity to fill you in on what will happen in the next few days.

"Mr. Curry, Mr. Abernathy, and Mr. Maddux, you three will be traveling to the Citadel with us on the next run home. Mr. McNamera and Mr. Fah, you will go as well, but your training will be with me, Mr. McNamera, and Mr. Fah, you will be disciplined to the Archon."

Adam choked quietly. Dan gave him a sympathetic glance, turned back to Jian. "Sir, that's kinda harsh, isn't it? I mean, Adam hasn't done anything bad…"

Jian nodded. "Of course not, Mr. Curry. It is for his own good, not a punishment. The Archon is the best teacher available for Mr. Fah's unique skills. In fact, all of you will probably be apprenticed to one of us sooner or later; unfortunately, Mr. Fah does not have the luxury of time."

The boys shifted slowly; Jian produced a pile of datapads. "With the current situation, we've made the following recommendations. Mr. Curry, you will study with Master Torik; Abernathy, with Byron Halsport; Maddux, you get Thien Duong at the Citadel. Fah, here you go; Brennan, you will be with me."

They took the pads. "I would suggest you pack your belongings, keep them packed. Dan, Adam, you will most likely be traveling back and forth quite a bit for a while. I have no idea what the Archon has in mind, but Master Torik will most likely be by his side, regardless. Brennan, you already know the drill, so I assume you have a bag already packed."

The younger Knight inclined his head. "Yes, sensei."

"Good," Jian settled his hands on his knees. "Look, guys, I know this sucks. But I want you to think very carefully about what I'm going to tell you.

"No matter how you ended up here, you're here. You are a part of the Order. And just in case no one's told you yet, we take care of our own. No matter what. Remember that.

"What happened before will have no bearing on how you are trained, or what you learn. From this point on, you get clean slates. You came in here as one person; you're going to leave as someone different. Who that someone is, that's up to you. Our job is to help you find out who that person is."

He smiled slightly. "On any journey, the first step is the hardest. You've already taken that first step; everything else will get easier from here on out. That's going to sound hard to believe when we're running you around the Citadel at two in the morning, but it's true."

Faint grins finally broke out. Jian stretched himself off the mat, folded his hands behind him. "Okay. You are dismissed; grab some chow, start packing. We most likely will be leaving in the next few hours."

They got up, filed away. Connor grabbed Jian's arm. "He's gonna kill us, man. You don't assign the Archon a disciple. Especially in the middle of the war!"

"Fah is an emergent class ten, Connor! Across the freaking board!" Jian retorted. "What the hell else am I supposed to do with him? He might be as strong as Alec when he finishes his training! I don't think even Torik can handle him; it has to be Alec."

"Yeah, I know," Connor smiled wryly. "I'm just worried what he's gonna say when we spring Marcus on him. Maybe he'll kill you first, give me time to run away and hide; you think Morrigan will protect me?"

"You'd be better off with Sorala; he won't cut his way through her to get at you," Jian led him out the door. "Or maybe that Velorian. He seems to think she's something special, he might hesitate for a few seconds."

Connor considered that for a minute. "Nah. She's not a good idea. She might try to seduce me while I'm cowering behind her. I need to stay sharp, focused while he's hunting me down like a dog. But Sorala, that's the ticket. He loves her, he'd never splash blood on her."

Jian laughed. "I'll keep him busy while you run, Uri. I promise."

Gabriel trotted down the hall. "Hey, get your gear together. We're leaving for the Citadel in a while. Round up your trainees, get them squared away…"

Jian held up a hand. "Already done. But Fah…"

"Yeah, I figured. You tell him yet?"

Jian shook his head. Gabriel nodded. "Smart move. Spring it on him while we're flying to Tibet. And Marcus too; if we're all up in the Grif, he won't go psycho on us. At least until we land. 'Course, once we land, he's gonna kill us all."

"There are three hundred Knights at the Citadel…" Connor said slowly. "Crap. You're right. That's nowhere near enough."

All three started to laugh. Gabriel slugged Connor's arm. "Get your stuff. I gotta pack too."

Champion Tower, Chicago, Illinois:

Trindara stalked around the Chamber. Cain had taken a wild shot at killing Collins when he had abruptly appeared in Chicago; he had turned white when the Wraiths had imaged the three Knights with him. Beaudreaux, Chang, and McDonough- Somack's other pets. Cain had called them the Horsemen and all but run screaming from the room.

Trindara had watched in impotent rage, the Knights slicing efficiently through the assault force. Someone had revived an ancient combot design, rearmed it with modern weaponry, and made some amazing modifications to it's AI system, creating an effective battle tool. Her newest pets had fallen like so much wheat before a thresher.

She pounded her fist on one of the support beams, crumpling twenty inches of case-hardened steel into flimsy tinfoil. She didn't want to, but she had to admit the humans were proving remarkably resourceful, unlike the other factions of the Order the Race had faced. They had already adapted to her ruinous first attack, bounced back to hand her a string of defeats. The most telling had been the battle at Shamballah; she had harbored no illusions concerning taking the Citadel, but she had hoped for more than what they had achieved at the colony.

She wanted Collins. Despite Rune's continued warnings, she couldn't believe for one instant he would deny her. She had seen that tramp he was besotted with, knew the Velorian whore held no place in his heart. If those were the kinds of women that he fancied, she would have no problem seducing him. She was a goddess, beyond even the wildest fantasies of a Velorian… no mere human would deny her.

She centered her mind, calling upon the disciplines. An image of Collins in action sprang into her thoughts. He was fluid, certain, dazzlingly trained. Defeating Masric easily, already adapting to the ferocious power of her Grendals, totally unafraid of the Wild Hunt or the Hell Wraiths. A match for her Forsaken, even the mighty Tset'Lar. With him in her hand, the rest of the galaxy would fall easily.

No more of the puppeteering would be needed. The Race could proclaim their supremacy to the heavens, unafraid of anything or anyone. The insipid Arions, the upstart Dracon, the wasted remains of the Galen and the Diaboli- every race would live in fear of the Kaldec. As it should have been from the beginning.

K'lissan was too weak a ruler for the Empire; he harbored some startlingly un-Arion notions concerning the Empire's expansion, proof that one of the Outcasts had gotten to him, addled his mind, as well as that of his dandy of a son. She maintained firm control of the Tset'Lar Corps and many of the Clans, as well as her inroads into the Hall of Protectors. But for Somack's slaying of Skietra and the superstitious gene hardwired into the Supremis regarding this mudball of a world, the war would have been over millenia ago.

Trindara relaxed slightly, settling herself on a silk-brocaded divan. It wouldn't do to be flustered by such minor setbacks in this grand game. Without Skietra, her favorite tools wouldn't exist. True, Somack had earned her eternal ire by killing the woman, but if he hadn't, he never would have gone looking for Collins. Plus, she had the Order to thank for finding the Tablet, and making it so accessible. She loved her new body. Such awesome power in such a magnificent package.

It did carry it's drawbacks. Intellectually she understood at least part of her attraction for Collins stemmed from her inability to effect his mind. Neither her enhanced body nor her own formidable mental powers were enough to crack his control; until she had more data concerning his skills, a direct confrontation was out of the question. Somack had already done the impossible; his prized student would be even worse. He decimated her forces with the contempt only the righteous could manage, seemed eager for each new conflict. He truly was the most dangerous mortal being in the galaxy.

Worse, he'd finally surrendered his heart to a woman, making her unable to proceed with her first strategy- simply seducing the man. Brooks held a special place in Trindara's mind as well- that fantastic formula made her plans that much easier, and taught her a valuable lesson in the perils of underestimating the humans. A human woman, even one in the twenty-first century, developing a virtual copy of Skietra's proto-Supremis retro-virus? The odds against it were astronomical, but it had happened. Brooks' brilliance was now matched to a body equal to it's scope, making her a more dangerous foe than Masric or the Forsaken understood. No match for her, of course, but exceedingly dangerous, particularly with the student of Somack to guide her.

His movements made no sense. She and Masric had both analyzed what was happening, could come to no conclusions. He had taken the time to reassemble his comrades, gone to great lengths to recruit the Protector, then come to some manner of arrangement with Carter Sheridan. That was worrisome; she had gone to great lengths to plant the proper seeds in the government of Earth's preeminent nation, as well as her alliance with the most versatile industrialist of this world. She had planned for open warfare for decades, but Collins and Somack seemed content to let things play out for the time being.

Masric thought it some manner of trap. Such behavior was totally out of character for either the Kalrist or his human pet, an opinion Cain shared. Rune remained strangely quiet on the subject. Champion, while media savvy and a brilliant businessman, lacked any type of tactical training, and truthfully, was so infatuated with his new… toys… that he had been of small use of late. McWither was too useful to risk in a mere council of war, as was Jacob Mitchell or Gerald Stansfield. No one had been able to penetrate the Joint Chiefs or Project: Imperium, leaving her with only her Forsaken to depend on for advanced human tactical thinking. And Cain had freely admitted that the Order boasted a number of particularly fine strategic thinkers, all four of her most recent opponents among them. Collins was smart enough to realize his shortcomings, work around them. Beaudreaux and Chang were both gifted thinkers, McDonough a well-versed scientist. Gramm had avoided the Culling, as had Halsport and Konovolov, along with that man from South Africa, Mulabe.

Coriana had failed to keep them occupied long enough for Masric to mount an offensive, besiege the Citadel, contain the counteroffensive. Granted, Collins and Brooks had a great deal to do with that, first crippling Masric and preventing him from retrieving the Arwyn matrix, then humiliating her best Forsaken, including Re'hnara. That fiasco had leavened the edge of the Grendals by giving those damn scientists a specimen to study. Then the Order had stumbled over her Seattle facility and her unwitting pawns, depriving her of more Forsaken. All of which had been either incredible good fortune or extremely subtle planning.

No. This was useless. The Order was too firm. She needed to find their weak point, and attack them there.

The Protector.

Trindara smiled, rolling off the divan. That was perfect. Use the Velorian against them- she was not cut from the same moral fiber as the Order. So she could be used.

She sent her thoughts out. In moments, Masric came into view, dropped to one knee.

"It is time for Champion to prove his worth to me. Have him send some of his new toys to Indonesia- I have a small task for them to accomplish."

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