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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 15

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 22 June 2020 03:32] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 20 June 2020 17:58]

Last of the Fallen

Family

Kara quirked her eyebrow at him. Alec smiled back.

"Just like that?" she asked.

He nodded. "Why not? I've nothing to hide."

She dropped her eyes, barely aware of Julia walking around to settle next to Alec. "We all have things to hide, Alec."

"Jesus, Kara," he snapped, his tone bringing a faint flush to her cheeks. "Buy out of the goddess crap, okay? You aren't any more perfect than I am. I know it all, everything. And I'm still sitting here, trying to make you understand. You can't be that bad, or I wouldn't waste my time."

He reached across the table, took hold of her hand. "There is more to everyone than the roles we define for ourselves. There is more to you than the Velorian Protector, the same way there's more to Julia than the Ultrafemme formula. I'm more than a sword and a title; granted, not much more, but it's there.

"You can't grow if you're stuck on the past. Past is over and done with; the future is ours to write. You gotta decide that you're going to write the best possible story you can."

He sighed, leaned back. "I was born to be a warrior, just like you. My powers manifested when I was twelve. I was an emergent, just like Marcus Sheridan, only I was powerful. Too powerful."

He paused. "His name was Kolgren. He was a Kalrist Knight who had been training Jian in San Francisco. He found me when I started to tacc, when my psychic powers peaked before release. He tried to psi-bond with me, and… I burned him out. Completely wiped his brain, left absolutely nothing."

Alec pounded his fist on the table, shoved himself away from his chair. "The man saved my life and I killed him. It doesn't matter that I couldn't control my gifts, I should have been able to stop myself from killing him."

Another pause. "Jian and Dillon McCade found me a few minutes later, still taccing. It took both of them to control me- two of the strongest Knights besides Gabriel and they could barely handle me. But they managed, and got me back to the Frisco safehouse."

He smiled wanly, leaning against the partial wall that separated the living room from his sleeping quarters. "I spent three weeks clapped in a neural inhibitor. You know that drug we gave Marcus, tridopazine?"

Both of them nodded.

"I produce five times the tridopazine as anyone else, including Somack or Torik. They were whacking me up with enough to keep me from ever activating, and even then I was burning out harnesses left and right.

"Coriana didn't know what to do. Nothing they tried worked- the Triumveres tried to psi-link with me, and I almost burned out Kon and Torik. I couldn't be sedated- I don't think I slept for more than ten hours total in three weeks. Kept blowing stuff up, shredding harnesses, psi-bolting the poor Techs and Activators trying to help me."

"So what finally happened?" Julia asked softly. He gave her a game smile.

"Sorala. And Somack. Sorala Activated my powers completely, guiding me on my path. And Somack- Somack did something he never should have tried. He bonded his spirit with mine, taught me discipline. He saved my life as surely as Kolgren did."

He laced his fingers together, held them up. "It's deeper than a psi-link. We call it the Klist'do'ra, the Bonding of Two Spirits. The ultimate act of love, of intimacy, between two people. One soul makes itself a part of another willingly, for whatever reasons. Two minds, two souls, two people become one. All that one knows, the other knows."

He slid down to the floor, hiking his knees up in front of him. "It was a head trip. Twenty-thousand years of knowledge, understanding, strength, and wisdom in one fell swoop. Like being mainlined into God. I learned more in three minutes than I've learned since.

"When I came out of my stupor, I was finally in control of myself. I still needed to be trained, testament to the raw strength of my abilities, but I could at least turn them off."

Fond memories flashed across his face. "God, Genji and Sorala and everyone else, they were all drooling at the chance to examine me. I got poked, prodded, and stuck more in the next two weeks than any one person should get in a lifetime. But I deserved it, after all the mayhem I'd caused. Even now, fifteen years later, Sorala is still talking about what she learned."

The fond memories faded. "I learned a lot, too. What I was meant to do with my life."

Kara, her palm cupping her chin, nodded his way. "What's that?" she murmured.

"Finish the job," he shifted a bit, stretching his legs in front of him. "Somack had his weapon. The men and women of the Order, they are one and all, heroes. Me, I bat cleanup- I am, and always have been, the Sword of the Order. When all else fails, I deal with the problem.

"The one man who can't be intimidated. The one Knight who fears nothing. The only member of the Order not constrained by compassion, guilt, or doubt. The enemies of the Order come in two types- those that have been dealt with, and those that are still breathing. The ones that are still breathing, live in fear of when I come for them."

He grinned faintly at Julia. "I was the first student in nine thousand years to best Morrigan in single combat. I can do things even Somack can't imagine- manipulate energy, control matter, control hundreds of minds at once. My telekinesis is enough to even give either of you a run for your money. I can inhibit the orgone reaction in your body, Kara, act like a psionic gold field. I was the Order's ultimate weapon- Somack says I could even battle the Galen in unarmed combat.

"I can do anything- except lead. That's the one thing I shouldn't do. So, of course, I'm stuck with it."

He got back up. "I'm not a guardian, or a protector, or any of that. I'm a killer. And such a man has no place leading. I'm not very smart, but I'm smart enough to know that."

Alec picked up the Shal'kyrie, drew it partway. "This is what a forty-five thousand year old culture has come to. Minions to a lunatic, whose symbol is a weapon. No civilization forged in brutality can possibly stand. That's why the Arions will fall; they've found their match in the Brotherhood. Once we're done with the Kaldec, we'll deal with them once and for all."

He slapped the sword back in it's scabbard, tossed it to the bed. "Do you understand, Kara, Julia? You can still be everything you want to be, so long as you don't quit. I can't grow past what I am, but I'll do anything I can to help you. Both of you. I look at you, and I see the future. Human, Velorian, and the Brotherhood, working together. I can't change the man I am, but I sure as hell can leave a better legacy behind me."

"When we look at you, my son," a soft, familiar voice said gently, "we see the same thing. Only our legacy has borne fruit."

Somack, Sorala, and Torik stood at the door. The Cleric smiled, gestured his fellows in. "You have always been more than our Sword, Alec. You are the pinnacle of what we have taught humanity for fifteen millenia. Courage. Discipline. Honor. Compassion. Wisdom."

Sorala took his arm tenderly, as a mother to her son. "You torment yourself on your supposed failures when we failed you. No one else could have done what you have. None of our children could possibly have faced the terrors of the Scourge with more poise or dedication than you have. No one else could have brought us back together as it should always have been."

Torik nodded, laying his hand on the boy's other shoulder. "You have taught us the errors of our path, but never wavered in steering us to the proper course. Your faith in yourself, your fellows, and your teachers have brought us to this point of our history, where we no longer run. Now, we stand, and we fight. And more, we will win."

Somack placed himself in front of his pupil. "Your soul burns like the Sun, lad. You have never lacked for compassion, never lacked for a heart to give another, never been found wanting of the spirit and strength and love to put yourself at risk to save another. Do not confuse that with a killer's heart."

"You are our Chosen One," Sorala affirmed. "We could not have chosen another better."

Torik squeezed his shoulder. "We could not love you any more if you were our flesh, son. But even our love pales beside the love you share so freely every time you lift a lance and charge to battle."

"Love of life, love of freedom, love for your fellow man," Somack finished. "Love so strong you risk your life without a second thought. Love so strong you bring those we have also failed to us, to redeem ourselves."

He turned slowly, sank to his heels in front of Kara. He cupped her face in his hands, smiling softly. "I failed the Velorians once, my child. My student has given me the chance to set things to right; I will not fail you again."

Sorala crossed to Julia, put her hands on her shoulders, tipped her chin up to face her. "He has chosen his heart wisely; be certain of the treasure you hold. A man who would die for you if you were to but ask. Our finest pupil, the son of our hearts. Take care of him, daughter of our souls. For him, you are the Chosen One."

"You bring these lives to you, son," Torik rumbled, voice beginning to break. "It is time for you to teach us all, to lead us, to make us once more what we were. What the Kalrist have let fade, only our human brothers can restore to us."

Somack kissed Kara ever so gently on the forehead, rose, faced Alec. "The time has come for you to be our Dei'sho, Alec. There is no one else to lead us. There is no one else who could lead us. Our future is secure, but only if you are our leader. If not, we will surely fall."

Sorala came back to him, hugged him tightly to her, an almost absurd sight with her diminutive size. "We have given you the gift of wisdom, Alec. You have given us the gift of faith. Faith in yourself, faith in your brothers and sisters, faith in us. Faith in humanity, faith in the goodness within every soul in this galaxy."

Tears were rolling down Torik's face. "Lead us, Archon. We will follow."

Alec stared at all three, swallowed, nodded once.

"And so the future is written," Somack grabbed Alec's arm, gave it a squeeze. "Not with fanfare or trumpets, but with quiet resolve, calm determination. And one iron will."

Slowly the three backed away, bowed low, and departed. Julia stood, wiped the tears from Alec's face, put her head gently on his shoulder.

The Citadel:

Yamar and Vona strode quickly down the hallway of the East Bastion. The Knights had been supremely accommodating to their… brethren, as they insisted they call the Kal from the colony. But Somack's startling revelation during the Council meeting had set Yamar's teeth on edge. They had no business seeking shelter or protection from a people that had already sacrificed so much…!

He shook it off, set his gaze forward. What had been shattered could be mended. They owed the humans that, even if the fools who served as Triumveres lacked the wit to understand it.

The two rounded a last corner. Mazar and Croslax looked over in welcome, outfitting a pair of young Kals in winter clothing and survival gear. Yamar slowed, stopped, both young men dropping to one knee.

"Rise, my sons," he intoned quietly. "Lord Mazar, are they ready?"

"Yes, Lord Yamar," the Augur replied. "And they understand the need for alacrity. These men will move as quickly as possible."

"The Knights have offered a third escort," Croslax said. "I do not think Commander Duong will be deterred. He wants no Kal racing about the mountains unguarded."

"Not this time," Yamar said. "This is a matter for us to attend to. Despite their concern for us."

Vona touched his arm. "They put little stock in it, Yamar. It has changed nothing in their minds. Is there not wisdom in that?"

"Our honor, Vona, is all we have left," he said resolutely. "And the only reason we have that is because of the humans. We owe them this, we owe them our resolve."

"What will you do," Mazar asked, "if they refuse? Vona is correct, they act no differently now than before."

Yamar shook his head. "This is the only way to prove that we understand what they have given to us. It is as much for ourselves, our children, as it is for them. Honor's price is paid in full every time, come what may. The humans taught us that; we will show them we have learned."

Slow nods came from the others. Yamar clapped each of the youngsters on the shoulder in turn. "You have your task. Move quickly, for the Archon will be here soon."

They both bowed, turned, ran from the hallway. By the time Yamar led Vona and the two Augurs to the closest window, the boys were racing through the courtyard. A lone Knight jogged from the Gryphon field, a plasma rifle slung over his back, kept his distance as he followed the two Kals from the enviroshield into the sputtering storm.

Mazar nudged Yamar. "The Knight is a Kalrist; Thien knows."

"Good," Yamar replied, turning away. "One less that needs to be convinced. Come, we have much to do, and little time."

Seattle:

"… we're leaving in twenty minutes, sweetie," he told the pouting girl's image. "Two hours and we'll be there."

Arwyn huffed theatrically. "Fine. But next time I wanna go."

"We'll discuss that when I get there," Alec finished with his carry-on, snapped it closed. Julia came around the bed, hugged him tight, smiled at Arwyn.

"You behaving yourself, young lady?" she asked sternly. Arwyn snorted.

"Yes, Mother," she retorted in a sing-song voice. "And it isn't just me, either. Kellehendra's bored out of her mind too."

"I am not," a second voice piped up off-screen. "All of these books, this is paradise."

Arwyn smirked. "See? She's having an episode right now. Books. Over doing something. She's lost her mind."

"I have not!" she shouted back, the distant sound of a heavy book thudding to the table. "Arwyn, you take that back!"

The girl stuck her tongue out at someone; a form hurtled forward, knocking her over. Squeals sounded next, followed by a brief "see you soon!" and the circuit closed.

Alec sighed. "At least the place'll look lived in now."

Julia laughed. Alec strapped the Shal'kyrie on, hefted both carry-alls. He waited for a few long seconds, eyes unfocused; Julia nudged him, taking his hand.

"It's going to be okay, Alec. You need to remember that. I'll help you," she ran her hand along his arm. "We all will."

He nodded, one silent jerk of his head. "I hope so. Somebody better be there when I screw this up."

"Oh, come on…" Julia threw her hands up. Alec cut her off.

"I'm not kidding, Julia," he slung his carry-all on his shoulder. "I don't know half the stuff I need to know. Jian's an historian; Gabriel is a master tactician. Connor, for all his lunacy, is a brilliant scientist. Thien has diplomatic experience. I was never interested in any of that- I was a warrior. And happy to be just a warrior. I don't think my way around problems- I carve holes in them."

They walked out of his… their quarters. "You told me about your nieces, the self-improvement clinic, that farm in North Dakota. I've made my mistakes too- Jian the biggest, down in the Yucatan. But others, too- Bosnia, London, missing Sultane by two minutes in Singapore. Those subway bombings in Tokyo last year, the riots in Miami after the Montoya Cartel declared open season on the DEA. You were smart enough to learn after the first bloodshed. I have body counts following in my wake."

She wasn't buying it, he could tell. "Look, the Masters are overreacting. They feel guilty that we kept fighting while they ordered everybody else back to Tibet. They're over- compensating by thinking that I can lead us, when all I did was try to keep you and me alive. Yeah, part of that was smashing our way through the Kaldec, but it was the only way to stay alive."

"The only person who doesn't think you're a good Archon," Julia retorted, "is you. So maybe it's time for you to look through someone else's eyes, get rid of that tunnel vision. This isn't going to just go away, Alec. These people are looking to you to save them. And they've made a good choice."

He stared at the floor. "You're pretty smart. Why are you with me?"

She shoved him, hard, against the far wall, pressed her body against his, pinning him there. "For the love of God, just stop, all right?! Open that thick head of yours and listen for once! I'm not going to go, no matter what you say, because I love you! There, I said it!"

"It's because I love you that I'm such a stubborn pain in the ass," his voice was low, soft. "If something happened to you, it would kill me. Can you understand that? Sorala wasn't exaggerating when she said I'd die for you. I would. In a cold second. For the first time in my whole life, I have something beyond the Order that I care enough to die for. You, and Arwyn."

A slow smile spread across her face. "Good," she said, letting him up. "Just so we understand each other. You quit, and I'll quit. Deal?"

He still looked pensive, but he nodded. "Okay."

She took his hand again. Together they walked to the hangar, Isamu waving as he finished prepping the Gryphon for flight. He hopped down from the dorsal weapons array, took both bags from Alec. "Hey, Boss. You're the first, come on aboard."

"How're we set for passengers, Issy?" he followed the Knight up into the cabin, studying the loaded weapons racks. Isamu stored their bags, held the locker open while Alec hung the Shal'kyrie inside, slammed it closed.

"Pretty full, Archon," he replied, grinning. "You two, the Protector, Dr. Sheridan and company, the Triumveres, the rest of the Council including Frederick, and the newbies. Jian wants them to get to the Citadel ASAP to get them started."

"Huh," Alec peered out of the back hatch, noticed Michael working on the Condor. "I didn't think it was too badly damaged in that skirmish."

Isamu followed his gaze, grinned again. "Nah. Michael's fitting it with some newer weapons. He did my Grif first, then decided to work on the Condor. He came up with a new shield modulation system, makes them cycle faster after taking a hit. And he devised a frequency-agile chip for the blazers, so they alter freq in mid-shot."

Alec's eyes widened. "Mid-shot? Cool! This I gotta see!"

He tromped down the ramp, trotted over to where the Tech was working, clambered up on the side of the big ship to poke his head in an access panel. Isamu bounded down, went over himself, leaving Julia to shake her head, sit down on the ramp.

Soon enough Kara came into the hangar, clad once more in her "uniform"- what there was of it. Julia kept her opinion to herself, settling for a disdainful sniff.

Unbidden, the set of blacks Alec had given her morphed slightly, rolling up her legs, the collar scooping down deeply, showing off an expanse of lush cleavage. The arms slid up as well, leaving her in little more than a scarcely torso covering one piece and her boots. Kara smiled at her coyly, wandered past, Julia abruptly aware of her new uniform when Alec glanced her way, did a double take, fell off the side of the Condor.

She glanced down, turned red, covered herself and raced up into the Gryphon. Isamu and Michael both dropped to the hangar floor, heaving Alec back up. He was as red-faced as Julia, scrubbing at his hair.

"You guys didn't see nothin', you don't know nothin'," he mumbled, dragging himself back to the waiting Gryphon, "and you sure as hell don't say nothin'!"

"Whatever you say, Boss," Michael said wonderingly.

Isamu nodded assent. "You'll excuse me, Archon, if that image gets me through a lot of lonely nights."

Julia had scampered into the cabin, sat down, concentrated on putting her uniform back. Kara grinned openly at her, one leg curled up to her chest. "You are extremely attractive. Why do you go to so much trouble to hide it?"

Julia quirked an eyebrow her way. "There's a difference between being attractive and being an exhibitionist."

Kara laughed. "Not to the Velorians."

"We're not on Velor, are we?" Julia retorted, getting back up. "I get plenty of unwelcome advances fully clothed, thank you very much. There's no sense in making it worse on purpose."

"Why are you so worried about it? It isn't like any human male can take advantage of you; put one or two in their place, and the rest of the herd will follow."

Julia's mouth drooped. "My God, for someone who's lived on Earth as long as you have, you really have no clue about us, do you? There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don't know where to start."

Kara shrugged. "I seem to do okay."

"Yeah, if brainwashing them into your bed is the way you want to live your life," Julia started away. "Might be great for the sex life, but it doesn't do much for the love department."

Kara opened her mouth, then closed it quietly, got up, trailed Julia out. "What would you know about it? You do the same thing."

She shook her head. "Not to him I don't. He loves me, Kara. That means he takes me flaws and all; it also means he'll pull me up short when I need it. There is a huge difference between having a lover and being in love. You should try the latter sometime."

Connor came into the hangar, twirling a football in one hand. He spotted Alec, fired it at him, shuffled his bags off on one of the new recruits. The boy drifted past the two women, stored the bags, hopped back to the hangar floor in time to catch a pass from Isamu. Kara studied the men, tossing the ball around, trading jokes, telling stories. Jian and Gabriel both appeared shortly, sending their recruits up into the Gryphon with their equipment to join in the chatter.

Soon enough they weren't even throwing the ball, just hanging around the Condor, talking. It struck Kara as such an odd thing to do; she would never join in a simple conversation with a group of Protectors. But watching all of the men, and the boys as well, laughing at one of Connor's jokes, she felt like she'd missed out on something.

She'd spent quite a bit of time around humans for years, especially in high school, where she'd had an active social life. But as she thought about it now, it occurred to her that there had been very few instances of people choosing not to be around her, most of which involved her brother Peter. Peter had been the only one who had ever voiced any type of dissatisfaction with her behavior, at least until the night she'd run away. Sure, she'd done a lot of abnormal things while she'd been with the Matthews, but she was hardly a normal girl…

That's when it all hit her. The Knights treated her like a completely normal woman. They were talking over there about something they all assumed she'd have no interest in, so they hadn't bothered to include her. They weren't pawing at her or drooling or any of the typical reactions because, to them, being a Velorian was no more a distinction than being British. It was a place and a culture she was from; nothing more. At least to them.

It made her feel suddenly alone.

Morrigan entered the hangar, walked up the ramp to stow her gear, came back out, stood next to Julia. The woman stood a good two inches taller than Kara, dwarfing Julia, but she wasn't wearing her usual scowl at the moment.

"Doctor…," she began, then stopped. "Julia. I realize the two of us started on poor terms, but I would very much like to try again. What can I say…?"

Julia shook her head. "Nothing. There's no need, Morrigan. I didn't understand a great many things before; I do now. You don't need to apologize, and I think it would be an honor for me to call you my friend."

The woman smiled- it was stunning. "The honor would be mine."

The Hamackers chose that moment to come along, the Sheridans keeping their distance. Julia's eyes turned hot when she spotted the three women; Morrigan laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"I think, as my first act of friendship, I'll keep you from pulverizing our guests."

Julia nodded, reaching up to pat Morrigan's hand. "That would be a remarkably good idea."

Alec caught the way the wind was blowing, came across the hangar to greet their guests. Davey Sheridan and Grace Sheridan, Carter's mother, had arrived right after the Council meeting had broken up. Grace was still being handled by a telepathic suggestion, keeping her from losing her mind, but David Sheridan could barely keep himself from racing around the hangar in excitement.

Alec gently took Julia's arm, steered her from the ramp, keeping himself and Morrigan between Julia and the Hamacker sisters. "Why don't you come over here, dear, and talk to Jian for a minute while I get everyone settled?"

Frederick finally arrived, the Kalrist behind him. He ducked his head at Alec, clambered aboard, Torik and Sorala right with him. Somack nodded to Alec at the foot of the ramp. "Just give us a few moments, then you may load up and we may depart."

Alec returned the gesture, looked over his shoulder. "Issy! Let's shag it!"

The Knight dropped the football, came sprinting over. Alec climbed aboard, leaving Julia with Morrigan and Kara. Morrigan flashed her dazzling smile at the both of them. "We can sit in the back. Less noise that way."

The rest of the travel party clustered around them. The older Knights deliberately closed in around Kara, keeping the recruits a small distance away from her, smiling genially the whole time they were doing it. The chatter started up again, continuing while they seated themselves.

Alec and Isamu were in the cockpit. Frederick positioned himself at the tactical board. Everyone else chose seats away from the people they had no interest in speaking to, sprinkled with Kalrist and Knights.

Connor cycled the ramp closed, dropped heavily into the seat next to Kara. She smiled at him, getting a grin in return, the Knight balancing his guitar case on his knees long enough to pull out a gleaming acoustic Gibson.

Before they were out of the hangar, Connor had checked the tune, started to strum idly. "Ah. Music, the salve to soothe what ails you. Anybody have any requests?"

"I have one," Alec hollered from the cockpit. "Don't sing."

Several people chuckled. Connor put on his best-injured face. "It's a long flight, Mikey. Might pass the time."

"Two hours of you and I'll swim home," Alec's retort barely had an edge to it. Somack shook his head.

"Actually, if you would indulge an old man, Archon, I would like to hear Connor play," he said. "It has been some time."

"Thank you, Master," Connor replied, making sure Alec could see him stick his tongue out at him.

"Real mature, Connor," Alec turned back to his instruments, jiggling his commset in his ear. Connor began to sing.

The Citadel:

Cas had just come back on watch after three hours in the lab and a quick dinner. Thien was running some tactical simulations in the Pit when he glanced up, saw the Tech sitting down at his station. He paused the analysis, skittered his chair over behind Cas.

"I relieved you less than four hours ago, Commander," Thien pitched his voice low, folding his hands together. Cas set his commset on, keying up his board.

"Yes, sir, but there's work to be done," he watched some numbers scroll across his screen. "I'm needed here."

"You're needed at peak ability, Technician Putin," the voice was still soft, but the ring of command was no less apparent as he stood up, held out his hand. "Pack it in, Cas. Two days out of Ops, and no more than four hours in the labs. Now. Go."

His eyes flashed, but he dragged his commset off, dropped it in Thien's waiting hand. Before he could push himself up, the scanners went off. Cas twisted back around, fingers flying over his board.

"Multiple Supremis contacts," he reported, Li sliding up next to him. "Wait a minute, these readings are nuts. That can't be right… Li, run a level three on the imaging scanners."

"Power spike," Stefan Garouex said, two seats down. "I'm reading GAR residue and what looks like an ionic lance signature."

Li leaned in close to Cas. "It isn't the scanners, Cas."

He nodded. "I'm calling a Supremis incursion, Commander. Long/lat coming up now."

Thien studied the numbers briefly, fingers tightening on the back of Cas's chair. "They want the Scribe… and she's in the middle of Kuala Lumpur."

He snapped his fingers at Adriana on the comm board. "Raise the Archon immediately."

Alec's commset buzzed briefly; he went to work on his instruments. "Change course, Isamu. Long/lat coming in from the Citadel. Plot me a suborbital and redline the engines."

Isamu reefed the stick around and back, dropping the throttle at the same time. Several people in the cabin screeched, tumbling over top of each other, Connor biting his song off in mid-verse to shout an oath, except for Torik, who pulled himself free of Sorala and Jamie, crouched down next to Frederick. "What's wrong?"

"There's some kind of Supremis engagement going on right now," he replied, keeping his eyes on Kara, tangled up with Connor. "It looks like the Scribe, only there's some weird readings coming out of the battle area."

Frederick leaned in, scanning the board. "That's impossible, there is NO way that many Arions could be on Earth…"

Alec grabbed the man's shirt. "They aren't Arions, Frederick! They're Ultrafemme!"

"What?" Julia leapt to her feet, tried to come forward. Alec snapped a look at Jian, who hopped up and blocked her path. Julia tried to slip past him, trying to catch Alec's eyes. "Alec, what's going on?"

Isamu tapped a couple of commands into his system. "Suborbit locked. KL in eight minutes; weapons are hot."

Now Kara decided to join in the act. "KL?" she echoed, coming to her feet. "Kualu Lumpur? Why are we going there?"

Alec ignored her, sliding out of the cockpit. "Frederick, Connor, Brennan, Jian, Gabriel, Morrigan, draw weapons, suit up. And pray to God the seven of us are enough."

Torik rose. "Eight. Omen, throw me a suit of blacks."

Julia dodged around Jian. "Nine. Don't…"

"No," he pointed at her first, then at Kara. "And you, absolutely not."

Adam Fah got up. "I can't fight very well, but I can fire a plasma rifle."

The other recruits nodded. Alec jammed his face in Adam's.

"There will be plenty of opportunities for you to die in the near future, boy, but now isn't one of them," he snarled. "The rest of you are going to the Citadel as soon as you drop us off, and Isamu, you defy my orders this time, I'll carpet my quarters with your ass!"

Everybody started talking at once. Alec pushed his way past the throng, flipped open the locker containing the Shal'kyrie, carried it to the rear drop bay. Kara and Julia dogged him into the room.

"What's going on in Kualu Lumpur?" Kara demanded, fists on hips. "Some kind of battle?"

He ground his teeth together. "Yeah. Somebody with GAR's and ionic lances. Somebody who are a whole crapload of Ultrafemme. Do the math. They want the Scribe."

Kara went white the same instant Julia did. "Ohmigod, Cat… Xara!"

Alec paused, half suited up. "Who?"

"My daughter!"

"What?!"

Gabriel looked poleaxed. "When did you… oh, no, not Lucas…"

Alec punched the bulkhead. "That stupid… he is as dumb as he looks!"

Jian finished dressing, hung his utility belt on his waist. "Yell at him later. We have a major situation going on down there."

Connor came in last, half into his blacks. "Isamu's piping the tacfeed back here; brace yourselves, it isn't pretty."

The screen flickered to life. A half-mile wide path of scorched earth burned angrily through the center of the city, bodies and pieces of bodies visible in the picture. Overturned rescue vehicles and shattered tanks humped drunkenly over civilian cars or poked out of collapsed buildings. In the distance, smoke boiled, explosions soared, and buildings shifted of their own accord.

Alec kept his eyes on it until his helmet slid over his face. "You want to know why we hate the Arions, Kara? You're looking at it. Issy, more speed, damn it!"

Gabriel turned away. "Heavy weapons only. PBCs and neutralizers; the popguns aren't going to do much good."

"No gold vulnerability," Jian murmured. Alec shook his head.

"We're going to have to overpower them," he racked a particle beam cannon, drew a neutralizer. "If they have GAR's, they might have Zeriphium fields as well; Sultane was rumored to be working on portable models."

"Great," Jian studied the rifle in his hand. "Just great. These aren't going to do any good either. Sabers, lances, and us."

"Casualties?" Morrigan asked quietly. Alec bit his lip.

"Leave them."

She started. "We can't…"

"We don't have a choice," he strapped the Shal'kyrie on. "If we don't stop them, it won't matter."

"Two minutes," Isamu yelled from the cockpit. Then he snarled something so vile Sorala gasped. "Citadel's under attack again. Nothing serious, but they're pinned down."

Faces fell. Gabriel nudged Alec. "It isn't the Scribe. They want the girl; Best is a bonus. To hamper her."

He glanced Kara's way. Alec punched the wall again. "Kara, Julia, you're sitting this one out."

Julia grabbed his arm so hard he felt it through his blacks. "I'm going down there. That's my formula, this is the nightmare, Alec! I have to go!"

"We are too."

All three Hamacker sisters stood in the drop bay door. Jeannette shifted slightly, but her gaze was firm. "We're picking our side. You guys."

"Thirteen's better than eight," Torik murmured. Alec glared at him, nodded grudgingly.

"All right. Suit them up," he rolled his palms together, his blacks balling up. He handed it to Kara. "Put the blacks on. I have my own armor."

Adam appeared with the rosewood case. He hesitated before handing it over. "Archon, I'm your disciple. I should be beside you in battle."

Alec almost dropped the case. "Excuse me?"

Jian coughed, flushed red; Connor slunk behind Frederick. Gabriel cleared his throat. "Yeah, uhm, there was something I wanted to talk to you about…"

Alec pulled his armor spheres from the box, handed it back to Adam. "Mr. Fah, we will discuss this later. Right now, all of you are to protect the Sheridans and the Triumveres with your lives. Understand?"

He didn't like it, but he nodded. Alec armored up, his stare hard enough to impale Gabriel, moved to Kara's side. "You listen to me," he said very quietly. "They're hunting for Velorians down there. You need to follow my instructions, or they will kill you. And that will not help your daughter, or the Scribe."

She nodded slowly.

"Keep the blacks on, keep your distance. We are not going to go toe-to-toe with these women. We are going to end this as quickly as possible. You have one job- helping the victims. Nothing else. Understood?"

Another nod. He squeezed her shoulder, hoping she could feel it. "We're getting her out. Both of them. I give you my word."

"Translating down… now!" Isamu yelled. "Drop point in… holy shit!"

The Gryphon heaved to one side, smoke boiling out of the port bulkhead. Isamu righted the transport right before another shot crashed against her shields, toppling Gabriel on to Morrigan.

Alec grabbed a lever, yanked it down. "Close enough! Issy, take off!"

The bulkheads slammed closed, bolts exploded, the drop bay blowing free of the Gryphon. All of the Knights pulled long gray tubes off their backs, held them ready.

Alec jammed the lever back up. The drop bay blew itself apart, scattering into a million radar-reflecting shards, covering half a football field. The tubes sprang open, unfurling into round decks, a pod on the bottom of each. Alec jammed his feet on his pad, grabbed Julia, shifted his weight.

"Kara, strafe them!" he shouted, still bringing up the tacnet. "Everybody, get down and scatter!"

Their flight pads shot towards the ground, a black blur already arrowing ahead of them. Gabriel drew his PBC, one hand around Jamie Hamacker, found a target, unloaded a stream of crackling lightning. The roof of a high-rise exploded, Kara diving through the smoke. Alec followed her, dropping Julia the same second he leapt off his flight pad. His warlance flew from his belt, extended on the fly, swept forward and struck a gray-garbed woman.

His lance rebounded back, bowling the woman over. The weapon she was holding skittered away, the woman back up in an instant, balancing herself.

She wore a leather jerkin, fitted leather pants, gleaming jackboots, all in a dove gray. Her red hair was pulled into a tight bun, gray eyes tracking his movements as he readied himself.

She smiled, started forward…

Then flew backward, Julia crashing shoulder-first into her, knocking her against an air exchanger. The bulky unit crumpled under the impact, Julia slamming her foot down on the woman's chest, ripping them both through the roof.

Kara's fists were blurring against another woman, similarly dressed, having no effect. Her opponent snarled, backhanded her away, drew a slender pistol from a thigh holster. Alec's telekinetics lashed out, the weapon exploding in the woman's hand. She shouted, Alec kicking her in the head, his foot glancing off her chin with no effect.

She lunged for him; he rolled over her back, swept his lance around, toppled her to the roof. She flipped from her shoulders to her feet before his lance crashed into the rooftop, shredding concrete, swung a clumsy fist at his head. It lacked form, but it came at him at four hundred miles an hour, forcing him to flip forward, try a baseball-swing at her chest.

The woman dodged, giving him his opening. The shield around her flared brightly, began to contract. She screamed, collapsed to the roof, writhing in pain.

Kara was already gone. He scanned the skies for her, saw her flying toward one of the burning apartment buildings. He toggled the tacnet alive. "Archangel to Morrigan. Key on my signal, provide support to Dr. Brooks. Herald, run the offense; Archangel is in pursuit of Superfemme."

He dropped a signal beacon, sprinted after Kara.

Julia's kick dropped them both through three floors. The woman seized her leg, flung her away, Julia battering three interior walls down.

She got up, shoving a ruined desk aside. The woman started forward, Julia spotting a wireless headset on her ear.

"Brooke to all teams- they're here. Watch yourselves, set your PDS's for maximum protection," once she finished speaking she yanked the headset off, dropped it in a pocket. "Everybody but you. This, this I get to enjoy."

She went turbo. Julia sidestepped, flashed her own fist out, striking Brooke's cheek with a sound like a shotgun blast. She crashed against the small office wall, folded over Julia's fist when it slammed home in her stomach.

"You have bought yourself a whole world of trouble, little girl," she snarled, grabbing a handful of hair, yanking Brooke's head back. "This ends now."

Her fist collided with Julia's chin, lifting her up and clean through the ceiling. Julia came down on a teak table, crushing it flat; Brooke swung her foot, had it blocked and shoved back in her face. She wrenched herself out of a totaled liquor cabinet, set herself.

"End it? Why?" she murmured, a Cheshire cat grin on her face. "What's the point of having power if you don't use it? So we snuffed a job lot of normals; there'll always be more. All we want is the sow's brat and the other bimbo; once we have them, these pathetic wimps can go back to their sad pointless lives."

A slap in the face with an aircraft carrier couldn't have hurt more. Julia's mind summoned an image of her saying those same words, in the same tone, about the women at the self-improvement clinic; to Nick Masters, her Army pal; to herself when she had developed the second stage formula. It made her sick to her stomach, so much so that she wanted to crawl away and hide.

She didn't get the chance. Brooke thundered into her, shoving her out the window wall, Julia in free-fall an instant later. Her hand crunched into the sheer face of the building, stopping her cold, holding herself up with one hand. She found her footing, coiled her legs, waited for Brooke's head to appear five floors up before she leapt.

She hit Brooke's neck with her shoulder, lifting her off the floor, driving her head against the ceiling, adding a mule kick for effect. The woman flew away, taking out two more walls, skidding to a stop against a pulped mainframe server.

Julia leapt after her, shoving her against the server, pummeling her with super-speed blows. Brooke was five inches taller, but she huddled herself up against the assault, her fingers desperately reaching for her belt.

Julia's ears caught the faint hum, her fists rebounding off an invisible barrier. Brooke lashed out with both feet, knocking Julia away, scrabbled to her feet.

"Fair fights are overrated," she muttered, dragging her palm across her chin. Blood drooled away, the cut already mending. "Now, bitch, let's have some of my kind of fun!"

Alec leapt a four story gap, rolled, bounded up. Kara had vanished a full minute before, racing to the edge of the destruction, but he had a firm grip on her mind, trailing her as quickly as he could.

He kicked himself, decided he should have made the Protector stay in the Gryphon. For all of her tremendous power, she was not a team player; the Order needed that more than brute strength or unstoppable invulnerability. There was no way to impress that upon their Velorian ally. He hoped he thought of something before it was too late.

Kara raced the skies, her vision sweeping into the greasy smoke. She honestly didn't care about Best, or even Cat for that matter. Both of them could burn if it meant Xara would be all right.

Damn it, she'd sent the girl here to be safe! Ever since Best had perpetrated that monster lie on the Internet, proclaiming everything Velorian to be an absolute hoax, KL was supposed to be the safest place in the world for her daughter to grow up. Having a pseudo-Protector and a Scribe to ride herd on her, the local mores exerting pressure on her to act less like a Velorian and more like a human girl, being separated from the amazingly dangerous life she'd set up for herself- that was the whole reason for tearing her heart out and sending her away. That, and the fact that she was a painful reminder of Lucas.

Julia had been wrong. She'd been in love, once. Lucas had been immune to her pheromones, physically superior to any man she'd ever met, a hero in his own right. But then he had gone- what she was had driven him away as surely as it had driven her from the Matthews. Something about his hidden masters and their agenda, the fact that Kara was too visible for his mission. She'd never quite understood why he'd gone- just that he'd gone.

She'd found out she was pregnant two months later. She'd secluded herself in Australia, Cat and Sharon attending her until Xara, the most beautiful girl in all the world, was born.

Only she wasn't a normal girl. Or even a normal Velorian. No, Xara was special.

Her powers began to manifest as soon as she could walk. Even when compared to the astonishing women who were raising her, she was incredible. By the time she was ten, she was as powerful as Cat; by eleven, she was as strong as Kara herself. Her body began to blossom at thirteen, making her now-fourteen-year-old daughter look at least twenty-one, with the full, lush body and knowing eyes of a Velorian Protector. She was still growing; there was no telling how powerful she would be when she was finished. A thought that occasionally scared her.

Especially right now.

She was a Protector, on her sixth world. She had been regressed, dead, disembodied, you name it- she'd seen a lot. What she'd never seen was the kind of casual power Alec Collins commanded. His friends, his allies, all of them- they were a quantum leap beyond what she had experienced. Men who spoke of Supremis, Diaboli, even the Galen, with contempt- and had the means to back that attitude up. And, as shaming as it was to admit, with a dedication to their cause that made her history look pitiful in comparison.

What terrified her was what they battled. An enemy with the same manner of overwhelming power, but no moral compass. Something more dangerous than any Tset'Lar. Something that wanted her daughter.

Her tachyon vision made the smoke-choked skies as clear as dawn on the seas. She hovered above Sharon's apartment building, peeling away layers upon layers of floors, searching…

The familiar whoosh, a thundering pain in her back, the roof spiraling up to meet her. She barked out a cry of surprise, a powerful foot jamming against the back of her neck.

"You shouldn't have come," a lilting voice called, the foot pressing down. The concrete under Kara's chest began to crack, spiderwebs spreading out from her throat. "You might have managed a few more weeks. Now you're going to die before sundown."

Kara marshaled herself, shifted her weight at superspeed, sliding wildly away from her attacker. She spun to her bottom, twirled up to her feet, balling her fists.

A woman slammed her foot down, collapsing half the roof top, drew her leg back before she could topple. Her eyes swept Kara's way, infernal heat lancing outward. The gamma vision hit her hard, shoving her back; the blacks soaked up a lot of the energy, scattering it into harmless incandescence. Kara flung herself forward, crashing both fists against the woman's jaw, knocking her away.

She righted herself, drifting a few feet above the remains of the building's roof. She wore the blue on black and silver of the Tset'Lar, her silver cape skirling in the breeze. Deep black eyes in an arrogant face as beautiful as it was terrifying. She shook her head, her chestnut hair swaying.

"Fools," she murmured. "A planet full of fools. No matter. I was going to have to kill you eventually anyway; it will break the girl's spirit to watch you die in front of her."

Kara lunged; she hit the woman, stopped cold, the Arion swinging her around, slapping her in a ferocious headlock. She grabbed her own wrist, applying enough pressure to crack a building in half.

"You Velorians," she growled, teeth clenched. "You never learn. We are the Tset'Lar, we are invincible, we are…"

A figure bounded from the smoke, driving both fists down on the Arion's head. Impact rattled Kara free, Cat's follow-up punch giving her enough room to roll over, come back. The Arion slapped her aside, plowing her through the roof cornice, her other hand clamped tightly around Cat's neck.

"She bought you three seconds," she shouted, her arm starting to tremble. "It only cost her her life."

Blood dripped down her arm. Cat clawed at the woman's hand, trying to pry her fingers from her collapsing windpipe. Kara's tachyon vision flared; the Tset'Lar raised her arm, blocked it contemptuously.

"Be patient, little girl," she purred, her grip tightening. "You're next."

A blur flashed to rest on the Arion's shoulders, resolving into Alec for a bare instant. He had the massive sword he carried everywhere raised, his helmet glittering blood-red in the shrouded light.

"Actually," he snarled, voice that of an angry god, "you're next."

The sword flashed down, crashed into her arm. She screamed, letting Cat slip free, Alec flashing off, snatching Cat from the air, resolving back on the roof.

He paused long enough to set his hands on her head, energy briefly flooding her form. "Jesus, a Keck'lavian hybrid… what the hell happened to good old humans?" he grumbled, dragging his med-kit off his belt. "Cellular regenerator, metabo booster, a shot of methomorphine… Please, Father, don't be too busy to watch after this girl…"

He got back up, his sword leaping back to his hand. "Hey, Arion gutter trash!! You want a fight? I'll give you everything you can handle!"

His mind brushed Kara's. Find your daughter, and the Scribe, get them away from here.

She flew off. Alec whirled his sword around, gesturing the Tset'Lar on.

Kara dove in the ruined side of the building, scanning left and right. Best's apartment was at the end of the twenty-fifth floor hall; she barely paused long enough to kick the door down, GAR fire greeting her arrival.

She took the scene in an instant. The Scribe sprawled over a couch, bleeding from four different wounds, trying valiantly to rise. Deb, her lover, or rather her legs, protruded from an interior wall, hanging loosely. Jason, Cat's son, dangled from the grip of a leather suited blonde a foot shorter than he was. Two more of the women had Xara wrapped in heavy gold chains, handling her easily, while a third tossed her GAR aside, drawing the slender silhouette of an ionic lance from a side holster.

"Hello, Protector," she laughed. "Goodbye."

The weapon fired. Kara dodged the first volley, came back around, took a round right in the midsection…

The woman's laugh died in her throat when she kept coming, not even fazed, snatched the lance from her hand, landed a massive punch.

The Ultrafemme rocketed away, taking out the exterior wall, vanishing into the smoke. The blonde holding Jason tossed him aside, drew two lances, opened fire on full-auto. Gold slivers slammed home on her borrowed blacks, glanced off, Kara's rage driving her forward. The blonde kept firing right up until Kara grabbed her, clapped her hands down on the woman's wrists, bent back with all the power in her arms.

Bone crumbled, the woman's screams shattering what was left of the windows. She drove her booted foot up between Kara's legs, the blow landing with staggering force, making Kara let go, the other two piling on.

The two of them together were almost as strong as she was, but her first blow glanced off something before it could hit the brunette pinning her left hand, the woman's lips peeling back in a wicked sneer. Her Asian companion seized Kara's right, dragged it down, reached back to her belt, hauled out a thick rope of spun gold.

She wrapped it around her neck, clawing the neck of her blacks down to set it against her skin. Kara felt the familiar sag of gold tox settling in, her limbs flaccid in an instant. She cried out, feeling herself slipping away, Xara the last thing she saw, writhing in pain, screaming her name…

Cat soared through the windows, threw her body into the two Ultrafemme pinning Kara down. She staggered on landing, punched the brunette clumsily, flipped over backward when the Asian woman smashed her in the jaw.

Jason skittered out from behind the ruined entertainment center, grabbed the rope on Kara's neck, yanked it free, flung it out the window. He dove aside, clutching his head to protect himself from Kara powering back up, screamed when the blonde ground her superhuman leg down on his arm, shattering it into powder.

Kara leapt up, took a spinning back-kick in the jaw, flew through the living room wall next to Deb's limp legs, crashed to rest on the Scribe's bed. She had time to roll over before the brunette crashed her way in, driving both clenched fists down on Kara's head. The bed shattered under her, the floor sagging, Kara taking another shot before lashing out. Her blow hit that barrier, bounced off, both fists digging into her stomach.

The ceiling caved in, Alec driving the Tset'Lar in front of him. She hit the carpeted floor, kept on going, Alec leaping off, spinning, kicking the Ultrafemme off of Kara, through the bedroom window. He grabbed Kara's arm, heaved her off the bed, through the hole she'd punched in the wall. She flexed her body into flying form, bulleting into the blonde, in the process of stomping on Cat's helpless form. The Asian woman hopped backward, Sharon Best lunging up, wrapping her arms around the woman's neck, dragging her to the floor.

Alec bounded into view, landed next to Xara, glanced at the chains holding her. Three slashes from his blade carved her loose, Alec leaving her to dash to Jason's side, heave him up on his shoulder, race back and lift her as well, sprint from the apartment.

Hold them two seconds! he called to Kara. I'll be right back!!

Kara didn't even bother to nod, beating mercilessly on the blonde. Cat struggled up, pounced on the Ultrafemme battling the Scribe, evening out that battle.

The brunette plowed through the floor, grabbed Cat by the hair, yanked her off. She wriggled in her grip, flailing about; the Ultrafemme caught her up in a morbid lover's embrace, flexed every single muscle simultaneously.

Cat screeched, bones exploded, blood filled her lungs. Broken, twisted, shattered, Cat Anderson dropped to the floor. Dead.

The blur raced back in, becoming Alec. He seized the brunette's hair, the edge of the Shal'kyrie against her throat. He dragged her head back, switched his grip to the blade, pulled back as hard as he could.

"No. More. Death!!!" he screamed. The blade opened her throat to the spine, blood erupting in a geyser, spattering everywhere.

Julia ducked a wall-shattering blow, swept her leg out and around. Brooke toppled, Julia's follow-up stomp doing nothing at all, her foot stopping cold at the barrier's edge. The woman's hands flashed up, seized Julia's breasts, hurled her further into the demolished building.

It was some kind of sick dance. Brooke, for her larger size, wasn't as strong or as fast as Julia; balancing her disadvantages was that shield, preventing Julia from landing a solid blow. Brooke's strength wasn't enough to injure her, but she was capable of keeping Julia occupied while the rest of the Ultrafemme rampaged around the city.

Brooke was coming; Julia braced both feet in her midsection, heaved her up through the ceiling. Julia leapt after, grabbing a massive oak desk, slamming it down on Brooke's head. Her shield blocked it all, Brooke already rocking upward to seize Julia, roll her down, pin her to the floor, Brooke's knee on her back.

Steely fingers curled under Julia's chin, drawing her neck back, back, back. Brooke leaned down, her lips brushing Julia's ear.

"It was sooo good for me," she cooed. "Too bad we're finished. You've got the stamina to be a real partner."

She pulled back, yanked harder. Julia's fingers couldn't even grip Brooke's hands, futile blows not even connecting. Her vision began to cloud, blood thundering in her ears.

A shriek cut the sudden stillness, an energy pulse lancing out, washing over Brooke's shield, making it sputter, fade. Julia's fingers seized Brooke's wrists, ripped her hands away, flung the woman over her head.

Morrigan holstered her neutralizer, slid an arm under Julia's shoulder. "Sorry I'm late, I had to dispatch a few of this… creature's… fellow minions. Now, then, shall we address the indignities she has heaped upon you?"

Julia nodded. Morrigan vanished, reappeared behind Brooke, heaved the woman up, locking her in a full nelson.

"That is my friend you've been assaulting," she whispered, tightening her hold. "If you assault one of my friends, you assault me. To paraphrase the Archon, you are about to learn why no one assaults my friends."

Torik raced down the ruins, leaping shattered cars with a long stride. Jian led the way, his lance whirling constantly. Gabriel and Connor had the left flank, paired with the younger Hamacker sisters, Jeannette easily loping along side Brennan.

They had run into four Ultrafemme right when they landed, Gabriel, Jian, and Morrigan dispatching them easily. Then Alec had called for back up, Torik spotting him speeding along the rooftops in pursuit of the Protector.

He was getting worried. None of them had reported in yet- he didn't expect Julia or the Protector to know comm protocol, but he had expected better of the Archon.

The force on the ground was formidable, but even the addition of Alec to their number would triple their success probability. No one understood the Horsemen's unique array ability, but there was no denying it's effectiveness. Gabriel had mentioned that the three of them could do it, letting them handle any surprises that might crop up…

GAR fire flashed from the rubble ahead. Gabriel whirled his lance, catching the bolts, Connor's sin'cho flickering him out of sight, then back between two Ultrafemme.

His plasma axe flared to life. He nailed one, flinging her to the open, Jian on top of her before she hit the ground. His lance slammed home, slicing her shield open, then her chest. He didn't even spare her a glance, merely wresting his weapon free, running ahead.

Connor finished the other himself, a jet of plasma arcing over the crumbled concrete. He slung his axe, already back at the point, when Brennan and Jeannette paused to survey the body.

The corpse was scorched, cut open from shoulder to crotch, half-impaled on a jut of rebar. Brennan swallowed noisily, turned away, loped off after Torik. Jeannette hesitated a moment more, then joined them.

Before they'd covered another block, a more concentrated attack came. Everyone took cover, the Knights drawing beam weapons to return fire.

Alec dropped the brunette's body, whirled his sword around. The Asian Ultrafemme flung Best aside, leapt at him, died on the blade of the Shal'kyrie. Alec thrust it up and through her sudden-shieldless body, carving her heart in half, bisecting a lung and most of her left spinal column.

He dragged it free, leaving the blood, advanced on the blonde, held immobile by Kara. "Who sent you? Tell me now, or I'll tear it from your mind after I kill you."

She lunged away from Kara, charged him. He sidestepped, seized her mind, brain-burned her down, the woman dead before she hit the carpet.

Another form exploded from the floor, his Arion friend back to play. She scanned the carnage silently, curled her lip from her teeth.

"What are you?" she growled.

He balanced himself, sword ready. "I am the Whishkan Kurske, Arion scum. Face me and die."

Her breath hissed past her teeth, the woman actually paling. In fear.

He didn't wait, charging. His first slash missed; her return flurry of blows did as well, Alec slipping every one while advancing. It was a typical Knight tactic- if overwhelmed, attack. It drove your opponent to be decisive, while allowing the Knight the offensive. He slashed his sword upward, barely missing the Arion's chin, slicing her uniform open.

She blurred to one side and around him, crashed into an invisible wall, Alec spinning around and on top of her. She rolled away from a cut that dropped half the remaining floor, then another, and another, until they both fell into the apartment below.

She tried a bolt of gamma vision, almost groaned when he caught it on his sheathed left arm, not even slowing down. His next slash carved a support beam apart, allowing the Arion to leap to the air, snatch a single object from the rubble above, vanish. He heard the distinctive whoosh of Kara giving chase.

Alec leapt up, grabbing the still-dangling chandelier in Best's apartment, swung himself to solid footing. The Scribe lay on her couch, moaning in pain; Alec scooped her up, as well as the limp body of Catherine Anderson, carried them to the hallway. Kara was no where to be seen; he scanned briefly for her mind, but Best chose that moment to come around.

His helmet slid off. She was in bad shape; he delved her, reached for his med-kit, applied the same panacea as he had to Cat before her… sacrifice. He turned his delve on her next, hoping beyond hope- she was a Kack'lavian, and a Protector…

Nothing. No voice, no spark. Beyond the Veil.

He bent his head, murmuring a prayer in Latin, gently closed her lifeless eyes. Tears misted his vision, dripped on Best's savaged form when he turned back to her.

He glanced up, spotted the boy- Cat's son, lying still on the floor. Alec scrabbled over to him, delving him as well. Pounded on, brutalized, but alive. Now parentless, but alive.

He poured energy into the young man's body, willing his injuries to heal. The arm was beyond even his strength; Sorala and a full-up regenerator would fix it. And then the healing could start.

Alec staggered, put his hand against the wall to steady himself. Too much. He was pushing himself too far. He had to rest soon, rest like he meant it, or the Kaldec wouldn't have to worry about him any longer.

He shook it off, rose slowly. Xara. Where was Xara…?

He knew, held his hand out for the sword, raced for the stairs.

Kara chased the Tset'Lar to the roof, tackled her, forcing her to spill her burden to the concrete. Xara's limp form rolled away, lay still, making Kara's heart leap into her throat.

She attacked, focused, ferocious. The Arion was completely rattled by Alec, caught off guard she backed away, letting Kara land a magnificent punch that hurled her from the roof, into the building opposite.

Unfortunately, it spurred the Arion back to her senses. She roared back with a vengeance, pounding Kara down with a savage side kick.

"No more games, Protector," her voice was thick, her fingers tight around a shape she raised. "Dead is better than captured."

She fired the ionic lance right at Kara's unprotected face. Gold tox set in instantly, making Kara cry out, go limp. The Arion smiled, fired another round, then took aim at Xara.

"Just to be spiteful," she whispered, and fired. Two rounds bucked home, the girl's body trembling.

The Tset'Lar tossed the weapon away, lifted off, and was gone. Alec bounded on to the roof as she vanished, sheathed the Shal'kyrie, knelt by Kara's side.

"Hold still," he whispered, his head bare to the skies. He cradled her head in his hands, stroking her hair, his med-kit snapping around via his TK. "It's going to be all right. I'm here."

She swallowed through dry lips. "No, it isn't," her voice was cracking as rapidly as her lips. "I can feel it… I'm too spent…"

Xara's form floated over as well, settling next to her. "No, you're not," he said firmly. "I told you that I would save her."

Kara managed a nod. "Then, please, save her."

The time had come. His mind flashed back to one of the rare instances of sanity in his career, Somack and Jian and Gabriel and Connor all gathered in the garden at the Citadel.

Somack had brought them thereafter one of his many talks of responsibility. Now he settled himself amidst the bonsai, gesturing them to sit as well.

"Did you understand what I was saying, my sons?" he asked quietly. The four of them traded glances, nodded in unison.

The old Kalrist sighed. "You have a unique perspective on this world. Each of you commands the power of life and death in regard to your enemies. Each of you has the potential to affect great change upon your world; together, there is nothing the four of you cannot accomplish. The time will come when you will be called upon to do so.

"But another time will come. A time when each of you will have to make a choice. For Life or Death, for another. When it may become necessary to sacrifice yourself for a greater good."

"What greater good, Master?" Connor asked slowly. "Isn't that what we're training for here? Is there no greater good than the defense of Earth?"

Somack studied him. "I am not certain. Ask yourselves that question."

Gabriel frowned. "Freedom?"

Jian was more positive. "Victory. To assure victory."

Connor shrugged. Alec considered it, bit his lip. "Love, Master?"

The Cleric smiled. "Of what, Alec?"

He looked confused. "Well, I suppose that would depend. On the situation. I would sacrifice myself to save my child. Or any of you."

Slow nods from the others. Jian clapped Alec's shoulder. "That's it. That's it exactly."

Somack's smile grew wider. "The greater good, Connor, is a matter of perspective. It is foolish, in a logical sense, for many men to dare certain death to save a single life, but as you all well know, logic has little place in the human heart. Your consciences are your beacon, honor your litmus. When the time comes, you will all choose the path that you must."

What was the greater good? The life of one man, or the lives of two women? Two extraordinary women balanced against one run-of-the-mill Knight? What was Honor's Cost?

The Shal'kyrie slid from his back, plunged into the roof in front of him, rigidly upright. He centered his thoughts, placed his hands on each Velorian's chest, right at their hearts, began to let his power flood into them.

They were energy sinks, living stars. The ionized gold had permeated their systems, inhibiting the orgone reaction to a life-threatening degree. Without at least some reaction, both of them would "starve" to death, bled of energy, a wound refusing to clot.

He knew he could save one. But which one? The mother, now daughterless, or a child deprived of a parent?

Or, as Somack had once said, find the third path.

His mind went fugue, siphoning every erg of power from his body and spirit, sending it into the two still forms flanking him. He had to burn the gold out of their systems, jumpstart their metabolisms. There wasn't time to cry for help, there was no other way.

His spirit tapped the edge of his reserves, sending out one final message…

Goodbye, he whispered in her ear. Goodbye, my love.

Julia turned, fully ignoring Brooke's pummeled body. "Alec?"

Arwyn, crouched beside Byron inside the balustrades of the Citadel, turned away from the fighting, staring to the south.

"Daddy?" she whispered. "Daddy!! No!!"

She leapt to the skies, streaking out of the shield and gone before Byron could even shout for her to stop.

Somack stiffened. "No," he whispered, leaping to his feet. "NO!! Isamu, take us back, NOW!!!"

The Knight jerked the stick back reflexively, lifting them from the waves to speed the forty miles back to Kualu Lumpur. Sorala collapsed to the deck, weeping uncontrollably.

Connor stopped in mid-kill, kicked the wounded Ultrafemme aside. He felt his stomach drop into his feet.

Gabriel was already running, Jian right behind him. Connor caught up in seconds, all three trying to race Death itself.

Once upon a time, Somack had been called Merlin, the Shal'kyrie had been called Excalibur, and a chieftain of the nomadic Britons had been the Archon. The Kaldec had come to Britain, calling themselves the Fomori, and waged war against the children of Earth. Artorius had battled them faithfully, but many of his warriors were not Knights of the Order. They had fallen from betrayal, Artorius' son becoming drunk with power. Morrigan had stripped him of his power, father and son finally slaying each other in a senseless battle.

Artorius- Arthur- had been a good man, a noble man, who had served the Order faithfully, espousing a philosophy that survived twelve centuries and countless misinterpretations to become one of the greatest legends of all time. Might don't make right; right made right. Being strong made you responsible for the people around you. Strength was a tool; it was meant to be a tool of righteousness.

Morrigan had retrieved the sword, taken it back over the sea with her after diving into a lake where her transport had been hidden, piloting the craft through an underground river to lift off a hundred miles out to sea. The legend of the Lady of the Lake.

He stared at living history in front of him, feeling his life slipping away. He concentrated harder, feeling both Kara and Xara's bodies responding to his gift. The gift of life.

There is no greater gift, than to give one's life for another. No gesture is more unselfish, no act more precious than that. I have looked into each of your hearts, and have seen that commitment in each of you. I could not be prouder.

Jack stiffened, Andy clutching at him suddenly. Peter started to scream from his bedroom, wailing loudly.

Paula Collins sat bolt upright, her chest so tight she could barely breathe. She burst into tears, holding herself, feeling her younger son slipping away.

He managed one more delve. Kara was almost awake; Xara still unconscious, her wounds gone. She would be in pain, but she would live.

He felt his body collapsing. His mind ebbed away, his skin flat black under his armor. Alec Collins, Archangel, slipped Beyond the Veil.

The Shal'kyrie dropped to the roof. His body flopped still, his armor inert, puddled over a dead slab of meat.

Kara blinked awake. Impossible, easing to her elbows. An ionic lance at point-blank range…?

Xara whimpered, lolled. Kara turned over, spotted Alec's corpse in one heart-wrenching second. She screamed, loudly enough that everyone for miles heard it.

Jian was the first over the lip of the roof. He raced across, shoving Kara aside, kneeling over his fallen brother. "Oh, God, please, God, don't do this to us… Father, I beseech you!! Don't take him!!"

He rolled him over, pounded on his chest, started CPR. Gabriel skidded on his butt, flung his lance away, tilted Alec's head back, began artificial respiration. "Connor!!" he bellowed between breaths. "Get up here!!"

The man ran to their side. "Oh, God, I can't hear him…"

Jian grabbed his hand, reached for Gabriel's. "He can't be gone yet," he said firmly. "We'll bring him back."

Power leapt from their bodies, surging into Alec's still form. Jian strained, sweat pouring from Connor's forehead, Gabriel laying his head on Alec's chest, praying fervently in French.

Nothing happened.

"Again!" Gabriel shouted, tears choking his vision. "Damn you, Alec, don't you die…!"

Another surge. Connor was screaming in Kalrist, pleading with a God Who wasn't apparently listening, amping every erg of juice he could muster. Gabriel's litany in French continued unabated, Jian's eyes closed, floods of tears rolling down his face.

Nothing.

"Again!" Gabriel choked. A soft hand grabbed his shoulders.

"Son," Torik said, voice breaking. "It is over. He is gone."

All three men collapsed on to his still form, wailing their anguish. Torik tried to offer a comforting hand, had it flung away. They laid there and cried, unashamed, unrestrained.

The Gryphon flew overhead, dropped low enough for Somack to leap down. "My son!!" he cried, shoving Torik aside. "My son!! What have you done?!"

The Cleric had never looked so old, cradling Alec's head in his lap, wailing to the heavens. Torik knelt next to him, taking his shoulder.

"He saved two lives at the cost of his own," he said forcefully. "Do not shame his sacrifice with your pain! Do not dishonor the Archon!"

Somack looked for an instant like he would strike Torik. The Master held his gaze, until the Cleric nodded.

"You are right," he whispered, finally looking over at Kara, Xara cuddled in her arms. "He did what he thought he had to. We will respect that. Gather him; we must leave."

Gabriel slowly rose, legs rubbery. Jian and Connor leaned on each other, pushed each other erect. They linked, lifting his inert body, trudged towards the Gryphon.

Morrigan leapt to the roof, Julia in her arms. She was weeping as well, fell into step beside Gabriel. "I had to sedate her. She went wild… I didn't know what else to do…"

Torik motioned to Brennan. "Come, lad. There are other survivors, and other dead, to bring with us."

They were over Cambodia when Arwyn appeared. She flew in the back, collapsed into Torik's arms, crying inconsolably. No one had said a word the entire flight, until Connor turned red-rimmed eyes to Gabriel.

"What do we do now?"

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