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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 6

Written by mechjok :: [Tuesday, 26 May 2020 04:33] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 30 May 2020 18:51]

Last of the Fallen

Chicago, Illinois, November 13, 2001:

Champion Tower. A modern masterpiece in the Chicago skyline. Twin booms separated at the fifty-second floor, stretching forty more up, crisscrossed with walkways and skywalks and plateaued gardens, a massive tuning fork.

Darius McWither wasn't so far removed from his human roots to not be impressed. Especially given the nature of his visit.

An attractive African-American woman stepped to his side as he entered the lobby. "Mr. McWither? Mr. Champion is expecting you. This way, please."

She led him to a private elevator, her hips twitching just a little too much for it to be a coincidence. McWither smiled to himself; Champion knew how to play the game. He could appreciate the effort.

She graced him with a stunning smile. "My name is Lucinda. Mr. Champion asked me to be sure all of your needs are being met."

Ah, yes. The sex card. Champion was a pro.

"I see. Should we discuss that at dinner?"

"Of course. Capistrano's, say seven?"

"Excellent. I look forward to it."

The elevator slid to a stop. "So do I."

She led him to the massive oaken doors he remembered well. Knocked once, then opened it and gestured him inside.

Eric Champion stood behind his polished teak desk. The office afforded a sprawling view of Chicago, the Sears Tower dominating the skyline. For the time being. Champion had plans for that. Champion had plans for everything.

His step was quick, his handshake firm. McWither sensed the desire to assure his guest he'd chosen the correct path in seeking this partnership. A fine attribute in an ally.

"Darius, welcome. Please. Coffee? Tea? Something else?"

McWither sank in to a sinfully comfortable leather armchair. "Coffee, thank you, Eric."

Champion handled the pouring himself, offered the cup, one equal to another. Oh, yes, this was going to be splendid. He settled himself, watched his guest sip, eyes widen slowly. "I thought you might enjoy that. New strain, grown at the plantation in Nicaragua."

"Superb." so many perks to accompany this alliance.

"I was surprised at the speed of your success."

McWither set his cup aside. "I trust it wasn't an adverse surprise."

Champion snorted. "Hardly. The fruits of combining our resources will exceed either of our wildest dreams, my friend. It's heartening to find the sentiment is universal."

"I cannot stress to you enough, Eric, how highly we prize…"

"Darius, your earnestness needs no proof. Allow a wizened fool his opportunity to wax poetic, will you?"

McWither laughed with Champion. A staunch ally. None better.

"I've made you wait long enough," McWither said, setting his attache on his lap. He popped the locks, spun it on his knees to let Champion see it. "Twenty-five vials. The effects are virtually instantaneous, and permanent. Along with the type-B modification we discussed, to allow you to… enjoy… the -A strand properly."

A lifetime of dreams within his grasp. His hands trembled, the same iron control that had let him build a trucking company into a massive international conglomerate all that kept him from snatching the case from McWither. His eyes, though, shone like a child on Christmas morning.

"The cadre choices are in place?"

Champion nodded, wresting his eyes from the vials. "Yes. They all currently serve as security for the complex. Once we've administered the vials, they will be put at your disposal. Twenty, as agreed."

"Excellent. It is important, again, Eric, you understand this will be a temporary measure. Your most valuable assets will be returned to you as promptly as possible."

Champion waved a hand dismissively. "Your needs are your needs, Darius. This measure insures the safety and security of Champion Enterprises. Five is more than sufficient for any conceivable length of time."

"Then I believe our business is concluded. I understand your desire to get to work on this immediately."

He rose, Champion with him. They shook hands, McWither smiling. "I know my way out. I'll speak to you soon."

He was gone, Lucinda on his arm. Champion returned to his desk, staring in awe at the culmination of a life of dreaming. Hands still shaking, he lifted the phone.

"Jamie, it's time. Please call my home, have Jennifer and Courtney waiting, and have Brooke bring the limo around. Be sure to call your relief."

His hands finally settled when he closed the case, lifted it, and walked to the outer office.

His executive assistant joined him at his private elevator. Jamie Boots had the distinction of being one of the most unusually named employees in Eric Champion's organization, but had built upon it to become indispensable to her boss. A superb organizer, blessed with a photographic memory and an ability to see the Big Picture, she was also a veritable tornado of a typist, charming as hell, and what Champion's parlance had once labeled a looker.

Wavy platinum hair brushed her collar, topaz eyes hinting at both the humor and intelligence of their owner. Her skin carried a natural tan, something he'd never been able to wheedle out of her, given the nasty Chicago winters. Her legs were a major point of office scrutiny, something he'd put a stop to more than once for fear of potential trouble, but Jamie had simply smiled and let the oogling continue.

She had been privy to her employer's unusual obsessions for some time now. He knew her anticipation, had already made arrangements for a small bit of payback for the two or three individuals who had threatened to cross the line more than once.

Jamie was also seeing to one of his other obsessions, as she did so often, totally without encouragement. Sleek, glossy black boots peeked from beneath a buttery leather skirt, her red silk blouse amply displaying her breasts and flat stomach. He cast an admiring glance, got the warm, flashing smile in return. She'd known he was a leather man from almost Day One, but never made mention of it. Eric Champion was a man who wrestled with what he perceived as flaws; she saw to it that one of his demons was exercised as simply as possible. Besides, as so often proved rare in men of great personal and financial power, Eric Champion was completely faithful to his wife.

He sighed to himself. She probably figured him for a pervert. Ah, well, best to be merely thought one than proven one.

He missed the lingering eyes, or the thoughtful tilt of her head. Never guessed how much she wanted to drag him to his knees and make him worship her.

That would change soon, too.

Brooke Leathers was waiting at the garage entrance, next to the stretch Lexus Champion used as his personal vehicle. Her name was as subject to discreet jokes as Jamie's but made far from her hearing. In addition to being Mr. Champion's driver, she was also his bodyguard, her five-foot-eleven frame that of a sleek, toned fitness instructor, a profession Eric Champion had recruited her from seven years before. He taken note of her desire to climb the ranks, had arranged for her choice of training, a debt she'd repaid by opting for a personal security specialist program. She'd taken to the course like a duck to water, exceeding every expectation, having proven her capabilities in a number of touchy scrapes to date. Brooke was as trusted as Jamie in her own way, having polished both her personal and professional skills under some of the best available.

She snapped to attention, a few stray wisps of red hair peeking from beneath the cap she insisted on wearing when she drove, ushered her boss and his secretary in to the car. She, too, was excited by the prospect of the afternoon, in many ways mirroring Jamie. Today, she considered, sliding behind the wheel, would be the start of the rest of her life.

The Lexus pulled from the garage, quickly working it's way through traffic to the freeway, heading north toward Evanston. After thirty minutes on the freeway, she pulled off, heading down a tree-lined boulevard leading to the sprawling Champion estate on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The security gate opened at the car's approach, letting Brooke wheel the car to the front door. She hopped out, opened the door, letting Jamie and then Eric slide from the car.

A lithe, auburn-haired beauty bounced down the flagstone stairs to greet them. Jamie got a warm embrace, Eric a deep and loving kiss. He paused to caress Jennifer Champion's finely-boned cheek, tilting her head to gaze in her deep brown eyes, measuring the excitement they held.

"My dear, it's coming to pass…" he stopped, unable to continue. She squeezed his hands, face bright with anticipation.

"I know, love, I know," she whispered. "A dream come true. Come on. Let's get to it."

She led him by the hand to the steps, Jamie and Brooke trailing along. They entered the magnificent foyer, light sparkling through stained glass on to polished marble floors, Champion taking the lead to the private dining room.

Courtney Champion waited by the door. She affected the disinterest of her sixteen-year-old peers, but she started to bounce on her toes when she saw her father coming. He kissed her cheek, leading the women in to the dining room, closing the oak doors behind him. He seated his wife at his right hand, his daughter at his left, set the attache on the table and slowly, reverently opened it.

The vials seemed to glow of their own accord. Twenty-five vials of the glowing pink -A strain, five vials of the -B. Along with five of the impressive new pneumatic injection hypodermics.

He carefully loaded one of the gun-shaped injectors with the iridescent blue of a -B strand, then took even more care loading the other four. He walked slowly around the table, placing an injector in front of each woman.

Champion returned to his seat, examined the injector in his hand, shrugged once.

"I'll go first. If I melt, or something equally repulsive, I trust you will dispose of your vials appropriately."

Wry chuckles, tinged with fear. He drew a deep breath, set it against his carotid artery, pulled the trigger. The vial emptied with a hiss.

He lowered the injector, his hand trembling as he released it. The trembling worked it's way up his arm, then his face started to tick, and then he relaxed against his chair.

Grey-flecked hair shimmered, thickened, colored back to it's natural brown. The wrinkles on his face and hands smoothed out, his skin coloring to a healthy peach, the handful of extra pounds on his frame melting away under his suit, the muscles toning and firming to Olympic levels. He pulled in a deep, deep breath into lungs suddenly stronger than ever before, smiled a perfect smile.

"It worked."

Squeals of laughter. Each woman put her injector at the same spot, pulled the trigger, sat back, and waited.

The same effects, only more pronounced. Jennifer's hair lengthened slowly, becoming as lustrous as spun silk. Her skin became like fresh cream, her understated blush becoming far more pronounced. Her lashes filled out, curling gently at the ends. Her breasts swelled, surging from a small handful of a B-cup to a healthy, gravity-defying D, the nipples round and pert against her white silk dress, her bra snapping loudly. Her waist slimmed, her hips rounding, her butt visibly rising and firming on the chair. He couldn't see her legs, but if it was anything like what he was seeing, it was probably incredible…

Jennifer pursed her lips, turned her head toward Eric, the flush to her face just like that after their lovemaking. She licked her lips slowly, her eyes glittering.

"Oh, yes. It worked."

The other women were equally transformed, even Courtney. While they made sounds of pleasure, Jennifer reached to the center of the table, wrapped her little hand around a wrought iron candelabra, and squeezed.

It groaned, crushing in her grip, iron oozing from between her fingers, the metal smoking as she crunched it into a blunt-topped stand. She gave a delighted squeal, marveling at her new power, lifted the ruined iron off the table and worked it between her hands, kneading it in to a racketball sized lump of steaming metal.

Eric Champion's crotch burned with desire.

Jamie and Brooke's eyes both widened. They shared a look, then each grabbed the polished cherrywood table in front of them and pulled.

It tore apart, the report like a cannon blast, the wood crumbling in their grip.

Courtney's hands flew to her mouth, then her eyes narrowed, and she drove her clenched hand down on the table in front of her, shattering the remains of the grand dining table.

Awe gripped them all, then Jamie started to laugh. In a few moments, they all joined her.

Eric smiled, gesturing to them. "The estate is basically deserted for the afternoon. Why don't the three of you go… and play."

They got to their feet, bubbling energy barely contained, carefully opened the dining room door, vanished. Eric turned his gaze to Jennifer, sitting there and watching him. Her eyes were burning with their own light.

"And you, darling? Would you like to play as well?"

She nodded, rising, settling in his lap. "I do intend to play. But my toy is right here."

She seized his pants, shredding the material off his body, his suit jacket and shirt peeling away under her fingers like rice paper. Her body was that of a goddess, made even more perfect than before by the miracle of Ultrafemme.

He was naked in seconds, his erection free and full. She smiled. "Indestructible? Completely?"

Eric nodded. Her smile widened, one booted leg sliding to rest on the arm of his chair. "Then show me."

The thickly padded iron chair lay smashed on the floor, halfway driven through the hardwood. Both of them ignored it, the sharpened edges of no concern any longer, rolling on the ruins in absolute bliss. Her dress and belt lay equally tattered on top of what was left of his suit, her boots all that remained of her clothing. He had noticed the sleek smoothness of her legs and arms, the total lack of any type of body hair. He smelled her sweet scent, cuddling his now godly-powerful wife to his chest.

"I feel so strong," she whispered, watching an iron filigree bend back from her husband's body. "Like I could do anything. The candelabra, it was like wadding a single sheet of paper."

"Isn't that what you wanted?" he kissed her hair, her nipples erect against his stomach.

"Yes. It's everything you promised me. You're everything you promised me. It's all… it's all still so new. It's intoxicating."

She plucked a slender rod from what had been the chairback, rolling it with the ease of wet dough between her thumb and forefinger. He watched her silently, as aroused by her power as she was.

Jennifer finished rolling the iron into a marble-sized sphere, flicked it with her finger at the door to the kitchen. It slammed through like a rifle bullet, splintering the oak.

She giggled. "Oops. Sorry, love."

He sat up, despite his wife's regretful grumble, stretched his arms above his head. He felt like a totally new man, fitter than in decades. "We should put some clothes on, love. We don't want to traumatize our daughter."

Jennifer sat as well, taking a moment to study her new body. "I'm going to need a whole new wardrobe. Lots of leather, I think. I'll be saving so much money on bras," she smiled wickedly at him. "If you are a good boy, I will let you take me shopping, perhaps pick out some things for me to wear."

He stood, leaning down to easily lift his wife. "It's a date. Come on, I'm certain you can find something."

He carried her up the wide staircase towards their rooms, pausing at the sprawling window to see a tree tip over a quarter-mile from the house. "It looks as if the girls are enjoying themselves."

She nipped at his neck. "I am too. Get us up the stairs, Eric, or I'll take you right here."

Jamie felt like a god.

The mansion towered a mile and a half away, but she could pick out the mortar-work in the flagstone steps from where she was standing. Knew she could be standing on those steps in a matter of seconds.

She flexed her arms, strode confidently to a thirty foot scrub pine, wrapped her hands around it's trunk, dug her fingers in.

Wood splintered, She took hold, lifted, ripping the tree from the ground, roots and all, held it above her head. She let the sensation ripple over her body for a long couple of seconds, then balanced the tree on one hand, drew her arm back, flung the tree halfway across Lake Michigan.

She watched the shape arrow away, turned back towards the mansion. Oh, yes, things would be very, very different.

Courtney Champion vaulted to a winch-arm, jutting out from the estate's barn some forty feet above the ground. She twirled around it, hands shifting confidently, her balance perfect. She had been an amateur gymnast – now she was a hundred times more capable than any Olympic champion.

She lofted off the winch, twisted into a quadruple somersault, landed lightly on the balls of her feet. It barely felt as if she'd stepped from a single stair to the ground.

Courtney bent her legs, began to run. Her hyper-sharp senses let her pick individual objects out of the blur around her, even as she covered miles in seconds. She ran the entire twelve mile length of the estate in twenty seconds, cornering along the property markers, looping her way to the edge of the lake, speeding along the beach line.

Tomorrow would be a very interesting day at school…

Gryphon 27 and Gryphon 61, the Pacific Ocean, November 13, 2001:

Arwyn shifted in her seat, wiggling her toes in her new uniform boots, Alec engrossed in a datapad on the seat just past Julia.

She studied the two of them briefly. Alec's hand was gently tracing along Julia's scalp, her hand resting ever so lightly on his thigh. Every few minutes he would look up, give her a smile, go back to what he was doing. When it suddenly occurred to her that every time he glanced up at Julia, his eyes traced her way before he smiled.

The Gryphon was comfortably packed, not as crowded as the ride back from Oregon had been. Built for twenty Knights and their weapons, half that many settled along the seats, quietly chatting or assembling weapons.

Somack nudged her elbow slightly, gave her a charming smile. "Are you enjoying the flight a little better this time, child?"

"Oh, yes, My Lord," she replied, staring out the forward canopy. "This world is so beautiful… I never really understood that before…"

Somack inclined his head in agreement. "All of the Lord's Creations have a beauty unto themselves. Some you have to hunt for, others simply are beautiful without as well as within. And please, child, call me Somack. Leave the honorifics for these others."

Arwyn smiled shyly. "There is so much to see, so much to do in this enormous world – I could spend the rest of my life exploring it, and never see it all."

"Your chance will come," he replied, casting a look at Alec and Julia. "He will see to it. And what he can not, she will."

Arwyn watched the Elder gaze fondly at the two of them, tucked her legs up to her chin. "Julia's really lucky. Alec is…"

"His love for her in no way diminishes his love for you, Arwyn," Somack pitched his voice low. "It may be different, but it is no less strong."

The eyes that gazed back touched the Elder with their pain, their need, their humanity. "Is it really, Lord Somack?"

A warm, soft hand clasped her shoulder. "Of course, child. The Archon would brave any threat to keep you safe, as he would his own child. He already thinks of you that way."

As if in answer, Alec came across the aisle, sat down in the empty seat on the other side of Arwyn. His arm replaced Somack's, the Cleric's smile widening. "Hey, kiddo. How you doing?"

Arwyn rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm okay. I guess."

He gave her a gentle kiss on the head, cuddled her close. "We have an hour or so before we hit Seattle. Why don't you try to get some rest?"

She shook her head, barely moving it against his shoulder. "I'm not really tired. But this is nice."

"Then just relax," he replied, Julia settling on his other side. "I'm here for you. You know that."

Arwyn leaned a bit closer, relaxing against him. Her hand found Julia's, squeezing it tight. Julia squeezed back, covering Arwyn's hand with her other.

The two women drifted off to sleep a few minutes later, nudged along by a telepathic prompt. Alec slithered out from beneath them, Somack covering the both of them with blankets, giving Alec a wink and a smile as he sat down to watch over them.

Alec twisted his way into the cockpit, settled himself in the co-pilot seat. Isamu was next to him, not doing much more than watching the instruments. Alec slid the cockpit closed, hung a commset on his ear.

"How we doin', Isamu?" he asked quietly, looking everything over.

"Just cruisin' right along, Archon," the pilot replied. "Seattle in… seventy-eight minutes."

"Anything on the board?"

Isamu shook his head. "Nah. We're about forty degrees off the major flight paths. 'Sides, with this baby's stealth suite, I could be inverted above the cockpit of a jumbo and they'd never see us."

Alec grimaced. "How about I just take your word for that, 'kay?"

Isamu laughed. "Sorry, Boss. I forgot you don't like to fly."

"Better in here than anything else," he paused. "Update from the Citadel?"

"Cas reported in an hour ago, right after we left," Isamu tapped a switch, settled his hand back on the stick. "They're at Navajo Seven, and they're getting the beacon up. Nothing going on out there."

"That's good. What else?"

Isamu handed over a hardcopy. "I wanted to wait until we got down for this one, sir. Mostly 'cause you aren't gonna like it…"

Alec flipped it open, began to read. "… what the hell? Who authorized this? And how much did they have to drink that morning?"

He dropped the sheaf of papers, clicked the comm system up. "Gryphon Sixty-One, come in."

Nguyen Tran's voice crackled back. "Gryphon Sixty-One, go ahead, Archon."

"Tran, get Master Torik up in the cockpit…"

"…they did what?" the familiar growl snarled.

"You heard me," Alec replied. "Mulroony and Sanders were both inside the Protector's Agency. Now that they've turned up missing, her little minions are digging around into their backgrounds."

"Of all the stupid…! We were tracking her movements well enough without risking this!" Torik heaved an angry sigh, thumped the panel beside him. "Coriana never did listen about covert operations. What kind of damage do you think we could be looking at?"

"It depends on how far she gets a bug up her nose," Alec fingered the compact, barrel – snouted weapon strapped to his thigh. "If she digs deep enough, a lot of their background won't make much sense. If they just turn up dead, that'll make it worse. I'd prefer to avoid killing her for the time being; the Velorians probably wouldn't like that much."

"Agreed," Torik muttered. "Perhaps it is time to play the hand we have been dealt. You could go to Los Angeles, confront her directly. You might gain us an ally – we have already chosen our side in the Supremis War. If the Kaldec defeat us here, our war will be over, and the rest of the galaxy will go right along with us. The Velorians should be prepared for what is coming next."

"Yeah. I'll talk to you again later. Archangel out," Alec killed one line, activated another. "Citadel, this is Archangel. Come in."

Hanaka Mitsu answered. "Mits, I need you to grab Li and have him do me a little favor…"

"At least it's dark," Isamu noted, plying the stick in his hands. "Alternate One still up?"

Alec nodded, his face lit by the dim cranberry running lights. "So far as Archimedes could tell. Better than nothing. I got us hotel rooms for a couple of days at the Marriott."

"How you gonna explain Somack and Torik?" Isamu reduced speed, angling in towards a small airfield northwest of SeaTac.

"I brought imagers, Mother," he grinned back. He'd excused himself for a few minutes to change into a tailored suit and striped tie, down to the leather loafers. "Everything is under control."

Isamu grunted. "You shoulda told the Protector to come meet you here, rather than there."

"I can handle one Velorian."

"Yeah? This Zor'el is supposed to be something special," he brought them in, a hangar sliding open at their approach, the Gryphon nimbly rotating and settling to the landing pad. Before Isamu had everything powering down, Tran parked the other ship right next to them, the Gryphon's struts barely flexing on landing.

"Grease job, Issy," Alec clapped his shoulder, got out of his seat. He climbed out of the cockpit, gently rustled Arwyn's shoulder. "C'mon, sleepyheads, time to see the big city."

She stirred, Julia yawning, stretching. Both of them shot him accusing looks, until Somack offered them both long leather coats. "The Archon thought it prudent that you get your rest; I honestly did not have the heart to wake you until now."

The accusation faded, Alec drifting past with a small smile, keying open the back hatch. The Gryphon opened up, Knights dragging weapons cases and personal bags down. Alec tapped a switch on his wristcomm, a false wall sliding back to reveal a row of vehicles.

Everyone was already in civvies, except Arwyn and Julia, but they were belting their coats around them when they came down the ramp. Torik had already activated his imager, making him look like an elderly Asian man, back still straight, a spring in his step.

"I love this city," he remarked to Alec, a duffel on one shoulder and a weapons case in his hand. "It is so modern and bustling, but not divorced from the Green. And such a diverse people. Reminds me a lot of Alexandria when the Library still stood."

Alec leaned in to a Lexus, checking it over. "Every time I almost forget how old you are, you make some comment about the Ancient Wonders of The World."

Torik laughed, walking away to another car. Somack led Julia and Arwyn over to the Lexus, a Knight trailing behind with weapons and bags. He circled around the back, opened the trunk, set everything in, saluted and backed away.

Alec climbed behind the wheel, Julia sliding in next to him. Somack and Arwyn settled themselves in the back seat, Alec sliding the rig into gear and pulling out.

They managed the city streets without too much trouble. The Lexus had a navigation system that put On*Star to shame; the car practically drove itself to the Marriott in downtown Seattle.

Arwyn goggled at everything and everyone, acting more and more like the wondering child than the wise council of a computer he'd grown to rely on. He smiled to himself, approving of the change – it was better to stay in touch with what they were fighting for.

The valet hopped to, drawing Julia's door open with a flourish, two bellman unloading the trunk efficiently. Alec helped Arwyn out, tossed the keys to the valet along with a ten-spot, led his little entourage into the lobby.

The hotel manager clicked his heels a bit, fawning just a touch, particularly when "Raphael Gabriel" signed the register for twelve rooms and two suites, half of the executive floor. The concierge appeared at a fingersnap, extending his hand.

"William Bradford, Mr. Gabriel, at your service," he escorted them to the elevator, the two bellman right at their heels. "Anything you need while you're our guest, I'm the man to handle it for you."

Alec cast a glance at Somack and Arwyn, smiled. "Actually, Mr. Bradford, if you could arrange a guided tour of the museums and the shopping districts for tomorrow for my family, here, I would greatly appreciate it."

"Consider it done," the man replied. "Anything else, sir?"

"I need a wake-up call at five-thirty; beyond that, no thank you."

Bradford handed over a card. "If anything else comes up, sir, please let me know."

He peeled off, the rest of them silent until they entered Alec and Julia's suite and the bellmen had departed. Julia rounded on him, arms folded under her breasts.

"And where are you going to be tomorrow, while we're shopping?" she demanded. Somack settled himself in a chair, watching quietly.

"I have an appointment tomorrow morning," he replied, sitting on the couch. "In Los Angeles."

"The Protector," Somack intoned quietly.

"Yeah."

"The Velorian?" Julia snapped. "Alone? Are you crazy?"

"Not really. I don't want to come at her in force, but we need to at least address her, or she'll get in the way," he laid down on the couch, kicking off his shoes. "Besides, she'll be overmatched. She won't even get a swing at me unless I let her."

"I want to come too."

Alec raised his head. "Absolutely not."

She firmed her gorgeous mouth slightly. "I'm going. And if you force me to stay, you are going to get it when I get loose. And I will get loose, sooner or later."

Alec rose to his elbows. "I said no."

"Too bad. I'm going."

Alec opened his mouth, but Somack cut in. "If I may, Archon, it makes sense to take Dr. Brooks along with you. She would offer an effective counterpoint to your obviously alien technology, making your argument more persuasive."

"Whose side are you on here?!" Alec barked.

"Yours. I know you, boy; if Dr. Brooks is there with you, you will be far more careful than if you were alone or with Isamu," Somack's face radiated calm. "You will think before you charge to battle with the Velorian, a battle whose ending I have no doubt of, but which could have disastrous consequences should you leap into it."

Alec stared for a second, then flopped his head down on the couch. "I hate it when you're right, Cleric. You suck."

"Of course, Archon," he rose to his feet gracefully. "Shall we dine at Ivar's for supper?"

Arwyn's eyes were shining. "We get to go out to eat?"

"After you and Julia put some regular clothes on," Alec wriggled his toes in his socks. "Arwyn, your room's through there."

He pointed in the general direction. She snatched up her bag and dashed away laughing; Julia lifted her own suitcase with an imperious sniff and followed.

Alec sat up as soon as they were gone, weaving a small amount of energy into a cone of damper energy. He pinned the Cleric with a glance, Somack settling on the edge of the sofa.

His wrinkled face softened with a smile. "You wish to know why I accepted the child, do you not?"

"Kinda, yeah," Alec replied. "I mean, I think it's great, but it is a little out of character for you."

"I have had to rethink many things in the last few days," Somack shifted on the cushion, laid his Staff across his knees. "We turned our backs on the sciences of life because of what the Kaldec had done to us, restricting our studies solely to defending ourselves against the evil they had wrought. It suddenly occurred to me, as the reports of the destruction rolled in, that we had always been meddling in the growth of our children."

He paused, studying Alec with ancient eyes. "Your physical capabilities without the disciplines are as developed as a human being can possibly be. Your mental capacities are equally as extensive. You are the most powerful Adept I have seen in ten thousand years – combined with your physical gifts, you are a match for any single opponent in the Galaxy, even a Galen. How much of that would you be if I had never come to your world?"

"Probably not too much."

"Precisely," he sighed, laying his Staff aside. "We took the phenomena of psychic potential and made it a physical reality. In the same fashion, we accelerated the eugenic capacities of our pupils by several thousand years – unless you know of an unaugmented human who can run a kilometer in less than a minute. Without tapping the disciplines."

Alec shook his head. "Only person I know faster'n me is Julia."

"A woman, who on her own, may have created the greatest panacea in human history," Somack finished. "While at the same time, one of our Technicians took a discarded design and created a human being from it.

"Arwyn is as human as you are, lad. I heard you talking to her when we were in the mountains, and I listened. Her mind sang to me, a song as full and sweet as any newborn. Her aura rings of the innocence of her soul, while her mind is as strong as any I have felt other than yours.

The Elder reclined slowly, abruptly looking every second of his amazing age. "We were blind to reality for so long. So certain of our truth, in the face of the Kaldec gone mad, we even allowed ourselves to forget that we came from the same world, the same genetics. And while they forced improvement through genetic engineering, we simply chose to do the same thing… by proxy."

"It isn't the same," Alec replied. "Not at all."

"How can you…?"

"We chose to become what we are, Somack," Alec rode right over him. "I came to learn, to be taught, to become more than what I was. I chose to pick up my lance, the same way I chose to take the Shal'kyrie. No one forced me. And that makes all the difference."

Julia stepped into the area of silence, settling herself on Alec's lap. "I chose too, Lord Somack. When I created my formula. When I let my choices lead to disaster. And when your pupil came to me and convinced me to come with him."

Alec took the old man's hand. "We'll get through, Somack. They may have beaten the others, but they haven't beaten us. They won't beat us."

He snapped his fingers, making the silence vanish. Arwyn danced into the room, wearing a simple skirt, blouse, and loafers. "I'm ready!" she sang out, snatching up her jacket. "Let's go!"

Dinner was excellent.

A fine Washington wine. Freshly caught fish and shellfish. All elegantly prepared and served in a high-ceilinged dining room lit by cut crystal chandeliers, massive windows overlooking the Sound.

Alec could feel the Green calling him. He finished his grilled sea bass, dabbed his lips with his napkin, reached to pour more wine into Julia's glass.

She smiled at him, her hand resting in his lap. Lord Somack waved off a splash more, Arwyn finishing the last of her poached salmon while nursing a mocktail Julia had recommended.

"How was your trout, Father?" Alec asked with a small grin. Somack returned the smile while he patted his lips.

"Decadent," the Cleric sighed. "You spoil me, my son. A fine meal, fine wine, and fine conversation. I should leave the old country more often."

Julia shook her head. The two of them were conversing in Italian, in case anyone thought the byplay a touch unusual. Arwyn followed right along, leaving Julia odd-man out for a change, the younger girl piping up as Somack reclined in his chair.

"How many languages do you speak?" Julia leaned to Alec's ear, his hand gently stroking her arm.

He shook his head. "I've lost count. I think… twenty-eight or thirty, somewhere in there. I can talk to pretty much anybody."

Their waiter returned, offering coffee, as the dessert cart made it's way around. Everyone but Alec made a selection, Julia sliding the chocolate cheesecake between them.

"Help me eat this," she pleaded softly. "Or every man in here is going to think I am a total pig."

"No, actually I think every man in here wants to take you to bed."

He'd already subdued several overly-admiring men with his patented scowl; Julia had helped out by sending back numerous drinks and a bottle of champagne. Even now, after almost an hour in the restaurant, looks were coming their way.

She did look lovely, a simple black cocktail dress that clung in all the right places, and a pair of heels that only emphasized her amazing legs. But her eyes were only for him, as she had asserted the moment they sat down and the first drink came her way.

"Tough," she said now, handing him a dessert fork. "I'm a one-man woman, and he's sitting right next to me."

"Congratulations, Father," Alec replied in Italian. "That's quite a catch you have there…"

She slapped his arm playfully, just enough to sting. "Keep it up, wise guy. Somack won't be around to protect you all night."

She tugged his chair a foot or so closer, letting her lean comfortably against him, forking up some of the cheesecake.

Somack sipped his coffee, his eyes abruptly narrowing as he caught something in the mirror behind the bar. Alec caught the look, tensed slightly against Julia, making her look up.

"What?" she whispered. Alec shook his head, face utterly still, then relaxing slightly a moment or two later.

"The feds," he replied. "They appear to be looking for me."

He raised his hand for the waiter, leaned across to Somack. "Father, you and the ladies finish your dessert. I'll be in the car."

Alec pulled out of the lot, circling the block while he waited for them to finish. The onboard knew what he wanted, tuning in to the local satellite feeds, a display popping open.

" FBI sources indicate they are looking for one Alec Collins, as a person of interest in the bombings in San Francisco Sunday evening and Monday morning. They stress that Collins is only being sought for questioning, and is not considered dangerous at this time. However, it is advised that anyone who comes in contact with Mr. Collins immediately notify their local FBI office…"

"Great," he snarled under his breath, circling back in to the Ivar's lot. Julia was waiting outside, Somack and Arwyn sheltered under cover. In less than a minute they were all in the car, heading back to the Marriott.

Somack's brows lowered at the news. "How did they manage to compromise you?"

"Gerald activated the damper in my apartment when they pulsed the neighborhood," Alec replied, skirting the piers. "These guys aren't stupid; when they found things that should've been blank and weren't, they must've put two and two together. The military and certain parts of the government have known about the Supremis for some time. They probably figure I'm tied into that somehow."

Everybody started talking at once. The argument pitched up in volume until he pulled over a block from the hotel.

"They're not gonna catch me!" he snapped. "I can alter my hair color tonight and have a goatee before morning. Some cosmetic lenses, a pair of glasses, and I'm a different guy altogether. So all of you, relax, okay?"

He put the car back in gear, pulled in, dropped it off with the valet. Somack was quiet on the elevator, waiting until they were in the suite to start back in.

"At least put off meeting with the Protector," he advised. "If they are watching her, it will draw them to you as well."

"I can't do that. If she gets tangled up in this, it'll make the whole thing worse. Not to mention getting her killed, thus antagonizing the Velorians," he shucked his jacket, hanging it in the closet. "It's too late. Li sent her an e-mail while we were flying in."

His cell phone trilled. Alec lifted it up, put his finger to his lips at everyone in the room, flicked the shoephone open. "Yes?"

"I received your message," a lilting female voice intoned softly. "You make an interesting assertion."

"I can provide proof, I assure you," he sat down on the couch, pulling a datapad from his pants pocket, drawing the stylus with the same flourish he used to draw his warlance.

"You'll have to. I will admit I'm intrigued – I suppose a meeting won't prove too inconvenient."

"Excellent. Name the time and place."

She pondered that for a moment, probably taken off-guard. "Santa Monica pier. Seven AM tomorrow."

"Done," he paused himself, watching Julia. "Myself, and one other. Just as a warning, I will be armed."

"I anticipated that," he could sense the smile on the other end of the line. "I have no objection."

"Good evening, then." he clicked the phone closed, set it down on the table. "She's on for tomorrow morning."

Tyrell Biological Enterprises, Los Angeles:

Kara Matthews set the receiver down gently, her eyes studying the lit skyline of LA. The initial message had come over her private e-mail account, alluding to too many things to possibly have been a joke or a hoax. The cell number – unsurprisingly, completely untraceable – was the final tidbit.

Male. Extremely confident. So confident, he had no problem meeting her alone, letting her pick the time and place, informing her ahead of time that he would be armed. Confident enough in himself and his companion to not fear any type of potential trap.

She laced her fingers over her knee, made herself consider the situation as calmly as possible. This individual knew she was a Velorian, and a Protector; made reference to knowing about Best and her position as a Scribe; most importantly, he claimed to have been responsible for the destruction of the Arion ship in orbit. And didn't seem concerned about it enough to mention it during their phone conversation.

Kara turned back to her computer, the e-mail still on the screen. If you want to know what's really happening, call this number after nine o'clock Pacific time. The voice that answers will know whatever you want to know. Set up a meeting.

She had a lot of questions. But she was going to have to wait.

Central Wyoming, November 13, 2001:

A pack of wolves kept their distance. The message had spurred it's way through their Dream-Dance – the Blight had finally come. The Brothers of the Green rallied to meet it, but until they chose to fight openly, those of the Green were to stay away.

White Ears had led his pack for many moons. He had not gained the wisdom of age by making foolish choices. His pack was well-fed, cautious, and cared for. He himself stood in high regard among the other pack-leaders, both for his skill as a hunter and his wisdom.

But this was almost too much.

The Blight had infected his land. Putting his pack and shes at risk. Driving the prey away, scourging the Green.

Unacceptable.

They hung at the treeline, White Ears and his best hunters, nine in all, preparing to do… something… about the festering sore in front of them…

A form came from the trees. Wearing the living iron of the Brotherhood. He stopped next to White Ears, offering his open palm.

The wolf sniffed calmly, dug his muzzle in the man's hand. The man reached up to scratch his ears, settling on his haunches before the wolf.

We have come, his voice was quiet, reasoned, as one should be before a great hunter. But merely to watch; our pack leader wishes their attention diverted, to strike with one savage blow, and lay waste to the Blight.

White Ears bobbed his head. Sound strategy. But they desecrate our lands, Brother.

Not for much longer, the man said respectfully. I offer a compromise, Brother. Three bucks roam alone ten miles south; I offer them as peace offering, and will provide two more each seven sunrises until we strike. I only ask that you stay away from the Blight, and ask others to do the same. Your stature carries much weight among the packs.

White Ears considered it, briefly, then bobbed his head once more. Agreed. You bargain hard, Brother. Do not waste such talents on the Blight.

The Brother's iron stave sprang to life, balanced on his single palm. This is the only means of negotiation I intend to use, Brother.

White Ears' bark was sharp and brief. Good. Hunt well, Brother.

He led his hunters away, the distinctive yips and snaps of the shes and cubs sounding not far off. Dieter Heinreich got to his feet, fading back into the woods.

Morrigan's head snapped up at his approach, then bent back to her field comp. "The wolves?"

"Keeping their distance," Dieter replied. "For now. Only cost us two deer a week."

She smiled, teeth dazzling white. "Well done. When I renegotiate my contract, remind me to bring you along."

Gennady Ivanov picked his way through the brush, clapping a hand to his heart. "We've set the perimeters, Morrigan. No one will come in or out unless we know about it."

"Excellent," she finished with her field comp, parked herself in one of the repulsorchairs. "Now, we just sit here, and wait for our new neighbors to make their next move."

The rot-gray tower twisted to the skies, the stench flooding the area even three miles away. Morrigan studied it calmly, fingers folded in her lap, watching. And waiting.

Archangel wouldn't leave them out here for very long.

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