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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 10

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 01 June 2020 20:37] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 06 June 2020 21:40]

Last of the Fallen

The Citadel, Tibet, November 15, 2001:

Isamu eased the Gryphon in, settling dead-center on the landing pad. Pavel Bondarenko ran across the concrete before the ramp dropped, clapping his fist over his heart as Alec appeared.

"Welcome home, Archon," he said, very studiously not looking at the three exotically beautiful women that followed Somack from the cabin. He took Alec's bag, bowed to Somack, started back towards the Citadel.

Alec fell into step with the Cleric, leaned his head towards him. "Mazar or Coriana?"

"Mazar," Somack's voice was thoughtful. "He is far more important than that traitorous sow."

Alec winced at his words, straightened. "Pavel, please see to Protector Zor'el's quarters, and have someone bring me the Shal'kyrie. Lord Somack and I will be in the Main Hall."

"At once, Archon," the boy broke into a run, vanishing through the huge doors ahead of them. Alec glanced back at Kara, struggling not to smile at her expression.

"It isn't quite the Hall of Protectors, but it suits us," he said, helping Somack navigate the stairs to the ground. "Plus, it is the oldest building on Earth."

She shook her head, wonder on her face. "It's beautiful."

The bronzed main doors swung open wide at their approach, Thien and Eric Gramm coming to meet them. Eric's jaw dropped when he spotted Kara, but he recovered quickly, moving to flank Alec.

"Gabriel just landed in Seattle," he reported, stealing glances at the statuesque blonde trailing along after them. "He understands his orders, and says they'll be ready when you get back."

"Good," Alec replied, following Eric's eyes. "Stop staring. It isn't polite, and it's probably the pheromones."

Thien chuckled. Eric flamed red, as did Kara. Alec clapped his shoulder.

"Don't worry about it. Between the Protector and Julia, it's getting a little… heady around here."

The two women stopped, giving each other considering looks. Finally, Julia gave Kara a small smile, trotted to catch up with the group. Before they made it to the Council Chambers, Takagi Matsuhiro rushed up, the gleaming scabbard of the Shal'kyrie held tightly in his hands. He dropped to his knees in front of Alec, offering the weapon to him.

"My Lord Archon," he murmured reverently, head bowed. Alec sighed, took hold of the man's shoulder, nudged him to his feet, and took the blade.

"The Order bows to no one, Matsuhiro," he said softly, buckling the sword to his waist. "Least of all to me. Thank you."

He turned to the rest of them as Matsuhiro vanished down the hallway. "Thien, please see to these ladies' needs. Lord Somack, let us speak with Mazar."

Alec led the Kalrist around a corner, the tapping of Somack's Staff fading in the distance quickly. Thien smiled at Kara and Julia, reaching out to take Arwyn's hand. "Ladies, please, come with me."

Alec and Somack strode down an empty hall, halting before a wall of smoothed lime. Somack laid his hand on a darkened brick, a door dissolving into sight directly in front of them.

Stairs twisted into darkness. Alec glanced up at an iron torch resting in a brass holder. It blazed to life, Alec pulling it free and holding it above his head.

Somack started down, heedless of the gloom, Alec right behind him. The Kalrist's step seemed to quicken the further they descended, his Staff clicking firmly on a level floor sooner than Alec would have suspected.

His eyes trailed along the vast arched corridor. It was easily twice as large as the Great Hall, the curve of support beams lost in shadow. No scrollwork here, walls rough-hewn, unadorned.

Somack called back to him, already thirty paces ahead; Alec ran to catch up, keeping his eyes ahead…

Their torchlight bounced off polished obsidian, glittering starkly against the enveloping shadows. Somack stopped three feet away, folded his arms, laid his Staff on a shoulder.

Alec touched the door, watched it swing open. Beyond was dimly lit; he scanned the walls for a torch-holder, until Somack cleared his throat.

"I will take it," he held out his hand. "They have summoned you, not me."

Alec handed the torch over, squared himself, and walked in. Before he was gone from sight, the door boomed closed.

He followed the light, rapidly coming into the Vault, it's central brazier flaming alive when he stepped past the threshold. Ghostly flickers of light along the script on the domed walls caught his eye; he laid his fingers on the etched symbols, reading them easily.

"Our monument to our human brothers. The names of all those who have fallen in the service of the Compact."

He turned. The three Augurs dropped to one knee in concert, bowing their heads, one in the lead, the other two flanking him. "Archon. You honor us with your presence."

He returned the gesture, remembering to balance one hand on the scabbard of the Shal'kyrie. "Lord Mazar. Your invitation does me honor."

They stayed kneeling until Alec had risen, all three snapping erect with easy grace. Mazar smiled, his face oddly familiar, gestured to the other two. "My fellows. Geserac, of the Shalmon Province, and Croslax, of the city of Genisserat in the Kelto Region."

Each bowed from the waist in turn, awaiting a nod from Alec, each face smiling serenely. Alec waited, then spoke. "How come you guys never say anything?"

Geserac's smile became one of true amusement. "No one ever asks us to, My Lord," he replied, his voice a full, rich baritone.

Croslax laughed, booming around the dome. "Which is perhaps best, Lord Archon. Once Geserac begins to speak, most pray for quiet."

Both Augurs chuckled quietly. Alec looked confused, brow furrowed, while he studied them, then returned his attention to Mazar. "Lord Mazar, I…"

"… have a thousand and one questions at the forefront of your mind, yes, My Lord, I know," he interjected, eyes twinkling. "Come to the fire with us. We will answer all of them."

Geserac walked along side Alec as they moved into the room, studying him with knowing eyes. "The choice was correct, Archon. You wear the Shal'kyrie as one who was born with a blade in his hand."

"Yet you wield it with wisdom," Croslax called over his shoulder. "A blade is only so fine as the mind that directs it, and the will that gives it pause."

Mazar halted at the rune-covered lip of the brazier. "Please, lad, sit."

He did, crossing his legs, hitching the Shal'kyrie behind him. The Augurs sank comfortably to their knees, leaning back, each one of their ancient faces able to see him clearly.

"Please excuse the stares, Lord Archon," Mazar chuckled. "It has been some time since a human has been here in the Vault with us."

"Why? All you had to do was ask."

Mazar's lips twisted wryly. "It was deemed… undignified for us to speak with the Brotherhood. I fear she was afraid we would see past her facade, perhaps let slip that which she has now openly expressed to you."

Alec shrugged; he knew which she Mazar referred to. "Part of it I can understand. You three are all that is left of Kaldor…"

Three booming laughs cut him off. Geserac threw his head back, howling at the ceiling, Croslax all but collapsing to his stomach. Mazar wiped away a tear as he clapped Alec's shoulder, smiling at him broadly.

"Lad…" he sucked in a gasping breath, chuckled briefly, tried again. "Lad, the remains of Kaldor are walking around in the monstrosity your forebears built around us. We were a culture before we were warriors. That is the gift we strove to give this world, these people who welcomed us into their hearts and lives."

Geserac had subsided into a giggling fit, composed himself, nodded firmly. "Tell me, Archon, what are the first duties of a Knight?"

"Protect life. Foster freedom. Seek knowledge. Practice compassion. Practice mercy. Practice discipline," the words he lived by, so much a part of him as his skin.

Croslax beamed. "And the purpose of strength, Archon?"

"To defend those who cannot defend themselves, and to defeat those who abuse their strength," his voice was certain. "There is no greater call than the one to protect the weak."

Mazar's smile lit the room. "That, my son, is the legacy of Kaldor. One you, and the rest of the Brotherhood, have learned so very well."

He faced the fire briefly, turned back. "Strength comes in many forms. The Brotherhood's is the power of the mind harnessed to the fitness of the body. You are not as physically strong as a Supremis, nor as physically fast as a Centauri, nor as environmentally adaptable as a Dracon. But the human mind is the most powerful force in the Galaxy; you are the most powerful mind among humanity. How you use that strength is testament to your character, and the truth of the disciplines."

"We have waited millennia for you, Archon," Croslax continued, his own indigo pupils glistening in the fire's flicker. "The human Brother who would lead us against the Kaldec. One who sees past the blinders we all wear, to the truth of the mission. One who would unite the Brotherhood of the Order from across the stars, make us whole once more."

Geserac took up the thread. "You will succeed. The Kalrist will survive. And then we must build anew, that which we let decay while we fled our world. For that, we give you this gift."

Mazar clapped his hands once, sharply. The lone door on the opposite side of the room slid open, a lithe figure gliding across the stones towards them. All four men rose at the woman's approach.

She was barely more than a girl, Alec judging her to be perhaps a year or two older than Arwyn, face unlined, beautiful, bright purple eyes wide and alert. Clothed in a feminine cut of the Augurs' robes, emphasizing her slender waist, gently curving torso.

She slipped to both knees, the movement graceful, bowed her head almost to the floor, a sweep of purple hair cascading on the stone.

"This is Kellehendra," Mazar said fondly. "Loremistress of the Kalrist. Our Oracle. And our gift to you, Archon."

Kellehendra. Beloved memory. Alec forced his jaw closed, gaped at Mazar. "What am I supposed to do with her?"

Mazar's face clouded briefly, then turned purple. Geserac studiously glanced away, shoulders shaking with muffled laughter. Croslax cleared his throat.

"Kellehendra is the living embodiment of our history, Archon. All the knowledge we have amassed, all the culture and wisdom we have developed, is within her. We ask that you protect her, teach her, guide her in the proper use of that knowledge."

This was rapidly spinning out of control. "Wait a second. You're entrusting me with… her? I don't think…"

"No better guardian exists," Mazar replied. "Somack is too old, Torik too much a warrior, Sorala too necessary to her own pupils. There are no other Elders to guide her. Besides, she needs the human perspective."

Alec shook himself, glanced down at the girl, her face still pressed to the floor. "Kellehendra, stand up."

She did, fixing him with eyes too old to be in her young face. He studied her in turn, folded his hands behind him. "What do you want to do?"

Her eyes dropped fractionally. "See this world. Learn all that I can."

Alec sighed. "Very well. Then come with me."

Mazar smiled again. "Excellent. I realize you are very busy, Archon, but there is one other matter we should discuss."

Alec jerked his eyes away from Kellehendra, turned them on Mazar. "What, another kid?"

"In a manner of speaking," Geserac said calmly, "yes."

"It concerns the Colony…" Croslax began.

"Colony? What colony?"

Mazar frowned. "You do not know of the Kalrist colony in the Shamballah Valley?"

His jaw hit the floor. Alec gasped repeatedly, trying to find his voice; the Augurs traded angry looks, eyes hard. Mazar closed his eyes briefly, brow wrinkling; a few moments later, Somack strode slowly into the Vault.

"You did not tell them?!" Mazar snapped before Somack was even close to them, all but running at the Cleric. "Why did you not tell them?!"

"I was instructed not to," Somack replied. "With this generation of Knights, it was decided that the open nature of the Protector's activities was too much of a risk. The Technicians were sworn to secrecy, as were the Senseis. Unless an actual attack came at Shamballah, we were to remain silent."

Mazar's snarl tore the air. "That fool woman has compromised every one of you! It is a wonder the Archon can stand being in the same room as you, you stink so of lies!"

"Hey!" Alec barked, a tide of anger rising in his chest. "That was a cheap shot! Back off!"

"He learned loyalty better than you typify it, Brother," Mazar growled, Somack staring at his feet. "Cleric! Hah! Buffoon is more accurate! You should have slapped her down centuries ago!"

Somack sighed. "Yes, I should have."

Geserac laid a kindly hand on Alec's shoulder. "Do not mind them, Archon. The story is as old as life itself- brothers simply cannot please each other."

Alec's eyes tried to leap out of his head. Croslax cleared his throat. "Enough, you two. If you wish to rip a strip of hide from each other, do so when the Archon need not watch you roll about on the floor."

The two eyed each other warily; Alec realized why Mazar looked so familiar. The same glittering eyes, the same pissed-off set to the mouth. Somack had more hair, but Mazar a stronger chin. Then they turned to Alec, bowed from the waist.

"Quit with the bowing," Alec's head was whirling at warp speed, trying to get a handle on what had been dumped in his lap. "And tell me about… Shamballah? The Kalrist are here?"

Somack nodded. "Yes. About three thousand of them."

That broke him. He flopped to the floor, face blank. "Holy God…"

"See what you have done?" Mazar demanded, rounding on Somack. "Have you even told him what comes with being Archon?"

Alec drew his knees up, ducking his head between them. "Oh, God, there's more?!"

Kellehendra knelt next to him, worry on her face. "Are you all right, Archon?"

"I was going to tell him," Somack's voice strove to be stout. "I was waiting for…"

"For what? Him to stumble over them?" Mazar snarled. "And what happens then, when they fall to their knees, begin screaming about the Cho'kal?"

"Cho'kal? Champion of the People?" Alec raised his head. "Now wait one minute. Nobody said anything about that! What the… what else are you guys hiding from me?!"

The Augurs and Somack ignored him, arguing in reasoned tones. Alec gritted his teeth, stood up. "Hey! Shut up!"

Four sets of eyes swiveled to him. Alec scrubbed his hand through his hair, trying to think. "Take me to them. All of you."

The Augurs traded a look. Geserac shrugged. "As you wish, Archon."

The four men turned and started out of the Vault. Alec followed, Kellehendra right beside him, Alec thinking to grab the torch on the way past.

Halfway up the stairs, Alec flicked his comm on. "Thien, assemble an honor guard. Ten Knights, make sure they're armed to the teeth. Have a Gryphon readied as well. We're coming up."

"We?" he replied. "Who's we?"

"Don't ask. Just get those men down here."

Croslax, walking in front of Somack, stepped lightly into the hall of the Citadel proper, glancing around approvingly. Geserac did as well, leaning back in to the stairwell to offer Kellehendra his arm. Alec's head appeared last, just as a bunch of Knights rounded the corner.

They all fell to the ground, recognizing the Augurs' robes and Somack. Geserac quirked an eyebrow at them, then at Alec. "I believe I understand your position on the bowing, Archon. This will become tiresome very quickly."

Alec dragged a hand down his face, Croslax watching the gesture interestedly. Alec had a brief flash of being a bug in a jar, shook it off, growled at the Knights. "Get off the floor, you idiots! And where the blazes is the honor guard?!"

Thien skittered into the hall, frowned when he heard the end of Alec's tirade. "They're it, Archon."

Alec snarled, grabbed the closest Knight by the shoulder, heaved him to his feet. "Guard now!" he snapped, starting down the hall. "Bow later!"

Ghali Motuburu flushed, the color spectacular on his ebony skin. He rose to his six-five height, snapped his fingers at the other Knights, all of whom tried to leap erect. Alec choked down another snarl, pointed down the hall.

"Just… just follow me," he kept on walking, the Shal'kyrie jostling against his leg. He unbuckled it, reached to his belt, pulled a harness sphere free, slapped it against the sword. It molded around his shoulders, Alec rolling them a few times to be sure of the fit. He reached back over his shoulder, found the hilt, decided he could draw the weapon if he needed to.

The entourage moved quickly through the Main Hall, out to the landing pad. Isamu was just climbing out of their Gryphon. The poor Knight was getting a crash-course in weird of late, but he dragged his gaze from the Augurs and went back inside, firing everything up.

The Augurs and Somack were the first up the ramp. Kellehendra stopped gazing around at everything long enough to follow, then Alec and the honor guard. Somack settled himself in the co-pilot's seat, typing a series of commands into the computer.

Isamu's eyes widened a bit at the coordinates. He slid his helmet on, goosed the throttle gently. "Here we go, everybody."

The Gryphon lifted off the pad, Alec spotting Arwyn watching from a window, Julia just behind her. He waved, sat down, tried not to think of anything on the brief ride.

"Oh… My… God…."

Alec stuck his head through the cockpit door. A snowstorm was gearing up, but the first sputters were stopping cold at a transparent threshold, a wave of green and gold visible beneath three soaring peaks. Alec ground his teeth together, motioned Isamu down.

The transport dodged down between the cliffs, sliding from a building snowstorm to a fertile vale in an instant. Isamu leveled off, looking for a place to land, figures pointing up at the Gryphon, shouting wordlessly, smaller forms running along behind them.

The valley spread for a good thirty miles, all of it as lush as a tropical island in the Pacific. Cattle grazed in cunningly fenced pastures, crops laid out in geometric patchworks around a good-sized village. Everything there was arranged as though on a plumb line, neatly-manicured gardens next to each set of low, domed structures. Figures, people, glanced up as the Gryphon soared past, some starting to follow, others returning to what they were doing.

"There," Somack pointed. "The Square, near the large domed building."

Isamu just nodded, guided the ship down to a poured fabricrete pad, settling it with a bit more oomph than was usual. "Sorry. Kinda rattled."

Alec slapped his shoulder. "Get in line."

Ghali was at the ramp, cycling it open. A couple of Knights started to draw weapons; Alec shook his head. "You guys are here for show. I doubt there's anything to be afraid of from these folks."

Mazar positioned himself in front of Alec, Somack dodging around to stand beside him. The two… brothers… traded a look, descended the ramp.

Alec came down next. A sea of Kalrist faces surrounded the Gryphon, ranging from infants cradled in mothers' arms to men that made Somack look young and fit. Including children. Lots of children.

At the sight of him, a ragged gasp swept the crowd, bodies recoiling. He reached down, stripped his weapons belt off, threw it back up into the cabin, armed only with the Shal'kyrie. "I am a Knight of the Order," he called into the abrupt silence. "No Kalrist need ever fear me."

Somack raised his Staff above his head. "Behold, the Archon of the Order!"

Mazar tugged the Shal'kyrie from Alec's back, shoved it into his hand, pushed his arm skyward. "Behold, the symbol of the Compact! Behold, prophecy foretold, fulfilled!"

The silence melted into a swelling, rolling cheer. Women began to weep. Men dropped to their knees, bowing to the packed dirt. Younger Kalrist bellowed, children staring in awe at the spectacle. One little boy, no more than six, stumbled forward, Alec crouching down to catch him.

Violet eyes stared up at Alec. Alec smiled back, made the armor on his right hand flow back up to his elbow. He held his hand up, placed the boy's tiny fingers against his.

His hand was bigger, but the fingers were shaped the same way, the muscle structure all but identical to the boy's. The child stared, then smiled.

"Not so different, are we," Alec whispered. "Remember that."

A vigorous nod. Alec straightened up, slung the Shal'kyrie back on his shoulders. "Please, stop the cheering…"

Somack's Staff dropped with a boom of thunder. Almost immediately the cheering stopped. Alec glared at the Cleric. "Not like that. I meant, politely."

"Lord Archon," a man came forward, four more with him, bowed low. "I am Yamar, First Elder of the Colony. Welcome to our home."

Alec dropped to one knee, head lowered. "Lord Yamar. Your welcome honors me."

The honor guard finished climbing down, none armed with anything more than a warlance, copied Alec's kneeling. The First Elder stammered something in Kalrist, prompting the Knights to all rise.

They were head and shoulders taller than any of the Kalrist, especially Alec and Ghali at six-feet-plus. Alec folded his hands behind his back, tried to smile genially. It was hard, looking out over thousands of Kalrist faces, each one looking like they expected him to part the Red Sea or something.

"Please, Archon, this way," Yamar said, taking his arm. "We will all be more comfortable in the Hall of Elders."

He led the way towards the domed structure, his fellow Elders trotting on ahead. The crowd moved to follow, children racing up to almost touch the Knights as they heeled Alec to the entrance.

He paused, leaned close to Ghali. "Stay out here. Mingle a bit. Find out if they have any pressing needs, and see to them. And be nice."

The man nodded, peeled off, instantly surrounded by a crowd of children. Yamar waited for him to turn back, smiled.

"We are very self-sufficient, here, Archon," he intoned. "You will not find us lacking in any necessity."

"The path of life is filled with necessity, Lord Yamar," he replied, ducking inside the low doorway, "but the path of living is often paved with luxury. I see no reason to deny a single Kalrist either."

"Wisdom," one of the other Elders murmured. "Perhaps they teach them something useful after all."

"Silence, Romvey," Yamar hissed. "He is not deaf, and he has so far proven wiser than you."

Alec turned. "I have learned much from the Triumveres, Lord Romvey," he said, voice respectful. "The truth of life. The defense of the weak. Respect for all that live. Honor. Ask me, and I will tell you."

A slim woman took Alec's arm, staring daggers at Romvey. "Ignore my husband, Lord Archon," she said softly. "He has a cockleburr in his robes this time of day, and he has yet to learn to keep his opinions to himself."

"Not at all, My Lady."

Somack nudged Romvey on his way past. "Magnanimous as well, Romvey. Pay attention. My pup may teach you a thing or two."

Lady Vona led him to a comfortable chair before a raised dais of five chairs, settled him in it, ascended to her place. The other Elders joined her, Yamar seating himself at the center. The Augurs arranged themselves around Alec, the Knight rising and offering his chair to Kellehendra, causing more than a few raised eyebrows on the dais.

Mazar hid his grin behind a hand, Somack clearing his throat. Alec folded his arms ostentatiously, stayed standing. "I will stand, if it pleases the Elders."

"Of course," Yamar settled back, propping his chin in his palm. "I would assume that you have come for a reason."

No sense in delaying the news. "Yes. The Kaldec are here."

Guarded looks. "I see. How soon must we be ready to evacuate?"

"Never," Alec's jaw tensed. "The Kaldec have come to Earth to die."

Yamar nodded slowly. "Then how many of our young people do you seek to conscript? We have three hundred of the age for service…"

Alec shook his head. "I seek no conscription. My army is sufficient. I seek to know of your well-being, and make assurances of them."

That seemed to shock them. Romvey leaned forward. "Archon, with respect, your story seems a touch contrived. We have not had a human visitor in some eighty years, and now you appear, to inform us the Scourge has arrived. But you say you want nothing from us?"

"Correct, My Lord."

"Then why have you come?"

Alec shrugged. "I am the Cho'kal, in addition to the Cho'rist. The safety and well-being of all of you is my responsibility. But if you remain here, I cannot protect you."

He drew a deep breath. "I want you to come to the Citadel. We have ample space, and we may defend you properly there."

Somack dropped his Staff.

"An unusual offer," Yamar frowned. "What if we refuse?"

"Then the Home Guard will create an encampment around the perimeter of this valley, and stand guard, supported by artillery from the Citadel. In that event, I would ask permission to garrison the Order's Activators here

among you. The Technicians will remain at the Citadel."

Vona gripped the arms of her chair in white-knuckled hands. "You would compromise the security of the Citadel to protect us?"

"Buildings can be rebuilt," Alec replied. "Lives cannot."

"Archon…" Somack began, subsided at a single glance from Alec.

"I can provide transport for the entire colony in one lift," Alec continued. "People, possessions, whatever is necessary. But I require an answer soon, so that preparations may be made."

Yamar swept his gaze over the other Elders, turned to face Alec with troubled eyes. "Lord Archon, we are here for a reason. We have turned away from the war, in shame for our failure. Part of our penance has been to shy away from both technology and the Disciplines, to atone for the sins we have committed against the galaxy at large. Now you ask us to come to the seat of Kalrist power?"

"What failure, My Lord?" Alec countered softly. "What sins? I have been a part of the Order my entire adult life, and I can only say my life has been enriched for the experience. Where is the failure in that?"

Romvey leaned back slowly. "Our failure and our shame at the loss of Kaldor, Lord Archon, and the mayhem resulting from the war when it spilled across the galaxy…"

"Rubbish."

Somack went white; Mazar hid a smile behind his hand. Alec fixed Yamar in his sites. "The only real flaw I have ever found in any Kalrist, My Lord, is their incredible ability to take the blame for something that wasn't their fault. The Galen and the Diaboli trooped merrily along to their destruction. The Velorians dug their own grave when they assaulted the Arions. And the Arions… well, if they want to get in our way while we deal with the Kaldec, then they can suffer the consequences. I will be no instrument of genocide, but I will not shy from teaching them the folly of facing the Order."

He studied Lady Vona, giving her a faint smile. "If you truly believe you have some sin to atone for by tilling the soil, I will not stand in your way. But I will not stand aside and watch you be killed, either. I offer you the choice of where you will seek your peace, but I will protect you. If I have to stand guard over you myself."

He bowed low, turned on his heel. "I will await your answer outside."

Yamar rose. "There is no need for that, Archon. We will be coming to the Citadel."

Vona nodded. "At once. There is no need for discussion. The Archon has spoken."

Romvey smiled; it was a startling change. "Wisdom. You are right, Somack, the pup has a thing or two to teach me."

The Elders all rose, bowed humbly.

He stepped out of the Hall, spotted Isamu talking to a crowd of youngsters next to the Gryphon, steered him away with a smile. "Get in the ship, tell Cas to get the Exodus out here. We're bringing them to the Citadel."

The Knight's face lit up. He ran up the ramp, children crowding at the foot to peer inside. Alec watched them fondly, Ghali hustling up with another crowd in tow.

"They have what they need," he reported in a low voice. "But not much beyond that. Their existence is fairly spartan; they've gone exclusively agrarian. Beyond the technology for their enviroshield, the homes have cooling, heating, and running water, but nothing more."

"They think they're atoning for some sin," Alec mused wryly. "Morrigan's right, they're all a little nuts. If it came to it, could we defend the valley?"

"Not the Home Guard alone," he pointed north. "Two volleys from any Kaldec artillery would collapse the mountain, blow the shield open. These people have no shelters, no weaponry, nothing. Those the Kaldec didn't pick off would never make it to the Citadel before dying from exposure."

Alec slapped his shoulder. "Then it's a good thing they're coming to the Citadel with us, isn't it?"

Ghali gaped for a moment, then smiled at the wriggling mass of children at the foot of the Gryphon's ramp, struggling to see. "It is, indeed."

"Gather the others, collect your weapons, lock them up," he jerked his thumb to the kids. "Then give the rugrats a look inside. Send five Knights to the shield perimeter, have them stand guard."

"At once, Archon," he saluted, dashed away. Alec slid through the kids milling at the Gryphon, started to lock weapons away. By the time he was finished, Isamu was climbing from the cockpit.

"Cas says half an hour," he reported, motioning the first group of Kalrist up the ramp. "They're doing some kinda mojo with the computer."

"Good enough," Alec smiled at all the little faces. "Don't let them blow the ship up."

Isamu grinned. Alec threaded his way down, picking up an entourage of children asking questions at lightspeed. He sat down outside the Hall of Elders, let them crowd around, tried to answer what he could…

He stiffened. His eyes rose to the skies. The storm had gotten worse, but he thought he could sense something…

He jumped up, shooing the children away. "Children, home, quickly! Somack! Kaldec!"

One of the rot-gray fliers speared from the sky, sliding through the shield, diving towards the village. Alec bounded away from the children, ran across the square, reaching back for the only weapon he had.

"Children!" he shouted at the crowd around the Gryphon, "Get inside! Quickly!"

Three more running steps, then a focused leap. He drew the heavy blade of the Shal'kyrie as he rose, slicing the flyer open from stem to stern. It exploded as he dropped, every one of his senses alert to the oncoming horde.

He spotted the first groups of Hunters at the edge of the shield, loping closer. There were a lot of them coming.

Alec keyed his commlink on. "Citadel, this is Archangel! The Kaldec are attacking the Kalrist Colony! Send back-up!! Everybody!!"

<To the Hall!> he shouted in Kalrist, just to be sure. <Everyone, get to the Hall!>

A sharp hiss, then a booming thud behind him. Isamu ejected the weapons lockers, already running the engines up. Somack had come running from the Hall, the three Augurs and Kellehendra with him. The honor guard appeared, racing to the weapons, arming plasma rifles.

"Ghali! Get the Elders and the children away!" he backpedaled long enough to catch a plasma rifle and his weapons belt. "The rest of you, the Kaldec come no closer!"

Ghali grabbed the Augurs and Kellehendra, two under an arm, all but threw them aboard the Gryphon. He returned for the Kalrist Elders, Somack handing him his Staff and seizing a plasma rifle.

"Take them," he barked at the towering man, "and GO!"

Ghali nodded, dashed up the ramp, herding children before him. The ramp slammed closed, Isamu lifting them off and racing for open sky without a second's pause.

Alec sheathed the Shal'kyrie, drew his warlance, dragged it across the packed ground. "This is the Line. The Kaldec cross it when?"

"When we are dead!!" ten voices thundered back. Alec nodded, raised his rifle. Fighting the Kaldec with sidearms… he shook it off, swung his arm forward.

"Edge of the village! We'll fight them there!"

Before:

Arwyn watched the Gryphon loop into the air. She wondered who the three men were with Somack and Alec, really wanted to know who the girl they had brought along with them was. More importantly, she had wanted to go along; sitting in the Citadel was all she ever got to do.

Julia stood in front of one of the massive bookcases in the den, inspecting them idly. "I've never heard of some of these books. Arwyn, who's Gersaime? And Chiung-Ku? And Valkorian?"

She followed her finger. "Those are some of the ancient Knights. Mostly they wrote codes of conduct- Gersaime is the big name there. Chiung-Ku was a tactician around the time of Sun Tzu, and Valkorian was one of the Knights from Scandania when the Galen came. He died fighting one of the landing parties a few weeks after he dictated that."

Julia slipped Gersaime from the shelf, flipped it open. "What is this? Sanskrit?"

Arwyn laughed. "It's Kalrist. All of Alec's copies of the ancient texts are in Kalrist, pretty much anything before the Renaissance. He likes to read them in the original language, he says that's the best way to get the feel for the imagery."

"Then I guess I'll have to learn to read Kalrist," Julia put it back, glanced at Arwyn. "Will you teach me?"

The girl started, then grinned shyly. "Sure. If you want me to."

"I'd love for you to," she replied, voice fond. She drifted along to another set of shelves. "Well, that's better. This must be the recent stuff. Griffin, Clancy, Grisham… Jordan Sinclair? Isn't that a little girly for Alec?"

Arwyn stared for a moment, then laughed loudly. "That's pretty good, Julia. It's too bad you wasted it on me- he would've fallen to the floor."

She looked puzzled. "What does that mean?"

"Oh, come on…," Arwyn gave her a closer look. "Ohmigod. He didn't… you don't know? You don't know!"

"Know what?"

Arwyn grinned hugely. "Alec is Jordan Sinclair. The books are Gabriel's idea of a joke- it's become something of a running gag."

It was Julia's turn to look shocked. "That little… booger! He set me up! He knows I love Jordan Sinclair, and he didn't tell me!"

Arwyn mouthed the insult after she said it, took a moment to file it away, clasped her arm behind her back. "He's got a funny sense of humor, sometimes. You'll get used to it, after a while. Enough with the books; let's go explore!"

The eager child was back; Julia smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Let's."

They linked arms, trooping into the hallway. The tapestries alone were awe-inspiring, if for nothing more than they marked the march of human history, telling the hidden saga of humanity's most remarkable children.

"The Battle of Thermopylae," Arwyn gestured at the intricate weaving. "Not quite the way the history books read. There were Spartans there, but half of the three hundred were Knights of the Order. And they weren't Persians, they were Kaldec. The Persians pushed through after the battle was over."

Julia shook her head. "I need to just forget most of my history, don't I?"

Arwyn shrugged. "Not as much as you might think."

"Hmh. I think I need to, too."

Julia frowned Kara's way. Arwyn tensed, easing herself between the two women. Both of them ignored her.

"You don't like me too much, do you?" The Supremis folded her arms, clad in a set of sweats someone had given her. It beat that hussy outfit she'd arrived at the Seattle base in, but she still made Julia uncomfortable.

"No," Julia replied. "I don't like you at all."

"At least you're honest," Kara tried to peer into her eyes, found something unpleasant looking back. "If it helps at all, for whatever I did, I'm sorry."

"I don't like you because of what you are," Julia answered. "I read the files Alec had on you. All power, no restraint. Skipping along, doing as you will, with your precious little Prime Directive to hide behind when you wanted to get out of the heat. Leaving ruined lives in your wake, starting with the Matthews."

Kara looked away first. "Yeah. Yeah, my track record isn't that hot."

"Mine isn't either," Julia turned around, stalking away. "But at least I've done something about it. Oh, one more thing. Stay away from Alec. He's mine. You think we have a problem now, you make a move on him and you're gonna see what a problem really is."

"Brooks!" Kara snapped sharply. Julia paused, turned slowly.

"We aren't done yet," Kara looked like a Protector now, eyes narrow and hard. Julia smiled slightly, Arwyn half-expecting her hair to rise eagerly.

"We're not, huh?" she set her hands on her hips. "Why not? Truth hurt?"

"More than you know," Kara's voice dropped to a bare whisper, then firmed. "We're supposed to be allies. One way or another, we need to clear the air. You, and me, and the girl."

"So what is it you want, Protector? Hugs and kisses? Maybe a little human kowtowing to the mighty Velorian goddess who deigns to grace us with her presence?" Julia's voice was getting harder by the second, each word all but bitten off. "Forget it. The Order has things well in hand here. As far as I'm concerned, we don't need you at all."

"That may be," Kara allowed, keeping her hands at her sides, open against her legs. "But I signed on for this. I stick to my word. Until this is over, I've chosen my side."

"Fair enough. But the best way for you to stay on my good side is to stay away from me. Maybe the Knights want you around, but I don't," she turned her back again, starting off. "Air clear enough for you now?"

Arwyn trotted after her, catching up, linking arms with Julia again. "Wow," she mumbled, pitching her voice low. She glanced over her shoulder at Kara, standing stock-still in the middle of the hallway. "I haven't ever heard anyone talk to a Supremis like that. Well, other than Alec. No wonder he thinks you walk on water."

Julia smiled, sighed in the same motion. "Sure he does."

"You haven't heard him talking to the others about you," Arwyn clicked her tongue while she talked. "Probably a good thing, too. You'd be blushing for weeks."

A clatter of footfalls cut Julia's thought off before she could speak. A pack of Knights went racing past an adjoining corridor, an equally large number of Activators right behind them. Arwyn let go of Julia's arm, broke into a run, Julia hot on her heels. After a few moments, she could hear Kara running along after them.

The crowd was forming outside of Ops, voices raised and babbling in a dozen different languages. Arwyn wriggled her way into the pack, people making room at the sight of the Archon's child, then even wider when they spotted his consort.

Thien pushed his way from Ops as Arwyn made her way to the doors. He gave her a huge smile, catching her hand in both of his. "Have you heard the news yet?"

She shook her head, smiling herself at his infectious grin. He looked like a child on his first Christmas, turning his dazzling smile on everyone. "There is a colony of Kalrist in the mountains. They have revealed themselves to the Archon, and he is bringing them to the Citadel! We are alone no longer! Our brethren have returned to us!"

A thundering shout went up at his words. Knights, Activators, Clerics, Techs, all leaping on each other, shouting, hugging. More than one face was wet with tears, Thien swinging Arwyn around him, laughing wildly.

He set her down, dragged his arm across his face, wiping away tears of joy. "Quickly! We must make preparations! Everyone, we must ready the East Bastion for our guests! Fabers, rooms, clothing vaults, all of it must be checked!"

People scattered, racing away. Thien hugged Arwyn again, laughing for all the world. "Children, Arwyn! He said there are children! Hundreds of them!"

He sighed heavily, pulled her along with him. "Come, come! There is so much to do…!"

The comm speakers blared alive before the hall could empty; Thien glanced up at the familiar hiss. Alec's voice snapped out immediately, a voice backgrounded by screaming and peals of thunder. "Citadel, this is Archangel! The Kaldec are attacking the Kalrist Colony! Send back-up!! Everybody!!"

His handful of words brought a one-hundred-eighty degree turn on every single face in the hall. The joy went away. What replaced it wasn't anger; no, Julia thought, that was hate. Pure, unfettered hate.

"To ARMS!!!" Thien's shout could have cracked stone.

The earlier flood of bodies was nothing compared to their discipline at his shouted order. A tidal wave of Knights exploded down the hall, splitting off at the far end, heading for the armories near the doors. Thien raced after them, all three of the women right behind him. As they rounded the corner, the first Knights sprinted from the Armory, armed to the teeth.

"Make way!" he shouted, barely slowing as he entered the Armory. The sea parted without even one man breaking stride. The short man shucked his robes, revealing a set of blacks; before the cloth hit the floor, a shield-arm, utility belt, and helmet were tossed his way, quickly followed by a plasma rifle and a particle beam cannon.

He paused to study the three women behind him. "Logan!" he snapped, a tow-headed, pasty-skinned lad jerking his head up. "Outfit these women, bring them to my Gryphon."

The boy nodded, throwing a set of blacks to Julia and Arwyn. He handed a third sphere to Kara. "Blacks. Body armor. Camo fields, field kit, telemetry links. Like this."

Julia rolled her ball between her palms; Kara nodded, followed suit. Logan held up a silver sphere, again tossing two just like it to the other women. "Helmet. Control system for the blacks. Life support, field comms, psi baffles."

She nodded. He smacked it in his palm, set it against her neck. It flooded over her head, twisting her hair in close. He tapped at her neck very quickly, craned his neck around her. "System's set to allow you to use your tachyon vision. The visor's going to give you a tighter refinement on the beam. All set?"

Kara nodded one more time. Logan chucked her shoulder gently, turned away. "Arwyn, you want a PBC?"

"Yeah, Logan," she caught the weapon, racked it over her shoulder. He did the same, sliding his utility belt around his hips, grabbed up a wicked looking long rifle.

"Ladies, follow me," he started out, shoving his way from the Armory.

Eric was running from the other Armory, carrying both weapons Logan had as well as a plasma rifle. "All Clerics, draw weapons and stand ready!" he shouted over the din. "All Activators, set up triage units at the Great Hall; use the Council Chambers for the regenerators! Move everything up from the Medical Floor!"

The first Knights were throwing the main doors open down the Hall. Before any of them could run across the courtyard, explosions ripped the morning skies. Julia spotted a Gryphon go up on the pad, familiar figures pouring over the distant walls.

"Hunters!" she shouted, going to superspeed in a heartbeat. She was at the entrance, dragging injured Knights back from the courtyard. Hunters, and a whole bunch of the big green things they'd fought in San Francisco- what the Knights had started calling Grendals- and other things she didn't recognize, were swarming everywhere.

"Retract shields!" she could hear Thien over the tacnet. "Twenty meters from the Citadel! Prepare to extend on my mark!"

Plasma fire flashed around her head, Knights laying down cover fire. One of the Knights in her hands cursed violently, twisting around despite a mangled leg to empty his particle cannon at the swarm.

In a few seconds she'd cleared the courtyard, the shields coming alive. Thien crouched beside Julia, helmet off while the battle began in earnest.

"They snuck up on us," he snarled, checking the men she'd pulled to safety. "These pisswads are trying to pin us here!"

"Doing a damn good job of it too," Eric shouldered his weapon, opening fire. "The shields around the landing field are up, but we're all in here. And there are enough Kaldec between us and the Griffs to walk up the mountain without touching snow."

Thien clicked his wristcomm. "Cas, deploy the mecha! Both sides, try a pincers movement! We gotta get to the ships!"

"Thien, the mechs are outnumbered twelve to one!" the Tech snarled back. "We have a wall of paint on the scopes! There are two hundred Crusaders and half that many Skirmishers out there already!"

The man nodded to himself. "Bring out the Maulers, Cas. And prep the quantum cannon. Get a crew to the Exodus, we'll worry about a hole when you guys are ready."

A slender arm tapped his shoulder. He turned to gaze up at Kara, her helmet cradled in one arm. "We can get out. Me, Brooks, and Arwyn. Pop the shield for a second, and we can go."

Eric and Thien traded a look, both nodded. "Better than nothing. Get ready, you three. Knights! Make a hole!"

A rank of men formed up, leveled their weapons, fired. Kara snapped her helmet on, grabbed Julia up in her arms, tensed to leap into the air.

The helmet gave her a clear picture of the shield. Thien toggled in to a wall panel, taking shield control. It flickered for a second, then faded, Kara gone faster than a speeding bullet, Arwyn a black blur at her side.

The Kalrist had retreated to the Hall of the Elders before the Kaldec could mass an assault. Alec and Jacob Ramstein tipped a hut over, using it for cover, plasma streaks flashing into the advancing Kaldec ranks. Above them, Kaldec fliers circled, firing at the strengthened shield; Somack was standing over the generator, making it an effective defense, forcing the Kaldec to fight the snow before they could attack the village.

Jacob grunted as if he'd been kicked. "Message from Isamu. Kaldec are attacking the Citadel."

"Route him to Seattle," Alec chimed his own comm on. "Seattle, Archangel. Damocles. Acknowledge."

Gabriel's voice came back. "Negative, Archangel. Reinforcements en route."

Alec snarled. "Lord Torik, acknowledge Damocles Protocol."

The gravelly rumble was reluctant. "Acknowledged, Archangel. Initiating protocol. Reinforcements are en route, ETA twenty-nine minutes."

Alec clicked the line off, switched to squad band. "Everybody, fall back to Point Charlie! Prepare for Damocles Protocol! Archangel has point!"

He threw his weapon to Jacob, drew the Shal'kyrie, crouched along the edge of the ruined hut. "Jacob, go! Seattle, activate Damocles!"

He charged the Kaldec lines. Before he had taken twelve steps, the enviroshield retracted, the brutal storm erupting into the valley. Alec spared a brief glance back at the Hall of the Elders, saw the Knights racing to form up around Somack, set his external speakers to full bore and charged into the Kaldec.

More than one Hunter recoiled at his shriek, a sound so inhuman it rattled even them. Coupled with the drastic change in the weather, it staggered the lines, and then there was no more time as a Knight was among them.

Hunters died on the blade of the Shal'kyrie. It flashed, whirled, stung, hacked along the lines, bodies crumpling to the snow-plastered ground, their screams lost in the howl of the storm. They were not prepared for this- they were supposed to be the Hunters, genetically altered to be relentless, terrifying, unstoppable. But they were no match for this single human armed with a sword. His attack reaped it's way along the front rank, scythed forms spraying everywhere.

The charge paused, as he had figured, giving the Knights time to form a line, prepare their defense. Three seconds after they clasped arms, linking their minds to create a shield within a shield, a thunderbolt fell from Heaven, hammering home on Alec's active comm-signal.

It's impact drowned out the storm, pealing rolls of thunder reverberating off the mountainsides. Backlash arced across the mouth of the valley, engulfing everyone in a strobing, thundering energy. The winds shrieked up two full octaves, a primal scream of pain, the entire valley swallowed in a vicious whiteout. Kaldec heaved, bucked, flamed, and died by the dozens.

Damocles had been a brainstorm from Achille Papodapolous, a Greek that had been a Tech during World War Two. Designed to be a massive area-of-effect weapon against huge Kaldec numbers, it shredded the electromagnetic fields in it's target area, but only the frequencies that a hemisphered brain operated on, making it a terrifying weapon. It had later been refined into a more discreet form, allowing the Order to simply target Kaldec minds, with only one major drawback- psi-active human and Kalrist minds ran on the same frequencies. Hence the code-name: using it was the proverbial kiss of death, a measure of desperation.

There were defenses. The armor offered some; linking to sufficiently powerful minds or in sufficient numbers were another. The nine Knights and Somack would be enough to protect the Kalrist, their own psi-shields bolstered by the village shield generators.

As for Alec…

He centered his mind against the storm, stretching his abilities to control energy to their utmost. He felt his way through the wave of screeching energy, fought down the tide, dragged himself up and out.

Every system in his cyberlink was fried as he tuned back in. He reached back, ripping his helmet free, tossing it aside, took four staggering steps forward. The whiteout was full-blown, dead Kaldec were smoldering everywhere, he felt like he was going to puke, and the storm, if anything, was getting worse.

Then the roaring started. He felt fresh minds coming his way, lifted his weapon in agonized hands.

The Line was three hundred yards behind him. The Kaldec would get to it over his dead body.

The first Hunter charged, died, Alec spinning past to meet the next. Every move tore at his body, the pain deepening; he ignored it, fighting on…

A Grendal crashed into view, slamming three twenty-inch fists into his chest. Ribs caved under his damaged blacks, along with his left shoulder, the blow tossing him to the snow fifty feet behind him. He spit blood, pushed himself up, tossed the Shal'kyrie to his left hand, dragged his neutralizer from his holster, fired at the booming footsteps coming his way.

The monster died screaming, the molecules in it's body incandescing. He rippled off four more shots, slaying half a dozen more Grendals, before the weapon sputtered and died in his hand.

The Damocles had ruined his cyberlinkaged weapons. Alec flung the useless sidearm at a charging Hunter, took hold of the Shal'kyrie in his right hand again.

A swarm piled on top of him, dragging him down. He collapsed under the weight, blasting minds as he fell. The snow swirled around him, burying the struggling mass under a fresh drift of snow.

Somack took the Damocles attack unto himself, guiding the nine powerful minds arrayed around him through it, heaved a sigh when the torment ended.

"Too much static," Jacob growled, hands still clasped with Somack and Harmon Langella. "Anyone sense the Archon?"

In answer, pulse fire ripped from the whiteout, splashing against the shield. Somack felt a few Knights tense, spread his mind over them.

Maintain the shield! he shouted. We are too few to attack and defend at the same time!

If they swarm us… Jacob tensed, figures beginning to resolve from the howling snows.

The plasma rifle at his feet jerked sporadically, lifted off the compacted dirt, spun off through the shield and into the haze. Seconds later, as the first three Hunters came into clear view, plasma rounds ripped them to pieces.

Alec reappeared, lumbering his way into the now-buried Square, braced himself against the landing pad stairs, began methodical firing on the Kaldec. His warcry was unsettling, to say the least- more than a few Kalrist huddled together, shivering from the sound.

Before the Knights could decide to race to his aid, help arrived from on high.

Julia pushed her way out of Kara's grip, dropping to the snows. Before her heels hit the ground, she was in motion, bladed hands flashing through Hunter bodies as efficiently as the Shal'kyrie.

Arwyn broke right, her synthroid powered body hacking it's way into the Kaldec lines. Skulls crushed under her fists, limbs tearing free, bones snapping, so much kindling in her path. Her people were under attack, and she would defend them.

Kara had never faced anything like this before. The Kaldec didn't apparently believe in retreating, attacked her as if they could care less if she were a Velorian. Hunters morphed their arms into wickedly-sharp monoblades, hacking at her flesh relentlessly. Sparks flew from her blacks, the blows actually registering on her skin. She punched back, pulling the blow; her target flew backwards, leapt back up, charged right back at her.

Julia flashed past her, shredding Hunters at superspeed. Pieces scattered, more rushing forward to continue the attack. Kara dug in, took to fighting back in earnest.

Alec raked the Kaldec with intermittent fire, struggling to heal himself as quickly as possible. This wasn't a battle; this was utter chaos, a knife-fight with plasma guns and superpowers. He staggered back to the fighting, his step quickening as he ran; a Hunter charged him, Alec slapping it's forehead, brainburning it down without breaking stride. He tossed the plasma rifle aside, drawing the Shal'kyrie, wading into the melee around Kara.

For her part, Kara was trying not to be too impressed with her new human friend. He was bleeding from several major wounds, his left arm hung uselessly at his side, and he was bareheaded to a frozen hurricane, but he was up, and moving, and fighting with a grace most humans couldn't summon at their best.

He fought his way to her side, the two of them back to back. He sheathed his blade, summoned his rifle in one smooth motion, burned down the front while she flash-fried the back.

Thunder boomed in the distance, to the southeast. Seconds later the ground heaved, everyone tumbling to earth, the screams from the Kalrist pitching up a notch or two. The enviroshield buckled, sparked, finally died, exposing the huddling, shrieking mass to the Himalayas' fury.

The Honor Guard struggled up, four of them dragging Somack back with them, re-linking to form another shield. Jacob lead the other four forward, all of them snatching up weapons and running to the battle.

Kara crushed the torso of a Hunter on top of her, jammed it back against three more, swept herself up. Two Knights flanked her as she rose, particle beams stabbing out. Once she was up, they streaked off, blasting away.

Alec killed seven more before he got back up, telekinesis and pyrokinesis and something she couldn't identify raking Hunters apart. Arwyn dropped to the snow beside him, put one hand under his shoulders, trained her own plasma vision on the still-rampaging horde. It cut them down, Kara lending a helping hand as she brought her tachyon vision into play.

Julia was simply a whirlwind of mayhem. She raced across the battlefield, slaying with abandon, usually two or three or four at once. Bodies and pieces of bodies tumbled in her wake, until she finally skidded to a stop in front of Alec and Arwyn.

Her helmet flowed off; she dashed to him, easing him off of Arwyn's arm. He staggered to her arms, braced himself against her shoulders to keep himself up.

"Picked up a scratch or two," he shuddered, feeling the frostbite settling into his face. "I am really, really glad you're here."

She smiled in spite of herself…

Fliers dropped into the valley, massive blunt wedges dropping from their bellies, streaking in to the remains of the village.

The sky fell. Explosions tore deep gashes in the earth, flinging Kaldec, Kalrist, and human alike to their knees. Kara tried to lift off, a wedge striking her head on, blowing her into the side of the closest mountain, a mile and a half away.

A second barrage fell, blasting apart the shield around the Kalrist, the Kaldec bent on savaging the civilians. Mikhail Mulshov's head exploded as the Knight blunted the ordinance's effect, his sacrifice saving untold Kalrist. Jacob trained his weapons on the skies, knocking down two of the fliers before they could circle back, the mayhem now at full-tilt.

Hunters plowed ahead, taking Knights in the back, Wago Hsuin slicing down five before he died, forcing them to fight them first and let the fliers strike at will; a Grendal bounded on to Arwyn, crushing her to it's chest with all four of it's arms, the two of them rolling away into the storm.

Somack was bleeding, trying to rally the Kalrist to cover. A handful of the young men raced away into the snow, snatching up plasma rifles and particle beam cannons, training them on the Kaldec. The impromptu attack freed up Jacob and Louis Marloette, letting the two Knights vape another flier; seconds later, the fifteen Kalrist died at the hands of four Hunters who in turn died from Alec's telekinesis.

The Hunters just kept coming…!

The Kaldec air force circled once more, turned in, and then exploded. Isamu's Gryphon arrowed back into the valley, photon bolts and blazerfire pounding it's way into the Kaldec. Alec watched the transport fly past, resolved to beat Isamu senseless first, then give him a medal after he recovered, ran the five Hunters assaulting him through.

Isamu banked down, putting the Gryphon between the Kalrist and the Hunters, turrets hailing blazerfire around the battlefield. But the bombing runs had scattered the Kalrist, Hunters had overrun the Knights' position, and people were dying in job lots.

One more rumble. Alec turned, ready to collapse, and felt his heart swell.

The long, clean lines of the Exodus. Eight hundred feet of firepower, the Order's heavy battlecruiser, the most powerful force on the entire planet, drifting in on repulsors, dropping to the valley floor in a whisper.

Ramps dropped from the forward bays, Knights sprinting into the storm. Other humans stood at the ramps, waving the Kalrist up, leaping down to carry the wounded up, rear ramps already down and disgorging Crusader battlebots.

The new 'bots charged forward, bounding the distance on jumpjets, bringing plasma cannons and particle beam guns to bear, firing with relentless precision. A second wave followed the first, circling wounded Knights, picking up fallen Kalrist, laying waste to the leftovers.

Alec had lost track of Julia in the melee, stumbling towards the Exodus. He lost his footing, started to fall, softly padded servos catching him. He glanced up into a Crusader's visor.

"Greetings*Archon," someone had taken the time to program this one with a vocal subroutine; the 'bot lifted him gently, began to run to the ship on blurring legs. "Situation under control, sir. This unit advises evac. Stand by."

In a few seconds he was in the forward hold, the Crusader setting him gently beside Kieu Vu, the Activator bent over a bleeding Kalrist, the woman's child clutching frantically at her mother's other hand. Unbidden, Alec stretched his hand out, adding his own strength; the woman's eyes fluttered open, smiling as she hugged her child to her.

Kieu turned to give Alec a smile, almost shrieked at his battered face. He pushed her away, rose, staggered to another injured Kalrist, set himself to work.

More injured poured in; he could hear the engines spooling up, the grim whine of her blazer array priming. His mind was no longer on the battle, only on saving the lives of those around him.

A hand nudged him as he worked on a seventh Kalrist- two had died before he could save them, and he would be damned if the pale woman at his knees would be a third- Ghali's ashen face leaning in front of him. He held out a commset; Alec clapped it against his ear while he poured energy in the still form.

"Archon," Cas said stiffly, "we have evacuated ninety percent of the survivors. What are your orders?"

"Orders?" he whispered, not noticing Arwyn and Julia picking their way towards him. "Orders?! Kill them, Cas! Kill every fucking one of them! Tear them to pieces and then kill them AGAIN!!"

He flung the commset away from him, Ghali grabbing his shoulders and pulling him away as the woman stirred beneath him. Alec snarled wordlessly, shoved the man aside, hobbled his way to another injured form.

Two sets of hands gathered him up, both as firm as they were gentle. Arwyn pushed her way into his chest, wrapping his arms around her. Julia put his hands on her waist, hugged Arwyn between them.

For an instant, in the midst of the dying, there was peace. But only for a second; the screaming was far from over. Arwyn mewled softly, worming her way free, Alec right behind her.

Julia caught his arm. "Alec, don't do this to yourself…"

He shook his head, untangling her fingers from his wrist. "I have to, Jules. It's duty."

He went back to work. Before she could try to persuade him to stop, the floor buckled slightly, a faint feeling like the rising of an elevator. She felt the ship pivot, continuing to rise, then a brief pause, punctuated by distant shrieks of energy. And then they were moving away.

The battle was over.

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