Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 08 June 2020 03:04] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 13 June 2020 16:03]
The Exodus slipped through the peaks, angling down towards the Citadel. Cas watched the battle on the forward screens, quietly ordered a volley to break a Kaldec advance. The ship's massive batteries opened up, burning a thousand forms to ashes, scattering the rest.
He wanted to keep her up, follow Alec's orders through to the letter. His bridge crew looked ready to chew nails; but there were twenty-eight hundred Kalrist in his holds. Vengeance could wait until they had been seen to.
"Shield is extending," Graydon Creel said softly from the conn. "We have a cleared pattern. The mecha are retaking the offensive."
"Screen off," Cas mumbled, fingering the medkit at his side. "Get us down, tell Ops we have a shitpile of wounded coming their way."
Adriana Bugayeva twisted her head over her shoulders; the Technical Command was the only part of the Order not gender-specific. "Gabriel reports five Gryphons inbound; ETA is nineteen minutes. He's carrying all the Activators he'd taken to Seattle, including Sorala."
Cas nodded. "Park the ship; I'll handle post-flight. Get yourselves down to the holds and lend a hand."
The eight-man crew all vanished, except for Graydon at the conn. Cas ran Engineering into his command chair, finished running the repulsors down. He felt the ship settle on her struts, paused for a moment before shutdown.
There had been three thousand, one hundred, and eighteen Kalrist in the Shamballah Colony. Internal sensors currently reported two thousand, eight hundred, and sixty-two in the ship, five hundred and fifty-nine of which were wounded, and even three hundred critically.
This meant that roughly six hundred Kalrist were dead or dying because he hadn't been quick enough to get the goddamn ship out of her berth and to the Colony. That Alec had gotten the holy shit kicked out of him because he had been running a diagnostic on the slip drive. And the only thing that hadn't made it a catastrophe was the fact that Julia Brooks, Arwyn, and the Protector had been available to save the day.
"Hey," Graydon spun out of his chair, hefting a medkit. "Let's go save the rest of them before you start beating yourself up over this. 'Sides, the way I heard it, the Archon is carrying around enough guilt for everybody."
Cas pushed himself up. "Yeah. Let's go."
From deck two down, the halls were wall-to-wall Kalrist, huddled together weeping, staring at nothing, or recoiling in terror from the humans trying to help them.
The terror was fading, aided by the calming techniques that every member of the Order studied, gently transmitted to the Kalrist. The Kalrist members of the Home Guard circulated, easing the pains of those they could.
The wounded started on deck five. Every Activator at the Citadel was in sight, most of them covered in blood, working dermal regenerators, neural stimulators, and tranqs on those that they could, using their gifts to heal what the tech couldn't.
Cas picked his way through to Cargo One, steeled himself, opened the hatch.
It was carnage. Blood coated the floor, a mixture of human, Kalrist, and Hunter remains, dozens of shrouded bodies being moved by newly-arrived Knights, scores more screaming in various stages of pain, too often mingling with anguished cries from those trying to save them.
Kieu Vu wailed, bent over a form that had surrendered to the pain, sobbed against the aged Kalrist's chest. Mazar knelt beside her, taking the girl's delicate face in his hands, saying gentle words as he wiped her tears. Arwyn, less than ten feet away, finished healing one woman, twisted on her knees to tend another, recoiled as the body heaved, died. Tears filled her eyes, but she soldiered on, scrabbling to another and going back to work.
Cas stripped his tunic off, tossed it away, popped the medkit. He couldn't face Alec right now; besides, this battle was being waged as grimly as the one outside the Citadel. He was needed here.
Before too long he spotted Alec, looking like he'd been through a meat grinder, healing a trio of Kalrist at once. Cas shook his head, tried to concentrate- he and Alec had been friends from the day they'd both come to the Citadel, but his friend's phenomenal power and unflinching determination still staggered him. Somack was always telling him that the Archangel would grab Satan himself by the throat to spit in his eye.
Alec shuddered, drooped, fell over as he finished healing the Kalrist. Cas dropped his gear, leapt to Alec's side, a bare instant before both Julia and Somack.
The Archon tried to struggle away; Julia's lips tightened, her arms wrapping him up and lifting him from the floor.
"Bed for you, hero," she whispered, starting out of the hold. "You can save the world again tomorrow."
Sorala dashed into the hold as they left, Gabriel's jaw already set in stone. The Knight paused to look Alec over, grabbed Somack's arm, steered the Cleric to a quiet corner, voice low and intense.
Once they were out of the ship, she set him down, keeping her arms around him, guiding him to his quarters. He stumbled more than once, but he made it.
She got him to the bed, ducked away to start filling the massive sunken tub in his bathroom. He hadn't moved when she came back, elbows on his thighs, staring at nothing.
She sat next to him. He stirred, pushed himself away. "Don't look at me. I'm not… I'm not fit for decent folks to be around right now."
Very deliberately, she slid closer, laid her hand on his undamaged shoulder. "I tried to push you away earlier today. You wouldn't go. I won't either."
He swallowed. "I failed them."
"No, you didn't. You saved them."
His head twitched slowly. "More than four hundred dead. Four hundred dead Kalrist, not to mention Mikhail and Wago. I should have never gone alone."
His voice finally broke. "They killed children, Julia. Those… those bastards cut down little kids…! And she… she wanted to make a deal with them…!"
Tears flowed, along with choking sobs. He braced his hands on his knees, his whole body wracked with his pain, Julia rubbing his back gently, crooning to him. For long minutes, he was in torment, until it passed. Alec heaved a monstrous sigh, left his face covered in tears mingled with sweat and blood.
She squeezed his shoulder gently. "You need a bath, and then some food, and then some sleep. You've been on the go forever."
He nodded dumbly. "Yeah, okay."
"I'll even wash your back for you."
He ducked his head, something that may have been a chuckle escaping his lips. "Deal."
She felt his mind tickle at hers, her blacks sliding off her body, along with the clothes she'd had on when she'd entered the armory. She rose, completely confident in her nudity, as Alec's armor followed hers to the floor. He heaved himself up, slid his arm under her knees, lifted Julia off the floor with one smooth motion. She squeaked, clutched his neck.
"You shouldn't be…"
He nodded. "Probably not. Gonna do it anyway."
She leaned forward, kissed him. Her tongue flicked into his mouth, her breath warm on his face. He carried her to the tub, stepped his way in to the waist-deep water.
It was more a small pool than a tub, roomy enough for five or six people, designed in the Oriental bathing style. Bubbles frothed at the surface, four wide-mouthed spigots feeding steaming water in to the deep basin. Alec set Julia down, took a couple of steps away, dropped below the surface of the water. A washed-pink glow suffused the bubbles, lighting the room from the floor of the bath, until Alec slid up from the suds, dripping water.
The blood was gone, as were the hints of frostbite and the bulge of smashed ribs along his chest. He swung his left arm around a couple of times, testing the range, settled down on one of the rims of the tub.
Julia waded her way over, taking his hands in hers, spinning around to rest her back against his chest, setting his hands on her breasts. "Are you better?"
"Much," he snuggled her close, easing her down into the water with him. "Especially since you're here."
She reached up, trailed her hand along his cheek. "But you're still so sad, sweetie. What can I do…?"
"Nothing. It isn't you," he shifted a bit, settling her on his lap. "I can still hear them. They're still so near the Veil, I can hear them; they don't understand what's happened to them, and I can't explain it."
She bit her lip, tugged his hands tighter around her. "Then don't try. Just stay with me."
He did, for a long time. Julia pushed his hands away for a brief moment, turned on his lap, put her face up against his and kissed him. He kissed back, and then the kissing very quickly became something else.
She luxuriated at his fingertips along her legs, his tongue on her neck; abruptly he stopped, gazed up at her face.
"Do you trust me?" he whispered.
She nodded, never even hesitating. His mind slipped into hers, a probe that was very pointed, direct, right at a special spot…
Her temperature began to rise, thighs and crotch and breasts blushing slightly as heat seeped slowly into them. He entered her, without the usual struggle, Julia feeling the warmth becoming a tingle.
And then they made love. Not like she was used to, with her own physiology filling in the gaps for her partner's (always) lack of strength to stimulate her for as long as she needed; no, this was sex like she'd always wanted, arousal and stimulation and love and everything it was supposed to be.
She clutched at his arms with manic strength, his kisses setting her skin on fire, trying to nibble his neck apart, his hands running up her sides. He pulled her to him, still manipulating her mind, used both his mind and his body to bring her to a shuddering, yelping climax.
She flushed, Alec easing her into his arms, holding her tight, both of them gasping for air. They cuddled together for a very long time, Alec finally rising from the water, carrying Julia to his bed, laying her down on a towel he pulled from the closet. He started to dry her slowly, when the comm chimed.
He ducked his head, grabbed a pair of sweats and a t-shirt from his dresser, tugged them on as he walked to the comm. "Yeah."
"Sorry, sir," Li sounded contrite. "Lord Somack asked me to inform you that the wounded have been treated. The attack has been beaten off. We are settling the Kalrist in quarters now; we anticipate being finished by 2200 hours. Protector Zor'el has been returned to the Citadel and has asked for you; she's in the Infirmary being looked over."
"Thank you, Li," his voice had hardened again. "Have the Protector brought up here when they're done poking her. Ask for volunteers for mak'tar. And see to it that we have a detail for Mikhail and Wago. Have Somack pick a good spot for them. I'll be down after I get something to eat."
"What's mak'tar?" Julia had wrapped herself in a robe, brushed a strand of hair from her face as she came up behind him. He kissed her cheek, took her hands.
"It's Kalrist. It means song for the dead," he sighed, tugged her along with him. "It's a funeral. A holdover from the old ways."
He parked her at the counter, keyed the replicator up. "Four eggs, sunny side, twelve ounces of hashbrowns, twenty ounces of ham, six slices of buttered toast, whole grain. Two plates."
Alec flipped the fridge open, pulled out two big bottles of juice. "Sorry to feed you rep crap, but I'm too hungry to wait."
She shrugged. "What's wrong with the replicator?"
"Nothing. But food is like life; it should have soul," he took a drink, fiddled with the top. "Part of eating is the effort that goes into preparing the food. It means you care enough about someone else to take that time."
Julia gave him a fond smile, reaching across the counter for his hand. "I already have proof of love, thank you."
Another shy smile. The door chimed, Alec pushing off the counter to answer it.
Arwyn, covered in mud and blood and looking like she had been crying, slumped against the door. Kellehendra was with her, holding her up, the Shal'kyrie under an arm. Alec said nothing, just slid his hands around Arwyn, lifting her into the room, snagging the sword with his TK, sending it to a padded armchair.
Kellehendra hesitated at the door. Alec swiveled his head back, heading for the bathroom. "Well, come in. Julia, I need you."
Julia was already on her way. Kellehendra came in slowly, uncertain, her ears catching the sound of hissing water. Alec came back, carrying a pile of clothes.
"We seem to be moving towards a new kind of uniform," he joked, giving her the once-over. "Your robes are filthy. What happened?"
She dropped her eyes. "My talents were not enough to aid the wounded. So I did what I could with your technology."
"Our technology," he corrected gently. "Well, I have some sweats that'll fit; there's another bathroom over here. Get yourself cleaned up, and we can have some dinner together."
The Kalrist girl frowned. "You want me to eat? With you?"
"Sure. Aren't you hungry?"
"But… but you are the Archon…" she took a breath, tried again. "I have never shared a meal with anyone other than the Augurs. I would not presume…"
"You wanted to learn, didn't you?" he interrupted carefully. She nodded. "Well, then it's time to start. The days of living in seclusion are over, Kellehendra. For all of us. So, take these clothes, go take a shower, and throw that robe down the incinerator."
She stalled; he shooed her away, the woman finally trailing off to the spare bath. Alec took the food he'd ordered out of the faber, rolled the ham up, nibbled on it, went to work making something for everyone.
He replicated ingredients, opting for something simple and hearty. Ten pounds of his ribbon-steaks were in the freezer; he could always count on Cas to keep the larder stocked. He set them on the counter to thaw, whipping up some of his famous barbecue sauce, set the replicator to produce a pile of baked potatoes. While he flash-cooled them on one rack, he transferred the heat to the ribbon-steaks, thawing them in minutes.
The door chimed while he was scooping the meat from his potatoes. "C'mon in, Pavel."
The boy came in, saluted smartly. "Archon, the Protector."
"Thank you, Pavel, go get yourself some chow," he mixed the potatoes with sour cream, some chives, and just a hint of sage, started spooning it back in the skins. "Have a seat. I'm making dinner."
Kara wandered in, glancing around at the room. "Wow. You really rate, huh?"
He lifted one arm in a shrug. "The Citadel can house twenty thousand comfortably, not counting the areas we could convert to housing- gyms, the Council chambers, the Arena, stuff like that. With the Kalrist here, that's the most we've ever had at one time, and we're less than a quarter full. 'Sides, these rooms were designed after the fall of the Roman Empire; I hate mucking with tradition. You want something to drink?"
She sat down on the stool next to where Julia had sat. "Sure."
"Computer, cocoa, double chocolate, seventy-five degrees Centigrade," he set the double stuffed potatoes in one oven, brushed sauce over the ribbon-steaks, set them in the broiler behind him. His TK reached out, slid the cocoa cup from the replicator to settle in front of a wide-eyed Kara. "Lessee. Probably some bread, and a salad… say, how much do you Velorians eat, anyhow?"
She shook herself, stammered a bit. "What? You act like you've never seen a telekinetic before."
"I haven't," she replied tartly. "And certainly not one who uses it to cook with."
"There you go. You learned something new today," he pulled salad ingredients from the fridge. "Do you like Caesar salad? It's great with the ribbon-steaks."
He chopped the romaine by hand, but he took the opportunity to freak Kara out. The tomatoes rose, one at a time, from the colander in the sink, split into eight equal sections without so much as a touch from his knife, plopped in the bowl. She actually jumped the first time he did it, noticed his urchin grin, narrowed her eyes dangerously at him.
"You really like to live on the edge, don't you?" she growled, her voice tittering slightly. He popped another tomato, made her jump, grinned even wider. "I'd better ask Doctor Brooks how she manages to keep you in line."
He popped the last three at once, dumping the romaine in the bowl. "Sorry. The method she uses simply isn't available to you."
He dug a couple of loaves of frozen bread out, set them on a rack above the stove, settled himself on the edge of the sink, gazing thoughtfully at them. A few seconds later, Kara caught the smell of baking bread, the loaves inflating, browning under his glance.
"And why is that?" she asked lightly, wondering what he'd say. He grunted, still watching his bread.
"I'm not in love with you, Protector," his voice was totally even. "I may respect you, and I think I may even be starting to trust you, a little, but I don't love you."
"Hmh. You still naive enough to think it's about love?"
That got her a wry laugh. "The naiveté comes from believing it isn't about love, Protector. In the final analysis, that's the only thing it's about."
He finished cooking the bread, fixed his gaze on her. "You know, you Velorians are one messed up bunch. What kind of stupid do you have to be to convince half of your population that you have no worth beyond putting yourself in mortal danger? And don't try to deny it, your antics when you first got to Earth bear that out."
Alec shook his head, sipped at his juice. "The idea that there is only one path is ludicrous. Every life, every being has worth. The Enlightenment is a noble idea, but it loses something in the translation. Why you do something is as important as what it is you do. Hang around for a while, maybe you'll see what I mean."
Arwyn came out of the bathroom, eyes downcast. Alec crossed to her, gathered her up, held her tight. "Hey, baby. You make it through okay?"
"Yes," her voice was small against his chest. "I think so."
He sighed, rubbing her back. "Now you know why I wanted you to stay here, sweetie. This war is no place for you."
She snuffled back a tear. "I want to stay with you. Daddy."
He smiled. "Okay. That's fair. But try to stay out of the fighting, deal?"
She nodded against his chest. Julia, back in her sweats, came out, speared Kara with a glance, rubbed her own hand down Arwyn's back. "We had a good talk, Dad, and she's gonna be fine."
He stuck his tongue out at her. "Thanks, Mom. I appreciate it."
Julia went white. Arwyn giggled, snuffled again, pulled away from Alec. She spotted Kara, frowned slightly, turned back to her "parents". "Are you making dinner? For everyone? And who is Kellehendra?"
The girl in question came out of the other bathroom, toweling her hair off. Alec smiled at her faintly. "Protector Zor'el, may I present Kellehendra. Kellehendra is my… other daughter. She's the Oracle, Arwyn. She's going to be staying with us for a while."
Kara goggled at that. "How many kids do you have?"
Julia folded her arms. "I'd kinda like to know that myself."
He grinned, heading back to the kitchen. "Two's it, for now. As for later, well, that's not exactly up to me."
Julia went from white to red. Kellehendra flushed as well, Arwyn barking a brief laugh at everyone's expressions. "Oh boy, the fun is just beginning!"
"Set the table, laughing girl," he pushed some plates across the counter. "Kellehendra, what would you like to drink?"
She glanced at him blankly. "Juice?"
"Juice it is," he pulled one from the fridge, slid it across the counter to her. "Jules, wine with dinner? How about you, Protector?"
Julia nodded, Kara frowned. "You know, Alec, I think I would prefer it if you called me Kara. Or even Lisa. Anything other than this Protector thing you keep throwing at me."
He inclined his head. "As you wish. Kara. I have a nice rose that'll go well with the ribbon-steaks. Would you like some?"
Kara looked confused, but she nodded anyway. He turned away, rooting out some wine glasses, Kara nudging Julia as they moved back to the counter. "He cooks, too?"
Julia shrugged. "It surprised me, too. I knew he was a wine expert, but I didn't know about the cooking."
Arwyn sauntered past, heading to grab some flatware. "Daddy is a gourmet," she announced proudly. "He also holds twenty-seven patents, has written music for Connor McDonough, and currently has four books on the New York Times Top Ten Bestsellers List."
"Geez, Arwyn," he snapped, straightening from the under-counter wine rack. "Broadcast it to the whole world, huh? The books are a secret, remember?"
"Why?" Kellehendra asked, perching herself on the edge of a stool. "I've read your books, Archon. Your talents are something to be proud of."
"It's Alec, Kellehendra," he corrected softly. "And the secret is for my own peace of mind. In America, being a celebrity carries a certain amount of baggage along with it. I have all the baggage I need right here."
He held his hand out. The scabbarded Shal'kyrie flew from the chair it rested on, landed in his palm. He turned it over in his hands, slumping as if a huge weight had dropped on to his shoulders. "I gotta put this thing away. I'll be right back. Please, ladies, seat yourselves."
On his way back from the bedroom, he veered off without a word, opened the door, plucked Somack's sleeve and dragged the Cleric in. "I thought you were lurking out there. If you wanted the ribbon-steaks, all you had to do was knock."
The aged Kalrist's face flushed, his grin that of a little boy. "If Sorala knew I was eating meat, she would never let me hear the end of it. I thought I would wait until you children had eaten, then perhaps snatch just a morsel… I swear."
Alec laughed, squeezing the man's shoulder. "Dei'sho, there is always a place set for you at my table. You know that. Come. Eat."
His face lit up. Alec escorted him to the empty chair, got him settled, fetched a couple of bottles of wine and a pitcher of chilled juice. He sat down between Julia and Kara, Kellehendra and Arwyn on either side of Somack. Alec reached out, took Julia's hand in his, then Kara's in his other.
The rest completed the circle. Somack waited for Alec's nod, bowed his head. "Heavenly Father, you have blessed us with health, with courage, with dedication, and with honor. Please, in Your Eternal Grace, bless that which we are about to eat, gifts from Your bounty unto your children, and bless our quest. Grant us peace, grant us safety, and most importantly, grant us victory."
"Victory," Alec, Arwyn, and Kellehendra echoed. "Amen."
He squeezed Kara's hand, let it go. Julia held his tight, setting it in her lap, scooting her chair a bit closer on the round table. Arwyn smiled, lifting her glass to cover it; Kellehendra watched closely, turning to Somack.
"Is Doctor Brooks the Archon's consort?" she whispered quietly, stealing a glance their way. Somack patted her hand.
"Yes," he replied simply. "Here, child, have some salad. You will enjoy it."
Alec glanced at the bread in front of Kara; it rose off the linen napkin it was resting on, sliced itself, dropped into a basket that slid across the table of it's own accord, all in one instant. Kara started, frowned Alec's way, Somack trying very hard to look stern.
"Stop tormenting the poor girl, Alec," he said disapprovingly. "You know she is not used to your talents. And I hardly think slicing bread and scaring Velorians is an appropriate use for the Disciplines."
"I'm just refining my skills, Master," he said meekly, trying not to laugh at Kara's hunted expression. "Slicing bread with my telekinesis is a testament to control…"
He broke off, laughing. "I'm sorry, even I can't lie my way around that one. I was messing with you, Kara, and I'm sorry."
She gave him a wry glance, accepted the twice-baked potatoes from Kellehendra, put one on her plate, handed the tray to Alec. "Okay, wise guy, you just bought yourself a turn at storytelling. What was all that stuff Arwyn was saying about you earlier?"
He offered the potatoes to Julia before he took two, then added a few slices of bread, waiting for the ribbon-steaks to come to him. "Do I have to?"
She twisted part of the crust off her slice of bread, kneaded it between her fingers. "Yes. You do."
He sighed. "There isn't much to tell. I write books for a living, only I use a pen name. Well, actually, I use two. Mostly because I churn the books out like crazy."
Julia plopped two of the ribbon-steaks on her plate, handed the platter to Alec. "I know about Jordan Sinclair, but who's the other one?"
"Tom Sheridan," he helped himself, set the platter in front of Kara. "I can't take much credit for the Constellations Chronicles, though. It's really just a heavily-edited history of the Order. I threw in some things to make it more interesting."
Somack choked on his ribbon-steak, spluttered his way around it, ignoring the gaping eyes of both Julia and Kara. "Heavily-edited?" he gasped, washing it down with a sip of juice. "I do not recall ever waging war on Callisto. Nor do I recall the Order being a multi-racial military unit based on an artificial moon."
"Who's going to believe the truth?" Alec stuffed a forkful of salad in his mouth, chewed quickly, swallowed. "The superpowered alien from the Planet of the Blondes still hasn't bought all the way in. Nor has the human woman who can bench-press a building. Says the man who has one daughter who used to be a computer and another who's even older than his twenty-thousand year old master."
"Wait," Kara got out, just ahead of Julia. "Wait one minute. You're Jordan Sinclair? And Tom Sheridan? How on Earth… both of them put out books this last month; Sheridan published two!"
He grinned, slicing his steak, popping a bite in his mouth. "I write fast."
"I don't write that fast!"
Arwyn giggled. "You don't have access to a neural transceiver, either. Or a telemechanics rating of twenty-five."
Kellehendra nodded. "The Archon… I mean, Alec's, ability to control machinery is equal to any Technician's. Coupled with his neural enhancements, he can transcribe eighty pages of text per second."
Julia dropped her fork. "You wrote Wavetops in under a minute?"
He sighed, setting his silverware down. "No. I plot the books out, and go through three or four drafts, but I can do most of that in my head. The actual, physical writing, that only takes a few minutes."
"So, how far ahead are you?" Kara hadn't touched her plate; Alec glanced at Julia's, saw it hadn't been addressed either. He heaved another sigh.
"Seven or eight, I think. The drafts are on my laptop in the bedroom," he picked his fork back up. "Eat, Jules. I use a mnemonic trigger when I write, so I don't suddenly blurt out passages from a book when I'm in battle. So I'm not sure what I have just this second."
"Now, I am really impressed," Kara mumbled, finally sliced a bite of steak off and sampled it. "Oh, God. And you're even a good cook!"
"Everybody needs a hobby," he replied, pouring himself some more juice. Kellehendra's glass floated his way; he topped it off, sent it back. "Master?"
"Please," he sent his own glass, retrieved it, sipped at it slowly. "Tell them about Connor, Alec."
"Connor McDonough?" Kara glanced down at Somack, then back to Alec. "The singer?"
"And member of the Order," Alec grinned openly at her. "You better start getting used to hearing impossible crap, Kara. Or you're gonna spend a lot of time gaping at stuff."
"The Order, child, is everywhere. We know everything, and everyone, and we watch them all," Somack patted his lips, looked longingly at the steak platter next to Kellehendra. "Please, child, indulge an old man…"
She promptly handed him the meat. Alec smiled at him fondly, returned his gaze to Kara. "Yeah, Connor's one of us. He's in deep cover, under orders to not reveal his existence unless something utterly disastrous happens. We have a couple more; one on the Presidential Detail, another on the equivalent for the Russian Premier, one for the British PM, and a guy inside the Chinese Politburo. Talk about sucky details, Chow has it- he has to pretend to be a Communist and an atheist to do his job. Last report I saw, I think the poor guy was thinking about liberating China all by himself."
He nudged Julia's plate towards her. "C'mon, I spent like twenty minutes making this. The least you could do is eat it."
Somack finished chewing his bite, motioned to Alec. "I have been considering the state of affairs, Archon. I believe it would be in everyone's best interest to have Connor return to us for a while. As well as attempting to reconcile with Jian."
Julia watched Alec's face change. "Yeah. Both of them deserve to be here when I execute Kon and Coriana."
Silence descended on the table, the four members of the Order glancing back and forth at each other, Kara and Julia simply confused. Alec settled himself back in his chair, watching Kellehendra. "You disapprove, Oracle?"
"No, Archon," she replied firmly. "Betrayal carries a heavy cost; treason carries only one. You alone are fit to judge them; you alone are fit to determine their fate."
"I know how you felt… how you feel about Jian, Alec," Somack said softly. "And, to be honest, I must admit I feel the same way. And now, with what we know about the past few years, the pieces are falling into place. I will accompany you, as will Torik and Sorala. It is past time to put things to right with him."
Alec studied Somack for a long moment, nodded. "Then we should go. Now."
He rose, tapping the commpanel in the kitchen. Li answered immediately. "Yes, Archon?"
"Li, summon Omen and have him come to Seattle at once. And have Isamu ready his Gryphon for one more run. Tell him he does this, it gets his ass outta hack for coming back to the valley. And please ask Lady Sorala to join us at the field."
"At once, Archon."
He vanished into his bedroom, returning with the Shal'kyrie. "Ladies, please, stay here. Make yourselves comfortable. We should be back in a few hours."
Julia rose, walking with him to the door. "Where are you going?"
"To bring an old friend home."
"I want to come."
Alec shrugged. "Okay. Come along then."
Kara hopped up as well. "Me, too."
Julia's hand on his arm tightened slightly; he watched her take a soft, shallow breath, blow it out quietly, relax. Alec waited for an explosion, didn't get one. "Sure. If you want to."
Arwyn opened her mouth, Alec giving her a mild glare. "Nope. You two are staying here. And getting some rest; don't make me sic Thien on you."
Arwyn pouted, stamped her foot; Alec laughed. "Nice try, kiddo. Pouting stopped working on me when I was eight."
He strapped the Shal'kyrie on, headed out the door. Before they had gone to the end of the corridor, Brennan McNamera, the Knight from Seattle, appeared, apparently lost, a carry-all over his shoulder. On impulse, Alec stopped. "McNamera."
He dropped to one knee, head bent. Alec sighed, folded his arms. "Get up, kid."
The boy rose, very carefully not looking at him. Alec rumbled deep in his throat. "Where you headed?"
"Quarters, Archon," he replied, voice hovering between sullen and defeated. "I have been assigned to…"
"Wrong, you're assigned to me," he started walking past him. "Come along."
Somack smiled softly, patting the lad's arm on the way past. "Well, Knight? The Archon commands; obey him."
He stuttered for a second, then jogged to catch up, taking his place behind Somack. Alec spotted one of Somack's Clerics walking along, motioned the man over. "Kaz, take Mr. McNamera's gear to his quarters; please inform Commander Duong that he'll be travelling with me."
"Of course, Archon," the man slid Brennan's bag off his shoulder, bowed, vanished. Alec started away, Julia sliding her arm in his. Kara followed them, Somack and Brennan bringing up the rear.
Before they walked out of the Great Hall, Gabriel appeared, armored and armed. He paused before Alec, studied him. "You've recalled Connor? Why… wait, you're going to get Jian, aren't you?"
Sorala's footfalls echoed down the corridor; Alec dropped Julia's hand. "Yeah."
A slow, easy smile lit the man's face. "Then let's go. We're burning daylight. That crazy-ass musician'll be here soon."
Alec grinned back, ushered Sorala and Somack ahead of him, dropped back to the end with Julia beside him. She leaned against him, lacing her fingers with his. "Who is Jian?"
Alec's grin faded. "He's a member of the Order. Sort of."
"You mentioned him in the woods in Oregon," she leaned against him a bit more, watching his face. "But he isn't here. Why?"
Sorala had stopped as well, now she fell in beside the two of them. "In a way, Jian was the beginning of this entire mess, Doctor. The first error in what has become an avalanche of them."
Alec took the opportunity to bolt up the ramp, fixing Isamu with a withering glare. The pilot shrunk in on himself, ducked his head, vanished into the ship. Julia frowned, but she kept her attention on Sorala.
"Jian Wa Chang was one of our best; at the time he was recruited, the only Knight in decades to match his abilities was Gabriel; among the Order, only Gabriel, Connor, and the Archon match his strength. He was a stellar pupil: disciplined, committed, driven.
"As a result, we made him one of our Senseis, an extraordinary accomplishment for one so young. Jian was the Training Commander for the West Coast; Alec volunteered to serve under him when he finished his training."
She sighed, worked her way up the ramp, settled herself in a chair, Julia beside her. "All seemed fine, until the summer of 1996. There was a minor Kaldec incursion in Mexico, out in the middle of an equatorial jungle. Jian was assigned to lead a team of Knights to investigate; he had just completed general training on a new group of recruits, and decided to give them a taste of what their futures held. Alec went along, as did Garrett Macey and Holmes Priest, two other Knights from San Francisco. Twelve of them went down."
She swallowed. "Four came back. Alec, Jian, Garrett, and Holmes."
Sorala paused, settled her robes about herself, stared at the decking. "The incursion was not so minor. The Knights had been expecting a few dozen; they ran into a few hundred. As it was, they were not armed well enough to fight them off, but the lack of experience on the part of the trainees only made a bad situation worse. If Alec and Jian had not both been there, none of them would have survived."
She sighed. "Remarkably enough, it actually got worse. The survivors were summoned to the Citadel for an inquest. Before they could leave, Holmes committed suicide; he had been linked to one of the trainees when the boy died, and he never recovered. Garrett was so badly wounded that he had to transfer from the Corps of the Knights, tried to become a Cleric. One day, he just vanished- we found him on a mountaintop a few days later, frozen to death.
"The inquest was a farce. Coriana and Kon were eager to blame Jian; Morrigan was in a fury over the entire incident, and she was not thinking clearly. She and Alec came to blows before the Inquest began, and Torik and Somack had to separate them. Gabriel was in France, and the rest of the Council were seeing to their duties, so it was the Elders, and Thien, Morrigan, and Alec. Except Alec refused to seat himself at the Council, opted instead to advocate for Jian."
Sorala stopped again, dredging up bad memories. "Upon reflection, the only episode more shameful than Jian's inquest was the Breaking of the Compact. Alec spoke eloquently, but the die had already been cast, and he knew it. He finally lost control, and actually challenged Kon to single combat to settle the issue. No human had challenged a Triumvere to a Trial by Combat in millenia; the only thing that saved Kon was Somack convincing Jian to willingly submit to banishment. For the good of the Order."
"I am not proud of that mistake," Somack straightened his back in the seat opposite them. "I have worked since then to atone. I realize now that I should have never done it in the first place."
"It cost us much," Sorala continued. "Alec divorced himself from the Citadel. It was months before he and Morrigan were even civil to each other. He began to refuse field operations, content to remain in San Francisco and let others shoulder the burden. Until he agreed to seek you out, he had not left the city for almost three years."
"And now," Somack finished, voice soft. "we wonder what would have happened had we not succumbed to our fear. Jian was, is, a remarkable warrior; he had so much to offer, both as a warrior and as a teacher. We should have never made him go."
Alec craned his neck from where he was sitting in the co-pilot seat, motioned Gabriel forward. The Knight settled himself at the cockpit door, face grim.
Alec's telepathic voice brushed Gabriel's mind. We let them go in there, he'll kill them before they get a single word out.
Agreed, they were clearing the mountains, Isamu jerking back on the stick for a ballistic orbit. But I doubt he'll be too eager to see either of us, or Connor for that matter.
Yeah, but he can't kill us. We go in alone; we'll subdue him if necessary.
Somack really isn't going to like that, even the man's voice was grim. And Torik's gonna have a stroke.
Alec grunted, swiveling back to face forward. Better than getting his head lopped off.
Gabriel chuckled slowly. Okay. But you get to tell them.
The flight took only twenty minutes, Isamu risking possible detection by looping up to a shallow ballistic orbit, then dropping back down towards the United States' Pacific Coast.
"Seeing anything?" Alec was running the electronic countermeasures board, Gabriel behind them at the weapons station. Isamu ran his eyes over the HUD again, shook his head.
"I have civilian jumbos on proscribed routes, no military chatter, and nothing aggressive in the sky. No radar returns from Cheyenne Mountain, and I programmed the flight path between the KH-11's in the area," his voice was one of quiet pride; Isamu was the best, his status as the Archon's pilot proof of that. "Translating back to subsonic. Seattle Safehouse in eight minutes."
"No safehouse," he said quietly, peeking over at Somack and Sorala. "Head for The University of Washington, the English Department."
Isamu frowned. "Archon, it's the middle of the afternoon."
"Yeah, I noticed. You're gonna drop me, Brennan, and Gabriel off, then take everybody else to the safehouse," he rolled out of the copilot seat, reaching up to grab a set of blacks from a locker. "Think fast, Junior. Get suited up."
Brennan caught them, rolled the sphere in his palms. Gabriel stood, stretched, Alec suiting up as well.
"What are you doing?" Somack demanded, starting to rise. Alec shrugged.
"The three of us are gonna have a chat with Jian; Connor, too, when he gets here. When we're done, we'll bring him to the safehouse."
He slung a utility belt on his waist, a shield-arm sliding up his arm. Gabriel accepted both a shield and a belt, Brennan standing to finish arming himself. Somack's eyes were hot, Sorala's even more furious.
"I will not allow this…" the Cleric began.
"Enough!" Alec snapped. "The Archon has spoken! Sit, and be silent!"
Sorala recoiled. Somack's jaw dropped from shock; Alec's firmed as he stared down the Cleric. "We are not going to debate our way through this war! I lead! Obey, or stand aside!"
Somack merely nodded. Sorala said nothing. Alec held their gazes until he felt the ship halt. "Brennan, Gabriel, let's go. Isamu, you have your orders."
"… so I expect your term papers no later than 5 PM on Friday," Jian Chang pulled his glasses off, tossing them on his desk. "And for our next act, the first act of MacBeth for Monday. Go forth. Learn."
He smiled as his students flocked out, scanned the handful of papers on his desk, jerked his head up at a slight cough.
"I never got the treatment on Othello," Alec complained lightly, sitting twelve rows back in the amphitheater, feet propped on a chair back. Gabriel was seated next to him, lazily sprawled in another chair. "I feel somewhat cheated."
"What the fuck are you doing here?" he snarled, changing from mild English professor to rabid pit-bull in a second. "You two assholes slumming or something?"
"Vacation's over, Jian," Gabriel intoned softly. "We've come to take you home."
"When did you grow a backbone, Gabriel?" Jian sneered, shoving papers in his briefcase. "Last time I saw you you were content to be Coriana's lapdog. I did my part for King and Country. Take a walk."
"Things change, Jian," Gabriel replied. "It's beginning. We need you."
He laughed hollowly. "You sure as hell didn't need me five years ago, did you? What makes you think I care anymore?"
"Because I still care," Alec said. "And the only person who taught me more about being a Knight than you was Somack."
Jian's face softened for just a moment. "I have no room in my life for this any longer. I have changed; the Knight is no more, only the Teacher remains. Go home, Little Brother."
"I can't, Jian," Alec replied, voice just as soft. "They've come. They've already crippled us…"
Jian barked a short laugh. "You appear fine to me…"
"The US network is gone, Jian," Gabriel interjected. "All of it. A handful remain. They've chased us from Europe as well. We're on the defensive. We need you."
The man's eyes grew hard once more. "No. Let them come. I don't care anymore."
"You'd turn your back on your world, Jian?" Alec rose, voice tinged with anger. "Is honor something you just turn off? Are you going to pout here, prove Coriana right?"
He heaved his briefcase at the door, spun at Alec, pointing his finger. "I sacrificed my honor for the good of the Order! I choked on that bullshit to maintain the Brotherhood! So don't you stand there, you little prick, and tell me I don't know about honor!"
"You've surely learned self-pity, Chang!" Alec growled back. "You're right; Naga is gone. But what's left is a piss-poor excuse for a teacher. And a man."
Jian turned red. Alec ignored him. "The man I knew wasn't afraid of anything, least of all a broken-down nag of a Kalrist and her over-muscled toady. Did they break your will that badly, Jian? Is your honor worth so little that you throw it away because someone tells you to?"
A slender metal tube leapt off Jian's belt, extended in a heartbeat, the man sliding forward using the sin'cho discipline. His warlance came shrieking down, charged with energy…
Alec's head was gone, Jian's lance meeting Gabriel's with a crash.
Piercing blue eyes locked on to furious black. The lances stayed locked for an eternal instant, then Gabriel heaved Jian back, bouncing down three steps to set himself.
Jian's lance whirled around his body, his eyes boring right at Gabriel. "This has been coming for years, asshole."
"There aren't Elders around to stop it this time, punk," Gabriel snarled back. "If you think you're man enough, take your best shot."
Jian bounded forward, lance raking the air. Gabriel parried, Jian driving both lances to one side, his foot whipping up in a blindingly-fast kick that knocked Gabriel to the far wall, thirty feet away. Before Jian could so much as raise his lance, Alec crashed into him, both of them rolling down the lecture room's stairs, lances braced against each other.
Jian landed on top, pushing down; Alec's heel snapped up, set on his stomach, heaved him off, taking out the front row of seats. Jian wrestled free, shucking his sport coat, Alec dropping his jacket off as he set himself.
Gabriel howled, covered the forty feet with one leap, came down on top of Jian. The former Knight got his lance up in time to blunt the cut, but not the follow-up palm to the face. He staggered, bent over when Gabriel's leg slammed against his stomach, swept the butt of his lance against Gabriel's knee, sending him spinning to the floor. Gabriel rolled away from a slash at his head, spun up to his knee, cracked his foot into Jian's hip, the man dropping to his own knee.
Gabriel lunged, had it blocked, twisted away, his own lance's weighted butt colliding with his cheek. Gabriel rolled away, Alec grabbing Jian's lance, manipulating momentum to fling him back and away.
Jian crashed through the classroom door, skittered across the hallway, braced his feet to stop himself from hitting the far wall. He slapped his palm down, started to lever himself back up; a sneaker pushed down on his warlance.
He glanced up into familiar, laughing eyes, a squared off jaw, that ready grin. Connor's hair was a lot longer than it had been when he'd last seen him, but nothing else about the last Horseman had changed. He still wore that stupid leather jacket, hadn't learned to dress past a t-shirt and jeans, and was still leaving himself open to sucker-punches.
"Geez, Jian," his husky tenor hadn't changed either. "Relax, huh? What kind of way is this to greet old friends?"
Jian's fist drove up into Connor's crotch, dropping the man to the floor. Connor collapsed, clutching himself and howling, Jian already up, heading for the door and Alec…
Three steps from the hole his neck tried to jerk itself off his head, his legs flipping out from under his body. He gaped at stars for a few seconds, rolled over in time to see Connor coming at him, warlance crackling.
"That," he croaked, bringing his lance down, "was a cheap shot!"
His slash missed Jian's head by a scant inch, shaving part of his hair off; Jian got his hands under his shoulders, flipped himself up, still gasping for air, Connor making it worse by feinting a cut at his stomach, then driving his hand against Jian's throat.
Jian staggered back, bringing his lance up and around. Connor got too close, took a shot to the head, flattening him against a row of lockers.
Gabriel charged into the hallway, Alec skittering along behind him. Bellowing at the top of his lungs, Gabriel went right at Jian; their lances collided again, knocking each other's free, the two men trading punches to the face. But Gabriel stumbled, allowing Jian a kick to the ribs that folded him to the floor.
Connor shoved off the wall, whirled his lance, flung it at Jian. It whined past him, Jian sliding forward, throwing a strike at Connor's sternum. Connor blocked, twisting Jian's wrist aside and planting his elbow in the man's forehead. He tried to follow it up with a forearm smash, Jian catching it and flipping him painfully to the tiles.
The window at the end of the hallway exploded inward. Kara dropped to the floor, Somack swinging free from one arm as Julia set her feet on the tiles. "Stop this!" the Cleric shouted, none of the Knights even looking his way. "Stop this at once!"
All three men circled, chests heaving more from the punishment they were absorbing than anything else. All three warlances leapt from the floor, landing back in their owner's hands, all three lunging at each other.
They missed the rasp of steel being drawn, until their lances crashed together one last time…
Bellowing at the top of his lungs, Alec swung the Shal'kyrie at the locked lances, slicing them apart in a spray of shards. The other three men toppled over each other, each man turning startled eyes at Alec.
Alec's chest was heaving as hard as theirs were, the intense, haunted look each of them knew so well in his eyes. He held the Shal'kyrie in a death-grip for an eternal second, then shook himself, glanced down at the weapon in his hand as if it were going to bite him, hurled it away. The blade buried itself halfway to the hilt in a locker, Alec flopping to the floor.
Slowly, the other three unpiled, rolling to backs or sitting against lockers, Jian wiping a smear of blood from his chin. Kara and Julia were balanced for the fight to kick back up any second; for all that the four men and Somack noticed, they might as well not have been there.
"Where the hell did you get that?" Jian wiped his hand on his pant leg, tonguing a tooth Gabriel had jarred loose.
Gabriel stopped rubbing his forehead for a second to give Jian a level look. "He's the Archon, dumb ass. It comes with the job."
Connor moaned softly, raising his head from the floor. "Nobody told me either, Raph."
"What the hell do you want, Uri? A press release?" Alec fingered a cut along his chest. "Damn it, Raph, this was a new shirt."
Connor's head fell back to the tiles. "Yeah, Mikey, a press release would be nice. Give the Activators something to do when they're not tormenting Adepts."
Jian felt his ribs gingerly, hissed through clenched teeth. "Jesus, Gabe, you trying to kill me or something?"
"Me?" Gabriel retorted. "You tried to kick me through the side of the damn building, Raph!"
"You swung first! You had it coming!"
"And you punched me in the balls!" Connor rolled over on to his stomach. "All I did was show up and you try to make me a freaking eunuch!"
The four of them stared at each other for a few moments, then Alec started to laugh. Before too long, Gabriel, and then Connor, and finally Jian joined him, all four laughing until tears started running down their faces.
And then Alec wasn't laughing anymore. It sounded like a laugh, as he started to choke his thoughts out. "She sold us out, Jian, Connor. She sold us up the river to the Kaldec…"
Jian's laugh died in his throat. Connor swung upright, staring at Alec. Gabriel wiped away a tear, took a deep breath, rested his hands on his knees.
"And then she got Morrigan to send me away… the Denver cell, she turned the Denver cell… I wasn't there… and she got them all killed…"
The tears rolling down his face weren't from laughing, his voice strangling into something else. "She cut them up like so much meat… she killed Jerry… and Bryce, and Joshua, and Toshiro… and I wasn't there to stop it…"
"Alec," Gabriel called softly, over the hysterical gasping, "don't."
"She turned them on her own people! On defenseless children! She took fifteen thousand years of honor, and sacrifice, and courage, and shit on it!" he was screaming now. "She took what we are and she shit on it!"
Somack knelt on one side, Julia the other, the Cleric's strong hand on his shoulder. "Son, please, do not do this…"
"And I didn't stop it!" he finally wailed, eyes closed, stinging tears streaming from his lashes. "Why wasn't I strong enough to stop it?!"
Julia took his head in her hands, jerking it up. He opened his eyes, staring at hers, wet with tears. "You listen to me," she whispered, hard and steady. "You've been strong when everyone else was afraid. You did what had to be done when everyone else waited to see what would happen. You hung in when anyone else would have turned and run away. And too often, you did it alone."
She wiped his tears, trying not to cry herself. A strong hand balanced itself on her shoulder, Connor leaning past her ear.
"You aren't alone, anymore, Alec," he said quietly, reaching out his other hand to grip his arm. "I'm here, now. I'm back where I belong. And I'm not going away. Not ever."
Jian knelt beside Somack, Gabriel next to him. "No more hiding, Little Brother. You're right; it's time to come home. Where I belong."
Julia let him go, Connor pulling him to his feet. All four men embraced, the way men embrace their wives, their children, and those they've faced Death with, until Alec reached out, taking Julia's hand and pulling her in with them.
"Guys," he took in a shuddering breath, tried a weak smile. "This is Julia. Julia, this is my brother Jian, and my brother Connor, and my brother Gabriel. Jack's not here; you get to meet him later."
The group untangled, Connor folding his arms, Jian's gaze a palpable thing as he looked her up and down. Gabriel glanced fondly at Somack, standing just a few feet away, walked over to lay his arm around the Kalrist's shoulder.
Connor pursed his lips in a silent whistle. "Holy crap, Mikey. First time at the plate and you nail a grand slam."
Jian nudged Connor in the stomach. "Nice. Your mother know you talk like that? Don't mind gutter-mouth here, Julia. I am Jian Wa Chang, it is a great pleasure to meet you."
Connor rubbed his stomach gently, gave Julia a wink and a smile. "I'm Connor McDonough, and believe me, the sentiment is mutual."
Gabriel grabbed the Shal'kyrie's hilt, yanked it free from the wall, reversed his grip on it to hand it back to Alec. Alec gave it a disgusted grimace, took it, sheathed it. Gabriel slapped his shoulder.
"Somebody's gotta do it, Mikey," he said gently, rocking Alec's shoulder. "Right now, we need the best. And that means we need you."
Connor dragged his eyes from Julia, finally noticed Kara standing at the end of the hall. He frowned, chucked his chin towards Alec. "Are we that bad off? You recruited a Velorian?"
Jian frowned as well. "I was going to ask you that myself."
"Lay off," Gabriel let Alec's shoulder go. "She's been a great asset. If she hadn't been at the Citadel during the attack, the colony would have been wiped out."
"They attacked the Citadel?" Connor snapped. "When was this?! Why the hell didn't anyone call?! Isn't that enough of a disaster to bring me home?"
"Colony?" Jian gaped. "What colony? Of Kalrist?"
The bickering started at once. Jian pointed his finger at Gabriel, who glared back while he shouted at Connor, who in turn snarled somewhat offensive language at Alec, the Archon retorting pointedly to Jian's commentary. Julia stepped aside, her eyes wide, Somack sighing.
The Cleric raised his Staff, smacked it down on the floor. The argument died in mid-swing, all four turning guilty faces back at Somack.
"If you gentlemen do not mind," he intoned quietly, "it has been a very long day, and I am not quite as young as I used to be. Might we finish this discussion somewhere more comfortable? And perhaps less public?"
All four Knights traded baleful looks, Jian stepping away first. "Lemme grab my stuff, Master, and we can go."
"Yeah," Connor started to slink away, giving Kara a wide berth. "My Raptor's up on the roof; I'll follow you guys back to Tibet…"
"Uh-uh. We're staying here for a bit," Alec rolled his shoulders, blew out a long sigh. "New safehouse. The beacon's up, it'll lead you in."
Gabriel nodded. "Yeah, we need to go, before someone comes to see what the ruckus is about. The prompting isn't gonna keep the rugrats away forever."
Jian came back out, an armload of papers clutched to his chest. "Okay, all set."
Somack nodded, gestured to the stairwell. "Isamu awaits us on the roof. Ladies, please."
Alec plucked at Somack's robe before the Cleric could start away. "You disobeyed me, Somack."
The Kalrist frowned. "Yes, Archon. I did."
Julia took hold of Alec's hand. "I told him to," she said calmly. "I didn't want you two down here by yourselves."
"I see," Alec frowned down at her. "We will discuss this later."
She smiled back at him. "Whatever you say."