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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 16

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 29 June 2020 03:35] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 20 June 2020 18:03]

Last of the Fallen

Gabriel hadn't known what pain was until now.

Connor's question echoed in the cabin. The wounded were propped up on seats, Sorala tending to who she could. The three bodies lay on the aisle floor, shrouded in white, the Shal'kyrie resting on Alec's chest.

Jian had barely moved since climbing aboard. He stared at nothing, mind as blank as his face. Connor sat opposite him at Alec's head, the same empty expression, until he had spoken, then lapsing back into silence.

Julia huddled against Arwyn, both weeping softly. Adam looked incredibly young, incredibly alone, unable to tear his eyes away from the sword resting atop the shroud. David Sheridan sat in his father's lap, crying as quietly as Julia, no one else even able to muster so much as a lively glance.

Isamu redlined the throttles, getting them to Tibet in record time. He pivoted the ship, began their descent, trying to not slam his head against the instrument panel, join the Archon. He would be ashamed of such thoughts later.

Gabriel glanced out the windows. The battle had apparently ended. The field had been cleared, a rank of Activators waiting, a row of Knights behind them. Isamu settled them, flicked the back ramp down before running the engines to stand-by.

Gabriel stirred, tapping a panel alive. The decking holding the bodies rose to the ceiling, making room for the Activators to rush to the wounded.

They hurried, heaving Xara, Jason and Sharon to biobeds, two more taking charge of Kara under Sorala's gaze. Torik rose as they left, motioned the recruits and the Order's guests from the ship, leaving himself, Somack, the Horsemen, Morrigan, Frederick, Julia and Arwyn. And their prisoner.

Jian's eyes blazed to life. He grabbed Brooke by the front of her jerkin, heaved her from her seat, flung her down the ramp. Gabriel grabbed Jian's shoulder, holding him back. Three Knights swarmed forward, hauling the woman up. "Take her to the brig. We'll be along shortly."

They hustled her away. Dozens of eyes weighed down on Gabriel; he suddenly felt so tired. "I… there are two others to stand mak'tar for. Who will sing for them?"

Six Knights stepped forward, Willem Schauble at their head. Gabriel held up his hand. "Wait… let us… let us bring him first."

Torik lowered the decking. Jian had pulled a litter from the equipment bays, slid Alec's body on to it tenderly, bent and took the back, Connor at the front. They lifted him; Somack reached over, took the Shal'kyrie, held it to Gabriel.

He stared at it, then at Somack. "I am unworthy. I cannot lead. Not now."

The Cleric nodded, carried the Sword away. Connor and Jian followed, Knights silently watching them go. Morrigan and Gabriel marched at Jian's heels, Morrigan comforting Julia, Gabriel guiding Arwyn.

The Elders had come running. Yamar spotted them, sank to his knees, face wide with disbelief. Connor kept his eyes straight ahead, tears still flowing freely. Jian matched the silence, allowing Connor to lead him.

They strode the halls, past the Council Chambers, Jian realizing where they were going. In a few minutes, the gleaming gold doors of the Cathedral rose into view. Connor walked through them, his TK shoving the doors open wide. Gabriel halted at the threshold, letting Arwyn go, turned away. Morrigan reached for him; he brushed her arm aside, strode away. Somack followed after, matching his step to Gabriel's.

"You cannot allow yourself the luxury of isolation," he said. "The Order looks to you now."

"Look elsewhere," Gabriel's voice was harder than any time Somack could remember. "I have my own agenda. Vengeance is all that matters. For me, for Jian, for Connor. Find leaders from another quarter."

"There is no one else," Somack's voice was raw with pain. "Without him… who will lead us?"

"I don't care," Gabriel replied. "I know what I have to do."

He's walked to Ops. The door hissed open at his approach, Gabriel leaping to the floor of the Pit. "Cas, bring the quantum cannon up."

The Tech had been crying, but he obeyed. Thien came over, put a hand on Gabriel's shoulder, stopped cold at the glare he got. "Your target is Alpha Point. Level it."

"Sir?" he paused, turning in his chair. "Gabriel, Alpha Point is in the middle of the United States."

"I know, Cas. You have your target; open fire when ready."

Li rose. "Gabriel, a PRLA regiment is still on maneuvers on the Eastern Perimeter."

"Tough," he snarled back. "If they come over here to find out what's going on, kill them. All of them. From now on, any incursion within the established perimeters is to be considered hostile- your standing orders are to use deadly force. Are we clear on that?"

He waited for sullen nods, pointed to Cas. "Bring the cannon up and take out Alpha Point. Right now."

Cas nodded. The cannon charged itself up, rose from the tower of the Citadel, fired five pulses into the overcast skies. They hit the reflec mirror hanging in low Orbit, ricocheted off, dropping like Thor's hammer on the twisted mass of the Spire.

The first shot ripped the Spire in half, the second tearing down to the bedrock. Three more shots thundered home, triggering a sympathetic molecular breakdown, followed by a nuclear fireball that shot straight up, touching the fringes of deep space.

Gabriel watched the plume soar into space, turned on his heel, walked away. "Computer," he called, mounting the stairs. "Acknowledge Gabriel Beaudreaux, authorization Herald Gamma Zeta Two Seven. Rescind all personal command codes."

He kept on walking.

Alec woke up slowly, his eyes fluttering open. The first thing that ran through his mind was that he'd failed to save Kara and Xara. The second thought was that he felt better than he had in a very long time. He gazed up at formless white clouds, rolled off a polished white marble slab, stood on rubbery ground.

Other men and women were following suit; he glanced down at himself, a pure reflex, noted that his armor was gone. Long sleeved collarless shirt, spotlessly creased trousers, comfortable loafers. All in gleaming white.

Talk about pandering to a stereotype. He sighed, starting up the requisite stairway. He took the steps three at a time, caught up to a man working his way up.

"Hey, how's it going?" he said, sticking his hand out. "Alec Collins. Good to meet you."

The man kept walking, eyes glazed over. The man appeared happy, just out of it, his stride full of purpose. Alec halted, watched the man keep climbing the stairway.

"They cannot hear you, Alec."

A second man was just there. He smiled, holding a clipboard, studied the sheaf of papers on it . He lifted the first sheet, then a second, a third. "Hmh. Remarkable. We weren't really expecting you for a while yet. Not that we're surprised. Of course, your being a Knight of the Order means your paperwork is up to date."

"Excuse me," Alec asked. "Am I dead?"

"Hmh?" the man glanced up from his clipboard, hugged it to his chest. "My apologies. I was caught up in your biography… dead? Well, yes."

"Oh."

"We don't like that particular word. Transcendent is the current term of vogue; less of a finality to it. Since you've simply traded a body of flesh for one of spirit," the man shook himself. "Forgive me, where are my manners? My name is Simon. Simon Peter; my friends call me Cephas."

"Oh," Alec shook the offered hand. "I suppose, around here, I can't get away with my nickname, huh?"

Simon laughed. "They're surprisingly tolerant concerning such things. I would imagine Michael would consider it a compliment. You can ask him yourself."

"Excuse me?"

People were walking past them on the wide stairs, not even noticing the two men talking. Simon gestured to a beautiful woman who walked past them, the most beatific of smiles on her face. "You might have noticed that many of those who come here are not fully aware of their surroundings. The process is complicated, having to do with hows and whys. I never really paid that much attention to it; I'm the Gatekeeper, not a guide.

"But there are the occasions, many of them involving your brethren, when one of our children is awake, and aware, and able to understand what is to happen. As such, some of the, ah, hierarchy take that opportunity to converse with them. You are a particularly special case- in terms of the hows and whys, you see."

He didn't, but it wouldn't do to respond to this man like an idiot. "Okay. Sure. So, one of the main guys wants to talk to me?"

Simon shook his head. "Actually, they all do. Why don't you come along with me, let me get you settled."

He turned. The endless staircase was gone, a handful of steps leading to a small landing, big airy door. Simon took him to the door, pushed it open, gestured inside. "Please. One of them will be along shortly."

Everything still in white. He settled himself on a divinely comfortable sofa, watched people continue up the gleaming staircase through what he perceived as a window. He wondered how much of what he was seeing was actual fact, and what was his mind filling in the blanks.

"You see? I told you he was perceptive."

A second voice grunted. "Of course you'd say that. He's the one who took your name."

Two men appeared- it seemed to be the preferred method of entrance. They were of equal height, one built a bit heavier, his blond hair in a high and tight crew cut. His companion had curly hair, also cropped short, but still full about his head, stroking a neat goatee while he studied Alec.

Both men wore spotless white suits, white ties, white loafers. The crew-cut stepped forward, hand extended. "Alec. Welcome, I am Michael."

His heart, or whatever it was in his chest, stopped. The other man laughed. "You're scaring the boy. He doesn't know what to do; Somack has been filling his head with wild stories for years. Like the rest of them."

He stepped around, offered his own hand. "Hello. I am Gabriel. Be at ease, Son of Adam, and be welcome."

Alec managed to shake, sank back down on his sofa. "Oh, man… I'm really dead."

Michael crossed his arms. "Not… exactly."

"What does that mean?" he replied. "I'm sitting in… what, a heavenly waiting room, and I'm conversing with two Archangels. If I'm not dead, I'm having the mother of all hallucinations, and I am going to need serious medication when I wake up."

Gabriel laughed. "No, Alec. This isn't a hallucination. You are in… the waiting room, I don't think I've ever heard it put like that. But you aren't really dead. Yet."

"I don't understand."

Michael sat down next to him. He was absolutely intimidating, even when all he was doing was reclining on a sofa, unbuttoning his suit coat. "Well, son, it means that, unlike a great many people, you get a choice in this matter."

"Whether I get into Heaven?" Alec answered. "What kind of question is that? Who doesn't want to go to Heaven?"

Michael shook his head. "No. Not whether you go to Heaven; whether you live or die."

Morrigan escorted Julia and Arwyn to Alec's quarters. The girl hadn't stopped crying since she'd entered the Gryphon. Once she set foot in their rooms, Kellehendra rushed from the library, throwing herself on Arwyn, holding her tightly. She finally collapsed to the floor, wailing piteously.

Morrigan turned to go, then spun back, took Julia's shoulder, pulled her into a crushing embrace, stroking the smaller woman's hair.

"I'm so sorry," she gasped, her own tears coming back. "I loved him too, but not like you did. I wish… I wish I could make the pain go away. I wish I could bring him back."

Julia's arms were tight on Morrigan's waist, Julia furrowing against her. "I know. I… we just need time. To heal. To… we just need time."

They squeezed tightly, then pulled away. Morrigan traced the tears from Julia's cheeks with gentle fingertips. "I am here. If you need… anything. I am here."

Julia sniffled, nodded. Morrigan tilted her head back, made an odd choking sound, turned and ran from the room.

The doors slid shut, leaving them alone. Kellehendra looked up, held her hand out to Julia, folded her to the floor along with Arwyn, crooning to both of them in Kalrist, saying her own prayer for Alec.

Gabriel tried, but his heart wasn't empty enough.

He raced around the corner to where the Archon's quarters were, ran to Morrigan's side, took her in a fierce embrace. She collapsed against him, crying as if the world was ending, let him lift her from the floor, carry her to his room- to his bed.

They laid down, clutching each other while they surrendered to the pain.

Connor adjusted the shroud, dropped to his knees before the altar, bent his head in prayer. Jian was on the other side, prostrate on the polished stone floor, sweat beading on his forehead. He bent to his prayers with the intensity of the most devoted penitent.

He had failed his brother. He had failed the man who had stood up for him, that had challenged the Triumveres on his behalf. The man that had brought him home.

He'd never told Alec how much he'd loved him. How he was his brother in every way that ever mattered. He had to live with that. He hoped he could.

Connor's head rose, settling back on his legs, staring blankly at the glorious altar the Order had built to honor the Father. A Father that had ignored the pleas of his most dedicated children, on behalf of a man who had done more good in his brief life than men of exalted virtue three times his age.

God answers all prayers, Somack hold told them, yet sometimes the answer is no.

Connor's faith as much a part of him as his heart beating in his chest, but he couldn't fathom why the Father had taken Alec away. He couldn't fathom why Alec had chosen to sacrifice himself to save two Velorians… a people so corrupt that they were almost beyond salvation…

He started. Was that the answer? Because they weren't too far gone… would one act of kindness, of sacrifice, change the view of an entire people? Could it?

It had happened before, but it had taken the Son of God to achieve that miracle. Alec had been many things, but he was hardly a saint, certainly no savior- of the flesh, perhaps, but not of the spirit. It didn't make sense…

It didn't need to make sense to him. It had made sense to Alec.

Connor knelt erect, bent his head, began to pray. He would find out what made this Velorian and her child so special. For now, he had a path to smooth into Heaven.

"I don't understand."

Michael shrugged. "It's fairly simple. Because of who, and what, you are, and the reason why you came here in the first place, the rules are being… interpreted loosely… this one time."

"Uh-huh," Alec sat back. "Okay. So, because I run around in armor, carry a warlance, and act like a maniac with his hair on fire, I get a second shot at life?"

"That's rather simplistic, but accurate."

"I don't understand."

Michael stood, folding his hands behind him. "You understand that Good and Evil are more than abstract concepts, correct? They are palpable, physical forces at work in the Universe?"

Alec nodded.

"We do too. Our problem is that we aren't allowed to interfere in free will. We cannot contest with mortal beings on a face-to-face basis, forcing the Legions of Light to rely on proxies to fight our struggle. For the time being.

"We guided the Kalrist to Earth, knowing that you would be able to grow into what you have become- the greatest mortal force for Good in the Universe. You are the finest student the Order has ever produced. Your sacrifice was only a matter of time. Unfortunately, you've chosen a very poor time to make it.

"They need you. They will flounder without you, allowing the Kaldec to finally end their war. Untold trillions will suffer. Evil will emerge victorious. For now."

Eyes more knowing than any he'd ever seen peered at him calmly. "So I ask you, Archon of the Order, can your conscience accept that? Are you prepared to watch the flood of souls that will enter the Gates of Heaven should you elect to stay?"

Gabriel bounced up, standing nose to nose with Michael. "That is unfair," he rumbled. "He has earned his rest, his salvation. His sacrifice was not a random event, but indicative of his character. Laying the burden of what is to come upon him is not just, nor will I allow you to do it."

Michael laughed. "There is no compromise in the Code of the Warrior, Gabriel."

"But there is justice, Michael. Allow the man to choose his path free of guilt. He has earned that."

"Wait," Alec tugged at Gabriel's sleeve. "Are you telling me to go back?"

The Archangel turned, shook his head. "We cannot tell you to do anything, Alec. That is not our place. No, the decision of your fate is being left up to you. As always."

He paused. "There is something else you should know. We operate under a certain set of rules; the Adversary does not. Going back will leave you open to that once more, only more so."

"What, I only get one shot at Heaven?"

"Of course not," Gabriel replied. "But as Michael said, what we are doing is looking at the rules very loosely. To do that, we must allow for our Adversary to do the same. And, as I said, you are of particular interest to them as well as us. Returning to the mortal world will only intensify that scrutiny. And will most likely prove a one time occurrence."

Alec pondered that for a moment, shrugged. "So I do only get one shot at Heaven."

Gabriel sighed. "In your case, yes."

"This is not something to take lightly, Son of Adam," Michael cautioned. "The Adversary will exploit every opportunity he is handed to attack you. It will not be something as blatant as an outright assault, rather a subtle subversion."

Somack paced outside the Cathedral, his Staff ticking on the stone floor in time to his stride. Connor and Jian had locked the door, not allowing anyone inside once they had carried Alec's body in. That had been a day ago; neither had emerged yet.

Gabriel was secluded in his quarters, Morrigan with him. Julia, Arwyn, and Kellehendra were locked in the Archon's suite, not even acknowledging comm signals. By default, Thien seemed to be in charge, mostly because no one else wanted to take command.

Carter Sheridan had placed a call to Washington that morning, explaining to the President himself of the Order's loss. Roger Durling had expressed his sympathies, restated his desire to open negotiations, accepted Thien's request for additional time. Time they didn't have to give, time for the military to figure out the Denver database.

Without Gabriel or Jian or Connor, there simply was no leadership. The Council had tried to convene, a useless gesture that ended in minutes. A handful of the humans had attended, none of whom had any interest in the business of War. Sergei had excused himself before they even started; he, too, now sat in seclusion, squirreled away in the one of the West Tower's monastic cells. No doubt dressed in camel's hair and flogging himself.

Leaving Kara. And Adam.

The recruit had been kneeling, not moving, just inside the knave of the Cathedral, deep in prayer, since he'd trailed Jian and Connor from the Gryphon. Every attempt to get a response from him had failed; finally, Torik had commanded that the boy be left alone. He was still there, shrouded in shadow, not moving beyond the slow flicker of his lips, praying silently.

Kara and the other survivors of the battle were up and about. The Scribe had requested seclusion as well, after attending the mak'tar for her lover. The situation had been explained to her, but how much of it she had understood wasn't clear- only her pain had been manifest. Enough of that was going around, they had simply acceded to her request, let her be.

Jason Anderson was still in Medical. He hadn't spoken since being revived, the news of his mother's death. Both the Protector and her daughter had tried, but the boy hadn't even stirred. Sorala had gently drawn the Velorians away, sending them off to leave the boy alone.

Kara had come to the Cathedral, to try to pay her respects, found herself unable to enter. She sat on the floor for five hours, staring at the doors, until she had finally risen, left. She and her daughter were staying close to their rooms, although Thien had reported that Kara was making frequent trips to the Great Repository, taking armloads of books with her, then returning them, taking away more. On all manner of subjects, mostly old texts on philosophy and codes of conduct.

Beyond that, the Order was at a standstill. No training was going on. The entire Central Tower, the home of the Order, was silent, Adepts not even chatting at meals.

Truthfully, Somack had no desire to do anything about it. His despair hung like a millstone about his neck. He had never, never considered that Alec would fall. He was the Child of Prophecy, their hope for victory, for survival. He was his son, of spirit, of the heart. Now he was gone, and with him, hope.

"They're not going to roll over," Alec's voice was confident. "What's the big deal? The Order's lost Archons before. Pericles, Gilgamesh, Artorius- it was never any big thing. Somebody else just picked up the slack. We haven't even had an Archon for four hundred years."

"Naive," Gabriel murmured. "Married to modesty. Lad, you are eight hundred years behind the times."

Michael pointed at the window. "See for yourself."

He did. Julia, Arwyn, Kellehendra, curled together on his bed, weeping. Gabriel and Morrigan, in his bed, doing the same thing. Sergei locked in a prayer cell. Jian and Connor locked in the Cathedral. Somack on the verge of a breakdown. Kara pouring over piles of texts, trying to understand. And a multitude more.

Alec shook his head angrily, turned on Michael. "You're trying to trick me. What happened to no guilt? I thought Archangels weren't allowed to lie."

The Archangel was unmoved. "I show you reality, Son of Adam. Nothing more."

Alec threw his hands up. "Don't they get it?! I did what I had to to save two lives…!"

"Your fellows do not feel that was a fair trade," Gabriel replied. "Particularly because of who the two lives were."

"That's stupid," Alec retorted. "Unless you're willing to break the cycles of prejudice, you can't get past the blinders you wear."

"Perhaps," Michael answered, a small smile lighting his face. "But you yourself have struggled with short-sightedness among the Order before."

"They feel cheated, Alec. It isn't as if you fell in battle; you chose to sacrifice yourself. For two women that represent much of what the Order fights against," Gabriel paused. "It is difficult to understand."

Alec folded his arms, staring hard at the image of Julia and the girls trying to console each other. "You guys fight dirty. Really dirty. But if I go back, I want something."

Michael's eyes widened. "You seek to bargain with the All-Mighty?"

Alec nodded. "Yep. I just figured this whole thing out. You two are omniscient, so you know that I'm going to go back, sooner or later. Now, since you're putting me through all of this instead of just telling me that I'm going to do it anyway, it's going to cost you. And I want payment first, before I really make up my mind."

Michael opened his mouth; Gabriel held up a hand. "I see. Interesting theory. What if you ask first, and then we'll see if it may be arranged?"

"Fair enough. The other Protector, the boy's mother. I want her to go back. And the Scribe's lover, she goes too."

Michael raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

Alec shrugged. "No boy should be without his mother. He's still young, too young to be alone in the world. The Scribe- well, she's had a pretty tough time as it is. I figure I owe her something; I did save Kara and Xara. I can't bring everyone who died back with me, but I can save two lives. I guess that will have to do."

Michael smiled. "Do you settle for two?"

"No, I take what I can get," he replied calmly. "That's why I chose to save them both- two's better than one. Of course, if you are going to let me take everybody else back as well, I'll take that too."

Gabriel shook his head. "Tragedy is a part of life, Alec."

"The weak accept that, Gabriel," he replied. "The righteous defy it. You want me to go back, it will cost you those two souls. Make me feel like I accomplished something by turning my back on paradise. And I'll need some time to consider this."

Michael dug his hands in his pockets. "Done."

 

Julia hugged both of her girls to her, all three of them in Alec's bed. Kellehendra had fallen asleep an hour ago; Arwyn had finally cried herself to sleep again less than ten minutes earlier. They hadn't moved from the bed in two days, save to shower, and eat. Always coming back to their refuge, the sheets still carrying Alec's scent.

She stared blankly at the wall. So much had happened in so brief a time. Coming back to the world. Falling in love. Having a family. Going back to her own family. All things that would have never happened before she'd met him.

And now he was gone.

She silently swore she would never love anyone again.

"There are people who want to see you, before you go," Gabriel said, hands behind his back. "One, especially."

A figure popped into the room. He smiled at the familiar, lined face. "Hi, Dad."

"Son," Ray Collins said, folding him up in a huge hug. Ray held him at arm's length. "How are you?"

"Other than dead? Okay," he shrugged. This was starting to get weird. "Mom misses you. Jack does too. And Peter, especially."

"I know. I get to keep tabs on them; on you, too," his eyes twinkled. "A lot of the strange things that surrounded your life make sense now."

"I wanted to tell you…"

Ray shook his head. "You couldn't. I understand. Didn't make a difference then, doesn't make one now. Except, maybe, making me even more proud. Not many men can say their boy is the Guardian of Humanity."

"I suppose that's true."

Ray nodded. "Now you listen to me, boy. You need to go back, do your best. Those folks, your friends, they count on you to be their rock. Come what may. Remember that. Remember what the strength of your heart, and your will, can accomplish. Because too often it's you standing between normal, decent folks and a thousand kinds of Hell on Earth."

Alec nodded.

"You've never faltered before. You aren't gonna now. You're a good man, a fine man, one I've always been proud to say was my son. You've got those two little girls now, and Julia, that you need to take care of. And Mom and Jack and Andy and Peter and the baby. And a lot of other folks' sons and daughters and husbands and wives. They don't even know you, but they count on you. Because you, you can change the world once you put your mind to it."

Ray paused. "I want to tell you so many things. Make up for the time we lost. But I can't. The best I can do is tell you I love you. And I'm watching over you."

He hugged him tight. "No matter what happens, I'm with you, son. Go on back. And keep making me proud."

Ray backed away, vanished. Alec rubbed his own tears away, blew out a deep breath. "Thank you."

Gabriel nodded. "A small matter. Something you have earned."

"I'll decide… relatively quickly."

 

Sorala had finally pulled herself together. The fits of unbidden tears had finally passed, as had the desire to collapse into herself, never return. One of their children had fallen. It had happened before, it would happen again. Yes, never so painfully as right this second, but it was a fact of the lives they had all chosen to lead.

Kieu and Cordelia McKenney had the watch right now, the two women- girls, Sorala told herself, we have nothing here but children- going about the business of running Medical. The last of the Kal from the colony- they insisted on going by the simplified title- had been released before the return of the team from Kualu Lumpur. There had been nothing they could do for Catherine Anderson or Deborah Kincaide; Jason Anderson was the lone patient. Sitting on his bed, staring at nothing.

Cordelia rose from her desk, wheeled a stool over to Jason's bed. She studied him with her big, dark eyes. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," grated back.

"You know, you sure don't look it. I know it's very hard right now, but you are going to have to come to terms with all of it. I'd like to help you."

He drew in a big breath, blew it out slowly. "What do you know about it?"

Cordy shrugged. "My parents died in a firebombing in London five years ago. During the EarthFirst riots."

That got his attention. He turned his eyes to her. "I'm sorry."

She nodded. "The Archon…" she paused, bit her lip, continued. "The Archon was there. He jumped into the fire, shielded me, pulled me out. Me and eighty other people. With an e'saber jutting out of his shoulder."

Cordy fiddled with the sheet on Jason's bed. "He did everything he could to save your mother. Everything humanly possible…"

"… and some things that were beyond humanly possible," a new voice called.

Both of them turned. Cat, who had been resting in a stasis field until they could dig the graves, sat up, drawing the sheet around her to cover her naked body. She smiled, the expression wholesome and angelic on her face.

Jason choked, rolled off the bed, leapt into his mother's arms. She hugged him, kissed his hair, let him hold her and cry. Sorala dashed over, Kieu behind her. She ran a medicomp over Cat's body while Sorala laid her fingers at the woman's temples, delving her.

"I don't believe this," Kieu muttered, holding the medicomp out for Cordy to double-check it. "Baseline normal, across the board. Everything, perfectly normal."

Sorala nodded, trailing her hand along Cat's face. Cat smiled through her tears, caught the hand, kissed it. "It makes no sense. But it is her."

"More than you know," Cat whispered, rubbing Jason's back. "He sent me back. He made me whole. No one has ever cared that much- I don't even know him…"

There was no time for more questions. The other linen-shrouded figure heaved on it's biobed, the chest rising and falling. Kieu squealed, ran over, running her medicomp over the stirring form. "Great Blessed Father…"

She lifted the shroud. Deb Kincaide moaned, rolled her head, blinked awake. "Hello. Am I in the Citadel?"

Kieu nodded, dropping the medicomp to do her own delve. "Master, she's completely healed. No damage, even on a cellular level."

Deb tried to smile, coughed, a wracking dry heave. Kieu shook herself, grabbed a pitcher of water, held a glass for the woman to drink. She sucked it down, heaved a sigh. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

Sorala turned wide eyes from Deb to Cat. "Who sent you back? What are you talking about?"

Cat lifted Jason on to the bed with her, cuddled him. "Your Archon. Alec. He sent both of us back."

"From where?" Sorala demanded.

Cat shrugged. "Whatever's after, I would imagine."

He'd found he could pop around a little; being in Heaven was somewhat surreal. He'd remembered going to Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho with Mom and Dad and Jack, one of the few vacations home during his college years, found himself sitting on a dock in a deserted bay at sunrise, dangling his toes in the water, his socks and loafers resting next to him. Birds sang in the trees, flitting to dip at the fish in the water.

"This is beautiful country," Michael remarked, popping into existence behind him. Alec smiled without turning.

"Yeah. My dad grew up around here, in Spokane. After high school, he went to USF, where he met my mom. We came back every couple of years, until he died. I haven't been since."

The Archangel kicked his shoes off, pulled his trousers up, settled next to Alec. "Your request has been granted. Both of them are… alive, for lack of a better term."

"Thank you," Alec replied. Michael chuckled.

"You're a bold one. I knew there was a reason you were one of my favorites."

He kicked at the water, watching it play around his feet. "I get to choose, every once in a while, a human champion for our cause. Something Father allows; it isn't interference, simply guidance. It doesn't count if you're listening when I'm talking to you."

He paused, smiled. "Somack was the first. Some I'm sure you know- Samson, Joshua, Sun Tzu, Joan, others. Great warriors- until I found you.

"You get to be so much more, Alec. You aren't just a warrior- you're a leader. Something you do without even thinking about it. Once you decide that a man or a woman has the… what do you call it, the right stuff?… you never stop until they've achieved their potential. Even those around you that disappoint you, you never quit trying to make them better. That is becoming very rare among humanity- it's why Father wants you to go back."

Alec wriggled his toes, making the water ripple. "I wish everyone would stop saying that. I'm just…"

"… a guy?" Michael snorted. "No, boy, you are much more than that. You are the Archon. What's more, you're the right man, in the right place, at the right time. The confluence of destiny. The time is now for you to prove that the human spirit is the most powerful force for Good in all of Creation, as Father has intended for millenia beyond measure.

"Think about it. You are a warrior without peer. No mortal force can match you in battle. No merely living foe can defeat you. Yet you temper your amazing gifts with compassion, with restraint, with discipline. You didn't go rampaging for Kaldec heads after the Culling, didn't crush the wills of the Order under your own- in Father's name, you sacrificed your life to save two Velorians! And at the gates of Heaven, before two Archangels of the Heavenly Hosts, bargained for two more! Not because you had something to gain, but because you believe any death to be a tragedy. You even mourn the deaths of your enemies, though you have never struck down an opponent that didn't attack you first.

"Tell me, Son of Adam; tell me, Child of the Father, what mere guy would do such things? Tell me the names of these men of such virtue. I will see their praises sung far and wide, on Earth as well as in Heaven. Tell me their names. I will personally bring each and every one of them to you, cloak them in my own armor, stand watch over them with my own sword and shield, direct them to protect you on your quest."

Alec stared at the water lapping his ankles. Michael clapped his shoulder. "You are different. There is no shame in that. You work too hard to be one of them to lose sight of simpler lives, even if yours is not. You are called, Son of Adam, to be more than a guy. You are called to be a hero."

He was standing, his shoes back on his feet, hands in his pockets. "Father wishes that I ask if you are ready."

Alec got up. "Yeah."

Michael, the man in his suit and loafers with the narrow crew cut vanished, replaced by an eighty foot warrior, breastplate gleaming, sword and shield and lance of unearthly light, hair the Sun burning about an awesome visage. Michael, the Warrior of Heaven, General of the Heavenly Hosts.

"Behold, Archon, the power that protects you," his whisper a boom of thunder, coming from everywhere, deafening. "You walk in the path of the Lord. Fear no Evil, for I am with you. Father is with you. No force in all Creation can oppose you."

Alec dropped to his knees. They were back on the staircase, Simon standing some distance away, watching. Michael's massive hand lowered to Alec's head, dripping oil from a tiny flask.

"Go forth, Child of God, to do great things in his name. Never, never, doubt His love for you."

Sorala sprinted down the corridors, sliding to a halt outside the Cathedral. "Somack!!" she shrieked, looking wildly around. Adam stirred, coming to his feet, the aged Cleric stepping out of the shadows.

"What?" he called, reaching for her arms. "Sorala?"

She gasped, shaking her head. "The two… Anderson, Kincaide…."

"What about them?"

"They're alive!!" she babbled. "They're sitting up in Medical, talking, eating, saying Alec sent them back! From Heaven!"

Somack almost fainted. Adam grabbed his arm, holding him up. Before anyone could say or do anything more, a bellow came from inside the Cathedral.

Adam eased Somack down, ran to the doors, heaved them open. Jian and Connor were both on their feet, scanning the room. Adam ran down the main aisle, spotted the shrouded pedestal where Alec's body had been resting.

The body was gone.

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