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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 23

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 20 July 2020 22:11] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 18 July 2020 09:35]

Last of the Fallen

Seattle Safehouse, November 19, 2001:

Two Condors and three Pegasus swooped into formation with the Gryphon, the six ships streaking into the safehouse landing pattern. The Griff went first, followed by the three gunships, both Condors dropping nimbly into the launch corridor, wings folding up while they pivoted over the landing apron.

Alec watched the bombers settle, nudged Isamu. "Make sure they don't do that again. Be friendly about it, but if there's a next time, I'll tell them."

Issy nodded. "Okay. No problem."

Connor stretched out of his seat. "Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig. Why do we even bother going back to Tibet?"

Gabriel sighed, patting Morrigan's hand while he rose. "Can't exactly train five hundred Kalrist here, now can we?"

"I suppose not," Connor gathered his bags, slung his carry-all over his shoulder. "I just want to get to a point where I know which time zone I'm supposed to be in."

"Plan on here for a while, Uri," Alec advised. He'd stripped his suit off, having dumped the wadded material out of an airlock over Wyoming, was once more back in his armor. "The only contacts we have to go on are in the States. We'll start with that, work our way backwards."

Jian had produced a datapad, started tapping it. "I downloaded the contact info from Archie before we left. And what about that crazy chick we caught in Kualu Lumpur? The Augurs get her to sing yet?"

"No," Alec tugged the Shal'kyrie on to his back, slung the Ra'kyrie on his arm. "They're still busy with Coriana; once they've finished with her, they'll scan the Ultrafemme."

Willem was waiting as the ramp dropped. He saluted Alec, his face grim. "Operation: Hydra was a success. Unfortunately."

"Casualties?" Alec spotted Jian's disapproving frown.

"Four hundred eighteen at Denver; sixty-nine at Gila Rock Flats," Willem's voice never even flinched. "No civilians. At least, everyone was in a uniform."

"Data purge?"

"We downloaded the viper; Li is running the datadump now," Willem trailed along with him. "It's possible we missed a handful of personnel. But we'll get them in the follow-up."

Alec halted. "What do you think, Willem?"

He met Alec's gaze calmly. "Leave them, Archon. They're no threat to us. We have the tech, we have the viper combing the 'Net, and we have demonstrated our resolve."

Alec nodded, walking away. "Then we leave them. Brilliantly executed, Commander."

Jian paced along behind. Connor kept stride with Jian, Gabriel next to Alec. Once they turned into Officer's Row, Alec spoke. "What would you have preferred, Jian?"

"A decision that would have cost five hundred fewer lives, Mikey."

Gabriel grunted. "Those options were denied us, Jian. They blundered into something they were unprepared for; we were left with little choice."

Connor glanced back and forth, then opened his mouth. "Let's get back on track, kids. We punched them in the nose, and now we're gonna let 'em bleed. All's we gotta do, now, is do the same thing to the Kaldec."

Alec's room slid open. He tossed his bag inside, headed for Ops. "Then let's get to it."

Michael had guessed what he would want, had the holopad displaying the contact sites. Cas came in from the hangar with Isamu, parked himself at the holoprojector next to Li.

"Contact A, Vermont," Cas began slowly. Connor straddled a chair, pulled out his own datapad. "Three troop carriers, a handful of landing craft, two dozen Strafers. Met and destroyed by Commander Gramm's tactical force. The survivors of the Eastern Seaboard cells made it to the Citadel ahead of the cullings.

"Contact B, Dallas. Again, minimal forces met- but they were positioned for the return of the San Antonio and Dallas troops. No survivors.

"Contact C, Wyoming," he paused for a moment. "I've reviewed the data scoured by the Myrmidons. The Spire is gone, but it was mostly deserted."

Gabriel nodded slowly. "Safe bet. They'll have figured we would get the balls up to take out the one sure target we had."

"Secondary contacts?" Jian had perched himself alongside Connor. Cas punched up some more commands.

"The Archon drew contact in the Rockies; a Hunter team, nothing more. The attacks on the Citadel and Shamballah, your skirmish in Chicago," he pointed to a couple of others. "Then, of course, we have Operation Achilles, the contact in Los Angeles, and the incident in Kualu Lumpur… but none of those were Kaldec…"

"KL was," Alec murmured. "They were Ultrafemme, not Arions."

His eyes narrowed. "Cas, bring up the telemetry from KL. Cross-ref any symbolistic commonalities with Chicago."

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. "What are you thinking?"

"That my brain's still a little scrambled," Alec replied, watching a holoimage stream through the telemetry. "But I think I remember something from KL…"

"There! Stop!"

Cas froze the image. A huge, golden C hanging on the side of a modest skyscraper. A skyscraper that happened to be at the very beginning of the swatch of destruction.

"Champion Industries?" Connor sat up. "They're a media conglomerate. They sell comic books, for God's sake…"

He stopped dead as he realized what he'd just said. Alec tightened his mouth.

"Cas, pull up a dossier on Eric Champion, and his immediate family. He's married, I believe, and has a teen-aged daughter…"

"… who goes to school with Marcus," Carter had wandered into Ops. Alec slammed his fist down on the edge of the holopad.

"Archon to Knight O'Reilly, I need you in Ops, right now."

"What's going on?" Carter looked the holoplot over. "Isn't that Champion Tower? Oh, wait, no, that's not the tuning fork."

"How much do you know about Champion, Carter?" Alec leaned his hands against the table, now watching the man's face resolve in front of him. Carter shrugged.

"Little. The man's worth several billion dollars- but he's relatively clean. No involvement in anything that would have sparked a flag as far as the Foundation was concerned. If I recall correctly, I don't think he's even a member of EarthFirst."

Kevin O'Reilly came in just then, came to attention. "Yes, Archon?"

"You were in the retrieval team that assisted Marcus Sheridan, were you not?" Alec gestured the man in, offered a seat. The Knight nodded while he sat.

"Yes, sir. We scanned three targets- one emergent, two pseudo-Arions that we now know were Ultrafemme specimens."

Gabriel grunted. "But you only brought back one. Hamacker."

Kevin nodded again. "Yes, sir. The second contact fled right before we arrived."

"I'm a little old to believe in coincidences," Alec muttered, keying up the comm system. "Citadel, this is the Archon. I need to speak with Initiate Jamie Hamacker immediately."

It was astounding how much force his orders were carrying. He'd barely straightened from the pick-up when the speakers crackled again. "This is Jamie Hamacker. How may I help you, Lord Archon?"

Jian smothered a chuckle; Connor didn't bother. Alec stared him down, leaned back down. "I need to know what happened at that high school."

The girl's voice was confused. "You mean Courtney Champion?"

Alec pounded on the table again. "Thank you, Initiate. You are dismissed."

He slapped the comm off. "Champion. He's made a deal with the Kaldec."

"For what? What could he possibly want from the Kaldec?" Connor tossed his datapad on the holopad. "He's a media mogul, Alec. He trades in comic books, and magazines, and CDs. He owns newspapers and television stations."

"He empowered the girl," Jian said slowly. "Maybe that's what he wanted. Maybe he's a potenphile."

Carter glanced at Jian. "A what?"

"A potenphile. Someone who gets off on having a figure of extreme power as a fantasy," Jian shrugged. "If he got his daughter empowered, maybe he did the same with his wife. Possibly even himself."

"The entire world is enamored with the idea of SuperFemme," Gabriel continued, stroking his chin. "If Champion were predisposed towards that, he would have leapt at the chance to obtain a sample of the Ultrafemme formula. Not quite Velorian, but pretty damn close."

"Do we have a current location on Mr. Champion, Cas?" Alec's eyes were dangerously narrow. The Tech gulped quietly, went to work.

"Yes, Archon," he answered quickly. "He's attending a charity benefit in New York tonight. Apparently, he's been in New York for a few days."

"Good," Alec replied, pushing off the holopad. "Then we'll just have to see about him, won't we? Gabriel, tell Morrigan to find herself a dress. We're going to a ball tonight."

The Citadel:

Sorala studied her new pupils, all of them in varying stages of fugue. What was properly termed Nel'ra, the Centering of the Spirit. But the Knights insisted on calling it the Fugue, for some nonsensical reason she'd never quite fathomed.

She admitted to herself that she was surprised by the new students' abilities. Dani had shown a remarkable aptitude for the discipline, as had the Scribe. Anderson and Kara had much further to go- but Arwyn and Kel were almost ready to be apprenticed, after only one lesson. And, honestly, so was Dani.

She felt, again, the song of Arwyn's mind, now blending easily with Kel's. Two minds of staggering power, both bearing the same vast knowledge and the same gentle innocence. Kel's voice was starting to laugh, while Arwyn's chuckled at everything and everyone around her. Then, slowly, a third voice mingled into their song.

Sorala studied the three girls, sitting cross-legged on one side of the room. Arwyn's face had an easy smile on it; while she watched, Dani ticked as though goosed, then eased into a calm, even sitting, her own lips creasing into a small grin.

Amazing, Sorala told herself. Perhaps ignoring the Velorians was a mistake…

She shook the thought off. No. This was a product of the child's father, not her mother. And his genetics were those of the Order.

She raised her voice gently. "That is enough for today. Center your minds, and come back to the waking world."

The girls all snapped awake instantly. Dani gave Kel a shy smile. After a few seconds, the rest of Sorala's class came up, Kara blinking awake last.

"An excellent beginning," Sorala said smoothly, coming to her feet. "We will continue tomorrow, ladies, but the children will not be joining us."

Kara frowned. "Why not?"

"Because they are ready to be taught, Protector," Sorala replied. "By tonight, I will have selected the appropriate counselors for the three of you. As far as your combat training goes, that will be left to the finest I may select- the Horsemen."

Kel and Arwyn leapt into each other's arms, laughing. After a second, Arwyn held her hand out to Dani, tugging her in too. Sorala smiled at the three, turned back to the older women.

"We will begin again tomorrow. Same time."

Kel caught up to Sorala before the Triumvere could leave. "Lady Sorala, will we be traveling to Daddy… I mean, the Archon's side for training?"

She smiled slightly. "I will discuss it with him, child. But I would imagine not. There is relative safety here in the Citadel; I would imagine he will prefer you to stay put."

Kel looked confused. "Doesn't he want to teach us?"

"Of course, child, but he wages war," Sorala stroked her arm. "He would not put you in the position where you might be in danger."

Arwyn sighed heavily. "Can't you talk to him, Lady Sorala? If you tell him we can help him in battle, he will listen to you."

Sorala quirked an eyebrow. "Your faith is endearing, child, but in this instance the Archon has already spoken. All three of you are to remain out of any potential combat situation, unless battle is being fought inside the Citadel itself. His orders were… explicit, to say the least."

"Even me?" Dani asked, confusion written on her face. After Sorala nodded, she glanced at the floor. "For someone I've barely met, he sure looks out for me."

Sorala waited a moment, then grimaced. "He knew… he knows… your father. He feels he owes you the protection, and the guidance, Lucas is not here to provide."

The room went silent. Kara closed her gaping mouth slowly, fixed Sorala in her gaze. "You… Lucas was a part of the Order?"

Sorala nodded. "Yes. He went to Daxxan fourteen years ago. After keeping your child a secret from us. A matter the Archon plans to discuss with him. At length."

Dani tried to close her own mouth. Kel laid a hand on her arm. "He was needed on Daxxan. But if the Triumveres had known about you, he never would have gone."

The Velorian girl nodded slowly. Then she turned to Sorala. "May I speak to the Archon? If I ask, will he tell me about my father? The truth?"

"Yes. To all of them," Sorala held out her hand. "Come along, child. Let's go speak with him."

They walked from the Tower, Sorala leading a little procession to the Main Bastion. Graydon Creel had command of Ops, was going over a computer model with a handful of other Techs when Sorala appeared.

"Triumvere!" he bowed low, shooed the others away. "How may I serve you?"

She smiled genially. "This young lady wishes to speak to the Archon, Graydon."

He glanced at Dani, gave her a small bow. "Ah. Miss Matthews. I'm sorry, Triumvere, but the Archon is absorbed in tactical planning. He contacted us earlier, informed Commander Gramm that he would need additional troops at the Seattle facility. I am not privy to specifics, but I gather that the Horsemen have located a potential inroad to the Kaldec, and are seeking to exploit it."

Dani's face fell. Kara tried to put her arm around her, had her daughter shove it away. Sorala clucked thoughtfully. "Tell me, is Dr. Brooks still here?"

"Dr. Brooks is preparing to leave with Commander Gramm's team. The Archon communicated with her briefly out on the practice field."

Sorala nodded. "Dani, Arwyn, Kel, go pack. Quickly."

Julia looked up when the girls ran into the suite. "Where are you going?"

"To pack!" Kel shouted gleefully, dashing into their room. By the time Julia made it to their door, clothes were flying back and forth, landing haphazardly in carry-alls.

"What do you mean," Julia demanded, "pack? To go where?"

"With you!!" Arwyn crowed, shoving her carry-all closed, Kel hot on her heels. "Sorala said we could go!"

Kel grabbed three books off her shelves, tucked them under her arm. "I'm so excited, I can barely stand it! An actual field mission!"

Julia set herself. "Hold it, you two. Neither of you is going anywhere…"

Arwyn stamped her foot. "But Sorala said…!"

"Sorala isn't your mother," Julia snapped back. She almost choked as she said it, stopping cold for a second, until both girls smiled brightly back at her. She shook her head ruefully. "I am. And your father has already said no."

"But…!!"

Sorala stuck her head in the open door. "My apologies, Julia, but I did tell them they could go. To the safehouse, no where else."

Julia sighed. "Sorala, please, you're just encouraging them…"

The Kalrist smiled. "Not at all. But these two need Cordelia and Ariana to train them. Kieu will be coming as well, to see to Daniela's development. At this time, it's imperative to give them the proper foundation before they begin their combat training."

Julia snorted, then relented. "Very well. But you get to explain this to Alec."

She tried not to smile when both girls hugged her tightly. "Hurry up, then. Eric's waiting for us."

The two girls whooped and ran out the door. Julia grabbed her own carry-all, followed, Sorala smiling at her. "Honestly, you all indulge them to no end."

The other laughed, high and silvery. "It is nice to have a pair of youngsters to spoil. And you are a fine one to talk- I saw the toy designs you and Alec slipped into the Kal fabers when no one was looking. And those gymnasiums you had Cas build for the children."

Julia grinned, her cheeks flushing. "Don't tell Yamar."

"Yamar is a good man, but he is too caught up in some need for atonement," Sorala affirmed. "Give Alec time. He'll drub some sense into the man. He's succeeded with the rest of us."

Julia laughed at that, taking Sorala's arm. "Yes. He certainly has."

 

Eric ushered the women aboard his Gryphon. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise," he winked broadly at Kel, making her giggle. "I'm certain you'll be better company than some of these crotchety war-horses."

A couple of the Knights gave Eric dirty looks, but he just chuckled. "All aboard that's coming aboard. Next stop, Seattle."

He paused as a final female form trotted across the landing field. Kara ducked into the cabin, found a seat close to the door, dropped into it without a word. Eric studied her for a moment, then slung himself in to the co-pilot seat. "Okay, Tran, fire 'er up, let's move it."

The Grif's engines spooled up. In seconds, the ship lifted off, followed by five more, slicing through the slackening storm.

Seattle:

Mazar's face filled the holofield. "It appears that Coriana has provided the Kaldec with the contents of Skietra's Tablet. Among other things."

"What other things?" Yamar demanded, plucking a ripened pear from the bowl in the center of the table. Jian offered a glass of juice; the Kalrist Elder accepted with a grateful murmur.

Mazar shrugged. "In the face of the Tablet, items of little consequence. Technical schematics, the alloying technique used to forge the Shal'kyrie. That is of no consequence- even with the technique, no defense may be formed against it.

"Otherwise, locations and garrison strengths of the Local Group worlds. Collapsor tech, neutralizer tech, replicator designs- the Kaldec Empress has decided to narrow our technological edge."

Somack slapped the table with his palm. "Unacceptable. Has she given up everything?"

Mazar gave Somack a very flat look. "If you doubt my ability, come do it yourself."

Alec cleared his throat. Both men subsided, glancing his way. "Very well. Execute her. And Kon as well. Immediately."

"As you command, Archon," Mazar bowed low; the image vanished.

Alec turned away from the holopad. "So. We have a potential target. Opinions?"

Vona grunted. "Seize this fool of a human and rip what he knows from his mind. If he is a Kaldec puppet, fling the carcass in the nearest sewer."

Connor choked on his juice, spluttered into a napkin. Jian grinned at Vona; Alec looked nonplussed. "Okay. One vote for the direct approach."

Yamar folded his hands on the table. "I must concur with Vona. This is no time to be gentle with foolish, ill-tempered children. I respect what you intended with the American President, Lord Archon, but enough is enough.

"The Scourge has dug deeply into the Order's bastions. The time to deal with them has come- if a handful of humans and Kalrist must die to halt their marauding here, then so be it. Especially if the humans are stupid enough to seek advantage from the Scourge."

The Elder kept his voice even, but his thoughts were another matter. Alec could clearly sense the contempt in which he held Coriana, and the shame that came along with it.

Willem nodded to the new holoimage, that of Eric Champion, his wife Jennifer, and their daughter. Brooke's face was up there as well, along with a slender, platinum-haired woman. "It's a place to start, Lord Archon. If this gomer knows nothing, we'll find out soon enough."

Alec nodded. "Connor?"

The man grinned. "Four pairs of tickets. No problem."

Alec turned to Jian. "Any issue with insertion?"

"None," Jian flipped the datapad in his hand to Alec. "Connor with the Protector, you and Julia, Gabriel and Morrigan, me and Cordy. That'll cover all the bases."

"Michael's working on some imagers; nothing fancy, but they'll keep the more flamboyant of us from being recognized," Gabriel matched Connor's grin. "Although, with the ladies, no amount of imaging is going to hide much."

The Elders all chuckled. "Hardly a torment, Commander," Vona implied primly, "to be seen in public with such beautiful company."

Alec's commset buzzed; he scooped it up, listened for a moment, frowned. "Hmh. Small change of plans, Uri. Can you score three more tickets?"

"Sure. What's going on?"

He tossed his commset aside. "The girls are coming. All three of them. And Dani wants to know about Lucas."

Somack shifted slowly. "What are you going to tell her?"

"The truth," Alec rose, walked away from the table. "There isn't anything else to tell her. No more secrets. From her, from any of them."

The time changes were starting to mess with his head. It was barely ten o'clock, the Seattle skies an angry gray, something Michael told him was common until spring. Or April, generally the latter.

But there were pluses to the city. The Green was alive, particularly here, on the edge of the Sound. The dojo had an expansive Japanese garden, one shrouded from the street by an artfully-designed wooden slat fence. Additionally, the property jutted up against the water, including a stretch of sand-covered beach. The sea air filled his lungs, Alec finding a running path that wound it's way along the rocky shore.

By the time he was at eight miles, he was feeling loose and warm. His ears perked up when he caught the whine of Gryphons descending toward the safehouse; he kept on going, circling back at twelve miles.

He wasn't really surprised when Dani appeared, galloping along at barely greater than human speed. Her stride was long and fluid, easy, her eyes fixed right on him, slowing down when he stopped.

In deference to the climate, she had on a windbreaker, despite the short running shorts and sneakers. She approached him slowly, biting her lower lip, one arm caught behind her back.

"Do I," she asked once she was close enough for him to hear her, "curtsy or something?"

He smiled. "No. Come, sit with me."

He gestured her to one of the wind-smoothed rocks lining the path. She settled herself on one, watched him perch on the one next to her.

"So. You want to know about Lucas."

Dani nodded slowly. Alec leaned towards her. "What do you know about him?"

She lifted one shoulder. "What my mom… what Kara has told me. He was special. Strong, like her. He has some mental powers, too… Kara wasn't ever sure exactly what he could do."

Alec let his gaze drift away from her, over the rolling waves. "Lucas was part Galen; his mother's father was a Galen scientist in the Boralla sector, near the Greshalak Nebula, out past Daxxan. After the Kaldec overran their world in 1756, Lucas' mother wandered for a few years, ended up here, and sought sanctuary with the Order."

He plucked absently at the rock he rested on. "Somack found no reason to turn her away. Tolena became a geophysicist, married a man by the name of Terrence Black, in 1890. Terrence was a Knight of the Order, until he was killed in World War One. He was also your grandfather.

"Tolena died in 1962. When Lucas was fifty-four."

He smiled slightly. "Lucas was… different. He had some of his mother's phenomenal strength, and some of his father's telepathic abilities. Enough to make him difficult to pigeon-hole, kinda like you.

"But he was a good man, with a good heart. He completed training, became a Knight, served the Order well. And then Kara showed up.

"Kara's predecessor, Aphr'odite Zor'el, had been relatively easy to handle, mostly because she was… quiet. Your mom, well, isn't. After a few flamboyant incidents, Coriana decided to try to influence her. With Lucas."

His gaze swung back to her, bored right into her. "You have to understand something. What he did is unconscionable. And he will answer for it. Not for falling in love with Kara, but for hiding you from us. For what he did to you. If we had known, we would have come for you, offered you and your mother our home."

"Why?" Dani whispered.

"Because you're family. Because we are all Children of the Order. If one of us suffers needlessly, we are all diminished. It isn't what we believe, it's what we are."

"Lucas is on Daxxan, posing as a teacher in the Hall of Scribes. He is too well-placed to simply remove, especially now that the Kaldec have come. But I give you my word, as soon as I can, he will come home. If you want to see him."

"I don't… I don't know yet."

Alec nodded. "You don't have to decide right now. But I will tell you something- he doesn't know about you. He didn't know Kara was pregnant when he left for Daxxan- he honestly thought her visibility would compromise him. And the Order.

"Lucas would not- he would not- have left if he had known. We didn't know until the battle at Kualu Lumpur."

Dani's head bobbed slowly, tears beginning to run down her cheeks. Alec's hand slid to her shoulder, squeezed.

"We would have come, had we known," he repeated softly. "To at least offer our home, our family. We would have watched over you, been there to help you. I can't change the past, but I can write the future. As long as you want, as often as you want, you have a place among us."

Dani sniffled. "My… Kara didn't tell him."

"He didn't ask, either," Alec replied quietly. "Don't judge her too harshly; snap judgments are often wrong. Lucas carries some blame in all of this as well- he wasn't supposed to seduce your mom, simply befriend her. But, all things being equal, the Triumveres were naive to not think this would happen."

He paused, went back to studying the Sound. "Lucas never quite fit. He was always afraid of his strength, knew that it set him apart from the rest of us. It made him an outsider among the Brotherhood, and before we, the Horsemen, began to rewrite the rules, he was already gone. Daxxan was, I think, a relief for him. He only had to hide who he was, not what. That would be a great burden to have lifted, I would imagine."

"It would be," her voice was gentle, soft. "I can see that."

"It's something you'll learn firsthand," Alec slid off the rock, held his hand out to her. "I will teach you. To become everything you want, everything you'll need, to be the person inside you. Among the Order, we don't hide our light- we shine it for everyone to see."

She reached out, hesitantly took his hand, let him pull her to her feet. He patted her hand, drew her along with him.

"Is he… Lucas, is he your friend?" she asked.

Alec nodded. "He is. Like I said before, he's a good man. He loves your mother very much- so much, I think it scared him. He was very eager to leave for Daxxan, even though he pitched a fit when he was called back to the Citadel.

"He's had it rough- rougher even than the rest of us. Being a Knight of the Order doesn't lend itself to having families, building homes, having lives. We train. We fight. We die. Beyond that, there isn't much. Lucas learned all about that a lot sooner than the rest of us did."

"I don't think I understand."

Alec nodded. "Good. Keep it that way."

He lapsed into a silence that was unsettling. She let him stay quiet for a while, until they started down the hills towards the dojo. "I noticed this before. You, all of you, seem so sad all of the time. Why?"

"The inevitability of our lives," he glanced her way, saw the confusion. "A Knight's life, as I said, is pretty cut and dried. We're warriors, at our core. We know what the life we've each chosen has in store for us. Accepting it is one thing. Living with it is something else.

"We will all fall, sooner or later. Most of us, the Knights, will fall in battle. With the Kaldec, or the Arions, or the Magi, or whoever. For the Techs and the Activators, they have lives to look forward to- lives filled with memories of dead friends, comrades who have perished in the Line. And the Kalrist, the same- watching their students, their children, give their lives in defense of the Order.

"Ultimately, we can offer them no comfort, in the same way they can offer us no comfort. Honor's cost is paid, period. Glory comes cheap; honor costs you everything you've got. There's no other way to do it."

"Then why…?"

He smiled, an expression devoid of humor. "Who else is going to do it? There comes a time in every life, Dani, where you have to stand up and be counted. Some folks let it pass them by. Some folks rise to the occasion. Us, we're already standing, waiting for it to happen. And that time has come."

He opened the gate to the garden, smiled as Arwyn and Kel came running. "Hey, kids. How are you?"

Arwyn bounded into his arms, hugged him tightly. "Thank you for letting us come."

Kel bobbed her head in agreement, sliding up next to him. He kissed her forehead. "No problem. Tonight should be a milk run anyway; who knows, maybe we'll even have fun."

He put Arwyn down, pointed to the dojo. "Head inside, get some rest. We need to leave in a few hours, and some of us have to prepare."

Kel bobbed her head again, grabbed Dani's arm. "C'mon, let's go find our rooms. I'll bet Thien will let us bunk together."

Dani's face lit into a smile. She let the other two drag her off, her laughter sounding before they vanished inside.

Connor came out the other door, tossed a collapsed warlance at Alec. "Hey, Mikey. Wanna spar?"

The lance arced through the air, clapped in his palm. He grinned. "Yeah. Out on the beach. There isn't anybody around for half a mile."

Gabriel and Jian trailed after Connor, all of them in shorts and t-shirts. Alec shrugged his sweatshirt off, tossed it on one of the benches while he led the others to the sands. "I like this place. It's almost a forest, it's so alive."

Jian sighed happily. "Now you know why I came here."

Gabriel glanced in both directions, scuffled at the sand a bit. "How do we want to do this?"

"Free form," Alec swung his arms in wide circles. "Let's keep it in the box, though. And try to pull punches."

All of them chuckled. A forty-by-forty square imprinted itself in the sand; Alec's lance sprang to life, Jian swinging his around his body easily.

"Ready?" Gabriel asked, eyes flicking back and forth. He waited for each nod.

"GO!" Connor barked, lunging at Alec. His lance met the Archon's, then he was flat on his back, Alec's open palm slapping him in the sternum. Jian leapt at Alec's back, had a pulled kick slam against his stomach, bowling him over. Alec rolled away from Gabriel's thrust, the sand around his feet slipping aside in a tidal wave, flinging the Herald to the ground.

"All right you twerps," he grumbled, bounding back to his feet. "The three of you against me is almost fair. Come on."

Forty minutes later, Alec parried Jian's downsweep, twirled inside his guard, grabbed his shoulder, flung him to the sand. The larger man thudded heavily, skidded on his side, rolled to a stop.

"Okay," he gasped, sweat trickling on his brow, "I'm done."

Gabriel tried to straighten, sighed, tossed his lance aside. "I yield, Archon."

Connor collapsed his lance, sank to his knees, bowed his head. Alec mimicked his movement, kneeling opposite him. Jian struggled up, assumed an identical position while Gabriel did the same.

A barely visible wash of energy surrounded each of them, flowing back and forth between them, each man's back getting straighter under the flood.

The silence was broken by soft clapping. Somack, clad in his robes, descended the stairway to the beach, smiling. "Excellent, my sons. Whatever rust may have settled upon your skills has been scoured away."

The four men glanced his way. Morrigan, Julia, Kara, and Cordelia followed him down, each face impressed. Alec grimaced. "How long have you been watching?"

It was Kara who answered. "Long enough to feel inadequate."

Connor laughed softly. "We haven't been out here that long, Protector."

"Come," Alec's voice was calm. "Join our circle."

Julia came over, knelt next to Alec. He smiled her way, reached for her hand, smiled even wider at her gentle squeeze. Somack steered Kara to Connor's side, stepped into the center, waited for Morrigan and Cordelia to kneel as well.

"All of you, center your minds," he commanded, sitting cross-legged. "Reach out, and feel the mind, and the heart, beside you. Open your own mind to it, and let it flow."

Julia closed her eyes, the way Alec had taught her, felt his mind flick into hers. She felt his love, his courage, his strength, knew he could feel hers. Then she felt more, all from the others.

Connor's unflagging humor. Jian's staunch fearlessness. Gabriel's blinding intellect. Morrigan's fierce determination. Cordelia's enveloping calm. Kara's overpowering strength. Her own limitless energy. And Alec and Somack's boundless faith. In each person. In each other.

"This is the essence of the Brotherhood. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Together, my sons can accomplish virtually anything. Now, united with the four of you, there is nothing, nothing, that you are not capable of.

"Our quest begins here. With eight determined minds, now focused on victory. Let the strength of each other support you, for you go to face the Kaldec."

Julia sensed Alec's mind enveloping hers, boosting her mental sense of each member of the circle, smiled at the insight. Then the energy slowly faded to a trickle, slipped away completely.

Julia opened her eyes, saw Alec watching her from the corner of his eyes. He patted her hand, slid to his feet smoothly.

"I would suggest we all get some rest. Tonight could be… strenuous."

The White House:

The Situation Room was in absolute chaos.

Aides were streaming back and forth from the corridors. Admiral Fitzwallace had four piles of paper surrounding his seat, Tom Ryan an equal avalanche on his hands. Every phone in the room was occupied, men and women in uniform trying to run down every scrap of information on the sudden, vicious attack.

David Lyman looked up from a computer screen. "It could have been a nightmare. They hit downtown Denver so precisely, the buildings above the site are still intact."

"Thank Heaven for small favors," Ryan snarled, eyes flicking down the fourth update of the battle-damage assessment. "Jesus God, a clean sweep…"

"Not quite," a dolphined commander from the end of the table chirped up. "Admiral, I have General McCord on Line Seven."

Fitz grabbed the phone out of a Marine major's hand, punched buttons. "General, this is Admiral Fitzwallace. Report."

The man nodded, checked to be sure the commander was taking notes. He glanced over at Ryan. "Three survivors. McCord, Carstairs, and Hamilton."

Ryan jerked his glasses off, speared an Air Force colonel with a glance. "Get the closest aircraft available and get those men here NOW!"

The colonel went to work. Fitzwallace nodded some more. "Arthur, we're sending transport to the Denver airport. We're deploying the Denver SWAT team to get you there; you'll be here before you know it."

An Army major looked at Ryan from her computer. "Sir, Area Eighteen is gone. We have a survey chopper from Roswell out there now- they have a crater the laser ranger is calling three quarters of a kilometer."

The doors flew open, Roger Durling striding into the room. Everyone leapt to their feet before he could wave them down. "As you were. How bad is it?"

Lyman swallowed, sat down; Ryan sighed, tossed his glasses to the table. "It's… a total wash, sir. We have three survivors from Site Eighteen, but two of them are the men who have been in a coma since they went in there. Area Eighteen has been completely annihilated. And we've lost both of our XT experts- Rand called, and they cannot find Professor Thurmon anywhere."

"Collins." It wasn't a question. Ryan nodded.

"Scooped her up or took her out. I've had a chance to go over some of the files in Carter's laptop," Ryan paused, fished out a bright red folder. "Information deficit is a standard tactic for these… Knights. As are precision attacks- both for their effective target and for the psychological impact."

Fitzwallace handed some papers to a subordinate. "They're showing us that they can hit us any time, any where, and however hard they want. And we can't do a damn thing about it."

Lyman got back up, came down the table, handed Durling a file. "The DC CAP has no record of the craft that landed on the lawn. No civilian air traffic control, military, nothing. And they were gone before anybody even had a chance to take a picture."

Durling nodded. "What hit Denver?"

Several faces went very blank.

"I see. Keep me informed," he turned on his heel. "I have a press corps to explain this morning to."

A.J. Bartlett was waiting in the hall, along with Tish Brown, Durling's press secretary. The Chief of Staff fell in beside his President. "Sir, the sharks are circling. And they are smelling blood in the water."

Durling gave him a curt nod. "I'll handle it. Get S&T from the Agency over here. We need to get that box working again."

Seattle:

Kara found the chapel, poked her head into it carefully. Alec was kneeling before the altar, hands balanced on the guard of his sword, head bowed. Once Kara's head came around the door, he raised his eyes to her. "Hello."

She came slowly in. "I'm not disturbing you, am I?"

He shook his head, rose, sheathed his weapon. "How can I help you?"

"You talked to Xara," Kara sat down slowly in the nearest pew. "About Lucas."

Alec crossed his arms, leaned on the opposite pew. "I did."

"He was one of you, wasn't he?"

Alec nodded. "He couldn't tell you. He swore an oath."

She folded her hands, leaned her wrists on the pewback in front of her. "Do you know where he is?"

"Daxxan. He's been there since… since he left you."

Kara bit her lip, ducked her head. "He just left me."

"Because he didn't know," Alec kept his voice even. "If he had, he would have never gone. He would be with you. Come hell or high water."

"How do you know?!" she snapped, heat creeping into her voice. "What the hell do you know about it…!?"

Alec sighed. "I sent him to you in the first place."

Kara gaped. Alec sighed again, sat down in the pew. "Do you remember the night you left the Matthews?"

She nodded, barely. Alec clenched his hands, ducked his chin against his chest. "I was in LA for a training rotation with Jian and Sensei Hotohama. While Jian was running some tactical scenarios, I went on a solo patrol… in the Westwood area, about 1:00 AM or so.

"I watched the team drag you home, watched you go… berserk in the Matthews front room. Before I could step in, Denise yanked the necklace off."

Her world was going insane. Alec flinched, kept on talking. "You burned the PCP and the booze out. Unloaded enough juice into Dan and Denise to severely injure both of them- Dan's heart had stopped when I kicked down the front door. And Denise had third degree burns over ninety percent of her body.

"If I had been anyone else, both of them would have died. As it was, you were half doped, completely incoherent- and in the way. So I made you… leave."

He puffed his cheeks up, blew the breath out. "I was angry. I was still in training. I had a tendency to underestimate my power. And I was busy trying to bring Dan Matthews back to life. So when I pushed, I pushed hard. Very hard. Too hard."

He swiveled his gaze to hers, trying to ignore the tears rolling down her face. "I wanted to kill you, Protector. I wanted it so bad I could taste it. If I hadn't sent you away, I would have let them both die to do it. And compounded one tragedy with another.

"I am not proud of that. I was young, and impetuous, and filled with rage I couldn't control. But I chose to save two lives rather than take a third."

He got back up. "It didn't occur to me until I came back a few weeks later, probed your brother's mind, that I'd made you go all the way away. And how he was amazed that the injuries your parents suffered weren't fatal, given the way the living room was pulverized.

"So, I sent Lucas to find you. After… convincing Coriana that it would be a good idea to have a leash on you. Everything else, up to his leaving you, you know."

Alec tried to face her, dropped his eyes, slumped his shoulders. "You'd managed to affirm, in my mind, everything that the Triumveres had ever told me about the Supremis. You had lost control, gone wild, almost killed two people who loved you. For years, I used that to justify the sin I had committed. You were dangerous, needed to be sanctioned. And I bought into it. Despite the fact that I had done exactly the same thing.

"It's something I have had to live with for fifteen years now. It tormented me for a very long time- until I was offered the chance to redeem myself. When you proved me wrong about you."

He tried to continue, but couldn't find any more words. "Anyway. Now you know. The truth. All of it. The rest… that's up to you."

He backed slowly away from her, pushed his way out of the chapel.

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