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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 24

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 20 July 2020 22:14] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 18 July 2020 09:40]

Last of the Fallen

He'd expected Julia to be waiting in their room; instead, Sorala looked up from a book, smiled slightly at his entrance. "My apologies. I hope I'm not disturbing you."

Alec managed a bow. "Of course not."

She studied him closely while he sat opposite her. "Your mind is heavy."

He nodded. "I told Kara the truth."

"I see," Sorala closed her book, set it on the table. "You do not seem relieved. Did it go well?"

He shrugged. "Her pain was too great. As was mine; my abilities failed me."

"You mean you ignored her mind," Sorala corrected gently. "There is no shame in doing so. Especially when the pain caused was so unintentional."

"That's no excuse," Alec slumped in his chair. "There is no excuse for a lack of control. I wanted vengeance, and I used it as an excuse to violate another. It makes me no better than an Arion. Or a Kaldec."

She shook her head. "And you rebuked Sergei for his masochism? You need to start taking your own advice. Understand that the boy that inflicted that pain has grown into a man that has regretted it every moment since."

He sat silent. Sorala sighed, reached across the table. "You may hide your true heart from Somack, Torik, or the Elders. But you and I have always been as close as you and your own mother. You cannot hide the rage, the hate, the anger that burns in your belly. Not from me. And I tell you, as a mother who loves you, my dear son, that it threatens to consume you."

He met her gaze, held it for several long minutes. "It's why I brought Jian and Connor home. The inferno is bubbling over, Sorala. I can't stop it this time. And when it bursts, I'm not going to care what, or who, gets in my way. You're right, it's going to consume me- and everyone around me."

He dropped her hand, nudged it away. "I want to kill, Sorala. I want to grab the Kaldec by the throat, and kill them, and kill them, and kill them until they run in terror. Or they're all dead- I don't care anymore.

"It's the only way for Julia, and Arwyn, and Kellehendra, and Dani, and all of them to be safe. I have no conscience, no moral quandary about committing genocide. I never have. I only care about my people, my charges- the rest of the universe can go burn if I can deliver Earth from the Scourge."

"You don't believe that."

"Oh yes. You have no idea."

"You cannot lie to me…"

He rounded on her. "Look into my heart, Sorala. Know truth. I want them to die."

She did, slipping into his mind with practiced ease. For once, his shields were gone, the defenses that protected his soul from everyone down. And she saw.

Her eyes widened. Alec watched the shock rush across her face, watched her try to cover it. "This is the only way, Sorala. We can't beat them on our terms. The Order won't fight them on theirs. But I can. And I will.

"They are the Scourge. We call them that, but we don't understand what it truly means. All the Kaldec understand is power. And fear. They don't care about honor, or discipline, or courage. To beat them, I have to make them bleed. Until they hurt so bad they run away. Or I kill them all."

"You need to listen, and truly hear what I have to say," he crouched down beside her, took her hands in his. "Somack will not listen. Torik will not listen. You must.

"The Order is no longer a huddled mass of terrified Kalrist, seeking shelter from a barely-civilized pack of humans. We have grown beyond that, become greater than the sum of our parts. Now, we have grown past our own prejudices, accepted the last of the fallen into our fold. We stand on the cusp of the future; we can lead the galaxy into a golden age, teach them all what it means to truly live. The Order must survive- nothing else matters. No one life matters, beside that.

"We aren't just the adopted children of Kaldor any longer. The Order is the Galen, the Humans, the Velorians, the Kalrist, and everything in-between. The rest of them are coming- the Dracon, the Centauri, the Hrist, the Coljarra. When they arrive, they must find an Earth ready for them. We must be ready for them. We must teach them the truth that we have all learned. That we are all alike, under the skin, where it counts."

He stroked her hands gently. "I am the Cho'rist. The Champion of the Brotherhood. My duty is to my people, all of my people. The only way to fulfill that duty is to become the name the Arions gave me. To become that which Somack named me. I must become Death. There is no third path; there is no one else. Not this time."

She started to open her mouth. He rode right over her. "I have heard what you and the other Elders have told me. But I have also seen the reality of this war. I know what this will cost. I choose to accept it, and pay in full. But I can't choose that for anyone else."

He reached up, stroked her cheek tenderly. "I am what I am. The weapon, the Sword of the Order. All I ask from you, is the wisdom to stand aside, and let me… be. Please, Sorala. It will come to this eventually. Better now, than later."

"You are our finest pupil…"

"And I have learned what you have taught me. But it isn't what you want me to be, and you know that. I am not the Archon, I am the blade honed on the anvil of the Order. It is what it is. I am what I am."

He let her hands go, settled his palms on his knees, still crouched at eye level. "It's going to start tonight. Champion is a Kaldec puppet; I can feel it. He will lead me to them. And I can do what must be done. All I ask is that you let me."

Her lips quivered. "I… I don't want you to leave us. We need you… Julia, the children, they need you."

He nodded slowly. "Yes, they do. To do this. To end this, once and for all."

The first tear fell. "Yes. I will."

He didn't smile, no change whatever in his face. But she could feel a crushing burden lift from his shoulders, settle to one side. He stood, kissed her forehead very gently, stripped the Shal'kyrie from his shoulders.

"One of them will step forward. See he wields it… with more wisdom than I did," he laid the sword on the table, turned on his heel, strode out of his quarters.

Gabriel noticed an air around him, one he couldn't quite place. But he shrugged it off, perched on one of the crates in the Armory, field-stripping a plasma gun. "What are we planning on packing tonight?"

Cas gave Alec a thoughtful look, shook himself. "I re-chambered some of the plasma guns with Jerry's new energy cores. They'll be powerful enough to pacify anything this side of a Tset'Lar."

"Good," Alec checked the barrel on his weapon, reassembled it in five quick movements. "I'd prefer to not have to unlimber the neutralizers just yet. If the Kaldec are taking our tech seriously, we'd better play it a little closer to the vest."

Cas bobbed a nod. "I also have some freq-agile blazers, in case of more Zeriphium fields. Built-in meson scanners."

"Two and two then; Cordy can pack both."

Gabriel grinned. "Not in the dress I saw. I'm not sure she's gonna fit in it."

Cas chuckled. "She still has a thing for Connor, doesn't she?"

"She's gonna be competing with Kara tonight," Alec smiled, hefted a blazer. "I imagine Jian will keep her entertained; he always manages very well."

Both of his friends laughed- Jian had taught Connor how to play the fillies, as the third Horseman tended to put it. Generally out of earshot of any of the women. Jian's success with the opposite sex was legendary.

"Ten grand a ticket," Cas sighed. "Fella'd have to be crazy to shell out that kinda money."

"We can't exactly call for an appointment, now can we?" Alec checked the balance on a battlesaber. "'Sides, it's a good cause. 9-11 Relief Fund, Firefighters' Pension Fund. A hundred and ten G's well spent. Especially if it bags us the Kaldec."

"Speaking of…" Gabriel began.

"We're gonna play it by ear," Alec's saber flared to life, closed down an instant later. "Going in blind doesn't appeal to me either, but I doubt very much the Kaldec are planning an ambush. Nobody knows about Connor; Coriana didn't even know he was back. This benefit seems legit, it's just a means to an end. If this dude is in with the Kaldec, this little party may drag a few more of the roaches into the light."

The Carnegie Building, New York, November 19, 2001:

Darius McWither ran his eyes over the Grand Ballroom. The decorators were finishing their tasks, the bunting and streamers suitably patriotic, yet remarkably tasteful. The tragedy of two months prior was all-too-fresh in so many minds, evidenced by the crowded guest list for the evening. Celebrities, politicians, captains of industry- all of them had either purchased tickets or made donations. Springsteen had volunteered to perform, as had Joel, Bon Jovi, and Domingo. McWither had wanted Connor McDonough, but the man had been unavailable- until he'd suddenly purchased eleven tickets and made a further half million donation that morning. His manager explained that he'd been out of the country until the night before- leaving open the possibility for an impromptu performance.

A suitable backdrop for the Gathering.

He smiled to himself, dashed his signature on a wine invoice. The Empress wanted them to assemble for the coming war; the Order was rallying, making their move. Yes, they had handed the Race a series of roadblocks, but that had been a Race guided only by Masric and that psychopath Grailmore. Not the Enlightened. Once they took control, the Order would crumble.

The Empress was demonstrating her wisdom. The incorporation of Earth needed to be subtle, gentle, lest the galaxy's greatest resource slip from the Race's fingers. Masric was wise, but at heart a warrior, seeking rough conquest and contests of arms. The delicacy of the current mission demanded a softer hand- especially with Grailmore and his Forsaken the Empress's only insights to the Knights. The man was too short-sighted, caught up in some mad desire for vengeance against the source of his abilities. If Cain had never come to the Citadel, he would be sedated in an institution somewhere.

The situation called for calmer thoughts. Senator Mitchell and Director Stansfield, Eric Champion and Anastacia Bulogova, himself. And the new addition to the Enlightened, who would arrive this evening.

A momentous occasion, indeed.

"Mr. McWither," one of his aides rushed up. "the caterers have arrived. They need you in the loading area."

Seattle:

Jian studied the board, flicked his knight. "Check."

"Thank you," Connor snatched up his rook, bounced it up three levels, took Jian's knight. "Checkmate."

Jian frowned. Gabriel laughed.

"Slide, Raph," he nudged his brother aside, resetting the pieces. "OK, Uri, one ass-whupping coming up."

"Yeah, right," Connor snorted. The door to the lounge opened, Kara slowly coming in. Connor glanced her way, furrowed his brow. "Tell ya what, Gabe, warm up with Raph. The newbie looks like she needs a friend."

He stood, crossing to Kara. She'd chosen a secluded corner, putting as much distance between her and anyone else in the room. Connor waited for her to sit, then wandered over, gave her a game smile.

"You keep sitting by yourself," he plopped down in the opposite armchair, "people gonna start to think you don't like them."

She didn't rise to the bait. "They already do."

"Nah. Just taking some time to adjust, that's all," he sat back, steepling his fingers in front of him. "Stuff's whipping by at warp speed. Takes a bit to get your balance back. For everybody."

She tugged her lower lip into her teeth. "Even Lord Somack hasn't lived long enough for me to get my balance back."

"It isn't just up to you, Kara. Balance comes from all sides- one cannot be in balance alone. And that takes time. So give it a little," he smiled. "If it doesn't come back around, then worry."

She looked up at him. "I'm not used to not being in control."

"Your world's gone to hell in the last week. No one would expect you to be on top of your game. But you're not doing poorly- just playing some catch-up. It'll come. Have faith."

"Easy for you to say," she snorted. "You're ready for all of this madness."

Connor grimaced. "Hardly. They caught us with our pants down. You saw what happened when we went to get Jian. If we had been ready, the Kaldec would be running from Earth with their tails between their legs. You wouldn't be here, in the middle of this mess. And a hundred good men and women would still be alive."

Her eyes softened. "I'm sorry about your friends. Truly."

He lifted a shoulder. "We know the risks. They died on their feet, with their weapons in their hands. Better than living under Kaldec heels."

He paused. "Alec told you, didn't he?"

Kara's eyes widened. "You know?"

"Of course I do. He's my best friend; he's spent nights laying awake over this for years," Connor sighed. "I'll bet he only told you part of it, though. That the Triumveres forbade him to go find you, send you home. That Coriana and Kon approved of what he'd done. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes some sense- the two of them were almost as scared of you as they were of my brothers. Alec did their dirty work for them."

She shook her head slowly. "He didn't say any of that."

"That's no surprise. Alec doesn't believe in mitigating circumstances- something is right or wrong, period. Kinda a shallow way to view the world, but it seems to work for him. He's right more often than he's wrong. 'Cept when he starts flogging himself.

"But there's no denying his instincts. He said you were something special- he was right. The rest of us had bought pretty heavy into the evil of the Supremis line, but he made us think that over when he brought you in. And I'm glad he did."

Connor swung sideways in his chair, flipping his legs over the arm. "Gotta take people at individual value. Start lumping them together, things get messy. It was good for the Order to get the wake-up call; it'll prove to be good for you, too. I think it already has."

She smiled very slightly. "Are you sure you're a Knight of the Order?"

"Of course," Connor's impish grin split his face. "Just a liberal one. Lucky enough to be pals with the Archon. He makes you think. He always has. 'Course, you ask him, and he'll tell you he isn't a great thinker- his one big flaw is he saves his faith for everybody else, doesn't leave any for himself."

He swung his legs back to the floor, stood up, offered his hand. "You're one of us now. If you weren't, he would have stayed quiet. Now, I know you've caught a lot of the crap that comes from being in the Order, so it's time you learn about the good parts. C'mon. Know how to play chess?"

She looked at his hand, then at him, slowly took it, let him draw her to her feet. "Yes."

"Good. Come learn how to play Shal'Krot. Swords and Shields. You'll like it."

He tugged her along with him, plopped her down next to Jian. The man smiled her way, scooted over. "Glad you decided to join us. Would you like to learn to play?"

 

Julia poked her head in Ops, scanned the room quickly. Cas spotted her, motioned her in. "Please. How may I help you?"

"I'm looking for Alec," she drifted in, still a touch awe-struck by all the neat toys. "Have you seen him?"

"Not recently," Cas leaned back to the main board, tapped some keys. "He isn't registering in the complex. Perhaps he went for another run. Or maybe the Chapel- we don't scan in there much."

"Thanks, Cas, I'll check there," she started away.

"If I see him, I'll send for you," the Tech called as she left. Julia waved over her shoulder, headed for the Chapel. It was empty, but she caught a faint clank from the hangar, went to look, spotted Alec working on a spare Condor.

"There you are!" she trotted over, Alec looking up to give her a smile. "I've checked the whole safehouse."

"Sorry," he wiped his hands clean on a grease-soaked rag, wadded it up. "I took my commlink off when I started tinkering."

"What are you doing?" she peered past him, saw a number of crates stacked around the crew bay. Alec shrugged, hopped down, flipped the ramp closed.

"Nothin'. Like I said, tinkering. You ready to go?"

She nodded, gave him a curious look. "What are you hiding from me?"

"Me? Nothing."

"Liar. That mindlink stuff works both ways, buster," she took his hand. "I'm learning to read you the way you read me."

"Learning is the operative word there," he tapped her nose gently. "I have nothing to hide from you, kelleha. Nothing at all. But I need to shower, and get dressed."

"Alec…"

He pecked her on the cheek. "Just gimme ten minutes. I promise."

He took off before she could protest. Julia went after him, pulled up when Sorala stepped from the shadows.

"Julia," her voice was… desperate, at odds with the woman she had come to know. "Julia, I have to talk to you. Right now."

Alec slipped his shirt on, worked the buttons quickly. His armor was under his clothing, once again the flat black of a Knight, rather than the colors of the Archon. His shield-arm, tacglove, and flightpad were strapped close to his waist, hidden by his cummerbund. Along with a warlance, a battlesaber, and a razorfang.

He finished tucking his shirt in, cocked his left leg a bit out from his body. The slacks had been cut to hide the lines of his plasma gun, holstered on his thigh. He knew it was there, but he couldn't see it. Nobody else would, either.

Ritual weapons. The standard armament for a Knight for ten thousand years. He draped his bow tie on, tied it, straightened it in his collar. Reached for his jacket, rolled his shoulders to adjust the drape.

The face that looked back from the mirror had made it's decision. Do or die time. Ready to get in the game. All the way in.

"… no matter what happens," Sorala kept her voice low, eyes locked on Julia's, "do not let him lose control. Do not let him join battle. Not tonight."

"Why?"

Sorala shook her head. "Do not ask. Just not tonight. Promise me."

Julia nodded.

"Good," Sorala rubbed the other woman's arm. "Bring him home."

Julia gave her a strange look, went to get dressed. Sorala drew a deep breath, stepped to the comm system. "This is Sorala. I need a pilot and four Knights for a retrieval mission."

 

Connor straightened his tie, tapped the annunciator on Kara's door. It opened, on a vision.

A brilliant sapphire dress, off one shoulder, slit high on the opposite side, almost the color of her eyes. She'd piled her hair elegantly on her head, applied just the barest hint of make-up to accentuate her flawless beauty.

"My God in Heaven," Connor mumbled, trying not to choke. "you are… stunning."

She smiled, dropped her eyes. Connor offered his arm. "Would you do me the honor of accompanying me this evening?"

Kara gently took his arm. "I would love to."

The two of them made their way to the hangar, appreciative glances following them all the way. Kara caught Willem trying not to stare, leaned her head close to Connor's. "This is a little more like it."

He grinned. "Just 'cause we don't drool doesn't mean we aren't looking."

She arched an eyebrow. His grin turned into a laugh. "Blocking the phermones adds a certain honesty to the ogling, Kara. I look because I think you're beautiful, not because you're messing with my mind."

She stopped. "Do you… what did you say?"

"You heard me," his face went serious. "I don't say things that aren't true."

He patted her hand. "C'mon, or Mikey's gonna kill us."

Gabriel escorted Morrigan in from the other door. Connor gaped- she didn't look like Morrigan, dressed exquisitely in jade green cut more daringly than Kara's, setting off her deep red hair. Cordelia caught his eye, smiled from the open drop hatch of the Condor. Her dress was a rich claret, clinging to every conceivable curve a gorgeous female body could have.

Jian gave each of the newly arrived women an appreciative glance and a gallant bow, nudged Connor and winked when none of them were looking. The hangar door opened one last time, the Archon's party entering.

Each of the women were equally as beautiful as Kara, Cordy, or Morrigan- in a variety of hues from cobalt -Julia- to Arwyn in a simple, tasteful peach. What caught each of the Horsemen's attention was Alec.

Kara turned, eyes opening wide, made a small, strangled gasp. Connor knew exactly how she felt, traded a worried look with Jian. Gabriel motioned Morrigan up the ramp, the woman backing up while she kept her eyes on Alec.

The four women he'd led in broke away, Julia very slowly, went up into the ship with repeated glances back at him. He watched them go, waited for his brothers to gather around him.

"You might want to tone it down," Gabriel advised, reaching out to straighten his tie. Alec blushed, nodded.

"Sorry," he took a deep breath, his overpowering aura fading. "Let it slip for a second there."

"Sure you did," Jian replied quietly, heading up the ramp. "Try again."

"What?" Alec shrugged, letting Connor slip past.

"You don't lose control," Gabriel took up the thread, flicking the ramp closed. Isamu yanked back on the stick, lifting the Condor off the pad, towards the skies. "Who you trying to spook? Them or us?"

"I'm not a hundred percent yet…"

"Then you shouldn't be here!" Jian snapped. Alec gave him a hard look.

"Me not at my best is better than anyone else you're gonna get," he said flatly. "You got a problem with that?"

Jian didn't flinch. "Yeah, I do. This is recon, intel. You go in there like this, we'll tee it off in the middle of a pack of normals."

"Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, Jian," Alec found a seat, flipped the compstation open. "I would imagine it's time we started cooking."

Jian sat down opposite him, grabbed his arm. "Have you lost your mind? What the hell has gotten into you?!"

"Let it go, Jian," Alec kept his head down. "Don't worry; I'm fine."

"Mikey…"

His eyes snapped up. "Don't call me that. Ever. Again."

Julia closed her mouth, came down the cabin, plopped next to him. "You need to relax. You're making everyone else tense up."

His eyes bored right in on Jian's, until the older man looked away first. The seething anger she could sense in him subsided, flowed away. "Yeah. Okay."

He and Jian didn't speak for the brief flight, the women trading carefully guarded looks. Isamu's voice crackled into the cabin. "New York in five minutes."

Gabriel tapped the commpanel. "Bring us in by the Carnegie Building, Issy. Find a rooftop and set down; we'll go from there."

He looked around the cabin. "Split into couples or teams?"

Alec shrugged. Jian folded his arms. Connor looked back and forth, sighed. "Couples. Me, Kara, and Dani; Jian and Cordy; you, Morrigan, and Kellehendra; Alec, Julia and Arwyn. And act like you don't know each other."

"That won't be hard," Jian muttered, getting to his feet. "We'll go first. Just Jian Chang, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Asian Studies, and his lovely companion. What about you guys?"

"I'm expected," Connor replied. "And with a couple of guests. These two fit the image."

Gabriel kept his eyes on Alec. "Everybody on Earth knows the Far East Mercantile."

Alec tapped the embossed flag on his lapel. His features shifted slightly, hair changing color and body slackening gently. He tugged a pair of glasses from his jacket, slipped them on. "Tom Sheridan. At your service."

In spite of himself, Jian grinned. "Very slick."

Alec grunted. "Like Connor said, I'm expected. Let's get in there, so we can get out."

The sharp November air was like a slap in the face. Alec tweaked the building's entrance open with his TK, watched the rest of the group move off, leaving him alone with Julia and Arwyn. Julia cupped her hands on his face, looked carefully into his eyes.

"What is wrong?" she asked softly. "Talk to me. Please?"

He shook his head. "You know I love you, right? That I'd do anything at all for you?"

"Tell me what's wrong," she repeated. "You're starting to scare me."

"Some things could happen tonight," he said, voice very quiet. "If… when they do, it's going to change the way you look at me. The way you think about me."

"Nothing ever could."

"Julia, this will. But I want you to try to remember, I love you so much, I'm willing to do this," he took hold of her hands, guided them off his face. "Just… please try to remember that."

She snatched her hands away, grabbed his wrists. "Tell me what is going on! First Sorala made me promise to keep you from fighting, now this! Alec!"

His lips pressed tightly together. "You made Sorala a promise you can't keep. When the shooting starts, the two of you bug the hell out. Run as far and as fast as you can. This will… you aren't ready for what's going to happen tonight."

Jian and Cordelia took the second elevator. They weren't alone, but the Activator brushed the Knight's arm gently, her mental voice tickling his.

You're too on edge for this, she reproached softly, making the man flush.

The Archon… Alec and I had words.

Are you upset because you argued, the car slid to a stop, letting the lavishly-dressed occupants disembark, or because he's right?

Jian grunted. Both. I want this to end with a minimum of bloodshed…

And the Archon has decided the reality of acceptable losses, Cordy smiled as the usher announced them- not that anyone noticed. He respects your opinion, even if he does not share it. But he is no longer the younger brother who worshiped you- he is his own man. One who has been forced to become very, very hard.

Jian glanced the room over, lips twitching when he spotted the Boss setting up on the stage. Perhaps Sorala has begun to teach you something of value.

Her mental chuckle was as delightful as her real one. Perhaps.

Gabriel was in the middle of the next group of arrivals; several stiff-looking men turned at his announcement, made their way over. Jian recognized Donald Trump and Alan Greenspan in the group; Gabriel's lilting French-accented voice spilled across the polished marble ballroom.

Cordelia smiled slightly, drawing Jian closer to the bar. He chuckled himself. You want to be in position for the Prodigal's arrival, don't you?

Am I that obvious? she accepted the glass of champagne he plucked from a tray with a gentle murmur, sipped delicately. Not that I have a chance. Not with both of them on his arm tonight.

Don't count him out, Jian kept sweeping the room, sampling his glass. Or consign yourself to tunnel vision.

He felt her stiffen against him; when she spoke, her voice was thoughtful. "Wise counsel. I'll remember it."

The usher's voice brought a multitude of heads swiveling towards the door- Connor sauntered down the landing, in full blown Rock God mode, Kara and Dani laying it on with trowels. Jian masked his smirk in a deep sip; the rest of them could throw down with a hundred Kaldec in here and no one would even notice.

The Piano Man hopped from the stage, wormed his way through the crowd to Connor's side. The two of them embraced, exchanged quick words, then Connor followed Joel back up to the stage.

Springsteen smiled widely, the two men conversing quickly. Jon stuck his head in a moment later, motioned Sambora to join them. Connor laughed briefly, clapped Springsteen's shoulder, took Sambora's proferred guitar.

Billy Joel stepped to the mike, gave Connor an impish grin. "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special treat for you tonight. It appears that one of music's black sheep has decided to grace us with his presence. So, if you'll excuse the unplanned performance, may I present Mr. Connor McDonough."

It was like throwing a switch. Every female in the room turned towards the stage, clapping wildly, many of them moving closer, including Cordy, Morrigan, and Kellehendra. Jian quirked an eyebrow, shook his head. Connor ignored them all, even when the gasping and squealing started, tuning the guitar slung on his shoulder while he walked to the mike.

Alec, Julia, and Arwyn came in right then. Connor spotted them, grinned his way. "Thank you, friends, for that warm reception. And more importantly, thank you for your generous contributions to these worthy charities."

He paused for the requisite cheering and applause, pulled a pick from the bridge. "Like a friend of mine once told me, life is for the living, not the dead. He was right then, and if anything, he's more right now. All they did was knock us down- we're back up now. And no one's going to knock us down again."

His opening riff roared over the shout from the crowd, quickly joined by the others on the stage. Jian sent his mind towards Alec; the Archon kissed Julia on the cheek, motioned her and Arwyn towards the stage.

He's pretty good cover. Alec's lips twitched into a grin while he slipped through the throng. He was accosted almost immediately by several smiling men, a couple of whom reached for pens and paper.

See Champion? Gabriel reached for a glass of Perrier, gesturing while he talked with the Donald. Alec dashed an autograph, chatted with Derek Jeter, his eyes betraying nothing.

Not yet, Alec accepted a stein of beer, handed another to Jeter. There are, however, eight Arions in this room. As well as twelve adept-class telepaths.

Jian scanned the room while he worked on his champagne. Four by the balcony. Three men, one woman. Two Arions by the far side of the stage.

Five in the crowd- Connor's picked them up. Two teeps, three Arions, all women. Gabriel laughed at a joke, took a sip. Three more teeps within forty feet of me- all men.

The rest are scattered at the tables, Jeter made a joke; Alec grinned. And I have four more contacts- Master-class… one of whom is-

Jian glanced towards the entryway, his hand closing reflexively on his champagne flute. It shattered instantly, shards of glass digging into his palm, drawing blood. SULTANE?!

Stay cool, Gabriel's mental voice almost bowled him over; Jian gripped his hand closed, healed his cuts instantly. Holy Shit, what the hell have we stumbled into?

We can take all of them, Alec's mind stretched out, melding with each of theirs. We're backed up by muscle, we can array, these half-trained chimps'll be dead before they hit the floor.

Gabriel ignored him, watched Zhatran Sultane's bald skull worm it's way to the side of a well-appointed African-American man, standing beside a hauntingly lovely dark-skinned woman he pegged instantly as an Azizi. Alec, what's that energy field around Sultane?

I don't know, he spared a glance at one of the women wandering towards the crowd around the stage. But I bet she does.

Jian was linked to Alec- otherwise he wouldn't have even seen him slip into the woman's mind. As it was, he felt a faint flicker, a blurred image race past his mind's eye, then nothing. Alec hadn't even finished his pull on the stein before he was out.

When the hell did you learn to do that? Gabriel demanded. Alec grinned into his beer.

Just because you've never seen it, doesn't mean I can't do it.

Jian frowned at that ominous statement, let it slide. What ya get?

Sultane has taken a variant of the Ultrafemme formula- she wasn't entirely sure what it would do, but she knows he took it, Alec frowned at something Andy Pettite was saying. She's some kind of… Acolyte. Equivalent to an Initiate. Rudimentary telepathic skills, no telekinetics. But Sultane is in with the Kaldec- so are Champion, McWither, and a couple of others.

Gabriel swept his eyes towards Sultane, almost dropped his glass. God in Heaven. Isn't that Gerald Stansfield?

Jian expanded his senses- spotted the armed guards a second later. Twenty NSA goons. Armed with conventional weapons- all mercy loads.

Rubber bullets against blacks, Alec nodded slowly along with Bernie Williams, his face a study of sympathy. It'll take less time to mop them up than the chimps.

This is too much, Gabriel shook hands with Trump, excused himself from the small group. There aren't enough of us. We need to withdraw, come back at them another direction.

Alec kept nodding. Take the girls and go. I'll stay, dope out what we need.

You've lost your mind, Gabriel retorted, easing up to the buffet. Quit with the chest thumping. Let's get the hell outta here.

Take the girls, Alec replied, taking his leave from the jocks, heading for the balcony. And get them all out of here. Go. Now.

Alec… Jian began.

I SAID GO!! Connor slipped on a chord, eyes lasering in on Alec. Kara, head visible in the mass, half-turned, began to weave from the crowd. Jian tossed his head, blinked quickly a couple of times, couldn't bring himself to meet Alec's stare.

I gave you an order, he said sharply. I expect you to obey. Go. Now.

We obey, Archon, Gabriel replied, a touch sullenly. His mind spread out, touching each of the women.

Alec watched them begin to drift towards the doors. He got himself another beer, regarded the New York skyline soberly.

"Such a working class beverage," a hearty voice proclaimed, "for such a sophisticated mind."

He forced a smile on to his face. "Roots run deep, as I'm sure you well know."

Sultane smiled, extending his hand. "Thomas Sheridan. This is indeed an honor- I have been a rabid fan for many years now."

"The honor is mine, sir, but I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Alec tried not to throw up while he shook the beefy paw. Sultane's oily smile spread wider.

"Zhatran Beloise Sultane, Mr. Sheridan," he replied smoothly. "I am…"

"The Pericles of the Black Sea," Alec finished, his own grin slipping in place. "Mr. Sultane, your fame proceeds you. It is, indeed, an honor to meet the greatest man in all of Turkey."

He watched the man preen. "I am but a simple merchant, and occasional statesman. The press, they exaggerate- it sells papers, I would imagine."

"Not at all," Alec raised his hand, a waiter moving near so he could hand first his escort, then the man himself a glass of champagne. "A reasoned voice that preaches peace between the Muslims and the Christians. One that advocates strengthening ties with Israel. Truly, sir, you are a forward-thinker in your homeland."

Sultane shrugged. "Peace is good for business. I am no leader, merely an ambitious capitalist."

He sipped, shook his head. "Where are my manners? Alyssa Helenit, Thomas Sheridan."

The Arion delicately extended her hand; Alec took it, bent over it gallantly, pressed it gently to his lips. "A pleasure, Miss Helenit."

She blushed. Alec wondered if that was an affectation, noticing her pheromone level boosting up. "I am also a great fan of your writings, Mr. Sheridan. I'm a touch embarrassed, but might I trouble you for…?"

"No trouble at all," he replied, drawing a pen and paper from his jacket. He scribbled an inscription, handed it over. "I'll see Mr. Sultane receives a copy of my next novel for you before it reaches the stores. Anything for a fan."

She smiled. His knees would have melted had he been even remotely attracted to her- but he looked at her, mentally comparing her to Julia, found the Arion wanting on so many levels…

Julia chose that moment to appear. He hid a frown, reached out for her. "Darling, there you are. Mr. Sultane, Ms. Helenit, my wife, Julia Sheridan."

She beamed at the introduction, sliding into the crook of his arm. "Hello."

Sultane mirrored Alec's earlier greeting, flashed his eel's grin again. "You are a fortunate man as well as talented, Mr. Sheridan."

"On the fortunate part we can agree," Alec laughed. "As you intimated earlier, I am merely an ambitious writer with some small success, much of which may be attributed to God. I can take credit for little."

Sultane chuckled again. "You belittle your talents, sir. Be careful not to do so too loudly- your admirers have a reputation for being zealous in your defense."

"Darling, I hate to be a wet blanket, but we do have Random House at eight o'clock," Julia murmured, going up on tiptoes to peck his cheek. "Mr. Sultane, Ms. Helenit, if you would excuse us…?"

"Of course," he extended his hand again. "I am in town for a few days. I would very much like to meet for say, lunch? As I say, I am quite a fan."

"Certainly," Alec could imagine nothing worse than sharing bread with this psychotic butcher. "We're at the Four Seasons. Feel free to leave specifics when you have the opportunity."

"I'll do that."

Julia led him off. "That woman…"

"Yeah," he steered her towards the entryway. Connor was wrapping up- he flicked a glance at Alec, then down to Kara and Dani. "I thought I told you to go."

"You need me to watch your back," she snarled quietly. "One of these uberbroads takes a swing at you, you could be in trouble."

"The least dangerous people in this room are the Arions," he tugged her closer, she melted against his side. "The most dangerous is on your arm. Let's get you out of here."

"Come with me," she stopped at the edge of the dance floor, wrapping her arms around his neck. "We have what we came for. We know what we need to know. Let's go back to the hotel, and just be in love for one night."

He shook his head. "I can't. There's still work to be done."

"Even you are no match for twenty to one odds. Especially if you send me away," she tightened her grip on his neck. "Please. For me. One night. That's all that I ask."

He drew in a deep breath, smelled her, smiled gently. "Not too much to ask at all. Let's go."

Her face brightened, like turning on sunshine. He hugged her tightly, let her draw him away from the room.

Sultane watched the two of them leave, made his way back to McWither. The man was nibbling at some of the smoked salmon, studying McDonough as he wound down.

"An impressive party," the Turk intoned, gesturing Alyssa to the food. "Even the elusive Thomas Sheridan made an appearance."

McWither nodded. "You have the same difficulties I did?"

"Yes. But it is not an entirely uncommon trait," he waved his hand dismissively. "The man is uncannily focused, and far more intelligent than he pretends. Judging by his work, he would almost have to be."

"I find his imagination fascinating. He would be an exciting prospect to harvest. Perhaps we should investigate that," McWither patted his lips, set his plate down. "I suppose sending a Wraithe or two to gather him would be of little consequence."

Gerald Stansfield joined them. His Arion companion drifted away at his impatient twitch, wandered over to stand by Alyssa and Marie, McWither's eye candy. He fixed the other Enlightened with a fierce glare. "Where the blazes is Champion? And Mitchell? I thought this was to be the Gathering…!"

"Did you forget me?" a sultry soprano asked. Anastacia Bulogova stepped into view, her slender arm draped around a fantastically handsome man. She puckered her lips at him, blew him a soft kiss. "Do be a dear, Jarek, and find your friends."

He stiffened, his chin setting stubbornly. Ana gave him an amused look, set her hand on his wrist, began to squeeze. "Obey me, little toy. Off with you."

His wrist almost snapped under her tightening grip. The Prime flinched, ducked his head submissively, backed away after she released him. Ana snugged her striped stole around her shoulders, smiled at the other men. "They are so slow to learn their place."

Sultane and Stansfield nodded agreement; McWither glanced her over. "That is a stunning stole. Where did you obtain it?"

"You like it?" she simpered, waggling an end in his direction. "Siberian tiger. I hunted it down, killed and skinned it with my bare hands. Much more satisfying than a mere shopping trip."

"Hardly an appropriate use for your gifts, Ana," Eric Champion materialized from the crowd, carrying a wineglass. Ana snickered.

"And using them for endless sexual gratification is?" she retorted lightly. "I am enjoying the power that comes with our service, Eric. Nothing more."

"You are still angry over the losses in Kualu Lampur," Sultane acknowledged. "Worry less- you were the only one in position to fulfill the Empress's commands. I have already seen to suitable replacements, ones I am certain you will find… acceptable."

"Damn the Outcasts and their Order," Champion sneered, drinking deeply. "Brooke is still among the missing. They may have captured her."

"And you are telling us now?" Stansfield all but shouted. "They're telepaths, Eric! They could be on their way right now!"

A final man joined the group. His hair was a distinguished silver, his handsome face lined and rugged, his body the slightest of slack. Jacob Mitchell had eschewed the miracles of Ultrafemme or the Achilles formula, electing for more subtle gifts. He stared each of them down in rapid succession. "Or they've already been here, you sight-blind morons. The fabled Horsemen, a smattering of Velorians, and the mighty Archon himself."

All the faces ringing his went white. Mitchell allowed himself a cruel smile. "I expect you want to deal with at least him before he gets away. He is masking himself as the writer, Sheridan."

Sultane almost fainted. McWither snapped his fingers- Alyssa, Marie, and Jarek all but leapt to his side.

"Find Sheridan," he growled, "and kill him."

He, Julia, and Arwyn rode the elevator to the ground floor. Gabriel, Kellehendra, and Morrigan were waiting in the lobby for them. Kel ran to his side, gave him a tight hug, trying to hide the tears from her eyes. Gabriel smiled, took Morrigan's arm, led her to the door.

He spun at a mental flash. Alec shoved Kel one way, Arwyn another, knocked Julia to the floor, his battlesaber ripping out of his cummerbund, smacking into his palm.

Jarek smashed from the stairwell, leapt at Alec. His saber lit off, one pivoting leg sweeping up and around into the Prime's stomach.

Jarek couldn't remember ever being hit that hard before. He thought he felt muscles rip away from his abdomen, flipped over his target, right into the other man, who was whirling a silver weapon he'd yanked from his pocket.

Gabriel's warlance struck Jarek's neck, smashing the Prime to the tiles. Before he could even clear his eyes, a second blow fell, and Jarek was in darkness.

Julia leapt to her feet, ripped the skirt off her dress. Alyssa soared out of the stairway, Marie right behind her. The Azizi's eyes flared, unleashed a wave of plasma. Alec slid in front of Julia, caught the pulse on his saber, sent it flashing back at her, Morrigan drawing her plasma gun and firing in the same instant.

She screamed, slammed into the wall separating the elevator cars. Both Gabriel and Morrigan opened fire, three more bolts finding their mark, Marie covering her head with her arms.

Alyssa dove at Alec. The Archon slid aside, his companion lacing her hands together, driving them into her face. Alyssa rocketed away, the front windows shattering from the impact. A blur raced past her, the slim blonde girl suddenly behind her in mid-air, her own fist racing to meet Alyssa as she rolled uncontrollably.

It was a perfect shot, pinballing the Prime back at the floor, cracking the thick rebar concrete of the ceiling. Alyssa had time to watch the tiled floor race up to meet her, then she was buried to her neck in the ground.

Before she could wrench herself free, she felt her muscles lock up, consciousness flee. The last sound in her ears was Marie shouting in pain.

Morrigan kept the pressure on while Gabriel forced his way into the Azizi's mind, slapped her out. Alec nodded satisfaction, shredded his tux off, revealing his blacks. "Arwyn, Kel, Julia, take the prisoners to the Condor. Stay there with Cordy- you're our reserve. Jian's already on his way back across the rooftops- you two, suit up, let's move it."

His helmet cut his face off from them before Julia could argue. He ran back to the elevators, a car opening immediately. Gabriel had already stripped to his armor; Morrigan crowded against him while the car raced back up.

"What a time to be unarmored," she growled, ripping away as much of her dress as she could. Alec spared her a look- a moment later, her clothing rippled, molded itself into a set of blacks. Her eyes widened while he handed her a spare helm.

"What in Bael's… is there anything you cannot do?" she adjusted the fit of her belt. The car stopped abruptly, opened four floors below the party. Alec raced out, his troops right behind him.

"McDonough!!"

The tone warned him. He shoved Dani into a broom closet that flew open of it's own accord, put himself between Kara and the threat while he drew, extended, whirled his lance. Charged particle bolts sliced the air, caught on his weapon, arcing along its length.

Two Arions rushed him before the flash cleared; he bounced one into the near wall, flicked the second around his left into Kara, ducked and thrust his first target the same moment Kara's backhand all but tore the Prime's head off, her body streaking back down the hall.

Four of the Acolytes ran at them, brandishing wicked-looking rifles. Connor spun his lance, set his feet. "All blonds, bug out!"

Kara tried to protest, felt someone probing her mind. Connor snarled, threw his lance, his axe leaping out of his belt, lighting up before hitting his palm. His lance plowed into the side of a red headed woman's head, drawing blood. The other three raised their rifles.

An armored shape crashed into the hallway, taking out all three. Jian cut down the two men with one sweep, slapped his hand against the last woman, brainburned her.

"So much for kinder, gentler," Connor shrugged out of his jacket, ripped his shirt off from the collar. Jian shrugged.

"It wasn't working for me," he rumbled. He spotted Dani, hooked his thumb at the window. "You two, scram. C'mon Uri, let's run these shitheads right up the ass."

Connor nodded, his helm flowing on to his head. He glanced over his shoulder at Kara. "Move your butt, Initiate! Now!"

Dani dashed past her mother, grabbed her arm, launched herself out of the window.

McWither frowned into his drink. "I can't sense them…"

Three forms bounded on to the balcony, flowed through the crowd, speared right into their midst. The woman took Ana, lathering her face with a series of strikes, a snap kick bowling her over the buffet. The men split to either side- Mitchell crumpled to the floor screaming, Champion flying aside, untouched, into one of the marble pillars, Stansfield clutching his stomach where a warlance slammed home.

McWither watched the buffet race towards his head, then back up, then down again. He heard Sultane shout out, then a thundering crash over the screaming. He tried to pull his head away, took a shot to the face with the marble tiles.

Three of them! The Enlightened were being… decimated by three of them!!

His feet left the floor- an instant of free-flight later he smashed through the French doors to the patios. He tore the flooring apart, tried to skitter back to his feet. The Achilles formula was protecting him, but he had no idea how long it would last- the Knight had flung him sixty feet like he was a tennis ball!

The guests were fleeing, the party dissolved into chaos. He spotted two more Knights dancing through the mob, striking down their precious Acolytes. Melissa Coates flew out one of the side windows, her scream echoing all the way down the building; Hiram Windsor rocketed straight up, his head crunching audibly into the ceiling, his body dropping limply. The taller of the two Knights raced up to Sultane, yanked the man off the floor with one hand.

Jian was finding the rage in his mind a comforting inferno. He seized Sultane by the neck, hoisted him off the floor. "Hi there, motherfucker. Remember me?"

He flicked his wrist, shifting momentum. Sultane took off into the ceiling, buried himself halfway to his shoulders. He flailed around frantically, Jian's eyes wide, then narrow under his helmet.

Invulnerable? his thoughts brushed against Connor, hacking away at Stansfield. Let's see how much, shall we?

His TK ripped Sultane from the roof, crushed him to the floor. Jian's saber raced downward, plowed against the man's skull. It stopped there, sparks flashing wildly; Jian bore down, adding all the strength his mind could muster, Sultane bellowing in pain.

Alec back-kicked Champion away, hurled Mitchell across the room and against the ice sculptures. Five NSA suits shoved their way towards their boss, weapons drawn; Alec slid into their midst, all five flat on the floor two seconds and three blows later.

Ana recovered, caught one of Morrigan's punches in her tiny fist, started to squeeze. Morrigan dropped to her knees, screaming; Kara flashed into the ballroom, tried to separate Ana's head from her shoulders. McWither tensed, felt his feet leave the ground again, hit the interior wall head-first.

Julia grabbed Eric Champion, shoved him back against the pillar, drove her fist into his gut. The pillar shattered under the blow, collapsed on top of him. Julia left him, slapped another NSA goon away, scattering the seven he was leading in.

Capture Sultane! Alec's voice echoed into each of their minds. Sanction the rest!

Champion shoved his way to his feet, jumped on Julia's back. His bladed hand hit her in the neck just so, making her knees tremble. She reached over, grabbed what was left of his jacket, fired him one-handed into the wall next to McWither. Champion plowed right through, vanished into the warren beyond the ballroom.

Sultane slapped at Jian's hands, trying to knock the saber from his head. Jian yanked it away, clapped his palm on Sultane's face, tried a brainburn…

Collapsed with a strangled yell. The powerful surge bounced back into his own mind, locking him up. Sultane didn't waste time asking questions; he was up and fleeing into the crowds instantly.

Alec leapt after him. Another Acolyte got in his way, dropped dead to the floor, Alec loping over the carcass. Sultane vanished into the kitchens- Alec kicked the doors open, scattering a half-dozen waiters, spotted the man lunging towards the freight elevator. The doors slammed closed on him just as his fingers hit the metal.

Sultane scrabbled to the back of the car, shaking violently from Alec's impact against the outer doors. He was facing the one thing he'd learned to be afraid of in his storied career as a weapons dealer. He'd dealt with the Arions for decades, procuring weaponry that destabilized whole regions, caused countless deaths, wrought unimaginable havoc. The power of the Arion Empire had protected him from retaliation- or so he thought. Until ten years before, when the Knights- these Knights- had come looking for him.

They'd shattered his Mid-East enterprise, laid waste to his organization in a heartbeat, done more damage in two weeks than the rest of the world had been able to inflict in twenty years. His main contractors had ended up dead, the small web of Arion Primes he'd been assigned no match for four human men. They'd blown, bluffed, or bashed their way through every defense he'd had, missing him by less than a minute in Singapore. And taught him that he wanted the kinds of power they possessed.

The Envoy- McWither- had approached him four years ago, offered that power. In return, Sultane was to give the Race access to the Arions that still guarded him, their weapons, their technology. All for the kind of power he'd always craved.

His first conquest had been Alyssa, a beauty beyond anything he'd ever experienced. They'd made love without the shield of gold, in the middle of a deserted stretch of forest near the Caspian Sea, and brought each other to incredible climax. That they destroyed a half-mile of timber didn't seem to matter. He was invincible now.

That feeling was fleeing his mind at warp speed. He heard the doors shear open, tensed…

The Knight smashed through the ceiling, sword drawn. Sultane recovered from his fear for a half-second, lunged- the man stepped aside, flung the weapons merchant into the doors, crumpling the frame.

"You only get away once, you piece of shit," the man's voice was hollow, emotionless. "I should have hunted you down and killed you ten years ago. Now I get the chance to rectify that error."

Unreasoning fear gripped Sultane's mind. He fumbled in his pocket, dragged out a tiny remote. "Let me go. Or a city in the United States goes up in a mushroom cloud."

The Knight paused. "Nice bluff. I'm a telepath, remember? Give me the remote."

He held his hand out. Sultane relaxed, gave him a simple nod, extended his hand…

A second Knight dropped into the car. "Sultane!!" he bellowed, already drawing his sword-arm back. The first whipped his head towards the newcomer.

"NO!!" Alec shouted. He felt Sultane's mind, already firmed against mental influence, slip away from him. The Turk rattled his head, eyes bugged out, squeezed the remote.

Both Knights dropped to the floor of the car, howling in pain, hands clutched to their helmets. The car slid to a halt, the doors opening. Sultane sprinted away, leaving the two men behind him…

He got to the fire exit. A rough hand clapped on his shoulder, spun him around, crushed him into the wall. The first Knight pummeled him mercilessly, hitting with something more than strength, battering Sultane's invulnerability away.

"You… butcher!!" he screamed, unloading a kick into the man's neck. Sultane gasped, dropped to the floor, blood pooling on the tile. "You stinking, filthy animal!!"

His sword blazed to life, sliced down. Sultane shouted out, his shout turning into one long howl as his arms, then his legs were sheared away, flopping about blindly on the floor. A hand clamped around his neck, hefted his mutilated carcass into the air.

He opened his eyes, feeling pain for the first time in years. He watched the sword drive into his mouth, stab out his neck, then draw back, the helm flooding away. Eyes more intense, more hateful, than anything he'd ever seen before stared right at him.

"There are things," the man he recognized as Archangel said softly, "worse than dying. I consign you to Hell."

He kicked the fire door apart, stepped through. The stairway was a hollow-cored pillar of rebar concrete, plugged into the center of the building. Stone flowed away like water, revealing an opening easily wide enough to hide a limbless torso. The Knight shoved Sultane into the hole, dropped him, then closed it up.

There was no remorse in those eyes, only hate. "Goodbye, Sultane. Enjoy immortality."

The rock flowed closed. Sultane was engulfed in darkness, every sense alive, unable to move, or speak, or even wail in anguish. For eternity.

Jian staggered to his feet, tried to hold himself up on the edge of the elevator. Strong hands took his shoulders, braced them on long arms. "Holy crap, what the hell…?"

"Sultane had a suicide switch," Alec's voice was empty. "He blew up… a city, somewhere in the States. At least two million casualties, from the psi-spike."

Jian gasped, started to retch. His helmet snapped off, the man dropping to his knees to vomit all over the tile. Alec patted his back, tried to give some comfort.

"I… I didn't know…" Alec shook his head.

"Not your fault. I should've figured he'd be paranoid, have a fallback."

Jian wiped his mouth, scanned the hall, saw Sultane's limbs rapidly decaying. "Where is he?"

"Dealt with," Alec got up, pulled Jian to his feet. "We need to scram."

They raced down the hall, Jian's step getting stronger with each stride. By the time they made it to the far corridors, Alec had found an empty office, kicked the door open, clicked the comm in his helm alive.

"Issy, two for pickup, fortieth floor. Gabriel, status report."

The latter came back first. "The spike laid us all out- we have Mitchell, he seems to be a telepath. The rest got away while we were rolling around on the floor. What happened?"

"Later," Alec replied, watching the Condor drop to the window. The glass shattered inward, raining down on the carpet. Isamu spun the ship, the rear hatch open, Arwyn standing there ashen.

"Daddy…"

"What?" he stopped by her side on the ramp. She started to cry.

"He blew up San Francisco."

He staggered as if struck. Images of Jack, Andy, Peter, Gato, Aidan, their families, all of the people he knew, his whole life

He bent his head back, shrieked at the heavens, a sound so guttural and evil it set everyone's hackles on end. He spun before he was done screaming, leapt back to the building, was gone in an instant. Arwyn tried to follow through her tears, slumped against the office door.

"He's gone," she whispered to Jian as he stopped by her side. "I… I can't feel him in my mind anymore."

The End of Last of the Fallen

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