Authors Notes:

This is a work of fiction – a bit of science fiction and fantasy mixed together in fact.  None of the characters, names or personalities, are based on real people.  Any resemblance to a real person is entirely coincidental and not intentional.  I do live in the Atlanta area and use a lot of places I’ve been in the story.

If you are offended by sex between adult men don’t read any further.

If you are not of legal age don’t read any further.

If this type of story is illegal where you live, for whatever reason, don’t read any further.

This story is copyrighted to me and cannot be reproduced without my express written consent.

If you have any comments you can send them to btaoc1963@gmail.com  I appreciate anything that anyone has to say good or bad.  If you have bad things to say please at least be polite.  I’ll try to respond to anyone who sends me an email.  I'm astounded by how nice everyone has been, and I really do feel like I've made some great pen pals.  I check my in box all the time now hoping to see new messages.  I don't care if they are about the story, I just enjoy the conversations that some of us have started up.  You guys are awesome!

I used to say that I’m rusty at writing.  I did some writing back in college in the mid to late eighties but this is the first thing I’ve tried to write of any length or complexity since then.  Man did I jump into it feet first lol.  I should have started with something shorter and less involved.  I’m not so much rusty anymore but I do consider myself inexperienced as far as being a writer.  I’m sure my story comes across as naïve to many people – but I’m having so much fun writing it and overall the feedback has been good and positive.  I would write it anyways even if no one enjoyed it – I’m writing it for myself. However, with that being said, if you have any ideas you want to share please email me.  A few ideas in the story were sparked from emails from readers.

I am not in nor ever have been in the military, so I apologize for getting anything wrong.  The characters are all Navy SEALS in the Prologue, where the story starts.

The email notification list for new chapters has been building and seems to be working well.   As great as Nifty.org is in many ways, sometimes it's difficult to find new postings when the stories aren't put out on a set schedule (like mine *cough cough*).  So if you are interested in getting on a mailing list send me an email and I'll create a group so I can let you all know when I post a new chapter.

This chapter took longer than I wanted but not as long to write as I feared.  School is definitely slowing me down.  But Summer Semester was a short/concentrated time frame... what is normally taught in 16 weeks was taught in 8 and I was slammed studying.  I had a test every 3 classes, along with a midterm and final exam.  Not that any of you all care but I did make an 'A.'  Yay me!  lol... hardest 'A' of my life.  The class I'm starting next week (Fall Semester 2015) has a 40% dropout rate.  It's HARD... Anatomy and Physiology.  So wish me luck!  I already have a start on Chapter 26 and will continue to push through until the story is complete.  Please be patient with me - this story eats at me and I have to finish it no matter how long it takes.

I'm going to put Links in for a few songs... there are no song's by Lane in this chapter, however these are the song's that I listened to that motivated most of the emotion in this chapter.  If you listen to them I think you will see why.  They range from very orchestral to pop so a bit eclectic.  I hope you like them... I wanted to use at least one of them in this story but the lyrics weren't quite as spot on... but they still helped me with the mindset of what happened in this chapter.

Shatter Me (I thought about Brad and Ken a lot when I listened to this... I heard it in my spinning class and it's become one of my new favorites)
Immortals (I love the lyrics to this but they just didn't fit quite right in this chapter....however the more I listen to them the more this reminds me of Taliesin... who will be returning before the end of the story.  Remember Lane said he still played an important role in The Masters final defeat!  hint hint)
Into the West (I can hear Lane singing this to Ken as he lay in the Valley of the Tree)

Many thanks to Steven for helping me again with the editing !  You're a great guy and I so appreciate the help! I wish everyone could read your comments to me when you send back the corrections. 

And now on to Chapter 25!

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<><> Chapter 25<><>

<><> Prologue – Two Months Prior<><>

          The October night was cold; a heavy mist steadily fell, soaking everything, while the biting wind blew leaves around the tombstones and grave markers.  It was just after 0230, and the only sounds in the Oakland Cemetery other than the steady pattering of water dripping off the trees and gusting wind were shovels striking the hard clay of Georgia soil.

          Two Protectors, stripped to the waist even in the chill of the night, were sweating heavily as they excavated the grave.  It wasn’t the exertion that made them sweat – they were physically enhanced and far stronger than normal men – it was the Glyph’s protecting the grave. The bitter cold mist mixed with the hot sweat of their strong bodies, causing steam to rise off their muscled forms as they worked.  There were four other men, just like them, muscled and ripped, in the rotation.  Each pair dug until they couldn’t stand the pain any longer and then switched out.

          As they worked, their heavy breathing sent billows of steam up into the chill moist air.  The only light came from the headlights of three black Escalades parked nearby and their sweating muscled bodies gleamed in the sharp shadows caused by the bright halogen lights.

          The men knew better than to make any noises of discomfort or pain – they were tough and didn’t feel pain like normal men, but the pain they experienced wasn’t physical.  The Glyphs burned into their Minds and Souls – even with the Shields from the ‘suits’.  The Order didn’t want this grave desecrated and had laid down heavy protections to keep it safe. Fortunately for the Master, the Palladino family didn’t believe in cremation.

          Even with their strength and speed, it took nearly an hour before a solid ‘thunk’ was heard as one of the shovels struck the casket.  A few minutes later the remainder of the wooden casing lay uncovered and exposed.

          The work was dirty and awkward; muddy wet clay covered the casket making it slippery.  Gripping the handles, the muscles of their shoulders, arms, and backs bunched and flexed as they hauled the heavy casket up onto the ground beside the deep grave.

          The first words spoken in an hour sounded loud in the still night, “Tell Him we have it ready.”

          A well-dressed man holding an umbrella turned and moved back towards the Escalades.

          The Protectors felt The Master immediately when He got out of the car.  His presence filled the night and the area around them seemed to get darker.  The pain from the Glyphs lessened as his Aura wrapped around them just by his proximity, filling them with his Dark essence. 

          The Master was dressed in a suit that cost nearly as much as one of the Escalades.  Imported from Europe, it was tailored to fit his distorted muscular physique.  His shoes were shiny black and tailor made to fit his large flat feet. 

          The darkness covering his face almost made him appear headless to his servants, but when they did briefly glance at him they saw the two dark spots, blacker than black, where his eyes should be.  The Protectors lowered their eyes – The Master didn’t like anyone looking directly at Him.

          As soon as He approached the casket He felt the safeguards and protections placed upon it.  His Black Aura strengthened in response.  The Curse would protect him from what He was about to do, but He would feel the pain regardless.

          His deep voice broke the quiet, “Stand back, unless you wish to die.”

          He took off his jacket and a ‘suit’ was ready to take it.  He rolled up his sleeves, revealing the dark ruddy skin of his massively muscled hairy forearms. After taking his jacket the ‘suit’ moved back with the Protectors and joined his own Power to the others in a Shield over all of them.

          Using one of his sharp fingernails, The Master dug into the flesh of his arm, scoring a long deep cut.  Blood welled out of the wound, dripping down his forearm to his hand.

          He made a fist and squeezed, causing more blood to flow out of the wound.  As the drops of blood hit the casket they bubbled and smoked, burning into the varnished wood, filling the immediate area with the smell of scorched blood.

          He traced out a series of lesser Runes – as the blood thickened; the Runes he inscribed began to glow with a dark red Aura of their own.

          The Master’s breath was heavy – just as with the Protectors, being so close to the protective magics placed on the casket by The Order caused him discomfort.  Pausing briefly, he steeled himself against the extreme pain he knew was coming.

          He stifled an outburst as both of his claw-like hands gripped the edge of the casket and broke the seals.  An explosion of White Light erupted and the skin on his hands darkened and burned.  The hair on the back of his fingers, hands, and forearms singed, turning bright orange as it burst into flame.

          His body flexed in response to the excruciating pain, and his tailored shirt shredded across his powerful back and shoulders.  The Darkness of his Aura clashed against the White Light – the two powers struggling for dominance.  He had to let the Runes extinguish themselves.  The few seconds it took seemed to last minutes, but soon the night was still again except for his harsh breathing.

          The Protectors knew they would have been vaporized if they had attempted to open the casket themselves.  Knowing what their Master needed they moved forward, pulling out small silver daggers from their pockets.  They sliced across their own forearms and let their blood wash over his burned and blacked hands.

          Within seconds his flesh healed itself. 

          The Master glanced at the body and said, “Bring him.”

          One of the Protectors lifted the body out of the casket and threw it over his shoulder, following The Master.  The body was tossed into the back of The Master’s Escalade, and as soon as the hatch was closed the vehicle drove off, leaving the sweating men to clean up any evidence of their presence.

          The last thing the big men did was replace the tombstone they had moved to make room to dig because the graves were so close together.  As they left, nearly an hour later, the engraving was clearly visible for a few seconds as the deep shadows made by the headlights showed the epitaph:

 

August 2, 1986 – September 8, 2013

Antonio Carlo Dario Palladino

Beloved son, taken too soon

         

          The last sight visible as the bright lights pulled away were a small bundle of flowers, mostly dried and dead.  The card on the once beautiful flowers read, “I’ll never forget you Carlo – Love Sally.”   Darkness once again filled the night; the only sounds were the wind rustling the leaves in the cemetery.

 

<><><> 

 

          The Master sat on his throne waiting.  His plan was culminating and he felt some excitement; Ken Habersham, the leader of the New Warriors of The Order was going to die.  He would be the first, but most certainly not the last.  Without him the others would fall more easily – he was physically the strongest, but it wasn’t his strength that made him so powerful; his Avatar was the key to the others.  Without him they would fall apart and be unable to withstand His might.

The Master received word of the success in finding a blood relative.  In Oklahoma of all places, not far from one of His strongholds. The family trees of his enemies, hidden by Aaron Thomas, were difficult to discover; almost impossible.  The Dr. was a genius and had been His nemesis for thousands of years, always working in the shadows and hidden away safely.  He had worn the Mantle once but gave that power up foolishly. 

His Servants were relentless –no physical evidence remained and there were no electronic records to trace the bloodlines from the era of their births.  Aaron Thomas used powerful magical means to protect the knowledge He sought as well as the mundane means He employed.  If not for the weakness and brokenness in humans, The Master’s servants never would have discovered what they were looking for.

The perseverance of His Servants, reading mind after mind, memory after memory, digging deep into people’s unconscious minds had finally paid off.  They found clues and references… the trails often led to dead ends but luck, or Fate, determined that He would be successful.

He cast his Awareness out, and felt his Servants.  They were bringing Richard Yaeger to him – the brother of Bruce Dutcher, now Ken Habersham.  The two men had been taken from their mother as infants and separated, unaware of each other’s existence.

It was another few hours before the man was brought before Him.  Richard was brave, and The Master was not surprised – but Richard was Mortal and ignorant of The Enemy and the Battle.

Richard was completely unnerved when he was brought before The Master – the man whose face he couldn’t see.  The Dark Aura struck more terror in him than he had never known, not even in the war when he was a Marine.  This time he was literally staring Evil in the face, and he knew he wasn’t strong enough to fight it.

The Master was struck by the similarities between the two brothers – Richard’s features were strong, as was his body, and that would make the entire affair more enjoyable… and more effective.  The longer he lasted the stronger the Blood Curse would be that would destroy Ken Habersham.

Richard was shoved down to his knees; his hands tied behind his back.  He didn’t understand any of this that was happening to him or why – but he knew beyond any doubt he was going to die.  He felt it in his bones.

Defiantly he straightened his back and shoulders and said, “Who are you?  What do you want with me?”

The Master got up and knelt down, running a sharp thick fingernail down the straight nose of Richard’s handsome face, and along the strong jawline of the retired Marine.  The Master studied his features, so similar to his brother, except worn with age.  Richard was the older of the two, but Ken Habersham stopped aging in 1992 and appeared much younger.

“I need your blood – to destroy an Enemy.  Your brother.”

“I don’t have a brother!”

“You do… my Servants have done well.  You are the last survivor of your bloodline besides him … and with no more of your family there can be no Cure.  I am creating a vessel to deliver the Curse.  The vessel is strong, but no match for your brother; however it will be strong enough to do what I need.  And the form of the vessel will cause even more pain to that bitch pet of theirs.

“They think they are safe behind their Runes.  It is an illusion – my power on Earth knows no bounds.  It was promised to me that I would rule over Mankind – and your brother is standing in my way.  With your blood I will vanquish him and The Order will topple.”

Richard, even through the terror filling him, felt another cold ball of fear.  He had a brother and somehow, this guy, whoever or whatever he was, was going to use Richard to kill him!  Fuck!

Richard did his best to glare back, even as his body trembled in fear – it was a physical reaction to the cold Darkness surrounding The Master.  The black holes where his eyes should be started getting larger and larger and Richard was sucked into them.  He lost consciousness quickly, his Mind overwhelmed.

“Take him, and begin the preparations.”

“Yes, Master.  The enchantments are ready and Carlo Palladino’s corpse is ready to be reanimated.  The Runes are carved on his bones and awaiting the beginning of the ritual.”

“We must be patient… it will take weeks to complete the process.  Be sure Richard Yaeger does not expire too soon, or you will die with him.”

The ‘suit’ bowed his head in acquiescence and left to carry out his instructions.

The Master returned to his throne and smiled, showing his sharp crooked teeth.  His harsh breathing filled the room.  The reports he received said they were close to finding blood relatives for Richard Crawford and Kevin Ayers as well.  He was focusing on the Bodies, knowing that if he eliminated them first, the Mentalists of The Order would be weaker.  They would still be formidable Mentally and Spiritually, but without the enhanced strength they received from their partners it would be that much easier to defeat them.

 

<><><> 

          There was one last loose end to tie up.  Samuel Evander, the ‘suit’ that found Richard Yaeger, sent word to The Master that Yaeger was the last of the Ken Habersham’s bloodline.  The following day, after he already sent word, he discovered the possibility that he was wrong.  There might be one more.

          He was afraid to recant his last message and fail his Master, so he was determined if he found the mother he would kill her and never speak of it.  If it turned out she wasn’t of the family blood then he had nothing to worry about.

          It took him another few days but he ended up at Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK.  Gladys Boulware was the woman he sought… she could be Ken Habersham’s mother.  He decided he was going to kill her regardless for the trouble she caused him, keeping him in the backwater area in the middle of nowhere longer than he wished.

 

<><><> 

 

          Gladys shared a room with Ruth Emmett.  Both women were very old and mostly bedridden.  Gladys was the better off of the two and still managed to go for a short walk down the hallway each day to the cafeteria, but the short trip exhausted her, and she needed her walker to make it – her balance was bad after her broken hip the year before.  The hip pained her constantly – she was extremely arthritic.  However Gladys always had a smile on her aged face.  She didn’t talk much, and lived in her memories.  She dreamed often of her two sons – she never knew them and hoped they had grown into strong, handsome, successful men.

          She dreamed of grandchildren that would one day show up and surprise her.  Every night she fell asleep with a tear running down her face at the thought of the bittersweet memories.

          She hadn’t wanted to give up her two sons – the judge took them away from her when they were still infants, declaring her unfit to raise them.  Her husband had arranged it all to get back at her.  He was a cruel man – he had died some years later in an accident on an oil rig in Texas where he worked.  She never felt sorry for him – he had taken away the only thing that ever meant anything to her.  Her mind broke and it was a very dark time in her life.  She never fully recovered, but was able to live a modest life.  She never married again or had more children.  She didn’t know for sure but she couldn’t have any more children. 

          It took Gladys a while to get up and get her slippers on.  Ruth was asleep and slightly snoring – Ruth swore she didn’t snore but she did.  Gladys got along with her well, mostly because Ruth didn’t talk much.  They had lived in the room together for the last few years and looked out for one another, taking comfort in each other.  Neither of them ever had any visitors – until that day.

          Gladys was in the hallway, slowly making her way to the cafeteria when Samuel entered the hallway leading to her room.

          He read the mind of the nurse behind the reception desk and found the room number he wanted.  He confidently strode down the hall towards room 238.

 

<><><> 

 

          Room 238 was silent except for Ruth’s quiet snoring.  At the foot of the each bed was a doctor’s chart with all their information.  The Nurses came in to check on them periodically and make sure they took their medications, and were comfortable.

          Rachael, one of the Nurses on duty, came in and picked up both charts – Ruth’s and Gladys’s.  Rachael saw that Ruth had a bit of spittle running down her chin and she set the charts down on Gladys’s empty bed, so she could get a tissue and wipe the corner of Ruth’s mouth.

          As she picked up the two charts, the sound of fluttering wings distracted her. She started and glanced around, thinking a bird had somehow gotten into the room.  It had happened before in the facility if the windows were left open.  Looking around, Rachael didn’t see anything – she replaced the charts and left the room.

          She didn’t realize, by chance or by fate, that she switched the charts of the two women when she put them back.

          Samuel saw Rachael leaving room 238 as he approached the room, catching the door before it swung completely closed.  He glanced in and saw one bed empty.

          Moving over he lifted the chart at the foot of the empty bed.  The name said “Ruth Emmett”.   He moved over to the foot of the bed with the sleeping elderly woman.  The name on the chart read “Gladys Boulware.”

          He smiled in pleasure as he moved over to the side of her bed.  He grabbed a pillow and covered her face.  She barely struggled as he suffocated her in her sleep.  Her frail body went limp.  Grace Living Center was an assisted living facility, not a hospital, so she wasn’t attached to any monitors – she was elderly but in stable health for her age.  No alarms went off to alert the Nurses of her condition.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ruth was asleep, and Dreaming.  She was in a park out in the sunshine with a warm gentle breeze. She smelled an apple pie baking – she remembered that smell from her own childhood when her mother set the pies out of the oven to cool.

          A white dove fluttered down onto the park bench beside her, cooing softly.  It moved over and rubbed its soft, downy head against her hand.

          I am with you Ruth.  Do not be afraid.

          A sense of peace washed over her – she knew she should have been confused, maybe even scared, but she wasn’t.  The feeling was so wonderful – like nothing she had ever felt before.  She heard voices coming closer, and her eyes widened in surprise when she saw her mother and father walking towards her.  She saw her sister and her grandparents.

          She felt no panic or confusion at seeing her family members that had passed years ahead of her – just the gentle Voice of the dove and the comfort of Uriel’s wings as he took her Home.


 

<><> Chapter 25<><>


          The car was silent as Brad drove.  He and Ken were deep inside one another’s Heart and Mind; Ken’s own heart ached for the pain Brad was going through.

          They had decided not to contact Tony’s brother Tad or get the body to him; Tad was already on the Enemy’s radar because of Tony and if they contacted him they were afraid he would become a direct target.  They took Tony’s corpse to a crematorium and Brad erased the memories of the employees once they had Tony’s ashes.   The doctor had insisted on cremation; they weren’t sure why, and Brad didn’t want to hear the answer at the time although he had a good idea.  Albrecht said he would perform a ceremony for Tony’s remains when they returned to the Lab that afternoon.

          As they left the crematorium, the profundity of the fact that he held all that remained of a good friend and decent man in his hands hit Brad.  All that was left of Tony was now just a few pounds of ash, and the thought brought fresh tears to his eyes.

          Ken held Brad’s hand like he always did as they drove, but kept silent. He had his Heart wrapped around Brad holding him close in comfort, letting Brad lean on his solid presence.  The love the two men shared was beyond intense and intimate; sometimes overwhelming in its intensity, and they ached inside over how strongly they felt for one another.

          Ken occasionally glanced over, looking at Brad’s handsome profile as he drove, and saw the wetness in his eyes.  He had seemed OK the last few days, but cremating his friend brought the emotions back fresh and clear – and the image of Tony’s broken and tortured body.

          Ken finally broke the silence when he quietly said, “I love you, B.”  Ken had already expressed how sorry he was to Brad, and it didn’t need to be repeated.  The verbal expression of his love started fresh tears. Ken reached over and used his thumb to wipe away a tear.  It was a gentle caress of care and comfort.

          Brad smiled wanly and said, “I’m sorry Ken.  I don’t mean to be a pansy.”

          “Fuck that, B.  He was a good friend.  Let it out, and lean on me.”

          Brad pulled off the interstate and into the side parking lot of the Quick-Trip off Pleasantdale Road and I-285; the intersection was known to Atlanta residents as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ because of the looping on-ramps and off-ramps where I-85 and I-285 came together.  He put the car in park and sat still with the engine still running.  He stared at nothing, lost in thought.

          Ken knew what Brad was going through; it was something they used to go through more often when they were still active duty in the Navy.  Losing a friend was never easy, but what had been done to Tony was monstrous – The Master had taken a personal interest in his torture and killed Tony in front of them to make a point.  At least they managed to save Tony’s Soul, and that was a great comfort, but it didn’t make his absence in their lives any less painful.

          Ken’s PhD in Brad Wilson was in full effect.  He leaned over to put his arm over Brad’s shoulder and pulled him across into a hug, as close as the car seats would allow.  Brad pushed his face into Ken’s heavy shoulder and he breathed in the familiar scent of his lover.  The warm solidity of Ken’s body gave him strength just by his physical presence.

          Ken didn’t want what was inside of Brad to have any more time to keep ahold of him.  It needed an outlet – just like what Ken did for Darren after his torture in Thomin’s Vault.  It wasn’t as severe, but the situation was basically the same.

          Ken glanced over at the fuel gage and saw it was below half a tank.  He said, “Hey B, pull over to a pump and let’s fill up while we’re here.”

          Brad pulled the Explorer over, and Ken got out to pump the gas.  He asked, “You want somethin ta drink while we’re here?”

          “Sure, what do you want?”

          “Well I’m kinda hungry too… how about one of those little packs of white powdered donuts and a Dr. Pepper?”

          Brad glanced at him and saw the little kid grin that always melted him, and he had to smile back.

          “Are you serious?”

          “Yeah… get a pack of donuts for each of us, and whatever you wanna drink too.”

          Brad intuitively knew Ken was up to something, but didn’t delve into his Mind to look.  He had learned shortly after their first Awakening not to constantly read Ken’s Mind.  They rested in each other nearly all the time, but feeling each other’s presence was different than reading thoughts.

          They still needed to do things for one another, as friends and lovers, which the other didn’t need to know about beforehand.  It ruined the surprise of being spontaneous.  He knew whatever it was, Ken was doing it for him out of love, and he would wait and see.  It made him love Ken even more, and he couldn’t wait for them to get married now that the plans were in motion.

          Brad went inside, got the donuts and drinks, and paid for the gas.  Quick-Trip was busy and the line at the counter was long.  The Mega-Millions jackpot was up to near a record high and people were buying lots of lottery tickets.  Brad kept his shields tight, not wanting any of their ‘fucked-upness’ to bleed through, especially with what he was currently going through.  Feeling or hearing their hopes of winning the lottery, knowing they were basically futile, wasn’t something he wanted to take on at the moment.  He also felt guilty for having those thoughts – he was supposed to love them and care for them, but he had to take care of himself first for a change. 

          By the time he was finished, Ken had pulled the Explorer up and was parked waiting for him.  He got in the passenger side and settled in.

          Ken grinned as he opened his donuts and popped a whole one in his mouth.  “Ohhhhh Ffuuuucchhhhkkkkk!”  He moaned in pleasure and rolled his eyes up.  “I haven’t had one of these in years.”

          Brad enjoyed watching Ken get so much pleasure from the donut he hadn’t started to open his yet.  Ken had some white powder on the edge of his bottom lip and he looked over and grinned at Brad and winked as he chewed.  Brad loved to watch the muscles in Ken’s jaw and temples flex as he chewed and his neck thicken as he swallowed.  His lover was such a stud and the sexiest man on the planet to Brad.

          Brad was determined not to start crying again, and he actually had to laugh.  “Fuck, I love you Ken.  Thanks.”

          “Don’t thank me yet.  Eat your donuts lover boy.  You’re gonna need the energy.”

          Brad raised his eyebrows questioningly but kept quiet and did as he was told.

          Ken pulled out and they got on I-85 North.  Traffic was a little heavy but not horrible.

          Brad popped one of the small donuts into his mouth and he felt the sugar dissolve on his tongue and started to chuckle, “Oh my God…these are so good.  If we weren’t already Immortal I bet we’d have enough preservatives in our bodies from these to last a few extra decades.  There’s nothing healthy about them, but damn they taste good.  Good call.”

          “Does that fall under the category of ‘I’m right’?”

          “No… it just means you like shitty food that tastes good.”

          Ken put his hand over his heart and affected a hurt tone, “Oh man B, that hurts.  No dick for you tonight.”

          Brad kept up the banter, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.  You know you’ll cave before I do on that.  Ken Junior will be in total control by bedtime.”

          “Am I really that shallow?”

          “You aren’t, but Ken Junior is….well, he’s really not shallow….he’s actually nice and thick and long and hard… with a little bit of a curve… and a nice head… just like I like.”

          Ken looked over and Brad winked at him, knowing the effect his words would have on him.

          “I think you got some crumbs on your shorts, I’d better check!”

          Brad reached over and cupped Ken’s crotch as he drove and sure enough he felt Ken getting hard.   Ken widened his muscled thighs to give Brad’s hand better access.

          Ken’s plan worked perfectly – he kept the conversation light and distracting, wanting to take Brad’s Mind off of Tony, at least for a few minutes.  Brad was focused on feeling Ken up and wasn’t paying attention to where Ken was taking them.

          He unzipped Ken’s shorts, freed his hardening member, and took the head into his mouth.  He felt Ken’s strong hand on the back of his head, holding him down as he made mini-thrusts with his hips.

          When Brad finally looked up, he realized they were on GA 20 going towards Lawrenceville instead of to the Lab in Buford.

          Brad was pretty sure he knew the answer to his question, but he asked it anyway, “Ken where are we going?”

          “You’ll see in just a minute.  Trust me B.  You need this.  But first you need to finish what you started.  You almost have me there.”

          A few minutes later Ken pulled into the Publix shopping center that had Tony’s Gym in it.  He parked the Explorer and once he no longer had to focus on driving, he let himself go with the feelings Brad was causing him to have. 

          Brad knew his lover like a book, and read the signs of Ken’s impending orgasm.  He used his throat to stroke the length of Ken’s dick until Ken couldn’t stand the pleasure anymore and started shooting.  Brad didn’t taste it at first, but he felt the immediate rush of Power as fresh strength flooded into his Body.

          He slowed down his movements but continued to milk Ken until he finished shooting.  He loved having just the head in his mouth so he could taste his lover’s seed, and caress the perfect head of Ken’s dick with his tongue.

          Ken chuckled, “Fuck B, it’s been a while since we’ve done anything like that in the car.  That was hot.”  He helped pull Brad up into a sitting position and they kissed briefly.

          “I’ll return the favor as soon as we get home, OK?”

          Brad just smiled.

          Ken sent a private thought to Kevin back at the Lab:  Hey, Kev?

          Yeah, Ken?

          I’m with B, and we’re at Tony’s gym.  Alert everybody, and be on standby in case we need backup.

          Ken felt Kevin’s ‘what the fuck’ reaction, but Kevin didn’t say anything.  He was a soldier and knew immediately it wasn’t the time to question Ken. 

          We got your backs if you need us.

          Thanks, Kev.  B needs….

          Kevin’s thought cut him off… No need to explain Ken.  I get it.  He felt Kevin’s full support and realization of what Ken was planning.  Kevin was Ken’s oldest friend and knew him well.  Kevin gave him the equivalent of a shoulder squeeze in his Mind.  We’re with you.

          Kevin brought Bill into what was happening.  Bill Listened and Kevin pulled from the Tree and in a few seconds, before Brad and Ken even made it to the front door of the gym they felt the presence of the rest of the Team with them.  It wasn’t intrusive, but everyone was there in support for Brad, and ready to do whatever was needed.

 

<><><> 

 

          Morgan was in the small office in the back of the gym tallying the books for the week.  Membership sales were up as well as booked time with the personal trainers; his men were recruiting more and more regulars into the gym, and a few of them showed promise.  The Master was pressing them to recruit more men; everyone heard what happened in Australia a few months ago.  Nearly three hundred dead in seconds, and only two of the new Warriors of The Order were there.

          Len and Shannon were out working the floor with clients.  Morgan had half an hour before his next client to train so he grabbed the deposit bag and was going to make a quick trip to the bank.

          He was about to tell Len he’d be right back when he suddenly couldn’t move and a searing pain shot through his Mind.  He heard the chime of the front door, and his stomach clenched when he recognized Habersham and Wilson from the pictures he was given.  He struggled, his huge physique straining, but he couldn’t move.  He didn’t understand why he wasn’t already dead – the triggers in his Mind should have gone off the second he was controlled.

          Everyone in the gym, including clients, seemed frozen in place.  Anyone holding a weight set it down carefully and then stood motionless.

          Brad sent a Compulsion into the normal humans that their workouts were over and it was time to go home.  He easily held the three Protectors, and he rooted out the deep-seated triggers placed in their Minds.

          Henry had taught Brad and the Team all the various types and strengths of Mental triggers The Enemy kept inside their Servants.  Brad wasn’t gentle, and he smashed them effortlessly, letting the Protectors feel the pain.

          When the clients were gone, Ken closed the door and turned the bolt, locking the door.  He pulled the small chain and turned off the neon ‘Open’ sign, and lowered the blinds.

          Morgan tried to talk, but Brad wouldn’t let him.  He had total control over all three of them; for the moment they were on their own with no ‘suit’ to back them up.  They were immobile, unable to move a muscle, and couldn’t talk.  Brad had his shields tightly wrapped round their Minds, and it burned them.

          Brad moved over and stood in front of Morgan, staring at him.  After a minute, he broke his silence, “I want you to answer one question for me, and know I can tell if you’re lying.  Was the only reason you took this gym from Tony and destroyed his life to get at me?”

          He released Morgan enough so he could talk.

          “I’m not telling you shit, Wilson.”

          “Fine.”

          Brad wasn’t surprised to see the hatred in Morgan’s eyes.  He was slightly surprised to see no fear; he didn’t understand their loyalty to The Master.  He walked up and touched Morgan right between the eyes on his forehead, Reading him.  The part of his Avatar that came from Bill laid bare everything there was to know about Morgan in an instant; his entire life from his birth to the present moment.  It made Brad sick to his stomach, but he didn’t flinch.  Ken felt his reaction through their Link.  I’m with you, B.

          Brad moved over and touched Len and Shannon as well.  All three men were willing Servants of The Enemy.  Their lives were abhorrent; they were monsters.  Morgan had been present during much of Tony’s torture at the hands of Clint Berrenger and The Master, and had taken great pleasure in watching Tony’s body writhe in agony while laughing at his screams.  Brad heard Tony’s raw voice screaming and begging in their memories, and he felt their enjoyment at his suffering and agony.

          Brad learned everything about their plans for Tony from the very start; financially squeezing him out of his own business, damaging his arm so he could no longer work out, emptying his bank account; it was all there, and all for the simple act of getting to Brad because Tony was a friend.

          He also learned the location and structure of the other gyms where they were recruiting.

          I’m sure He knows we’re here by now Ken.  There’s a video feed from the security cameras here to a central location in Norcross.  I Read that in Morgan’s Mind. 

          Yeah I expected that.  The guys are with us, B.  This first one is for you, but I told Him a while back we were goin on the offense.  In the next few weeks he won’t have any employees left in any of the gyms around Atlanta.  We’re shuttin this operation down and any others like it.  We’ll cut off the flow of their ‘recruits.’  He’ll have to stop killin his own followers, or between Him and us he won’t have any left.

          Brad burned with anger.  The lid he kept on his temper was about to blow, and Ken could feel it.  He released his hold on the three Protectors.

          “This still isn’t fair for you, but I’m not going to use any Mental tricks.  I want you to fight me, and I’m going to give you the same chance you gave Tony, which is to say…, none.”

          Morgan glanced over at Ken, who was standing inside the door with his big arms crossed over his strong chest.  Morgan was impressed with Ken’s physique; Brad’s too for that matter.  He knew they were strong.

          Brad saw Morgan’s eyes glance at Ken and said, “He’s not going to interfere.  It will be the three of you against me.  I want you to hit me with everything you have.”

          Ken smiled and said, “My boyfriend is about to kick your collective asses.  I’m just here to enjoy the show.”

          Morgan had heard about how powerful the new Warriors of The Order were.  Brad shattered the mental triggers inside his Mind effortlessly.  Morgan knew he was dead, but he was loyal to The Master even unto death.  He would lay down his life for even the slightest chance to take out The Master’s foes or hurt them in the process.

           Brad was freshly amped up from the blowjob he gave Ken on the drive over – he smiled to himself inside, knowing Ken had planned that.  He opened his core energy center, and red fire licked over his body, oxygenating his muscles – they had practiced that technique in their training to prepare for a fight quickly. His skin practically glowed from a fine sheen of sweat that popped out over his flawless skin as he warmed his body up.

          His t-shirt tightened slightly across his torso and arms as his muscles swelled.  He took a defensive posture, his fists raised.  His arms were like steel beams of corded muscle, but he had a fluidity about his posture and stance; he was amazingly flexible for such a big man.  All three of the Protectors rushed him – knowing they were going to die, they did what he asked and threw everything they had at him, wanting to hurt him as much as possible in homage to their Master before they died.  They had pledged their Souls to Him when they were Transformed and were loyal to Him even in death.

          Brad slowed down his perception of Time.  He didn’t pull from Ken or his Brothers; instead he pulled from the well of anger inside himself.  The Protectors bodies were hard packed muscle, but they didn’t have the muscle or bone density that Ken or the other Bodies did, and he was used to sparring with them.

          Albrecht’s training was apparent, as well as elements of the Kata, The Quintessential Dance, that Michael had taught Ken.  Ken watched Brad’s form; he was perfection in motion and beautiful to watch.  He had the utmost confidence in Brad’s fighting skills; and the extreme amount of time they spent in training prepared Brad for just such a moment.  He was also so hot for Brad he could hardly stand it; watching him when he was fired up did something to Ken’s libido that he was powerless against.

          Brad knew that this was supposed to be about Justice, but he had to admit there was a strong smattering of revenge on his part.  He was striking back at the Enemy for what they did to an innocent man and a good friend.  Ken was right; he needed to hit back, and he hit back hard.

          In the first flurry of attacks they didn’t land a single blow, but in defending himself Brad broke Shannon’s left arm and Len’s right leg.  He was saving Morgan for last, because he knew Morgan had been present and a participant in Tony’s torture.

          The Protectors didn’t feel pain like normal men so their broken bones slowed them down and reduced their overall effectiveness, but they didn’t completely debilitate them.

          It was apparent to Ken that the Protectors were picking up their game – these three men were much better fighters than the first few Protectors the Team had encountered; but Brad was a fully trained Navy SEAL, an Original Man, and half Nephilim, the grandson of Raphael the Arch-Angel – they didn’t stand a chance.

          They tried to keep Brad on the defensive, but he whittled away at them; he followed every defensive move with an offensive kumite technique that hurt them.  Brad stayed true to his word; he didn’t teleport or control their Minds.  His muscle and skill were the only weapons he used – oddly his Mind drifted back to that time when Hampton and his ‘goon squad’ hit him with a folded metal chair and beat the shit out of him. 

          These protectors exhibited the same mob mentality as Hampton and his buddies.  In another minute Brad had Len and Shannon on the ground and unable to continue.  Their legs and arms were broken so badly they could no longer stand and fight.  Even with their resistance to pain he hurt them bad.

          Morgan realized Brad was holding back on him.  Len and Shannon were weak and failed the Master, and in Morgan’s mind they deserved what happened to them.  He knew the cameras were monitored, and by now The Master should have been notified of what Wilson and Habersham were up to.  He had to hold Wilson off for just a few more minutes.

          Morgan leapt back, flipping over a few of the weight benches, and grabbed an empty Olympic weight bar off one of the flat benches.  A standard Olympic bar weighs forty four pounds but he wielded it like it was a toothpick.

          Ken watched the fight intently; he observed their fighting style objectively, seeing a slightly modified version of Tae Kwon Do and Jiu Jitsu.  The Protector was trying to use the Olympic bar like a Bo Stick against Brad.  The guy had a modicum of skill, but Ken wasn’t worried.

          Brad and Ken both knew why Morgan was stalling – Brad Read him completely and knew what would happen as soon as The Master was alerted to his and Ken’s presence.

          Brad didn’t bother using another Olympic bar as a weapon – he could have beaten Morgan in a matter of seconds that way as well.  Instead Brad toyed with him, wanting whatever was going to happen to unfold.

          In less than another minute Brad and Ken both felt the Presence of The Master.  Morgan’s eyes turned jet black and he smiled – his face took on a slightly different appearance as he was possessed, and his body posture changed.

          Morgan’s last thought filled his Mind and Soul: My life for you!  He knew The Master would consume him in his possession.  He expected it and willingly gave himself up as a vessel, with an almost euphoric feeling of completion.

          Brad tightened his shields over Ken and himself as he felt The Master’s powerful dark presence fill the room.

          Brad smiled grimly and said, “Took you long enough.”

          The Master’s black eyes darted around the room, taking in the condition of Len and Shannon, and he noted Ken standing off to the side.

          He directed his gaze back to Brad and smiled evilly, “You are still in pain.  You are weak.”  The Masters deep guttural voice echoed over Morgan’s.

          “And you are so predictable and melodramatic.”

          Brad was waiting for The Master to take the Souls of Len and Shannon.   Sure enough his eyes darted to the two men and his Black Aura started leeching out towards them.

          “Nope.  Not going to happen, Sasquatch.”

          Brad’s shields flared and surrounded Len and Shannon.  His Light burned into them and their bodies arched as they screamed in pain.  Brad’s Avatar flared, and his own power clashed with The Master’s.

          Brad had been thinking a lot about Henry and Drew since their last encounter with The Master and how Henry had survived The Master’s full on assault.  Henry was strong, though he didn’t have their Angelic bloodline, but he somehow found the strength to protect Drew because he had to.

          Brad realized it was another form of Love – Henry loved Drew more than he ever thought he could.  Henry’s heart had grown with Drew in his life and the support of all his Brothers.  As always, Love – Unconditional Love – was at the heart of their strength in that moment – and it had been Henry’s love as a father towards Drew that gave him the strength to defend his son.

          Brad delved fully into Ken, who was standing a few feet away watching everything and ready to intervene if necessary.  He didn’t pull from Ken, but he basked in the Love the two of them shared...and he basked in the Presence of Henry and his Brothers back in the Lab.  He could see them in his Mind’s Eye as though they were all standing around him now.  He was surrounded by their Presence – they were holding hands forming a Circle of Protection around him, holding him up.

          Brad breathed in their Love, Ken’s Love, and it filled him up like nothing else could.

          The Master’s Dark Aura hit the Wall that Brad made around Len and Shannon and he couldn’t break it.  If he was there in person he might have been able to, but if that was the case the entire Team would be physically present too – just like on Christmas Eve.  However, The Master wasn’t present; he’d possessed a Servant, and the vessel he inhabited limited his Power.

          The Master’s temper flared – he was not used to being prevented in anything he wished.  He watched as the two Protectors on the ground burned up slowly and painfully, their bodies turned to ash from the white Light and strength of Brad’s shields.

          The Master bellowed his rage, and a Black Talon of energy flew from his hands striking Brad’s shields.  Brad was ready, but the blow was still strong.  His Avatar glowed brightly in response, spitting off arcs of color, and his form shone Whiter than ever in an answer to the attack.

          At first it seemed a stalemate… Brad’s Avatar made him equal to the task.  It wasn’t easy but he defended himself.  His Mind was thinking and processing; he got no satisfaction from Len’s and Shannon’s deaths.  They weren’t directly responsible for Tony’s fate, even if they contributed to it.   No, the culprit was The Master, who was present by proxy, possessing one of his Servants.

          He wanted to make The Master feel the sting of his actions.  He knew The Master was supremely confident in his ability to defeat The Order; he still didn’t understand Drew’s role or what the boy meant, but he would find out. Regardless, he was confident the Curse would Protect him from Death.  That didn’t mean he couldn’t feel pain, and if that’s all Brad could do then that’s what he would strive for.

          Brad dug deep, and his own White Talon formed as ribbons of energy came out of his hands, directed at the Black Talon the Master was using to try and consume him.

          Brad’s unconscious Mind immediately sent him the message that his approach was all wrong.  Everything he had been taught by the doctor about the motives and intentions of The Order flashed through his Mind.  He was acting out of revenge and anger, wanting to strike back and cause hurt.  That wasn’t their way – that was The Enemy’s way.

          The image of Tony’s tortured, eyeless body, reaching helplessly out to Brad only a few nights before was stuck in his Mind, and he couldn’t get past his own pain over what was done to his friend because of him.  He wanted so badly to strike back, hoping that would make his own hurt go away.

          Suddenly, Uriel was there to collect the Souls of Len and Shannon.  He appeared and swept the two Souls into his wings.  He paused for a brief moment, and Time seemed to stand still.

          I have a gift for you from Raphael. 

          Uriel pointed a finger in Brad’s direction and a small glowing orb appeared – it looked like a memory sphere, but it was golden instead of blue.  It was more like a snowflake, crystalline and intricate in its beauty and complexity.  It darted across the space between them and absorbed into Brad’s body.

          Brad’s eyes flew wide in surprise as the image of Tony filled his Mind.  Raphael was with him, in his human form, and Tony was surrounded by other people he seemed to know.  There was no sound and there was so much Light Brad couldn’t make out anything around them or see where they were.

          Tony looked directly as Brad and smiled his goofy lopsided grin and gave Brad a thumps up.  He mouthed the words “I’m good!” and then his face became more serious and he mouthed solemnly, “Thanks, Brad. Love you, brother!”  Raphael was smiling and had his hand on Tony’s shoulder; he looked directly at Brad and then in a blinding flash of light the image was gone.

          Relief flooded through Brad like a river breaking and he started sobbing.  Tony was in Heaven, happy and safe.  He knew that was the case, but Raphael showed Brad the reality of the situation and left no room for doubt that he was content and whole – at Peace.

          His earthly suffering prepared him to be here Brad.  He is happy and with loved ones.  What was done to him was monstrous, but it was not your fault.  Tony feels no anger or resentment towards you – he is happy and wants you to know he is Home.  Let your anger and your hate go… it weakens you.

          The image and the words freed Brad from his anger and the hatred he was harboring towards The Master.  His Light shone brighter and his White Talon broke through and grabbed Morgan’s possessed body.

          The Master fled, knowing his servant’s body wouldn’t allow him to channel the Power he needed to destroy Brad.  Morgan’s body burned to ash in seconds.

          Suddenly, the gym was absolutely silent.  Brad stood, his chest heaving, and he was drenched in sweat.

          Ken moved over to him immediately – B?  Are you alright?

          Brad’s eyes were wide as emotions ran wildly through him, but he was OK.

          Ken wrapped his big arms around his lover and held him, letting him absorb and process everything that happened.

          His Brothers all gave him a tight mental hug, and they lessened their Presence but kept the Link active, not wanting to intrude on the privacy between the two men.

          Brad turned in Ken’s arms and pulled their bodies tightly together, pushing his face down into the crux of Ken’s thick neck and shoulder.  He was still trembling some, and Ken soothingly ran his hands up and down Brad’s back.

          I love you B.  You were awesome.  I never had any doubt you could handle it. 

          I love you Ken.  Thanks – I’m good. 

          Ken heard Darren’s voice in his Mind:  Hey, Ken?

          Yeah, Dar?

          Sorry to intrude, but there’s something the doc needs you to do real quick before you leave.  Hold out your hand.

          Ken held his hand out and a flash drive appeared and dropped into his open palm.

          Plug that into the PC in the office; time for a little virus action in their system.

          Ken took the flash drive, and seconds after he plugged it in the PC rebooted.  The computer booted up fast – the Enemy didn’t skimp when it came to having state of the art PC’s.

          Ken felt the doctor’s presence enter their Link. 

          It should be finished any moment now.  I have wanted to try this for some time, but as busy as everyone has been the opportunity has not presented itself before now.  Well done my boys.

          The doctor sent a private thought to Brad:  Bradford are you alright? Kevin sounded worried when he called to me.

          I think I’m alright now, Doc.  Thanks for asking.  I just learned another hard lesson.  Ken knows me better than I know myself.  I’ve realized that for a long time; today he put me in the position to learn something about myself; he put me on the path, knowing it would stick if I figured it out on my own rather than him just telling me.

          The doctor chuckled, surprising Brad.  Yes, Albrecht is the same with me.  You would think that after all these years I would know myself well, but he manages to teach me more about myself every day than I care to admit.

          Thanks for sharing that with me, Doc.  He paused and grinned:  I guess we’re both lucky men.  All of us are.

          Yes my boy.  I count myself the luckiest of all of you.  I have Albrecht and all of you, and now Henry and Drew. 

          I still don’t know how you put up with us all those years, Doc.  How you ever found the patience is beyond me.

          It is quite simple really.  Albrecht taught me my most important lesson about patience shortly after we met.  I was quite uptight before then.

          I can’t imagine you being uptight sir.  What did he teach you?

          He taught me how to fish.

          You’re pulling my leg, sir.

          No my boy!  Not at all… I still hold the memories of our time together, right after we first met, floating on a raft in a small pond waiting for the catfish to bite.  I did not find out until nearly a century later that there were no fish in that pond.  Albrecht just wanted to teach me how to slow down and not be so uptight about life and what I could not control.  If I ever find myself being impatient, I take myself back to that time with him, floating on the water in the hot sun, quiet and peaceful, and my troubles never seem as deep.

          Brad paused again, deep in thought.  His mental voice was quiet as he finally asked:  Doc, am I being selfish?

          No Bradford.  You miss your friend.  Your grief is real and painful.  You are not being selfish.

          I mean I know now beyond any doubt Tony is fine and in Heaven, but I still feel sad, and there’s a hole in my life.  I’m happy for him – he can’t be hurt ever again, but he should still be here living his life, finding a mate and having kids and growing old.  I feel like something good was stolen – I would have been friends with him through all of that and been a part of it… and now it’s gone.

          It was stolen from you both.  The pain never lessens – and if it ever does, that is the day you should be worried.  It is the price we pay for who and what we are and our role in the Battle.  Even though it sounds cliché I will say it anyway – time will soften the pain, but it never goes away.  You are Immortal now, and you will outlive any human friends you have.  But you should never let that shy you away from having close friends outside of your Brothers. 

          Thanks, Doc. 

           The PC dinged and a small window popped up telling Ken to eject the flash drive.  He pulled it out and stuck it in his pocket. 

          He knew Brad had been talking to the doc, so he came up behind him and laid his arm across the front of Brad’s upper chest, pulling his head back gently and kissed him on the forehead.

          He smiled and Brad felt the familiar warmth run through him, as much from Ken’s smile for him as for his lover’s arm around him.

          “You good to go, B?”

          “Yeah, let’s head back.  We still need to have the ceremony for Tony.”

          “I’m proud of you, Brad.”

          “For what?”

          “For today.  For bein you; for kickin The Master’s ass; for figurin things out.  You made me so hot for you I can hardly stand it.”

          Brad grinned and said, “See, I told you Ken Jr. would be in control before bedtime.”

          Ken threw back his head and laughed, “You fucker.  Let’s get outta here.”

          Ken took Brad’s hand and pulled him up and they walked hand in hand back to the Explorer.

 

<><><> 

 

          The Ceremony for Tony was short but sincere.  Albrecht had a way about him; he was so utterly confident and yet peacefully serene at the same time.  Everything he said was significant; he had never met Tony in person, but Albrecht had been fighting The Enemy for thousands of years, and had done this often enough to know how to honor those who fell in Battle.  Brad had shared his own memories of Tony with Albrecht earlier, and Albrecht used that information in a profoundly meaningful way, and it gave Brad closure over Tony’s absence in his life moving forward.

          Brad shed no more tears, but Ken had his arm over Brad’s shoulder, holding him tight through it all.  Everyone was present for the Ceremony.  Henry thought it would be good for Drew to be there as well.  Drew stayed in Brad’s arms most of the time, instinctively trying to comfort him.

          Bryan said he wanted to take Tony’s ashes to the Valley and bury them under the roots of the Tree.  That did get a tear out of Brad, and he hugged Bryan hard and tight, loving his Brother and the gesture of compassion for his grief.

          The next few days leading up to New Year’s Eve were quiet, and Sally had planned a party for anyone who would be in the Lab that night.  The guys drew straws for who would be in Australia and celebrate that evening since they were ahead of the United States time zone.

          Bryan and Lane got the duty and after they got some clothes together, Darren synchronized their Avatars and sent the two men across the planet and into the safe spot of the Australian Lab.

 

<><><> 

 

          New Year’s Eve was a blast for everyone.  Drew wanted so badly to stay up for the countdown with Henry and his uncles, but he drifted off shortly after 2300.  Henry took him into their room and put him into bed but decided he would wake him up just before midnight.

          Sally cornered Henry and whispered in his ear that after midnight she wanted to celebrate the New Year between the two of them, and Henry was half hard the entire night thinking about it.

          The guys felt his excitement through their Link but only gave him a little ribbing – they were all anxious to get back to their own beds and do the same thing.  It didn’t stop any them from hanging a little shit on one another in fun, though.

          Ken was laughing and said, “Yeah, Henry, B’s gonna help me with my own countdown in a little while.”  He had a big grin on his face and squeezed Henry’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion.

          They got a Skype call from the young soldiers and Kelly in Australia.  Kelly looked like she was ready to pop.  Her stomach was huge and her baby was due soon. Albrecht was keeping a close eye on her – and the guys were on pins and needles waiting for her baby to come.  Kelly had slowly grown on all of them as she came out of her shell.  There were still some rough edges to her, but she finally believed they all cared about her; it just took her a while to trust them.

          Once again the doctor was a miracle worker.   Darren had been concerned about Kelly’s ability to be a mom when he rescued her from The Enemy in Australia, especially with the infant’s Mind already Open.  All of them helped with Kelly, but Darren had a real soft spot in his heart for her and her unborn child; he was the one who most often checked up on her and kept her in good health.

          Craig had the monitor in the kitchen for the Skype call and everyone in Atlanta could see the brunch spread that Rich and Bryan had put together for the Australian crowd.  It was just after lunchtime on New Year’s Day in Uluru, Australia.

          At one point on the call Lane said, “Me and Bry should come over here every year.  We’re a day ahead of all you sissies now.  If we do this often enough we’ll be the oldest and get more respect.”

          Bryan rolled his eyes, shaking his head and said, “God, I love my nerd.”  Everyone milked Lane’s comment dry with jokes until tears were running down a few of their faces from laughing so hard.

          Craig left the call open until just after midnight in Atlanta so they could all do a second countdown with everyone.

          Henry woke Drew up; he came out of their room holding a very sleepy little boy.  Henry gave Ken a nod about the Champaign – Ken poured a tiny amount into Drew’s favorite cup and gave it to him, “Here ya go, Drewster.  You get to celebrate with the big boys tonight.   Just a sip, and it’s gonna taste awful, but you gotta do it.”

          Sure enough Drew’s face scrunched into a horrible expression when he sipped the Champaign, and everybody laughed.  Ken whispered in his ear immediately after, “I hate it too buddy, but it’s a tradition.  You did great!  Now for the good stuff!”  Ken had another cup filled with grape juice and gave it to him instead.

          Drew was passed around for goodnight hugs and shortly after the countdown everyone went their separate ways.  Loy and Ricky stayed in the Lab, Bryan and Lane were in Australia, so Ken, Brad, Kevin, Bill, Pat, and Darren all got to sleep in their own beds that night.

 

<><><> 

 

          The next morning Henry woke up early.  Ken had called off training, but Henry was still in the habit of waking up at 0600.  He went to piss, and then made his usual stop in the small exam room a few doors down from the room he and Drew shared.

          He pulled his underwear off and lay down on the table, ready to do his tantric exercise.  He was still boned up a little from the night before with Sally.  He jumped, startled when the door opened as Sally snuck in.  She looked tired but was smiling.

          “I’m glad I caught you before you started.  I want to learn to help you with that.”

          Henry grinned and spread his thighs apart to give her full access to his erection.

          “The grip is a little tricky, but I’m sure with a bit of practice you’ll get it down.  Just don’t be afraid to squeeze too hard.”

          She grinned back, “Practice makes perfect, right?  But after I get it right I will want a few rounds with you before breakfast.  I’m sorry, but I’m really horny this morning.”

          “No need to apologize Sal.  You know me well enough by now – I’m a ‘morning’ man and ready to help you out anytime you need me to.”

          “I’m glad we can do this Henry.  I’m going to miss this when we eventually have to stop, but until then, that thing between your legs is mine.”

          He laughed, but caught his breath when her hand wrapped around his hard shaft and went to work.  Her hands looked small against the size of him, and they were soft and cool against his hot flesh.

          Sally had nice hands, and she mastered the technique quickly.  She got him off once and was amazed to see how his body reacted as it absorbed the backwash of semen.  His whole body flexed and went beet red, and he broke out into a light sweat –seeing him react that way turned her on.

          Henry spent the next two hours satisfying both of them while Drew slept on in their room.

 

<><><> 

 

          As soon as Ken and Brad walked into their kitchen, Ken set the house in ‘vault’ mode.  They hadn’t left any lights on, so the only illumination in the kitchen was from the light under the microwave. 

          “I’ll be right back, B.  Gotta take a leak.”

          Brad went over and opened up the refrigerator and took out a small bottle of water.  He smiled as he opened it; Lane called the small half sized bottles ‘Hobbit’ water. 

As he opened it his eyes went to the security console by the back door.  He moved over and stared at it, knowing what was there if he could bring himself to look.  As he sipped his water, he heard Ken’s steady stream hitting the water in the bowl all the way in the kitchen.  The corner of his mouth rose slightly:  There’s certainly nothing wrong with the water pressure in my man, he pisses like a stallion.

          Brad’s thoughts turned melancholy as he looked at the console.  Setting his water down, he pulled up the log files for the last two months.  Most of the time they had been out of the house – either on Lab duty in Atlanta or Australia, or on ZEUS, or at the Orphanage with Bill and Kevin.  The house was a wreck and he made a mental note to make time to clean up in the next few days.  His Mind kept drifting from the task at hand, which told him he was still unsure about wanting to look.

          He knew what was most likely there, and his eyes misted slightly at the thought.  Sighing, he opened the logs and a list of the alerts filled the screen from where various people had come to knock on the front door.  The camera activated from the motion sensor when someone came within range of the front door, so there was video associated with each alert.

          He hesitated again but knew he had to see.  He felt Ken come up behind him.  Ken could be deathly quiet when he wanted to be, but Brad felt his body heat and his Presence through their connection.  Ken had taken his shirt off and Brad could smell him – the distinct smell of his man.   Ken wrapped his big arms around Brad from behind and rested his chin on Brad’s shoulder so he could press their cheeks together.  He hugged their bodies close and swayed them both back and forth gently.

Ken figured out immediately what Brad was doing, and he said quietly, “Are you sure you wanna see this, B?”

          “I think I need too Ken.  I’m not sure why, but I do.”

          “I don’t like you beatin yourself up over this.”

          “I’m not Ken.  After Raphael showed me Tony, I’m OK with it all… and I had a great chat with the doc earlier today.  Fuck Ken, the doc’s such a good man.  I think sometimes we take him for granted, and I don’t like that.”

          As they were talking Brad scanned through the short video sequences.  He saw where Tony had come by the house several times looking for them.  The more recent the time stamp on the file, the more serious the expression on his face.  In the last few he seemed nervous and kept glancing over his shoulder.

          Finally there were no more, and Brad erased them.  He had a perfect memory and there was no need to keep the footage.

          “Let’s go to bed B.”

          Ken lowered his arms, took Brad by the hand, and led him back to their bedroom in the dark.

          Brad had been practicing the spatial awareness technique Darren used to locate Luke; he was letting Ken lead him, but he was completely aware of the bed and the furniture and maneuvered easily in the darkness.

          When they got into the bedroom Ken turned around and started undressing him.  Brad lifted his arms up so Ken could pull his t-shirt off.  As soon as he lowered his arms he felt one of Ken’s arms wrap around his shoulders pulling him close while his other hand went to Brad’s chest, gently kneading and clawing his left pec.

          “Fuck B, you are so hot.  I love you so fuckin much.”

          Ken lowered his hand, and took one of Brad’s hands in his own and placed it directly on his crotch so Brad could feel how hard he was.

          Brad’s fingers gripped the clear outline of Ken’s erection through his shorts.

          “That’s how much I love you, B.”

          Brad chuckled and whispered in his ear, “Only that much?”

          Ken’s chuckled back, “You fucker.  I’m so hard for you I can hardly stand it.  But tonight is about you.  I don’t want sex, I wanna love you.  I wanna love the rest of the hurt outta you, B.”

          Ken’s throat started to tighten up as he let his emotions loose, “You’re such an amazin man, Brad.  I mean it.  I know I tell you I love you all the time, and I know you can feel it, but I don’t say the other things often enough.  You’re so fuckin brave, and kind, and compassionate.  You’re everythin I ever imagined in a husband and more… so much more.”

          Brad started tearing up too – thankful for Ken’s words.  He didn’t need to hear them; he and Ken were incredibly secure in their relationship and feelings for one another, but validation never hurt.

          “Thanks, Ken.  You know I feel the same way.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to be with you.  You’re the man of my dreams, but you’re real.  I can touch you, and smell you, and feel you.”  Brad gently kneaded the big balls of Ken’s shoulders as he spoke, feeling the warm soft skin over hard muscle.

          As they professed their feelings for one another, Brad brought them together until they were One; in the Spiritual Realm their Light shone bright.  Ken wrapped their bodies together, wanting to feel their warm flesh pressing tightly against one another, chest to chest, muscle against muscle.  They hugged each other in their signature position, their chins resting in the crux of the others strong neck and shoulder.

          Brad concentrated, and their shorts disappeared.  Their erections, now free, lined up perfectly together and Ken started gently thrusting his strong hips, causing their dicks to slide together.  Brad used his Mind to pull their foreskins down, exposing their leaking heads and soon both their shafts were slick with precum.

          “I don’t think I can hold off, B.  You feel too good against me.”

          The thought of Ken being so turned on he was about to shoot hands free triggered Brad’s own impending orgasm.  He struggled to hold off a few more seconds so they could cum together.

          Their bodies tensed at the same moment.  Ken turned on their physical bond the instant they started to shoot, and they felt their dicks pulsing against one another and the hot spray of cum shooting between their tight stomachs.

          Both of them were sweating slightly and didn’t move, holding onto one another tightly through their orgasm.  Ken’s hips continued to thrust gently for another minute until they both stopped shooting.

          They both let out a, “Ohhhhh fuckkkk,” at the same time which caused them to smile and laugh.

          Ken turned them around and lowered Brad onto his back on the bed, and crawled up over him.  Brad turned the small lamp beside the bed on; he wanted to see Ken over him.  He wanted to make eye contact and get lost in those emerald green windows to Ken’s Soul.  Ken’s eyes were ringed with his own crystal blue at the moment, another expression of their perfect blending.

          Ken held himself up with one arm and he placed his other hand back on Brad’s chest.  He left it there for a moment, feeling Brad’s strong steady heartbeat.  With his enhanced senses Ken felt Brad’s heartbeat in his hand, and through their physical bond Brad could feel it too… and he felt what it did to Ken.

          Ken’s hand eventually started trailing down across Brad’s tight body, using a feather light touch.  He moved his fingers through the cum that was trapped in the hair covering Brad’s stomach, intending to use it as lube.  His slick fingertips grazed down Brad’s still hard shaft and over his balls, going lower until he cupped his hand down and around as his fingers found Brad’s opening.

          He gently rubbed his finger there, seeing and feeling the reaction in Brad’s body, and then he eased one finger in and out.  Both of them were flushed with excitement, and fresh sweat broke out over their muscled bodies. 

          Ken found Brad’s prostate and grinned when Brad’s eyes rolled back in his head at the touch.  He spent a long time gently massaging the gland; he was an expert at pleasuring his lover after nearly twenty-five years together.

          Ken wanted to take Brad to another place, to immerse him so fully and completely with the Love he felt for his soon-to-be-husband that nothing else existed while they were together.

          When he felt the time was right, Ken lifted Brad’s legs up and onto his heavy shoulders and entered him.  He made sure he rubbed over Brad’s prostate with every stroke.  He set up a steady rhythm that would let both of them last for a while. 

          Ken periodically leaned down so they could kiss, wanting his tongue inside his lover’s body just as his hard dick was.  After a while he lay down, putting most of his weight on Brad, knowing he could take it and also knowing Brad wanted it.  He knew what his own body did to his lover, and he used it as much as he did his tongue and his dick.  It was also a great position for him to more powerfully thrust himself into his lover.

          Ken made it all about Brad, and got complete fulfillment himself by doing so.  Nearly two hours later, both of them drenched in sweat, he brought them both to orgasm at the same time.  He slowed their perception of Time down to prolong the pleasure, and both of them were nearly incoherent by the time they started shooting.

          Both men strained with all their strength, holding and squeezing one another as their orgasms overtook them both.  Their skin was slick with heavy sweat so their hands slipped and they kept re-gripping one another.

          Ken finally lost himself in his lover too, and let himself be held and caressed.  He knew that part was for Brad too...when Brad did that to him, it sent him to that other place, Brad felt fulfilled by knowing he was the source of that feeling.

          They lay still for a time, catching their breath and cooling down.  Ken finally rolled off and onto his back, and Brad snuggled up against him with his head on Ken’s strong chest.  He could feel and hear Ken’s heartbeat that way.

          They didn’t say anything – there was no need for more words.  The expression of what they meant to one another couldn’t be more profoundly powerful than what they just experienced together.

          Instead of falling asleep, Brad was wide awake.  He moved slightly, propping his head up on one hand, and with his other hand he started caressing Ken’s entire body with a feather light touch.  Starting on his legs, he slowly moved up over Ken’s abs and chest, and then over his arms and finally his head.  He took his time, just loving the feel of touching Ken’s amazing body, and causing such a soothing sensation in his man.

          Ken soaked it up, letting Brad enjoy his body.  There was no need to ask permission by either one of them to touch the other whenever and wherever they wanted or needed. 

          When Brad finally started to get tired, he snuggled down against Ken’s body.  Ken wrapped an arm around Brad’s shoulders, holding him close, and kissed the top of his head.

          They both thought a gentle: I love you, to one another and fell asleep.

 

<><><> 

 

          The next day seemed brighter for everyone.   It was Monday, the start of a new week, and a New Year.  Everyone showed up early for training, all in a good mood and ready to get started. 

Ken received an email from the doctor just before he and Brad were leaving the house letting him know that all the building materials were ready and waiting for the renovations.  Ken called training off all week so they could work on the renovations in the Lab.  The medical testing company that occupied the front part of the building vacated over the weekend, so all was finally ready.  It was short notice, but the work needed to be done.

          Darren and Pat were the most experienced, having done a considerable amount of construction work on the Australian Lab, and were considered the foremen of the project.  With all of the men working in tandem, and using their abilities, the work went amazingly fast.  They could quickly dry the mud and plaster while hanging sheetrock, and with their strength and speed they tore through the walls that needed to be taken down.  With Patrick’s Understanding of the Physical Realm they could see into all the substances and materials they were dealing with, and inherently knew how best to complete each task or modify the material.

          Drew was excited to be able to help too – he had learned to use the plasma cutter in Thomin’s Vault, and while closely supervised, Henry let him help by cutting through any of the heavy beams in the building’s infrastructure.

          By the end of the week, the main living areas of the Lab, along with all the medical exam rooms were finished.  The kitchen received major upgrades much to Bryan’s excitement.  All new appliances were installed, and much new technology was implemented by the doctor in the process.

          By Friday afternoon everything was nearly complete and the guys were laying down the carpet and painting the walls.  The new workout equipment would be delivered the next week, and they would have greatly expanded opportunities in their regimens moving forward.

          Sally was giving Drew half days off from his lessons to help with the guys and be a part of what was going on.  She enjoyed the break herself, and used the time to catch up on a number of different projects she was helping the doctor with.  She also set up a revolving food table and kept it stocked all day long for the guys.  With Bryan so busy helping with the renovations he didn’t have any time to cook, so she tried to give them as much variety as she could and keep the food marginally healthy.  Their metabolisms burned off most of the bad fats and sugary calories, but they still insisted on eating good, healthy food as much as possible.

          However, Friday afternoon, in celebration of putting the finishing touches on the renovations, she had SmokeHouse BBQ cater a heavy lunch.  She was supervising the delivery of tray after tray of BBQ chicken, ribs, brisket, coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad, garlic bread, banana pudding, and sweet iced tea.  She had three tables set up stocked with food and she swore she could hear Ken’s stomach rumbling when the smells started wafting through the hallways.

          She was at the backdoor talking with the supervisor of the delivery crew, while his assistants were taking the bags of ice, paper plates, and cups in one last trip.

          “We really appreciate your business Miss Bisel.  I have your bill in the van, let me run and get it, and I’ll run your credit card.  Just need your signature, and we’ll be all finished.”

          The catering crew was delightful to work with, and Sally had been chatting with all of them in the last half hour they were setting up.

          “I’ll save you a trip Steve.  No need to come back in.”  She followed him out to the van, signed the release form and the electronic credit card device.  The crew piled in the second van and left.  She chatted with Steve a few more minutes and then said her goodbyes as he started the van and began pulling out of the parking lot.

          When the van pulled out, she looked up and jumped, startled to see a man standing only a few feet away from her who had been hidden on the other side of the van.  She froze in terror as their eyes met; eyes she hadn’t seen in months and never expected to see again.

          Her voice was quiet as she said, “Oh no!”  Panic filled her and she tried to run to the door. She knew she was outside the protection of the Runes.

          “Hey, Sal.  Good to see you again, baby.”

          The man was Carlo, her fiancé, who had been killed by The Enemy when they captured her months prior.   Carlo moved blindingly fast and grabbed her wrist; he was so strong he broke her hand.

          He clamped his hand over her mouth.  He put his other arm around her pressing their bodies together.  Memories of their time together flooded her mind.

          He whispered in her ear, “I’ve missed you so much!  Have you missed me too?”

          He removed his hand from her mouth to kiss her and she tried to struggle free.  He grabbed her injured hand and twisted her arm painfully behind her in an arm lock. He had one hand around her throat and the other immobilizing her.

          She screamed in pain but managed to cry, “HELP!”, before he clamped a hand down over her mouth again.  He was smiling evilly at her, his grin lewd and cruel.  Whatever he was, he wasn’t Carlo – not anymore. 

          The emotions she felt so strongly after he died all came back, and her head was spinning.  She was terrified and kicking herself for not being more careful by staying inside the protection of the Runes.  Her carelessness was probably going to cost her her life.

          Ken, Pat, Ricky, Kevin, and Bryan, with their enhanced hearing, heard her scream.  As always when they were in the Lab the guys were lightly Linked together, and they reacted instinctively and immediately. 

          Brad found Sally’s Mind, saw what was happening, and used her sight while Darren synchronized their Avatars, and the eleven men appeared in the parking lot, surrounding Carlo, who had his hand around Sally’s throat.

          The doctor ran for Drew, while Albrecht made his way as quickly as he could to the door, but stayed inside the protection of the Runes.

          Pat looked at Carlo with his Avatar; whatever Carlo was now, he was intricately complex.  There were multiple levels of Dark Magic involved.

          Brad tried to grab ahold of Carlo’s Mind, but there was nothing there; Brad had never felt anything like the absence he felt.  There was simply nothing there, but he was looking right at him.

          Darren tried to reach out and teleport Sally to him, but he was blocked and shouted:  Fuck! He’s blocking me from getting her!

          Carlo grinned at all of them and said, “I know how fast you are, but you aren’t fast enough to keep me from snapping her neck if you try to move.”

          Ken knew they needed some time to formulate a plan, even if only a few seconds.  He stared at Carlo, or whatever he was, and said, “Let her go, now!”

          Carlo ignored him.  He looked at Sally, terrified and crying; he took her hair and ran it under his nose, inhaling the scent of her shampoo. 

          “Ahhhh I miss that smell.  You always smelled so great, Sal.  Have you missed me?  Or are you happy shacking up like a whore with all the strippers?”

          Pat was confused… there were pieces missing to what he was looking at inside of Carlo.  It was like parts of the magic that were used to create whatever he was now were invisible to his Avatar.  He knew Ken and the others would see it as well, but maybe not as acutely as he did.

          Guys, something’s hidden inside of him.  There’s a lot going on there, but there are pieces missing.  I’m betting that one of Orophir’s Amulets is involved, or The Master figured out how they work and somehow incorporated the same matrix into this thing.

          Albrecht’s voice entered their thoughts:  He is a Golem, Patrick, and yes, I believe you are correct.  Be careful… there is some misdirection here.  He is Powerful, but The Master knows such a creature is no match for you, so something else is happening.  Be on your guard.

          Ken:  Dar, you can’t teleport Sally out of harm’s way, but teleport me right on top of him.  He won’t see me comin, and I can pin him down before he can hurt her.

          Things were happening fast, and there was no time to come up with a better plan.  They began to Power up as soon as they appeared outside, and Brad wove the bright white ribbon of energy coursing through all of them.

          Darren tapped into it, synchronizing their Avatars.  Ken’s locked them all into One, and he appeared behind Carlo.

          Ken was ready, and he exerted every ounce of strength in his powerful body as he grabbed Carlo from behind, grabbing and immobilizing his arms.  Sally fell forward and cried out as she landed on the hard pavement, hitting her broken hand.

          As soon as she was free, Darren was able to grab her and she appeared in his arms.

          Ken said, “OK fucker… what is it you want?  Why are you here?”

          Carlo started to laugh.  The sound haunted Sally… she used to love that laugh; but now it had a dark edge to it that dug deep inside her.

          “You just made my job so much easier than I imagined, Ken.  I’m not here for Sally, I’m here for you.”

          Carlo raised his head and shouted, “Master!  It is done!”

          As soon those words escaped Carlo’s lips his skin started to darken.  His form literally dissipated into a fine black powder, covering Ken and soaking into his body.

          Ken’s eyes went wide in shock, and he tried to say something but couldn’t.  He had a confused look on his face for a brief second, and then he slowly fell to the ground.

          The Master’s voice rang through their Minds:  At last… I told you there were others in your lives.  As powerful as you are, you cannot withstand a Blood Curse – in the last minutes of your life Ken Habersham know that you had a brother.  His corpse still lies in my prison, drained of the blood I used to impart this Curse onto you.  The only Cure is out of your reach – there are no others of your bloodline left, and that would have been your only hope. 

          The rest of you watch helplessly as he fades, and know that your Order, and any hope of defeating me, dies with him! 

          Brad saw Ken drop and he rushed over.  Ken was moving feebly, trying to turn over.  Brad grabbed him from behind and cradled his big body, wrapping his arms around him.

          Ken dropped out of the Link, and his Presence vanished out of all of them.

          Anger burned in Brad, through all of them, and not a little fear as well.  They summoned all their Power, The Tree, The Veil, the Animal Spirits, the Music of Creation – the weave was as thick and as Powerful as it ever had been.

          Lane synchronized their Avatars and he sent white arcs of Healing Energy into Ken’s body.  Patrick’s Understanding was in all of them, and they could see the black knot of the Curse inside Ken.

          The ribbons that Lane sent hit a barrier around Ken… it wasn’t Darkness like they expected.  Their Power simply faded before it entered him.  They poured more of themselves into it, pushing.  Their Avatars should have made them equal to the task… but there seemed nothing to be equal to.  They felt no resistance; their Power just… vanished before it entered him.

          “Ken!  Oh God, no!”

          Brad tried to delve into Ken and it was like he wasn’t there. 

          Ken’s voice was quiet and he sounded panicked, “B… where are you?  I can’t feel you.”

          Albrecht was witness to everything and he was tightly Linked with Aaron.  Aaron had Drew safely in his room and made him promise to stay put.  Drew was scared and wide eyed, but he promised. 

          Albrecht’s voice entered their Link:  Get him to the Tree as quickly as you can!  He will be stronger there and it will slow down the Curse.  It will give us time to think.  Go!  I will take care of Sally.  Contact me once you are there!

          Bryan knelt and lifted Ken out of Brad’s arms, “I got him, Brad.”

          Even as he stood up, with Ken’s body draped in his arms, Bryan’s Avatar flared emerald green, and he vanished with Ken.  Patrick, Ricky, and Kevin all followed with a flare of green light.

          Brad wasn’t sure why the thought struck him – the flash of Bryan’s Power as he Recalled himself to the Tree was the color of Ken’s eyes; the same color as the canopy of the Tree of Life.  His own eyes watered as the thought came into his Mind.

          Henry, I’m sorry, but you can’t go with us.  You aren’t allowed in the Valley, and I’m not sure what would happen if we took you with us.

          Henry was in tears, wanting to go and help Ken, but he was also the practical one to stay.  With the Team gone he was Drew’s main defense and protector, and he also saw himself in that role over the doctor and Albrecht.

          It’s going to be OK Brad.  I don’t know how, but it will work out – you all will find a way.  I’m with you in Spirit, you know that.  I love Ken like a Brother – all of you.  I wish I could be with you. 

          I know Henry.  Brad took the time to embrace him before he reached across the planet, looked through Bryan’s eyes so Darren could synchronize their Avatar’s and teleport them to the Valley.

 

<><><> 

 

          Bryan appeared by the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life.  He set Ken down on the soft grass as everyone else appeared around him.  Ken’s body felt hot, and Bryan sensed no Life in him; it scared him shitless.  It was like Ken wasn’t in front of him; he couldn’t sense him with his Mind either, but he could feel his strong body breathing.

          The dual nature of the Valley, being on both sides of the Veil, made itself felt immediately.  The Power of the Spiritual and Physical Realm quickly filled them up.

          Ken seemed confused and delirious, flailing his arms weakly as if he were reaching for something.

          Brad quickly moved over and put Ken’s head in his lap.  Ken’s body was hot and he was starting to sweat.  They could see the Curse in him… it had advanced rapidly through his being, but now that they were in the Valley it slowed.  Albrecht was right.

          As soon as Ken felt Brad’s hands on him he settled down.  Brad was terrified and he knew Ken must be too… whatever was happening to him was killing him, and he didn’t even have the comfort of their combined presence.  Both men felt the rift between them while everything was happening so fast.

          Brad hunched over and started talking to Ken quietly, wanting him to hear his voice, “I’m with you Ken.  Now and always.  You’re not going anywhere, and neither am I.  We’ll figure this out.  You aren’t going anywhere without me.” 

          Lane asked, “What the fuck is this thing in him?  I can’t touch it… I can see it but it’s like it isn’t there!  The Healing flows just dissipated before they even touched him.”

          Brad reached back across the planet to Albrecht:  We’re here!  Whatever is wrong with Ken seems to be slowing, but he’s hot and confused.  I can’t reach him Albrecht!  What’s happening?

          It’s a Blood Curse.  It’s a part of the Curse on Mankind… Aaron and I didn’t think it was possible for The Master to find any of your living relatives, but he must have found someone.

          The Master said Ken had a brother, and he killed him to make this Curse.  Is there any way to break it?

          Not without another living relative.  Blood is the only Cure, and it would have to be someone from Ken’s immediate family.  It’s Dark Magic Brad… it has its ties to the day that The Master killed Drew’s first incarnation... even further back than that. Old Magic such as this goes back to the Time before Creation.

          Fuck!  What are we going to do?

          Aaron and I can help to slow it, but Brad…

          Aaron cut in:  Do not lose hope Bradford!  We must keep Kenneth alive as long as possible and give ourselves time to discover a way.  I will be honest – I do not know how this will turn out, but I have learned that with all of you nothing is impossible.

          Brad felt a cold ball of fear in his stomach, but he pushed it down.  He had to stay focused and strong for Ken.  Brad was very aware of how vulnerable they all were in the moment, and how vulnerable their guests were as well.  The Runes in the Lab were the only thing that could protect them if the Team was absent.

          Brad’s Mind was spinning in different directions, but he stilled himself – he found the centering flame that Albrecht taught them to use as a focus to calm their Minds.  He learned a long time ago not to let his Mind control him – he learned to control it and make it work for him, even unconsciously.

          Bryan asked some of the guys to gather firewood; only dead limbs already on the ground, and none of them from the Tree.  They knew the drill from their previous visits; Bryan sounded terse, but no one was offended; they were all scared for Ken and what was happening.

          Lane:  Doc, how’s Sally?

          She is unnerved.  Seeing Carlo again in such a manner has affected her deeply.  She is still shaking, and I cannot blame her.  I am sure The Master specifically used Carlo’s corpse knowing how she would react.  He is still angry over her rescue those months ago.  Her hand is badly broken.  I have given her a sedative and something for the pain, and will set the bones momentarily.

          No need, Doc.  Being in the Valley already has us amped up.  If you don’t mind I’ll piggyback off you and take care of her.  Dar and Pat can help me.

          I am ready.

          Dar?

          Darren was gathering firewood, but teleported to Lane instantly when he heard his name.  He had been listening to the conversation and was prepared.

          Lane merged with Darren completely and the two men’s eyes turned white.  Their breath caught in their chests as they merged; the intense intimacy was as fresh and breathtaking as ever.  Darren pulled Pat in with them; they needed his Understanding.  Lane took one of Darren’s hands and Pat held the other, and they all three looked up to the Heavens, sending their Presence into the doctor back in Atlanta.

          Aaron let himself be the vessel for their Power and white ribbons of energy flowed out of his hands.  Vector arcs and information about Sally’s hand flooded into the doctor’s vision… he knew specifically which bones were broken or splintered and how badly.  There was nerve damage from where Carlo crushed her hand as well, that he hadn’t yet discerned.

          Lane blocked Sally’s pain centers, even though the doctor had numbed her hand.  Darren used the strength of his Mind to set the bones, knowing through Pat exactly what needed to be done and precisely how much strength he needed and at what angles.  Lane could see the damage in the flows, but working through the doctor made it more difficult, and Pat’s Understanding left no room for doubt as to what needed to be done.

          When the bones were set, the doctor felt the Healing flow go through him and into Sally, and the bones knitted together in seconds.  The amount of Power they sent through the doctor was minimal; healing a normal human like Sally was not nearly as strenuous as healing one of themselves; as part Nephilim it took far more energy to repair their own bodies.

          Lastly, Lane put Sally into a deep sleep.

          They felt the doctor’s awe at what they just performed through him; it was the closest he would ever feel to being one of them.  There was no jealousy, only fatherly pride and a renewed appreciation for who and what they were.

          That should take care of her, Doc. 

          Well done my boys, as always.  Albrecht and I will prepare something for Kenneth immediately that will help to slow the progressive nature of the Curse he is under.  We do not have long to discover a means to counteract what is happening to him.  I fear it will be a day or two at most before he will be consumed by the Curse.  Contact me in one hour, and I will let you know our progress. 

          His presence disappeared from the Link as he focused on his new task.

          While Lane, Darren, and Patrick took care of Sally, the rest of the men gathered the firewood.  Bill teleported to his garage and grabbed some of the gear they had used when they camped in the Valley before – cotton blankets, towels, and waterproof water skins.

          Everyone was at a loss as to what to do for Ken.  They made a base camp quickly and efficiently and made him as comfortable as possible.  Loy put together a lean-to in case it rained.

          While everyone was moving around them, setting things up, Brad sat with Ken’s head in his lap.  He kept one hand on Ken’s chest, feeling his heartbeat and the heat coming off of him.  He was so hot; sweat was pouring off him.  Bill brought him a skin of water and some cotton towels.

          Bill said, “Brad let’s get him undressed and as comfortable as we can.”  Together they got Ken’s shirt and shorts off.  Darren cooled the water with his Mind and Brad wet a number of the towels and draped them over his chest, arms, legs, and his forehead.  His body heat warmed them up in no time, so he kept rewetting them.  Darren kept the water cool.

          Fuck Ken!  How can this be happening?  Last week we were together, and everything was fine.  I had a faceoff with The Master – but you were with me.  We ate those shitty white powdered donuts together! You did it because I needed it… but I don’t know what to do for you right now.  Albrecht and the doc are putting something together for us to slow this thing down, but it’s not a cure.

          Albrecht said only the blood of another living relative will be enough.  If there is anybody we have to find them.  I’m not going to lose you!  After all we’ve been through it can’t end like this…it just can’t!

          Tears fell down Brad’s handsome face as he brushed the hair back off Ken’s forehead in a soothing gesture while he was deep in thought. 

          When the camp was setup, Kevin came over and squatted down on the other side of Ken.  He put his hand out covering Brad’s own, resting over Ken’s heart.

          “Brad… I know this doesn’t look good, but we’ll figure it out. There’s no way any of us are letting Ken go, any more than you are.  We’ll keep you in the loop on everything, but you stay here with him.  I know you need to be here. We’re heading back to the Lab to talk with Albrecht and the doc and try to get some answers and figure out a plan of attack.  Will you be OK?  Do you want anyone to stay with you?”

          “Thanks Kev.  I’ll be here with him, but I’ll be with all of you no matter where you are, and do whatever I need to.  If I need anyone to be here, I’ll let you know.”

          Kevin raised his hand up and cupped the back of Brad’s neck and shoulder, “Be strong Brad, but lean on all of us as much as you need to.  Now let’s start to figure this shit out.  You got a wedding to plan in a few months, and a little setback like this isn’t going to put a halt to that.  Right?”

          Brad wiped a tear out of his eye, and grinning he looked at his Brother, “Right.”

          The rest of the Team gathered together and Darren took them back to the Lab in Atlanta.

          The quiet suddenly seemed deafening.  It was as though he could hear Ken’s heartbeat pumping slowly with the rhythm he felt through his hand on Ken’s chest.

          He knelt over, his tears falling down and mixing with the sweat on Ken’s forehead. “Don’t you leave me you fucker.  Be strong Ken…fight this for us.  Oh God, please let him hear me...he has to hear me.”   He kept whispering “please” over and over as he cried quietly.

          Brad had no sense of the passage of time or how long he cried.  He periodically rewet the towels trying to cool Ken’s body and give him some comfort.  As powerful as Brad was in the Valley he could cool the water down on his own.  It took him a little longer than Darren, but he could do it. 

          He felt a slight soothing sensation in his Mind like a gentle breeze, and he knew he was no longer alone.  He felt no alarm or panic, and he didn’t move when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

          “Greetings, Brad Wilson.  If you wish to be alone we understand, but if you will permit us, we would like to keep vigil with you.”

          Brad looked up and saw Istariel, along with Alariel, Loy’s half-brother, and the other two Nephilim, in their human forms.  The four Nephilim, he now knew, who had been on their journey from the very start.

          “Thank you for coming.”

          “We have seen what happened.  Raphael and Michael sent us, although we would have come on our own.  They wish you to know they care and are deeply concerned.”

          Brad didn’t answer, but he nodded his head in acknowledgment.

          “They cannot intervene.  It is not that they will not, they cannot.  A Blood Curse is deep magic and goes back to the foundations of Creation… they do not have the power to undo it, even if they wished.”

          Brad wasn’t prepared for that knowledge…he figured they were forbidden to act because Luke wasn’t involved.  The fact that what was wrong with Ken was so deeply powerful was shocking.  It also pushed home that even without Luke in the picture, The Master was extremely powerful.

          He felt a slight sense of guilt for assuming Raphael and Michael would simply refuse to act.

          “Is there anything you require?”

          “I was about to go refill the water skins from the stream, but I’d rather not leave him.  Would one of you mind doing that?”

          Alariel glanced at the other two, who took the skins and left.

          Brad fell silent again.  After a minute Istariel broke the silence, “I miss watching Drew.  Since the Runes were placed in your Lab we can no longer see, and I miss watching over him.  How is he?”

          Brad was grateful for the distraction and proceeded to fill Istariel in on Drew and all that had happened in Thomin’s Vault, and his lessons, and Christmas.  He kept his hand over Ken’s heart the entire time, and when the two Nephilim brought fresh water he rang out the towels, chilled them, and reapplied them.  It was at least something to do… some motion to make him feel he was helping even the tiniest bit.

 

<><><> 

 

          After Ruth died, Gladys retreated inside herself, no longer talking to the nurses who came in to check on her.  She stared at Ruth’s empty bed with an angry look of betrayal. 

          Rachael, one of the nurses on duty told her that she would be getting a new roommate soon.  There was a waiting list to get into the facility, and the paperwork was in motion for a new tenant. 

          Gladys heard Rachael but ignored her.  She was so sad; she hadn’t known Ruth for long but cared for her; they looked after one another.  Now there was no one to look after her.  She and Ruth had shared stories of their children; everything Gladys told Ruth was a fabrication.  She spoke of a life she had with her two sons as though it was real, bragging on how big and handsome her two boys were, and that she knew her grandchildren would come surprise her any day, to take her home with them.

          Ruth knew it was a lie, but went along with it all for her friend, knowing it made her feel better.  By their age, everyone had some form of tragedy in their lives.  When someone ended up alone in an assisted living center with no visitors their story was not going to be a happy one.

          One afternoon Rachael came into the room to make sure Gladys had taken her medications and was startled by the sound of fluttering wings and she caught a small white form out of the corner of her eye. She spun around, expecting to see a bird in the room, but saw nothing.

          She thought about the day Ruth passed away in her sleep, when she had heard the same sound, and had an uneasy feeling about it.  When Rachael turned back around, Gladys looked like she was asleep, but something didn’t seem right.   Rachael couldn’t wake her up and ran to get the doctor on duty.

          In the Physical Realm Gladys was in a coma, but in the Spiritual Realm she was living out a Dream.  She was young, and raising her two boys, Richard and Bruce, and her life was perfect.  Michael made sure of it.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken wasn’t sure where he was.  He felt confused; he remembered Carlo holding Sally, confronting him, and then massive pain and disorientation… and then he was here, wherever ‘here’ was.

          He reached for Brad and felt nothing; he didn’t sense anyone or anything.  Panic hit when he felt the hole inside him where Brad should be.   He looked around and what he saw made no sense… his Understanding showed him nothing; it was like he was looking at a blank picture through his Avatar that didn’t match what his eyes were showing him.

           He looked around taking in the barren, rocky, landscape.  There were sharp jagged rocks everywhere; he was in a low area almost like a bowl in a mountain range.  The light was strange; it was bright but everything had a slight red tinge to it that threw off the colors. The air was hot and muggy and his t-shirt was already soaked through with sweat.  It was deathly quiet except for the sound of the wind; it was mostly still but once in a while a hot wind blew enough to make the heat bearable on his sweaty skin.

          Something about the place looked familiar.  It took a few minutes before it struck him; it looked like the Valley of the Tree but there was no plant life of any kind and the Tree was gone!

          He looked around on the ground and mixed in with the rocks were what looked like petrified shards of splintered wood.

          “Fuck!  Where the hell am I?  B, where are you?”

          He heard a rumbling noise as the ground started to shake under his feet.  Even with his enhanced dexterity and agility he was knocked off his feet.  A sharp pain shot through his chest as a black splinter of darkness erupted from the ground where the Tree should be.

          The pain was intense and he fell over, clutching his chest, realizing what he felt was tied to the black splinter; as it became larger and grew in mass the pain increased.  He could feel it reaching for him, and he instinctively knew he couldn’t let that happen or he would die.

          The splinter grew quickly and started taking on the shape of the Tree, but it was black and stony, almost oily looking.  He could feel it growing along with whatever was inside him, and he knew he had to get away from it.

          He took off running as fast as he could with the ground still moving under his feet.  His inhuman agility and speed were in full effect as he jumped and flipped, pushing and catapulting off falling boulders and rolling to his feet to keep his momentum.  If anyone could have seen him he was glorious; his grace and perfection were magnificent; his Avatar shone bright on his shoulder, trying to fend off the darkness growing inside of him.

          As he got further away the pain lessened, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the black Tree filled the Valley and would consume him along with it.  He had to try and formulate some kind of plan.  He missed Brad more than ever, and his Brothers. 

          Fuck!  It looks like I’m alone on this one. 

He hoped wherever they were they were OK.  He was sure they would be trying to find him, but he was still worried about them.  His worry wasn’t out of ego; he knew how capable they all were, but he couldn’t help it.  In the war they were in, bad things happened; what was happening to him was a perfect example. 

Horrible, Evil things could happen to any of them in the blink of an eye;  Darren’s torture, Bill’s self-imprisonment, Loy and Ricky nearly dying at the hands of The Master’s Amalgam… it never stopped.  If he could prevent any of the hurt and pain they had already experienced, or would in the future, he would; he would take it all on himself to spare them - he loved them that much. The irony was that all of them felt the same way.

The tight bonds between Ken and his Brothers formed while they were SEALS – serving together in a war created ties between men that transcended normal relationships, and now that their Nephilim Heritage was fully Awake the bonds were that much deeper and more powerful.  They lived inside one another’s Heart and Mind, often blended so tightly together they were one being.

          Ken continued to move through the pain, trying to get as much distance between himself and the black splinter as he could; the shaking finally subsided and he slowed to a walk.  He wasn’t winded; but he was hot, and his body was slick with sweat.  He stripped off his shirt and tucked it into his belt.  He wished he had hiking shoes instead of the workout shoes he was wearing. 

          He stopped, motionless when he heard someone groaning.   It was faint, but his enhanced hearing picked it up.  He wasn’t sure immediately what direction it came from; the echoes off the rocks made it confusing. He focused with the part of his Avatar that came from Patrick and saw the lines and vector arcs interpreting the sound he heard.  He waited until he heard it again.  There! The lines went directly behind some nearby boulders. The boulders were large, some as large as his Explorer.

          Assuming it was a trap, he proceeded cautiously, moving quickly and silently around until he saw a man, unconscious and trapped under a medium sized rock.  He paused again, making sure no one else was around, then crouched down close; he could tell with his Understanding the man’s leg was badly broken but not crushed.  He knew just how much force to exert to move the boulder and cause the least amount of damage.

          The boulder was big and he braced himself; his arms, back, and legs flexed with the effort.  The boulder weighed over a ton; approaching the limit of what Ken could lift.

          He was slightly winded after moving the large rock, but he knelt down and rolled the man over, being careful of his injured leg.  Once he saw the man’s face his eyes went wide - it was almost like looking at a different version of himself!  It wasn’t him, but the resemblance was uncanny.  The man was older, in his mid-fifties, but extremely fit.  Ken noticed a USMC tattoo on his forearm.

          He whispered quietly to himself, “Fuck me!”

          The man groaned and his eyes slowly opened.  Their eyes met, both emerald green, and neither one knew what to say.     

 

<><><> 

 

          Everyone minus Brad and Ken appeared in the Lab.  The doctor and Albrecht were busy putting something together.   The two men worked in unison, as if they were one Mind with four arms.  They probably were; except for the last hundred years they had been together for over two millennia.

          Kevin went over to them immediately and said, “Brad stayed with Ken.  We have a base camp at the Tree set up to keep him comfortable.”

          The doctor nodded, “Good.  We will have things prepared shortly.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Lane went to check on Sally and found her asleep.  He was worried about her mental state; seeing Carlo had to be traumatic, especially as a Golem and what he did to Ken.  She had loved Carlo and wanted to marry him and have his children – Fuck sometimes I hate this shit!  Why did The Master target her?  She didn’t deserve that!

          Bryan heard his thoughts and more importantly the emotions behind them. 

          No she didn’t, but she’s tough, Lane.  Tougher than most of us realize.  That doesn’t make it any better Little Buddy, but it’s true.  She’s as much a part of this war as we are now.

          Lane cast his Awareness out into Creation, Listening to whatever he might find.  He was the Seer and Oracle of The Order, and he carried the Gift inside of him.  He needed to be open to See anything that might help Ken.

          Hold me, Bry.

          Bryan came up behind his lover, wrapping his big arms around Lane, and pulled their bodies tightly together.  Bryan did as Lane asked and needed, holding him.  He surrounded Lane with his own presence – Body, Mind, and Soul.

          Lane rested against Bryan’s strong body.  Leaning his head back, he laid his head on Bryan’s heavy shoulder and exhaled, stilling his Mind, forcing calm amidst the turmoil of his emotions.  He pushed his fear for Ken aside, as hard as it was, and he surrendered himself to his Avatar.  In his experience, Dreams and Visions he was sent were more powerful than ones he tried to force and control.

          He wasn’t sure if it was from Remiel or from the Ether, but his brown eyes flashed white and he saw a Vision of two Protectors pulling a body out of a large chest freezer.  The body was wrapped in a sheet and tied up, and much of the fabric was soaked through with blood.  One arm of the corpse had slipped out of the wrapping and Lane could see a man’s muscled forearm and hand; there was a USMC tattoo on his forearm.

The location looked to be a tool shed of some kind.  There were two black Escalades parked outside on some grass; the vehicles had Georgia License plates reading ‘Fulton County’ on them.

          There were two ‘suits’ waiting off to the side beside one of the cars.  Lane could hear the conversation of the two Protectors as they worked, talking about the previous night’s Atlanta Hawks game on ESPN. 

          They tossed the frozen body onto the ground and moved around to what looked like a large outdoor kiln; the air rippled around it from the intense heat emanating off it.

          Lane’s Intuition and unconscious Mind put the pieces together.  The Master said Ken had a brother that was killed to make the Blood Curse.  He knew that the corpse wrapped up in the bloody sheet was the body of Ken’s brother and the Enemy was about to cremate him.

          Lane heard a dog barking nearby.  One of the ‘suits’ moved closer and suddenly Lane’s Vision ended.  He must have been wearing one of Orophir’s Amulets, and when he got in range it blocked his Avatar.

          Lane increased his presence in the Link and shouted: Loy!

          Lane took them all deep, slowing their perception of Time so it was nearly standing still. He shared his Vision with them; he knew what he was seeing was happening at that moment, somewhere in Atlanta.

          Loy cast his Awareness out, filling the minds of all the Animals in the metro-Atlanta area.  He limited his contact only to canines; there were thousands of dogs in Atlanta, but he was the Steward over the Animal Kingdom on Earth now.  His powerful Mind and Avatar looked through the eyes of all the animals.  In a matter of seconds he found the dog, watching the Protectors cremating the body, from a short distance away.

          Kevin was the acting leader in Ken’s absence and his thoughts were clear and firm:  Bill take us into a Construct of the Conference room.  Take us deep so we have time to talk.

<><> 

 

          The nine men appeared around the Conference table in full assault gear.

          Kevin’s voice was intense, “Guys, we need to get that body.  It might not do any good as far as what’s going on with Ken, but we can’t let The Enemy just get rid of it.”

          Lane interjected, “That place is too well protected against us.  They have all the houses we know about blocked from teleporting in, and they’ve been increasing their Runes… even though I saw the Vision I don’t think we could physically get there, at least not without some major preparation and we don’t have time for that.”

          Kevin’s face was serious and he looked pissed.  He wasn’t mad at Lane; he knew Lane was laying out the facts as they knew them.   He was furious at the entire situation.

          “We don’t know if having the body will help, but either way I want to get it, for Ken.”

          Henry piped up, “Send me.  Their Protections won’t affect me.”

          Rick spoke up, “Henry that’s not a good idea.  We can’t risk you going into one of their strongholds.”

          “Sorry Rick, but that’s bullshit.  You guys have done more for me than I can ever repay.  I know you always say we don’t keep score, but I can’t help it… I’m keeping score on what you all have done for me and Drew.  This is an easy decision.  They aren’t expecting us to go after the body… just get me close, and I’ll be in and out fast.  I only have to get far enough away to get outside the area of their Runes of that guy with the Amulet, and you can pull me back.”

          Darren had a frown on his face, “You know this could be a trap.  The Master’s done something like this before.”

          Henry wasn’t backing down, “What does your gut tell you Lane?  Do you get the feeling it’s a trap?  I say you send me in anyways.  If I know it’s a trap, I’ll be ready for it.”         

          Kevin missed Ken more than ever.  He felt the pressure of being the focal point of the decision, and envied how Ken always made it look so easy to take the lead.

          Kevin looked at Henry, “Are you sure?  You don’t have to do this Henry.”

          “Yes, I do.  You know I do.  You know Ken would never blame us if we don’t go, but imagine how he’ll feel deep down knowing we had a chance to at least get his brother’s body back for a decent burial?  We still might be saving this guy… we can’t see the body, but it might be covered in runes under those sheets that will do something else.  We still might be saving his Soul… we don’t know, but why take the risk?”

          There was only a brief pause and Kevin said, “OK.  Loy find a spot nearby that’s out of sight and we’ll send Henry in.   Henry there’s not time to even suit up for this.  Once we go back up you’ll only have a few seconds to get to the body before they throw it in the kiln.”

          “I’m ready.”

          Loy sent a private thought to Henry:  Remember Henry… the animals will do what you tell them.   If you get stuck in a bad spot call on them to help you.   They will sacrifice themselves for you if need be. 

          Loy felt Henry’s acknowledgement of his comment; he was still rattled by the animal thing.  He hadn’t had much time to explore that part of himself yet.  Loy increased his Awareness and took control of the dog that was barking nearby.  The dog ran quickly out of sight of the Protectors, and Loy used its sight as a teleport spot for Darren to send Henry in.

 

<><> 

 

          Henry appeared right beside the dog.  He glanced around quickly, getting his bearings. He glanced down at the dog and saw it looking at him expectantly.  He smiled at it and winked, sending it a thought:  Good boy!  He felt the excitement and contentment in the animal’s mind, and the love it felt for him.  Stay put, I might need your help. The dog’s tail was wagging so fast it was a blur.

He focused on the task at hand, looking at the house.   He knew the place; he had been there before when he was still a Protector.  With his inhuman speed he took off, his shields tight and powerful.

          Henry attacked the two ‘suits’ with dual spears of Mental Energy.  Neither was prepared for his assault, unaware of his presence, but one of them wore an Amulet, probably from Orophir, and Henry’s attack dissipated.  His other attack landed and the ‘suit’ fell to the ground dead.

          Henry heard the Mental voice of the suit cry out:  Master!  One of them is here!

          Henry knew he only had seconds to succeed or be captured.

          The two Protectors saw the ‘suit’ drop and heard the outcry.  They both took up a defensive stance as Henry threw himself at them.   Once again his training paid off – Albrecht’s tutelage and everything Ken and the other guys had shown him.  He launched himself, twisting his body in the air, avoiding their blows completely, as his body clotheslined the two powerful men.  Their necks snapped clean from the force of his body hitting them and they dropped to the ground dead. 

He recognized both men and knew they were willing servants to The Master.  He added their names to the tally of The Enemy he had killed since joining the Team.

          Henry rolled and came to a stop, crouched at the sheet covered corpse.  He scooped it up even as he felt the ‘suit’ attack him.  His own shields held solidly.  He looked at the ‘suit’, not saying a word, but he smiled grimly at the man.

          A look of rage and frustration crossed the man’s face; he knew if he didn’t stop Henry The Master would most likely kill him.

          Henry scooped up the body and took off as fast as he could run.  Henry heard the sound of splintering wood and felt the presence of The Master; Henry guessed he must have literally broken through a wall of the house to get out quickly.  The adrenaline rush from the sound boosted his speed.  He spun around just as he made it back to the dog with the body. 

          He saw the twin black holes that were The Masters eyes, and the Black Talon of energy already on its way to destroy him.

          Henry slowed down his perception of Time.  He knew Loy and the others were watching through the dog.  He felt Darren grab him.

          With his inhuman speed he raised one hand and flipped The Master off as he disappeared.  The Black Talon moved through the space where Henry had been standing a fraction of a second before.  He felt a chill run down his spine as he appeared in the Lab, with his middle finger still stuck out in a defiant gesture, the body of Ken’s older brother cradled in his arms.

          Darren looked at his finger with raised eyebrows:  I hope that was for The Master and not me!

          Henry grinned back, and set the body of Ken’s brother down on the exam room table.

 

<><><> 

 

          The doctor and Albrecht stopped what they were doing when they saw Henry walk into the large exam room and lay the sheet wrapped body down.

          Everyone followed, and the room was crowded and cramped with all the big men.  A few of them helped to unwrap the body, prepared to see a gruesome sight.  There was no mistaking the man was related to Ken; they weren’t twins by any means, but the resemblance was striking.

          He had been brutally tortured and his body was drained of blood; his skin was pale, almost blue, from the lack of blood.  It was obvious he had been in great shape for his age, strongly muscled.  Nothing like Ken after his enhancements, but they could see the base genetic similarities.

          Darren’s eyes flashed white and he pulled strength from everyone to thaw out the frozen corpse and Bryan and Lane cleaned him up while the doctor and Albrecht finished their own preparations.

          Most of them were in tears; Ken had a brother, a flesh and blood brother.  That man was dead and lay before them, lifeless.  The Master had not lied; he’d killed Richard, using his blood to craft the Blood Curse that was killing Ken.  A similar train of thought went through most of them – what if they had relatives that The Master had been able to track down?  Did they have blood relatives that were in danger of being killed and used against them as well?

          Bill moved up and looked down on the oddly familiar features.  He laid his hand on the man’s strong chest and his Avatar flared.  He Read the man completely…his name was Richard Yaeger.  He was adopted, like Ken, and had no knowledge of his younger brother, until The Master had told him of Ken’s existence after he had been captured.

          Richard had been a Marine and served a full lifetime career in the Corps.  He had served in Desert Storm at the same time as Ken.  He was born in 1959, so he was four years older than Ken chronologically.   He was a brave man, had been married and divorced twice and had no children.

          All the details of his life were made clear to Bill, up to and including his torture and the creation of the Blood Curse.  The torture was purely physical – his Soul had not been needed by The Master to create the Curse, and for some reason The Master had left it untouched.  Uriel had taken Richard seconds after his death.  There was a strong sense of relief in everyone, knowing how much additional pain Ken would have felt otherwise.

          There were vague memories of a woman who might have been his birth mother.  He had one solid memory of his father, and it wasn’t a pleasant one.  He learned years later that his father had died in some kind of oil rig accident. 

          Bill was trembling and shaking – he absorbed Rich’s experiences as if they were his own.  The torture The Master put Rich through became a part of Bill, and he was present through all of it.  He felt the firm resolve in Rich not to give in, and the cowardice he felt for eventually begging and screaming.  He felt the overwhelming presence of The Master inside Rich’s Mind.

          Bill had Read a lot of people recently, and it was all harsh.  Sadness welled up inside him over Richard’s life and death, and how sad and happy Ken would be to find out about Richard’s existence.  Bill would share Richard’s entire life with Ken, sure Ken would want to know everything about him.

          Lane merged with Bill completely, aware of how intensely all the recent events were wearing on him.  Lane knew Kevin was present through it all, and his presence softened the worst of it.  Bill leaned on Kevin heavily in times like the present, and each and every one of his Brother’s was there for him to lean on as well.

          Some of Lane’s tears were for Bill.  He knew all too well the double edged sword of Bill’s Avatar – his own Dreams were often as painful and deeply affecting as what Bill just experienced.  He put his arms around Bill, hugging him tightly, as he also wrapped his own Mind and Heart around his Brother.

          I’m with you Bill.  The simple words were a comfort, and Bill hugged Lane back.  Lane felt his appreciation through the Link.

          Bill pulled the ring out of his pocket, the one loaned to him by his Angelic grandfather Jegudiel, and slipped it on his finger.  Immediately he was surrounded by countless new unborn Souls.  Their freshness and purity were a balm, counteracting the pain of everything he had dealt with recently.  He rested in the Hall of Wings, slowing down his perception of Time, letting the presence of the unborn Souls comfort and refresh him.

          Lane knew it was a longshot, but he took the memory that Richard Yaeger had of the woman who might have been his mother, and the single lucid memory of his father.  He went deep and used his own Temporal powers associated with his Avatar and the Gift to look back in Time to when the memory was fresh.  He got a clearer picture of the woman and the man, and then he went to get his sketch book.

 

<><><> 

 

          Albrecht finished crushing the powder in the crucible and added the contents to what Aaron had already prepared.

          I’m ready Aaron.  Let me know when to begin.

          There was a slight pause, and Albrecht heard his lover’s voice:  Now, love.

          The two men delved into one another and became One.  Their breath caught in their chests; even after two millennia of being together their merging was just as emotionally intense as the first time and their eyes moistened.

          Aaron channeled their energies into one ribbon of white.  The weave was incredibly intricate, like fine lace.  The trap began to build, slowly gaining in strength.

          The warning crystals Albrecht had set out changed colors, indicating their target was close.

          The ball of energy expanded creating a small window; it was a Portal to a place neither man had ever ventured physically but had studied their entire lives.  It was a place beyond the Pale, where many powerful creatures lived; some benign but most vile and evil.  It was the place Orophir lived in his cave, hidden from everyone, even Luke.  It was also the domain of the Eschphene.

          There was a loud pop as the trap went off and a female Iktomi was brought briefly into the Physical Realm.  Its black spiked shell looked slick and oily, and the venomous tail thrashed about in her death throws.

          Albrecht swiftly impaled the creature with the rune etched dagger of silver he had ready.  He pinned its body to the countertop, and Aaron quickly removed the egg sack as the mother expired.  The egg sack broke open and spilled what looked like small black diamonds into Aaron’s hands.

The Runes of Protection on the Lab started working on the creature immediately and within seconds of harvesting the egg sack the body of the mother dissipated.  Albrecht placed the eggs in a glyph etched box and sealed it, to keep the Runes from destroying the eggs. 

          Well done. We haven’t lost our touch.

          It has been so long since we have needed to do anything like this love.

          The doctor called out to the rest of the Team with his Mind:  Please gather in the Conference room immediately.  Albrecht and I are finished with our preparations.

 

<><><> 

 

          Darren teleported them all into the Conference room within seconds of the doctor’s request, from wherever any of them happened to be in the Lab.  When Aaron and Albrecht entered the room they found the nine men waiting on them.  Their faces were grim and stoic, and they were anxious to know what the doctor had to share with them.

          Bradford are you with us?

          Brad had been in the Link the entire time but passive and not actively listening, trusting his Brothers to do what needed to be done. 

          He almost intervened when Henry went to collect the body of Ken’s brother Richard, but decided not to say anything.  He was still talking with Istariel and the other Nephilim all the while, and attending to Ken.

          Yes sir, I’m here.

          How is Kenneth?

          No apparent change in the last half hour sir.  I’m trying to make him comfortable.  Istariel and the other three Nephilim are here with me so I’m not alone. 

          What I propose for Kenneth is a bit unorthodox and not without some small risk, but I believe it is out best chance of slowing down the Curse to give us more time. 

          What are you planning?

          Albrecht and I have harvested the egg sack of a pregnant Iktomi.  My plan is to hatch the eggs a few at a time and let them feed off the energy of the Curse.  As they fill up and die you will replace them with two more unhatched eggs. This will slow the Curse down by a factor of half at least.  The growth rate of the creatures is fast, and the Power of the Curse will enhance that.  I estimate you will have between eight to ten hours per hatchling.  Space it out so there are always two feeding at any given time.

          I understand doc. 

          The doctor shared the basic handling instructions on the eggs. 

          I will have Darren send these to you.

          No need sir.  I’m strong enough here to get them.

          The box disappeared from Albrecht’s hands.

          There was a slight pause as Albrecht and Aaron looked at one another.  The doctor’s mental voice was quiet: How are you holding up, Bradford?

          I don’t know, Doc.  I have to believe this will turn out OK, and Ken will be back to me soon.  I’m not processing the alternative right now.

          Albrecht:  You know we are only a thought away Brad.  If you need us to be there say the word and we will have Darren send us.

          That statement shocked Brad enough that he asked:  You can come here?

          Albrecht:  Neither one of us have been back in over two thousand years, but you know the story of how we became Immortal.  We would risk anything for you and Ken, you know that.  If Michael or any of the other Arch-Angels have anything to say about us being there for you, they will answer to us.

          A fresh tear spilled out of Brad’s eye and ran down his cheek.  He leaned hard on both his mentors for a brief moment, letting them know once again how much they meant to him:  Thank you.

          You and Ken mean the world to us Brad.  We’ll figure something out.  Be brave and stay with Ken, and call us if you need us to come to you.

 

<><><> 

 

          Istariel:  I did not mean to intrude Brad Wilson, but I heard your conversation with Dr. Thomas and Albrecht; you are strong here, and weren’t shielding yourself.  There is something you should know, in case there is need.  Drew and his father are permitted to be here as well.  Michael has given Henry a dispensation as Drew’s father, and Drew, being who and what he is has every right to be here.  This is the place of his birth, his betrayal, and his first Death. 

          While Istariel spoke, Brad broke the seal on the small rune etched box.  The other Nephilim started when they saw what it contained.

          Brad took one of the small stones in the palm of his hand; it looked like a small faceted black diamond, but when he looked closely he could see the tiny form of an Iktomi inside of it.  It reminded him of a pollywog from his youth; he used to find the egg clusters in the small pools of water near the river he used to visit, the River where Ken nearly died the first time before they knew who and what they were.

          Istariel noticed the discomfort of his cousins and told them:  Be at ease.  The doctor is clever as always and desperate, but he would not endanger Kenneth Habersham’s life; you know this. 

          Brad placed the small egg on Ken’s chest over his Heart energy center, where the blackness of the Blood Curse was evident even on his skin.  It looked like a massive bruise spreading over his torso, and some of the veins in his chest and shoulders were turning black as it spread.

          Even without the enhanced senses of his partner, Brad could see the tiny creature squirming as he placed it near the source of the Curse.  He channeled a trickle of energy into the egg and it ruptured, releasing the Iktomi.  Immediately it latched onto Ken’s body, sucking on the energy of the Curse for nourishment.

          Brad continued to talk with Istariel, Alariel, and their two cousins for a time, although his heart wasn’t in it; he was thankful for their company, but he was distracted. 

          After a while Istariel sensed his mood and thought:  We will depart for now.  If you need us, do not hesitate to call. 

          Thanks again for being here; all of you.  I’m sorry I’m not better company right now.

          Istariel actually squeezed Brad’s shoulder before he vanished back across the Veil along with the others.

 

<><><> 

 

          To Ken it was like staring into his own eyes.  He had no idea how it could be possible, but he knew this man was his brother.  The Master told him he had a brother, and had killed him to make the Blood Curse.  Did that mean Ken was dead too?  He was sure he wasn’t; at least not yet.  But how in the world could his brother be here?  If he was dead, Uriel would have taken his Soul, assuming The Master didn’t consume it as part of the Curse.

          Something was going on, and he had no idea what, and it pissed him off.

          Richard looked into Ken’s eyes and there was recognition as well.  The only thing he managed to say was a quiet, “Fuck me!”  The guy who tortured and killed him said he had a brother, and he was going to use Richard’s blood to destroy him.  He didn’t feel dead – however he imagined death being, this wasn’t it.

          Ken was still stunned, but he managed to say, “Hi.”  He didn’t know what else to say.

          Before either man could say anything else the ground started shaking again, and Ken clutched his chest in pain.  He could feel the black splinter growing again.

          Richard tried to sit up and grab him, but groaned loudly when he twisted his broken leg.

          The pain in Ken’s chest didn’t last as long this time.  He was breathing hard but managed to say, “We have to get further away.  Can you walk?”

          “Help me up, and let’s see.”

          Richard yelled and cussed like a sailor from the pain.  With Ken’s help he managed to stand, but he couldn’t put any weight on his leg. 

          Ken said, “I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to carry you for a bit.  I’ll try not ta jar you too much, but we’ve gotta cover some ground.  That thing’s growin and we can’t let it reach us.”

          “What the fuck’s goin on?”  Ken was startled at how much his brother talked and sounded like him.

          “I don’t know.”  Ken moved over to Richard and leaning down, picked his bother up in a fireman’s carry as if he weighed nothing.  Richard stifled a groan as Ken took off at an incredibly fast pace.  He could have gone much faster, but was trying to keep his gate even and smooth.

          After an hour Ken made it to the cave leading to the outer cliff that was the path out of the Valley.  He wasn’t sure how they were going to navigate the climb down with Richard’s broken leg.  The tunnel needed to be traversed first; one thing at a time.

          Ken set Richard down and helped him sit up with his back against the rocky cave entrance.

          Richard’s eyes were closed, and he looked pale from the pain and loss of blood from the gash in his leg.  Ken didn’t even know what that meant… he knew they weren’t physically in the Valley.  The place they were in must be some kind of Construct; how and why he didn’t know, or who created it.  It was part of the Curse, and he didn’t know the rules.  He was thankful his Avatar and Powers seemed to be working.

          Ken hadn’t seen anything other than rocks as they made their way to the tunnel.  He needed to find something, preferably wood, to make a splint for Richard’s leg, but there were only rocks.

          Ken was thinking about how to solve the problem of the splint when Richard broke the silence, “Are you who I think you are?   Are you Bruce?  I heard that guy, the one that freaked me out say your name.”

          Rich’s voice dropped to a whisper that Ken could easily hear, “Am I dead?”

          Rich’s voice snapped Ken back to the present, “I go by Ken now, but yeah I’m Bruce.”

          The two men felt awkward.  Richard held his hand up, “Richard.”  Ken took his hand and shook it.

          Richard said, “Ken.”  He said it, as if wanting to hear the sound of it.  “I have a brother named Ken.  Fuck me, what’s goin on?  Nothin’s made sense since those guys nabbed me.”

          The reality hit Ken hard that his brother was already dead.  He didn’t know how Richard could be here, or where ‘here’ was.  His eyes teared up a bit, and he squatted down to face his brother eye to eye, man to man.

          “Is it OK to call you Rich?”

          “Sure.  You can call me whatever the hell you want if you can get us out of here.”

          “Rich… I can tell you what I know, but you aren’t gonna like it.  You probably aren’t gonna believe most of what I tell ya.”

          “Try me.  I think I’m already dead.  This sure as hell doesn’t seem like Heaven.  I’m not a religious guy, but none of this makes sense.  But it beats the alternative of being in Hell or Purgatory or whatever.”

          “I’m not sure how long we have to sit here.  If that thing starts growin again we’ll need to move fast.  This cave leads out, but it’s a hella climb down, and with your leg it’ll be rough.  I can get us down if you can hang on to me, but the climb takes a while.”

          “Start talkin, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

          Ken stared at the man who was his brother.  A total stranger… and he desperately wanted to know him.  He reached out with his Mind but wasn’t able to make contact.  Richard was shielded somehow; it was as if he wasn’t really in front of him, and that put Ken on edge.

          Ken started talking, and he recounted the story from his recruitment into the Navy, the Program, and his involvement in The Order.  He was short and concise, treating it like a debriefing.  Richard never interrupted him or said a word.

          Once Ken was finished he was caught off guard by Richard’s first question, “So you got anybody special in your life?  Do I have any Nieces or Nephew’s runnin around I need to know about?”

          Ken was silent for a second, not sure how Richard would take the news Ken was gay. 

          “Yeah, I have someone special.  My Soul is bound to my partner, who I love more than anythin.”

          “What’s her name?”

          “His name’s Brad.”

          Silence.  Ken felt a different pain inside his chest from the lack of response. 

          Even with his enhanced hearing Ken wasn’t sure at first what he heard.  After a few seconds he was sure Richard was laughing.

          Ken’s temper flared…he interpreted Rich’s laughter as a bad sign; maybe even homophobic.

          His deep voice was tight and even as he said, “What’s so fuckin funny?”

          Rich couldn’t stop laughing.  After a minute he calmed down some, and wiped the tears out of his eyes from laughing so hard.

          “You’re gay and your brother, me, who you’ve never met, is named Dick.”  He busted out laughing again, holding his stomach.

          Eventually he continued, “I shoulda known.  No straight man could have a body like yours.  I had a good buddy I buried in the war…he was gay.  Best man I ever knew.  I’m not laughin at ya Ken.  It just struck me funny.  Sorry, I didn’t mean to piss you off.”

          Ken felt relief run through him, and his face softened.  He hung his head.

          “You look like you can take care of yourself.  You’re strong as shit, and better lookin than me and that’s sayin somethin, but if we get outta this shithole, if anybody gives you any grief about that you let me take care of it.”

          There was another short silence between them, and then Rich asked out of the blue, “So you aren’t into anythin weird are ya?  Like dresses, or piss, or any of that shit?”

          Ken’s eyes widened in surprise and he looked at Rich not sure how to even respond, but he saw the smirk on Rich’s face.  Rich broke out laughing again and he said, “You are so easy to fuck with!”

          Ken got that little kid grin on his face that Brad loved so much, and he actually blushed.

          Ken’s eyes teared up again.  Never in a million years had he ever imagined having a brother.  He found him after he was already dead, and he accepted that part of Ken that he was always worried about revealing.  When Ken was a teenager, before he joined the Navy, he knew he was gay.  He had fantasized about finding his real family at some point and was terrified of how they would react if they knew about his sexuality.

          Brad was in his life, and he wasn’t ashamed; these were leftover thoughts from his youth, but the situation brought them fresh into his mind.  His emotions were already raw from the realization he had a brother, and had essentially already lost him.  He was sure as soon as he managed to find his way out of the Construct, or whatever it was, that Rich would be gone.

          Richard saw his tears and said, “Awww fuck I made ya cry.  I’m sorry Ken.”

          Ken’s throat was tight and he had to swallow a few times before he could find his voice.

          “I’m sorry Rich.  You just made me really happy.  I finally found you, and somethin I worried about in my head my whole life turned out to be nothin.  I’m really glad you’re here with me.”

          “Come here.”

          Ken moved over and knelt down.  “Gimme a hug, little brother.”

          Ken leaned in and Rich put his arms around his brother.  His eyes were wet too, “I wanted to have a kid brother all my life.  Now I got one.  He’s a fuckin stud, but I’ll still kick anyone’s ass that tries to mess with you.  Got it?”

          Ken smiled, nodded his head, and managed, “Got it.”

          “So tell me about this guy of yours.  He better be badass if he landed you.”

          “He is.”

          Before they could continue the ground started shaking again.  Ken clutched his chest and let out a frustrated, “Fuck! We gotta move.”

          He leaned over and slipped Rich back onto his heavy shoulders and ducked into the cave.  His Avatar shone brightly off the ball of his shoulder, giving him more than enough light to navigate the cave.

          He used all his agility and control to stay on his feet while carrying Rich.  He occasionally bumped into the walls and heard Rich groan.  He was sweating heavily in the heat and humidity and it was difficult to keep Rich on his shoulder; his weight kept slipping and Ken continually had to readjust, which he knew caused Rich more pain.

          Rich was a tough marine and stayed stoically silent through it all, only occasionally making a grunt or groan of pain.

          As Ken got them to the outside ledge the tremors stopped; they seemed to be getting less severe.  He wasn’t sure if it was the distance or something else.  The pain he felt in his chest was less on the last episode too.  He was sure it had something to do with Brad or the guys trying to help him; the thought gave him hope.

          The two brothers took the opportunity to share more about each other, discovering they had a lot in common.  They both ignored the fact that they expected to die soon, like good soldiers they were optimistic and carried on, acting as if they would live to see another day, both pretending they would be together for years to come.

          Ken and Rich shared as much as they could about one another in the time they had, but each had an entire lifetime to cover and they barely scratched the surface.  Rich told Ken about his life prior to the Marines, growing up in Oklahoma.  He shared his time in the service during Desert Storm; they were amazed that they had both been in Iraq at the same time, and even went to some of the same places in the same time frame but had never run into one another.

          Rich was impressed that Ken was a Navy SEAL and a Sniper.  He glossed over his own accomplishments, which Ken realized were significant, and Ken was just as proud of what he heard.

          They liked each other immensely.  Neither one acknowledged the fact that they had to build a relationship in what little time they had in the Construct.  They hung shit on one another and bantered like old friends.  The ease and comfort they felt towards one another was instantly deep and profound.

          Rich asked Ken about his life, what it meant to be part Nephilim, and he wanted to know all about Michael, Ken’s Angelic Grandfather.  Ken wasn’t sure if Rich was humoring him or if he truly believed everything Ken told him at face value.

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad watched Ken the entire time; sweat covered his body and Brad kept trying to wipe him down and apply cool towels.  He lifted Ken’s head periodically and poured water into his mouth in small amounts.  He was afraid Ken would become dehydrated so he asked the doctor to put together some IV’s and a catheter.

          Brad saw the blackness in Ken growing more pronounced.  Every once in a while Ken’s body would tremble violently, and he could see the Curse spreading.

          The Iktomi did slow down the process, just as the doctor and Albrecht predicted, but it wasn’t going to be enough.  Time was running out, and Brad felt the pressure and the panic of every second.

          Brad kept reaching for Ken’s Mind, but there was nothing there; it was like Ken didn’t exist.  The loneliness and isolation inside Brad was terrifying… it took his Mind back to the time when he and Ken were separated by the Creature that nearly killed them both.  The overwhelming feeling of separation was there again; he fought it off because he could see Ken in front of him and he had to stay strong until a solution could be found.  He leaned heavily on the presence of his Brothers in the Link when the feelings became too strong to handle by himself.

          This time wasn’t the same as with the Creature; Brad was in full control of his Powers and abilities now.  He was strong…perhaps the strongest Mind on the planet.  His man…his Soulmate was in front of him.  They shared a Soul…if Brad couldn’t reach Ken’s Mind he was determined to find another way.

          With his hand on Ken’s chest Brad let his unconscious Mind work on the problem.  He knew the Veil would be key; he remembered when he first discovered his ability to cross the Veil he told the doctor he didn’t see what good it would do.  He smiled slightly at his own naïveté and wondered again, even now, how the doctor kept from ringing their necks when they said things like that.

          Brad shifted his Sight into the Spiritual side of the Valley; the Paradox of the place he was in, two sides separate yet the same, fed and increased his own powers significantly. He studied what he saw in Ken, letting his intuition run with ideas. 

          He cried as he looked at Ken, missing his presence more than ever.  He missed Ken’s smile, and how he would hold Brad’s hand while they drove.  He held onto one of Ken’s hands and ran his thumb across the back of it just like Ken did for him while he sat thinking about everything.   In his own Mind, Brad was only half a man without Ken; he knew it wasn’t true, but he still thought it.  He held half of Ken’s Soul inside of him; that fact that all the men shared their Souls had saved them on more than one occasion. 

          Brad’s Mind latched onto that train of thought, and he formulated a plan.  Using all his knowledge and skill he gathered Power.  The sky over the Valley filled with clouds in response to what he was about to do. 

          He called on all the ancient Spirits that lived near the Tree.  The only creature he shied away from was Leroy; the risk was too great if something went wrong.

          Brad spent minutes building himself up, immersing himself in all he could draw in; he glowed so brightly his body became lost in the Light. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, when he felt stretched nearly beyond his limits, he cut loose in one massive surge.  A lightning bolt as thick as his body shot out of the clouds, striking at the heart of the Curse inside of Ken.

          Brad used all that Power to reach for Ken’s Soul, trying to get past the Curse and bring them together.  If he could add his strength to Ken’s, or give Ken everything he had, he might last longer.

          He wasn’t sure if the Curse ignored his Power or absorbed it.  Brad kept pouring himself into his attempt until he passed out, drained almost to death.  He collapsed on top of Ken, draped over his body.

Hours after Istariel left, Bryan, Lane, Kevin, Bill, Ricky, Loy, Patrick, Darren, and Henry felt Brad drop out of the Link.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kent Peterson found himself in the common area of the Lab in Australia.  The last thing he remembered was going to sleep next to his wife Marge.  They had tried to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but there was no liquor or beer available, and the party was boring.  He hated Champaign and poured his glass down the sink when he thought no one was looking.

He remembered falling asleep in his skivvies and had no idea how he had gotten dressed, but as he looked down at himself he was wearing Khaki shorts and his favorite polo shirt…well it used to be his favorite shirt but now it was uncomfortable – his stomach had gotten bigger, and now the material stretched too tight across his middle.  It was also covered in stains; his stomach was so big now it caught all the drips when he stuffed food into his mouth.

          Misdirecting his frustration about the shirt, his thoughts turned to how much he hated being in the Lab, hated the entire situation.  He felt like a prisoner although technically he knew he wasn’t.  That guy Henry had done something to him and his buddies; scared the living shit out of all of them.  They knew the cockamamie story that Dutcher and Whetherson told them was true, but it was still hard to believe.  Even knowing everything was true, Kent still didn’t like them – they were faggots, and it had been ingrained into him by his old man to hate queers and perverts like them.

          His own sons had been brainwashed by the fags – Jake and Craig idolized them, especially that guy Albrecht – he was in charge of their ‘training’ now.  Kent didn’t like the way Albrecht looked at him.  Albrecht was too quiet and Kent never liked guys who were too quiet – to him it meant they were always up to something.  The steady looks Albrecht gave Kent were misconstrued as judgment.

          Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he got up and went into the kitchen.  He wondered again how he had gotten out of bed and dressed without remembering – he must have been asleep walking.  He looked to see if anyone else was up but didn’t find anyone.  It was late.  The Lab was quiet, and no one else was around; they were probably in bed.  He searched through the cupboards for a snack but didn’t see anything he liked.  Hampton’s kid Rich was in charge of the food, and he only asked for healthy shit.  God, I’d kill for a bag of Cheetos and a Dr. Pepper… or a beer!  Fuck how long has it been since I had a fresh, warm Krispy Kreme donut?  How much longer do we have to stay in this God forsaken place before we can get back to our lives?

          Kent ranted in his head, which he did most of the time, unless he was ranting to his buddies.  Glenn Hampton was quieter since the incident with that guy Henry, and didn’t say as much, but he knew Glenn hated all this as much as he did. 

          Kent found a Coke Zero in the fridge – at least it was carbonated.  It tasted like shit though – anything with zero sugars or carbs had to be shit.  He liked real Coke – not Pepsi, or any other Coke ‘knockoff’.  He made a face as he chugged it, and tried to crumple the empty aluminum can like he did when he was younger, but it barely folded in the middle.   He looked down at his plump fingers and shrugged; he lost his grip years ago. Aggravated, he dumped the can loudly into the recycle bin in the kitchen.  The sound echoed loudly through the Lab in the quiet of the night, and it was oddly unnerving.

          He wasn’t tired, but he was bored and decided to go back to bed and try to get some sleep.  He waddled back down the hallway to the tiny room he and Margie slept in.  It was dark when he opened the door, so he moved carefully over to his side of the bed.  He positioned himself as quietly as he could against the edge of the mattress and then slid his way down.

          He started to sit down to take off his shoes but was startled when he sat down on someone.  He jumped up and let out a subdued, “Shit!”  Margie must have rolled over to his side of the bed.  She was a heavy sleeper, and he wasn’t surprised that she didn’t wake up.

          He fumbled for the lamp beside the bed and flipped the switch.

          As the room lit up Kent nearly jumped out of his skin – he was looking down at himself in bed with Margie.  His face was purple and his mouth was open but he wasn’t breathing; the face he saw was contorted in a mask of silent pain.  In a panic Kent fled the room, knocking over the lamp – he heard it fall on the floor and break as he bounced off the door across the hall from his own.

          He ran down the hallway as fast as he could.  A cold sweat broke out all over his body – this had to be a dream!  He was huffing and puffing, out of breath from even the short distance he ran.

          Kent spun around and fell on the couch, tripping over his own feet, when he heard a deep voice he didn’t recognize.

          “You aren’t dreaming, Kent.  You stopped breathing a few minutes ago after experiencing a massive heart attack; you never woke up.  I came early to talk to you.”

          “What the fuck!?  Who are you!?”  You’re tellin me I’m dead!? 

          “Who I am is not important Kent; what I am here to do is.  You are being given a second chance.  Normally you would never see me, and I would take your Soul to the next phase of its existence.  You have been granted a Dispensation.”  Uriel said quietly, almost to himself, but Kent heard him, “If you only knew how rare that is.”

          “I’m just dreaming!  I want to wake up!”

          Uriel’s deep voice was compassionate, “I am sorry, Kent.  You saw yourself in bed as you are.  I’ve slipped you out of Time before I must take your Soul, so we can talk.  There are mere seconds left once I return you to your body.  You have a choice to make.”

          “I don’t believe you!  Leave me alone!”

          “I suggest you take advantage of my presence Kent.  If I do as you say and take you now, I assure you, you will not be happy.  You are filled with Hate Kent, it is deeply rooted in you; it permeates your entire being.  You must let it go and ask Forgiveness.”

          Kent’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper as he kept repeating to himself, “This isn’t happening.  This can’t be happening.”  His eyes were wandering all over the place, looking anywhere but at the tall powerful being in front of him.

          Finally, Kent made eye contact with Uriel for the first time, and he was stunned.  The Depth of Uriel’s eyes drew Kent in – he saw stars, Time, patience, and Infinite Love looking back at him.  He saw sorrow as well, but he didn’t know or understand that it was directed at him.

          “Wh… who are you?”

          Kent’s voice was quiet now and quivering with fear, barely audible.  Once he looked into Uriel’s eyes, he knew he wasn’t dreaming.  He was terrified and panicked.

          “I am the Angel of Death, Kent.”

          If it had been possible for Kent to faint he would have, but Uriel was in his Mind and Heart, and Kent was in a Construct of Uriel’s fabrication.  Kent’s life and memories, his entire existence was open to Uriel – he looked at the River of Kent’s life with all the streams and outlets through Time.  He saw the culmination of Kent’s life up to the point where he was with Uriel in the moment…and then it was blank.  The Dispensation caused the blankness…Kent’s fate was undetermined.

          “Why are you doing this?”

          “Much rests on your decision, besides your Eternal Soul, Kent.  The lives of your sons, Jacob and Craig will be greatly affected by what happens to you now.  They have important roles to play in years to come, and how they react to what happens to you will deeply change the direction they might take.”

          “How?”

          “I am not here to discuss them Kent.  I am here to discuss your Fate.”

          Kent was shaking and sweating, so scared he could hardly think.  The Angel of Death was about to take him to Hell.

          “What do I have to do?”

          “Release your Hate Kent, and ask Forgiveness.  It is quite simple…but you must be sincere.  Simply mouthing the words are meaningless.”

          “What do you mean Hate?”

          Uriel’s eyes widened slightly in disbelief.  The self-deception humans were capable of astounded him even after tens of thousands of years.

          Uriel’s deep voice was compassionate but stern as he said, “Your life is filled with it Kent.  You are a shallow, hateful, bigoted, self-centered, egotistical man.  You care for no one outside what they can do for you or how they make your life easier.  You use and manipulate people, and put them down to make yourself feel better.  You do this because you Hate yourself – although it is so deeply rooted in you, you do not even see it.  This is the wellspring of your downfall.  It is evident even now in how you feel towards the men of The Order – they saved your life.  They have been nothing but kind to you and are keeping you and your family safe, yet you still rant at them in your mind.  You hate them for loving one another in a way you do not comprehend.  It has been so long since you felt love; you have forgotten it and no longer know how.

          “Before the men of The Order it was your neighbor, who you yelled at for parking his boat in the driveway.  You were jealous of not owning a boat yourself, so you wished him to get rid of his.  The examples fill your life, every day.  Even now your heart denies what I am telling you, and you try to blame Glenn Hampton for your plight.  You followed him most of your life, and he will have his own day of reckoning, but he is not responsible for your actions.  You blindly followed him for years because it was easier than thinking for yourself, and it eased your conscience to follow his lead.”

          Tears were spilling down Kent’s face – as Uriel spoke of each occurrence he pulled the memories to the forefront of Kent’s conscious thoughts, clearly illustrating his point.  Kent was reliving all those incidents of his life over again; they flashed through his Mind in seconds that took days to his perception.

          Instead of having the desired effect, Uriel’s words hardened Kent’s heart.  The shame and pride in him would not allow him to admit his guilt, or admit that he had ever done wrong.  He wouldn’t admit his simple embarrassment even if it cost him his Soul – he seemed incapable.

          His lips quivering in fear, Kent shouted, “Fuck you! You have no right to judge me!”

          Uriel let out a heavy sigh of resignation and lowered his head, “I am not your Judge Kent Peterson.  I am a simple Messenger and Conveyor of Souls.”

          Uriel closed his eyes in disappointment and grief; a feeling of deep sadness washed over him at what was happening.  This human was so shallow he was choosing to spend eternity in a personal Hell rather than admit he was wrong.  Salvation was within his grasp, practically being handed to him, and he was unwilling to accept it.

          There was a long quiet pause, and when Uriel finally broke the silence his voice was solemn with the finality of the situation, “Very well, Kent Peterson.  I am sorry.  I tried.”

          Kent’s obstinate anger quickly turned to terror as Uriel’s form began to change.  The visage Kent saw wasn’t the pleasant incarnation that people witnessed when Uriel carried them Home.  No… black raven wings appeared and his Aura went cold and Dark.  Kent’s screams went silent as Uriel’s black wings wrapped around him, in preparation of carrying him to his eternal torment and damnation.

          It wasn’t the Lake of Eternal Fire he had always heard about…it was the Eternal separation from the Creator and everything good and meaningful.  The desperate loneliness hadn’t even started yet when he began shouting to no one… “I’m sorry!  Please!  I beg youuuuu……….!” 

          The echoes of his voice went unheard.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig woke up from a sound sleep.  Albrecht had worked them into exhaustion again after dinner.  There was nothing on television any of the guys wanted to watch so they begged Albrecht to lead them in a Yoga class before he headed back to Atlanta.

          An hour later, drenched in sweat, every muscle in their young bodies trembling, they stumbled their way towards a hot shower.  Jake, as always, gave Craig an encouraging slap on his back and told him how well he did.  Craig could see the pride in Jake’s eyes at how far he had come along under Albrecht’s physical training and tutelage.   Not only that but how much he had grown into manhood.

          The guys showered together as always and joked around.  They had become very close; younger versions of their fathers from all those years ago, however they weren’t assholes like their fathers.  Jacob seemed to be their natural leader – they were all alpha males except for Rich, but Jacob was the oldest and had the highest rank among them, and everyone seemed to naturally defer to him. 

          Albrecht said goodnight to all the young men and to Kelly, promising to be back in the morning.  Kelly was under strict instructions to get in touch him the Atlanta lab immediately if she felt any initial contractions.  She was still a week out from her due date, and Albrecht felt OK leaving her for one night – he trusted Jacob and the others to watch her while he was gone for the night, and to use good judgment on contacting him if Kelly wouldn’t.

          Craig crawled into bed, determined to read at least a few pages of the Philosophy book Albrecht had them studying.  Albrecht had given the young men a list of modern Philosophers to read and study from – wanting them to read as many as possible, telling them that no one man had the ideas right, but he wished to expose the young men to all their ideas and then discuss the virtues of each.

          After Philosophy he would start them on Theology.   He insisted it was part of their training – he wanted to work on their Minds as well as their Bodies.  The Mind/Body connection was crucial to their wellbeing, and he was setting them on a path that would change their lives forever.

          Craig fell asleep after only a few pages, with the book on his chest.   He woke up with a start when he heard a noise in his room.  Startled he sat up quickly, with a sense that something was very wrong.

          He had fallen asleep with the small bedside lamp still on, so the room was dimly lit.  He stayed still for a few seconds listening.  The sound had to come from inside his room as the rooms were soundproofed, but he didn’t see anything out of place.  Still, the pervading sense of wrongness was too strong to be ignored.

          He threw off the covers and got up, moving to the door.  He unlatched the door and poked his head out into the hallway.  His anxiety levels were rising, and his body started trembling.

          He moved down the hallway, but the Lab was quiet – the only lights he could see were from the microwaves in the kitchen they kept on to use as nightlights.

          Craig was beginning to panic.  He hurried to Jacob’s room and opened the door.  There was a general rule of not locking the doors, and if a door was shut it meant privacy.  He opened the door and saw Jake had fallen asleep the same as he had with the book on his chest. 

          Jake was a light sleeper and woke up when Craig opened his door.

          “Craig?  Is something wrong?”

          Craig didn’t answer him but ran to his parent’s door.  He opened it but it was dark.  He knew his dad would be completely pissed if Craig woke him up, but he didn’t care at the moment.  He flipped the light switch by the door and the sight of his father, in his underwear, his face purple, mouth open, hit Craig hard.

          “NO!  DAD!”  He screamed and ran to his father’s side.  Craig’s mother woke up when he shouted, and as soon as she saw her husband she screamed.

          Jacob’s door was still open and he heard Craig and his mother both scream and he ran as fast as he could to his parents’ room.  Jacob was a combat soldier and well trained…as awful as the sight was if his dad wasn’t dead, he needed help immediately.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kelly woke up when the contraction hit her hard; she reached for Chloe’s Mind and was shocked at the frightened thoughts coming from her unborn daughter.  Chloe’s distress triggered the contractions and realization hit Kelly that she was giving birth.  She felt the wetness on her sheets from when her water broke; she was a heavy sleeper, and it hadn’t woken her up.

          Chloe was scared and Kelly looked inside her Mind; Mr. Peterson was dead!    The emotions coming off her unborn child were strong and they triggered the physical reaction in Kelly sending her into labor.

          Kelly was terrified and she shouted in her mind:  Darren!  Albrecht!  Anyone!  Please help me!

          In her panic she didn’t have the control to reach into Jacob or Craig or one of the other young soldiers.  With their Minds closed it was different, and her hormonal swings made it difficult even when she was calm; it was much easier to reach someone already Open.

          No one that could hear her was in the Australian Lab, and she didn’t have the range to reach across the planet.  She yelled out loud, but her room was soundproofed.  She doubled over in pain, clutching her big round belly. She remembered Albrecht leaving for the night, saying he would be back in the morning.  She hoped and prayed that one of them would somehow hear her, or sense something wrong and contact her.

          She felt Chloe instinctively reaching out to the other people in the Lab… the emotional pain Jacob, Craig, and their mother felt drew the child like a moth to a flame.  Like Drew, Chloe was more empathic than telepathic at her age; her abilities were raw and not yet developed.  Drew had linked with her on occasion, and she felt great pleasure at his presence in her young Mind.  She had learned that her presence helped Drew when he was sad and she wanted to help Jacob and Craig and Marge.

          Kelly put up a shield around herself and her daughter… Darren, the doctor, and Albrecht had all stressed to her the need to keep Chloe from merging with anyone, especially an adult.  She ended up struggling against her daughter… her physical pain and the labor were taking their toll and draining her.  Chloe was strong and didn’t understand… she kept pushing; her want was simple, and like any child she pushed for what she wanted.

          The trauma of trying to contain her daughter’s Mind and going through labor with no relief from the pain taxed Kelly beyond her ability. 

          She had come so far… Kelly had been scared and angry when Darren first rescued her and took her to the Atlanta Lab.  She was a runaway…and The Enemy found her and used to her body as an incubator to have babies.  She never knew why…she was mostly unconscious through that time, but she remembered the pain, and just like Chloe most of those babies had been Aware.  The genetic manipulation on the unborn children had been torturous and harsh on both the mother and the fetuses.

          But over time, and the unconditional love shown to her by Darren, Pat, the doctor and Albrecht, and all the men broke through her barriers; she came to a place in her life where she was at least content…she wasn’t sure she would ever be happy again, but she at least didn’t feel abandoned and unloved.

          She liked everyone except that wanker Hampton and his friends…but knowing that Kent Peterson was dead didn’t make her happy.  She didn’t feel much in the way of loss though…he was a tosser, but he didn’t deserve to die. 

          Kelly had started having sexual thoughts towards Jacob, and even fantasized once about the two of them getting married and having more children; Darren had healed her body so she could have more children if she wished.  She thought Jacob was extremely handsome; the night he escorted her to the Atlanta Symphony Building for Lane’s Christmas present had been a turning point in her feelings for Jacob.  He was such a gentleman and stayed with her the entire night, caring for her and making her smile.

          She realized that she really did care about the men who took her in. At first she thought it was ludicrous that all of them were gay…they were too good looking to be gay.  Then she laughed at the absurdity of her comment and thought the opposite after she knew them; they were too good looking to be straight.  But the unconditional love they had for each other and for the people under their care, the example they set before her, affected her as deeply and as powerfully as if they had altered her Mind. 

          She learned to trust them; Darren promised never to lie to her, and even when it was painful he always told her the truth.  She respected that…her previous life had been filled with lies and deceit.

          Pain wracked her body again as another contraction hit, and Chloe was putting relentless pressure against her Shields.    She didn’t know what to do… exhausted and drained to her limits, both mentally and physically, she passed out.

 

<><><> 

 

          Lane was sketching pictures of Gladys Boulware and her husband Harding Yaeger.  It was a long shot, but using facial recognition software had helped a few years ago to find Boris Cromwell when Ken had been captured.  He thought the idea worth trying again.  He used his Avatar to look through alternate realities to find a timeline where both Gladys and Harding lived and grew old.  He memorized their features and brought them to life on paper.

          He had nearly completed the sketches when his eyes flashed white and a harsh anxiety grabbed ahold of him.  An image of Kelly in labor filled his Mind; she was alone and distressed, screaming in pain, and he could see blood on the sheets of her bed.

          With what was happening to Ken, none of them were in Australia.  The timing couldn’t be worse.

          Fuck!  Guys!  Kelly’s going into labor.  She’s all alone in her room!

          Darren:  I’ll go and take care of her!  You guys keep working on a way to help Ken.

          Darren synchronized their Avatar’s and he and Pat vanished, appearing across the globe into the Lab in Uluru, Australia.

          As soon as they appeared, Patrick’s enhanced hearing picked up on Marjorie Peterson’s hysterical sobbing. 

          Darren and Pat rushed through the common area and down the hallway where the bedrooms were.  They saw Jacob holding Craig in his arms.  Jacob’s head snapped up when he saw the motion, and his eyes were red and bloodshot.  Craig’s shoulders were shaking from his sobs.

          Pat:  Dar go to Kelly.  I’ll find out what’s going on here.

          Jacob’s voice was rough with emotion, “Guys!  Thank God you’re here!  Maybe it’s not too late!”

          Darren reached for Kelly, but she was unconscious.  He felt her but couldn’t use her eyes to teleport into the room.  He rushed into her room and saw her unconscious; her bed sheets were covered in blood and as soon as the door opened he could hear the cries of a newborn infant.

          He looked at Kelly’s energy flows and they were weak but fine, she had passed out.  He sent a gentle healing flow into her body and restored her, putting her into a deep healing sleep.

          He reached down and picked Chloe up.  He snipped her umbilical cord with his Mind, and with a small, gentle wave of Power he cleaned her tiny body.  She stopped crying as soon as he touched her; she knew him already, and his Presence made her feel safe.

          Her tiny eyes, barely open, looked into his as her Mind tried to do the same.  He wrapped her up in Love and smiled, his dimples in full force.  Darren had never been around a newborn infant before and he was mesmerized by her tiny body.

 

<><><> 

 

          Pat heard Chloe’s cries as soon as Darren opened the door to Kelly’s room, but had to let Darren take care of it; the look in Jacob’s eyes was pleading.  He didn’t have time to ask what happened; he looked into Jacob’s memories of the last half hour.

          Craig begged, “Please Mr. Manning!  You have to bring him back!   You have too!”  His voice choked with sobs and the sound caused a tightness in Pat’s throat.

          Pat moved into the room and saw Kent Peterson’s body.  His Understanding let him know immediately that Kent had been dead for nearly ten minutes.  Uriel would have collected his Soul a few seconds after his death.

          Pat’s eyes filled with tears, and both Jacob and Craig saw the look on his face.

          Craig’s voice was accusatory, “Where were you?!  You should have been here!  You could have saved him!”

          Pat reached out and put a hand on Craig’s shoulder, trying to comfort him, but Craig slapped his hand away.

          Pat said, “I’m so sorry Craig. We have an emergency… Ken’s dying and Sally… it was bad.”

          Pat could literally see the emotions running wild in Craig; he was furious at Pat and all the Team, thinking they should still be able to save his father.

          While he was dealing with his own emotions over Kent’s death and seeing what was going on inside of Jacob, Craig, and Marge, Pat felt Darren’s Aura increase as he healed Kelly’s body of the trauma of her unattended birth.

          Chloe’s fine and Kelly will be.  She’s wiped out.  Chloe inadvertently made it rough on her… Kelly had to use all her strength to shield Jacob and Craig; Chloe must have felt it when Kent passed and wanted to help them.  It almost killed Kelly, but we got here in time.

          Fuck. If she would have died too…

          Yeah.  Just damn Pat.  What a day.

          I don’t know what to tell the boys Dar.  Their dad’s dead, and if any one of us had been here we could have saved him.  We should have done something before now about his health, but with everything going on…

          Darren pulled Pat into a complete and tight merge and took them so deep Time stood still.

          Fresh tears started to fill their eyes, but before they could fall down their handsome faces, the two men were inside one another.  They took solace in one another, comforting and leaning on one another in the grief they felt over everything that was happening.

          They stayed together for hours as they perceived it, while no Time passed for their bodies, immersed in one another and soaking in the presence, the very essence of each other.

          Darren shared everything about Chloe with Pat, how she felt in his arms, and the look in her eyes.  She was so new and fresh, her existence was a bright star in the middle of a dark night.

          When they came back to themselves, they felt Brad disappear from the Link.  It took a moment for the other Mentalists to Power up enough to reach one another across the planet.

          Kevin:  Lane and Bry!  Get to the Tree, and find out what happened!

 

<><><> 

 

          Instantly Bryan recalled himself to the Tree, and Lane appeared a fraction of a second later, using Bryan’s eyes to see through.

          As soon as he appeared, Bryan, with the part of his Avatar that came from Patrick, saw that Brad was alive but unconscious.  His energy centers were nearly depleted; thankfully the strength of the Curse kept the Iktomi distracted and they didn’t latch on to Brad.  While he was unconscious and defenseless they might have killed him.

          Brad’s body was draped over Ken’s.  The Iktomi were squirming and about ready to burst, near the end of their life cycle from the energy they had consumed from the Curse.

          Lane and Bryan’s relief that Brad was alive was apparent through the Link to everyone.  They didn’t know what he had done, or if he had injured himself somehow, but he was alive. 

          Darren:  Guy’s Kent Peterson’s dead.  He passed away in his sleep of a massive heart attack.  Kelly gave birth, and it almost killed her, but I got to her in time.  Chloe’s fine, but Kelly’s unconscious.

          Kevin:  Jesus.  OK Dar, you and Pat stay there.  Get the doc or Albrecht with you as soon as you can, but stay there until further notice.  Lane and Bry you guys stay with Ken and Brad; find out what’s wrong with Brad, and call us if you need help.  Do what you can for them.  Bill, Ricky, and Loy, we gotta figure out how to save Ken.  Dar how are the boys?

          Mostly in shock… Kent passed in the last few minutes so it’s fresh.  Jacob seems calm but Craig’s a mess.  He blames us and honestly I don’t know what to tell him.  We should have done something about Kent’s health before now.  I know we aren’t responsible, but we still could have prevented it.

          Give them our love, Pat, even if they don’t want to hear it.  I’m sorry you guys are taking the brunt of that.  Do what you can for them.  Fuck they didn’t need this.  Give our best to Kelly when she’s awake, and tell her we’ll see her soon.

          When Bryan looked down on Ken he felt the wrongness immediately.  Ken’s body trembled and Bryan saw the Blackness expand, but this time the black roots were spreading, and reaching for the Tree.

          Fuck me!  Guys we don’t have a lot of time.  If the Curse infects the Tree there’s no tellin what’s going to happen.

          The extreme urgency in all of them was evident.  Being in the Valley was slowing down the Curse and if they had to take Ken back to the Lab the Curse would spread faster and kill him.  They couldn’t risk the Tree being affected; there was no telling what it would do to the Physical Realm if that happened.

          How could things have spiraled so out of control in less than a day?

 

<><><> 

 

          “You ready?  This is gonna be a bitch.  I’m sweatin like a pig and it’s gonna be hard ta hold onto me.  I’m gonna need both arms and both feet to make it down and the climb takes hours on a good day.”

          Rich put on a brave face, but it was obvious to Ken his brother was in a lot of pain.  “I don’t have a choice right?  I’m a Marine, I’ll suck it up.  I gotta trick that might help.  Use our shirts and bind my hands together.  Carry me like a sling with one hand over a shoulder and the other under your other arm around your torso.  If I start to slip I’ll catch on your shoulder.  You’re strong enough that should work.  If not let me drop and save yourself.”

          “That’s not gonna happen.”

          Rich was astounded at how strong Ken really was… when he got into position Ken’s back felt like concrete.  He was carrying both their full body weight, and he wasn’t even breathing hard.

          “What the fuck does that doc guy feed you?  Holy shit you’re solid.”

          Ken laughed and said, “You probably don’t wanna know what makes me this way.  What the doc did to me was a huge start, but bein with Brad makes me even stronger; not really my body but everything else about me, and with my Avatar that translates into my physical body too.”

          Rich laughed, “So doin the nasty with your fella makes you stronger? Hell I’d be willin to try a walk on the wild side, if it did that to me.”

          Ken laughed and said, “Well, me and B don’t stray, but a few of the guys on the Team might be inclined; especially once they lay eyes on you.  I can set you up with a hot muscle bear and his partner when we get outta here.  Loy and Rick would eat you up.  Darren and Pat would too.”

          Rich’s eyes bulged a little and Ken laughed harder.  Ken left off the part of their DNA killing him if he wasn’t safe.  It was all a joke anyway, so it didn’t matter.  He wanted Rich’s mind distracted with the banter.

          As he started to climb down, Ken was acutely aware of how much pain Rich was in.  With his enhanced hearing and physical sensitivity he could pick up on all the little grunts and groans that Rich thought he was stifling, and he could feel Rich’s body’s react to the pain when his leg jarred against Ken or the rock wall.  Ken tried to make his movements as stable and smooth as possible to keep Rich from swaying, but he could only do so much while climbing.

          To pass the time, and to cover his nervousness, Rich relayed stories from his two marriages.  He seemed to have the same gift for conversation that Ken had, and it took Ken’s mind off the climb.

          Rich was exhausted and trembling before they were even a third of the way down.  Ken could feel the tension in his body and the trembling in his arms; as strong as Rich was he was past middle-aged and supporting his body weight for that long was not viable.  He was drenched in sweat, and even though he was hanging onto Ken he had to reposition himself every minute or so.

          “Hang on just a couple more minutes and you can rest.”

          “How the fuck is that gonna happen?”

          “Just wait.”

          Ken made the climb often enough that he knew there were some spots that were easier than others.  His tennis shoes weren’t conducive to gripping the rocky surface, but they were better than bare feet.  He knew there were periodic areas that had better cracks to grip.  It took slightly longer to find one than he expected, but he eventually found a place where he had one solid toe hold and two good handholds.

          He secured his foot as best he could, knowing it would have to support their combined weight.

          “OK, this is gonna be a little tricky, but I want you to scoot around in front of me and sit on my quad.”

          “No fuckin way!”

          “Yes fuckin way, Rich!  Get your ass around here and sit.  I can take it until you let your arms rest some.”

          “Fuckin showoff.”

          Ken smirked and said cockily, “Just be glad I can.  There are a couple more spots we can do this on the way down if I can find ’em.  You’re still gonna be screamin like a little girl before we make it to the bottom.”

          “OORAH Fucker!  We’ll see about that!”

          Both men went silent, Rich out of sheer pain and exhaustion.  He didn’t want to admit weakness to his newfound younger brother, but he was grateful for the relief.  Ken could feel Rich’s body sucking in oxygen as his chest heaved from the pain and exertion.

          After about five minutes Ken asked, “So how about it old timer?  You ready to head down?”

          “Hell, I’m waitin on your sorry ass.”

          It took a moment for Rich to reposition himself like he was before, mostly hanging from Ken’s back.  The short rest did its job, and at least for another few minutes he was strong enough to hold on.

          Ken felt the Blackness expanding again as soon as his chest tightened.  Rich felt him stop as Ken’s entire body strained to fight off the pain.  Fresh sweat covered his body as his muscles tensed.  He had to be careful; his fingers nearly crumbled the lose rock he was gripping.

          Unexpectedly Ken felt Brad’s presence.  He reached as hard as he could for his lover, but was unable to connect.  He let out a, “Fuck!  B!” 

          Oh my God!  B!  Can you hear me!? 

          As quickly as it showed up Brad’s presence disappeared.  Ken knew Brad was trying to reach him, and whatever he did almost worked.  He felt Brad reaching for him; it was like the fingertips of their Souls briefly touched as they grabbed for one another, but the strain was too much and they slipped apart.

          “Ken?  What’s goin on?  What was that?”

          “Fuck! I just felt Brad for a second.  He’s trying to get to me, but whatever he tried didn’t work.”

          Rich could feel the tension in Ken, the conflict.  Ken hung his head with his eyes closed tight.  His breathing was heavy now, not from the physical strain but from the emotional one.  Whatever happened deeply affected his brother; Rich didn’t understand it, but he could tell how upset Ken was.  On the outside Ken’s face didn’t give any indication of what he felt, but Rich had an instinctive feeling towards his brother.

          He finally said, “I’m sorry, Ken.”

          Ken kept silent for another few seconds, trying to get his breathing under control.  The tightness in his chest wasn’t from the blackness this time; it was from the pain of missing the other half of his Soul. 

          “All of this is fucked up, and it’s not your fault or my fault.  I know whose fault it is, and he’s the top person on my list for an ass kickin.”

          The Will and Conviction of Ken’s Avatar backed up his voice, and Rich felt it.  He got a glimpse of what Ken really was – how strong his younger brother was, and a multitude of emotions ran through Rich’s mind.

          First and foremost was what a great man his brother was.  How Ken had come to be the man he was, Rich had no idea, but he wished more than anything he had been a part of it; yet at the same time, Ken’s strength made him feel completely inadequate.  Rich was a very competitive man, and he knew he couldn’t hold a candle to his younger brother.

          Ken had a pretty good idea what was going through Rich’s mind.  He wished he could merge with his brother and find out everything about him, and show him how much he already meant to Ken, and that there was nothing to compete over.  They had just met, but Ken felt like they had known each other forever, and there was already a place etched in Ken’s Soul where his brother’s presence would be forever.

          He knew deep down that even if he got out of this Construct, Rich wouldn’t.  He was already dead, and Ken had to make every second with his brother count.  The bond they created in the Construct would have to last him a lifetime in his memories once he was out and back in the real world.

          Ken knew they had to keep moving, so he started his climb down again, but he continued their conversation, “Rich, don’t go there.  I’m not competin with you, and you aren’t with me.  We’re brothers, man, and we’re stickin together.”  He hesitated and then continued, “I love you bro.  I know that sounds silly ’cause we just met, but I really do.  I wish we’d grown up together.”

          Ken knew he needed to get Rich’s head out of the place where he was, so he shifted the conversation radically.  He got that little kid grin on his face, which Rich couldn’t see, and he asked, “So how big are you?”

          Rich said, “Six foot, about two thirty, why?”

          Ken laughed, “No, I mean how big are you?”

          “What the fuck?”

          “That small, huh?  Nothin to be ashamed of.”

          “Fuck you junior.  I bet I’m bigger’n you.”

          They started to banter and hang shit one another, bragging about who was bigger.  Ken accomplished his goal; it took Rich’s mind off his own concerns and distracted him from the discomfort and pain in his arms and his leg, at least somewhat, and got him out of the headspace of competing with Ken.  Ken was extremely worried about Brad but didn’t let it show.

          Rich was fully aware of what Ken was doing and he played along, hoping to take his little brother’s mind off Brad.  He had only known his younger brother for a few hours, but now that he found him, he didn’t want their time together to end. 

 

<><><> 

 

          The Master felt it when Brad struck the Curse.  He knew there was nothing they could do against it, but he was still surprised at how much Power they threw at it, enough for him to feel their attack.  As the Summoner of the Curse he was attuned to it, and he felt the attempt.

          Through it all, he sensed Brad Wilson’s desperation, and it made him smile, showing his crooked sharp teeth.

          Hope on, little Warrior.  It will make the pain of his death all the more sweet.  I think I will save you for last, and savor your pain.   You and Ken Habbersham are the two ends of the Circle; it is appropriate that you are last, so you can watch all the others fall before you.

 

<><><> 

 

          After Lane and Bryan vanished, Bill saw Lane’s sketchbook on his desk; the two faces he had brought to life on paper.  They were amazing.  Lane was incredibly talented, and so unassuming about it – both his music and his skills at drawing and painting.  Bill had a clear image in his Mind of the drawing Lane had done for him and Kevin as a Christmas present.  It hung in their bedroom and meant more to them than anything.

          The sketches looked finished to Bill’s untrained eye – they were certainly good enough to scan in and run against the doctor’s facial recognition algorithm. While Bill was in the process of scanning the images, Sally came out of her room and moved over to him.

          She looked pale and withdrawn.  He knew she didn’t feel good because she didn’t have any makeup on.  They hardly ever saw her without makeup and always kidded her about it; she was such a girl that way.

          Bill stood and gave her a hug, “Hey, hun.  How are you doing?”  His voice was strong and gentle, and she clung to his powerful frame.  Bill was the tallest of all the men, standing 6’4” and the top of Sally’s head barely reached him mid-chest.

          As soon as her arms wrapped around him, his Avatar fired off and he Read her.  She didn’t see his eyes squeeze shut as he felt her emotional pain over seeing Carlo again as a Golem.

          She sniffed but was determined not to cry, “I’m alright, thanks.”

          He cupped her chin in his hand and raised her face up to make eye contact.  He knew she was not telling the truth, and she saw it in his eyes immediately.  She looked embarrassed and blushed slightly.

          “I’m sorry, Bill.  I shouldn’t be so upset.  I’m more worried about Ken than over Carlo and seeing him again.  I know that wasn’t him.”

          “Sally…what happened to you was horrific.  There’s no need to be sorry or ashamed over being upset.  I know exactly what you’re feeling…sorry I couldn’t help it…when we hugged…well you know how my ability works.”

          She snuggled against Bill’s warm, strong, body in comfort, wanting to feel safe.  He held her for a few minutes until she finally pulled back.

          “OK…I need to put my big girl panties on.  I’ve got plenty of time to cry and work through this, but for now I want to help with Ken.  Is there anything I can do?”

          “I’m scanning these drawings Lane did of who we think Ken’s mom and dad are.  Lane managed to find them in another reality where they were still alive so they should be accurate.  Can you run the facial recognition algorithms?  You’re probably better at it than I am right now; I’m not fully up to speed on all the new software the doc’s been working on.”

          Sally was a little wide eyed over Bill’s comment as to how Lane got the images of Ken’s parents. 

          Bill grinned and said, “Yeah, he did that.  If anyone told me two years ago that we’d be doing shit like this I’d have called them insane.  Now it’s just another day at the office.”

          “I’ll be glad to run the pics.”

          She sat down and went to work quickly and efficiently.  While she was working she asked, “So, what else is going on?  What other leads do we have to help Ken?”

          Bill filled Sally in on Kent Peterson’s death and Kelly giving birth.

          “Oh my God!  Marge, Craig, and Jacob must be devastated!”

          “It was a bad day.  Craig blames us for not being there to save his dad.”

          “I’m so sorry, Bill.  You know he’ll realize that’s not true when he settled down.”

          “Maybe…but he’s partially right. We should have done something about his health before now.”

          “Bill…none of you are to blame.  Kent Peterson was a walking time bomb; anyone who saw him knew it.  He looked in the mirror every morning and saw the reflection.   I don’t mean that to sound mean, but he did it to himself.”

          “Yeah, but we should have done something.  Normally we wouldn’t…we can’t get distracted with things like that out in the world, but he was under our protection, and that changes our own rules.  We had plans to change all of them, so we could help them stay hidden and off the radar once we can get them out of the Lab.  All this other shit just happened too soon.”

          Sally put her small hand on his big biceps and gently squeezed him in comfort.  “You all can’t be everywhere, or everything to everybody.  I realized that when I figured out you couldn’t bring Carlo back to me.  When I saw Greg come back at the party in the backyard to talk to everybody, it got my hopes up that you all could bring Carlo back for me.  I realize now, not only that you couldn’t, but it was unfair for me to think that.  Now, after working with the doctor and Albrecht and all you guys, I realize it was completely unfair of me to put that kind of pressure or obligation on you.  If you want, I’ll talk with Craig about that.  It might help coming from me; I can relate to how he feels.”

          “That’s probably a good idea, Sally.  Thanks, hun.”  He leaned over and kissed the top of her head.

          “Hey I gotta earn my pay somehow, other than making the best pot of coffee around.”

          Bill left Sally to work on the scans, while he went back into the Conference room with Kevin, Loy, Rick, the doctor, and Albrecht, who were all in a deep discussion over Ken and what options they might have to save him.

 

<><><> 

 

          Lane saw the clouds in the sky; they were dissipating even as he looked up and he knew they were there in response to something Brad just tried.  He and Bryan both could still feel the tingle of electricity in the air.

          They rushed to Brad’s side and Bryan gently pulled him back off of Ken.  They were both shocked when they saw the visible traces of the Curse on Ken’s body, and the dark streaks reaching towards the roots of the Tree.

          Lane, through the part of his Avatar that came from Bill, felt and saw the impression of what Brad just did.  The amount of Power he channeled was phenomenal; the emotional adrenaline and desperation pushed Brad beyond his normal limits.  How the Curse could be unaffected by that much power was baffling, but it seemed untouched.

          “Let’s get him comfortable, Bry, and get him recharged.”

          Bill had brought extra blankets and towels and Bryan rolled a blanket up and put it under Brad’s head.  They laid him out beside Ken.

          I need to Power us up anyways to cool down the water.  Ken’s still burning up.

          With Bryan, it wasn’t a matter of drawing from the Tree.  In this place, at the source of the Power of that part of his Avatar and as Protector of the Tree, the Power was constantly trying to push into him.  It was more a matter of letting it in; it constantly wanted to fill him up when he was so close.

          He opened himself, and just like the first time at his Awakening, his Mind and Heart expanded, flooded with the knowledge and feeling of all Life in Creation.  Lane felt it through their bond, and he followed Bryan out.  To him it was like riding the crest of a tsunami, but one that was peaceful and controlled.  

          He Listened and filled the two of them up even more.  They were both like magnets for the animal Spirits that lived in the Valley, and they swam in the air around the two men, lending them their strength.  The Spirits instinctively wanted to help Ken, and Lane had to Command them to not empty themselves.

          Lane wove a fine net of energy and sent it into Brad, restoring his Life energy.  He opened Brad’s energy centers one by one, strengthened the flows, and pulled him into a complete merge with himself and Bryan.

          Brad woke up in the beautiful place where their Souls were One.  The three men were naked together in that place and Bryan and Lane had him sandwiched between them.

          Instead of words they exchanged thoughts so all of them were fully aware of what the others knew.

          Brad wanted to cry, but no tears came.  It surprised him, but he knew his unconscious Mind was steeling him so he would be able to help Ken.  He could no longer sit idly by and let his Brothers do all the work.

          Bryan finally spoke, “Brad, you need to stay here with Ken.  He needs to feel you here, and we need to try and figure out a way to stop that thing from spreading into the Tree.”

          “I can’t just sit here. 

          Lane continued, “The guys are working on it Brad.  As soon as they need us we’ll know.  In the meantime, we stay here with Ken.”

          Just then, Ken’s body trembled violently and they saw the Blackness spreading, not only inside of him, but towards the Tree.

 

<><><> 

 

          While everything was happening in the Physical Realm, Gladys lived her perfect life inside a Dream.  She raised Richard and Bruce, her two sons, as a single mother; it was a struggle, but she managed.  She was incredibly proud of both boys.

          She relished the life she never was able to live in Reality.  Michael was with her the entire time, watching over her, walking with her.  He was with her when each boy took their first step, skinned their knees playing outside, riding their first bikes, playing little league, and every stage in between.

          She watched Richard and Bruce grow into manhood.  Rich was more athletic and competitive, and he was very protective of his younger brother.  Bruce was a decent athlete, but didn’t seem to have the interest his older brother did.

          Gladys was proud and sad the day Richard told her he was joining the Marines.  Four years later, Bruce told her he was joining the Navy.  Gladys was proud yet terrified for her two handsome sons.

          She bragged at church, and carried pictures of them both in her wallet, ready to show anyone their pictures at the drop of a hat.  She had pictures of both of them in their uniforms on the mantle in her tiny living room.

          They rarely got to come visit her at the same time, but whenever either one of them managed to come home on leave she baked them her famous apple pie and make them homemade ice cream.

          Michael made sure Gladys was happy and content as much as he was able, and was present with her in the dark times of loneliness.

          Both her sons married and had children, and Gladys loved being a grandmother and getting to spoil her grandchildren rotten.  She begged her sons to let her grandchildren live with her in the summers while they were out of school. 

          It was a perfect life.  Michael made sure of it – she was the earthly mother of his grandson, and she deserved a respite from the harsh life she led in reality.

<><><> 

 

          Samuel Evander had served The Master for nearly two decades; he gave his Soul over to Darkness and gained unimaginable power over normal humans as a result.  He was dedicated to The Master, willing, as all his servants were, to lay down his life for Him.

          Two days later, a cab dropped him off at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma, City to head back to Atlanta.  He had suffocated the old woman and considered his mission accomplished; all the last known relatives of Ken Habersham were dead and there was no possibility of a Cure.  The Master would be victorious over The Order and when his reign over Mankind was undisputed, Samuel would have played a significant role in His success and be duly rewarded.

          Stopping at a small newspaper stand he purchased a copy of The Oklahoman, the local Oklahoma City paper, before boarding his flight back to Atlanta.  The flight was nearly full, which irritated Samuel no end.  Even though he was in first class, he preferred to fly without sitting next to someone.  There were a few empty seats, and just before the flight took off, he touched his forefinger to his temple and his eyes flashed white; the other passengers rearranged themselves as necessary and within a few minutes he was seated by himself.

          He ordered a Bloody Mary as his pre-flight cocktail, and made sure the flight attendant knew exactly how he liked it.

          Shortly after takeoff he removed his hat and leaned his head back to doze.  He was woken up by the flight crew when the in-flight food service began.  He slept some more after his meal and was woken the next time by turbulence.

          Irritated, Samuel decided to remain awake for the rest of the flight.  He opened the newspaper and began skimming the headlines.  He soon tired of the paper; and was about to put it down when his blood ran cold.  Panic hit him hard, and fear, when he read the headline in the obituaries:  Retraction - Tragedy Strikes Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK.  Incorrect Death reported.

 

          Tragedy struck twice at the Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK last week.  Gladys Boulware was incorrectly reported as deceased in a records mishap.  The woman who passed away was Ruth Emmet, the roommate of Gladys Boulware.  Ms. Boulware is still alive but in a coma, after learning of Ms. Emmett’s demise.  Her condition is stable but unresponsive. 

 

          Samuel didn’t finish reading the rest of the article. He had killed the wrong woman!  He had to get back immediately and finish his task, and keep The Master from discovering his mistake!

          The flight was nearly to Atlanta.  A chill went down his spine…he had to make this right as fast as possible.  He controlled the mind of one of the flight attendants and made her contact the cockpit to arrange for his return flight.  She made up a story of a medical emergency.

          There wasn’t another flight back to Oklahoma City for another four hours and he paced and fumed the entire time.

          He was on edge and it leaked out into the people around him; all the nearby passengers were irritable and snappish.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken was worried that Rich wasn’t going to be able to hang on.  His older brother was at the limit of his endurance, both physical and mental.  Rich had stopped talking minutes before and was breathing harshly.  Ken stopped trying to get him to talk so he could save his breath.

          Ken tried his best to locate another spot to stop and rest but wasn’t able to find one.  He wasted a few minutes moving sideways rather than down searching for a spot that would work to no avail.  There were still a few hundred yards to go to reach the bottom, and Ken realized that Rich wasn’t going to be able to hang on that long.

          Everything happened in a split second.  Rich’s arms gave out and he started to slide down Ken’s body.  With his hands bound he caught at Ken’s shoulder just like they planned, but the t-shirt binding his hands started to rip.  Ken heard the sound and as he glanced down he saw the material shredding.

          He slowed his perception of Time down to give himself more reaction time to respond.  His mind was on overdrive, formulating a plan.  Only one thing came to mind; one chance to get them both down.  It would hurt so he steeled himself.

          To Rich it all happened instantaneously.  Ken released his hold on the rock wall and grabbed ahold of Rich.  Ken’s leg muscles bunched and flexed as he kicked off, launching the two men straight out and away from the sheer rock wall.  With his superhuman agility and dexterity, Ken twisted himself around, so Rich was in front of him.

          They dropped like a bullet at the precise angle Ken wanted; his vision was filled with the vector arcs and trajectory he needed to make it happen; he Understood.  He had his brother’s body cradled inside his own, wrapping Rich up as much as possible to lessen the impact.  He knew it would hurt Rich too; especially his already broken leg, but they would both be alive.

          In midair he felt the massive surge of pain in his chest as the dark splinter expanded again.  He stifled an outcry of pain, pulling from his Avatar to make him equal to the task of saving himself and his brother.  Fresh sweat broke out across his muscled body as he fought off the pain.  His resolve never wavered; he sucked up the pain and let it hit the wall of his Will and determination.

          He didn’t understand what this place was or what was happening to him; the mystery of Rich already being dead was confusing, but he wasn’t about to let anything happen to his newfound brother, regardless.  He was living and breathing inside the Construct, whatever or wherever it was, and he had to do his best to save Rich.

          The extreme training Ken put himself and his Teammates through nearly every day once again saved his life.

          Seconds before impacting the ground Ken slowed down his perception of Time again.  He tucked and rolled his body into as much of a ball as he could, wrapping Rich up and rolling his body.  His shoulders hit first, as he intended.  His aim was perfect and he hit precisely at the clearest spot on the rocks below where they were smooth.  Flexing his back he rolled with the velocity and let his body absorb the shock, which was far less because of his actions.  In his Mind he envisioned himself like a stone being skipped over water…he rolled and deflected the impact.  They both went higher in the air, and their combined weight fought gravity and slowed their momentum.  He continued to flip and roll their bodies as he hit the ground again and again, each time lessening their velocity.

          He heard Rich’s grunts with every impact, and it hurt him to know the pain his brother was going through.  Finally they rolled to a stop.  Ken was on his back, holding Rich against him.  He opened his arms and as gently as he could he moved Rich off of him and onto the rocky ground.

          Rich was unconscious; Ken could see he passed out from the pain, and maybe even fear.  He had no idea what Ken planned or that he was even capable of such a superhuman feat; it all happened so fast he didn’t have time to react.  Ken looked more closely and saw fractures in two of Rich’s ribs he must have gotten from the impact.

          Ken was still recovering from the pain in his chest; the adrenaline rush from the drop helped.  His back burned where his sweaty skin scraped on the rocks.  He tried to roll as much as he could, but some friction was inevitable against the rough rocky surface.  He felt blood trickling down his back, but he knew it was superficial and not serious.

          Fuck, B.  I miss you so much.  I need you here to heal Rich.  I don’t know what the hell’s goin on.  I forget sometimes how much I rely on you.  I know you see it, but you’re my rock.  I wish I told you more often.

          Ken’s eyes watered up as he sat beside his newfound brother, one hand on Rich’s chest in comfort, careful not to put any pressure on his ribs.  He lowered his head for a moment, lost in his thoughts.  So much was happening, and he didn’t have a clue about much of it.  He missed Brad so much it hurt, and he was scared for Rich and what getting out the Construct would mean for him.

          He teared up as he thought about Rich, and began to sob.  His throat was so tight he couldn’t have talked if he wanted too.  He looked down at the man he barely knew, but wanted to know so bad it hurt.  He wanted to know Rich just as badly as he already knew Brad.  It would be a mistake to merge with Rich so soon, even if he could, but he didn’t know how much time they had left together, and he felt desperate to find out as much as he could.

          Suddenly the pain hit him again, this time harder than ever.  He fought it, his whole body tense, trying to stave off the pain.  It was as much inside his Soul as it was in his Body.

          It didn’t stop like it had before, and after a few minutes he passed out, slumping down beside his brother, unconscious.

 

<><> 

 

          As Rich came back to consciousness he felt like he had been run over by a truck.  He remembered his arms giving out and Ken pushing off of the rock wall.  He was scared shitless over what Ken did, convinced at first they were both going to plummet to their deaths.  Suicide seemed out of character from what little he knew of Ken, so he trusted him.  It didn’t mean he wasn’t still scared shitless though, he laughed to himself.

          He felt Ken wrap him up with his own body, and expected both of them to be splattered on the rocky surface below, but Ken’s body hardened and curled around him, and he managed to roll into the fall.  The pain jarred Rich to the point where he passed out, so he didn’t know how Ken had managed to stop them safely.

          As he opened his eyes, he saw Ken slumped over, partially on his side.  The blackness inside his Body was fully visible now and Rich panicked.  He didn’t understand any of what was going on.  First he was captured by some men and taken to the guy who called himself The Master.  He was tortured slowly for weeks and finally succumbed to death as they drained his body of blood.

          They told him he had a brother whom they were going to kill, somehow using his blood to do it.  He wouldn’t have believed it, except the man who tortured him had no eyes… just those dark spots that would suck his Mind into them.  That was worse than the physical torture.

          He woke up in this place and after a few minutes it felt like an earthquake hit and he was buried under a large boulder that broke his leg. 

          Once he regained consciousness he made eye contact with Ken and knew right away the man was his brother.  Emotions he had come to grips with years prior came flooding back.  Now it looked like he was going to lose his brother within hours of meeting him.  Against all odds they found one another and it was tearing Rich’s heart out knowing they were both going to die soon.                                                           

          He heard and felt the rumbling back from the direction they had come.  He glanced up and saw dark tendrils in the sheer rock face they had climbed down.  The tendrils were after Ken.  He wasn’t sure how he knew that but he did, and he had to try and get Ken further away.

          Even though he knew they were going to die, he wasn’t going to just lie down and let it happen.  He was a fighter, a Marine.  He screamed out in pain as he managed to pull himself upright.

          He grabbed one of Ken’s hands and pulled his arm up, amazed at how heavy and solid Ken’s arm was.  He braced himself as best he could and pulled with all his remaining strength; his arms still felt like jelly after the climb down the rock facing.  Fire shot through his ribs at the stress, but he held on.  Ken weighed over four hundred pounds, and Rich was only able to drag his body a few inches.

          “Fuck!  You fat ass!  Wake up and help me!”

          Tears of desperation fell down his cheeks, mixing with the sweat of his exertion.  He braced himself and drug Ken another few inches, determined if that’s all he could do, then that’s what he would do.  He was moving his kid brother further away from the black shit that wanted to consume him.

          Rich felt the trembling in the ground underneath him; his eyes widened when he realized he felt it inside himself.  His Blood was the source of the darkness that wanted to destroy Ken, and he was tied to it. 

          He was close to blacking out again from the pain and the strain, his chest heaving in harsh gasps.  Pull.  Drag.  Crawl.  Pull.  Drag.  Crawl. 

          His existence faded except for those motions.  Rich’s Mind went back to when he tried to save his buddy Adam.  Gunny Adam Coleman was his best friend, and he had tried to save him too when an I.E.D. had gone off under their Humvee.  He hadn’t been able to save his best friend, but he was going to save his kid brother, no matter what.

          Inches at a time, he dragged Ken’s body away from the blackness that was closing in on them.  He pulled until he passed out from exhaustion and pain, and when he came to, he continued his efforts.

          He passed the normal limits of his body hours prior.  He was operating on will and determination only.  He didn’t realize he had only drug Ken’s body a few yards total, but he was moving him away, and that was all that mattered.  Every inch Ken was further away from the blackness was a good thing. 

          Pull.  Drag.  Crawl. 

            Pull.  Drag.  Crawl.

 

<><><> 

 

          After a few hours, and a small number of false-positive results on the facial recognition, Sally got a confirmed hit.  She couldn’t believe what she saw on her screen.  Her eyes teared up as she read the obituary in the Express-Star, the local newspaper in Chickasha, OK.

 

          Gladys Boulware, age 82, passed peacefully in her sleep at Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK.  Ms. Boulware had no known next of kin.  Services will be held….

 

          Sally glanced at Lane’s drawing and there was no question it was Ken’s mother.  Her hand went to her mouth and her heart ached… she was Ken’s only hope of recovering.  A sob escaped before she could help herself.

          Drew heard Sally’s sharp intake of breath and he looked up to see tears streaming down her face.  He knew she was already upset about something and hadn’t told him, and he rushed over to her.

          Sally didn’t want Drew seeing what was on her screen so she toggled the screen back to his lesson plan.

          His voice was quiet and tentative as he asked her, “Miss Sally, are you alright?  Why are you crying?”

          She knew Drew would know the truth soon enough, but she didn’t want to be the one to tell him.  Steeling herself, she wiped her eyes and said, “I’m sorry honey, I saw something that made me sad.  Go back to your lesson.  I have to step in to the Conference room and talk to the doctor.”

          She printed out six copies of the article, nearly numb from what she knew it meant for Ken… and Brad… and the rest of the Team and their cause.  She tapped lightly on the door before entering. 

          When they saw the tears in her eyes, they knew the news wasn’t good.  She didn’t say a word, afraid if she tried to speak she would completely break down again, so she slid the copies across the table to them.

          Loy reached out with his Mind and the copies separated and one each moved over in front of the doctor, Albrecht, Ricky, Bill, Kevin, and himself.

          The doctor’s voice was quiet and barely discernable, “Oh, my.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Lane was playing his guitar, not sure if Ken could hear, but he played all of Ken’s favorite songs.  He sang quietly but intently for his Brother, while Brad sat beside Ken with his hand resting on Ken’s chest. Bryan was cooking and preparing food.

          There were two Iktomi eggs left, and the two creatures currently feeding off the Curse were nearly full and at the end of their life cycle.  Brad ignored them and they ignored him; he kept his sight shifted so he wouldn’t have to see them.  Bryan kept their Aura’s dampened so the Iktomi would take no notice of them and focus on Ken.

          Bryan ventured further away from their camp to the stream that fed down into the roots of the Tree and eventually into the small lake containing the Water of Life.  The water from the stream was icy cold.  It was the stream where Brad and Ken first encountered Luke on their first visit to the Valley.

          The water stayed chilled, which kept Brad from the effort of cooling it down.

          Occasionally Ken’s body would tremble, and when it did the blackness expanded.  There were dark tendrils within a few feet of the closest roots now.  The Curse was getting stronger, and they could almost see it creeping slowly across the grass.

          Bryan finally said, “Brad, we have to do something soon.  Either move Ken, or figure something out.  The Tree can’t be infected by this.”  Lane knew how hard it was for Bryan to say those words. 

          Brad nodded in acknowledgement, but his face had a blankness to it, a detachment that worried Bryan and Lane both.

          Brad felt the surge of emotion from the men back in Atlanta through the Link.  Bryan’s head lowered and he yelled, “FUCK!”

          The image of Gladys Boulware’s obituary came into their Minds, shared by Loy.  They had no choice but to hope and believe that Ken had another living relative – it seemed the Enemy was one step ahead of them and found her first. 

          Ken’s mother, his last hope, was gone, and Brad’s hopes went with her.  He lay down on top of Ken and started sobbing uncontrollably.

 

<><><> 

 

          It had been some time since Samuel had been so completely terrified.  He loved his Master but also feared him, and he knew without doubt if he failed his Master he would die.  He tried to will the plane to fly faster – he even went into the Captain’s Mind and forced him to do everything he could to shorten their flight time.

          His fear turned to anger, which he took out on those around him.  He was subtle, as he was trained to be, but he left his mark on the Minds and Souls of all the passengers on the flight back to Oklahoma City.  He felt more focused and less on edge by the time the plane set down – he ruined a number of lives, and the rush of power he felt helped restore a sense of balance.

          The girl at Hertz Rent-a-car told him she was out of cars, but should have one within the hour.  His eyes flashed white, and she gave him the keys to the nicest car in the lot which was reserved for a businessman due later in the afternoon. 

          He drove fast and two different times the police attempted to pull him over, but his eyes flashed white, and their lights turned off and they ignored him.

          Finally, the ice cold fire in the pit of his stomach began to recede when he pulled into the parking lot at Grace Living Center in Chickasha.

          He wasn’t just going to kill Gladys Boulware – he was going to devour her Mind.  He would create a construct in her Mind and torture her for a very long time.  She would pay just for existing and for the anxiety she put him through.

          He saw Rachel, the same nurse as he did on his previous visit.  She looked at him with recognition and a slight frown on her face.  He would deal with her momentarily; his immediate focus was the old woman.

          His long strides carried him down the hallway to room 238.  He smiled to himself as he pushed the door open.

 

<><><> 

 

          As Brad lay on Ken he felt Ken’s body tremble violently.  This time was different; the Curse was nearly complete and the tremors didn’t stop.  The black tendrils had spread from Ken’s body and were reaching for the Tree.

          Bryan and Lane felt Brad’s shock at what he saw; the two men scrambled up.

          Lane brought himself and Bryan together and he threw a Shield over the Roots of the Tree.  Brad had tried to attack the Curse inside of Ken, and it was as if his Power just vanished, never touching or affecting the blackness so Lane wasn’t sure if his Shield would have any effect.

          Bryan was panicking, “Fuck!  Brad you have to get Ken out of here now!  Lane help him!”

          Brad forced himself to focus… he wasn’t about to give up.  Ken had to stay in the Valley to have any hope of surviving.  He started to glow like a small star and threw all his Power into Lane’s Shield.

          Brad instinctively called out:  Grandfather!  Please help!

          Lane and Bryan heard his call and were surprised when Michael and Raphael both appeared in an explosion of Light.

          Istariel had said that the Arch-Angels didn’t have the power to remove the Curse.  Brad hoped they had the Power to slow it down.

          Michael moved over between the roots of the Tree and the black tendrils.  He was dressed in his usual jeans, white t-shirt, and black leather jacket.  He threw the jacket off in the heat and raised his arms; his sword appeared in his hands.

          With a mighty swing he drove the point of the sword down into the ground and a bolt of lightning came down from the sky, striking the pommel.  His wings appeared and he took on his true form; he was so bright that they could hardly look at him.

          The strain was evident; Michael’s body was tense and every muscle was put into the extreme effort of simply holding the Curse at bay.

          Brother shield me!

          Raphael moved behind him, placing his hands on either side of Michael’s head.  He bowed his head and spread his wings, wrapping Michael and creating a buffer.   Bryan could see, through the Understanding of his Avatar, how much power they were putting into the effort.

          He saw the strain on reality; if the Valley wasn’t on both sides of the Veil what they were doing would have ripped a hole in the fabric of Creation; Raphael was preventing that, but there was still a chance of that happening if things progressed any further.

          Brad was about to add his own Power to theirs when Luke appeared.

          Brad interposed himself in between Ken and Luke and shouted, “What are you doing here?”

          Luke was smiling, but his eyes shone with hate – hate of Ken, Brad, Bryan, and Lane, and his Brothers Michael and Raphael.

          After seeing the smile on Luke’s face, Brad knew why he was here.  Luke couldn’t interfere with Ken directly, even indirectly if that was his sole intent; the Oathstone would prevent it.  The other Arch-Angels were not a part of the Oath Ken made Luke swear to.  Brad also realized why the Arch-Angels had been scarce in their lives since the confrontation with Luke.  They knew Luke could still come after them and might somehow orchestrate events so that some of the Team might be collateral damage.

          Brad’s gut wrenched.  Their own power wasn’t able to affect the Curse, and Michael and Raphael were Ken’s only hope of holding it off even for a short time.   Brad threw his thoughts across the world:  Guys!  You have to do something!  He shared the scene that was unfolding and they all realized they had minutes, if that, to find a way to save Ken.

          Luke spread his wings, ready to attack Michael, and Michael was the only thing holding the Curse at bay.

          All the while the blackness inside of Ken dug deeper and deeper, devouring his very essence.

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew heard Sally’s computer beeping.  He glanced up and saw that she was still in the Conference room talking with his dad and the others.  She had shut the door and he couldn’t hear what they were saying; he even tried listening with his Mind, but they were tightly shielded.  His curiosity was on fire as to what was going on; he knew it had something to do with his Uncle Ken, but no one had told him anything yet.

          While Sally was distracted, he snuck over to her computer.  It wasn’t a Windows based machine…it was running the new Operating System the doctor was still developing, but much of the same functionality existed.  He pressed Alt-Tab and Drew saw the other application in the small window that popped up.  The icon was blinking along with the notification sound.

          Henry was in deep conversation with everyone about the obituary Sally found, but he was watching Drew like a hawk.  As good a boy as Drew was, he was still a little boy and very curious.  Henry saw him sneak over to Sally’s workstation.

          Henry was exasperated; this wasn’t the time for antics, and he got up with an irritated sigh.  The doctor held out his hand in a gesture that said ‘patience.’

          Drew was looking at the picture on the screen of a woman when Henry came up behind him.  Even as Henry started in, he saw what was on the screen.  Gladys Boulware was alive!  The search engine was still working and got another hit after Sally left the keyboard to tell them what she found!

          Guys!  You have to do something!  

          Brad’s voice came screaming into their Minds along with the image of Michael holding off the Curse from infecting the Tree, and Ken’s body, nearly lifeless now and in the last minutes of his existence. 

          They saw Luke appear, smiling.

          Kevin yelled:  Brad, we’ll be right there!

          Henry:  Guys wait!  She’s alive!  Ken’s mom is still alive!  There was a retraction in the newspaper!  An image of the article went through the Link from Henry’s Mind.

 

<><> 

 

          Tragedy Strikes Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK.  Incorrect Death reported.

 

          Tragedy struck twice at the Grace Living Center in Chickasha, OK last week.  Gladys Boulware was incorrectly reported as deceased in a records mishap.  The woman who passed away was Ruth Emmet, the roommate of Gladys Boulware.  Ms. Boulware is still alive but in a coma, after learning of Ms. Emmett’s demise.  Her condition is stable but unresponsive. 

 

<><> 

 

          Individually none of the other Mentalists was as strong as Brad, but they were Powerful.  Loy and Bill delved into one another, drawing strength from Rick and Bill.  At the same time they Listened and pulled from the Tree as well as the animal Spirits.

          Loy and Bill cast their Awareness out across the country, skimming the minds of normal humans until they located Chickasha, OK.  They continued to look deeper until they found Grace Living Center.

          They found the Mind of Rachael, the nurse on duty in the facility and looked through her eyes.  Darren was with them in the Link and he synchronized their Avatars to his and Loy, Rick, Bill, and Kevin appeared in the hallway in front of Rachael.

          Loy and Bill sent out a Compulsion immediately to ignore them and prevent a panic as the four of them materialized in the middle of the hallway.  They arrived essentially invisible and undetectable to anyone including The Enemy.

          Bill reached out and touched Rachael, Reading her.  Gladys was in room 238.  Bill felt the presence of The Enemy in Rachael’s Mind…He looked deeper and saw it was the day that the other woman, Ruth Emmett had died.

          Loy cast his Awareness out and felt the same presence inside the building.  Rick was suppressing their Auras, so whoever was there shouldn’t be aware of them.

          Pulling the layout of the building from Rachael they knew exactly how to get to Room 238 from the nurses station.  They all took off, with Rick and Kevin in the lead.

          Loy and Bill felt a cold sense of panic in the pit of their stomachs.  Something wrong was happening that very moment. 

          Loy brought all four of them together as One.  They delved into one another and went deep so Time stood still.  It was as much an act of desperation as it was Love – their Light shone bright and they felt the Darkness.

 

<><><> 

 

          Samuel found Gladys asleep in her room.  He stood at the foot of her bed and wondered for a moment – what happened the first time?  Had someone or something intervened to save her?  She should have been dead.

          You escaped once old woman, but not again.

          He moved around to her bedside.  She was still in a coma and dreaming of her perfect life.  He glanced into her Mind and saw the life she was living.  He grinned evilly as he twisted her Dream into something horrific.  He forced her to watch as her sons were both trapped and dying in a barren landscape somewhere in the war.

          He took the pillow and covered her face.  Tears spilled down over her wrinkled face as she was forced to experience the horrible loss of her sons.  Her arms began to flail in reaction to her suffocation.

          Die old woman!  You are a thorn in my side and the side of my Master!

          Samuel’s face registered surprise and then agony as a wave of Light swept through him.  It was powerful and brighter than anything he had ever experienced in the Spiritual Realm.

          The pressure of the pillow lessened as his body turned to ash; obliterated by the Light of the four Warriors of the Order.

          Seconds later they rushed into the room – Kevin was first, followed by Rick and then Loy and Bill.  Kevin rushed to Gladys’s bedside and jerked the pillow away, scattering the ashen remains of the Agent of the Enemy sent to kill her.

          He looked with his Understanding and his enhanced sight – she was alive.  She woke with a fright and let out a groan of agony – tears spilled down her wrinkled, aged face.   She didn’t recognize any of the men in front of her, but her eyes pleaded with them to save her sons as they were dying in her Mind, trapped together in some barren rocky landscape.

 

<><><> 

 

          The desperation Brad felt flooded the Link, and all of them felt it as their own.  The Curse was nearly complete; none of them Understood why the Curse was trying to infect the Tree, but it was, and it would not consume Ken until it reached and overtook the Tree as well.

          Their own powers were ineffective, and Michael was holding it at bay, but the amount of Power he expended would tear a hole in the fabric of Creation if Raphael wasn’t shielding him. 

          Luke’s presence was clear; he couldn’t interfere with Ken, but there was nothing to prevent him from interfering with Michael and Raphael.  They were not a part of the Oath Ken forced him to make.

          Another emotion flooded the Link, and it was nearly as powerful as Brad’s desperation.  Anger.  It came from Bryan; the one thing that could rile the gentle nature of the man was someone hurting a loved one. 

          His deep voice was tight and controlled when he thought:  Brad, Lane, help Michael and Raphael.  This fucker is mine!

          Luke raised an eyebrow when Bryan moved in front of him.

          “You would dare?”  His voice sounded incredulous with a tinge of humor.  “If you do this it will circumvent the Oath as far as you are concerned.”

          “You gotta get through me to get to them.  If you can.” 

          Lane felt the determination in his lover; the pride he felt at Bryan’s act overwhelmed the fear he felt at what Bryan was doing.

          I’m with you Bry.  Now and always.

          Luke moved blindingly fast; his wing slapped Bryan with his full strength, launching Bryan’s big body back through the air and into the branches of the Tree.  With a bright green flare Bryan disappeared.

          Bryan was the Protector of the Tree and of Leroy, The Midgard Serpent that would one day destroy the world and all of Creation.  He was at the heart of his Power and he was fulfilling a Purpose by defending Michael, who was defending the Tree.

          Bryan’s presence never left the Link; they felt him grow stronger, beyond anything they had ever felt from him.

          He appeared in front of Luke in an emerald flash of his Avatar.

          “That the best you got, fucker?  You hit like a sissie.”

          Luke looked mildly surprised, but he wasn’t concerned.  Bryan was a Nephilim, and powerful in his own right, also an Original Man; but Luke was the Dark One, brought into being by the Creator himself before Existence. 

          Luke raised his hand and a Black Talon of Energy shot out.  Bryan slowed down his perception of Time and he embraced his Avatar.  Life, not just of this Reality, but all the infinite incarnations where the Tree existed, flooded into him.  In the Valley, fulfilling his Purpose as Protector of the Tree, he was strong enough to be the vessel.

          The Talon hit Bryan full force, and he threw up his arms defensively, the same maneuver Henry used the night he defended Drew from The Master.  Bryan felt the same as Henry did that night, and he had the fleeting thought of how much they had learned from Henry since he joined the ranks of their Brotherhood.  Bryan had come to love Henry as a younger Brother.

          The Talon dissipated and Luke’s eyes widened in surprise.

          Bryan didn’t want to desecrate the Power of the Tree by using it as a direct weapon.  They always drew from it at need to empower them, but they never used the Power of Life as a weapon in and of itself.

          The ring on Bryan’s finger, the gift from Lane at Christmas, forged with Dragon fire from Leroy was attuned to the Dragon.  Leroy always felt Luke’s presence when he was near, and it agitated him, causing dark dreams of fire and destruction.  Bryan felt Leroy’s presence more acutely than ever with the ring on his finger; it amplified his natural connection to the Beast.

          The Dragon Fire Agates glowed and Bryan delved into the unconscious Mind of the Dragon he named Leroy.  He felt the heat and soared over the world with Leroy, breathing cleansing fire; Bryan had an epiphany in that moment, and his eyes widened in pride and love for the creature.  Leroy wouldn’t devour the World when he was Awakened; he would Purify it and Cleanse it, creating something new and fresh.  It was the same as Kevin’s Avatar, and Bryan knew that is where it came from.  The old world would be gone but a new one would replace it.

          Bryan took in the Rage and Fire, taking it away from Leroy so he could sleep peacefully.  Dragon Fire licked over his muscled body, burning off his clothes; his eyes became slitted, and he felt the Rage, barely containable, now inside himself.

          His already deep voice became even deeper, and he let out a bellow that shook the Tree as Dragon Fire belched from his mouth, hitting Luke full force.

          Luke’s wings wrapped around himself in Protection; Bryan was forcing him to go fully defensive.  His wings smoked and singed from the Power inside of Bryan.

          Lane was torn; he wanted to join Bryan in his fight against Luke.  He wanted to add his strength to Bryan’s and watch his lover do something that should be impossible – to face the Dark One in single combat and if not win outright, to drive him away.

          Brad was already throwing all his own formidable Power into Raphael and Michael.  Lane instinctively knew what to do.  He had done this once before, and it caused Luke severe pain, and at the same time it was the greatest source of his own power – the Music of Creation.

          His eyes turned white, and a violin and bow appeared in his hands.  The violin was beautiful, with the brightly colorful mosaic design of his Avatar in the rich deep wood.

          He chose the stringed instrument over the brass trumpet he had used before; then it was symbolic of his Heritage as Gabriel’s grandson.  It also used a lot of oxygen and he didn’t want to divert even the smallest bit of his Power to infuse his body with air to maintain the note.

          It was a beautiful single note that emitted from the instrument of his Avatar; it was heard all the way to Heaven and the Choir stopped to Listen.  He felt Gabriel’s approval and could almost see the gratified smirk of approval on his inhumanly handsome face.

          Bryan heard it, and through the Rage and Fire burning in him, he felt the love of his best friend and life partner and soon-to-be-husband.  Michael and Raphael heard it as well and fresh Power flooded into them along with Brad’s.

          As the fire stopped, Bryan stood, breathing heavily from the exertion.  His body was magnificent in the red fire of his Power.  Sweat gleamed on his skin, and he never looked more handsome or studly to Lane than at that moment – facing off against one of the most powerful beings in Creation in defense of their best friend and leader.

          Luke was staggered both physically and mentally.  How this upstart could be so powerful at the moment was beyond him.  His hatred grew all the deeper for The Order, and he wished more than anything for the failure of his own most powerful servant, The Master.  If The Master failed then The Order would be his to destroy.

          He realized that Bryan could match him right now, in the Valley, Power for Power.  Even Luke couldn’t willingly unravel Creation by escalating the battle.  He was also a master of physical prowess; he had trained with Michael for eons before his own Fall.

          He launched himself physically at Bryan.

          Bryan slowed down his perception of Time again and watched Luke’s advance.  He recognized elements of The Quintessential Dance.  He launched his own body at Luke in response, both beings graceful beyond words.  They fought, and neither one landed a single blow.  Bryan’s Avatar made him equal to the task, and he was as fast as he needed to be to stop Luke.

          They were so fast their arms and feet were a blur.  Lane and Brad were watching as well as all Bryan’s Brothers.  They were with him, feeling everything, even while Loy and the others were in Atlanta.

          Everything was happening simultaneously.  Only a few moments ago Brad felt the tragedy of seeing Gladys Boulware’s obituary when Sally found the article online. 

          It all seemed futile, but none of them were giving up.  Brad called for Michael to help, desperate to give his Brothers even a few more seconds to discover a way to help Ken.

          Everyone heard Henry’s voice shout through the Link:  Guys wait!  She’s alive! 

          Renewed hope filled them all; it shot through the Link like lightning.  The Hope gave Bryan the fortitude to continue holding Luke at bay; it even gave him what he needed to push beyond being equal and land a haymaker on Luke’s jaw that sent him flying backwards nearly fifty feet before he spread his wings to stop himself.

          His black eyes seethed with hatred.  He sent another Black Talon at Bryan, but it hit the Emerald Shield.  Bryan smiled grimly and said, “Give it up fucker.  You aren’t gettin past me.”

          The bellow of Luke’s frustration and rage was heard throughout the Spiritual Realm.  The Master heard it; he felt what Michael and Raphael were doing, and through them the others of The Order trying to save Ken Habbersham.

          The confident look on The Masters face faltered when he heard The Dark One himself cry out in anger and frustration as he fled the Valley, driven off by Bryan.


<><><> 

 

          Rich was nearly incoherent; he was operating on the only thing left in him – determination to save his newfound brother.  Every fraction of an inch he moved Ken further away from the black tendrils meant the tendrils had to move further to reach them.

          The pain in his broken leg and in his body was nearly unbearable, but he pushed through it.  Finally he gave out – he wasn’t a Nephilim like Ken.  He didn’t have Powers or strength beyond a normal man.  His Mind wasn’t Open.  He reached the end of his strength.  He was able to push past in one last surge before he collapsed and lost consciousness.  He lay beside his brother, his hand still clutching Ken’s.  At least they would die together.

          The black tendrils accelerated, but neither man could see them, or were even aware of them any longer.

          When they were only a few feet away, a column of lightning hit the ground.  There was an explosion of Light and in the middle of it Michael appeared.  He drove his sword into the rocky ground, creating a barrier the black tendrils could not cross.

          Raphael appeared with him, shielding the two men, inside the Construct of the Dream that existed in their Mother’s Mind.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kevin picked Gladys up as if she weighed nothing.  To his strength she didn’t, but he was gentle, not wanting to hurt her.

          Her voice was frail and quivered as she asked, “Who are you?  Please help my sons!”

          Kevin had no idea if she was delirious or talking about Ken.  It didn’t matter.  His Avatar flared Emerald Green and he disappeared.  Rick followed him and a fraction of a second later Loy and Bill did as well.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kevin:  Dar, get everyone to the Tree.  We have Ken’s mother, but I’m not sure how this works.  We need the doc and Albrecht with us.  Bring Henry and Drew too. 

          Darren’s handsome face looked upwards and his eyes flashed white.  His Avatar flared brightly as he synchronized his own with his Brothers’, which were scattered across the Earth.

          All of them appeared around the base camp where Ken lay on the ground, nearly consumed by the Curse.

          Michael and Raphael were there; Brad and Lane were still throwing their support behind the Archangels.  They diverted enough energy to protect Drew, Henry, the doctor, and Albrecht.

          The doctor saw Ken; the blackness had spread over his entire body.  Only a small part of his face was left untouched; held at bay by Michael, along with the black tendrils reaching for the Tree.

          Henry threw his own strength into the Link.

          Drew saw his uncle Ken and started crying, he grabbed onto Henry, who picked him up.  He clung to Henry in fear, but his eyes never wavered off Ken.  The Stone appeared in his hand and he squeezed it so hard smoke started oozing between his small fingers.  His hand shook and a bolt of Power flew from the Stone and hit the Curse.

          The ground shook with the force of the impact – the Stone was a part of a Curse just as strong and Deep as what was affecting Ken.  Michael felt the relief immediately as Drew’s action made itself felt.

          Henry had no idea how long Drew could keep it up, or if he even really knew what he was doing.  His actions seemed instinctual, out of love for his Uncle.  The raw emotion would sustain him for a short time, but not for long.

          Kevin knelt down and gently laid Gladys on the soft grass.  Her white flannel nightgown looked bright, reflecting the Light of the Powers around her.  She was wide eyed and thought she was still Dreaming, surrounded by angels, but the tears were still present and her thoughts were with her sons.

 

<><><> 

 

          Aaron saw Ken as soon as Darren pulled him and Albrecht to the Valley.  Emotions long forgotten resurfaced just by being physically present by the Tree once again.  All the long struggle of his life started here, literally within a few hundred feet of where he stood.

          He had accumulated vast knowledge over the span of the thousands of years he lived.  His mind contained all the knowledge of mankind, every bastion of knowledge at any point in history he had visited and studied – Atlantis; the Libraries of Alexandria, Antioch, Serapeum, Ctesiphon, al-Hakam II, Rayy, Ghazna, Nishapur, Nalanda, Constantinople, Madrassah; the Maya codices, and many more.

          His vast intellect pieced together all the mysteries gleaned from all those scrolls, tablets, books, and carvings.  He knew more of science and Creation than any human alive. 

          He knew as soon as he laid eyes on Ken that Gladys would have to sacrifice herself to save her son; Ken was too far gone.  He realized Gladys was old and frail, and he knew by the look in her eyes that she would unquestioningly give up her own life for the life of her son; even though she didn’t know Ken, Aaron knew that a mother’s unconditional love and instincts to protect her offspring would override any other concerns for her own wellbeing.

          The issue was Ken and how he would be devastated by what she would do for him.  As a military strategist and leader of the Team, Ken would objectively know she did the right thing…but she was his mother, and that would remove his objectivity.

          Aaron sighed and leaned on Albrecht in their private Link.  Albrecht witnessed and was a part of Aaron’s thought processes.  He knew Aaron would take the brunt of the decision; he loved Ken as a son and in the Battle they were in, he knew Aaron would sacrifice Gladys to save Ken and thereby give the World a chance at Redemption.

          Ken might not see it that way, and Aaron would be devastated in his own right if Ken hated him afterwards, but it wouldn’t stop Aaron from doing what was necessary.

 

<><><> 

 

          Aaron:  Brad, pull us into a Construct with Gladys.  Do not bring in Drew.  Go Deep so we have time to talk.

          Brad could hear the mental tone of the doctor’s voice, and his stomach lurched as his Intuition told him what was about to happen.  His heart was already starting to break over the hurt Ken was about to experience.

          Instead of the Conference Room, Brad made a Construct of The River.  He took them to the cove where Ken fought the Creature that almost killed him and Brad both a few years prior.  The place had a symbolic meaning that seemed appropriate.  It was a place where they all experienced a beginning and an end in their lives.

 

<><> 

 

          The soothing sound of the bubbling water, and the gentle breeze blowing through the leaves were pleasant.  The sun warmed their faces, but it wasn’t too hot, and there was a nice shaded area where he set Gladys down gently.

          She looked bewildered but not panicked.

          Her eyes wide, she asked, “Are you angels?”

          The nine men, part Nephilim, looked like Angels to her.  She saw their bright Auras, and their inhuman grace and nobility.  Henry wasn’t far off from them in looks, and the doctor and Albrecht were both handsome men as well; they all exuded a feeling of comfort and solid strength.  She felt the Love of the bonds between them.

          The doctor smiled and took her hand, “No Gladys, we are not.  A few of these fine young men come close.  Your son, Bruce, should be among them, but he is very sick.”

          “Where is he? And where is Rich?”

          The doctor gently explained to her that Rich was dead, and Ken was dying.

          She groaned as he told her the harsh truth.  Fresh tears spilled down all their faces at what she heard.  She hadn’t seen or held either son since they were infants in the Physical Realm, and now she was told one of them was already gone and the other one was about to be.

          “Can’t you do something?”

          “No, Gladys; but you can.”

          Brad’s throat tightened and he choked on a sob when the doctor said those words.  Oh God, why does it have to be this way?

          “Gladys, I am sorry but we do not have much time and it is very difficult to explain.  You do not know how important your Bruce is to the world.  If he dies the hope of Mankind’s redemption diminishes greatly.  You hold the power to save him.”

          “Me?”

          “You are his last living relative.  What has been done to him is very Powerful, and only your blood can save him.  I am sorry, my dear, it is difficult for me to say that.  I know what it will mean for you.”

          As odd as it seemed, Gladys’s eyes and Mind cleared for the first time since the boys were taken away from her.  She wasn’t able to protect or save her sons when they were infants, but a chance was being offered to her to save at least one of her sons now.  It didn’t matter what the man in front of her said about Bruce being important to the world; her decision wasn’t about the world.  It was about saving the life of her son.

          Gladys straightened and stood up, her white flannel nightgown bright in the afternoon sun. It billowed slightly in the breeze, and she almost looked like an angel herself.  Her external visage changed as the pieces of her Mind healed.

          She appeared young and beautiful again in the Construct.

          “I am an old woman.  I lived my life alone, thinking about my two sons every day.  I prayed and imagined every day that they would come back into my life and take me away from that home.   I lived my life again, inside a Dream.  It was a gift from an Angel; it had to be.  I spent a second life with them and it was enough for me.  My life is over soon enough.  I will gladly give up the small time I have left for my Bruce.”

          The doctor’s eyes flooded with tears at her words.  Her bravery and self-sacrifice were deep – and it proved that good still existed inside of people as individuals.  That was what they were fighting for.

          “I will make it painless, my dear.”

          “Thank you for that, but it wouldn’t matter.  Can I see him first, even for a moment?”

          “If you wish, but it will be upsetting.  What was done to kill him is nearly complete.”

          “Show me.”

 

<><> 

 

          No one felt the transition as they moved out of the Construct and their perception of Time was once again normal.  No time had passed for Michael or Raphael, but with Drew’s help the strain on both of them was lessened; they both knew the doctor was preparing the old woman for what needed to be done, and they held on for Ken and out of respect for what she was about to do.

          Brad took Gladys by the hand and helped her up.  She saw Ken on the ground, his big muscled body naked and sweating, his skin blackened all except for a part of his face.

          Her hand went to her mouth and fresh tears spilled out of her eyes, “Oh Bruce!  What have they done to you?”

          She knelt by her son.  She looked so tiny and frail beside his big powerful frame.  Her hand reached out and caressed his forehead.  Her voice was almost a whisper as she said, “You are so handsome!  Just like I knew you would be.  Look at you!”  She took his hand in hers, but she didn’t have the strength to lift his arm – his dense body weighed too much.

          She sat for only a few seconds, brushing the hair back off his forehead.  She took one of the towels and wiped the sweat off his face, and leaned over and kissed his forehead.

          Inhaling deeply, Gladys steeled herself, “What do I have to do?”

          The doctor’s voice was even, and his hands were steady.  Albrecht was inside of him and knew what it cost Aaron to keep his calm exterior.  Albrecht took a small silver dagger from his belt and handed it to Aaron.

          Aaron glanced at Lane and sent a private thought:  Would you please block her pain centers?

          It was no effort and Lane did as he was asked.  Brad closed his eyes tightly, unable to watch.

          “Turn your head Gladys.”

          “No.  I want to see my son.  I want to know that I saved him.”

          The doctor made long deep incisions from her wrist up to mid arm, slicing the veins lengthwise; blood welled out and dripped down her arm.

          As the first drops spilled onto Ken’s body the blackness disappeared where they hit, but it was superficial.  The Curse had taken root and those spots quickly turned black again.

          The doctor took Gladys’s wrist and moved it, letting the blood fall in a pattern.  He took her fingers and traced the necessary symbols on Ken’s body, using her blood as ink.

          He paused only for a brief second.  Gladys was nearly unconscious from the loss of blood.  When the Runes were complete he pressed her hand down in the center of the symbols, right in the center of Ken’s strong chest.

          There was a silent explosion of Light, and Gladys’s body fell over gently, lifeless, onto the body of her son.  The Curse was obliterated in the Light, and everyone felt the strength and rush of the Power released in her act.

          Michael sagged in relief, leaning heavily on his sword to support himself.  Raphael, behind him, slumped to the ground as well.  The Stone went quiet in Drew’s hand.  Henry hugged his son close, and watched with Drew to see what would happen next.

          Ken’s body arced up in reaction as the Power flooded into him.  The Blackness vanished, and The Master felt the Curse as it was swept away.

          Ken’s presence flooded into the Link and the relief was palpable in all of them.  The tears all of them shed were bittersweet; they had their brother back, but the cost was high, and the heavy price would make itself felt.

          Ken started to sit up in surprise and realized someone was on top of him.  It was an old woman in a nightgown.  The nightgown was white flannel, but it was covered in blood.

          He looked around frantically for Rich and didn’t see him.

          He saw Brad, by his side, his eyes red and bloodshot with tears still streaming down his handsome face.  He could barely talk as he said, “I’m so sorry, Ken.” He moved over behind Ken and wrapped his arms around his lover.

          Brad saw and felt the confusion inside of Ken and as painful as it was he shared the memories of everything that had transpired from the parking lot where Carlo had inflicted the Blood Curse on Ken up to the present.

          Ken’s face was a mask of shock.  His tanned handsome face went pale.  His eyes turned red and hot tears started dripping down his face.  Brad gripped him tightly, and Ken wrapped the frail body of his mother in his arms and started sobbing so hard his entire body shook.

          The pain in Ken’s voice was gut wrenching, “No!  Oh God, no!  She can’t be gone!”

          Ken was aware of Michael’s presence and he begged him, “Please do something!”

          Michael’s gaze didn’t waver; his grandson deserved the truth no matter how painful it was, “I am truly sorry, Ken.”

          Ken lowered his head, crushing his face into her bloodstained nightgown and cried his heart out.  Brad rocked him gently, wanting Ken to feel his presence.  They were deeply inside one another, and Brad shared every bit of his lover’s pain as his own.

          Everyone else wrapped themselves around Ken with their Hearts and Minds.  The few closest to him knelt and put their hands on him wherever they could reach.

          Michael and Raphael felt Uriel’s presence.

          The significance of the event was clear in Uriel’s face; he saw the pain and sorrow in everyone.  He had watched Bryan drive off Luke and was proud, but what the old woman had done dwarfed even that feat.

          Come Gladys, it is time to take you Home.

          Ken felt her Soul exit her frail body.  She actually weighed a few grams less and his enhanced senses felt the difference.  He hugged her tighter and looked up to see Uriel.

          “Don’t cry, Bruce.”

          Everyone was stunned to hear Gladys’s voice.  She was standing beside Uriel, transparent, with the soft blue nimbus of a human Soul surrounding her.

          Ken could barely talk, and his vision was blurry from the thickness of his tears.  His head whipped up, and he saw her, “Mom?”

          “Look at you!”  Her ethereal eyes were bright with tears of joy at seeing her son restored.

          “Mom! … I don’t want you to go.  Please don’t go!”  The pleading in his voice caused fresh tears all around.  “I didn’t know you were alive.”  A deep seed of anger ignited inside of Ken.  It seemed jumbled and ambiguous at first… anger at The Master for creating the circumstances, but also at the doctor for sacrificing his mother to save him.

          “Don’t be angry with him, Bruce.  I was old, and my time was nearly up anyway.  They need you more than you need me.  Look at you!  I’m so proud of you… you’re more handsome than I ever imagined.  There was no choice for me… my life was nothing to give up, and now we can both be at peace.  We’ll see each other again.”

          All eyes were on Ken and Gladys and there was another shock as a new voice said, “Hey fucker!  You made it!”

          Rich stood beside Uriel, who had a smug smile on his face.  Rich put an arm around his mother, hugging her against him.

          Michael and Raphael both looked quizzically at their Brother, who just shrugged his shoulders, in the same manner Bryan did when he did something important that he didn’t want to take credit for.

          I took the scenic route with Rich… the very long scenic route, and I will take he and Gladys Home together, as they deserve.

          Ken gently set Gladys’s frail body down on the grass and he rushed to embrace his brother.  Rich was a Soul now, but in the Valley and with Ken’s Avatar, he felt solid and they embraced.  His big arms wrapped around his brother and his mother.

          “I wish I could stay, kiddo.  I wish we could have had a beer.  I wish I woulda gotten the chance to kick someone’s ass for giving you any shit about being gay.  We missed all that, but I’m glad we got to spend some time together.  It wasn’t enough, but I’ll be waitin for ya.  Take your time and get the mission done here.  You hear me?  I don’t wanna have to come back and kick your sorry ass if you mess it all up.”

          Ken actually managed to laugh through his tears.

          Ken’s voice was tight with emotion, but he managed to choke out the words, “I wish we had more time too.  I feel cheated we never knew each other.  I have a mom and a brother.”  His head hung as his throat started to close up again… “I don’t even know you, but I already miss you.”

          Rich moved over and lightly smacked Ken on the cheek, “Suck it up.  You’re a SEAL.  I know it hurts, but use it – remember us and look forward to when we’ll spend forever together.”

          Rich looked at Brad and smiled, “So you’re the stud that landed my kid bro.  You take good care of him, or I’ll figure out a way to come down and kick your ass too.” 

          Brad smiled through his tears and nodded his head, still unable to speak.

          Rich glanced around at the rest of the men, “That goes for all you yahoos too.  He shared everything about you guys with me.  I know how tight ya’ll are.  I’m jealous – I wish I could have been a part of it.”

          Uriel said, “Richard, Gladys.  It is time to depart.”

          Ken looked desperate and panicked.  He pulled Rich against him one more time in a bear hug.  He pulled Gladys in a much gentler hug.  The three of them held each other for a few seconds.

          “I am sorry Ken.  I have delayed as long as I am able.”  Ken nodded and released his mother and his brother.

          Uriel took both their hands and spread his wings, and with a mighty push launched the three of them into the sky.  A few lengths into the air they all transformed into balls of Light and disappeared.

          Ken fell to his knees and bowed his head.  His shoulders were slumped and still shook with quiet sobs - he looked defeated.

          Brad moved over and put a hand on his shoulder.  I love you Ken.  I’m here.

          I know.  And you’re the only thing holdin me together right now, B.

          Unexpectedly, Drew moved over and threw his arms around Ken’s strong neck.  He was crying too, and whispered into Ken’s ear, “It’s OK, Uncle Ken.  My mom’s gone too.  I know how you feel.”

          Once again, Drew sounded so much like an adult he caught everyone off guard.

          Ken’s arms wrapped around the little boy, holding him tight and he said, “Thanks, Buddy.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Later that evening, at the Lab in Atlanta, everyone sat around eating dinner together. 

          Ken was quiet and pensive and everyone was present with him in the Link but didn’t intrude deeper, giving him as much time and space as he needed to deal with what happened.

          What everyone had done for him while he was incapacitated was overwhelming.  He was so proud of all of them, and grateful.  He knew he would have done the same for any of them, but it still made him feel loved.  It made a difference in how he felt, having them all with him.

          Darren brought Kelly and Chloe to Atlanta and Ken took his turn at holding the newborn infant.  He felt her Mind, so innocent and pure.  It was refreshing, and Chloe didn’t make any noise other than happy gurgles as he bounced her gently in his powerful arms.

          The doctor and Albrecht made themselves scarce after they ate.  Ken had a good idea why, so after he spent a little time with Kelly he sought them out.

          He knocked on the doctor’s office door and stuck his head in, “Hey Doc, you got a minute?”

          Aaron looked uncomfortable, a rarity for him, but said, “Always, Kenneth.  You never need to ask, my boy.  Come in.  Close the door if you wish.”

          Ken moved in and closed the door.  He sat down and put his head in his hands.  The doctor moved out from behind his desk, and he and Albrecht took a seat on each side of Ken.

          Ken was shocked when he heard the doctor’s voice.  He rarely showed emotion, and even more rarely cried.  He was crying as hard as when his daughter Charissa died.

          “I am so sorry, my boy!  I know you must hate me for what I did.”

          Ken was shocked and he immediately got down on a knee in front of the doctor.  Albrecht was looking at both men with compassion but didn’t say anything yet.  This matter was between them as men.

          “No, Doc.  Don’t ever think that.  I wanted to tell you I understand.  I hate it that you had to make the decision you did.  Tactically, as a military man, I get it.  That doesn’t make it hurt any less, and I know it wasn’t easy on you.  I was comin in here to see if you were alright.  I know Albrecht will take care of you, but I want you to know you and I are OK.  I’m not mad.  I was for a few seconds, but not anymore.  The whole thing just sucks.”

          Albrecht’s eyes filled with pride.  Ken could have so easily blamed Aaron for his mother’s death.

          The doctor’s voice was so quiet even Ken had a hard time hearing him, “I do not deserve you, Kenneth.  You, or any of the men.”

          Ken’s brow furrowed in anger, “I never want to hear those words cross your lips again, Doc!  It turns out my real dad was a bum that took me and my brother away from my mother, and it broke her so bad she never really recovered.  You’ve been more of a father to me than I could ever have hoped for.

          “I know you talked about the toll this war would take on us.  I knew it would be hard… we signed up for it though, and all of us will see it finished, or die trying.  It’s getting harder. Who knows if The Master has found more relatives?  We have to find a way to protect ourselves, and any of our relatives that might still be out there.

          “We have Drew’s birthday in just over a month, and then we have a year to figure the rest of all this out.  That boy will not die again!  We have to stick together more than ever, sir.  I need you with us, on board.  I know you are, so don’t take that as I don’t think you are.  I really needed to let you know before any more time passed that I’m OK with what you had to do.”

          The doctor looked humbled and said, “Thank you, Kenneth.”  He left anything else unsaid…there was an understanding between the two men.  Albrecht was proud of both of them.

          Ken said, “I’ll be heading to the Australian Lab first thing tomorrow.  We need to take care of Craig and Jacob and Marge.  The rest of the men and their families are probably rattled pretty bad by what happened with Kent.”

          “You do not have to do that yourself, Kenneth.  You and Bradford should take a few days to be together. Why don’t you send…?”

          “No, Doc.  I need to jump right back in.  I’m leanin hard on Brad, but he’s strong enough for both of us right now.  We can’t let up.  I feel the pressure of everythin that’s brewin….This storm is right on our doorstep.  We need to be strong and like Rich said, suck it up.  We have to be as relentless as The Master if we’re gonna win this. 

          “I don’t know what else he has planned for us, but we need to stand together and tough it out.  We have to find a way to help Drew survive and win his part of the fight, so we can do ours.

          “But tonight, I’m goin home with B.  I’ll give myself tonight, and tomorrow we hit the ground runnin.”

          “Albrecht and I stand with you, Kenneth.  You surmised correctly that I wished to pull back, and you also know why. I think my reasoning still stands, however, I also realize I cannot remove myself.  You are the Leader of The Order now, Kenneth.  The old Order is gone….We are the New Order.  You can rely on us to be there with you every step of the way, my boy.”

          Ken stood up and pulled both men into a tight embrace.

          “I’ll see you both tomorrow when I get back.”  He stood and left their office to go find Brad and go home to his own bed.  He needed Brad something fierce; he needed to rest inside Brad’s Heart and Mind, and feel their Bodies together.  

 

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Ok that’s it for Chapter 25… I hope you enjoyed it!  Now to get started on Chapter 26!  I promise I'll get it out as soon as I can :-)

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