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 na´ve 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 incorrect.  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.

As you can all see it's been quite a few months since the previous chapter.  I did manage to get all A's in the courses I took... and I just started a new semester.  I'm taking twice the load this semester as the last.  I managed to finish Chapter 26 over the Christmas break.  It took me longer than I expected to get my head back into the story.  It doesn't take long to get 'rusty' again.  I hope it flows alright and isn't too jarring.   As always the lives of the characters are a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.  I hope you continue to enjoy that crazy ride... I know the characters are very near and dear to my heart and I hope they are to yours as well.

I hope that it will not be as long before the next chapter comes out.  I learned a lot about time management over the previous semester.  The amount of study time for my main classes is exhorbitent... but with that being said I think I can manage to carve out a few hours a week to write.  I've been thinking about it and am going to give it a try, but if my grades suffer I'll have to back off again.  But, with that being said, I promise to all of you that I will finish the story no matter how long it takes me.  I appreciate all of you that have stuck with it thus far, and write me to find out when another chapter will be released.  It's very encouraging and rewarding to get those types of emails. 

There are a few songs in this chapter I'll give you the links for:

Jeopardy 'Think Music'  (Lane plays this in the background while Brad and Ken rush to get dressed before company arrives)

There are a few songs that Lane plays at Drew's birthday party.  None of the songs are his this time.  For those of you who prefer classical music I apologize... this is electronic dance music, but it fits that part of the story.

Sandstorm by Darude
Animals by Martin Garrix
4 Minutes - Madonna and Justin Timberlake

Many thanks to Stephen 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.  I've also been spelling your name wrong in the notes far too long and  I apologize for that (just so everyone knows I  don't sent Stephen the 'Author's Notes' for editing.  I write these as I convert the file from Microsoft Word to HTML for Nifty, so he doesn't see these and doesn't get a chance to correct me ;-)

And now on to Chapter 26!

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<>< Prologue – Chapter 26 ><>

<>< A.D. 1200 ><>

          The peaceful quiet of the Monestary shattered; sounds of war filled the early morning, starting at sunrise, and continued until all that remained of the stone structure was rubble.  The nearby village of Assisi saw the smoke and heard the screams, but did not come to the aid of the Brothers.  The villagers were terrified; an Aura of Darkness descended on their town the evening before, and they huddled in their homes, terrified, praying the Darkness would not visit them.  They felt the presence of General Mstislav of The Enemy come to destroy the presence of The Order.

          The bodies of the Monks lay strewn about the carnage.  With the last death an eerie quiet settled over the area; only the occasional sound of settling rubble broke the silence.  The smell of smoke and death permeated what was left of the once peaceful, humble structure.  Dark clouds hung over the area in the otherwise bright and sunny day.

          Hours passed – silence; the Darkness seemed to retreat, until fluttering wings broke the quiet as a sparrowhawk lighted on what remained of a window sill.  After a moment the bird flitted around, as if searching for some sign of life.

          Another hour –  neither movement, nor sign of life save the bird.  It flew here and there, as if searching for something or someone.

          Finally, the small sparrowhawk glided down into what was once the nave of the small Church.  A few feet off the floor it shimmered and with a small flash of Light transformed into a man.

          He was lean and handsome, wearing simple robes, his face streaked with tears over the carnage he was witness to.  The lifeless bodies – his Brothers – lay about, many of them in pieces, their faces masks of pain and horror.

          He knelt down and prayed, his shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.

          I was beginning to think you fled like a coward, Giovanni.

          The man’s head whipped up, and his posture immediately turned defensive.

          You will pay for this!  I swear it!  God will strike you down for this!

          The deep voice simply laughed.

          Giovanni, as badly as he wanted to retaliate, knew he had to flee and warn Charisa of The Enemy’s actions.  The few remaining strongholds of The Order were at risk if The Enemy was acting so boldly and outside of the Balance.  It was a Dark time in the world and the Light of the Order was dim.

          Giovanni felt the Mind of the General reaching for him.  His shields flared, but he was not counted as strong among The Order.  His powers came from a Gift he carried.  The Gift allowed him to take the form of animals, as well as rudimentary Mental and Spiritual powers.  It was not a Gift of War but of Life and Spirit.

          The General stepped out from behind a broken wall.  He looked almost demonic in his ornate armor.  The sword he carried was nearly as long as his body.  The center of his sword was hollow and filled with mercury – the liquid metal would collect and add weight when he swung.  It was an Executioners sword, and the General was known for cleaving bodies in two with it.

          Giovanni threw a bolt of power at the General as a distraction, as his form shimmered and took flight, trying to escape; but the General had been waiting for him, and the traps were laid.  Triggers activated – Giovanni was caught in a net of Dark threads.

          He knew the Gift he carried could not fall into the hands of The Enemy.  As with all of the Gifts, it was a two edged sword.  The danger of this particular Gift was the risk of losing himself in the wildness of the animal whose form he took.  If he ever lost himself that way, his own Mind would be gone, forever trapped.

          Similar to the Gift that Taliesin carried, it made Giovanni Immortal while he carried it.  He used the Gift wisely, more for the benefit of nature and animals than for The Order.  He resisted Charisa’s efforts to turn it into a weapon, and often went against her wishes.

Giovanni joined The Order as a young man when Jonathan discovered him in the tiny village of Assisi where he grew up. Jonathan became a mentor and surrogate father to him, eventually bringing him to the attention of Charisa.  Taliesin Dreamed of Giovanni years before his birth, and Jonathan tracked him down.  He was born with a Mark that allowed him to receive the Gift, just as had Taliesin.

          He felt the General’s Dark Aura and knew he was too late.  To hide himself, and protect the Gift, he did the only thing he could - he lost himself in the sparrowhawk.  

          As General Mstioslav reached for Giovanni’s Mind – to crush and devour him – he was surprised when Giovanni’s Mental presence simply disappeared.  No trace of him remained to destroy.

          Lightning fast, the General caught the bird midflight as it tried to flee.  The bird was now simply a bird, and terrified of being caught.  Its small form wriggled and squirmed in panic in the big gauntlet covered hand.

          He was about to crush the insignificant creature into oblivion as he heard a voice behind him.

          “Let him go.”  Albrecht’s voice was steady and calm.  His heart was torn inside, knowing the bird was Giovanni, and what he must have done to protect the Gift; he knew the cost his friend had paid.

          Albrecht rarely felt such anger, but it was controlled as always.  In his Mind he held the centering flame.

          The General turned to face him, “So you finally dare to face me.”

          “I’m going to stop you once and for all.”

          Storm clouds gathered and lightning filled the sky, reflecting the significance of the Battle that was about to take place.

          The two men faced each other, each representing one of the two Powers.

          The little sparrowhawk managed to squirm free and bolt away.  The General, focused on Albrecht, missed his second swipe to catch and crush what was left of Giovanni.

          Albrecht’s mental voice was sad and Giovanni couldn’t hear it:   I’m sorry my friend.  You will not be forgotten, and I will avenge you and your Brothers.

         

 

<>< Chapter 26 ><>

 

          I know who you are.  I do not know how you came back but I will destroy you again, and this time for good.  I will eat your Soul and with it I will be unstoppable.  I will kill the Betrayer, Henry Ross first.  I will make you watch as life leaves his eyes, and then I will kill all the others you care about.  The Order will fall and you will be responsible.  You cannot stand against me – you are a child and nothing compared to me!

          You cannot hide behind them forever.  I will find you, and when we meet again I will destroy you once and for all.  I will destroy you as many times as it takes to make you stay dead!

 

<><> 

 

          Drew thrashed about in bed, drenched in sweat as The Master’s voice filled his Dreams.  He felt the anger and hatred in his Brother’s voice.  The black voids where his eyes should be gripped Drew, and he was sucked into them and couldn’t escape.  He screamed for his dad or his Uncles to come protect him.

          He shot up in bed, screaming in terror.  Henry was a heavy sleeper and didn’t feel his son moving about in the bed, but Drew’s scream brought him instantly wide awake.  Henry grabbed his son immediately, wrapping his strong arms around the boy and holding him tight against his big muscled body.

          Henry was shocked at how harshly Drew was shaking, shivering so violently he couldn’t talk.

          “It’s OK, Drew!  I’ve got you!  I’m right here.  You’re safe, honey.”  Henry had learned how best to sooth his son when he was upset or scared, but this time was different.

          He reached out with his Mind to comfort his son; Drew needed more than just Henry’s arms around him.  He didn’t like prying into Drew’s memories without permission; not unless there was a need, but his gut told him something was terribly wrong.

          What Henry felt inside of Drew stunned him, and it explained why his son reacted so severely.  All the various incarnations inside of Drew were on the surface of his Mind, and each of them was just as terrified as he was; Drew was their focal point, and he was channeling the emotions of thousands of them.  Drew’s Mind was barely discernable to Henry amidst all the others – there was an ocean of voices, all screaming in terror inside his son.

          Henry hugged Drew tighter against his warm, strong body.  Drew’s arms were around Henry’s thick neck and shoulders; and he was sobbing hysterically, his face pressed against Henry’s neck.  His arms shook with the desperate grip he had around his father.  Henry could hardly stand to hear the high pitched wail of terror coming out of Drew.  He was hiccupping and shaking and out of his Mind in absolute terror; his cries were like a knife into Henry’s heart.

          Loy and Rick were on duty in the Lab that night.  Henry heard Loy’s deep voice in his Mind:           Henry?  What’s wrong?  Ricky heard Drew scream.  Is it just a Dream or is something wrong?  My stomach is doing flips right now like something’s not right.

          I’m not sure, Loy.  Drew’s terrified, and it’s not only him.  Whatever happened affected all the Others inside him.  They’re all feeding their emotions into him, and I’m not sure why.  Fuck, this is killing me seeing him like this.

          Be careful, Henry.  If you try to Link with him, you might get overwhelmed.  Hold tight, and we’ll be right there.

          Henry continued to rub his hand soothingly up and down Drew’s back while he waited for Loy and Rick.  The sobbing didn’t seem to be getting any better.  He tightened his Shields and forced himself into a Link with Drew, wary of what he might find, especially after Loy’s comment.

          He immediately felt thousands of tiny arms around his neck, just like Drew’s.  He slowed down his perception of Time to give himself more time to react.  He could actually see every child in his Mind if he sorted through them.  Each one was terrified, and he did his best to comfort each and every one of them.

          Henry was the father that none of them ever had, the one man who was strong enough and brave enough to be the man to love them like they needed and wanted.  He strengthened his resolve and gave them what they needed; he became the Wall against their terror and fear, and made them feel protected.  Each of them was a part of Drew, his newfound son, whom he had come to love and care for so much; and he could do no less for them.

          Henry was aware of Loy and Rick entering the room, but he was focused on calming Drew and the thousands of other boys down.  He felt selfish for doing so, but he focused on Drew first and foremost; Drew was the host for all of them.  The rest of them were memories; no… more than memories.  Each one of them was etched into Drew’s Soul in a profound way.  Somehow, they still existed as separate entities within his son.  That scared Henry to death when he thought about it, and he didn’t understand how that could be, or what it meant for Drew.

          Loy and Rick moved on either side of Henry and wrapped their arms around Henry and Drew.  The comfort and warmth of their strong bodies added to Henry’s, and Drew felt it.  The extra hands rubbing his back, the whispered soothing words of comfort, eventually helped to calm him down. They added the presence of their Minds and Hearts along with their bodies, but even so, it took nearly fifteen minutes for Drew to stop sobbing enough for him to talk.

          Rick got up and grabbed a damp washcloth to wipe Drew’s face off once he was ready.

          Drew was still hiccupping badly, but his eyes lost the glazed, unfocused look.  He laid his head on Henry’s shoulder, exhausted but content to let himself be quietly held.

          Henry finally asked him, “Are you OK now, Drew?  Feeling better?”

          His voice was barely discernible, except to Rick, as he said in a quiet whisper, “Yes, Daddy.”

          Henry’s eyes were red and bloodshot; evidence of the emotional distress he was under in trying to comfort so many Minds and Hearts.  The pain of seeing his son so distraught tore at his Heart.

          “You want to show me the Dream?  I know it was scary honey, but I think I need to see this one.  This was more than a Dream, and we need to find out what happened.  I’m with you and so are Uncle Loy and Uncle Ricky.”

          Drew started to tear up again, fresh fear in his Mind.  “He wants to hurt you, Daddy!  And you!”  He looked at Loy and Rick when he said the last.

          They knew immediately who Drew was talking about.

          “Drew… you’re safe with me and your Uncles.  Here in the Lab, nothing can hurt you.  We’re with you, and we’ll protect you, honey.  I know it’s hard, but we need to take a look.  Can you be brave and show me?”

          Drew didn’t look up but he nodded his head.  Henry looked at Rick and Loy:  Guys, this scares me.  How could The Master do this here in the Lab?  The Runes should stop anything like this from happening.

          Loy:  I’m not sure Henry.  The Master once sent a Dream to Lane, but it was more of a memory from an alternate reality.  He somehow circumvented the Tree in Lane and Bryan’s back yard.  He’s never done it again since.  We don’t fully understand the link between Drew and The Master, so maybe he’s found a way.  Let’s take a look and see if we can figure it out. 

          Henry took the three of them into Drew’s Mind and they saw the message The Master sent to Drew.  They felt The Master’s powerful Aura, and got sucked into the void where his eyes should have been, just like Drew.  Even though they were voyeurs, it affected them as powerfully as it had Drew.

          The three men were sweating and trembling when it was over, even being on guard against it.

          Rick:  Fuck.  How the hell did he do that?  No wonder Drew was so freaked out.

          Loy and Rick felt the anger seething inside of Henry.  Henry kept himself tightly shielded from Drew so he wouldn’t feel it, but it was evident to them.

          Henry also had a pleading look in his eyes when he thought:  Is there anything we can do to keep this from happening again?  Drew’s going to be a basket case if this keeps happening.

          Loy’s eyes flashed white, and his Avatar gripped him, glowing brightly on the heavy ball of his muscled shoulder.  His eyes took on a faraway look, and his expression was almost feral for a brief second; then his handsome face broke into a grin.

          He looked at Drew, and said, “I think Uncle Loy might have just the perfect solution!”

          He looked to the Heavens and cast his Awareness out; searching for a specific Spirit he was shown in his Vision.  He wasn’t sure if the Vision came from Remiel or from the Ether… it didn’t matter; his Avatar showed him what he needed.

          He went far out, and found the Ancient Spirit he was shown and called her:  Come!  I need your help! A wave of Power flowed out of him as he exerted his Dominion as Steward of the Animals and their Spirits.

          “Don’t be scared Drew.”  He looked at Henry and laughingly thought:  You either. 

           They all felt it when the Spirit entered the room.  By the Light of Loy’s Avatar he made her visible and corporeal.  A large she-wolf sat on the floor by the door looking at them.  She was a Spirit, but appeared solid; her eyes gazed at all of them with an intelligence far beyond that of an animal.

          Thank you for coming.  The boy needs protection.  Our Enemy invades his Dreams.  I need you to guard his Dreams, and let nothing touch him.

          The Ancient Spirit wasn’t gifted with speech, but the look in her eyes was perfectly clear to Loy:  I will protect the cub as my own.  Nothing will reach him. 

          She seemed to add:  I will do this for you, Steward, and for the boy.  I know who he is.

          Drew’s eyes went wide as the wolf appeared in the room.  Henry looked at Loy with a ‘holy shit, Bro’ look.

          Loy held out his hand and gestured for the wolf to approach.

          Make yourself known to the boy while you are here, or to any of us, and to the woman Sally, but stay hidden from all others.  He shared an image of Sally with the Spirit.

          The wolf came over and put two paws on the bed, leaning forward to lick the tears off Drew’s face. 

          Drew giggled and said, “That tickles!”  He reached a hand up to pet her.

          “She’s wild Drew, not a pet.  She’s here to guard your Dreams, so ‘you know who’ can’t send you any more bad ones.  She won’t bite you, but you need to be nice to her.  It’s OK to pet her, and you need to keep her close to you.”

          Henry:  She can do that?

          Loy:  The Master can raise no real Power here under the protection of the Runes.  I’m still not sure how he connected with Drew, but this Spirit is old and powerful, and very wise.  She can guard his Dreams while Drew stays here or in Australia, or on ZEUS.  If The Master attacks him outside the Runes she won’t stand a chance, but she will sacrifice herself to try and stop him, and give us time to react.  I hope it won’t come to that.

          The she-wolf permitted Drew’s touch.  With Henry it wasn’t the same; he was an Original Man, and she would obey him as well, however Loy bound her to Drew, and she would tolerate his touch and do her duty happily and willingly.

          Henry almost teared again up at the look on Drew’s face.  He had asked for a dog months before and there was no way for Henry to get him one while they lived in the Lab.  When it was time for the Spirit to go, he knew he would have a fight on his hands with his son.

          “OK, kiddo; let’s let your Uncles get back to sleep.”  Henry added a private thought:  Or whatever it was they were doing.

          Loy laughed and thought:  You know us too well.  We’ll stay up for a while in case Drew needs us.  Or you Henry.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to us, you got that?  You aren’t alone in this.

          Thanks, guys.

          They gave each other the equivalent of a Mental hug, while Loy and Ricky both got another hug out of Drew.  He giggled when he hugged both men, especially Loy.  Loy and Rick were the two hairiest of the guys, and their body hair tickled him.

          As Drew settled back against Henry, his hands went up to the wedding rings he wore around his neck; Henry’s Christmas present to him.  He focused on them as he had been taught and he felt his mother’s presence.  He felt her hand brushing the hair off his forehead, brushing his fears away.   The sensation, both physical and emotional, coupled with the warm strength of his father’s body protecting him, and the presence of the she-wolf Spirit guarding him, let him enter a deep and peaceful sleep.

          Drew wasn’t aware of it, but all the other incarnations inside of him felt Liz’s presence and were comforted as well.  They were still close to the surface of his mind, wanting to stay near Henry.

 

<><><> 

 

          The gentle sound of the water lapping against the hull of ZEUS was both relaxing and soothing.  Brad looked down on Ken’s sleeping face, peaceful and incredibly handsome.  They had been on ZEUS for two days, at Brad’s insistence.

          Ken had told the doctor he would give himself a day to recover from everything that happened, but the doctor and Brad both overrode his decision, and convinced him to take a week.  He’d found his mother and a brother he never knew he had, and lost them both within hours.  The emotional impact was heavy – heavier than he wanted to let on – but Brad was inside him, with him in his Heart and Soul and shared his pain while supporting Ken through it all.  Brad was taking care of his best friend, lover, and soon-to-be-husband.  In this matter, he ignored Ken’s position as their leader and ordered him to relax. 

          In retrospect, Ken was glad he let himself be overruled.  He and Brad had ZEUS mostly to themselves during each day.  They were anchored out in the middle of the South Pacific, and isolated from civilization.  Bryan and Lane showed up each evening, and Bryan worked his magic in the galley, making some of Ken’s favorite foods.

          Bill and Kevin were in Australia, staying with Craig, Jacob, and their mother, in the aftermath of their father, Kent Peterson’s, death.  Brad made sure he and Ken received regular updates from the rest of the guys, and each and every one of them, including Henry and Drew, and the doctor and Albrecht, spent time with Ken in a Construct of Brad’s design.  He even brought Kelly and Chloe in so Ken could hold Chloe in his arms.

          Each night, one of the other couples would come with Bryan and Lane, to spend physical time with Ken.  Nothing was talked about of his ordeal with the Curse – they just wanted to be there as friends and Brothers.  It was a relaxing time, and they joked, swam, and hung shit on one another like the old friends and buddies they were.  It was the best medicine and made him thankful all over again for how lucky he was to have them in his life as they were.

          Brad loved to watch Ken while he slept.  The slow, steady breathing of his strong body was relaxing.  Brad had to be careful; he wanted to reach out and caress his lover and hold him tight.  He wanted to be a barrier between Ken and what happened; he knew Ken was a strong man inside, but Brad still ached for the emotional turmoil his lover went through and was still processing. 

          He also wanted to reach out for selfish reasons, wanting nothing more than to touch the man he loved more than life itself.  He wanted to run his hands over Ken’s smooth flawless skin, soft but tight over lean muscle; it was as much emotional as physical with the bond the two men shared.

          Eventually Ken woke, unconsciously realizing he was being watched.  He opened one eye to see Brad’s handsome face looking at him.  He looked so cute with his sleepy face and the cowlick in his short hair he always woke up with Brad could hardly stand it.

          Brad grinned and muttered, “Finally!” and he let his hands start to roam.

          Even with the ceiling fans and the in-cabin air conditioner, the room was warm and humid.  Both men slept with only a sheet, and Ken had kicked it off them sometime in the night.  The gentle air moving over their slightly sweaty skin gave their bodies a healthy glow.  They were already deeply tanned, and neither one of them wore shorts or swimming trunks most of the time.

          Once Lane and Bryan showed up they shed their clothes quickly too.  It not only felt wonderful, but it was easier to jump in the water to cool off and not have to wear a wet bathing suit.

          Ken stretched as he woke up, tightening his huge physique, his face reddening with the effort; veins popped out all over his shoulders, arms, and upper chest as he flexed.  He was putting on a show for Brad, who loved the sight, and it got both of them started on a long, languid morning of hot sex aboard their private Yacht.

          There was no rush, and they spent a few hours pleasuring each other as only they knew how to do.  Eventually the rumbling of Ken’s stomach made them both laugh and get up to start making breakfast.

          Bryan and Lane came into the galley shortly after Ken and Brad, both naked.  They all gave each other a good morning hug, and Bryan said he’d help with breakfast. 

          While Brad started breaking eggs to make them omelets he said, “You know guys, Drew’s birthday is in a few weeks.  Why don’t we have it here on ZEUS?  You know he’d love that.  We can have him here with us for a week, and all of us can rotate each night to have someone with Henry and Drew.  Sally can come and she can do half-day lessons for Drew.  I hope the doc and Albrecht would want to come and stay too.”

          “That’s a great idea, B.  I want to make this birthday something he’ll remember.  I’ll see if Bill can arrange to have Tommy and Brett come for a sleep over.  Drew’s never had a sleepover; I bet he’d love that.”

          The guys continued their conversation and planning over breakfast.  Brad made mental notes on all of it to go over with Henry. They greatly respected Henry’s guidance as Drew’s father, and never wanted to overstep their bounds. 

          The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming and lounging with a small pod of humpback whales, eating, and sunning themselves.  What little tan lines they had managed to get back quickly disappeared as their skin darkened all over from being nude nearly the entire time.

          Ken and Brad got dark fast, especially Ken, and Brad’s hair got even lighter as the sun bleached it out.   Sally was in awe of ZEUS when it was her turn to stay on board, and the doctor and Albrecht enjoyed it immensely.  It was fun to see their two mentors in a more relaxed environment, and how Albrecht was able to bring out the lighter side of his partner’s personality, which they were rarely witness too.

          The doctor really did manage to ‘let his hair down’ as Lane put it and have fun.  Henry was brought in on all the plans – the only real request he had was to make the birthday presents minimal.  He wanted to teach Drew that the value of the experience and privilege of being with his Uncles on ZEUS was just as much of a present as a wrapped gift.  Of course there would be presents, just nothing over the top. 

          Loy had an idea he ran by Henry – the idea struck him out of the blue.  It definitely fell into the category of ‘over the top’, but it was so incredible Henry couldn’t say no.  They kept it a secret from everybody else just like they did at Christmas.

          Under the auspices of ‘Birthday Presents’ Loy cleared it with Ken and the others to have a day or maybe more to himself with Rick to prepare his surprise for Drew.  They felt his excitement through the Link. 

          Ken insisted that no matter where they went, they maintain a Link with Brad.  Brad promised not to ‘peek.’

          Two days before Drew’s birthday party was planned, the two men powered themselves up and disappeared.  Darren would have been more than happy to send them wherever they wanted, but it was all a part of the surprise.

 

<><><> 

 

          Once he was powered up, Loy cast his Awareness out across Earth, letting the presence of all the animals on the planet fill him up, and at the same time putting his presence into them.  He became one with all of them, or they became one with him – he still wasn’t sure which way it really worked.  He felt them all, and basked in the feeling.  The wildness, and savage innocence, was exhilarating.  He saw the patterns in all of them – the predators and the prey, and experienced all aspects of both sides of that part of Creation. 

          Rick was with him the entire time.  He was so proud of Loy and his Avatar, and he made sure Loy knew it.

          Loy filtered his Awareness down to a herd of elephants on the Serengeti Plains in Africa, and using the eyesight of an older cow, he took himself and Rick there in the blink of an eye.

 

<><><> 

 

          As soon as Loy appeared in the Serengeti, Barachiel was aware of his presence.  Triggers he placed long ago activated, altering him to his grandson’s presence in that place.

          He knew it was inevitable – the Serengeti could be considered the ‘Heart’ of Loy’s power, just as the Tree and the Valley were Bryan’s.   The life cycle was stronger there than perhaps anywhere else on Earth.

          Barachiel wasn’t able to intervene or influence Loy’s presence there in any way, but he prayed that his earthly grandson would find the strength to break the Darkness that rested in that place.  He cast his thoughts out and called to his other grandson:

          Alariel.

          Moments later Alariel, Loy’s Nephilim half-brother appeared.

          Yes, grandfather?  It was rare that Barachiel ever summoned him, and he was curious.

          Watch over your brother.  You cannot intervene any more than I, but I will feel better if you are close. 

          Alariel bowed and vanished back across the Veil, to find Loy.  He knew the danger his half-brother would be in, and he would be ready if there was any opening for him to step in. 

 

<><><> 

 

          Bill and Kevin pulled up at the Orphanage on Friday afternoon to pick up Tommy and Brett.  They had arranged with the administrators to have the two boys for the entire weekend.  As the official ‘Big Brothers’ of the two boys, it was allowed and encouraged.

          Bill and Kevin went down to their knees when they saw the two boys come out of their dorm; as soon as Tommy and Brett saw them, they took off running like bullets, throwing themselves into the arms of the two big men.  They grabbed the boys and hugged them tight, kissing their cheeks. 

          Bill was all smiles as he said, “Hey, fellas!  You’re looking great!  It’s only been a week, but I think you both grew at least an inch!”

          Kevin groaned loudly as he picked up Brett, the younger of the two, “Yeah you’re gettin heavy Brett!”

          Bill’s Avatar flared, and he Read Tommy inadvertently as soon as they hugged.  His ability updated him on everything that happened since the last time they saw the two boys.  It hit him hard how much the two boys had come to love Bill and Kevin.  The bond had grown stronger with each visit, but it was like a glass of cold water in their faces at how fiercely the boys loved the two big men and wanted them to be their dads.

          The suddenness of the emotional impact rattled Bill, and he merged himself with Kevin completely, going so deep that Time stood still.  They appeared naked to one another in the place where their Souls were One.  Both of them had tears streaming down their handsome faces as their strong bodies embraced.  They hugged, tight and powerful, even a bit desperate, reflecting the emotional upheaval inside them both.

          What Tommy and Brett felt for them… they felt it inside Drew towards Henry, and they knew how Drew felt about them as his Uncles, but they never thought any little boys would ever feel that way about them.  Tommy and Brett wanted Kevin and Bill as their dads more than anything else in the world.

          It took Bill and Kevin some time to get their emotions under control.  They knew it was impossible… with The Master and The Enemy and the fight they were in to save Drew for the sake of all mankind… they just couldn’t.  The danger the boys would be in by being around the two men would be too much.  But it didn’t stop them wanting it just as badly, and it didn’t soften the ache they felt over the situation.

          When Bill Read Tommy, there were other issues in the dorm with a few of the older boys, but they were generally happy and being treated well; no matter what, their current situation was so far above what it used to be.  The boys had been interviewed the previous day but were confused and conflicted… they thought it was what they wanted, what they had always dreamed about, but they were scared that if they got adopted Bill and Kevin wouldn’t spend time with them anymore, or want them in their lives.

          Once Bill and Kevin had enough control over their emotions, Bill brought them back up.  They stayed deep inside one another but dampened their Auras so the boys wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

          Bill said, “Boys let’s head over by those trees for a minute so we can have a talk before we head out.”

          Bill took Tommy’s hand and Kevin picked Brett up, flipping him up onto his shoulders and carried him.  Bill could feel Tommy’s trepidation and fear, wondering what they wanted to talk about.  He was afraid it was time for the ‘talk’ that always seemed to come with every adult he had ever cared about. 

          Once they sat down, Bill pulled Tommy into his lap, saying “Come here, kiddo.”  He wrapped his big arms around Tommy and hugged him tight.  He knew the warmth and strength of his powerful body made Tommy feel safe and protected, but he felt the walls inside Tommy already building.

          Kevin set Brett down in his lap and did the same.  He ruffled Brett’s shaggy hair and kissed the top of his head and looked at Bill to start.  Bill gave him the ‘you chickenshit’ look and their eyes glinted with laughter – it was a look they often shared when one or the other of them needed to take the lead in a conversation, but each held off, wanting the other to start.

          Bill took a deep breath and said, “OK, guys.  Before I say anything else I want you to know how much Kev and I have come to love you.  We really mean that – and I wish more than anything we could be your dads.  As hard as this is to say, and as hard as it is for you to hear, that can’t happen.  There are all kinds of reasons that you can’t understand yet, and I know it sucks.  It hurts us as badly as it does you.”

          Both boys started crying, their eyes welling up.

          Kevin hugged Brett tighter, “It’s OK to cry little man.  I’m crying too.  We want you to know something, and we promise, cross our hearts and hope to die, we will be in your lives as long as you live.  There are just too many things you need that we can’t give you.  But you’re stuck with us, whether you like it or not.  We’ll spend as much time with you as we can.  We want to find out more about the couple that saw you yesterday.  If they’re nice, you need to give them a chance.  You both need a good home where you can grow up together.”

          Bill continued, “We aren’t going anywhere guys, so don’t be sad, and don’t be afraid we’re going to disappear on you.  I know how many promises have been broken to you, but we can prove it to you, if you’ll let us.”

          Tommy’s eyes got big and he knew what they were talking about.  The first time Bill and Kevin visited Calvary Children's Home the boys felt their Auras and most of the children thought they were angels.   The two boys knew that Bill and Kevin, and the rest of the Team, could know what they were thinking if they wanted too.

          Bill had put a gentle Compulsion on the children not to openly talk about what they saw and felt that day to other adults, but they were free to talk about it among themselves, or with the other children.  They boys knew there was something different about the two men and their friends.  Ken and Brad and the others spent a lot of time in the Orphanage too, when they could, and their presence always uplifted the children in a magical way.

          Tommy was a little afraid, but he nodded.  Bill brought the two boys into a Link with him and Kevin.  It wasn’t a merge, but they could feel the emotions and the intent of the two big men and see the sincerity inside of them and the love they held for the two boys.  Fresh tears streamed down all their faces and the two men let the boys rest in the comfort of the Link for a few minutes, until the last of their fears were gone.

          To break the somber intensity Kevin perked up and said,           “Hey, we got a big surprise for you two.  We’re having a birthday party for Drew on our boat.  How does spending the weekend on the water sound?”

          The reaction wasn’t what they expected.  Both boys were way more subdued, and neither one seemed as excited as they expected them to be.

          The first thing they saw was that neither boy could swim and Tommy had almost drowned when he was Brett’s age – one of the older boys had held him under water in a bathtub in the dorm.  He was afraid and didn’t want to show it in front of Bill and Kevin.

          The other issue was that neither boy had any money to buy Drew a birthday present.  Most boys their age didn’t have much of a concept of money, but growing up in an Orphanage with nothing, they knew it was another thing they didn’t have.

          Kevin held his emotions in check, but his heart ached for these two boys.  They were typical of most of the children at the orphanage.  They had been mistreated and abused in one form or another all their young lives.  The unfairness of it all, caused by the greed of human adults, hit them again.  The boys felt the anger over everything that had occurred, and knew it wasn’t directed at them.  It was heartwarming to them in a way to know that an adult felt so protective of them the way they longed for.

          Bill shivered inside, and he retreated back into Kevin completely for a brief moment.  He didn’t bother shielding them that time – he wanted the two boys to feel the warmth of their Auras.

          Bill hugged Tommy tighter and gently said, “I’m sorry Tommy. There’s no need to be afraid though, buddy.  We know what happened, and it was horrible what that boy did to you.  But we’ll be with you, and teach you how to swim.  And if you can keep a big secret, I’ll tell you something.  I was going to surprise you with this, but maybe this will help make you look forward to it more.”

          Both boys looked at him expectantly, their eyes big, wondering what he was going to tell them.

          “There are going to be whales and dolphins there to swim with.  Maybe other animals.  Last time we had penguins with us too.”

          The boys looked like they didn’t believe him.  They were used to being lied too.

          “You know we’ll never lie to you.  I’m telling the truth.  I bet you’ll have more fun than you can possibly imagine if you come with us.  But if you don’t want to it’s OK.  We can take you to our house for the weekend.”

          It was Brett that said, “No!  I want to go!  Come on Tommy!  It’ll be fun!”

          They could see Tommy wanted too, but he was scared.

          Bill put his chin on the top of Tommy’s head.  “You’ll be safe, Tommy.  I promise.  We’ll teach you to swim.  Drew didn’t know how to swim either, and we taught him.  All of us guys were in the Navy, and know how to scuba dive.  We can teach you that too, if you want.

          “There’s nothing wrong with being afraid Tommy.  I want you to know that.  You need to learn to face your fears, and me and Kev will be there with you every step of the way.  Every one of the guys will, and Drew too.  He can tell you how we taught him. How about it?”

          Tommy looked up into Bill’s eyes, searching.  He saw and felt that Bill was telling him the truth, and he tentatively nodded. Bill’s handsome face broke out into a grin, and he said, “Atta boy!” as he ruffled Tommy’s hair. 

          “We need to hit Wal-Mart or Target and get you guys some swimsuits, and let you pick out a birthday present for Drew.”  The two boys already had their backpacks with them with their toothbrushes and extra clothes and pajamas, so they were ready to go.

          Brett said, “We don’t have any money for a present.”

          Kevin said, “We have you covered little man.  That’s what part of being a Big Brother is all about.  You leave the money to us.  Hey are you two hungry?  You want to stop on the way and get something to eat?”

          They both practically shouted, “Wendy’s!  Can we get chocolate Frosties?”

          “I think we can handle that.  Now let’s hit the road.  In a few hours you’ll be on a Yacht and have the best time of your lives.”

          The boys ran to the car and climbed inside.

          Bill…

          Kevin let the dam loose inside him that he had been holding back.

          Those two… It still gets me what shitty lives they’ve had.  Their faces lit up when they saw us… God I wish we could take them as ours.

          Bill wrapped his Heart and Mind around his best friend and lover – and soon-to-be-husband.

          I know Kev.  I do too.  Right now we both know it’s not possible.  I hate to be brutally honest, but how painful will it be to watch them grow old and die while we stay young? I think it would be worse if they were our kids.  I’m not sure we could handle that part.  It’s going to be hard enough with friends like Sally and the Keenans, but if we had our own kids?  I’m not sure I could take that.

          We’ll have to be enough for each other, and the guys.  We’re a family, and it’s enough.  It’ll have to be enough.  But we can watch over these boys like our own.  I want to meet that family that interviewed them yesterday.  I want to make sure they deserve those two boys and they aren’t just another shitty foster family that wants two extra checks a month.

          Damn straight.  Now let’s go to Wendy’s.  I haven’t had a Frosty in ages.

         

<><><> 

 

          Ken lay back, floating in the water, letting the floats support his body.  He had Styrofoam ‘noodles’ all under his legs, arms, and neck.  In the initial modifications to his body when he joined the Program, the oxygen levels in his system were greatly increased not only to fuel his muscles, but to help with buoyancy, offsetting the greatly increased density of his muscles and bones.  With hardly any effort, he oxygenated his body with a trickle of power from his core energy center to help assist the noodles.

          Brad, Bryan, and Lane were all floating nearby.  Brad and Lane used their Minds to keep the four of them physically close if the wind caused them to drift apart.

          The hot sun beat down on their bodies and felt wonderful.  The feelings hit Ken hard – Brad and the doctor told him that might happen.  His unconscious Mind was processing the emotional trauma he experienced with the loss of his mother and brother. An emotional wave hit him, and he sucked in his breath.  His abs tensed, forming tight deep ridges that the water ran through.

          Brad’s Mental presence increased, as though wrapping his arms around Ken. 

          Ken let out a quiet, “Fuck me!” and flipped over in the water.  He swam to the back deck and climbed up the ladder.

          Brad, Lane, and Bryan were all with him – Bryan and Lane had started to withdraw, but Ken held onto them tight without saying or thinking anything.  He wanted… no, he needed them there with him along with Brad.

          He went into the main galley and grabbed a beer for everyone.  When he came back out, Bryan was sitting on the back deck with his legs dangling in the water.  Brad and Lane were still floating.

          Ken sat down beside Bryan, handing him a beer, and he tossed one each to Brad and Lane.

          He popped the can open, but as soon as he raised it up, his throat tightened and he choked up.

          His first reaction, which he knew sounded stupid was to say, “I’m sorry, guys.”

          Bryan’s big arms wrapped around his shoulder and pulled Ken close.

          Let it out Ken.  The comfort of Bryan’s solid presence, the feel of his strong arm over his shoulder, and the depth of his love and concern for Ken caused a fresh wave of emotion.

          The emotions that hit Ken were strong, and it wasn’t only grief over losing his family.  What everyone did for him while he was incapacitated was there too – in particular Bryan, who faced off against Luke to save him.

          It was so humbling; he leaned into Bryan, hugging him back and thought:  Thanks Bry.  I don’t know what to say about what you did for me and B.

          Nothin that you wouldn’t do for any of us, fucker.  It was nothing.

          Ken sniffed and thought:  Nothing my ass!  You are gonna take my thanks, and you are gonna like it!  That’s an order!

          All of them chuckled, and it broke the seriousness of the mood.

          Lane grinned and thought:  Bry really just wanted to cop a feel.

           Oh really?  You wanna ditch the nerd and run away with me Bry?

          There was more laughter, and Bryan surprised Ken by rolling the two of them off the deck, dunking them both.

 

<><><> 

         

          Loy and Rick appeared on the plains of the Serengeti beside the large female elephant, whose eyes Loy had used to teleport them.  He moved over to her and rubbed his hands along her skin, careful not to rub too lightly so he wouldn’t tickle her.  As rough as it looked elephants have sensitive skin, and too light a touch irritated them.  He smiled at her, and he felt her contentment at his presence.  She brought her trunk around and nuzzled him; she also slobbered all over him making him laugh.

          The sky was overcast and the temperature was in the mid-eighties.  It was the rainy season, and the humidity was off the charts.  Both men broke out into a heavy sweat even though it wasn’t all that stiflingly hot.

          They took off their shirts and tucked them into their shorts.  Ricky never got tired of looking at Loy’s muscled hairy chest.  He was the perfect musclebear – big balled shoulders, big arms and chest.  He didn’t have a gut like most bears did – he was leaner than most guys who were into bears liked, but he was all muscle.  He kept the hair on his body trimmed… Loy didn’t like hair on his shoulders and back so Ricky helped him shave, but his arms, chest, and legs were thick with dark brown hair.  The hair on his head had light brown highlights from being bleached out in the summer sun, and it changed Loy’s looks from incredibly handsome to devastatingly handsome in Ricky’s mind.

          Loy had the same admiration for Rick’s body.  They grinned at one another, fully aware of the effect they had on each other through their bond.  Ricky moved over and hugged Loy to him, so they could feel each other’s sweat slickened body against themselves.

          The animals felt the Love in the Aura the two men were broadcasting.  The elephant let out a big bellow and flapped her ears in pleasure.

          Loy laughed.  The feeling he got from animals, especially the more intelligent species, was difficult to describe.  He received the same sense of completion that they felt around him, but he also felt the incredibly intense unconditional love they had towards him.  They were a part of him through his Avatar and made him more than he was originally – even sharing his Soul with Ricky wasn’t the same.  With Ricky it was more powerful and deeply profound, but the presence of the animals and their spirits was something else on top of his bond with Rick.

          Loy let his Awareness loose –just as it was with Bryan at the Tree, in this place it wasn’t so much letting loose as it was letting it in.  The presence of the wildlife on the plains pushed itself into him, and he rode that wave with Ricky at his side.

          “Fuck Loy, you feel so good against me.” 

          Rick took Loy’s head in his hands, running his thumbs over Loy’s cheeks, while their bodies were pressed together.  Loy’s arms were around Rick’s heavy shoulders.  They brought their faces together and tenderly kissed.

          The kiss started out tender, but soon the passion ignited in both of them.  Being nearly naked in the humid heat, out on the wild plains of Africa, set their libidos on fire.   They loved outdoor sex, and something about the situation had both men charged up immediately.

          Rick lowered Loy to the ground, using the soft grass to lay on.  They tugged off their shorts as they continued to make out, arms and hands roaming over each other frantically. 

          In the Spiritual Realm they shone brighter than the sun on this warm clear day, their forms filled with the Light of their powerful Souls.  Rick’s blue eyes were ringed with the dark brown of Loy’s, and vice versa.

          They stared intently into each other’s eyes as the passion and lust built – it was wilder than most times.  The presence of the animals made itself felt inside Loy, and it bled over into Ricky.  Their movements, following their emotions, were hot and wild.

          The feeling of their tight muscled bodies rubbing against one another, slick with sweat and shining in the hot sun, drove their already overactive libidos over the top.

          In the back of Loy’s Mind he smiled, knowing how many young animals would be born because of what they did.

          A gentle breeze blew and felt wonderful against their sweaty hot skin; it also emphasized the feeling of being naked outside in the fresh humid air.  They writhed against one another.  Ricky laughed – he knew Brad was with them and just got a huge hard on.  He sent a private thought to Brad – Ken can thank us later. He felt Brad’s mirth, and then his presence started to retreat, but Ricky stopped him.  He and Loy liked to be watched – it turned them on, so Brad, on ZEUS with Ken, brought Ken into the Link.

          It drove Loy and Rick over the edge – the almost overpowering sense of wildness and freedom of the Animal Kingdom pressing into them, being naked on the plains of Africa in the hot sun, letting their libidos run wild, added the spice that made their climaxes far beyond normal.

          Back on ZEUS, Ken let out a, “Holy shit!” as he and Brad mimic’d the movements of their two Brothers.  They rarely shared so much sexually between the couples, but it was hot, and they all got off with each other across the planet.  The four men merged completely, their four Souls One, lost in the powerful, almost painful intimacy.

          Once they finished and both couples were lying in the aftermath of the animal lust that gripped them through Loy’s Avatar, they each basked in the presence of the others until their breathing returned to normal.

          The two couples slowly separated from one another.  Loy and Rick felt the love Ken and Brad had for them as men and friends, even as partial Soul mates.  None of them could imagine their lives without each other now that they were so often completely intertwined with one another.  What they did helped Ken down the long road he had to recover just a few more steps. 

          Ken:  That was hot guys.  I love you both.  What the fuck are you doing in Africa?

          Loy chuckled:  Sorry Ken, I sort of got carried away by being here.  I’m here to find a surprise for Drew’s birthday party.  Keep the fact we’re here under wraps OK?  I really do want it to be a surprise for as many of us as possible.

          Ken:  You got it man.  B’ll stay with you.  Hey, if you want to do that again later, feel free.  They all laughed at that. They could sense the expression on his face and the double eyebrow raise he did as he said that.

          Loy and Rick pulled back until Brad’s presence was barely discernable in the back of their Minds, present if needed, but not intruding.

          Loy said, “Damn, I hate what Ken’s going through.”

          Ricky pulled Loy’s sweaty body closer against his own, wrapping both his big powerful arms around his lover, “Me too.  We’ll need to find a way to make sure that can’t happen to any of the rest of us.  Not just for us but for any of our relatives that might still be alive.  I’m sure the doc is on it, but we can’t be too careful.”

          The warm breeze continued to blow over their skin, and it felt so soothing that they both drifted off to sleep for a short time.

          Not long after they were asleep, Loy’s Avatar flared brightly, and behind his eyelids his eyes turned white.

 

<><> 

 

          He felt himself back in time, nearly a year before and saw the skull sitting on the countertop in the lab.  Bill was trapped in his own Mind, and they were desperately trying to find a way to help him.

          The eyes of the skull, its empty sockets stared and drew him in.  Unable to stop what was happening he vanished into the depths of the evil that resided in the skull.

          Just as it was with Bill, he relived the lifetime of Evil that lived inside the skull of General Mstioslav.  Every atrocious act of violence and bloodshed became a part of Loy in the Dream.  Years upon years tore at his Mind and Soul – he cried out for Ricky, but in the Dream he was alone and separated from the other half of his Soul.  It made the torturous experience all the more vile.

          Year after year, he lived inside the memories of one of the most evil men that ever lived; they were more than memories.  Even though the skull had been destroyed, Bill had Read it at the Awakening of his Avatar, and Loy had merged with Bill often. The memories and experiences were all a part of them now. 

          The River of memories washed over him like whitewater, buffeting him, threatening to wash him away.  The experiences raged against his Heart and the Light inside him – the Dark Evil he lived burned him.

          Suddenly the rapid flow stopped and he stood inside the rubble of a Monastery.  A small bird of prey, a sparrowhawk, flew down towards the ground.  Loy somehow knew this memory was the reason for his Dream.  He also knew, through his Avatar, that the bird was not a bird.  Its form shimmered and suddenly a man stood amidst the rubble.

          The pain on his face was clear as he witnessed the devastation of his home and his Brothers.  Loy instinctively knew the man was of The Order.  Loy could see inside him, and it was like he was a glass filled with a beautiful Light, and he had strength beyond a normal man.

          Tears of grief flowed down his face as he knelt and prayed for the Souls of his Brothers.

          Loy felt the dark presence of General Mstioslav.  He must have been masking himself, hiding in the rubble, and Loy heard the General’s voice in his Mind.

I was beginning to think you fled like a coward Giovanni.

          Giovanni’s head whipped up and his posture immediately turned defensive.

          You will pay for this!  I swear it!  God will strike you down for this!

          The deep voice simply laughed.

          Loy witnessed the short struggle.  The man, Giovanni, was of The Order and powerful, but no match for the General.

          Loy felt the conflict within the Monk – and he made the tactical decision to flee to warn Charisa of what happened, but the General had laid his traps well.

          Dark threads of black power spread over Giovanni like a net as his form shimmered back into the small sparrowhawk and tried to fly away.

          The General snatched the bird out of the air, and Loy saw a look of surprise on the General’s face.  He wasn’t sure what happened, but Giovanni was gone, and the sparrowhawk was now just a bird; or so he thought… Loy could see through his Avatar in the Dream that Giovanni was still inside the small creature, lost in the Gift that gave him the ability to change his shape.  He knew Giovanni would never find himself again on his own.

          As the Generals big gauntleted fist started to squeeze the life out of the bird, Loy heard a familiar voice say, “Let him go.”  It was Albrecht, and his voice was like cold steel.

          The grief was apparent on Albrecht’s face; he knew what Giovanni had done to try and save the Gift from falling into the hands of The Enemy.

          Albrecht’s stance was perfect… relaxed and ready. 

The General turned to face him, “So you finally dare to face me.”

          “I’m going to stop you once and for all.”

          Storm clouds gathered and lightning filled the sky, reflecting the significance of the Battle that was about to take place.

          The two men faced each other, each representing one of the two Powers.

          The little sparrowhawk managed to squirm free and bolt away.  The General, focused on Albrecht, missed his second swipe to catch and crush what was left of Giovanni.

          Albrecht’s mental voice was sad and Giovanni couldn’t hear it:   I’m sorry my friend.  You will not be forgotten, and I will avenge you and your Brothers.

          Loy felt a thrill of excitement… he was about to witness the defeat of one of the most powerful Enemy leaders in history at the hands of his beloved mentor.  But as Albrecht moved forward, Loy was washed away again in the River of memories.

 

<><> 

 

          Loy was buffeted through glimpses of images and memories that didn’t make any sense – they were emotional as well as visual.  Scenes flashed so quickly through his Mind he couldn’t make most of them out.  It was like a strobe light of memories and emotions, and he was helpless in the grip of what was happening to him.  One thing was evident – there were no happy scenes or good emotions in what he was being subjected too.  Through it all was a pervading sense of cold Evil.

          Suddenly it all paused, and he knew he was closer in Time to where he existed.  It was some years earlier – but not many – he had a temporal sense from the part of his Avatar that came from Lane, and he knew when he was. 

He was in a jungle and it was night.  A full moon cast a silvery glow over the foliage.  A bright flash of lightning illuminated the form of a young boy, or maybe a small man.  He was slender and naked – his skin was so dark brown it was almost black, but he had covered himself in a light grey mud that had dried over his skin.  The mud was cracked and powdery and almost made his skin look diseased.  He had drawn the visage of a skull over his face with the mud.

          With the flash of lightning, Loy saw a silhouette over the boy – it was a large muscled form with small horns and a forked tail.  A cold chill went through Loy at the sight – he knew the boy was possessed by whatever it was he saw.

          In the clearing where the boy stood, a small wicker cage swung from a branch.      

          A deep voice like grating rocks spoke in his Mind:

You cannot have it Nephilim.

 

<><> 

 

          Loy snapped awake.  He was in Rick’s arms laying in the grass.  He looked right into the bright golden eyes of a lion less than two feet from him.

          His body shivered from the memory of the Dream, but his heart warmed at the feeling the lion exuded; that and being held tightly by his lover.  The entire pride had surrounded Loy and Rick while they slept, protecting them both.

          Rick held Loy in his arms, waiting for him to wake up; the trembling of Loy’s body woke him and he realized right away Loy was Dreaming.

          Rick’s handsome face looked worried as he ran his hands through the hair on Loy’s chest, “Was it bad?”

          Loy instinctively deepened the Link between the two men.  A little; most of it was weird.  I’m not sure why I was shown what I was.

           Well that’s nothing new.  They both chuckled softly at his comment.  Want to share it with me?

          As Loy shared his Dream with Rick, the young lion moved up and nuzzled his huge head against Loy’s chest, licking the salt off his sweaty skin with its sand-papery tongue.

          Instinctively, Loy entered the mind of the big feline, looking at his energy flows.  Like any wild animal he had some scars and mites.  He was young and in good health for the most part, but Loy sent a gentle flow of healing energy into the beast, restoring him to perfect health.

          The young lion plopped down on top of Loy causing him to let out a, “Oomph!”, but he laughed and hugged the big head of the cat against his chest, scratching his ears.  He inhaled the very distinct smell of a large cat and couldn’t help the thought:  Fuck this is nice.  We need to come here and camp out sometime.

It only took Rick a few seconds to assimilate everything Loy experienced in his Dream.

He had a serious look on his face:  You can’t have it?  What the fuck does that mean?  I wish you had seen Albrecht take down the General.  We need to talk to him and find out who that Giovanni guy was.

Loy felt deep down they were here for a reason, even though his idea for Drew’s birthday surprise seemed to be random.

I feel the puppet strings Rick. 

Yeah, me too.                                       

Loy still felt Brad in the back of his Mind, connected but barely there.  He reached for his Brother, who was across the planet, but nothing changed.  He was surprised, and his Aura flared brightly as he brought more Power to bear to connect with Brad, but Brad’s presence didn’t change.

Fuck RickI can’t reach Brad.

Rick was immediately more alert and on edge.  Not again!

 

<><> 

 

Alariel watched the two men and saw the trap pull them in.  As per Barachiel’s instructions he didn’t intervene.  He was scared for his half-brother, but he also knew how strong Loy and Rick were.

He would watch over their bodies while their minds were imprisoned.  He managed to create a tunnel into the Construct before the trap was sprung, and he would be able to watch them there as well.  He was careful not to get sucked into the same trap.

He watched as Loy Dreamt, and as the lions surrounded them, innately sensing the need to protect their Steward.

 

<><><> 

 

Both men stayed tightly bound inside each other, shielding themselves.  For some reason Loy heard the words inside his head again:

You cannot have it, Nephilim.

His conscious and unconscious Minds were working on the problem, as were Rick’s.

Rick looked at Loy, “Man, Ken is gonna be pissed.  So why’re we here?  This can’t be Luke, and there’s no way The Master could have known we’d be coming here.”

Loy let out a heavy sigh, “Fuck Ricky.  Just like Rosanne Rosannadanna used to say… It’s always something!”

Rick chuckled at the old Saturday Night Live reference and said, “That it is, buddy.”

“Well we aren’t going to find out what’s going on by sitting here.”

While they were talking, Loy absentmindedly scratched the ears of the young Lion, who was now draped across his naked body.

“Sorry fella, but I gotta get up.”

The young lion looked at him and sighed, then nuzzled against him, growling low in his throat.

Loy laughed and said, “I’ll scratch you more later, so no attitude.  Up and at ’em!”

The young lion rolled off of him and stood up, shaking his entire body in the process.  Rick got up and held out his hand for Loy, pulling him to his feet as though he weighed nothing.  His eyes raked over Loy’s handsome naked body one more time.

Loy saw the hungry look in his eyes and grinned:  Yeah, you do the same to me.  Let’s figure this shit out so we can get back to what we do best. The grin across his handsome face when he thought that made Rick’s heart skip a beat.

 

<><><> 

 

Loy tried one more time to reach Brad, but wasn’t successful.  Brad’s presence was there, but the connection seemed inert – there, but not there.  He hadn’t encountered anything like that and wondered if Brad felt the same thing on his end.   His guess was that Brad might only realize something was wrong if he tried to reach for them and felt the same thing.

Rick asked, “Do you know where we are exactly?”

“Not specifically… all I know is we’re in the Serengeti Plains.  Most of this land is a National Park or a game reserve.  But I’m not sure we’re even in the Physical Realm right now.  I think this is a Construct, so I have no idea what to expect.”

Lowereing his head, Rick groaned, letting out a quiet, “Fuck me!” under his breath, shaking his head.

There was nothing for it but to move forward and find out why they were there so the two men, hand in hand, began to walk.

They continued to talk in their Minds occasionally, as they moved silently forward.  They were in ‘mission’ mode and their demeanor changed,  keeping communication short and precise, reverting to their SEAL training.  Loy felt the presence of the lions nearby but no other wildlife.  Rick reached out to feel the Life of the place and immediately knew something was wrong.  He felt everything in a small area around them but no more.  Instinctively he reached for the Tree and realized he couldn’t.

He let out another:  Fuck.

When Loy realized that, he Listened and barely heard anything.  Only some ambient Music in their general vicinity.

It confirmed Loy’s suspicions about them either being in a Construct of some kind or perhaps something else they hadn’t encountered yet.  It put both men even more on guard. 

Loy called the pride of lions closer and as the two men moved silently the lions surrounded them, adding their own perceptions to his and Rick’s.

After two hours of walking, it became more apparent that something strange was going on.  Neither one of them was the least big hungry. 

Rick kept his heightened senses alert to any sounds or movement, but other than an occasional slight breeze rustling the grass or tree limbs, they didn’t hear anything.

Later in the evening when it started to get dark, they gathered dead wood and started a fire.  It took some concentration but no real effort for Loy to start a spark with his Mind in some kindling, and he soon had a nice campfire going.

Rick sat down beside him and held his hands out towards the flames. Grinning at his partner he said, “You’re pretty handy to have around.  I think I’ll keep you a while longer.”

Loy rolled his eyes at the same old joke, and moved over beside Rick, putting an arm over his shoulder.  He snuggled against his lover, sharing their body heat, and taking comfort in the intimate closeness.  Neither man said much, each lost in his own thoughts, but still deeply together.  It was the norm now for them to keep their Hearts and Minds close, and to touch whenever they could.  They were completely comfortable with each other physically, and had come to rely on each other’s touch and presence.  Neither man could imagine being apart anymore for any real length of time.

When they finally lay down to sleep a few of the lions moved over against them, sandwiching them in between their bodies. Even with their increased body temperature the animals felt nice and warm.  They only had their shorts and t-shirts and the night was cold.

In the middle of the night Rick’s eyes opened.  Like Ken, he was combat trained to wake at the slightest provocation.  He stayed perfectly still, but his enhanced senses were fully alert.

He heard the sound of fluttering wings as a bird lighted on the branch of a nearby tree.

Loy.

The triggers Loy had placed in his own mind activated, and he was instantly awake.

What is it?

A bird.  It’s the first sign of life other than the lions since we got here.  Wherever here is.

Loy’s eyes were still closed, but he reached for the bird with his Avatar; he felt nothing.  He looked deeper and still felt nothing.  He felt the lions, and Rick beside him.  His Avatar seemed to be working normally.

That’s not a bird.

Loy’s eyes flashed white and suddenly he saw a man perched on the limb of the tree.  He was thin and dressed in brown robes like a Monk.  It was the man, Giovanni, from his Dream.

He blinked and it was just a bird again.

Holy shit Ricky!  That’s Giovanni! 

They heard a deep voice like grating rocks in their Minds:  You cannot have it!

There was a roar so loud the ground and the trees shook violently, and the sparrowhawk that was Giovanni flew away into the night in a panic.

Rick: What the hell?

Loy shouted with his Mind:  Enough with the cryptic bullshit! Show yourself, whoever or whatever you are!

You came here for it, but now you are mine as well, and you can never leave.

In a private link with Ricky, Loy thought:  We need to figure out who or what that is and the rules of this place.  This place seems more than just a Construct, but I can’t put my finger on it just yet.

 Rick didn’t go back to sleep.  He stoked the fire and held onto Loy while he slept.  The presence of the lions helped to calm Loy but didn’t do anything for Rick.  He felt protective of his lover and best friend, knowing they were in trouble, and not knowing anything yet about who – or what – had them imprisoned, or why.

 

<><> 

 

          Alariel watched as Loy and Rick moved through the Costruct.  He feared for them – the pocket dimension was unique and unlike anything they had encountered before.  There were few such places left in existence; it was a ‘bubble’ left over from the time of Creation, and the being that occupied it just as old.  Inside the fabric of that space the creature was all powerful.  He was a form of Djinn, but far stronger – trapped inside but nearly omnipotent within his domain.  He wasn’t of the Enemy or The Order; but he was Evil.

          Alariel tensed when he heard the sound of fluttering wings.  He felt a Presence along with the sound – a Presence he rarely felt.

          Alariel.

          He dared not even speak, but he turned and saw the dove on the ground nearby.

          I am sorry, Alariel. 

          Alariel broke his silence:  Did Barachiel know this when he sent me here?

          No he did not.  You know what is at stake, and your action must be of your own volition. 

          How long will I be gone?

          A long time, but I promise you will see your brother Loy again.

          Alariel trembled, knowing the price he was being asked to pay.

          His words were said to himself, but the dove heard him, “Grant me strength.”

          The Presence filled him, holding him tight, and then it was gone.  Alariel’s head and shoulders bowed from the burden that now rested on him and the sadness that it would be Millennia before he would see his half-brother again.  They had barely gotten to know one another.  He would miss Istariel and his cousins as well.

          Just like his cousin Istariel, Alariel had been deeply affected by their interactions with Brad, Ken, and the rest of the Team.  Emotions he had never felt before were now present, and at times like this he found them painful.

          Alariel wanted to call out to Barachiel, but he knew that would be a mistake.  It would put his Grandfather in the middle and it would be unfair to do so, and, he thought, unwise. 

          He turned his attention back to Loy, and waited for what he knew would come.

 

<><><> 

 

          Loy woke up in his favorite place; Rick’s strong arms.  Loy didn’t have any more Dreams and the presence of the lions inside him was soothing.  More than anything, he slept like a baby because he was with Rick, and woke fully rested.

          He realized Rick hadn’t slept and felt a twinge of guilt for sleeping so well; but he realized why Rick did it and loved him for it, and more importantly Rick didn’t begrudge Loy the rest.

          Rick smiled down at him and brushed the short hair back off Loy's forehead: Mornin.

          Loy smiled back and thought:  Mornin.

          Rick: Giovanni never showed back up.  I know what direction he took off in, though.  Unless you have a better idea, I say we head after him.  He seems to be the key to why we’re here.

          Loy: I don’t have a better idea, and I agree anyways.  I wish we knew more about whatever the thing is that controls this place… and how we got here.  Our abilities seem to work, but we’re cut off from our major sources of Power.  It’s back to the old me-n-you, buddy.

          Rick: Speaking of ‘me-n-you…’ we need to stay amped up as much as possible.

          Loy: Strategically speaking, you’re right.  But even if it wasn’t the strategic thing to do, I still want you to fuck me.

          A broad grin broke across Rick’s handsome, face and he thought:  OK, once we’re out of this mess, we need to move at Africa.  If being around all the wildlife is gonna turn you into a slut… well I’m all for that!

          Loy crawled over on top of his lover and aggressively took their clothes off.  Rick was still on guard and he dampened their Auras… there was no use broadcasting their location to the creature that controlled this place.

          The pride of lions surrounding them was also on watch, protecting their Steward and his soon-to-be-husband.

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad:  We need to get our shorts on, Ken.  Everyone’ll be here in a few minutes.

          Ken groaned and swam over to the ladder.  Brad couldn’t help but admire his tanned muscular body, dripping wet and shining in the bright hot sun.  He started to get hard, but put a lid on his libido.

          Damn Ken, I’ve gotten so used to being naked and making out when we want… we’re going to have to be on good behavior with the boys around.

          Ken got that little kid grin on his face and thought:  Yeah, I know what ya mean.

          As he passed by Brad, Ken grabbed him, pulling them both into a full bodied hug.  Thanks, B.

          Brad almost teared up, knowing how deep Ken’s ‘thanks’ ran.  The hole in his heart was still raw from the loss of his brother Rich and his mother Gladys, but the worst was behind him.  In the last few days, Brad spent the equivalent of weeks with Ken inside their Minds, helping him work through it all.

          The presence of all the guys helped just as much in its own way.  Ken was a resilient man, and with everyone’s help he moved forward, leaning on his Brothers and his soon-to-be-husband.

          They both felt Darren’s presence in their Minds and heard his voice:  You sissies decent?  I’m about to bring us all over.

          Give us thirty seconds.

          Darren just laughed and Lane started playing the ‘Jeopardy Think Music’ in the background.

          Ken and Brad pulled apart, laughing, and quickly ran back to their bunks and grabbed a dry pair of swimming trunks.

          Ken actually felt the air pressure change slightly when Darren and everybody appeared in the main den area of ZEUS.

          Immediately, Drew’s voice shouted out, “Uncle Ken!  Uncle Brad!  Where are you?!”

          Ken was barely out of the small hallway when Drew threw himself into his arms, clinging his young body around his uncle like a spider.  He squeezed his arms around Ken’s neck as tightly as he could for a few seconds, and then gave him a big wet sloppy kiss on his unshaven cheek.

          Brad watched with a smile on his face; he loved to see how much Ken and Drew cared for one another.  While Drew was hugging Ken, Brad knelt down and put his arms out and Tommy and Brett threw themselves into his arms.

          “Hey guys!  It’s great to see you!”

          There were muffled “Hey, Mister Brad” and “Hey, Mister Ken” as Brad and Ken switched kids so they could all get hugs.

          Bill and Kevin had the boys’ backpacks and said, “Let’s go get you guys changed so we can get out in the sun!”

          Henry had a smile a mile wide watching Drew so excited.  He followed Bill and Kevin down the short hallway.  The three boys were all going to share a cabin; at least that was the plan but Henry, Kevin, and Bill all thought that might change at least the first night.

          After the rest of the guys got their greeting hugs, Bryan went straight to the galley with Darren, who teleported a few big coolers of food, drinks, and snacks Bryan had prepared that morning from the Atlanta lab.

          Seconds after everyone appeared from the Lab all the guys felt the presence of  the Wolf-Spirit that was protecting Drew’s Dreams.  She didn’t reveal herself to Tommy or Brett and stayed hidden, but her Presence was felt.

          Within fifteen minutes everyone was shirtless and either in the water or on the dive deck.  Bill and Kevin explained the situation with Tommy and Brett and the Team took extra care of the two boys.  Brad did the same thing he did with Drew, sending them the same memory sphere he made for Drew.  They had plenty of floats and life jackets and before long the two boys were having a fantastic time.

          It soon became apparent how attached Tommy and Brett were to Bill and Kevin.  To Brad with his Avatar it was plain as day, and the other Bodies could see it through the part of their Avatars that came from Patrick.  Brad didn’t want to bring it up and spoil the moment, and he was sure Bill and Kevin were aware of it, but he wanted to make sure his Brothers were alright.  He loved to see how Bill and Kevin interacted with the two small boys.  He sighed to himself and put those thoughts away before they leaked out to Ken or anyone else in the Link. 

          Darren had to go back to the Australian Lab to be with Pat, who had stayed with Craig, Jacob, and their mother.  The other soldiers would all make an appearance the next day to surprise Drew for his actual birthday.  Pat was trying to convince Craig to come along… Jacob said he wanted to but would stay in the Lab if Craig did to support his younger brother.  Craig was not doing well over his father’s death, and was still showing a lot of anger and resentment towards all of the Team.  It was another dark spot on recent events, along with everything that happened to Ken.

          ZEUS was equipped with a large gas grill on the upper deck patio, and before long the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air, making everyone hungry.

          Brad missed Loy and Rick; he still felt them in the back of his Mind so everything seemed fine.  He was apprehensive about them being isolated from everyone, but he could feel them through the Link, and his own Intuition wasn’t telling him anything was wrong.  He decided to give them until dinnertime, and if he hadn’t heard anything by then he would check in and talk with them.

 

<><><> 

 

          Loy and Rick headed in the general direction that Rick saw Giovanni fly off.   They both knew it was a bit of a long shot… as a bird, he could be anywhere in the Construct by now, but it was an action and kept them moving.  Neither of them felt like sitting still and waiting for trouble to find them, or at the worst just being stuck wherever they were.  They were men of action, and their gut instincts told them they weren’t getting out of the Construct without some kind of confrontation with the creature that trapped them, so they needed to find it.

          Neither man was scared.  They were soldiers and confident in their training, but not cocky.  There was an edge of nervousness that kept them alert – they learned their lesson with the Amalgam.  This time was different – they didn’t go charging into a situation they knew nothing about.  This time they were trapped and never even aware of the transition from the Physical Realm into where they were – they had no chance to call out for help.  They simply woke up and were there.

          They made good speed; the weather was beautiful, the sky a clear blue filled with bright heavy clouds.  In the Physical Realm it was the rainy season in the Serengeti and Rick, using the part of his Avatar that came from Pat could see the same patterns.  He knew it would rain heavily in the next few hours.

          It felt strange not to eat or get hungry.  Loy was curious why they needed sleep but not food, but didn’t think he would get that question answered. 

          After noon, when the sun was high in the sky and the humidity was almost unbearable, Rick saw a forest off in the distance.  As they got closer Loy was sure it was the same place in his Dream where he saw the silhouette of the creature over the young man.

          You cannot have it, Nephilim.

          The words rang fresh in Loy’s Mind again, an echo of the Dream.

          Loy watched the thick muscles of Rick’s sweaty back as his lover led the way.   He watched Rick’s calves and hamstrings flex with each stride, and wondered again, like so many times, how he could be so lucky to have such a man in his life.  Aside from being his best friend and Soulmate, Rick was one of the most stunning physical specimens of a man Loy had ever seen.

          Aside from making him horny, it was a good idea for them to refresh each other so their powers would be at full strength. 

          “Hey, Ricky.”

          Rick knew that tone of voice and he stopped and turned around with a lopsided grin on his sweaty handsome face.

          He winked at Loy and said, “Yeah I think so too.  Great mind’s think alike.  Or dicks.”

          Rick looked around with a grin and thought:  Aside from being linked, I know you too well.  Plus it’s the right thing to do tactically.  Not that I want to objectify what we’re about to do.

          Loy let the raw lust he was holding back run wild.  The male lions growled.

          Neither of them wore their t-shirts and they shed their shorts in nearly record time.

          Instead of being wild and frantic like the night before, this time the sex between them was wild but controlled.  Rick was the aggressor and he lowered Loy down to the ground.  They took their time and let the passion build.

          Loy looked at Rick’s heavily muscled body arched over him; he took in the incredible musculature of Rick’s thick shoulders and upper body, the hair pattern on his chest, now matted down with sweat that dripped onto Loy; his thick arms, corded with muscle holding his body up and over his lover.  Rick often leaned down to kiss Loy as he thrust into him, and when he wasn’t kissing him, Rick pressed his sweat slickened body against Loy wherever he could.  The feeling of their sweaty tight bodies rubbing together was bliss and sent waves of pleasure through both of them.

          There was a different element to their love making this time; it was unspoken but there.  This had the potential to be their last time together depending on how things turned out.  They were confident in their abilities and training, but they also knew they sometimes faced powers beyond their own, or simply unknown entities.

          They let their orgasms build for nearly an hour before cumming together.  Rick shot his seed into Loy and Loy shot between them.  Rick licked every inch of Loy’s cum and sweat up, which ignited their powers and their passion for one more round.

          After, when they lay holding each other, Rick felt a sadness inside of Loy through their Link.  He propped himself up on his elbow and put his hand on Loy’s chest.  He felt the emotional tightness in Loy’s body, and knew it wasn’t just about the danger they faced together.

          Loy, what’s wrong?

          The lions.  I want to make them stay here where it’s safe.

          I’m not sure anywhere here is safe.

          Yeah, but if they come with us they’ll try to sacrifice themselves for us if it comes to a fight.  It kills me sometimes Rick, what animals will do for me and us.  I don’t feel worthy of what I feel from them.

          You are worthy, Loy.  I think you are, and everybody else on the Team does too.  I know it’s humbling, but you’re blessed beyond belief to have the Avatar you do.  You’re perfect for it.  You’re perfect to me too, and for me.

          Rick chuckled and after a slight pause continued:  I’m not sure I expressed that very well.

          A tear fell down Loy’s cheek as he turned his head and looked into Rick’s eyes.  They stared at one another for a moment, seeing their Souls, and Loy brought them fully together.

          We’re staying together until we die, or we get out of here.

          I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And about the lions… this is hard to say but I think they need to come with us.  We have to get out of here for Drew and the rest of the Team.  If we have to use the lions to do that… I know that’s horrible, but they’ll do it willingly.  I know it doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s true.

          That’s a last resort only.

          Of course.

          So just like the last mess we got ourselves into, we’ll have to be enough for one another.

          Alright let’s do this. 

          The two men got up, put their shorts back on, and hand-in-hand went towards the forest.  The pride of lions went with them, surrounding them, filling them, and protecting them.

 

<><><> 

 

          Alariel watched Loy and Rick as they made love.  He wasn’t uncomfortable watching; he was more curious than anything.  The emotions he started to feel after his interactions with them were more confusing than anything.

          Above all else he felt a pervading sense of sadness, mostly for himself.  He had never known love like he witnessed between his half-brother and his partner.  He wasn’t in a physical body as he watched them, but he still felt a stirring inside himself at what he witnessed.  He wished such a connection for himself – but now that wouldn’t happen for countless years.

          He watched and prepared himself for the moment he would have to act.  He would have a small window only in which to reveal himself to his half-brother.

 

<><><> 

 

          The jungle was thick and humid; there was no clear path, but as soon as they entered the woods Rick knew where to go.  With his Understanding he saw the vector lines and arcs leading to a cave. 

          They didn’t have machetes to clear a path, only their hands and the strength of their arms.  For Rick it wasn’t an effort, but he was sweating in the humidity and before long was covered with small cuts and lacerations from the thorny vines that blocked their path.

          Loy: I’m not sure if he’s testing us, or trying to keep us away.  Either way it’s annoying.

          Rick stopped and thought:  Fuck this.

          His tattoo flared and emerald green sparks spit off the big ball of his shoulder.  The jungle was a part of a Construct, but they knew Constructs followed laws.  Based on the weather patterns he saw, and the vegetation, it seemed to function normally.  The only abnormal thing they encountered was the lack of the need to eat.

          He cast his senses out and used his Understanding.  The Life energy here was different; it was limited and subdued, but it was present in the trees and plants.  He pulled from it and bent his will upon it.  He had watched Bryan do this in the Valley… part of the Cycle of Life was decay. 

          The trees and vines withered in front of them and dissolved as he condensed the life cycle down to a matter of seconds.  He was pulling enough Power from the surrounding area that he wasn’t exerting any of his own strength or pulling from Loy to make it work.

          Nice, Ricky.

          Rick grinned and nodded, continuing to concentrate as they moved forward.

          Once they got closer Rick could make out the rock formation that formed the mouth of the cave, going down into the ground.  The rocks were partially covered in bright green moss and well camouflaged.

          The area around the mouth of the cave was open and clear, but just inside, it was too dark for Loy to see, so he used the eyes of one of the lions.  There was enough light for Rick to see with his enhanced sight.

          Rick held his hand behind his back and Loy grabbed it.  Their hands squeezed tightly together in love and support, and they moved forward.

          No words were spoken between the two men; their Souls were one and their shields were strong.

          The cave wasn’t deep; in less than fifty feet it turned sharply and opened up into small chamber.  The chamber was filled with objects and some crude furniture.  There was a fire illuminating the chamber; the smoke was vented through a small hole in the ceiling.  The cage Loy saw in his Dream hung from a pole and they both recognized the sparrowhawk inside it as Giovanni.

          Crouched by the fire was the small man Loy saw in his Dream.  His body was caked in the light grey mud and his eyes were completely black.  His voice filled their Minds:

          So, you have come. 

          They had discussed the possibility of leaving with no confrontation, and although it seemed unlikely, they wanted to try.

          Loy:  We want to leave this place, and take the man Giovanni with us.

          You cannot have it!

          What use is he to you?  We don’t want to fight you.  Let us take him and leave.

          You cannot challenge me.  My power here is absolute!

          They were ready, but the attack that hit their shields was stronger than anything they had ever felt.  The being, inside his Domain, was nearly all powerful.  Their shields were shattered effortlessly, and neither one of them had felt such intense Spiritual pain before. 

          Loy heard and felt the lions attacking the creature and his last thought to them was:  No!  Run!

          As they flew back against the rock wall of the cave, Rick managed to roll in the air and wrap himself around Loy so his own body absorbed most of the impact.  His whole body was already tensed from the incredible pain running through his Mind, Body, and Soul.  He felt his shoulder shatter as they slammed into the wall with tremendous force.  They were both unconscious, and Rick didn’t feel the impact as they both hit the floor.

          The sparrowhawk, from inside its cage, looked down on their unconscious forms.  There was no recognition or glint of Giovanni in its eyes; there hadn’t been for over eight hundred years.

 

<><><> 

 

          The day was perfect for all of them.  Drew, Brett, and Tommy had a great time together; the sounds of their laughter and splashing around uplifted everybody’s spirits.  All of the guys stayed in the water with Tommy and Brett, and after Brad inserted the knowledge of how to swim they were no longer apprehensive and took to it like fish.  They had a blast swimming from man to man, and when they grew tired, they rested on the shoulders or back of whoever was closest.

          Brad watched Bill and Kevin closely – they were linked, and he didn’t pry, but he knew his Brothers intimately.  He saw the expressions on their faces, especially Bill’s when he watched the boys.  Bill’s Avatar was often more harsh in nature with what it put into him, and when he found sources of comfort and happiness that gave him a respite from the darkness inside people and their unkind acts, he gravitated to them.  Brad knew it was more than just that though – Bill and Kevin had come to love the two little boys completely.

          They used lots of sunscreen, but the tropical sun was intense and Lane, without the boys even knowing, healed their skin throughout the day, and with a little ‘help’ by evening they were well on their way to nice tans.

          Bryan outdid himself at dinner for the adults, and for the kids he made macaroni and cheese and corndogs.  It wasn’t too long after dinner that all three boys crashed hard.  Henry, Bill, and Kevin took them back to their cabin and put them to bed.

          As they were tucking the boys in, Henry smiled and said, “You two are naturals at this.  Tommy and Brett are lucky to have you guys.”

          Henry didn’t have enhanced vision, but he was linked with them.  He didn’t see Bill’s eyes tear up, but he felt the emotional rush in Bill and Kevin when he said those words.

          Henry was a smart man, and had watched all day as his Brothers interacted with the two young boys.  He saw the signs… and he knew and remembered how Drew affected him at first even though he wasn’t his flesh-and-blood son.

          Keeping his voice low he said, “Hey guys, come with me.”

          Henry led them past the main cabins and up the small stairs to the aft upper viewing deck.  It was quiet; the only sounds were the lapping of water against the hull and the occasional laughter of their Brothers who were horsing around in the water.  The moon was nearly half full and the water bright; the night was beautiful.

          Henry sat down in one of the lounge chairs and motioned for Bill and Kevin to do the same.

          “OK, fellas.  I think I know what’s got you so uptight.  Those two boys worship you guys, and rightfully so.  You pulled their lives out of a proverbial fire pit and turned them around.  And I can tell how much you care for them.   I get it.  I’m not sure anyone else on this boat would agree with me, but I say fuck the danger, or whatever other obstacles you see standing in the way, adopt them.  Don’t make excuses.  I have to make it work every day with Drew and you can too… and it’s worth it.”

          Kevin was astounded at Henry’s insight into what was going on in their heads, and his bluntness in just putting the topic out there, but he brought up the one thing to Henry that he and Bill couldn’t get past.

          “Henry… even taking the constant danger out of the equation… Bill and I talked about this… I don’t think we could handle seeing them grow old and die while we stay young.  Drew’s going to be Immortal, but Tommy and Brett won’t be.”

          “Sorry guys, but I call bullshit!  That’s an incredibly selfish way to look at it.  Are you tellin me that you’d give up decades of a wonderful relationship and the chance to be dads because you’re afraid of losing them to old age?”

          Bill and Kevin both opened their eyes in shock with how angry Henry seemed to be.

          “Look guys, it’s your decision.  I’m sorry I’m mad… you know I love you.  But I saw all day how much you love them and how much they love you.  Make it work.  You know that everyone else on the Team, including the doc and Albrecht will help you make it work.  I think if you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your lives… and that’s a helluva long time.  What about them?  Do you really want to give up their lifetime of happiness?”

          Before they could continue the conversation everyone heard Brad’s voice in their Minds and a deep rooted feeling of concern along with it:  We have trouble guys.  I can’t reach Loy and Ricky!

 

<><><> 

         

          It was much quieter with the boys asleep, but the water was so nice for swimming most of the guys stayed in.   Also once the boys were in bed the swimming trunks came off!

          Ken held Brad tightly against him as they cuddled while floating.  They were linked with everyone, but were also merged completely, enjoying the closeness of their Souls as much as their bodies and Minds.

          Both of them were semi-hard from the feeling of being together and naked in the warm water.  The water was calm and they were totally relaxed; Bryan, Lane, Darren, and Patrick were floating close by, and they talked quietly amongst themselves in their heads, joking and hanging shit on one another.

          Brad was missing Loy and Ricky, and wished they were with everyone on ZEUS.  It was time to check in with them anyway, so he reached into the back of his Mind and strengthened the Link he had with them.

          He was confused at first – the Link was still there, and he felt their presence, but it was like a static feeling.  He pushed harder:  Loy!?  Ricky!? 

          When neither of his Brothers responded, he felt a cold chill in his stomach.  

          He tightened the Link he had with everybody and thought: We have trouble guys.  I can’t reach Loy and Ricky!

 

<><><> 

 

          Loy had never felt such pain in his life.  Whatever that creature hit them with tore at the very fiber of his being, not just his Body, but his Mind and Soul as well. 

          His thoughts were sluggish as he began to regain consciousness.  He felt Rick against him; as the fog was clearing he realized he was laying on top of Rick. He could feel the heat of Rick’s body and knew he was alive, but unconscious.

          He felt something rough rubbing against his face and as he opened his eyes, he realized it was the young male lion licking him.  He felt the presence of the big feline.  He was thankful it was still alive.

          Ricky?

          He delved more fully into Rick, who was still unconscious. 

          Loy stifled a groan of pain as he sat up.  The man was gone, at least for the moment.  He heard the sparrowhawk in the cage, and the young lion was with him.  Grief hit him when he saw the bodies of two lions on the cave floor.  His Avatar flared and he saw their Spirits, still in the cave, and he wondered about that.

          Go and be reborn!  Do not stay here!

          When the Spirits didn’t leave he realized they couldn’t move on from the Construct.  They were trapped here as well.

          He opened up his and Rick’s energy centers and saw immediately the damage to Rick’s shoulder.

          Fuck!

          He blocked Rick’s pain centers in the area of his shoulder.  He borrowed some strength from the lion Spirits and woke Rick up.

          Rick’s eyes darted open, taking in his situation.  Loy immediately thought: It’s alright. He’s not here right now.

          Emotions between the two men were intense; relief at seeing each other alive first and foremost.

          Rick stay still.  Your shoulders’ broken. 

          Loy shared the last minute of his memories since he woke up.

          Sorry about the lions, Loy.  Shit, this guy is strong.  I’m not sure if we can take him.

          We don’t have a choice Rick.  We have to get out of here.  There’s too much at stake for us to just stay here trapped for God knows how long.  We were also sent here for a reason.  He glanced up at the sparrowhawk when he thought that.

          There has to be a way for us to get out of this situation with Giovanni.   I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.  Not anymore after all we’ve been through.

          OK, Kirk.

          Rick managed a grin:  Think Kobayashi Maru.

          OK, but if that idea pans out we can never tell Lane, or we’ll never hear the end of it.

          I’d settle for some Simon and Garfunkel right now if it meant his crazy ass was here to help.

          Well I wish he was here… I need to heal your fat ass.  If we’re going to fight we need to be ready. 

          Neither man had been unconscious for long, and they were both still fully empowered by each other from the sex they had earlier.   Loy brought them more tightly together – the breath caught in their big chests, and their eyes teared up from the intense emotional intimacy.  The comfort and completeness they felt in one another never ceased to astound both of them, and they knew how perfect they were for each other.

          Their energy centers opened and a thick white ribbon of Power flowed through them.  Loy helped Rick to sit up and he looked inside his partner’s flawless body – he used a combination of his Mind and his strong hands to set Rick’s fractured scapula and clavicle.  As soon as he was satisfied, he sent gentle flows of healing energy and the bones knit back together.  The nerve tissue around the damaged area regenerated as well, and in less than thirty seconds his partner was as good as new.

          Both of them were sweating; Loy from the effort and Rick from the healing.  They looked so handsome to one another Rick couldn’t help it, and he twisted his now fully healed body around and kissed his soon-to-be-husband.

          Thanks Loy.  I love you.  Now let’s get ready for when this thing comes back.  We felt how powerful he is – we need to dig deep.  We know how our Avatars work.

          We do Rick, but we’ve never been cut off from our sources of Power before either.  This is going to hurt no matter what.

          Rick put his hand on Loy’s shoulder and gave him a firm squeeze of comfort.  Along with the gesture he thought:  We’ll be enough love.  We have to be for Drew and the guys.

         

<><><> 

 

          Everyone gathered in the den, their handsome faces masked with concern for the their two missing Brothers.

          Once they were all in the same room, Brad took them deep so time stood still.

          OK guys, Loy and Rick were in Africa the last I spoke with them.  Loy had an idea for Drew’s birthday tomorrow, and he wanted to do a little preparation.  He wanted it to be a surprise to everyone, so he asked us not to say anything.

          There was a twist of guilt from Henry at Brad’s words, and it was immediately quelled by all of them.  There was no blame or fault tied to Drew’s birthday and Henry giving Loy the OK for his surprise.

          Lane:  Why didn’t you feel anything through the Link?  That doesn’t make sense.

          Brad:  I have no idea.  I’ve never felt anything like this before.  I can still feel them, but the Link is inert; it’s there, but not there.

          Bryan:  Maybe I can find them through the Tree.

          Ken:  Try that first Bry.  Everybody power up.  Dar can you get the doc and Albrecht here?  Henry we need you to stay here with them and watch over Drew’n the boys.  You’ll be the first line of defense while we’re gone.

          There was another surge from Bill and Kevin about leaving Tommy and Brett.  It was concern for their safety and reiterated their reservations about having such close ties to them.

          Henry:  You got it boss.

          While they were chatting, their Power built. Lane Listened and channeled Music into all of them.  Brad took their fully Linked Souls and fluttered them seamlessly across the Veil.  In the middle of the Pacific Ocean a ghostly image of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, appeared with ZEUS at its base.  In the Spiritual Realm it lit up the Ocean for miles.  Brad, Lane, Darren, and Bill filled in for Loy’s Avatar and pulled from the Spirits of the Animals; most were sea life, and before long the air was filled with images of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and various other sea creatures.

          Bryan’s eyes flashed emerald green as he opened his senses to the Life Energy of the planet.  He controlled where he wanted to look first, and he knew the Souls of Loy and Rick as well as he knew his own and everyone else’s in the Link with him.  They were his Brothers, and he knew them intimately.

          It didn’t take long before he found them.

          Gott’em.

          A huge sense of relief flooded through the Link.

          Through Bryan, Brad skimmed Minds across the surface of the Earth, and once he got closer he started skimming the Minds of animals.  The way he used his own Avatar, plus the part that came from Loy was flawless.

          Ken was filled with pride at not only what Brad just did, but for all of them.  They had all come so far, and still continued to grow nearly every day.  Ken was convinced now more than ever that their Teamwork, and the bonds between them, would see them through.

          Brad found the female elephant Loy had used to see through; he still felt Loy’s residual presence in her mind.

          While Brad was searching, Darren linked with the doctor and Albrecht.  They were in bed and asleep, but Darren activated a trigger they placed on themselves for emergencies, and they were instantly awake.

          Brad took everyone back up and time started moving again.  In less than five minutes the doctor and Albrecht were on ZEUS; and Ken, Brad, and the others, minus Henry, were on the Plains of the Serengeti.

 

<><><> 

 

          Rick and Loy held each other tight; Body, Mind, and Soul.  They filled one another, feeding off the unconditional love that was the heart of their Power.  They pulled from all their training, and all the memories that filled them with emotion; both love and anger.  Anything that would help fuel the adrenaline they needed to build their Power.

          Rick continued to mask their Auras, hoping for some small element of surprise.

          They were surprised when the man appeared out of thin air, but ready.  Their Avatars flared, spitting bright arcs of color off the balls of their muscled shoulders. A thick bright bolt of white Power shot out of Loy and struck the creature, sending him flying back against the wall of the cave.  His trajectory caused him to hit the post that held the birdcage, and it went flying as well. 

          The man and the birdcage hit the wall of the cave.  The birdcage shattered and the sparrowhawk took off, flying out of the cave in a panic.

          The creature turned to face them with a furious expression on his face.

 

<><> 

 

          Alariel watched and knew the time was right to intervene.  Loy and Rick, even with their Avatars, could not stand against the Creature on their own.  They needed access to their sources of Power, and he would have to be the bridge for that to happen.

          He took a deep breath and stepped across the Veil, fully entering the Physical Realm.

          There were no humans around to see the twenty foot tall cowled form appear next to the unconscious forms of Loy and Rick and the pride of lions that had come to protect them.

 

<><> 

          Brother?

          Alariel? 

          Use me as a bridge!

          Loy didn’t know how or why Alariel could be talking to him, but he didn’t have time to wonder.  He Linked with Alariel and all the Power they were used to was now available to them through his half-brother.  Somehow his Nephilim half-brother was using himself as a connection between the Construct and the Physical and Spiritual Realms outside. 

         

<><><> 

 

          Darren and the rest of the Team appeared in Africa beside the elderly female elephant.  Brad’s, Lane’s, Darren’s, and Bill’s eyes turned white; and they all felt a lurch in their stomachs indicating great danger.  They saw the glow in the Spiritual Realm a few miles away.

          There were other animals close to the source of the Light and Darren used their eyes to see, and they all blinked and re-appeared at the heart of the Light.

          They were stunned to see Alariel in his Nephilim form towering over the unconscious forms of Rick and Loy, who were laying on the ground.  There were nine lions, male and female of varying ages lying on the ground unconscious as well.

          Alariel stood tall and rigid and seemed oblivious to their presence.

 

<><> 

 

          Alariel?  How can you be here?

          There is no time!   Open yourself to me brother!  Please!

          Loy trusted his half-brother, and he was in no position to question him.  Alariel shared all his knowledge of the creature and the pocket reality they were trapped in. 

          Inside the ‘bubble’ the creature was nearly all powerful and could not be defeated.  Loy, like all his brothers, was a genius, and realized why Alariel was sharing the information.  He knew this must be breaking some type of major rule; no Nephilim had ever intervened or helped so directly before.

          Rick was just a thought behind his partner.  Their memories went back to the week prior when Michael had helped stave off the Blood Curse that threatened to devour Ken and the Tree.  Raphael had to shield Michael so the Power he used didn’t rip a hole in the fabric of Creation.

          If the creature was all-powerful inside the ‘bubble’, they would burst the ‘bubble’ and see how he fared then.

 

<><> 

 

          Alariel was shocked when he heard Ken’s voice, “Alariel!?  What the hell’s goin on?”

          Alariel didn’t answer in words; instead he reached out to his hybrid cousins with his Mind, inviting them into the Link.  He shared with them everything he just relayed to Loy and Rick inside the pocket reality.

          The emotions inside Alariel that came through the Link were mixed.  On one hand, they felt a deep sense of relief for Loy, but on the other, they felt a profound grief inside Alariel that he didn’t have time to question.

          Brad didn’t fully understand the connection yet, but Alariel was the Link between Loy and Rick and the rest of them.

          Rick and Loy felt a huge relief with the added presence of their Brothers.  They didn’t understand how or why they were present, and it didn’t matter.

          Brad wanted to take them all down deep to talk, but there was some sort of Time differential going on between where Loy and Rick were and the Physical Realm.

          Loy: I have no idea how you guys are there, but you arrived in the proverbial nick of time!  No time to explain guys!  Power up!  We have to defend ourselves and rip a hole in this place if we have any hope of making it out of here. 

          Almost as an afterthought Loy thought:  Oh yeah, if you see a bird fly out of this place grab it!  It’s important!

          As everyone began to draw Power, the already overcast sky darkened even more and thunder rumbled in the distance.  Lighting flashed in the sky and was reflected in their white eyes, as the wind blew the hair on their handsome faces.

          Their faces set, jaws firm, their angelic heritage fully apparent, they shone as brightly as ever to defend two of their own that were somehow trapped and needed their help.

          With Loy’s connection to the Physical realm re-established, and the Mentalists calling on the animals and their spirits for Power, the fauna of the plains sensed their Steward and began to gather and move towards the image of the Tree that was visible to them.

 

<><> 

         

           The Creature turned to face them with a furious look on its face.

          On the heavily muscled balls of their shoulders their Avatars flared brighter with new Light as they drew Power from the Realm of their creation.  Both men went full defensive at first.  Rick put his arms around Loy, squeezing the two of them tightly together as if he wanted their bodies to be merged just like their Souls.

          Pain hit not just Loy and Rick but everyone in the Link when the attack hit their shields.  Every muscle in their bodies went tight with the supreme effort they put into the defense against the attack and to fight off the pain.

          Lane:  Fuck this thing is strong!

          Ken:  So are we!  Hold em guys! 

          A powerful wave of emotion flowed from Ken; he was as angry as Brad had ever felt, and that anger lit a fire inside all of them.  The pain and loss they had suffered on their journey so far in their Battle against the Enemy; his own recent loss of his brother and mother, Darren’s capture and torture at the hands of Luke, Loy and Rick’s near demise by the Amalgam of The Master, Bill’s self-imprisonment because of the Skull, Lane’s death in Taliesin’s Construct, Greg Rawlins’s death at the hands of The Master, Drew’s capture and abuse by his father Doug, and Liz’s ultimate sacrifice to save her son… he pulled that out in all of them and embraced it.  He built it into a Wall that his Will and Avatar pushed into them, fortifying all of them against the pain they felt.

          They all Understood how their Avatars worked now, making them equal to the task.  Surprise showed on the creatures face, but it quickly returned to anger as he struck again and again at their shield.  No one had ever resisted his Power inside his Domain!

          Loy:  OK, we’ve been his punching bag long enough. Brad, Lane, Dar, and Bill, you’re with me.  Full defense.  The rest of you help Rick Unravel this Construct.  I’m not sure what will happen to the creature once that happens – he might go with it.  Regardless, his Power will be broken, and we’ll be free.

          Ken:  You’re point Ricky.  We’re with you.

          Rick could feel Ken’s incredibly strong presence with him; he felt all his brothers, and it was as if their arms were wrapped around him just as his own arms were around Loy.

          Kevin’s Avatar was Primary for what needed to be done, and he synchronized them all and locked them together, but Rick was the focus of that ability from inside the ‘bubble’.  Everyone fed their Power and Will into him.

          Rick said out loud, “Alright you fucker.  You had your chance to let us go.  We’re tearing this place apart.”

          A bright white wave of Light came off Rick and started to slowly expand.  Everything it touched started to blur and dissolve into nothing.

          The anger on its face quickly turned to panic as it realized what was happening; it stopped attacking them and threw all of its Power into protecting itself and its Domain. 

          The wave coming off Rick slowed and stalled.  The strain on his face and body were incredible, and every muscle was fully flexed in effort.  Sweat poured off his body with the strain, but his determination and resolve didn’t waver.  When the creature pushed back, he dug deeper and pushed harder.

          Sweat poured off all of them in the humid air.  Loy heard the seams tearing in Rick’s shorts as his massive legs thickened with corded muscle.  He had to tense his own body because Rick was holding him so tightly.  He reached up and grabbed ahold of Rick’s arms wrapped around him, feeling the strength of his lover and squeezing his fingers into the muscles.

          They all dug deep, but the creature was desperate, knowing if they succeeded it would mean its demise, and inside its Domain it was nearly all-powerful.  It continued to match them Power for Power, and the conflict continued to escalate.

          The minutes stretched – none of them had ever been pushed for so long.  Their training was evident, but every time they dug deeper within themselves, somehow the creature did as well.

          Lane’s Avatar, either from the Ether or Remiel, showed them a Vision.  As deeply linked as they were everyone saw it.  As Ken lay dying in the Valley of the Tree and Michael was fighting to keep the Blood Curse at bay, Drew used the Stone against the Curse. It was a Deep Magic and Powerful.

          Ken:  No!  We’re not involving Drew in this it’s too dangerous!

 

<><> 

 

          The boys were tired, exhausted after hours of swimming and laughing in the hot sun of the Pacific.  Henry let them have a snack and tucked them in for a nap.

          He knew it would take a while for them to fall asleep.  Even through the worry he felt for what was happening with Loy and Rick, Henry smiled as he slid the cabin door nearly closed.  He left it open enough so he could hear them if they needed anything.

          The boys whispered excitedly together.  Drew was in Heaven having two friends close to his own age to play and talk with.  The three boys had a lot in common; they had all lost either one or both of their parents, they loved Iron Man and Marvel, and they had difficult lives to be so young.  It gave them a bond as they talked and got to know more about one another.  It didn’t take many words for the empathy between them to grow.  It was rare that they got to laugh and giggle and be free to have fun with no repercussions.

          After fifteen or twenty minutes the three boys were out like lights, all piled on the bed together.   The She-Wolf curled up at the foot of the bed, vigilant in her duty. 

          Calmly, she turned her head at the small flash of Light in the tiny cabin.  She was not alarmed in the least with the arrival of the dove.

          Drew.

          Drew was sleeping heavily, but the sound of someone calling his name woke him up.  It was a voice he had only heard a few times, and the comforting presence was with it.

          He sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes groggily.  Brett and Tommy were sound asleep.  He saw the dove at the foot of the bed looking at him.

          Your Uncles need you.  Go to your father.

          It wasn’t stated, but Drew thought he heard a sense of urgency in the deep voice.

          Drew quickly crawled out of bed and ran down the hall to find Henry sitting in the lounge talking with the doctor and Albrecht.  They looked serious.

          There was a tightness in Drew’s chest; it was fear for his Uncles.  If the bird-man said they were in trouble it must be bad.  He was crying by the time he got to Henry.

          “Drew?  What’s the matter honey?”

          “I have to help them, Daddy!  They need me!”

          “Who honey? Is everything alright with Tommy and Brett?”

          “My Uncles!”

          The doctor and Albrecht raised their eyebrows.

          Aaron got a chill down his spine at how Drew could know what was happening.  On ZEUS, and under the Protections of the Runes, he should be immune and the Wolf-Spirit was still Protecting him.

          Henry pulled Drew up and into his lap.  The Wolf-Spirit became visible and she growled low in her throat. 

          Drew’s eyes turned white, and he pulled Henry into a Link.  He had never done that before, and it shocked Henry.  He didn’t try to resist, but he made sure they didn’t go too deeply together.

          Immediately, he felt the anxiety inside his son, and heard the words of the dove in Drew’s memory just a moment ago.

          Henry was linked with the doctor and Albrecht and shared it all with them.

          Henry felt the wellspring inside of Drew building.  All the other incarnations inside of him that were a part of his Soul were rushing to the surface.  His anxiety agitated them, and Henry was afraid of what might happen if Drew lost control.

          Drew!  Listen to me honey!  Focus!

          Drew shouted in his Mind as loudly as he could:  Uncles!

          As Powerful as they were in the moment, even focused and straining in the struggle against the creature, they heard Drew’s cry across the planet.

          Panic hit them first thinking something horrible must be happening for him to call out to them.  Brad pulled Drew into their Link and felt Henry with him.

          Drew?!  Henry?!  What’s wrong?!

          I have to help you!  He said so!

          Ken was about to intervene, but Brad sent him a private thought:  Ken something’s happening.  He knows something, and we could use his help.   He’s powerful but unchannelled – he and Henry could be the edge that will let us end this and save Loy and Rick.

          Fuck B!  I don’t like it… I don’t want him in any danger.

          It looks like he’s in this, whether we want him to or not. 

          Ken made a split second decision.

          Dar get them here.

          Henry and Drew vanished from ZEUS and appeared beside Ken and the others.  With their Minds Open Drew and Henry saw everything and were nearly blinded by the storm of Power surging around them.

          Drew’s face was serious and his young jaw set.  There were tear trails running down his cheeks, but he held out his hand and the Stone appeared.  His other arm was around Henry’s neck and shoulder.

          Henry groaned a little when he saw the Stone, but he realized it was inevitable.

          The She-Wolf appeared and stood by Henry’s side.  He felt her fur against his bare leg.  She leaned into him, letting him know she was present.

          Henry pushed all his misgivings aside; he loved his son, and he loved all the men in front of him. 

          Henry whispered into Drew’s ear, “OK Drew… let’s show them what we got!”

          Drew squeezed the Stone so hard his hand shook and the Stone began to smoke.  Henry felt the surge of Power come out of his son… raw and uncontrolled, but incredibly powerful.  He drew on his own formidable strength and channeled his and Drew’s energies and joined with the rest of the Team.

          The creature screamed; its voice was filled with hatred and anger and now more panic.

          The nimbus around Rick started moving again.  It was slow but the movement, the proof of their efforts, gave them what they needed to dig that much deeper inside themselves.  Henry and Drew made the difference.

          None of them had ever felt such a strain, either Physically, Mentally, or Spiritually, not even when they reset the demon Azaziel to his original Angelic state of being.

          Rick saw, with his Understanding and perspective from inside the ‘bubble’, small tears forming. With each small rip the creature’s power lessened.

          Rick: One last push, guys! 

          All of them pushed in one massive surge with everything they had left in them, and they felt the pocket reality shred apart.  None of them were sure where the mass and energy of the bubble went; it simply ceased to exist.  Brad, and a few of the guys, were wizards at physics and were curious as to what happened.

          With the dissipation of the pocket reality, the huge form of Alariel staggered down to one knee.  He was the bridge for all the energy that ran between Loy and Rick and the rest of the Team.

          Everyone else fell to their knees in relief, clinging to one another as their chests heaved from their effort. Rick and Loy were still lying on the ground with the lions and all of them woke up with a start.  Even as their eyes opened, a small sparrowhawk appeared and in a panic started to dart off.

          Remembering Loy’s comment about a bird, Darren grabbed it with his Mind and teleported it into his hands.  His hands were trembling with fatigue, but he was careful not to injure it.  The part of his Avatar that came from Loy told him it wasn’t a bird.  He had no idea what it was.

          Loy saw the two spirits of the lions that died attacking the creature.  His last command to them had been to go and be reborn, but their bodies were freshly dead.  He was filled with Power, and in a flash he healed their bodies and reconnected their spirits. 

          Henry was on his knees cradling Drew against him.  He heard the Stone fall to the ground as Drew went limp.  Henry scanned his energy centers and realized Drew was simply exhausted and passed out.

          He whispered, “You did great, kiddo.  I’m so proud of you,” as he kissed Drew on his forehead and hugged him more firmly against his big body.

          Henry felt Ken’s strong arm around his shoulder as he was pulled into an embrace, “Thanks, Henry.  How’s Drew?”

          “He’s just exhausted.  He’ll be fine.  He’s getting stronger Ken; all the work you guys help him with and the training is paying off.”

          “You and Drew made the difference.  How did Drew know? What the hell happened?”

          Henry locked eyes with Ken and took a deep breath.  Henry’s eyes watered as the emotions began to run loose, “It was the dove Ken.  It spoke to him again.  It woke him up and told him you needed help.”

          Ken saw the concern on Henry’s face and heard it in his voice.  Ken cupped his hand behind Henry’s thick neck and squeezed him gently in comfort.  Henry’s voice cracked when he said, “Fuck, Ken.  I’m so scared for him.  Who or what is it that’s talking to my son?”

          “I honestly don’t know, Henry.  But we’ll figure it out, you have my word.”

          Ken wrapped both his big arms around Henry and Drew and hugged them firmly and protectively, “It’s gonna be OK, Henry.”

          While Ken was with Henry and Drew, Brad moved over to Loy and Rick.  Their eyes opened and they saw Brad’s sweaty smiling face, “Welcome back, ladies.  I swear every time you two run off together, you get into trouble.  You’re under curfew from now on!”

          They all grinned and laughed as Brad held his hands out and helped pull his two Brothers to their feet.

          As usual, they used humor to cover the intensity of the moment, but Brad pulled them both into a tight embrace.  They felt the relief and concern he had for them and how grateful he, and everyone else, was that they were OK.

          All of the Team gathered in and hugged them.  Loy laughed as once there was enough room the young male lion jumped up and put both paws on Loy’s shoulders and started to lick his face.

          Lane was just opening his mouth to make a ‘big pussy’ joke when Loy looked right at him and said, “Don’t you dare!”, and everybody burst out laughing.

          Alariel’s form shimmered and he shifted into his human visage.  His cowl was thrown back and once again everybody was reminded how much he looked like his half-brother; they were close to being twins.

          Loy moved over to him and pulled him into a tight embrace, “Thanks, Brother.  You saved my ass, and Rick’s.  I owe you bigtime.”

          Everyone heard the sound of fluttering wings as Barachiel appeared.  Tears were streaming down his face; the tear trails glowed with their own light. Ignoring everyone, he looked directly at Alariel.  His voice was quietly intent as he said, “I told you not to intervene!”

          Alariel’s eyes were downcast, and his face had a sad look to it, “I had no choice.”

          Alariel cupped his hand behind Loy’s thick neck and shoulder and said, “I am sorry Brother, but my actions must be accounted for.  I do not regret what I did.  You and the others and the boy… you are too important.  I will see you again, but it will be a long time even as we recon it.”

          He glanced over at Barachiel and said quietly, “I was promised.”

          Barachiel raised his head to the Heavens and shouted, “WHY!?”

          There was no answer as the echoes of his voice reverberated through the Physical and Spiritual Realms.

          Loy had a panicked look on his handsome face, “Wait!  What do you mean?  Where are you going?!”

          Alariel looked into his half-brother’s eyes, said, “Do not fail,” and he vanished.

          Loy spun around to ask Barachiel what was going on, but he was gone as well.

          Loy fell to his knees and the realization of what his half-Brother did for him hit hard.  He had just started to get to know him, and now he was gone, and Loy had no idea when he would see him again.  Loy’s chest was tight with emotion, and he felt short of breath.

          Rick and Ken were at his side in a heartbeat.  Rick wrapped his arms around his lover and said, “I’m sorry, Loy.”

          Ken put his arms around both his brothers but didn’t say a word.  He knew full well what Loy was going through, and he expressed his regret and sorrow through the strength of his arms.

          The She-Wolf raised her head and howled in the Spiritual Realm, expressing her sorrow for Loy and her acknowledgement of Alariel’s action.  She knew how strong pack-bonds were and the pain of absence.

          They were all still deeply Linked and filled with Power; thick white ribbons of Energy flowed between them, fully visible in the Spiritual Realm.  Lane tapped into the Energy and sent flows of healing into all of them, replenishing their physical bodies and healing the strain and stress they all underwent moments before.

          Ken said, “Guys let’s get back to ZEUS.  We’re all safer there, and we can try to piece together what just happened.”

          Henry looked down and realized the Stone was gone.  No one felt Thomin’s presence, but he must have retrieved the Stone.

         

<><> 

 

          No one saw or sensed the black skinned creature a short distance away, hidden behind some dense foliage.  He held the Stone in his hand; his own Magic wrapped him protectively and shielded him from their senses.  With the Stone laying in plain sight at their feet he was able to Summon it; his thin lipless mouth curved slightly in a smile at the fortunate turn of events.

          The thick musculature of his arm tensed as he squeezed the Stone so hard it started to smoke the color of blood.  He drew on its Power and masked its presence from the Arch-Angel Thomin, whom he knew would try to Recall it soon.

          His unnaturally deep voice was quiet, and he uttered, “I will avenge you soon my son.” 

          The actions that drew him here, the destruction of the pocket reality, he interpreted as Nature correcting and balancing itself.  There were few such pockets left in existence, and such abnormalities were monitored by his people; it was their Province.

          He turned to the guard that was with him and said, “Stay here, but stay hidden.  Alert me immediately if they return.”

          The leader of the Eschphene vanished back beyond the Pale to make his preparations.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry took Drew and put him back in bed with Tommy and Brett.  Henry was still wound up over everything that happened, and his eyes watered again as he leaned over to kiss Drew on the forehead and said, “Sleep tight, honey.  You have a big day tomorrow.”

          Henry glanced nervously around the room as if he expected to see something.  The She-Wolf made herself visible; she was seated at the foot of the bed guarding Drew.  Henry nodded to her and left, sliding the door nearly shut.  He kept it open enough so that any of the guys could hear Drew or the boys if they woke up.

          He went back out to the den where nearly the entire Team was gathered.  Sally was still in Atlanta with Kelly, Chloe, and the Keenans.  At least for the night, the soldiers and their families in Australia were alone.

          Bryan asked, “He all tucked in?”

          “Yeah, he’s still out like a light.” 

          Henry glanced at Bill and Kevin and said, “Tommy and Brett are fine.  They never woke up as far as I can tell.”

          They were all lightly linked and Brad pulled everyone deeper.  Darren’s eyes turned white briefly, and they felt a small surge of Power from him and the heavy sweat covering all of them evaporated in a few seconds.   Their hair was dry a few seconds later, as well as their clothes.

          Darren was seated on the end of the sectional by where Ken was standing, and Ken reached down and patted Darren’s shoulder in acknowledgement and thanks.  Darren still held the sparrowhawk in his hands; he had put it to sleep, but had to use his Mind rather than the part of his Avatar that came from Loy.   He didn’t know what to make of that, but figured he would learn soon enough.

          Alright guys, first off Loy, you and Rick share everything with us from the time you arrived in Africa.

          Loy’s and Rick’s eyes flashed white, and the memories of their entire experience became a part of their Brothers.  The doctor and Albrecht were in the Link and their faces paled as everything was shared.

          Albrecht:  It cannot be!  He cannot still be alive!  It’s been over 800 years!

          Loy: We have no way of knowing how long he was trapped inside that ‘bubble.’  While he was in there, he was safe for all intents and purposes; there were no predators to try and go after him, and he didn’t need food.

          Albrecht moved over and gently took the small bird from Darren and held it in his hands.

          He said aloud, “Oh my friend… all these long years!”  Two tears fell down Albrecht’s cheeks as he looked at his old friend Giovanni, trapped in the animal form he witnessed the day he defeated General Mstioslav.

          Lane’s eyes turned white, and he felt the grip of his Avatar asserting itself.  The feeling was brief, but intense.

          Everyone looked at him, worried after everything that had already transpired that day that something else was about to happen.

          Lane’s voice still had that other-worldly quality, and it echoed with Power as he whispered, “We can free him guys.  We need to. That’s why Loy and Rick found him.”

 

<><> 

         

          Silence fell as the magnitude of the events sank in.  In retrospect the puppet strings were evident… Loy’s sudden idea for a surprise at Drew’s birthday party, getting trapped in the pocket reality, where ‘just by chance’ a member of the Order, who carried a Gift and was thought to be dead for hundreds of years, happened to be trapped.

          Loy’s emotions were all over the map.  His Brothers felt extreme anger inside of him.  Rick could feel his lover’s body shaking with it.

          So my brother is gone for God knows how long… so we could rescue Giovanni?

          Loy sat forward and hung his head.  Rick ran his hand soothingly over Loy’s thick muscled back, trying to calm him.

          I’m sorry, Albrecht, that came out wrong.

          I know what you meant, my boy.  No offense taken.

          Through their Link, Loy’s emotions and intentions were clear.  He was angry at the situation and at whoever was responsible… not Giovanni.

          Aaron moved over and knelt in front of Loy.  He put one hand on Loy’s heavy shoulder, and with his other hand he lifted Loy’s chin, forcing eye contact. The loving comfort of the doctor’s presence was a balm inside of Loy’s heart and Mind.

          Loy… it hurts me to see you in such a state.  I am not advocating the methods of whoever is behind all of this… but Alariel is alive, and you will see him again.  That is a small consolation at the moment I know, and I am not belittling your grief or your brother’s actions.  However, I am grateful that you are alive, and Richard, and all of your Brothers.  And you brought an old friend back to us that we thought lost to us forever.   Your actions, and the actions of your half-brother, brought Giovanni back into the world.  If whoever is pulling the strings desired that to happen, it must be more significant than we fully realize yet.

          Loy’s eyes were wet, but everyone felt his anger lessen with the doctor’s words.

          I’m not angry at Giovanni, Doc… I don’t like how casually my brother was used to further the goals of whoever is pulling the strings. 

          My guess, Loy, is that Alariel’s absence is also causing whoever is behind this grief.  I have learned in the many years of my involvement in the Battle how difficult decisions are, especially when others face the consequences of your choices.  That is part of the Battle of Free Will and why it is so important.  Try to take comfort that you will see Alariel again.

          Also… he stopped to look around at all his young charges… now that you are Immortal, you will feel the passage of time differently.  Time will move faster, and it will not seem as long.  That, and the years have a way of lessening the pain.

          While the doctor was talking, Ken, Brad, Ricky, Lane, Bryan, Bill, Kevin, Darren, Patrick, and Henry all wrapped Loy up in their Hearts, sharing his anger and grief, and being present for him to lean on.  He felt all their arms around his shoulders, just as Rick’s were physically.

          Loy, embarrassed to be the focus of attention, swiped the tears out of his eyes and said, “Thanks guys.  I’m OK.  Let’s focus on the mission.”

          Bryan got up to go into the galley, and as he walked by, Loy he ruffled his hair in affection and leaned over and kissed the top of his head and whispered, “Love you, Brother.”

          Ken brought everyone back to focus, “Alright, first, Doc, Albrecht, is there anything more we need to know about Giovanni before we proceed?  We learned some in the Dream Loy had of him.”

          Albrecht replied, “Giovanni was a great member of the Order, much to the chagrin of Charisa.  He always used the Gift to help either man or animal and staunchly refused her attempts to use the Gift as a weapon against the Enemy.  After he disappeared, tales of his kindness continued to spread throughout Europe.  As is often the case, memories made him greater than he was in life.  The Catholic Church eventually canonized him, bestowing Sainthood.  If you have ever heard of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals… I am holding him in my hands.”

          There was a smattering of ‘holy shit’s and ‘fuck me’s when Albrecht said that.  All of them had heard of St. Francis before.

          Albrecht looked directly at Rick, “If we can bring Giovanni back, you’re Avatar, Rick, will be the key.  He has been lost inside this tiny form for centuries.  If anything is left of his Mind, you will be able to unravel it.  It isn’t the same as when Bill trapped himself.  Giovanni’s Mind is not separated and inside of himself, walled off as Bill’s was.  If you can separate his Mind from that of the sparrowhawk, then Brad can grab ahold of it.  Even if you can do this, I’m not sure he will be himself.  There may be nothing left of him.”

          Ken, keeping everyone on track asked, “Anything else?”

          “Nothing pertinent to the attempt.”

          Ken got that little kid grin on his face and looked at Rick, “OK, Ricky.  This is your shindig.”

          As Rick stood up, his Avatar came to life on the big ball of his muscled shoulder.  All of them noticed, but especially Loy, how tall and handsome he looked as he stood.  It was the look that all of them took on when they were fulfilling a Purpose.

          Rick’s eyes flashed white, and he sent them an image of where he wanted everyone to stand.  Brad and Pat with him at the center, and everyone else at their own vector points, forming the master Rune of their combined Avatars.

          He masterfully pulled everyone down deeper into their Link, even as he gently removed the doctor and Albrecht.  The feeling of their Souls coming together was as blissful as ever.  The breath caught in their big chests, and their eyes watered from the intense emotional intimacy.

          Power up, fellas.

          For the second time that day, a ghostly image of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life began to form in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Lane Listened, calling on the songs of the whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the region.  Brad fluttered their merged Souls back and forth across the Veil.  Loy called on the animal Spirits, both in the surrounding Ocean and from the Spiritual Realm.

          The Power streaming between them, thick and white, felt perfect.  Henry was with them in the Link, but on the periphery.  He lent them his own Power, but without an Avatar he wasn’t able to participate directly; however, he was with them completely Mind, Heart, and Soul and offered them his own strength.

          Ken’s Avatar shone brighter for a brief second as he locked them all together; their Runes transformed into the Master Rune.

          With the barest trickle of Power, Darren teleported the small bird from Albrecht’s hands into Rick’s.

          Warm hot hair blew their short hair off their foreheads.  They all stood, tall and Powerful, now forged into Warriors of the New Order.

          Rick looked with Pat’s Avatar, using his Understanding, and he gazed at Giovanni intently.  It was so subtle it was apparent how none of them saw it at first; the threads of Giovanni’s Mind and Soul were intertwined tightly, but delicately, with the sparrowhawk.  Rick held the bird out, and Bill touched it, Reading it completely.  It was an animal, but he caught glimpses throughout the years where Giovanni's consciousness tried to assert itself.  Those attempts were more frequent in the years following his transformation, but after a few decades they faded all together. 

          However, Bill’s Avatar was Powerful, and he Read Giovanni’s entire life as a human before trapping himself, as well as all the long years of his imprisonment inside the pocket reality.  Bill Read him, and everything about the man from the time of his conception inside his mother’s womb was now a part of Bill.

          Small delicate tendrils of Energy began to seep out of Rick’s Aura and into the small bird.  It took massive concentration, and before long Rick’s body was shiny with sweat from the effort.

          The threads were extremely delicate and he had to unravel them without breaking them; he knew that each thread was a piece of Giovanni’s Mind.  The minutes stretched out, and the strain on Rick was evident.  Lane channeled gentle flows of healing energy into Rick and all of them, relieving the stress and tension out of their bodies.  He regulated their body homeostasis and muscle tone and kept them all at peak efficiency.

          Brad glanced at him and Lane winked back, sending a private thought:  I’ve been practicing!

          Ken smiled with pride at how all of them were working as a Team, fully supportive of one another and acting in precise unison.

          As time went on, a small ball of light formed between Rick’s hands and slowly grew larger, made of the threads Rick unraveled from the bird; the ball was Giovanni.

          Nearly three hours later, Rick breathed a sigh of relief.  OK, ladies.  This is it.  Brad get ready, I have no idea what’s about to happen.

          He severed the last tie between everything that was Giovanni and everything that was the sparrowhawk.  There was a slight shimmer in the air, and the small bird transformed into the man from Loy’s Dream.

          Brad was in Giovanni’s Mind instantly; he felt the panic and the fear, overwhelming the monk.  Brad was a buffer and walled off Giovanni’s Mind, putting him into a deep sleep, and caught Giovanni up in his strong arms before he could fall.

          Brad went so deep inside Giovanni’s Mind time nearly stood still.  He pulled from all his Brothers and rebuilt the man.  Most of Giovanni’s early memories were lost, but Bill Read him, and his life was made known to them, even what the man no longer remembered or what was lost during his transformation.  Brad put the memories of his life back in place. They literally rebuilt his Mind, but he left intact everything that there was from his sacrifice up to the present.  It was a part of him, and even though it would be difficult, Brad felt the need for it to be there.

          A fraction of a second passed, and Brad was done.   He looked over at the doctor and Albrecht and nodded.

          “We’ve done all we can.  I think a few familiar faces would help keep him calm when he wakes up.”

          Albrecht and Aaron moved over and knelt down beside their friend, their faces hopeful and eager.  They both thought him lost forever and most certainly dead these last eight hundred years, and now he about to come back into their lives thanks to their young charges.

          “Oh yeah… he’ll speak modern English when he wakes.  I figured it would be easier than archaic Church Latin or Italian.”

          Lane muttered, “Showoff” and Brad grinned, shrugging his shoulders.

 

<><><> 

 

          Albrecht took one of Giovanni’s hands in his own, holding it tightly.  He never thought he would see his old friend again.  Aaron was with him, putting his hand on both of theirs.  With the gentlest of connections, Aaron woke him up.

          Giovanni’s eyes slowly opened and remained unfocused for a few seconds.  His brow furrowed in confusion, and he started in panic and tried to sit up, but Albrecht put his other hand on Giovanni’s chest and held him down.

          “It’s alright!  Aaron and I are here.”

          “Albrecht?  Aaron? Where am I?  What happened?”

          “It’s a long story my friend.”

          Ken said, “Guys, let’s go swim for a bit and give them some time.”

          Giovanni stared, looking around the room at the large muscular, handsome men all around him, glowing softly with a Light that filled his Soul with warmth and comfort.  They were all smiling at him, and he relaxed as he felt the soothing peace emanating from them.

          Lane winked at him and said, “Welcome back!” as they all moved out to the dive deck to give the doctor, Albrecht, and Giovanni some privacy.

 

<><><> 

 

          They all shed their trunks and dove into the relaxing water.

          Within a minute everyone had all the floats and noodles in the water and were situated, forming a ring and facing one another.

          Brad broke the silence, “I don’t envy the doc and Albrecht right now.”

          Ken was rubbing the back of Brad’s hand with his thumb, just like when they drove.  His emotions were running deep at the moment, and he said, “Yeah, but it’s great that he’s back in their lives.  Almost everyone from The Old Order is dead now except for the doc, Albrecht, and Taliesin.  Havin someone come back into their lives they’ve known for so long has gotta be a great feelin.”

          Lane muttered, “And this guy isn’t an asshole!”

          Trying to lighten the mood, Bryan said, “It’s hard to imagine knowin someone for thousands of years.  I mean I’ve only known most of you fuckers for twenty-three or twenty-four years, and it seems like for-fucking-ever already.”

          Everybody chuckled, and a few of them splashed him.

          They continued to float, chatting quietly, and cracking occasional jokes or hanging shit on one another when out of the blue, they all felt a surge of Power from inside ZEUS, followed by a scream of pain.

          Darren felt the doctor’s presence in his Mind, and he saw through his eyes.  Darren synchronized all their Avatar’s and teleported everyone out of the water and into the den in the blink of an eye.  The eleven men, soaking wet and naked, appeared around the doctor and Albrecht.  Giovanni was on the couch, his body writhing in pain and he was screaming. 

          His energy centers were chaotic and fluctuating wildly as his form shifted and changed uncontrollably.

          Ken:  Doc!  Talk to us!

          Loy’s eyes flashed white, and his Avatar flared brightly and wildly, seemingly in tune with Giovanni’s fluctuating energy flows.  He staggered briefly but quickly got himself under control.  Loy held out his hand, Linking with Giovanni – his Avatar was acting instinctively, and he exerted his Will, calming the energy flows in both of them.

          Giovanni slumped in relief breathing heavily.  He was drenched in sweat from the pain and tension he just experienced.

          I am not sure Kenneth.  We were talking, and suddenly he was in massive pain and discomfort.  Looking at him I would say the Gift he carries is rejecting him and fighting against him.  That has never happened before with any of the Gifts that I have been witness too.

          They heard Giovanni speak for the first time; as they might have expected, his voice was deep and gentle.  He had a hint of a smile on his face as he breathed heavily in relief.  He looked at Loy and said, “I am sorry, my friend.  It wants to go to you, I can feel it.  I am broken now, and it no longer wishes to stay with me.”

          Pat looked with his full Understanding.  With Ken, Kevin, Rick, and Bryan with him, and their Avatars synchronized with his, his Understanding was magnified exponentially.  He saw the connection between the Gift and Loy’s Avatar – it seemed as though they were made to go together.  It was the same with the Gift that Lane carried.

          Brad:  How can that be?  The Gifts, from what we know, are ancient, and our Avatars are new. Doc?

          I do not know Bradford.  It appears to be yet another Paradox… your existence is hidden because of your randomness; even those in the Highest Order cannot see your paths.  How this could be is a mystery.

          Is it safe for Loy?

          Before anyone else could say a word Loy looked at Giovanni intently and said, “Ask me.”  His voice almost didn’t sound like his own.

          Even with all the big men crowded in the room it seemed as if there was only Loy and Giovanni.  The moment was intensely private between the two men.

          Giovanni held his hands up to his chest, his brow furrowed in concentration.  A brief moment passed, and a memory sphere floated out of his chest.

          Even through his discernable discomfort he grinned and said, “While I still can.”  The memory sphere gently floated over and entered Loy’s forehead.

          Rick sent a private thought to Loy:  Are you sure about this Loy?  The two men were fully merged, and Rick felt the almost feral yearning inside of his lover.

          The only thing I’m more sure about is spending my life with you Rick.  I love you more than anything.  This is something I have to do… it’s calling to me.  I’m not sure I could resist it even if I wanted too… and I’m not sure I should.

          I’m with you.

          Albrecht said out loud, “Loy, drop out of any and all Links before you do this.  The energy transfer will be dangerous to anyone not the recipient.  I’m sorry Rick, but you too, at least until the transfer is complete.”

          All of the men felt Loy’s presence leave the Link.  They were so used to being together, it was like a small hole inside of them was left where Loy usually stayed.  Henry’s eyes teared up; he was still getting used to the intense intimacy of being merged with everyone, and Loy’s sudden and abrupt absence created a brief hurt inside of him.

          Kevin was closest to Henry, and he put a big arm over his shoulders and pulled him tight, knowing exactly what Henry felt.  He sent Henry a private thought:  It never stops feeling that way Henry, but you get used to it over time.

          Giovanni looked directly at Loy and asked, “What is your name my friend?”

          “Loy Barton.”

          “Do you, Loy Barton, accept the Gift I carry of your own Free Will?”

          There was no hesitation on Loy’s part as he replied steadily and evenly, “Yes.”

          A silent explosion of Light erupted out of Giovanni.  His body arched as his energy centers ran wild.  A thick white band of Light arced and hit Loy on the big ball of his muscled shoulder directly into his Avatar.

          Loy felt the Gift enter him; it was like a well-worn glove fitting around him, but one that he had never worn.  It felt right, and it established a connection with his Avatar in a new manner; he always felt the animals and their spirits.  He knew what it felt like to fly inside an eagle, or swim with a whale; now he could become them, and he knew there was no danger of losing himself as Giovanni did.  He felt instinctually that the Gift was made for him.  He had no idea how that could be, but he knew it was true.

          All of his Teammates were looking at him.  He stood there, his chest heaving in the aftermath of the energy coursing through him seconds before. 

          He felt Rick pushing to reunite with him, and he let his partner in, wanting to share what he now felt with his Soulmate.  The presence of all his Brothers flooded back in as well.

          A grin spread slowly and widely across his handsome face and, he muttered, “Oh, hell, yeah!”

          Rick grabbed ahold of Loy from behind, crossing his arms over Loy’s thick muscled torso.  Ken moved in front and put his hands on Loy’s shoulders.

          Ken’s concern was still evident – he had experienced too much loss recently and never wanted to risk a hair on anyone’s head.  He needed reassurance from Loy that he was alright.

          Loy looked directly into Ken’s eyes and smiled, “I’m more than alright, Ken.”

          Loy took one of Rick’s hands in his own and quickly moved out of the den and onto the dive deck.  He pulled Rick along with him and everyone followed.  They felt his excitement through the Link.

          “Time for a test drive.”

          Lane had his usual mischievous grin on his face and he said, “Show us what you got, Beast Master!”

          Loy crouched down on the edge of the dive deck; his thick thighs and calves flexed, and he launched his big body up into the air.  His form was perfect, his arms stretched out and his hands together; it appeared as if he was diving, but as his body sailed through the air his form shimmered, and in a small flash of Light he transformed into a dolphin and entered the ocean without a splash. 

          From seeing the memories of Giovanni transforming into the sparrowhawk, they had an idea of what to expect; but this was Loy, their brother, and they shared his exhilaration.  Now he knew what it felt like to be another creature, not just rest inside them or have them inside of him, but to actually be the animal.

          He felt his body gliding through the water.  He wondered at how strong his form was, and how he was so completely aware of everything around him for miles.  He was fully Loy and yet fully a dolphin, a Paradox.  There was no danger of losing himself.  He was the Steward of the Animal Kingdom, and now he was also a part of it.

          He swam down and then shot up out of the water, showing off for his Brothers.  His form shimmered in the air, and he transformed into an Australasian Gannet, spreading his wings and taking to the air.  He was laughing inside at the joy he felt at what he was now able to do.  I’m flying!  His brothers were staring at him in awe, their mouths agape and their eyes wet as they shared Loy’s emotions.

          Brad’s mind was on overdrive; he was a wizard at math and physics, but he was witnessing magic.  His inquisitive mind wanted to know how much mass Loy could change.

          Loy picked up on his thought:  Let’s see!

          He spun and circled, and about thirty feet over the water his form shimmered again and shifted into a huge humpback whale.  He twisted his massive body and dove nose first into the water, splashing all of them.

          Brad:  Holy shit!  How?

          Loy:  I don’t know, and I don’t care!  This is amazing!

          His form shimmered into a sea otter, and he wildly flipped and gyrated as he swam blindingly fast towards the dive deck.  He popped out of the water and his form shimmered again, and Loy landed lithely on the deck in Rick’s arms.

          Immediately, everyone reached out to physically touch him and hold him against them.  They were all on an emotional high for their Brother.

 

<><><> 

 

          Inside the cabin, Albrecht looked on the face of his old friend.  The features he was so familiar with, but his eyes now had a haunted look to them.  Albrecht had no idea what his friend had been through, and he didn’t want to ask him to merge so soon.

          “Are you alright?”

          “I do not know.  I have so many questions… I… feel strange.  I am Mortal again.  How long was I gone?”

          “Over eight hundred years.”

          “My God!  How did I survive?  What of the General?  The last thing I remember was trying to flee…”  His eyes teared up as the fresh memory of the bodies of all his Brothers, torn apart, came back to him.  It seemed only moments ago.

          “I will ask Darren to send us back to the Lab in Atlanta.  It will be more private, and we can spend as much time as you need.  The world has changed much Giovanni.  Some of it you will like, and much of it you will not.  We still fight The Enemy.”

          Aaron interjected, “I think it is no coincidence that you have come back now.  We are on the brink of finally winning, or losing the Battle forever.  You are Mortal, and can no longer protect yourself.  We have three Sanctuaries… one of them is this boat.”

          Giovanni looked around at ZEUS as Aaron spoke.  The ultra-modern craft with all its technology was almost inconceivable to him.

          Albrecht pulled him to his feet and embraced him.  Aaron put his arms around the two of them.  Another member of the Old Order was with them again, one they thought lost to them forever.   The profundity of that did not go unnoticed by either the doctor or Albrecht, and they needed time to ponder the situation and all the ramifications of what it might mean.

          It might only be that the Gift was needed for Loy and whoever was manipulating them saw Giovanni as a means to an end, but Aaron didn’t think it was that simple.  Whoever it was, and he was beginning to have his suspicions, he was sure there was more to it than Loy receiving the Gift. 

          For the night, however, they needed to comfort their old friend and make sure he was going to be alright.

          The doctor’s eyes flashed white and he thought:  Darren?  Would you be so kind as to send us back to the Lab in Atlanta?

 

<><><> 

 

          Jacob was worried about Craig; his younger brother had almost completely withdrawn into himself since their father died nearly a week ago.

          All the young soldiers tried their best to engage him and encourage him to stay active, but he stayed in his room with the door shut.  Jacob was a Marine, and tough, and his way of dealing with the situation was to work his emotions out physically.

          He pushed himself in the gym harder than ever; he pushed himself into exhaustion and then pushed more, until his body had no energy left to grieve.

          Even with all of that, he looked in on his younger brother often.  His mother was being comforted by the other mothers, and he left her to their care; he wasn’t close to his mother anymore and didn’t feel like he knew how to talk to her.  She was forced to cope without the use of sedatives, as she had used up all the ones she brought with her, and Albrecht wouldn’t allow her anymore.

          It was late and Jacob showered, getting ready for bed.  He padded down the short hallway in just his shorts to his brother’s door and knocked.  He tried the door, and it was locked.  He knocked again, and again, until Craig finally opened the door.

          Craig’s eyes were red, and it was apparent he had been crying.

          “Hey bro, can I come in?”

          Craig didn’t answer, but he moved back and plopped facedown on the bed, leaving the door open for Jacob to enter.  Jacob paused, and was at a bit at a loss for words.  Craig didn’t look good at all; he was pale, and his hair was a mess.

          Not knowing what to say, Jacob finally blurted out, “You need to eat… you weren’t at dinner.”

          “I’m not hungry.”

          Jacob moved over and sat down on the edge of Craig’s bed.  He put his hand on Craig’s bare shoulder and started to rub his brother’s back soothingly, like he did when Craig was little and upset after their parents had a fight.

          “It doesn’t matter… you need to keep your strength up, or you’re going to start losing the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build up.  Besides all the guys miss you bro.  Me too.”

          He reached over and cupped Craig’s biceps and gave it a squeeze, emphasizing the muscle. 

          “I don’t care.”

          “You say that now, but you will Craig.”

          He didn’t want to push Craig to talk about their father… his younger brother needed to work through a few things on his own, so Jacob shifted the conversation to Drew’s birthday party.

          “So what about tomorrow?  Drew’s going to be really upset if we don’t show tomorrow for his birthday party.”

          “You can go without me.”

          “I told you that’s not happening.  I’m not leaving you alone.”

          “I’ll decide in the morning.”

          “Hey, Craig….”

          The hesitation in his brother’s voice caused him to look up.  Jacob’s eyes were a little watery too.

          “What?”

          “Would you mind if I slept in here with you tonight?  Like we used to before I moved out?  I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

          “Sure, I’d like that too.  We haven’t done that in ages.”

          Jacob stood up and Craig moved over; the beds were single width and both men were tall and broad shouldered.  Jacob was thicker and more muscular than Craig from his training, but Craig was well on his way to catching up.

          Jacob pressed their bodies together and pulled Craig back against him.  Their warm skin felt comforting to both of them.

          Jacob held onto his younger brother and cried inside for him, still wanting to protect him and make things right.  He didn’t let his tears fall outwardly, not wanting to appear weak; he needed to be a man.

          They fell asleep and slept better than they had yet since their father died.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kent Peterson wasn’t sure of the passage of time.  He was so utterly alone and miserable his mind couldn’t focus on anything but his own wretchedness.  One of the worst things about being wherever he was is he didn’t get hungry… there was nothing to eat or drink.  He missed food so badly.  He also didn’t need to sleep.  He tried at first, but he just couldn’t.  He realized that was part of the point of the place he was in… to give him forever to ponder his situation with no reprieve whatsoever.

          He cried and raged, blaming everyone for his predicament except himself.  He was outside of Time, in his own personal Hell, and to him it was as if he had already been alone for years.  He looked for ways to kill himself, but he would cry and rage even harder when he realized, stupidly, that he was already dead.  This was all there was for him now… forever...

          He would occasionally call out, begging for Uriel to come back, if not to take him back then just to talk to.  But his cries went unheard… he was facing the consequences of his actions in life.  His Soul was all alone.

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew woke up early; his bladder was full, and he had to pee.  He saw Brett’s eyes already open and said a sleepy, “Good morning.”

          All of the Bodies woke up when they heard the boys whispering loudly, trying to stay quiet.  Most of them smiled, knowing how excited Drew was about his birthday. 

          The boys got along extremely well.  Drew was the youngest of the three, missing Brett by only a few months.  Tommy was two years older than both of them.

          They built a fort out of the pillows and sheets, so they could have a war between The Avengers and Ultron, and even though they tried to be quiet, they made quite a bit of noise.  No one thought anything of it, and actually enjoyed the sound of the boys having such a good time together.

          Since the boys were up, Ken decided to wake Brad up for a quick bout of morning sex to start the day.  Bryan, Kevin, Rick, and Patrick all had the same idea, and before long they felt each other’s Auras brightening with Power.

          Darren, ever thoughtful, powered up and sent his thoughts across the planet to the Lab in Atlanta, where Sally was waiting.  He pulled her onto ZEUS, where she snuck down to Henry’s cabin to wake him up in her own special way.  Everybody smiled when they felt her appear, knowing that Henry was going to have some good hot morning sex along with the rest of them.

          While the boys repeatedly destroyed Ultron and his minions, the adults onboard made intense love, strengthening themselves and enhancing their Powers in the process.

          Within a few minutes of one another, all the couples emerged from their cabins looking smugly happy with themselves and grinning from ear to ear.  There was no embarassement anymore; they spent almost as much time merged as apart, and there were no secrets.  The freedom to be themselves, accepted for who they were, with all their faults, was so liberating and made the bonds between them unbreakable.  They loved each other as men and as Brothers and best friends and could no longer imagine living any differently.

          Ken’s stomach rumbled loudly as he and Brad arrived in the galley, which caused a small string of laughter and jokes.  Brad just rubbed Ken’s tight abs possessively.

          Bryan started breakfast with the help of Bill and Rick.  Kevin went down the hall and knocked on the boys’ cabin door.  He heard a muffled, “Come in” and was shocked when he slid the door open.  The small cabin looked like a hurricane had gone through it – they had stripped the bed and had the sheets strung up to make the fort and used their t-shirts and drawers to anchor the corners.

          The boys looked as happy as he had ever seen them, and he smiled at them.  He shared the image of what he was witnessing through the Link; it was a mental Kodak moment that they would carry with them forever.

          Henry clued Sally in and she dove for her iPhone in her purse and managed to get a few actual photos.  She was the ‘picture queen’ and self-designated chronicler and scrap book master.

          Once she got her pictures, Kevin said, “OK boys, up and at ’em!  Come in and say good morning, and let’s get some food in your bellies.  We have a long day ahead of us!”

          The boys all ran down the hallway to be greeted by a group “Happy Birthday, Drew!”  Drew’s grin was a mile wide as he made his way around for good morning hugs.  Bill and Kevin grabbed Tommy and Brett for their good morning hug, and then passed them around from guy to guy for a hug and a good morning kiss too. 

          Tommy and Brett were ecstatically happy but didn’t know what to make of such open displays of loving affection; it wasn’t something they were used to. All of the men felt it, and whenever possible they sat them on their laps and held onto them.  The boys had such little physical affection in their short lives it hurt everyone when they thought about it, and they made it a mission to counteract that with as much love and as many hugs as they could manage and not freak the boys out.

          Ken lifted Drew up after he made his rounds and Drew had his arms around his Uncle’s heavy shoulders.  Ken got that little kid grin on his face and said, “So how old are you today Drew?”

          “I’m six!”

          Ken got a wide eyed look of incredulity on his face, “Six huh?  Alright!  You know what that means right?”

          Drew looked at him wide eyed and shook his head.

          “We have a tradition in the Navy as SEAL’s on how we say Happy Birthday.  You see normal folks just spank your bottom once for every year.  But us Navy guys have a special way of sayin it!”

          Drew moved his hand down to cover his bottom, which Ken was pretty sure he was going to do.  With both his hands under Drew’s armpits he lifted him up and forward and blew six loud wet raspberries on Drew’s belly button.  The first one surprised him but he started squealing and giggling with delight, squirming to get away, but he loved every second of it.

          When he was finished, Ken pulled Drew in for another tight hug and said, “OK, every one of us gets to do that to you before the day is over.”

          After the giggling stopped Drew was still short of breath, but Bryan took advantage of the momentary pause and asked, “OK boys!  Cereal, or eggs and toast?”

          Tommy and Brett looked a little sheepish; they were timid about letting anyone know what they wanted.  They were used to eating what was put in front of them, rarely ever getting to choose.

          Rick looked at Bill and thought:  You’ve Read them, what’s their favorite cereal? 

          Bill kicked himself for not thinking about this before.

          Brett’s is Frankenberry, and Tommy’s is Count Chocula.  

          Rick knelt down beside the two boys sitting at the table and said, “It’s OK guys to let us know what you want.  It’s your choice.  I think we have your favorite cereals here somewhere.”

          Rick sent a private thought to Darren:  Hey Dar, I’m sorry man, but you can help out here?

          On it. 

          Darren said, “I think the cereals are still packed in one of the boxes in the storeroom.  I’ll be right back.”

          As soon as Darren was out of sight he vanished, appearing halfway around the planet in his kitchen.  There was a Kroger that was open 24/7 a few miles from his house, and he quickly skimmed Minds until he located the store.  He threw a T-shirt on and appeared at the Kroger.  It was late in the evening in North America so the store wasn’t crowded.  He trotted over to the cereal aisle and grabbed the cereal boxes.  Using his Mind he entered the barcodes into the self-checkout, as well as his credit card information.

          In less than four minutes he was back on ZEUS, across the planet, pulling off his t-shirt as he hollered out, “Found ’em!”

          He entered the galley and put the cereal boxes down on the table in front of the two boys.

          Bill and Kevin both gave Darren a hug.  Thanks, Dar.

          Hey, today is all about making this day as fun as possible for the boys right?  No sweat guys.

          Drew wanted cheesy eggs and toast, and once the three boys were fed, they wanted to get into the water.  Henry said he would watch them, and Loy, Bill, and Brad all went out with them.

          The morning flew by, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.  The weather was hot and humid, but they all stayed cool in the Ocean.  Loy didn’t flaunt his new ability, but he did call all sorts of sea life for the boys. 

          At first Tommy and Brett were a little scared because of the size of the whales, but once Bill and Kevin got on with them they overcame any fear or hesitancy.

          Bryan, with the help from a few of the guys, cooked nonstop.  He had snacks for the boys, lots of Capri Sun juice bags to keep them hydrated and energized, and food for the hyper-metabolized adults.

          Bryan saw Darren sipping a Capri Sun Apple Juice and winked at him.  Darren’s eyes watered slightly and he sent a mental hug and a thumbs up to his Brother.  When Darren lay dying in Thomin’s Vault and Drew had gone in to try and help rescue him, he had sent the Apple Juice bags, knowing they were Darren’s favorites. 

          Everyone Mentally embraced Darren over the memory – it was the dark times that made days like Drew’s Birthday that much more precious.

          Later in the morning, the guys decided to put on a dive show for the boys.  Darren synchronized their Avatars and teleported the men high up in the air so they could cannonball or flip and splash into the water.  The boys were too scared to do it themselves but squealed with delight as they watched Bill and Kevin and the others do it.

          Henry had to be the party pooper and force the boys to take a short nap.  To stop the grumbling he promised them a surprise when they woke up.  As soon as their heads hit the pillows they fell asleep.  They had been playing non-stop for hours already.

          The adults enjoyed the quiet time to float more peacefully, and drink more beer.

          About half an hour went by when Henry heard Drew’s voice in his Mind:  Daddy?

          He sounded sleepy, but Henry felt an undercurrent of worry in his son.

          Drew? What’s the matter honey?

          Tommy’s crying.  He’s pretending to be asleep, but he’s not.

          I’ll be right there, buddy.

          Henry didn’t want to say anything yet to Bill or Kevin, so he got out of the water and went inside.  He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist on his way down to the cabin.

          He listened a few seconds before he opened the cabin door; he could hear Tommy crying softly.  Sliding the cabin door open he saw Tommy laying with his back to the door facing the wall.  Brett was sound asleep and Drew was sitting up in bed.

          Do you know what’s wrong?

          No Daddy.  He won’t talk to me.  I asked him, and he rolled over. 

          Brett was a heavy sleeper, and Henry gently moved him over.  Drew got out of the way, and Henry squeezed his big frame in between the boys so he was right against Tommy.

          He put his hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder and said, “Tommy, what’s wrong honey?”

          His voice was muffled in the corner.  His reply was a distorted, “Nothing.”

          Henry reached his arm around and put his hand on Tommy’s chest and pulled him snuggly against his own warm body.  He knew that the skin on skin contact would be comforting.

          “It doesn’t sound like nothing.  Come on buddy, roll over and give me a hug and tell me what’s wrong.”

          It took a moment and Tommy started crying harder, but he rolled over and wrapped his arms around Henry as best he could and buried his face against Henry’s neck.

          Henry stroked his back soothingly until Tommy eventually calmed down some.

          He pulled Tommy back enough to make eye contact and said, “Tommy, look at me.”

          Henry looked into his sad eyes, and he said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of here.  Everybody on this boat loves you, especially Bill and Kevin.  You can tell us anything and it’s private – just between us.  Can you tell me why you’re crying?”

          Henry thought he might have a good idea; he had learned a lot from the doctor  in the last year of being a new dad about how Drew’s mind worked.

          Tommy said, “I don’t know.”

          There were definite advantages to being a telepath.  Henry had learned how difficult and uncomfortable it could be to be in a normal human’s Mind, but children usually weren’t that bad.  He thought he should call Bill and Kevin in, but his gut was telling him ‘not yet.’

          Shielding himself, he brought Tommy into a Link.  He let Tommy feel his warm and loving presence, and his concern for him.

          Tommy’s emotions were all over the map, but Henry had learned how to sort through everything with Drew.  He realized Tommy didn’t know what he was feeling; he was overwhelmed.  Being around Rick and the other Bodies had an effect on Tommy’s Mind and Heart, and barriers he didn’t even know he had were breaking down.  Emotions were welling to the surface that he had buried, and he was completely confused.

          The most prominent feeling, which didn’t surprise Henry at all, was shame and guilt.  Tommy didn’t feel like he deserved what was happening to him.  He was having too much fun with no consequences, and he didn’t feel that he deserved it.  In his limited experience any time he found happiness it was short-lived, and nearly always something horrible happened to counter it.  He eventually got to the point where he didn’t want to be happy – it was easier just to get by.

          But when Bill and Kevin came into his life things changed.  The days that the two big men were with him completely changed, but when they left the Orphanage he would go back into the mundane life of being a boy nobody wanted.  Brett was the only constant in his life, and he was terrified deep down of being separated from his brother.

          Henry’s eyes teared up at everything he saw and felt inside the young boy.  He had gone through this with Drew, and still was to a large extent.

          He hugged Tommy tightly against him and thought:  I understand Tommy.  I get it.  You don’t have to say a word.

          Tommy, through the Link, knew that Henry was telling him the Truth.  It made him more ashamed that Henry knew.

          No!  Tommy don’t feel that way!  You deserve to be happy!  You do!  I’m so sorry honey, for the shitty life you’ve had, but that’s not normal.  I hate it for you, but don’t let that stop you from having a good time.  You’re with people who care about you.

          Drew’s voice entered the Link, and his voice took on that adult-like quality he sometimes had:  I care Tommy.  I’m your friend. 

          I don’t want to go back!  The words blurted out of Tommy like an explosion, and all the emotions that were pent up inside him were put into those words.

         

<><><> 

 

          Bill was resting against Kevin in the water, floating and letting the hot sun beat down on his body.  Being naked in the water, with his lover and his Brothers was so relaxing.  He rested in Kevin’s Mind and Heart, just like he rested in Kevin’s arms around him.

          Kevin loved holding Bill like this; he did it at home when they slept together all the time.  Bill needed it more than ever as his Avatar constantly bombarded him with information and images that were often difficult or painful to see.

          Bill’s stomach lurched in that way that told him something was wrong.  It was just a twinge.  He looked up and noticed Henry still hadn’t come back out.  At first he thought maybe it was an extended bathroom break, but just to be sure he thought:  Henry?  Everything alright?

          No Bill, not really.  I was just about to reach for you.  Drew asked me to come check on Tommy because he was crying.

          Bill pulled Henry into the private Link he and Kevin shared and gently merged the three of them completely together.

          Henry’s breath caught in his chest as his eyes flashed white.  Tommy felt the reaction in Henry’s body, and he looked at the handsome face, inches from his own.  He saw the fresh tears flowing out of Henry’s white eyes.  He reached his hand up to the strong face and held his hand against Henry’s cheek.

          Bill took them all deep so Time nearly stood still.  Henry shared the last few minutes with his Brothers.  He fully expected them to be upset, and he was there to soften what he knew they would feel.

          Their first reaction was guilt, for not seeing or realizing what Tommy was going through.

          It’s OK, guys.  If anything, I should have seen this coming.  I went through it with Drew.  There’s not an instruction manual on dealing with kids… and I know you aren’t used to having them around.  Don’t feel like you let them down.  I’m going to take Tommy and meet you up on the upper patio away from everyone else.  I’m going to try and get Drew to go back to sleep, and he and Brett can finish their nap.   I’ll be right there.

          Is he going to be alright, Daddy?

          Yes, honey.  I’m going to take him up to talk to your Uncle Bill and Uncle Kevin.  Can you stay here with Brett and go back to sleep?  He might not want to be by himself if he wakes up.

          OK.

          Henry leaned over, still holding Tommy against him, and kissed Drew on the top of his head.

          I love you, Drew.  You’re a good son, and I’m proud of you.

          Drew grinned and laid back down.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry made his way to the upper deck, where he had been talking with Bill and Kevin the night before.

          He could see the anxiety on their faces as he came up the steps. 

          Tommy was calmer; but they still heard him sniffling.  Henry transferred Tommy to Bill; the young boy seemed desperate and latched onto Bill’s torso, his arms around his neck and shoulders and his legs as far around Bill’s trim waist as he could reach.  Kevin put his arms around both of them and Tommy was completely sandwiched between the two men.

          Do you guys want me to stay? 

          Thanks Henry, but we’ll take a stab at this. 

          OK, I’m only a thought away if you need me, alright?

          Rick pulled off and grabbed Henry in a tight hug and whispered, “Thanks, bud.  You’re awesome.”

          Henry grinned and said, “Remember what we started to talk about last night?  You can make this work.”

          Henry put his hand on Tommy’s shoulder, his face gentle and compassionate and said, “You’re gonna be fine, kiddo.  I promise.”

          Henry left them alone, and there was silence.  Neither man knew what to say.  With all their training and Powers this wasn’t something they were prepared for.  Henry made it look so easy with Drew; they had a completely newfound respect for their Brother.

          On instinct, the two men merged completely.  They knew the dangers of merging with such a young Mind, but Bill opened Tommy’s Heart and took him down with them, where their Souls were one.

          The three of them appeared in that place naked.  They wrapped Tommy up in their Hearts until his tears stopped completely.

          Bill looked at Kevin, who shrugged his heavy shoulders and looked wide eyed.  Bill thought:  I started last time!

          Both men laughed, and Tommy looked up at them.  Their laughter, deep inside, was visible to the boy.  He knew they could see inside of him, and they let him look inside of them as well.  It wasn’t a merge, but they were deeply Linked.

          Kevin’s Avatar was already working on Tommy, even more so because he loved him so much.  The part of his Avatar that came from Rick was unraveling the knots inside the young boy, and Kevin’s own Primary Avatar of Truth was there as well.

          Kevin lay down and Tommy sat straddled across his stomach, and Bill sat beside his lover, pressed tightly against him with his arm around Tommy.  The warmth of their strong solid bodies comforted him, and their Souls shone on him.

          He felt worthy of their love, and a surprised look appeared on his face.  This time the tears were of happiness.

          Bill and Kevin both heard Tommy’s words to Henry just a few minutes ago:  I don’t want to go back!  They echoed in the memory Henry shared with them.

         

<><><> 

 

          Henry made his way back to the guys swimming on the back of the Yacht.  He swung through the galley and grabbed a snack on his way back out.

          Brad asked him, “Everything OK, Henry?”

          Henry wasn’t sure what to say.  He wanted to give Bill and Kevin their privacy to deal with Tommy, but at the same time there were no secrets.  He started to open his mouth and shut it again.

          Ken said, “That bad, huh?”

          “Sorry fellas, this is one of those situations I’m still getting used to dealing with.”

          Loy asked, “What’s up, Henry?”

          Henry masterfully shared with them the memory of what just transpired with Tommy as well as his conversation with Bill and Kevin the night before.

          There were a smattering of ‘fuck me’s and ‘holy shit’s, and Henry chuckled, replying “Yeah.”

          Brad shifted the conversation mentally:  I’ve been watching Bill and Kevin with Tommy and Brett.  I knew this was coming.

          Pat chimed in:  Me too.  I can’t believe how strong the connections are between them already.

          Bryan, always more perceptive then most people realized, shrewdly looked at Henry and thought: I wanna hear what you think.

          Henry looked uncomfortable and thought: Me?

          Yeah, You.

          Henry looked at Ken, who stared back.  Henry couldn’t read Ken’s facial expression, and the Link wasn’t strong enough for him to read deeper.

          Ken raised his eyebrows questioningly, beckoning Henry to continue.

          Henry took a deep breath and sighed heavily.  OK.  Well you already know my opinion.  I think Bill and Kev should adopt those boys.  I think not doing that would be tragic for all of them.  I know the risks.  I live with them every day with Drew, and it’s not easy.  But the way Drew has enriched my life… I want that for all of you guys too.  And… well… you’re all into guys so having kids isn’t as much of an option for you.  I know the timing of this couldn’t seem worse, but fuck it.  You know what I say to that?  So fucking what!  That’s what!

          Henry, once he started, built up a head of steam, and he almost sounded angry.

          Even when the situation with The Master is over and done with, you’ve already said you’re going after Luke.  When is the danger ever gonna to stop?  The danger we all live with every second of every day… we can’t let it paralyze us from having lives.  If you keep something like the joy of being a dad out of the equation, in my opinion anyways, you’re crippling yourselves.

          Everyone was staring at Henry with a variety of expressions.  He was obviously passionate about his opinion, and he had thought of the danger.  It sounded like he had thought through most of the issues.

          He continued: You saw what’s inside of Tommy.  I’m sure it’s inside of Brett too, but he’s younger and probably more confused about what he’s feeling.  Those boys will flourish with Bill and Kev in their lives, and I think Bill and Kev will flourish as dads too… and all of you through that until the day comes when you might adopt kids of your own… or not.

          Ken played devil’s advocate: It’s not just their decision Henry.  It’ll affect all of us deeply, not just Bill and Kev.

          Henry looked down and thought:  I know.  But as their Brothers it’s our job to help them make it work if that’s what they want.  Do any of you really want to stand in the way of the love they already have for one another?

          Henry said it as a challenge.  None of them had seen him so emphatic in sharing his opinion before, and it was nice to see.  He was becoming more independent in his thinking, which would add to his contribution to the Team. 

          Ken got that little kid grin on his face:  Don’t mince words Henry; tell us what you really think.

          Henry’s eyes opened wide and he exhaled, not even realizing he was holding his breath. 

          Ken winked at him, and his grin widened:  It’s a good thing Sally’s not here yet….. you’re one sexy fucker when you get fired up.  Just like my man B.

          Henry’s mouth opened and then closed again; Ken’s response flustered him.  Everyone else busted out laughing.  Bryan moved over to him and put his arm over his shoulder pulling him into a Brotherly hug.  He winked and said, “Good answer.”

          It was obvious that they all got a laugh out of his discomfort, but he thought it was funny too and flipped Ken off, which caused another round of laughter.

          Bill and Kevin came out onto the dive deck and rejoined the Link.  The emotional turbulence was evident in both men.  The presence of all their Brothers was comforting, and Brad pulled them all tighter.

          Before Henry could ask, Ken beat him to it:  How’s Tommy?

          Bill teared up:  I think he’s gonna be OK.  Guys…. we don’t know what to do here.

          Loy interrupted:  Let’s be clear.  You know what you want to do, but you’re afraid of doing it.  Are we right?

          Lane interjected:  That’s pretty much what Sam said about Frodo before he took off to Mordor on his own.

          Rick dunked him, and they all laughed.

          Kevin dove into the water to hide his tears.  He came up by Lane, who said, “Come here,” and reached out to embrace him.  His mischievous grin was present:  You chickenshits.  You know you’re not alone in this.  Henry already has your life mapped out for you and us too.  What’s the big deal?

          Both men looked a little chagrinned, and Bill thought:  I know it’s the right thing to do, or at least we think it is, but guys is it fair to them?  Kev and I are still not sure how to handle them growin old in front of us.  Aside from that, we’re exposing them to a world they aren’t equipped to handle, and we can’t just Open their Minds.  There are a lot of questions.  I think we need to talk to the doc.

          Ken nodded:  I think you should too.  But listen up good, both of you:  that’s an order!  His grin took the sting out of his words.  Henry made a great case for why you should.  It’s obvious to all of us how much you love them already, and how much they love you.  You know we’ll back you up one thousand percent no matter which way you choose to go.  We love you guys, and we’re here for you.

          Brad:  You know I’m supposed to be the smart one right?

          Ken grinned:  Guess you’re rubbin off on me.

          Brad:  Speaking of rubbing…. The boys are taking a nap so….

          Ken:  Alright guys gotta go!  To each his own!

          Everybody laughed and started getting out of the water.  Everyone gave Bill and Kevin a tight hug as they moved into the galley and towards their cabins.

          Loy:  Part two of the birthday plan will start when the boys wake up, so don’t you ladies take too long.

          Darren had sent Sally back after her morning round of sex with Henry, but he knew she was ready to come back for the main party for Drew.  He contacted her and pulled her back to ZEUS so she and Henry could have their own fun.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig had changed his mind at the last minute and decided to join in on Drew’s birthday. 

          Drew’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when he realized all his Australian friends were there for his birthday.

          Shouts of, “Happy Birthday, Drewmeister!” rang out, and the young soldiers all lined up so Drew could run down the line with his hand out and get high-fives.

          The young men had been filled in on the plan of going to Africa for a surprise, and they all brought their baseball gloves, caps, and a small bag of balls.  They brought Drew’s gloves with them so Tommy and Brett could play too.

          An hour and a half after everyone got out of the water, the entire Team plus the young soldiers from the Australian Lab, the Keenans, and Kelly and Chloe were in Africa.  The doctor and Albrecht stayed in Atlanta with Giovanni. 

          They were in the Serengeti, and set up a campsite quickly and efficiently.  Bryan had his portable cooking grates and accoutrements that he used in the Valley, and before long the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs was making everyone’s mouth water and Ken’s stomach rumble loudly.

          Bryan had his special cake in a cooler of dry ice.  He spent a good deal of time on it with Lane’s help; it was an Iron Man cake.  He had homemade vanilla ice cream prepared and packed in ice as well.

          The boys were excited when they woke up, knowing that Uncle Loy had said there was a surprise.  Little did they know it would mean teleporting further around the globe to Africa.  They didn’t really appreciate or understand how far away Africa was, but Drew had seen enough on Television to know it had lots of wild animals.

          The afternoon was relaxing and fun.  Tommy seemed really happy, although he occasionally needed a little reassurance from Bill and Kevin.  Brett and Drew ran around like wild men, and the young soldiers ran around with them. 

          A game of flag football was played, letting the boys win.  The young soldiers were great with them, especially Jacob.   After that, they played a short game of baseball with most of the adults in the mix.  Neither Drew, Brett, nor Tommy had any clue how to play, but all the guys coached them, even picking them up to run the bases.

          They all laughed so long and so hard their stomachs hurt.  Sally enjoyed the eye candy of the extremely muscular men, all so handsome, sweating in the bright sun without their shirts on.  Wearing their ball caps and sunglasses made them look extra cute in her eyes.

          Loy called a small herd of elephants, and the boys got to ride on the backs of some of the younger and smaller ones.  The pride of Lions that were with him and Rick in the pocket dimension were close by, and he called them, letting the boys pet them.  He called Giraffes, Cheetahs, Leopards, Zebras, Hippos, and even a few Rhinos which were very rare.

          It was like a day at the zoo for the boys, but they got to touch and interact with all of the animals.  Loy commanded the animals to stay calm, and he directed the unconditional love the animals had for him as their Steward towards the boys.   Loy found a nearby pride of lions that had some young cubs, and he called them so the boys could play with them.

          With Henry being an Original Man just like the rest of the Team, the animals obeyed him as well, and it was an incredible day spent with the wildlife.  Brad in particular had the thought of how nice it was, and pure, to deal with the creatures of the planet over the humans they were trying to protect.   He didn’t dwell on the thought, not wanting to bring anyone down.

          The day was perfect.  They hiked, the boys ran around and played, and all the food Bryan cooked was devoured.  By late afternoon Drew had gotten raspberries blown on his stomach by everyone including the young soldiers.

          Craig’s mood was better than Jacob had seen since their father passed.  He didn’t bring it up, but he was happy to see it.  There was still a strong undercurrent of depression and sadness that was evident, and all of the men tried their best to interact with him, but Craig kept the majority of his dealings with the boys and the other soldiers.

          Lane summoned his guitar and played ‘Happy Birthday’ for Drew and everyone sang along.  The Iron Man cake was a huge success with Drew, and he launched himself into Bryan’s arms and gave him a thank-you hug and kiss.  Even in the heat and humidity Darren kept the ice cream chilled to perfection.

          Lane kept playing while they ate and it helped everyone to relax as the day wound down.

          Guy, one of the young soldiers, asked Lane to play something more upbeat.

          “What do you have in mind?”

          “Do you know ‘Sandstorm’ by Darude?”

          “Of course!  It’s a bit ‘electronic’, but not bad for clubbing.  I actually like it for cardio too.”  Lane had an extended dance version of the song memorized.  His eyes flashed white, and the song started playing around them.

          Everybody was surprised when Nathan, Guy, and Caleb all stood up and started to street dance to the music.  Guy even moonwalked, and the boys loved it.  With minimal encouragement Drew, Tommy, and Brett all stood up and tried to dance.  They really just jumped around, but they were having a blast, laughing and giggling the entire time.

          When the song was over, they were all laughing, and the young soldiers high fived the boys, telling them what great dancers they were. They were winded and sweating from the humidity and all went to get something to drink.

          Loy said, “Not bad for white boys!  I think we need to show them how us old timers do it. Come on fellas!” 

          He looked at Rick, Bill, Kevin, Darren, Patrick, Lane, Henry, and Ken.  Bryan wasn’t into dancing, and neither was Brad.

          In honor of the Gift Loy now carried, Lane played ‘Animals’ by Martin Garrix.  The only vocals in the song used an ‘F-bomb’, but the voice was highly modulated and Lane blurred it slightly.

          The young soldiers were impressed and laughed.  Watching the big studly men, so dexterous and agile, showing off their dance moves was both impressive and hilarious.

          They were all drenched in sweat and breathing hard when the music ended.  The humidity was so thick it was like swimming in the air.   It was unconscious on their part, but the weather often reflected their emotions when they were strong, and the weather was perfect. 

          It had been a while since all of them had such a good time, and the happiness was evident through the Link in all of them.  The back of Ken’s head actually hurt from smiling and laughing so hard.

          Brad took full advantage to rub Ken’s sweaty hair and head, channeling a slight bit of healing energy to relax the tension.

          The young soldiers, full of bravado, challenged the big men to a ‘dance off.’  Brad and Bryan agreed to be impartial judges.

          Lane’s eyes flashed white, and a song came into his mind.  The two groups faced off and Lane grinned as Madonna’s ‘4-Minutes’ started to play.  It was great dance music, and when the lyrics ‘grab a boy and grab a girl’ played Henry grabbed Sally, Jacob grabbed Kelly, and Guy, Caleb, and Nathan each grabbed one of the boys.  Olive held Chloe so Kelly could dance.

          There were loud ‘whoops!’ fist-bumps, and a few hugs as everyone looked at Bryan and Brad for their verdict on who was the winner.

          Brad was just about to start talking when there was a shimmer in the air.  Everything seemed to go slightly out of focus for a moment, and then when it came back there was less color in everything.  There was an other-worldly feeling, and the Intuition of the Mentalists and the instincts of the Bodies were all screaming danger.

          The last time they encountered such a change was in the presence of the Eschphene in Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, when the other-dimensional race of creatures had tried to kidnap Drew in their attempt to stop the Cycle of Death around him and use him to stop The Master and bring Balance back into Creation.

          Ken’s reaction was instinctive; all their Avatars flared brightly on the big balls of their muscled shoulders, and he locked them together, forming the Master Rune.  The colors looked oddly bright in the otherwise subdued atmosphere; they knew their Avatars were unaffected by Eschphene magic, and they seemed to reject the subdued Aura of suppression.

          Darren’s first reaction was to teleport Drew and the boys back to the Australian Lab, but he wasn’t able to… something was already blocking him.

          They’re blocking me Ken.  I don’t know how, but I can’t get anyone to safety.

          Brad immediately brought everyone into a Link including the boys and Jacob and the other soldiers.

          Ken’s voice was loud and clear:  Henry get Drew and the boys, the Keenans, Sally and Kelly and stay with them in the middle.  Jacob you and the others form a ring around them.  We’ll be outside of that. 

          Brad set up a second link with just the Team for tactical communication.

          Because they were Linked, the young solders, the Keenans, Sally, Kelly, Tommy and Brett saw everything through their Mind’s Eye.  Drew had seen it all before, and Sally had on a few occasions, but all of their eyes went wide as the ghostly form of Yggdrasill, the Tree of Life, began to form around them.  Animal Spirits appeared, lending their strength and protection.  The She-Wolf – Drew’s Protector – became visible to them; she was crouched in front of him snarling deep in her throat at the black forms approaching.

          They saw Ken and the Team, including Henry begin to shine with a Light that was almost blinding, and the warmth of that Light touched their Souls.  They saw and felt the Power of the men they were with.  The soldiers remembered the day of their rescue, but this was a fresh reminder of who their friends really were and what they were capable of.

          Ken saw the Eschphene appear; all of them felt the magical shift as the beings from Beyond the Pale shifted their existence into the Physical Realm.

          The Leader of the Eschphene was big, larger by far than the one Ken fought the first time.  Ken also saw the Stone in his hand and surprise ran through all of them.  It had disappeared the day before, and they assumed Thomin had Summoned it back.

          Unsure of what was about to transpire, Loy’s Avatar flared and his voice rang out across the animal kingdom and the Spiritual Realm:  Come!  His Will was clear as was his intent.  He felt them respond, as large herds of all the varied species that lived on the Serengeti heard his call and began moving towards him.  Free Spirits waiting to be reborn came to him through the Veil, and swam in the air around him.  Protect the boy!

          Henry felt a deep seated anger inside of him, and some fear.  The last time he encountered the Eschphene was the day Liz sacrificed her Soul to save Drew and she left their lives forever.

          Tommy and Brett were confused and scared, not knowing what was going on.  Henry knelt on the ground and put his arms around all three boys and whispered, “I’ve got you boys.  I won’t let anything happen to you.  Stay with me no matter what happens!”  He kept his voice calm and steady.

          Bill and Kevin looked at the terror on Tommy’s and Brett’s faces, so happy just seconds ago.  The two men, already fully merged, sent a private thought to the two boys:  Stay with Henry!  Everything will be alright!

          The Eschphene leader was big; larger and more muscular by far than the one Ken faced in single combat in their last encounter.

          Pat:  Ken there are hundreds of them here, maybe over a thousand.  Way more than last time.

          Ken’s will was like a Wall inside of them:  It doesn’t matter.  There still aren’t enough.  Everyone do what you have to do, but they aren’t laying a finger on Drew or anyone else under our protection.

          The Leader was close and Ken moved forward.  He stopped about twenty feet away; he was impressive.  His slick black body was thick with muscle, and bone spikes protruded all over his frame.  Many of them had Sigils etched into them, and they glowed with their own light.

          His voice was deep as he looked at Ken and said, “So you are the one who killed my son.”

          “Your son was insane.  If you’re here to finish what he started, forget it.  Drew is under our protection!”

          “My son was… misguided… but his goals were pure.  We will take the Boy and use him to bring Balance back into Creation.  You cannot stop us.  I know you are strong, but you cannot face us all.”

          Drew saw and felt the Stone in the Leader’s hand.  It smoked the color of blood and called to him.  He was afraid for his dad and his Uncles.  His little brow furrowed in concentration and he called the Stone to him.

          Ken saw the Stone disappear and shouted:  No!  Drew!  No!

          As soon as the Stone appeared in Drew’s hand the Eschphene Sigils that were now carved onto the Stone awoke all the thousands of incarnations inside of Drew.   The Ocean of voices screamed inside of him, and his Mind was overrun. It was a trap, and Drew fell for it completely.

          Henry was with him and reacted instinctively; he shielded the part of his son that was only Drew.  He didn’t have time to say anything; he threw all of his strength into the shield, and he Merged with his son.  It was the only thing he could think of to Protect Drew.

          They all felt Henry and Drew disappear from the Link.  They were physically present, but their Minds vanished.

          Brad:  Fuck!

          Ken:  B!  Can you find them?

          Brad:  I don’t know!  Maybe through the Veil like with Bill…

          Ken:  Go!  We’ll take care of everything here.

          Ken felt Brad’s reluctance to go and leave him… completely merged with their Souls combined they were more powerful.

          Brad felt Ken wrap him up… in his Soul, it was as if Ken’s strong arms were wrapped around him and holding him tight.  He could even smell Ken.

          I love you, B.  Go find Drew and Henry. 

          Brad moved over beside Henry who held Drew, Tommy, and Brett protectively against his chest.  He put his arms around his Brother and the young boys.  His Mind and Soul left his body, vanishing across the Veil in a desperate attempt to find them.  

 

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          To Henry, everyone around them disappeared; his Brothers, all the animals, the Eschphene, everyone.  He held Drew against him, and the She-Wolf was pressed against his leg protectively.  He knew they were in a Construct of some kind, and it was powerful. 

          His shields were bright, and he felt his strength bolstered by the Wolf.  He raised his head and looked around; it appeared they were in a landscape similar to where they just came from.  The sky was dark and filled with thunderclouds, and a cold wind whipped their hair.

          His shields were a bright white Light in the darkness of that place.  He stood up, still holding Drew against his powerful frame.  The wind chilled the sweat on his skin and he could feel Drew shivering already.

          “Daddy, where are we?”

          “I don’t know, honey.”

          “I’m scared.”

          “I know… I’ve got you.”

          “I can hear them.”

          “Who?”

          “The voices inside me.  They’re here and they’re mad.  The big black man did something to my rock.  They feel different now.  I think they want to hurt me.”

          “You know I won’t let that happen, Drew.”

          Henry was in a quandary.  He wasn’t sure where they were… he knew he was merged with Drew so this was most likely a Construct in his Mind.  The Eschphene leader used those blasted Sigils and did something to the Stone to cause all this.

          Henry had been unconscious in the fight where Ken almost died – the day Liz died and was lost to him and his son forever – but Raphael showed him what happened and he knew the Eschphene wanted to use Drew… to change him into something that could beat The Master.  He knew if they succeeded there would be nothing left of his son.  There was no way he could let that happen; if he failed, he would be failing not only Drew, but it would make Liz’s sacrifice meaningless.

          “Daddy, look!”

          Drew pointed and off in the distance Henry could see small forms moving in their direction.  They were all the other versions of Drew; somehow in this place they had life even though each of them had died, killed horribly on their seventh birthdays.  They were enraged – somehow the Eschphene had taken the wild, raw hatred inside of them… the desire to kill their Brother in revenge, and brought it to the surface.

          The little boys that had their arms around Henry’s neck when Drew had his nightmare were gone.  Right now they were a mob of fractured, vengeful Soul fragments, and Drew and Henry stood in the way of their only desire.

          Henry might be able to calm them down one on one, but there were over eleven thousand of them and he knew any attempt to do that would be futile.

          They were still far away but moving towards the light of his Shield.  Henry dropped his Shield completely and set Drew down.  Taking his hand he said, “Come on Drew!  Run!”

          Father and son, followed by the Wolf-Spirit, took off running across the barren, stormy landscape in Drew’s Mind, trying to outrun the incarnations trying to kill them.  He needed more time to think and to also give his Brothers time to figure out what happened.

 

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          Ken felt Brad as he crossed the Veil, but his lover’s presence didn’t leave as he expected.  He knew Brad was powerful, but his lover still surprised him; he figured out a way to keep them together and be in both the Physical Realm and the Spiritual Realm simultaneously.  It was a Paradox of his Avatar, which was now fully unlocked.

          Oh God B, I love you so much.  You’re badass.

          Ken also felt the strong presence of his Brothers with him.  He was their Leader, but he was their Brother first and foremost.  All of them would die for each other; the bonds they shared, their merged Souls, the unconditional Love they shared not only for each other but for all of Mankind, made then powerful; it was the heart and center of their strength, and it filled him, and all of them.

          There was a thread of fear in all of them; fear for each other, but at the same time confidence in their abilities and training.  Ken had helped to forge all of them into the weapons they were, and they would face the Eschphene and stop them from harming Drew.

          Each of them had grown so much in so many ways in the last year.  Every trial they faced as individuals or as couples made them stronger.  Ken had a fleeting thought that whoever was manipulating them was the reason… they were all being subjected to trials and tribulations that pushed them and made them grow.  He would have a reckoning one day with whoever or whatever was behind all of this.  The anger in him was evident; even with the results and the pride and love he felt towards his Brothers, none of them deserved the tragedies they had faced to get them to this point.  His own mother and brother didn’t deserve to die!

          He embraced that anger, and fed the centering flame.  All of them held the flame and took the opening stance of the Quintessential Dance.  Michael was unable to interfere, but he looked down upon Ken and smiled, wishing nothing more than to join the Battle with his grandson and fight by his side.

          The Eschphene Leader’s voice rumbled across the plans of the Serengeti, “Kill them, and get the child.”

          A brief silence fell after his words; even the wind calmed momentarily.  Lightning flashed across the Heavens, reflected in the whites of their eyes as they held the Power inside them, ready to do whatever was necessary to protect not only Drew but all their charges.

          The young soldiers didn’t know what to make of anything they saw.  Jacob broke them out of their trance and said, “No one touches Drew!  You got that?  Just like Mr. Habbersham said, form a circle.  If any of those things get through them they have to make it through us, too!”

          Kelly was terrified, but Jacob’s solid, brave presence, and Ken and the others, was reassuring.  She was Linked with Chloe and she drew strength from her infant daughter, bolstering her own shields.  She extended her protection around the young soldiers… she wasn’t as strong as any of the guys, but she was strong, and she was ready to defend her child and her friends.

          She mumbled under her breath, “No one touches my mates!”

          In the brief pause, Ken and the other Bodies heard a deep rumble and felt a tremor in the ground beneath their feet.  Loy and the Mentalists felt it through their Avatars – all the wildlife in the area was rushing to them to fight at their command and defend Drew.  Herds of Elephants, Wildebeasts, Gazelle, Buffalo, Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards, Giraffes, Black Rhinos, Hippos, and wild dogs raced to their aid – responding to the call of their Steward.  With the lightning in the sky and the animals rushing to their aid, it was as if Nature itself rose up against the Eschphene.

          With one a loud crack of thunder the Eschphene attacked in unison.  They came as a wave but hit the Wall Ken and the others formed around Drew, Henry, and their charges.

          All of the men slowed down their perception of Time; their movements were precise and minimal, optimizing their strength and focus.  Their inhuman agility and grace were apparent as their bodies and limbs twisted and gyrated to prevent impalement by the bone protrusions the Eschphene had over their bodies.  The fluidity of their muscular forms, perfection in motion, were wondrous.  They became what they needed to be.

          There was no ‘fighting fair’ – they fought to stop their enemy no matter what that meant.  Darren and the Mentalists used their Minds to slice limbs and cause lacerations.  The Bodies’ vision filled with vector arcs and they saw every possible angle and trajectory, knowing instinctively how to break bones and cause the most damage.  They saw how, when, and where the bone protrusions inside their enemy could harm them and avoided them.

          None of them enjoyed inflicting pain and destruction on their enemy, but they were determined to stop the Eschphene at all costs to protect Drew and the Hope of Mankind’s Redemption.

          Ken and the Leader faced off… the creature seemed arrogant and overconfident.  After facing the son, Ken thought long and hard about how to fight these beings should they ever encounter them again.  That knowledge was now a part of everyone, and was put to good use.

          Attempting to catch Ken off guard, a large bone shard shot out of the Leaders forearm as it lunged, trying to impale Ken through his abdomen.   In one fluid movement, fully prepared, Ken grabbed the bone shard with one hand and brought his elbow down with all his strength, breaking it off.   Ken whirled around fluidly and stabbed the jagged bone shard, covered with glowing Sigils, into the lower back of the huge creature.

          He screamed, more in outrage than pain, although Ken could see the damage and the subtle change in his movements.  It swung around and Ken engaged; his Avatar flared brightly on the ball of his muscled shoulder in response.

          “You’re son was a dick too.  I see where he got it.”

          And so began the taunts.  Ken had a knack for pissing people off when he put his mind to it, and his jibes and insults soon had the Eschphene Leader enraged.  Just like his son, he wasn’t used to being challenged, and his anger soon took over reason, giving Ken a further advantage.

          All of them were Grace in motion, their masculine bodies glorious to see, but they were horribly outnumbered.  The sheer quantity of the Eschphene were overrunning them.  Blows started to land and even as they rolled with the punches or struck back with Kumite techniques that inflicted more damage than they received, they were getting pummeled slowly but surely.

          The Music of Creation was subdued from the Eschphene Magic, so Lane took the Music of their Souls and used it as a source of Power.  He sent a constant flow of Healing Energy into all his Brothers even as he fought.  They all supported one another, often using each other as weapons, working off one another’s bodies as they learned to do in their training.  It was as if they were One, and it felt right.

          They were all covered in blood and sweat in minutes.   The first few minutes were horribly frantic, almost desperate.  They met the army head on, but true to their Avatars they were enough; barely.  They started building a wall of Eschphene bodies around them, making it more difficult for the ones behind to get close unimpeded.

          After a few minutes the animals began to arrive, attacking with their natural savagery.  Razor sharp claws ripped flesh and bone and they made their presence felt, however, the animals were sacrificing themselves. 

          Loy felt it down to his core as the bonds between their bodies and their spirits were broken as their bodies died.  The animals ignored the pain and inflicted as much damage on their enemies as possible before life left their bodies.  The pain grew inside him at what they were willing to sacrifice for him and for Drew.

          His face took on a feral aspect… his eyes shifted and his form shimmered into that of a great White Rhino.  His form was massive and muscled, his hide thick and armored and he began impaling any Eschphene around him, often cleaving their bodies in half.  Soon his massive horn was slick with blood, but he shone with a Light in the Spiritual Realm as he led the creatures of nature against an enemy not of Earth. 

          The air was filled with the smell of blood from the animals and the Eschphene.  The Bodies could smell it… Eschphene blood was more acidic in nature, and it corroded whatever it touched, and it burned their skin.

          Just as he had done in the junkyard the day they faced Luke, the skies reacted to Darren’s emotions, and this time his emotions were shared and magnified by all his Brothers.  Lightning rained down on the Eschphene, incinerating the ones that were hit.

          The young soldiers looked in awe at the fight around them.  Never in their lives could they have imagined being witness to such a battle, let alone being a part of it.  Jacob kept them focused, and a few times, because of sheer numbers, an Eschphene broke through the ranks.

          The soldiers all attacked, using ever bit of knowledge and skill they had learned from Albrecht.  They grappled and struggled to detain the creatures until one of the men could intervene.  The Eschphene were far stronger than a normal human, and the soldiers didn’t have the strength to hurt them, but together they made enough of a difference.  They were hurt in the process but not bad, and Lane healed them as well.

          In the midst of everything, Henry knelt with his arms still around Drew, Tommy, and Brett.  His body was still, even as his Mind and Heart were with Drew inside the Construct.  Brad’s arms were still wrapped around all of them, his Mind and Soul across the Veil and out of his body, frantically searching for them.

          Brett had his face hidden against Henry’s neck and shoulder, but Tommy kept looking, morbidly fascinated, yet terrified.  He kept his eyes on Bill and Kevin, and a strange look passed over his face.  His expression turned from terror to anger.

          All his young life, everyone or everything he had ever cared about, except his younger brother Brett, had been taken away from him.  He finally believed that he deserved to be loved by the two big men who came into his life, and he was seeing the possibility of them being ripped away by whoever these big black creatures were.

          He broke away from Henry’s body and grabbed the only thing he could see to use as a weapon – the Stone in Drew’s hand.  He grabbed it and all the anger and turmoil of the thousands of incarnations inside of Drew filled his Mind.  But his own anger and surge of emotion was enough to not let him get swept away; he wasn’t even aware of how he did it, but he embraced it all and he broke away, running towards Bill and Kevin.

          He was small enough the soldiers didn’t see him at first. Craig was the first and yelled, “TOMMY!  GET BACK!”

          Craig’s perception of time slowed; the adrenaline rushing to his heart gave him clarity on many fronts.  He saw the bone spike of an Eschphene, projected like a missile, hurling towards Tommy now that he was out in the open and vulnerable.

          Craig’s own grief, the pain of losing his father, and his anger and resentment at Patrick and Darren and all the other members of the Team, welled up inside of him.  He ranted against them in his Heart for not having done something for is dad sooner, and for not being able to bring him back.

          Craig saw the bone spike as a means to an end.  He knew his father was an asshole, but he still loved him.  Jacob didn’t understand it and was baffled by it, but Craig still saw something in his dad that no one else did.  His mother saw it when she was young and she and Kent were in love, but even she, after all the years of Kent’s slovenly, churlish nature, had given up on him; but Craig hadn’t.

          Craig’s legs moved almost of their own accord; he sprinted and launched himself, throwing his body between the hurling bone shard and Tommy.  Craig’s eyes went wide as the bone shard impaled his lower back and spinal cord.  It went through his body and partially into Tommy as well, and it’s velocity threw them both back.

          Jacob turned when he heard Craig scream Tommy’s name.  He saw Craig launch his body and the impact of the bone shard as it impaled his younger brother.  He saw Craig’s eyes widen in pain.

          Just as Jacob saw them fall to the ground, with Craig’s body covering Tommy’s, the Eschphene Leader bellowed an incantation and a fresh wave of Eschphene materialized.

          Jacob rushed over and grabbed ahold of Craig, afraid of what he was going to see.  There was resistance as the shard pulled out of Tommy.  The boy was unconscious but his hand still gripped the glowing Stone tightly.

          The bone shard, covered in steaming blood as the Sigils glowed and pulsed with Eschphene magic, went completely through Craig’s body.  Jacob looked into Craig’s eyes, bloodshot and filled with tears.  Craig feebly tried to reach up and wipe the tears streaming down Jacob’s face.

          Jacob hugged Craig against him fiercely and tried to say his name, but his grief was to overpowering in the moment.

          Craig struggled to talk, his mouth filled with blood, and Jacob lowered his head. 

          With the din of the battle raging around them he could barely make out the words, “I… I’m go… ing to g.. get…him.. b… back…”

          “Shhhhh Craig, don’t talk buddy.  Stay with me Craig.  STAY WITH ME!”

          Craig and Tommy dropped out of the Link, their presence gone.  It felt like a hole ripped out of all their chests.

          The entire scene only took a few seconds to play out. 

          All of the Bodies heard Jacob’s cry.  Bill and Kevin, knowing that the young soldiers were protecting Tommy and Brett cringed inside.  Kevin managed to glance over and saw Craig and Tommy, both impaled by the glowing bone shard.  The two men felt Time nearly stand still as the cold reality hit that Tommy was just killed along with Craig.

          Ken and the rest of the men wailed inside their Hearts; Kevin and Bill were the loudest.  They were too hard pressed to Physically react; the Eschphene reinforcements had to be stopped, and they were already at the limit of how many they could engage.

          Lane felt the anger inside of Bryan at the sight of Tommy and Craig; it was just as intense as the pain inside of all of them.  The anger was the push he needed to dig even deeper.  The Dragon Fire Agates in the ring he wore flashed red and Bryan’s eyes turned slitted.  Dragon Fire belched out in front of him, incinerating dozens of Eschphene to ash.

          Lane felt the pain inside his partner, but that one blast was all Bryan could risk pulling from Leroy without waking the Dragon. He flooded the remaining Fire into the Link and into all of them.  It gave Lane the extra Power he needed and a thick white rope of energy whiplashed out of him, directed at Tommy and Craig and it forked as it got close to them.

          Neither branch hit its target.  Similar to when Ken was under the Blood Curse… the Healing Flow simply faded before it hit them. 

          Lane:  Fuck!  The Stone is keeping me from healing them!

          Jacob saw the light leave his Brother’s eyes; the vacant stare on his young handsome face would be etched into his memory forever.    Hot tears flooded down his face as he held his baby brother’s lifeless corpse against him.  His whole body shook with grief as he blocked out everything around him.  It wasn’t the soldierly thing to do, but he no longer cared.  His grief was too powerful in the moment.  His gut-wrenching scream was washed away by the sounds of the fight going on around them.

          Guy, Nathan, Caleb, and Rich, his best friends, surrounded him.  They were stunned, but kept their wits. Rich knelt over Tommy and felt his neck for a pulse.  His voice was quiet through the Link:  Tommy’s gone too.

          Those words were like daggers into all of them but especially Kevin and Bill. Tommy and Brett were under their Protection, and Tommy was dead. Craig was under all their Protection, and he was gone too, sacrificing himself to try and save Tommy.  As difficult as it was they embraced that pain, like Ken had taught them, and it fueled them to continue to face their adversaries.  They learned years ago, as SEAL’s, to compartmentalize emotions when necessary to make it through a mission.  As badly as Kevin and Bill wanted to break ranks, they knew if they did others would most definitely die as well.  Brett was still alive and had to be protected along with Drew, Henry, Brad, the Keenans, Sally, Kelly, and Chloe; even the young soldiers.

          They were so much more than the Navy SEALS’s they started out as.  Now they were part Nephilim, and Original Men, and as their capacity for Love increased so did their capacity for hurt and pain; even hate.  The huge well inside them, where their emotions existed, was a storm of turmoil. 

          They supported one-another emotionally and physically, through all the hurt and trauma in their lives.  Tears flowed down all their handsome faces, even as their jaws set, and they held tight to one another, focusing everything into the fight, even through the anguish of their hearts.

         

<><> 

 

          Henry and Drew ran, and kept running.  When Drew couldn’t run anymore Henry picked him up and carried him.  He wasn’t sure how long they could outrun what followed them, but he would keep moving as long as he had strength.  The Wolf spirit never left his side.

          It seemed like they ran for hours.  As they ran, the landscape slowly changed.  Henry had a strange feeling about where they were headed.  He didn’t know it, but they were running further and further into Drew’s unconscious Mind, and through the memories of all the children.  Eventually they ran so far they ended up in the Valley, the place of Drew’s original birth and death. 

          He stopped by a small stream against the rock wall.  Even through the cold, he was sweating so heavily Drew had trouble holding onto his bare skin.  He went to grab his t-shirt from where he had tucked it under his belt, and it was gone.  He never felt it drop, and he cursed under his breath.

          His big chest heaving, he knew they could go no further and would have to face the mob.

          He knelt down to catch his breath.  Putting his hands on Drew’s thin shoulders he said, “OK Drew, we can’t run anymore.  I’ll keep you safe honey.  Just stay behind me.  Can you be brave for me?”

          “Yes, Daddy.  I’ll be brave.  I can help.”

          Henry teared up a little as he cupped Drew’s face in his big hands.  His green eyes were bloodshot from the sweat, and his short dirty brown hair was plastered to his head.  “I don’t know what I ever did to deserve such a great young man in my life.  I love you, Drew.  No matter what happens next, always remember I love you.”

          Drew was crying too, and he hugged Henry’s neck as tightly as he could, “I love you too, Daddy.  I wish Mommy were here.”

          “Me too, honey.”

          When Drew mentioned Liz he felt the necklace around his neck.  It just appeared out of nowhere.

          “Get behind me honey, but hold onto me.”

          Henry knelt down on one knee.  Drew got behind him and looked at his father’s strong muscled back.  His dad was so strong… in Drew’s mind he was as strong as his Uncle Ken and all his other Uncles.  He put one hand on his dad’s shoulder, feeling the rock-hard muscles.  His sweaty skin felt warm and comforting.

          With his other hand he gripped the wedding rings and as before… he took a deep breath and… remembered.  Liz’s presence washed over both of them.  Henry’s breath quickened in his chest, and he glanced around quickly and saw that Drew had the rings.  He didn’t question it, letting Liz’s love for Drew and for Henry fill them both up.

          Henry ruffled Drew’s short hair and smiled at his son.  Drew smiled back.  He had one of those adult-like looks on his face, almost serene.  He was confident in his dad.

          Henry saw the mob approaching and right before they arrived his Shields flared White and powerful, bolstered by his son, the second oldest Soul in existence.  The Wall Henry had learned to become held strong as thousands of tiny fists and Minds beat against it.

          His shoulders bunched as his Body felt the strain, but he would hold as long as he needed too.  He was Drew’s Protector and nothing… NOTHING… was going to get to Drew while Henry lived.

         

<><> 

 

          In the midst the battle raging around him, Jacob was nearly blinded as Uriel appeared in front of him.

          Jacob saw Craig’s Soul… a small orb of beautiful light gently lift out of his brother,s chest.  His eyes were wide as he realized what was happening.

          “No…. please…”

          I am sorry Jacob Peterson; I have no choice.

          Uriel’s eyes widened in surprise when he heard Craig’s voice.

          Take me to my father.  Wherever it is that you took him, take me there.

          Jacob lost consciousness as Uriel’s form became too bright to look at.

 

<><><> 

         

          The fight continued.  The slaughter was monumental.  Over a thousand Eschphene corpses lay on the ground, amidst the corpses of countless animals.  The air was thick with the smell of blood.  The Team was covered in it, some of it their own as they courageously continued to fight.

          Even with all the death, the fighting didn’t stop.  The Eschphene Leader summoned more of his kind.

          Ken shouted encouragement to all of them, sometimes in private thoughts and sometimes through the Link.  They said things to one another, and held each other tight in their Hearts and Minds. 

          There were no more reinforcements for the Team.  Eschphene magic was powerful enough to block Nephilim magic, so they couldn’t call on Istariel for help, and they had already lost Alariel the day before.  Ken wasn’t even sure Istariel would come if they called because of Alariel’s absence.

          Ken knew they had to take out the Leader; prevent him from Summoning any more of his people or they would be overrun, and eventually there would be more casualties among their charges.

          Ken’s thoughts were clear through the Link.   Everyone was hard pressed, but they had to figure out a way.  Even while Brad was across the Veil, searching for Henry and Drew, his Intellect was with them, helping to strategize, taking all their experiences in and helping to formulate some kind of plan. 

          All of them were pressed to their limits.  If any of them were pushed further than they could take in any particular moment, his Brothers uplifted him.  If one of them needed a slight reprieve to recover from some near inconceivable exertion, they shifted and covered one another, supporting each another.  Each of them could feel the Will and Conviction from Ken, strengthened and magnified by the other Body’s, a wall behind their backs that wouldn’t let them fall or fail.

          They ached and hurt, and healed, only to start it all over again.  The amount of Power they channeled was unimaginable.  The landscape of the battle, with the ghostly image of Yggdrasill, and the animal spirits, dark clouds filled with lightning, was surreal.  Through it all their Hearts were filled with the Music of their Souls; it was a buffer against the pain and anguish they felt.

         

<><> 

 

          Henry’s body shook with exhaustion.  His arms were pushed out, every muscle in his body strained, as he Physically and Mentally held all the children back.  Sweat poured off his body as they relentlessly hammered against his Shield.  Drew was with him, but he could feel his son weakening too.

          Through his pain and exhaustion, Henry kept the image of Drew in his Mind and Heart, refusing to give in.  His chest heaved, but he persevered.  He had to…

          Every blow was painful and a small crack formed in his Shield.  He saw it and screamed in rage and frustration at his own perceived weakness.

          Brad:  Gotcha!

          Brad’s powerful presence appeared in the Construct with him and Drew and his Power flooded into them.  Henry’s Shields strengthened, and relief flooded through them.

          Brad’s arms wrapped around him and Drew both, and he said, “Hey guys!  Sorry it took me a while to find you.  They didn’t make it easy.”

          Drew’s shouted, “Uncle Brad!”

          Henry sagged against his Brother in relief: Am I glad to see you!  I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out.  I’m not sure what’s going on Brad… whatever that guy did to the Stone woke up all the incarnations inside of Drew, but they’re wild and vengeful; I can’t reach any of them.

          Through his own emotional turmoil, Henry felt a tension and pain inside Brad.  He set up a private Link and asked:  Brad, what’s wrong?

          Brad’s Mental voice was flat:  Craig and Tommy are dead.

          Oh my God.

          Henry’s heart ached for all of it… for Tommy and for Brett, who would be all alone now, and for Kevin and Bill.  He knew how devastated they would be, and Drew when he found out.  He shielded that knowledge from his son for the moment.

          Fuck!

          Yeah.

          They held each other tighter and rested inside one-another.  Brad put all his formidable strength into Henry’s shields, and they flared brighter than ever.  The pressure was immense… the tide of eleven thousand incarnations pushed and beat against them, but Brad felt Ken’s arms around him even where he was, supporting him, and he would be enough to protect Henry and Drew until the others figured out a way to stop the Eschphene.

 

<><> 

 

          Sally watched in awe, and fear, as Uriel’s winged form appeared.  She heard the exchange between Craig and Uriel, and Jacob’s agonizing scream.  Kelly’s hand gripped hers tightly; Sally knew Kelly had feelings for Jacob.

          Uriel wrapped Craig’s Soul in his Wings and Sally’s heart broke for Jacob and Kelly as she watched.  She saw and felt the strain on her Brothers, the men who took her in and protected her.  She saw the bravery of the other young soldiers, doing their best to protect the Keenans, her and Kelly and Chloe, even Henry, Drew, and Brad, who were immobile.

          Everything was so chaotic and happening so fast, but her world stopped when her eyes made contact with Uriel’s:  The Ageless Depth to them pulled her in; not like The Master’s who were filled with Darkness, despair and pain, but Unconditional Love.  Sally’s eyes, already wet with tears of grief, filled with fresh tears of joy from what she saw in those eyes.

          Uriel’s voice, like a mountain inside of her, thought:  It is not young Thomas’s time.  Save him, or I will have no choice but to return and take him as well.  Make haste Sally Bisel!

          His Wings expanded, stretching across the battlefield, collecting all the Eschphene Souls in one massive sweep, and he launched himself into the air and was gone.

          Sally stood for the briefest second and jumped when the deafening noise around her started again as suddenly as it stopped.

          “Tommy!  Kelly help me!”

          She rushed over beside Tommy – there was blood everywhere, a mix of his own and Craig’s.  Brett, who still had his head pressed against Henry’s shoulder looked up when he heard her shout his brother’s name.

          He saw Tommy’s body covered in blood and lying on the ground, and his world nearly cracked. 

          Sally had been training with the doctor and Albrecht and all the guys in one form or another for some time; she wasn’t certified, but she knew CPR as well as any EMT or Paramedic.  She took charge immediately and started barking orders.

          “Guys, give me your shirts!”

          Guy, Caleb, Rich, and Nathan all had their t-shirts tucked into their shorts.  Nathan grabbed them all and knelt down with her.

          She lifted Tommy’s t-shirt up and saw the hole in his stomach where the bone shard had impaled him… his intestines and stomach were visible and her stomach lurched, but she forced herself to stay calm.  She knew if Tommy lived that Craig really saved his life… the damage would have been so much larger and more traumatic if Craig hadn’t interposed himself.

          She pressed one of the t-shirts gently over his wound and told Nathan to keep pressure on it. 

          “Kelly talk to him!  Reach his Mind and talk to him!  Keep him with us!”

          All of their Minds were Open slightly from being Linked with Brad and the Team, and they all witnessed the small blue ball of Light that was Tommy’s Soul float gently up and out of his chest, bobbing softly.

          Chloe was only weeks old but her Mind had been completely Open for nearly six months.  She had made connections with Darren and most of the guys at one point, and even Drew.   Her Mind was taking in the emotional turmoil around her; her empathy was strong and she felt the anguish and grief, not knowing or understanding it fully but recognizing it as pain.

          While Kelly held her, Chloe’s eyes looked at Tommy with unnatural awareness for a newborn.  Tiny tendrils of energy seeped off her small body and floated over to wrap around Tommy’s Soul.  Even as young as she was, she understood and wanted him to stay, and she helped her mother anchor him.

          Kelly felt Tommy’s Mind, and she and her Daughter held him tightly, not letting go, while Sally and Nathan performed CPR on him to keep oxygen flowing to his brain.

         

<><><> 

 

          The cycle seemed unending.  Ken could see the frustration in the Eschphene Leader too.  They thwarted his every move strategically, and well over a thousand of his people lay dead. 

          Ken was sure, after observing them, that the Eschphene shared some kind of Hive mentality or consciousness.  It was subtle, but he saw it; it was natural on their part, and it was buried in a mountain of other information that Patrick saw when he looked at them with his Understanding.  They were powerful and extremely complex beings; even with their Understanding, there was much to sort through.

          His people were an extension of his Will to some degree, and he took control of a number of them in the front.  The Leader unexpectedly moved back, disengaging from Ken, and others were ready and moved in to engage.  Before Ken could follow, he was forced to defend himself.

          Fuck!  He’s up to something.

          Loy:  I’m on it Ken!  Guys fill in!

          Loy be careful!  He’s a fuckin brute! 

          Ken’s concern was evident.  It wasn’t out of ego or conceit that he wanted to be the one to take on the Leader… he was physically the strongest of them, and it was logical for him to do so.  He knew Loy wasn’t a match for the Leader one-on-one as far as strength. 

          Loy’s form shimmered and he turned into a Peregrine Falcon; the fastest bird on the planet for diving speed.  He was small and blindingly fast as he took to the air.  The Eschphene had no idea of the Gift and were surprised; their big blocky hands weren’t dexterous enough to catch him.

          He flew into the air and saw the Eschphene Leader about fifty yards back… there were others forming a circle around him.  It looked like he was about to start another Ritual of some kind.

          Loy dove with all the speed he could build up, nearly two hundred miles per hour. 

          Lane, get ready to heal me!

          With Ken in the mix, he was close to Lane and managed to give Lane the reprieve he needed to react. 

          Loy’s form shimmered into that of an enormous Gorilla.  He had experimented with the Gift that first night, and the enhanced strength he received from making love to Rick translated into whatever form he took.  The way his Avatar blended with the Gift, he was truly the animal, and the animal was truly him, unlike Giovanni or another human host.

          He slammed feet first into the Eschphene Leader’s torso at full velocity.  He felt bones snap in the Eschphene, and he was sure he had fractured a few bones himself.  The impact was severe, but Lane and Darren were both ready.  He felt his pain centers blocked by Lane, his bones set by Darren, and a massive rush of healing energy blasted through his system.

          All of the Eschphene were caught by surprise, and their Ritual was interrupted.  The dozen followers immediately surrounding him seemed to be in a trance with the Leader dazed and unfocused.

          Loy didn’t expect that, and his form shimmered again into a giant Anaconda, nearly fifty feet in length.  He coiled around the limbs of the Leader and constricted with all his enhanced serpentine strength. 

          He was aware of where all the bone spikes were and even being careful a few shot into his body, but his reaction to the pain simply caused him to constrict tighter.  He felt one shoulder and arm snap in the Leader.

          Pressing relentlessly, his form shimmered back into that of a Black Rhino, and he gutted the Leader, picking his body up and smashing him to the ground.  Loy knew the Leader was critically wounded, and he took everyone deep down in their private Link so Time nearly stood still.

          Loy:  Do you want him dead, Ken?

          Ken paused and a small mutter of surprise went through everyone as he finally thought:  No.  I want him hurt bad, but not dead.

          Time started again and Loy impaled the massive creature one more time, he bucked and sent the Leader flying into the air.  The ground around him shook with the impact as his massive body smashed back down.

          Ken’s voice reverberated over all the noise:  STOP!  OR WE WILL KILL YOUR LEADER AND ALL OF YOU!

          The battle stopped and absolute quiet fell.

          The Leader was hurt badly, but their Magic was strong, and in seconds he was able to stand up with difficulty.  It was obvious he was still in a extreme amount of pain.

          He hobbled slowly over to Ken, “Why Nephilim!?  Why did you spare me?”

          Ken looked him straight in the eye, standing tall and proud, “I should probably have had Loy kill you.  Back off the boy Drew Ross, or the next time you won’t be so lucky.  We’ll prove to you that our way will work.  We’ll restore the fuckin Balance, and the boy will live through it.”

          “You will fail!”

          “No we will not!  We could have used your help, but like all you dickheads, you think your way is the only way.  Go!  Leave, and don’t come back.  If we catch wind of you bein here, we will hunt you all down to extinction.  Do you understand me?!”

          “You have won, and I will honor your demands… unless you fail.  If Drew Ross dies on his seventh birthday, and the Curse is not rescinded, we will return.”

          “Get your ugly asses out of here.”

          The entire area blurred and the color in everything went back to normal.  All the Eschphene corpses were gone, but the animals remained.  Loy could see spirits hovering by their bodies.

          His voice and Will filled the area in the Spiritual Realm:  Stay.

          Sally called out, “Guys!  Help!”

          With the Eschphene gone, Darren’s ability to Teleport was restored.  The Stone disappeared out of Tommy’s hand and onto the ground away from where everyone was standing.

         

<><> 

 

          Brad’s head was splitting with the effort, but his Will was strong.  Drew had fallen unconscious, and Henry and Brad were drenched in sweat and straining with their combined effort.

          As soon as Darren teleported the Stone out of Tommy’s hand, the Construct vanished.

          Henry, Drew, and Brad were back in their bodies and collapsed, exhausted, but alright.

 

<><><> 

 

          With the Stone out of Tommy’s hand, Lane sent healing energy into him and this time it worked.  His little body arched and Nathan and Sally had to hold him down, but in seconds he was completely healed.  Sally watched in awe as his organs were restored and the hole in his body filled in.  The healing wasn’t gentle, but he was alive.

          Bill teleported to Tommy’s side and pulled him up into a tight embrace.  Tears streamed down his face, and Sally saw and felt the gratitude inside of him though the Link.  She felt it all the men.

          Kevin rushed over and picked up Brett, who was wailing, still thinking Tommy was dead.  He held the little boy close and whispered into his ear that everything was alright and Tommy was OK.

          Jacob was still holding Craig and sobbing his heart out.  He looked pleadingly at Lane and begged, “Please!  Heal him!”

          Ken was closer and he knelt down beside Jacob.  He put a hand on his shoulder, and with tears in his eyes said, “We’re so sorry Jake.  It’s too late.”  Ken’s throat was so tight with grief he barely managed to get the words out.

          “Why the fuck is it too late!?  You’re always too late!  You could have saved my dad too, but you were too fucking late!”

          Jacob was screaming at the top of his lungs, and at the moment his emotions were strong and hateful, and they all felt it; they felt it so strongly it was like getting punched in the gut.

          Jacob surprised everyone as he got up and launched himself at Ken.

          Ken was surprised but easily caught Jake’s hands, catching him and hugging him tight.  Jacob continued to beat his fists against Ken until he was exhausted, crying the entire time.

          Brad got up and went to them and added his arms to Ken’s around the young man.  His Avatar flared brightly as all the Compassion in him flowed into Jacob.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken wanted everyone back under the protection of the Runes as soon as possible, so Darren teleported everyone to the Lab in Atlanta.

          They appeared, sweaty and bloody, with fresh tears still on their faces.  The decimation and loss of the day was visible and clear on their faces and the demeanor of their bodies.

          The doctor heard them and let out a quiet, “Oh my,” when he saw them.  He saw Jacob carrying Craig’s body, and the blood all over Tommy as well.

          Brad shared everything with him in the barest fraction of a second.

          Jacob silently carried Craig’s body back into the showers while everybody watched.  None of them knew what to say.

          When he heard the water running, Ken went in and saw Jacob washing the blood off Craig as best he could, but it still seeped from the massive hole in his brother’s body.  He finally stopped trying and stooped his shoulders, fresh sobs wracking his entire body, just holding onto Craig desperately.

          Ken moved over to him and said quietly, “I know Jake.  I’m so sorry… all of us are.”

          Jacob slapped Ken’s hand away, his voice icy cold, and “Don’t touch me.  And don’t you dare say you’re sorry!  Leave us alone!”

          Ken backed off, his heart aching, but he knew Jacob needed time.  As he was leaving the showers Albrecht was by the door waiting.

          “Should I go to him?”

          “He wants to be left alone.  He’s mad Albrecht, and he has every right to be.”

          “Very well.  You did good Ken, all of you did.  It’s a wonder there weren’t more casualties.”

          Ken’s voice was quiet as he said, “There shouldn’t have been any.”

          “Aaron would not want me to say this, but I think you should visit with Michael again soon.”

          Albrecht squeezed Ken’s shoulder in comfort as he moved away.  He saw the grief lines in Ken’s face visible now and realized how deeply his hurt ran.  

         

<><><> 

 

          Henry, Drew, Tommy, Brett, Bill, and Kevin appeared on ZEUS.  Jacob was in the shower in Atlanta, and they needed to get the kids cleaned up so Henry asked Darren to send them to ZEUS. 

          Neither Brett or Tommy had said a word.  Brett still seemed in shock, and Kevin held him close.  Brett’s grip was like iron around Kevin’s neck.

          Tommy was quiet and subdued, but he seemed more aware.  He was crying, but not hysterically, and he held onto Bill. 

          Henry sent them both a thought:  Let’s get them all clean and dry.  When they’re warm and in bed they’ll be out like a light.  We can talk with them about everything when they wake up.  For now, keep the conversation normal like everything is fine.

          The two men followed his advice.  Once the three boys were clean, the guys put them in their cabin.  Brett didn’t want them to leave, so the three men, as cramped as it was, stayed with the boys until they fell asleep.

 

<><><> 

 

          It didn’t take long for Brett to wake up crying.  He was in an unfamiar place and was still scared after everything that happened.  Tommy woke up when he heard his younger brother crying.  Drew was still asleep.

          Henry, Bill, and Kevin were in the lounge resting in one another, and had fallen asleep to the gentle rocking of ZEUS and the soft sound of the water lapping gently against the hull.  Even with their bodies healed by Lane, they were emotionally exhausted.

          Kevin started slightly from a deep sleep, immediately alert and surprised that Brett and Tommy were standing next to him, hand-in-hand, still crying.

          Bill, wake up.

          “Hey guys.  Are you alright?”

          Bill was instantly awake.  Both men could sense the inner turmoil in the boys.

          Kevin sat up and picked up Brett under his arms and pulled him against his bare torso.  Brett lay on the big man; Kevin could feel Brett’s tears falling on his chest.  Brett was small for a six-year-old and too thin; Kevin’s large hands nearly encircled his entire body.  He moved his hands up and down Brett’s back soothingly and talked to him softly, “It’s OK, Brett.  You’re safe now and with us.”

          Bill pulled Tommy up on top of him in the same way, “Come here, kiddo.  I got you.”  Tommy draped himself over Bill’s big muscled frame.

          Henry was lightly snoring a few feet away.

          Both boys, after only a minute drifted off to sleep again, resting on the warm, strong bodies of the two men.  It was a place that made them feel completely safe and comfortable.

          Neither Bill nor Kevin went back to sleep; they stayed deep inside each other, wondering what in the world they were going to say to the two boys when they woke up.

          About an hour later, Henry woke up and had to pee.  He saw Tommy and Brett laying on top of his two Brothers and smiled.

          “Told you.  You’re naturals.   I’m gonna go sleep with Drew and leave you lovebirds alone.”

          Just before he disappeared down the hallway, Henry paused slightly as if hesitating and said, “It’s never easy guys, but it’s totally worth it.” 

          It hit both of them like a Mack Truck what Henry said and why.  Even after everything that happened, and with Tommy almost dying, he still thought they should adopt Tommy and Brett and would make great dads.

          It gave them a lot to think about while the boys slept.

 

<><><> 

         

          For the first time in his existence Uriel was unsure of what to do.  Craig Peterson sacrificed himself to save the boy Thomas, but also killed himself in an attempt to get to his father.  Craig’s Soul spoke to him when it should not yet have been able to.

          Kent Peterson had been granted a Dispensation, but refused his second chance, and Uriel took him to his eternal isolation – his own personal hell – where he now resided and should for all eternity.

          There was no precedent for the situation.

          Uriel opened himself up for Guidance but felt nothing.  The silence was confusing, and he wondered greatly at the current turn of events.

          It was unprecedented, but he decided to do what Craig asked.

 

<><> 

 

          Kent lay on his back.  The area around him was colorless and rocky and uncomfortable.  His mind drifted back over everything – in this place his memories were clear to him, and he realized that was the intent.  All he had time to do was think in this place and he hated it, but it forced him to reevaluate his life.

          He remembered Uriel’s words about his Heart being filled with Hate.  It took the equivalent of years as he perceived the passage of time now, but he finally began to admit, in small steps, the possibility that Uriel was right.

          Those tiny cracks in his pride let regret take root, and as another few years passed he finally came to grips with the fact that he was an asshole.  He was a horrible man, and an even worse father.

          He thought of all the things he wanted to do over with Marge and the boys, and now he cried tears of regret, knowing he would never get the chance.

          There were no mirrors or reflective surfaces where he was and at first he was unaware of the physical changes in him.  Out of boredom he started exercising.  At first he couldn’t even do one pushup.  His stomach was too weak and soft to do sit ups; he had to leverage the weight of his legs just to sit up if he was laying down.

          Just as when Bill was trapped inside his own Mind, all those years in a prison of his own making and his outward appearance mirrored his inner feelings, Kent’s body slowly began to change.

          His clothes hung loosely and his arms got big again, just like when he was in the Navy.

          He spent a lot of time going over his entire life.  He realized what jerks he and all his buddies were, and remembered well the time they all ganged up on Alan Whetherson in the gym.  My God what were we thinking?  We could have killed him!

          Kent was outside of Time, but he still perceived Time in the place he was in.  He lost track of the years and the isolation.  His biggest regrets were his family, especially his two sons.  He was so proud of them, and he could never bring himself to say it to them.  He was ashamed at what they must think of him and what they must say to each other about him.

          He was a total embarrassment to them, and he knew it.  He remembered Marge trying to be supportive, but eventually his caustic attitude drove her to use sedatives to dull her own emotional pain that he was convinced he was the source of.

          His mind played tricks on him sometimes, hearing things, and he would race around looking, and it would turn out to be nothing.  He figured it was another part of this place, designed to make him feel lonely and separated.

          After decades and decades he was Soul weary.  He longed for real Death… to go to sleep and never wake up.  He dove back down into depression; but deep down inside there was a voice that told him he deserved everything that was happening to him.  He had thrown away any chance of happiness… but he also realized he never would have changed.   Uriel was right… he had been too lazy.

          “Guys like me don’t deserve a second chance.”

          “Dad?”

          Kent didn’t even open his eyes.  He shouted to himself, “GO THE FUCK AWAY!  YOU AREN’T REAL!”

          He heard the sound of sniffling and again, “Dad.  It’s me…”

          Kent’s eyes flew open and standing there, a few feet from him was his son, Craig!

          All the breath left his body as tears so thick they blinded him filled his eyes.

          Craig stood there… shirtless and sweaty, his lean body tightly muscled.  He looked so… studly.  The first thing in Kent’s mind was that he never told Craig or Jacob how good they looked or how proud he was of them.

          His face showed his confusion; he couldn’t believe Craig was really there.

          “Craig?!  How can you be here?  If you’re here that means you’re dead!”

          “I came to be with you dad.  I came to bring you back.”

          Craig turned and looked at Uriel’s powerful form, only a few feet away, “Can you take us back?”

          Uriel’s voice sounded uncertain, “I do not know.  This has never happened before.  I will return for you at least, you do not belong here.”

          His wings spread, and he vaulted into the air and vanished.

          Kent slowly approached his son, inch by inch, looking at him; taking in every feature and nuance of his son. His stud ROTC Marine son that he treated so horribly.

          Craig finally got a good look at Kent. He had been staring at his father’s face, which looked familiar, but different.  He looked younger, but haggard.  When he finally tore his eyes away from his father’s face he noticed how fit he looked.  His huge stomach was gone, and his arms and chest stretched out the fabric of the material. He looked very much like the old pictures Craig had seen in his mother’s scrapbooks, except for the haunted look on his face.

          The dam inside of Kent broke, and he pulled his son’s strong body against his own, hugging him tightly and he cried, “I’m so sorry Craig.  I love you so much!  Please forgive me!  Please!"  He choked up, but kept repeating “please” over and over, as he hugged his son.

          Craig didn’t know how to react.  He couldn’t remember the last time his father told him he loved him, let alone hugged him.  He started crying too, and hugged his dad back, “I love you too, Dad. I always have.”

          They stayed that way for minutes until the tears were finally out of their systems.

          Craig pulled back and said, “Dad… I don’t understand any of this…”

          “It doesn’t matter son.  You’re here… and I have to say some things to you that I’ve never had the courage to say before.  I have to say them before he comes back to get you…”

          “But Dad, I came to get you… you’re going back with me!”

          “I don’t think I can Craig.  I deserve to be here.  But you don’t!  I know you don’t!  I’ll make him take you back!”

          “I’m not leaving without you, Dad!  If you can’t leave, I’ll stay here with you!”

          “Don’t say that Craig.  Please don’t… look before he comes back… I need to say some things to you.  Please don’t interrupt, I don’t know how much time we have.”

          Kent sat down and so did Craig.   Craig noticed a lot of things different about his father, aside from the change in his appearance.  For starters, he looked directly at Craig, right into his eyes.  He rarely ever did that.

          Craig sat and listened… and he couldn’t believe what he heard.  He occasionally tried to defend his father’s actions, but Kent always waved him off saying ‘No, I was an asshole.’

          The tears came and went through Kent’s diatribe.  He went on for hours and hours until he finally stopped.

          “Now it’s your turn. I need you to tell me anything that I missed.  Anytime I slighted you or Jacob or your mother that you remember.”

          “Dad, no… you’ve said enough.  I can’t do that.”

         

<><> 

          Uriel sat beside them, Unseen, and listened.  He wanted to hear everything that Kent Peterson said.  He was pleasantly surprised, but he didn’t know if it would make a difference.  Dispensations were unique and short lived, and Kent Peterson had been dead for weeks in the Physical Realm.

          He had already lived the equivalent of another lifetime by his own reckoning.  Maybe that was enough...

 

<><><> 

         

          There was plenty of food on ZEUS still, so Kevin made something for himself, Bill, and Henry.  He made more macaroni and cheese for the boys, and let them have a bowl of their favorite cereal too.

          While they were eating, Kevin said, “OK guys, we’ll spend the night here, and then we have to head back in the morning.  We have to get you back to Cavalry by early Monday morning, and with the time difference we’ll be cutting it close.”

          Tommy slowly put his spoon down and stopped eating and he whispered, “I don’t want to go back.  Please let us stay with you.”

          Kevin, with his enhanced hearing, heard the words clearly, and his throat tightened.

          Brett piped in, “Me either!”

          Bill started, “Guys… you saw what happened at Drew’s Birthday party!  We couldn’t protect you!  Tommy you almost died… and we can’t promise that won’t happen again.  It would kill us if anything happened to you guys!”

          Tommy shoved his bowl back, crossed his arms and put his head down, hiding his face and started crying.

          Drew said, “Don’t cry, Tommy.”

          Brett looked at them with big eyes, but didn’t say a word.

          Henry tried to keep the scowl off his face, but he glared daggers at the two men.

          Bill started to intervene, “Boys…”

          Tommy got up and moved around the table and took Brett’s hand and said, “Come on Brett.  They don’t want us.”  He led his little brother out of the room.  Kevin heard the door to their cabin slide shut.

          Drew had tears running down his face, and Henry went over and picked him up, hugging his son against him.

          “I don’t understand, Daddy.”

          Henry looked at Bill and Kevin and said, “Me either, honey.”  He got up and left the room with Drew, going out to sit on the dive deck by the water, leaving his two Brothers alone.

 

<><><> 

 

          The next week was rough on everyone.  Jacob and the other soldiers returned to the Lab in Australia with Kelly and Chloe.  He refused to talk to any member of the Team except for Albrecht, and only then for lessons and workouts. Other than that, he stayed in his room.

          Nathan, Caleb, Guy, and Rich all tried their best to support him and bring him out of his self-imposed exile, but he isolated himself even from their friendship.

          In Atlanta, Ken resumed their training, but Bill and Kevin were heartbroken, deciding it was too risky to keep Tommy and Brett so close to them.  Tommy and Brett stopped talking to them and told the new Director at the Orphanage that they no longer wanted to be in the ‘Big Brother’ Program.  The whole situation was tragic for everyone involved.

          Everyone felt the hole inside Bill and Kevin… it affected all of them deeply.  When they were completely merged there was tension.  Henry was angry at them, but acknowledged that the decision was theirs.  He still loved them, but he didn’t understand it.

          Giovanni was present and began to get to know everyone.  He had centuries of knowledge to get caught up on. He was brilliant and would be alright in time, but had no idea what he wanted to do with his life moving forward.  He was devastated that Jonathan and Charisa and the other Elders were all dead, and all that was left of his Old Order were Albrecht, Aaron, and Taliesin – whom he had never liked much anyway.

         

<><><> 

 

          Ces, the new receptionist at Calvary Children’s Home, looked up when the bell rang as the door opened.  An extremely nice looking man, very well dressed approached her desk, “Good afternoon Miss…”

          “Ces will do thanks.  Short for Cecily.  Cecily Clement.”  She seemed a little flustered.

          “Thank you Ms. Clement.  I am here to see the new Executive Director.”

          “Oh I’m sorry!  She’s currently in an adoption meeting and is tied up for the rest of the day.”

          “I believe she will want to see me.  My visit pertains to the adoption in progress.  Please tell her I am here.”

          “We weren’t expecting anyone else.  May I tell her your name?”

          “Aharon Jochebedson.”

          He absentmindedly used the archaic pronunciation of his name and he realized she didn’t have a clue what he said.  He hadn’t used his real last name since his mother died in the Valley and wondered why it popped out now? 

          With a slight furrow of his brow he corrected himself, “Aaron Thomas.”

          “Oh!  Just a moment Mr. Thomas.”

          Aaron tilted his hat to her, blocking his eyes as they flashed white briefly.

          “You can go right in.”

          “Thank you, my dear.”

          He entered the office, and there was a man and a wife sitting across from Heather Draper, the new Executive  Director.   Mrs. Draper, and the couple, one Tom Gillespie and his wife Janet, all looked at him, surprised at the interruption.  He meticulously took off his overcoat and as he turned to hang his coat and hat on the coatrack just inside the door his eyes flashed white again.

          “I’m sorry, but this is a closed meeting.  You’ll have to make an appointment with Ces.”

          “I believe I am in the right place.  You are signing the final adoption papers for one Thomas Billingsley and his younger brother Brett Billingsley?”

          “Well, yes, but how did you know that?”  She looked at the couple sitting across from her desk and asked, “Do either of you know this man?”

          The couple looked wide eyed and shook their heads in the negative.

          Aaron moved over and sat down in another of the high backed chairs.  He crossed his legs and said, “I have some information pertaining to Tom and Janet that you might be unaware of.  I am surprised that your screening did not uncover certain behavior issues in the Gillespie household.  Issues that are not conducive to raising two small boys.”  He looked directly at Tom and asked, “Do you wish to tell Mrs. Draper or shall I?”

          Tom completely panicked.   His forehead broke out into a sweat and he said, “The deal’s off!  We’re no longer interested in the boys!”

          Aaron’s eyes flashed white and he said, “Sit, and be silent!” His voice went stern.  Aaron kept his anger in check but was not exactly gentle.  He rarely ever used his powers so overtly, and would make the proper memory adjustments when this was over, but two of his sons needed his intervention as much as the two small boys he was saving.  He hoped and prayed he was doing the right thing, but he would risk it for William and Kevin.

          Tom sat as if he was jerked down into the chair.

          Aaron looked at Mrs. Draper, “I have an amicable solution to this entire affair I think you will find most agreeable.”

          He looked at Tom and Janet and his face went stern again, “You will go home now and call the police and confess everything you have done to the children placed in your care.  Everything… and give the police the digital recordings you have hidden as evidence of your debauchery.”

          He looked at Mrs. Draper, “It was fortunate that I discovered the deviancy in time to save young Thomas and Brett.  I have two charges in my care who would like to adopt Thomas and Brett, and they will have a wonderful place to live.  They will be loved and nurtured as never before.”

          His eyes flashed white again as be began to talk, and he made the appropriate alternations to Mrs. Draper’s memory.  When he was done talking, Mrs. Draper called in Ces and had the papers drawn up with the name changes, and less than an hour later Aaron left with Tommy and Brett.  In her Mind, she agreed that Bill and Kevin would make perfect fathers.  She had met both men, as Big Brothers to the two young men, and had always been impressed with them.

          Albrecht was waiting in the Suburban, and he welcomed the two boys with hugs.  Tommy and Brett looked confused, but he had a long talk with the two young boys.  He took them into his Heart, along with Aaron, and shared with them the pain that Kevin and Bill felt inside over their decision, and how much the two big men truly loved them, and needed them in their lives.  There were many tears shortly into the discussion.  Albrecht looked deeply inside each boy and saw their Hearts’ desire, and it warmed him that deep down, under the protective mechanisms they had learned to use already, as do most adults, that they truly loved the two men that wanted to be their dads.

          Aaron wanted to take them to Long John Silver’s to celebrate, but Albrecht insisted they go to Wendy’s instead.  His only comment was, “I’ve never had a chocolate Frosty, and I think it’s time I corrected that mistake.”

 

<><><> 

 

          That evening, Ken had Brad send out an 811 Mental Alert, and in seconds everyone was gathered in the Lab in Atlanta.

          There were no details, and Brad had a tight shield on himself and Ken.  Ken had a serious look on his face.

          Brad:  You should have been an actor!

          Ken:  Don’t make me laugh, or I won’t get through this!

          Ken struggled to keep his poker face on.

          He sent his voice out into the Link:  Everyone get in the Conference Room pronto. 

          Everyone filed in and settled into their customary seats.  The room never looked as large with all the broad shoulders around the table.

          Ken stood at the lectern, gripping the edges firmly, and he looked at the handsome faces all staring back at him.  The faces of his Brothers that he knew so well, the men that were a part of him and he loved dearly.

          Two of his Brothers were hurting bad, and it hurt all of them when that happened. 

          “It’s been a bad week guys.  Drew’s birthday party was a bust.  We did manage to get Giovanni and the Gift he carried, but we also lost another friend with Alariel, at least for a while.  We lost Craig, but saved Tommy, and Drew made it through again.”

          Henry spoke up, “Drew’s fine, Ken.  He took the whole thing in stride.  He’s been exposed to so much that there is no normal anymore.  He really had a great time, and still talks about all the animals and being on the boat.  He really misses Tommy and Brett though.”

          “B, put the newsfeed up on the Ops Board.”

          The giant board came to life and split into four screens.  One was Fox News, One was CNN Headline News, and the bottom two were 11 Alive, and Fox 5, two of the local Atlanta TV Stations.  Each screen was running a ‘Breaking Report’ and had two mugshots of a man and a woman displayed.  The marques scrolling across the bottom all said, “Tom and Janet Gillespie, called and turned themselves in to Atlanta Police tonight.  They admitted to the molestation of children currently under their care as foster parents.   DVD’s of child pornography were handed over willingly by the couple.  It’s unclear why they turned themselves in.  The children currently under their foster care have all been removed by Child and Family Services and placed in temporary homes, and are getting counseling.”

          Everybody looked confused and Lane said, “What’s going on?  That’s terrible, but what does that have to do with us?”

          The doctor stood up and said, “Those two were the couple that were about to adopt young Thomas and Brett.”

          Bill and Kevin went pale, and both men sat up in their chairs.

          Ken held up his hand and said, “It’s alright, fellas.”

          He moved over and went up behind his two friends, placing a hand on either of their shoulders.  Their eyes were wet as they looked up at Ken.  They both looked confused and distraught.

          “We all know what a tough decision it was for you two with Tommy and Brett.  No one blames you; you truly had their best interest at heart.  I also know you two guys really well… all of us do.  Sometimes we all need a push in the right direction. I hope we aren’t overstepping our bounds here, but know that we’re doing this because we love you two.  You’re our Brothers, and we want what’s best for you.”

          Both men were short of breath.  Bill was pretty sure he knew what was going on, and Kevin caught on right behind him.

          Ken called out, “Albrecht!”

          The door opened, and Albrecht had a hand each on a shoulder of Tommy and Brett as he led them into the Conference Room.  The boys looked anxious, and a bit scared.

          Albrecht gently nudged them forward, and with a smile said, “Go meet your new fathers.”

          Both men started crying.  There were tears all around the table at what everyone was witnessing, but Bill and Kevin let the floodgates start.  They could hardly breathe, and their emotions were all over the place.  Through the Link the most evident were relief, gratitude, and thankfullness. 

          Kevin looked at Ken and managed to squeak out, “How!?”

          Ken said, “We all have your back Kev.  You should know that by now.  The doc’s already taken care of all the paperwork.  You two are officially dads.  We’re proud of you, and we all support you a thousand percent.”

          Henry nodded to them with a huge grin on his face, “Welcome to the club, fellas!” 

          Tommy and Brett ran across the room and threw themselves into the arms of their new fathers.  They were crying hard.

          Drew came flying into the room… Sally had filled him in, and he was extremely excited!

          Brad:  It’s nice to see some smiles.  You’re right this week has sucked.  We’ve been getting pounded lately and needed something like this.

          Just then, the security chime went off and a hush fell on the room.

          It was the proximity alarm in the back parking lot.  No one was expecting anyone.

          Brad and the Mentalists didn’t feel any danger, and neither did Ken or the Bodies.

          The doctor moved over to the closest security monitor, and his eyes went wide and he let out an, “Oh my!  Darren, get Jacob and Marge Peterson here immediately!”  There was a sense of urgency in his voice they rarely heard.

          “Come, everyone!”

          He rushed out of the room and to the back door.  He had turned off the monitor for some reason.

          The door flew open, and as each one of them saw who was there their jaws dropped.

          In the back of the parking lot, just out of range of the Runes stood Uriel, and at his side stood Craig and Kent Peterson.

          It was cold outside, and Craig was still wearing the shorts he had on in Africa.  He had a wide grin on his face and hollered over, “Hey, anyone got a blanket?  It’s friggin cold out here!”

          Uriel’s voice was loud and reverberated through the night:  I leave them with you.  There is no precedent.  Another sign of changing times. 

          He transformed into a ball of light and shot into the sky.

          Everybody was so stunned they all just stared. 

          “Uh… little help guys!?  I’m freezing!”

          Darren enlisted Brad’s help in contacting Jacob.  Jacob felt Brad’s presence in his Mind and then he was suddenly in the parking lot in Atlanta with his mother.

          Craig jumped a little when they appeared.  Kent still hadn’t said anything.  The physical changes in Kent were apparent to all of them… and to Ken and Brad and the others he looked just like he did back in the early 1990’s when they first knew him.  His face no longer had the haggard appearance Craig first saw.

          Craig, his teeth chattering,  smiled nervously and said, “Hey, Bro.  Hey, Mom.”  He did a horrible Poltergeist impression and said, “Weeee’re baaaaaack!”

          That cracked the ice, and Jacob rushed forward, enveloping his younger brother.  He was shaking so hard he couldn’t talk.

          Ken looked at Brad, his eyes wide:  Holy shit, B!  Can this night get any weirder?  Or better?

          He moved over and embraced his partner from behind, nuzzling the back of Brad’s neck with his unshaven cheek.

          Brad:  I don’t know about weirder, but if you keep that up, it might get a little better, at least for Ken Jr.!

          Brad was happy… he saw a happiness inside Ken that had been absent too long.  Looking inside his partner, it was like the sun broke through a cloudy day for a few minutes.  The times they were in were dark, but tonight proved that things could change, and not all the weirdness was Evil or bad.

          Ken used his Captain’s voice to get everyone’s attention:  “OK everybody, let’s take it inside!  It’s warmer and safer inside!  Someone get Craig a blanket!

          Sally said, “Coffee coming up!”

          The smiles were wide and everyone’s spirits were lifted by the events of the night.

 

<><><> 

 

          That night, as Drew finally slept, exhausted from the excitement of having his friends Tommy and Brett in the Lab with him and Craig and his father’s return, The Master reached for his Dreams again.  He had discovered a connection between their Souls that bypassed the Runes through the Realm of Dreams.  He could only contact his Brother occasionally, but he intended to do so as often as possible to break him down with fear and terror before their next encounter.

          He made his way through the Realm, careful because there were creatures there that could harm him.  None could kill him, but he could feel pain.

          Finally, He stood at the foot of his Brother’s bed.  He waited in anticipation at the terror he was about to inflict on his sibling.  As Drew began to Dream, he reached a clawed hand out but stopped when he heard a deep guttural growl.  The Wolf-Spirit made herself known… and in the Dream Realm she was far more Powerful than The Master.  She had numerous other wolf spirits with her; her Pack, and they all circled Drew’s Dream in protection.

          As The Master turned to flee, he screamed as her teeth sank into his muscular backside.  She commanded her Pack to hunt him down until he was back in his own body.

          In his Sanctuary, on his Throne, The Master’s eyes opened wide, and he screamed his rage as he felt a trickle of blood seeping down his leg, where there was now a small bald spot on his muscled but very hairy buttocks.

         

<><><> 

 

          Loy woke up when he felt the Wolf Spirt enter his room. She was pleased with herself.

          He sat up, and she approached him, dropping something out of her mouth on the bed.

          Loy looked down and it was a patch of thick course hair with blood on it.

          Loy picked it up and Read it, and knew immediately who it belonged too.  His smile was grim and he thought:

          Well done.

          Loy lay back down and snuggled against Rick’s solid warm body, laying one arm over him, pulling them tighter together. 

          Rick sighed in contentment and fell into a deeper sleep, feeling his lover’s arms around him, and Dreamed a happy dream.



<><><>


Ok that’s it for Chapter 26… I hope you enjoyed it!  Now to get started on Chapter 27!  I promise I'll get it out as soon as I can :-)

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