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 nave 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.

Sorry for the long pause (yet again) between Chapters.  Hopefully I haven't lost too many of you in the delay.  Just to bring you up to speed... I finished all my pre-requisite classes and made a 4.0 GPA.  The bad news is that a few of the classes that transfered from my first degree back in 1987 were B's, so my GPA dropped slightly as far as the numbers they look at for my application to the Program.  I applied for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (DMS), Echocardiography, and invasive Cardiovascular Technician (CVT).  I was invited to interview for DMS and the CVT Programs but not Echocardiography.  I know in the past I mentioned that Echocardiography was my goal and first choice, but that changed in the last few months.  As I did more research (as I got closer to the point of applying) I met with the Program Directors and the Heads of the Sonography and Cardiovascular Departments  and I changed my mind.  So by the time I actually applied to the three Programs the CVT Program was my first choice, followed by ECHO and Sonography (DMS).  The last few weeks have been nerve wracking but I got my acceptance letter a few days ago into the CVT Program!  Yay me!  I will start classes in the Fall and graduate the following December (it's a 4 semester Program).  I hope to complete The Order before I start school - that's a huge task but I am going to make the attempt.  If I don't finish I will get as much done as humanly possible because once I start the Program I will not be able to write until it's completed.  We'll see how that goes.  I have a good start on Chapter 28, which leaves 29 and 30 (I planned for 30 Chapters for this story arc).

I already have plans for a sequel so once I am gainfully employed again and get settled into my new career I will continue writing.  Once that happens my submissions will be much more regular than they have been in the last few years.

There was no new music in this chapter.  I've backed off using new lyrics with Lane - if I ever want to try and publish the story the lyrics will be a huge copyright issue so I am going to try and minimize the need to edit upfront.  I will continue to use that aspect of Lane's Avatar but I will no longer be using new song lyrics.  As you can see this chapter opens with lyrics from The Humbling River, but that song is the basis for the entire story so far and one that I've used since the first few chapters.  I will have to figure out how I'm going to handle that down the road if or when the publishing time arrives.

Now with all that being said, there are a few songs I listened too while writing this Chapter that I will share with you just because. I know many of you don't like the music, but for those that do or want to hear what motivated me to write parts of this chapter here are a few links:

Uriah Heep - The Wizard  (I think of Lane writing this about the doctor and playing it in homage to him)

Lindsey Stirling - Roundtree Revival (this is the song playing when Henry comes back to see the guys dancing with their shirts off - hopefully that won't sound so rediculously cheesey when you get to that part of this chapter lol)

Once again I want to thank Stephen many times over for helping me with the editing.  I made him work harder on this Chapter lol and he definitely helped spit shine it into shape for your reading pleasure.  He has a great knack and feel for the characters and the story and his edits are always spot on and make it better.

And now on to Chapter 27!

Also please remember that nifty.org needs your donations to keep providing all these cool and wonderful stories!  You can donate at:

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<><  Chapter 27 – Prologue ><>

<><  A.D. 509 ><>

 

          Tears flowed down Taliesin’s face as he plucked the harp strings under his fingers.  He managed to sing in perfect pitch, too proud of his voice and musical talent to let emotions prevent him from performing the Lay in honor of the man who lay dying – edn, the man he loved dearly.

          Taliesin’s grief over edn was powerful, but the guilt he felt inside overpowered even that.  His heart ached with conflicted emotions over the events that led up to that moment.  His actions, uncharacteristically sporadic, were driven by emotion rather than intellect, and ultimately resulted in edn’s demise.

          As edn’s Court Bard it was Taliesin’s duty to perform the Lay and he took it seriously.  edn was the most powerful mortal ally of The Order in the known world, however, he refused to be a part of the ancient Brotherhood.  He bowed to no one, not even Charisa who bore the Mantle of The Order.  He considered himself a righteous man and followed his own heart – he was a great leader and commander of men, the greatest in his Age of the world, certainly.

          The Court assembled for its final time; with edn’s death his Kingdom would end – he had no heirs or bastard children, and the time of his influence in the world was over; his Light, which had shone so brightly in the world when it was desperately needed, would dim and fade into history.  His final command, given to all his Knights, was to disband and return to their homes and countries and live out the remainder of their lives in peace.

          Conflict raged within Taliesin’s Heart– edn did not care for Charisa, and Taliesin was torn between his love of the two.  He begged Charisa to come and Heal edn’s wounds – he knew The Mantle would give her the power to do so if she wished.  For her own reasons she refused, but she did travel to Ynys y Afalau to witness the events surrounding his death as a Chronicler. 

          His plan of seeking her assistance backfired; in his attempts to convince Charisa to Heal edn, Taliesin lied, telling her he had a Dream concerning edn.  She pressed him on details, and due to a slip of his tongue she deduced Taliesin’s Dream must lie in the future.  She would not Heal his wounds but would Preserve the Chamber so it would remain unaffected by the passage of Time until it was reopened.   At that time edn could re-enter the world if he was truly destined to do so.

          Taliesin knew edn’s wounds were fatal and he would not survive them.  He cringed inside, knowing edn’s Soul could possibly be trapped in the Chamber by Charisa’s actions, but he could not reveal his manipulation of the truth or the Gift in his efforts to try and force her to save him.

          Inwardly, Taliesin was numb with grief and self-loathing over his actions, but his outward demeanor showed none of it.

          Cavall, edn’s hound, refused to leave his master’s side.  He lay curled up in a ball, whining beside the body of his master, watching everything and understanding only that his master was going to a place he could not follow.

          While Taliesin played and sang, the Court filed out, slow and somber.  Charisa waited for him by the door.  Cavall would not leave edn’s side, and Charisa did not want to wait for him.  She coddled no one, especially a dog.

          When Taliesin moved to go back inside and retrieve him, determined to take Cavall as his own to honor the man he called Brother, Charissa forbade him. 

          “Leave him.  He wishes to remain.”

          The tone of her voice brooked no denial.  He bowed his head, and another piece of his Heart broke with the sound of the Chamber doors shutting.

 

<><  Chapter 27 ><>

 

          Taliesin was surprised when he heard a knock on his door.  He never had visitors, and the condominium he lived in was private and had excellent security.  Aaron and Albrecht arranged a monthly stipend for living expenses along with the condo, and he was financially comfortable.  On promises of good behavior, which he was surprised they agreed too, he got a job at a local community college as a music instructor.  He didn’t need the money, but it was something to occupy his time, and he knew Albrecht would see it as a means to keep him busy and out of mischief.  He adopted the name Talbert Hutchins, and went by ‘Tal’ for short… it was one less thing he would have to adapt too.

          With the Gift no longer inside him, and after a very long and painful discussion with Aaron about Charisa, he was appalled at what she had done to him – altering his memories – but it explained much.  He declined Aaron’s offer of counsel, preferring to work through his issues on his own.  The irony that Charisa had done to him what he did to so many others over the centuries, was not lost on him; to be on the receiving end of such manipulation was painful and gave him a perspective of compassion he never felt before towards the individuals he made suffer.   But even with what she did to him, he knew deep down he was responsible for his actions, and in the midst of all the anger he felt towards her – now bordering on hate – were a great deal of shame and guilt.

Taliesin was a survivor, and determined to find a place in the world he now found himself in; one without the Gift.  At first he felt vulnerable, especially knowing The Enemy would kill him if they discovered his identity and whereabouts, most likely after a prolonged and painful torture.  Brad had put protections over his Mind, but that was little comfort if they tortured him physically.

          One thing he did not expect was the strong sense of relief he felt from being free of the Dreams.  It was as if his Mind was waking up from a long blurred sleep and he could now see everything clearly for the first time in thousands of years.

          Taliesin, as a highly skilled Agent of The Order, perhaps one of their best, knew how to keep a low profile. After a few months his apprehension lessened, and he began to feel at least somewhat comfortable in his new life.  He was always cautious; his training ran too deep for him to be otherwise.

          His jaw nearly hit the floor when he saw Giovanni standing with Aaron and Albrecht on the door camera.

          He opened the door quickly and stared, wide-eyed, at the man he thought dead for the last 800 years.  Giovanni stared back.  Neither man smiled – they had never liked each other much.

          After a long drawn out pause he whispered, “How?”

          Albrecht smiled, and Aaron asked, “May we come in?”

          Taliesin moved back and motioned for them to enter.

          The cleaning agency he employed visited the day before so the den was not yet a complete wreck.  Chord sheets were already strewn about the coffee table, and two guitars lay on the couch.  He quickly cleared the area, and as everyone sat down he mumbled, “I don’t think I’m going to like whatever you’re about to say….”

         

<><><> 

 

          Taliesin sat in stunned silence.  Aaron’s question caught him completely off guard, and the emotions and memory it evoked confused him – especially after the events of the last year.

          Taliesin was slowly reverting back into the man he started out as – the man before the Gift and his unrequited love for Charisa – the man he was before she tampered with his memories and his Heart.  He was not proud of his actions on the day edn died, and he was terrified of what they might find if the chamber was opened.  He wasn’t sure if the terror was over edn’s possible condition or the possible exposure of his deception at the time. He sighed heavily, realizing he still had a long way to go.

          Taliesin’s heart became twisted because of Charisa’s manipulation… and his actions during those many years were etched in his memories.  He had caused so much pain and hurt over the centuries… and he realized now why, but it didn’t excuse his actions.  It explained them, but it didn’t excuse them.

          All of those years weren’t bad; the change in him had been gradual… so gradual that it took looking back over a span of centuries to see how extreme the changes eventually became.  Over the course of those long years he seduced himself into believing his actions were justified.  After a time, he learned to bury his guilt and negative emotions, planting them deep in his unconscious mind.  He did not expect those seeds to grow and break out, let alone take on the form of sadness and self-loathing.

          The life he had now was a buffer against his past… and in all honestly he was more interested in starting a new life and forgetting the old one.  He felt there was too much to atone for in his old life other than by his death, and Lane forbade him that action with a Compulsion.

          Now, Aaron asked for his help.

          “You truly wish me to go back to Ynys y Afalau and open the chamber?”

          Taliesin hadn’t spoken Welsh in years, but the ancient name flowed off his tongue as though he spoke it every day.

          “I know it is much to ask Tal… but you are the only one who can open it. Charisa keyed it to the members of the Court, and you are the only one still alive.”

          “You realize that if it is opened, it will be the last time.  Time will rapidly catch up to itself there, and all that is left will be gone forever within a matter of days.”

          “I do… but it is the only fitting place for what we wish to accomplish.  Do you not see the relevance?”

          “You know I loved him too, don’t you?  edn?”  His pronunciation of the ancient Scottish dialect was perfect and rolled off his tongue as easily as the Welsh.  Taliesin knew nearly as many languages as Aaron – over the long span of his lifetime as a Bard he needed to perform wherever he lived in whatever Age and sing the songs flawlessly in any language necessary.

          “I do.  If it is too painful, we will make other arrangements.”

          Taliesin paused and stared at the three men sitting across from him.  He had always touted his own subtle cleverness… but Aaron and Albrecht taught him that way of thinking.  He knew there was more to Aaron’s request than the obvious.

          “Why are you really asking me, Aaron?”

          “Because I have your best interest in mind, Tal, whether you believe it or not.  I think it will be good for you.”

          “You mean by doing this for you it will somehow count against my self-proclaimed penance of atoning for my centuries-long crusade of decadence and cruelty?  Call it what it is.”

          “If you wish to see it that way, then yes.”  Aaron’s voice was gentle, and he did not rise to the bait.

          Giovanni muttered, “Stronzo!” under his breath.

          Albrecht reached over and lightly slapped the back of Giovanni’s head.  Giovanni shook his head in disgust but didn’t say anything else.

          Aaron hesitated, but then he heard and felt Albrecht inside of him, urging him to continue:  Share it with him love.   He needs to hear it, and you need to say it.  I’m with you.

          Aaron continued, “Performing the ceremony in that place is a gift I wish to give the men I now call my sons.  I consider you among them, Tal.  I always have.  I never saw you as a means to an end.  I had no knowledge of Lane Weaver’s existence all those years ago when I asked you to carry the Gift.  That was never my intention.  I have carried my own pain as far as you are concerned - for many years.  I have always blamed myself for the way you turned out; I now know that what happened to you was not my fault, at least not entirely.  You should see it that way as well.  I do feel some responsibility because Charisa was my daughter, and what she did to you was reprehensible.  You see, I too am seeking a way to atone for what I see as my responsibilities.  I wish to help you, along with all the men I count as my sons.”

          An awkward silence fell among them.  The minutes rolled by and Taliesin sat, staring at nothing, lost in his thoughts.

          Just as Aaron was about to speak again Taliesin whispered, “I’ll do it.  Damn you for asking, but I’ll do it.”

          Aaron lowered his head and said quietly, “Thank you, Tal.”

          “I suppose you wish me to perform at the ceremony as well?”

          The corner of Aaron’s mouth rose in a very uncharacteristic grin as he said, “Well, you were the Court bard when you lived there.  It would be appropriate, and Lane will be occupied.”

          “Very well.  I will make it special.”

          “I have no doubt.”

 

<><  Codon, Alabama – just south of Mobile ><>

 

          To the neighborhood, it looked like a normal elderly black couple moving in.  Brad had an illusion over everyone changing their appearance, under the guise of a moving company.  The large truck displayed “Ten Men and a Truck” on its sides.  The doctor arranged over a year prior for the collection of all the furniture and personal items in Olive’s apartment in Atlanta and had them put into storage.  Anything further needed to furnish her new house he purchased with her input.

          It was a hard decision for everyone to have Tag and Olive move out of the Lab, but the older couple said they wanted to do it.  They would miss everyone, and everyone would miss their solid, sage presence – especially Drew.  He had become extremely fond of ‘Auntie Olive’ and ‘Grandpa Tag.’  No one knew where he came up with the terms of endearment, and it didn’t matter.  Tag and Olive loved the names and the young boy.  For the last year and a half, they had helped raise him through some very difficult times; Henry especially would miss their help when Drew was upset about something.  The wise old couple always seemed to know just what to say.  Henry still wasn’t sure if he would have made it without their help after Liz died.

          With events ramping up, and space running tight even after renovating the Atlanta Lab, the older couple made their decision known.  The older couple was fully cognizant of the Battle between The Order and The Enemy and that they were a part of it.  They had met and walked with Angels in their time in the Lab, but now felt they were more of a hindrance to ‘the boys’ and wanted to get out of the way.  They would always be available to any of the men for any reason.

          With Tag’s leg regenerated, and some slight genetic remodeling from a magical standpoint, neither Tag nor Olive matched the descriptions any Enemy agents might have of them.  They looked the same to each other, Brad made sure of that, but to the outside world they were different.

          The doctor found a nice small house in Codon, AL, just south of Mobile.  The warm climate would suit the older couple and Tag loved to fish.  The ocean was within walking distance of their house.  It was also in the Deep South, where they would blend in more with their way of speech and preferences of food.

          The doctor designed subtle but strong protections into their new house, but nothing overt enough to alert the Enemy.  There was a safe room that would seal itself, empowering runes of Protection strong enough to hold the Enemy at bay until help could arrive if they were ever discovered.

          The hardest part of the arrangement was the ‘no contact’ rule.  For the immediate future there could be no contact between the guys and the older couple; it was a standard safety protocol from their days in the military and witness relocation.  The more contact there was between them the more the danger of exposure.

          There were emergency phone numbers, email addresses, and even a sealed memory sphere they could break that could reach anywhere on the planet in seconds, all for emergencies, but no normal contact would be permitted for the foreseeable future.

          The physical move was no effort to the big strong men, even if some of them appeared thin and boney from Brad’s Mental illusion.  They spent the better part of the day moving Tag and Olive in, arranging everything, and helping to unpack.  They took their time, not wanting to let go of their friends just yet.

          There were tears in all their eyes when they said their goodbyes in the house and away from prying eyes. The last gift to them, and one Loy had cleared with Olive before he committed to it, was a puppy.  Loy went to an animal shelter, never an easy thing for him, and found the perfect puppy.

          The puppy was already smart, but Loy made it smarter, and he instilled his Will on it and imprinted Olive and Tag on its Mind and Spirit.  It would be their companion and guard, and Loy could use it to look in on them; all of the Mentalists could when needed.  Through their Avatars that was an undetectable way to keep tabs on them, without breaking the communication protocol.

          After the guys pulled away in the moving van and trucks, Tag said to Olive, “Well Momma, looks like we home.  This is a good place.  The doc did us right.”

          “It is baby.  They picked a good spot.  I’m gonna miss those boys though, especially the little one.”  Olive’s soft voice was sad, and she took Tag’s hand in her own, giving it a squeeze.

          Tag asked, “We did right, didn’t we?”

          “We did.  I can feel it.”

          “I don’t think we’re done wit ’em yet.”

          “We never will be, baby.  We never will be.”

          The guys had unpacked everything for them and arranged it all.  Olive would have to redo some things, but they knew her habits well.

          She went into the kitchen and found her cast iron cookware to start dinner.  Bryan had stocked her kitchen, refrigerator, and freezer.

          She smiled when she opened the refrigerator.  She wouldn’t have to cook that night after all; Bryan had made a big batch of chitlins, fatback, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread.

          “Oh, baby!  Look what we got here!  That Bryan!”

          Tag laughed and cleared the small kitchen table.

          “Yeah, I’m gonna miss dem boys.”

          Bullet, the puppy, whined and looked at Olive and then the food.

          “Don’t you even think ’bout it.  I promised Loy I’d take good care a you.  I might make my husband fat but not you.  Loy would have my hide if I fed you table food.”

          The old couple sat down to eat in their new home with their new puppy and their new life.  They were happy with each other, but there was a sadness too.  It was hard to go back to the normal world after all they were used too.  But like always they would persevere.

 

<>< The next day ><>

 

          As usual, Kevin woke up first.  To anyone else, the house would seem absolutely quiet, but with his enhanced hearing Kevin picked up on all the small sounds in the house he always heard.  He smiled sleepily because he heard a few new ones that he and Bill were both getting used too.

          He heard the water turn on briefly as it filled the ice maker in their freezer in the kitchen.  He heard Bill’s soft breathing next to him and his steady heartbeat, and he smelled the aftereffects of their love making from the previous evening; the remnants of their cum and sweat permeated the sheets, but instead of being gross it was a comfort; even a bit of a turn on.  It was like an affirmation of their relationship and what they had done to one another only a few hours before.

          Breathing deeply, he also smelled Bill next to him… all of them had a distinct smell that Kevin and the other Bodies identified.  Early on his enhanced olfactory ability was difficult to adjust to – the hand lotions and perfumes people used were often overpowering.  Most of the guys used unscented soaps and deodorants because of it, or mild colognes.  Bill smelled like… Bill, and it made him smile.

          The newest sound in the house made his smile even wider.  One of the boys, either Tommy or Brett, rolled over in his bed, resettling himself.  Bill and Kevin had the boys less than a week, but they seemed to be settling in nicely.  Anything was an improvement over the Orphanage, and even on the nights when Bill and Kevin were on duty at either the Australian or Atlanta Lab, the boys loved being with their new dads.

          No matter where they were, Bill and Kevin had an established routine.  The doctor stressed the need for normalcy and regularity with the boys to make them feel secure, so their normal regimented patterns would work great with small modifications.  The doctor also recommended that Bill and Kevin not link with the boys often, especially at first; only enough for a feeling of emotional comfort.  Bill would Read them inadvertently every time he hugged or held one of them anyway, so they would be aware of anything they needed to know.

          Kevin, still amped up Mentally from last night’s sex with Bill, deepened the boys slumber enough to keep them from waking a little longer, then he gently repositioned Bill against him.  Bill woke up just enough to move into position and then with the feeling of Kevin’s arms, and his furry body pressed against him, he fell back into a deep contented sleep.

          Kevin knew Bill’s habits enough to know he would soon be up, and let his partner sleep out the next few minutes, content to hold and watch him.  The short gap in the mornings while he waited for Bill to wake up was Kevin’s personal time, and he relished the physical but non-sexual intimacy with Bill.  Kevin used that time of morning to organize his thoughts and go over the coming day, or reflect on things that might have happened recently.  He thought a lot about Drew and what they all faced as a Team.  Recently he thought a lot about Ken, Loy, and even Darren because all of them had gone through the most recent hardships.  Most of the time though, he thought of how much he loved the man in his arms, and immersed himself in their combined Souls.

          He felt Bill’s Mind slowly waking, and his hands began to soothingly roam over his partner’s muscled frame.  He loved to make Bill feel good in any way he could.  Bill’s Avatar affected him more adversely than any other member of the Team except possibly Lane, and Kevin constantly made himself a barrier between Bill and everything he carried inside of him.  The doctor taught Bill how to separate much of what he absorbed when he Read people, places, or objects, but the information and experiences became a part of him regardless. 

          As Bill’s Mind transitioned from unconsciousness to consciousness he felt Kevin’s hands on his body.  Kevin knew all the right places to touch him; those special spots that turned him on and made his toes curl.  As Kevin’s hands continued down Bill’s body, by the time he reached Bill’s dick, he was completely hard and leaking precum.

          Bill opened his eyes and smiled, his face still a little bleary, as he turned over to kiss his lover.  Their arms wrapped around each other as Kevin rolled on top of Bill, pressing his hairy chest against Bills smooth one.  Their erections felt perfect rubbing together between their stomachs – God he loved that feeling.

          Bill wasn’t sure if it was being an Original Man or part Nephilim that kept them from having morning breath, but he was thankful regardless, and he chuckled at the thought.  Bill heard him and thought:  Yeah me too!  Come here!

          The two big men lit up the Spiritual Realm as they made love to one another.  Their Auras shone bright, and they let Tommy and Brett feel it in their sleep.  They didn’t bother shielding themselves, and they felt most of their Brothers in the Atlanta area doing the same thing.

          An hour later, freshly showered, Kevin made breakfast for the boys.  Kevin and Bill were off rotation for the day and planned to have a long talk with Tommy and Brett.  The doctor recommended having ‘the talk’ as soon as possible – even if Tommy and Brett couldn’t comprehend everything they needed to be told about who their dads were along with the rest of the Team, and about The Order and The Enemy.  The boys needed a framework to be secure – they would see and hear things soon enough that would scare them, and Bill and Kevin wanted them to feel safe and protected as much as possible.  Tommy had already nearly been killed in the Eschphene attack at Drew’s birthday, illustrating how dangerous and serious things could become.

          Kevin and Bill still needed to do their morning PT, and had arranged with Henry ahead of time to wait for them so they could do it together.  Henry laughingly called it ‘The Dads Club.’

They planned on taking the boys with them to the Lab so they could start their school lessons with Sally alongside Drew.  After lunch they would have ‘the talk’ and hang out in the Lab to have dinner with whoever else was around.  Plus, if the boys got really upset over what they were going to learn, it would help having some of the other ‘uncles’ around to soften things and let them know they were loved and protected.

          Bill picked up on Kevin’s thoughts of the boys:  This is gonna be nice.  I like having the boys here. 

          Yeah it is.  I never in a million years would have thought we’d be dads.  I’m glad the doc intervened.

          Henry makes it look easy, but I know we got a lot of learning to do.  I’m glad you’re smart.

          Bill laughed:  You aren’t sluffing this off on me!

          Kevin leaned over the table and kissed Bill.  They realized immediately that the boys were watching but decided open shows of affection were not going to stop.  Sexual affections most definitely, but the boys needed a lot of physical loving and their new dads knew how to give it to each other and to them.  There were a lot of barriers in the boys that needed to be broken down.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig seemed happier than ever to have his father back, but Jacob was now the one having a difficult time.  After Craig and his father reappeared, both apparently back from death, Jacob acted indifferent towards his father’s return and wouldn’t talk to anyone about it.

          He continued to work out with the rest of the young soldiers, and continued his studies under Albrecht, but something was off.  The spark that previously made him the leader of their group of friends was gone, or greatly diminished.

          His indifference grew and seemed to be all-encompassing.  He was running on ‘auto-pilot’ and only did the bare minimum of whatever was needed to get by.  He ate, but it was mechanical; he complimented Rich on his cooking, but it was forced, as though it was something he had to do rather than wanted to do.

          Kelly was put off by his attitude and withdrew more into her old habits.  She was living in the Australian Lab full time to help take care of the guests there, and Chloe took most of her attention.  Darren was worried about her, but the doctor told him not to be overly concerned yet.

          Due to recent events, Ken altered the rotation roster in the Australian Lab.  It was tougher on the Team, but for the foreseeable future, two couples would now be present at all times.  None of them saw what happened to Kent Peterson as neglect, but it was not something they would tolerate happening again.

          Tommy and Brett loved bouncing back and forth between their home in Atlanta and the two Labs with Kevin and Bill; they especially loved it when they got to visit ZEUS in the Pacific.  The boys thrived under the care of their new dads and all their ‘uncles’, and just like they did with Drew, all the men took on the roles and loved it.  They were careful about spreading the attention evenly – the three young boys all had issues, and it would be too easy for jealously or hard feelings to develop.  The doctor spoke with them at length, explaining the issues to them in terms they could understand.  He planned to counsel the boys often, both singly and as a group.

          Sally had no issue expanding her role as teacher to the boys.  Brett was slightly ahead of Drew in his subjects because he had been attending school regularly, and even though Tommy was two years older he was only a year ahead in school. 

          All of the young soldiers missed Jake’s old self.  Craig tried to talk to him numerous times but was rebuffed, causing a rift between the two brothers.  Craig’s feelings were hurt, but his happiness at having his father back helped.  He actually liked spending time with his dad now. 

The other fathers didn’t know what to make of Kent coming back; not only was he back from the dead, but he looked twenty-five years younger, and they were all freaked out by him now.  He was no longer a part of their circle, and frankly he didn’t want to be; after his revelations during the time in his own personal Hell, he realized what jerks and assholes they had been all their lives and still were.

          That night, a week since Craig and Kent had shown back up, Albrecht was finishing up their evening exercises.  The young men, as usual, were shirtless and sweating bullets.  Exhausted, they all made their way into the showers to clean up and then read before bed.

          Jacob was in bed reading “How Should We Then Live” by Francis Schaeffer.  He found out there was a video series made to go along with the book, but Albrecht insisted they read the book and bypass the videos.  Jacob wasn’t much of a reader, and it took him a while, but he was making his way through it when he heard his door chime. 

          He pressed the Comm button on his headboard and said, “Come in.”

          He sighed, expecting Craig or his dad which would mean another argument, but he was surprised when Rich stuck his head in.

          “Hey Jake, can we talk?”

          “I’m tired Rich; can it wait?”

          “It could.  But whatever’s going on with you isn’t going away, and I want to talk to you.  It’s gonna happen anyways whether it’s now or later.  Up to you.”

          Jacob’s face turned red with anger, but before he could say anything Rich interrupted him, “You can be as pissed as you want bro, but I’m gonna say what I need to say.”

          Jacob was mildly surprised and annoyed.  Rich was so different from when he arrived right after their rescue.  Before he was quiet and unassertive, and normally Jacob would be proud of his new assertiveness, but at the moment it annoyed the shit out of him.  Why the fuck does he have to choose now to be this way?

Rich saw the look on his face and grinned, saying “Yeah, the new me annoys the shit out of my father, too.”

Rich moved into the room and shut the door.  He hung his head and took a deep breath, gathering his courage to continue his push.  He sat on the edge of the bed by Jake’s feet, and after a short pause he started, “I get what happened Jake.  I don’t think anyone else does, but I do.  Because I’ve lived that way almost my entire life.”

“What do you think you get Rich?  You don’t know anything about me.  Fuck off.”  Jacob was surprised at the vehemence in his own voice, but Rich seemed unaffected.

“I know a lot more than any of you guys think.  You thought I was dumb and fat when I got here.  Now you just think I’m dumb.  Well I know some things Jake, even if you don’t think so.”

Rich’s comments hit Jake hard, and he immediately felt like a jerk.

“Hey Rich, I never thought that about you.  None of the guys did.”

Rich grinned slightly and replied, “Now it’s my turn to tell you to fuck off.  I know the looks you all gave me when we were rescued.  I fuckin fainted like a girl, just like my old man said.  I’m a cook, not a soldier.  I don’t measure up to any of you.  I’ve seen those looks my whole life Jake, so don’t lie to me about it.”

Jake’s anger was on hold as embarrassment washed over him, and he felt horrible.  He actually had felt some of what Rich mentioned, but only briefly.  After they got to know each other and began working out together, Jake thought of Rich as a slightly older version of Craig and wanted to help him.

“I’m sorry Rich.  I never meant to hurt your feelings.”

“Yeah whatever.  I’m used to it.”

“No man, I mean it.  I feel like a fuckin heel.  You don’t deserve that from anyone, especially me and the guys.”

Rich saw the sincerity in his friend, and it made him feel good.  After spending time with Albrecht, Ken, Brad, and the others, all of them were changed and more open about their feelings.  They fought it at first because it wasn’t ‘manly’, but Albrecht gently chastised them for that attitude.  Once they all got used to it, they liked living that way much better.

“Rich, I’m sorry man.  So what is this you think you have figured out about me?”

Rich paused again.  Now that it boiled down to it he was hesitant, but he pushed on, “I think you’re afraid and don’t know how to deal with it.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Everything.  Us being captured, The Enemy, The Order, our new friends and what they are and what they can do, at what happened to your dad, Craig dying.  It’s so out there and fucked up you don’t know how to deal with it all.  It has you rattled, and you don’t know how to react.  Your dad and Craig coming back was the real kicker, though.”

Jacob stared at Rich, mulling over his words.  His first reaction was another ‘fuck off; you don’t know anything about me’, but Rich’s words resonated with him.  He thought a lot about his own emotions and didn’t understand them.  Maybe Rich was right.

A tear fell down his cheek – he didn’t even realize he was crying.                  

“What did you mean when you said you’ve felt this way your whole life?”

“You don’t know what it’s like being a dumpy fat kid with an overbearing father Jake.  I’ve been bullied my whole life by everyone, especially my dad.  I’ve lived with fear every day as far back as I can remember.  Eventually, I got used to it and thought that was the way the world was.  I joined the Army trying to make myself not afraid anymore.  That didn’t work out so well either.”

They both chuckled a little at that.

“Guys like you Jake, and Nathan, Guy, Caleb, even Craig… you don’t know what it’s like not being an ‘alpha’ kind of guy.  The world is easy for you.  People want to be around you.  No one ever wants to be around me.”

The depth of what Rich was telling him astounded Jake, and his heart broke for his buddy.  He hated that the world was so cruel and unfair, and Jacob felt horrible for adding to it, even a little bit.  He was better than that.  Jacob also realized Rich saw something inside of him... he recognized fear when he saw it, because he was so familiar with it. 

          “Rich, can I tell you something?”

          “Sure Jake.  I’m your buddy; you can tell me anything.  That’s part of what I’m trying to tell you.  You aren’t alone.  I understand… and it makes a difference when you know someone else knows what you’re going through, even if you don’t understand it yourself.”

          The two men, already good friends, bonded even deeper.  Jake was amazed at Rich’s insight and how smart he was.  He had already read all the books Albrecht had on their list.  Working with Albrecht and Bryan had opened him up – Jacob made sure that Rich understood that Bryan and Albrecht didn’t make him a new man.  The man he was had been inside him all along; they just brought him out.

          Rich was grateful and it took some coaxing, but he eventually believed what Jake was telling him.

          They stayed up talking the entire night, and by morning Rich had helped Jacob work through the worst of what was bothering him.

          It was nearly 0500 when Jacob hugged his friend tightly, fresh tears in his eyes.

“Thanks Rich.  I needed a kick in the ass.  I never thought it would have come from you, but I’m glad you came to me.  You’re a man and a stud, and if anyone ever says otherwise, come find me and I’ll set ’em straight.”

Jacob got up to hit the head before trying to get a few hours’ sleep.  Sticking his head out in the hallway, he noticed his dad at one of the tables in the kitchen sipping a cup of coffee.  He was alone in his thoughts and didn’t seem to notice Jake.

Jake went to relieve his bladder and made his mind up while he was in the bathroom.  He was shirtless and in his skivvies, but he felt a pressing need to move forward before he chickened out. 

Kent was surprised when he saw Jacob come into the kitchen.  It was 0506 and no one was usually around at that time of the morning unless whoever was on duty from Atlanta was up and not working out in the gym.

He was shocked to see tears in Jacob’s eyes.  He looked at his son, the stud marine.  Pride washed through him as he looked at his oldest son.  Albrecht told Kent how brave Jacob was in the rescue and how badly he had been hurt.

His voice, normally strong, was hesitant, “Hey Dad?  Can we talk?”

Kent put his cup of coffee down and said, “Sure son, I’d like that.”

Before he could get any more words out Jacob moved forward and grabbed his dad into a fierce hug and started sobbing, “I’m sorry, Dad.  I’ve been an ass.”

Kent hugged his son back just as fiercely.  He wasn’t surprised that Jacob’s body was so rock solid, but it made him feel proud again.  He grabbed Jake by his shoulders and held him at arms’ length, crying too.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, son.  I’m the one who’s sorry.  I’ve been a horrible father my whole life.  It took a hundred years of being alone with nothing but time to reflect on my life to realize just how bad I was.  I really fucked my life up, and you and your brother and your mother suffered because of me.  I don’t know if I can ever make things right with you, but I want to try Jake.  I really do!”

He pulled Jacob back against him and for a few minutes they stayed that way, man to man, working through their emotions and coming to grips with what was happening between them.

Jacob pulled back first and asked, “Is there any coffee left?  I didn’t sleep, but I want to talk.”

Kent’s heart warmed at his son’s words, and he liked that feeling.  He grinned and said, “Let me guess… strong and black.”

Jacob grinned back, “The only way military guys are allowed to drink it.  I remember you saying that when I was little.”

“You aren’t little now son.  Damn, you’re a fine looking man!  I’m so proud of you and your brother.”

Kent and Jacob talked and Kent got to share the important events that turned him around.  Jacob couldn’t completely forget everything from his life, but he did forgive his father.  Craig came out later and joined them, and eventually Margie. 

Craig was thrilled that his family was back together, and his face showed it.  Jacob made sure to thank Craig privately for his actions and efforts and apologized to him for being a jerk.  They hugged like brothers and went back to that place inside them when their Minds touched with Brad’s help.  They would always go back to that place.

         

<><><> 

         

Nature Nurture Heaven and Home,

Sum of All and by Them Driven,

To Conquer every Mountain shown,

But I’ve never Crossed the River

 

          Ken lay awake, holding Brad, the man he loved more than anything… even Frank’s perfect hash browns at Waffle House.  The little kid grin that Brad loved so much crossed Ken’s face at that thought, and he chuckled softly to himself as he pulled Brad’s warm muscled body closer against his own, resettling both of them.  He loved the feeling of being naked and in bed with Brad; their bodies fit perfectly together, as if they were made for each other.

          He looked down on his lover’s familiar face, etched into his Mind and Heart, marveling at how handsome he was.  All of the Team were handsome men, not pretty, but handsome.  They were men, rugged, powerfully built, and strong.  It was Brad’s manly features that Ken found so attractive… his body was solidly muscled, and he was so fucking handsome he took Ken’s breath away to look at him, even after all the years they had been together. 

Ken knew Brad felt the same way about him, and it was both humbling and heartwarming.  His gaze continued down Brad’s body over his powerful chest covered with blond hair.  Brad’s body hair was perfect and in all the right places that drove Ken wild.  His eyes couldn’t see any further down because of the sheets, but he felt Brad’s warm soft dick resting against his leg; the defining appendage of his male anatomy.  Ken loved the solid feel of Brad’s erection when he held it in his hand; Brad’s dick was just as perfect as the rest of him, and the intimacy of that act was deeply special to both of them.

          As Ken tightened his arms around his lover, Brad sighed contentedly in his sleep and unconsciously snuggled closer against Ken’s big strong body.  Wrapped in Ken’s arms and feeling Ken’s warm breath on his shoulder made Brad feel safe and loved, even in sleep.

          Ken’s thoughts continued to wander, going over many of the events that led them all to where they were.  He remembered the day he interviewed with the doctor for the Program, running missions as a Navy SEAL in Syria with Brad and all his buddies… and his capture and torture by Dr. Cromwell a few years prior – the event that triggered the unlocking of their Nephilim Heritage years ahead of the doctor’s schedule.

          The words to the song Lane Dreamt were a part of his memories, and they now realized the lyrics were far more Prophetic than originally thought.  The song spoke of things already accomplished and things that hadn’t happened yet at the time… and there were still parts of it that were in their future, but unclear.  As with all Prophecies once the events occurred they were easy to see…

 

Angel, Angel, what have I done?

I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire,

I’ve Conquered Country, Crown, and Throne,

Why can’t I cross this River?

 

          There were always Rivers to cross… the first one was the challenge of their Awakening Powers and abilities, but each challenge they faced, each hardship, was a River in their lives that had to be crossed. 

Their Angelic grandfathers referred to Time as a River… they viewed Mortal lives as Rivers, with many streams, outlets, and rapids along the journey.  The fact that they were all related to Arch-Angels still boggled Ken’s mind – the Arch-Angel Michael was his fuckin grandfather! Ken and Brad and the others were Immortal now, their lives invisible to the Higher Powers – even Luke, the Dark One.  It was a part of the Paradox of their Avatars and their existence.  The doctor was now convinced it was intentional by some outside influence… but whose?

          That influence made it apparent that there was more to their creation than they were aware of.  The doctor, they now realized, had been manipulated, but even the Arch-Angels themselves had been manipulated by someone or something.  Who or what that could be they didn’t yet know.  The dove that appeared to Drew and spoke to him, and to all of them once… was it God?

          The Voice terrified Henry – and Henry knew how much it terrified Ken as well.  Ken reassured Henry as the Leader of the Team, but when they merged completely Henry saw the fear inside Ken over it … yet Henry also trusted Ken’s confidence and optimism that somehow they would succeed.  They would find a way to save Drew, who held the second oldest human Soul in existence inside him…the little boy who carried the Curse and the potential Redemption of Mankind on his small shoulders.  The boy who had wormed his way into all their hearts – they would become whatever they needed to be and pay whatever price necessary to save his life and defeat The Master. 

          In his military training Ken learned to break problems down into smaller pieces.  Saving all of Creation, or even all of Mankind was too big of a problem to wrap his head around.  It was too easy to become overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem… but saving Drew was personal to Ken and all the Team and something they could dig into with all their Hearts and everything they had in them.  That was what they fought for.

          As certain words of Lane’s Song echoed in his Mind, images came to the forefront of his memory.  Even through all the pain and trials they had already faced, Ken was still happier than he ever had been.  The fierce love and protectiveness he felt towards his best friends and Teammates, the men he called Brothers, and towards the man he held against his naked body ran deep inside him and defined him as a man.

Ken let himself drift in the bond he shared with Brad, the man he loved more than life itself… the man who would be his husband in a few hours….

 

<>< Two weeks earlier ><>

 

          Their training schedules were back on track and their days full.  Ken changed the coverage rotation between the Atlanta and Australian Labs; moving forward, he wanted two couples in each Lab at all times.  He included Henry, who of course would keep Drew with him, so every third day one couple would be off.  Bill and Kevin kept Tommy and Brett with them – Ken had talked to Brad at length over the idea of keeping Drew, Tommy, and Brett together all the time, which would mean pairing Henry with Bill and Kevin on the schedule full time.  They both decided it would be better not to do that.  They each had different reasons; Ken’s was more tactical from a leadership position, and Brad’s was more Compassionate, but the end result was the same.  

          Ken felt the pressure, all of them did, to continue finding locations for other Labs around the world and getting them built.  Once they defeated The Master it would free Luke to retaliate against them, and they had to be prepared for that.  The other bases would be necessary and extremely important.

They had less than a year to find a way to keep Drew alive and defeat the Master, and they were all getting married in a couple of weeks.  There were so many things to do, and Time wasn’t slowing down. 

          Collectively they all considered postponing the weddings – it seemed selfish in light of their responsibilities – but Aaron and Albrecht insisted they go through with it.  Henry did too; he loved the men he called Brothers and wanted any happiness they could find amidst the Darkness they constantly faced in defending his son against the Enemy.

          None of them were sure if the Dreams came from Remiel or from the Ether, but each of the Mentalists Dreamed of their wedding rings.  Images formed in their Minds while they slept, accompanied by powerful emotions.  Each set of rings was completely different and unique to each couple; the designs reflected aspects of each man and each couple and were deeply personal.  It reinforced the feeling that they were all destined to be together.

          They continued to be in awe of Albrecht – he somehow maintained his tutelage over the young soldiers in the Australian Lab, and he helped all of the men craft their wedding rings.  He also asked Bryan to take him to the Valley a number of times.  He was very tight-lipped about what he needed to do there and only said it had something to do with the upcoming wedding.  He arranged with Brad and Darren to contact him at specific times to pull him back or send him where he needed to be.  Bryan and the other Bodies smelled Leroy on him every trip which told them Albrecht had been inside the cave.  They trusted Albrecht completely, and he knew the dangers of the place, and the risks – they couldn’t fathom what he needed to do there.

 

<><><> 

 

          Finally, the day arrived.  Ken felt it as he held Brad in the early hours of the morning – something was subtly different.  He couldn’t discern if what he felt was inside of him or something external.

          It was a tingle of excitement in his gut – like he was on the verge of a life-changing event.  He laughed to himself, relating the feeling to the first time he and Brad made love all those years ago.  At the time he was technically a virgin, and that icy ball of excitement was the same as what he presently felt. 

Each of them felt it when they awoke.  That morning when they instinctively merged as a group they were quiet and rested in one another.  No jokes were tossed out and no shit was hung – most of them reflected as Ken did throughout the previous night on the journey they all shared together as men, Brothers, and couples.

          As close as they were, and as often as they were together inside their Hearts, Minds, and Souls, they were all very different and unique individuals.  Humans often picked up the traits of those closest to them, tending to mimic behaviors of the ones they loved and looked up too.  Oddly enough, that didn’t happen with them.  They all had enough ‘alpha’ in them to prevent that, and they were glad.  Their rugged inner strength and individualism kept them from that chameleon-like effect that lesser personalities often succumbed to.  None of them thought they were better than the mortals they defended; they were mentally healthy, well-adjusted, and Awake; aside from being half Nephilim, they were what all that humans were intended to be at the outset of Creation.

          Throughout the morning, they all stayed in a light Link – enough to feel each other’s presence. 

          Ken reluctantly let go of Brad as his lover threw his legs off the bed and put his feet on the floor.  He sat on the edge of the bed rubbing his hands over his face trying to wake up.  Ken looked at Brad’s muscular form, and his incredibly handsome face, more cute at the moment than handsome, with his sleepy face and bedhead hair.

          Ken scooted closer, wrapping an arm around Brad’s tight stomach from behind and hugging him one last time, “Mornin, B.”  Leaning forward he kissed Brad on his back, tasting the salt from the sweat of their lovemaking the night before.

          Brad twisted and Ken watched the muscles of his lean body flex as he turned so they could embrace.  Brad cradled Ken’s head against his torso and kissed the top of his head, “Today’s the day, Ken.”

          Ken heard the slight tremor in Brad’s voice – the emotion was thick and swimming in both of them.

          Ken gave Brad the little kid grin that melted him even as his own eyes went glassy, “Fuck, I love you so much B.  It’s hard to believe this is really happenin.”

          “No matter how long we live Ken, even if it’s forever, I will remember every second of this day.”

          “Well, you got a perfect memory.  You can’t help it.”

          Brad laughed gently as he squeezed Ken’s head more tightly against his furry chest, “Douche.”

          Ken twisted his head slightly and took Brad’s nipple into his mouth.

          Brad’s sharp intake of breath told Ken his ploy worked, and it ignited the fire inside them.  Neither of them became ‘that guy’ for the other… they made gentle love to one another.  Well, gentle for them – the strength of their bodies and the Power of their Souls were involved, and they both ended up in a satisfied heap of sweaty muscle.

          The other couples did the same thing.  The special feeling of the day ignited the affections they held for each other physically, mentally, and spiritually.  As they all climbed towards their impending orgasms they were with one another.  They didn’t often share that, wanting to do it only on special occasions. They never wanted that feeling to become commonplace and taken for granted.

          The depths of the bonds they shared were deep – deeper than even they knew.  The Being behind their creation knew it was necessary, and it was a Gift he bestowed on them.  Istariel’s father smiled on all of them, and it was his presence they felt although they didn’t realize it for what it was.  Many things would happen that day but none of them bad, even if it didn’t seem so on the surface; he would make sure of it.

 

<><><> 

 

          When everyone arrived at the Lab they were presented with the first surprise of the day.  The doctor instructed them not to come to the Lab the day before, explaining he needed time to make preparations for the wedding.

          Being former military they were always punctual, usually arriving early out of habit.  Coincidentally, they all pulled into the parking lot within minutes of one another.  Loy and Rick were the first to arrive, and as they were getting out of their Explorer Bryan and Lane pulled in.  By the time they exchanged hugs and backslaps, Bill and Kevin arrived with Tommy and Brett.  Before they made the rounds of hugs and kisses with the boys, Ken, Brad, Pat, and Darren arrived.

          They all filed in the building to find the Lab quiet.  The smell of fresh coffee permeated the air, pulling them into the kitchen.  There was a note on the coffee maker in Sally’s handwriting that said, “Come into the gym after you’ve had a cup or two.”

          Bill and Kevin told Tommy and Brett to go on into the gym ahead of them.  They were pretty sure Drew was already there with Henry. 

          Curiosity was killing them, but Sally’s coffee was so good they filled their cups first.  That morning, in honor of the occasion, she used the ‘good beans’ and the aroma and flavor were exquisite.

          As Ken pushed the gym doors open he saw Henry, Drew, Sally, Tommy, and Brett sorting racks of clothing bags.  Drew knew his Uncles were there because of Tommy and Brett, and was waiting for them.  As soon as they came through the door he took off running and literally leapt into Ken’s arms, “Good morning, Uncle Ken!”

          Ken received and returned the ritualistic wet sloppy kiss on the cheek and added a big loud raspberry to Drew’s belly button before he passed Drew off to Brad.  Drew got passed from man to man; there were smiles on all their faces, seeing Drew so happy and excited.  When they set him down he ran back over by Henry and knelt down putting his arm around the She-Wolf Spirit Loy had called to Protect his Dreams from The Master.

          Sally and Henry both said, “Good morning, guys!” as they continued to sort through the suit bags.  Sally was checking things off a list, her organizational skills in full effect. 

          The large insulated coolers they used to store extra food on ZEUS were stacked nearby, and their gym bags from the locker room were on the floor and looked full.

          Eyebrows raised when they saw the gym bags. Henry noticed and laughed saying, “Don’t worry fellas; Sally didn’t go through your privates.  I got everything out of your lockers and packed those… she didn’t see anything perverted that would scar her for life.”

          That brought a round of laughter and an actual, “Whew!” of relief from Rick and Loy, who were definitely the kinkiest of the group.  Of course Sally knew everything there was to know about them, but it was still funny.

          Brad asked, “So, where’s the doc?”

          Henry replied, “The doc left town early yesterday morning.  He told me once you all were here and had your coffee to have you contact him.”

          Looks passed between all of them – they expected the day to be very low key.  The plan was to get married in the gym by the doctor and Albrecht with Henry as Best Man for all of them and Drew as the Ring Bearer.  They had decided not to bring in the families from the Australian Lab and hoped that wouldn’t cause any hurt feelings with the young soldiers.  The Keenan’s couldn’t join them because of their relocation – the timing of that was bad, but Ken insisted they not break protocol.

          Henry saw their looks and said, “Look fellas… this is a special day.  We know you wanted to keep it low key and all, but it’s not.  You guys are special… as much as I know you don’t like to think of yourselves that way, you are.  You’re the most special guys in the world aside from the doc and Albrecht.  The doc and Albrecht want to make this day special for you, so they made a few plans.  Just go with it, and I promise you it will all be good.  There’ll be some surprises, but I think you’ll enjoy ’em.”

          Henry had joined their Link as soon as they entered the gym; his sincerity and the depth of his feelings were evident.  He was so proud of them – he had come to love them like he never thought he could love another human being, especially other men.  They helped him transcend above such pettiness, and he existed inside of them as much as they did in him.  His happiness for them was apparent and warmed them deep down inside.

          He said, “Let us treat you to something special for a change alright?  You all do so much for us; it’s our turn to treat you guys.  So deal with it.”  The grin on his face when he made the last comment took any sting out of his words.

          “Now let’s get this shindig started.  I think we have everything we need.  These suit bags are all our tuxes and a dress for Sally here.  We have food and drinks and a few extra accoutrements stored in the coolers.  By the way, no peeking in the red cooler, and I mean that.  I swore under pain of dismemberment and death to the doc and Albrecht both that it would remain sealed.”

           Sally blew her nose and when they looked at her she had tears in her eyes.  She laughed and said, “Sorry guys, I’ll try to keep the tears to a minimum today, but I can’t help it.  I always cry at weddings.”

          Brad brought her into the Link with them and they felt the strong emotions inside of her.  She loved them and was extremely happy for them, but there was a tinge of sadness in her too.  She had planned to marry Carlo before he was killed by The Enemy, and the event brought those memories back fresh and clear.

          Darren was closest and pulled her into a hug.  He teleported a nearby box of Kleenex into his hands and gave it to her with a wink.

          She patted him on the cheek and said, “You’re so handy to have around.”

          Darren’s dimples showed when he grinned, replying “Tell that to these yahoos.”

          It took a few minutes for them to rinse out their coffee cups and put them in the dishwasher.   A few of them made last minute bathroom breaks, and then they were ready to go.

          Drew looked sad and said, “Daddy, can’t she come with us? Please?”

          “Sorry Drew, the doctor said she can’t.  There has to be a good reason.  She’ll be fine without you for a day.”

          The She-Wolf looked directly at Henry and her thoughts were plain:  Bring him back to me safe. 

Once everybody was ready, Brad’s eyes turned white, and he cast his voice out across the planet, not knowing where the doc was.

Doc?

Hello Bradford!  Gather yourselves tight!  Darren will need help in getting all of you here along with the supplies.  Look through my eyes when you are ready.

They delved into one another completely – Ten, Five, One, plus Henry.  Brad pulled Drew in as deeply as he could.  Tommy, Brett, and Sally were only on the surface so they could hear everyone talk.

Darren synchronized their Avatars and used the image that was clear and sharp in Brad’s Mind from the doctor, and they all vanished.

 

<><><> 

         

          None of them had any idea where the doctor was.  Of course Brad had a strong visual for the teleport that he passed on to Darren, but it was a small clearing outdoors with few discernable features from the vantage point of the doctor’s vision.  The day was sunny, bright, and slightly breezy.  The green of the grass was a deep emerald; Bryan sensed the difference in the flora immediately and knew they weren’t anywhere close to home.

          The strangeness of the place hit their senses right away.  It almost felt like they were across the Veil.  Brad and the Mentalists knew they weren’t; their Avatars didn’t react, but they felt something… different. With Pat’s Understanding it hit them - the place was unaffected by Time!

Ken and the other Bodies smelled the salt of the ocean on the breeze and Loy was acutely aware of nearby sea life and other natural fauna of the area.  He felt a number of unique animals indigenous to the region.  The animals sensed the presence of their Steward as he cast his Mind outward, feeling that sense of completion all animals felt towards Loy and the men.

          The doctor smiled when they appeared before him – it was a big smile for him and one that they weren’t used to seeing, and they all smiled back in response.

          Ken’s curiosity was on fire, “Hey, Doc!  So where are we?  What is this place?”

          The doctor grinned when he saw Brad roll his eyes at Ken’s questions.  The doctor actually winked at Brad knowing all about Ken’s inquisitive nature.

          Before the doctor could respond, Ken continued, “Where’s Albrecht?”

          “He and the others are nearby waiting for us.  You can either carry everything now, or you can help Darren move it to where we are setting up.  I will leave that up to you.”

          A quick consensus ended with them carrying everything.  They were all powered up and with the load spread among them it was no trouble.   The guys made sure there was nothing left for Sally or the boys to carry.  The boys were more interested in looking around than helping anyway. 

          Following the doctor, they left the clearing and he led them a few hundred yards around a large rock outcropping.  As soon as they rounded the corner the beauty of the place struck them.

          It looked like something out of a fantasy novel.  There was a long row of trees forming a tunnel of interwoven branches.  The interior of the tunnel was lined with flowering vines, and at the end of the trees stood two large ornate doors surrounded by a white marble frame covered in ivy.  The entire structure behind the doors was a small castle, but one unfamiliar to any of them. 

          With the perfect memory of the Mentalists, they were surprised that at least one of them had never seen the castle before in a history book or on a web page.

          The doctor rarely used his abilities overtly, so they were surprised when he turned towards them and his eyes turned white.  His shields extended over Sally and the boys and he said, “You will see why momentarily.  There is no cause for alarm my boys.  This place is protected.”

          As soon as they passed the tree line their eyes widened in surprise as a powerful Compulsion hit them.  Their Nephilim Heritage made them impervious to the effect, but Sally and the boys had no defense.  It was a harmless Command to ignore the castle and see the area as a thick copse of trees coupled with the urge to return whence you ca` me.  The illusion was extremely potent; short of The Master himself they doubted any of the Enemy ‘suits’ would see through it.

          Even unaffected by Time, the age of the place was apparent, yet it was breathtakingly beautiful.  As they moved forward, the next surprise came when they saw Giovanni and Taliesin with Albrecht waiting for them at the doors.

          Everyone felt Lane’s reaction through the Link as soon as he caught sight of Taliesin.  The doctor knew his young charge well and noticed his response.  Everyone held him a little tighter, and he heard their thoughts and emotions:  Don’t let him being here ruin what this day is about! 

          Bryan in particular put down the cooler he carried and pulled Lane against him.  He reiterated the words of his Brothers:  Don’t let him bug you Lane.  You know he wouldn’t be here if the doc didn’t need him for something.  I trust the doc, and I know you do too.  It’s all good… and I love you, you handsome fucker, so smile and chill out.

          Lane’s face relaxed from Bryan’s words, and he smiled, leaning his head back on Bryan’s heavy shoulder for a second. 

          You’re right Bry.  Sorry guys.  Knee-jerk reaction.  I’m cool with it.

          The spot they were in was as good as any to set everything down, so they unloaded and then took the opportunity to give Lane a pat on the back or ruffle his hair.  In the Link they all hung shit on him with their private jokes, and he took it all and even managed to laugh at himself.

          Everyone moved down to the doors and shook hands with Giovanni.  Albrecht was all smiles.   Taliesin seemed tense and on edge, even distracted.  He was aware of their arrival but ignored them.

          The doctor continued, “So I know you are wondering where we are and what this place is.”

          If they didn’t know any better, they would all swear the doctor paused for dramatic effect.

          “The tales of this place are woven throughout history.  None of the stories or legends are accurate of course.  We made sure of that, although a few grains of truth occasionally ring true.  Some of those I think are more due to chance.  The Order wished this place to remain hidden, and we did what was necessary for it to remain so.

          “This was once the seat of a small but powerful Kingdom.  The man who ruled here was not of The Order, but he was perhaps our greatest ally in the human world.  Enchantments were set to preserve this place, however once these doors open the enchantment will cease and Time will overtake everything in a matter of days.

          “I wished to bring you here for many reasons.  First, there is no place more fitting for you to bind yourselves together in marriage.  You are all my sons, and I wish to make this place a gift to you.  The Old World is fading, and as you have surmised the Old Ways failed to defeat The Master. 

          “However, the man who ruled here followed much the same principles as all of you.  He fought for the Free Will of Mankind, and he was a Light in this world for many years.  I think he would find what we wish to accomplish here a fitting end to his Legacy.

          “Tal is the only person alive who can open the Chamber, and at my request he is here to do so for you.”

          The tension inside of Taliesin was evident to all of them.  Brad’s Avatar was going haywire as he watched Taliesin examine the door; Lane, Loy, and Darren were picking up echoes from the others, but Bill had the strangest sensation of all… he felt as if he was standing behind a dam about to burst – where they stood was a seat of incredible power and change in the world, and all those impressions were held at bay by the magic Charisa used via the Mantle to preserve it.  The impressions were there waiting to break loose and flood back into Time.

          Patrick felt everything through the Link, and his Avatar instinctively synchronized with Ken, Kevin, Bryan, and Rick.  Understanding filled his vision, magnified by the presence of his Brothers.  Charisa didn’t stop Time – that was magic too powerful even for the Mantle.  What she did was buffer the effects of Time. 

          The Team, including Henry, stayed deep inside one another in a private link sharing and observing everything.  The outer Link comprised the doctor, Albrecht, Giovanni, and Sally, and one other light Link that included the boys.

          Taliesin moved to the door.  His eyes took in every detail and nuance, comparing it to his memory, and of course nothing had changed.  The apprehension and anxiety in him was tangible; they could see it but did not understand the reason.  The doctor reached a hand towards his shoulder, but Albrecht waved him off with a nod.  Aaron had a pained look on his face but quickly masked it. 

Patrick and the others saw the Link between the doctor and
Albrecht, although they didn’t know what was said.  They were always curious what the doctor and Albrecht spoke of.  Their mentors were the two wisest men they knew and had been alive and partnered for thousands of years together – and they hadn’t grown tired of one another; their relationship was as fresh as ever and hadn’t gone stale.  The men took great comfort in that knowledge; while they looked forward to living together forever, the idea was as daunting as it was comforting.

          A strange feeling came over the area like the icy calm they felt as soldiers just prior to a difficult mission.  Henry and Sally felt it as well, even the boys.  Tommy and Brett moved to Bill and Kevin and Drew moved to Henry, wanting to be held.  Something serious was happening… some deep magical event was about to occur.

          Taliesin bowed his head and held out his hand.  There was no longer any Power inside Taliesin, only knowledge.  The Gift he carried inside him all those centuries now resided in Lane, bound to his Avatar, so they were surprised when his voice echoed in both Realms as he spoke the words, Ynys y Afalau.”

          The effect was subtle but powerful as the enchantment Charisa cast nearly 1500 years ago lifted.

          Images and sensations flooded into them through Bill, not unpleasant but intense; Brad slowed down their perception of Time so they could take it all in.  edn’s funeral procession appeared around them – the entire court, along with Charisa and Taliesin, seemingly solid, but non-corporeal as they moved through everyone.

          Albrecht pulled Aaron tight into his Heart – he hadn’t expected to see Charisa.  The images gripped them, immersing them in a wave of memories – events too important to go unseen.  For nearly an hour they stood motionless while events around them transpired, catching back up in Time.

          The magic of the Mantle was truly Powerful – Brad and the other Mentalists could hear the thoughts and feel the emotions of the ghostly images, and Ken and the Bodies shared through their partners.  They had no trouble Understanding any of the various languages they heard; mostly ancient dialects of Welsh, Irish, and Scottish.

          Instinctively, Brad merged the ten of them deeper together.  He wasn’t sure why, but his Avatar reacted; he brought Henry in with them, but left the others in the secondary Link so they could see everything but not feel the emotions or hear the thoughts.  At first Tommy and Brett were frightened and clung tighter to Bill and Kevin, but Drew was fascinated; in his Mind’s Eye he knew they were only memories, almost like the memories that lived inside of him.  Henry held him tight anyway, to be doubly sure he felt safe as they watched together.

Ken’s Avatar reacted, locking them all together, and the intangible ‘something extra’ the doctor spoke of became present, bringing their own magic to this place.  All ten Avatars, each in its own unique way, became active in what they witnessed.  The events of the world at the time of edn’s life were made clear to them; it also became clear to them who edn was, and that knowledge took their breath away.

          They stood in Avalon!  The chamber before them housed the man that history and legends named King Arthur.  edn’s full name was edn mac Artur.  They also realized what an important man Taliesin had been at the time.  It was apparent why the doctor wanted to bring them there for the ceremony and they were humbled.  The first tears of the day fell down their faces, loving the man they called father more than ever to do such a thing for them.

          Even after the impressions caught up, the imprints were strong and palpable to Bill’s Avatar.  The potency of the place continued to make itself felt.

          When the impressions caught up with the present and the images faded from their sight, they noticed the door was open and Taliesin was gone.

 

<><> 

 

          Taliesin was confident in his prediction as to what would occur when the enchantment broke.  He was the only one among them who had been present 1500 years ago, and based on his knowledge of their abilities he accurately predicted the reaction of their Avatars.  He regretted Aaron seeing Charisa, knowing it would cause him discomfort, but he wanted to be inside the Chamber alone and uninterrupted for a time, and he knew of no other way to orchestrate the situation.

          He felt as if he stepped back in time and admonished himself for the thought – effectively that’s exactly what he just did.   He moved down the hallway quickly.  Even knowing what to expect he was still astounded that nothing had changed in 1500 years – everything was just as he remembered in the last minutes before Charisa sealed the doors. 

          He made his way to the doors of the main hall and stopped.  His hands shook so hard he had to stop and focus; he realized his palms were sweating.  Emotions boiled forth, a combination of the love and affection he felt towards edn and harsh fear and anxiety over what he was about to find.  Was he still alive?  Could he be alive after all this time, trapped between life and death?  Could Lane Heal him and bring him back into the world?

          All the emotions from 1500 years ago returned, fresh and poignant, gripping him so tightly they took his breath away.  He felt caught in the Time trap Charisa cast on the place.  Had he been responsible for centuries of edn’s torment?  Could he live with himself if he knew beyond doubt edn suffered because of him?

          His heart pounded in his chest, and he knew he didn’t have much time, so he forced his emotions in check and opened the great doors.

          He choked when he saw edn laying on the huge marble slab.  In reality he had been dead for nearly 1500 years, although by the enchantment it had been minutes or perhaps even seconds.  He wondered if Uriel had taken his Soul, or if it still resided in his body.  He didn’t know the exact details of the timing of what Charisa had done.  Would edn hate him if he had been trapped all this time?  Would he even be aware?

          He moved forward, trancelike, to the edge of the slab and looked down on the face of the man he loved; the man he called brother.  edn was one of many people Taliesin loved over the centuries, but one he loved equally as much as he did Charisa, perhaps even more intensely. As with Charisa, his love was not returned, not in the way he wanted or needed.  The tragedy of that love, so like his love of Charisa, both unrequited, added to his misery.

          He wasn’t aware of the tears falling down his cheeks until he saw a dark spot appear on edn’s sleeve.  He stared at the wetness and terror quickly ran through him as he watched the garment begin to disintegrate.  The remains of edn, so lifelike, collapsed into a fine dust in a matter of seconds.

          He wasn’t prepared for that, and his heart wrenched, ripped out of his chest again –reliving the death of his brother all over again.  His Mind pieced together that what he witnessed shouldn’t have happened – Charisa must have done this!  She must have seen through his deception and done this to punish him!

          Absolute shock and numbness overtook him.  He sat down hard, leaning back against the big marble base, his expression utterly blank.  He stared at nothing for minutes trying to process his emotions and the impact of what he felt.

          He intended to bottle it up as he always did, but after all he had been through recently he wasn’t able to do that, and the pent up emotions, not just over edn but from most of his life, came rushing to the surface.  His shoulders started to shake and he put his head down into his hands and cried.  At first he cried so hard he almost passed out from lack of oxygen, but once he found his voice he wailed, and his anguish reverberated throughout the chamber.  For the first time since he was a boy he cried hysterically, and there was no one to comfort him.

          He was alone and he knew it was his fault.  Realization struck at how foolish his attempt to stop loving all those centuries ago was. He always thought himself clever, but he realized the folly of what he tried to do.  Delving to the bottom of the well of his emotions, he wallowed in self-pity, angry at Albrecht for recruiting him into The Order, at Aaron for asking him to carry the Gift, at Charisa for what she had done to his heart; even at edn for not returning his love. 

          Looking back on his life, he had moments of happiness, perhaps even a few short stretches, but he was lonely.  He liked both men and women and felt trapped between their worlds; neither side fully able to satisfy him. 

He reeled and wanted so badly to end his miserable existence, and yet he couldn’t because of Lane’s Compulsion - so he cried.  He curled up in a ball at the foot of the tomb of his best friend ever, a man he loved deeply, a man whose death his heart experienced twice.  Lost in the agony of his grief and depression, he wept.

          He wasn’t sure how long his tears fell.  His head hurt terribly from the strain, and in his ego he worried about his voice and ability to sing for the wedding.  The idiocy of that thought caused him to laugh at himself amidst his tears.

          He wanted to lay down and die… to finally find rest and be at peace.  His Soul was weary and tired of hurting; the pain and loneliness were intolerable, but the Compulsion Lane placed on him prevented him from taking action, and thus in his own mind, the cruelty of The Order in his life continued.  The emotional pressure of his own pain, coupled with the sight of edn falling to dust at the touch of his tears, were too much, and his vision faded to blackness.

 

<><   A.D. 509 ><>

 

          The doors to the Chamber sealed with a boom of finality, the echo of their shutting reverberated throughout the Chamber.  Cavall whined and looked at the closed doors, and put his head down on his paws.  He wanted to go with his master but knew he could not.  He was faithful though, beyond measure, and he would stay by his master’s side until he breathed his last.  Then he would go to sleep himself.   The long sleep that all animals knew about – the dark sleep before being reborn. 

          Cavall was unlike other dogs.  Legends in the future would say he could see the wind with his silver eyes.  He was a dog of uncanny intelligence, and edn’s loyal companion. In Truth, as a newborn pup, Cavall was Blessed by the Angel Ariel, at Raphael’s direction.  Raphael never knew why he was instructed to do so, but there was a need in the world for Cavall to fill and so the deed was done. 

          Cavall’s head raised as he felt a new presence in the room.  First two and then eight more men appeared.  They shone so brightly he could barely look at them, and he felt the presence of the Steward among them, and it calmed him.  He did not understand why they were there, or what they did to his master.  They were present only for a moment and then they vanished, leaving the chamber cold and empty once again.

          Immediately after they vanished Cavall watched as Uriel came and took the Soul of his master.  He growled deep in this throat at the Arch-Angel and was about to attack him when Gabriel appeared and he felt a hand restraining him. 

          Be calm, brave heart.  He travels to a place you cannot yet go; you know this.  You have another task and a new master waits.  You already love him, and you will be happy again.  He will be in much pain the next time you see him, and he will need your strength.

          Uriel saw Gabriel kneeling by the hound, and wondered what task his Brother performed in that place.  Their paths rarely crossed while fulfilling their tasks – their Provinces were vastly different.

          Cavall heard Gabriel’s thoughts, and with a heavy sigh he lay his head back down.

          Uriel and Gabriel made eye contact – the infinite depths of their ageless eyes met, giving comfort to one another as they continued on paths they were created to fill.

          With a nod, Uriel vanished, and Gabriel turned back to Cavall:  Sleep now, and Dream.  Be at peace, and before you know it, you will awake again to a new life.

          The enchantment Charisa invoked spread through the chamber.  Gabriel slipped Cavall out of Time long enough for him to fall into a deep natural sleep and then let the enchantment envelope him.  He also witnessed the cruelty of Charisa’s action, realizing she never intended to save edn.  She was a political creature and always schemed and wove her webs.  He looked deeper and realized she did it to protect a secret of her own. He wondered if she would have acted similarly if she knew the wound in Taliesin’s heart would only widen further with her actions.

He marveled at the malice of humans, even ones who were Awake, and he thought long and hard about the fate of Man and how they could possibly survive against the Enemy when they treated each other so cruelly.

 

<><  Present Day ><>

 

          Cavall woke up with a start, hearing his name.

          Cavall!  Awake!  Your new master needs you!  Go to him!

 

<><> 

 

          As soon as his eyes opened, Cavall smelled him.  He remembered his scent well, and he knew instinctively it was the smell of his new master.  He moved out from behind the resting place of his old master, where he slept the last 1500 years, and saw Taliesin on the ground, unmoving.

          Cavall moved forward and looked on Taliesin’s face, wet with salty tears.  Cavall always liked the taste of tears, and he had no idea why his master would sleep in the middle of the day.  His nose caught the scent of something else… it was the smell of edn, his old master, but it was strange and weak, more like a memory.  He was gone now, and one day Cavall would see him again, but for now he needed to stay with his new master.

          Taliesin felt something wet and rough on his face and tried to brush it away, thinking it was dust.  His hand found something course and furry and he jerked awake in surprise. 

In a trick of his mind, waking in the Chamber and seeing Cavall, he thought he was back in time, and he expected to see members of the Court milling about, or to hear edn’s voice bellowing for him as he usually did.  Taliesin looked back into the silver eyes, and realized he was awake, and when he was.  

Speechless, he thought it must be a Dream, yet he knew he no longer carried the Gift.  Cavall was real!  He could smell him, feel his fur, and feel his rough tongue on his face.

Cavall sat on his haunches staring at his new master, wondering at his strange behavior. 

          Taliesin’s voice quivered, and in barely a whisper he asked, “Are you real?”

          Cavall stood up and moved forward, butting his head gently against Taliesin’s chest, in a manner that clearly stated:  I am real.  Hardly daring to believe, Taliesin rubbed his hands through the rough fur, and knew beyond any doubt that it was his old friend.

It was unimaginable how Cavall could be alive and with him!  His reaction was instinctive, and he sat up and hugged the big dog against him.  He breathed in the smell of his fur and felt him panting.  It was comforting in a way he had not felt in centuries.

He cried again, and Cavall sat patiently with him, lending him his solid presence and strength, occasionally leaning up to gently lick fresh tears from his face.

 

<><> 

 

           Minutes went by and Cavall didn’t growl, but he stood up quickly, facing the door to the main hallway.  A moment later, Taliesin heard echoes of the boys talking, and the doors pushed open.  The men fanned out into the room, looking with wide eyes and taking everything in.

          Bill stopped cold, and for a moment he saw edn laying on the marble slab.  He saw the impression of Taliesin standing over him crying, and edn’s form disintegrating into dust.  Everyone but the boys saw it through the Link Brad kept between them.  The emotion of what happened was fresh and present and it was clear to them through Bill’s Avatar.

          Aaron and Albrecht saw Cavall and stopped.  Aaron found his voice first and asked, “Tal, how?  How can he be here?”

          “I don’t know, but he is.  He’s mine now.  I wanted to go back and get him all those years ago, but Charisa forbade me.  I will never leave him again.”  His tone expressed a finality that dared anyone to say otherwise.

          Compassion filled Albrecht’s voice as he quietly said, “We saw everything Tal.  We’re so sorry.”  His voice shook, but it was in anger at Charisa, knowing her actions hurt Taliesin even further.

          It was impossible not to eavesdrop with everyone in the room.  Lane in particular listened, and saw Taliesin’s tear streaked face.  They all witnessed what happened, but only the doctor and Albrecht had enough knowledge to know what really transpired and why Taliesin seemed so upset.

          Drew moved forward before Henry could stop him.  He knelt down in front of Taliesin and Cavall and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Taliesin.”  He sounded like an adult, and once again he showed an emotional awareness beyond his years.

          Drew’s action caught Taliesin off guard, and he didn’t know how to react. He never liked children and was awkward around them.

His voice quivered as he quietly said, “Thank you, boy.”  Drew leaned forward and gave him a hug.

          Embarrassed to be seen in such a state, Taliesin got up quickly saying, “I need to make preparations.  Aaron, you and Albrecht can give them the grand tour.”

          He abruptly left the room with Cavall on his heels. 

          The doctor, not wanting to mar the day for the men, recovered quickly and said, “Everyone follow me.  The room where we wish to perform the ceremony is at the end of the next hall.”

          There was a lot of chatter in their Minds.  For some reason they didn’t want to disturb the quiet sanctity of the place by talking aloud.  Drew felt it too and did something he seldom did anymore; he raised his arms up to Henry wanting to be carried.  He wasn’t afraid of what he thought of as ghosts in this place, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable either and needed the security of his father.

          Henry was astute and had learned a great deal about his adopted son.  He knew seeing Taliesin in such an emotional state effected Drew, and was another reason he wanted to be held.  Drew was uncannily compassionate for a child of his age, especially after all the hardships he already endured in his short life.

Tommy and Brett continued to talk out loud, their voices echoing in the empty hallway, seemingly oblivious to what everyone else felt. 

          The doors to the next room were large and ornately carved.  Wood panels depicted stories from edn’s life, with ornate Runes etched along the borders in a decorative fashion.  The craftsmanship was superb.

          One panel in particular showed what could only be the Tree in the Valley and it fascinated Bryan.  He reverently ran his fingertips over the wooden carving and realized immediately that it was wood from the Tree!  Anger rose rapidly to the surface of his emotions, but Albrecht quickly responded.

          It is rare Bryan, but occasionally branches fall.  The Tree was never harmed.  The wood you see before you in those panels left the Valley before the Veil was called into existence and it took centuries to collect them.  It is most likely the only wood from the Tree that now exists outside of the Valley. edn hired the best craftsman of the age to carve the panels.  They are exquisite are they not?

          A sudden flash of insight hit Bryan:  I can save these.  When Time catches up here I can preserve these panels.  I want to keep them.

          Another thought struck him - the wooden box Gabriel kept for Lane that housed the memory sphere his future self sent back; the one that allowed Lane to assimilate the Gift from Taliesin… it came from this wood!  He stood at one of the ripples of that Paradox.

          Bryan was deeply merged with his Brothers, and they heard his thought; he didn’t try to hide it from them.  The significance and impact of the panels being here, and the doctor bringing them to the castle… they felt puppet strings.        

          None of that lessened their being present in that place, or what the doctor and Albrecht were doing for them so they pushed those thoughts away for the time being.  They were thrilled and excited; in a few hours they would be married.  After living together for decades, things shouldn’t seem different, but it mattered to them.  It was more than the outward symbolism of the rings and the ceremony; it would create another bond between them that nothing could touch, and they wanted it. 

          Ken came up behind Brad, wrapping his arms around his waist in a hug.  He rested his chin on Brad’s shoulder and gently squeezed them together.

          Is this place cool, or what? 

          It’s beyond cool, Ken.  It reminds me there’s so much more to the doctor, Albrecht, and even Taliesin than we know.  The history they’ve lived through, the historical figures they met and interacted with… it’s Mind-boggling, and it makes me feel so young and inexperienced.

          I get what you’re sayin, but we all gotta start out somewhere.  In a few thousand years we’ll be those guys.  That is, if you can put up with me for that long.

          Ken grinned as he thought those words, and Brad felt the little kid in Ken, one of the many parts of him he loved and was attracted too.

          Each of the couples ended up holding each other in a similar manner, talking to each other and the group, along with Henry.

          The doctor gave them a few minutes to look around before he pushed the doors open.  Their excitement built as they moved through the small castle, now knowing where they were, and who had lived there. 

           The first thought that ran through their minds when they saw the table was – it wasn’t round!  It was actually a decagon.  No specific images came from the table, but the emotions and impressions tied to it were strong.  The feeling of Righteousness was the most pervasive, coupled with bravery, mirth, anger, and one thing that surprised them – a lack of hate.  edn and his men must have truly been remarkable humans based on the impressions they felt.

          The table wasn’t exactly a table either – it was hollow in the middle and one of the ten sections folded back as an entrance to stand in the middle, presumably to be a focal point for whomever was speaking. 

          Of all the Team, Lane read the most science fiction and fantasy, and he recalled all the various books he read about King Arthur.  He admonished himself for not realizing Taliesin was ‘the’ Taliesin in those legends.  The stories Taliesin could tell if he wished… but he probably wouldn’t.

          Bryan thought:  Ask him Lane.  You’re assuming he won’t.

          He’s such an ass Bry.  And he hates me because of the Compulsion.  I feel like a heel for keeping it on him, but we need him for something; I still don’t know what for, but he’s important.

          The doctor’s voice filled their Minds through the Link:  All of you continue to look around.  There is nothing dangerous here, and much history if you wish to explore it. 

          Lane:  Hey Doc, sorry to interrupt; but I have a question.

          Yes, my boy?

          The doctor’s tone of voice indicated he knew what Lane was about to ask but was humoring him.

          Were you Merlin?  We saw all of edn’s Court in the memories of this place except for him, and Merlin was one of the most prominent characters in the legends.

          I am not sure if I should be flattered or angered by your question.  Do I look old and have a white beard?

          The guys were all smiling, waiting to see if Lane would dig the hole deeper or find a way out of it.

          Awww come on, Doc!  You know what I mean… it would have been so cool to use your powers openly as a Wizard! 

          The doctor’s mental voice dripped with sarcasm:  Yes my boy, I am sure it would have been. I am sorry to disappoint you, but no, the persona of Merlin was nothing so grand.  He was an herbalist who had more than passing skill at healing, and he was not of The Order.  He was a good friend of edn’s.

          Oh well.  It would have been a lot cooler if it was you.  You would have made a great Merlin.

          Thank you, my boy.  I think.

          Everyone smiled and shook their heads at Lane, Bryan most of all.  A mental chuckle ran through all of them when once again Bryan thought:  God, I love my nerd.

 

<><><> 

 

          Two hours later Brad, Lane, Darren, Bill, and Loy all stood together in a small side chamber off the main hall adjusting each other’s ties and straightening the shoulders of their tuxes.  They looked devastatingly handsome in the formal wear.

          There was no nervousness, at least at the moment… it was more a sense of anticipation.  They treated it like suiting up for a mission, which helped to keep them centered.

          The doctor requested they drop out of all active Links an hour before, and asked that no one speak mentally or raise any Power until after the ceremony unless called upon to do so during the ceremony.  He said it was important, and they took it to heart.

          A few minutes before the ceremony was due to start, Henry came in to check on them, “Hey fellas, how are ya?  Any last minute jitters?”

          Now that the moment was upon them, there was some nervousness. Palms were sweaty and their stomachs had a cold ball of anxiety.

          All eyes turned to look at Henry when he came into the side chamber and he grinned at them.  He looked stunning himself, and his smile was a mile wide.

          “You faced off with a Demon, and you’re nervous about getting married?”

          His comment brought a chuckle out of them.

          “Things are just about to kick off here.  I need to check on your other halves and then we’re a go.  I want to tell you all how proud I am of you.  You’re the best men I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I can’t imagine my life without you guys.  You’re the best, and I love you. I truly mean that.”

          He worked his way around the room shaking each of their hands before pulling them into a tight embrace.  Emotions ran high, and all of their eyes were bright.

          “I’ll be back to give you the signal in a few minutes.  Until then no one breaks away and runs screaming like a little girl, OK?”

          Lane said, “Hey, that’s my line!”

          Henry winked at him, “Yeah, I see why you use it all the time!  I’ll be right back.”

 

<><> 

 

          Henry moved to the other side chamber where Ken, Bryan, Kevin, Rick, and Patrick were getting ready.  The scene was almost identical; when he opened the door they were all helping each other.

          “What a group of handsome fuckers!  You all look like you belong on the cover of GQ!”

          The guys grinned, and before Henry could say anything else Ken pulled him into a tight hug.

          “We just want to say Henry how proud we all are of you and how much you mean to us.  There’s no man we’d rather have by our side today than you.”

          Henry choked up and said, “Thanks, guys!”  He made his way around the room shaking hands and hugging each of them.

          “I feel the same way fellas.  You know I do.  It’s an honor and a privilege to be with all of you.  You’re the best.”

          He paused by the door, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, and things will start.  No need to be nervous… you’re just committing your life for all eternity to other guys who are immortal half-angels with perfect memories that will never let you forget the slightest mistake.  But look on the bright side!  They don’t have periods!”

          His comment got them to laugh which is what he wanted.  Ken winked at him as he closed the door.  Henry winked back with a grin. 

 

<><><> 

 

          All of them felt it seconds before Henry opened the doors.  A calm washed over them – it was palpable, like a warm comforting hand on their shoulders, taking away any nervousness and trepidation.  The center of their thoughts became the men they were about to marry and the step they were taking in their lives.

          Instinctively, both groups of men turned to one another and put their arms over each other’s shoulders forming a ring – just like they did when treading water after a jump.  They were not merged, but they rested inside one another so often they knew each other intimately; each knew the other as well as they knew themselves or their partners.  They lent strength, confidence, and courage to one another, and shared the joy of the moment.

          Ken knew instinctively that Brad and the others were doing the same thing in the other room.

          The doors opened and Henry quietly said, “It’s time.”

          As soon as Ken stepped into the hallway, his eyes sought out Brad’s, and while looking, his gaze connected with most of the other men. Their eyes were bright and they smiled; the happiness they felt for each other was clearly evident.  The bonds and history between them, starting as normal humans and through their transformations and Awakenings; it ran to their cores.  The roots tying them together were strong and deep, and what they felt for each other ran just as deep.

          They lined up, standing at attention; tall, with shoulders squared back.  They were handsome beyond words; their Nephilim Heritage apparent in their noble bearing and angelic charisma.  Sally had their tuxes tailored perfectly for every one of them, and the formal wear just added to their appearance.

          The acoustics in the hallway were excellent and even without enhanced hearing the beautiful sound of a stringed instrument playing softly was audible.  The song was nothing Ken or any of them had heard before, and it was beautiful.

          Sally smiled brightly at them, tears in her eyes.  She moved forward and Henry held his arm out.  He glanced back and nodded his head, indicating for the men to follow them.

          They walked in formation, shoulders back and heads held high.  When they got down to the large double doors Henry stopped and turned to them.  There were five large bowls of water with linen towels beside them along the wall.

          “Everyone take your shoes and socks off, and wash each other’s feet.”

          There had been no rehearsal, so none of them knew what to expect; the doctor and Albrecht planned everything.  Henry and Sally took off their shoes but didn’t wash their feet.

          The symbolism of purification and cleansing one another was clear to them and they were thorough and tender in their ministrations towards one another. Ken knew Brad was slightly ticklish on the bottom of his feet and intentionally kept his touch firm.  He did wiggle Brad’s big toe just a little, getting a smile out of him.

The mood was serious and light at the same time.  No words were spoken.  They felt something already building inside them… a sanctity of sorts that was difficult to explain.

When they were done, Henry said, “Leave your shoes off.”

Once they were ready, Henry pushed the doors open.  They didn’t expect anyone else to be present, and were more curious than surprised when the faces of their angelic grandfathers stared back at them.  Istariel and the other two Nephilim that always accompanied him were present as well.  All of them – especially Loy – felt a heavy sorrow at the absence of his half-brother Alariel, who should be standing with Istariel.  Ken was close to Loy and reached a hand out to squeeze his shoulder, very aware of the hole inside Loy over his half-brother’s absence.  Rick’s hand was on Loy’s other shoulder doing the same thing.

Brad was out of reach, and they were told not to Link or Merge, so he wasn’t able to express his support for Loy as he normally would.  He was glad Ken was close enough to do so.  Perhaps it was the moment, but Brad was acutely aware of how each of them supported one another.  Besides their partners, they all took care of one another.  If there was ever the need of a shoulder, ear, or even a kick in the ass, they were ever-present and available to one another and helped carry each other if needed.  They were strong men, emotionally and physically, but the Battle they were in took its toll, and the support they showed for one another was apparent. 

Ken made eye contact with Michael and smiled.  Each man did the same with his heavenly ancestor, nodding acknowledgement and greeting as they moved into position around the table.  Only twice before had the Team seen all ten of the Arch-angels gathered together, on the day Luke made his first appearance in the Valley of the Tree, and when they reset the Demon Azaziel.  The men felt honored that their Heavenly ancestors would take the time to be present.  The angels wore various styles of white and ivory garments made of a soft material.  Their collars were stitched with Runes and their bodies shone with a slight aura.  Their inhuman grace and beauty was apparent.  Sally couldn’t keep her eyes off of them.

          Drew, Brett, and Tommy stood off to one side of the door looking very serious and extremely cute.

          Albrecht and the doctor wore robes they had never seen before.  The robes looked monkish, but more stylized, with elaborately stitched stoles draped around their necks, and ropes cinched around their waists with tassels.  Giovanni stood with the doctor and Albrecht in traditional dark brown monk’s robes with a simple rope and tassel around his waist.  His role was primarily to assist the boys if needed.

Ken’s emotions ran high, and the love and respect for the doctor and Albrecht was foremost in his Mind, second only to his love of Brad and his Brothers.  Their devotion to Ken and his Brothers was humbling; as Ken discovered more about the two men that mentored and cared for them, he was awestruck at the depth and importance of the ancient couple.

          Albrecht motioned for the men to come forward, “Come my sons, gather around the table.”  When Albrecht spoke, Ken noticed a difference in the timbre of his voice.  He often called them ‘son’ as a term of endearment, but this time, in the context of the ceremony, he was acting as an ordained Priest, and it took on a new and deeper meaning.  Ken got goosebumps at the thought; Brad felt it too and squeezed his hand in response.

          Grins spread across their faces when they noticed tiny post-it notes with Sally’s handwriting indicating who was supposed to stand where. They arranged themselves accordingly; Ken was to Brad’s left, and the pattern of the Body on the left and the Mentalist on the right repeated.  With the table basically circular there was no beginning or end.

          “For now, all of you face inwards.”  The one section of the table was folded back and the doctor and Albrecht moved into the center area.  There was another small table set up with many items laid out.  Drew, Tommy, and Brett each moved inside and Henry moved to stand with them.  Once they were all inside, the table was made complete again and the men spread out slightly. 

          The Arch-angels moved to stand behind their descendants.

          Taliesin sat inside the door and off to one side, playing a stringed instrument in his lap while he perched on a short stool.  There were numerous instruments on stands around him within easy reach.  He was intent on playing and didn’t look up when they entered.  Cavall lay on the floor by his side, and watched intently as they walked in, but kept silent. 

          The doctor had one of those rare smiles on his face, and his eyes were bright. He looked at them, so proud, wishing he could truly call them his own flesh and blood sons.

          Albrecht spread his arms and with a smile said, “It has been a road well-travelled my sons, that has led you to this point.  Your lives thus far have been filled with torment and grief, as well as Love and Joy.  You have learned that you must be a refuge for one another, not just as husbands moving forward, but for each other as Brothers.”

          Albrecht’s deep voice took on a quality they had not heard before.  They had no idea what religion Albrecht was a Priest of – he was older than many religions and knew truths about Creation that no modern religion would ever acknowledge.  His voice was deep, and the inner peace of his heart resonated through his words as he raised his hand in an ancient Celtic sign of blessing:

                                                                                                   

“Deep peace of the running Water to you

Deep peace of the flowing Air to you

Deep peace of the quiet Earth to you

Deep peace of the purifying Fire to you.

 

          “The Four Corners stand in this room, and I call upon the Elements of their Blessings to protect this ceremony today from any outside influences.  May they call the Light of Heaven to fill your Hearts and bring you peace and sanctity within yourselves and each other.  Amen.”

          Michael, Raphael, Uriel, and Gabriel shone brighter as their ghostly wings appeared, stretching out and around the room.  When their wings interlocked the dome was sealed, and an otherworldly feeling now filled the room.

           Albrecht took a deep breath and exhaled, relaxed and smiling at all of them.  They smiled back as he said, “I cherish every day I spend with you, and I’m grateful you are in our lives.  I knew you long before you knew me… during the time of my separation from Aaron, Charisa instructed me to keep watch over you.  I observed as you grew and matured during your time in Syria, and later, once I met you in person, it was my privilege to watch you grow into the men you are today.

          “The step you take today is Eternal.  It is different for you than mortals– you are unique first and foremost; Immortal, both Original Men and Nephilim.  There are no other beings in existence like you.  In essence, I consider today another form of Awakening for you.  The human side of you was created to be in a relationship; it is something all humans are born with, a yearning to know and be known by their Creator.  With human Minds and Hearts closed under the Curse that is impossible, and thus the tragedy of mankind exists. 

“With your Souls combined you are already inseparable, but today you are taking the final step in an affirmation of your love and devotion to one another in the eyes of the Creator and all the Universe. 

          “After today there can be no doubt in your Minds or Hearts that you truly belong to one another and are bonded forever, no matter what happens.”

          Ken heard each and every word that passed Albrecht’s lips – they sank into him.  The emotional high he was on charged his body, and the anticipation was almost too much to bear.  He was finally marrying Brad!  All those years ago when they first met… at the time they had no idea their Souls had already been split in the initial Program modifications.  Their natural attraction was a part of that, but he and Brad believed – as did Bryan and Lane, and all the others – that they were somehow destined to be together.  Whoever was pulling the puppet strings in their lives was most likely responsible, and as badly as Ken wanted to punch whoever it was in the mouth most of the time, he was also grateful beyond words if that being was responsible for Brad being in his life.

          Albrecht paused and looked over to Tommy and Brett, who picked up a large coil of rope from the table.  It was long and had many knots along its length; the boys had difficulty because it was so heavy, but they managed.  All the men smiled at their efforts and how seriously they took their job.  Bill and Kevin swiped the corner of their eyes as they watched their boys perform the task.  They felt especially blessed, on top of their Brothers they now had two wonderful young boys to call sons.

          Again, knowing each other as intimately as they did, the men closest to Bill and Kevin put an arm on their backs or shoulders, acknowledging and sharing in the intense emotions of the moment, happy for them and letting them know it.

          With his Understanding, Patrick noticed it first – the rope had Power interlaced within the threads; it existed in both the Physical and the Spiritual Realms.

          “Aaron and I crafted this.  Normally it would be much shorter, and would only be used for one couple.  However, the bonds you form today are not only between you as partners, but also between you as Brothers.  Each couple please take ahold of each other’s hands, and hold them out.”

          All of the men did as he asked and clasped their hands together.  The touch and warmth of their hands helped to settle them, and they squeezed each other firmly in a show of love and comfort.  As he spoke Albrecht moved over and wrapped the rope around Kevin’s and Bill’s wrists in an intricate weave; the wrapping was complex and secure, yet comfortable.  He moved on to Patrick and Darren, and then around the room until he ended back at Kevin.  The rope was soft, made of silk, and woven into the threads were an intricate series of Runes.

          “This rope, in the Physical Realm represents the binding of your bodies together as partners and men.  In the Spiritual Realm it represents the binding of your Souls together as partners and brothers.”

          Ken felt an intense sense of tranquility wash over him; he knew Brad and the others did too – Albrecht brought an inner peace and depth to the ritual he crafted for them.  Their feet, bare, touched the Earth and made a connection to the Physical Realm.  Through the cool stone floor, they felt Uriel’s presence filtering up into their bodies, adding to the magic.

          Ken, as with all the Bodies, being completely in tune with his physicality, had an epiphany in the moment.  He realized some time ago that as Nephilim they operated as Meta-Physical beings.  They were in essence, magical themselves in an Elemental sense.  As Ken took a deep breath to calm himself, he felt the energy fill him.  It was subtle but there… he felt the earth under his feet.  He felt the water in his body, his cells, energized, and the warm flow of his blood.  The four elements, all called from Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel, in their presence through the Blessing Albrecht intoned, had an effect on them.  The magic ran through them, empowering the ceremony under Albrecht’s direction.

          Brad noticed the look on his face and winked slightly with a grin. He mouthed ‘pretty cool, huh?’ and melted at the smile Ken returned.  The seriousness of the moment returned quickly as both of them focused back on the ceremony.

          Albrecht had a way about him – he was, arguably, the greatest human warrior on the planet, and found his inner peace millennia ago.  He carried that peace inside him and it radiated out of him in everything he did. The ancient blessing he opened the ceremony with, and the binding rope, he made it all matter in a profoundly simple way that awed them.

          He smiled at each of them as he bound the rope around their hands.  He cupped his hands over theirs, holding theirs briefly in acknowledgement of the moment and the significance of the event, and bestowed a short blessing.  He made it uniquely personal to them as only he could.  The doctor came behind him and repeated his own blessings and cupping of their hands.

          When the ropes were complete, Albrecht and the doctor bowed their heads in a silent prayer.  They merged and let their Auras spread over the men; it also caused the rope to glow and they felt a tingle of Power, not insignificant, run through it, activating the runes delicately woven into the threads.

          “Turn your hands palms up please.”

          Albrecht turned to Drew and said, “Do you have the rings?”

          Henry beamed with pride at his son.  Drew was acting so solemn, and he took the role of the ring bearer for his Uncles very seriously.  He picked up a wooden box from the table; it was long and narrow and rectangular.  He opened it and there were two rows of five rings on white silk padding.

          Drew carefully picked up the first two rings and handed them to Henry, who moved over to Bryan and Lane.  They held their hands out and he placed Bryan’s ring in Lane’s hand and vice versa.  Henry looked at them and winked with a grin.  Bryan and Lane looked down at Drew and they smiled at him, letting him know what a great job he was doing.

          Drew moved back to the box and he and Henry continued around the circle until all of the rings were placed in their palms.

          “Five of you were shown an image of these rings in a Dream.  Together we crafted them, and in the Physical Realm they represent an outward symbol to the world of your love and devotion to one another. In the Spiritual Realm they will bind your Souls together all the tighter, in the eyes of all Creation.

          “Normally, this is the time where I would ask if there are any objections or if either partner has cold feet.  In this case, that would be an unfair question while you are standing barefoot on a cold stone floor.”

          He grinned, and all of them chuckled.  Ken appreciated the small joke, understanding fully that it was done to lighten the mood.  Ken often employed the same tactic.

          “What you do today, before Aaron and myself, before Henry and Drew, before Sally, before Thomas and Brett, before the High Hosts present, before the Creator, and all the various Realms, is Eternal.  All are Witness to this event.  You live in one another, One Heart, One Mind, One Body, One Dream.  This step binds you irrevocably together.

          “I ask you now…do you commit yourselves to one another, as lovers, husbands, and Brothers?  Do you commit your lives to one another, to hold each other physically and spiritually? To be True to each other and protect one another? To be a refuge, haven, and sanctuary for each other?  To be strong for one another even amidst the Darkest of times?  To keep each other safe, sane, and balanced?”

          As he spoke, Albrecht walked around the inner edge of the Table.  As soon as he began moving, he pulled them into a Link with him and Aaron.  It was strong, and they felt the love between their two mentors, and the love that Aaron and Albrecht felt for them.

          They offered no resistance, trusting him implicitly.  As he phrased the questions of the Vows, he drew from each man separately and as couples, forming images and pulling emotions.  He showed them their lives as he saw them, and they were amazed.  It was a testament to their humility that they were surprised by what they saw, but in his eyes they were the salvation of the world, and he honored them and cherished their presence in his life.  What they felt brought fresh tears to their eyes.

          He relived with them various moments and stages of their lives together, all the times one of them nearly died - Darren hanging from chains in Thomin’s Vault, Ken nearly consumed by the Blood Curse, Kevin dying on the living room floor while Bill was trapped inside his own Mind, Loy and Rick near death at the hands of The Master’s Amalgam, Lane willingly sacrificing himself to save Bryan in Taliesin’s Construct… he went even further back to their time in Syria before they were Awake to their time together in the Navy as SEALS running covert missions for the US Government.  

          Albrecht wove all the memories and experiences together in an insightful manner… he showed them the Darkest times and how they always succeeded because of their devotion to one another.  He had them relive the first time they fully merged with one another and how horribly painful yet exquisitely beautiful the experience was, as they were truly naked and intimate with one another for the first time in their lives and learned to love each other all over again. 

          Henry and Sally watched as tears fell down the faces of their friends.  The gamut of emotions was far reaching, but the one defining emotion that each memory came back to was love. 

          Their hands were out in front of them, bound by the rope, and they held the rings in the palms of their hands.  They couldn’t embrace one another, but all of the couples leaned closer together, pressing foreheads or cheeks together as the powerful emotions churned inside them.

          Even though they were not Linked, except to Albrecht, the Understanding of Patrick’s Avatar could not be turned off.  The Bodies clearly saw the emotions running through them.  The Compassion and Empathy from Brad’s Avatar affected the Mentalists in the same way.  The entire Ceremony, from the time they took off their shoes, to the presence of the Arch-angels, to the binding of the rope, to the Vows they were taking – it stirred something inside of them.  It was more than just a wedding taking place between great friends and lovers; there was some other event happening, and they were at the nexus of it.

          “The strength and love you showed in all those times, both Light and Dark, is what led you to be here today.  I ask you to carry that strength inside you, together, forever, and commit your lives to one another, using everything that has happened to you up to this point as a launching point for the rest of your existence.  Will you take each other as husbands, and make this Oath to one another?”

          He looked directly at Rick and said, “Richard?  Will you?”

          Rick stared deep into Loy’s eyes and said loud and clear in his strong deep voice, “I will.”

          “Loy?  Will you?” 

          Loy responded with a solid, “I will.”

          Patrick and Darren were next, followed by Kevin and Bill.

          When it came to Ken his throat was so tight he couldn’t talk, and it made him laugh at himself.  Everyone smiled and laughed with him, not at him, and he managed to squeak out his, “I will” loud enough for all to hear.

          “Brad?  Will you?”

          Brad smiled and said, “I will.”

          “Bryan? Will you?

          Bryan’s deep gravelly voice was clear, “I will.”

          “Lane?  Will you?”

          Lane’s mischievous grin was present, but he held himself in check, saying “I will.”

          “Please place the rings on each other’s fingers.”

          Quietly, but with steady hands, each couple did so.  The difference was subtle but very real… something happened as the rings slid onto their fingers.  All of them felt a slight sense of vertigo, extremely brief, as something moved through them.  At first they thought the light in the chamber increased, but it was only around them and the Table. 

          The most incredible sensation washed over them, a sense of wholeness and wellbeing, as the final piece of the puzzle that completed them snapped into place.  The whiteness of the rope shone brighter in the light and their rings gleamed.

          Albrecht gave them time to settle and reflect on the moment.  A reverent silence filled the chamber.  When he sensed they were ready to proceed he continued.

          “There is one remaining part of the Ceremony to perform.”

          Albrecht nodded to Henry, who moved over and lifted a white silk cloth off the table, revealing five ornate objects.  They looked like small lanterns, and beside them sat a large bowl of what looked like quartz granules.

          Henry handed them out, placing one in the hands of each couple. They were small enough to fit into the palms of their large hands, and of a very archaic design.

          Albrecht and Aaron waited patiently until the lanterns were distributed.

          Aaron said, “Now merge yourselves completely in one another as husbands.  Go as deep as you ever have, and be One in each other.  Be more than the sum of your individual selves.”

          They couldn’t wait to be inside one another.  A look of serenity crossed their faces as they did as Aaron asked, becoming One.  How it was possible for them to feel even more for each other they couldn’t comprehend, but there was a difference.

          Aaron gave them a moment to settle into one another before he continued, “Now… leave your bodies and hover over your hands.”

          Fresh tears fell down the handsome faces of all the couples as the intense intimacy of merging with their lovers consumed them.  Five beautiful orbs of liquid golden light emerged from their bodies, bobbing gently over the hands of each couple.  The Light emanating off them filled the chamber, permeating everything.  The Arch-Angels felt it, as did Henry, Sally, Albrecht, Aaron, and the boys.  It effected Drew deeply – all the incarnations inside of him felt it too, and their voices calmed.

          Aaron picked up the bowl of granules and moved over to Ken and Brad.  Albrecht came with him and he positioned their hands so the lantern was in the middle of the floating orb.  Using a silver spoon, he scooped granules out and filled the lantern.  The granules reacted as soon as they came in contact with their Souls, swirling and dissolving, transubstantiating into the pure Life Energy of their combined essence.

           Aaron moved to each couple and filled their lanterns.  Henry and Sally watched, fascinated at what they were witness to.  Henry never got tired of the beauty of the Souls of his Brothers when he saw them in such a manner.  Human Souls are beautiful in and of themselves, but the Souls of his Brothers –  being Original Men and Nephilim made them even more beautiful.  He could see them with his Mind’s Eye, each one a distinct mix of the men they belonged to.

          Albrecht picked up a small silver scoop; it looked like a tiny melon baller. 

          Albrecht:  Be still and rest in one another while the lanterns finish.

          He went to Ken and Brad and scooped out a small portion of their light and moved over to Bryan and Lane.  Each lantern had four small peripheral chambers orbiting the main globe and he placed the light in one of them.

          It took a few moments for him to move around and fill the smaller chambers.  Once they were complete Henry passed Albrecht the seals, and he enclosed them.  Tiny Runes placed inside the lip of the lids activated and the lanterns permanently sealed.  They shone with the light of each couple, surrounded by the light of their Brothers.

          A shiver ran through them and their breath caught in their chests from the sensation.

          Now go back inside yourselves.

          Reluctantly, each man unwound his Soul from his partner, withdrawing back into himself.  The desire to stay together, in one another, was powerful, and it was always a struggle to separate; the desire to stay immersed in each other was strong.  Once they were each back inside themselves, their eyes opened, and they blinked from the tears.

          Looking down, they viewed the Soul Lanterns, now a part of them.  They saw the smaller spheres containing their Brothers’ Souls orbiting their own, each one innately identifiable.

          Albrecht moved over to Kevin and began to unwind the rope, careful because their hands held the Lanterns.  He re-coiled the rope perfectly and Tommy and Brett retrieved it.  He bowed to them, placing his hands on their heads, smiling and letting them know he was grateful for their assistance.

          “The Vows you took today are Eternal, spoken with Open Heart, and Open Mind.  I am so proud of all of you my sons.  Your Souls, Bodies, and Minds are now wed, and you are husbands.  Go with our Blessings and live your lives together now and forever.”

          As soon as Albrecht said the words ‘you are husbands’, Ken got a glazed look in his eyes.  He was stunned as it hit him that Brad was now, finally, his husband.  He was Brad’s husband!  Albrecht’s words reverberated inside his Mind.  What he had hoped for and dreamed of, for so long, had come to pass.

          He managed to look up and saw the same look on Bryan, Pat, Kevin, and Rick as they processed the moment. 

          The light in the room faded back to normal and the Four Corners released their protection.

          Albrecht and Aaron looked at them expectantly.  Brad grinned, and almost as one, he, Lane, Darren, Bill, and Loy cupped the cheeks of their partners and brought their faces around into a kiss.  That seemed to break the spell, and their arms wrapped around each other tightly, and the kisses became deeper and more intense.

          Ken’s deep voice shook, and he quietly said, “We’re married Brad!  Can you believe it?  I’m the happiest man on the planet!” 

          Henry grinned and said, “I’d say there are a few guys here who might argue that point!  Congratulations, fellas!”

          Taliesin began playing again, softly, in the background so as not to intrude, and the Angels moved forward to embrace their grandchildren in celebration.

          Sally had been crying the entire time and blew her nose loudly, bringing a chuckle.  She left the room along with Giovanni and Henry to make arrangements for food and drink. 

          After hugging Brad, Raphael asked him if he could see the Lantern in his hands.  He studied it curiously and smiled, saying “Aaron and Albrecht are truly remarkable men.  I have never seen the like.  What they did is fascinating.”

          Michael squeezed Ken so tight he could hardly breathe, “I am pleased for you Ken.  You truly deserve today and what it brings to your life, and you are the stronger for it.”

          Ken rolled his eyes and didn’t bother trying to explain to Michael that marrying Brad was not a move to make himself stronger.   In the time he spent with Michael he had come to truly love his Angelic grandfather in a way he never could have imagined, but he also realized they would never see eye to eye on some things.

          Emotions were high as each man embraced his Brothers; most still had tears in their eyes.  The Lanterns, and their effect, were unexpected, and they could feel each other through them even though they were not Linked at the moment.

          Brad remedied that and brought them all together.  He merged them completely for the briefest of seconds in the Physical Realm, but it gave them plenty of time together.  They appeared naked to one another in that place where their Souls were One, and they shared their joy and love for one another in private.

 

<><><> 

 

          Twenty minutes later they gathered outside between the trees by the front entrance.  Giovanni, Henry, and Sally, with the help of the boys, set up tables and spread the food out.  There were five small cakes, with two men in tuxes on top of each one holding hands.  They were labeled by Sally – she ordered them custom made for each pair, knowing their preferences.  Drew insisted on ice cream, so she made sure it was included and packed appropriately.

          She had the other food catered and was nervous of what Bryan would think.  He made sure to give her an extra hug, and told her everything was fantastic.  All of the guys appreciated her efforts.  Sally let them know she was counting on all the food being gone, except for the one slice of each cake that needed to be frozen for their first anniversary.  The rumbling of Ken’s stomach assured her there would be nothing left.

          Taliesin relocated all his instruments and set up outside to continue playing.  He didn’t sing anything with lyrics, instead using his voice as a secondary instrument, interweaving it with whatever instrument he played.  Aaron and Albrecht recognized many of the songs, all from ancient cultures and most used in marriage ceremonies.

          Henry changed out of his tux and into casual clothes and said he was going to take the boys for a short hike; he wore his “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt.  The doctor said the area was safe, and the boys had a lot of energy after being still for so long and on good behavior in the ceremony.

 

<><> 

 

          Kevin and Bill got a promise from Tommy and Brett to be good for Henry, and to have fun.  Henry could contact them if necessary, but no wildlife would bother them with Henry present. 

          The boys took off with Henry in tow, ready to explore.

          A few miles from the castle they discovered a stream filled with crawfish.  The boys had never seen the tiny creatures before and were fascinated, and tried to devise a way to catch some.

 

<><><> 

 

          The weather was warm in the afternoon sun, and the jackets came off and sleeves were rolled up.   Lane was surprised when one of his favorite songs started playing.  Taliesin brought his iPod and had some high end battery powered Bose speakers set up.  He set down his instruments and changed the mode to modern music they were all familiar with.

          Everybody lounged around, still caught up in the emotional high.  The day could not be more perfect – the company, the weather, or the music.  After a while they all changed into casual clothes and silently thanked Henry for packing their gym bags with shorts and t-shirts.  He even put in ball caps and sunglasses. 

          It was also nice to hang out with their Angelic relatives and their Nephilim cousins in such a relaxed setting.  The situation simply never existed before and Ken and all the men were honored at the amount of time and caring interest shown on their behalf.

          The only thing Sally underestimated was the amount of beer and wine that would be consumed and Darren and Pat made a quick trip back to a package store in Atlanta.  The entire trip took them about 15 minutes.

          Taliesin stayed quiet and unobtrusive the entire time, taking care of the music and sitting with Cavall.  The dog kept his head in Tal’s lap most of the time unless he had to get up and move around.

          The doctor saw Lane glance back at Tal and he said, “I wish you could have known him a long time ago Lane.  He was not always as he is now.”

          Giovanni interjected, “I knew him then Aaron.  He was still a horse’s ass.”  He grinned and added, “And I would know, I became a horse once.”

          Lane started to chuckle at the joke, but he saw the doctor’s face.  He did not look happy at all; the expression on his face was difficult to read.  Lane thought he looked more sad than anything, and felt bad for him.  He couldn’t imagine seeing a friend change over centuries into what Taliesin was today.

         

<><><> 

         

          Henry was having a great time.  The day for him was perfect too… it was days like the present when he was almost able to forget the weight on his shoulders, and Drew’s.  For the short span he was simply a dad spending time with his son and his ‘adopted’ nephews enjoying the outdoors.  The boys were being boys, and having a blast.  Henry decided he would pay the price if there was any backlash and let the boys go wading into the stream to try and catch the crawfish.  They were having such a good time, and he knew that Tommy and Brett had never done anything like it before.  The look on their faces was all it took and Henry caved.

          The water was less than a foot deep and there was no danger.  It was icy cold and he wondered at the ability all small boys seem to have to ignore cold water.  They laughed and giggled and even shrieked once in a while, but they got along well.

          Henry lay down on a large rock, warm from the sun.  It was hot, and he took off his t-shirt, tucking it under his head as a pillow and soaked in the warm sunshine while the boys played.  He missed laying out in the sun and the breeze over his bare skin coupled with the heat of the day felt wonderful. 

          The boys finally tired of trying to catch the elusive tiny lobster-looking creatures and came over to Henry.  They were blue and shivering but happy, and Henry chuckled when their teeth chattered.

          “Climb up here with me guys.  You need to thaw out.”

          He pulled Tommy against him and then Drew and then Brett, from largest to smallest.  He chaffed their arms and backs and let the warm sun do its job.  He gave them a group hug before he asked, “So what now guys?  Do you want to head back, or do a little more hiking?”

          The boys wanted to play hide and seek.  Of course Henry would have to be the seeker, and it was his job to make sure they had fun.

          The pleading tone of their voices convinced him and he said, “OK, guys.  We’ll play a few rounds and then explore some more.  By then it’ll be time to head back.”

          “OK, I’m going to count to twenty!  The rock here is home base.  Go!”

          Tommy and Brett were much better at hiding than Drew.  Sadly, he thought that came from having to hide in the Orphanage sometimes from the older kids that meant them harm.  He pushed that thought away, focused on making it fun.

          He made a big deal of looking for them, but their giggles gave them away when he got close.  He did a great job of barely missing them and letting them reach the rock before grabbing them and swinging them around a few times.  They each got a high five for winning the round.

          The next round went exactly the same.  Henry had to admit to himself how much fun he was having.  When all the nastiness with Drew was over he would have to make up as much time as possible with Drew – staying cooped up in the Lab was crucial for his protection, but it was robbing him of a normal childhood.  Henry hated the fact that what should be a normal day outside playing became a special event.

         

<><> 

 

          Drew was having the time of his life.  Playing hide and seek with his dad and Tommy and Brett was more fun than he had since his mom… since before his mom died.  The sudden guilt he felt for having fun without her jarred him.  Immediately tears filled his eyes, and he suddenly wanted his dad very badly.

          Sticking his hand inside his shirt, he grasped the wedding rings Henry gave him for Christmas.  His Uncles had done something to the rings; put memories in them just for him.  He closed his tear-filled eyes and remembered.

          Sometimes if he let himself get lost in the memories he would lose track of time.  He snapped back to himself when he heard the sound of fluttering wings and a soft cooing sound.

          A white dove sat on the rock by his hand.

          Come Drew.

          He heard the Voice in his Mind and the dove fluttered away from where they were playing.  Drew knew he shouldn’t go far… but he also knew the birdman would never hurt him.  He was torn… he knew how worried his dad would be if he went missing, but he trusted the Voice.

          Come.

          The Voice was so calming and gentle.  Drew decided he would make it fast so his dad wouldn’t worry. 

          The adult-like part of his brain kicked in and he thought:  OK, but I can’t go far or be gone long.  It would be mean of me to let my dad worry.

          Drew turned away from where Tommy and Brett were hidden and he took off running into the woods.

 

<><> 

 

          As Drew ran off after the dove he didn’t see Henry, Tommy, and Brett stop moving.  They were motionless, caught between breaths as they were slipped out of Time momentarily. 

          A discussion needed to occur and it would take longer than a few minutes.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry saw Brett first but made a big show of not seeing him.  Brett took off running and giggling for the rock that was home base.  When Tommy saw Henry focused on Brett he took off himself and both boys made it safely to the rock again.

          Breathless, they still laughed as Henry picked them up and spun them around.

          “OK, boys sit tight while I go try and find that son of mine!”

          Henry went back over to where Brett and Tommy had hidden themselves.  He knew Drew would be close.  He looked around carefully but didn’t see any sign of him, and he felt a twinge of panic.

          He was just about to contact Brad when he heard Drew calling him.  He didn’t sound very far off, but far enough to not be loud.  He didn’t sound panicked, and Henry breathed a sigh of relief.  He was sure Drew probably saw something, an animal maybe, that caught his attention and he wandered further than he should have. 

          Henry took off in the direction of Drew’s voice.  As soon as he passed through the small copse of trees fear gripped his stomach tight as he saw Drew sitting with a man in the grass.

          Henry’s Shields flared bright around himself and his son as he ran with all the speed in his enhanced body, crossing the distance in only a few seconds.  He snatched his son into his arms protectively, careful not to hurt Drew from the momentum and inertia of his movement.  Drew’s arms instinctively wrapped around Henry’s thick neck and strong shoulders, and as soon as Henry felt his little arms around him he felt a small sense of relief.

          Henry tried to listen to the man’s thoughts, and was prepared, if necessary, to attack him to keep Drew safe, but to Henry’s Mind it was as if the man wasn’t there.  That scared him even more and he pulled Drew protectively against him.

          “Are you alright honey?!  Why did you run off?  You know better!”

          Drew knew Henry was upset, and the tone of his voice upset Drew and he started crying.  He put his head against Henry’s shoulder and squeezed his arms tight, afraid his dad was mad and disappointed in him.

          Henry looked at the man, still unable to sense a presence, and yet he was right in front of him.  The doctor said there was no danger here, but Henry put every ounce of his strength into his Shield regardless.  Red fire flared from his core, oxygenating his muscles in case he needed to fight. 

          The man seemed perfectly calm and didn’t react, other than to stand and casually brush some grass off his blue jeans.  He was handsome, lean and muscular but not huge, darkly tanned, and appeared to be in his early forties. There was a hint of grey at his temples and in the slight scruff on his face.  His hair was medium length and a dark brown, and he had amber colored eyes.

          He smiled, looking directly at Henry.  Henry knew without a doubt those piercing eyes knew everything about him as he said, “Hello Henry.  It’s nice to see you.”  He held out his hand, but Henry didn’t take it.  The man’s voice was not as deep as Henry expected, but he could actually feel the sincerity of his words.

          Drew felt tension in his dad’s body; his shoulders were like rocks, but he trembled.  Drew knew Henry was afraid, not for himself, but for Drew.  He leaned forward and put one small hand on his dad’s rough cheek and whispered in Henry’s ear, “It’s OK, Daddy.  He’s the birdman.”

          Henry groaned inside at those words.  His voice was barely a whisper as he asked wide eyes, “Who are you? Are you… God?”

          “There’s not a simple answer to that question Henry.  I’m a friend, let’s leave it at that for now.  I needed to have a little chat with your son about something very important.  This was the perfect place to do it.”

          “What do you want with him?  He’s just a boy!”

          Henry studied the man’s face as they looked at one another.  His careworn features gave him a rugged appearance and he had visible care lines.  His eyes though; he had the same eyes as the Arch-angels, filled with stars and the ageless depths of Time.  Henry tore his eyes away before he got sucked into them.  Even if the man standing in front of him was God, Henry would fight even Him to Protect his son.

          The man grinned, and his face transformed when he smiled.  “You should be getting back or there won’t be any cake left for the boys.  You know how those guys like to eat.”

          The man looked directly at Drew and said, “I have to go now.  Remember what we talked about.”

          Drew looked sad and said, “OK.”

          The man looked back at Henry and said, “You’re a good man Henry, and the best father Drew could ever hope for.  I’m so sorry about Liz.”  Henry heard the grief in the man’s voice, deep soul wrenching grief, and it struck Henry right in his heart.  He saw more pain than he could imagine in the man’s eyes when he mentioned Liz.

          Henry was terrified, and had so many questions, but he needed to protect Drew above all else.  He turned and started running, holding Drew tightly against him.  He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the man walking away.

          What he saw next stunned him even further.  There were two other men Henry didn’t see before standing in the distance waiting for him.  He felt nothing of their presence either; he just needed to get Drew away.  He had to get back to Tommy and Brett, who were waiting at the rock and then back to the guys.

          Henry ran as fast as he could, holding his son tight.

 

<><><> 

 

          Tommy and Brett sat on the rock waiting and talking.  Brett was still excited about the wedding and when he got that way he turned into a chatterbox.  Tommy was getting worried that Henry hadn’t come back yet, but didn’t say anything to Brett. 

          As soon as Henry saw them he slowed down.  His tears were under control, but he was an emotional wreck inside.  He had to get himself together so he didn’t scare Tommy and Brett.  He took a few deep breaths and forcefully stopped the trembling in his strong body.

          He set Drew down and held him at arm’s length, looking at his son carefully.  Drew seemed perfectly fine.  He’d stopped crying, but his face was still red, and Henry used his thumbs to wipe away the remaining tears.  Drew had a dirt smudge on his cheek, and Henry licked his thumb and rubbed it off, getting a grin out of his son.

          Henry gave Drew’s thin shoulders a gentle squeeze and with a heavy sigh said, “Drew don’t say anything about that man to Tommy or Brett yet, OK?  Not until I’ve talked with the doctor and Bill and Kevin.”

          “OK, Daddy.  Don’t be scared.  He’s nice.”

          “Honey what did he say to you before I got there?”

          “He made me promise not to tell.  I can’t or something bad will happen.”

          Henry kept his voice calm, not wanting to upset his son anymore. “Drew…  Listen to me honey.  I’m your dad, and I need to know.  We talked about this.”

          Drew started crying again and looked down at his feet.  Henry put his hand gently under Drew’s chin and forced him to look up, and his eyes spilled tears.  He looked terrified, even desperate, said, “I can’t!” as he threw his arms around Henry’s neck.

          Henry knew Drew was upset and held his son close against him, running his hand soothingly up and down his back. He could tell immediately by the way Drew hugged him so tight how upset he was.   

          “Shhhhh.  It’s OK, Tiger.  We’ll talk about it later, OK?  Let’s get Tommy and Brett and go back to the rest of the guys.  We need to hurry before they eat all the cake!”

          Henry decided not to contact Kevin or Bill or any of the guys; this was such a special day for his Brothers and he didn’t want to cause them any undue stress and disrupt their day.  Now that he was thinking more clearly, other than his fear for Drew, neither he nor Drew seemed to be in any danger.  The Voice… that man… while terrifying to Henry, had never hurt Drew.   There was nothing any of them could do at this point, so he would talk to Ken and the others first thing the next morning.

          Tommy and Brett looked worried when they saw Drew crying and asked what was wrong.

          Henry forced his voice to remain steady and replied, “Everything’s fine boys.  We just had a little scare back there, but it’s nothing to worry about.  I think we’ve all had enough fun for a bit.  I’m tired, so I bet you are too. Let’s skip the hike, and head back to your dads and the rest of the guys, OK?”

          Brett looked upset so Henry held Drew under one arm and took Brett’s hand in his other.  After a few minutes Drew wanted down and with the resilience of children, by the time they got back to the party, the boys were running around and laughing again. 

          Henry couldn’t get the image of the stranger out of his head.  He actually felt ashamed for being rude and not shaking his hand.

 

<><><> 

 

          Remiel received the message and groaned inside; none of them wished to be the cause of any undue sadness in the midst of a perfect day for their grandchildren.  His face went still, even sad, but he had no choice.  Dreams and Vision were his Province.

          Raphael, wisest of the Arch-angels, saw his Brother’s sorrow and realized something had happened. He wondered at the timing of the instruction given to Remiel but didn’t question it.  It wasn’t in their nature to question the Creator, especially when he was present. 

          He had been present the entire day, on Earth.  It was the first time since the Calling of the Veil that he had manifested himself in the Physical Realm.  As a result, Raphael knew many miracles and blessings would occur that day.

          The Master and any of The Enemy on Earth felt it and wondered, the arrogance of their dominance in the world was put on hold, and they stayed silent.  Luke felt it too, and his anger deepened, but he wondered at it.

          Remiel glanced at Lane and his eyes flashed white…

 

<><> 

 

          A short distance away, Lane’s eyes flashed white, and his Avatar glowed as images and emotions formed in his Mind.  He shook his head as if clearing cobwebs and immediately glanced over at Taliesin, sitting by himself, isolated from everyone with Cavall’s head in his lap.  He had his hand on the dog’s head petting him gently, almost absentmindedly. Lane noticed the dog hadn’t left Taliesin’s side since he was discovered in edn’s chamber.

          One thing was certain, Cavall was no ordinary dog.  Lane was sure Loy would find out everything there was to know when he focused on it, but today was not the day for that.

          Lane excused himself from the conversation and made his way to the beer coolers.  He looked pensive, even hesitant.  He did not want to do what his Avatar showed him.  The usual mischievous grin on his face was gone.  Bryan felt the change in his mood first, but his Brothers noticed it as well.

          He briefly thought about confronting Remiel but knew that was a bad idea.  If Remiel sent the images, he had no choice in the matter, at least the way Lane understood it.  Their Angelic relatives were conduits in one form or another as it related to their Provinces, and Lane could relate to that.

          Sighing in resignation, he moved over to Taliesin, who looked up in surprise when he noticed Lane holding out a beer for him. 

          Lane knelt down to pet Cavall and said, “Thanks for playing today; for being here and opening the doors.  I know a little more about you now... after seeing the impressions.  I know being here isn’t easy, and I want you to know we… I appreciate it.”

          Taliesin took the beer, but the smirk Lane detested came quickly to his face and he said sarcastically, “You know very little about me, Lane Weaver.  Just because you Read some memories of this place don’t presume.  This was simply one life out of many I’ve lived.”

          Lane bit his tongue; his natural reaction was to return the attitude and sarcasm Taliesin threw in his face, even though he knew it was a defensive mechanism.  Taliesin seemed to get under his skin like no other person ever had, which made him dread what he was about to do all the more.

          Bry can you come over here please?  I’m going to need you very badly in a second.

          Lane!?  What’s going on?  What’re you doing?

          Lane had a sudden realization.  The first time he met Taliesin face to face, Bryan, overwhelmed with rage from Leroy, tried to kill him.  Lane died in a Construct Taliesin created as a trap for Bryan, in an attempt to force Lane to accept the Gift now bound to his Avatar.  Bryan broke Taliesin’s nose and Lane had touched his face to set it before he healed the cartilage.  Why didn’t his Avatar Read Taliesin when he touched his face?  More happened in that moment than he remembered; and he had a genetically enhanced perfect memory. 

          Fucking puppet strings.

          He realized, for whatever reason, he wasn’t supposed to Read Taliesin until the present.  There was a great deal of tension inside the man Lane wanted so badly to hate, so he put his hand on the back of Taliesin’s neck and shoulder, squeezing firmly in what he hoped would be perceived as a friendly gesture of comfort.  He was fully prepared to block an attempt to punch him in the face just in case.

          Lane’s eyes went bright white as his Avatar flared and he Read Taliesin completely as soon as his fingers touched the bare skin of Taliesin’s neck.  Being so close to Bill, that aspect of his Avatar was magnified, and even though he steeled himself for what he needed to do, it was still more than he expected.

          Thousands of years, Taliesin’s entire life, from the moment of his conception to being born a street urchin of a prostitute to the very moment they were in became a part of Lane. 

          He sucked his breath in and would have fallen to his knees if not for Bryan’s strong arm catching him and pulling him into a tight embrace.  He gripped Bryan’s arms so tightly his knuckles turned white.

          The shock Lane felt went through the Link, and all his Brothers turned immediately, reacting, ready to do whatever necessary to protect him.  Their training made the reaction instinctual; there was no hesitation, and Brad formed a shield around all of them.  Not knowing the immediate cause, he included Sally, the doctor, and Albrecht.

          Cavall saw everything with his silver eyes.  He felt no animosity from Lane or any of the men, in fact he would lay down his life for any of them as he would for his master.  He knew who they were, and loved them, and would never hurt them; especially the Steward.

          As he watched, he sensed a massive amount of pain in his new master, and looked at him keenly.  He whined in sympathy and raised his head to lick Taliesin’s face.  He couldn’t lick the wound in his master’s Soul, but he tried to comfort him in the manner he could.  He would have done so even if he wasn’t commanded to, the man who was his new master had always been more than kind to him and a good friend.

          Fury raged inside Taliesin when he realized Lane Read him, but he was even more ashamed.  Lane now knew every secret thought and desire, every deed he ever committed in his entire life; every lie, betrayal, and manipulation.  For the first time ever in his life he was overcome with shame, and not knowing what else to do he ran.  He couldn’t be there anymore.  He couldn’t face any of them. What one of them knew, all of them would know, and he couldn’t stand how they would look at him.  He would find his own way back to America, or maybe he would just stay in Avalon with Cavall.

 

<><><> 

 

          All of them appeared naked to one another in that dark place where their Souls were One.  Immediately they surrounded Lane, who fell to his knees sobbing.

          Lane’s voice was strained and he let out a “Fuck!” as he went down.  Bryan had him cradled in his strong arms, and had his legs wrapped around Lane’s waist, with his chin on Lane’s shoulder.  Everyone else was gathered around, holding the two of them.  He felt their hands and arms around him, holding him wherever they could reach.  Their touch, not just the physical sensation, but the way they wrapped him up in their Hearts and Souls, was a balm that comforted him as nothing else could.

          Brad was the first to notice that they had their wedding rings on.  They had never had anything on their bodies show visibly in this place before, and it was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

          Time wasn’t moving, and Lane sank into their combined presence until he was more settled.  Merged as they were, all of them saw the Vision that was sent to him, and they wondered at it.  They also knew everything he Read when he touched Taliesin.

          Ken was the one that wondered, “Why now?  Why today?”

          There was a strong thread of anger from Darren towards his angelic Grandfather.

          “I’m sorry, Lane.”

          “God Dar, don’t be.  This has nothing to do with you.  They operate on their own agenda and timetable.  I bet he didn’t have a choice, so I don’t blame him either.”

          Brad said sadly, “Damn. Taliesin’s a hot mess.  I feel sorry for him.  He never stood a chance.”

          Lane sniffed loudly and wiped his eyes, “Yeah, I know, and it pisses me off.  I want to keep thinking of him as a jerk, but now I can’t.”

          Bryan ruffled his hair in affection, and they all chuckled at his comment.

          Loy said, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?”

          Every moment of Taliesin’s life was now a part of them.  He had nearly thirty relationships, mostly men, some woman, and the two people he loved the most, Charisa and edn, rejected his love in the way he most desired and needed.  The rest loved him, but he lost all of them over Time, some brutally and some from old age.

          It was apparent to them how brutal the world used to be. There was more sadness and grief in Taliesin’s life than joy or love – and as Taliesin himself said he was not meant to be Immortal.  Sharing a Soul with another person would have tempered his life and made it not only bearable but desirable.

          Bryan had the deepest insight of all; at heart Taliesin was an artist, like Lane.  He was a creative man, a poet and songwriter before he was a warrior.  Each loss, each deed he performed under Charisa’s command, dug into his psyche and his Soul, slowly chipping away at it.  His unconscious Mind created scabs to cover the wounds, and eventually he became sociopathic in order to survive. 

          He was already Soul-weary by the time he fell in love with edn.  By that time centuries had passed since Charisa altered his memories, and edn’s death was a noose around his Heart, strangling what good was left in him. 

          The events up to and immediately after edn’s death were also made clear to them; the desperate plea Taliesin made to Charisa to heal edn, and the anxiety he felt over what he would find when the chamber doors opened.  The terror of wondering if edn would still be alive, and then discovering Charisa’s cruelty as his body collapsed into dust – his heart finally broke just hours before, and Taliesin was running on autopilot.  The Compulsion Lane kept on him, forcing him not to hurt himself or commit suicide was the only thing keeping him alive.

          Ken looked at Brad with a helpless look on his face.  He asked, “Guys, what can we do for him? He’s in so much pain, but we can’t win without him.  Fuck, I hate this!”

          Brad said, “Remember Ken, we’re seeing him through our Avatars.  Taliesin carried the Gift, and was Awake all that time, but he was still human, even if Immortal; his memory is good but not perfect.  He’s a culmination of what he remembers… mostly pain.  It’s that way with most humans, and being Awake doesn’t change that.  Through our Avatars we see everything about him, even what he doesn’t know or remember.  We show him what he is through our eyes – we need to merge with him and show him he’s still a human being.  Remember, he’s of The Order even though he doesn’t see himself that way and hasn’t for centuries; that was the leftover of Charisa’s doing.  We need to bring him back, not for ourselves or our cause, but for him.  He doesn’t deserve the life he had… he did all kinds of despicable things and left so many lives in ruin, but that’s in the past, and well… he wasn’t in his right mind.  I know that shouldn’t excuse his actions, but based on what we know now, I don’t see any other outcome to the way he turned out after what was done to him.

          “We know how he thinks of himself… he sees himself as beyond redemption.  It’s not up to us to judge him.  That’s Uriel’s Province.  Our job is to love him Unconditionally, and as hard as it might be after seeing his entire life and some of the things he’s done, and what he did to Lane and Bry, we have to do that for him.  He also did a tremendous amount of good in the world in all those years too, and we need to remind him of that.”

          Patrick spoke for the first time, “That’s a tall order Brad.  After what he did to Lane and Bry… I don’t know.”

          Brad closed his eyes and breathed deep, focusing.  His Avatar shone brighter, and the Compassion he felt for Taliesin, for the tragedy of the man’s life, filled them all.  Ken couldn’t help himself, and he put his hands on Brad’s strong shoulders, squeezing them in a gentle massage, expressing his love and pride for his husband.  The Compassion in Brad was one of the main things that attracted Ken to him all those years ago.  He was proud of his lover, and his ability to carry them all when he needed to.  He was just as proud of all his Brothers for the way they were stepping up and overcoming their own misgivings.  They weren’t just doing this because it was their job, they were doing it to help a human being in incredible pain.

          “I think I know why this happened today.  Let’s not see this as a dark spot on our perfect day – let’s see this as a chance to gain another Brother in our lives.  This is a present to us… an opportunity.  Aside from each other, this could be the best wedding present of the day.”

          His words rang through them, and they knew they had to try.  It would be up to Taliesin if he could accept what they wanted to show him.  All of them prayed that he would.

 

<><><> 

         

          Taliesin ran.  He didn’t even know in what direction other than it was away, but the guilt and shame existed inside him, and he couldn’t outrun it.  He ran until he was breathless, but it was still there. 

          Faithful as always, Cavall ran beside him.  Taliesin still had no real recollection of how Cavall could even be present, but he was, and he was grateful.  One good thing from his past at least was comforting and present.

          He lost count of how many miles he ran; in the hot sun, his clothes were drenched in sweat.  Cavall loped alongside him as though he was out for a stroll.  His tongue lolled slightly, but he wasn’t tired.  He was used to hunting with his master and this was no different.

          Taliesin finally stopped, exhausted, and dropped to his knees. His chest was on fire, heaving as he sucked oxygen into his burning lungs. 

          Cavall plopped down on his haunches, his body pressed against Taliesin’s.  He was at his master’s side, as he should be, lending him the comfort of his presence.

          Taliesin was still crying, and he could hardly talk from breathing so hard, but he managed, “I’ve made a mess of things Cav.  I can’t go back.  Not now.  It’s you and me.”

          He sat beside his dog, an arm wrapped around him, and was quiet.  He was trying not to think, or feel.  Once he caught his breath he asked, “Is there water nearby?  There used to be a stream close to here, but after all this time it’s probably dried up.”

          Cavall stood up and took a few steps, looking back.  He made a low growl in his throat to get Taliesin’s attention.

          “Go on; I’m right behind you.”

          Cavall led him into the woods and in minutes he heard the sound of a small bubbling creek.  He knelt down and sipped the icy water, and splashed some on his neck.  He took off his shirt and wet it, wrapping it around his neck.  His tightly muscled body was slick with sweat and his hair was matted down to his head.  He missed his pony tail, but it was another physical change he made to throw off being recognized.  He determined he would grow it back, along with his beard.  He always looked better in a beard.

          Cavall felt the presence of the Steward in his Mind, and knew his eyes were being used.  Loy got a surprise looking through the dog’s silver eyes.  He would have to explore that some other time, for the moment he saw Taliesin which was all he needed.

          Taliesin disappeared and Loy’s voice and Will filled Cavall’s Mind:  Come back to us boy.  We have him safe.  I’ll stay with you until you’re back.

          Cavall liked the presence of the Steward.   He took off running back towards the ruins of the Castle, his tail wagging.  He loved running full speed in the hot sun.  He chased a few rabbits on the way back, but didn’t kill any.  He wasn’t hungry and just did it for sport.  The world smelled different now – not as alive.  In his own way he wondered at that, but it didn’t matter.  He remembered Gabriel’s words – he would be happy with his new master.

          The one thing Gabriel couldn’t know, because of the randomness of Lane, Bryan and their Brothers, was that his words weren’t entirely true.

 

<><><> 

 

          Aaron and Albrecht stood talking with Istariel and the other Nephilim.  Aaron still wasn’t comfortable with any of the Arch-angels, but for some reason he seemed more at ease with Istariel and his cousins. 

          Aaron, astute as ever, caught the glow of Lane’s Avatar and the white flash of his eyes.  He noticed the change in Lane’s body posture as he moved over to hand Taliesin a beer.  Aaron continued to watch as Lane touched Taliesin, and then saw his former charge run off into the woods.  He heard and witnessed the entire exchange, and his heart ached for Tal – yet he felt a thread of hope.  If anyone could bring his former charge back to them, it was his newfound sons.

          Shrewdly, Aaron glanced at Remiel, who looked back.  They maintained eye contact for a few seconds, and Remiel was the first to look away.

 

<><><> 

 

          Taliesin didn’t have a sense of physical transition except for the sudden temperature shift from the cool shade of heavy tree cover by the stream to the hot sunshine on his bare skin.

          An icy ball of anxiety formed in the pit of his stomach.  He should have known they wouldn’t let him go.  The Order would never be finished with him.

          He sat down, shoulders slumped, and put his head in his hands with a heavy sigh.

          Lane knelt down in front of him, silent for a moment, and he finally said, “I’m sorry, Taliesin.”

          Taliesin knew the words meant far more than ‘sorry we brought you back against your will to make you suffer some more.’

          He glanced up and saw the look on Lane’s face; on all their faces.  This time instead of his ever-present smirk, his face remained flat and obstinate.  The look on their faces was exactly what he feared.

          Brad knelt down on his other side and said, “Taliesin, let us help you.”

          “Why?  How?  How do you think you can help me?  Can’t the high and mighty Order be done with me?  Why must you continue to badger me?  Haven’t you done enough?”

          Ken reached down and wrapped a hand around Taliesin’s biceps pulling him to his feet.

          He used his Captain’s voice to try and make the words sink in, “In case you haven’t noticed the old Order is gone.  It’s different now; we’re different.”

          Brad continued, “You’re miserable Tal.  You’ve felt this way so long you don’t know how to feel any other way.  It’s no way for a man to live.  Stop punishing yourself.”

          Tal lost it and screamed, “I deserve to be punished!  I deserve to die for what I’ve done!  With the Gift out of me I see more clearly than ever, and I know what I’ve done!  And you!” he pointed at Lane, “You forbid me the one thing that will bring me peace!”    

          Bryan spoke up surprising everybody, “What if we could prove that you don’t deserve to die?”

          “I cannot stop you from entering my Mind, but it will be against my will.”

          Bryan looked over at Uriel and called out, “Grandfather?  Can you come over here?”

          Uriel’s big form disengaged from his conversation with Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel and came over to Bryan.

          “Grandfather, can you tell us, if he died right now, where would you take him?”

          Uriel’s handsome face showed surprise and he said, “I am not permitted to say.”

          Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel took an interest in what was transpiring and moved over.

          Raphael spoke, “Try Brother.  If you are Forbidden you will not be able to answer.  I sense there is more going on here than we know.”  Raphael glanced at Remiel when he spoke.

          Uriel looked at Taliesin, and their eyes met, dark and pain filled to ageless depth.  Uriel looked at the River of Taliesin’s life up until his interaction with Bryan and his Brothers where he could see no further.

          Uriel looked up into the bright sky and silently invoked the Ritual of Passage.  Based on what he saw of Taliesin’s life he expected his wings to be raven black, but they were so bright they outshone the sun.  His eyebrows raised, his deep voice rumbled, “There is your answer.”

          Taliesin’s eyes filled with tears and he whispered, “Your cruelty knows no bounds.  After all I have done I am permitted to go to Heaven, and yet you still hold me prisoner to your cause.”

          He turned to Uriel, “I beg you, Angel, take me now.”  He fell at Uriel’s feet, sobbing.  Cavall moved to his side and licked at his face, whining.

          His pain and brokenness was so palpable to all of them it broke their hearts.  To see any man reduced to such misery was heart-wrenching.

          Lane said, “I’ll remove the Compulsion, Taliesin, if you do one thing for me.”

          Taliesin’s head whipped around, not believing what he heard.  His cynical nature took back over, and he sneered, “Why?  So you can humiliate me further? You know everything there is to know about me now.”

          Ken knelt down and got very close.  He put a hand on Taliesin’s shoulder and said gently, “Yeah, but you don’t know everythin there is to know about you, or us.  We can prove we want to help you, but you have to let us in.”

          Taliesin went limp and lay on the ground.  Cavall moved over him, making encouraging sounds, nuzzling his nose against Taliesin’s neck and face, and licking softly at his tears.  He could see how much pain his master was in.  He wanted to chase it away, but he didn’t know how.

          Ken saw it too, and it was eating him up inside.  His Understanding, magnified by Patrick, clearly showed the turmoil inside the man before them.  All of them saw it, and Brad and the Mentalists felt it through their Avatars.  Brad’s was going haywire. 

          After a time, Taliesin sat up.  He held his head in his hands, and his shoulders shook as he cried.  Ken put a hand back on his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

          Aaron spoke for the first time, “Tal let them help you.  Please, I am begging you.  For once in your life, do not be so stubborn.”

          The resignation in Taliesin’s voice was clear when he finally said, “I have nothing else to lose.  Do with me what you wish.  You always have.”

 

<><> 

 

          Ken:  Fuck guys this is killin me seein him like this.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so broken.

          Bryan:  We need to make this right.

          Kevin:  I want to reset him, but we can’t. 

          Lane:  If we reset him, whatever he still needs to do for us to defeat The Master can’t happen.

          Brad’s mental voice was sad:  Guy’s, I don’t think it’ll be enough.  He’s hurt so deeply, and he’s hurt so long, his Soul is really damaged. 

          Patrick:  I see it too, Brad.  You’re right.

          Ken:  There has to be somethin we can do.

          There was a pause in their mental conversation as they all pondered what in the world they could possibly do that could make enough difference to save Taliesin.

          It seemed like minutes when Bill thought:  Guys, I have an idea.

          As soon as Bill had the thought everyone else knew it too; they were One.  The idea was crazy, and they had never tried anything like it before.  It was extreme, and they had no idea if they could pull it off, but all of them were willing to try anything.

          Ken’s pride and optimism filled the link.  He knew it was the answer, as crazy as it seemed, and he knew they could do it.  Conviction filled all of them through his Avatar, magnified by the other Bodies.

          Lane:  We need to be inside where edn’s body was, and we’ll need what’s left of those crystal granules Albrecht used to make our lanterns.

          Kevin:  Hopefully there’s enough left.  I’ll get them and meet you guys inside!

 

<><><> 

 

          A few minutes later all the Team, minus Henry, stood around the marble slab that held all that remained of the once great man named edn; the man history named King Arthur.

          Taliesin was docile and let himself be led, numb to what transpired around him.  Brad was extremely concerned about his psyche, his external indifference was a clear indication that Taliesin was shutting down.  He had been pushed beyond his emotional limits, and the broken pieces were all that was left.

          It was painful for any of them to look at him.  Ken was glad Henry and the boys were still out hiking.

          Kevin came in with a small silk pouch, “This is all that was left.  Albrecht said he harvested everything he could find in Leroy’s cave, and it took thousands of years to grow what we used today.  They’re unique to the cave and Leroy’s presence effects them.  Hopefully this will be enough.”

          Ken, “Alright guys, power up.”

          They were still linked, but they settled into one another as they surrounded the marble slab.  Lane and Bill guided Taliesin and sat him at the base where he had cried right after edn turned to dust.

          Once he sat still, they moved back and joined hands.  Countless times they had merged as a Team; Ten, Five, One, but this time was slightly different… they felt their wedding rings on their hands.  All of them looked at each other and smiled; the knowledge that they were now married, and the emotions of the day, were still present, and Brad brought them back to the surface.      

          Lane Listened, Loy called on the Animal Spirits, Bryan called on the Tree, and Brad fluttered their Souls across the Veil.  Power filled them all and they shone like a star in the Spiritual Realm.

          The Arch-Angels paused outside, taking notice of the Power their grandchildren raised.

          Their bodies and Minds soaked in the Power, as they rested in each other, supporting and holding one another. The emotional intimacy stung as fresh and painfully sweet as always, and fresh tears fell down their handsome faces.  The muscles of their arms and shoulders bunched as their hands gripped each other tighter.  The warmth and strength of their hands gripping each other was as much a comfort as their Souls touching – it was part of their physicality and reinforced the physical side of their deep friendship.

          A hot wind blew around them, whipping the short hair on their heads.  Their eyes shone brightly and their Avatars spit bright arcs of color off their muscled shoulders.

          Ken locked their Avatars, and the symbols shifted into the Master Rune, the one that would allow them to remove the Curse on Mankind once The Master was defeated.

          Lane:  Here we go guys. Hold onto your skirts!

          Lane’s Avatar flared bright as he brought the Temporal aspect of his nature into play.  He cast his Mind backwards in Time, 1500 years, to the very spot in which they stood.  Bryan was with him, and once they were anchored Lane pulled everyone else to him. They felt the flow of years around them like a rushing tide, and suddenly they were standing there – it was a Paradox… existing in both Times simultaneously. 

          edn’s body was on the slab and they saw him breathe his last. The desire to Heal him was almost overpowering, but Lane – and Brad – saw that the ripples would have been too great and the effects catastrophic.

          There was a small window in which to act before Uriel arrived to take edn Home.  Together they opened edn’s energy centers and his Soul lifted gently out of his chest.  It was beautiful; a sphere of liquid golden light.  The Cavall of the past saw them with his silver eyes, and he felt the presence of the Steward, so he did not attack.  The contentment and completion he felt inside was more comforting than anything he had ever felt, and he lay back down with his head in his paws and watched.

          Bill reached out and touched edn’s hand, Reading him.  The knowledge would be a gift to Taliesin.  Bill’s breath caught in his chest at what he Read, and the knowledge was passed to all his Brothers.  They smiled, hoping their discovery would make a difference.  It was entirely unexpected and sent a chill down their spines; it also spoke of the brokenness of humans and the ‘fucked-upness’ mankind wallowed in, even in great men like edn.

          Lane and Bryan moved forward and cupped edn’s Soul in their hands.  Their brows furrowed as they exerted their Power and his Soul separated into two halves; their Avatars of Life and Healing made them the best suited to perform that task.  Kevin poured the remaining granules into Brad’s waiting hands and Bryan took his half of the Soul, placing it into the midst of the crystals. 

          Immediately the crystals dissolved into Life Energy; Bryan felt it, just as when the Lanterns lit with the Life Energy of their Souls in the wedding ceremony hours before.  The granules became attuned to edn’s Soul and it was once again whole and complete.  Bryan reverently pushed it back down into edn’s body.

          Elation ran through them at what they accomplished; when they worked together there was little they couldn’t accomplish, and when they were fulfilling a Purpose the profound sense of rightness and perfection permeated every iota of their beings.  They knew they were doing the right thing.

          Lane was Listening and heard the fluttering of Uriel’s wings approaching. He shifted them forward in Time, and a fraction of a second after they disappeared, Uriel arrived to take edn Home.

 

<><> 

 

          To Taliesin, it was as if they never left.  He saw a slight glow about them and knew they raised a considerable amount of Power for him to see a visible Aura.  He noticed one difference immediately – Lane held a human Soul in his hands.

          Brad:  OK Tal, here we go.

          Taliesin hadn’t merged with anyone so fully in centuries.  He played with people’s Minds, bent them, manipulated them in twisted ways to suit his needs, but he rarely ever merged with anyone – especially someone who cared for him.  It was painful merging with Un-Awakened humans, even the ones who loved him.  Their human jealousies and imperfections were excruciating, even through the love a few of them felt for him.  Eventually he stopped completely and found it easier to stay inside himself.

          This time, however, merging with Lane and the others, the feeling of love that permeated his being was a shock; his Soul had gone cold so long ago, the presence of the men around him was like a hot fire.  He appeared naked with them in that dark place.

          The presence that surrounded him was euphoric, and he nearly passed out.  He fell, and they caught him; they caught his Body and his Heart and Mind.  They held him, letting him see them completely for who and what they were even as they saw him.  He was aware of everything they knew about him through their Avatars.

          Brad:  Rest Tal, as long as you need to.  See yourself as we see you, and let the rest go.  We all know everything and still love you.  Please accept that as we mean it; it’s not out of pity.  You deserve to be loved; every man does.

          He knew intellectually Brad spoke the Truth; he knew they couldn’t lie to him Mind to Mind.  The cynical part of his Mind told him it was their version of the Truth; if they believed it they weren’t lying.  But deep down he remembered Albrecht and Aaron telling him the same thing when he was a child.

          They walked with him through his life.  He had a good memory, but it wasn’t perfect, and they knew and saw things about him that he was unaware of or had forgotten long ago.  They gave him a perspective he had lost long ago, after Charisa’s manipulation.  They continued through the centuries of his life, staying inside him every step.

          They felt his pain at edn’s death, originally, and again a few hours previous.

          Taliesin sat on the floor of that dark place, naked along with all of them, and they held him.  Ken cradled him in his big arms, and everyone else gathered around, touching him, holding him.

          He couldn’t cry anymore and let himself be held.  It had been so long since anyone had held him, he forgot what it felt like.  He became aroused, but it didn’t matter.  No one acted on it, and he got over his embarrassment.

          It took a long time in that place where Time nearly stood still.  His heart slowly softened.  The sadness inside of him was as deep as ever; the loneliness a well that couldn’t be filled.  The rest of the feelings, the guilt and shame and self-loathing, were not gone; but they were pushed back into a manageable place.  The fact that Uriel’s Wings were white proved that he had been forgiven.  He was truly repentant for his actions over the centuries.  He would never forget what he did, but he could now move forward. 

          Lane:  We have a gift for you Tal.  You weren’t ready for this before.  I hope it will make your life more bearable moving forward.

          I deserve nothing.

          You deserve happiness.  Especially after all you’ve been through.

          Lane moved around front to face Taliesin, who lay in Ken’s arms like a child.  Everyone else was still gathered around him, touching and holding him with their hands as well as their Minds and Hearts.

          With one hand he held half of edn‘s Soul, and with his other hand he reached out and put his hand inside Taliesin’s chest.  Tal’s eyes went wide as he felt Lane touch his Soul.  It was a strange sensation, not pleasant or unpleasant, but unnerving.

          It’s alright, Tal.

          He pulled out Taliesin’s Soul, holding it.  They all looked at it; it was as beautiful as all human Souls.  They were reminded of Liz and her sacrifice and the last time they saw her and heard her voice.  Taliesin, being One with them, saw their memories and the pain they felt at her sacrifice.  He saw so many things about these men he didn’t expect, and he was embarrassed at the thoughts and opinions he had held towards them in his ignorance.

          Lane brought Taliesin’s and edn’s Souls together.  All the men lent Lane their strength and with their combined Power he knit them together.  Fine, lacelike weaves of Power drifted off his fingertips, making the two Souls One.

          The Light of his effort was blinding, and by the time Taliesin could see again Lane had pushed the glowing orb back inside him.

          He immediately felt the comforting presence of his best friend and Brother, edn, inside of him.  Fresh tears spilled from his eyes and he whispered, “How?  How is this possible?”

          Lane’s mischievous grin was present and he said, “Don’t worry about the details.  There’s one more part to this.”  Lane glanced over at Bill and nodded.

          Bill moved around in front of Taliesin and smiled.  He reached out his hand and cupped Taliesin’s chin; with the skin contact he gently pushed edn’s life into Taliesin.

          Taliesin’s eyes went wide in shock and Ken hugged him tighter, knowing what just happened.  edn loved Taliesin deeply, more than any person in his life.  The bond of Brotherhood they shared, through the battles, ran deep.  Taliesin, because of his love of edn, never used his powers on him.  He knew if he tried to force edn to love him it would be false, and he could never have lived with that.

          To find that it was there all along, was both tragic and elating.  For a powerful figure and commander of men, edn was afraid of his feelings towards Taliesin and never acted on them.  He was afraid of losing his best friend, so he restrained himself and lived in his own misery.  The reason he never had any children or bastard heirs was because he was in love with Taliesin and never looked at women.

          There was never a rumor that edn was a lover of men – as a King and a warrior folk thought he had no time, and loved matters of war more than women.  Inside his deepest self however, he was a man in love, and alone.  The joy and heat of battle fended off his feelings in some moments, but in the quiet of the night when he lay alone, he wished to be with Tal.  edn longed to hold and be held by the man he loved.

          Taliesin cried again as he was held, while he assimilated the lifetime of knowledge and memories Bill put into him.  The irony and tragedy of what he learned, but also the joy… he had been loved, and in the manner he needed and wanted, he just didn’t know it.  He felt it inside himself now, it was a part of him, and he would carry it inside himself until he died.

          It took a long time, and Ken and all the others held him and supported him.  He was merged with them and they were with him with every thought and emotion.    It would take time, but the damage to his psyche began to heal, and much of the damage Charisa caused him was washed away with what he now knew and felt.  He was a new man.  A true spark of happiness ignited in his Heart for the first time in nearly two thousand years.

 

<><><> 

 

          Aaron and Albrecht wondered what was happening when Kevin ran to retrieve the last of the crystal granules.  Aaron wanted the remaining granules to experiment with, but Kevin’s urgency prevented him from asking any questions in the moment.  He knew his sons had a plan to try and help Tal, and he put his trust in them.

          It only seemed a few moments when they came back out.  Tal surrounded by the men; Lane even had an arm over Taliesin’s shoulder!  Tal’s face was wet with tears, but he wore an expression Aaron thought he would never see again. When he saw Aaron and Albrecht, he stopped and stood motionless until Lane nudged him forward with a gentle, “Go on.”

          Once in motion, Taliesin surged forward throwing his arms around Aaron and Albrecht both.  He clung to them with a desperate strength, and they felt the trembling in his body.

          He whispered in their ears, “I’m so sorry!”

          Aaron, overcome himself, had tears in his eyes and said, “There is nothing to be sorry for, Tal.  I am the one who is sorry.”

          Albrecht held him at arm’s length, looking into his eyes, then glanced at Lane who smiled back.  All the men had smiles on their faces, and many had tears in their eyes.

          With a solid clap on his shoulder and a strong sense of relief in his voice Albrecht said, “Welcome back!”

          Cavall barked and went to his side, looking up at him.  He felt the difference in his new master immediately, seeing inside him in that way he had.  Both his masters were one!

          The thanks and the tears in Aaron’s eyes said everything he needed to convey to his sons.  He mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to them, and he saw their smiles and nods in return.

          The miracles his sons managed to achieve never ceased to astound him, even as long as he had lived.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry calmed down on the walk back.  Keeping the boys corralled helped, along with their laughter and running around and playing while they made their way back to the castle.  When they got closer he heard music, and once they were close enough to see the camp he smiled at what he saw.

          Most of the men were shirtless and drenched in sweat as they performed some form of archaic dance to fast paced music.  Taliesin and Gabriel were both playing violins and the guys were doing something along the lines of ‘Riverdance.’  It had to be some ancient dance that Albrecht or the doctor taught them.  It looked really cool and like a lot of fun, but Sally wouldn’t be able to keep up. 

          The expressions on their faces clearly stated how much fun they were having.  The inhuman grace and agility they exhibited was breathtaking, the movements accentuated their muscular bodies – they were amazing to watch.  His heart warmed – seeing them have so much fun and enjoying themselves was an indulgence and didn’t happen often enough.

          Henry noticed that most of the Arch-Angels were gone.  Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel were the only ones still present.  Istariel and the other Nephilim were gone as well.

          The song was just coming to an end, and the final gyration was extreme and then they all stopped, breathing heavy and laughing.  They saw Henry and called to him, waving him over.

          Tommy and Brett took off like bullets for Bill and Kevin, already starting to excitedly tell them about the crawfish as soon as they were within earshot.  The boys didn’t care that their dads were soaked and sweaty, but Darren’s eyes flashed white and the sweat evaporated from their bodies before the boys reached them, throwing themselves into the arms of their dads.  They talked non-stop about everything they did, rushing and trying to get it all out at once.

          Drew rode on Henry’s shoulders, content to stay with his dad.  He knew how upset Henry was over the birdman, and Drew wanted to comfort him.  He kept his arms wrapped around his dad’s head to steady himself, and he knew the physical contact was comforting.

          Drew was still thinking about everything the birdman told him, and why he couldn’t say anything.  It was the only way to save his dad.

          …I do not wish for you to lose Henry as you lost your mother.  With your Uncles nothing is certain, but I do see one possibility, but you must promise not to tell any of them.  I am so sorry Drew that this falls on your shoulders – that was never my intent, any more than what happened to your mother.  But I am very proud of you and Henry both, and I cannot think of anyone else more capable to do what needs to be done…

          The birdman told him a lot about his brother, The Master.  Not how to defeat him, but about him.  Drew wanted to know how to beat him, but the birdman wouldn’t say.  Drew tucked it all away in the special place he was given to keep it secret.

          On the walk back, Henry made a decision, and he locked the memory of the afternoon away in his Mind.  He didn’t want to spoil any part of the day, and after seeing the smiles on all their faces, he felt better about his decision.  Nothing could be done about what happened at the moment anyway.  He really didn’t know anything and Drew seemed adamant about not divulging his conversation with the stranger he called the ‘Birdman.’

          He also noticed a difference in Taliesin right away.  Henry hadn’t spent much time around the man, but he never remembered seeing him smile.  Everything about him, his face, his body posture, and his mannerisms, all indicated something was different.  The doctor had a smile on his face too, which spoke volumes.

          “Well, I can see we missed something!  I can’t wait to hear about it!”

          Ken noticed right away how tense Henry was and also how badly he was attempting to hide it.  He tickled Drew as he lifted him up off Henry’s shoulders and blew a raspberry on his belly button and passed him off to Loy, who was closest.  Drew continued to get passed around from Uncle to Uncle, and they all wanted to hear about his day and to tell him how proud they all were of his role in the wedding.

          Henry knew Drew wouldn’t say anything about the birdman.  He always seemed reluctant to talk about him, as though it was something of his own and very private.  He promised to tell Henry if he ever heard the Voice, and so far, to the best of Henry’s recollection Drew kept his promise; except for this time and Henry was terrified of what they talked about.  He was sure it had something to do with The Master and the confrontation that was inevitable.

          Once Drew was out of earshot Ken put an arm over Henry’s shoulder and pulled him around facing away from everyone and whispered, “What happened Henry?  What’s got you so uptight?  Why aren’t you back in the Link?”

          Henry had to catch himself to keep a tear from escaping.  He swiped his eye quickly, but knew Ken saw it.  Ken squeezed his shoulder and shook him a little, “Spill it.”

          “I promise to tell you tomorrow Ken.  Really.  For today just enjoy yourself.”

          Henry was shocked when, after a brief pause, Ken said, “OK.  I trust your judgement, you know that.  This has been a great day.”

          He put his mouth right up to Henry’s ear, and his voice was barely discernable as he said, “Thanks.”  He squeezed Henry’s shoulder and then patted him on the back, and shoved a beer into his hand.  Ken had a way of cheering him up when things were bothering him, and he had to smile. 

          The next hour was relaxing and enjoyable.  Lane played with Gabriel and Taliesin, and they all tried to outdo one another.  It was odd but nice hearing Taliesin laugh, and much to the amazement of everyone, he kept up with Lane on every instrument they played.  He had thousands of years of practice under his belt, after all.  Even Gabriel was impressed.

          Eventually the Arch-Angels left and it was just the guys, along with Sally and the boys, and the doctor, Albrecht, Taliesin, and Giovanni.

          Brad checked in a few times with the Australia crowd to make sure all was good, and he was happy at the discovery that Jacob had reconciled with Kent and everyone else.

          They built a campfire and everyone sat around drinking beer, or wine, or juice for the boys.  Their escapade with Henry wore the boys out and they fell asleep.  Bill and Kevin used some blankets to make a palette for them to sleep on until it was time to leave.

          Giovanni entertained them with stories of his time in the world; he was a good story teller and had a wicked sense of humor.  He dropped a few stories about Albrecht and Aaron that raised their eyebrows and caused the doctor to blush.  Albrecht smiled when that happened; he enjoyed seeing Aaron more relaxed and treated as a peer rather than a mentor all the time.

          Almost as one, everyone decided it was time to start packing up to leave.  None of them wished to… the day and what it meant to them would be etched in their Hearts forever.  It had been a while since they had such a good relaxing time where nothing bad happened. 

          Lane stood up and said, “Hey, I have one thing left to do guys.”

          He looked at Taliesin and his eyes flashed white.  They felt the Power he exerted and Taliesin blinked.  The Compulsion was gone.

          Lane said, “I told you I’d remove it if you merged with us.  I don’t think it’s necessary anymore anyways, and I was uncomfortable having to use it to begin with.  Everything we do is based around Free Will, and taking the decision away from you as far as your own life goes didn’t sit well.”

          Taliesin was overcome for a moment, and he got up and embraced Lane.

          “Thank you, Lane.  After what you did for me today, I no longer feel the need to take my own life.  It’s difficult to describe what I feel now; I have so many regrets, but they are tempered by having edn as a part of me now, and knowing he felt the same way.  I have a gift for you too, if you all will indulge me for a few more moments before we depart.”

          He saw assenting nods from everyone, and he moved over to get his lap harp.  He moved closer to the fire and plucked a few notes.  The instrument was beautiful and sounded magnificent in his hands.

          None of them knew the melody, and none of them heard the language before once he started singing.  Patrick’s Understanding kicked in and through the Link they all understood the words. 

          Taliesin had put to music one of the most famous Elven songs from The Lord of the Rings, the “Lay of Leithian.”  It had never been put to music that Lane knew of, and Taliesin’s rendition was stunningly beautiful.  Lane, being the Tolkien geek he was, had all the languages from the books memorized.  The look on his face was priceless – he was wide eyed and speechless, and the smile on his face was a mile wide.

          When he finished, Taliesin said, “I hope you liked it.  I wrote that piece about twenty years ago when I lived in South America.  I’ve loved the books since I first read them and wanted to pay homage to the story.  Aaron mentioned you liked the books as well, and I thought you would appreciate it.”

          When everything was packed and ready for Darren to take them back to Atlanta, Aaron said, “I have one last request.  Now that the enchantment over this place is broken, the effect of Time will rapidly overtake it.  In less than a week it will crumble to dust.  However, I do not wish even the slightest chance of discovery, for many reasons.  I am sorry to ask, but I feel it is necessary.”

          Ken said, “Of course, Doc.  We get what you’re sayin.  Let’s Power up guys.”

          They had been inside one another all afternoon, since right after the ceremony, through what they did for Taliesin, and Brad took them deeper once again.  His intuition told him to include Taliesin this time.  His presence filled the Link and they embraced him as a new Brother.  He was sad at the passing of the place he called home so long ago, but he carried the most important part inside him now.  Avalon as a place would be no more, but they carried the ideal of what edn always wanted it to be inside them.

          Bryan directed the flows; the cycle of Life was a part of his Avatar and he accelerated the decay of the entire area, and new growth to cover it all.  In a matter of minutes what was left of Avalon became dust and no indication of the castle remained; vegetation quickly covered over everything at Bryan’s direction.  The only items remaining from the Castle were the wooden panels Bryan removed from the doors to the meeting chamber where the Round Table had been, and he would treasure those his entire life.

 

<><><> 

 

          A few hours after, late in the night, Brad and Ken crawled into bed together.  The Lantern sat on their dresser shining with a beautiful Light; the Light of their Souls surrounded by the Souls of their Brothers.  The gift of it was still hard to wrap their heads around.

          As Brad settled back against Ken, feeling his warm solid body, he felt strong emotions inside Ken; not only strong, they were sudden and overpowering.

          He turned to look at his husband and saw tears in his eyes.  His throat was so tight he couldn’t talk.

          Ken?

          You’re my husband Brad.  We’re fuckin married!  After all this time it finally happened.  I’m so happy I don’t know what to do!

          Brad was overcome with the intensity of the Love Ken felt for him in the moment.  It was always there, but right then Ken brought it to the surface and his heart was about to burst from it.

          Brad rolled over so they could face one another, and he cupped Ken’s cheeks in his hands.  He loved the rough feel of his cheeks as he ran his thumbs over the day’s growth of stubble. 

          He pulled Ken forward and they kissed.  It lasted a few minutes as they expressed the depth of love they felt towards one another in the intimate act.  Ken smiled through it as they both felt the fire start inside them; their erections pressing against each other.  Ken rolled over on top and managed to squeak out, “I’m gonna make love to my husband now for the first time.  You know what I mean, so no smart-assey comments!” 

          It wasn’t frantic as it sometimes was; they didn’t become ‘that guy’ for each other.  They made passionate love to one another for hours; it wasn’t long before each man was sweating as their bodies heated up.  They couldn’t get enough of each other as hands and mouths roamed over their muscled bodies.  Each of them came multiple times before they were done.

          As Brad drifted off, with Ken’s arms around him, the safest place in his world – home – Ken kissed his shoulder and said, “I love you B.  More than ever.”

          “I love you too, Ken.  More every day.  I don’t know how that’s possible, but I do.”

          Brad held their Souls, Hearts, and Minds together as they fell asleep, even as Ken held their bodies together.  Ken, with his heightened sense of touch, felt Brad’s skin against his own, his body hair, his sweat; he took in every minute detail that he loved about his husband.   

          Brad always talked about Ken’s natural scent and Brad had one too.  Ken smelled it the first time they met.  The feel of Brad’s muscular furry body, coupled with his scent, the sound of his heartbeat, his body heat… everything about him was perfect to Ken and desirable.  He knew it sounded silly to say he was the luckiest man in the world, but he truly felt that way.  They felt that way about each other, and it made them both think about all the years they would face together.  Ken squeezed Brad a little tighter; they were both in each other’s thoughts and everything they felt and thought was a part of the other.

          Each of the other couples, their Brothers, expressed their love for one another in a similar manner, and felt the same intensity Ken and Brad did.  In the sense that they had already lived together for over twenty years nothing changed, but in reality everything changed with the marriage.  There was an intangible difference, but they all felt it and it was perfect.

          Istariel’s father – whom Drew called the ‘Birdman’ – smiled, and was glad.  Tragedy would strike them again soon enough, but he kept his promise and the day was theirs.  They gained another Brother in Taliesin, and their bonds grew deeper as he intended.  They would need each other so much in the days ahead if they were to be successful.

 

<><><> 

         

          The next morning the regular routines for everyone were back in motion.  Because of the new Lab policy and two couples being in Australia, Ken also decided that Brad would create a Construct of the Conference Room every morning at 0900 Atlanta time for everyone to meet.  0900 EST was workable for whoever was in Australia, and with the deadline of their final confrontation with The Master less than a year away Ken was stepping up their regime. 

          Pat, Darren, Rick, and Loy were in Australia, and everyone else was in Atlanta. Drew, Tommy, and Brett would be in session with Sally for half that day in the afternoon, so for the morning, the boys were going to be in the gym with the adults after the morning meeting.

          Everyone appeared in the Construct in their black Kevlar assault suits.  In the Construct, Brad made the assault suits far more comfortable than they really were, and everyone appreciated the difference.  Each of them looked incredibly handsome and hyper-military with the tight fitting high neck suits, the Bodies’ trimmed in dark red, the Mentalists’ in a muted cyan.

          Their wedding rings were evident, and everyone seemed to fiddle with them unconsciously, still getting used to the feel of them.  Bryan had his ring depicting Leroy that Lane got for him at Christmas on the opposite hand.

          Instead of standing up at the lectern, Ken leaned forward saying, “Alright fellas.  Let’s get the meetin started.  We all know what a great day yesterday was.  I’m sorry about the lack of honeymoon time.  I’ll try to swing some ZEUS time for everybody in the next few weeks in the schedule.”

          There were grins and high-fives around at the mention of time on ZEUS, the yacht they kept in the Pacific.

          Because all of them had been so deeply merged the day before, everyone was aware of the tension inside of Henry when he got back from his hike with the boys, and his decision to wait and fill them in later.

          Loy noticed it first and said, “Hey Henry, what’s with the hair?”

          Everyone looked at Henry and they were shocked no one had noticed it immediately.  There was a patch of hair off his forehead on the right side that was snow white.  It wasn’t large, but it added to his already handsome face.  It looked like he highlighted his dirty blonde hair.

          Through the Link he saw it through everyone else’s eyes.  He hadn’t seen it in the mirror that morning after his shower, so he was just as surprised as everyone else.

          All of them looked concerned and Ken asked, “Henry, what the hell happened yesterday?”

          Now that it was time to speak, Henry went quiet and paled a little.  They were all deeply Linked, but not fully merged, and they felt his anxiety spike, especially with the mark in his hair.

          Loy and Bill were on either side of him and they put their hands on his shoulders in mild concern.  After everything they had been through together it must be something big for him to react the way he was.

          His voice had a slight tremor to it when he said, “I talked with the Voice yesterday.  He was a man.  I found him talking to Drew, and he wasn’t alone; as he left there were two other men waiting for him.  I’m guessing they were Angels, but I’ve never seen them before, so I don’t know for sure.”

          The reaction was extreme; Henry shared the encounter with them, drawing from his memory so they could see and hear everything.

          Ken said, “My God Henry, why didn’t you say somethin?”

          Henry shrugged his shoulders, responding “Could you have done anything?  I didn’t want to upset anything about yesterday for you guys.”

          Ken made direct eye contact and said, “It’s not about that Henry.  You didn’t have to carry that by yourself.  That’s why we’re here.”

          The appreciation was apparent in what Henry did for them, but there was some admonishment for keeping something so important from them, and a few of them hung shit on him to try and lighten his mood.  At the same time his point was right; what could they have done?

          They all sat silent for a few seconds when Henry spoke again, “This is the first time Drew has ever directly disobeyed me.  It hurts… because I’m scared as hell for him guys.  Whatever that guy said to him I’m sure has something to do with The Master, and Drew won’t budge.  He got really upset the two times I’ve pressed him on it, and I don’t want to keep doing that.  He doesn’t deserve that especially from me.”

          Brad said, “Don’t push him anymore on it Henry.  I think that would be bad.  Just keep an eye on him, even closer than you already do.  And don’t for a second think about keeping something like that from us again.  You’re a part of us, and we share the good stuff with the bad.”

          Loy ruffled Henry’s hair affectionately, which got a slight grin out of him.

          Ken asked, “So you have no idea what this guy said to Drew, huh?  Fuck.”

          Henry continued, “I wonder if the doc or Albrecht might have an opinion on who or what he is?  You heard what he said when I asked him who he was… “There’s no simple answer to that.”  What the hell does that mean?”

          Brad spoke up, “You know guys, I’ve been thinking a lot about who the Voice might be. I’m seeing a pattern.”  Brad looked at Patrick and continued, “Feel free to chime in if you see anything in this.

          “We’re pretty sure that the Voice is Istariel’s father.  I’m also pretty sure, after thinking about it, that he’s the one who left Darren the Book of Loagaeth in Sydney.   I’ve made a few concerted efforts to put memory triggers in my own head in regards to asking Istariel about his father, and each time they disappear.  I have no idea how many times that’s happened, but my gut feeling is that it’s happened far more often than I’ve managed to figure out.  A few times I know my memory was altered by Raphael, but I’m also sure a few times must have been whoever this mysterious Voice is.

          “I don’t think it’s God, based on Henry’s question and how he answered it.  I think he is a part of God.  According to the Bible God is a Triune being… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Maybe he’s one of the three incarnations?  I don’t know… the other two men Henry saw might have been the other two.  He’s a Paradox… he’s all three, but he’s also One.”

          An epiphany ran through them at his words… ‘He’s a Paradox... he’s all three but he’s also One” hit them.  If he was the one pulling the puppet strings… there were ten of them but they were One… had he intervened to fashion their creation to be the same?  That thought and its implications were terrifying.

          Henry interjected, “Brad, if He is God – or even a part of God, what does he want with Drew?  Why is he involved?  He can snap his fingers and do whatever he wants.  He could vaporize The Master with a thought.  Why does he need Drew?”

          Bryan’s deep gravelly voice filled the silence that fell after Henry’s question, “Free Will.  If he snapped his fingers it wouldn’t mean anything.  It has to happen because of Free Will.”

          Ken grinned and said, “You’ve been hangin around that nerd husband of yours too long, Bry.”  Bryan blushed and everyone grinned at his discomfort.

          Pat said, “You’re right, Bry.  That’s definitely part of the Pattern that’s been building around all of this.  I have to back out pretty far to see it.  All our decisions, our sacrifices, the sacrifice of Tony… it’s all a part of this, and the significance is profound!  We aren’t robots… we can’t be.  That’s why our Avatars are a Paradox just like He is.  If we’re on track with this, He’s taking a huge gamble with us… if I Understand things correctly, we could fuck everything up royally if we want too.”

          Brad said, “Yeah… the idea of Pre-destination goes out the window with our Avatars, and I’m still not sure that idea is even valid anyways.  That’s a few years’ discussion with the doc or Albrecht if we had the time.”

          Henry looked angry; veins in his neck were showing, and his face was flushed.  He slapped his fist down on the table and said, “I still want to punch him in the face!  I don’t care who the hell he is… he’s screwing around with my son!  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… Drew doesn’t deserve any of this!”

          Ken sighed and lowered his head, “I know, Henry.  I know it sucks for Drew, and you.  Always remember, we’re with you in this, every step of the way.”

          Loy interjected, “We’ve said this before too Henry, but there’s no man better in all the world than you to be Drew’s dad.  He needs you.  The Voice picked you!  That says a lot – you were hand-picked by God, or a part of Him, to be involved in this.  We’re thankful it’s you.”

Patrick continued “We get what you’re saying Henry, believe me.  Look inside us and see it, but I think it has to be Drew.  He was at the start of all this eighty thousand years ago – he’s the origin of the Pattern, and it has to end with him.  He’s got to be the one to finish it.  It’s sort of another ‘David and Goliath’ story… who would think the instrument to redeem Mankind and remove the Curse would be a little boy?  Who would ever think he could defeat The Master?  It’s unthinkable and unorthodox… but like we’ve also said before, sometimes the best thing you can do is pull a bat-shit crazy stunt to pull your ass out of the fire.”

          Henry sighed, letting all their words sink in.  All of them were mulling over everything in their own thoughts.  Brad brought them completely together and the Conference room vanished as they appeared naked to one another in the place where their Souls were One.  When they closed their eyes the golden liquid light of their Souls was almost blinding.

          Ken held Henry tight:  It gonna be OK, bud.  Somehow it’s all gonna work out.  I believe it and you should too.  You have to, for Drew.  There can be no doubt in your head – no room for negativity.  Drew will pick up on it if it’s there.

          Henry let the dam of his emotions loose and took the comfort Ken and his Brothers offered.  They wrapped him up and supported him, helping him work through his anger and his anxiety.

          When he felt better Brad returned them to the Construct to continue their discussion.

          Darren asked, “So what do we think?  Should we try and work on this more or let it go for now?”

          Brad said, “I think we should let it go.  I think it would be bad to put a spotlight on the Voice for a few reasons.  It will upset Drew, and we need him to focus and continue preparing.  He has enough on his shoulders with whatever the Voice said to him.  I think there’s a reason the Voice is staying behind the scenes, and we don’t want to rock that boat.  There’s got to be a compelling reason he told Drew not to say anything about their conversation”

          Pat said, “I think you’re right Brad.  It sucks, but I think you’re right.”

          Ken used his Captain’s voice, ‘OK guys, we’re movin forward as planned.  We can’t do anythin about this Voice anyways.  If he shows back up or talks to Drew again that we know of, we can rehash this, but until then we plow forward.  Henry you good?”

          Henry sighed, “Yeah Ken.  I don’t have a choice, do I?  I’ll do my part.”

          Ken stood up and said, “OK ladies – those of us in Atlanta hop in the gym and let’s get to it.”

          In their extensive training as soldiers they all learned to compartmentalize things when necessary to focus on the mission, and they were forced to do so over the issue of Drew and whatever or whoever the Voice was.  Henry didn’t have their training, but he followed their lead, and with their help he was able to shoulder the burden.

          He was Drew’s Protector, his dad, and would do whatever necessary to keep him safe and help him to defeat The Master.

 

 

<>< Beyond the Pale ><>

 

          Orophir, hidden and veiled, listened as Luke gave instructions to his most powerful and loyal servants.  Luke’s mood had been foul since the Nephilim hybrids forced him to swear on the Oath-Stone of Heaven to remove himself from the Battle on Earth and leave them alone until The Master was defeated.  It angered him more that they included Thomin in the Oath, so he could not retaliate and gain access to the Vault and its treasures.

          The rest of Creation was fair game, so he focused on areas he had long neglected.  Luke, in his distraction, had not called on Orophir for some time, and Orophir spent his time mastering the Runes his father taught him.  Through much experimentation, he created new and incredibly potent combinations. 

          His mastery over the Runes was as complete as possible without the Book of Loagaeth, or another Arch-Angel to teach him.  He was unsure and afraid of approaching any of the Arch-Angels and revealing his existence. Orophir was convinced his father no longer trusted him, and had given him no further commands or instructions.

          His thoughts turned once again to the memories Brad Wilson shared with him from the alternate reality where another version of himself was destroyed by The Dark One for failing him.  With the insights garnered from that memory, and now eavesdropping on his father, he knew where he stood with Luke.  The sad fact was that he didn’t have any standing with his father – Luke saw him as a tool, and would discard him as such when the time was right, or if he perceived Orophir as a threat.

          He now lived in constant fear, knowing his father could turn on him at any moment. He made the decision to hide from Luke, and so far managed to elude him.  Orophir knew his father was angry, but he wasn’t sure if Luke knew beyond question that it was he who betrayed Thomin’s location, and it was only a matter of time before that knowledge became fact in Luke’s mind.

          Orophir was convinced that, if not already, Luke would soon try to destroy him, so he spent all of his time preparing – he lost count of the Dark Nephilim Souls he drained, using their essence to power Runes and matrices of his own design.

          As he reasoned matters, there were two great risks in regard to his defection.  The first would occur in the next few moments, once he was certain of Luke’s departure from the chamber Orophir was hidden in.  He planned everything meticulously, but Luke would quickly become aware of his actions once he initiated his plan, and that would flag the second great risk.

          His life was forfeit either way, but he wanted to make Luke pay.  Through his decision and actions, he was now an ally of the Nephilim hybrids, although they didn’t know it.  He hoped they would accept him, or he would die much sooner than expected.

          Luke vanished, and Orophir waited.  He knew his father was suspicious, and might remain veiled; he had to be absolutely sure The Dark One was gone before he revealed himself.  Luke’s lieutenants spoke amongst themselves, some complaining about the situation, but none speaking against Luke outright for fear of there being a spy among them.

Orophir waited patiently, and once he was convinced Luke was truly gone, he took a deep breath and moved to the middle of the chamber.  Standing where Luke was moments prior Orophir slipped off the Ring that veiled him.

           The reaction of Luke’s followers was as he expected.  They were ready to attack, and some sent bolts of black power at him, surprised at his sudden appearance.  Their attacks faded before they ever struck his shields; he had prepared long and precisely for the moment, and his defenses held. 

          Bile, the strongest and one of the oldest Demons spoke with a voice that sounded like grating rocks, “Why are you here?”

          Orophir kept his voice steady and confident.  As the offspring of The Dark One they would expect nothing less, and he had to play the part.

          “There is something I need here, and you will assist me.”

          “We do not answer to you, Nephilim.”

          “That is irrelevant.”

          With inhuman grace and agility, he spun – throwing five matrices on the ground around him, each inscribed with Runes to trap and contain the five specific Demons in the chamber.

          They screamed and howled their rage, but his preparation, foresight, and knowledge overcame their raw Power.  Their essence was sucked into the traps and now available to him.

          He collected them quickly and vanished back to his cave to complete the final part of his plan against his Father.

 

<><> 

 

          Orophir’s cave was quiet and empty.  The only light in the chamber came from a dagger floating over a pedestal.  The workmanship was exquisite – the design simple and elegant, while fully functional; it was a thing of beauty.  A dull lifeless gem was set at the base of the pommel.

          Motes of dust, like small fireflies, shone brightly in the light of the dagger as the cave trembled.  All of Luke’s anger and Power was brought to bear on the defenses that Orophir built around his Sanctuary.

          It was inevitable that the defenses would crumble, but even Luke was impressed at what his son managed to accomplish.  The final blow that shattered the defenses was felt throughout the Pale.  The Eschphene stopped and wondered, their Leader calling them together to rally their defenses in case they were under attack.

          The fury Luke felt at his son’s betrayal was as intense as when the Nephilim hybrids trapped him in the Four Corners Ritual on earth. He did not have to restrain his wrath in the Pale; there was no danger of ripping a hole in Reality there as there was on Earth.  The entropic and chaotic forces of the Realm were in a constant state of flux, and his efforts only added to the natural instabilities. 

When Luke discovered it was Orophir that betrayed him he was angry, but when his five most loyal and powerful servants vanished, and he realized it was Orophir who was responsible, it nearly drove Luke to the point of losing control.  His son had grown truly powerful to do such a thing, and Luke had underestimated him. 

Luke suspected that Orophir had more interaction with the hybrid Nephilim than he was aware of; their Avatars must have influenced him.  He realized even more deeply how well designed their Avatars were and whoever their silent benefactor happened to be was a worthy opponent.  Their very existence worked against him.

          He hoped to find his son and destroy him; he had no plans to torture him, wanting the satisfaction of annihilating him and ending his existence.  He expected a fight as he moved into the chamber his son had hidden himself in for so long.

          Luke was impressed with the Runes and his son’s mastery of them.  He took the knowledge Luke fed him and expanded on it.  The combinations used to mask the cave from his presence bordered on genius – yes, he had underestimated his son, and that would not happen again.

          Quiet fell as the dust and rubble settled.  Luke appeared out of the shadows, cautious of traps.  He wasn’t surprised, but he was disappointed that his son was gone; he wished to take care of this business quickly and return to other matters.

          The light of the dagger in the middle of the room caught Luke’s attention.  Anticipating a trap, he moved forward slowly, certain of some form of deception.  He was enthralled by the beauty of the object as it floated above the pedestal.

          A parchment lay on the ground that must have fallen in the shaking of the cave when he broke through the protections.  The symbol meaning “Gift” in the language of Creation covered the vellum.  The calligraphy was stunning and done in a High form; he wondered where Orophir could have learned that.  Luke never taught him the Higher and Lower forms of any of the Runes.

          The craftsmanship of the dagger was exquisite.  It glowed softly, and yet Luke could sense absolutely no Power in it.  Perhaps it was a peace offering from his son?  No matter – he would take it and discover its secrets.

          He destroyed the chamber; the only place his son ever called home.  The empty spirit jars and work area, the tools, everything there Luke destroyed just as he would destroy his son the next time their paths crossed.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken hopped over the top rope of the ring, landing deftly on his feet.  Kevin did the same.  The two men dripped sweat and each grabbed a towel to wipe themselves down.  Their muscles were pumped and veins showed across their bodies from the efforts of their sparring and training. 

          They were breathing heavily but Ken and Kevin both looked happy.  The exhilaration of working out and sparring, of not having to hold back on their strength or abilities gave them a rush like little else.  They were the oldest friends of all the guys and enjoyed their time in the ring – it brought back good memories from their early days in the Navy.

          Ken glanced over at Henry and Bill, who were still going at each other in the adjacent ring.  He noted their form, and they were faultless, their movements fluid perfection.  He admired their bodies – their musculature, accentuated by their sweat, was beautiful to look at – they were grace in motion.  Henry was shorter than Bill and stockier, but he held his own against the height and reach disadvantage.  Even though Henry wasn’t part Nephilim, the genetic alterations of his body by The Enemy gave him agility and dexterity far above that of a normal human; and with his Powers boosted by the Tantric Ritual Albrecht had taught him, he was the physical equal of one of the Bodies.  Henry had come so far in every aspect since he joined them – Ken was extremely proud of him.  He was proud of all of them and made sure they knew it.

          As their leader, and the best fighter among them, he constantly evaluated their skills.  Brad helped with the emotional and mental aspects of their training, but Ken was the focal point.  It was also a part of his Avatar – even before his first Awakening he was their Captain.  Their bonds as Brothers and soldiers ran deep inside all of them, down to their Souls.  The intensity of the feelings they held for each other was profound beyond words. 

          As Ken toweled off, he saw the vein in his biceps protruding.  He caught Brad’s eye and nodded his head towards his arm in a subtle motion – he knew that was one of Brad’s turn-ons and gave his husband that little kid grin he loved so much and flexed his arm.  Brad grinned back, and Kevin rolled his eyes.

          Kevin:  God, get a room!

          Ken: Hey, I can’t help it.  B has good taste!

          Kevin:  Your arm is not good taste Ken.  You don’t have good taste.  You eat at Waffle House for crying out loud.

          Ken:  Hey, you go there too!

          Kevin:  Only because I’m such a good friend I don’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you how shitty the food there really is.

          Ken was about to retort and defend his love of hash browns when they heard the chime of the main door alarm, even in the gym through the noise of Henry and Bill fighting and their own conversation. 

The chime normally meant a delivery, but every time they heard it they tensed.  A few seconds later Sally stuck her head inside the door and they knew immediately something was wrong.

          Brad brought her into their Link and there was no need to talk.  They saw the image of a man in the parking lot, standing and waiting.  He stared at the door, open and exposed, and seemed nervous.  Sally had never seen Orophir in person, but the rest of them recognized the Nephilim immediately.  His actions were unusual enough to cause her concern, so she immediately came to get them. 

          Ken: B! 

          Brad knew Ken’s intent as soon as he shouted his name.  Brad cast his Mind across the planet to Uluru, Australia, contacting Darren.  It was late, but Dar and Pat were in the gym working out with Lane and Bryan, mirroring the training going on in Atlanta.

          Loy and Rick were off duty and on ZEUS.  He hated to bother them, but leaving them out wasn’t an option.  They were laying out on the upper observation deck, naked and holding each other, stargazing.  Loy rested their awareness in the sea life around them – it was how he liked to ‘recharge’ himself.  They had been making love to one another on and off all day and were about to start again when they felt Brad in their Minds.

          Brad brought them all together – Ten, Five, One, plus Henry.  Darren synchronized their Avatars, and in less than a second from the time Sally put her head in the door the rest of the Team appeared in the gym.  Brad knew Loy and Rick were naked and put the illusion of swim trunks on them as they appeared with everyone else.

          Ken said to Sally, “Get the boys back in Henry and Drew’s room until we come get you.”

          That was now standard protocol if anything unusual happened while she was tutoring the boys.  She didn’t see alarm in any of their faces and didn’t panic – their demeanor helped keep her calm, and she did what they asked her quickly and efficiently.

          They all moved to the security monitor by the door.  The camera showed Orophir standing there, but he seemed unnerved and kept glancing about.

          “Dar, take us out.  Put us in front of him, within the Protection of the Runes just in case.”

          Orophir didn’t start or even blink when they appeared in front of him – in fact he looked relieved.  That wasn’t something they expected.

          Ken stepped forward slightly and asked, “Why are you here, Orophir?”

          “I… I seek Sanctuary.  I wish to join you in the fight against my father, The Dark One.”

          At his words, Brad took them down deep into a Construct of the Conference Room where Time nearly stood still.

          All of them were wide eyed.  Orophir was Luke’s son!

          Lane broke the uncomfortable silence: Didn’t see that one coming.  Fuck!  We knew he was powerful, but that explains a LOT.

          Ken: Is it a trap?  Luke shouldn’t be able to involve him until after we beat The Master.

          Brad: Why now?  Something must have happened.  We need to find out more.  He looks nervous – the Runes will stop him if he’s not sincere.  He’s not powerful enough to resist them.

          All of them felt the discomfort inside Ken at the order he was about to give, but Bill pre-empted him.

          Bill: It’s alright Ken.  We have to know.  We can’t take even the slightest chance with Drew if he’s got ulterior motives.

          I’m sorry Bill.  Ken looked at all of them: We all share the burden on this one.  Shields up and be ready.  B, take us back up.

          Orophir was sure they had conversed among themselves.  He had not come to his decision lightly, and knew it would eventually mean his death.  The hybrid Nephilim were his last hope of survival at least for a while.  He was also determined to try and cause as much disruption to his father’s plans as possible before he died.

          He was young, and for most of his short life unaware of anything other than his father’s influence.  He wasn’t initially aware of the Light or the Dark… he simply knew his father.  Luke sheltered him, and Orophir had come to realize that his isolation was a means of controlling him.  He knew Luke wanted to keep him ignorant and dependent – and it worked, until Brad Wilson opened his eyes.

          With his Understanding, Pat saw the objects of Power Orophir wore on his person, all of them defensive in nature and very powerful.

          Ken gestured saying, “You need to take off any Runes you’re wearin.”

          Orophir looked hesitant.  He expected as much, but his life was in jeopardy, “If I take off my ring my father will know where I am.  He will come to kill me.”

          Brad:  Ken, are you sure about this?  I know he could be a powerful ally, and heaven knows we could use one, but if this is a trap we’re screwed.

          Ken:  What’s your gut say?  You too, Lane… are you pickin up any vibes one way or the other?

          Brad closed his eyes and his Avatar flared brightly on his muscled shoulder.  Ken couldn’t help but notice how handsome Brad looked standing there, shirtless and sweaty.  When his Avatar flared, the light reflected off the musculature of his thick shoulders.

          Silently, a deep thread of humor ran through the link as most of the guys wanted to stick their fingers down their throats at his thoughts.  At the same time, it was just shit they hung on him – they all got it and, every one of them thought the same thing all the time about their partners – now husbands.

          I can’t help it guys – situations like this get my adrenaline flowin and….

          Lane:  That’s not all that’s flowin…

          Bryan:  Fuck! Not again!  Bill!  Touch that fucker before these two yahoos start making out in front of us!

          Orophir saw the grins on their handsome faces, but didn’t understand.

          Ken said, “We’ll protect you if he shows up.  You have to understand that we need to be careful.  This is a precaution – it’s called trust, but verify.”

          Orophir stared at them and slowly removed the matrices he wore, putting them on the ground at his feet.  All of them were observing him carefully, ready for anything.  Brad noticed the haggard and forlorn look on his face and wondered what he had been through.  They would find out as soon as Bill touched him.

          Only his ring was left.  He looked directly into Ken’s eyes and said, “Be ready,” and he slipped off the ring.

          Nothing happened immediately.  The objects disappeared as Darren teleported them onto ZEUS for the moment.  He wanted them away from Orophir and any of them for the time being.

          Ken: Good thinkin, Dar.

          Bill:  Here goes nothing. 

          Bill steeled himself, not knowing what to expect.  He reached out and gripped Orophir’s hand firmly.  His Avatar erupted in a silent light show, spitting off bright arcs of color.  Everything about Orophir was now known to them – including his fear and sincerity in seeking Sanctuary. 

          One thing surprised all of them right away – Orophir, while he had consorted with Demons and Luke his entire existence, had done very few evil deeds, and those were in ignorance.  He created Amulets and learned the secrets of the Runes from Luke, passing them on to The Master.  His actions caused many tragedies, hardships, and loss; but he committed few of those actions himself.

          Luke kept him in isolation and emotionally dependent – retarding his development intentionally to control him.  He was a child at heart, and emotionally stunted, terribly lonely, but brilliant, and he gave up everything that made him happy to come and risk his life to join their cause.  The memories that Brad shared of Orophir’s alternate self being killed were the ultimate source of his decision.

          They also saw the trap he laid for Luke with the dagger and what it meant for Orophir if his plan worked.  That shocked all of them, and an immense sadness flooded into the Link at what he had done.  The risks alone were incredible, but the feeling of futility that led him to make such an object, and what he intended to do, shook them hard.

          Orophir created a weapon specifically designed to kill Luke.  He used the idea of the Blood Curse and translated the language of Creation using Runes.  He inverted multiple layers of Power and deception – even Luke would not be able to see the intent of the weapon.  The Runes were all in place and needed only one last component to activate them – Orophir’s death; his essence, created from the essence of his father, rather than blood, would complete the matrix and invoke the Curse.

          They stood with wide eyes, taking in the knowledge of what they learned, and dealing with the emotions of the pitiful creature standing before them.  He had known little happiness and never been loved and already planned his death as if his life had no value or meaning – to him it didn’t, and certainly not to his father.  Even sadder to them was that Orophir didn’t even realize or understand his own misery – to him it was normal and all he had known.

          Orophir’s eyes went wide at Bill’s touch, and he muttered, “What a wondrous gift!” He looked at Bill with reverence, and his voice literally quivered, “Would that I had such a gift!”     

          Bill knew that Orophir was a curious creature – he strove to understand things.  Existence to him was a puzzle, and he delved into any mystery with voraciousness.  The happiest moments of his life were in his cave tinkering with his Amulets and mastering the objects his father instructed him to make.  He was brilliant, but his emotional growth was stunted.  He set out to learn and grow when he first started down the path of betraying Luke, and they saw that.  He had learned much of betrayal, but his experience was badly skewed.

          One unexpected piece of knowledge hit them hard – The Master was very close to discovering blood relatives of Kevin.  Orophir spied on The Master as well as his father and heard much of his plans.  His servants were currently scouring Tucson, Arizona, digging for the final connections that would enable him to call another Blood Curse.  There were clues leading to Rick’s family as well, but those were still vague and unclear, whereas Kevin’s was immediate.

          Even with the emotional reaction to everything they just discovered they were ready, as Luke appeared only a few feet from them.  He did not look happy.

          Brad brought everyone tighter together, and their Shields flared.  Orophir, trusting them, was defenseless without his devices.  He was a powerful Nephilim, but no match for his father.

          Luke still held the dagger he found in Orophir’s cave.

          “So… you come to them.”

          Surprisingly, Orophir sounded confident, his deep voice didn’t waver as he replied, “You gave me no choice, Father.  I have watched and listened to you in secret, and heard all you said about me to your underlings.  I saw my death at your hands in another reality, and I know that I am nothing to you but a useful tool, to be discarded once you are finished with me.”

          “I should never have given you life.  You will wish that were so before I am done with you.  Your death will be painful beyond belief.”

          Ken put his hand on Orophir’s shoulder and squeezed it.  He gently but firmly pulled Orophir back and stepped in front of him.  Orophir crossed the line into the Protection of the Runes in the Lab, and there was no reaction.

          Ken looked at Luke and said, “He’s under our Protection now.”

          Eerily, Luke vanished without another word.  The parking lot was deathly quiet, and they were still tense, expecting something to happen.  After a few seconds, they all breathed a sigh of relief.  Luke could not act directly against them, but he was still one of the most powerful beings in existence, and they were on his shit list.

          Brad:  We need to let Michael and the others know about this.  Orophir is the proof they need to Link Luke to sharing information. 

          Ken’s Avatar flared brightly on his muscled shoulder as he looked up to the Heavens.  His voice echoed with power as he shouted in his Mind into the Spiritual and Physical Realms:  Michael!

          Michael appeared in front of them wearing blue jeans and the black leather jacket they were accustomed to seeing him in.

          Michael’s gaze swept over all of them and stopped on Orophir.  A slight crease in his forehead showed, and he looked at Ken questioningly.

          “We found the proof you need.  Orophir here is Luke’s son.  Luke’s been usin him to pass information on to The Master and The Enemy here on earth.”

          Ken expected Michael to be happy, but they were all surprised when his face contorted in fury and his sword appeared in his hands blazing with Light, pointed directly at Orophir.  A bolt of Power shot from his sword but hit the barrier of the Runes – the shockwave nearly knocked the Mentalists off their feet, including Orophir, who went white as a sheet.

          Ken interposed himself and shouted, “What the hell!?  Grandfather stop!  He came to us for protection!”

          Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel all appeared as Ken grabbed Michael and threw him back.  His large body sailed through the air, and as he flipped his wings appeared, stopping him about thirty feet above the parking lot.

          Ken took a defensive stance, ready to defend himself and Orophir.  All the men were with him, backing him up. 

Ken:  Dar, Pat, Bry, and Lane take Orophir to ZEUS! Get him out of here!  Add his name to the matrix so he can stay there for now.  Loy, Rick, I’m sorry guys; I know that was your alone time, but I don’t want him near Drew.

They all vanished and Michael shouted, “What have you done!?”

Ken shouted back, not giving an inch, “I told you he’s under our Protection!  Calm the fuck down!”

The other Arch-Angels looked confused.  Michael summoned them, but they didn’t know the situation.

Raphael looked at Brad:  What is going on?

Brad gestured and four memory spheres shot out of his hand, each going to one of the Arch-Angels.

Michael landed and walked up to Ken, still furious, “The darkling must be destroyed!  He was the instrument used to break one of the First Mandates!”

Raphael interjected, “He is a child Michael, and not his father.  He was used.  You see this!”

Brad:  I left out the memory of the dagger and what Orophir plans to do.  I don’t want them knowing about that, especially the way Michael’s acting.

Ken:  Good thinkin, B.  He surprised the hell outta me, reactin this way. 

Michael’s sword and wings vanished. 

Ken looked at him and said, “I thought you’d be happy we found proof.  Orophir’s not the one you need to blame.  He came to us and risked his life.  He’s the reason you found Thomin in time and the Vault is safe.  He doesn’t deserve the attitude.”

Michael looked at Raphael and said, “Call everyone together.  We must meet to discuss this.”

He turned away and vanished.  Raphael noticed the hurt look on Ken’s face.

Do not worry Ken, he is not angry with you. This is a complicated situation.

The other Arch-Angels vanished, and Ken sighed.

Brad put a hand on Ken’s shoulder, giving him a squeeze of comfort.

Loy:  He’ll calm down Ken.  Don’t worry. 

Rick ruffled Ken’s sweaty hair and said:  Sucks being the adult doesn’t it?  Nice throw on your granddad there by the way. 

Ken grinned and thought with a sigh:  It’s always somethin around here.

He pulled his thoughts together and thought:  Henry, Bill, and Kev, you guys go check on the boys.  Make sure they’re OK… bein shunted off to their rooms might have ’em a bit spooked.

He turned back to Loy and Rick:  Guys, I’m really sorry about sending Orophir to ZEUS.  There’s nowhere else we can keep him right now.

Rick:  It’s no big deal Ken.  It’s a big boat!  It’s not like we make out 24/7.

Loy grinned:  Well… actually we kinda do.

Rick laughed:  Yeah, OK we’ll have to tone things down a notch, but honestly we’ll deal with it.  Orophir will just have to get used to us running around naked.  Or whichever one of you pervs is there besides us.

Ken:  From now on, whoever’s on their off time will have to spend it on ZEUS.  I don’t want Orophir left alone.

Henry:  So you’re forcing us to stay on a luxury yacht in the Pacific on our time off?  You bastard!

They all got a laugh out of his comment, but Ken’s face turned serious again:  Guys, we need to jump on that Intel about Kevin’s relatives.  Orophir didn’t know specifics, but if The Master is close to findin Rick’s family, we have to get movin.  B, have Dar get himself, Kevin, Bry, and Lane back to Australia; and Loy and Rick back to ZEUS.  Let’s all get cleaned up.  Trainin’s over for the day.  In an hour B will pull us all together to figure out our move about Kev’s family.

          An hour later, in a Construct of the Conference Room of the Atlanta Lab, the eleven men plus the doctor and Albrecht sat around the table.  Kevin looked tense and Bill held his hand under the table.  They were deeply merged in support of Kevin.

          Ken stood at the lectern looking every inch their leader.

          “Doc, we need more information on the Blood Curse.  Can anyone in our families be used?”

          “It must be an immediate direct line – mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter.  Nieces, Nephews, Cousins, Aunts or Uncles can be used in other ways, but none for the full Curse.”

          Albrecht interjected, “We are unsure if the lesser, secondary curses would affect you.  Being part Nephilim might make you immune… there is no way to be sure without a test, which we cannot perform.  If they do effect you, the results would most likely be less than expected.”

          The doctor’s face was stern when he said, “The manner in which the victim is Exsanguinated is extreme and time consuming.   Old Blood magic is strong but also limited in when and how it can be used.  My main concern is that if Kevin has any extended family, they can all be used as leverage against all of you as well as others in his immediate family.”

          When Henry recovered the body of Ken’s brother Richard, Bill Read him.  Bill transferred everything about Richard to Ken as a gift, knowing he would want to know all there was to know about the brother he barely knew.  One of the hardest parts of that knowledge was his pain and torture at the hands of The Master as the Blood Curse was being invoked.  It took a full lunar cycle, and Richard was tortured the entire time – it was brutal and horrific.

          Ken’s wounds were still fresh from the pain of losing his brother and his mother.  The knowledge that they were in Heaven was comforting, but there was still a deep sorrow in him over what was taken from him.

          Ken was suddenly very aware of his wedding ring, and the knowledge that Brad was with him now as his husband was a boon he never expected.  He took a deep breath and focused back in the moment.

          “OK.  The only real Intel we have from Orophir is that The Master’s flunkies are searchin Tucson, Arizona.  Does anyone have any ideas on how to track down Kevin’s family?”

          Pat said, “If I’m in visual range of Kevin and a family member I’ll see the connection.  Any of you would too, but we can’t just drive around Tucson looking.”

          Brad added, “His family doesn’t know about Kevin either, so scanning for memories randomly won’t work; we’d have to go really deep to find that type of connection.  I’m not sure, but I think it would be the same for Bry trying to use the Tree.  We don’t know the Souls were looking for.”

          Lane mused, more to himself than really asking the question, “Why haven’t I had any Dreams about them?  Or about your family Ken?  Or any of us?”

          Again the doctor looked stern, “I believe it is because of your nature, the way you are invisible to the Higher Powers.  I have no way to prove that theory, but it makes sense.   Whoever or whatever is pulling the puppet strings in regards to all the events leading up to Drew’s confrontation with The Master most likely is responsible for that, Lane.  The same aspect that makes you invisible to the Higher Powers I believe keeps your Avatars from seeing them.  That is just a theory, however.  Once The Enemy have found any of your relatives, they employed the use of one of Orophir’s Amulets to block that aspect of your Avatar.”

          Brad added, “We know The Master’s servants are digging in people’s memories.  They’re finding connections even in their unconscious memories.  They must have been searching for a few decades to find the few they have, and even then they’ve gotten lucky.”

          “I agree, Bradford.  The initial clues were most likely mere chance, but their diligence and perseverance have prevailed.  I am sorry I was not able to do more.  I feel the blame for this on my shoulders.”

          “Doc, we talked about this.  None of us blames you.  You did an amazin job keepin our identities secret.  This is just bad luck pure and simple.”

          Darren spoke for the first time, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Luke was involved in this in some way, shape, or form.  I know he couldn’t be because of the Oath, but before that he was already pissed when you guys rescued me from Thomin’s cave.  There might be some of that mess left over.”

          Albrecht replied, “That is a strong possibility.”

          Ken said, “Well, for now, none of that matters.  If it was bad luck or Luke… we need to figure out a way to find Kevin’s family.  We also need a plan once we do.”   

          Kevin’s brow furrowed and he said, “Yeah, their lives will never be the same.  If we find them, and they survive, their lives will be ruined because of me.”

          Bryan, sitting next to Kevin, lightly smacked the back of his head saying, “Cut that shit out, Kev.  All this started when Drew and The Master were born in the Valley, eighty fucking thousand years ago.”

          Bryan caught himself and said, “Sorry, Doc.”

          He continued, “We didn’t start this… but we’re sure going to finish it.  If anyone started this, it’s Luke… The Master never woulda done what he did if not for that slimy bastard.”

          Kevin sighed, but his eyes were bright, “Thanks, Bry.  Yeah, I get it guys.  Sorry.  So what are we gonna do?”

          Loy said, “I say we go set up shop in Tucson and wing it.  I can use all the local animals to help us look for Enemy Agents.  More than likely they have some of those leftover Amulets that Orophir gave The Master, so we probably won’t be able to detect them.  But they still give off bad vibes that animals might sense.  We go there and hit the streets old school style – like we did in Syria in the good ole days.”

          Ken nodded, “That’s the best idea anyone’s had yet.  Henry, you’ll stay here with the boys and Sally.  Doc I hate to ask, but I need you or Albrecht to stay with Orophir on ZEUS and the other to stay in Australia until we’re back.  We’re stretched pretty thin right now.”

          The doctor nodded, “Of course, Kenneth.”

          Albrecht nodded his assent as well.

          Ken said, “OK ladies, let’s get to it.  Bill, contact everyone in fifteen minutes, and we’ll head to Tucson.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Twenty minutes later, they walked into the lobby of the Tucson Marriott University Park Hotel.  Located downtown and close to the college campus, it was somewhat centrally located and would work as a good base of operations. 

          Darren booked their rooms using one of his untraceable credit cards.  Kevin kept his Avatar synchronized with the other Bodies to keep their Auras masked and invisible to any Enemy agents that might be in the Area.

          Brad kept them all in a Link for communications.

          Ken:  OK guys.  Loy, you do your thing.  If you need help or backup speak up.  Brad and Lane, keep your guts attuned to anything.  Bill and Bry, you guys can cover the local news station’s internet archives.  Everyone else, chip in and help when or where you’re needed.  Me and Kev are gonna find food for all you bottomless pits.  Come on, Kev.

          Ken walked up to the Concierge desk and the young woman almost melted.  It was hot in Tucson so all the guys wore shorts and t-shirts and only brought backpacks with a change of clothes and their toiletries.  Ken’s t-shirt was sleeveless and hugged his body; between his physique, especially in her eyes his biceps, and his devastating looks, the young lady was beside herself.  His smile caused her to stutter, and he put her at ease with that way he had with people.  He got the information he wanted and thanked her.

          Kevin was smiling at him as he walked back up and said, “You enjoy that, don’t you?  You fucker.”

          Ken got an innocent look on his face and said, “What?”

          Kevin just shook his head with a slight grin.

          Ken wanted to keep Kevin close and distracted.  Kevin knew what he was doing but still appreciated it.  Ken had his hand on Kevin’s shoulder as they walked out of the lobby through the main entrance.

          They were only a few blocks away from the hotel when Kevin saw the sign and knew exactly where Ken was headed.

          “You gotta be shitting me Ken!”  Kevin actually laughed.

          “Hell no, Kev.  We never get ‘In and Out’ burgers in Atlanta.  I say we take full advantage of bein here.  This’ll be our grease fix for the year.”

          “What about hash browns at Waffle House?”

          “Those don’t count, and don’t bring facts into this anyways.  I get enough of that shit from Brad.”

          I heard that.

          Kevin couldn’t help the laugh that burst out of him at Brad’s comment.

          The talk of food plus the smell as soon as they walked in the door caused Ken’s stomach to let out a cavernous rumble.  Kevin just shook his head in amazement and walked up to the counter with Ken.

 

<>< 2 Days Earlier ><>

 

          Dr. Archibald Ferris, head of the History Department at Arizona State University, better known to his friends as Archie, was wrapping up his evening lecture class. He enjoyed teaching night classes; the students were more serious and studious, and for the current Semester he was teaching World Civilization I, one of his undergraduate classes to teach.  Amanda, his wife of thirty-two years, took advantage of the two nights a week he taught class to join her Bridge club, so he didn’t feel guilty about not being home.

          The only one put out by his schedule was Mr. Buckles, their miniature Pomeranian, who took being left alone as a personal insult and would most likely leave a ‘surprise’ on the carpet for them in protest.  The rule was whoever got home first cleaned up the mess, unless one of their kids happened to stop by the house unexpectedly, and then they usually took care of it.

          As Archie made his way to the parking lot, the sky was clear.  The evening was warm, dry, and beautiful.  He put the top down on his convertible, the car his wife teasingly called his ‘midlife crisis car’ although she drove one too, and he started towards home.  He turned on the radio and changed the station to Talk Radio.  Archie was a diehard Liberal, but he prided himself on listening to different viewpoints, so he usually tuned in to a local Conservative Talk show.  He tried, but the panel of speakers that night – practically every night he thought – were all arguing and yelling over one another.  The immaturity and rudeness blaring through the speakers started his blood pressure rising so he switched the car over to Bluetooth and found a playlist on his phone. 

          Traffic was light, and once he started listening to music the drive went much better.  He decided on a whim to stop by Starbuck’s and pick up two Iced Caramel Macchiatos for him and Amanda. 

          Ten minutes later as he pulled into the house he noticed a black Escalade parked in the driveway.  Lights were on in the house so he assumed Amanda arrived home first and a friend from her Bridge club must have dropped by for a visit. 

Amanda liked to entertain, and occasionally host her Bridge club – they lived in a large upscale neighborhood, and the square footage of their house was enormous.  Archie didn’t care about having such a big place, but Amanda insisted on a house fit for the Department Head of a major University.  Archie loved his wife and would never criticize her, but she was stuffy about social status, whereas Archie didn’t care.

          With his satchel over his shoulder, Archie fumbled with the lock, juggling the two Macchiatos while opening the door.  As soon as the door opened he hollered, “Hey, honey!  I’m home!”

          He went into the kitchen and set the drinks down, and started through the den to his office to put up his satchel. 

          As soon as he saw Amanda in the den he immediately knew something was wrong.  Something in her posture was different.  He moved into the den and his life changed in an instant.  Jerry, his son and the older of his two children sat on the couch next to his wife Laura, and Renee his daughter sat next to her husband Zack.  They seemed frozen, their faces expressionless.  Amanda stood in the middle of the room, stiff as a board, her eyes wide and terrified and her cheeks wet with tears. 

          Four strange men occupied the room, one well-dressed man, and three large extremely muscular men dressed in black jeans and black t-shirts.  An icy ball of fear hit Archie in his stomach – an aura of fear he had never felt before struck him hard.  Before he could react, the well-dressed man’s eyes flashed a dark red and Archie’s mind was trapped.

          Amanda was forced to witness her children and her husband being controlled.  She wasn’t allowed to speak or move, but they left her Mind clear.  The well-dressed man delighted in the waves of terror running through her.

 

<><><> 

 

          When Archie came to, he sat in a chair at the breakfast table off the kitchen.  Everything snapped back to him, and he panicked but couldn’t move.  He wasn’t tied up, but couldn’t move.  His mind, his beliefs, didn’t account for what he felt or what was happening to him.  He didn’t believe in God, or Satan, or magic… his faith was in humanity.

          Archie heard the well-dressed man laughing inside his Mind:  That’s humorous Archibald… if we haven’t changed your mind already, my Master will be here soon, and then you will see true Evil.

          As badly as I want to break you now, I must be patient and wait.  I have permission to play with your wife and children – not their bodies but their Minds.  It’s too bad about your daughter… she’s delightfully attractive, and her husband Zack is quite a stud too… my associates wouldn’t mind taking a turn with either one of them.  They will probably get their wish once my Master arrives. 

          For now, though, I need information from you, Archie.  I will not let you talk, but I am releasing your Mind enough to think on your own.  The memories I need are buried deep, and you need to think about them and bring them further up for me.  We must be sure.

          Archie couldn’t believe what was happening to him.  He couldn’t even shake, but started sweating from the fear.

          Do you have a brother?

          A brother?  No!  I’m an only child!

          Are you sure?  There is no possibility?  Think hard Archibald… your wife’s and children’s lives depend on your answer.

          Archie knew immediately what the man was looking for.  He never knew his mother; in fact, he didn’t even know she was alive until her lawyer contacted him.  He was in his mid-twenties, right after he finished his Master’s Degree in History, when he discovered she was dying from complications related to advanced Alzheimer’s; in one of her lucid moments she told her lawyer about Archie, and asked him to contact her son.

          The memory was uncomfortable, and he tried most of his adult life to bury it.  The well-dressed man latched onto it and immersed him in it; taking him back against his will to that day.

 

          Archie was in massive student loan debt from his graduate degree when he was contacted by a lawyer claiming to represent his dying mother.  Being raised in foster homes, he never knew his birth mother.  He was surprised at her condition when the lawyer explained everything to him; she seemed young for Alzheimer’s.

          According to the lawyer, his mother lived in a Nursing Home in Phoenix, a few hours’ drive by car, and said if Archie contacted her, he would receive a small inheritance. 

He went for the money; he didn’t know the woman, and frankly didn’t want to know her.  She had abandoned him as a child, and if he wasn’t in so much debt he wouldn’t even bother with the drive.

          He hated what he called ‘old people’ homes.  They smelled and were depressing.   He made his way to her room and stood looking at the door.  It was a private room, and he wasn’t sure if he should knock or just go in, but a Nurse saved him the decision when she came up to the door.

          “Can I help you?”

          “Yes, I’m here to see Leona Abrams.  She’s my mother.  Her lawyer told me she was here.”

          Archie wasn’t sure how to interpret the look the Nurse gave him.  She opened the door and nodded for him to go in.  

<><> 

          Raphael stood in the room, veiled from the mortals.  Leona Abrams needed to be lucid if only for a few moments, a near impossibility given her condition, but it was a miracle he would make happen.  She was nearly gone and Uriel would take her soon, but Raphael’s instructions were clear on what needed to happen before she passed. 

          Archie saw his mother’s feet first, under a blanket, from the small alcove where he stood just inside the door.  A powerful smell hit him and made him nauseous.   The nurse cleared her throat, and he moved forward until he could see all of her.  She looked so… frail; she was incredibly thin and appeared to be sleeping.  Her skin was nearly translucent and covered with age and liver spots.

          He moved to the bedside and her eyes opened slightly.  Her eyes were droopy and watery, but her face lit up into a beatific smile when she saw him, and her bony hands reached for him.  The feel of her dry, thin skin disgusted him, and he pulled back.

          Her voice was weak and it trembled as she said, “Keith?  Is that you?”

          “It’s Archie.  Archibald.”

          “Oh.  I thought you were Keith, my son.  I named him after my husband you know.”

          He didn’t know what to do.  She was not making sense and had him confused with someone else. 

          “I’m your son Archie.  Your lawyer contacted me.  He said you had something for me.”

          She looked confused and her body trembled so badly she couldn’t really do much, but she tried to reach for the drawer beside her bed.  Impatient, he opened it for her.  There was a small manila envelope inside.  He put it into her hands. 

          Her hands shook so violently it took her a moment to open it. 

          “I want you to have this.  To remember me.”

          The Nurse stepped over and said, “Ms. Abrams don’t get too excited.  You need your rest.”

          Archie took the envelope and looked inside.  There were a few photographs and a small silver locket that was tarnished badly.  One of the pictures showed a much younger version of his mother with an infant on her lap.  Another must have been a picture of her and her husband, Archie’s father. 

          He put the pictures and the locket back in the envelope and looked at her.  The way she stared at him made him uncomfortable.  It was like she wanted something from him, and he didn’t know what it was.  He took the envelope and left quickly.

          He heard her call out to him as the door shut, but he kept moving down the hall, the envelope clutched in his hand.  He fulfilled his obligation, and when he got back to Tucson he called the Lawyer and told him he visited his mother.  The Lawyer called the nursing home and verified that Archie had signed the register at the front desk.

           A few weeks later he received a check in the mail for a much larger sum of money than he expected; enough to clear out most of his student loan debt.  He also learned that his mother died that same day, shortly after he left. 

 

          The emotions of that day came rushing back and he felt ashamed at his behavior and treatment of a dying woman; regardless of whether or not she was his mother, no one deserved what he did to her.  He had changed so much since his college days.  Meeting Amanda and having his own children; he became a good father and husband, and he was not the same person he used to be.  In the back of his mind he always regretted his actions that day.

          Laughter filled his Mind, as the well-dressed man felt his shame and embarrassment.  He forced Archie to relive the encounter with his dying mother over and over.

Those emotions are the least of what you will feel once my Master arrives. 

          The well-dressed man knew his Master needed every bit of evidence aside from the memories.  Memories could lie, or become inaccurate over time.  He looked back to shortly after Archie returned home; he needed to find the envelope with the pictures and the locket.  Even with everything Archie felt all those years ago, he couldn’t bring himself to throw the items away.  They were hidden in a trunk in the attic; even Amanda didn’t know about them.  It was the one secret he ever kept from her.

          The well-dressed man turned to one of the large muscular men and said, “There is a manila envelope hidden in a trunk in the attic.  There are pictures and a small tarnished silver locket inside.  Find the envelope, and bring it to me.  Do not touch it.”

          Archie was released enough to talk, and in the midst of his fear he found his voice, “Why are you here?  What do you want!?”

          “If you are the one we seek, we need something very important from you.  We might also take it from your son and daughter; that will be up to my Master.  Your wife and daughter-in-law are disposable.  Your son-in-law might be useful; that will remain up to him.”

          “I’m just a History Professor!  I’m nobody!  Please let my family go!  Keep me, and do whatever you want, but let them go!  Please!”

          Archie had never felt so desperate or afraid.  He was helpless; powerless to do anything about the situation.  He made eye contact with Amanda and saw her tears, begging him to do something.  His own tears were as much from frustration as fear.

          One of the big muscular men came into the den from the kitchen and handed one of the Macchiatos to the well-dressed man.  “Thank you, Kyle.”  He took a sip and smiled, “Ahhhh… I love Starbuck’s.”

          An odd silence fell over the house; the only sound was the big man in the attic moving things around.  It wasn’t long before he came back into the room, shirtless, his body dripping with sweat from the intense heat in the attic.  He had a damp towel wrapped around his thick neck.  He walked over to the well-dressed man and held out the envelope.  Archie noticed he wore thin latex gloves on his hands.

          The well-dressed man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and took the envelope without touching it.

          “Did you open it?”

          “Only enough to make sure it’s the one you want.  I didn’t touch anything.”

          “You are sure?  If the objects are contaminated, He will not be pleased.”

          “I was careful.”

          “Very good.”

          “Any word on his arrival?”

          “He will be here late tomorrow afternoon.  You should go and get us food, or send one of the others.  You know what I like.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          The three large men conferred in the kitchen, and a minute later Archie heard the door shut and the Escalade leave the driveway.

          In the shock and confusion Archie had completely forgotten about Mr. Buckles, who was upstairs under the bed in the master bedroom.  The tiny dog felt the Dark Aura of the men as soon as they came in the house.  He was old, and the terror that consumed his limited intellect overcame any desire to defend his humans.  He ran to his safe spot and cowered there trembling uncontrollably; even hours later he still shook.

He was hungry and thirsty, but his survival instincts told him to stay hidden.  Mr. Buckles did whine and yelp when he heard the screams start downstairs, but the noise overshadowed his own cries.  He was a Pomeranian, not a hound, but even his nose smelled the blood.

Hours after the screaming stopped he felt a new Presence in the house.  It was pure Evil, and his tiny heart beat so hard it nearly burst.  He whimpered and whined, pushing himself against the wall under the bed.

Moments later footsteps came up and the light came on.  Mr. Buckles couldn’t help the yelp that escaped him; the terror was just too much.  Feet walked into the room to the edge of the bed, and he saw knees on the floor as a man leaned down to look under the bed.

Mr. Buckles’s big brown eyes reflected the scene.  It wasn’t just a man he was looking at, it was the Evil inside the man he sensed.

Suddenly his trembling stopped.  A calm washed through him as the Presence of the Steward filled him, looking through his eyes.  He felt a wonderful sense of calm and Completion – His Steward was back in the world and with him, where he belonged, and he no longer had anything to fear.

I’m so sorry little one.  If I bring you to me they will realize we’re here.  There is no more need to be afraid, I’ve got you.  You were brave to hide, and you made a difference, more than you will ever know.

For some reason Loy remembered Liz’s words to Uriel just before her sacrifice:

Will it hurt?

No Child it will not hurt.  I will be with you until the end, and it will be peaceful.  You will simply go to sleep and never wake up.

 

With tears streaming down his handsome face, Loy snapped the bond holding Mr. Buckles’s Spirit to his tiny body, and called the Spirit to him across the city.  Loy made it peaceful for the tiny animal, and painless.

The Protector found the tiny dog, lifeless, hiding under the bed thinking its heart had burst.  He grabbed the body, still warm and limp.  Since it was dead, he tossed the body into the bathtub and went back downstairs. 

 

<><  Present ><>

 

          Ken and Kevin made it back with all the burgers, and while everyone hung shit on them for getting such greasy food and onion rings, in minutes there was no food left and everybody picked through the bags for more.

          Bill was scanning the news feeds with Bryan’s help.  Brad and Lane cast their thoughts over the city, helping each other filter and sense for anything out of the ordinary.  They knew The Enemy would most likely have Orophir’s Amulets with them to prevent detection, but someone might have seen or felt something they might pick up on.  They weren’t hopeful; it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but they made the effort.  It was difficult and uncomfortable, more often physically painful, to be in the thoughts of normal humans, but they helped to shield one another as best they could.  Ken and Bryan did their best to be a buffer against the ‘fucked-upness’ Brad and Lane immersed themselves in while scanning for anything that might help.

          Loy put himself into all the animals in the city and the surrounding area.  It would take time to look through their eyes.  Usually being inside animals was comforting to him, and he could meditate in their presence for hours.  But he found in Atlanta, and most large cities, there was more abuse and neglect occurring than he could ever have imagined, and Tucson wasn’t any different.  It was difficult, because once the animals sensed his presence he felt responsible for them and their situation – they looked to him for protection.

          Starving dogs tied up for days outside in the hot Arizona sun with little or no food or water hurt him deeply.  Rick stayed with him, holding him from behind, with his big arms wrapped around his husband, trying to help ward off the harshness he felt.

          The natural cycle of predator and prey did not affect Loy – it was a natural part of the Cycle of Life and expected.  Cruelty and neglect by humans towards creatures that were dependent on them for their care and survival was another matter. He vowed to one day correct all those transgressions.

          He breathed deep and continued, taking comfort in Rick’s strong warm body against his, wrapped up by his big arms and the surrounding Souls of his Brothers.  If he could only limit his Awareness to one species or another his search would go much faster, but they couldn’t risk overlooking anything and the number of animals in a city the size of Tucson was staggering.

          Looking through different types of eyes slowed him down and gave him a headache.  Snakes, spiders, rodents, dogs, cats, and lizards had anatomically different eyes and visual perceptions, and he had to take the time to sort the images.  The varying intelligence and empathy levels were also extreme, but he couldn’t afford to let anything slip by, so he was being painstakingly thorough.

          After searching for nearly two hours his body jerked upright and his eyes suddenly filled with fresh tears.  He shut down the terror he felt before it overwhelmed him and spread through the Link.  He knew that feeling – there were few entities in the Physical Realm that could induce that kind of fear.

          Loy threw himself into the tiny animal cowering under the bed in a house across the city.  He Read its Spirit and the last two days of its uncomfortable, terrified existence filled his Mind.  He felt Mr. Buckles’s heart, about to burst in fear, and saw the man kneeling down about to find him.  His own heart reacted with a burst of adrenaline in reaction to what he felt and he slowed down his perception of Time to nearly a standstill.

I’m so sorry little one.  If I bring you to me, they will realize we’re here.  There is no more need to be afraid, I’ve got you.  You were brave to hide, and you made a difference, more than you will ever know.

With tears streaming down his handsome face, Loy snapped the bond holding Mr. Buckles’s Spirit to his tiny body, and called the Spirit to him across the city.  It appeared as a small glowing ball if Light in his hands.  His Avatar flared on his shoulder through his t-shirt, and by its Light Mr. Buckles became corporeal.

The tiny dog snuggled against Loy’s big frame, wiggling in happiness at being with his Steward.  He attacked Loy’s face with his tongue, licking every inch he could reach, especially his salty tears.

Everyone felt his reaction and was with him in an instant.  All that he Read from the small Pomeranian was known to them as well.  The Master was in the house where Mr. Buckles lived.  They heard the screams in his memory and smelled the blood.

Kevin’s anxiety spiked – whoever owned that house was most likely related to him.   He was terrified for his unknown relatives, whoever they were, and what was happening to them.  What The Master did to them was not his fault, but it was because of him and who he was. 

Ken:  Ten, Five, One.  Loy show Dar where to go.

Loy:  Show me little one.

The Spirit lost its physical form and shot through the wall of the hotel room.  Loy was with it, flying across the city, back to its body.  They were all with Loy and Kevin had the Avatars of the Bodies synchronized, masking their Auras from The Enemy.

Half a block from the house, Loy crossed a barrier – some type of warding.  Rick, deep inside of Loy, looked with his Understanding.  They could not physically cross it or teleport through it.  The Enemy had warded the area against them.  He followed the Spirit; that part of his Avatar ignored the warding.  The tiny Spirit entered the house and Loy saw the carnage.

Back in his body Loy let out a, “Fuck me!”  The living room was a bloodbath, and body parts were strewn about the room.  The Master, four Protectors, and two well-dressed men were getting into two Escalades in the driveway.  There were two men who looked disheveled, one young and muscular and the other older.  The older man was thin with wispy thinning hair blowing in the breeze.  They were both under the control of the well-dressed men with The Master.  The older man looked haggard and his eyes were bloodshot from tears.  Both captives had a few days’ growth of beard on their faces.  They were put in separate vehicles and the two Escalades drove off in different directions.

They groaned inside at the thought of what the two men had already gone through, held captive by The Enemy for days.  Ken knew if The Master got those men back to one of his strongholds there was little chance of rescuing them.  It had to be done now while they had the element of surprise. 

Ken:  As far as we know, they don’t know we’re here.  Loy, keep The Master’s vehicle in sight.  Whatever you do don’t lose ’em.  The rest of us’ll make a plan.  Kev don’t worry; they aren’t gettin away. Get the other tag number so we can track the second Escalade. I’m bettin The Master is keepin Kev’s brother with him so stay on that one.

Loy moved to the window and pulled the drapes back.  It was a hot beautiful day in Tucson; the sky was cloudless.  He vanished, appearing high in the air over the house where the Spirit of Mr. Buckles waited.

Go little one and be reborn.  Thanks for your help; you were awesome!

He felt the joy in the tiny Spirit at his praise, and the unconditional love it had for him.  Loy felt it slip from the Physical Realm, going back to be reborn.

Even as he started to fall, his form shimmered and transformed into a Golden Eagle.  It had the eyesight and speed he needed to track the Escalade while the rest of the Team formulated a plan.  He had the license plate number of the second vehicle in his memory so they could track it.

Rick was inside him, masking his Aura just in case.  As an eagle, his ability to see was incredible, and he had no issue following them from even a mile away.  The exhilaration he felt in the form was dampened by the need and anxiety in Kevin and the mission, but it still leaked through. 

 

<><><> 

 

          The Master brutally held and dominated the mind of the human, Archibald Ferris.  The absolute and utter terror the man exuded was intoxicating, and he feasted on it.  He had no care if the man went insane… The Master only needed his body and blood not his Mind, and for him to live long enough to perform the Ritual.

          Ken Habbersham escaped the Blood Curse, against inconceivable odds.  In fact, The Master knew there had been some form of interference against his will.  His servants had been thorough in their diligence.  He killed Samuel Evander regardless, to instill the fear of failure in his other servants.  He knew the pettiness of the human mind, and knew his Awakened servants could become overconfident and complacent.  Their powers over humans were nearly absolute, but against the new Warriors of The Order they were like children.

          The Master pondered the new Warriors, even as he thought about his brother.  How his brother’s Soul could be on Earth was a mystery.  The Master still didn’t understand the significance or how his brother’s presence could lead to his defeat.  The Curse was unbreakable; Eternal… and yet Aaron Thomas claimed they knew how to defeat him.  False bravado from the leader of fools.  He would relish the day when he could eat Aaron Thomas’s heart, still warm and beating out of his lifeless body.

          Archibald Ferris continued to moan as Black fire licked his Mind and his Soul, and The Master breathed in his fear, letting it sooth his mind; thoughts of his brother always made him tense.

          Feeling the Amulet against his chest, he also wondered about the Nephilim who made it.  The creature had not appeared in some time, and The Dark One was silent again.  There had been so many changes and upheavals in his plans recently, yet his confidence was not shaken.  He knew he was invincible with the Curse, and it would take a Paradox to remove it, an impossibility.  He could not be killed while under the Curse, and the Curse could not be removed unless he was dead.

          Secure in that knowledge, he looked ahead, anticipating the next Blood Curse; one that could not fail.

 

<><><> 

 

          Nabil Rasheem, the Protector driving the Escalade, tried not to glance in the rear view mirror.  He knew his Master did not like to be stared at – and with the Darkness covering his face you could never tell if he was looking at you.  Nabil had arrived in the United States only a month prior – he and a number of other Protectors had been summoned from the Middle East to bolster their ranks.  The Order was taking its toll on their numbers, and Protectors from all over the globe were being brought in.  There were whispers that The Master was losing ground against The Order.  He was nervous having those thoughts in such close proximity to his Master, lest He pick up the stray thought.  Nabil did not believe the rumors himself, but he had no wish to be the focal point of his Master’s ire for any reason.

          Nabil was a willing servant and the moans of the human did not bother him in the least.  A cruel smile occasionally crossed his face when he heard the sounds.

 

<><><> 

 

          Loy’s form briefly shimmered into that of a Pigeon.  He called on Rick’s Understanding and saw the exact timing and trajectory for what he wanted to do.  He emptied his bowels, as Pigeons are wont to do, sending a gooey message to the Escalade below.

          His form shimmered again back into the golden eagle, as he pooled his Power with his Brothers.  The rock was heavy, but with all of them supporting Darren it was little effort.

 

<><> 

 

          Suddenly, there was a large splat on the windshield.  A huge purple, gooey blob of birdshit hit the windshield.  Nabil cursed under his breath as he turned on the windshield wipers, but the washer fluid reservoir was empty, and all the wipers did was smear across the glass. The gas gauge was barely off full, and he would have to put up with the windshield being filthy for hours. 

          He leaned forward, looking up at the sky.  Only moments before the sky had been clear and blue but now there were clouds; large thunderheads blocked the sun. Nabil was unfamiliar with the United States, but he was no stranger to the desert, and he knew the presence of the clouds was not ordinary. 

          The strangeness of the clouds was the last thought Nabil had in the mortal world as a large boulder fell from half a mile up, impacting the roof right over the driver’s seat of the Escalade, pulverizing the man in an instant.

          The Master knew immediately he was being attacked.  Clutching the human to his side he tried to open the door even as the Escalade launched into the air from the sudden change in momentum. The door was already jammed from the distortion of the impact.

          After failing to kill Ken Habbersham with the Blood Curse, he refused to let another opportunity to destroy The Order slip through his fingers.  Flexing his distorted muscular body, he punched the door off its hinges and rolled out of the car, taking his human captive with him.  The pavement scraped his back painfully, but he was prepared; his skin was thick and tough.  He rolled to his feet, glancing around quickly to get his bearings.  He held Archie Ferris’s body under one arm like a child, and at an impossible speed for a human he took off running across the Arizona desert.

          He wondered how the Warriors of The Order had found him, and that unknown infuriated him even more. He knew the Amulet would keep them away from him – as long as he wore it, they could not get physically close.  He assumed they were aware he wore an Amulet, but he was still cautious; they could drop another boulder on him from the sky.

          His apelike body loped at a remarkable pace and even in the dry air he sweated heavily.  He flexed his muscled body, and his clothes shredded off, revealing his ruddy skinned body covered in thick course hair.  Where the physical perfection of Ken and the others was beautiful to look at, their inhuman grace and agility glorious, The Master’s body was grotesque and his movements ungainly; his muscles big and gnarled, like tree roots, and his appearance primitive.  That difference was only one of many he hated them for.

          He struggled to hold his rage at bay; it boiled under the surface ready to burst forth. The interference of these New Warriors would stop soon enough.  He would destroy them and eat their Souls, taking their Power for his own.  Their flesh would adorn his new throne, their Avatars visible for all to see; proof of his invincible might.  With their Power added to his own, he could challenge The Dark One himself.

          His instincts told him he was no longer alone – he heard them first, and then his sharp eyesight detected the movement.  They were difficult to see, blending in with the colors of the desert.

          A dozen cheetahs ran blindingly fast straight for him.  He accelerated but knew he couldn’t outrun them on foot, and in seconds they were on him.  Cheetahs were not pack animals, so he knew that they were being controlled, and he knew by whom.

          The sounds of other animals coming towards him soon reached his ears.  His enemies were using nature itself to rise up against him, trying to prevent his escape with his captive.  Birds dove at him, raking at his face, slowing him down, as numerous other animals swiped at his feet and legs.  Many of the birds fell lifeless when they passed through the Dark Aura covering his face.

          As fast as he was, and as many as he killed, they kept coming, swarming over him.  He could not unleash his full power on them without destroying Archibald Ferris as well, and it angered him.  He let the rage loose, and became the primitive savage he hated.  Fighting back with no physical restraint, the cries and screams of animals filled his ears and he smiled, crushing their bodies as he batted them away.

          He realized too late that they weren’t trying to kill him, as the teeth of a Cheetah that pounced on his back did not sink into his flesh; they bit at the chain of the Amulet.  The metal was Silver and not strong, and the chain snapped.

          He dealt the cheetah a crushing blow, but as the Amulet fell from its mouth another picked it up and ran.  The remaining animals hindered him and soon he was beyond the protective range of the charm.

          Light blinded him as, with the Amulet no longer warding him, the ten Warriors of The Order appeared around him.  The remaining animals stopped and moved away.  Loy had tears in his eyes at the carnage done to his beloved animals – they came at his call and obeyed his Will.  With Darren’s help he brought the cheetahs from Africa, and he sent out his presence to the local wildlife calling them to his need. The pain he felt for using them in such a manner ran deep. 

          Along with the men came the image of the Tree and the ghostly Spirits of the Animal Kingdom flying about it.  Lane Listened to the Music of Creation, and Brad fluttered their Souls across the Veil as they drew on their sources of Power to face their Enemy.

          They stood together, One Soul combined, stronger by far than the sum of their individual selves.  Ken’s Avatar had them locked together, and the Light of them stung The Master, even as his Dark Shields flared.

          Thunder rolled in the skies at the confrontation taking place.  Ten bright white pillars of Light and one Black, clashing against one another and struggling for dominance.

          They all felt the pain in Loy, but he would have done the same for any of them.  Their lives were too important to the world and sacrifices had to be made – but that didn’t lessen the pain.

          Kevin especially held Loy tight in their Link – Loy made the sacrifice for his family.  There was no ill feeling between the two men, and Loy made sure Kevin knew that.  They did what they had to do – they always became what they needed to be to face their adversary.  It didn’t lessen the pain though, so they clung together all the tighter inside themselves to fend it off, and to carry one another.  Ken wanted to carry the weight of it all on his shoulders to spare them, but no one would let him.  They shared the pain equally, as Brothers.

          Loy was surprised when he heard Ken’s voice say:  Take care of them Loy.  We’ll hold.  He’s not goin anywhere.

          Relief filled Loy and a bright ribbon of Power came out of him.  It was like chain lightning that flew from his body and into all the animals.  Their broken bodies mended – all of his Brothers were with him and lent him their strength.  Through Darren’s Avatar synchronizing the other Mentalists, they straightened broken and shattered bones and Loy directed the healing energy flow into them. The animals were freshly dead, and their Spirits had not yet departed to be reborn; they rose up alive and whole. 

          Their presence filled Loy and the love they had for him and his Brothers – that feeling passed into the Link as they lent him their strength along with all the other Spirits he called.  He commanded the cheetahs to wait nearby and he sent the local animals away so they would be safe.

          The Master watched, and hated them all the more for what he saw.  The Dark holes where his eyes should be emitted black tendrils of hatred and loathing.

          Loy’s mental voice was filled with gratitude: Thanks, guys. 

          Kevin knew if it came down to it, Loy would have sacrificed all of them to save his brother, but he didn’t have to do that.  They made it possible, between themselves, working as a Team.  Loy felt their Mental arms on his shoulders and their strength around him in response. 

          The Master’s Shields were powerful, and Archie was behind them.  Darren couldn’t teleport him away, and Brad couldn’t penetrate the Shields to reach Archie’s Mind. Bryan couldn’t reach his Soul through the Tree either – somehow The Master had learned how to ward against that ability too.

          The Master dropped Archie on the ground and then sat on his haunches, his sharp nails at Archie’s neck, ready to snap it.

          The Master saw the determination on their faces and smiled.  He looked at Archie and released his Mind enough to let him speak.

          Archie gasped when The Master’s restraint on him lessened, and tears ran down his face.  His heart was about to burst in his chest.  All of the men looked at him with their Understanding, cringing inside at what they saw – his terror, his pain, and his connection to Kevin.  Kevin could barely stand seeing Archie in such a state, unable to do anything about it, and knowing he was most likely going to die any minute.

          Kevin looked at Archie and said, “I’m so sorry.” 

          Archie looked at him and wondered who he and the men with him were.  He saw them as they truly were, towering beacons of Light that drove back the fog in his mind just by looking at them.

          As the haze lifted, all the emotional pain came flooding back; the pain of watching his wife, his son, and is daughter-in-law slaughtered in front of him, slowly, while their captors laughed.  Seeing Amanda die, looking at him, her eyes demanding, pleading that he do something, anything, to save their children while he was powerless, broke something inside of him.

          Archie made eye contact with Kevin, and he knew that the man he looked at was his brother.  His captors said he had a brother – the memory of his mother flashed in his mind again, and he remembered her calling out a name, thinking it was him.

          His voice was barely audible as he asked, “Keith?  Are you Keith?”

          Kevin’s throat tightened when he heard his birth name.  “Yeah Archie, I’m Keith, your brother.”

          What Kevin saw in Archie’s eyes hurt him horribly.  He saw blame.  Kevin knew Archie was out of his depth, and couldn’t possibly understand the how or why behind the events happening to him.  He heard the name Keith, and everything that happened to his family was because of that name.

          Everyone’s eyes were bright, and Bill tightened his presence inside his husband.  He didn’t say anything, just held him, lending him his strength and the knowledge that he was with him and shared the pain.  They all did – inside them all, in the place where their Souls were One they wept with Kevin and held him close.  There was no good resolution to the situation.

          Archie was quiet for a few seconds and his voice was barely a whisper when he asked, “Why?”

          The Master’s deep voice spoke, “You cannot save him.  If I cannot use him for my purposes to destroy you, then I will destroy him to cause you further pain.  You will see him die, and I will consume him.”

          Ken watched and knew the pain and helplessness that Kevin, his oldest friend, felt deep in his gut.  The only fear they felt was for Archie – they weren’t afraid of The Master.  They were created to fight him, and The Dark One; it was the purpose of their existence.  They couldn’t destroy him now, but they would eventually.

          They couldn’t complete that Purpose until The Master asked Drew’s forgiveness and Drew found it inside himself to forgive his brother for killing him that first time eighty thousand years ago.  Only then could the Curse on Mankind be broken and The Master be defeated once and for all.

          Anger burned inside them; righteous anger at The Master over what he had done to Archie and his family, and to Kevin.  The anger was there from what he did to Ken before, and all the other times he caused them emotional pain and loss.

          Their Minds all worked, taking everything in around them with the full capacity of what they now were.  They spent so much time inside one another in their training they reacted as One and their thoughts blended together; another Paradox since they were all strong-willed and unique individuals.

          Brad took the strategies from each of them with all of their abilities and collated it into a single plan of action.   There were still many unknowns about The Master – they knew the Curse protected him from death, but they had no idea how far that protection went from actual harm.   

          Their plans took a microsecond for Brad to formulate.  All they had to do was either get Archie physically away from touching The Master or penetrate his Shields.  Either would be extremely difficult because He was ready for them, and he was truly powerful.

 

<><> 

 

          Archie faced a dilemma unlike any he could have imagined.  He didn’t believe in God, Satan, Heaven, Hell, or Magic.  His faith was in people and science, in mankind and his accomplishments; yet he came face to face with Evil – it held his Mind, and its hand was at this throat.  In the last two days of torture and misery he was forced to come to grips with the fact that he had been wrong about everything.  The claw marks of The Master’s Darkness raked his Mind and his Soul mercilessly.

          He was angry at himself for being wrong and somehow felt betrayed, although he didn’t know by whom, unless it was God.  As an ‘Academic’ he had a huge ego about his own intellectualism, and he was furious with the God he now knew had to exist.  How could any Being that was supposedly Omnipotent and Omniscient allow the world to be in the condition it was?  How could God not intervene to save his wife and children from a monster?

          When Archie’s Mind was free enough for him to move, and he saw the form of the creature that enslaved him his blood ran cold.  The Darkness covering his face was impossible, and the two darker spots that should have been his eyes….  It drove the terror even further into him that whatever this creature was, it was the personification of Evil.

Archie was unable to physically react when the car nearly exploded and the creature grabbed him and began to run.  He was unable to yell or scream as the animals attacked, but even in his terror he noted that none the animals touched him; they only went after the creature.  When The Master set him down and released the hold on his Mind he was still held physically.  The clawed hand around his neck was tight and ready to kill him with nothing more than a twitch.

          Archie gasped when he was released; the emotions he was forced to bottle up came rushing out all at once.  Men appeared out of nowhere, shining so brightly he could barely look directly at them.  Their Light was warm, and he actually felt it – it was warm in a way he had never felt before.

          They were tall and powerfully built with an inhuman charisma– they were rugged and muscular, yet handsome; they looked military by their haircuts and bodies, and yet they had tears in their eyes.  Their tears reflected the Light that shone from them, making their tear trails bright on their faces. 

          One of them in particular looked at him with recognition and something inside Archie’s mind snapped the pieces of the puzzle together.

          With disbelief in his voice he asked, “Keith?  Is that you?”

          Archie heard the pain and sadness in the man’s deep voice as he replied, “Yeah Archie, I’m Keith, your brother.”

          So many emotions ran through Archie’s mind with that revelation.  All the anger and other emotions inside him merged to the focal point of the man standing before him; the man responsible in Archie’s mind for everything that was happening to him.  It wasn’t God who he should blame, it was his brother.

          Archie was quiet for a few seconds, and his voice was barely a whisper when he asked, “Why?”

          The Master’s deep voice spoke, “You cannot save him.  If I cannot use him for my purposes to destroy you, then I will destroy him to cause you further pain.  You will see him die with either outcome.”

          The anger inside Archie overcame his fear.  Anger at himself, God, his brother, the Evil that held him, at the deaths of his wife and children.  He wanted to strike back, hit something, just to make himself feel better.

          More and more clarity was coming back to Archie as the fog was lifted from his Mind.  He saw thunderheads in the sky – a near impossibility in the desert.  Suddenly a hot wind started blowing, whipping around and picking up the dirt and sand.  A vortex formed, swirling around Archie and the creature holding him.

          Archie’s hands were on the ground and his fists clenched, filling with dirt.  He jerked as the being holding him was hit by something, knocking him into the vortex.  He felt something hot and wet all over him.  He closed his eyes tight against the wind and debris flying around, and whatever splattered all over him.

          So much was happening so quickly he wasn’t able to take it all in.  His Mind was buffeted by the confrontation of the Powers buffeting him.  The Master’s Shield covered him, offering some protection but, The Master wasn’t trying to buffer him from the fight as the men would do.

          His vision was blurry, but he forced his eyes open.  He was covered in blood and a large portion of the creatures face hung by a thread of flesh or tendon, just outside the Darkness.  Even as Archie stared in disbelief, he watched as in less than a second the damaged bone and flesh were sucked into the Darkness.  Archie instinctively knew whatever damage he witnessed was no longer there.

          Archie felt the rage as the two black orbs that were its eyes turned even blacker and a freezing chill spread out from him, causing Archie to shiver violently.  The cold was physical, but also Spiritual and Archie felt it down to his Soul.

          He was sure he was going to die, but the anger inside of him would not let him meekly just let it happen.  He channeled the anger welling up inside of him and threw the dirt from both hands directly into the Darkness covering the face of the creature holding him.  At the same time, he brought one knee right up between the legs of the creature. 

 

<><> 

 

          Being elemental creatures, they called the wind and formed the vortex.  Darren used his Avatar to control it. His Brothers were with him, feeding him their strength and the vortex moved at his direction.  They wanted to block the view of The Master and try and hold at least some element of surprise.

          Brad teleported a rock about the size of his fist high up into the air, high enough to reach terminal velocity.  Through Pat they watched everything, seeing through the vortex and observing the rock.  As soon as the rock reached terminal velocity it blinked as Brad changed it trajectory. 

          The rock appeared just outside the area warded by The Master’s Shields, and it impacted his face like a high caliber weapon.  They had no idea what to expect, but were ready for anything; any opening to try and get Archie to safety.  The rock, like a bullet, went straight through The Master’s head in a gory explosion of skin, bone, muscle, and blood.  He didn’t even have time to scream.  Archie didn’t hear the impact over the wind, but he felt the tug at his throat as The Master’s body felt the impact of the rock.

          The Curse knitted his face back together in less than a second.  What happened next was what truly caught them by surprise.   Pat’s Avatar allowed them to see through the Vortex, seeing the connections between everything, as clear as day, in the entire area.  They saw Archie throw two fistfuls of sand directly into The Master’s eyes and his knee drive right into The Master’s balls!

          The howl that erupted was one of pain as much as anger.  Instinctively, The Master’s hands went to his eyes at the same time he doubled over in pain.  Archie, more out of instinct than anything, rolled away.  The Master didn’t expect any such action from his captive and was caught by surprise.

          Archie lurched far enough away for Darren to grab him, and suddenly Archie was in the arms of the man he knew to be his brother Keith.

          The rest of the Team closed ranks around Kevin, their Shields a barrier The Master could not penetrate.  Brad was ready as a Black Talon came out of the Vortex, aimed directly at Archie, attempting to destroy him.  Their Avatars flared, and they were equal to the attack.  Adrenaline ran high inside them, both Spiritual and Physical, and they were more than equal to the moment – their need to protect Kevin and his brother was foremost in their intentions, and the Talon hit the wall Brad put up.  They felt the impact; but their Shields held.

          Darren let the wind go and in a matter of seconds the dust began to settle.  The form of The Master appeared as the vortex cleared.

          The hatred and malice in The Master’s face was as intense as ever.  They thwarted him yet again.  He stood up, apelike, and glared at them.  His chest heaved, more from anger than exertion, and he let out a roar that echoed in both Realms.

          You will pay for this a thousand times over!

          Ken:  Yeah, yeah.  Keep tellin yourself that.  You should’ve learned by now we Protect our own.

          The Master looked directly at Kevin:  Enjoy what is left of your brother.  Even though he did not die by my hand, he is broken, and will never recover.  Enjoy the pain and the emptiness that follows.

          With that The Master turned and moved off.  He loped, more on all fours than two legs.  He picked up speed and was out of sight quickly.

 

<><><> 

 

          Archie felt the strength and the power in the man named Keith.  His strong arms wrapped Archie tightly, as he would a child.  Archie felt the Light of the man flow through and into him.

          Kevin held him tighter and quietly said, “It’s alright now Archie.  He’s gone.  I’ve got you.”

          Archie struggled to get out of Kevin’s arms and was unsteady on his feet, but he didn’t fall over.  He was disheveled; his thin hair wispy, and he was covered in The Master’s blood.  The emotional trauma churned inside of him.  He moved off a short distance and sat down hard.  His expression vacillated between pain, fear, and confusion.  All the emotions were equally strong in him, and he started to cry.

          Kevin moved towards him, but Archie shouted with great vehemence in his voice, “Get away from me!”

          Everyone but Bill moved a short distance away, still ready to retaliate if The Enemy should try anything.  Brad held their Shields strong.

          Kevin knelt down a few feet from Archie, but made no more attempt to touch him.  His voice trembled as he said, “I’m sorry Archie.  I didn’t even know you existed until a few days ago.”

          Archie looked at Kevin.  He had difficulty talking as he sobbed, “They killed Amanda!  They killed my son, and his wife, and my daughter!  They took my son-in-law!  WHY!?  Who the hell are you?  What are you?”

          Bill sat down beside Kevin and held his hand.  Archie hunched his shoulders and his confusion, pain, and desperation were all clear in his voice, “I don’t know what to do.  Everything is gone.  Everyone is gone.”

          The truth of that cut deep into Kevin, and he had no words to make things right.  Archie’s existence was still a danger to him and to Drew by default.  They had to take him and protect him, but he saw inside of Archie that he would never come willingly.

          The devastation in Archie’s Mind was so strong all of them could see it. Brad’s Avatar reacted, and Compassion for Archie filled the Link.  Kevin was crying too, and Archie found it odd that such a big rugged looking man would cry.

          Kevin found his voice, “Archie, you have to come with me.  We can keep you safe, but that guy still wants you; and the people who work for him will never stop trying to get at you.”

          “Why do they want me?  Why did they kill my family?  They laughed!  While my wife and children screamed and begged, and they tore them apart in front of me! They did something to me so all I could do was watch!  I could see Amanda’s eyes, begging me to do something to save our children!”

          “I can explain it all, but you have to come with me.”

          “No!”

          Kevin felt Bill squeeze his hand.  Do you want me to say it Kev?  You don’t have to be the one.  Let me or one of the other guys be the bad guy to Archie.

          No Bill.  It needs to be me.  He’s my family, and it should be me.

          “I’m sorry Archie.  This is hard for me too.  We operate on the pretense of Free Will, but I can’t let you walk away.  There’s too much at stake here that you don’t know about.”

          Brad saw it first through his Avatar and immediately the others did too.  Pat’s Understanding confirmed it.  Archie was breaking in front of them – adrenaline was the only thing keeping him coherent; his Mind was rapidly unravelling.  The Master’s claws ran deep and raked his Soul too harshly.  Seeing his family slaughtered in front of him, on top of The Master torturing his Mind, was too much.  The Supernatural battle raging around him, with no Protection, overwhelmed him.  He was mortal and through no fault of his own, too fragile to endure such things. 

          The question came from out of left field but Archie blurted out, “How did you find me?  Why now?  After all these years why didn’t you just stay away?”

          Kevin sighed, “Someone recently defected to our side and told us about you.  We didn’t know where to look other than Tucson.  Your dog is the one that let us find you.”

          “Buckles? Oh my God, he’s still at the house! I have to get back!”

          Kevin groaned inside but steeled his voice, “He’s gone too Archie.  It was peaceful though.”

          Archie blinked at that and then started to laugh; it had a hysterical edge to it that worried them all.  “So of all my family, the only one who had a peaceful ending was my fucking dog?”

          Archie flinched away when he felt Bill’s hand on his shoulder, but everything about Archie was made known to Bill in that brief contact. 

Bill squeezed his eyes shut in pain for his husband and Archie both; the brokenness inside him was too much to repair. 

          Archie started walking away, and Kevin moved in front of him.

          “Archie, please you can’t leave.”

          “I have to get back to the house.  I went to Starbucks for Amanda.  I have to hurry, or the Macchiato’s will get too warm.  I should put them in the freezer.”

          They could see and feel his Mind fracturing more every second.  The Master spoke the truth.

          Kevin could barely see; the tears were so thick in his eyes.  He knew everything about his brother now thanks to Bill – but he didn’t know him.  He wanted that more than anything else with his brother.  Kevin understood even more the pain that Ken went through with his own brother while he was under the effects of the Blood Curse.

          Brad’s Compassion made everything he took in so painful he could barely stand it.  He felt Ken’s strong arms wrap around him in support, along with his Mind and Heart.

          Brad knew what had to happen at this point, they all did, but Kevin was the one who needed to make the decision.  No one wanted to put that kind of a burden on him, but Archie was his family and no one else had the right.

          Brad’s powerful Intellect, bolstered by his Brothers and their presence, created a Construct from Archie’s Mind and took them all inside.  It would give Archie some small comfort to be in familiar surroundings, at least for his last few minutes.

None of them were visible in the Construct except Kevin.  Even Bill was hidden from Archie, but they were all present for Kevin, deep inside him.  Ken had him wrapped up so tightly he could barely breathe, and he was grateful beyond words for the presence of his Brothers.

 

<><> 

 

          Archie fumbled with the keys to the door, trying not to spill either of the iced caramel macchiatos he brought home.  They were Amanda’s favorite from Starbucks, and he got them as a surprise.  She would chastise him for the calories, but the smile it brought to her face was worth it.  He hoped she had a good night at her Bridge club.  She really wasn’t a very good player, but she enjoyed the social aspect.

          He made it into the kitchen and set the drinks down before the strap on his satchel fell down off his shoulder and made him spill the drinks.  He hollered out, “Honey, I’m home!”

          “I’m in the den, honey!  We have a guest! Come see!”

          Archie made his way into the den, and there was a man sitting on the couch across from Amanda.  He was a large man, very muscular and fit.  Archie was struck by how handsome he was; he had short black hair and dark brown eyes. 

          He was also surprised that everyone else was at the house.  Jerry, his oldest son and his wife Laura were there.  Mr. Buckles was on Jerry’s lap as usual.  His youngest child, Rene, was there with her husband, Zack.

          Archie smiled and said, “Wow!  What a surprise!”

          He moved forward and the big man stood to greet him and shake his hand.  His grip was strong and warm and comforting, “Kevin Ayers, pleased to meet you.”

          Amanda said, “Archie, you better sit down for this.”

          Her tone of voice said it was serious, but everyone looked happy so it couldn’t be too bad.

          “Alright.  So what’s this all about?”

          “Honey, this man is your brother.”

          Archie thought it was a joke.  He didn’t have a brother… but wait… he remembered that visit to his mother in Phoenix.  She had mistaken him for someone else.  She had called him Keith, her son.  He thought it was just the dementia of her Alzheimer’s. 

          Archie’s face went blank as he remembered, and with a furrow of his brow he said, “Your name is Kevin?  Not Keith?”

          “My real name is Keith Abrams, Archie.  I had to change my name when I was in the military.  I’m not supposed to go by Keith anymore, but yes, that’s my given name.”

          Archie sat in stunned silence.

          Amanda stood and looked at all the kids, “Let’s give your dad and Mr. Ayers some time alone.”

          They all filed out into the backyard, where there was a nice patio by the pool. 

          “I’m sorry to show up unannounced Archie.  The situation is complicated, and I couldn’t talk to you over the phone about it.  I know this is sudden, but I want to get to know you if that’s alright.”

          At first it was awkward because the two men were so dissimilar.  Kevin was big and muscular and Archie was tall and thin, an academic at heart.  He was surprised at how smart Kevin was though, and they managed to find some things in common with one another. 

          Archie recounted the visit to his mother right before she died.  He went up into the attic and retrieved the envelope with the locket and pictures to show Kevin.

          As time went on they continued to talk and laugh.  Archie found he liked the man who was his brother, and regretted not knowing him sooner.  He was glad they found each other.

          They had been talking for hours when Archie blurted out, “I’m hungry. Can you stay for dinner?  I’ll get Amanda to start something for us.”

          He stood up and went to the backdoor, but there was no one on the porch.

          “Where did they go?”

          “They had to leave Archie.”

          Archie looked confused and started to cry.  He knew they were gone… something bad had happened to them.

          Kevin’s chest tightened.  For a while, during their conversation he held his emotions in check.  He had to make every second count, but now the tears were back, and the tightness in his chest. 

          “They’re safe Archie, and happy.  They’re waiting for you.”

          Kevin could barely control his voice.  The pain over what he was about to do was almost more than he could bear, and he leaned hard on everyone.  They were with him, and his pain was theirs.

          “What about my job?  I’m a professor, you know.  I have responsibilities.”

          “I’ll take care of all that Archie.”

          “I… I miss Amanda.”

          “I know you do.  How long were you married?”

          “Thirty-two years.”

          Archie wandered into the kitchen and picked up the Starbucks cup, staring at it. 

          “She left it.  She doesn’t like it once it gets warm.  It’s supposed to stay cold.  What about Mr. Buckles?”

          “He’s with them Archie.”

          Archie was getting more confused by the second, and his words and sentences more fragmented and jumbled.

          “Can you take me to them?”

          Kevin choked, and he started to break down.  Bill appeared beside him in the Construct.

          Archie’s brow furrowed when he saw Bill.  “I’ve seen you before.”

          Bill:  I’m with you Kev.  We all are.  You don’t have to do this.  I’ll do it if you need me to.

          Kevin:  No.  It has to be me.

          Kevin managed to say, “I can take you to them Archie.”

          “Now?  Should I pack?”

          “No, you won’t need anything.”

          Archie’s Mind was almost gone, but he had one last lucid thought.

          “Will you find Zack?  They took him.”

          “I will.  I promise.”

          “I wonder if this was how mother felt when her Mind was gone?  Is this real?”

          “It is real Archie.  I’m real, and I am your brother.  I wish I had known you growing up.”

          “I wish I had known you too.  You might not have liked me when I was young, though.”

          Kevin managed to laugh and said, “Well, that goes for both of us.  I wasn’t exactly a saint either, trust me.”

          Archie looked around the house.  Brad made the Construct from Archie’s unconscious Mind, and as his Mind crumbled the Construct was disappearing.  It was happening more rapidly, and the only room left was the kitchen where they now stood. 

          Finally, it too faded, and he and Kevin stood naked together.  He had blood on him and his hair was wispy and windblown, looking disheveled.  He appeared as he did in the real world, laying in Kevin’s arms.

          He panicked and was ashamed of being naked.  His body was unattractive and frail.  Kevin calmed him as he would a child, and after a moment Archie stopped struggling and let himself be held.

          Kevin embraced him and let his Soul shine on his brother.  Archie had never felt anything so soothing in his life, and he closed his eyes and rested his head on his brother’s strong chest.

          He felt Kevin’s tears falling on him, as his big body shook with quiet sobs.

          Archie whispered, “I’m ready.”

          Kevin’s voice choked, “I’m not.”

          “Will I see you again?”

          Kevin struggled to get the words out, “It will be a long time, but yes, I’ll see you again.”

          With everything Kevin had been tasked to do; all the missions in Syria, his fights against The Enemy and The Master, facing off against Azaziel, even Luke… none of that was as hard as what he was about to do.

          Raphael was present, as he was with Leona Abrams those many years ago.  No one saw him. He kept himself hidden, and he had the same task – to bring one small moment of lucidity to Archibald Ferris.

          Archie looked up at Kevin, and their eyes met.  His voice was quiet, but firm as he said, “It’s alright Kevin.  I don’t blame you.”  Kevin knew from his expression that Archie understood what he said. 

How Archie’s Mind rallied in that moment none of them knew, or would ever know.  Archie’s words were meant for his brother; he understood in that moment what Kevin was about to do, and he was alright with it.

          Kevin’s heart broke as he whispered, “I love you, Archie,” and he snapped the bond that anchored Archie’s Soul to his body.

          Archie went limp, and Kevin fell to the ground, cradling his brother’s body against his own, rocking him as he sobbed uncontrollably.

          Everyone appeared around him.  Bill first and then Ken and then everyone else.  They held him in that dark place where they were One and cried with him.

          Time wasn’t moving for them, and Kevin held Archie’s body for a long time.  Finally, he sniffed loudly and started to stand.

          He looked at Brad and said, “I’m ready.”

 

<><> 

 

          Brad took them back to their bodies in the desert.  The day was hot and the sky crystal blue.  They heard a siren in the distance back by the highway.  Someone must have reported the damaged Escalade and the body of the Protector.  The Master had run more than a mile away from the road to where they now stood, so there was no immediate danger of being seen.

          They were quiet, waiting for Uriel to come.  The short seconds seemed like an eternity, but finally he was there in a silent blaze of light.

          He moved up to Kevin and looked at him with Ageless Love and Compassion. Death was his Province, and it was always bittersweet.

          Kevin’s voice shook, and his words were pleading, “Please take good care of him.”

          Kevin knew those words sounded stupid, but he said them anyway. 

          “I will take the greatest of care.  Archibald Ferris is going Home to be with his family.  Be at peace Kevin.  He will never know pain again, and there he will be whole.”

          Uriel put a hand on Kevin’s shoulder and squeezed it, as his wings appeared to wrap around them all.  They felt the brush of his wings against their Souls – it was a soothing gift to them all in the midst of their grief. 

          When the Light vanished, Uriel was gone and Archie’s Soul with him.  Kevin now held the lifeless body of his brother.  He laid him down on the ground gently and bowed his head.

          He let out an intense, “Fuck!” and stood up, putting his grief behind him.  He was a soldier of The Order, and as Ken taught them, he would turn his grief into a weapon to make him stronger.  He would take the pain and embrace it and use it to defend Drew and the world.  It would make him that much more powerful.  But it still hurt like hell.

         

<><><> 

 

          There was much to do. They had a lot of cleanup to take care of.  They broke up into groups – Bryan and Lane took Archie’s body back to his house for the police to find.  The bodies of Amanda and the kids were there – everyone but Zack.  The murders would be chalked up to random violence.  The story made the national news, and the case would never be solved.

          They went back to the Atlanta Lab immediately and hacked the government satellites to try and find the other Escalade, but had no luck.  They promised Archie they would find Zack, and they would, but not that day.  It was another task to add to their list.

          Loy and Rick went back to ZEUS to find Orophir talking with Aaron.

          Ken took Kevin and Bill out of the rotation for a week, and everyone filled in the schedules.  That meant no time off for anyone, but no one begrudged Kevin the time he needed.  Even though they weren’t physically present, none of them left Kevin alone, and they were with him the entire time.

          Tommy and Brett didn’t know how to react to the news of Kevin’s brother.  They understood loss of family though, and in their own way they were a huge comfort to their dad.  They were a Light in his life along with Bill and his Brothers and his mentors that buffered the Darkness.

 

<><><> 

 

          The following week at the Atlanta Lab, early in the morning before their training was to start, Kevin and Bill sat at the Conference Room table.

          Lane and Bryan came in early, and they drank their coffee together.  Lane put a manila envelope on the table and pushed it across to Kevin saying, “I thought you would want this.”

          It was the locket of Kevin’s mother and father, and the few pictures of them.

          “It was in the house when we took Archie back.  I didn’t want to leave it, but if you don’t want it I’ll take care of it.”

          Kevin’s eyes misted over when he looked at it.  He dumped the contents out onto the table.

          “Thanks, Lane.”   

          The pictures came out first, followed by the locket.  Bill picked up the first picture of the old woman with an infant on her lap.  He Read the photo and Kevin’s mother’s memories associated with it – the intensity of the memory imprinted on the picture was strong.  Her memories were both happy and sad.  It was her favorite picture, but later in her life it only brought sadness, and it reminded her of the huge mistake she made in giving up her sons.

          Bill smiled and said, “That’s you in her lap Kev.”         

          The fact that it was him in the picture was such a simple thing, but it meant everything to him, and he would treasure it forever.  He was the only one of the Team that had a picture like it. 

          Kevin picked up the locket and opened it.  It was small, oval in shape, and made of silver, but badly tarnished.  When he clicked it open, there were two old and faded photos of his mother and father.  Because the locket was silver and the photos were originals, there was silver in the paper.  Silver absorbed psychic energy and held onto it.

          Kevin nodded to Bill, who asked, “Are you sure Kev?”

          “Yeah.”

          Bill took one of Kevin’s hands in his own, and with his other hand he touched the locket, Reading it.  Lane and Bryan joined them in their Link, and Lane used the temporal aspect of his Avatar to take them back in Time.  Using the locket as a focus they looked back, and Bill Read the man and woman from the locket.  Kevin’s parents were good people, and theirs was a sad story, but it was a part of Kevin’s family history that he would hold on to forever.  It was his, and he shared it with everyone. 

          Bill was happy and sad for his husband.  Lane and Bryan felt the same thing.  Bryan ruffled Kevin’s hair and put a big hand on his shoulder in affection.  They were family and a refuge for each other, as Brothers and husbands, just like their wedding Vows stated. 

          They were and always would be themselves, yet One; a Paradox.

 

************************************

Ok that’s it for Chapter 27… I hope you enjoyed it!  I have a good start on Chapter 28.  I only have one more night of classes left in Summer Semester and I have a break so I will be a writing fool trying to get this thing completed!  :-)


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