The Guardians

By Rilbur

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Chapter Twenty-Four

Despite Ashley's repeated requests, Paul could no more sit down than he could stand still. He paced the living room, constantly glancing out the windows. "Damn it!" he swore.

"Paul, I'm not going to tell you again, sit down," Ashley snarled. "You're just making it worse."

"Worse?" Paul snapped back. "You feel it just like I do!"

"Paul, sit or I'll make you sit," Tommy said tersely. "I know damned well Ronan taught you the basics of meditation; use them!"

"Meditate? Meditate?" Paul asked, shocked. "When they are out there, dying?"

"You can't do anything for them," Tommy reminded him firmly. "You can simply sit, and wait."

"I should have gone with them!" Paul cursed.

"No, you shouldn't," Ashley told him. "You and Barney are both here because you are only half trained, and don't even have your leathers yet."

"Does it really matter?" Paul said angrily. "We can fight. We can hurt those bastards!"

"Paul," Ashley started and then broke off. "You know what, never mind," she said sarcastically. "You think you could hold your own? Try and defend yourself!"

Ashley threw a blast of fire straight at Paul, which he negligently blocked. Too easily he realized an instant later, as arcing curves of electrical energy erupted up from the ground and gripped his legs. He stood, convulsing, for a second before they released him to fall to the ground. Blackness clawed at him and he only just forced it back. Panting, he pulled himself upright.

"Paul," Barney asked, amused, "haven't you learned not to annoy these people?"

"I'm a slow learner," Paul admitted. "How the hell did you do that?"

Ashley leaned back, still annoyed. "Auras. They come in layers -- you remember that much, right? -- and the deeper in the more power they exert. It's a trade off between power and depth; the deeper into your auras the more control you have over the magic field around you. It's easy to 'punch through' that control from outside, when there is momentum behind the attack, but starting an attack from inside it is infinitely more difficult. That's where the trade off comes in; the stronger you are compared to another person, the more deeply you can move into their auras before they can squelch you."

"So you just started that attack from right inside the middle of mine," Paul groaned.

"It won't be the last time," Ashley warned him. "You're going to spend weeks training to control your personal space, and it's going to take months before you do it instinctively."

"I'm not looking forward to that part of the training," Tommy said grimly. "I've helped out a few times, I know how... fun it is."

"Helped out?" Barney asked.

"Tommy's powers are different than our own, but we can still fight them," Ashley explained. "So, just in case someone else comes up with those powers, Mr. Paranoid has had us train to fight them. As Tommy's grown older, we've moved further and further from the... innocent training we started with. He actually does some limited sparring with us these days, and he's helped us with area control training."

"Helped?" Paul asked, pulling himself into a chair finally.

"His powers are different, but similar," Ashley shrugged. "If you're busy dealing with one type of attack, it's easy to miss a second. So we have to train to watch for both."

"Sounds like fun," Paul groaned. "Still, Jason hasn't had this training either, so why did Ronan let him go?"

"I have no clue," Ashley shrugged.

"That's singularly useless," Paul sighed. "Dammit, I hate waiting!"

"If you keep that up, I really am going to have to knock you out," Ashley growled. "You're going to drive me crazy!"

"Yeah, well-"

Everyone in the room turned as one, heads snapping to focus on the same point in the distance. "Did you feel that?" Ashley asked, frowning.

"Something happened. Something big," Paul whispered. Closing his eyes, he raised his hand and reached out. He didn't have his brother's gift, but he could still feel things, sometimes.

He stiffened suddenly, and Ashley turned around and looked at him, concerned. "Paul?" she asked.

Paul felt her move, heard her speak, but his concentration was elsewhere. He was falling, the rope tangled around his arm useless to stop his fall. He watched as his brother used his rope, bringing it to life and wrapping it around a support to form a pivot point. Instantly he and a dozen others followed suit, no hesitation or doubt, simply one driving force behind them all. Jason had come up with the idea, but in the very instant he'd done so he'd passed the idea to the rest through the Guiding. Ropes snaked outwards, alive under the will of those wielding them, and found purchases, smashed through windows, and wrapped around things. Suddenly he was swinging around, a window directly ahead. He had a moment to concentrate, and then he felt himself hit the cold, unforgiving glass. The brutal impact took the breath from him, but the black leather, stiffened by his will and by months of imbuing it with will and power shielded him from the worst of it, spreading it evenly across his body. It hurt, it hurt like hell, but it didn't kill him. The glass shards which might have slashed or pierced his body were repelled everywhere except his face. He was rolling along the floor, and had just enough time to see the shard of glass pointing at his eye before it dug in lethally deep.

Paul fell back into his chair, gasping. "Jason!" he said after a moment. "Oh god, Jason!"

"What's wrong?" Ashley asked, on one knee beside him. "Tell me!"

"For a moment, just a moment, I was..." Paul shook his head. "I was there, just for a moment. They were falling, but they managed to catch themselves. But Jason! Jason wasn't wearing leathers, he was totally unprotected! My God, he can't be dead!" Paul sobbed.

"Paul, look at me," Ashley said urgently, but Paul just sobbed. "Look at me!" she ordered, slapping him. Paul looked up at her, shocked. "Tell me what happened, all the details. Set your concern for Jason aside for now, just report!"

"They were falling, I'm not..." Paul shook his head. "They all had ropes, I don't know why, and they were falling. Jason had an idea, and they all followed suit; they used the ropes, used their powers to snap the ropes through the glass windows and secure the far ends. Instead of falling straight down, they started falling into the building. Some of them hit windows," he shook his head. "I think most of them hit windows. A few were unlucky, they hit structural support columns instead. I don't... I don't think they survived."

Ashley looked away for a moment. "What was that about Jason?"

Paul felt the hysteria rising again, but Tommy had a hand on his shoulder. Paul felt him, reaching in and calming him, focusing his mind for him. Paul was too distracted to thank him. "The impact was deadly in and of itself. Whoever I was watching through would have... she only survived as long as they did because the leathers protected them, spread the impact out and shielded them from the sharp edges."

"As long as she did?" Ashley asked, face stricken.

"One of the glass shards... she rolled into it," unbidden a hand rose to cover his right eye. "It was long enough that..." Paul looked away.

"She, you said?" Ashley asked. "Could you tell... did you know her?"

"I... I don't think I ever met her," Paul said after a moment. "All I remember is long, red hair flying around... she didn't have a sword, she had something else.." Paul groped at his side, eyes blank. "Some kind of dagger, I think. Two of them."

Ashley looked away. "Katrina, has to have been."

"May the valkyrie carry her home to Odin's halls, and Freya welcome her with open arms," Tommy said slowly. "I'm sure her priest could say more, but I honestly... I never..." Tommy swallowed. "I always meant to talk to her more about her beliefs."

"How many?" Ashley asked. "Could you get any feel?"

"It wasn't pretty," Paul said. "I honestly... I can't tell you more than that one snippet. I didn't get any feel for the overall battle, but if they were falling like that..."

"Things are never as good, or as bad, as they appear at the start," Barney said after a few moments of silence. "We'll learn more when... when they come home."

"Or not," Paul whispered grimly.

Jason shivered uncontrollably as he woke up. He was so cold. But he didn't hurt as much as he had a few minutes ago. His ribs, finally, had healed. He was exhausted, almost useless. But he was awake.

He could hear battle raging around him. He crawled to the edge of the closet and prepared to level himself upright just as something sliced through the space over his head. It didn't cut straight through door and walls without burning or shattering, but in the space where it had cut through...

Jason decided not to get back up. If that had been his head, he'd be dead right now, probably with that same neat slice of material just missing as the door showed. He stayed low the ground and focused on being as inconspicuous as possible. Around him the battle continued, slowly changing in pitch. He couldn't tell what was going on, but it didn't sound good. Screams, grunts, roars from human throats and the roar of various magical attacks filled the air. The clash of steel on steel, the thunder of firearms, all of it mixed together in a story that scared him. The Guardians were giving a good accounting of themselves... but so were the bad guys.

Exhausted or not, weak or not, he was needed. Jason levered himself upright and staggered to the door. Opening it, he was treated to a view of the vestibule of Hell. Fire and smoke were everywhere, and dim figures struggled, exhausted. At the center of the large room that used to be filled with cubicles, Lara fought with clean precision, lines of fire and lightning arcing out from her hands and slicing through and around defenses. Attacks sent at her were batted aside to impact with other attacks, or exploded when a splinter of wood rose up to intercept them. Other bolts simply curved around her or suddenly vanished. Jason almost couldn't believe his eyes, but then he remembered how she'd trained him. Lara wasn't the strongest of the Guardians, no, but she was very, very good at using her powers. Skill, not brute strength, was her forte. And Jason was being treated to the view of a virtuoso of magic at work.

And then, to his horror, someone charged at her with brute force. She was the lynchpin of the Guardians still standing, the center of their line. If she fell-

She didn't scream. She curled over and grasped the bastard's hands, gazing up into his face with shock. The red-hot blade arced cleanly from her lower back, and Jason screamed in rage and defiance. No!

His sword was lost. He didn't have a clue where it was. But by pure chance one of his pistols -- the one that, somehow, had been removed from police lockup -- had survived the fighting, still in the shoulder holster he'd shrugged on just before the fight. He had grabbed the pistols instinctively, without really thinking about it. And now, as the bastard slowly drew his blade out of Lara, Jason settled firmly into the two-handed grip his trainer had taught him. It didn't matter that his pistol couldn't possibly penetrate the bastard's defenses. It didn't matter that he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn door. Nothing mattered but the pistol. The sights. The smug bastard's grin as he looked beyond Lara and noticed Jason for the first time.

The recoil took Jason completely by surprise. Just as it was supposed to, according to his instructor. The entire room shook with the force of it as a blast of fire erupted from the barrel, and Jason smoothly leveled the pistol on another bastard. The first one was falling, the top of his head simply... gone. And Jason was striding forward, no longer exhausted, beyond exhaustion, beyond caring. They had hurt his friend. They were killing his brothers and sisters. And with God as his witness, he was not going to sit around and let them!

Again and again and again the pistol went off. Sometimes it wasn't an instant kill, some of the enemies blocked it. But it wasn't firing slugs of lead, it was firing blasts of pure power and even those that shielded against it rocked back on their heels, knocked off-balance by the bolt. Off balance, and off guard, they were vulnerable to the nearest Guardian who felt like following up.

And then Ronan was there. Exhaustion filled his features, and a terrible slash along his face still hadn't healed, but he was there, at the enemy's rear, and behind him were more Guardians, filled with rage. In an instant it stopped being a battle and turned into a slaughter. The bastards, whoever they were, were caught between a rock and a hard place and had nowhere left to go. They charged, bravely, into the fray but without any hope of survival. They focused instead of killing as many as they could, on charging as high a price as they could for their lives.

It was too high a price. Far, far too high. Jason would weep later. But for now all that he knew was the red-hot need to kill, to murder and maim and destroy those that had hurt him so badly, that had caused so much horror.

And pain. He stopped, disbelieving, to look down at the two foot of steel that had erupted from his belly. He fell, slowly, to his knees as the red-hot steel slowly slid backward. He looked up into Ronan's eyes, and knew that he'd never get a chance to say 'good-bye'.

Behind him, his attacker drew his blade up for the fatal, life ending stroke now that Jason was completely defenseless.

Ronan, heedless of his own danger and exhaustion shifted his grip on his sword, tossing it up to grab it by the blade. Everything seemed to go so slowly for Jason as his life counted away. He watched, defeated, as Ronan lifted his sword like it was a spear or javelin. Ronan's arm snapped forward and his sword flew threw the air with a hissing whine, to snake past Jason's ear. Jason fell forward, slowly, puzzled by how he was still alive. Surely by now that second, fatal stroke would have landed?

Jason raised his pistol one last time as more enemies swarmed the now defenseless Ronan. His aim was off, but in the moments before darkness claimed him he pulled off a few shots that he thought might have hit something.

Paul rushed outside as the cars pulled up, horrified. All of them were supposed to return here before dispersing. All of the survivors. And barely a third of the cars that had gone out had returned.

Two thirds. Two thirds of them were dead.

And Ronan, exhausted, walked out of his car with Jason's limp body in his arms. Worst of all, Paul could see the wound in Jason's belly... the wound that wasn't bleeding, despite clearly being still open.

"No," Paul whispered, falling to his knees. "Please, oh God please, no!"

"We got the bastards, every last one of them," Ronan said grimly. "But it hurt. Oh did it hurt. Six of us... six of us are dead."

"Six?" Ashley asked, looking at the cars.

"A lot of us aren't in any condition to drive," Ronan indicated Jason's limp body. "I don't know... I got him here, but-"

"Take him inside," Quentin told Ronan, coming up from behind to place a hand on his shoulder. "Just take him inside."

"But... isn't he... isn't he..." Paul couldn't finish.

"No, he's not. Neither is Lara, or several of the others," Quentin told him. "We need to get them indoors, in bed, and do it quick. Past that... I'm going to call some doctors who owe me favors, see if they have any ideas. It's bad, but I don't think... so long as we get them treatment, I think they'll live."

"You think?" Ashley asked. "You think-" Ashley paused and seemed to stumble. "Lara?" she whispered. "What... what..."

"She'll live, now get her inside!"

Up and down the road people where staggering, exhausted, out of their cars and grabbing others. Paul realized, finally, that the number of cars wasn't indicative of their losses... simply that far too many people were in no shape to drive.

And judging by the way many of those who had driven were moving, that number was far higher than merely two thirds. Only Quentin seemed to have any energy.

Paul forced his way up and took a deep breath. "Tommy, wake the kids. We're going to need their help with this many walking wounded. We'll figure out a cover story or something for them later; right now, we-"

"They're already up," Tommy said. "Scotty decided to organize them the instant he felt these guys coming. Some of them are getting ready to cook food, others are preparing beds."

"Why..." Paul shook his head. "Nevermind. First things first. Tommy, go take charge inside. These people are going to want a warm meal and a cup of something hot to drink, as well as beds and chairs for the wounded. See to it."

Paul didn't even wait for Tommy to respond before he turned to Barney. "Barney, start a rough triage; the worst wounded go in the house first and have first call on the available beds. Do what you can for their injuries, but focus on just sorting them out. Ashley, you're going to help him, but once he's started you're going to focus on healing the worst injured. It's like a disaster situation; stabilize first, then worry about fully healing them later."

Soon Paul had everyone moving, and stood back to supervise. It wasn't as easy a thing to do as he would have thought, as he was constantly sorting out small issues and details that others should have been able to handle themselves... but for whatever reason, weren't. In some cases it was probably just exhaustion, in others they couldn't see the big picture as well as he did. For whatever reason, he couldn't spend too much time on any task, he had to constantly jump from problem to problem to keep the operation moving steadily. Too many people had simply collapsed after getting out of the cars, completely exhausted.

Finally he had everyone moved into the house, and he looked up and down the street. It didn't look like anyone else had woken up and noticed anything, but all too soon it was going to be time for people to head off to work, and the great big parade of cars in the middle of the road was going to draw attention they couldn't afford. Sighing, he hoped that most of the people who had parked in the middle of the street hadn't had the energy to take their keys with them.

Inside, it was pandemonium. The children were swarming everywhere, helping as best as they could. Bandages weren't needed; the Guardians didn't bleed for very long, so most of their cuts had already closed over. Those that hadn't were a lesson they'd learned.

They might be able to heal a simple cut easily, but if that cut were cauterized, it was a far, far more difficult task to heal it. They couldn't accelerate the natural healing process for that much, if any, and that was grim news for those with serious injuries. Lara and Jason were the worst -- of the survivors, at least. And two of those that had made it this far were suddenly dying themselves. No one understood it. "One moment I had a cut, here," one of them told Ashley, tiredly. "Then it was just... glowing... and it covered up. And I felt so strong... but now..."

Soon enough the two of them, both of whom described similar experiences, died. Ashley wept, unable to believe that she'd failed to save them -- they'd seemed so strong, and then suddenly they'd just collapsed on her, and she just didn't understand.

Chaos made manifest roared through the house, but slowly it was brought under control. A decent meal wasn't really possible, but everyone got a hearty snack of some kind and a good hot drink, either coffee or hot chocolate. The wounds were terrible; some of them were missing limbs and others had horrible scars, but the worst were Laura and Jason. The cut to their bellies had caused a lot of damage, and with the way their enemies had heated their swords to red hot the wounds just weren't healing. Soon enough doctors who knew enough to remain silent arrived, escorted by a grim faced Quentin. They clicked their tongues and made quiet remarks to one another as they stood over the two stricken Guardians until finally they turned to Quentin. "They need to go to the hospital," one of them said firmly. "We simply can't even try to treat them here."

Quentin pointed to the morning news, which was currently covering the 'disaster' downtown. "I don't think that doing anything to draw the attention of the police is a smart idea right now."

The men looked at each other. "We simply can't treat them here;" they explained. A long explanation about how sterility might be dealt with, but supplies were going to be difficult ensued, replete with excessively long words and thick doctorese.

"Give me a list," Quentin said after a moment. "I'll get you your supplies."

The men glanced at each other. "There are a lot of things we need, and a lot more we might need," they tried. "The things we will need alone will be expensive; all the equipment that a hospital has on hand that we might need to cover various contingencies-"

"Money is not an object," Quentin ordered. And the doctors shut up, busy writing out lists of supplies.

Paul, meanwhile, sat by his brother's side. He'd done all he could; they just needed to rest now. Rest, and time, was all they could do.

Jason levered himself, slowly, into the wheelchair. The doctor's had cut deeply away at the tissue inside his belly, excising burned tissue to free the area for healing. But the result was, overall, positive. He'd be in the wheelchair for another week at least, but that was better than the week he'd spent confined to his bed. Or the two days he'd been in a coma. He glanced over at Lara before wheeling himself out.

Murphy, her husband, was sitting by her bed. He hadn't cried. He hadn't raged. When he'd shown up at Ashley's, uncalled, he had simply walked to Lara's bedside and sat down. Ronan had tried to explain, but Murpy had cut him off. "I've known -- I've always known -- that something was going on. She kept me out of it, and I've accepted that. But she's injured, maybe dying, and I have the right -- the right, God damn your eyes! -- to sit with her. Save your explanations; the only ones I want are from her." And that had been that.

Jason wheeled himself out, slowly, a laptop carefully tucked under his arm. He'd purchased it when he'd realized how long he was going to be stuck in bed. The best part about it was the wireless card inside, which allowed him to browse the internet without anyone else being able to track what he was doing. Quentin had helped him set that up, even the government would have a hard time tracking his research.

He wanted to know more about Ronan, and now seemed like a good time to do the research. It was a brand new day, and a bright one. True, they were hurt. From thirty 'active' guardians -- not counting Paul, Barney, and himself -- they had fallen to twenty two, several of them still badly injured. But they'd taken the bastards, burned them out root and branch, and as if in response to their losses dozens of potential Guardian candidates were reaching the end of their 'pre-training', and looked good to replace their losses and then some.

They couldn't actually replace the fallen, and they would be missed. But their numbers were important. They needed more people. The Arch, as if in response to the battle, had grown even stronger, and everyone who was capable spent several hours a day building wards to hem it back in. Even more hours were spent roaming the city, finding the dark cancers of the mind it was throwing out even more strongly. Jason had a few ideas about how to deal with it -- something he hadn't even talked to Ronan about, yet -- but that was for another day.

For now, the doctors had cleared him from bed for one purpose only. Ronan smiled as Jason wheeled himself out of the hallway, then pushed him into the crowded living room, where all the surviving Guardians except Lara awaited. Ronan wheeled him into position, and then took a spot at the center of the room. Passing a glass to Jason, he kept one for himself.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Ronan said solemnly, "to absent friends."

"To absent friends!" Jason answered with everyone else, then took the vodka at a swallow.

They'd won. They'd ended it. But good God, at what a price. Jason didn't know how he'd explain to Samuel's parents what had happened. By now they had to realize that something had happened to his best friend, their son. Ronan hadn't gone near them, uncertain how to handle it, and Jason wasn't sure himself. "To absent friends," he whispered to himself. "To absent friends."

Jacob Anderson, or at least that's what he called himself these days, stood looking out over the city. His hotel had a good view of the building that had burned down just a week ago, the building he'd been sent to investigate. His superiors wanted to know if the official answer of 'terrorism' had born any relation to the truth, and despite the last several day's investigation, he still wasn't sure. Of all the Watchers his senses were the most acute, making him invaluable for investigations. But...

He sighed. The police had carefully cataloged the remains they'd found, and found nothing. Several were burned to the point where no identification was possible, and he found that suspicious. Sure, those in the heart of the building, where the fire raged hottest before the fire department responded should have been destroyed. But not all of those bodies were at the center of the conflagration; indeed, at least three of the bodies which had been reduced to ashes were suspicious as hell. Fires hot enough to burn a body to ash simply did not fail to destroy the floor under them. Leaving merely a carbon scorch was strange, and stank -- to him -- of magic.

But there wasn't a single trace! Oh, there were plenty of traces of magic, low and high, but nothing that could have been called combat magic. Nothing to summon fire or lightning, nothing to shield against magic-forged attacks. Shields against detection had clearly been woven through the entire building; someone on the council was involved on this. But he couldn't find a single thrice-damned trace of their signature, which was also strange. No matter how well they'd hidden it, he should have been able to find it. It's why he was the first person on the ground so often!

He reviewed what he knew in his head, trying again to make sense of it. The bodies, burned to ashes without damaging the area around them, stank of magic... but he couldn't detect even a trace of that magic. Which was impossible; ever since his childhood, thousands of years ago, he'd always been able to detect even the slightest trace of magic. The fury needed to burn bodies so thoroughly would take weeks to fade below what he could detect, not mere days.

The reports themselves, of a 'needle of fire' that had struck straight through a helicopter... science might be able to produce that, with a laser, but... he didn't think it would be visible. Not unless there was a lot of smoke in the air. At least, that's what his sources all said when he asked. He wasn't that familiar with modern technology. Given the way it was rapidly reproducing things that were previously magic's province alone, he'd need to rectify that. As would his fellow watchers, assuming he could convince them.

Other reports -- an eye-witness report that he'd taken himself, and knew was true -- clearly described large scale use of magic. Rope simply did not lash out 'with a mind of its own' to smash through windows and suddenly secure itself. That had to be magic. But again, he'd found no trace of it. And the report was itself strange; the eyewitness had been clear that the entire group had simply 'whipped' their ropes out. No incantations or gestures, not even the time needed for them. Possibly someone inside the building had done it... but that didn't make sense either. Each rope had acted as an individual, not a group. And if someone had been inside the building, with the 'ground' under his feet, it would have been far easier simply to grab the falling bodies and pull them into the building. No, these black-suited figures had to have done it themselves, without paying any attention to the rules.

The explosion on the roof that had caused the authorities to panic, that didn't have any explanation he could accept, either. The police had found no trace of explosives, and the fragmentation pattern -- according to the forensic specialists he'd interrogated -- was 'strange'. As if the entire roof had suddenly been heated all at once, and the explosion had merely been the resulting overpressure from air heated until it needed ten times the space. Again, that stank of magic... but he couldn't sense a trace of it. That, alone, seemed definite proof, yet... how could anyone miss the traces such a spell would leave behind?

Jacob Anderson sighed. His report to the council was not going to be well received, not well received at all. All he could detect -- and it didn't even mean anything! -- was traces of... of...

He shook his head. "How the hell can an energy field seem dark, or light?" he whispered. Something about that duality nagged at him, but damned if he could figure out what.

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