The Guardians

By Rilbur

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Chapter ##

Ronan listened to the screaming for a while, listening for God only knew what. Grunting, he glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes. Long enough. Standing up, he walked back out into the corridor. Banging on a door, he silenced the screaming before walking on to the door next to it. "Hello," he said grimly as he walked in. "Ready to talk?"

"You bastard! The council will have your head!" the man snarled.

"I see, so I should call my associate in?" Ronan asked.

The man's eyes widened and he started sweating.

"Care to at least give me a name?" Ronan tried. The man shook his head.

"Not talking," he spat.

"Here, let me show you how it's done," Ronan smiled. "Hello, my name is Ronan Koken. If you don't at least give me your name, I'm going to call in my associate and let you know a bit more about what caused those screams earlier. Think about it." Ronan kept his face and voice affable until the final sentence, heightening the effect of pure terror he was trying to generate.

The man pulled against the bonds holding him to his chair for a minute, then sagged back. "Fine," he sighed. "I'm Norman Rockwell."

"Now, who sent you?" Ronan asked, smiling, as he drew a knife from beneath his coat and started fiddling with it. Norman's eyes locked onto it, and he swallowed again.

"The council," he said eventually. "They wanted a more thorough investigation into the incident a few months back, after their agent reported that..." he paused.

"Reported what?" Ronan asked edgily. This wasn't getting him anywhere, but he had to start somewhere.

"You know damned well what he reported! Or your master does! And when we find him-" Ronan backhanded Norman with his free hand.

"Threats don't mean much to me," he told Norman. "At least, not empty ones. There is only one man who might call himself my 'master', and unfortunately for you he would consider the very idea laughable."

"Really?" Norman sneered. "Then who gave you the magic that permeates this very place?"

Ronan smiled. "That isn't important. What is important is what you did with my love."

Norman paused, then shook his head. "He wasn't harmed. We simply... assisted an existing kidnapping attempt, made sure it worked. Security, so you won't try and harm us."

"You put Jason's life on the line!" Ronan growled. "The second you did that, you lost any protection your council association might have given you." Ronan placed his knife against Norman's throat and stared in his eyes. "If Jason is harmed, if so much as one hair on his head is out of place when I find him, I will hunt the council down. I will hunt down every member. I will hunt down every associate. I will hunt down every agent."

Ronan slowly, delicately stroked the knife along Norman's throat as if to slice it, but so lightly only the skin outermost layer of skin was so much as scratched. "And I will leave scorched earth behind."

Norman held his head back, trying instinctively to get away from the knife. "He wasn't hurt! We provided a special knock out drug to make sure he'd be fine!"

"Knock out drug?" Ronan asked.

"The council uses it to control prisoners, magically. It knocks a person out for a few minutes, and blanks out any power use for hours afterwords," Norman said frantically. "We used it so they wouldn't have to hurt him to capture him! We wanted a hostage for our own safety, just in case. You weren't even supposed to know he was gone yet!"

"And you helped them sort out all the stuff in his possession that held magic, I suppose?" Ronan growled.

"Yes, so your master couldn't trace-" Norman broke off as the knife pressed a little harder.

"Get this through your skull," Ronan growled. "I have no master. No lord. My only association with the council -- and it's a single, lone association! -- is that I know someone who is a part of it. Who warned me a bit about their rules, and their authority. Authority," he added. "That. Does. Not. Cover. Me."

Norman swallowed. "So that your... associate... couldn't trace him through them. We added a second compound to the maintenance drug the... people holding Jason are supposed to use, one that will suppress any tracking magic tied directly to his person." Norman was close to tears. "Please, we didn't mean any harm. We took him just as a safety precaution; we even made sure the kidnappers wouldn't hurt him accidentally. They might have if we hadn't intervened!"

Ronan snorted. "That is a pathetic-" Ronan stopped. "Not a lie. You couldn't know. Only your intervention allowed them to hold him as long as they have. Now, tell me what you know about them. Everything."

The man must have seen something in Ronan's gaze that he'd missed earlier. "You... you truly love him."

"Yes," Ronan answered. "And if I don't get him back, soon... understand, I have a conscience. Him."

Norman took a deep breath. "I understand."

"Now, where is he," Ronan demanded.

"I don't know," Norman said after a moment. "I wasn't... I wasn't directly involved in that aspect of the operation. Security."

"Security," Ronan said, almost unable to believe his ears. "Your 'security' has put the man I love at risk!"

"The... individuals in charge have been ordered to see to it that he isn't harmed," Norman shrugged. "That's all I really know."

"Seeing as how you've actually answered a few questions, I'm going to give you a few minutes to think," Ronan snarled. "Think hard, I want to know everything you can tell me about how to find Jason. Think very hard, because if I think you're lying, or holding back in the slightest, so much as an equivocating quibble..." Ronan walked to the door. "If that happens, I won't be coming back alone. And it won't be your friend screaming in pain."

Ronan shut the door without waiting for a response. Taking a deep breath, he turned and walked two doors down. "Hello," he told the man behind the door. "Ready to talk?"

Unlike his companion, this one was very ready to talk. Anything to avoid the terrible, horrible, unimaginable torture that had produced the sounds Ronan had ordered Lara to make, knowing the ventilation system would carry it to both of the adjacent cells.

Jason had given up struggling against his bonds, but he wasn't giving up. He'd just have to wait for his chance. Whatever they'd drugged him with, he was still a bit woozy, but he didn't think it would actually ruin his physical coordination. It was targeted at his mind, at his powers. Which, honestly, scared him. How had these bastards come up with something like that?

Finally the van stopped and the door opened. Jason didn't bother trying to fight back as they lifted him out of the van; bound hand and foot he was completely helpless. The look of the grounds around him didn't raise much hope. The small, barred windows, the tall, brick walls with barbed wire on top, the rather strong front gate, the fencing everywhere just about screamed a 'prison' to him. And while he couldn't see anything that clearly identified it, he suspected he knew just what kind of prison.

"Your father is almost irrational on the subject," his mother had said, and "The facility is supposed to 'cure' you." Jason hadn't been interested. At all. In fact, he'd hung up on his father when the old man had demanded he go.

Jason just hadn't realized the place would take unwilling individuals.

The men carting him hauled him indoors and up a set of stairs before dumping him in an office. They took the time to cut some of the bindings and then rebind him directly to a chair before walking off. Jason closed his eyes and focused inwards, meditating. His heart-rate slowed and his breathing deepened as he fell inward, seeking a calm, quiet place to wait out the events around him. Some part of him wanted to fall apart, gibbering in fear, at the idea of being helpless once more. But he held tight to the fact that he was merely helpless, not powerless. Sooner or later they'd relax their guard and he would have an opportunity to introduce them to the difference. For now he focused inward, controlling his fear, controlling his despair, and channeling them into his rage. Kidnap him, would they? 'Convert' him, would they? Torture him, would they!?

If they could have seen the fire in his eyes before they opened the door, they might have been wise enough to put a bullet in his brain and be done with it. Unfortunately he heard the door open and closed away his rage, hiding it behind a mask before looking up. Defiantly, angrily, strongly, but without the sheer power he could have put behind it he demanded answers. "Who are you? What do you think your doing!" he snarled.

"You are a very hard man to catch, Mr. Bester," the man drawled as he sat behind a desk. "I've been working for nearly six months to try and get a hold of you, but until tonight it just wasn't possible. When tonight's opportunity arose, I honestly couldn't believe it. Your actions weren't simply suggestive, it was quite clear that you knew we were hunting you."

"But, luckily -- for us -- it turned out not to be a trap, just as our... friends suggested. Just general security consciousness on your part the whole time," the man shook his head. "Too bad you lapsed tonight."

"Friends?" Jason snarled.

"Yes, friends," the man nodded. "We didn't want to directly challenge you; the police reports we've acquired strongly suggest you have sufficient martial arts skills to make that a loosing proposition. Hence why we're taking extreme precautions with you. Without them, we never would have been able to acquire a drug that would safely, and instantly, disable you. Or the 'maintenance' drug they've provided that will help to keep you from escaping. Thinking of which..." the man pressed a buzzer under his desk, summing what sounded like a large brute of a man who tromped through the door behind Jason. The businessman in front of him tossed a bottle across the room, and presumably the brute caught it. "One pill. Make him swallow."

"Biting me," the man said almost lovingly into Jason's ear as he shook a pill into the cap of the bottle, "would be a very big mistake."

Jason didn't know enough to try and cheek the pill, or any of the other tricks people used. And if this pill was supplied by the same people who had someone locked out his powers, odds are his system couldn't burn it out either. Clearly, whoever had provided the first drug had known about his abilities and moved to counter them, so the maintenance drug probably kept that going. Spitting the pill out didn't help; the brute simply recovered it from the floor and shoved it back in his mouth. And then covered Jason's mouth while he stroked Jason's throat, forcing a swallow. And then pried Jason's mouth open to make sure he really had swallowed the pill.

"Playing silly games won't get you out of here any quicker, Mr. Bester," the businessman told him. "We are quite good at what we do."

Jason stifled a snarl by pulling his faith around him like a shield. It was all he could do for now. He had to bide his time, wait for-

Jason stiffened in his chair. He had two sets of power, and so far he'd only tried to use one. The mystic arts were denied him, as were the abilities bestowed upon him by his divine abilities, but he could still feel his connection to God. Feel the power that he could draw upon at need. It wasn't aptly suited to harm. It wasn't meant to be. Jesus Christ was a loving, caring man who would protect the innocent and heal the injured, not strike down the evil. Love, not hatred. The God shown in the Old Testament was different, and not something Jason felt much kinship to most days. And even those days when he did feel that kinship, there wasn't the connection, the pure, deep faith that fueled his link and allowed him to channel His power.

But Jason didn't need to strike down his foes to escape; merely burn off whatever was shrouding his powers, blocking his ability to act. It wasn't going to be quick, or easy. The drug resisted as he pulled the power inward, fighting back against the inexorable tide of the Lord's power. But it was being pushed back.

Jason smiled. "You have no idea what kind of trouble you've brought down upon your heads," he told the businessman. "But this I will give you. Let me and the others you have kidnapped go, and you may leave this place alive."

"Threats?" the businessman laughed. "Do you really expect me to take that seriously?"

"Don't let us go," Jason continued, "and I swear to you by the Lord our God, the face of God revealed to us in the Old Testament, I will leave no two stones standing upon each other, that your blood, the blood of those butchers that run this place, will run like water. 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,' but there are no prohibitions against protecting the innocent from monsters such as you. At any cost."

"We'll cure you of your... attitudes," the businessman said distastefully, "while we cure you of your disease."

"I think not," Jason held his head high. He heard a loud shouting from the office outside, behind him. "Sounds like trouble," he said with a small smile.

Inside he prayed that he wouldn't be called on to fulfill his vow. He'd made it in the heat of the moment, unthinking anger blinding him for a moment that he already regretted. But he had sworn in the Lord's name, and he didn't think he could turn back. Not on that vow, or any other in His name. Once, maybe, but now even as he swore in the Lord's name he'd felt the oath flow, wrap itself around him like a stifling shroud. He was bound. Bound to the Lord and bound to his oath. They would let him go while they could, or Jason would destroy them.

"This isn't what we agreed!" someone shouted as they stormed into the room. "You only got to keep Jason if-"

"Hendricks, remove this man. Permanently," the businessman said coldly.

A loud roar from behind Jason made him bow his head. "No..." someone whispered, voice wet and garbled. "We..." A thumping noise announced the collapse of a body.

"For that, you are dead," Jason whispered. Raising his eyes, he stared at the man across from him, memorizing his face. Some latent echo of his power reached out and licked across the man, and Jason felt him in a way he would never be able to describe. Deep inside a certainty rose. He had sworn death and destruction upon the man, and he would visit just that. Jason might abrogate his own free will with his oath, but while the man across from him still possessed his free will, it didn't matter. He had already made his choice. Jason didn't have to worry about the way 'out' he'd left the man, he would never take it, never let Jason and the others go and force Jason to let him live.

And deep inside Jason, something screamed in glee at the thought. The dark demon's he'd learned to control eagerly pressed against the bars of their cages, rattling their chains as they strained towards their inevitable release. And Jason didn't reprimand them. Didn't drag them back. He didn't unleash them, yet, simply stroked their heads and said 'soon, soon'.

As he was manhandled out, he drew deep inside himself and focused on his powers. Still just out of reach, and already the pill was working its way through his system, forcing them further back. But the power he was channeling, the Lord's power, that still ran through his system. Slowly, gently, but surely, without hesitation it burned in his veins. Subtle because subtlety was called for. Because...

'Vengeance is mine', Jason remembered. And then he remembered a line from a book he'd once read. "What goes around comes around," but more importantly "and sometimes you are what's coming around."

Slow, not because God couldn't burn the poison out of his system in an instant. But because God wanted to give the bastard a chance to turn back. Because Jason was here to do a job, and God wanted there to be no doubt in Jason's mind that the bastard had earned it. Jason had chosen his oath... but God had known he would. As it was the bastard's nature to be evil, it was simply Jason's nature to respond.

As he was stripped and shoved into a shower, no two limbs free to move independently at the same time and men with tazers watching over him every second, Jason fell further into himself and waited. Eventually they would learn, oh yes.

"Bring them," Ronan growled. The Guardians on duty didn't even hesitate. Ronan was beyond reason, and so were they. A Guardian had been targeted, deliberately. That was an insult none of them would leave unpunished. Already most of the Guardians were out combing the city, searching for any clues, any information. If someone knew who to watch, what to look for, it would be clear a powerful organization had pulled out all the stops to turn the city over and shake it until Jason fell out of a metaphorical pocket. For all their secrecy, every last one of their order had dropped every other commitment in favor of the search, something that would rapidly become clear, a red flag for anyone searching for them.

They didn't give a rat's half-eaten ass. Jason was one of theirs, and more than that, every last one of them felt it in their bones, the time for secrecy was coming to a close. The Arch's power was growing too great to hide much longer, and when that happened, when the Arch's presence became public knowledge to any degree, so must the Guardians.

Hell, the secret was already fraying at the edges. Too many people, from social workers in CPS to police officers, from lawyers and judges to civil servants, were becoming more and more aware of their presence, their power, their pull. The little courtroom stunt six months ago was still shaking the entire judicial system to it's core, forcing the Guardians to run around and make damned sure no other such incidents popped up. So far, none had.

Didn't help.

"I'm going to give you once last chance," Ronan growled as the two men were brought into the room. The bare concrete walls were hidden, mostly, by a proliferation of maps, filing cabinets, and a few computers while Ronan sat behind a large wooden desk. "I want Jason back."

"After you tortured Frank?" Norman asked as he and Frank sat in the chair across from Ronan, the two Guardians who had escorted them in sitting behind the two of them. "Our bosses will never help you!"

"Tortured me?" Frank asked, confused. "They tortured you!"

"What?" Norman asked, confused. "I heard you screaming!"

"No, I heard you screaming!" Frank said, shaking his head. For a moment they stared at each other, confused, then their heads snapped as one to Ronan.

"Sound effects provided courtesy of the lovely lady who caught you two snooping around where you don't belong," Ronan drawled, confirming their suspicions. "Now, I want Jason back."

"Release us, and I'll call my boss," Norman sighed. "Jason will be back within a day, unharmed."

"No dice," Ronan shook his head. "Jason first."

"Let me go to a public payphone, call my boss to set up an exchange," Norman compromised. "You can watch me, and then escort me back. I promise I won't resist. You'll still have Frank, too."

"Call him from here," Ronan offered. "I'll provide you with a disposable cell still in it's original wrapping, unactivated but with a card to activate it."

"No dice, you might try to use the number to trace the boss," Norman shook his head.

"And you think I couldn't do the same thing with a payphone?" Ronan raised an eyebrow. "Trust me, if I want the number you dialed from the pay phone, that is not half difficult."

The men exchanged glances. "Boss won't like it," Frank said.

"Boss don't like a lot of things," Norman said in agreement. "What's one more?"

"Use the backup number. It'll take longer to relay, but..." Frank trailed off.

"Good idea," Norman sighed. "You have a deal Mr. Koken."

Ronan opened a drawer and pulled out a shopping bag. "Pre-arranged with the best security we could manage," he said with a smile. "We use these to try and create an isolated, secure network. No more than five uses per phone before we dispose of them. Costs us a lot of money, but..."

"But pretty damned secure," Norman nodded as he checked the seals on the package. "Looks like you aren't trying any trickery," he commented, surprised. "Odd, that."

"I make a deal, I keep it," Ronan said firmly. "How about you?"

"It takes a minute to set this up," Norman said as he tried to rip open the packaging.

"Here," Ted, one of the two Guardians who had escorted the men in, slapped a knife down on Norman's shoulder. "Use this."

"Thanks," Norman said. "Strange, giving me your weapon."

Ted flicked his eyes up at Ronan, who nodded slightly. "You couldn't use that knife against me if you wanted to," he said softly. "And even if you had a knife that I hadn't... prepared, I could still put you down. I'm in full leathers, so the only weak spot would be my throat and face. And hitting a human there isn't easy, our reflexes are geared to protect our faces. And that ignores who and what I am."

"Leathers?" Norman asked, quickly and efficiently slicing the packaging.

Ronan gestured to his own clothing. "The skin tight leather we wear is a uniform of sort for a reason. Our powers are akin to those of the council, but not the same. Different, not more or less powerful."

"I see," Norman said as he returned the knife. "So it's not really leather?"

Ronan frowned. "I don't know how much you know about the council's powers..." he said by way of question.

"Magic. That's all I really need to understand," Norman shrugged. "I know some things they can do, a few things they can't, a few things they won't. I understand the general rules of thumb, but those are just generalizations, I listen to them for the details."

"Our powers are different. We can use our will to directly imbue items with power, strength," Ronan explained. "The leathers we wear take weeks to make, and then once we start wearing them we constantly run our will into them, strengthening them until the magic 'catches'."

"Oh, they're enchanted," Frank exclaimed.

"No," Ronan said slowly. "We cannot enchant things in the sense the council can. Our spells go... 'stale', quickly, if we don't constantly refresh them. Even the wards around this building, the most powerful we can make, require regular infusions of energy and will to keep them functioning at their peak. As powerful as they are they can go for a month without degrading, but then their very strength works against them. The leathers are the same; we pour or will into them until they start to 'remember', on their own, what we've done. Strength, protection, being a part of our very flesh."

"A part of your flesh?" Norman asked, raising an eyebrow. "Fascinating conversation, but I need to make a call before we continue."

"Do so," Ronan nodded.

Norman dialed a number, and Ronan leaned back in his chair, concentrating. He hadn't bugged the phone; he didn't really need to.

"Norman reporting," Norman said.

"Status?" a distorted voice asked.

"Red... alpha or beta, indiscriminate," Norman said, hesitating for a moment.

"Alpha or beta? Gamma?" came the reply.

"Indiscriminate, but unlikely," Normal replied tersely. Ronan could have cursed. He hadn't expected the conversation to be in code!

"Understood. Communication black?"

"Communication purple, alpha two niner," Norman replied.

"Confirmed, purple alpha two niner. Woodstock, eight one charlie," replied the voice, the computer masking a little stronger than before.

"Negative, eight one yankee," Norman replied.

"One moment, entree actual connecting."

"Understood," Norman replied, eyes going wide.

Ronan was about to put a stop to the ridiculous code, but the next voice to come on the line wasn't masked, and didn't bother with code. "Norman, I'm sorry I put you in this situation," the man told him.

"Not your fault, Actual," Norman said respectfully, "I volunteered-"

"Cut the crap, Norman," 'Actual' interrupted. "And call me Thaddeus; they're going to meet me face to face soon enough."

"Face to face?" Norman said, eyes going wide.

"Is Ronan in the room? Put me on with him," Thaddeus ordered.

"My boss-" Norman began, holding out the phone.

"Hello Thaddeus," Ronan took the phone quickly. "I want Jason back."

"Hello Ronan. I'm sorry for what happened; we thought you were the front group for a rogue of some kind," Thaddeus sighed. "Merlin was most upset when he heard about it."

"I can imagine, he knows how I'm likely to react," Ronan growled.

"Which is why the council has already declared my life yours if... if you choose to take it," Thaddeus said, his voice failing midway through. Ronan had to hand it to him, other than the slight gap he'd managed to keep his absolute terror out of his voice.

"I'm not quite that violent," Ronan said. "Just give me Jason. Tell me where he is."

"My agent is dead. The group that wanted to kidnap Jason stepped outside the bounds of the agreement we had with them, and killed him to do it," Thaddeus told Ronan. "Give me your number, and I'll fax you everything we have on the group."

"If Jason is dead-" Ronan began angrily.

"He isn't," Thaddeus reassured him. "In fact, the problem is quite the opposite. Either get him out of there soon, or a lot of other people are going to wind up dead. And the council won't be able to ignore that."

"The council can take a flying leap," Ronan growled. "We are outside your jurisdiction."

"Jason isn't. The precedents are clear; if a wielder of divine magic steps out of line, we do have the authority to intervene," Thaddeus told him. "I've scried for those that killed my agent, and I see only the future, a future of blood, fire, and death. If he kills them... if he turns his power, unlimited, against them..."

Ronan felt chilled to the bone. "Jason wouldn't do that. Someone else-"

"No," Thaddeus interrupted. "I scried for Jason, too. I couldn't see his future clearly, but I am absolutely certain, he will be the one doing the killing."

Ronan shook his head. "There has to be a reason," he said. "Self-defense, or-"

"What I saw goes so far beyond self defense that it isn't even funny," Thaddeus told him. "Get Jason out of there, quickly, before whatever is going to make him snap happens."

"I'd like to have him home right now," Ronan snarled.

"Ronan Koken, listen to me very clearly," Thaddeus said angrily. "We aren't playing a game here. If Jason snaps, if he crosses the line... he will be called to answer, and you can't stop it."

"Listen to me very closely, Thaddeus," Ronan answered in an even more even voice that did nothing to cloak his rage. "If you harm so much as one hair on Jason's head... so much as say 'boo' to him... I will come for you."

Ted held his hand out for the phone, and Ronan handed it over, shaking in rage. "Thaddeus, this is Ted, or Theodore Kleiner if you prefer. If Ronan comes for you, he won't be coming alone. Get Jason back to us, safely. Now."

"Or the Guardians will ride to war, again, and I'm sure you saw where that ended last time," he snarled before crushing the phone in his hand.

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