The Guardians

By Rilbur

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Chapter Thirty-Six

Lara glanced over at Ashley as the helicopter circled around the center of the city, carefully avoiding any areas the enemy had claimed. Looking down, she gazed into the crystalline pendant she used as a focus for her magic. She wasn't even certain what it was made of, but it's clear, crystalline mysteries helped concentrate and amplify her powers when she used it. And sometimes, just sometimes, staring into it like this gave her flashes of wisdom. There wasn't anything magic about it, it was the same wisdom that could be achieved by staring into the flame of a candle or watching the sun set. When the mind was at peace, sometimes it could achieve feats of intuition it could never manage at other times.

But today brought her no peace. Her husband was dead. Murdered. And it was her fault.

Lara took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. She didn't share sole blame. Murphy had wanted to attend the wedding, and she wasn't the one who had chosen to desecrate such a solemn event in such a manner. Their opponents had chosen to deliberately target the civilians there, not her.

But it hurt. There was a piece of her soul missing. And with it gone, she was weakened. No one else had noticed yet, but she had. She was one of the most powerful Guardians. She didn't have the raw strength of Jason or Ronan, but her skill more than offset that. Trickery, misdirection, subtlety, and underhanded tactics had allowed her to level the playing field.

But it wasn't working anymore. There was something... missing. It took more effort, more concentration to pull off her usual tricks, leaving less of her mind and time free to anticipate, to create the next level of her defense. She glanced at her arm and grimaced. So far her weakness hadn't killed her, but it had come damned close. She could still feel the shock as the fire hatchet came down, her arm raised instinctively to shield her self. That was the second blow to her psyche, to her sense of self. She kept trying to use that hand, and it wasn't there. She could compensate, generally, with a light touch of magic, but... it was distracting. Strange. Wrong.

Ashley tried to shout something at Lara, but she couldn't quite make it out. In a way, she didn't need to. Ashley knew her... and she knew Ashley.

Strike three. For years she'd been able to ignore it, to deliberately miss it. Ashley didn't consider Lara a 'friend'. She knew that was all Lara would let her be, and had lived with that. She wasn't even trying to do anything yet, but Lara knew it was coming. And other than the small part of her that felt that was betraying Murphy, that it was wrong to let someone else into her bed if she loved them, she couldn't muster a single argument against it. It would happen, in the fullness of time. Murphy would want it that way.

And she couldn't handle it. Not now. And so a possible source of strength became another source of weakness, another thing that would drag her down. And there was nothing she could do about it.

"I just need time," Lara whispered, using the lightest touch of her powers to carry the words. Ashley smiled, and nodded.

"I'm sorry," she mouthed, exaggerating the words so Lara could read them. Lara looked away, unable to take it. Not right now.

The helicopter was starting to slow down, getting ready to land a good two blocks out. Lara nodded and dropped her pendant to her chest. Game time.

Merlin stood over the bowl of water, hands pressed to either side of the large glass mixing bowl. The water inside was unnaturally still, and beyond it Jason could almost make out a flood of images and scenes. Jason had spent time practicing a similar technique, but Merlin had studied it for centuries. Where Jason might take a second or two to take in a given scene and move on, Merlin's staring eyes watches dozens of scenes in a second, processing the data even as more information flooded in. A continuous stream of information pouring in, allowing him to keep watch over a large section of the city. "It's working," Merlin said, stepping away from the bowl and shaking his head. "They're responding."

Young frowned. "The helicopter hasn't even landed yet."

"They triggered warning wards," Merlin shrugged. "We knew that would happen."

Jason sighed. "How many of their troops are moving off?"

"Enough for our purposes," Merlin shrugged. "Or rather, yours. If you're going to go, you have to go now."

"Stand by to move!" Young bellowed to his troops, and Jason turned to face the remaining Guardians. So few. So terribly few. He barely even knew most of their names, they were all relatively new to the order. Two of them didn't even have their leathers yet, their survival a mystery Jason wouldn't explore today. Or, in all likelihood, ever.

"Get ready," he said more simply. They stood and stretched, checking that their weapons were loose in their sheaths and their gear tightly attached. In moments, they were ready, their silent and swift preparation an eerie counterpoint to the yelling and shouting that most of the military units required. Across the room, a SEAL team was ready just as quickly, and almost as silently. Jason nodded at its commander as he checked his own weapons. Two swords, one over each shoulder, and a pair of daggers at each hip were checked quickly and easily. The bandolier filled with throwing knives that he'd picked up took a few moments more, but not long enough to be a concern. His hands brushed further back at each hip, where the absence of his pistols ached. He'd considered asking for a pair of them from Commander Young, but it seemed somehow wrong. He needed his pistols, not theirs.

"It's time," Merlin shook his head. "Good luck, Jason. You'll need it."

"You aren't coming?" Jason asked.

Merlin sighed. "If I go with you, I won't increase the odds of success. This is your battle, not mine. And if I leave... It'll cost more, more than I care to think about, but there is another possibility for a victory, of sorts. I have to prepare for that."

Jason nodded. "Hopefully, it won't be necessary."

"I hope so," Merlin said, hand drifting towards his chest, rubbing absently at a bulge in his robe. "I hope so."

"That a weapon?" Jason asked, nodding towards the bulge.

Merlin turned around and walked away, silent. Jason watched him go. "We're ready," Young told him.

"Alright," Jason nodded. "Their thralls don't appear to have orders to engage people without magical power, so your men take point. Engage individuals, but if it's a group let us know so we can support."

After their argument earlier over who would take point, Jason could have strangled Young for any 'I told you so's', but Young just nodded. "We need to get moving. They've started reducing the streets to rubble, so once we hit their perimeter we'll be moving on foot."

Jason frowned. "They can't know we're coming."

"The detonation from their little trap earlier started it," Young shrugged. "I think they're finishing it up just because they recognized it as a useful way to keep anyone from just driving up to their front door."

Jason nodded in understanding. "Let's go."

Scotty's eyes snapped wide open. He felt it. "Tony," he whispered.

"What is it?" Tony complained, rolling over in his bed.

"Aunt Ashley is coming," Scotty said quietly.

Tony bolted upright. "You sure?"

"Yeah," Scotty nodded. Tony got up and poked his head out the door, looking for 'Uncle Ichabod'. Making a 'hurry up' gesture at Scotty, he hurried out of the room. Scotty gulped before tossing his covers aside. Poking his head out of the door, he checked that the coast was clear before following. He had no desire to run into 'Uncle Ichabod'.

"You're going to get us in trouble," Scotty hissed as he caught up with Tony.

"Sarah told us we need to know when Ashley's coming back," Tony told him.

Scotty couldn't really argue as they slipped quietly into Sarah's room. "Sarah," Tony hissed. "You awake?"

"What do you twerps want?" the surly teenager growled. "It's ten at night."

"Momma's coming," Tony said, and Scotty nodded.

"What?" Sarah asked, bolting upright in bed. Pulling the sheet around herself better, she shifted backwards in bed. "You sure?"

"Yeah," Scotty nodded. "I can feel her," he added with a smile.

Sara reached around and knocked on the wall in a familiar pattern. When she didn't receive a response, she repeated it. The firm 'knock knock' came back, completing the pattern. "Alright, go back to bed you two," she told them.

"No," Tony shook his head. "We wanna help!"

Scotty looked back and forth between them. "Tony..." he said hesitantly.

"We can help!" Tony said a little louder, pushing out his hand and making Sarah's nightstand lift a few inches.

"Fine," she shook her head. "I don't have time to argue. Just stay out of the way."

Tony nodded sharply, a harsh grin on his face. Scotty could have moaned. He didn't like playing cops and robbers, much less getting in a real fight!

"What's going on?" Ichabod screeched from the hallway. "Get back to bed, all of you! Get back to bed or I'll ground you!"

Sarah yanked the door open and snarled. "Ground this, bastard!" she flipped him off.

"For that young lady-" Ichabod started before doubling over in pain as Sara clenched her fist.

"Our mother is coming home," Sarah ground out, "and we aren't putting up with you anymore."

"Please..." Ichabod choked out. "I was sent... to protect... you..."

"I don't want your protection," Sarah told him, as she released her clenched fist. "And I think I just demonstrated quite ably that I don't need it."

"I thought... all the Guardians... were gone..." Ichabod panted. "You're putting everyone in danger. I'll protect them, but you have to-"

"I'm not a Guardian," Sarah said cheerfully as she knelt beside him, "and you're the one who needs to go."

Ichabod rolled over and used the wall to steady himself. "There will be men coming. They'll kill every Guardian they can find-"

"I'm not a Guardian, and I don't have their powers," Sarah told him firmly. "We have our own powers, our own defenses, and we aren't rolling over for anyone."

Ichabod shook his head. "You'll get everyone killed," he moaned. "Breslau-"

"I don't care who Breslau is," Sarah told him. "You've tried to take over from Ashley, tried to be a good parent for us. For that I'm going to insist, and allow, you to leave. Now!"

Ichabod shook his head, then started stumbling back towards the room he'd taken over. "I'll give you five minutes to pack, and you can take your own car," Sarah threw at his retreating back. Ichabod didn't respond. Around them everyone was getting up and dressing, so Scotty decided to run back to his room and change out of his pj's so he wouldn't be too out of place.

Besides, they didn't fit quite right anymore. Aunt Ashley was going to take him shopping for some new ones right before Ichabod had shown up. Scotty was glad she was finally coming back, he was tired of ill-fitting pj's.

Lara hopped off the helicopter as Ashley swept the area, Tommy instantly vanishing into the shadows to explore a little. The two squads of marines assigned to assist them fanned out to support them, and Lara nodded sharply and took off at a fast walk. The two blocks to Ashley's house went swiftly, the eerily empty streets sending shivers down her spine. Downtown being empty was one thing, and she'd grown used to it in a way. But these rural streets always had children running up and down them, lights in the houses, laughter and tears and joy and sorrow flowing through them.

But tonight the entire area was dead. No one. Lara understood why, but however glad it made her it still felt strange.

"Momma!" someone shouted as they ran out the door. Ashley, smiling, sprinted ahead and scooped the little girl up in her arms.

Lara smiled as the children swarmed out of the house. "How you been?" Ashley asked as she was mobbed. They all shouted back replies, and the noise was all but deafening. Even the soldiers around them smiled as they took up positions to watch over the scene.

After a minute, Lara forced her way through the crowd of children and tapped on Ashley's shoulder. "We need to hurry," she pointed out. Ashley sighed before dropping the little girl in her arms back to the ground.

"Everyone, I need you to start packing," Ashley ordered. "Sarah, Tommy isn't around so I need you to take charge. Everyone needs to pack some clothes, quickly, and get ready to go. This is a bit of a treat, but I managed to arrange to get you picked up by a real helicopter, so everyone get ready fast! They'll be here soon, and I'd hate to have anyone miss the treat!"

Lara felt her mouth skew into a smile. It probably wouldn't fool the older kids who were even now shooing the rest of the crowd into the house to pack, quickly, but by turning the helicopter ride into a treat Ashley had guaranteed the little ones would be glad to go along with the plan. "Smart move," she told Ashley. "Still, we don't have long. Shouldn't we go help?"

"No," Ashley shook her head, "there are too many of them for us to help hurry their packing. Our time is better spent looking cool, calm, collected, and making sure we're available when-"

Two of the kids ran back out, arguing, and Ashley sighed as she turned to face them. Settling their argument quickly, she shrugged at Lara as they ran back inside. "Children," she smiled.

"Children," Lara said, smiling softly as she pressed a hand against her abdomen. All that was left of Murphy... and that she would ever have of him. And it hurt. It burned. She couldn't even have that much. It was all she could do to keep the smile on her face, to not give away the fact that she wanted to scream in pain and anger and loss and grief.

"Grief isn't a weakness," Ashley rested a hand on Lara's shoulder. "And you don't have to worry about me knowing that you aren't a superwoman."

"I know," Lara pressed her hand over Ashley's. "But we don't have time to explain it to the kids."

Ashley sighed and pulled her hand away. Lara forced away a tear. She hadn't meant to drive Ashley away. Not like that. Not right now. "We'll... talk. Later?" she asked.

"Yes," Ashley nodded. "We'll talk. And... I'm so sorry, Lara. I know I've said it, but..."

"Now isn't the time," Lara sighed. "Right now, we have work to do."

Ashley nodded. As the sound of helicopter engines grew louder, more and more of the children drifted out, half-packed or even not packed at all. Ashley didn't argue. Other arrangements could be made for clothes or toiletries... and favored toys might be recoverable after. Lives were not. The helicopters landed easily on the wide lawn, and soldiers helped move most of the kids into the helicopters and strap them in.

But not all of them. Several, far too many for Lara's taste, stood in the doorway and watched, making no effort to go to the helicopters. Lara could feel their determination, and from the way Ashley sighed she could too. "I want you to go," Ashley told them, and they shook their heads.

Sarah spoke for them. "You need our help. And we aren't letting anyone hurt you if we can stop it."

"Lara, tell them-" Ashley started to say, desperate for help.

"No," Lara said sadly. "They have the right to stand and fight, Ashley. We can't deny them that."

"But-" Ashley began.

"I know, it's a terrible thing. Many of them will die," Lara said angrily. "Worse yet, they won't be able to watch over the little ones. The younger children will be cast adrift without any kind of anchor or familiar face-"

"Actually, Jacob and Ron are going. They drew the short straws," Sarah said dryly.

Lara frowned. If reverse psychology didn't work, she wasn't certain what was left. She sure couldn't support their decision to stay, despite having painted herself into a corner from which she had no choice but to accept it!

"Fine," Ashley shouted. "But you stay inside. You support us, you don't get into the thick of it. You shield the soldiers but let them take the worst of anything that gets past us. Do you understand me?"

Sarah nodded, and they turned and filed in. Ashley quickly busied herself with making certain all the children were strapped in and ready to go.

Lara tried to do a quick head count, but with everyone running around it was impossible, so she settled for doing a quick sweep around the yard to make sure that all the little kids were actually in the helicopters as they took off. As the engines revved, Lara felt something tugging at her attention, and turned to look down the street.

A needle of fire streaked towards her, and she responded instantly, twisting the air to make it bend.

Only after it had passed harmlessly over the houses on the other side of the street did she realize the needle hadn't been aimed at her. Snarling, she threw a counter offensive of fire, lightning, and every nasty trick she could think of straight into the teeth of the advancing horde. She was not going to let them shoot down those helicopters!

Ashley quickly came to stand beside her, joining her strength to Lara's. Their combined power scoured the street clear for a few minutes, giving the helicopters time to beat a hasty retreat. Then the counter assault came, aimed cleanly at the two of them. Waves of lightning clawed at the shields they raised, while the earth itself rumbled under the stress of the energies fighting for control of it. Ashley mostly fed Lara power, trusting in Lara's well known deviousness to make maximum use of it. Lara pulled every trick she could out of her personal playbook, but there were just too many attacks striking towards them at once. For every one she could cleverly counter with a minimal use of power, a dozen more arrowed in that she had to simply overpower. Making a virtue of necessity, Lara quickly switched tactics and focused on simply diverting the attacks coming in. She expanded her auras to cover a large area, wasting large amounts of energy to block attacks over a wider area, hiding herself and Ashley inside a large 'protected' area. She couldn't stop any attack that already had momentum, attacks that came from outside the defended area, but inside it no new attacks could form. And any attack that arrowed in had to guess at where exactly Lara was, something she did her best to hide. Lara paused for a moment as she realized a critical error they had all made. They knew that they were trained to block such attacks, efforts to materialize an attack from 'inside' a person's defenses. Once you'd learned the basics of shielding with your auras, it was easy to extend that to controlling the area you shielded, preventing anyone from starting their attacks inside your defenses. But the thralls might not be able to do that.

She struck outward and burned a dozen thralls to ash in an instant. She didn't throw a fireball, or call lightning from the sky, or any of a hundred other tricks. She simply called the flame into being inside the space occupied by their bodies. Again and again she struck, until suddenly someone mirrored her own trick and expanded their aura to cover those around them. Instantly, a half dozen auras exploded from the middle of the crowd of thralls, quickly 'zoning' it to shield them from her attack.

Lara grinned at Ashley as she finished killing the few thralls left undefended. So far, they hadn't been able to definitively target so much as one real enemy behind the wave after wave of thralls they'd sent in front of them.

But now they could 'taste' the aura of each of them, of all the monsters in that crowd that had enslaved and murdered countless innocents. And while Lara had originally expanded her aura with the intent of hiding her location, none of these people had.

It was the work of but a moment to reach out and slam into each of their auras with her will. She couldn't kill the bastards outright.

She didn't have to.

All she did was use the contact to cause the innermost layers of their auras to shine, turning them into brilliant beacons. "Kill the ones who glow!" she screamed, augmenting her voice as she ordered all the soldiers who had silently taken position around the battle.

Assault rifles roared as hundreds of rounds of lead screamed their way into the attacking horde. Three of the auras vanished instantly and Lara and Ashley both ripped into the suddenly undefended segments of the horde. No mercy. No quarter. Simply a cleansing flame that burned the life from the poor souls in an instant, killing men, women...

Lara felt her stomach clench as she realized that this group wasn't just adults. Children. Children.

"I can't," Ashely said in shock. "Lara, there are... those are..."

"I know," Lara said, closing her eyes in horror. "I'll handle it."

The children twitched as Lara ran a couple hundred volts of electrical current directly into their nervous system. She couldn't kill them. She would not choose to kill them. She also couldn't keep them down for very long. But she could knock them out for a few minutes at least, and maybe someone else could come up with a solution.

She would not kill them. She could not accept the necessity, however much part of her screamed that she was being a fool. She. Would. Not.

"Bastards," Lara swore, anger filling her. Fire and lightning was ripping into the entire area around her now. Just as she'd hoped, the thralls had lost track of her exact location and were instead filling the entire area with their power in the hopes of catching her. She couldn't hide her general location, but she only had to block those attacks directly targeted at her. And with the number of attacks reduced, it was easier to levitate small chips of asphalt up to prematurely detonate the fireballs headed her way, to disrupt the energy binding bolts of energy before the hit, and a dozen other tricks that minimized her expenditure of power.

It wasn't enough, and she knew it. There were too many thralls in that horde, and their answering fire was already driving the marine support back. "We'll need to fall back to the house," she told Ashley.

Ashley nodded. "I wonder where-"

Her unfinished question was answered as Tommy jumped abruptly off the roof a nearby house, crashing into one of the still glowing figures in the middle of the horde of thralls.

"Tommy!" Ashley screamed in denial, rushing forward and severing the flow of energy to Lara. Lara stumbled for a moment, distracted by the sudden shift in power, before resuming her defensive dance.

The bad guys had just made a mistake. A big mistake. The kind that topples empires and shatters nations. The kind of mistake that you regret for the rest of your life, however short it happens to be. The kind of mistake that Lara would never, ever, be stupid enough to make.

Tommy wasn't her 'blood', he wasn't descended from her. Technically he wasn't family, merely a child in her care. But to Ashley, he was her son. And they were trying to kill him. Ashley tore into the crowd and demonstrated what the bear does to the wolves. Waves of frost radiated from her hands, causing instant frostbite and freezing the bad guys in their tracks... literally. She tore into them with a rage and a fury that Lara could never have managed.

Yet another of the bastards fell before the combined wrath of Ashley's onslaught and Tommy's surprise attack.

And then the other shoe dropped.

"Pretty big crowd," Jason complained as he pulled back the mirror he was using to peek around the corner.

"Aerial recon shows most of them moved off already, at least thousand or so on foot," Young told him sourly, taking the mirror back and collapsing the stick.

"A thousand?!" Jason said, shocked.

"Maybe closer to twelve hundred," Young nodded. "More if they practiced any kind of opsec."

"Opsec?" Jason asked. "Never mind. Not important. How many did they leave behind?"

Young looked away. "Hard to tell. Too many," he shrugged. "Good news is, most of them are right ahead. At least five hundred I'd say."

"If they know we're coming, why don't they have more people here?" Jason said angrily. "And if they don't-"

"They probably know where our HQ is," Young pointed out. "This is the most direct route. Perfect positioning for their primary nodal force against any moves we might make."

"In short, this is the just in case force," Jason said with a sigh. "Doesn't change the problem, we need to get past them."

"That would be my department," Young sighed, pulling out a radio. "Shark, this is Dagger Two."

"Go ahead Dagger Two," someone responded.

"I'm at tango three by whiskey four, and we've got major bogeys ahead," Young said. "Can you engage?"

"Fire base four has range and angle, ready and waiting," came the reply.

"I want fire plan Ragnarok," Young ordered, "confirm and acknowledge."

"Fire plan Ragnarok, confirmed and acknowledged. Standing by," came the reply.

Young motioned Jason back. "This is going to be nasty," he warned before giving the order. "Fire for effect, I say again, fire for effect."

Young started jogging back to the main body. "What are you doing?" Jason asked angrily. "This isn't exactly the plan."

"I'm thinning the herd a bit," Young shrugged. "I told you, I have some tricks up my sleeve. This is one of them."

"Fine, what is fire plan Ragnarok," Jason asked, practically sneering.

"A fire plan for artillery support," Young said. "It consists of three different types of experimental rounds, any one of which is nasty in isolation, but combined are very effective. The first one is your garden variety fragmentation round, it detonates a few feet in the air and sends shrapnel flying out. Of course, this time the shrapnel consists of a variety of highly combustible compounds such as white phosphorus. The second one releases what is essentially an atomized cloud of napalm, with a timed delay detonator. Coats everything in a light spray of napalm, then ignites it. The third is the only one likely to see general deployment, it's a miniaturized fuel-air explosive."

"And that means?" Jason asked, annoyed.

Suddenly rounds started falling from the sky, and Jason didn't have to ask what that meant as the glare of fire lit up the scene. "Heat. Lots of heat," Young told him.

Jason watched, half-horrified, as the rounds continued to fall. He didn't bother walking back to the corner. Nothing could survive in that inferno. "Enough," he said after a minute. "There is no way they've survived that."

"You sure?" Young asked.

"Yeah. They're dead," Jason told him.

"Cease fire, objective completed," Young announced into his radio. "It'll take a while to cool down, we should go around.

Jason nodded, and led the column away from the inferno behind them. "Any other surprises I should be aware of?"

"All of us are equipped with specialized incendiary rounds," Young told him. "I doubt they'll penetrate your defenses if regular bullets don't, but they burn like hell. I've already given orders to aim for the feet and just heat the ground around the target. A couple dozen rounds will force them to move, at the very least."

"Ouch," Jason winced. "Don't use auto fire. Use single shot, and put all your concentration, all your will, into putting each and every bullet into its target. That will make them harder to block. And aim to kill, they might block each bullet but it'll take energy from them to do it. And you might just get lucky if the hotfoot you give them distracts them."

Young nodded and started correcting his orders. Jason cast his mind out, seeking any more pockets of resistance or danger. Already he sensed the alarm, the surprise and shock, over their little 'hello' package. It would take time, but the enemy would adjust, would swing forces into their way. The Guardians could probably move faster without the marines supporting them... but those marines had just proven their worth, and if they were able to provide more help, they needed them. The extra speed wouldn't help against the basic problem they faced, that there were just too many of the bad guys to punch through.

Jason just had to hope, and trust, that the marines would be enough of a help.

"Pick up the pace!" Jason shouted, pointing the way. The marines chosen to take point took off at a rapid trot, and the entire column followed suit. The quicker they moved, the better.

"I checked with support," Young told Jason as he ran up alongside. His statements were a bit choppy because they were fit in between regular, deep breaths that maximized the amount of oxygen his lungs could move. "They have multiple firebases set up. It reduces the overall firepower they can put on any single target, but maximizes the areas they can provide direct fire support. Between high-angle artillery and their spread out positions, they should be able to lay down a fairly decent layer of fire anywhere we need. The storm is still interfering with GPS, and doesn't show any signs of breaking up. Driving the weather guys nuts, there is no way that should be up there. Is it enemy action?"

Jason looked up into the thunderstorm. It wasn't raining, but cracks of lightning still lit up the pitch-black clouds in time to the beating anger in his soul. "That storm is a physical representation of a metaphysical truth," Jason told Young. "That storm is a physical reaction to the metaphysical energies I'm generating."

"What?" Young asked, confused.

"The love of my life was just murdered," Jason said tersely. "Murdered in front of my eyes, sacrificing himself to save me. That storm is a physical representation of my grief. Have you ever spilled iron shavings around a magnet?"

"Basic physics demonstration," Young nodded. "You see the magnetic lines."

"I'm not expending any energy to produce that storm," Jason said. "The clouds and lightning are the iron shavings, forced into alignment around the matrix of my grief. My rage. My sorrow. My power."

Young looked up at the sky. "That is a lot of power."

"I know," Jason said softly. "The thing that scares me isn't how much power is up there."

"Then what is?" Young asked.

"What scares me is the fact that, as far as I know, there aren't any flaws in the laws of metaphysics that let me generate a storm with more power than I possess," Jason said simply. "That storm cannot possibly contain more energy than I do."

"I knew you were strong," Young shook his head. "But that's insane."

"It gets worse," Jason told him. "I don't hold that kind of power. Ronan is gone. It's a wound in my heart and I am stricken by it. My power is... weakened. Lessened. Even at my greatest I wasn't that strong," he waved at the sky, "and right now I'm nowhere near as strong as I normally am."

"But you said..." Young shook his head. "What am I missing?"

They ran in silence for a few minutes before Jason answered. "I don't know," he shrugged. "That storm cannot be stronger than I am. And yet... it is. I can feel that that storm is mine. It's a physical representation of the storm raging in my heart. But my intellect tells me I don't have that much strength."

They ran in silence for a while, and Jason wondered. That storm was his. That storm was his power. So what was going on...

"You mentioned a flaw in metaphysics?" Young asked. Jason nodded.

"In general, metaphysics coexists neatly enough with regular physics," Jason explained. "You can't create or destroy energy, only transform it, there's inertia to deal with, stuff like that. Though I don't think physics has any models that show that energy has inertia, inertia is a product of matter, not energy."

"Matter and energy are the same thing, supposedly," Young shrugged. "But yes, the normal models don't consider energy to have inertia."

"Anyway, there are a few places where the two don't quite line up. We call them flaws. Places where the results aren't what you'd expect, don't make sense. Kind of like how relativity makes absolutely no sense to any logical mind," Jason continued to explain. "My favorite has to do with lightning. We can throw electrical energy, summon it up, call thunder from the sky. All of that is safe. We just don't send anything up."

"Why not?" Young asked.

"Because it's one of those flaws I mentioned. Most of the time it's fairly safe, nothing happens. But if you throw lightning up when there's already an electrical charge in the air, that's dangerous," Jason explained. "It's like poking a hornets nest. You get back more energy than you sent. A hell of a lot more energy. And there's no way to control it."

"That last bit explains the problem," Young nodded.

"You don't quite get it," Jason told him. "A thunderstorm has a lot of power built up in it, right? A massive amount of energy, not just in the form of electrical charges but also the actual movement of air and water. You throw a lightning bolt up, and you tap into all of that. Control isn't the issue; it's just too much power. No human being can channel that much power and survive, and this energy isn't interested in being channeled. It's... angry. I know it's absurd to assign emotions to the movement of energy and matter, but it's the only term that fits. It doesn't want to be controlled. It just destroys... everything."

"Ouch," Young said. "That kind of power..."

"There was a forest fire a few years back," Jason told him. "That was the last time anyone experimented, even distantly, with throwing lightning upwards while there is anything resembling bad weather around. Too dangerous."

Young nodded. "Sounds nasty."

"I just... I don't know how it scales," Jason said, voice timid. "It's theoretically possible that I could end this, all of this, right now."

"What do you mean?" Young asked. "How?"

"In theory, if we're right, then if I throw up a lightning bolt right now, right here, then the entire city would be leveled. Nothing would be left standing," Jason shrugged. "I just don't know... we think a strong enough bolt would create enough of a channel that the entire force of the storm overhead would be channeled through it. We just don't know."

"Keep that move in reserve, then," Young shuddered. "We might need it, but... I'd really rather not use it."

"That's the plan," Jason nodded. "Besides, the gym is warded heavily; it's possible that that might be enough to shield it from what happens."

"So what if they try it?" Young asked.

Jason frowned. "They're winning, they don't need to."

"If we just happen to get lucky and win ourselves, what is to keep them from trying once they realize they've lost?" Young said, tone clearly carrying the 'you idiot' he didn't say.

"Good point," Jason sighed. "No answer."

"That isn't the kind of thing I like to hear," Young complained.

"It isn't the kind of thing I like having to admit," Jason shrugged. "Wait..." Jason slowed in his run. "Cover!" he ordered, as gunfire began to crack. The marines opened fire instantly, without hesitation, but most of their rounds simply peppered the sides of the buildings where their assailants were covering."Single shot!" Jason roared, "put your heart into each shot and aim it carefully." Jason wanted to help, but Young glared at him as he lifted his hand and he dropped it. If he acted, he'd waste the power these marines were spending their lives to conserve. Jason growled in frustration.

A couple of thralls stepped into the street, and much to Jason's surprise the carefully aimed, deliberate fire dropped them almost instantly. Yes, the thralls were weak compared to a Guardian, but that weak? He doubted it.

"Keep moving," Young ordered, stopping his men as they went to check the wounded after the firefight. "Leave behind a half squad to watch over the wounded and move on."

Jason shook his head. Twelve of the marines down, several of them probably dead, and he'd had to watch. Oh, and more of them were going to die as they got closer to the gym. And Young wasn't even bothering to take the time to stabilize the wounded!

"We can spare a few minutes-" Jason began.

"Move out!" Young shouted, and marched over and started dragging Jason away from the man he was getting ready to heal. "I'm going to say this once, and only once," Young snarled in Jason's face, keeping his voice pitched low so it wouldn't carry as he pulled him aside. "These men are marines, sailors, men who have sworn to protect this nation. They will protect your life with their own so that you can get into a position to do something to stop this. You will not disrespect their sacrifice by squandering it. Do I make myself clear?"

"I can't let your men-" Jason began.

"You can," Young snapped. "You will. As much as it hurts, as much as I dread the possibility, you are the only way we can counteract these bastards, whatever you call them. They are too strong for us to fight on our own. We need you. We need you to win. If every single man I brought here dies getting you into position, it's worth it as long as you end this. So make damned sure you're in condition to end it by not wasting your strength."

"But-" Jason began.

"But me no buts," Young told him. "We're all volunteers. We've chosen to swear an oath, to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. We've chosen to place ourselves between home and war's desolation, and now that the war is at home that goes double. We're willing to buy you the chance to do what you need to do, and you, sir, are going to let us do it."

Jason opened his mouth to argue, and then stopped. "I will stand true, I will keep the watch, I will protect the innocent," he recited softly. "Their blood before mine, their lives before mine, my death in their service."

"Not familiar with that one," Young said, nodding. "Who was it?"

"Call it our oath of office," Jason sighed. "We need to move."

Young nodded. "Good. Remember. It's all worth it if we win. If we loose, it was a waste."

Jason nodded, and then glanced ahead and the column that was rapidly advancing. "We need to catch up."

Young nodded and started running outright. They overtook the column just in time for another firefight to break out, this time with a number of thralls flooding out of the buildings on either side of the street to try and swamp the column. Jason and the other Guardians fought defensively, spending a minimum of power to keep the worst of the magical assaults away from the marines who were dieing to help them. The thralls were willing to die just to get a shot off at any of the Guardians, and the marines were able to use that to their advantage to hurt them even worse. Still, too many of them got through and Jason and the other Guardians were allowed to put on a martial arts display that amazed the few SEAL's in the column. Using their blades cost relatively little energy, and all of them were skilled in whatever weapon they'd chosen.

As a result, Jason was completely out of position when a Sentinel down the street threw a wave of fire at the column. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the burning tidal wave washing down the street, and knew there was nothing he could do to stop it.

As he turned, in a futile attempt to summon the power he needed, three marines leaped forward into the wave, trying to dive through it.

And what he saw beyond them was impossible, as a single figure jumped from the buildings above, gleaming ax a blur as he brought it down. Jason couldn't see the figure's face, but he didn't need to. He wasn't dead. He wasn't dead!

Lara could have sobbed in frustration. The group they'd cut to shreds was only part of the attack. A distraction, reinforced by Sentinels, while the main force had moved in around them to cut them off from the house. The powerful wards standing watch there were useless if they couldn't get under them... and the thralls stood between them and the house. "Ashley, Tommy, we need to move now!" she shouted. Ashley and Tommy broke off their attack and formed up beside her. Without sparing a word to discuss their tactics, Lara fell in beside Tommy while Ashley led them, a triangle that carved into the horde of thralls at a sprint.

They didn't really stand a chance, but there was always hope. Maybe one of them would get lucky and manage to get through. The marines that had been supporting them were already being forced back, and all too soon would be overwhelmed. There was nothing they could do about that, simply cutting their way to safety was difficult enough.

They'd carved their way fairly far into the horde of thralls before they got bogged down. Forming up with their backs to each other, they held off the horde for a time. Step by step they fought their way through, and the thralls paid in blood just to slow them down. But they were tiring. And Lara accepted, sadly, that there was no hope. There was simply too many thralls, and they would be exhausted long before they could cut their way free.

Lara gathered her will slowly, carefully concentrating on every little thing about her body as she did so. The beating of her heart. The breath in her lungs. The blinking of her eyes. The churning in her stomach. The ache of a bladder that she probably should have emptied earlier. The small nugget of life that would never grow. The pounding of her feet as they ached. The pain of the slash on her hip. The sensation of the crystal she held in her hand. Slowly she cataloged everything, every sensation, every biological process she could sense. She reached out and grabbed hold of all of it.

"Ashley, Tommy," speaking was strange in this state, as she felt everything about the motion of air in her lungs and throat and mouth. It was hard. Hard to speak and concentrate and fight at the same time. Her fighting was cleaner, crisper, her power struck harder, but it was also more draining in this state.

Didn't matter.

"I'm going to carve a way free," Lara told them. "When I do, I want you to run. Don't look back, just run."

"Lara-" Ashley began to object.

"No," Lara cut her off. "This is my time. I accept that. I'll see Murphy soon enough. I accept that. I welcome it. Now, get ready to-"

Lara saw, out of the corner of her eye, a corridor open up in the crowd of thralls. They didn't move aside. They flew straight up and over their heads, as if a wave of energy had carved it's way through them from the house.

Ashley, Tommy, and Lara took off at a sprint down the opened corridor. Ashley unleashed a blast of pure frost, creating a temporary wall of ice to cover one side of it, while Tommy displayed a mastery of earth magic Lara would never possess to simply rip the asphalt up and away, forming a second wall. Neither wall would last long, thankfully they didn't need it to.

As they reached the end of the corridor, the wall of ice shattered as a spear punched through it. The barbed tip struck Ashley squarely, lodging itself deeply in her side. Ashley screamed, and without thinking Lara dropped the crystal she'd been using to focus to grab her and drag her the few steps remaining. As they crossed over the sidewalk, Lara felt the wards close around them, blocking out the thralls and defending her from harm. Lara yanked the spear out of Ashley's side, sobbing.

Ashley looked shocked, as she touched her side.

As in tune as Lara was with the flow of life force inside her own body, the reservoir of energy that no Guardian dared touched for fear of killing themselves, she couldn't help but feel it as Ashley's shifted. As if trying to defy death that energy flowed to the site of the wound, causing it to glow brilliantly.

But the last ditch defense had a price, one Ashley couldn't pay, and Lara couldn't help with. Lara saw the knowledge of that in Ashley's eyes as Ashley forced herself back to her feet. Ashley grabbed the spear Lara had tossed aside to replace the daggers she'd dropped when she'd been struck.

"I love you, Lara," Ashley said sadly. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Turning to Tommy, she smiled gently in regret. "Take care of the family, please," she asked.

"I will," Tommy swore.

"As for you," Ashley turned, body beginning to glow brilliantly as she drew in all the power she would ever posses. "I have an idea."

With that she liberated all the energy she'd gathered, all the power she'd invested into the wards protecting her home, all the power she could draw to her. The spell lashed out over the horde of thralls with deadly effect.

The thralls were very good at shielding their bodies, but their mental defenses were much weaker. After all, what was the point of a thrall you couldn't control? Sensing that weakness, she struck at it squarely, and the horde of thralls dissolved into chaos. Their own minds had been shattered, but they knew who was responsible for their agony. Even as they tore themselves apart in a mindless frenzy of pain and horror, they turned against their former masters. Not all of the thralls were freed, but many of those that were turned and charged to attack the single surviving Sentinel. The figure dropped back into the crowd of thralls who remained controlled, and Tommy and Lara dragged Ashley's lifeless body back to the house, covered by the giant free-for-all between former thralls and anyone they could attack, be it a current thrall or another freed thrall.

And Lara wept as she held Ashley. She shed bitter tears filled with all her grief and heartache. Now she had nothing.


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This story is also available at Castle Roland, courtesy of 'Lord' Roland, and additional stories by this author can be found there, not all of which will make it to Nifty. I also maintain a presense at GayAuthors, and additional stories may be found there not available elsewhere. You can also visit my website, for information and a selection of my works. If you wish to purchase a copy of this work, provides both a print and e-book edition, and you can find additional copies of my work through various other self-publishing websites. Thanks to my editors for helping sort out all the many typos and other stupidities that creep into my writing!