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That morning, Paul had woken up coughing. Smoke still hung in the air from the smoldering building, choking him. Every breath was a struggle, and it was only by pure luck that he was still alive. Several structural members had managed to form a small pocket of space around him, shielding him from the rubble that would otherwise have crushed him to death.
Reflexively, his hand darted to check the ax strapped to his side. It was fine. Paul didn't understand any of it. There had been a blast... an explosion of fire that had thrown him across the room. The impact had knocked him unconscious. He could feel the heat of the room though, and it didn't make sense. It was hot. He could feel the heat. It was a physical presence that pressed in all around him. By all rights he should be soaked with sweat and on the verge of a heat stroke, but the warmth was... comforting. He was soaking it up into his very soul, and it was right.
Looking around him, Paul tried to find the source of the light he was seeing by. The 'support members' that had shielded him from the worst of it were comprised of elements from the concrete wall he'd been thrown into, shattering it. Some of the metal rods reinforcing the concrete were clearly visible, and showed clear signs of melting.
And that was impossible. Steel didn't melt unless it was heated to a couple thousand degrees Fahrenheit. There was no way, no way at all, that he could have survived that. Worse yet, he'd figured out the source of the dull red light he was seeing by.
One of the college classes he'd taken the other semester was on ceramics. He'd always been fearless about loading things into kilns, or removing them. Heck, he'd absolutely adored raku firings, despite the incredible heat and smoke that exposed him to. And the dull red glow was heat. The concrete and metal around him had been heated until it glowed. He should be crisped. He should be dead. Not feeling like curling up with a good book in the delicious warmth!
Forcing aside the thought of that impossibility, he focused on problem number two. Air. The smoke in the air wasn't good, but as hot as it was oxygen was probably a problem as well. Which would explain the tightness in his chest, and the fact that he couldn't concentrate. He wasn't getting enough oxygen. Reaching out with his mind, he tried to examine the area around him. The mounds of rubble standing on top of him wasn't good news. Nor was the fact that he could easily find what remained of the tunnel system they'd been using, completely collapsed.
The good news, such as it was, came from beneath him. There was a service corridor of some kind directly underneath him, and it hadn't collapsed. There were several large cracks in the concrete between him and it, and Paul strongly suspected that the only reason he was still alive and breathing was the flow of air he could feel being pulled up from below him. Fresh air, uncontaminated by the fire, was being drawn up through cracks all around him. Unfortunately, he couldn't just smash straight down and try and exit through the corridor. The small bubble he was in was strong enough to hold, for now, but any attempt to collapse the floor would trigger an avalanche that would likely kill him if he wasn't prepared.
Paul couldn't concentrate well enough to erect a shield that would hold everything in place. And it was probably a lack of oxygen that was doing that. So he reached down and accelerated the flow of air through the cracks nearest his head. He immediately started to feel better as the oxygen began to flow. The spots in front of his eyes began to fade, and he was able to see his surroundings better. The light was still dim, but nowhere near as dim as he'd originally thought. And he was able to pick out details he'd missed, like the fact that the glow was brightest right over his head.
Wait. The glow right over his head was growing brighter faster than everything else. A lot faster.
With a groan, something over his head began to settle, and the redistribution of weight set the concrete over him groaning, and a crack began to develop. Swallowing in sudden terror, Paul realized that in drawing up more oxygen to breathe, he'd also fed fresh oxygen into a fire that was clearly still going.
Concentrating, Paul tried to redirect the flow of air so that it came up near his head, and went down everywhere else. Unfortunately, he'd already placed the straw on the camels back. He sensed it all around him, rubble shifting and settling, and the strain on the concrete shielding him was growing. He didn't have time for subtlety.
"Dead if I do, dead if I don't," Paul complained, then reached into the ground underneath him and twisted. The concrete and dirt groaned in complaint, and then fell away completely. As he fell, he twisted around and focused on solidifying a plate of air into a shield that might help hold back any more debris for a few moments. Landing with a grunt, he forced himself upright and started moving. Despite his focus, the air glass wasn't steady, and the press of debris on it quickly caused it to collapse. Limping along, he barely avoided being buried alive as the tunnel began to collapse. Thankfully the collapse stopped after a dozen yards or so, and he managed to make it to the end of the tunnel in one piece. Slowly climbing the ladder he found, he wondered what the hell the tunnel was there for. He'd assumed it was a service tunnel, but as far as he could tell, the only thing it was servicing was his escape!
Shaking his head, he carefully levered aside the large manhole cover at the top of the ladder. Poking his head up to check the area, he climbed out. The sun was high in the sky, so he'd clearly been out for a while. Turning around, he tried to get his bearings. He found the building he'd been in easily enough. It was still smoking, it's several story tall structure collapsed into a mound less than a story tall. No wonder the rubble had collapsed so easily, there had to be tons of brick, concrete, and wood lying in a gigantic pile.
As he watched, it continued to settle, flames licking up now and again as fresh wood was exposed. There wasn't much flame now, just smoke. Lots and lots of smoke. Most of the wood he could see had already been reduced to charred ruin, almost ash. "Thank you, God," he prayed. "Thank you for protecting me."
He wasn't quite the believer his brother was, but thanks where thanks were due. God had to have shielded him. Turning around, he figured out which way was north. From that he could tell that the sun was still towards the east, so it was morning. Probably. His head still ached and he could barely stand.
Stumbling towards the buildings, he sat down in the shade provided by an alleyway and stared up at the sky for a while. Some part of his mind was screaming about the dangers of oxygen deprivation, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. As time passed, he developed a pounding headache. It didn't bother him much, nothing seemed quite real for some reason. Forcing himself to concentrate, he tried to figure out what was wrong with him. He knew something was wrong. He should be doing something.
Shaking his head, he almost missed motion down the street. Looking carefully, he saw two men slowly poking through the ruble strewn across the street, arguing. Something about them nagged at him, but his steadily worsening headache was a larger concern. Staying still in the concealing shadows, he just listened to them talk as they approached.
"Master ordered us to check for survivors," one said, voice unnaturally even, dull.
"There are none," the other said, voice just as flat. Their voices weren't monotone, but something was still off. Something was wrong. The natural rhythm and cadence of a human being, but without the actual life that made it sound natural. Like a very, very good computer simulation might sound. Paul vaguely recalled a discussion in class about the 'uncanny valley', and these two were right square in the middle of it. They moved wrong. They spoke wrong. They didn't look wrong, all the right bits were in all the right places, but they used them wrong. Not terribly wrong. That was the worst part about it. It was almost right.
"But Master ordered us to check, therefore he believes there are," the first one said. Argued, Paul realized. They were arguing.
"And we have checked," the second one repeated. "We have found none, nor could there be any."
"Wait," the first one pointed at the man hole cover Paul had opened. The two of them approached it cautiously. One of them slipped inside, while the other gazed around. The deep shadow of the building, helped by the dark leather Paul was wearing, concealed him from site. The soot covering him from head to toe helped as well, leaving little to show in the darkness of the alley.
Too dark, some part of Paul noted. It shouldn't be that dark. It was like a shadow passing over the sun, only the shadow was inside the alley. Something inside Paul screamed at that, but he knew that to move was to reveal himself, and he wasn't that stupid. Not right now.
The one that had climbed inside the man whole climbed out. "Collapsed tunnel," he said. "One of them may have made it out from below."
"I see no one," the other answered. "But I feel something."
"The gathering darkness?" the climber asked, gesturing towards Paul.
"Masters said it could confuse us, distract us," he acknowledged. "Yes."
"Masters told me that it would pass, in time," the other told him. "Should we wait?"
The other one pulled out a cell phone. "Let us call the Master." Fiddling with the phone, he dialed the number. "Master, it is Jacobs and Ericson. You asked us to check for survivors."
"Did you find any?" a vaguely familiar voice asked. "Those damned Guardians are harder to wipe out than cockroaches."
"We found a tunnel that one may have exited from," the one who had climbed down the shaft said. "The tunnel has collapsed, apparently it ran directly under the building. The cover was not open earlier."
"Alright, any sign of the survivor?" the voice over the phone asked.
"We do not see him, Master," the one who had stayed up said. "But I feel... something. There is a patch of the gathering darkness you described."
"It is unlikely a Guardian would willingly hide inside such cursed shadow," the voice on the other end told him. "It would act against them, and their precious Guiding would be corrupted, would aid us instead of them."
Some part of Paul remembered what happened to Jason the other day, when the Guiding had caused the death of an entire family. Finally beginning to feel clear-headed, he understood better why so many instincts were screaming he had to move. This alley was wrong. The darkness inside it... 'cursed shadow' indeed. A patch of wrongness. Of evil. He couldn't stay in it, not without it touching him, tainting him.
And as weak as he was, he didn't dare draw any attention to himself. He needed rest, he needed water, he needed food.
"Should we wait for the darkness to disperse?" one of the thralls asked.
"No," the order was firm. "It won't break up until tonight, when he crosses over. And once he's crossed over, the Guardians have already lost. Keep searching for the survivor, but if you cannot find him within an hour return. Continue to call in at regular intervals."
"By your command," both of them replied. The one holding the phone closed it and placed it into his pocket.
The two continued down the street, carefully checking every hiding spot and alleyway. Once they were out of sight, Paul carefully levered himself upright and staggered off. He needed water, food, and some rest before he'd be in any shape to fight. If he remembered correctly, one of the safe houses he'd set up personally was nearby. Hopefully Barney wouldn't have been able to reveal it, and he'd be able to find everything he needed there.
Paul would be careful though, and check thoroughly before he walked into any possible traps.
Paul sat down and stared out a window. It was a special reflective glass, so there wasn't much risk involved, and he needed to stare out for a while. He could watch the sun set, or he could look into a mirror and stare into his own soul. And right now, he didn't want to be there.
Unfortunately, the storm overhead pretty much blocked the view of the sun. All he could see was a growing darkness. Sighing, he stood up. After all, that's exactly what he'd be seeing in the mirror. And until he checked, until he assured himself, that was all that he'd see. He had to know.
It'd been over an hour, so Paul walked to the restroom. The water in the tub was completely still, and he'd used his powers to help purify and clean the water as he'd poured it. Carefully kneeling down besides the filled tub, Paul leaned over and gazed into the still waters. Carefully placing one hand on the edge of the tub, he pushed the smallest trace of power into it.
"Show me Mary," he whispered, pouring the slightest trace of power into the words.
Scrying wasn't an art most of the Guardians were any good at. Paul was better than most, but even he had a hard time with it. It was unreliable, at best. Part of that, he was sure, was simply that they didn't know how to do it right. There were a thousand things they'd tried, and if it worked at all it wasn't reliable, or predictable. Worse yet, what worked for one person didn't for someone else. In general, still water worked best for him. Why filling it completely to the brim of the container was important, Paul didn't have a clue, but it seemed to improve the results. As did the silver bowl he would normally use. Unfortunately, that bowl wasn't available, so this tub was his best bet.
For a few long seconds there was nothing. Just the image of the clean white porcelain of the tub. Paul almost sighed, but controlled himself. Disturbing the water would guarantee failure at this point, and his energy was going somewhere. Maybe he wouldn't actually find anything, but it was possible that the spell was still searching... seeking for it's target.
For long minutes, Paul knelt there, leaning over the tub and staring in desperation. Slowly, eventually, he accepted failure. "I love you Mary," he whispered, tears filling his eyes. He didn't intend to put any power in the words. That was the kicker. He didn't even think he had, but love has a power all its own, and perhaps that was enough for the spell. Or, perhaps, he was just wrong and he had placed power in it.
A single tear fell from Paul's eye, and fell through the still pool of water to land on Mary's face. She flinched away, then raised a hand to her face to brush it away. Staring at the tear on her finger, she looked around, confused. "Can you hear me?" Paul asked gently. "Mary?"
Wiping her hands, Mary pulled the blanket around her tighter, hugging her son to herself. Paul couldn't make out where they were, but the flashes of shadow and light traveling over her face suggested travel. So much of the image was blurred, but Paul thought that it looked like she might be sitting on a bus seat.
"I love you Mary," Paul said, stronger, deliberately pouring power into the words. "Hear me. I love you. One day I wish to marry you and claim you as my bride, and your child as my son. Come back to me when you can, and stay safe until that day."
"Paul?" he saw her mouth, looking around her. Shaking her head, she leaned back again. Clearly, she hadn't quite heard him. But already the image was fading, loosing its clarity and strength. When Paul tried pouring more power into it, the spell simply broke, the water exploding in his face as the porcelain of the tub cracked under the strain.
"Fuck," Paul swore, soaked. Turning to the sink, he sighed with relief when he saw that the still water there hadn't been disturbed. For this spell, he would probably need a link of some kind. Thankfully, his veins were filled with it. For a moment he debated with himself again. If he dirtied the water, he'd have to start over and refill the sink. But the odds were against knowing where Jason was right now being helpful to him, he needed to know more.
"Blood to blood," he said, carefully cutting his thumb by running it along the edge of the ax at his side. "I call to you, brother. Blood to blood, I summon your image. Tell me where to find you. Tell me how to find you."
Three drops of blood fell into the sink, red spreading and diffusing, small veins of it reaching out and thickening until the entire basin was touched, turning a glossy black. Slowly the gloss faded until there was nothing. But beyond that nothing...
Paul sensed home. The gym. Jason was headed for the gym.
Paul shielded himself in an instant, just barely saving himself from the black energy that ripped out of the sink, seeking him. Stumbling back he felt himself weaken, slowly. Jason wasn't simply headed for the gym, he was headed straight for the Arch!
Drawing his ax in a single smooth motion, Paul smashed the sink, the black water splattering everywhere as the porcelain basin shattered. For an instant the link to the Arch survived, powered by that dark artifact's power, but slowly it faded. Standing up, Paul nodded sharply. Getting there wasn't going to be easy, but at least he had an idea where to find his brother.
Outside, a flight of helicopters roared overhead. Paul dashed for the window, glancing up into the sky. "Dammit," he swore. If he hadn't been busy scrying, he might have been able to signal the military style helicopters that were already flying off into the distance. "Oh well, hard way it is," he sighed.
Slipping out the door, he started to make his way towards the gym. It was going to be a long walk, especially since he had to move so slowly to avoid detection. Creeping around at ground level took him time, but he managed to avoid detection even as he slipped past a number of sentries. They were distracted, and while it wasn't exactly easy, getting past them wasn't as difficult as it should have been. Paul had to resist the urge to chide one of the sentries as he slit her throat. She should have been paying more attention to the road in front of her than the area behind her.
A different, drawn out kind of thunder sounded, and Paul frowned. His eyes weren't sharp enough to pick it out, but he was willing to bet he was listening to some kind of battle. "I need to move faster," Paul sighed before he started climbing the side of the nearest building. The roofs would be quicker, and he was way inside the sentry lines. So long as he was careful, he could probably get away with it. Well, lucky too. He'd need both care and luck.
It was a gamble, but he just didn't have time for anything else.
As Paul ran, he cast his mind outward. It was all well and good to head straight for the gym, but he only knew that Jason was headed for the gym. There wasn't any guarantee that Jason would actually reach the gym. Deciding to risk steering for the explosions he heard earlier, Paul shifted his direction slightly and kept his ears open.
Paul frowned as he realized he wasn't the only one running from rooftop to rooftop. Discarding stealth in favor of deception, he quit hiding his motion and moved openly. Around him dozens of thralls moved quicker than he allowed himself, outpacing him. Following the herd, he arrived on scene just in time to see a full fledged battle. Watching for a few moments to gauge the battle, he was impressed by how effective the soldiers were proving. And then a target stepped into view below him, and he felt a feral grin stretch across his face. Bingo!
As the Sentinel threw a wave of fire down the street, Paul jumped. As he fell he drew his anger, his rage, his hatred around him, wrapping his mind in red fire. Everything took on a red tone, but while it left everything feeling slightly unreal, it only improved his vision. Every detail, every speck of dust, every crack and flaw were revealed to his eyes.
The meaty thud of his ax burying itself in the Sentinel's skull was nothing more than a data point to the cool, calculating logic that was all the rage left him. As hot as the fire burned, it left him and his mind cold. There was nothing but the need to destroy his enemies, and protect his friends.
He was Paul Koken, the very wind of death.
Some part of his mind noted the wave of fire raising up over the marines before shattering, their relatively weak wills still strong enough to break the spell. Lightning answered his call and he smashed a dozen thralls beneath its whip, even as he threw his ax into the back of another thrall, releasing a burning fireball that consumed four others. His ax flew back to his grasping hand as he grabbed another thrall by the hair, yanking their head back to expose their throat to a slashing blow from his ax. Dropping the dieing thrall, he moved forward, towards friendly lines.
He was Paul Koken, the very wind of death. Nothing could stop him.
Finding friendly lines, he turned and began to sweep up the enemy. He had to be more careful now to avoid killing friend with foe, and the thralls weren't very densely packed either. The thralls were foolish, breaking cover to take shots at him. The marines made many of them pay for it, but Paul matched them. Fire and lightning answered his call, smiting his foes.
He was Paul Koken, the very wind of death.
Finally there was no one left to kill, and his rage faded, it's need fulfilled. The time had passed, and it withdrew.
He was Paul Bester once more.
"Jason," Paul smiled.
"We thought you were dead," Jason said, tears in his eyes. "Oh Paul..."
The brothers embraced, as the soldiers around them proceeded to check the wounded.
"We need to keep moving," Jason said after a moment. "We don't have much time."
"You can explain on the way," Paul agreed. "Like how you knew these soldiers would be that effective."
"Bite your tongue!" one of the soldiers snapped. His uniform read...
"Something wrong, Commander Young?" Paul asked, recognizing the man at last.
"They're marines, not soldiers," Young told him firmly. "And the men in this uniform are sailors."
Jason shared an amused look with Paul. "If you say so," Paul said after a moment. "For now, let's spend more time moving than talking."
Jason nodded, and Young shouted at the soldiers with the group. Paul quirked a small smile at the thought of Young's probable reaction to his thoughts, but kept it hidden. They were soldiers, and that was that.
They moved pretty quickly, given how they were loaded down. Oh, they wouldn't give any Guardian a run for their money anytime soon, but for normals they were good. Really good. Paul had to respect the time and effort they'd have to put into not only keeping that fit, but becoming crack shots as well. Not to mention everything else they undoubtedly had to train in. Marching, taking orders, all that fun stuff.
Paul saw, out of the corner of his eyes, thralls paralleling them down side streets, and others keeping eyes on them from the rooftops. "Jason," he warned.
"I see 'em," Jason said, frowning. "What do you want to bet they'll hit us when we reach the gym?"
"No bet," Paul shook his head. "You know..." an evil grin formed on his face. "Psychological warfare won't work on the thralls, but their masters might just enjoy a nice, rousing chorus from us."
"Chorus?" Jason asked, confused.
"Cambreadth," Paul suggested. Jason grinned and glanced around. Clearing his throat, he started singing. Pretty soon every single Guardian there was singing along, and more of the soldiers than Paul would have expected. Every time they reached the refrain, it rang out through the street, amplified by magic and will.
"How many of them can we make die?" they roared. Paul felt it thrumming in his veins and he fell back into his power, calling it forth and casting the refrain out. He sensed, vaguely, that he was feeding off the aggression and anger everyone else was feeling, and in the process he fed them from his anger. It was a feedback loop of lethal proportions if he didn't keep it under control.
Too bad for the Sentinels, he didn't want to keep it under control. It was time.
"Dawn has broke, the time has come, move your feet a marching drum. We'll win this war and pay the toll, fight as one in heart and soul," they sang the final verse as the gym came into sight. "Midnight mare and blood red roan, fight to keep this land your own!"
The thralls were waiting for them, flooding around the buildings to try and swarm them over with sheer numbers. Most of them weren't armed with firearms, and the precise marksmanship of the soldiers cost them dearly. And then they reached the battle lines, and Young jerked his arm down, screaming for everyone except Jason to engage.
The Guardians exploded forward, and the thralls discovered what horror was. No longer taken by surprise, from ambush, while exhausted, the Guardians powered forward. Only the best of them, the strongest of them, had survived to this day. Only the most ruthless, least hesitant. And as Paul fed them his anger, they fed him theirs in return.
The Guardians charged forward, and blood ran in the street as they hacked and slashed and forced their way forward. Behind them the marines advanced at a slow walk, rifles barking with precision fire. And then around them, at Young's command, fire exploded in the enemy ranks. It was a slaughter. It wasn't a one sided slaughter, but a slaughter nonetheless. Finally they hacked and slashed their way to the doors of the gym, and Jason finally came forward. All the Guardians had been keyed into the wards on the building, had fed their power and their essence into it. But Jason... Jason and Ronan were special. With Ronan dead, Jason was the only person that might possibly take full control over the wards.
Placing his hands on the doors, Jason closed his eyes and reached out. The marines and Guardians formed a perimeter around him, paying in blood to buy him the time he needed. Finally Jason swore as the door in front of him opened. "Paul!" he shouted. Paul fell back and nodded briskly. "I've opened these doors, and sealed the rest. That's the best I can do. They've done too much damage to the wards. They can't use any other doors, any windows, or anything like that. But I can't seal these doors back up, either. Every single thrall will head right here."
"Anyone inside?" Paul asked.
Jason frowned. "Just one, downstairs. He'll be dead shortly, if he isn't already."
"How?" Paul asked.
"He was the one they left in charge of the wards," Jason shrugged. "When I broke his control, the backlash will have just about knocked him out."
"And that will kill him, how?" Paul asked, annoyed.
"Paul, the wards aren't simply placed around the building," Jason shrugged. "They're designed to protect the Arch. The only way they could hope to manipulate the wards so quickly, and to maintain their control against me or Ronan, was to be in direct contact with the physical control nexus of the wards. Which is..." he trailed off suggestively.
Paul shrugged. "Somewhere downstairs," he said. "Not sure where, I think it's..." he trailed off. "In the Arch room?" he asked.
Jason smiled. "As I said, he's dead."
"We'll hold the line out here," Paul sighed. "What are you going to do?"
Jason laughed. "Destroy the Arch, now and forever." Glancing at his watch, he frowned. "I don't have long, I need to move."
Paul nodded. "We'll hold."
Jason turned, as if to walk in, then hesitated. "Paul," he said softly. "I might die in there."
"I know," Paul said sadly.
"I'm going to leave something with you," Jason said softly, pulling his cross off his neck. "Here."
"Jason-" Paul started to say, but Jason laid a finger on his lips to shush him.
"I invested it with a fragment of my power," Jason told him. "A small fragment. An experiment. Not having it won't weaken me, and it may help you."
Reluctantly, Paul drew it over his head. "Be safe."
"They're coming, Paul," Jason warned him. "You're going to have to hold them off."
"They'll be held," Paul assured him. "Are you certain these doors are the only ones open?"
Jason nodded. "Trying to force the other doors in will be futile," he said. "The building will fall down on their heads before they can actually open the other doors. And the windows are even better shielded."
"Good," Paul nodded. "God go with you."
Jason smiled. "He always is, even in the darkest of hours."
Paul turned and found Young. "Commander, this is the one viable entry point. We don't even need to guard the others. Pull your men back."
Young stared at him. "What?"
"Those doors are a choke point, we're going to use them to bleed the bastards dry," Paul shouted. "Now pull your men back!"
The marines began to withdraw, slowly, through the doors. Filtering through the building, they quickly swept it for enemies. Not finding any, they tried to find decent sniper perches. Unfortunately, none of the windows were open, and they couldn't smash them out, either. Giving up in frustration, they simply took up positions to defend against anyone trying to force their way in through the doors.
Outside, Paul and four surviving Guardians held the line in a stunning display of power. The red aura of Paul's anger reached out and filled each of the other survivors, and as they slowly drew back towards the doors. Too many had died to bring them to this point, and they were not about to let those deaths go unanswered. And here, now, in this place and in this time, the advantage was theirs. This was their home, their fortress. And the thralls had no choice but to charge forward, directly into the meat grinder.
Even the massive wave of reinforcements the thralls received didn't change matters. They held. For what seemed like hours, they held. Slowly the other Guardians fell back, exhausted, leaving Paul in the forefront of the battle.
And once again he was Paul Koken, the very wind of death.
Paul had never told Jason, but he knew the derivation of the name 'Koken'. He understood exactly why Ronan had chosen it... and then extended that name to the order he'd founded. Kouken, pronounced the same as Koken, was Japanese for 'Guardian'.
They were all Koken. And tonight, Paul was more. Tonight Paul was the very wind of death, and where he walked no others dared. His ax licked out and claimed a life every swing, and often four or five over the course of two or three swings. In his off hand he held a dagger that was every inch as lethal as the ax, its wicked edge slicing through flesh with ease. And for those that didn't fall to the edge of the dagger, his feet were in motion as well. All four limbs were involved in this dance with death, blows lashing out from either weapon and either foot seeking vulnerable spots, crushing chests and smashing jaws.
And then the fire came. In the distance, Paul heard Young call out in warning, but it was all he could do to hold his position. None who dared approach him survived, but they pressed in on all sides and it was all he could do simply to survive.
The first instants were the worst. Paul saw the explosions as fire ripped outward, felt his shields rebuff the shrapnel slicing through the crowd around him. And as he felt the first blossoms of heat, he knew -- knew -- that he was about to burn to death.
Behind him the remaining Guardians surged forward in an effort to reach him, to pull him out of the blaze. One of them fell backwards, unable to force himself to walk into the blazing inferno that the street had become.
He survived the reckless lunge to help Paul. The other three didn't.
But Paul... Paul felt the warm caress him like an old lover, and roll over him in comforting waves. The thralls around him fell before the onslaught, even as the ground beneath their feat shook. Whatever Jason was doing, Paul could feel its power in the air above and the earth below. The city reeled under its impact.
And Paul didn't die. Immersed in an inferno that should have burned him in an instant, he simply walked, calmly, towards the door of the gym. Around his neck, the cross that Jason had handed him melted away, the raw gold running down Paul's clothing.
Paul fell to his knees in pain as the gold finally gave up its final secret, and the power Jason had imbued into it was released. Only it didn't detonate. It simply sought out a new host...
He heard it enter his soul. It was power, yes, but not anything like he'd assumed. It wasn't something to kill with or to face an enemy over. It was warm, comforting, inviting. It was a piece of his brother's soul, the part of Jason that didn't simply enjoy music, it was music.
Now that fragment, that splinter, resided in Paul. Standing back up, he finished staggering back towards the door to the gym, confused. If the cross wasn't protecting him from the fire, what the hell was?
As he reached the door, the earth quaked again, a single sharp shudder that sent everyone flying to the ground. Paul forced himself back to his feet, and then frowned. Reaching down to touch the frame of the doorway, he extended his senses into the ground beneath his feet.
Amazed as he was that he'd even sensed it, Paul was still more amazed at Jason's success. It was like a chord played slightly out of tune being resolved. A soft whisper of sound in a crowded room vanishing. Subtle, but pervasive, he could feel it in the air above and the ground below. The Arch was gone.
No more Guardians, no more Sentinels, the war was all but over. Paul turned and watched outside as it continued to rain fire. "I can't believe you survived," Young commented, coming over to stand beside the door as the fire outside slackened slightly, less about destroying everything and more about just keeping the heat unsurvivable. "Should you be standing in the doorway like that?"
"Better view to keep an eye on things," Paul shrugged. "Where did the fire come from?"
"I'm sorry, I thought you'd be able to get out of there, or I wouldn't have called the artillery in," Young said sadly. "I don't understand how you survived, but..." Young trailed off. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Paul shrugged. "And you made the right decision. I wasn't keeping all of them away from this door, and you had to hold it, whatever the cost. If I couldn't make my way back here, odds are I wasn't going to be able to survive much longer anyways. And... it worked."
"It cost three more Guardians their lives, and this poor guy is going to be in the burn ward for a month," Young commented.
"He'll heal quicker than you think," Paul said softly. "In body, at least."
"What's wrong," Young asked, concerned.
"I'm tired," Paul sighed. "And I can't escape the feeling this isn't really over. It should be, but... I'm forgetting something." Paul found himself yawning, exhausted. "We're all tired."
Young nodded. "There weren't many of you left to begin with," he said thoughtfully. "Now you're down to, what, six people?"
"Six?" Paul asked. "Did some of the wounded make it out earlier?"
Young shook his head. "Ashley, Lara, and Thomas took off on a diversion. Hopefully all three of them survived, I'm going to assume they did until proven otherwise. But that still just leaves six of you. Out of I don't know how many when this whole thing began."
"I think our numbers were closer to a hundred when this began," Paul sighed. "We've lost so many. And we can't hope to rebuild. Thankfully, we don't need to."
"Don't need to?" Young asked, confused.
"The Arch has been destroyed," Paul shrugged. "I can feel it. With the Arch gone, we aren't needed. We were a check on its power, a counter-agent against the evil it did. With that gone, we're free to do something else."
Young nodded. "What about the Sentinels? Don't you need to fight them?"
Paul sighed. "Yes, but we don't have the time pressure we did earlier. They can't grow their numbers anymore. They can't even make new thralls, we hope."
"Can't make new thralls?" Young asked. "Why not?"
"The spells they used only let them command their thralls," Paul sighed. "Technically speaking, they can still enthrall people. It just won't do them any good, they'll be normal people. It was only the interaction between the Arch's mere presence in the city and the spells they used that granted those people the faint echo of power they got."
"From what I understand, it was only sheer numbers and good planning that let them do anything," Young said thoughtfully. "If they can't make new thralls..."
"All we have to do is go into hiding ourselves," Paul nodded. "Strike when they show their face, as a unified group. They don't stand a chance."
Young nodded as his uniform squawked. "Yes?" he asked. "Understood. Cease fire."
"Out of ammo?" Paul guessed.
"No, I want to keep a decent reserve," Young nodded as the artillery barrage outside stopped. "Just in case."
Paul nodded. "Makes sense."
"If the Arch is destroyed," Young asked, "shouldn't your brother be back by now?"
Paul sighed. "He's exhausted. And he needs a few minutes to himself."
"A few minutes... Oh," Young said. "I noticed he was barely hanging on a few times. He hid it well."
Paul nodded. "Right at the moment, he doesn't want to talk. He doesn't want a shoulder to cry on. He wants, needs, to be alone. The pain..." Paul closed his eyes. "He's been in a war zone for days, and hasn't had a chance to really mourn Ronan's passing. Right at the moment, he needs to be alone. Wouldn't even let me close. The wards down there are all locked down."
"In short, you can't get down there," Young sighed. "Can't you even knock on the door?"
"Not until he's ready to listen," Paul shrugged. Outside, the red hot heat was slowly dissipating. "It's strange," he mused. "You'd think at least one or two of the thralls would try to push in now that the heat is survivable. Or that a Sentinel would try and press in. Something."
Young shrugged. "Maybe they're in full retreat?" he asked.
Paul frowned. "Possibly-" the earth under their feat rocked again. "What the hell?" he swore.
"Don't try and tell me that was an earthquake," Young snarled.
"It was a massive release of magical energies," Paul said. "I don't have a clue from what-" Suddenly, he felt the magical fields around them shift. "The wards are down," he said softly. "Of course..."
"Wait, the wards? As in whatever protected this building?" Young asked incredulously. "Shit! Si-"
"Don't worry," Paul cut him off. "The external wards are still on. It's the internal ones, the ones that locked the Arch away, that just released."
"So what was that earthquake about?" Young asked.
"This is a guess," Paul said, "but when the Arch was destroyed, the energy had to go somewhere. The wards down there were designed to protect the Arch room, to shield against the Arch. To isolate it. With the Arch down, their purpose was no more. So, eventually, they failed, releasing the energy they'd contained."
Young sighed. "So we're still safe?"
"More or less," Paul agreed. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go find my brother."
"I'll call some helicopters in, get an evacuation-" Young started sniffing. "Do you smell that?"
Paul frowned. "Smoke."
"I didn't even catch it earlier, the smoke from outside wasn't coming in," Young sighed. "I guess that's a result-"
"This smoke isn't from outside," Paul said, pressing his hands against a wall. "The wards can't stop it, there's a fire. A big one. So far they've managed to suppress it, but it's stronger than they are. They're going to fail, fast. Get everyone out!"
"Shit!" Young barked. "Alright, you heard the man!" he shouted, and began to organize an evacuation of the building. "What about Jason?" he turned and asked over his shoulder.
"I'll get him," Paul nodded. Turning, he sprinted down the corridors he'd come to call home. The smell of smoke was growing strong. Reaching what had used to be Ronan's office, as well as one of the main access points to the basement levels, he found his brother stumbling up the stairs. "Jason!" he said happily. "You OK?"
"Exhausted," Jason managed to say, tears still streaking down his cheeks. "Oh God it hurts," he sobbed. "We need-"
"Come on," Paul said, sidling up beside his brother to support him. "I got you. We need to get out, the building is on fire."
"Upstairs," Jason said. "I need... there are a few things I want to save."
Paul hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Fine. We'll be quick."
Paul had to practically carry his brother up the stairs. Jason couldn't stop sobbing. "Oh God it hurts," he whispered at one point. "Help me, Lord, give me strength... just for a few minutes..."
Jason managed, somehow, to stand straighter as he staggered down the hallway of apartments Ronan had 'rented' out. That Ronan had used as a series of safe-houses, housing short term rescues until they could be moved elsewhere, or others that needed long-term protection. And a few Guardians who needed to be kept close, like Lara for her psychological support.
Staggering into their apartment, Paul almost dropped Jason. "Oh God," he sighed.
It was a ruin. The intricate, layered wards that protected everything in there had been shredded. The energy involved in their destruction, not to mention the spells that had destroyed them, had left little untouched. "The hall closet," Jason sighed. Digging into the rubble that was all that remained, he made a satisfied sound and pulled out his pistols. "Hiding them under the floor worked," he said. "I... I wish there was more." Looking around he started crying. "Nothing else was protected well enough to survive this. I've got nothing left."
The smell of smoke was growing stronger. "We need to go, now," Paul told him. "The fire is going to break loose soon."
Jason nodded as he belted the guns on. He didn't have time to put the swords and the guns on a single set of belts, so he just went ahead and used the belt the guns were already sitting on. "Time to go," he sighed. Closing his eyes, he almost crumpled. "Oh damn. Time for me to go. So soon... Ronan..." he almost breathed the last word.
"Come on," Paul said strongly, picking his brother up. Jason shrugged off the help and started walking. Paul stared at him for a moment, shocked. Where had Jason gotten the sudden energy from? Following his brother out the door, he frowned as Jason turned right instead of left. "The stairs are that way," Paul told him.
"The wards are keeping the worst of the smoke and flames away from us," Jason said firmly. "But the downstairs is already fully engulfed. The fire will make its way up here quickly."
"Fuck," Paul swore. "We'll have to jump out-"
"No," Jason told him. "There is a roof access at the end of the hallway. We'll take that."
Paul nodded. Jason took off at a quick walk, almost a run, and Paul kept up behind him. His brother was doing better, but sooner or later he'd fall apart again. They'd lost so many friends... and Jason had lost the love of his life. He couldn't hold up much longer. He'd done what he had to.
"Paul," Jason said softly as he began to climb up the ladder. "I want you to remember something."
"Remember what?" Paul asked, keeping close behind.
"I love you," Jason said as he pushed open the door at the top of the ladder. "And you swore an oath. Keep to it."
Paul froze for a moment, remembering the deal he'd made for his ax. He was to keep to his oath.
But hadn't he already fulfilled that promise?
Shaking aside the uncertainty, Paul climbed up and followed his brother onto the roof.
"Freeze!" came the sure, calm, and certain order.
Paul froze, shocked. He was tired, but maybe-
"Turn around, slowly," the voice ordered.
Paul swallowed. Six of them. Six Sentinels, all of them strong, and none of them tired from battle as he and Jason were.
There wasn't a snowballs chance in hell of winning.
"So, it comes at last," Jason said softly. Continuing in a louder voice he added, "I'm taking my swords off; I'm not going to try and draw them.
"Not so fast," one of the Sentinels said firmly. "Take a few steps back, up against the edge of the roof, away from the door. Both of you! We don't want you running away."
Jason nodded. "Certainly."
"I'm surprised you're willing to surrender," one of the others commented as Paul followed his brother. "You've certainly fought long enough and hard enough."
"What are you doing," Paul whispered at his brother, carefully keeping his hand away from the ax he'd belted to his side.
"Remember, Paul, I love you," Jason said softly. "Step back."
Paul took the step back, and felt his heels bump up against the knee-high barrier at the edge of the roof.
"I'm just taking my swords off," Jason said again, slowly pulling the belts they'd been attached to over his neck, causing him to overbalance. Stumbling a little, he wound up almost directly in front of Paul before he recovered. Holding the swords carefully by the sheaths, "see?"
"Alright," one of the Sentinels said, "now throw them over here."
"That could be a problem," Jason sighed. "Paul, I love you."
And with those words, Jason spun around and shoved the blades into Paul's hands. Paul took hold of them by reflex, shocked. "What the hell are you-" he started to say.
The impact of Jason's boot into his midriff not only cut short his sentence, but sent him flying off the edge of the roof. Paul's eyes bulged from the force of the impact as much as shock. What the fuck?!
As Paul fell, the edge of the roof seemed to rise up to cut off his view of the roof. He watched, in shock, as Jason began to shine with restrained power, his hands already drawing his guns as he spun around. The weapons barked their defiance with barely restrained thunder as Jason roared, "I'm coming, my love!"
Paul was halfway to the ground when the sky seemed to explode, a brilliant light erupting from the rooftop above. The force of the explosion slammed him into the ground so hard he bounced before he lost consciousness.
Merlin watched the city light up for an instant, and sighed. And so it was over. Pulling out a cell phone, he pulled up a contact quickly. The phone rang for a moment before someone picked up. "I think that ends it, don't you?"
"Yes," came the flat reply. "I vote we stand down."
"I'll call the others," Merlin said solemnly. Three more numbers he called, and each one voted to stand down. The motion carried, Merlin carefully broke the circle in front of him and picked up the starstone on the ground inside. Carefully placing it into a box, he tucked the box into his robe and nodded. The instant he broke his circle, four others lost their power, causing the wizards who watched over them to pick up their own starstones and hide them. He needed to find out what happened to the sixth starstone, the one he'd kept secret for thousands of years and then handed over to Jason, but for the moment, the threat was over.
It would take years to deal with the remnants that were left, and the problems these events had caused, but at least they didn't have to destroy the entire city just to get at the damned Arch, and the fallen angel beyond it.
He'd paid too heavily in the past to want to pay such a price again.
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