This was the last of the stories I wrote involving the Three/Triumvirate and sequel to “Flight of the Lilims”. I thought many times how to wrap up their stories, and it’s played out in my head a number of different ways, though none really were satisfying. I found myself at a limit with them. While I could see it all in my imagination pretty clearly, conveying their adventures through words just didn’t seem to do justice, and even 20 years after I started putting their world together, I still believe it would have all been much better served as a comic than a pictureless story. Here, I continue the theme of double-spaces after sentences and ellipses that aren’t real ellipses.
Recommended music: Nirvana Unplugged, “Lake of Fire”
Three Steps Into the Depths
The onyx polished oval table sits solemnly beneath a halo of incandescent white lights, bearing down on it the appropriate image of a dark yet sanctified object. In the gloss of the polish are micro-scratches, which leave some innumerable amount of streaks and lines in the otherwise flawless surface. A simple, black table. On which rest seven pairs of hands. It’s strange for Samuel, and even Daniel, to be sitting within the conference room of the Office of Paranormal Defense without either the Colonel or Director Bonnefeld. Samuel hadn’t set foot in the office in the last fifteen years, the last time he saw Richard. Richard Bonnefeld was eighty-one at the time and retired, then passed away two years later, in 2050. The Colonel had already died in his sleep some time before, at the ripe age of eighty-seven in 2047. Agent Carlson had left the Office years ago, and Samuel never kept in touch with him. Agent Gerhard Wolfe, who Samuel had initially met the day of the Macrotech fiasco, had become the Office director and was now readying to retire. He was young, too young he seemed, when Sam first saw him. But he’d grown to be a competent Director, able to follow Rick Bonnefeld’s footsteps without sullying the position. And now, with his intelligence advisor sitting to his left, and his head field agent on his right, Director Wolfe addresses the four sitting across from him: Samuel, Michael, Daniel, Alyssia.
“So then, let me DL all this. You’re telling me that if Michael just opens the portal there, and you three set foot in there, get a good look, you can re-enter the Other World whenever you want?”
Samuel replies. “Yup, that’s the way it works. Teleportation is for shorter distances, portals more efficient for longer distances. I’ve never tried hopping outside of Earth myself, but if Michael says that’s all he does, then it should be that easy. The only limitation to our travel is whether or not we know the destination. I can go to Tokyo right now if I wanted, but I couldn’t teleport to the office above, ‘cause I’ve no idea what it looks like.”
“Uh-huh. Michael, you say you can portal a team over there and have us assasinate the Morningstar?”
“I didn’t say that exactly. No, Director, I can get us to the Other World and guide a squad to the Morningstar’s stronghold. I can not portal anyone within the stronghold itself. The Morningstar has barriers erected throughout the land. Teleportation, for those who can do it, is thoroughly restricted by these barriers. Like.. I suppose the interstate system. The barriers leave open specific routes that can’t be really exploited without knowing the terrain.”
Alyssia interjects. “So why not just portal us through these lanes?”
“Because, my dear, of the way these lanes are constructed. They are lined by these.. constructs that serve two purposes. The constructs prevent teleportation within a given radius. I’m not sure how, but they will shut a portal, and if you were to summon energy for a pure teleport, you’ll soon be the victim of a lot of pain, and no movement. Anyone actively using the old Power in any manifestation within a certain range also sets them off and alerts him to their presence. He.. still waits, yet, for the return of his comrades. His mind is ever scouring the realities for their activity, or lack thereof. And since I know you will ask, I cannot portal around them. The whole damned land is netted with these things. There’s only one safe zone that I know of, the only entry and exit point I have ever used.”
Daniel throws in his opinion. “Alright, wait. Where did this shit about sending squads come from? Whatever happened to dropping a few dozen nukes and calling it a day?”
The room grows silent for a moment. Samuel, not thinking of that himself, now really sees no reason why not. Nothing in his experience demands that a humanitarian approach be taken; more than anyone else at the table, he has seen what the Demonhood’s charges are capable of. Having fought so many different creature types belonging to the enemy, Samuel found one consistency amongst all of them: feral, hateful intelligence. To put a demon and a human in the same room automates the demon to attack and eviscerate, and beyond instinct, it will purposely defile and torture its victim before allowing the poor soul a release. No, a nuclear bombardment probably would be a good idea. After all, they deserve it.
Alyssia is frankly horrified. Nobody here knows at all what the consequences could be of unleashing a nuclear bombardment through a network of portals. Who is to say that there isn’t a benevolent species or civilization on the other side? If this civilization was pinned by the Demonhood, it could never send a message through to the Earth side, thus never making itself known. Even the use of such blind, wholesale destruction at the hands of button-pushers on the other side of some dimensional wall is plainly reckless. They need more information on what exactly s out there.
Director Wolfe is whispering with his advisor over Dan’s proposed strategy. Daniel, the closest to the Director, tilts his head in order to better hear what the advisor has to say. Something about authorization and how it would take months upon months of bureaucratic legislation before such a move could ever be approved on, if approved at that. He rolls his lips into a transitory frown and slides forward along his elbows while casting a glance to the Second. With folded hands, Michael meets the glance and sighs.
“No.. no, we can’t.” He stands up and paces to the back of the room to lean up against the doorframe leading to the observation room. The cuffs of his leather shirt squeak against each other when he crosses his arms. “You can’t nuke it.”
“And why not?” Coming from the Director.
“Because, like it or not, people, human beings like u-.. like you, Director, do live there. It’s a land fallen in disarray because of a lack of leadership. Those that were dragged there by the Ancients were not inherently evil, simply unlucky. Their descendents thrive in a walled city in the northwest pocket. You can’t just nuke them.”
“Alright, we’ll discuss that later. What do you mean ‘northwest pocket’? Spheres don’t have ‘pockets’. What is the geography of this place?”
“I.. I can’t describe it. There are only a handful of maps kept in the stronghold’s library. It seems like there’s only one landmass, not a large one either, on which lies all of their loose civilization. You would have to see it for yourself. For all the beauty and color there is on Earth.. while it lasts..,” said with a disconsolate shrug of the eyebrows and glance towards the ceiling, “the Other World is dark and bile and nauseating. Though.. you get used to it.. in time.”
“Alright..,” Samuel crosses his left leg over his right knee and strokes the half-beard he’s been trying to grow, “so, Mike, think we’d be able to take this guy by ourselves? How strong is the Morningstar?”
Michael shrugs sharply, calmly settling his green eyes into Samuel’s brown. Samuel returns the stare with a few intermittent blinks. He’s still not used to seeing a lack of hostility in Michael. The First makes a last, exaggerated blink and turns in the gray cloth-covered seat to face Wolfe. “Maybe we should adjourn this for now, give us all time to think about this. Michael just informed me and Daniel of his ability to still return there, and we haven’t had time to think about all the possibilities and dangers. How about we return to this in two hours?”
“Agreed,” says Daniel.
“That’s fine by me. I have 1:43 by my watch, so, we’ll say then 3:45? I’ll meet you four here at that time. In the meantime, myself and Agents Devering and Sondholme will discuss all possible strategies.”
Michael nods and tosses his shoulders off the wall and strides across the room to the hallway adjoining the conference room to front room, containing agents’ desks and workplaces. He disappears outside the confines of the Office walls to roam about the vast corridors of the Pentagon. Samuel walks out with his daughter Alyssia, calling behind that all drinks would be on him, as they’re going to a favorite bar of his in the area, Finnegan’s Mug.
Daniel glances at his watch and nonchalantly returns to Alaska by means of a silver-blue tinted portal.
Another perk of being in good with the NSA: they can forge and re-forge any document necessary as needed. So, Samuel, so late in his years already, feels safe in sitting at the pub without the use of an illusion. He still appears as he did sixty-six years ago, back in 1997, when he was twenty-one years old, when the Power first emerged in him. A lot had obviously changed since then, but certain constancies of human life never did: one was that there would always be a need for bars, taverns, pubs, and watering holes.
In the dark corner, below a stain-glass lamp that bears them thirty watts of thick yellow light, Samuel swirls the opaque ale in his mug and takes a swig. Across from him, staring at the small food menu with sparkling, honey eyes, Alyssia taps her fingers gently at her glass: a scotch on the rocks. Her chocolate colored locks and their natural curl frame her bronzed face and eyes in such a way that she tends to appear a touch older than her eternal age of seventeen even without the need for illusion. Besides, being a ’03 baby, at the age of sixty, she felt entitled to a drink, appearances or not, no matter how skeptical the server.
“Hm? What is it hon?”
“They took that one sandwich I always order off the menu.”
Samuel guzzles the rest of his drink and waves over the waitress who had coincidentally shot a look their way as he was setting the empty mug down. “Ah, that’s too bad. Too bad, indeed. They still have the skins though, right?”
“Yes, they do, but they brought the price up by a dollar.”
“Ah, bastards..” His eyes raise to the waitress, a Rosealia. “Another one of these, thankee.” She smiles and takes his mug.
“Do you really think you should be having another one? We’re supposed to be meet up with the rest in thirty-five minutes.”
“Sure, why not? I won’t be plastered, if that’s what you mean.”
“No one uses ‘plastered’ anymore, not even me. You know, you have been drinking more since mom died. And with Aunt Christine in the hospital too.. I can see it in your eyes. You’re usually very accepting of things.. like I’ve never seen you bothered by things like..” she looks around cautiously and lowers her voice, “like never growing old, having all these powers. You just roll with it.”
Samuel’s shoulders drop and he nods solemnly. The creases built up on his face from the decades deepen and settle. With the soft yellow glow casting shades, it creates its own illusion, of his true age, a transparent film wrapped over him.
The waitress slides a napkin down the table and gingerly places the mug on top. Alyssia looks up and mouths the word “Check” while scribbling air into her open palm. The waitress nods and leaves them to their peace.
“..well.. well what? Everyone I know is on their way to the coffin, Aly!” His voice swells with frustration at each word. In his pause, he grinds his molars and lowers his head to whisper violently to her, “I’m twenty-seven years older than you, meaning by now all the people I worked with, my friends, my family, are all passed away or on the way. You still have your original ties, Aly, but mine..” He grips the edge of the richly dark mahogany table. “It’s much.. much easier to ignore time when things remain the same, when things stay constant. All the anchors of my youth, of growing up, are gone. I’ll never see the shimmering twilight, never reach that point where I can look back and actually reflect on my life and judge the way I lived because I’ll keep on living. How many generations have to come and pass before I can rest easy and move on? When can I be put to rest and rejoin Anne, huh? It’s bullshit that I can’t keep her with me! Why do I have to live on and regret her mortality, why do I have to keep remembering her? When she died, I lost my wife, my love, my best friend, the one person who was my complete and total perfect complement!”
Alyssia sips lightly from her scotch and closes her eyes. She remembers the day her mother died. It seemed like such a farce, something she knew that Samuel also felt during the eulogy. In the assembled crowd of both his and Anne’s relatives, Samuel and Alyssia, the husband, the daughter, were forced to sit in tightly bound illusory fields to conceal their youth. It wracked her to have to sit in a self-imprisoning lie on a day when there should be no barrier left between herself and her mother, a day that demanded that all illusions be torn down. But Samuel made it mandate, threatening to place one around her himself if he saw the slightest flicker of her outer form. Only when everyone had left, the priest, the rest of Anne’s relatives, leaving only Alyssia and her father and a few agents to keep the grounds clear, did Samuel allow them both to dispense with the cloak. She stood opposite him, staring into the coffin. She saw a face of his that he had never before made, one she’ll never forget. He cried. Yet, she couldn’t. Of course she hurt from her mother’s death. Of course. Alyssia was their only child, and Anne both loved and spoiled her to sometimes embarrassing levels. Mom would always be the first to rush to the side of the stage after her plays, always squeeze her hard and smooth her hair..
She shivers. Her eyes obscure in the tint of her scotch; both the same color. She tests her voice, low volume.
“Then dad.. the fact that you have me to stand with you for eternity.. that’s no consolation?”
“Huh? What? No!.. no, that’s not what I meant.. this just isn’t.. this isn’t how I expected things to be..”
“Nevermind.. we should return. With traffic, we’re going to be about ten minutes late.”
“Always better at estimating time than I..”
She shakes her head at him and walks toward the bar, handing the bartender a metal card and their bill. Both scanned, he bids them a “Take care, kiddies” with a smile.
They wait for a taxi to pull up. Not once does Alyssia look her father in the eyes during either the ride or the walk back to the Office.
Again, all members of the meeting are sat around the void-polished table, all quiet, some staring up to the ceiling tiles for inspiration of thought, some peering into imaginary crystal balls hovering aloft their folded hands, and Daniel and Michael, on either side of Samuel, sit with crossed arms. No conclusions had been made or even a topic breached in the last ten minutes.
Samuel is entirely intrigued by the idea of seeing this Other World, despite seeing no absolute need to journey there even with Michael’s revelation sitting in the air. On the one hand, there haven’t been any major incursions by Demonhood forces in the last twenty years. And that last incursion paled in comparison to what, for all intents and purposes, Sam considered the last truly great fight, which was sometime back in the 2010’s. If they go in there, it might be like swatting the bees’ nest: the Demonhood is only going to pour creatures through. But, he can’t help but let his mind churn out possibilities of all the things he could find there. Are these demons created and harvested, like some clone army? Or were they naturally found there? Are they intelligent enough to create little civilizations? Michael did say the land wasn’t big, so, if it’s too small, maybe there’s one mega-city? He wonders what the parallel to his stories might be. If he is the parallel to Vedin, then, perhaps that would make Heaven the world of Tuluhr. But Sheketh, the world of the Tuluhrai enemies, that was a jungle world, kept in darkness. Could this Other World be something akin to that, some sort of nightmare jungle?
His mouth twitches as a light smirk comes and goes.
Daniel snorts. He doesn’t want to go there and there’s no damn reason for it. The United States still has tactical nuclear weapons, regardless of the world ban on them, and he knows it. Michael’s being far too weak. And Samuel.. well, he’s known Samuel for ages now, and he knew that as soon as Michael mentioned people, Samuel’s drive for hellfire and decisiveness was shot. He’s seen Samuel do some rash things before, but, watching the First from the corner of his eye, he knows that Sam’s eternal attempt to play the good guy was going to get the best of him. Daniel’s frown deepens and he growls, “Just send the bombs through and get it over with. Why risk ourselves.”
Michael overhears the remark and says nothing. None of the others could be expected to understand his position. While in the thrall of the Morningstar, he was led to believe and feel that the Other World was his home. Even so many damn years later, some of the lingering effects of his possession remain. He’s finally gotten over his instinctive hostility towards Samuel. Finally feels like he can ease into being at peace. But, the Other World.. he knows creatures there. Sentient ones. To anyone, the Other World must be a place of horror and insanity. It is a place that should be nuked. The matter that constructs the worst fears of man, the things of hideous legend and myth thrived openly there.
And yet the part of him that felt on edge here, in the human reality, feels still a longing to return to the hell and become at ease. No. He may permit the attack on the Morningstar and see if it’s possible to, if not kill, paralyze or permanently leave decrepit his old master. But the land itself must be untouched. Let the way of life continue there as is, so long as they can never breach Earth again.
The others have no idea what’s in store for them.
Alyssia, tapping her fingernails against the table, is just stunned, and a little amused, by the scene. The famed Director of the Office of Paranormal Defense and the Three Guardians, sitting down, all unable to think of a simple, working plan. She rolls her eyes. The world’s greatest men.., she thinks and, at least in spirit, throws her hands up in frustration. “Look, why do we have to assault anything? From what I’ve heard between my dad and Michael, there hasn’t been a solid, confirmed attack of the lowest sort in two years? Altogether, I must have only seen up close a handful of these monsters, and I’m older than you two,” nodding to the agents sitting beside Gerhard. “So since the atmosphere here is to go in there, why not,” her voice softens, “why not make this a scouting mission instead? It makes sense to me to go in there and see why the attacks appear to have stopped. Michael, you said that your last trip there was short and had no time to really explore, right?”
“So maybe an extensive search of the land, army outposts, or whatever they have, to just.. look around.”
Samuel straightens in his chair at the idea. “She’s right. Why the hell not? If anyone can practice stealth, it’s us. We’ll have no problem getting around unseen.”
Michael raps his knuckles against the side of the table. “I wouldn’t say no problem, Samuel. As I said earlier, if you get too close to one of the sensors even an illusory field might set it off. I don’t know their sensitivity as I was never concerned with them. Yet I’m sure taking to our heightened forms would be a definite beacon.”
“Fine then, so we don’t use them. A simple sphere illusion doesn’t require much energy, that should be all right. I’m for it. Aly’s obviously for it. Mike? Dan?”
“You’ll need me to go with you, so I suppose I’m in. Daniel?” In speaking, Michael’s eyes rest more on Alyssia than Samuel.
“Yeah, whatever. You know me. I’m not going to let you all resign yourselves to this recon operation, which I still disagree with, without me. I’ll want to bring some of my own gear though.”
“Fine by me,” inserts the Director. “Well then, it’s settled. I think that’s perhaps the best course of action. It’s a scouting mission, meaning do not engage anyone or anything unless it’s necessary, understood? The sooner this operation is started, the sooner we get the intel. And sooner is better. Michael, given the idea of time changes and the like, when would it be most appropriate to enter?”
“I know what you’re thinking. Night lends best to stealthy encounters, but not in the present case, Director. Day and night are figments of human imaginations down there. It doesn’t matter, the sky is always red. But to offer a suggestion, I think we all need to sleep on it. Normally I’d rather get it done as fast as possible, but, putting a night between us and the Other World will provide some needed time for the others to prepare mentally for it. We’ve all had our ideas from movies and books what hell could be like. Being immersed in it’s full being is a much different story, even for those of us who are a step outside of normalcy’s bounds.”
“All right. I want all of you to report here, to be in this room, tomorrow at noon. I’ll have the equipment office supply everything conceivably needed here by that time. Now, is there anything else?”
From Michael, Samuel, Daniel, and Alyssia: a shake of the head, a “nope”, a shrug, and plain silence.
“Well then. Rest up all of you. Looks like we’ll be having quite the day tomorrow.”
With salt in the soft breeze above, the trailing water before Samuel gently laps and splashes against the pilings of the dock. Sunset. The colors of the sunset always entrance Samuel. The mango red along the horizon, mandarin orange above that, and the pleasant pineapple yellow filling the sky. He reaches out, and his hand alights with tendrils of energy that spread toward the dying sun, gently flailing with the wind. The First feels perfectly aligned with the golden hue encompassing the sky above; with a few long, reed shaped gray clouds excepted, that is. Even with the great scenery, the bridge far away framing the horizon, the two small islands tucked between bridge and dock, with nothing but all of the Caribbean before him, it has always been the sunsets that he ever took to sitting outside to watch. Fish would jump now and then. Pelicans came to roost anywhere, usually on the pilings (a nuisance to Samuel, who’d, now and then step in fresh poop). Every once in a while, he would see dolphins breaching water in methodic strokes, their bare backs and dorsal fins only, with the sometimes blasts of spray as they shot a strong exhale. All very relaxing, but, not so much so as the whiskey on the rocks he held in a hand. The areas beneath his eyes feel crusty and dirty. He hadn’t cried, of course not. He’d seen far too damn much in the last sixty some odd years to cry, yet he couldn’t help the tears fall when considering the conversation he had with Alyssia, of the memories it dredged up.
Anne had been his life. They had struggled through so much, too much, and stuck together through it all. He remembered, a glass and a half ago, the time when he was still in college, a senior, he believes, and his house was shot to pieces by those bastards at Lancelus. She, unbelievably, was able to eventually accept both the shock of knowing who he really was and the idea of why he had to keep it secret. It took some time, yet she was actually able to see beyond her surprise and the pettiness of hating him for it; no, she didn’t hate him. Just hurt. Hurt and upset that Samuel couldn’t tell her first, because after four years with him by that point, she thought she deserved to be told such a thing immediately. Her pain lingered in her for a while, that it wasn’t until two months after the incident that she began to open up again. Samuel’s belief was always that the less a person knows, the less worried and troubled they are, so he kept her less worried and troubled before that point. He only wanted her to be happy and to stay.
Oh, but she stayed with him. When they were married, the divorce rate was something ridiculous, sixty percent or something of that nature. Living the alternate life he did, Samuel didn’t allow himself to be convinced that they wouldn’t become part of that statistic. Somehow they didn’t. Anne comfortably took to the idea that he couldn’t grow older, even if he wanted to. She accepted it when she found out their daughter, Alyssia, had developed the same powers as Samuel, and was even so graceful as to not pressure him to find out the how’s and why’s when even he expressed utter confusion as to how Aly developed her power at so young an age. His stories said that 21 was the age when all clansmen were allowed to bear full access to their power, and yet she was only 17. Anne never said a word of it, but he could tell that over the years, seeing the gleam of her eyes grow more and more wearied, that she felt alone. That he and their daughter had been given eternal youth while she continued to mature and grow old. One night, even before Alyssia had emerged, Samuel and Anne lay together, nude, after a long session of love-making, looking at each other soothingly in the faint moonlight cast through the bedroom window. She was tracing a finger over his high cheekbone and down the line of his jaw, her eyes sparkling in the dimness.
Samuel’s throat clenches at the memory of her touch.
His arm was draped over her bare waist. She ran a finger over his lips, looking at them, and asked, “Will you leave me.. when I become old? You’ll still be 21 when I’m ready to retire.. do you think.. you could love me when I’m old?”
The response didn’t come out immediately as she probably hoped it would. It was a question he never bothered to ask himself. No one else in the world was right for him, he knew it, and felt it. Could he leave her? Would he leave her?
He remembers caressing her cheek, then pushing the stray strands of brown, curly hair from her forehead, and saying, “I told you I’d love you ‘til the day I die, and, I mean that. I really mean it.”
She smiled and snuggled in closer to him, nuzzled against his chest, and whispered, “I know, but I want you to be happy.. I.. I wouldn’t hate you for it, if you did leave me.. I know that I can’t expect the same things from you like I could from any other man..”
As the crimson over the water expands, and the dark blue starts to overtake the sky before ushering in the kingdom of the night, Samuel recalls what he said to her then. “Anne, please don’t ever talk of it again.. you just don’t know how much the thought of it terrifies me.. when we were in high school, and even college, I wanted to live forever. Now I can’t even stomach the idea of spending even a year without you, much less all of eternity.. please.. let’s not bring it up again.”
She had kissed him after that. He returned the kiss. They fell asleep face to face, holding each other, legs intertwined; a physical assurance of their oneness.
So many years ago that was. The stars now are beginning to shine and glitter across the pitch black backdrop. Besides the quiet peace, Samuel thought better of his move to the Florida Keys than staying in Ft. Lauderdale because of the stars. Here, they actually show. Somewhere, he knows, up above, Anne is watching him, watching Alyssia, and guarding over them.
Too much thinking. Too much pitiful recollecting. The tears swell up in his eyes once more, and he shuts them, squeezes them tight until he feels his retinas pinch. Leaning forward in the night, in the humid, warm air, glass of melted ice and whiskey tucked in his lap, he weeps dry, tearless sobs.
In the house behind him, sitting in an ergonomic, plastic deck stool on the second story balcony, Alyssia keeps guard over her father, lips pursing in anguish over the sight. She swings her feet out to stand, but then holds herself fast. He would only disappear if she approached.
In all her growing up, she never, never thought that the man who is her father, so light-hearted, cheery, and goofy, incapable of sorrow, and the stalwart guardian of mankind, as seen on the news in special reports, were the same man; even that accepted, she couldn’t believe that a man both so strong and carefree could still be the same one holding himself so wretchedly in the darkness, alone and wounded. She loves her father dearly, and respects him, even in a time like this. He had done so much for both the world and for her, helping her hone her powers and allowing her to use them as he did, for the good, as opposed to letting them diminish and rot. But there’s just no way she can help him, not as he is now: desperately wanting to forget everything.
Reassembled and dressed, the four stand in the conference room. They wear the latest in tactical body armor: skin-tight, but breathable full body suit, new series class IV thin kevlar vest with chest, abdomen, and shoulder steel plating. Thighs and shins also fully plated. Armament includes military-grade Lancelus heavy assault laser rifles, grenades, and the newest HP pistols. Daniel refused the laser rifle, as did Samuel (who later relented to Wolfe’s agitated arguments), and retrieved a few weapons of his own from Alaska. He returned to the room with an axe strapped to his back and wielding, with two encumbered arms, an old model Maumer anti-tank rifle and a shoulder-slung bag full of rounds. Samuel, strapped to his leg in a canvas sleeve, kept hidden from the rest the one weapon he truly relied on: the Sword of Fire. It was mailed to him one day from an unknown source. No note attached, no fingerprints, no way to trace the package back. So he took the ungainly hilt, found out how to flip the pommel guards up, and in a week, learned how to activate the blade. Michael and Alyssia, though, were both satisfied in the prepared armament Gerhard Wolfe had ordered for them. They were each supplied with packs containing the necessary equipment for a protracted leave, should they not be readily able to return to Earth side.
Each was given a recon helmet, which comes with a self-sustained video recorder, and a flip down visor with infrared, night-vision, and ultraviolet filters.
“Yes, Ms. Hidalgo?”
“This feels a little tight up top, if you catch my meaning..”
“I’ll inform you when the over-plating manufacturer takes women into consideration. Is everyone ready?”
A consensus of aye’s and yes’s resounds.
“Good. Michael, if you will?”
Michael nods and stretches gloved fingers out. Overhead lights dim, as does all the light in the room. A surge of energy races down his shoulder to the raised fingertips, from which visible contortions of reality splash against an imaginary wall and spread out, like ripples in a vertical pond. The waves darken as each succeeds the previous ripple in reaching the oval-shaped boundaries Michael has willed for the portal. Slowly he curls his fingers in, branches like lightning now seething and slithering in the solidifying three foot wide and seven foot tall gate. He balls his hand to a fist with a quick snap, which shatters the measured creation of the portal and, with a spectacular sounding of thunder as the fabric of two wholly distant spaces tears apart, the portal consumes all available light for a few flashes of darkness, before it abates and finally grows stable. Samuel winces, having been thrown back a step with the others by the final bout.
“Jeez, Michael.. good job on that portal..”
“Quiet. Get in, all of you. This one’s draining me.”
Nodding, each of the assembled squad members duck their heads and high-step over the planar edge of the cut in space and passes through, disappearing within the swirling shadows of doorway to the Otherworld. Michael, giving one last, despairing look to Director Wolfe, lifts his hand to increase the gate’s height and steps into it, allowing it to snap shut just behind his heel.
The irises of Michael’s eyes shift and deepen in intensity upon emerging in the realm of the Otherworld. They stand on a cliff top made of jagged rock, with wild boulders jutting upward amongst them and out from the cliff’s wall, and covered in a gritty sand made of glinting reds, browns, and blacks. Michael raises his nose to cross into a passing hot breeze, and takes in a deep draught of the air. It smells of ruin, decay, pieces of burnt soil and shattered earth carried with the wind. He lays a hand on a large, ebony boulder and, at first, flinches from its internal heat. Shaking his head, he rests his whole palm against it and lets it burn him until his skin acclimates. His eyes close just as Samuel nears him.
“I don’t know what to say, Michael. This is.. half of what I expected, and half not.”
“I know what you mean.”
“But.. we should take a quick survey and move on.”
Michael removes his hand and follows Samuel to the edge of the precipice. Daniel is squat down on his haunches, with the fore-grip of the oversized rifle lodged against a small upward crag, and he watches the landscape below. Ahead and around them, it appears that the cliff they stand on is part of a ring of mountains that encircles everything in their view. The range’s peaks are notched, rusting spearheads, jutting out to stab and draw the blood color from the sky. Rolling, sinewy clouds of brown peel overhead in sloping movements at such a rate that is altogether unnerving for the three unaccustomed to the land, given the lack of wind. Samuel touches a button on the outside of his helmet, bringing about the binocular function of the visor. Far and away from the cliff’s base, through the scraping hands of leafless trees, he sees a huge mound of what appears to be mud. Orange colored gravel surrounds the area, with gentle rifts spewing steam scattered randomly. The trees are gray, the color of ash, and look twisted and gnarled, ancient, tall, and malicious. Their bark shines in the dim ambience, as if crafted from granite. A broken and fragmented road of also ashen colored stones winds about the small patch of trees and away from them, past the mound, further into an area gated by a large rock arch. More smoke and shadowy movement can be made out, but not with the sort of detail Samuel wishes. His attention returns to the mound he noticed first. Within it are holes, lit within, and shadows crossing the crude windows. Smoke wafts out from a pore in the mound’s roof. Focusing closer in on it, he sees a three-toed, scaled foot shift into the gravel by the mound and kick up dust; the mound obstructs the rest of the creature.
“I know that type of foot.. regular infantry demon, low-power, no special attributes besides being slightly stronger than a man its size. Daniel, over there, zoom in on that and tell me if it looks familiar!”
Daniel gets up from his haunches and shuffles along the edge of the cliff to get a better angle, but the distance between them and the demon is so far that it makes no difference. “Yeah. I guess. It’s hard to tell from only that, and you seen more of them than I have. But from what I remember, they did have that sort of foot. Same color brown too.”
“Down there is the edge of a small village here in the Otherworld. There are a few of them, and we’ll be forced to walk through one or two of them due to the barrier system the Morningstar created. It’s something like a series of walls, each one preventing teleportation of any sort past it. Once you walk through one, you’re free to teleport, although you’ll be stopped dead at the next one. I believe the Morningstar ordered it that way to ensure that his enemies met his forces at every step of the way. Therefore, we’ll be constantly put in the path of, er, ‘demons’, but the ones that bother to inhabit the road are far less dangerous than the wild roamers that occupy the harsher surrounding badlands. Some can even be reasoned with. Questions?”
Just as Michael asks, a shadow covers the backs of Samuel and Daniel, and they turn. Michael, the Second, stands with his arms crossed, a portal glimmering beside him. Alyssia, from the top of a boulder, jumps over the portal and beside Michael, and gives him a soft smile before stepping through. Daniel follows, stone-faced, save for the faint scowl, and then Samuel, quirking a brow towards the Second before going through the gate. Lastly, Michael enters as well.
They stand surrounded. Alyssia is wary and becoming quickly nervous when the first demon approaches her; the one that Samuel had been watching before. It was within sight of its mud hut when their portal opened, and the demon, of course, had to slap the ground with its thigh-sized forearms and hobble forward to meet them. Immediately another came, and then another, ones just like it. A legless wraith, cloaked in tattered, jelly-like skin came hovering close. When Daniel was through, a pair of women, surgically joined from the knee to the lower rib came dancing and singing towards the pair, showering their own steps with white flakes that buckled and crunched beneath their feet. A spider-like creature spins in a dance on legs made of obscenely elongate human fingers – a creature that immediately reminded Daniel of footage from the famed First Strike. Above a trio of sickle-clawed, hawk-billed harpies circle and sing in cracked voices, “Nava hava iriam elushai, hava lim hava lim, elushai!” Then they cackle in unison. Daniel feathers the trigger of the anti-tank rifle carefully. When the First and the Second had joined the others, the portal had attracted a whole host of creatures. Fifty or so creatures climbed and fought with each other to get a good view of the “ephemes”, and Samuel was sure he heard, somewhere in the rising chorus of the harpies’ song, the sound of bone quickly snapping and a thud. But the chanting died down as soon as a tall shadow cast itself on the demonic host. A huge, scarred and fatty face careened down from a thirty-foot neck, bent around the corner between the two largest buildings that bordered the crowd, and shook the rolls of its chin at them, approaching slowly. The other demons, wraiths, and humans that had gathered are now slowly moving back and behind the large one. The globular head and rolling neck joined back to a large, hump-backed body of swinging skin flaps, bearing only two legs like some poor, over-injured dog. The foreleg is three times the girth of the latter, probably since the demented creature bears no tail to balance its ungainly neck and head. Its face is horrifyingly human in resemblance, like some cartoonist’s glutton. The glutton positioned itself and its face but a yard away from Samuel’s own.
And it can speak, a deep, rich, and commanding voice. “Sir Michael,” the movement of its jowls create violent quakings of its chins, “you are returned. And you bring..” it takes a long, loud sniff of Samuel, “guests that seem familiar.. and different.. why have you been so long?”
“Descendent of Barael, I am returned, indeed, and my reasons for being long are not worth discussing. I have found some lost brothers that I intend to return to our Leader, and perhaps see if he has a place for them here in our glorious home.”
The creature takes a felt step forward and cranes its neck around to sniff Alyssia. Samuel is already reaching for the Sword’s hilt, but Michael sharply grabs Samuel and whispers a “No” in his ear. Barael’s legacy, finished with smelling her, turns to Michael again.
“She is brethren?”
“Of course, Descendent.”
“She smells too much like the privileged. Explain, Sir Michael.”
“No explanation is needed, Descendant!” The long, smoky serrated blade of Michael flashes out from his forearm, and he points its tip at the blunt nose of the Descendant. The demon only snorts derisively and lurches over to take an analysis of Daniel. Barael’s Descendant lowers his mucous lined nostrils, the wet, amber eyes staring down on the Third. Samuel, having known Daniel for far too long, reaches for his sword again in preparation for what he knew was to happen. Michael, at this point, realizes the same and slips his left hand behind to grip for the muzzle of the Lancelus rifle. The Descendent, wheezing, takes in a deep breath of Daniel. Immediately, just as the demon’s eyes close in concentration, Daniel brings the anti-tank rifle up and jams the barrel into the opening of the right nostril, growls out “Don’t you ever pull that shit, you fuckin nazi,” and fires. Daniel straightens his back against the recoil as his boots relinquish into a three-inch reverse slide. He then pulls the empty casing out, reloads, fires right through the first chin and out the top of the skull. Gray blood fountains out from the back and top of the Descendant’s head, and it whips its neck back and forth, writhing, twitching. Daniel ducks beneath the engorged neck and, jumping high, clubs the base of it hard with the butt of the Maumer. The dying body tilts a little but remains upright, and in refutation of that, Daniel reloads once more and flies up to stay at its neck’s height. He immediately levels the Maumer at the demon’s shoulder blade then, with a single twitch of the trigger, turns the shoulders, bone, flesh and all, into an unrecognizable orange-gray slop. And Barael’s Descendant falls.
“Daniel, what happened to not engaging unless absolutely necessary?”
“Sure seemed necessary to me, Mike.” A humorless click against the teeth, and the Third replaces the used round and glares at the lesser demons who remain quiet until he removes his gaze, eliciting a chorus of moans, cheers, cries of anguish, and gleeful laughter. No demon dares take a step closer to the gathered four, despite their approval of them. Most return hastily to the village with eventual glances cast backwards, while others stalk away from all to the steam-bellowing badlands. Only the two women, sewn together, stay. The thread-bare wrap they kept about their chest and waist is thrown off, and, in a stumbling show, come running toward Daniel, perfectly shaped and full breasts bouncing with every bound. Their thighs are creamy and well-toned, made for being adored with sweated touches and for adoring with welcoming hugs about one’s waist. But none of the Three notice such. Samuel turns away with a look of utter disgust, his grip on the covered hilt dropped away in nauseas weakness. Daniel’s scowl deepens into an outright snarl, and he whips the rifle about at them. Yet they take no note of the danger. Alyssia raises her laser rifle with shaking hands, having never seen anything like them. Michael only turns his eyes away, expressionless. Despite their individual, physical attractiveness, the sight of the crude stitches pulling and tearing at their skin with every bound, red blood leaking from the self-inflicted wounds, is horrifying to all but Michael. Something else in their eyes, too, something half-crazed, half-lusting and unthinking, stuns Samuel and Daniel into nauseated stares. The vacuum of expression in their eyes leaves no room for anticipation: they’ll either love or tear muscle from tendon. Their eyes, the color, so very reminiscent of her mother’s, but so empty, a memory gone awry; Alyssia is the only one to move.
A high-pitched electronic thud is heard, and the running harlots are stopped short, a baseball-sized sizzling crater lies in the chest of one. The other frantically pounds and butts her fists into her dead mate, kissing her, groping her at the same time. Still she looks longingly at the Three, yet grabs the other woman’s hand and fingers herself with it. She groans in pleasure, sputtering “Uhh, uhn’s” at Daniel, now reaching for him from afar with her free hand. Alyssia, staring into the woman’s hollow eyes, flinches and finishes what she started. With quivering arms, she aims the rifle again.
“Alyssia, wait! They don’t pose any threat to us!” But Michael’s voice dies against a second high-pitched squeal of a Lancelus energy-to-beam converter. The stitched twin falls back against the dirt, a large lipped smile on her face, and a hole between her breasts.
Alyssia turns, still shaking, to her father, who only puts a hesitant hand on her shoulder. The pair is her first set of kills.
“I had this image in my mind, dad, and.. I felt urged to do that..” Samuel closes his eyes and nods. She squeezes his hand, head bowed, and shuffles down the road. Wordlessly, all move forward down the gray stoneway, none looking behind and down to notice the marks of white left where their boot toes had scuffed away the dust and dirt.
The four stand shoulder to shoulder as they pass. Michael and Daniel are the two outside men, each aiming their respective weapons, Lancelus and Maumer, at any creature that moves. Mud mounds and buildings hewn from large boulders make up the scanty outskirts of the village. Daniel pats the Maumer’s barrel and hoists it high at a roving pair of long-legged, emaciated golems. The golems pay him no mind, choosing instead to keep dragging on, the red clay of their ribs dripping clumps in their wake. The Third shakes his head and half-sings, half-mutters through grit teeth, still swinging the gun toward any possible threat, “Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly, go to a lake of fire and fry, won’t see ‘em again ‘til the fourth of July..” Samuel tosses a fleeting smirk toward Daniel, before his attentions resettle on Alyssia’s action.
As they move in deeper toward the center, fallen relics begin to appear. Intricately carved pillars of the darkest onyx stone rise up and create arches over each of the four paths, leading to the large crossroads that they find themselves standing on. Overhead the four arches bend inward to each other and create a lattice-work roofing that makes a patchwork of reds and browns of the sky, and flickering shadows on the travelers. Along the inside of each arch and inscribed all the way to the carved ceiling are words, runes, of a script that none of the four can read off-hand.
Samuel points to the high bend of one of the arches and creates a small light there so that he can better see. “And you say that you don’t know what any of this means, Mike?”
“Right. It’s far too old and powerful a language to be used, which is why the Morningstar never allowed me to learn it. The spoken language has power but not nearly as much as the written work. When written, the words have a lasting power so long as the script is still legible. And some words can’t be erased by anything. I can’t say I know the why or how behind these things, unfortunately.”
“Hm..” Samuel noticed before that in the tucks of dirt between where the roads met there was a higher concentration of sensors than anywhere else in the village. In fact, there were none within sight of either portal’s landings. Here, as the glassy grains of clay disappeared to reveal more and more of the old road, spires seemed to converge from random. The helmet’s optics are able to show him solitary spires everywhere in the low lying plains the village structures had previously obscured. They all appeared the same: a large, clear prism, gritted in dirt, set high on a wormy spike of rock twice a man’s height. There are three in each corner of the crossroads. The one closest to the lit arch has a barely noticeable tint, even to the enhanced sights of the Three. Squinting, Samuel scans over the runes again, none of it making any sense to him. But he murmurs something, a small phrase that had entered his mind one day too many decades ago, that he never forgot. “Il fursath tel melrenir.”
The sensors by the arches, the ones lining each road, down as far as the eye can see, all of them suddenly blaze to life, mixing with the red tint from the sky, covering them in a purple haze. The scripts along the arches all come to life as well, the black texts outlining in a white light and making visible every contour and line drawn in. Openings within and between the four arches become plated with a gold shielding that the now frantic travelers can’t pierce through. Alyssia hurls a pair of energy grenades at one opening; they ram into the shield and are summarily absorbed. Daniel fires once with the anti-tank rifle, sees the far-reaching ripple of its impact, and dashes forward to jam a quickly made silver-colored spear through the blockade. Michael has both hands raised and firing small, fierce pulses into another arch. Samuel finally draws the Sword of Fire. Gripping the hilt, he closes his eyes and channels a small portion of his energy into it. The red gem of the pommel glows and the ethereal blade, wholly invisible save for its yellow edge, gleams to life. This weapon he drives into the one remaining archway. Against the Sword’s tip, the field bends and wavers, but realigns itself and pushes him back. Behind, standing in the crossing’s center, Michael quits his previous attack and reaches back into a javelin thrower’s stance. He steps further back, closer to Samuel.
“Goddamnit, what did you do!?”
“I don’t know, just fucking jibberish!” And he pulls the Sword back, takes a breath, and, eyes aglow with Power supplementing his strength near its peak, Samuel crashes the sword against the field again, forcing the tip barely through the field.
“Use some more to get us out then!” And with a light-engulfing sweep of shadows, the jagged lance of Michael forms in his palm, which he flings forward. Its full length crashes into the shield and turns it green for a moment, the lit runes of its parent arch dimming. But as quickly as they lessen, they redouble in strength and intensity, and the shield returns to gold defiantly.
Samuel swipes the Sword aside in frustration and yells.
“Everyone break off and get to the middle, I think I can get us out!”
Backs toward each other, the travelers slide to the middle. Daniel jabs Samuel with the butt of the anti-tank rifle and frowns. “Whatever you’re going to do, make sure it doesn’t kill us.”
“I’ll try.” He draws in a deep breath to clear his lungs, opens his mouth again to speak, and hesitates. His lips purse, another breath, and then, “Hurkyum nagharat.”
The archways turn radiantly white and the fields do as well. They start to spin, the shields they fought pulling away from the arches and creating a full energy barrier around the crossroads. Spinning faster and faster the barrier becomes too blinding and opaque, blocking their sight of all outside. Soon they make a sound, like wind, a gentle breeze, then a gust, then a hurricane. Samuel is yelling at Alyssia to take his hand, but she can’t hear him, nor can he hear himself. He feels a tugging on him, the familiar ionic pull from portals and shields, but it’s so much stronger and fiercer it pulls down on his heart and forces in him a weakness in the knees. To better his balance, he slides a foot out to widen his stance. Something bumps against his hamstring, and he looks down to see Alyssia struggling to stand back up. She gets to a knee, steps up with a foot, but teeters over to her side before she can right herself. Everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion. Her name is yelled, but nothing’s heard. He drops to a crouch to help her, but too many seconds pass. As he passes a hand around her waist, without a warning, a gradual dying, nothing, it all stops.
Samuel falls on top of her, like a man pushing on a door suddenly pulled from the other side. Around them are arches, spires bearing sensors, and no shielding. Everything even feels quiet and over, no more ionic tug. The Sword of Fire is extinguished in his hand.
“Aly, you alright?”
She slips out from under her father and rubs her forehead. “Yes.. I don’t know what happened though. It was like the gravity just got so much stronger, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back up. What did you do?”
Michael, looking around, answers her question. “He somehow activated a transport, or at least I think so given where we are. I didn’t know what those arches were for..,”, his voice trailing as he removes and drops his helmet, “..but I guess they connect to each other, down the travel lanes. Now I see their purpose.. it made no sense to me before to subject everyone to walking, but if you’re one of his own, you would know how to work the transport system.”
Daniel interjects. “So that was some poor man’s portal back there?”
“Yeah, I suppose it was. It took us in the direction of the stronghold too. But now,” Michael points to the sensors around the identically built crossroads, “the Morningstar certainly knows someone is here. He may not know it’s us.. I’m not sure he expects anyone to know how to activate these things. Nevermind all that, we must hurry, before he dispatches his fliers to investigate.”
Samuel nods. Far and away in the distance, the pinnacle mount of the range conspicuously sits as a shapely dagger, towering over the others. It’s sharp tip and smooth sides clearly display the works of some master sculptor. Against the steaming, dark rock backdrop of the mountain is a light gray palace, or temple, Samuel can’t make out the exact details. He points the hilt of the Sword of Fire at it. “Well then boys, knives out. I’m getting the feeling that he’s in there. In fact, I know he’s there.” His eyes remain featureless in their yellow glow. The bare sight of the castle appeals to a sense of adventure he buried long ago, almost a sense of purpose. An image of him walking up stone steps glimpses through his conscience. Then another fleeting image, the valley they’re standing in as seen from up high, and the need to push forward lifts his foot to take a step. Something deep inside, a welling feeling like the surge of Power needed to shift to the angelic form, stirs him. Like an anxiety it has his every muscle taut and readied, and the energies coursing through his body active and unwilling to be suppressed.
As he takes the first step down the lane to lead the others to the stronghold, he feels in his heart that this is the way his emergence the day of First Strike was supposed to be. Empowering, enveloping, controlled.
Daniel keeps an eye on the First. In the times that he had served on a tour with both Samuel and Michael, he could always feel it when one would shift to the angelic form before the other did, even if he did not see the actual transformation. Whenever their use of Power was sharply unbalanced, he knew it, in no abstract means either, but in the same way one could read trouble on a friend’s face. But Samuel, despite actively using a heightened form, has yet to engage the angelic form. And Michael has his wraith-blade out. Why their power levels are noticeably off is beyond him. Further, something feels odd about Samuel, in no means explainable to himself besides, maybe, standing on the border between hot and cold air currents.
Alyssia herself feels a little more nervous. Reaching up to her neck, she feels her pulse racing, but thinks nothing of it. She looks up to the sky and lets her eyes follow one of the fast-paced clouds. Given what she’s seen thus far, that Descendant, and the archway, she figures she has every right to be frightened.
The new crossroads they landed in sits in the middle of an uninhabited area. Nothing besides sensors and the road they walk on gives any sign of an intelligent life. The arched dome of the gateway sits on the edge of the open, stable ground. As they proceed, to their left and right are deep ravines, leading to unknown depths, since none can see so far to its bottom. The red, ever-lit sky doesn’t provide enough illumination to scour the depths of those canyons. No more than five feet of ground lies on either side of the road, which itself has narrowed to fourteen feet across. Gusts of wind pick up at irregular intervals, whipping over the bridge at fifty miles per hour, then dying to an irrelevant two miles.
Gun slung over her shoulder, Alyssia slides her helm off and tucks it under an arm. Winds pick up again and toss her hair over her eyes in a show of scorn, which she spites in return by smoothing it right back and securing it down with the urban-camouflage colored helmet. She positions behind her father. “Dad? I’m not feeling so good. It’s like nausea, the nervous kind I used to get back in high school, do you remember? Except this doesn’t get worse with movement, more like when I even think about using our ability.” Her worried eyes look into Samuel’s iris-less gaze.
“I remember. And you’re right, something is a little off here. I’m feeling something odd myself. Some sort of instinctual flood of memories coming to me. There’s a lot of things around here that I feel I know but can’t recall to the conscious mind, if that makes any damn sense. I want to say I know there’s more ruins at the bottom of this ravine but that’s only because my imagination’s going crazy with bringing up images. Daniel, Michael? What about you guys?”
Daniel shakes his head and remains silent. His intention now is to monitor Samuel for any other fluctuations.
Michael, though, is agitated. His right arm, his blade-arm, itches. His lungs shudder with every exhalation, his eyes bouncing from one ravine wall to the other. He wants to wildly gouge something, to stop this walking and just assault the Morningstar’s palace already. But the years of living with memories of serving the Enemy and having committed horrors have taught him a measure of patience in order to cope with his rage. He doesn’t buckle to his wants. A wave of equanimity runs through his veins. His voice is quiet and paced in responding.
“I just feel old habits wanting to return is all. Samuel, as a word of advice, I wouldn’t reactivate that weapon of yours. I never knew how powerful it was until just then, when trying to dismantle those shields. And I think you know why my opinion has changed.” His gaze cast on Samuel is sidelong and knowing. Lectures of old from the Morningstar are stirring in his head. Something about the power of the descendents and legacies lost in the times and across the intricacies of mortal lives.
“Yeah.. ancestral architecture is made to be invulnerable to the powers of the people. Only the most powerful of weapons can pierce their shields. Just like the stories, the gateways couldn’t be torn down, except by the united Tuluhr’s Blade. But that’s just an analogy.”
“And Samuel, how did you know that of the shielding system without giving it a moment’s thought? I mentioned once only that the sensors were indestructible.” His gaze narrows and bores more into Samuel; the First only meets his eyes once and looks away unconcerned.
“Because.. because I was there, you see.. I think..”
Alyssia puts a hand on his elbow. “What? What is that supposed to mean?”
“I am..” Samuel frowns. “I.. I am the.. well.. I..” And he grimaces and rubs his temple with the palm of his hand. Pain throttles his forehead and spine, constricting is stride, but for only a matter of a few seconds. It passes, and he doesn’t bother to finish his thought.
Michael quickens his pace and walks ahead of them, speaking over his shoulder, “Don’t let it bother you too much now, Samuel. We’ll all find out our purposes soon, I’m sure. Even you, Alyssia.”
She swears she catches something of a warm smile on his face before he faces front again.
Once the cragged pathway opens up, it reveals a large, swimming valley of volcanic rock and dead geysers. Craters rimmed with tar fill their view. Echoing off the walls of the valley are deep moans and shrill screams of agony, then deep bass poundings, three in a row, a pause, then another three. A shadow runs across the dusty ground and disappears over the valley wall. Warily, the travelers keep their weapons readied.
“Hey Mike, where the hell are we?”
“Valley of the Damned, Samuel. Some battle occurred here eons ago, but I don’t know between whom or why. These craters to our left and right are marks of it. Same size of the ones your typical two foot energy bomb leaves, aren’t they?”
“Yea, they are. Amazing that their edges are so crisp after so long.”
Daniel strides ahead of them and pulls his helmet’s visor down to get in a zoomed in idea of what they’re talking about. He mutters for a 10x magnification, and the helmet complies, showing him what he wanted. Just a crater, sharp edged with a trickle of tar coming over its side, nothing interesting enough to keep him from pushing the visor up. That is until a small tentacle whips out of the crater and runs along the inner rim, moistening the tar covering with its passing. The Third nudges Michael. “Yo, what’s in those craters?”
Michael looks out the sides of his eyes to where Daniel points. He shakes his head and twitches his brows upward. “Couldn’t tell you. Some worms for all I know. The legend is that the Ancients’ last soldier on this field was impaled by an enemy lance, and the impact was so fierce that his body was flung apart in pieces. They sank into the clay here,” said with a scuffing of such clay off the side of the road, “and from the flesh, the worms were born.”
“Right. I hate this fucking place.”
The words couldn’t have crossed his lips at a more appropriate time. Immediately another loud squeal sounds across the valley, and a worm of immense length rises out of the crater to Alyssia’s left, opening a mouth filled with both needle teeth and dozens of flickering tongues. In the back of its throat, Samuel sees four red-glazed eyes reflecting light from their saliva shine. He snaps an arm out faster than the thing can focus its eyes on him; through its gaping maw he sends through a flurry of thirty or so energy daggers. The worm hisses and begins to fall. Its few intact tongues shoot out of its mouth and whip brazenly at the First before flopping over the crater’s side, immobile.
Samuel arches a brow while shooting Michael a glance, a look that starts to sharpen with the faint sensation of rumbling from below. Then comes a groan, and the sound, a shriek reminiscent of those minutes ago, and, finally, the deep bass resonating beneath them. Samuel looks down to his boots and sees the pebbles and dirt on the road skitter and jump, and the bass grows louder. Instinctively he grabs Alyssia by the arm and hops up into a flight, rising twenty feet up and back, away from the crater of the dying worm. Daniel and Michael follow suit just in time to see the tip of a much larger set of jaws reach up from the crater’s hole and snip the worm’s head from the rest of its body. And just as quickly as it appeared, the jaws disappear. The Third grabs a grenade from his belt and pulls the pin out hastily with his teeth. “Michael, make a portal to the next stop. I really hate this fucking place.”
Michael nods and forms the gate with the simple stretch of his arm. All go through with Daniel last, lobbing the grenade in the crater as a final adieu to the valley. A cloud of clay and tar kicks out of the hole just as Daniel enters the portal.
“Fleshies.. good..,” is what Daniel hears on exiting the portal. The Third finds that the next stop in this maze they travel is a wide open plain, or at least once was. Two skeletons are prodding and analyzing a very patient Michael, while behind, across the whole field, towering cyclopes toil, digging into the dry and dusty gravel. Samuel was immediately reminded of the creature he and Michael fought in the outskirts of Los Angeles on their to Macrotech’s main laboratory. These are perhaps sixty feet tall, slack-jawed, covered in discrete patches of hair randomly placed anywhere. As if Samuel hadn’t seen enough to make him regret having any curiosity of the Otherworld, none of the creatures are clothed. Growling and muttering in an unknown language, they hack away at the earth with crude tools resembling, at best, stone axes. Daniel, less unnerved than he perhaps expected he would’ve been seeing such a thing, returns his attention to the pair of skeletons, and steps between them and Michael.
“So what’s your functions?”
The meatless pair bow and take prostrating steps backwards, then simultaneously bow again, such that their bare chins graze the ground. Their voices are synchronized and rasp, “We are so sorry, Sir Daniel. Sir Michael has told us who you are, and we are humbled, much humbled, yes, very, that you dare grace us, please us, with your presence. We enjoy your company, love your company, and we, we do not wish do displease you, no, but to see that you are happy, yes, happy!”
“What.. the..” His frown deepening even more, Daniel grabs Michael by the sleeve and pulls him aside, leaving Samuel to converse with the undead.
“We’re here to get recon on the Morningstar’s fortress, not let them do recon on us. Stop being so goddamned friendly with the locals and telling them everything about us. Just open a portal and get us moving on, got it?” He casts his eyes back to the skeletons. “On second thought, should probably dispatch them before they can report anything.”
Michael’s eyes flare with power and he takes a step toward Daniel, lashing out a hand and grabbing him by the neck of the over-plating. “And who in the fuck do you think you are, giving me orders in my homeland, Daniel?” He pulls his arm in to throw the Third aside, but before he can, Daniel punches the inside of Michael’s elbow, forcing him to drop the Third. Daniel takes a step back and raises his left fist, launching a jab into Michael’s throat. But before it can land, invisible constraints bind both of them, and they’re separated by twenty meters. Samuel steps forward and stands between them, a palm raised to both, his glowing eyes flowing with an intense light. Both fighters struggle and writhe against Samuel’s bindings, but both find their strength to be short of ripping through.
“Y’know, given how little the two of you ever talk to each other, I’m finding this scuffle hard to believe actually happening.” He looks over his shoulder. “Foot soldier one and two, go do whatever you need to do with your workers out there.. just leave this one alone, alright?” Scraping the dust with their hands, both scurry away on all fours, rattling orders to the cyclopes, who regard them with obeying, but apathetic eyes. Samuel lowers the other pair down slowly. “So seriously, I talk to the brothers Tweedle there, turn around, and you two, of all unlikeliest things, are in a fight. I mean, shit, I figured I would’ve gone after Mike’s throat before you did, Dan.”
“Michael here needs to learn to curb his temper, before it provokes something he can’t manage.”
“Don’t overstep your bounds, Daniel. You’ve never really seen me in battle. Samuel knows firsthand what I’m capable of.”
“All right, whatever guys, just fuck it and let’s get moving here. Alyssia’s watching the area to make sure the natives stay away from us.. not sure if we can trust the skeletons.” Samuel takes another look at the cyclopes. In their work, a pair of the giants pry a large boulder dripping with sand and fling it behind. The boulder takes a wide arc and, to the throwers’ ignorance, has its sharper end impact the neck of another, pony-tailed cyclops. It falls over on its face, the weight of the boulder pulverizing the vertebrae with such a grinding and cracking that all on the field pause in their work and look over. The two that had thrown it look at their dead brother and laugh, slapping each other on their bellies. But slowly the others close in and start to encircle the two, gripping their stone axes and curling lips back to bare toothless gums. Their victims in the center drop their weapons and move towards each other. Panic fills their single eyes, which jump wildly from face to face. Their jaws drop, and, standing back to back, grip each other’s hands and slump down to sit. The circle tightens. All weapons are raised. Samuel, from afar, motions Michael and Daniel closer to watch. In a second, the attacking cyclopes are on their prey, savagely beating them with their weapons. Gray blood splatters out of the ring, accompanying the sounds of bones snapping and the soft thuds of stone on flesh. It is short, and the mound of giants opens up. Each looks to the other, some with their axes slacked to their side, others rapping the blades against open, three fingered and calloused hands. The skeletons, Samuel finally notices, are jumping up and down and hollering and tearing at non-existent hair.
“So Samuel, what do you believe is about to happen next?”
“I don’t know.. but I got this running image in my head that this big boy there, he’s gonna decide to drive his tool into that one’s neck. And, well, big melee time.”
A small smirk crosses Michael’s lips, and he crosses his arms with a watchful eye now cast on the hesitant and agitated cyclopes. One shuffles his feet and kicks up a large cloud of dust. Another grips his axe’s handle by the very butt and right at the base of head, holding it straight out and parallel to his body. Two others stand rigid, staring at each other in the eye.
And then it happens, just as Samuel explained it. The shorter one of the two that had gone stiff is the one to start. He swings the axe from its limp position at his side and buries it deeply in the neck of the other. The taller staggers back with a hair-patched hand covering his wound, and falls down. Behind, another drives the handle’s butt into the skull of the short aggressor, brings the axe back, then down again, chopping straight between the shoulder blades and exposing bone. It reaches in, curling its two prolonged fingers in and around vertebrae and starts pulling, trying to relieve the dead of its spine. One act of violence springs another, and soon the whole lot is turned on each other, in a mob of heavy axes and blood falls. Michael raises his hand to create a hasty portal, not wishing to let the brutes have the chance to notice them. Power flows down his fingers and wavers in little orbs hovering just past the tips of his gloves. His eyes narrow suspiciously, and channels more energy through. His line of sight doesn’t flicker, nor darken, nor give him any sort of electric pull.
“Oh damn.. guys, it looks like we’re in a dead zone. I’m not sure why yet, but if all that rubbish there is what they’re mining, I can manage to guess. I’ll explain later if I remember. It looks like we’ll have to cut across the plains to the next jump point, which should be in this direction,” said while pointing a few degrees to his left. “So, it’s either go high and above and risk being seen by a flier, or low-altitude, and slalom through them.”
Alyssia and Samuel simultaneously look above, then to each other, and to the brawl out ahead. Both narrowing their eyes, they return their gazes to the sky. Alyssia is the one to ask what lays on both their minds.
“So, what are these fliers? You mentioned them before, about the Morningstar dispatching them?”
“Samuel should know the answer to this as well, he’s seen them. Massive beasts, not larger than the cyclopes, but much stronger and more dangerous. They are.. I suppose like a dragon, but built more like a man. I suppose you could think of them as long-necked gargoyles about forty or so feet in height. They are.. hm.. well, let’s say that in the height of my arrogance, I didn’t try to piss them off. Not that I couldn’t have handled them, it’s just that besides their savagery, they’re also the Morningstar’s most adored servants. I think perhaps he was their sire, unlike most of the ones here, who are descended from the other Ancients. Samuel, the last time we fought during the, uh, ‘war’ as you call it. Do you remember that creature that was at my side?”
The First’s eyes pinch shut with a pained look. “Yees.. yes, I remember that bastard. Those are the fliers?”
“Fine then, I’d rather go through these guys there than have to deal with one of those. I guess.. shall we?” His toes lift off the ground as his question trails from his lips, and a look of patient resignation, punctuated with a sigh, is seen on him. Samuel squints into the bloodbath far off and sees only a single good break in the violence to use as a channel. A warm draft slides across his face, carrying the mild stench of rot and sweat that had been present in all the areas they had stopped in so far, though the strength certainly increased along with the journey. But the wind carries a new smell, which oddly enough seems familiar to Samuel. It is faint, but it stirs a deeply hidden memory, present at first as only a feeling of loathing. The image of a hairy back next comes to mind, something large, and muscular. Something physically stronger than him easily, and perhaps still so even while engaging the Power to supplement himself. His ears perk, and he slowly floats higher up and sniffs again. Automatically, without his even willing it, an energy blade forms along his arm, a simple, triangular projection with a pair of outward extending spikes at the base. In his right, he still holds the hilt of the Sword of Fire. A flash of scaled wings races across the backs of his eyes, and the rest finally comes. He fills his lungs with the scent and understands: the huge wings into an overly muscled back, fur, and a long-snouted face, like a horse, baring sizable teeth capable of biting through kevlar . Long, simian arms and legs. Samuel knows the smell now, imperceptible it is to the others, who stand there watching him with overly confused expressions. A tingle in his back makes him squirm, and for a moment he thinks that his wings are starting to sprout in response, outside of his control. He arches his back and closes his eyes, feeling the energy build in him in such a rapid, erratic rate that it races his mind back to his thirties, when the technique was new, unpracticed, used only out of necessity. With the energy swelling in his lungs, pushing at his ribs and diaphragm, he opens his eyes to a silent scream and senses the Power flow throughout all his body in a rush.
But, when his eyes open, he appears still the same: Sword of Fire in his right, energy blade in his left, adorned with no wings and no ethereal armor. And the inquisitive looks below have only deepened and become more serious with his whole show. The corner of his mouth twitches, and he chuckles nervously to the lookers below. It doesn’t last long. Another swift breeze carries the creature’s smell, much more concentrated than the last.
“Forget it guys, we gotta move. There’s a flier on the way, maybe a couple, so go!” He only waits long enough to see his daughter take to the air before heading toward the point Michael had indicated earlier. Samuel skims only a yard off the ground, raising and lowering himself as the terrain demands, ever while increasing his speed to get through the battle. Joining behind him is Alyssia, her body cased in a golden prism that fits snugly around. And to Samuel’s left and right, completing the diamond formation, are the Second and the Third Guardians: Michael, baring no readied weapon save for his reflexes, and Daniel, holding a smooth-shafted silver spear of Power in both hands, ready to drive it into any non-human that so much as looks at him the wrong way. The makeshift wing of the Office’s own fliers winds its way through the melee with ease, weaving in between dueling cyclopes. Anxiety builds inside Samuel’s lungs, and his lungs pump feverishly as a cold chill wraps him beneath the breathable kevlar of the full-body suit. His nerves had been jabbed when he first stepped through into this new world, and were becoming increasingly agitated with every jump closer to the stronghold. This new wave, which he assumes to be from sensing the fliers, is pushing his patience to its breaking point. Last night’s bout of grief over Anne, yesterday’s tension with Alyssia, knowing things he shouldn’t, suddenly being able to sense the fliers without being able to hear or see them..yes, the deadly wrath of the First is being built. Samuel had always feared his rage, mostly kept it suppressed, with the exceptions of some several battles, wherein if he hadn’t, he perhaps would’ve been dead. Yes, he knows it, if he loses it, he will likely try to duel the Morningstar himself and damn the others.
Unlucky for all, over the ridge of the narrowing plains, which becomes pinched at the end they head toward, a forty foot long beast rises, climbing high in the air to survey the unrest created by the cyclopes. But they hold its attention for no more than a second, as it turns its great neck toward the others. The great horse-headed figure opens its mouth and issues a screeching cry that the assembled four could both hear and feel, like a cold hand was placed on the backs of their necks. The sound, hreeee-ee-ee-ee-ee, echoed far and wide, stopping the fighting cyclopes and freezing the Earth’s fliers. The giants below all blink their single eyes and drop their weapons, and all sink to their knees and bow. The skeletons panic and start to strangle each other, tearing at ribs and ripping away at their fingers. Flapping its great, soil-colored wings, the flier reels its head backwards and flips its neck over to look directly behind, then calls again, hyaraww-hyaraww! In answer, two more demi-dragon creatures rise over the mountain ridges.
Samuel’s arms tremble. The energy blade of his left arm fades away, and he clasps onto the Sword of Fire with both hands. Daniel has floated to a position behind and above Samuel, with the spear held ready in front of him. Alyssia draws a large sized explosive orb into her hand and readies the Lancelus rifle. Michael, still armed, elevates to Samuel’s side.
“What do you want to do, Sam? They’re probably trying to figure out what we are right now before deciding to attack..”
As the memories of his last encounter with fliers wade their way into Samuel’s conscious thought, and the Sword flaring with increasing fury, he isn’t at all aware that his response was forming.
Power suddenly floods his body and explodes outward, shoving the other three away and covering him with a thick, opaque sphere. It swirls and pulses, then with the same swiftness, compresses all about his form, creating gauntlets, a breastplate, helm, boots, covering him in plate-mail that, unlike any other transformation, doesn’t reveal Samuel through translucent energy. Majestic wings sprout from the back of the breastplate, first as singular wide ribbons as thick as his shoulders. These two then split several times simultaneously, instantly. The two bands branch out into multiple long rays that rise sharply upwards and then angle outward, creating a crown of golden bands around his body that sweep menacingly against the sky, while the upper bands framing his head give a holy and kingly appearance. The wings are richer in their color and intensity, and both longer and more numerous than in any of his previous transformations. All equipment that had previously hung away from him, such as the long barrel of the Lancelus rifle, and the pistols on his sides, were burnt away by the shield in its wrapping Samuel. His gauntleted hands would’ve seared the grips of those mortal weapons anyway, but the Sword of Fire still lay in his grip, unblemished by the transformation.
Through the narrow eyeslit between faceplate and visor, Samuel’s flaring eyes squint at the three fliers ahead. He ignores Michael’s comments about the time not being right, and Daniel’s annoyed decree that he desired some warning, and Alyssia’s asking if he is doing the right thing. The fliers are his concern. And, Samuel now realizes, Michael was holding back on something: these fliers are the Siriels, and once, once long ago, Samuel knew them, before their bloodline became corrupt.
Raising the Sword high, and illuminating the plains with its light, he roars out a battle cry that shakes and shatters the lower boulders at the mountains’ feet. His very movements are shadowed by trails of his own energy. The Siriels all scream in return and extend their wings to their full extent. He feels their own energies build to meet his, but refuses to give them a moment’s chance.
With a speed he’d never known before, Samuel darts forward and upward, two hundred feet above his prey, then dives at an angle for the Siriels, tucking his wings in and pushing the Sword before him, his body the handle of a fiery dagger. The Siriels scatter. One decides to meet Samuel head long, while the other two charge for the others.
Michael, enraged at Samuel’s heightened Power, yells wildly and assumes his form: the shifting black to olive green ethereal armor, crowned skeletal visage, with the bony framework of a bat’s wings attached to his back. The serrated blade shifts up and joins into the forearm of his armor, and stroking once with the wings, the Second collides with a Siriel, wedging his plated shoulder into its chest. His weapon comes down fast on the Siriel but is met with gray ripples of the flier’s defensive field.
Daniel hurls his spear at the other Siriel, missing as the great beast raises a hand and stops the weapon mid-air. Muttering a few curses, Daniel clenches his fists and summons forth his own angelic form. Alyssia drops back to the ground, hurling her still saved explosive orb at the Siriel converging on Daniel. It absorbs into the winged demon’s shields, seeping a yellow against a tide of gray, but without any sign of movement from the still descending Siriel, the attack is spat back out and directed to her. Daniel is coated in his ghost armor, the bare outlines of the energy plate mail visible only when he moves, with the blurry edges of his wings showing their extension behind him. The lines of his face are drawn tighter than they had been all day, as his scowl from before deepens into a frown of righteous fury.
Samuel has both fists planted against the large, haired fist of his Siriel, Sword precariously gripped, when, from the corner of his eye, he sees Michael flying upwards past him, and the other Siriel following in a very fast approach. From below he hears Dan yelling, and he glances down, seeing Alyssia caught beneath the foot of the third Siriel. Concern, fear and anger mixed in a cocktail of panic, seizes him in the moment he understands what is happening to his daughter. He pushes off from his enemy’s fist, tired of the standstill struggle of Powers, then brings his foot about into a front roundhouse, doing no more than barely catch the creature’s attention, but pushing him about to the Siriel’s wrist. The Siriel’s speed would normally put Samuel in awe: even he has just enough time to right the Sword about parallel to his body when it whirls about to backhand him. Sparks flash and explode when the Sword’s gleaming edge catches the Siriel’s shield. It squeals hoarsely when it realizes the power that the armored warrior wields and pulls back its hand before it forces the severing of its wrist. Seeing his enemy pause for the brief moment, Samuel tucks his wings in and dives for the one trying to crush Alyssia, already sensing that her energy was draining from keeping her shield up.
But something stops him, and it seems to him that all time itself has taken leave. Looking about, he sees the freeze-frame forms of the three Siriels and his three comrades. Above him, Michael straddles a serpentine neck, a hand baring foot long claws apparently coming down into a slash, or being brought back for another attack. And below is Daniel, arms thrown over his chest to cover himself from an incoming meteor it looks like. And Alyssia, the strain on her face creating an ugly and aged visage of herself, failingly trying to push herself up, eyes flaring in a dull color, with the length of the primate foot lying across her lower back. It occurs to Samuel, suddenly, the thoughts circling in his head, “You are a warrior.. you cannot allow our enemy to leave, to warn others, or to attack Michael while your back is turned. Daniel and Alyssia should be able to deal with only one.’ As he pivots to face again the Siriel, shadowy after-images trailing all that he can see, more thoughts come to him, ‘Shit, Sam, what’re you thinking? That’s your daughter down there! Get that goddamn monster off her! How is this even a debate?’ So he pivots about again, facing the ground, ‘You are the Scribe, Samuel. You’ve a higher purpose here than to mess with this rabble. These are only the half-breed spawns of fallen brothers, your brothers. Leave now and return to the Stronghold where you inscribed your last words…
No, wait,where the hell did that come from? Get to your daughter already! Remember? The one you had with Anne?
A half-breed with an Epheme. She is but a reflection of your power, a power the mother could have never imagined. Power you refuse to imagine.’ Samuel’s eyes began to narrow and widen, his fingers twitching against the inner lining of his gauntlets.
‘Goddamnit man, what is going on in your head? What should have been years ago. No.. NO. Stupid overactive imagination, this is not the time to start!
To start with what? Reaching for what you can attain? Feel the strength in your hands, Samuel. Does it have a limit? Do you feel any boundaries caging your might? No.. no you don’t. You don’t even know what you are, much less what you’re capable of. You know where the answers lie. Kill the vermin. Go to the Stronghold and demand the written history, Samuel, and we will know all. Forget this Morningstar. No sign of him has been seen in years. If he still exists, who is to say he will fight? You know nothing of this being, do you?’ He twists his head left and right against tendons too taut to yield painlessly, while his eyes finally holding their sight still to watch the happenings around him.
Michael is driving his left hand deep into the neck of the Siriel, pulling from it both blood and a scream. His claws are delving further through the tough sinew, until he feels a hand slap against the side of his body, pushing him away from his mark. In their swift contact together, the Siriel has wrapped its hand around the Second. His wings struggle to expand and keep the coarse, haired fingers away from closing him into a grip he won’t be able to break. Sweat is pouring down his face now and sizzling against the interior of his skeletal shroud, bringing a briny mist that reddens his eyes. The Siriel is, regrettably, much stronger than he is, Michael now realizes. Maybe with all things being equal, he could shrug the beast off, but with it so much larger, it’s impossible for him to cope with such massive force. A sick grin crosses his face; how unfortunate now that he has to give Samuel credit for beating that one he sent at him years ago. These creatures truly aren’t pushovers. ‘Pushovers..’ Michael relents the pushing struggle to the Siriel. Squirming within its grasp, he rides down the angle of his wings, then disengages them altogether to fall through, giving himself a lag time before being caught by the head with a spherical telekinetic pulse. Falling, he calls together his powers to surround him once more in the demon’s shade. In hate the Siriel squeals and caws at Michael, whipping its tail back and forth between its gorilla feet.
“Hah! The Morningstar’s favored, hm? Let’s see what you can survive..” To rebut, his opponent takes a cobra’s arch with its long neck and hisses. Sneering in turn, the Second pulls his right, opened hand back, pulling into his palm energies being sapped from his own armor, welling from his palm, and apparently being drawn in and concentrated from the very air itself. Just as was before at the first crossroads, as is now, the Second’s most favored attack, the loosely-bound jagged lance appears. The Siriel stares him down defiantly, a show of confidence that doesn’t surprise him. Sneer fading on his face, Michael releases the lance with a swift side-arm throw that sends its length booming into the Siriel’s gut.
Satisfaction pulls his lips as he watches the Siriel cross both shaking hands across the dripping hole left, while orange light filters through the cracks between its fingers.
Watching the abomination’s fall, when the information of what just transpired filters its way through his cerebrum into understanding, is the moment when the dam inside Samuel’s mind bursts. The First, arms stiff and straightened fires lances of energy which cleanly slice through the shields of the other two Siriels to cut them both in halves. With the Second and the Third watching him in a stunned awe, Samuel, radiating like the sun on the horizon, stretches his wings out and clenches his fists, and so vanishes.
“Where..? Dad! Daaad! Are you there?” Alyssia brings down the infrared visor of the left eye and looks around. “Dad! Sam!”
Daniel blinks and looks at the creature he was just fighting, now split in two pieces, yellowish intestines and bile spilling onto the clay flooring and an orange mist wafting away from its exposed pieces. His eyes return to the spot where Samuel had vanished. “Alyssia, quiet before more of the Morningstar’s creatures show up. I don’t think Sam’s here anymore.” Daniel knows it wasn’t a teleport. Those have never failed to be accompanied with a sudden flash, nor did he use a portal, for they would see that before he could mask it. Plus Sam would’ve had to move. Neither did he turn invisible and stay there; there is always a visible distortion of the light rays reflecting off before becoming unseen. That and nothing registers on the IR of his helmet.
So stunned are the other three that none notice the Siriel that Michael was fighting still moves. The crater left in its stomach has cross-stitches of tendons and muscle growing across to replace what was lost. The glow from its wound is dimming ever more, and the creature, moving in a short, soundless hover parallel to the ground, tracks around behind both Alyssia and Daniel. Its movements are entirely silent, using its own Power to keep it held just above the rocks and dirt, every muscle in its damned body stiff, every tendon and ligament ground to a halt. It knows that its opponents are confused, and it knows that it could at least kill the hybrid before His lieutenant and the stranger could stop it. But there is one thing that it certainly knows it must do: tell Him that Lord Michael is returned.
It whinnies and spins, clubbing its tail at a now aware Daniel, then flies up and away. Even as Alyssia and Michael chase after it, the Siriel’s eyes glaze over. The cyclopes stand back up, marching toward the travelers. The Siriel is turned about again to face Michael, stretching itself to its full height, fifty-two feet from head to tail’s tip, wings out-stretched and a core of gray energy building just in front of its chest. Above, the brown clouds swirl about in circles, jittering from side to side in their tracks as if they are trying to break free. In the middle of their orbits’ frame, a visage appears, created from the red sky itself, of varying shades such that none of the three can believe what they start to see. It comes closer down to them, a face. Its features are indistinct, but clear, no more truly human than a mannequin’s, but still recognizable. It glares down at them with changing hues of red, freezing both Daniel and Alyssia with a look.
“Michael,” the voice rings in the Second’s mind, deep and earth-moving, speaking in the language it had learned from Michael, but still bears the tones of Power, “This is twice you have re-entered my domain since you fled from me. What is it that you want, Defector? Answer me with truth and I may welcome your return to my hand.”
Michael is shaking and floating cautiously downward as the voice speaks to him. The panes of demon-shaped Power disappear from around him, and, upon touching earth, he kneels down, head bowed, to murmur his response, “I am here to bring to you my brothers. They have questions about our.. activities in the humans’ world and want to learn more.”
“I do not know these two. Take them to the keep if you desire. Of these, it is only you whom I have interest in. Should you be true to your word, then there is already a mission I have for you.”
“Which is, master?”
“Follow Samuel if he draws near the Keep. If he remains stationary as he is now, you will be required to locate and remove him to me. I must have words with him. Depart now.”
Michael, fallen to both knees, bent over and twitching, nods slowly. Daniel and Alyssia both slump over like puppets who’ve had all but one string cut, still motionless, with the lights of their energies dimming with every second to their final extinguishing. Michael furiously claws at the dirt while the legion of cyclopes stand in a formation behind him, awaiting orders. Through his dry weeps, he knows only the pain filing its way through his brain, ignorant entirely of the Siriel that lands to a crouch beside him, waiting for its returned captain’s command.
Beacons of scathingly bright, lustrous blue light surround Samuel like torch pillars about an altar. Their color stands high to the red dome above, dotting the sky with hazy purple spots. Creatures from all around gather to look up at the strange being that has fully activated the spires. Heavily armored humans, holding crude spears, swords, and arrows, stand at the edges of the mob, warily eyeing their demon neighbors who have been clawing and biting at each other since enough had been collected to start a fight. This is the mess that Samuel witnesses with indifferent eyes. Since leaving the battle and his friends, his daughter behind, he has been wrestling with the other voice in his mind, the cold and echoing voice that bids him closer to the Morningstar’s Keep. Beneath the calm and unmoving skin of his face, through the brown, fleshy eyes peering through the slit made by his helmet’s impenetrable fields, a fight still occurs. His mind is divided into three. Samuel imagines it as a calm observer, his conscience a mere spectator between two personalities.
Sam Hidalgo knees Samuel the Scribe in the chin and grabs him by the neck, tosses him into the ground, steps on his trachea, roars throughout the mindscape: “I don’t care about that! This is my body, my life! It will stay just the way it is!” The Scribe punches in the back of Sam’s knee, cups his hands on Sam’s thigh and levers him down. Once Sam lands, the Scribe raises his heel and kicks it down across the bridge of Sam’s nose. His compelling voice echoes all throughout, filling every aspect of Samuel’s intelligence, “Why do you keep resisting? You are human like those, and unlike them.. you feel desire and temptation with every morning. Accept them already and use your full potential! Stop stifling your nature, stop wasting your gifts. Martyrs may be remembered for all time, but their worth is only in their death. Do you not understand that? Your physical body is made immortal! You’ll walk the Ephemes’ world until the sun scorches it in its hands! Do you wish to spend that time as a roaming vagabond? You can live in the gratitude and appreciation you deserve, instead of as a fugitive creature on a world you do not belong in.” Sam coughs and throws the foot off him, scrambling up toward a stand. Blood, red and thick, pours from his nose and down his shirt. Looking across at his virtual twin, the way he breathes, he talks, indicates absolutely no damage done whatsoever. “I won’t let.. I’m not gonna let you have any control over the way I do things! These gifts were given to me to serve, not to take, never meant to take! If that was meant to be, they would’ve been given to someone else!” The knotted brows and gnashed teeth belie his weakness. His breath comes heavy and labored, and his knee gives out for a second, forcing him to stumble down before he manages to catch himself. The Scribe smoothly rises to his feet and dusts himself off. Even his clothes and shoes show no signs of wear. Both pairs of brown eyes look deep into each other from above hawk-like noses, straight, raven hair fallen down over Sam’s eyes; perfectly combed and in place in the Scribe’s. One appears to be the exemplar of poise and confidence, equanimity in the face of toil, the other the beaten and inferior, what happens when the will is too weak to face the music.
The Scribe’s appearance changes, and he appears to be wearing an old-styled tuxedo, and he looks younger too. A mirage of Anne rises from the floor like smoke and solidifies next to him. The Scribe reaches out his arm and loops it around hers. Sam already feels his stomach clenching again. He gags and stoops forward, just as Anne sweeps aside her curls and rests her cheek against the Scribe’s shoulder, gazing so happily and carefree at him.
He speaks again while running a white-gloved finger along their wife’s jawline. “We have enjoyed living as a human, but it is impossible to stay that way. You feel the ties of your mortal life fraying away. The memories of Samuel Hidalgo in the minds of friends and families is all but disappeared. No one can recall you. They’re dead, Samuel. Dead and gone. You still roam. If you had taken advantage of your power and wrestled control into your hands, perhaps you could have saved one person from your previous life.” The Scribe pauses to kiss her ivory forehead. “But you missed your chance.” Illusive as it is, Sam catches the bare rolling glaze of color across his enemy’s eyes. “Now she lies dead. How many more, Sam? Think of all the Ephemes’ follies that you could have stopped. The wars, the idiotic.. laws.. every conflict of pure hate and prejudice that you had the chance to prevent had you seized the world. You know yourself. Would you have been a kind and fair ruler? Of course. But you will remain a nobody if you sit and let the world pass you by!”
Samuel’s right eye twitches uncontrollably. He stopped paying attention to whatever the Seer was saying the moment Anne put her head on him. Sam and Anne were posed that exact way for their senior prom’s photo – he remembers well, it still sits, faded some now, on the dresser in his room, a sign to him of his ever-youth and of a time when they were once equally vivid and full of life. Sam vomits, then stands, wiping his face and mouth of bile and blood. Anne doesn’t regard him at all. Shaking with anger absolute, Sam takes a long stride toward the Seer, still ignored by Anne, then another stride, no more than six of these paces away from his adversary. The Seer laughs and holds Anne tighter to him. Giggling in a whisper to the Seer, Anne leans in closer and nips at his neck, then bites playfully at his ear. A scene from another memory – outside the limo, the last couple in while no one was watching. Sam’s teeth clench and grind, rending pain in his mouth. Two strides away. In the nothingness, the sheer blackness of his mind, only three things stay illumed: the Seer, smug but unsmiling, Anne’s mirage, now hugging and laying gentle kisses on the Seer’s cheek, and Sam, standing right before the Seer, fists by his sides, lips pulled back and his body racked with rage.
“Go ahead and fuck with my mind, you’re already in it. Thing is though, humans are just as emotional as they are logical, and know what? I’m the one in charge of the fuckin emotion!” A headbutt knocks the Seer in the nose, throwing his head back for Sam to grab and lift him up by. The Seer reaches to plant his hands on Sam’s, but is too slow, and the human First pitches the immortal to the ground. He then leaps and plants both boot heels into the Seer’s stomach, dropping his knee down on the throat again, and grabbing his head again, starts pummeling savagely the Seer’s skull into the invisible floor. Sam drops to the side and loops his arm around the Seer’s neck, catching the Adam’s apple in the bend of his elbow, and squeezes and pulls. His knee is on the Seer’s shoulder, and he pulls away from it. One savage thought echoes all around them, Sam’s thought: “Your goddamn head is mine! Mine!”
The Seer’s eyes shift to gold and his face shifts to a momentary malice that disappears swiftly, along with the Seer himself, leaving Sam alone in the consciously unused portions of his inner mind: he gets back up to cast a sidelong glance to the image of an aged and withered Anne lying peacefully in a mahogany casket. He walks up to her. Each step takes him closer and closer to tears. He starts to bring a hand up to the open edge of her final bed, the dam holding back his grief about to burst. His hand touches the cold wood. As it does, the casket fades, the darkness lights up, and takes form. He no longer sees himself in the third person, but is staring out of his own eyes, real eyes, and sees below the gathered throng of demons and the red sky above. Before him, marked by torches of brilliantly blazing royal blue, is a wide and structured lane that leads straight to the Keep.
“Right then,” an audible whisper carried by the wind, “We got this far. Let’s just go and get this shit over with already.”
At that same moment, still on the workmen’s plain, Michael realizes what he must do. Reassuming the demonic armor, looking neither behind to his soldiers behind or to his secondary, the Siriel, or even to Daniel and Alyssia, he takes to the sky and flies forth to the Keep. His speed is easily matched by the Siriel, although below the cyclopes run clumsily in formation, while the columns spread to avoid crushing the remaining two quasi-humans. It is, after all, their orders from their lord.
Samuel flies faster than he had ever known he was capable of. This enhanced power is far greater than anything he thought he could summon, and the thrill of it has only its comparison to the day of First Strike, the excitement of transforming from a mere human college boy to that of some super-powered hero hell-bent on stopping the incursion of these monsters. When he started to move, and the demons below realized it, he became the target of fire, acid, and arrow. He was protected from these attacks as he would’ve been even in his previous angelic form, although the fires would’ve burnt more simply from their transmitted heat. And his retaliation in his previous form could have been fierce, but the magnitude in relation to the ease with which he carried out his vengeance in this elevated state was amazing. The humans he brushed aside with a telekinetic sweep, but the demons he collected into the middle of the space below him. Without having to focus his energy on the point or even settle much concentration on it, he was able to force the ground to erupt with raw power, incinerating instantly all the demon folk that had come there. Previously, such an act, given how much area the attack used, would have left a tangible depletion in his inner stores. Yet he barely felt it. What he does feel is ready, untouchable. With this power, he knows he has far surpassed Michael, and if he was the Morningstar’s best warrior, that leaves nothing worth worrying over until he meets this lord of the land. And Sam isn’t concerned with him at all.
He passes over the cross-cutting mountain ridges that separate the land from the lake. A huge, broiling lake, of rolling waves of liquid fire which spit flame at their crests and crash into the oil black slick, stuck inside the valley of the dagger mountains. Flights of Siriels circle about the main peak, in which the Keep is carved. The Keep itself stretches from one side of the mount to the other, its base built on a long, flat plateau, from whose edge the mighty, light-quenching dark outer ramparts rise. As the details become clearer to him with every passing second, Samuel notices that the ramparts stepped into the mountain at seventeen intervals, with dark, high looming towers spaced six across every rampart. He notices no windows or doors or any sort of roughness to the fortress’s exterior to indicate that mortals dwelled inside or had crafted the place.
A Siriel hoots out to the other fliers guarding the Keep, and they, eighteen altogether, branch away from their flight paths and gather again into three tight formations and start their advance toward the lone First.
In his mind though, as if centered in that last stiff vertebrata before the neck, he thinks he hears a soft mumbling, so transparent and hard to hear that it could be nothing more than the straining of the wind against the edges of his armor. But then all about the rims of the ramparts, up the edges of the fortress along its seams against the mountain rock and burning most brightly against the three-horned crown of its central tower, blue lights, the ghoulish glow from the teleport nodes and the highways, flare suddenly, and are rejoined by an immediate flash of brilliant white light that dilutes them all. The Siriels all stop in their flight and spread apart from each other. They realign into two straight lines, heads drooping low and their blood-colored eyes painted over with a dull yellow.
Samuel regards them and the lane they’ve made for him with far less suspicion than such a sight would’ve normally demanded of him, but something within, an instinct, calmed his heart and mind. He dives low and skims along the knees of the Siriels, emerging from the end of their channel untouched and unscathed.
Two hundred meters separate him from the bottom, and nearest, rampart to the Keep. Seventeen steppes above, in the single visible hollow of the Keep, below the three-horned dome, an ebbing light, dulling to gold and then turning white again, shines dutifully for Samuel’s entrance. In Samuel’s mind, he knows that it is there, beneath the roof of that dome, toward the light, he must go. So entranced with this beacon, it escapes him that ascending over the damming mountains, Michael and his Siriel approach.
Daniel barely catches himself when the spell relinquishes his hold. The ground made it within two inches of his nose by the time he was able to telekinetically halt his fall. Alyssia, five feet away, was already downed before the spell, and its only effect it seems is to keep her in the grasp of severe dizziness. Growling, Daniel punches both fists down and pushes himself back up to his feet but finds out with a stagger backwards that his equilibrium is not quite resettled yet. Looking at his hands, his senses numbed apparently, he sees too that he’d been knocked from his angelic form whenever that face, or whatever it was, came into view.
“Enh.. what the fuck was that? Alyssia.. ?” He takes a glance over to see if she’s alive and still in more or less operable condition. “Get up. Samuel and Michael have gone ape shit and went AWOL.. damn.. feel like I got nailed by a Hummer.. we need to get to that stronghold, now.”
Alyssia struggles to regain her feet, stumbling clumsily from side to side as the world beneath around her continues see-sawing, with her in the middle. She slips the Office provided tactical helmet off and grabs her temples with both hands, rubbing them gently and trying to work her mouth to question, “Why.. why there? We shhh-it.. should report to Wolfe.”
Daniel arches his back and swings his arms across his chest. “No. What would he do anyway, tell us in harsh tones that this is some catastrophe? He’s an idiot. If I had for some reason gone crazy in this shithole, I would head to that stronghold too. That’s one reason. Other reason, something is not right. I know it. Things of the here and now are returning to balance. But compared to the grand scheme, nah, compared to the way it used to be, everything’s being thrown out of wack. I’m going there. Whether or not you stay or go is not my concern. I really don’t know why Samuel let you come here. It’s not your place to be here.”
Daniel then wraps himself in a cloaking field, his body disappearing into a human-framed distortion, which fades and blends with the air. Alyssia hears the crumble of steps into dirt, hears the scuffle of his kicking into the sky, and nothing beyond that than the hollow, warm breeze.
For Samuel, no remnant fragments of battles gone and past and of enemies face would have ever given him the sort of experience or foreknowledge needed to deal with the fear and tension that were building quickly. He landed and squatted down on the thick ledge of the second rampart’s outer wall. Above him is the source of the light, gleaming with feigned warmth out over the lands he’d flown and teleported through. The Sword of Fire is held tightly in a rattling hand, and, going by standard procedure, he had cast himself invisible to the naked eye. For so large a fortress guarded by so many Siriels, it unnerved him the sense of desolation within the actual walls. No guards walked the parapets, no glinting shadows tugged at his peripheral vision, not even the whispy voices of barely noticeable wraiths. Samuel repeals the guarding energies of his right gauntlet and reaches to touch the unblemished stone. His fingers creep forward, shaking, the bare tip of his middle finger pressing against it. Warm, smooth, reminding him of the table in the Office’s conference room.
“The office in which you and I both sat, Samuel.”
“Oh Christ! Not again!”
Samuel wrenches upwards and back, leaping into a backwards swan dive off the second highest landing of the Keep, grasping and clawing away at the ethereal helmet as the Sword twirls down with him. Panic seizes him, and his mind reels in sheer terror. The voice is returned, and the tone, its pitch, something seems both stronger and greater than he, more than he ever could be.
“Aeons have passed since our birth, Sam. You are to me nothing more than a fluke of the imagination spat out when I was bored and dreaming! Wake up and realize that I am the true persona and that this body and Power are for me to regain!”
“Fuck you!” Here Sam reaches out to grab the Seer again by the throat. An observer, invisible and unmoving, standing on the 5th level balcony, arches a brow at the spectacle: the great Samuel appearing in the blink of an eye and falling uncontrollably while seemingly trying to strangle himself at the same time. Two types of suicide weren’t enough, it appeared.
The observer turns and climbs with a flap of wings to the pinnacle floor four levels up, using each increment rampart ledge as a ladder, bounding from wall to wall.
Sam, shouting above the Seer’s voice, fills the volume of his sanity with his one remaining credo, the only irrefutable truth that he can find: “YOU ARE NOT ME! YOU ARE NOT ME, YOU BASTARD! I’LL KILL YOU, HEAR? YOU’RE NOT ME!”
His hand clenches tighter around his throat, the energized gauntlets molding into the collar of the chestplate, and Samuel’s own fingers wrap about his Adam’s apple. Unaware entirely of his descent, though, his means of extracting the Seer is drastically interrupted when he impacts against the out-stretched patio of the seventh floor. His body, centered within the armor by strong forces, is cushioned upon crashing flat on his back, saving his life, but not wholly stopping the inertial damage. His eyes snap open and his head whiplashes against the tiled floor, and the air slapped firmly from his lungs. The image of the Seer deep within the recesses of his consciousness is obliterated, as are the rest of Samuel’s enhanced senses. His head lolls from side to side, his fingers tapping against the floor. With his sight fading in and out from clarity to black-out, he notices a shadow grow long beside him, and the faintest appeal of some electric force.
“Hello again, Samuel. The Morningstar waits for you.” A pair of three-toed feet, solid like panes of glass and flashing of darkest green, clamp against the floor, straddling Samuel’s head. The First knows he’s being lifted upwards and can see through his fading peripheral the passing strata of the outer walls. Garbled and unintelligible, the Seer’s voice offers static-like words to Sam. His eyes close, blink open again, witnessing large talons grope for him. His eyes close again, and pitch darkness swallows both his sight and mind.
When they reopen, Samuel finds himself genuflect before a pair of shining greaves, so polished that the minimal light of the land grows brighter in reflecting from them, to the point Samuel’s eyes hurt from looking at them. His sight reaches higher, seeing a golden belt of radiance, a stern and beautiful breastplate that seems sacred and powerful of its own. Further his sight scans, and he sees a face, a young man of bronzed skin with cold eyes the color cedar and a noble looking nose. His eyebrows are raised with concern, contempt, and knowledge, as though there was no surprise in Samuel’s being there. The man’s long, black hair flows down his back and over his shoulders.
Samuel arches his back and curls his hands into fists. He starts to rise with a suddenness of fury and fear, the face before him far too familiar, resembling way too much what could have ever been, the man before him someone that Samuel could not and never have believed despite everything that has been.
A swift kick hammers against his lower back and shoves him back down.
“Y-y-.. y-y-y-you can’t be…. c-can’t be..”
The man before him touches the chin of Samuel’s faceplate gingerly, not flinching at all at the touch of the energy plating. The man’s face reflects the same passiveness and calm of the Seer and stares into Samuel’s eyes. From brown to gold his eyes shift and Samuel finds himself slipping back into the far recesses of his mind, detached from the solid world of reality. Instead of the Seer as he expected to see, images and feelings, emotions outside of his, puncture through him and start to tear away at his rationality. Like a strobe light, various places and peoples course involuntarily through his memories and adding to them, scenes of armored beings like the man in front of him, fighting, then Roman centurions, and robed wanderers, then the darkness of a strange place, the mountainous ring and trapped pit of fire, screaming and howling, chains and swords, pain, anguish, and a question, a single question, spoken in such agony and loss that it pulls on his heart, dragging it down, for it is the central question behind the pain and sorrow: “Why?” He becomes lost in these swirling images, his own voice crying out in desolation “Why!?”, wholly unaware that his body in reality has toppled to a side and is curled up and convulsing, a small trickle of his black blood boiling on the inside of the helmet as it drips out and onto the parapet floor.
The young man stands back up to his full height and rests his gloved hands on the ornate hilt of a sword. His voice is hollow and deep, bearing in its words a deep power that Samuel can tangibly feel when the man commands, “Quit your pain and rise.”
So Samuel did, slowly, sliding one foot in front and, steadying himself with a hand, thrusting his weight on it to come to a stagger. Behind him, Samuel’s observer steadies the First with an invisible and impalpable grip.
“I see you have not matured yet, Samuel. Your powers have mostly regenerated. Much is still lacking.” Cocking his head low and pinning Samuel beneath a freezing stare, the man takes measured steps around the First to study him. “Michael?”
“Where is the girl demon you mentioned? Why is she not brought to me as well?”
“You did not bid me to bring her, sire. Only that I was to bring the Earthen champion when you saw in my mind that he was present.”
“Never you mind it. I will see it is done.” The youth wipes back a strand of hair behind his ear and blinks his eyes. “I have sent some fliers to look for and retrieve her.”
Samuel gasps for a deep breath and coughs. His fists open and close, open and close, repeatedly in reassurance to himself that he still maintains control. More words fly between Michael and the man, whom now Samuel knows, remembers more clearly and definitively than anything else of his lives.
“Y-you are him.. the Morningstar, Azazel, or Samael. And you.. you are my complement.. you are the darkness to my light.. the enemy. We.. we are brothers.. you are my twin.. and that voice was you.. it was never me..”
He stops his study of Samuel and stands in front of him again, staring through to him as he had before.
“Do not utter my name again, Samuel. You have put me in a difficult position, and it pains me to use this simple technique of communication. Yet you have not developed enough to handle the old means, even though, yes, you did manage to force me out of your brain. Michael, unfortunately, is still a meager quarter step behind you. My single wish was that when you returned to me, you would be whole, as you were when last I saw you. I have been here far too long, that I cannot know by what means both you and Michael adapted human bodies, or anything else of your strange transformations. I was not watching them when it occurred.”
Michael finally steps out from behind Samuel and takes a position beside him, facing his master also, his wings barely scraping against the First’s.
“Come,” and Samael turns and leads them upward, hovering to his seat on the highest level of the Keep, a large throne carved of the same black rock that the fortress and other craft were made of. Through slight reflections of light do the subtle inscriptions chiseled into the throne’s arms become visible. Sitting, the youth, Samael, motions for the two to look out across the lake.
“Do you see this world, Samuel? Do you remember at all what your task was, the one appointed you at this very point?”
“No.. no, I don’t. It’s all too much like a dream that I’d just woken up from.. parts of it linger, but every time I try to concentrate on it, it moves away.”
“I will tell you, Samuel. I want us to reconcile the near history that found you at the sword tips of my soldiers. I want for you to sit beside me as you once did.”
Samuel redirects his eyes to Samael. His fingers itch and stretch out, just as vivid stills of a life long forsaken return to him. Unaware of it, he calls out to something lost in the depths.
“Our leader was once corrupt, Samuel. The one who governed you and I, elders amongst his sons. He had planted on the middle-plane mortal creatures both like and unlike us. You see me before you, no different in appearances but equal to your mortal shell. See how much the weak resemble the strong? He then bade us to serve them. Them, Samuel, the Ephemes! You recognized this folly before I had and explained it clearly to me. I do not begrudge you for feeding me those words, for my feelings were the same as yours. Under our banners, our banners, Samuel, we gathered together many brethren and went in mass to convince our leader to change his mind. He refused, then cast us here, to this miserable world, to humble us. Those with the power to had reopened doors to return to our home, breaking the punishment he had set forth. Bitter in-fighting broke loose between us and those that chose to bequeath themselves to the Ephemes. We were outnumbered, beaten, then judged. Powerful words were tattooed on us the day of our sentencing, barring us from ever being able to leave this land. Look, Samuel, see the mark left on your blood-brother.”
As he said that, runes sketch themselves red on his forehead, of the same script of the ones that Samuel had read aloud at the initial crossroads. Their appearance seems to startle Michael, who finally opens his mouth and moves again, inhaling loudly as though he were a drowning man breaking the water’s surface.
It is then that Daniel appears, leaping over the wall, his ghostly exterior traded for a visibly stark, silver armor draped by flowing ribbons of energy over his shoulders, coming down to his knees, resembling to Samuel the long robes of a priest. Over his face is an impartial mask, the sculpted profile of man, and in his hand is the hilt to the Sword of Fire. Just as Daniel comes over the ridge, Samael jumps back, pointing and howling at him, the contours of his face changing and creasing, his jaw dropping far lower than could be humanly done.
Michael’s talons extend and sharpen. Daniel throws the Sword to Samuel, who catches it mid-jump. And Samael’s voice shatters their actions, the Three pausing for him.
“You! Judge! Michael, you brought him here, my persecutor! For this action you should die!”
Samael’s skin grew bright, illuminating the bones of his body. Power shoots forth from his eyes in tangible rays, shadowing the rest of him beneath their brilliance. Samuel is awe-struck, but turns to Michael, wielding the Sword tightly in his grip. Michael, snarling at Samael, looks to his friend, the First, nods, and pumps a fist in the air confidently. The First only tilts his head in wonder. But his wonder is short-lived, as Daniel takes to the air and calls for Samuel and Michael to do the same.
With Power shooting from every pore of his body, Samael emerges from the self-inflicted shadow and walks toward the edge slowly, his wings unfurling with his every step. Long, wide triangular bands unfold from his back, their bases nearly as tall as his torso, golden in their color with white trims, on which are written more words. Samuel swallows hard and mutters to Daniel, “Look.. the Words of Life are stamped on him..”
Daniel nods and puts his palms together. “I know. It all started to come to me when you got here. You know we can’t kill him. It’s impossible. And everything he told you is bullshit too, Sam.”
Michael grunts. “You’ll have to fill us in later then. I was hoping he would finally explain everything with Samuel being here under the guise of a prisoner. Sorry, Sam. The idea hadn’t crossed me until he contacted me.”
Samael had finally taken to balancing himself on the forward horn of the Keep’s tower. His written wings flow rhythmically of their own will, and all around them are the smaller ribbons, gold like the main body of the larger pair, and arranged as to mimic the rays of sun, to glorify the light and radiance of Samael.
“Guess that’s why you call him the Morningstar, eh Mike?”
“It seemed appropriate at the time.”
The Three floated restlessly. Samuel is reaping through his mind for some long-lost memory that could be activated, something to tell him how to deal with this threat, since it seemed that to Daniel, all was unlocked. A quick glance to Michael, to the still translucency of his armor, is all the indication he needed that he was no further along than he was when they arrived. And Samael. He is all that his name offers him to be: the Morningstar, brightest of them all. His light is so fierce that Samuel can only make out the black hollows where his eyes should be, the rest having lost all distinct contours when faced dead on. To Samuel, his twin apparent is a being of pure and utter Power.
This, Samuel knows, makes him an impossible enemy. No blood, no organs, no bones to shatter. Unlike him, Samuel cased his human mortality inside the shell of Power. But even the plating could not keep out the sensation of hate and anger streaming from Samael.
His voice thunders from everywhere, before, behind, above, below, left and right, of the Three. No mouth opens on the light-being, but the words bear down on them like leaden weights.
“You, Michael, have had me betrayed! Not just once, but twice now, my lieutenant! My most loyal friend in the other world, you have stabbed my back again by allowing him, that slave, into my realm! He was the one chartered by our leader to pass judgment! This, I should have seen! Again treachery by the three most intimate of criminals! What is it, Daniel! Have you come to see and laugh over your work, my banishment? Michael, do you glee in having brought me down once, and now being able to watch your would-be master suffer torment again by your hand? And what of you, Samuel, my brother! I had forgiven you your crime because you were bound by law to inscribe on me with Words the seal of my banishment, but now you voluntarily disregard me to these wolves! It was accident that I had brought you out of seclusion, and now I see it mistake to have tried to bring you fully about. The name of Samuel forever lies on black tongues to mean traitor and fiend! You would kill me and then worship the dirt, though we served our leader best and most faithfully! We have no will, Samuel! You and I and they are all beings with singular purposes that hound at our minds relentlessly! I could never understand why we were born so magnificent but lack that one power of the Ephemes. I am banned here a criminal because once I had mustered enough will to do other than I was commanded, yet in the middle-plane the Ephemes forsake and spit on our names, on our leader! Do you think I am incapable of serving him? I must! I must because I know no other way! You three are no different than I. Despite your bodies, you still feel the sway to your original purposes, else none of you would be here.” Here, Samael draws closer as though skating on the air. “Despite your ability to choose freely, you were incapable of resisting the urge to return to the stage of the final act that changed our ancient home forever.. you had to come here.. and see me. See your prisoner, Daniel, your humiliated duelist, Michael, and your shameful brother.. Samuel.”
The name lingers in the air for too long, riding and fading with the winds. Samuel lowers to a position directly ahead of Samael, with Daniel and Michael taking positions behind and above him. Samuel takes the hilt of the Sword of Fire in both hands and raises its tip to Samael’s neck level.
“We can leave, Morningstar, if that’s what you want. You been doing pretty good in not hassling us on the other side, so you keep that up, you’ll never see us again.”
“Then depart. I will see you leave unscathed if you leave the demoness here.”
“Demoness? What demoness?”
“The perfect one. That girl whom my Siriel informed me of.”
Both Samuel’s and Michael’s eyes shoot open, both exclaiming, “Alyssia!”
That’s when they notice the three Siriels roosting below them, the middle holding in its great arms a frail looking body, wearing full-body armor and steel over-plating.
It takes no longer than for the image to be processed from eye to brain that Samuel suddenly lashes out, raising the Sword high and slicing downward on Samael. Michael jack knife’s in the air and plummets to the Siriels. Daniel soars ahead to grab a clear shot on Samael.
In his rashness, with the Sword coming down in a diagonal chop to slice apart Samael’s neck from shoulder, Samuel never notices that, hidden in the brilliance, a solid, metal hilt is tucked in his hand, and is mid-swing when he feels the Sword impact against another blade: its body invisible to his eye, but having a visible, single, phantom edge. Samael’s voice seethes inside Samuel’s mind: “Idiot fool to think that I, once general of his armies, would not bear an Ancient weapon as well.” The saber shaped long blade of Samael caught the First’s attack and deflects it, throwing Samuel off to the side. Samuel fell a dozen feet before stopping himself, then immediately falls more as he sees the Morningstar drop towards in a downward stab.
“Sam, dodge!” A yell from Daniel that Samuel heeds, rolling forward and darting to a wall of the Keep. Samael sneers and throws a hand up in defense just as Daniel’s attack comes on him. Hands spread a foot apart, Daniel sends down a blast of pure energy both taller and wider than he. Like a torrent of water and flame mixed, the blast hits and engulfs Samael, whose bare wings are the only parts of him not wholly consumed in the attack. Daniel’s mask is lit with dancing shadows from the broiling power erupting from his hands, and the shadow of his form flickers against the Keep behind him. But Samuel, his view unobstructed by the ionic froth that covered Daniel’s field of vision, curses, noticing that the middle of the beam is being broken. Samael holds in the palm of his hand a triangular that sheds Daniel’s forces like a tall boulder in a stream.
His speed is incredible. Samuel, having drifted fifty feet from Daniel’s right, is even too slow to intercept Samael from driving up the offensive beam and reflecting it back to the Third. The blast consumes Daniel entirely, who falls uncontrollably until caught by Michael, who is already casting an arm out and creating a portal. Samuel’s eyes bounce from Michael back to Samael and charges him, Sword held in front in a stab. Sword and Blade meet and clash. Their edges grind, and the two brothers stare each other down, from eyes immortal to semi-mortal, the light of day to light of dawn.
Words spit out from behind Samuel’s faceplate: “You’re never gonna get your hands on my daughter, I’ll promise you that bud.”
And in turn, others filled his mind, “The flesh of your flesh will create for me the perfect breed for my armies. I am bound to this cancerous realm, but I can at least derive some satisfaction in knowing the middle-plane and the Ephemes are scorched and dead.”
A roar resonates from Samuel, followed with a spin, pulling the Sword out of its struggle and punching Samael across his cheek. Sword in his right hand, he brings it down and takes a wide swing into Samael’s stomach, an attack that is easily blocked, as the First expected. With that distraction, he leans back and donkey kicks the Morningstar, expecting to feel the soft area below ribs, but finding the impact to be as if he hit brick. He managed with that to put some distance between the two for Samuel’s next move. His hand lights briefly only, and he flings at the Morningstar a thick, golden missile. Samael growls and smacks the missile aside with the back of his hand, not seeing the second that accompanied it, slamming into his chest and creating an explosion that rocks Samuel aloft and lights the dark crevices and cracks of the Keep’s large mountain seat.
Even Michael, who is carefully sending an unconscious and battered Alyssia through the portal into the hands of medical staff, stops to see what had caused the unleashing of power. But his eyes only see the dissipating light, and then the Morningstar flinging his ancient weapon at Samuel, catching him in the shoulder plate. Light escapes through the cut made in the armor. Aghast is Samuel, who had never seen the energy plating pierced in such a way.
Michael ascends and flings a coarse-shafted and crackling javelin at the Morningstar just as his former master fires a missile at Samuel. The javelin and projectile land at the same time: Samael is pushed aside by the force of the attack but appears undamaged, yet Samuel is driven into the fourth level’s wall and ricochets off it.
Daniel, senses regained, snatches Samuel from afar in his telekinetic grip and sets him down to recuperate. His breathing is racked and hard, and his mind desperately scanning through for an idea on how to break the powerhouse. The Morningstar split apart his most powerful attack and turned part of it back on him. His frown deepens to reveal his upper canines, as blood black trickles lightly from the corner of his mouth. Rage shakes his entire body, elevating the amount of Power driven into his form, so much so that the air around him bends from the heat. He points a hand toward the now incoming Samael and bombards him with a dozen silver-tipped torpedoes, each of which impacts against something, a shield or Samael, he can’t tell, filling the space between the Third and the Morningstar with steel flashes and fast paced explosions. None of them phase Samael at all. Daniel darts to the right, then soars high, stopping and back flipping to a dive, barely evading a horizontal cut from Samael’s Blade. A chase nearly happens, but Samuel blows his twin aside with a flurry of concussive energy grenades and descends upon him with wings spread high, and Sword dangling in hand like an executioner’s axe.
Again the two ancient weapons collide. All of Samuel’s new-found strength is being channeled into his arms, into the hilt of the Sword, to bare it down and cave his brother’s head in two. Below, Blade raised parallel in a block, Samael smirks, barely seen by the First, and laughs, loudly, resonantly, like a symphony of all sounds beautiful, but bearing inside the beauty a razor, cold and threatening, and words entered Samuel’s mind again. “You have not even recovered half your strength, Samuel. You are not worth my time yet.” The Sword steadily comes closer and closer back to Samuel, to his neckline, pushed forward by the ever more menacing edge of Samael’s weapon. The Morningstar drops a hand to his side and continues to gain slow centimeter by centimeter against all of Samuel’s might. Even the talons of Michael received no notice from Samael as they pounded away at the back of his neck, incapable of actually touching him.
Daniel separates all three by catching the Morningstar in the side with a thin, fist sized beam, but with all the destructive cutting power of a hundred of his previous favorite spear attack. Beneath the welder’s torch glare of the beam’s collision, he finally sees the small impacting distortion of a shield surrounding Samael. Instead of the usual energy rippling that had been the commonplace, it was like a series of tightly packed rivets creating a small, solid wall just where the beam hit. Information that is utterly useless against the scope of its proven invulnerability.
It is but a lull in the storm. Lightning from the four Powers sparks and jumps about the triangle they created: the Three on all points, and the Morningstar set in the middle. Amidst the lightning, Samuel’s voice rings aloud, bearing with it the authority and power of a thunderclap. “Michael, Daniel! Leave and return to the Office! We can’t win this one. He’s far beyond anything we’ve ever known. Even Belial’s a shadow compared to him!”
The Morningstar points his blade at Samuel’s throat and flicks it from side to side, angling his neck to reveal what he means to cut. Yet he doesn’t move from his position.
“You know I’m not going to leave this one, Samuel. You shouldn’t bother announcing something like that.”
“Daniel.. Daniel, it ain’t gonna happen man. He’s right about something. We’re not worth his time, not yet at least. Now get out of here! I’m the only one of us with a weapon that can hurt him!”
To prove his point, Samuel is the first to break the pause of battle, and fires three missiles at the Morningstar to plow his way in, Sword held in front as always. Daniel sees this and fires a cutter beam from both palms, and Michael joins in with a pair of energy javelins. Silver, gold, and olive powers all meet their target at the same time, impacting and exploding in a shower of energies, the shockwave almost throwing aside the charging Samuel. But he is incensed and refuses to be held back. From his left arm he summons an energy blade and stabs forward with that while swinging the Sword in a right chop into the ribs, blindly in the floating char and sparks of the combined attacks. Through the dimming lights though, a blatantly bright hand shoots out and grabs Samuel’s arm-blade, while a ghostly fire peaks out and swings wide to the left, blocking the Sword and pushing it aside. He puts his palm on Samuel’s chest and shudders it with a pulse of energy, shoving Samuel far back and putting a hand shaped crevice in the glowing breastplate. To Daniel, who has advanced from behind, he whips the Blade around and cleaves him across the stomach, slicing through the ethereal robes and protective plating, cutting and burning the flesh beneath. Michael he telekinetically chokes and hammers back and forth in the sky.
Samuel cuts the telekinetic link immediately by driving the Sword into Samael’s upper arm. Its point comes to a dull stop against the skin-tight shielding, but it is enough to disrupt his concentration long enough for Michael to fall free. Samael’s head whips toward Samuel, a gilded canine revealed behind curled lips, and a panic behind the malice in the narrowed charcoal eyes. Samuel drops below the Sword’s hilt and drives it forward again with both hands, his momentum driving him backwards. Just as the Morningstar reaches to remove the weapon, he kicks the bottom of his heel into the hilt and thrusts it through, piercing Samael’s shield and gashing the tricep, which evinces a cry of pain that sends the clouds above reeling away from the mount. The Morningstar slaps the Sword off and wraps his hand over his wound, orange light seeping through his fingers. Some relief, slight and barely more than a glimmer, calms the heart of the First: at least the Morningstar can be hurt. But the cut seals itself as Samael removes his hand, plummeting the First’s heart into further despair. The Sword of Fire returns instinctively to Samuel’s open, shaking hand. The Blade’s reddish flames erupt violently in Samael’s hand, and the Sword roars back in response. Samael’s wings still wave peacefully despite the hate pulsing from the Words inscribed on his forehead. Samuel retakes a defensive stance, wings arching around his sides and over his head, Sword pointed at chest level. His voice shouts clear, with the slightest tone of Power behind it.
“Mike! Grab Daniel and both of you get out of here!! Do it now goddamnit!”
Michael shakily raises his head to get a glimpse of Samuel, who is flying backwards away from the Keep and over the lake, with the Morningstar trading sword blows with him along the way. Daniel is still aloft, but his arms are coated with black stains, his outer form flickering and wavering with his consciousness. The Second darts on the air, commanding a portal to open behind Daniel. He doesn’t stop when grabbing the Third, roughly throwing his forearm under Daniel’s armpit and pulling him into the portal. They emerge in the medical ward of the Pentagon, two illuminant figures, crippled and beaten, while the frightened staff back away from the pair.
It isn’t but five minutes later when Samuel careens from a golden portal into the wall of the conference room and slides down to slump over his knees. Director Wolfe and the others in the Office are unaware that Michael and Daniel had already returned, knowing only that Alyssia had to be sent back due to injury. The old, bearded man briskly shoves aside a chair to get to Samuel. His armor is gone, with his frozen open eyes reflecting golden flecks in their irises, but wholly devoid of any fury. The Sword of Fire flares still with life in his half-closed right hand, as does a crackling and splintered blade hovering on his left arm. The kevlar running the length of his left shin is cleanly cleaved off, along with patches of skin. The Director sees that as he hops up and runs to the operations room, barking orders to pull the medical emergency switch, to get someone down there right now.
Arms twitching, head hanging limp to the side and leaning against the wall, Samuel mumbles, repeatedly. “I cut his forehead.. God forgive me.. I cut his forehead.. God save me..”