Jason's eyes snapped open, but for a few seconds they refused to focus. Finally he blinked the crusty remnants of several days immobility away and managed to look around. Ronan was holding him gently from behind, snoring. Jason sighed. He'd felt Ronan slip into sleep the instant he'd finished the 'guided tour' of his own soul. It had been... interesting.
Moving gingerly he slowly worked his way loose of the bed and Ronan's arms. Ronan snorted and stopped snoring, but didn't quite wake up. Exhaustion had clearly taken it's own toll of him, and Jason could probably use some rest himself. The clock on the wall read eight, and given the dark outside the window Jason was pretty sure that meant eight PM. But for now his priorities were his hunger, thirst, and desperate need for a shower.
Jason found a robe waiting by the bed and wrapped himself in it. Poking his head out the door he watched for a moment as a couple of kids ran around. For a moment he just watched, smiling, before his stomach loudly reminded him of his responsibilities to it. The kids turned and giggled as his stomach gave another growl. "Don't mind me," Jason told them. "Can you tell me where Ashley is?"
"Coming with your dinner," she said from the other end of the hallway. "If you could give me a hand?"
Jason opened the door the rest of the way and walked out of the room. Catching one of the trays from her, he helped her cart the food and drink back to the room. "Ronan fell asleep," he told her quietly.
"Good, he needs the rest," Ashley smiled. "Guardians can get away with shorting themselves on sleep for a long time, but eventually it will catch up even to us."
"Yeah, and he has a lot of catching up to do," Jason sighed.
"Not that much, you only spent about a week on whatever it is you did," she told him.
"A week?!" Jason shouted, surprised.
"About eight and a half days, to be precise," she told him.
"Well, it was time well spent," Jason sighed. "Any disasters happen while I was out of it?"
He'd meant it as a joke, but Ashley looked away, distraught.
"Ah fuck, how bad is it?" Jason swore.
"There was another attack," Ashley said softly. "This time, they didn't even bother trying to be sneaky, they just hit Alex Romero head-on. He delayed them for a little while, long enough for some others to come to his help."
"So they beat the attack off?" Jason asked.
Ashley started crying. "Alex was just about exhausted when Justin and Natalie showed up. The three of them held off for a good five minutes before the bastards swarmed them under. I got there... I got there just in time to watch them kill Natalie. Justin and Alex were..." Ashley swallowed. "The bastards were exhausted, and Lara and I managed to kill five of them before they could escape. We -- the Guardians as a whole -- tracked four more down. That leaves two unaccounted for. Quinton is busy trying to track them to ground."
"Shit!" Jason swore. "That makes what, ten..."
"No, more," Ashley interrupted him. "While we were tracking the four down, they laid a few ambushes. Carla took a nasty hit, and Pedro damned near died. We estimate their death count at over thirty, but only those two who ran from the first fight survived."
"Thirty?!" Jason blinked in surprise.
"If not more; Tommy had some problems with some street gangs that seemed to think this house might be a good place to cause trouble. He's convinced it was a probe by someone thinking attacking here would be a good idea."
"Holy shit," Jason swore. "That's a disaster alright. I'm surprised they didn't try and attack, thought, I mean Tommy is... well, I mean..." Jason shut his mouth, unsure how to phrase it.
"Tommy is going to face the Arch sometime tomorrow, to remedy that problem," Ashley sidestepped the phrasing issue for Jason. "But he's no pushover, even then, and your brother has hardly left here. And the defenses I have set up here were nasty to begin with. We're stepping that up, hard, to try and head off any further attacks."
"Defenses?" Jason asked.
"Well, remember that spell you sensed last time you were here?" Ashley asked.
"Yeah, but it isn't something that could stand up to an attack," Jason told her. "It's... it's a nurturer, not a killer."
Ashley quirked a smile. "No, it's maternal. Sometimes, that's nurturing, but never get between a mother wolf and her cubs. When I got back, the spell was so... so prickly that I almost couldn't get in! And don't underestimate Tommy; with the spell in place to ward off the worst our powers can do, he could have held his own. And several of the children have little tricks of their own. Tony is the most powerful, and telekinesis is readily turned to combat, but the others would jump in to help," Ashley sighed. "Whether I want them to or not," she added unhappily. "Any idiot who attacks this house is in for a nasty surprise."
"From the sounds of it, they have the numbers -- had the numbers," he corrected quickly, " to push through anyway."
"True," Ashley agreed, "but for all the force that the attack was carried out with, it was crude. Everyone except Quentin is convinced that it was an attack of opportunity, though there are some flaws in that. Alex was way out in the boondocks when the attack hit him, or we could have gotten there a lot quicker, but the ambushes were just a bit too polished to be a spur of the moment thing."
"Split personality," Jason murmured. "Whoever these guys are, their attacks are all well planned, and usually you don't see them until they're over, if then."
"That's just it, the attack itself was split," Ashley sighed. "It's like the ambushes were all well planned in advance, but the attack itself was a spur of the moment improvisation when they realized they could catch one of us alone."
Jason froze, hand stretched halfway to the tray of food on the nightstand. "Something about that bothers me," he finally said. "I can't put my finger on it..."
"Quentin latched onto that as well," Ashley agreed. "And, hell, I can't disagree with him! It doesn't make any sense!"
"Could it have been two different groups?" Jason asked.
"That makes as much sense as anything," Ashley sighed, "except several of the ambushes were set by the same people who attacked us in the first place."
"Ronan is not going to be happy about this," Jason agreed. "Not at all."
"Finish your food, get some sleep," Ashley ordered. "Well sort it all out in the morning."
Jason was famished enough that he didn't bother arguing.
"This just doesn't make any fucking sense!" Ronan snapped, slamming his fist into the table hard enough to splinter the wood. "Fuck!"
Everyone stared at the cracks running through the polished wood. The walls were bare concrete, what amounted to a magically reinforced bunker directly under Ronan's gym. Jason could just feel the baleful influence of the Arch nearby trying to pound its way through the defenses, but they were strong. Concrete was only part of it; in addition to the thick concrete walls and steel lined doors there were spells woven into the material to protect and hide the room. The lighting was provided by a series of harsh incandescent bulbs that cast stark shadows across the room. The perfect setting for a council of war.
"You're right, it doesn't make sense," Lara shrugged, an act that ill suited the scowl on her face. "The attacks have always been precise, targeted, planned, and they all boiled down to probes or surgical strikes. This was anything but a probe or surgical strike. They weren't nibbling around the edges, they dove right in to kill one of us."
"Why the fucking change?"
"What if it wasn't a change?" Paul asked.
"Of course it was a change, they went from testing to outright attacking us!" Jason argued, then paused. "This is the first time they've gotten into a head on fight with us."
"The first time they went head to head, and they did it when they had one of us isolated, unsupported, and vulnerable," Paul agreed. "It might not be a probe, but it might still be a test."
"Why the change in tactics, though?" Lara asked. "Their probing attacks haven't been hurting us, but they haven't been costing them any resources, either."
Ronan fell into a chair. "When you put it that way, it becomes obvious," he said slowly. "They've been testing us, probing us. Towards what end?"
Jason figured it out. "They've been testing us, and this is a continuation of that. Only they don't think they need to stay hidden, they think they have the power to take us on head to head. And we showed them the error of their ways!"
"Did we?" Ronan asked. "We were very powerful, but their ambushes bled us dry. And they managed to overwhelm Alex, Natalie, and Justin through sheer numbers. How many people do they have?"
"And where the hell did they get the power to face us down?" Ashley asked, tired. "We've gone around in circles. We just don't know."
Jason cocked his head. "That compulsion they threw over Jin..." he said hesitantly. "It was strange. It twisted his soul at the most basic level to try and control him."
Ronan sighed. "It wouldn't be enough to trigger their powers. Probably."
"Not alone," Jason said, "but didn't you say the Arch was growing stronger? Reaching out further and further?"
"Yes, but its primary reach is contained. You have to see it, be in sight of it, to be affected, to become a Guardian," Ronan answered.
"What if the two..." Jason struggled for a word, "synergize somehow?"
"Synergy?" Jericho asked. "That makes a degree of sense."
"It's not a sense I like," Ronan growled. "Because it rather strongly implies that the bastards who attacked us weren't even... that they were cat's paws, and we killed innocent men and women."
"No, not innocent," Jason said unhappily. "Not after that spell gets its claws into them."
"Unfortunately, I have to agree with Jason on that one. That spell... the mere traces of it are wrong. Evil, not to put too fine a word on it." Lara agreed.
"Evil is exactly the right word, that's why..." Ronan cut off. "I am sworn to certain secrets. Sworn." He looked from face to face. "This is more than we can handle on our own. I'm going to call the Sentinels in for testing, by us. They can either ally themselves with us fully, so that we can co-ordinate our responses and know, know they aren't behind any of this, or..." Ronan looked away.
"Do we really want to fight with them when some hyena is watching, just waiting for us to weaken?" Ashley asked.
"We have to," Paul said, tears in his eyes. "We have to know if they are friends or foes. One or the other. If they try to play neutral, and they catch us in the rear while we aren't expecting it..."
"We need more information, first and foremost," Ronan agreed. "That's why I'm calling the Sentinels in. I'm also going to make other calls. This does not leave this room, understand? Not a one of you can let this loose. Not a one."
"What is it?" Ashley asked. "What is so secret?"
"I talked to someone about this possibility months ago, thankfully, so I can give the bare outlines to you. We've never formally assigned responsibilities, but each of you has a title of sorts." Ronan pointed to each of them in turn, "Lara, you're medical and psych support; Ashley, you've handled logistics and long term care. Quentin, you're my intel specialist. Jericho, you're R&D." Finally Ronan's finger reached Paul. "Paul, I've been watching. You've got the knack for R&D, but you've also got a cold-blooded practicality. I was grooming you to be Eric's backup, but that isn't possible. For now, you're the trainee head of combat operations. I'd hold that title myself, but..."
"But you're the boss. The CO, the captain, if we were in the military," Paul nodded his head. "And I think that leaves us knowing exactly who Jason is."
"Actually, no. Jason's position on this council..." Ronan bit his lip. "He's going to be my XO, but he's already something else."
"What else is there?" Jason asked.
"Your powers are different than ours. Do you remember that conversation?" Ronan asked.
"Yes, I'm..." Jason laughed. "I'm the chaplain?" he giggled.
"No," Ronan shook his head. "You are our ethical anchor, our spiritual adviser, and more."
"I can't go into details. I'm not allowed. But a lot of our actions were predicated on the idea that the powers we've discovered in ourselves are new," Ronan sighed. "They're old."
"I think we figured that one out a long time ago," Jericho told him. "We've thrown around the word 'geas' often enough, but I looked up the origin. And if I wanted to, I could place a geas, in the ancient Irish sense, the type of geas placed upon Cuchulainn. A spell to strengthen, and to kill if the terms were broken."
"And we don't just talk about the laying of hands, we do it," Lara agreed. "No one has figured out how magic died, but clearly it did."
"It did, and it didn't," Ronan nodded his head. "Let me tell you a story. A story of good, or Light, and evil, or Dark. The White, Steven King called one of the two Eternals, and that is as good a name as any."
"This is starting to sound like a creation myth," Jericho stated, half joking.
"Parts of it are," Ronan agreed. "This story, parts of it, are over fifteen thousand years old. Perhaps even twenty. And for reference, the history most of the world is aware of, of ancient Egypt and China, goes back about five thousand years."
The room fell silent. Five thousand years... and Ronan had something more than fifteen thousand years old to tell them.
"There are two great powers, two Eternals as They are called, locked in combat for all eternity. They represent two completely different philosophies, ideologies, and They exist on a level completely beyond our own. They stand, quite literally, outside of time. No mortal mind can even begin to understand Them. But Their very power is Their downfall. They cannot act in this plane of existence without causing devastation. Think of us as an anthill; even if a child wanted to help us dig, his fingers are so big he'd collapse our tunnels around us as he tried. And if They opposed each other, if They actually fought inside this reality..." Ronan's voice trailed off.
"God, and the Devil," Jason whispered.
"Labels, Jason, Labels," Ronan told him. "They are old, They are powerful, and that is all we can hope to know of Them. The force we follow, the one people label God, is more powerful. But He's also less prone to intervention. His opposite doesn't care about the devastation he causes, but the Light does. But there are ways around that."
"Some sentient beings are attuned to the fields of energy that permeate our reality. They are able to manipulate that energy to do things. Some few, completely blind to those fields, instead see beyond this reality and tap into the fundamental fabric of reality. For lack of a better way to explain it, they can channel energy from beyond our reality into this one, if they choose."
"Jason is such a one. Jason can reach beyond our reality, to a realm closer to the two Eternals," Ronan looked at Jason and smiled. "Think of it as a gigantic bucket-chain, pouring water down the levels until it reaches us. That is what angels, and demons, are for. They are the hands of the Eternals in a realm They cannot otherwise reach. But through them, the two Eternals can make their will known, in part. That power trickles down to those individuals who can wield it, and from there into the universe at large."
"Fascinating, but what does it have to do with anything?" Lara asked, frustrated.
"I'm getting to that. The two are opposed, they war across the cosmos in uncounted millions of galaxies, uncounted trillions of worlds, and unimaginable numbers of sentient species," Ronan laughed. "It sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi story, but the war between good and evil, Armageddon, has been waged for a million years past, and will be waged for a million years future. And Earth is a vital point in that conflict."
"There are no exact histories available, but as humanity evolved into a sentient species it developed, in self defense, a unique ability in all the cosmos. All species posses members with the ability to reach beyond, to the Eternals, or to manipulate the energies around them by thoughts, actions, and words. But of all the species, all the peoples, all the worlds, only on Earth did something else occur. Two branches of magic, the arcane and the divine, were met by a third. Call it the mystic."
"That sounds like an old D&D setup," Jericho laughed.
"Gary Gycax happened to have a friend who knew a bit about magic, real magic," Ronan told him with a shrug. "It leaked over, apparently. From what I was told, it was a huge scandal."
"Scandal?" Jericho asked.
"We've jumped ahead," Ronan sighed. "Earth is unique, because humanity possesses the ability to directly manipulate energy fields through sheer force of will. But while that ability is inborn, as are the other two 'branches' of magic, it isn't expressed unless it's triggered. The other two are possessed, literally, from birth, but grow as a person ages. The third must be triggered by a direct, malevolent exposure to the extra-planar power of one of the Eternals. But that power is immense, and it synergizes with the other two. Beyond that, mankind has an unusual range of power, ranging from the very weak magicians to the ones who could face off against what you might call 'archangels' and 'archdemons'. Most of us are weak, but those of us who are strong are literally earth shattering. One of the stories I was told involved a man who literally brought an entire mountain down on his opponent to win the battle."
"And that very strength was the problem. Mankind was too strong, and neither Light nor Dark would willingly give up its hold on the world," Ronan sighed. "The war raged for a terribly long time, and it eventually became clear that mankind was being destroyed. We simply could not survive the giants dueling over possession of our allegiance."
"And so a deal was struck between the humans on each side, without the knowledge of their superiors. They gathered together to cast a great spell, a spell of unimaginable power. How it works I don't know; the people who told me this story don't even understand it. One of them, the strongest and most knowledgeable, the oldest and wisest, understands parts of it. But only parts, even after millennia of study."
"Millennia?!" Lara gasped.
"He has lived over six thousand years, and faced opponents out of myth and legend," Ronan told her. "I won't give you his name, but if I did you'd recognize it. Everyone learns the stories, they're a cultural icon."
In an instant, Jason understood. "Le Morte d'Arthur," he whispered, too low for anyone to hear. "That's why you were reading it."
"Damnit," Ronan swore. "Jason, shut up!"
"I won't say more, but you might as well use his name, they'll figure it out," Jason ordered.
"Perhaps they will, and..." Ronan sighed. "Alright. Back to the story."
"The war was too great, too damaging, and mankind had had enough. Its greatest minds, from both sides of the war, came together as one and wrought a spell of unimaginable power. It destroyed the civilization that existed, severing the links to extra-planar power sources which that civilization used much as we use electricity. But that was simply a side effect. As the world burned down around them, they died knowing that they had done the impossible."
"No extra-planar entities of the Light or Dark may walk upon this world, and even their ability to funnel power and knowledge to those with the ability to receive it was drastically curtailed," Ronan told them. "Earth declared itself, for the sake of its own people, neutral."
"Holy shit," Jason swore. "They did... I mean... How could they?"
"War is hell, Jason, and they were tired. Mankind was dying, and neither side would profit from that. So they opted out. They didn't give up on the Light, or the Dark, they simply agreed that the damage being done by the battle was hurting both sides more than they gained. It was a truce, and meant to be permanent."
"Meant to be?" Jericho jumped in.
"When they sealed away the power of the Eternals," Ronan ignored the question, "they didn't touch the rest of the universe... though why no one has bothered to drop by and say 'hi' is worrisome. Nothing should prevent them from figuring out a way to do that. Because of the seal, the third art, the mystic one, vanished. The other two still existed. Enter in my source," Ronan drew a deep breath and looked at Jason. "You're going to tell them if I don't, aren't you?"
"Yes," Jason said. "Your oath isn't mine, and I put it together without even that 'Mur' slip. Or would have, anyway. So will they."
"Mur?" Jericho asked. "I don't get it, what does..." His eyes widened. "You have to be joking!" he shouted.
"So the truth comes out at last," Lara sighed. "You ought to be more careful where you talk to Merlin, Ronan."
"You've... known?" Ronan asked, flabbergasted.
"For months," she told him. "Continue on, though, I didn't know all this. Or that it was... well... is it the real Merlin? The Merlin?"
"Yes," Ronan said. "Anyway, he was born about six thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries. He hasn't kept exact count."
"I wonder why," Jericho snorted.
"For the arcane branch of the power, there is a distinct pyramid of power. Most people have very little, a bunch have a fair bit, a few are powerful. And a few, a very few, have an almost transcendental level of power. And of those, an even smaller percentage have a unique gift: immortality. They do not age. Nor, as a result of their relationship, do their loved ones."
"Their loved ones?" Ashley asked, surprised.
"It makes immortality a slightly smaller curse than otherwise, I'm told. I'm skipping a lot of details here, but we need to get through this quickly." Ronan looked up. "Merlin studied magic from an early age, and showed exceptional aptitude. He also picked up a number of enemies. At the height of his power, he took the magic sword Excalibur from the woman who taught him magic and bestowed it upon someone he believed worthy. I think we're all familiar with the story of Uther Pendragon, and how unworthy he proved to be."
Jason winced. "Yeah, you could say that."
"Anyway, Merlin stripped Excalibur from Uther in punishment, and proceeded to hatch a back up plan. Enter King Arthur. From what I understand, the stories got a lot of details wrong -- a terrible, terrible number -- but the core of it is correct. King Arthur ruled with the aid of Excalibur, a magic blade that made him a fearsome foe in battle. In the end, one of Merlin's enemies killed him by providing a magic sword to his nephew, Mordred, who killed Arthur. Damn near killed Merlin, too, before Merlin figured out what was going on. At that point, Merlin got a tad bit... upset, and made a rather major decision." Ronan shook his head.
"You see, Merlin is the only one who knows the site where the Great Barrier was cast. And, somehow, he 'tacked' on an extra spell onto the framework provided by the Great Barrier, a feat beyond most magicians. And what a spell."
"You want to know why we don't have magic these days? It's because Merlin's spell bound the powers of every newborn babe from that day on, blinding them to the fields of energy they might otherwise learn to manipulate."
"Holy shit," Quentin swore.
"An unanticipated side effect was that divine magic was also weakened," Ronan added. "Not completely sealed, but very close to it. Only a very few of those that possess the potential to wield it ever do so, and they tend to be weaker than otherwise."
"So, there aren't any more..." Lara frowned. "You said Merlin is immortal?"
"Yes, and therein lies our best bet," Ronan sighed. "He isn't the only immortal wizard running around. There's an entire council of them, with a rule book as thick as a damned phone book. Merlin has helped me evade their rules and regulations, but..."
"Better senseless rules and regulations than letting these guys run around loose?" Jason asked.
"Yeah. When the council hears about the type of compulsion these bastards are using, they will literally flood this area with their top..." Ronan stopped. "Not police, they don't really have police. They call them 'Watchers', they watch for people breaking the rules and... deal with them. Harshly."
"Aren't we kinda 'breaking the rules'?" Lara asked. "I'd rather not be 'dealt with', much less 'dealt with harshly'."
"We aren't 'breaking the rules' half so much as we stand outside the rules," Ronan reassured her. "Merlin and I discussed that several times. The rules never imagined the return of the Mystic powers, so they restrict themselves to governing the arts Arcane and the arts Divine." Ronan smiled. "Ironically, most of what we do is still well inside the rules laid out for those two; only exposing people to the Arch is outside it, and even that is by technicality, since everyone is a volunteer with the risks explained to them in advance."
"What about all of our taking the law into our own hands?" Jericho asked. "Don't they have rules about that?"
"The rules are against exposure, and against abusing our powers," Ronan shrugged. "Honestly, they don't care what we use our powers for, just how we do it."
"They don't care what we do?" Jason asked, surprised.
"Their rules are all directed at two things. One is making sure we don't reveal magic, because if the world as a whole rose up against them they wouldn't be sitting high on the hog anymore. And two is not to use magic for 'evil' purposes. What happens to be evil is left up to the end-user most of the time." Ronan shrugged. "The council had to get a large base of consensus in order to start up, and the cost was letting all the petty tin-pot dictators of a magic rich world find a new way to support their lifestyles. Overall, the cost is a lot less, but..."
"But there is a lot of room left for improvement," Lara smiled. "And wouldn't it be interesting if-"
"No," Ronan said firmly. "The average individual in the council is as strong as me or Jason; their top end people could squash everyone in this room. We can't afford a fight."
"Which smells like reason number two to avoid becoming involved with them," Jason sighed. "Too bad we don't have any other options!"
"Alright, that's the background. Now, let's get to the nuts and bolts of our operation. We have no way of knowing how long the Watchers will take to get here, which means we need to be prepped to deal with things on our own. The first order of business is pulling in the Sentinels, and scanning them. Then merging them with the structure of the Guardians or... shutting them down." Ronan shook his head. "From there, we need to lay contingency plans; what do we do if our enemy attacks us here, if we see a weak point there, stuff like that. Past that, a final contingency plan just in case... just in case this breaks down into all out war. I want options people, and I want them now."