"Pack up, now!" Ronan ordered as he barged into the basement. "Everyone get ready to move!"
Jason slowly levered himself to his feet and scrubbed at his face with his hands. "What's up?" he asked tiredly.
"Trouble is coming this way, fast," Ronan told him.
Jason stretched the kinks out of his shoulders. "I just finished healing the last of the wounded, as best as I can anyway. Everyone is still tired, we need rest."
"We'll have to find it elsewhere," Ronan shrugged. "Good news is that Lara, Jericho, and I set up dozens of these safe-houses. I don't think we ever really expected anything like this, but..."
"But at least we're somewhat prepared," Jason forced out in front of a yawn. "I'll organize stretcher teams. There are several people who can't walk yet." Jason nodded at one of them. "Or ever, I should say," he said sadly. The man in question had lost most of his left leg.
"We'll figure something out," Ronan sighed. "Come on. We've only got a few minutes. Jericho and Barney are trying to delay them, but they can't do much."
Jason nodded and quickly started arranging stretchers for those that absolutely needed them. "Damn it," he swore. "Paul, wake up," he ordered, infusing his voice with enough power to turn that order into a command that could not be denied.
"Wha-" Paul shouted, sitting up quickly. "What's going on?" he asked, confused.
"Trouble is headed our way, and I need more hands to help hold stretchers, not another stretcher to carry," Jason told him.
"Where are my weapons?" Paul asked, standing up. Kneeling down, he found them under the cot. "I'll play rear guard."
"That's Ronan's job," Jason told him firmly. "You're still exhausted. I wouldn't have woken you up, but I don't have enough hands for all the stretchers even with you up and about."
"Alright, what can I do to help?" Paul asked.
"Pack stuff. Weapons are a priority, then medicine, then water, then food," Jason ordered. "But only weapons that are going to be used, I don't want to cart around weapons that belong to the dead. Toss the rest in a corner and we'll destroy it before we leave."
"Destroy it?" Paul asked, surprised.
"This safe house is compromised, we aren't coming back. And I don't want them getting any of it," Jason told him firmly.
"They don't know we won't come back," Paul pointed out. "Leave some stuff behind, well hidden, make it look like we might return. They'll have to put some guards in place or check it, and that will give us a chance to pull off an ambush of some kind."
"I don't have time to argue, just..." Jason shook his head. "Fine, do it. Make it quick."
Jason helped Lara to her feet. "You still aren't ready to fight, so I need you to help the stretchers," Jason told her.
"Alright," she nodded. "The worst wounded are still on the cots, right?"
"Yeah," Jason nodded. "They aren't perfect for stretchers, but I don't see anything better, so we'll just have to make do. Can you try to set up the stretcher parties for me?"
Lara nodded. "You might be surprised; we designed those cots to be easy to turn into stretchers. I'll show you how later."
"Finally some good news," Jason sighed. "This is time-critical, Lara, they are on their way right now."
"I heard what you told Paul," she nodded. "What are you going to do?"
"Supervise," he said with a slight smile. "Which in this case is a fancy word for cracking the slave driver's whip over everyone's shoulder, while using my other eye to keep an eye out for mistakes or anything I missed. Go, now!"
Lara nodded and limped off, grabbing a few of the walking wounded and quickly forming stretcher teams out of them. Jason ran up the stairs and poked his head outside for a minute. "I'm keeping close watch to make sure they don't take us by surprise," Ronan told him. "I detailed sentries to the sewer approaches, as well."
"Stretcher teams are forming," Jason told him. "I think we'll be out of here in five minutes."
"We don't have five minutes, look!" Ronan pointed at the rooftops, where Barney was carrying a badly wounded Jericho back.
"Shit!" Jason swore. He couldn't jump straight up to the rooftop from down here, but windows made great hand-holds. It took some coordination, and more practice than he'd really cared for, but he'd mastered the knack of 'climbing' the outside of residential buildings in a hurry. He managed to reach Barney at the roof to the building. "What happened?" he swore angrily as he tried to staunch the bleeding. The long, ragged slash across the abdomen stank, and Jason could see the severed ends of what had to be intestines. "I don't have time to heal this right now," he said to himself. "Shit."
"They tried to cut us off," Barney told him as Jason pressed the ragged edges of the wound together and used a relatively small amount of magic to bind it together It wouldn't hold for long, but they didn't have time. "They're right behind me."
A bullet whizzed by, declaring the accuracy of that statement. Jason was really glad he had stifled the temptation to try and do the healing 'right'. "Shit!" Barney swore, drawing a pistol and returning fire. "I am so glad that their concentration tends to be worse than ours," he commented.
Jason pulled Jericho over his shoulder and ran for the edge of the building, mentally apologizing for making the injury worse, but he just didn't have any time. Barney covered him with the pistol. Jason watched over his shoulder, surprised at the effectiveness of the weapon. "Whatever magic they use to turn these guys into thralls doesn't work very well," he commented before dropping off the edge of the building. Holding Jericho with one hand, he used his other to catch his fall, falling a story or two at a time rather than the entire building at once. Barney went ahead and jumped straight down after Jason was most of the way there, meeting him at ground level.
"The problem is they can use that magic on way to many people," Barney swore.
"Agreed, now move!" Ronan barked, yanking them into the building. "I told Lara to prep an extra stretcher. We had to abandon a hell of a lot of supplies. Lara coached Paul through a cloaking spell to hide most of it, and the best part is it's a giant booby trap. They break the cloak and it blows up in their face."
"Perfect," Jason nodded as he thundered down the stairs.
"Here," Lara waved at Jason. "Come on, move!" Jason dumped Jericho on the stretcher.
"He's bad Lara, he needs healing. Just try and keep the bleeding under control and I'll deal with the poison later," Jason said quickly, then darted to the corner where he'd stashed his sword and cloak. He was not leaving without the sword, and he didn't want to loose the cloak either. Running to catch up, he hastily pulled the sword belt over his shoulder and wrapped the cloak around his arm. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best he could do for now.
Ronan pulled the door shut, and pressed his hand against the wall. Prepared spells activated, and the door shimmered for a moment before vanishing. "Nice," Jason told him.
"It'll hide the door, and reinforce the lock. They'll have to bash the wall down to get through," Ronan nodded. "Unfortunately, it won't take them long to figure that out."
Barney was holding a summoned light in his hand, and cast it up and down the sewer. "Strange, why isn't there anyone coming for us down here?"
"A trick," Ronan told him. "Come on, keep up with the column."
"A trick?" Barney asked as they moved at a fast walk.
"A very nice little trick Jericho came up with," Ronan nodded. "Those thralls don't have very strong magic, probably because they're internally conflicted. They don't want to be doing what they're doing, and the force that drives them has to overwhelm that by pure strength. So their wills aren't really in what they're doing, which leads to them just being plain weak by our standards."
"And the trick?" Barney asked, annoyed.
"Simply put, it's a giant misdirection hex," Ronan laughed. "The new material they're using down here is a magical conductor, that's why it helps to hide our signatures so well. But it also let me run a massive spell over the entire sewer without walking through the entire thing."
"Misdirection hex?" Jason asked, curious.
"The magic that enthralls them leaves them vulnerable to mental tricks," Ronan laughed. "So the hex randomly makes them turn the wrong way. They think they turned right, but they went left, or vice versa. Eventually they'll figure it out, but..."
"But it bought us the time we need," Jason nodded. "We probably won't be able to count on that a second time."
Ronan nodded. "Agreed. But these guys are all thralls, probably people that were just snatched off the street and pressed into service. I don't want them. I want the bastards who are placing that damned spell on them."
"What does that have to do with..." Jason started. "Oh," he said thoughtfully. "They'll have to provide 'leaders' of some kind to get past the hex."
"Precisely," Ronan nodded. "While it covers a massive area, the hex itself is rather low power. That's going to make it a bitch to fight. They almost have to come down here themselves. Which means we will be able to find them."
"And if we can find them, we can kill them," Jason nodded.
"Of course, they appear to be extremely allergic to the front-lines," Ronan snarled. "I bet you that's how we missed some of them the last time we fought."
"Agreed," Jason sighed. "Which means they might not come down here themselves," he sighed. "Of course, that means they won't be able to cut off our retreat through the sewers."
"I wish," Ronan groaned.
"What do you mean?" Jason asked.
"Oh, I get it!" Barney commented. "They just position their people down here ahead of time."
"Yeah," Ronan nodded. "We'll have to push our underground guards way out to try and counter that type of strategy, or we'll have to focus on being able to quickly cut through any blocking forces. Either way, it'll be a strain on our manpower."
"Which we don't have enough of," Jason agreed. "There are maybe fifty of us left combat effective."
"And with that damned new poison, that number is going to drop fast," Ronan agreed. "If it weren't for your ability to counter it," Ronan shook his head.
"Only part way," Jason sighed.
"It's better than nothing," Ronan reminded him. "What I don't get is why they aren't just heating their weapons red-hot and using that against us again. It was a rather nasty trick."
"That's easy," Jason sighed. "If I couldn't counter it, the poison would be far, far nastier. It would turn even a simple scratch into an almost-guaranteed kill, every time."
"So why not both?" Barney asked.
"The poison couldn't handle the heat necessary to cauterize a wound," Jason shrugged, "and past that, the actual cauterization would probably prevent the poison from entering the wound."
"So they can't do both at once," Barney nodded.
"Yeah," Jason agreed. "Hey, what's that?"
"Quiet," Ronan ordered softly. Behind them came the sound of splashing. "Barney, go tell them to keep quiet," he ordered, waving up ahead. "Jason, you're still too tired to fight. Keep them moving. I'll deal with them."
Jason nodded and started moving again. Ahead, the column suddenly grew a lot quieter as everyone stopped talking. The occasional splash when someone slipped into the channel in the center couldn't be helped. Jason spent a moment wondering about the construction down here. There simply didn't seem to be any reason to design the sewer as it was. Tall enough to walk upright, with the 'sidewalks' on either side of the channel in the center, the sewer seemed more like a tunnel system than anything else... an impression reinforced by the occasional doorway.
A soft grounding sound from behind distracted him from his curiosity, and he glanced back just in time to see a large section of the roof give way, Ronan running in front of the ongoing collapse. "Cut it a bit close," Ronan sighed as he caught up. "I'll have to be more careful next time."
"Nice trick," Jason commented. "Of course, I don't think the city is going to be too happy with it."
"My heart bleeds for them," Ronan quipped. "I caught the bunch of them in that, and totally blocked the passage. I think they caught up by pure chance."
"Alright," Jason nodded. "Stupid question, Ronan," he said after a moment. "Who designed these sewers like this?"
"Hrm?" Ronan looked around, then smiled. "Ah. This wasn't originally a modern sewer system. It started out as a series of tunnels used for the underground railroad. The official story is that during the build up to America entering World War II, some citizens with more money then sense got scared about the German bombardment of London. They were afraid something similar might someday happen here. So when the city started to grow, they paid to extend the tunnel system. The city was more than happy to oblige, mostly because they paid for all sorts of other things. After a while, it was decided that the storm drain system needed some work, and these tunnels were already there, almost perfectly positioned."
Jason nodded. "So there's a reason this looks more like a tunnel than a sewer," he shook his head. "Amazing. Wait," Jason cocked his head. "Official story?"
"This is convenient," Ronan growled. "A bit too convenient. Like the very unofficial evacuation that the Mayor is busy denying."
Jason lost his stride for a moment. "You don't honestly think I had anything to do with this?" he asked, incredulous.
"No, of course not," Ronan shook his head. "But somebody upstairs is giving us help. And I think you weren't the first involved in setting all this up."
"Then who?" Jason asked, confused.
"Well, I'm thinking about our local neighborhood prophet, Marge," Ronan said after a moment. "I wonder how many ears she's whispered into, over the years?"
"She wasn't that old," Jason complained. "Was she?"
"It's rude to ask a woman her age," Ronan told him. "And honestly, the numbers from the official account don't add up; I think construction actually started back in 1935, five years before the London Blitz. So unless you want to assume she was giving prophecy from the cradle, I think we can assume that either she was born before, oh, 1920, or somebody else started all of it. Either is possible."
"Either is possible?" Jason asked.
"I first met her shortly after I arrived in the city," Ronan told him. "In the course of the next nine years, she didn't change. Not so much as a wrinkle." Ronan shook his head. "We're falling too far behind, hurry up."
Jason picked his pace up a bit. "You're telling me, that she was... what, ninety years old?"
"No," Ronan said hesitantly, "I'm saying she was born at least ninety years ago."
"What's the difference?" Jason asked.
"I tracked down one photo from a newspaper," Ronan said after a moment. "In it, there was an old woman who looked suspiciously like Marge."
"When was it from?" Jason asked.
"1960," Ronan said. "I'm not sure it was Marge, the quality wasn't that great. But it looked like her."
"That is... a long time ago," Jason said slowly. "She'd have to be... really old."
"She looked at least eighty when we saw her," Ronan agreed. "Let's assume she really was eighty in that photo, that would make her at least a hundred and thirty years old."
"She could be really old," Jason said slowly. "Methuselah old, even. Kind of like Merlin."
"That isn't likely," Ronan said slowly. "I asked him about Marge once. Prophecy is almost solely a province of divine magic, and divine spell casters don't get, and I quote, 'the so-called gift of immortality.'"
"So called gift?" Jason asked.
"Long story, but if you think about it, it is rather obvious. Anyway, according to him, her agelessness can be explained in two ways," Ronan said after a moment. "Either her aging merely appeared to stop, or she wasn't actually alive."
"Wasn't alive?" Jason asked. "She was... what, a zombie?"
"No," Ronan shook his head. "A wise woman, whose spirit didn't cross over. Kept here past her time because, for whatever reason, there was no one else who could do the job. Apparently there's precedent."
"Precedent?" Jason asked.
"I don't know," Ronan shook his head. "We've talked quite a bit, but it's almost amazing how much he knows."
"Hey," Barney said as they caught up. "What happened?"
"I collapsed the tunnel on them," Ronan said. "There weren't that many of them, I probably could have taken them all myself, but I didn't want to chance one of them running off for help."
"You collapsed the-" Barney started. "I didn't think it would come down that easily."
"Who said it was easy?" Ronan said. "We need to keep moving. We have a lot of ground to cover, and we need to cover it fast."
Jason sighed. "Ronan, as soon as we're safe, I need to try and heal Jericho. He might not..." Jason swallowed. "If I don't heal him soon, he probably won't make it wherever we're going."
Ronan looked at him, concerned. "We need to keep moving," he repeated, then looked away. "How long will it take?"
"I don't know," Jason shrugged. "A few minutes should let me stabilize him."
"You can heal him?" Barney asked, awe showing on his face. "I mean, I carried him as far as I did, but... when I really looked at the injury..." he shook his head. "I thought he was dead."
"Not yet," Jason sighed, "but soon. And he'll probably require a lot of attention."
Ronan chewed his lip. "Fine. Five minutes, no more."
Jason nodded. "That should be enough," he said. "If it isn't... if I can't stabilize him in five minutes, I'm not sure I can."
"Go, quick," Ronan told him. "No more than five minutes, and don't you dare exhaust yourself badly enough to need a stretcher yourself."
Jason nodded and trotted up the tunnel. Predictably, Lara was helping to carry Jericho, standing opposite a man who'd lost most of his hand. "Ronan gave me five minutes to try and stabilize him."
Lara looked at him as she set down the stretcher. "It's too late," she said sadly.
"What do you mean, it's too late?" Jason asked, moving to Jericho's side. "He..." Jason realized that Jericho was deathly still, not even his chest moving.
"He just died," Lara sighed. "I was about to set him down and go find you."
"No," Jason ground out. "Not like this."
Jason fell to his knee, and pressed his hands on either side of the long, ragged line of Jericho's injury. "Jason, he's dead," Lara told him. "We need to move on."
"Ronan gave me five minutes, I'm using them," Jason snarled.
"He's dead," Lara told him firmly. "You can't bring the dead back."
"Lara, don't tell my brother what he can and can't do," Paul warned. "Anymore than you tell me."
Jason closed his eyes and let his mind drift into Jericho's body. Just as he'd expected, while the heart and lungs were still the body itself still lived. The machine as a whole was broken, but the individual parts would live for a while. He could use that.
Jason's will flooded through the body. The poison was everywhere. Literally everywhere. All the others he had healed, the poison had been concentrated around the wounds, but Jericho's body had lost the battle. What little blood remained in his veins was flooded with the poison.
Jason forced the blood to start moving again, called the poison to him and destroyed it when it answered. He used his will to line the severed tissues back up, and knitted them together in moments. He reached deep for strength, for energy, and flooded that into Jericho's emptied reserves. It was taking too long. He was moving too slow!
Jason pressed himself, moving ever quicker as he healed injury after injury, moved the blood that had flooded the abdominal cavity back into the circulatory system, burned out the waste released by severed intestines, and generally undid the worst of what was killing Jericho. He didn't have time to be thorough, simply offset the worst of what had killed him.
And then he tried to restart Jericho's heart. He could force it to pump by sheer will, but it wouldn't catch, wouldn't start pumping on its own. He could make Jericho's lungs breath, but they wouldn't pick up on it.
"I'll take your place on the stretcher, Lara," Jason said.
"Jason, he's dead," Lara said softly. "You can pump his heart for him, work his lungs, maybe even restart them eventually. But what made him Jericho, his soul if you care for that term, has fled. You can't call it back."
"That's what the doctor's said about me," Jason said as he grabbed the handle. "On three, one, two, three," Jason ordered. None of the other stretcher bearer's tried to pick it up. "The doctor's said I was in a permanent vegetative state, that I would never wake up. Well fifteen years later, here I am!" Jason said. "Now pick him up."
"Jason," Ronan said, "he's gone. Accept it."
"Ronan, we can argue about this or start moving," Jason told him. "I am not leaving him behind."
"Jason, look at him," Ronan said. "Look at him!"
Jason turned and looked Jericho over. His color was pale, but with his chest moving he just looked like was sleeping. Tired, exhausted. "Really look at him Jason, use your Sight," Ronan told him. "Look for his soul."
Jason looked. Then he Looked. And wept. "Too late," he said, letting go of the handle. "I shouldn't have spent so much time talking to you."
"He was dead when you brought him in," Ronan told him. "The injuries were just too severe. Maybe, maybe you could have done something then and there, but there wasn't time. We had to escape."
"I could have saved him," Jason said. "Forgive me, Jericho."
"Other people will die if you give up," Ronan told him. "Now stand. And walk."
Jason nodded. "We don't have time to mourn. Not yet."
"Tonight, we will drink him to his final rest," Ronan said. "But for now, we walk."
"No, you are going to sleep," Ronan said slowly and loudly, as if speaking to an idiot.
"But Ronan-" Barney began.
"You're tired, you're feeling guilty over Jericho, you think you're responsible for them finding us repeatedly, and you just plain aren't thinking straight." Ronan snapped. "Any one of those would normally disqualify you from doing much of anything. At the moment, all three are enough for me to order you -- order you -- to take some rest. Someone else can act as sentry this time. Not because I don't think you can do the job, but because you need the rest."
"Fine," Barney snarled. "Just fine!" He stalked off, grabbing a blanket from a pile of them and looking for a good place to curl up.
"He wasn't happy," Jason yawned.
"None of us are," Ronan agreed. "Get some sleep, you'll need it."
Jason shook his head. "Something is bothering me, and I don't know what."
"This is our fourth safe house in the last two days," Ronan said. "Our numbers have been cut nearly in half, again, and you've seen far too much death. What part of the above doesn't bother you."
"I know, I know," Jason said. "I just feel like I am missing something right in front of my face."
"Like what?" Ronan sat down next to Jason.
"I don't know," Jason sighed. "If only I weren't so tired, I'm not thinking very well at the moment."
"None of us are," Ronan agreed.
"This can't be chance," Jason said. "They have to be tracking us somehow."
"How?" Ronan said. "The misdirection hex is clearly working, they haven't been able to find us from the tunnel system yet. Every single time they've approached overland, gotten near us, and then flooded the sewers with troops while their main assault comes in over the ground."
"I know the arguments. And if they could track us somehow, they wouldn't need as long as they've taken to attack us each time," Jason shook his head. "We are missing something."
"OK then, let's take it from the top one more time. Can they be tracking us when we're moving through the tunnels?" Ronan asked.
"We've been concealing our trail, and if they were tracking us from underground they wouldn't approach from the surface, then go into the tunnel system," Jason sighed.
"Then are they tracking our safe houses?" Ronan asked.
Paul flopped down beside them. "If they already knew where your safe houses are, they'd have laid traps, like they did at the first one we left."
"So somehow we have to be giving away our location, right?" Ronan asked.
"I checked, and rechecked," Jason sighed. "We are containing any and all magical signatures we produce. That's why Jericho had you pick basements of buildings built out of concrete and brick, it's easy to use those materials to 'block' the signal."
"And it can't be chance?" Ronan asked.
"No, and it can't be a building by building search. They aren't looking for us, they just show up in force once they know where we are," Paul snarled. "How?"
"We've checked, it isn't a traitor," Jason said, rubbing his temples. "Every single person let us into their minds, and we were able to clearly see they weren't under compulsion, or willingly working for the enemy."
"Yes," Ronan agreed. "We even made up a damned list and made sure we checked off everyone's name."
"Give me the list again?" Jason asked, rubbing his temples. Ronan pulled it out and handed it over. "I don't even know what I'm looking for here," he sighed.
"Just don't suggest another round of scans," Paul sighed. "I don't think anybody, even Barney, would be happy with that."
"Even Barney," Jason said softly. "God, I'm tired. For a second that seemed to mean something."
"Maybe we should trade off," Ronan suggested. "Lara scanned the two of us, and we scanned her, and then we all took turns scanning everyone else. Maybe we should just go ahead and have everyone scan everyone. Maybe something will turn up."
"That's a stretch and you know it," Paul said. "You'll be conducting drum head trials next."
"I know!" Ronan snarled. "The timing suggests they're getting their intelligence from the inside though."
"We don't know that," Jason said. "It could just be a spell that takes a while to zero in on us after we surface."
"Hey guys," Lara said as she walked up. "Barney is pretty angry. He thinks you don't trust him."
"Of course we trust him, heck you handled his scan," Ronan said.
"What?" Lara asked. "No, you scanned him."
"Yeah, I scanned him months ago, when we first met him," Ronan agreed. "I'm talking about yesterday... or was it this morning?"
Jason checked the time. "It's been yesterday for the last hour or so."
"Thought so," Ronan nodded.
"Ronan, I scanned Chester," Lara said. "You scanned Barney."
"Don't be silly," Ronan said. "I scanned Chester, you..." Ronan trailed off. "Jason, where is he?"
"Paul, go find him, now!" Jason ordered. "I'll check and make sure everyone is ready to move."
"Don't tip him off," Roland said. "Maybe we can use this somehow, just make sure he is still here."
"Alright," Paul nodded, then wondered off rather nonchalantly.
"Good acting," Jason commented as he wandered off himself. As they'd ordered, everyone was keeping the unpacking to an absolute minimum. After being rousted with barely a minutes warning the last time, no one wanted to be caught flat footed. Jason wandered back over to Ronan. "I didn't see him."
"That isn't good, but it isn't definitive," Ronan commented.
"He left," Paul snarled a minute later. "Just walked right out the door."
"Damn!" Jason swore. "He must have decided we were on to him."
"I'll track him," Ronan snarled as he levered himself to his feet.
"I'm coming with you," Jason told him. "Something about this stinks."
"You need to rest," Ronan pointed out.
"You're just as tired as I am," Jason stretched, "and I can always call for help from above."
"You told me you couldn't," Ronan said, concerned.
"I drew too deeply on the power the other day," Jason shook his head. "It is unwise to draw on that power. But if it's necessary, then it's necessary."
Ronan shook his head. "He's got a head start on us, let's move."
Ronan didn't even wait for Jason to nod in reply before bounding out the door at a run. Jason didn't hesitate an instant before following. On the sidewalk outside, Ronan crouched down and pressed his fingers to the ground. Jason frowned. "You've never done that trick before," he commented.
Ronan froze halfway through standing up. Jason wasn't even sure if he was breathing. After a moment, he finished standing. "I'm sure you figured out why."
Ronan took off at a run, and Jason followed close on his heels. "We need to talk," he said after a moment. "But not now."
"Thank you," Ronan nodded. "He didn't get far, turn left at the third corner."
"Strange," Jason commented. "Shouldn't he be running for his life?"
"He doesn't know we're after him yet," Ronan said. "He probably figures stealth will get him a better head start."
"Want to take the roof approach?" Jason asked.
"Too visible," Ronan shrugged. "We might attract attention we can't afford."
Jason nodded. "Alright. That corner up there?"
"Yeah," Ronan agreed. "He's less than half a block down the street. When we turn the corner, he's going to see us and bolt."
Jason slowly drew his sword. "Let him," he growled.
"We should have had everyone move out ahead of us," Ronan commented.
"Lara is smart, she can handle that," Jason said. "For now, we have a traitor to... talk to."
Jason didn't waste time with any fancy warnings or demands for Barney to stop. The instant he turned the corner, he made a jerking motion with his hand and called a curtain of lightning down a few feet in front of Barney. Barney twisted around as the shock wave threw him back. He looked up, shocked, and scrambled back to his feet. Jason didn't wait, sending out blasts of raw power to buildings on either side of the street.
The evacuation had left the city almost empty, and there wasn't anyone in either of the buildings. Jason knew it. And so he felt no compunction about bringing them down in a rain of brick, pipes, wires, and wood to form a rough barricade. Barney had to scramble backwards, away from the avalanche, and that let Ronan catch up to him. "We need to have a talk," Ronan snarled, holding his sword with the tip pressing against Barney's throat.
"I thought you'd figured it out," Barney sighed. "That's why you grounded me."
"Actually, we grounded you before we figured out something was wrong," Ronan shrugged. "If you hadn't pressed us so hard to take the sentry position again, you probably could have gotten away with it."
Barney nodded. "Alright. End it quick, please."
"I think I'd like some answers," Ronan snarled.
"So would I," Jason said angrily. "Why?"
"Breslau needed a plant," Barney said sadly. "Killing Eric was part of the plan. Having you kill his agent wasn't. He needed to know what happened."
"Why did you do it?" Jason asked. "How?"
"Breslau taught me a mental trick, it let me create a false memory when someone scanned me. Cut right through your normal defenses," Barney shrugged. "As for why..." Barney slowly slipped his hand to his chest. "I'm not drawing a weapon."
"Good for you," Ronan snarled.
Barney drew out his wallet, and opened it. He took out a picture of a beautiful woman, and held it out. "My sister, Beatrice."
"I didn't know you had a sister," Jason commented.
"Of course not," Barney said sadly. "You'd have wanted to meet her. And that would defeat the whole point of keeping her hostage."
"Hostage?" Jason asked. "Oh God..." he felt the blood rush from his face. "That's why."
"Her. Her husband. Her children. A little boy and a baby girl," Barney shrugged. "I won't tell you anything. So kill me. That will probably save their lives."
"What do you mean?" Ronan asked, lowering his weapon a little.
Barney sighed. "If I turn on Breslau, he will kill them. Horribly. But if I'm caught, if you kill me and I don't say a thing..."
Jason lowered his head. "Damnit."
"I want to know everything you know," Ronan snarled. Barney shook his head.
"I've told you more than I should have already," he said sadly. "Breslau probably won't hold it against me, you could have figured most of it out easily enough. About the only real information I gave you is his name, and it doesn't mean anything to you."
"Unfortunately, that isn't enough," someone said from behind Jason. Jason whirled and brought a shield up, but a bolt of lightning licked past and took Barney full in the chest. Jason didn't have to look to know it had been instantly fatal. "He tried. That's enough to earn his family a clean death, at least," the man said. He was tall, with raven black hair and a pale face. A scar on his left cheek ruined any chance of classical beauty, but wasn't a blemish to the character that infused every wrinkled line of the face. Age seemed to radiate from the man, despite his upright carriage and complete lack of gray hair. He dropped his hand slowly. "We meet at last," he said, amused.
"Who are you?" Ronan asked as Jason backpedaled to stand beside him. Both of them held their swords up, ready to strike or ward off an attack.
"Someone who can kill both of you where you stand," the man said. "The name Breslau works as well as any other, for the moment."
"Why," Ronan asked. "Why are you doing all this?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Breslau laughed. "Power. I could never gain exposure to the arch while you controlled it, but now that I control it... You don't even know what it is, what you can do with it. What is already being done."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Jason asked.
"Midnight, tonight," Breslau smiled. "The dawning sun will rise on a whole new world order."
"You aren't being very clear," Ronan asked.
"Ah, I see," Breslau said rather jovially. "This is when I, the 'villain' of the peace, do my big reveal, laying bare all my plans to the heroes -- that would be you -- so they might foil my dastardly plot!"
"Sure," Ronan nodded. "Or, hell, maybe I just want to understand what this is about. You attacked us, and I still don't know why," he added angrily.
Breslau nodded. "That's a good point I suppose," he sighed. "Unfortunately, I'm not stupid enough to reveal my plans to people dedicated to opposing them. If you were willing to switch sides, well... I'd take you in a heartbeat, believe me. But you aren't willing, are you?"
"You attacked us without mercy, you've used a deadly poison that could very well kill anyone it came in contact with, you deliberately targeted the civilians, the non-combatants, in the first engagement of this battle," Jason snarled. "What the hell do you think?"
"That," Breslau said angrily, "wasn't my doing. I authorized the attack, yes, but they weren't supposed to target the civilians. They were supposed to cut your men off from them, and then get the non-combatants out. My... allies, I suppose you could say, decided to rewrite their orders."
"Do you expect me to believe that?" Ronan snarled.
"I swear to you upon my powers that is true," Breslau said firmly. "Do you know what that means?"
Jason looked at Ronan, who looked back. "No," Ronan said after a moment.
"Swear by this," Jason said, pulling his cross out. "Swear under the influence of the Lord's Power, under the seal of His Will."
"I swear before you," Breslau held his hands up. "Oh unconsecrated priest, I do willingly swear under the lash of Divine Power, that I spoke truly. I didn't aim that attack at the civilians, I wanted them out of the way before we destroyed your little 'Guardian Order', which I needed out of the way so that I could control the Arch. I swear that to be the truth."
Jason looked at Ronan and nodded. Strange as it seemed, it was the truth. "You cost a lot of people their lives," Jason snarled.
"Ashley Sarah Russell," Breslau said. "Have you had a chance to drop by her house?"
Ronan shook his head. "She's been with us, on the run, for the last several days. We haven't been able to get anyone there." He neglected to mention that they'd tried only because they were desperately worried about the kids there. Of all the safe-houses run by Guardians, it was the only one that actually had a Guardian on-site, the only one that really and truly needed it. And they'd only had so many Guardians with the necessary traits to try and run such a facility.
"You would have found one of my men, a sworn servant, keeping watch," Breslau said. "The children are being well cared for under his watchful eye. They haven't been harmed."
"And if we'd shown up?" Jason asked.
"He would have told you that so long as you remained, you placed the children in danger. And that so long as you left them be, he would see to their well being until they came of age," Breslau answered. "I moved money into a trust fund in their name, whatever happens they will be taken care of. I'm not a monster."
"Then why all of this?" Jason asked.
"Because, you never would have helped me," Breslau said. "I had to act, and you would have stopped me if you could. So I had to see to it you couldn't."
"And all the sneaking around? The clever tricks and tactics?" Jason asked. "You're powerful, powerful as hell, why not a frontal assault?"
Breslau shook his head. "Until I could be exposed to the Arch, I couldn't be half as powerful as I am now," he complained. "And even now, your order holds more than enough strength to overwhelm me through sheer numbers if it comes to that."
"So you've been throwing thralls, helpless people pressed into service, into the fight in your place," Jason sneered. "Real humanitarian."
"I am serving a purpose, a cause," Breslau snapped back. "I'm doing something that has to be done! Something that should have been done long since!"
"And the ends justify the means?" Jason shook his head. "No."
"You don't understand what is at risk," Breslau told him. "I revealed myself, here and now, because there was a chance to talk to you two. Stand down. Swear you won't interfere, and I'll explain what is going on. You'll agree to help, you have to, and if you don't..." Breslau looked away. "I have what I need. Just leave me be. Please."
Jason shook his head. "The blood of innocents is on your hands," he said. "We must stand against you. We are sworn. I will stand true, I will keep the watch, I will protect the innocent."
"My blood before theirs, my life before theirs, my death in their service," Ronan took it up. "Vengeance is all I can offer them now, the only service I can grant the dead."
"We want justice for the fallen," Jason shook his head. "We will not stand aside."
Breslau's fingers twisted through a complex motion as he spoke a string of nonsense syllables. In a second, he was encased in a glove of glowing energy. "I don't want to fight," he said. "But if you will not stand aside, if you will not quit, then I must!"
"That's why you needed the Arch," Ronan nodded. "You wanted to augment your powers with the mystic branch of magic."
Breslau nodded. "With it, I have enough strength, barely, for what must be done. Stand with me. Your help could be invaluable!"
"What does it take to get through your skull, no," Jason told him.
"Then you must die," Breslau said sadly. "I didn't want it to come to this."
"It could never end any other way," Ronan said sadly.
Breslau reached into his coat and drew out a gem. "I give you one last chance to surrender," he said, "in memory of all the good you have striven for. I'm sure you know what this is, Ronan," he held the gem out, and it began to shine dimly in the darkness.
Ronan hissed in shock. "Merlin showed me his once. The most powerful weapon of magic known." He shook his head in disbelief, "There are only supposed to be five of them."
"Meet number six," Breslau nodded. "I kept it hidden from the Council."
"What is it?" Jason asked.
"A very old piece of magic," Breslau sighed. "A starstone."
"A weapon," Ronan said softly. "A power source as well, but mostly a weapon."
"I don't know how the ancients managed it," Breslau admitted. "We have fallen far in these decrepit times. But according to the ancient texts, they extracted a fragment of star stuff from the heart of the sun, and suspended it in time. It only looks like a diamond, this is actually forged of pure magic."
"A fragment of stellar matter," Ronan nodded. "Science tells us how dangerous that can be." Suddenly Ronan smiled. "It's a suicide weapon, you can't use it against us. It'd kill you too."
"Ronan, Ronan, Ronan," Breslau shook his head. "Do you think I didn't consider that?"
"You can't control a power transfer of that magnitude while we're fighting you," Ronan shrugged. "An instant's distraction and you'd be burned to a crisp."
"You forget its primary use," Breslau reminded Ronan. "It's designed to act as a power source. Whatever magic they used, it's still linked to the sun. But it takes time to recharge, hours or even days if drained enough."
Ronan shook his head. "We would have felt the transfer of that much energy," he said.
"Not if it was being fed directly into the Arch itself, into the magic that shaped the stone of its physical structure," Breslau told him. "Already, the seals begin to unravel."
"If you drained that much power... all that's left is only the actual stellar matter," Ronan said, horrified. "You could use it as a weapon. One we can't stop."
"Indeed, and I give you this one, last chance," Breslau said. "No more looking back, no more second chances, no more debate. Just one, final chance. I don't want to do this, but I will."
Ronan sighed. "Then I die."
"Over my dead body," Jason growled. "Stand down and we will let you live, Breslau," Jason said firmly. "Otherwise, let's get this dance started."
"Such a waste," Breslau sighed. "And yes, it will be over your dead body Jason."
Breslau lifted his hand to his lips and blew on the stone. Jason's defenses were ready, and he raised them with a thought, layer after layer of power forming a shining, impenetrable dome. A white-hot flash of light came scorching in and struck his defenses, and Jason staggered, unable to believe the sheer, unstoppable power of it. Jason's sword shone as he held it in guard position, focusing his power through it, drawing on its power to stiffen his shields. But metal melts, and flesh burns, and until its power was drained nothing could stop the fragment of stellar matter from completing it's journey.
"No!" Ronan screamed in fury and rage. His sword slashed through Jason's defenses and he darted through as they began to collapse. The shockwave, if anything, bought Jason a few seconds as Ronan's power merged with his own, forcing the stellar matter back for an instant before it began boring back through the crumbling defenses.
And then Ronan was there, holding Jason tight against his chest. Sudden, searing heat burned through the leathers of Jason's armor, and he fell to his knees in shock. He didn't have to look down to know exactly what had happened.
He hadn't even had a week with Ronan, was all he could think. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. Death shouldn't come this easily, this quickly. Jason pressed his lips against Ronan in goodbye. "Oh, Ronan," he breathed as tears started to form in his eyes.
Ronan tried to speak, but no sound came out. He swallowed, clearly fighting the pain, and then gazed into Jason's eyes forcefully.
"Goodbye, Jason," Ronan said sadly. "I'm sorry I couldn't... I..."
Jason sobbed as he held Ronan in his arms. The blackness of nowhere and nowhen pressed in around them, a sourceless light the only illumination, and them the only objects in reality. "Ronan, I can't go on without you," Jason cried.
"You must," Ronan told him firmly. "This is something that had to be, I'm sure of it," Ronan told him. "Remember what Marge said?"
"Three things will warn of the storm," Jason shook his head. "Something like that. Eric's death was the first."
"The second was your love for me," Ronan told him. "You redeemed me. Maybe not in other's eyes, but in my own. You saved me. And then we married. I didn't understand until that day, until we swore our oaths."
"I don't understand," Jason told him. "What are you talking about?"
"Our time here is racing swiftly," Ronan said weakly. "We don't have long. There is so much I need to tell you."
"I don't want to hear it, I just want you," Jason said.
"You need to know," Ronan forced out. "When I was a boy, a child, before my first lover died... I was like you. I loved God, and knew he loved me. When I killed... when I killed Ronan, I lost my faith. My link to God was broken. I couldn't accept what had happened, that he could love me. But when I became a Guardian, I heard him. Whispers in my ears, suggestions and hints. A few tricks the others never managed to learn."
"I don't understand," Jason shook his head. "What is so important-"
"Don't loose your faith," Ronan begged Jason. "You will need the power it provides, and the comfort. Live on for me. Finish what must be finished. I will never be far."
"You're dying," Jason cried. "You're leaving me!"
"No," Ronan shook his head. "We are one. One in heart. One in power. One in soul. Our love will stand forever. I will never leave you. Our oath binds me. And the soul lives after death."
"I want you, not the comfort that I'll see you again," Jason begged.
"Jason, don't you understand? Our magic is one. So long as you hold your powers, I'm there. Behind you, feeding you power," Ronan told him. Ronan's face grew stern. "And I'm going to be a lot closer to the Lord than you are, able to grab a lot more of His Power. And feed it to you."
"I don't care about power-" Jason started.
"Avenge my death," Ronan ordered him. "More than that, make it _mean something. Marge told me this day would come, and I haven't turned aside. I won't."_
"What are you talking about?" Jason asked.
"When the starstone shines, shield your heart," Ronan recited, "and thus save the world with your death."
"You are my heart, Jason," Ronan said sadly. "Goodbye, my love. I will always be there, waiting for you."
"Listen to me, Ronan... no, not now," Jason shook his head. "Listen to me, _Justin," he said firmly. "I want you to find Ronan, the real Ronan. Don't be alone while you wait for me."_
Ronan smiled as he began to fade away. "You still don't get it, do you Ronan?" he smiled. "I'll always be with..." Jason's arms were suddenly empty, and then the world came crashing in. He pulled his lips away from Ronan's, and then reached up with one shaky hand to close Ronan's eyes.
"Goodbye, my love," Jason whispered, lowering him to the ground. He howled in anger, rage, sorrow, and horror, head tossed back to the sky as something inside him was ripped and torn.
As if in answer, thunder and rain announced the arrival of the worst storm in years, a storm fit to level cities.