Jason groaned as he tried to roll over. His head was pounding, a giant throbbing that waxed and waned with the beating of his heart.
"Ah, you're awake," a half-familiar voice commented. "I was worried."
"What happened," Jason croaked.
"Here," strong hands helped him sit up, and then held a glass to his lips. "Small sips at first."
Jason wanted to gag at the foul taste, but sipped it anyway. The throbbing dimmed almost instantly, and his mouth no longer felt like the middle of the Sahara Desert. "Where am I?"
"A military base on the outskirts of the city," came the sure reply. "They co-opted some kind of office building for the duration of the emergency."
"They?" Jason latched onto the word choice.
"How much do you remember?" Jason tried to quiet the remaining headache long enough to remember-
"Ronan!" Jason forced his eyes open and stared up into Merlin's face. "Oh God, please tell me it was a dream."
"I wish I could," Merlin said sadly. "And I'm sorry I was so late."
Jason leaned back against the wall as tears streaked down his face. "Ronan, oh Ronan," he sobbed.
"We don't have much time," Merlin told him, wiping his tears away. "I need to know what you learned from Breslau before I arrived."
"What, why?" Jason asked, confused. "Don't you know what's going on?"
"I know bits and pieces," Merlin shrugged. "It's unusual for a wizard to possess the gift of foresight, and that gift is the secret of much of my power. But without knowledge, my ability to see the..." Merlin hesitated for a moment. "I'm not sure how to put it. I can see the form, the general shape of a dozen futures, and sometimes I catch glimpses of key events and people. And I possess a fragment of the Sight, the ability to know things that I can't possibly know."
"So what do you know?" Jason asked.
"What I know isn't as important as what you know," Merlin told him. "I know that Breslau let slip something vital, I simply do not know what."
"We mostly just went around in circles about who was going to kill who, or who was going to yield," Jason shrugged. "Ronan tried to get him to talk about his plan, but about the only thing he said was that he'd used the power of his starstone to do something. Oh, and that 'the dawning of the next day'... no, wait, that's not right..." Jason shook his head. "It wasn't today, it was tomorrow. Midnight, that's it. Something was happening midnight, tonight."
"Four hours," Merlin whispered. "Not much time."
"Wait, four hours?" Jason asked, confused.
"You, and the others, were deeply tired," Merlin shrugged. "You slept the day away. I used a bit of magic to help refresh you, but actual rest was needed as well."
"Great," Jason groused. "So now we have four hours to stop them, and no clue what they're doing."
"You said he used the power of the starstone? What for?" Merlin asked.
"He didn't say, just that he'd drained it," Jason shrugged. "Ronan made a comment about us sensing the use of that much power, and he commented that he'd cloaked it with the arch."
"Cloaked it with the arch?" Merlin asked, confused. "What does..." Merlin's face slowly drained of all emotion and color, and he began swearing softly in a language Jason didn't recognize. "That fool may have doomed us all," Merlin told Jason.
"What is it?" Jason asked.
"The pieces fall into place," Merlin whispered. "The board is set, and the moves are made. At last I understand."
"Understand what?" Jason asked.
"Piece one," Merlin said softly. "The arch awakens the third art, the mystic art, in people. That definitely proves that it is of extraplanar origin, and the fact that it kills, indiscriminately, suggests that it is an artifact of the Dark."
"Piece two," he continued. "No such artifact should be able to exist in our plane. All creatures and objects of Light and Dark are barred from the Earth, therefore it cannot be either."
"Third piece," he added, "it is a gateway. A rift in the fabric of reality that should be blocked by the Great Barrier."
"All these things I knew," Merlin whispered. "I just never put them together."
"I don't understand," Jason complained. "Tell me what is happening."
"Angels and demons do not have free will, not as we understand the term," Merlin told him. "They may make choices and decisions, but having made those choices and decisions they are bound to them, forced to act them out to their conclusion. This means that sometimes, rarely, an angel falls, or a demon rises. They are bound to an act or to a sworn word, and that act carries them out past what they are allowed to do, allowed to be."
Jason shook his head. "I don't get it."
"For a time, they hang on the edge, in balance between the two," Merlin told him. "On their scale but an instant. On ours, years at a time. The Arch isn't a gateway to the plane of Darkness, it's a gateway to a space between planes. One where an angel, even now, falls from grace."
Jason shrugged. "My heart bleeds. What is the point to this?"
Merlin growled. "Never mind, obviously you aren't a scholar. Forget I even tried to explain. Never mind that you might need to understand the details of all this if you are going to do anything about it! Never mind that you are the focal nexus of this confluence, the one with the greatest chance of changing anything?"
"Focal nexus of this confluence?" Jason asked, irritated. "Speak English!"
Merlin took a deep breath. "Simple English then. I possess the gift of foresight, the ability to see, however imperfectly, the shape of the future. I can see things that must be, things that must not be. The things you want that can never be, and the things you wish with all your heart to avoid but must instead embrace. I can see, clearly, that you are the central point, a nexus of fate, a pivot point." Merlin shook his head. "You can't do it alone, you need the help of others, but for this moment in time the fate of thousands revolves around your actions. You turn, and the world turns with you."
Jason sighed. "Why does this not surprise me," he groaned.
"Moving on. Because this angel is falling, it is no longer a creature of the Light, but not yet a creature of Dark. It is in between. And that makes it dangerous to us. It's something the Great Barrier wasn't designed to handle," Merlin explained. "The Arch is a physical representation of its fall, a gateway to the plane-between-planes where it currently resides. And I understand exactly what Breslau did with his stone, the fool!"
"What did he do?" Jason asked.
Merlin sighed. "He inverted the arch. He redefined a slice of our reality as belonging to that plane, and redefined a section of that plane as belonging to the Earth. In essence, the falling angel is being forced into our plane."
"Why would he do that?" Jason complained. "What good does it do anyone?"
"At midnight tonight, the spell will set, and the inversion will begin," Merlin told him. "The moment of deepest, darkest night. All the fallen angel has to do then is leave the area defined by the spell, and it will bring the Great Barrier crashing down."
"What?" Jason asked, shocked. "How... why!?"
Merlin shook his head. "Forget 'why', it doesn't matter. As for how, when the angel exits the spell, the Great Barrier will try and bounce it back out of our reality, which by definition will be to the plane-between-planes it came from. But when it goes back there, it'll be right back inside the Great Barrier, thanks to the inversion. A paradox. It will be continuously expelled from the from to the place it is being expelled to. The power involved..." Merlin shook his head. "I don't know how much power was invested in the Great Barrier, but something that massive, that magnificent, must have a truly awe inspiring degree of power vested in it. That power will be turned against itself, and the bindings forming it will wear away. Slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed." Merlin shook his head. "When they break, all that power will be released at the point of the break."
"Here," Jason said softly. "Power enough to leave the city as ash."
"Yes," Merlin nodded. "And I can't stop it. I can't even approach the Arch."
"Why not?" Jason asked.
Merlin shook his head. "I don't know," he shrugged. Sighing, he started digging through his pockets. "If I stay, I ensure that this future will occur. That we lose." Finally he found what he was looking for. "I knew I had to bring this, or the Dark would win. I knew I did not dare use it, or the Dark would win. Here." Merlin took Jason's hand, and wrapped it around something. "Don't lose it."
Jason opened his hand, and gasped. "I can't use this," he shook his head. "I couldn't stop it, and I can't control it, it's useless to me."
"Doesn't matter," Merlin shrugged. "With it, you might win. Without it, you can't."
Jason shook his head and tucked the starstone into a pocket. "Fine. We have four hours. Any ideas?"
"Not really," Merlin shook his head. "I'll go let everyone else know that you're awake, and that they need to get ready."
"Good idea," Jason nodded. "I'll... think."
Merlin sped out of the room, and Jason tried to figure out what he could do. He had options. He just didn't know how to use them. He'd worked out, months ago, what needed to be done. The problem then, and now, was power. He wasn't strong enough. No one was strong enough. He'd worked out how to draw in extra power, but directing it, controlling it, just wasn't possible. Not without...
Jason drew the starstone out of his pocket. He couldn't draw on its power directly. That bedrock certainty couldn't even be questioned. But maybe he didn't need to. Jason placed it on a table and thought. Pushing the tiniest spark of power into his finger, he started drawing tiny clockwise circles over and over again while moving his hand counterclockwise around the stone. The pattern was similar to the Spirograph he'd played with as a kid, though the differences were striking.
But what was really interesting was how the starstone acted as a stabilizer. Already magical energies outside the larger circle were starting to react, but the far weaker counter-whirl in the center wasn't able to make any headway on the strength of the star stone, thus stabilizing the interior of the circle. The small threads of energy he sent into it were tugged, but only lightly. Woven together, they resisted easily the tug of the spinning energies around them.
"What the hell are you doing?" Merlin snarled as he burst into the room. Slapping Jason's hand away, he added, "Never do that! Never!"
"What the hell?" Jason rubbed his hand. "What is wrong with you?"
"That... that... obscenity is why I came to this city in the first place!" Merlin snarled. "Wizards around the world felt it the first time!"
"Obscenity?" Jason said, stunned. "What the hell is so wrong about it?"
Merlin look equally stunned. "It's uncontrollable. It's destructive. It cannot be used for any decent purpose. It has been forbidden for longer than I have been alive, straight back to the oldest of texts in anyone's collection. Forbidden!"
"I will concede you dangerous," Jason answered angrily, "but I controlled it last time, when I didn't even know what I was-"
"Didn't know?" Merlin exploded. "How the hell did you not know?!"
"That isn't important for now," Jason said firmly. "I can control it, especially with the star stone!"
"What?" Merlin asked, confused.
"Look, just watch for a second," Jason told Merlin, placing his hand over the stone on the table. "I move my finger in a small circle, around and around-"
"Don't start-" Merlin started to say.
"I'm not using any power. Just watch!" Jason ordered. "A small circle, which if I invested power into it would generate what Ronan and I-" Jason's voice failed for a moment. "What Ronan and I called the whirlpool effect. But then I move my hand in a much larger circle in the opposite direction, dragging the smaller circle with it. Energy outside the circle winds up spinning counterclockwise, while the energy inside tries to circle clockwise. The starstone acts as an anchor, preventing any real motion inside the circle, and when the motion from outside begins to bleed into the circle, it acts against that as well."
Merlin bent over the table, frowning. "But how can you control it? Once you set the energies in motion, they simply grow."
"Break the circle," Jason shrugged. "Set a spell inside the circle in motion, and funnel energy towards it. As the energy starts to move, nearby energy responds. The energy from the starstone won't respond to the rotation, but once energy starts flowing it turns into a focus, drawing the power in and passing it on. Honestly, I think that's what the thing was designed as, a focus not a power source."
"But it's so powerful!" Merlin shook his head. "Who would imbue such power into a mere focus? It has to be a power source... unless it's both."
Jason shook his head. "Your age is telling, Merlin," he said as certainty overtook him.
"Excuse me?" Merlin said, shocked.
"You're looking at the power in this thing and comparing it to yourself, and going no one could wield this much power," Jason shrugged. "People also can't run as fast as a car, or fly through the sky like a plane. Machines do things we can't all the time."
Merlin stared at the starstone. "Who would need such power?" he whispered. "Power enough to create... no..."
Jason shrugged. "Power enough to travel the stars," he guessed. "Humanity has always wanted to see the stars."
"Surely it doesn't take that much power!" Merlin protested.
"I watched a documentary on star travel once," Jason said. "They talked about the TV show 'Star Trek', and how the energy warping space requires compares to the sun's output. I don't remember the exact amount, but... it was huge. Unimaginable."
Merlin looked at the starstone in awe. "And that kind of power would require an even more powerful focus."
Jason nodded. "And I don't think it's an accident that that focus acts as an anchor, either. I doubt they intended it for what we're doing, but... that doesn't matter. I can make this work."
"That's what I don't get," Merlin shook his head. "I couldn't control this much energy, and I'm stronger than you are."
"I don't control it," Jason shrugged. "I just set it in motion, I channel it into the spell."
Merlin shook his head. "The differences in our powers is telling as well. I can't just 'channel' energy like that. Fine. You can do this. Why do you need that much power?"
Jason told him.
"Impossible," Merlin shook his head. "It's not doable."
"To quote my brother, don't tell me what I can and can't do."
Merlin sighed. "You are... unique. Very well. Here they come."
Slowly, the remaining Guardians filed into the room. Jason's heart almost broke again as he counted. Twelve, and not a one of them without some scar or injury. Jason reached up and touched the scar that ran down his face, the one that had almost taken his eye. "It's time," Jason told them as more people filed in. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
Jeremy Young stepped forward. "We know what's going on, and we've made our choice. You need help."
Jason shook his head. "You can't-"
"We're United States Marines, Sir," one of the men in uniform insisted. "We are not going to simply stand aside."
Jason sighed. "You'll be cannon fodder. All you can do is distract them, warn us before they attack. You can't actually hold the brunt of battle."
"Then cannon fodder is exactly what we'll be," Young told him. "You need the help. Besides, we can provide support in other ways."
"Like what?" Jason asked.
Young smiled. "Project Pyrokus," he said simply. "Remember what you told me?"
Jason shook his head, unable to focus. "I don't think I was the one who told you that," he said, just a bit embarrassed. "Someone has been borrowing my... voice for little snippets of conversation, and I don't always remember them."
Young nodded in understanding. "I think I can guess who," he flicked his eyes upward. "You're right, for now it's better to keep quiet on that particular ally. Anyway, you told me fire was a weakness we could exploit if we had to."
Jason hesitated. "Flamethrowers?"
"Better," Young shook his head. "Flamethrowers have their limits on range. Project Pyrokus is an experiment that's been going on for a while. All the weapons are experimental, meant less for battlefield deployment and more just to see what they could do. But they work. And they are very, very nasty."
Jason shook his head. "You'll be risking your lives for little gain," he tried to argue.
"You don't have anything close to helicopters," Young argued. "We can provide gun ships, troop transports, artillery support, logistical support, and if I need to I can call more people in. Lots more."
Jason hesitated. "Aircraft won't be much use," he said after a moment. "To easy to knock them out of the sky, even if I station a Guardian on each craft."
"They didn't knock my gunships out of the sky earlier," Young argued.
"Earlier you weren't facing the real bad guys, this time you will be," Jason told him. "They enslave others, bind them to their will. But this attack is going to go straight for the center of their operations."
"Good," Young told him. "Decisive actions are always better."
Jason would have growled. "Fine then. It's your funeral."
"Yes, it is," Jeremy nodded. "Glad you understand that."
Jason looked over the crowd and took a deep breath. "Does anyone have a map of the city?"
"One second," a soldier in the back of the room told him, fiddling with a computer. Suddenly a ceiling mounted projector flickered to life, and Jason turned around to see a map of the city on the wall behind him.
"Thanks," Jason nodded. "Alright then. The enemy forces are centered here, around the gym that was formerly the headquarters of the Guardians," Jason pointed at the wall and created the illusion of small red dot. "Preliminary scouting was rough, but shows that they keep scouts watching all major approaches to a distance of a mile and a half out," he created a faint yellow circle overlaying that area. "Heavier nodal forces are deployed in a ring three quarters of a mile out, positioned to block and delay any assault while their overall forces muster," an orange circle blossomed, leaving a series of concentric colored circles. "It's impossible to sneak past the outer scouts, and the inner guard ring has enough force to delay even a full out assault, allowing the forces stationed at the gym itself time to mobilize."
"In short, this defense was brilliantly designed not to stop any attack cold, but to insure that the cost would be as high as possible," Jason shrugged. "In the first day of the conflict, we simply couldn't pay that price. We were on the run, burdened with crippled and wounded, insufficiently supplied, and had no real idea what was going on. The enemy kept pushing at us, never letting us catch our breath, constantly harassing us. They probably could -- and should -- have simply crushed us with a single overwhelming assault. But they decided to try and conserve resources. Every time they forced us to move, we weakened a little, lost a few people to their attacks. They were whittling us down while taking relatively little damage. A war of attrition that they had to win."
"Ronan and I screwed up," Jason admitted. "We let them push us around in the hopes we could catch our breath and recover. My brother pushed, strongly, for us to leave behind a skeletal watch over the wounded and move straight for the gym. We would have taken our lumps, but we probably would have been able to take it. And once taken, once firmly held, we could have activated additional defenses and continued to hold it."
Jason sighed. "Twelve Guardians plus myself are not enough to take and hold the building. We can, in theory manage it if all the breaks go our way. But if anything goes wrong..." he shrugged.
"You can always count on something going wrong," Young shook his head. "That's war. The enemy is trying his best to win too."
"I know," Jason said. "That's why I didn't push too hard over letting you and your people come. We need the help, suicide or not."
"What's your plan?" Young asked.
"There are three tiers of threats in the enemy lineup," Jason explained. "The first tier was Breslau, and he's been dealt with. If another heavy hitter like him shows up, we're screwed anyway, so we only need to consider the second and third. The third tier is the mind controlled thralls, so tightly bound to the will of their creators that they are slaves in mind, heart, and body. They can't be broken free, and are undoubtedly completely insane under the load of all the compulsions they've been placed under. It's necessary to kill all of them, despite their technical innocence. There is simply no way to save them, and if we let them live..." Jason sighed.
"The last thing we need is a couple hundred psychopaths on the loose," Young sighed. "Sucks, but I don't think any prison built could hold them."
"I may be able to help with that," Merlin offered. "You are most correct; they are insane. Irrevocably. But... I can provide the prisons to hold them. In comfort, so much as such a thing is possible. And they will be treated with all the honor due any injured innocent. With time, some of them may even be partially healed. Possibly."
Jason nodded. "Strike to kill, don't hesitate. But don't kill their wounded. Maybe some of them can be salvaged, and there is already too much blood on the ground. Second tier we know less about. More than we did, but less. I don't think we've seen a single one of them in action, but we've more or less figured out who they have to be. In order to activate the limited powers the thralls possess, they are bound into complete and utter servitude. They, literally, no longer possess free will. Such an individual is of limited use, so the second tier of threats must be activated by exposure to the Arch itself. Which leaves exactly one possibility."
Jason shook his head. "I don't know how they managed to pass the mind probes we've sent their way, but the fact that Barney was able to conceal his mind from us proves that there is a way. Our enemy is the sentinels. Ronan and I talked about it the last several days; Jin Takamora was the focus of this group, but we don't think he was the honest expression of their intent. They claimed to want a more democratic approach. It's possible they even meant it, originally. But one way or the other, the individual who called himself 'Breslau' corrupted them, heart and soul. They were his... but they retained their free will. Ten or so individuals, our equal in power and training. Ten people who can face us on the field of battle and hope to win. The good news is that the balance of power would remain on our side, I'm stronger than six of them. Seven would probably equal me... eight or ten would defeat me. Paul..." Jason looked at the crowd and shook his head. Where was Paul? "His new found power is dangerous. He might be an equal for all ten of them. It's hard to tell, it would depend on how angry he is."
The room fell silent. "Jason," Lara said slowly, "didn't anyone tell you?"
"Tell me what?" Jason asked.
"Your brother was killed in a fire, just after we picked you up," Young said slowly. "It looks like somebody set a trap to destroy your safe house."
Jason fell back into the chair behind him. "He's... no..." he shook his head. "He can't be. I'd know."
"There is no way he survived," Young told him sadly. "If it's any consolation, it was quick. The heat would have reduced him to ashes in seconds."
"No," Jason shook his head. "Dammit!" he shouted. "Why! Why?!" Jason dropped his head into his hands. "Fine. Fine. My brother..."
Jason stood up and straightened his shoulders. "We'll deal. Somehow, we will deal. Even without Paul, in a straight up Guardian versus Sentinel matchup, the balance of power is on our side. The problem is getting past their thralls without exhausting ourselves." Jason wiped the tears out of his eyes. "Which, the more I think about it, comes down to the marines here."
"Hoorah!" someone shouted.
"Simply put, you aren't a match for the sentinels. They'd skin you alive," Jason shrugged. "But if you fight hard enough, if we help you and provide advice, you might just be able to punch a hole through the thralls for us, let us slip past them. Let us engage the sentinels from a position of relative power."
"Consider it done," Young told him.
"You will lose men," Jason pointed out. "And you'll need more men than you have here."
"I have two squads of SEALs, and a battalion of marines," Young shrugged. "We'll get 'er done. This is just the cadre."
"Cadre?" Jason asked, confused.
"Senior officers and non-coms," Young explained. "The people who tell everyone else what to do."
"Ah," Jason said. "Alright. We have definitive information on the enemy plans. We don't know what exactly is happening, but it happens at the Arch, tonight at midnight. And it's a game-ender. We let it happen, and it's game over for the good guys."
"There is a fallback position, but it's not a good one," Merlin broke in. "If you've already lost, pull back, there are other chances and your being alive makes them better. But... it'll still be clutching at straws, unlikely as hell."
"In short, it's win or die. But don't go looking for a way to die, we might need you later," Jason shrugged. "Our plan is simple. We dispense with stealth and subtlety, they won't help as much as simply hitting them hard, fast, and directly. We move straight in, not taking the time to engage, just punching through their outer defenses. We take back the gym, fortify it as best we can, and you hold it while I descend to the arch chamber. I don't know what is going on, but I am quite certain -- absolutely certain -- that I can be one hell of a wrench in the machine."
"What are the odds of success?" someone asked. Jason sighed. He would have preferred any other question.
"Honestly, I wouldn't expect to survive," Jason shrugged. "Call your loved ones, one last time. Write your goodbye letters. We move out in forty-five minutes."
"Jason," Lara broke in, "maybe we can improve the odds."
"How?" Jason asked.
"I haven't been able to get home the last several days," Ashley said. "If I go there, I'll trigger all those alarms they have set up around the place. They will move in against me, hard."
"That would pull a lot of their forces out of position," Jason nodded. Turning the map he mused for a moment. "If we swing around partway, we can move in from exactly the opposite direction they'll be traveling."
"It will cost you any surprise you might have managed," Young pointed out.
"If they move enough of their forces off, it'll be worth it," Jason sighed. "Fine. Lara, you'll go with Ashley."
"What?" Lara asked, surprised.
"And you'll take Tommy, too," Jason nodded. "Simply put, I want the three of you to make as big a ruckus as you can. Convince them as you move in that every single remaining Guardian in the order is moving in, planning to shelter under the wards on your home. They're almost as formidable as those around the gym."
Lara nodded in understanding. "Make them think we're going back to ground, but this time in a defensible location. They'll have to come for us with everything they've got, or the costs will just go up."
Jason nodded. "Yeah. Our mission is still suicidal, but this might be just the edge we need to survive."
Everyone looked around, distressed. Jason understood why. He was pushing Lara, Ashley, and Tommy into the fire with this little trick. They wouldn't be able to stand against the firepower directed at them, and neither would the kids they were responsible for protecting.
"Get the kids out first thing," Jason added. "Young will provide you with transport helicopters to get them out quick." Young nodded in understanding. "You and a force of marines will insert through helicopters. The marines will back you up, use them to make the bad guys think there are even more of you then there are."
"As for everyone else," Jason shook his head. "No. There's no real need to plan this. I just have one more thing to say. Ladies and gentlemen, the situation is grave. Indeed, one might call it desperate. I do. But be not faint of heart. Do not yield to the counsel of despair. The darkness is worst before the dawn, but the dawn will come," Jason said with certainty that flowed through him. God would not abandon them, and win or loose there would be a reckoning like nothing seen before! "God is on our side, without question," Jason let his power loose a little, calling the Lord's power into himself until he began to gleam with it. "The Darkness shall part before the Light," Jason let the power begin to shine outward, brightening the room, "and we will smite those who would turn the helpless into pawns in their war. We shall strike without hesitation, without mercy, giving no quarter to those heartless, undeserving bastards. We are wounded. We are weakened. Our foe seems overwhelming!" Jason let the power loose completely, becoming a glowing sun in the middle of the room, and felt the power settle into everyone there, felt their souls drinking in the hope he provided them. "But we will win through!" Jason declared. "We will win, because to fail is inconceivable. We will stand true, because to yield is out of the question. We will stand true because that's what we do. Let the darkness come!"
The cheers that answered his thunderous declaration shook the cities metaphysical foundation, a sudden brilliant beacon of Light that sent the Darkness scurrying.
Thankfully, there wasn't a single person on the opposing side left who could recognize that sensation for what it was.