The rim shot echoed down the ruined streets.
The sound of a drum stick hitting the edge of the drum echoed down the quiet city streets, seeming to gain rather than loose power as it traveled.
The drumbeat wasn't alone, however. It was accompanied by the sound of hundreds of booted feet slamming into the ground in unison. It merely marked the instant that every single left foot hit.
It was a slow, stately march. Every single footfall was heard as the procession made it's way down the ruined streets.
Not a single sound was heard other than the procession making it's way down the streets. People, survivors of the city, lined the road, watching in stoic silence. Children were quiet, still, and babies didn't even cry.
The regal dignity of the procession wasn't ruined by anything. A state funeral in all but name, the procession marched down the road in splendor. At the head of the procession was a set of four figures, dressed in gleaming black leather and with scars and wounds to speak of the horror's they'd faced. They stood tall and proud, none of the onlookers doubted they were looking at people who were broken inside. Their exhaustion, their depression, their weakness seemed to radiate outward like a physical presence, much as heat might. Each one of them held the end of a large pole up near their shoulders. Despite the weight of the twin coffins resting on the poles, they held them effortlessly, aided by the fact that both coffins were empty. The well-polished, gleaming metal was hidden by the flags draped carefully over each coffin.
The President himself had ordered that, in memory of their sacrifice, every fallen Guardian was to be accorded every respect and honor any member of the US Armed Forces might demand. He declared, followed by a near-unanimous vote of Congress, that though they were not soldiers, not marines, not sailors, not airmen, they were nonetheless to be considered members of the armed forces and treated with all due respect and honor.
Hundreds of feet meant hundreds of people. Every last surviving marine and SEAL that had been in the fight was here. If they could walk, they were marching in the parade, resplendent in their dress uniforms. If they could bear a coffin, they did. Too many of those coffins were empty. Those that couldn't walk, that were missing limbs or should still be confined to a hospital bed, were in wheelchairs with others pushing them.
Not enough of them had survived to carry all the coffins, so city police, in their dress uniforms, filled in the gaps. Pushing wheelchairs and carrying coffins, they brought up the middle part of the procession. Behind them came a full military band, silent except for one drummer. And then came everything from the local high school's AJROTC unit to the families of those who had fallen.
Even the civilians, with no experience in marching, seemed to have no trouble keeping in step. Every foot hit the ground as one. Paul knew that somehow he was responsible. That he was linking all of them, giving a little of himself to link them.
And that was alright. His brother had wanted a small wedding. But he deserved a huge funeral. And that was what was happening. A funeral not just for Jason, not just for Ronan, not just for the Guardians who had fallen or the marines who had stood beside them. A memorial service for all that had died, from thrall to the innocents caught in the crossfire.
All, that is, except for the Sentinels and Breslau. This was also an indictment against them. Dead or not, history would remember them. History would remember all of them. The procession marched down the streets, the cities entire population seeming to have turned out to line the sidewalks in silence.
Soon enough the procession reached the city park, the only place large enough to hold even a fraction of those who wished to attend. Without any apparent cue or warning, the entire procession just stopped as one, standing in perfect formation.
The surviving Guardians moved first, walking forward to place their burdens down on the platform left for that purpose. Standing tall, they broke up and climbed the stairs on either side of the stage to take their seats directly behind the podium. Behind them sat a virtual Who's Who of the city's society, augmented by such august persons as US Senators and the President of the United States of America.
"Ready, two!" Commander Young barked. As one, every single coffin bearer marched forward to place their burden down in their appointed place. "Fall in!"
Their burdens discharged, military and police alike formed up in parade formation, the wounded in their wheelchairs behind them. There were few wounded left, the Guardians having shared their healing abilities as best they could amongst those they owed so much. But they couldn't restore lost limbs, and some were so far gone that it would take months for them to finish healing.
It took a while for everyone to find their place, but finally it was achieved. Paul stood up and walked to the podium, Lara, Tommy, and Andrew behind him. "I was born Paul Jonathon Bester. My companions were born Lara Sarah Wellington, Thomas Brandon Little, and Andrew Alexander Anderson."
Paul looked over the crowd. "We are here, today, because of an order founded by a man known as Ronan Koken. It was a pseudonym. He was not born by that name. But it is the name by which history shall know him."
"Koken. A strange name, many of you might think. Few will recognize its derivation. The Japanese word for 'Guardian' is kouken. And so the mystery is, at last, laid bare. He was 'Ronan Guardian'... Ronan the Guardian. And so shall we be," Paul's voice echoed outward. He'd already disowned his father, and wanted to be rid of even his name. And here was his chance.
But the others had wanted it just as badly, in tribute to the fallen, or he would never of tried it. "I am Paul Koken. Paul, the Guardian. Beside me stands my sister, Lara Koken; my brother, Andrew Koken; my brother, Thomas Koken. Lara, the Guardian; Andrew, the Guardian; and Thomas, the Guardian. We cast aside the names of our birth to embrace new ones, remembering as Ronan did where we came from, but also naming ourselves for what we are."
"Or rather, what we were." Paul's voice rolled out over the silent crowd. He'd spent hours working on the wording of this speech, carefully weighing every element. In the end, all four had agreed on it. "My brothers and my sister came to me, each one concerned. It has been a long fight. A tiring fight. They came to me, concerned, because they could not continue. We are all tired. Inside, we are broken. And so shall the order be."
"Our enemies, the Sentinels, are gone. They were once a splinter of our own order, but their own acts condemned them and brought them low," Paul had to force himself to keep going. "The Arch we guarded for so long is gone, its influence laid low. And so it was decided to end our order."
"In times past, those Guardians who quit the order would direct their powers inward, against themselves, suppressing them. Their minds would then have defenses placed around them, and their memories of our order and its secrets suppressed. We cannot do the last, nor do we need to." Paul sighed. "But the first is still needed. Our powers are too dangerous, and in leaving the order we would set aside the oath that binds us. And so, as in times past, those that leave suppress their powers."
"The Guardians are no more," Paul couldn't believe it, even as he heard himself say it.
"But this is a funeral. A time of mourning, and so I ask all of you to bow your heads with me as I pray," Paul had agonized over this prayer just as much as he had the speech that preceded it. "Heavenly Father, be with us in our time of difficulty, be with us as we lay our fallen heroes to rest. Guide them to their reward, in the knowledge that those they left behind will one day join them. Our Father, who art in Heaven..."
Paul sighed as he collapsed into his bed. He'd mentioned the decision ahead of time to the government representatives who had taken charge of the entire area, and arrangements had already been made. Witness protection didn't even know who it was going to take in, a few months down the line, but their new identities were already being drawn up. They'd all have very comfortable bank accounts to see them along, and finding good jobs shouldn't be difficult. It was over.
Paul couldn't sleep though, haunted by the lie he'd told. The others had come to him, distraught at their inability to continue. Lara had lost too much. She simply couldn't find the strength to press on. Andrew had lost all interest in being a Guardian, thinking the price too high. And Tommy was angry at his foster mother's death, and unable to accept it he'd lashed out at the idea of the order instead. Of them all, Tommy was the only one Paul begrudged the decision to quit. Lara was broken, and Paul could feel how Andrew's mind was beginning to fail around the edges.
But Paul could continue... and he had a price to pay, to hold true to his oath. And so he didn't quit the order, even as it came down around him. The last of the Guardians, he would stand true. He would keep the watch. There was no one else.
Suddenly he was gripped by an urge to return to the gym. All that was left was rubble, but he needed to return. Pulling his clothes back on he glanced around before taking off at a run. Not as fast as he could run, but faster than most could manage. Just slow enough to maintain the image of him losing his powers.
It felt good to run, to lose himself in the rising and falling of each foot. He had a long time to fall into the rhythm of the run, nearly two hours before he reached the gym. The storm overhead had broken almost instantly after his brother's death, or so he'd been told. He'd been unconscious for hours, mangled body barely holding onto life for the hours it had taken for Lara to arrive and help him heal.
The site of the gym had shocked him when he'd visited earlier. It was essentially leveled, the rubble actually a little bit below street level thanks to the basement levels collapsing. Paul walked gingerly out onto the rubble, not sure why he'd returned.
"Hello, Paul." Merlin said gravely. "I see you've come as well."
"What are you here for?" Paul asked.
Merlin sighed. "I wanted to examine what was left of the Arch, and check for the starstone I gave your brother. I hope you haven't spoken of that to anyone."
"I don't even know what a starstone is," Paul told him.
"Good. Please, keep it secret," Merlin asked. "The starstone itself is gone, but the knowledge that I hid it from the council would be... embarrassing."
"Alright," Paul nodded. "What did you find of the Arch?"
Merlin shrugged. "What is left of it appears to have been returned to its natural state. Rock. Ordinary, mundane rock."
"Good," Paul sighed. "Did you find... I mean..."
"There will be no body," Merlin told him. "Not for him, not for Ronan. You'll understand eventually."
Paul sighed again. "Alright. Would you mind... I mean..."
"Here," Merlin pressed a phone into Paul's hands. "I may wish to contact you again, or you may wish to contact me. I'm the only person currently in the contact list, hiding as a Harry Blackstone."
Paul took the phone, a small smile forming on his face. "Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden?" he asked.
Merlin smiled, and walked away without answering. Paul put the phone into his pocket and looked over the rubble. Finding a nearly level spot with a boulder beside it, he sat down. "It's hard to believe you're gone," he said. "I love you too, Jason. I didn't understand why you kept saying that. I suppose now I do. Somehow, someway, you knew."
The only answer was the gentle whisper of the wind. Paul listened to the night for a while, feeling a peace fall over him. He hadn't come by chance this night.
Standing, he gazed across the rubble to spot two men furtively make their way towards the dip in the center of where the gym had once stood. The wind carried their quiet conversation to him, and he was able to make out enough.
Closing his eyes, he resisted the urge to swear. Of course they didn't get everyone. No one else had realized that, thinking Jason had taken out the last of the Sentinels, but those bastards had never been up for a stand up fight. And neither were their backers.
"Those damned priests could have come and done this themselves," one of the intruders groused.
"Yeah, well they and their damned counsel sent us," the other chided him. "So shut up! I'd rather not have them turn me into one of those... things they experiment with."
"Fine, but lets get this done quick. Even if they can use what's left of the Arch for anything, it won't do anyone any good if we're caught!"
Paul glanced back over his shoulder. Behind him, just out of the corner of his eye, he saw two figures floating in the air, standing tall with arms around each others shoulders. Their luminescent skin seemed to glow brilliantly in the dark of the night, and their wings spread out towards either side. They might have been made out of sheets of diaphanous light, but they had to be wings.
One of them nodded at him, his perfectly white skin marred by a scar that ran over his eye, and Paul smiled back before turning towards his duty.
He had an oath to keep. And miles to go before he'd sleep.
Miles to go before he'd sleep.