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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Veil of Shadow - 8. Righteous Echo

Using the barrel of his TMP, Ayize crouched, nudging the wreckage scattered across the control room floor of the Berchande research facility. It wasn't clear to him exactly how Shay Andersen had done this, but what was abundantly obvious was that his ability, whatever it was, had to be potent. Like Mira's cell at Tanami, Shay had been locked in a similar sterile cube, but here, the boy had destroyed the majority of the wall adjoining the observation deck during his escape. The metal and synthetic backing had been torn as if it were paper, and the remains had been ejected into the next room, demolishing much of the opposing wall in a domino effect of stupendous force.

"I don't know what that kid can do," Rashid's voice came from that next room, similarly poking at the mess with his gun barrel, his voice muffled from the atmospheric rebreather, "but it has to be big."

"You're telling me, brother." Ayize wiped the dust off one of the front terminals. Two of them had somehow been missed by the explosive destruction of the cell wall, and they looked as if they might still function. Berchande's atmosphere had already coated every surface and filled the air with that same abrasive grit. It meant he couldn't remove his environmental protection, and the interior of the base wasn't safe without respiratory and ocular protection. The reactor had failed too and while the system was still running, it looked to be only at minimal capacity, the damage being too extreme to allow more. "I think the network might still be good for us to poke around."

"Boss. Have you taken a look at these people?" The African glanced Rashid's way to see him crouched over one of the corpses, examining it. "He wasn't lying when he said he crushed them."

"I've seen them." Ayize turned back to the terminal, initiating a virtual link in his visor's view, and then executing Kenji's incursion script. The network protection appeared even more minimalist than at Tanami, which was unsurprising given the likelihood of a hacking attempt on an uninhabited planet, and Ayize let it run while he turned back to Rashid. "What do you make of it?"

"Mira has done ridiculous stuff. Cut down nearly a dozen Japanese feds faster than you can blink, fell hundreds of metres without a scratch and shrugged off bullets like raindrops." He stood slowly, still looking at the body and the trauma it had undergone. "All of that was physically possible. It looked like something out of a holovid and I don't know how he managed it, but it's at least feasible, explainable, somehow. This? Well ... "

"You're thinking the same thing I am, brother." The corpse was not a pretty picture at all. Just as Shay said, they had been crushed like insects. The chest cavity was collapsed inward, bones broken like matchsticks, blood and other fluids congealed where they had seeped through. The head was the worst part. Caved in on itself, squashed under some incredible irresistible strength. "This doesn't fit. Now, you and I know the sorts of things Mira can manage, and we definitely know the traits of a killer. That in mind, it's easy for me to see in him the mentality of an assassin; the way he moves and acts, it's very tuned to the practical. Well hidden and understated as all hell, but it's definitely there. Right?"

"Yeah," Rashid agreed.

"With him, everything is measured out and judged just right. But ... Shay? I wouldn't pick him out of a crowd as anything special. On the surface, he doesn't carry himself any differently than a million other boys his age. He doesn't think like someone who lives the world of warfare. He doesn't act like someone who kills. Definitely not someone who has the motivation and more importantly the physical ability to pancake a dozen people." Ayize gesticulated to the remains scattered through the room. "My only conclusion is he didn't actually do this, by which I mean the physical act of crushing these MFM drones, and that makes me wonder. He did kill them, his psychological reaction puts that idea beyond dispute but ... I have to ask: what sort of infernal power allows a boy like him to make a corpse like this," Ayize nodded at the closest body and then pointed to the demolished wall, "and to do that, without getting his hands dirty?"

Rashid shrugged, casual as ever. "Don't know, but like you told me, MFM has it bad for these kids. It's gotta be something astronomical."

"I don't doubt it." Turning back to the terminal as the hacking completed, the system menu flashed up and Ayize began to navigate through the options. As expected, a lot of subsystem functions were completely disabled because of the state of the facility, but one took him completely by surprise. It was an option he was not expecting to see here.

A gravitational focus array?

Ayize did not know it was possible to use it on the ground. The only purpose of such technology was to open a singularity; normally reserved for taking an interstellar shortcut, the preferable way to cross vast stretches of space. Conventional wisdom had never allowed focused artificial gravity on the surface of a planet. It was proved long ago that the extreme gravitational density required to open a singularity large enough to transport matter required the vacuum of space as a medium. It was the reason why the gates to other colonial worlds had been constructed in orbit and not any closer to Earth. Freedom from surface gravity was essential, as well as isolation from the various types of terrestrial interference; the consequences for going against those scientifically-deduced limits were disastrous, to put it mildly. Though, here the corporatist experts had developed the means to create stable singularities on a scale too small to violate those limits. Judging from the system parameters, these micro-singularities were safe to operate on the surface but too tiny to send matter through, only permitting particle streams. Similar to their much larger counterpart, the full-fledged gate-size singularity, these miniature portals required an exorbitant amount of energy to run.

It was all beginning to seem oddly familiar, and as soon as he investigated that particular subsystem a bit further, it jumped into sharp relief. There was a list of five fixed primary locations that the singularity could connect to from Berchande

* Kaktovik, Alaska
* Rota, Marianas Archipelago
* Goseong, Korea
* Zhezdi, Kazakhstan
* Tanami, Australia

Australia?

So this was how they had been coordinating their experimentation between planets. In the Australian facility, there was not sufficient time to uncover much before the Brotherhood had to scuttle the place and flee to avoid the CorpSec 'counter-terrorist' deployment. In hindsight, a corresponding focus array on Earth would explain Tanami's ridiculous power drain for such a small facility. Ayize had to admit it was a clever strategy. Micro-singularities for transferring data meant they could completely avoid sending an actual spacecraft between worlds, circumventing the danger of being caught by Earth's authorities in the process of breaking the travel ban. Though, clearly the corporatists still needed to do that anyhow at certain intervals to keep this facility resupplied, whenever they could get away with flouting federal law. So far they hadn't been caught, meaning they had everyone, including the military, completely fooled.

Not any more.

Thessaloniki knew about these bastards, though it was questionable what he could actually do with that knowledge in his present situation. Still, the big question remained: what experiments were the RDA performing here, and in Australia? What was the secret they were looking for from these two boys? In short, what the hell did MFM want?

Switching through other menus, Ayize sought out anything that might contain findings or hard data. Unlike Kenji's jackpot at Tanami, this network was rather sparse, not seeming to have anything that was blatantly valuable or information-rich, but then he spotted something interesting. It was the RDA project director's personal log and after the encryption was broken, he scanned over the last couple of entries for some clue as to what they were up to.

00:27:22 (GMT) 11.10.2318

We begin the second phase of conditioning on the subject. Initial simulation has not shown any deviation in standard behaviour. Priority is prescribed to observation of the posterior parietal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. This is due to the likely execution of quantum control through the same impulse as voluntary motor function. However, ganglia in the entirety of the cerebral cortex are possible as integration points. Myelinated axons comprise an ideal neural material for both reinforcing native brain function via restructuring (the model proposed by Tanami's Jean-Pierre Trieste) and directly uniting the subatomic patterning with a human's conscious intent.

My colleague Dr. Singh contends that we are looking for a dendritic answer, with the spokes of each neuron's 'tree' drawing multiple quantum-unified stimuli into the soma and continuing from there. He does concede that it could also be axonal, but is, like me, sceptical of the somatic theory with regard to this experiment.

In any case and whichever theory is correct, it is truly exciting to say that we will soon uncover the key to harnessing the most significant scientific advancement since the development of artificial gravity. This discovery has the potential to change the circumstances of our world for the better. Though, if Dr. Dreiberg is correct, I'll have to part with my Laphroaig '02. For the record, I'm really fond of the single malt. He'd better be wrong.

03:08:35 (GMT) 11.10.2318

Unfortunately, the simulated conditioning was interrupted before it could complete. In a response mechanism that is nothing short of amazing, the subject was able to reduce and then break our directed regulation. Consequently, the subject was able to self-actuate consciousness and completely end the simulation. This is simply astonishing, as the LFP was well restricted by our experiment's parameters.

Containment was carried out and all personnel removed from the subject's proximity. With the annulment field in place, we are not taking any risks by entering the test chamber's bounds. However, given the subject's apparent awareness of what we were trying to achieve, I am not eager to revert straight back to a retest of the simulation. At this point, that course of action may no longer be viable.

I consulted the others and agree with Dreiberg's assessment: we may still be able to apply psychological pressure. A fake pathway to freedom is one way to motivate, but so too are negative stimuli; fear, pain and anger can make for powerful coercion. I have instructed for the connection to Australia to be opened. The psych assessment was not detailed, but it did suggest a strong fraternal emotional connection. If it is not to be the carrot, it will have to be the stick.

We will make use of that bond.

Those were the only entries for that day and the last in the project director's log. Neural conditioning? Quantum control? Ayize could not say he fully understood the slew of scientific jargon the RDA project director used, but it seemed they were performing some kind of experiment on Shay's mind. Something to do with brain function and ... subatomic physics?!

He didn't quite understand what it was about, but there would be time to investigate it further later. Ayize had no intention of staying on this dustball any longer, and so he downloaded MFM's cache onto Kenji's data store and exited the system. Looking to Rashid, he was surprised to see the man standing still, focused on nothing as if he was listening or smelling the air.

"Brother?"

"Boss," murmured Rashid, his arms gradually raising as he lifted his gun barrel horizontal. His head now shifted in a searching sweep of the room, rife with a new uncertainty. "I think ... I heard something."

-o-0-O-0-o-

I deliberately made the choice not to follow Ayize into the heart of the Berchande facility. There was no interest in revisiting the prison where I had seen Mira tortured, and where my captors had met their gruesome end. When Ayize and Rashid continued along the main corridor after the gaping wound of the airlock's entrance, Mira and I instead took a right turn, following an auxiliary passage to another part of the facility.

It turned out to be the residential section; personal quarters and living space. I had no expectation of finding anything valuable, knowing this was more of a distraction while the other two investigated. Following a turnoff was more an excuse to get away for a bit and scrounge for anything that might be incidentally useful. It was definitely a better way to occupy myself than the other part of this place.

Also, exploring at least let Mira use his senses a bit, as I knew that sitting inside the shuttle doing nothing wasn't ideal for him. His time on Earth before Berchande had apparently been adventure- crammed, but it didn't really count. That time was consumed by his drive to find me, and it was only now, once we were together again, that the irrepressible compulsion to seek out anywhere new resurfaced. I wasn't quite sure why, but observing Mira in these circumstances was its own type of thrill. Just seeing him relaxed, doing what he wanted to do and indulging in his own curiosity; it was a weirdly exciting experience for me and I loved every second of it.

I wasn't sure how to qualify it. There was something about the fact that his behaviour was so unassuming and sincere. It was like I was getting a glimpse of the child he never was, a window into an alternate past. The boy he could have been ... but wasn't, thanks to the sharpeling torment replacing his childhood. Wherever we went, he was always taking the lead, prepared to face danger before I did. The first into a new scenario, the one who was called straight to anything remotely hazardous or out-of-place. I could almost see his mind working, drawing in the new sights and concepts like a sponge. He was constantly adding to the library of knowledge begun on his human awakening, and it made me inexplicably happy to see him so engaged. I also couldn't help thinking he would have made such an unbearably cute little boy; one who would have been outgoing, sociable and self-confident, worldly-wise and perceptive, and full of precocious youthful charisma.

If he'd lived a normal life, he could have become absolutely anything. Even as it lies, there isn't much that he can't achieve, if he puts his mind to it. So unlike me. So different from who I am. In many ways, I was the polar opposite of this boy, lacking the extraordinary ability he had. Even minus the Demming's genetic deficiency that had ruled my own childhood years, I was not blessed with such character traits. I don't resent him for that, though. How can I? He saves the best part of his personality, his 'soul', whatever you want to call it, for me. He hoards it and shares it only with me. The final message Lily had given that day in Alcubierre was never too far from my mind, and definitely not forgotten. It seemed particularly important right now given our constant brushes with death, that I showed him, every day, just how much I loved him.

He really is special, and ... he makes me feel I deserve what we have.

Mira was beautiful, inside and out.

As we poked around inside the facility's common room, the visor I was wearing to protect my eyes from Berchande's dust was no hinderance to admiring the outer part of that beauty. Doubly so when Mira's back was turned and I could get away with spying on him completely undetected. Our relationship had advanced so much in the mere weeks we had known one another, and I had now reached the point where I would happily make a mental catalogue of his appearance without chastising myself for letting my desire run free. Right then, he was across the common room, opening cupboards in the kitchenette area, leaning forward slightly against the counter as he did so. The temptation was in the way the camo pants hugged his upper legs and rear in all the right places, and the clinging close-fit of the wife-beater singlet serving to accentuate the graceful athleticism of his back and shoulders.

So appealing, so erotic.

Just perfect.

It was difficult to believe that watching him from across the room could arouse me on so many levels. My breath shortened as I followed his movements. All he was doing was picking through the foodstuffs and implements in the kitchen area, but there I was, marching in tune to the hot pulse of my body's growing attraction. A sexual fantasy pushed into my consciousness; an imagined extension of my romantic longing. I visualised myself crossing the room, fearlessly turning Mira around by the shoulder and pushing him firmly against the counter. An image of delighted submission was on his face as I forced his hands to his sides, my own sliding to lower his zipper. Without hesitation, I was kneeling in front of him, fingers slipping between the material as I leaned forward and-

-whoa.

I took a deep breath, feeling a little dizzy. The boldness of my own fantasy actually shocked me and I temporarily halted that oh-so-enticing train of thought. Though, only for long enough to question why I was holding back.

Wait. Why are you being so coy about it Shay? The fantasy promptly resumed and my mind was filled with the daydream's wonderful vivid accuracy, insistent on recreating from memory the sensual contours of what lay behind the zipper. I shook my head, smiling to myself as my face flushed with just how in-depth my imagination went and how strong the attraction was. You know what? You need to stop thinking you're some hormone-crazed pervert just for wanting him. Well, you actually kinda are a hormone-crazed pervert because you're a teenager, and then again to the power of ten because you're IN LOVE with him. But ... that's normal! It's okay to want sex! More than okay, since you're with someone who loves you back and isn't going to hurt you. So, just say it to yourself. Go on. It has a name and it's not like you haven't done it before - and liked it, don't forget - and so has he! You don't have to be shy. You want to give him a blowjob.

My inner monologue was starting to lecture me about my love life and I considered that if anyone else could hear my thoughts, I'd probably sound a bit crazy. It wasn't like we hadn't already been really intimate together, more than once. We had made love twice, and both times had been the most perfect awe-inducing experiences I'd known in my life, barring nothing. Yet, after being separated it felt completely new again. Like I was rediscovering how crazy-awesome it was, along with all the insecurity, self-questioning and uncertainty. It was probably triggered by the fact that we had both nearly been killed for what was probably the tenth time. My appreciation of Mira was intensified, renewed over and over because of the constant threat of loss.

He deserves a thousand blowjobs for how he treats me. Okay, I admit it. I want him like crazy, and I want to, well ...

I want to do things for him.

I really want to do things with him.

I really really want to pleasure him ...

... a lot.

It was about then that the room-temperature felt like it was a good dozen degrees higher than reality, and I became aware that my face was about to combust from the self-inflicted torment of lusting after him. Strangely though, it didn't really bother me. The only thing that bothered me was the fact I couldn't really do anything about it.

Damn. This isn't the place to ... um, make it happen.

I was immediately roused from my absentmindedness by Mira himself, who had crossed the room to deposit his findings into my backpack. He had been busy while I was absorbed in my own little world, and he pulled the pack open to dump a bunch of pilfered food inside. Still, I was sure he had noticed my air of distraction and my rather physically-obvious 'state.' There was no way Mira would miss that, especially since I was studiously avoiding eye contact, but in his typical gentlemanly fashion, he made no big deal out of it. Instead he simply closed the pack and gently squeezed my arm.

"Hey," I cleared my throat, voice muffled by the rebreather as I turned to face him. He was wearing a rebreather and a visor too, though he had adjusted his visor to be completely transparent specifically so I could see his eyes. Considerate as ever, it made our communication so much easier. A message came, part confession, part suggestion; 'it's hard to explore when you're like this. I can't think of anything but you.' It was followed by an out-of-character bashful glance down to my ... excitement.

"I'm s-sorry," I spluttered, still struggling to balance my sanity against being so hot and bothered. Mira's answer was to slide his hand up my arm to my face, his fingers brushing my cheek in the softest caress, his gaze so gentle.

"I'm not," he whispered.

Just ... wow.

Then, in that moment of wonderful perfect calm, it came.

A scent, so faint and fleeting but laden with millennia of utter hatred. Unceasing, noxious and incurably dark.

The arbiter.

Our eyes widened in tandem, and I could feel his senses burgeoning as mine did, on full worried alert as we scrambled to tell where it was. Yet it wasn't me I was worried about, or Mira.

"Ayize," I murmured.

Mira's eyes blazed in my vision, the aqumi jumping as he focused himself, and he talked directly into my mind. The pure telepathy was rare and shocking, akin to him speaking aloud, but the urgency was unmissable.

Make for the shuttle with all haste. I will not risk your safety again. They are more dangerous than you know.

"I will." I nodded rapidly. "Go. Kick its ass."

Answering with action, he drew the katana in a flash of steel. Extending it behind and to the side with a flick of his arm, Mira was off at a run. In the blink of an eye, gone from the common room and away toward the source of peril.

And so it began, once more.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"So we're really doing this?" Kenji leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, chewing on a sherbet stick as he reclined. The PDN feed scrolled through the holoprojector at his impulse, though he was keeping an eye on the Brotherhood's operations in the other half. "Good pals with mankind's finest?"

Lindani was laughing over the comms. "Man, are you still eating those goddamn sugar candies? You know that shit is gonna wreck your teeth."

Kenji snorted. "You sound like my mother."

His mirth echoed down the connection. "Maybe I should take the position, for the amount of grief I get. There's gotta be some perks, right?"

"Not as many as you'd think," Kenji grinned. "Now answer the damn question."

"Well, yeah," Lindani's voice was so unpretentious and easy, just like his cousin. "It was the boss' idea. If Ayize is good with it, so am I."

"I guess." He unfolded his hands from behind his head and called up the regional Brotherhood deployment schedule. There were two other teams in Lindani's mission sphere, though both were busy with their own contributing objectives. Idly, he double-checked the exfil route for anomalous behaviour, but it was clear. Probably wasn't necessary given the low probability of a serious CorpSec response but old habits tended to die hard. "Just a bit antsy about the whole idea. Too many ways for us to all end up in prison or dead."

"You realise Thessaloniki would be court-martialled and probably shot for the smallest bit of help he's given us?"

"It's such a shitty deal." Kenji shook his head. Tech ops and oversight were pretty slow-paced roles most of the time, but at least it gave him leeway to talk in the quiet parts of the mission. That, and since he was sitting safely in the Brotherhood's European command station, he was free to browse whatever random crap caught his interest on the datanet. "How many join up for service knowing they can't lift a finger against MFM or the Duynhoven Multinational once they're in uniform?"

"Too many for my liking. I'm just glad this one is being ... realistic," he could hear the smirk in Lindani's voice at the choice of word, "as well as being a patriot."

"Me too. I get it's a big deal, I just ... keep expecting something to go wrong." Skipping over the entertainment and economic sections of the news ticker, he scanned to the political. "Hey have you been following the Politica feed? There's a bunch of new stuff coming through."

"Politica? Ken, seriously?"

"Hey, they aren't that bad!" The defensiveness was an automatic reflex. The PDN was crammed full of analysis, punditry and undoubtedly partisan interests when it came to the expression of political opinions. It had been like that for the entirety of its existence as a forum for human communication. The trick lay in finding a place that wasn't just an echo-chamber for popular opinion, or a mouthpiece for propaganda. "They're in the minority who aren't piling on the rubbish over Yakutsk."

"Alright then!" Lindani was laughing again. "So what's the news in Federal Bullshit Town?"

"Legislation, mostly. Not counting Yakutsk, the exec. is pretty quiet, though the media in China is still laying into the premier over the housing crisis. There are two bills up for increased military funding and civvy collaboration on R&D projects. Weird, they're co-sponsored by MFM proxies in the senate."

"Huh." There was a silent pause from Lindani. "That is weird. Why would they care about that?"

"Dunno." Kenji continued to read down the feed. "Most of the rest of it is trivia. Redrawing electoral districts in central Asia, amnesty for the Neo-Coptic rioters, renewing farm subsidies in the American midwest and, oh ... this one is interesting. The Society is pushing some kind of ethics bill for legislators."

"Yeah? What's it do?"

"Let's see. The premier can dismiss and reappoint on a short-term basis, until acquittal or conviction upon which a by-election is held, any federal senator who has a charge of 'injurious ethical degeneracy' lodged with the attorney general. The purpose is to 'mitigate the effect of corruptive elements on the lawmaking process and expedite judicial review of legislative competency.' So to translate, that's just double-speak for 'tilt the battlefield away from MFM and towards the premier.' Man, they're as bad as each other. Still, I don't know why they bothered putting it into draft."

"I'll say." Lindani chuckled. "We'd have to re-elect half the senate if Lebaredian got serious with 'judicial review.' It's all a breeding ground for crooks and liars. No chance in hell either side would get it to a majority vote."

"Well, get this: even Society's draft reviewer labelled it 'a cause for discussion, but dubious as legislation.' Of course, the MFM minority leader called it 'a prime example of gross executive overreach to be avoided at all costs.'"

"How surprising." The African could not keep the cynical tinge out of his voice. "Bet he wouldn't say that if they'd won any of the top positions in the last century or so."

"No shit. Makes me wonder why they bother with half of this. Is it bureaucracy for the sake of looking like they're actually doing some work, or do they truthfully think they can scrape some of this tripe through the process?"

"Ken, I really don't know." Lindani sighed. "I sure miss Tenemann though. It's been fuckin' forever since we had anything good going on with Society, you know? Like ... decades ago, there was a moderating voice to bring the loyalists closer. Then he goes, and all the progress is out the window, the senate reverts to the way it was and the 'us and them' thing starts all over again."

"I know. It's a really-" Kenji stopped mid-sentence as the tac-map for Stuttgart enlarged and blinking markers embedded themselves. "Ah fuck. 'dani! You got two pings, southwest half a klick. CS tag."

"Roger. I read. Going low."

"Keep your position." He switched channels to the tertiary team. "Heinrich, you on it?"

"Ja. We're watching. They're headed to the admin quarter, grid M22. No alarm so far." The mission was in a German RDA campus, one of several possible locations for their target. Lindani was meant to be maintaining in cover for the other teams to complete their circuit before he began his own. Heinrich's voice continued. "They'll pass within 20 metres, but he should be safe."

"Understood." The analysis declared his discovery highly improbable. "Don't engage unless absolutely necessary."

"Are you sure? We can take them down before they know it."

"Negative." Kenji repeated it. "Do not engage."

Still, as he observed the dots moving, they were uncomfortably close. They were moving nearer than they were meant to, and it made him distinctly uneasy. He had the disconcerting feeling they were going to cut much sharper past Lindani's position than the tac-map indicated

"Permission to engage." Heinrich was insistent. "They're going to see him, I know it."

Kenji's heart was racing. The CorpSec personnel were about in spitting distance, and it was a priority no one be discovered. Yet, it was also important that they not make a splash, so as to avoid tipping off the corporatists what the Brotherhood was after. Shooting CorpSec guards was about as counter-productive as it could get.

But ... it was Lindani out there.

A brother.

Do I order it? They could make it immaculate, but then MFM will know we were here.

"Oversight, please confirm."

He opened his mouth to speak, but there was a tone as the secondary team interrupted, the channel on a priority band, and Shearer's voice burst excitedly into his ears. "Ken, you read me? Disengage everyone. We got it! We fuckin' got it!"

What?!

"Repeat that. You secured the hardware? It was a nine to one! This is the first hit."

"Confirmed. It's secure!"

Holy shit.

He shared the channel with the tertiary team and Lindani's comms. "All groups, we are pulling back. Do not engage! No risks. Keep low and go to exfil."

"Got you. I'm grounded and going silent." Lindani's voice was whisper quiet before his feed stopped.

"Confirmed. Proceeding to exfil." Heinrich's channel cut as well, followed by Shearer's acknowledgement.

Opening the contact list, he negotiated a secure connection to the Aegean hub. This had all been thanks to Konstantin Andropov's initiative. The Russian had proposed a very daring concept, one that Thessaloniki had agreed to. The next step, what was intended for the stolen MFM hardware, was squarely in the Russian's hands.

First things first, however.

The news had to be delivered and it was Kenji's great pleasure to be the messenger.

They were one move closer to revealing the corporatists for what they were.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Mira's feet skidded on the dust coating as he rounded the corner back into the main corridor between the airlock entrance and the central area of the base. Sprinting, he flew along the passage and through the door into the conference room and then the control room.

Ayize and Rashid were standing back to back in the room's centre. Both had their guns raised, Ayize's TMP steady in his right hand, the left supporting, while the sleeker rifle weapon that Rashid carried was raised high, his eye close to the sights. From the moment he entered, it was obvious they knew something else was there, but they could not detect it with any of their technological assistance.

Yet, Mira could.

Beyond them, a black shape was moving, a phantom painted in the negative colouration that was the hidden sunlight's opposite. It was circling swiftly, a diminishing orbit that moved closer with every heartbeat. On his entrance it was no more than a metre from Ayize, and even with Rashid's exclamation of his name, he could not stop for a moment to give a verbal response, knowing to pause would mean their deaths.

"Mira!" Rashid spat. "Something's here!"

Arbiter! He shouted at it, and the imperious anger stopped, the enemy simultaneously recognising the arrival of his perception, and surprised at the speech itself. I come to fulfill my calling. I am the blade of the master's flame. Your judgement is over. I will see it done.

Betrayer! The cry was no less impassioned than his own. You claim falsity! Ash is fire, darkness is light, death is life! Slave to a demon prince, you claim LIES! Come forth, filthy abomination. It reared behind the two humans, the fire about it in a horrendously powerful dark blaze of nether. The communication dropped to a low deep growling taunt. Feel the Song and taste the slaughter of your lesser kin. You will all have your sin wiped clean.

Come forth!

"Get DOWN!" Mira shouted, and he took one step forward into a lightning fast leap across the room, directly towards the men. They had enough reaction time to begin obeying his words, yet had barely started their drop to the floor when he was reaching them. In the slow motion of his zen, the flow of his reflexive warrior-spirit stretched out the katana in a desperate counter to the arbiter's raised foreclaws that were scything towards Ayize's shoulder.

There was a ting as the sword's tip deflected the blow, arcing past, and then he was crashing into the arbiter. They tumbled together to the floor and the burning ache of its proximity was all about him. Then thrown apart upon the grit and rubbish, in a mutual repulsion of force and loathing. The jagged hardness of collision with the arbiter's carapace and the melting black fire that coated it set a pain across his body where it touched. Yet, this was minor, part of the tide of combat.

It was not enough to slow him, nor dim his resolve.

Not for a moment.

The men's voices came, a frantic background of sounds, but Mira was fully engaged with the enemy. He rolled to his feet, then in a fluid continuation, the katana was curving upwards. It sliced in a whirl of killing power but the arbiter too was all murderous grace and unearthly speed. Now with the draining ambience of Lucere gone, it was swift and unburdened. It parried with a clawful of adamant and a quickness comparable to his own, while Mira danced with it about the open floor, a back-and-forth waltz of deadly precision. Blow after blow after blow as it flashed in and out of actual visibility, and dimly through all this he recognised Ayize's voice. Shouting an order, he was commanding Rashid to retreat to the shuttle, and then ... then the creature's dodge and parry found purchase. The blade was snagged, and Mira wrenched down savagely on the vice-grip to free it, but the arbiter pushed upwards and out. The katana was pulled from his grasp and freed, launching away to hurtle across the room.

Gone.

It lunged forward in a followup, taking advantage of the blade's loss, jaws open, but he smashed it across the face with a fistful of aqumi. In tandem, the claws were slashing vengefully into his midriff and Mira started at the strike landing home, not expecting the hit. He tried to pull back again, to show this thing what he could do with his hands alone. He could forestall the next attack it would make as they stood engaged so close ... too close.

But, he had not recovered before that next strike was incoming.

Far too quickly, the arbiter moved with utter confidence, the jaws snapping wide to bite down on his shoulder and-

WHACK!

Decorated with a half-obliterated RDA symbol down the side of it, a solid bar of melted synthetic plastic rammed into the arbiter's face. Knocked back a foot and off centre, the creature hissed, recoiling. With the same horrible speed it extended a limb, backhanding Ayize solidly enough to send the man flying off his feet. Yet Mira was no fool and in that perfect second of distraction, a momentary grace, he barged into it. With enough momentum, he slammed the arbiter up against the room's far wall, right next to the border of Shay's old cell.

Channeling all the aqumi he could into his right hand, Mira pounded into the creature's left shoulder once, then twice. With enough force to powderise bone, his fist was the hammer and the facility's wall was the anvil. He felt the structure crack and break, the shoulder joint shattering. In payment, heedless of its ruined arm, the arbiter got exactly what it desired. So close in the embrace of combat, it repaid him in full. It leaned in, teeth sinking into Mira's shoulder and the bottom of his neck.

Though pain was just another thing to be overcome in his trials, this was an equal to anything he had experienced on Lucere and Earth. He could feel the teeth slicing, a dozen little incisive knives cutting into his body, the claws of the arbiter's still functional right arm anchoring into his left. Robbed of the chance to perform any dark manipulations, it was doing just what a sharpeling would do in close combat. Rip, tear, reave flesh with the predatorial intent of its species, to finish the fight here and now.

Mira would not let it.

He would survive this somehow, he knew he had to, but more than that, more than anything ...

This evil had to die.

He had to protect Shay.

It was his purpose. He was more than this thing. The glowing salvation within him was an ally that would overcome.

He would do to it what it was trying to do to him ... and prevail.

His grasp burned with a brilliant intensity, wet with his own blood. His right hand was clawing into the arbiter's neck plates as he strove to drive his fist all the way past the layers of black heat and rocky armour to the creature's spine. There was so much resistance, but his fingers pushed on, punching further into the hardened shell. Reaching through the material that made it, his aim was the nervous system where he would break its neck.

Yet, the arbiter was doing the same.

Low and faint in the background, he heard a mantra while they fought; the arbiter's voice speaking a hideous chant. The voice seemed to grow more fervent as it tore at the vital connections of his life, gouging him in a brutal hungry struggle for dominance.

Blood. Your life is mine. Flesh. Your body is carrion.

Blood. Prey for the strong. Flesh. The path to infinity.

Blood! The glory of war! Flesh! The housing of pain!

Not attempting a reply to its zealotry, Mira intensified his push, dragged every part of spare energy he could into his effort. His hand dug into the arbiter's innards, scratching through the dense material so close on the column of its body. Yet he was weakening just as much as he was strengthening himself, the assault upon his own form almost too great. There was only so much vitality, even with the fantastic power of the light extending it. His cleave into the creature's core was weakening it too, but the jaws seemed relentless, the attack unending and still unwearied, ruthless as ever, and then ...

Then, right in front of his eyes, a gleaming steel blade erupted out of the side of the arbiter's head.

Ayize thrust the katana until the hilt was bumping the ebony frills on the side of the skull. The creature shuddered, twitching, and the jaws slackened, the teeth falling loosely away from Mira's body. Ayize lifted it off the boy, and swung the weapon in a vertical 180, sliding the still-impaled arbiter along the wall. He completed the arc with enough momentum that the creature slipped off the blade and was thrown down into the dirty white of the cell below. It lay slumped, but Ayize did not give it a second to perform any kind of recovery. Dropping the sword on the floor, he swiftly lined it up with the TMP and drilled the entire magazine into its head.

"And stay down," muttered the African, as he reloaded. One eye was on the body to make doubly sure it wasn't about to try anything else, but it didn't matter. The job was done and the creature was dead. It began to crumble to dust as he watched, a fitting end for death on the world of Berchande.

Mira tried to stay standing, but his body was ravaged. His left hand clutched at the stomach wound, the lesser of his injuries. His right hand came to press on his left shoulder, which was barely able to fully bend. He felt Ayize next to him, easing him to sit. The bleeding from the mass of tearing on his left shoulder was dizzying, and aqumi was fighting to mitigate the effects and repair. The man was talking to him as he began to staunch the bleeding and apply what first aid he had, but Mira did not hear the words.

Every part of him wanted to stand, to move again.

To fight.

The struggle was not over. The danger continued, only ... elsewhere.

He could feel it.

Shay.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The air whipped across my skin, coarse and irritating. My feet slapped on the mesa's rock as I dashed toward the shuttle, dozens of metres away. Behind me inside the facility I could feel echoes of quantum distortion and the twisting darkness that was the opposite.

Mira's encounter with the arbiter had begun.

My mind was so focused on that confrontation, my body running on autopilot that what happened next took a couple of moments to embed itself, and I came skidding to a halt.

Two things occurred simultaneously.

The shuttle's engines detonated in a contained explosion. Parts of the propulsion's fuselage blew off, metal and engine components flung from the rear of the craft. It immediately listed to one side where it sat, the ground supports damaged. Smoke followed, billowing from the engines, the vessel now crippled.

In front of the shuttle, a black presence expanded. No longer concealed, it flashed into being, a dark tide of power, deliberately revealed to break my morale. The fire danced upon it, the arms spread, head low, the utter pitch darkness of its face fixed upon me.

A second arbiter.

Oh fuck.

In the moments that followed, it didn't utter a thing. It simply began to advance. Not charging nor at a run, but a swift stride. An unstoppable march that was coming directly for me, uninterested in anything else.

Somehow, that was even more terrifying.

I didn't think. I simply reacted.

My heart was thundering, but I had no time to be afraid. Wrapping aqumi round as much of the shuttle's metallic debris as I could find, I plucked the pieces from Berchande's dust. The mess was scattered all over, both beyond the arbiter, to our sides and between us. The chunks levitated into the air, and I aimed and then sent each hurtling, like so many bits of quantum-propelled shrapnel. In seconds, there was a telekinetic hail flying toward it from as many angles as I could manage.

The first couple of shots, the arbiter dodged with the same unnatural agility that Mira had. A shiver went through me at this sight, but I didn't stop my assault. I quickly graduated to the biggest unattached parts of the shuttle, and then any loose rocks on the mesa's surface. Anything that I could throw, I threw. It leaped to one side, then evaded yet again, and kept up a constant shifting to avoid the barrage. Still, its approach was slowed, but then, only as I was struggling to retrieve and reuse my ammunition, it stopped moving, just for long enough.

An opening.

Got you!

I dumped a shield on top, the arbiter no more than ten metres from my position. A little bubble of gold encased it, and immediately a limb struck the shield as it tried to reflexively continue in its movement. Recoiling in pain from the touch, or maybe just pure anger, it immediately fixated on me, glaring balefully.

Not so tough now, are you? I glared straight back at the creature, trapped inside an impenetrable prison of force. You're not that special. Can't beat the same thing that worked against your hounds. I'm going to keep you nailed in place right here until the others have killed your friend, and then we're going to-

Like an electric jolt to the mind, I gasped. My muscles went rigid, and I wavered physically. The black flames on the arbiter flared, growing into a bonfire that burst against the shield's interior. It coated the inside, painting the unseeable aqumi bubble with a distinguishable border. Everywhere it touched was a painful shock, and the feeling of that contact in so many places at once was overwhelming feedback. My senses were awash with it, and it stunned me.

The control of aqumi released and the shield vanished.

Before I could move, before I could blink, it was bounding forward with a speed that it had not displayed earlier. Gone was the casual arrogance, and now it was all business. In a moment, the rush was done and the creature was directly in front, knocking me onto my back in a flying leap. Each clawed hand dug into one of my shoulders, a vicious pinion into my arms, with its weight holding me in place as it loomed above. Just inches from mine, the arbiter's head was close, and I could see into the eyes, perversely intimate as a lover's embrace, but the sockets held nothing. A starless void, no hint of the spark of life, nor anything a human would consider sentient.

I was face to face with the enemy.

I needed to burn it, and I had to try. Able to reach up enough to grasp its arm, I attempted to flood it with the quantum power that could tear it apart. The bony protrusions cut into my hand just from attempting to touch it, nevermind the fire's acid, and desperately, I pushed aqumi forth. Yet, unlike at Aspira's plaza, the arbiter fought back. The light was swiftly ejected from its body, and the glowing strands I sought to invade with were forced out. Stopped, at its whim.

This world does not drown in poison, defiler. There is no weakening affliction here. The arbiter's whisper came into my mind, as insidious and grim as ever. You will know our grace. This infinite hurt comes to an end.

No!

Yes. It was eager, strong, and undoubtedly superior. I tried again to push the light into the arbiter's flesh, but it simply threw my efforts out, an elder reprimanding an insolent child. Struggle not, for I give to you a gift. Behold! See now the glory of what is to come.

Then, images into my mind.

A blue-green world, the same that haunted me for 214 years. Fantastic light played through the clouds, the shimmer of aemfid, but there was a colossal black shape floating in the atmosphere. It stood in orbit, a sentinel imposing itself upon the world.

Lucere.

Rain falling across immense mountains, misty forests and urban coastal ruins. The reclamation of nature; eroded snaking canals and collapsed Buddhist temples. Sharpelings roamed placidly through the streets, at ease with this place but still, an ever-present symbol of dominance.

Taiqing.

A gas giant, a swirl of tan and maroon and cream. Then closer, a field of shapes, tiny against the vast haze of the surfaceless planet. Thousands of them, a swarm of alien ships sitting in space. A staging ground, waiting for ... something.

Unknown.

Another familiar blue-green world, night falling across the surface. The curtain of dusk drew across Asia, then Europe and Africa. No artificial lights appeared. No sign of humans. Then a deeper darkness was spreading. This was no mere cloaking of the sun's light. It was not a part of nightfall, but a living mist that poured outward from a single point, encompassing everything, enshrining the entire planet.

Earth.

The Herald; it sings the Music, it hissed to me in concert with the mental refrain, so soft but so completely sure of its truth. The executor; it sees the magnificence flow on unbroken. My brethren; we shine the Light. The pattern continues, defiler, and your demonic touch is finished. This is a time of joy.

The Master draws near.

The future awaits.

It leaned closer, the flames caressing my face as I stared at the grostequerie, a tar-covered gargoyle made of knives and edges. A hand rose from where it was pinning my shoulder to brush its claws almost lovingly along my jugular.

Now, you must die.

The claws pressed in a fraction, a microsecond from piercing my skin, cutting my throat, and then-

BLAM-BLAM-BLAM!

The arbiter was knocked away, stumbling back as gunfire struck its head, an angry gurgling hiss escaping as it reeled. More shots followed, and then it was cloaking and dashing past me. I flipped over, standing as the creature sprinted away with its stupefying speed towards Rashid. He was crouched fearlessly right by the airlock entrance, dozens of metres away. Tracking the arbiter with his rifle weapon down the scope, more shots came even after it had vanished. Though I could still see the silhouette of invisibility, he could not, but that did not prevent his superb intuition from guessing the creature's position, several hits striking it and causing it to slip as it charged to his location.

No! No no no! I will not lose someone! Not like THIS!

The anger seemed to surge inside me exponentially, and it was once again down to instincts alone, as the creature got close enough to jump. My mind's eye broke the scene down into glacial slowness. It was all there in frightful detail, the arbiter airborne in mid-leap, one arm raised high like a scythe, claws fully extended to deliver their deadly fury. Rashid was dropping the gun, in a wholly decent estimate of the approaching concealed enemy's closeness, his hand reaching for the combat knife at his thigh. Brave, but foolhardy; melee with this thing was a death sentence no matter what.

NO!

My wrath hit a crescendo, the ultimate consequence of being driven beyond breaking point. I did not know whether the arbiter made contact with Rashid, but in that same moment, something inside me changed.

I was no longer myself.

Strange righteous hatred gripped me, my arm extending in a flash. A massive wave of force issued forth with the same godlike power that I possessed in Aspira. It rippled across the mesa top, knocking Rashid down, sliding him along the dirt. The arbiter was picked up and tossed straight into the frame of the airlock, bouncing off it and onto the ground like a ragdoll.

I'm coming for you.

I broke into a run, my body hot with the fullness of aqumi roused, my mind transformed into something more than what it was. The arbiter wobbled, climbing back upright, trying to reverse the concussive impact, but it had no time. I did not stop my beeline, carelessly aggressive but focused on a singular goal: the breaking of my foe. Visible light gathered around my hands as I ran, my fists coalescent with it. They were luminous brands of pure quantum heat, and I reached the arbiter wielding those twin gauntlets of energy just as it was finally overcoming its daze.

It mustered a counter offensive, the black flames blooming, its right arm raising in yet another vicious clawing attack, but I blocked the slash with aqumi. My right forearm came across in front of my body, absorbing it with a kinetic bracer made of light. The hurt was so minor to me that it could be ignored and then, in answer, my left hand shot out. Grabbing onto the boney ridges of the same marauding arm's shoulder, with ridiculous ease, I gripped and pulled ...

... and ripped the arm clean off, completely separating it from the arbiter's torso.

It froze, utterly stunned. I threw the limb aside, and my right fist closed on its neck. Picking it up, no more than a skeletal piece of rubbish, I slammed it bodily to the ground. Then I climbed atop it, much as it had done to me only seconds earlier. Placing one hand on either side of its face, the arbiter did not stop me. Whether broken, cowed or traumatised, I didn't know, but there was no resistance. I spoke, a proper verbal address, though not English and not fully my own choice of words. The speech was an alien language, and derived from some combination of the past and future. It was a distant echo and a stalwart hope all rolled into one; the controlling foreign mood telling me how to craft the words.

All of this change had emerged from within the golden bounty Lucere gave me.

[ I am the Darkbane. You will surrender your knowledge to me. ]

Demon! The call was pitiful as it was fearful. Horror reborn!

The mesa top about us seemed to dim, but it was only the contrast of my hands flickering as their brilliance grew in strength. The desert and sky was muted to comparative shadow and half-colour, and all the light in the world seemed to be drawn in, emanating from my fingertips. My grip tightened on its head, and just like the creature's arm, I pulled, one half secure in each hand. The skull buckled and then tore down the centre like it was no more than cardboard, the spikes and crenellations dividing evenly as I rent it in two. Yet, it was not dead. The nonsensical physical mess that was the innards of the creature's head lay exposed, but the arbiter was more than just physical matter.

The real arbiter was made of something else.

This was the true nature of the alien that sought the enslavement and death of humanity.

Not physical at all, there was a strange sphere of void; the squirming pulsing centre that made up the core of this creature. It was trying to dissipate, to release itself in death, but my overriding fey mood was in control. My own unquestionably alien imperative, the aqumi impulse, had seized me and would not let it die. Reaching in, my blazing right fight enclosed the arbiter's essence, denying it that relief.

[ How did you return? How did you breach the Veil of Shadow? ]

King of demons. The arbiter's voice was still audible in my mind, though now pathetically weak, robbed of everything but speech itself. It rasped, spat, coughed in its mental fragility, defeated and demeaned. Its body was broken but the spirit was paired still with the husk. Prince of discord. Torturer! The judge does not suffer the accursed!

[ You will suffer me. ]

Surgically precise, strands of light flowed from my fingertips into the sphere of the arbiter's consciousness.

[ Give me your answers, darkling spawn. ]

Then, another slew of images as the information was taken directly from it. It was time in reverse, a rewinding of history at impossible speed.

Arbiters, everywhere. Flashes of this one's brothers on a multitude of worlds. Berchande. Lucere. Prasada. The Sanqing triplets. Obsidia. The rest of the thirteen colonies. Other worlds, dozens upon dozens, maybe hundreds of places. In space; orbiting those worlds, at foreign stars. Jumping through nebulae, near asteroid belts, past quasars. In the vastness of open vacuum, far from anything.

Then years ticking back. Less of them. The numbers declining. The tide of ships and predators retreating. Disappearing from the uninhabited worlds first, then lastly the handful of human worlds. Receding, one by one, all the way back to Lucere.

Then on Lucere, from Pyropus and Argentum, to Aurum.

From Aurum, shrinking east through the Aurora Coast, drawing back west and north in the Capital Arm. The number diminished, the sphere of malign influence collapsing backward until there was only ... Palatus.

First, the province.

Then the city itself.

Then, a single place.

Not in the city, but near it.

Very close.

A building, no more than five kilometres outside the Palatus suburban limits. There, the vision paused. The knowledge was perfect, even down to the equivalent day of the calendar.

February 13th, 2104.

This was when and where it had begun.

The first arbiter had appeared the day after I had gone into hibernation at the Volkov Medical Centre. It was the day before the Valentine's Sickness had let loose, the first cases of the so- labelled Sharpe virus ... and it had occurred on human property?!

[ You did not cross unaided. ] Whatever possessive quantum entity had taken me, it was both commanding and judicious. [ You preyed upon the artless greed of this younger race. Yet, my brother knew the truth. You forge your own demise by the same means. They become the vessels of our revenge, the soil into which the immortal seed is planted. ]

There is no truth but the Master, it claimed, a wheezing mental stammer. No future but the Song.

Not replying, I simply let go of the essence contained in my hand. It immediately dissipated, scattering to the wind, lost, dead. The shattered head and corpse of the arbiter began to disintegrate too, the webwork of its spirit departed. With that, whatever had seized me stopped also, the aura around my hands fading, my mind clearing from the odd haze that enveloped me during all this.

"Shay."

Rashid's voice cut in. He was lying still on the ground where my wave of force had thrown him, eyes wide from watching the entire exchange, slowly bringing himself upright into a sitting position. Rushing to his side, I helped him up, but it was right then that I noticed he was clutching his shoulder. On the left side, the arbiter's claws had cut through the shirt and into the muscle. It was about three inches long, barely a scratch, but that was enough.

He was infected.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The first night in Leeuwenhoek wasn't too cold, and bearably uncomfortable. Yet, though they were able to find some temporary rest in the northern forest's expanse of tall thin firs, the real problem was soon determined. They were vulnerable, and the shadow lurking on the fringes of their knowledge was the testament to just how exposed. Elia knew it was still out there, watching from afar. She could feel it, distant and faint, but always there.

Always present.

That second day, they conserved energy by not running full speed. It was unnecessarily tiresome, though Elia led Nyx onwards constantly. She knew the importance of staying mobile with such pressures upon them, and now they just needed somewhere to pause. A place to stop for longer than an hour; somewhere into which they could stop until sense could be made of ... everything

Of existence itself.

Any such speculation was not what occupied Elia's thoughts, because her mind was nearly exclusive in its focus on survival and continuation. Though, for Nyx, this was the question that weighed her thoughts. It had the same kind of heavy importance to it that the feeling of Elia's hand had, as it firmly clasped her own while they walked.

Significance.

She had awoken into this world of terror and confusion.

Why had she been one of them, those creatures?

How had she escaped from that endless grinding horror, the one that had enslaved her mind and body?

Where had the light come from and why were they freed?

Why?

There were no answers; just the strange glow of the sky, a mix of cloud, the sun's light, and the green-brown melange of the natural world about them. The further they travelled into the wild, away from the signs of human habitation, the louder the birds sung. The sound of trilling and the directionless melodic whistling seemed to somehow alleviate everything else, and hearing it, seeing the singers flit from branch to branch, made the despair at everything feel less overwhelming.

For a while Elia's bearing had been impromptu, directionless too, but then she caught a glimpse of something different. There was a hint of a shape through the trees, and pulling Nyx towards it, before long they entered a small clearing. There, in the middle of it, was a building.

More like it was the ruins of one. The original owner of the structure had been a lover of old-world European masonry, for the design was reminiscent of a castle from a thousand years ago. It was cylindrical, nearly ten metres in diameter with a single doorway entrance at the base. Spiral stairs ran clockwise to a second and third story, topping out with a fourth. All the walls and floors were cobbled stone, with modern steel joists snuck in to support.

Elia wandered cautiously into the tower's ground floor. Letting go of Nyx's hand, she ran her eyes over the interior. There were two windows, with wildflowers and nettles growing in the scattered soil on the floor along with broken wood siding that might once have been furniture. Daylight came in from the stairs and slowly, Elia began to climb, investigating further up.

It was soon obvious where the light was coming from.

The far side of the tower, which had not been visible from the direction they approached, was half missing. On the third story, a quarter of the floor was gone, and the corresponding wall too. A widening gap began and rose up, seeming to enlarge and swallow the upper part of the tower. By the top story, less than half the floor was visible, the staircase only just connecting to it. The wall was completely absent barring fragments rising high enough to support what was left of the floor, and there was no roof whatsoever. Sections of masonry were visible lying on the ground outside, separated into piles and clumps that were covered by years of clinging moss and shrubs.

Long ago, something had smashed a hole in the top of this tower.

Nyx was a couple of steps behind her, hesitantly following. As they ascended the last stretch of stairs, finally reaching above the treetops, the forest of Leeuwenhoek became properly visible and they both turned to take in the sight.

The sun was lowering in the sky, and beneath it the uneven canopy of evergreen was brushed with that warmth. High up, odd strings of cirrus were twisting with luminous abandon, while nearby the birdsong continued unfinished, a garland of music to complement the blue and yellow florets clambering along the tower's foundation.

Perhaps ... this was a part of why.

Then, into the peace of that moment came the soft scratch of claw upon stone, and the guttural hiss of an animal's growl.

It took only a moment for Elia to identify the creature awakening from where it slumbered on the remnants of the top floor. Not waiting a second, she ran directly for it, bounding up the last dozen steps. It was coming fully to attention, the stance switching into a combative form. The arms swung wide, the movements it made an eerie mixture of the arbiter's likeness and human reflex.

Ready to fight.

The opening move was a clawing slash with the right limb, which Elia dodged, the air whooshing past her face as she leaned back. Then in, elbowing the creature in the face, she grabbed the still overextended limb and swung the sharpeling by it into the wall's vestige. Momentarily dazed, it lunged with the other arm in a clumsy riposte, but Elia was still one move ahead. Kicking the feet from beneath it, she gripped its skull and bashed the head against the floor once, twice, three times.

Not enough.

It gave another sibilant rumble, the teeth grazing Elia's wrist, snapping at her, but she repeated the bash once more. It was enough for the sharpeling to be concussed, staying unresponsive for a few seconds, and she used that time to draw the glowing heat into her hand. A fiery hatred welled up and suddenly, Elia was pounding the creature's neck flat with a fist of invisible ethereal light. Sharpeling blood and splintered chunks of bone spattered, but she was heedless, unstoppable.

Again, and again ...

... and again.

Over and over. It was her purpose, her calling, to make these things stop.

No threats.

Nothing to hurt the light.

The creature swayed in her grip, not struggling any more but choking on its own fluid, fatally injured. Yet, it was Nyx that stayed her, intercepting the golden hammer that was her right hand before it could land another strike on the hideous brute. Staring, she looked into Nyx's eyes. The other girl let go, and then reached down. Picking up the sharpeling by the chunky armour of its shoulder, she pulled the gurgling choking creature upright, dragged it away from Elia and across a metre or so to the edge of the tower before she pushed it over the side.

Then, Nyx was back in front of Elia, who could see nothing but ...

... a burning wind.

It was all that existed. Elia's eyes were unfocused and her mind was far away. She was on the crest of a wave of heat, rising in a tsunami of fire. It spread over every last bit of creation, obliterating all the foul things that had come forth. Nothing was left that creeped in the shadows, nothing loathsome, nothing that came from the corruption, the wrongness that was all they had known.

No more.

"Elia."

It was a whisper only, but it drew her mind back from the ruinous vengeance she envisioned, the surge of fate. Back to Nyx's raven hair, deep eyes and the calmness that lay within. Her look did not say much apart from reassurance, but one thing was definite. Stay here, wait here. Do not be afraid. I will come back soon.

Nyx left, descending the tower, while Elia sat down on the cobble of the top floor, the afternoon sun's light warming her from the coldness of reality's confrontation. Still, she waited, absent-minded anyhow, and some minutes later Nyx returned. Her hands were stained now too with the sharpeling's viscera, and she was carrying an armful of dried reeds and coarse grass. She threw her load onto the floor, drew Elia over and sat her down. Removing her jacket, Nyx began to clean the mess from themselves, using the thatch she had just collected to scour their skin clean.

Wordless, without communication, once this was done, Elia removed her jacket too and together they retrieved some of their pocket-stashed food from Argus Fletcher's warehouse. There was still enough left for at least another day, and so they ate. Not questioning what came next, Elia pulled Nyx close against her and they lay down, the Liberator jackets serving as warmth as the sun began to set.

Night was falling and they were safe, for now.

Yet, Elia could not sleep.

Her mind kept returning to that moment of amazing tranquility, where the world had reverted to the way it once was. Then, the arbiter. The sharpeling. A nightmare of days past would always arrive.

Unwanted, unbidden, unending.

Inescapable.

She knew it was her purpose. A protector, a guardian of the light; to keep safe the one thing that was defying what came for her, what came for Nyx. She knew she would be a sentinel her entire life, but she also knew that there was something else.

She felt in her heart of hearts that it was not just Nyx.

There was someone else.

Someone whom she recalled in snippets of memory from before, though this could not be true. There was nothing before but a rabid blackness, filled with the yoke of thralldom. Then, a figure, no bigger than Elia herself, but a giant in all other ways. With the stature of a titan and the visage of a star, she could remember this ... being. Standing astride the world, dauntless, mighty and beautiful, he was the brightest light of all.

In those seconds of impossible recollection, she saw him reach above and set afire the heavens. A nova was born and with that gift, he had broken their chains.

The same part of her that knew Nyx's life was a part of her purpose also knew that his protection, his life, were paramount.

She - they - needed to find him.

Before that, however, Elia felt something else.

The dread that had trailed them and stayed back beyond perception was now approaching. Elia's eyes flicked fully open as she lay with the other girl hugged against her, the warm air from Nyx's breath tickling as she slept. Senses fully alert, she felt it. From the sky, in a dozen places streaking to earth, they rained like meteors. In all directions about the tower, scattered like a mortar shot from space, they landed.

The enemy was coming.

i>Fine print in the Arbiter Introductory Handbook: "Warning: the Master is not responsible for limb-removal by quantum-powered demons."
Being evil is such a hard career choice.
Please let me know what you think. A like, comment or review would be marvellous! ^_^
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I have been wallowing in this wonderful story since the beginning, from when Shay went into hibernation. My day brightens immediately when I spot a new post. My next curiosity to have satisfied is what happens when Yugan joins the heroes? What can one say but Thank You for the marvelous read.

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The events of this chapter have enlightened me somewhat. I think not as much as

Shay's revelations. He now has knowledge of the enemy, and once more feels the

power of hidden sunlight. But he had to get awfully, viscerally close to the Arbitor

to get that. Eew!-so disgusting! I can only imagine the smell...

 

The action scenes here were amazing. You pull me right into them, making me

hate it when each chapter ends.

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On 06/23/2014 11:38 PM, stanollie said:
I have been wallowing in this wonderful story since the beginning, from when Shay went into hibernation. My day brightens immediately when I spot a new post. My next curiosity to have satisfied is what happens when Yugan joins the heroes? What can one say but Thank You for the marvelous read.
Thank you! I am so glad you are enjoying it so much. That is the most gratifying part of writing; hearing genuine appreciation for it.

 

Ah, but the problem for Yugan will be in getting to the same place Shay is, or finding a (literal) middle ground. Finding one another within this will not be easy.

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On 06/24/2014 01:22 AM, Stephen said:
The events of this chapter have enlightened me somewhat. I think not as much as

Shay's revelations. He now has knowledge of the enemy, and once more feels the

power of hidden sunlight. But he had to get awfully, viscerally close to the Arbitor

to get that. Eew!-so disgusting! I can only imagine the smell...

 

The action scenes here were amazing. You pull me right into them, making me

hate it when each chapter ends.

Thank you! Crafting the exact steps of the action sequences took a decent amount of time, so I am happy it turned out well.

 

Shay will have learned plenty, when he has a chance to process it. Though the audience will have learned even more, given what they know of events takings place in other parts of the plot too. As for the arbiter's smell? I would imagine it doesn't have a particularly strong odour of anything much. If there was any scent it would likely be a very sense-heavy edginess, like the metallic tang of blood or the sharpness of electricity as a smell. The impact of the arbiter as a creature is mostly through sight - how it appears (or doesn't appear, as the case sometimes is) - and also through the aura is projects. Both Rashid and Ayize did extremely well to not simply run away at the size of it; it has a powerful mental effect on those who aren't conditioned to withstand such things.

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WOW, such a great work! I really love the way you are telling this story.

I wish I could comment on the content, but right now my brain feels like mashed potatoes...

University's killing me right now ^^ It was really great to have this read though, thanks! This finally gave me half an hour of relaxation and took me on a journey away from earth and all it's bad things like exams, papers and the like... xD

I am positive that I will write a better review for the next chapter... by then university should be over. Keep it up!

Love

Sammy

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On 06/25/2014 10:34 AM, Sammy Blue said:
WOW, such a great work! I really love the way you are telling this story.

I wish I could comment on the content, but right now my brain feels like mashed potatoes...

University's killing me right now ^^ It was really great to have this read though, thanks! This finally gave me half an hour of relaxation and took me on a journey away from earth and all it's bad things like exams, papers and the like... xD

I am positive that I will write a better review for the next chapter... by then university should be over. Keep it up!

Love

Sammy

You said that the last chapter too: "I'll write a proper review next chapter!" It's just as well I like you so much or there would be words right now :P I jest though. I'm glad you enjoyed it. There is plenty to come!
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Btw didn't you say in the previous book that 3 dna strands were used... the Administrator, the Guardian, and the... like the "adaptive/Reactive" one..

and if Shay is the Administrator, (and the only one since he was asleep and not in the gene pool for 200 years)

And Mira's ancestor was a Guardian...

I am guessing that all three were on Aurum (it wasn't very clear when i read the email sent to Shay... it sounded like at least one was on Earth)

I am guessing that one of the girls is also decended from Mira's.... greatest grandmother.

(I assume from her thoughts Nyx)

and the other Elia is reactive... or is she another decendant of Grandma... (also what does Reactive do i'd really like to know)

why do i also suddenly get the feeling that Humans and the Elder Aurmite Race are both caught up in a war that is much older than either of them.

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On 04/15/2015 02:31 PM, Celethiel said:
Btw didn't you say in the previous book that 3 dna strands were used... the Administrator, the Guardian, and the... like the "adaptive/Reactive" one..

and if Shay is the Administrator, (and the only one since he was asleep and not in the gene pool for 200 years)

And Mira's ancestor was a Guardian...

I am guessing that all three were on Aurum (it wasn't very clear when i read the email sent to Shay... it sounded like at least one was on Earth)

I am guessing that one of the girls is also decended from Mira's.... greatest grandmother.

(I assume from her thoughts Nyx)

and the other Elia is reactive... or is she another decendant of Grandma... (also what does Reactive do i'd really like to know)

why do i also suddenly get the feeling that Humans and the Elder Aurmite Race are both caught up in a war that is much older than either of them.

good theorising! Sound assumptions on most of it, though I'm not going to comment further xD
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Ugh I'm confused. Who is the brother that Shay was talking about when he was "interrogating" the Arbiter?

Wait. Second thought. Could the "brother" be the two brothers that split the people of the Yugon race when the Matriach was telling her story? And would that mean that it wasn't Shay speaking?

Or I could be wrong. 😀

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44 minutes ago, Forevermotion said:

Wait. Second thought. Could the "brother" be the two brothers that split the people of the Yugon race when the Matriach was telling her story? And would that mean that it wasn't Shay speaking?

It is certainly not Shay talking, and the hint is in the [ odd formatting ] that is indicative of something other than regular human speech.

Your guess, however, is accurate.

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Such powerful description and perfect dialogue which bring this wonderous story to life. Cant tell you how much I love this story because it has taken on a life of it own. You have take us to wonderful and perfect places so well thought out! And fight scenes death living on an edge which make this so believable and real!

Thanks so much for this story:worship::worship::worship::thankyou:

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Mira as well as Shay were not able to fight the arbiters. The help of Ayize and Rashid respectively rescued them in the last moment. Just then they gained the full aqumi power enabling Shay to tear the arbiter into pieces. Is there a learning curve still to be performed understand how to provoke aqumi right at the start thus preventing long tiring fights?

Elia is quite remarkable not fearing the sharpeling. Interesting how Nyx came to block Elia from killing the already dead sharpeling pulling her out of some hatred or vengeance stance. After that Elia is being called. A new mysterious connection between Elia and the guardian of light.

Is he the clue to aqumi?

Stellar, I have to be careful now, you start changing me, and I am finding myself being on guard for arbiters and sharpelings. Where will this lead to? :2thumbs:

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41 minutes ago, BarkingFrog said:

Mira as well as Shay were not able to fight the arbiters. The help of Ayize and Rashid respectively rescued them in the last moment. Just then they gained the full aqumi power enabling Shay to tear the arbiter into pieces. Is there a learning curve still to be performed understand how to provoke aqumi right at the start thus preventing long tiring fights?

To be fair, they were both able to fight effectively, but the situations were difficult. Whether Mira would have killed the arbiter he was facing without serious injury -- if Ayize did not intervene -- is an open question. Conversely, Rashid definitely saved Shay's life. What happened with him was more complex, as it was not simply new power being 'unlocked' through the stress of combat. Detail on this will be expanded in later chapters.

57 minutes ago, BarkingFrog said:

Elia is quite remarkable not fearing the sharpeling. Interesting how Nyx came to block Elia from killing the already dead sharpeling pulling her out of some hatred or vengeance stance. After that Elia is being called. A new mysterious connection between Elia and the guardian of light.

Is he the clue to aqumi?

Elia is much like Mira in that she is unafraid of sharpelings and has the natural combat ability to kill them.

If you think back to their origins, you will know who that connection is to, he who had 'broken their chains.'

57 minutes ago, BarkingFrog said:

Stellar, I have to be careful now, you start changing me, and I am finding myself being on guard for arbiters and sharpelings. Where will this lead to? :2thumbs:

Well, if they should appear on Earth, we're all in trouble. Let's hope that doesn't happen. :huh:

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