I’m on TDY from Hell – Only One of Us Is Walking Out of Here

Gerry watched Ava rocket into the air and dart toward Lucifer. He hated the relief that spread through him. As a warrior he was supposed to rise to the occasion, but it was clear that his survival depended on him being half a heartbeat ahead of the Dominion, and he’d barely accomplished that. Getting a breather from the fight was a welcome break.

A short-lived break.

A pressure wave washed over him without effect. He was still insubstantial, so he barely noticed it, but he did notice the gymnasium suffer a crushing blow. It was quickly followed by Satan and Michael leaving the battlefield. Gerry was fine with that. The Divine commander was way out of his league. His eyes swept the field and focused on his next target. He didn’t have wings like the angels, but he was big and strong. He bent his legs in a textbook squat and pushed off with tremendous force into a high arc. He soared through the air like an artillery shell.

He rose up to twice the height of the waring Lords before he reached the apex of his jump and began to plummet back to Earth. He got a good view of the action, and it wasn’t great. Lono was lying in a dismembered heap off to his right. Ava’s attack had greatly weekend him, and her soldiers had finished the job. Jeb was in dire straits. His Infernal form was battling two guardians and their tandem attack was getting through his defenses and wearing him down. Jezebel was missing a hand and had deep lacerations across her naked chest.

He ignored them all as he focused on his target.

Emmanuel and Lucian fought with vicious skill. The Dominion of Charleston swung his curved saber and barely missed spilling Lucian’s guts all over the ground. The Dux’s retreat left him vulnerable to a follow-up punch from a gauntleted fist. Gerry heard something snap in the other Dux from a hundred feet in the air as Lucian’s Infernal form stumbled drunkenly. He was clearly stunned, and Emmanuel moved in for the kill. He would have succeeded if Gerry hadn’t come plummeting out of the night like a falling star.

The Dominion was monitoring the æther around him, so he felt Gerry coming. He literally had eyes in the back of his head. He rotated and gave a powerful slash of his blade. Gerry barely avoided it by bringing his knees up into a tucked position and summersaulting in the air. The blade passed harmlessly several feet below him, and it set him up to land ass first.

He put a burst of power into his version of an Infernal cannonball.

The earth roiled beneath the Dominion’s insubstantial feet as ground exploded around him. The impact was enough to shatter the spell and allow Gerry to interact with the world again. That saved his life, because he was too slow to recover. Emmanuel’s blade passed cleanly through his neck as Gerry straightened out of the giant crater.

“For the love of…” Emmanuel growled before he rolled away. Lucian leapt into the previously occupied space where his claws stabbed harmlessly into the ground.

Now Emmanuel had a choice: attack Gerry and keep him from inflicting damage on the human world, or keep fighting Lucian. The Dominion made the decision immediately. He came at Gerry. The æther shimmered and made him substantial. Gerry brought his own blade up over his head to block the blow, and felt the full brunt of Divine strength plow into him. The Dominion’s downward stroke smacked into Gerry’s own Divine Steel blade, forced it back, and into Gerry’s own armored shoulder.

“AHHHHHHH!” Gerry roared in pain and the powerful angel pressed the attack and forced the blade deeper into Gerry’s body.

“Go back to Hell, spawn of Seere!” Emmanuel spat.

Gerry was all for keeping a few tricks up his sleeve in case of an emergency, but now wasn’t the time to hold back. He brought his other hand up and pointed it right at Emmanuel’s face – except it wasn’t a hand anymore. A thick barrel sat where the hand used to be with the glowing blue energy of Gerry’s æther gathering within it. Emmanuel might have been able to get out of the way but he was throwing all of his weight forward into killing Gerry with his own sword. He’d sacrificed his footing for a killing blow, and Gerry made him pay.

A blast of Infernal æther concentrated into a short beam of energy erupted from Gerry’s hand cannon and struck Emmanuel in the neck and face. The angel’s armor protected him from the brunt of the blast, but it was enough to stun him. Gerry pulled back and delivered a resounding kick to his chest. The kick threw Emmanuel out of the crater they were battling in. Gerry tripped over the far end as he stumbled backward from the strike and ended up landing on his ass. His sword was still partially imbedded in his body and he could feel the æther inside of him leaking out of the wound.

Gerry looked up and saw the Dominion stalking around the crater with his sword held in front of him ready to finish the job. He made it halfway to Gerry before Lucian jumped on his back, and this time he didn’t faze right through the angel. He landed like a predator. Hands and arms wrapped around the angel’s throat in a headlock. Legs wrapped around the angel’s waist like a python while his jagged teeth started to rip into the angel’s armored shoulder.

Emmanuel howled in pain and tried to beat his wings to gain altitude. Lucian adjusted his full body lock and clamped down on one of the wings. Together, the two combatants tumbled to the ground. They landed in a heap but neither let up as they grappled for position.

Both Lucian and Emanuel had lost their swords and were fighting with their hands, feet, and teeth. Emmanuel tried to gouge out the Infernal Dux’s eyes to get him to release the headlock. He couldn’t reach them, but he was able to grab a hold of Lucian’s elongated snout. The angel squeezed with all his might and Gerry heard Lucian’s nose and jaw break from the pressure.  He let out a guttural wail, but he didn’t let go.

Gerry saw his opportunity and took it. He leapt to his feet, braced himself, and yanked his sword from his shoulder. He couldn’t stop from screaming when æther and strength poured out of him before he was able to staunch the flow. His combat form suffered by shrinking a few feet and a wave of exhaustion made him stumble, but he saw an answer to all his problems up ahead.

Emmanuel was striking Lucian repeatedly with his elbows. It was the only way he could inflict any damage on the rear naked chokehold Lucian had him in. Gerry couldn’t see the fear on the angel’s face when he saw Gerry sprinting toward them with his sword at the ready, but he did see his strikes falter. Lucian used the opportunity to tighten his grip, which sealed both their fates.

Gerry jumped the last twenty feet with the sword raised high over his head and the blade pointed down. Lucian didn’t see it coming, but Emmanuel struggled to the very end. With the amount of force generated with Gerry’s strength, the leap, and the masterfully crafted Divine Steel Blade the Dominion’s armor didn’t stand a chance. Gerry would have loved to pierce the angel’s heart, but the blade ended up coming down in the area of his upper stomach. The sword punched through the front of the armor, through Emmanuel, through the back of the armor and into Lucian.

Both combatants roared as pain seized control of them, and Gerry made it even worse by twisting the blade and torqueing it back and forth. It didn’t take long after that. To Emmanuel’s credit, Lucian died first. The Dux of Charleston exhaled his last breath and an explosion of æther erupted outward from him. Gerry drank in as much as he could to heal himself, but without preparation he didn’t get more than a fraction. It was still enough to bring him back to one hundred percent and then some.

Emmanuel’s expiration wasn’t any different. Despite their opposite sides and centuries of hatred for each other, there wasn’t any difference between how the Dominion and Dux of Charleston perished. Another explosion of æther announced Emmanuel’s death, and Gerry tried to drink in any of that æther that he could. It filled him with energy and something else. He couldn’t describe it, but there was something there that hadn’t been present before.

He didn’t give it much thought as he yanked his sword out of the two dead ætherial beings. He had other things to worry about.

 

***

 

In the heartbeat between disengaging Gerry and turning her attention on Lucifer, Ava focused on Uriel. What she saw reaffirmed her faith in her leadership. The archangel who commanded her was fighting two Infernal Lords by herself. This was the stuff legends were made of.

Ava beat her wings fanatically to come to her commander’s aid. Uriel parried a thrust of Seere’s sword, dodged a blast from Lucifer, and whipped around to bring the butt of her spear crashing into Seere’s head. The Great Dissenter bellowed in pain as he crashed into the ground, and it would have been an opportunity for Uriel to strike a devastating blow, but multiple blasts from The Morning Star drove her back. Seere recovered quickly and resumed his attack.

Ava knew what she had to do. The last exchange showed her the best course of action. Even injured, Uriel was a better fighter than Seere. All she needed to do was draw Lucifer’s attention for a moment so Uriel could strike a crippling blow. That would even the odds, and both angels could turn their full attention on the Prince of Lies.

A micro-correction with her wings had her on a new course and barreling toward Lucifer. She didn’t expect to catch a former member of the Seraphim Guard unprepared, but she was willing to take any luck her Father provided.

All of it happened so fast Ava didn’t have time to react. Another energy blast erupted from Lucifer’s helmet and speared through reality toward Seere and Uriel. The beam was almost to the battling giants when it stopped. The brilliant strand of energy hovered in the air for a fraction of a second before Lucifer whipped his head around toward Ava. The beam followed its master’s eye line, snapped toward Ava…and went right through her. She, in turn, continued rocketing forward and flew right through Lucifer’s shoulder and halfway to Seere and Uriel before stopping.

<No.> There was nothing but the glow of energy behind the Infernal Lord’s visor, but she could have sworn he was smiling.

Now she had a choice to make. She could abandon Lucifer to wreak havoc and assist Uriel, or she could transcend back to the physical plain and press her attack. She hung suspended in the air for several seconds staring down at Lucifer who seemed content to wait for her to make her decision.

Death made the decision for her.

She heard the ætherial scream of Emmanuel as he died and felt the explosion of his æther out into the world. She sensed most of his essence escape to Heaven and another’s descend into Hell.

<He went out like a warrior.> She took comfort in that small fact. It was how he would have wanted to die. <It was how Maria would have wanted to die.>

Her fleeting thought for her fellow Dominion and lost daughter cost her the initiative. Lucifer launched another assault on Uriel, which confirmed Ava’s final fears. The spell containing the Infernals had finally failed. She didn’t know if it was the release of æther from Emmanuel’s death, or the cost of battle, but either way there was no way to contain the Infernals now.

“Ava,” Uriel gasped as she fought off another relentless attack by Seere and Lucifer. Everyone was substantial now, and the Infernals were like sharks smelling blood in the water. “Fall back and regroup!” She ducked under Seere’s blade and lashed out with her fist.

The Great Dissenter dodged the punch, grabbed her arm, and tossed her like a sack of potatoes. Uriel twisted in the air, flapped her wings to right herself, and took a full blast from Lucifer in the chest. Her armor buckled, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air as the archangel was blasted backwards. Now that she was substantial, her fall was lethal.

Like many schools, the location where Armageddon began was in a residential area. So far, the damage had been localized to the school’s property, but that all changed when Uriel fell from the sky like a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot meteor. She crashed into a housing development back first and flattened half a dozen houses. Ava felt the souls of those humans being snuffed out by the impact. Uriel didn’t stop there. She skidded across the neighborhood like a car hitting the breaks. A dozen more houses crumbled and nearly fifty more humans died before she came to a stop. Her spear and orb carved up another few dwellings as she instinctually kept hold of her weapon, and anything the orb touched went up in flames.

By the time Uriel came to a stop every home in the neighborhood was either destroyed or burning to the ground, and it was only going to get worse. Seere leapt to seize the advantage of having his opponent on their back. He landed short of Uriel’s prone form, but the impact shook nearby houses right off of their foundations.

More people died, and Uriel was slow to shake off the powerful blast. Her chest was smoldering and black where Lucifer had breached her armor, and golden ichor was dripping from other wounds she’d sustained. Seere moved with a purpose to end the battle. He towered over her, raised his broadsword for the killing stroke, and that’s when Ava hit him. She barreled into him like a missile and hit him center of mass between his wing joint and hip.

Pain tore through her as her body folded under the impact. One of the first things she remembered being taught when she learned to fly was to never fly through something unless you knew how tough it was. Going insubstantial was always a better option.

She had no idea how tough Seere was until she hit him, and she instantly regretted it, but she completed her mission. Seere’s sword went wide and dug into the earth to the side of Uriel’s head and the Infernal Lord stumbled to the side. It gave Uriel enough time to come to her senses. Her long leg lashed out and caught the Infernal in the side of the knee. The crunch of bone echoed through the destroyed suburban neighborhood as his stumble turned into a fall and he involuntarily released his sword.

With their positions reversed Uriel moved in to finish the fight. Light flashed as Lucifer did what he’d always done and prevented Uriel from capitalizing on Seere’s weakness.  The archangel snarled her defiance as she brought her orb up to deflect the blasts and backed away from Seere. There wasn’t anything she could do with Lucifer keeping her at bay, but Ava was free to do as she wished. Lucifer could only target one person at a time and if her targeted Ava, Uriel would spring into action. Both angels’ eyes met in a flash of understanding and they set their plan into motion. Uriel started to circle them. She stayed within range to strike at a moment’s notice, but she kept Lucifer’s attention focused on her. Ava would have the honor of finishing it.

That didn’t solve the problem of the weapon. Ava had lost her sword earlier in the battle, and she wouldn’t be able to pummel the Infernal lord in his combat form, so she rushed to the only weapon in view.

Seere was struggling to get to his feet. Uriel’s kick to the leg must have done more damage than Ava thought, so he was more concerned about finding something to help himself up with than what Ava was doing. Seere’s giant broadsword was nearly twice as tall as she was, but like all weapons of Divine Steel it conformed itself to its wielder’s will. The hundred-foot blade shrunk to fifty feet – still as tall as Ava – but she needed the power to do the job.

She held the weapon like a knight holding a lance and charged. She beat her wings like her life depended on it and she threw everything she had behind the attack. All she needed was a split second. A split second where Seere was more concerned with his pain then what was going on around him. The slight lapse in situational awareness would be the end of the Great Dissenter.

She was almost there when blue light washed over her. It was pure power focused into a beam of energy. It wasn’t Lucifer, or Uriel would have swept in for the kill, but that didn’t matter. Pain overwhelmed Ava as her skin crackled and burned. Her armor held but the pain and kinetic force of the blast were enough to throw her off course.

It was enough for her to miss her mark.

Instead of piercing Seere’s heart with his own sword, the blade went high and to the left. It impacted, cut through his armor, and into his flesh just below his shoulder.

Seere’s guttural scream of agony washed over Ava with the force of righteous retribution. This man had helped drive the dagger into her daughter’s heart. He’d helped kill her youngest child, and exacting her pound of flesh felt glorious.

She put all of her fifty-foot self into driving that blade deeper into the Infernal Lord’s body, and she succeeded for about two seconds before a second blast of blue light – weaker than the first – but still strong enough to knock her off of Seere’s back. The sword remained in his back like a flag planted in him saying, “Ava was here”. She smiled at the sight, picked herself up off the ground, and turned to face her attacker. She wanted to finish the Infernal Lord off, but someone stood between her and that goal, so she’d just have to kill him too.

 

***

 

Gerry slumped to the ground. His arms felt heavy and his vision swam as dizziness washed over him. He’d emptied his well of power into those final two blasts. All that remained was the power he’d siphoned from Emmanuel and Lucian’s deaths. His demesne responded to his need and began to refill the void inside himself.

He was visibly exhausted. The bright blue fire the normally coursed through the crevices in his armor was a subdued glow now. He’d shrunk to twenty feet – barely better than a guardian – as he expended his power to save his Lord. It was worth it though. If his Lord had died, Gerry would have died as well. At least that’s what he’d been told.

It had been almost three millennia since an Infernal Lord had died. It had been during the never ending wars of Hell. Gerry heard the tale from General Icilius who heard it from his commander, who’d heard it from his commander, and so on and so forth back through the oral tradition of the Legion. The legend changed depending on who told the tale, but it never ended well for that Lord’s servants. From what Icilius said, Gerry got the impression that anyone with a direct link would die when their Lord died. In his current state, that fit Gerry to a T. Other servants like Legion members, administrators, and whores in that Lord’s kingdom wouldn’t perish, but they would probably prefer death.

It would be a free-for-all for every other Lord of Hell to conquer that dead Lord’s lands, and that included all of his people. Gerry could imagine the pain and suffering the servants of Prince Seere would have to endure if the beasts of Beelzebub or patchwork soldiers of Cain invaded through the mountain passes or sortied across the Styx. It would be mayhem, death, and destruction for everything Gerry had defended for over two hundred years.

Some losses would have been acceptable if Gerry would live through the event, but since he wouldn’t, allowing Seere to die was not an option. Seere needed to live at all costs.

Gerry had fallen to his knees after the second blast zapped the strength from him, so he hauled himself back to his feet. He was a little unsteady, but he was ready to face his opponent.

Ava picked herself up off the ground. She was hurt. Gerry could see the etches of pain on her face. She was favoring her side, so he guessed at least a few broken bones and maybe a dislocated shoulder. His energy blast had done some damage to her right wing as well. It hung at a weird angle and shuddered every time she tried to straighten it. For once they were on a level playing field…for now.

Ava was shrinking to speed along her recovery. She was still twice the size of Gerry, but this was as good as it was going to get. Gerry summoned what power he had collected and felt it reinforce his weary combat form. It felt like a hit of crack as it spread through him, his senses became clear, his sense of his surroundings expanded, and he felt the comforting grip of his Divine Steel blade beneath his fingers. Ava had no blade, but she didn’t shy away from him. Her eyes were locked with his as he cautiously approached.

They circled each other less than three hundred feet from the body of Prince Seere. He was doing his best to remove the blade from his shoulder, but the angle was wrong. He couldn’t reach it.

“Do you think I’m extraordinary now?” Ava closed the distance between them by tightening the circle.

Gerry didn’t answer. He needed to concentrate. He tracked her body with the æther. He felt her every movement, every twitch of her muscles, and every breath of air she took. They both stopped circling as the tension ratcheted up. She was on the tips of her toes and her whole body was loose and ready to react. Gerry’s was tense and ready to strike. It felt like the whole universe froze for just a heartbeat before he lashed out.

An overhead chop would have cleaved the Dominion in two from the navel down, but she nimbly sidestepped the blow. Gerry expected it and followed up with a horizontal slash that would have spilled her intestines at his Lord’s feet. She backpedaled and Gerry pressed the attack. A downward diagonal cut forced her to take a step back with one foot while he thrust at her other leg. She jumped back to avoid the stab and countered with her good wing.

The blow caught him right on the jaw and his world exploded. He felt unconsciousness creeping up on him as he spun from the force of the stronger Dominion’s hit, but he fought it back. He rotated his core and slashed behind himself to avoid her taking advantage of his momentarily stunned state.

The sword made contact with something hard and pushed against it for a second before cutting through. Ava’s scream indicated he’d struck home, and as he turned to bring her back into his wavering vision a fountain of golden angelic ichor splashed across his face. His haphazard blow had lopped off the Dominion’s arm below the elbow and it was fountaining the angel’s essence.

The angel’s ichor wasn’t the only think leaking from the woman. His situational awareness sensed the æther flooding out of her, and he jumped on it with desperation. He sucked up anything he could like a drowning man gasping for air. It only lasted for a few seconds before she staunched the physical and metaphysical bleeding, but it was enough for Gerry to feel Divine æther enter his body and nestle into a part of his being where he’d stored Emmanuel’s æther after his death. The two æthers melded together and created something totally new. Like before, it was a foreign but comforting sensation, and it gave him hope.

Hope was a dangerous thing to have, and Ava proved that by lashing out. The kick was so fast and powerful he didn’t see it coming. It struck the side of his head, picked him off his feet, and threw him into the burning wreckage of one of the houses. He landed head first, felt the Infernal Iron of his weakened body crumble, and lost all sensation in his extremities. He didn’t need to feel it to know he’d lost his sword.

Aether flooded into his injuries. It repaired the sizeable dent in his skull and straightened his neck from its awkward angle, and returned feeling to parts of his body that had gone numb from the strike. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but when he struggled to his feet Ava had his sword in her hand. The blade grew and ignited with Divine fire.

“You are still extraordinary,” he finally answered the question as he saw death advancing against him.

He’d been in enough battles to know when he was facing a superior foe, and he’d died enough times to know the feeling that was creeping through him. He just hoped he’d bought his Lord enough time.

Heavy footsteps brought his defeatist thoughts to a screeching halt.

Light flashed overhead and Lucifer pushed forward into the fray. Uriel fired back with her orb, but he dodged with such quickness it seemed like he disappeared and reappeared in a second location in the blink of an eye. Before either Ava or Gerry could react, Lucifer was standing in their midst.

 

***

 

Lucifer fired blast after blast and drove Uriel back. The injured archangel was barely keeping up with his relentless assault. Blasts were getting past her guard, bashing in her armor and scorching her flesh. Despite her valiant effort, Uriel was going to lose this fight.

One blast made her stagger and she nearly dropped her spear. Lucifer pressed the offensive and poured a continuous beam into her helmet. He heard her screams as the Divine Steel melted and fused with her flesh. Out of sheer will she kept ahold of her weapon and brought the orb in front of his beam, but it was too late. The damage was already done. Lucifer advanced to finish the job, but she launched herself into the air. He fired again, aiming for her wings, but she spun in the air and his shot went wide. Her instincts saved her. One minute she was two hundred and fifty feet tall, the next she was less than six, and on the third she vanished.

<Retreat was wise, sister. We will meet again.> The war had just begun, and he had no doubt they would cross paths on future battlefields.

He walked forward, crushing a human who had survived Uriel’s destruction of the neighborhood like a bug beneath his foot. He scanned the area for more threats. Seere was down with a sword protruding from his back. His Dux was engaging and failing to defeat Charlotte’s Dominion, and there were a handful of guardians still skirmishing with other lesser Infernals on the periphery.

“Brother,” Lucifer walked over to Seere, but still kept an eye on the Dominion.

“Brother.” Seere wheezed. “Help get the blade out.” He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the sword.

“Stabbed in the back with your own blade,” Lucifer shook his head. “Look at you.”

“What?” Seer had managed to get up onto his hands and knees.

Lucifer placed his armored foot in the center of Seere’s back and shoved him back to the ground.

“We had a deal, Lucifer,” Seere coughed as he pulled his back out of the ground.

“We did,” Lucifer replied, “and it has been honored. We broke the seal and each of us took from that what we agreed upon.” Light began to build behind his visor.

“This is madness!” Seere sneered up at his older brother. “We’re on the eve of something momentous. The border between Hell and Eden is crumbling. Soon our armies will pour into this realm and take it by force. We will rewrite the rule of the æther, consolidate our forces, gather our strength, and then march against Father.”

“I will march against Father,” Lucifer corrected as he grabbed the hilt of the sword and twisted the blade.

Seere screamed as flesh ripped and Divine Steel cut into more vital organs.

“You will be remembered, Brother. As the Great Dissenter you stood up to Father with me and highlighted the disparity between us and them. You showed how he treated his creations better than his own children. I will always be grateful that you stood with me on that day, but that’s what your best at…standing. You’ve never been a great warrior. You are a thinker and an administrator. You were a Throne for a reason. What is coming next is best left to minds like my own.”

“I can work for you,” desperation crept into Seere’s voice.

“No,” Lucifer shook his head sadly. “I don’t need you brains, I need your power. Satan will drag us all down the wrong path if there is not someone there as a counterweight, and to be that counterweight I need to be stronger.”

With a sweeping gesture runes on Lucifer’s armor glowed to life.

“Brother, please,” Seere pleaded.

“I really am sorry, Brother.” Lucifer pushed on the blade until it went all the way through Seere and exploded out his breastplate.

The Great Dissenter’s screams shook the earth and flattened trees and homes like a nuclear shockwave. In one fluid movement Lucifer pulled the blade from Seere’s back. As he raised it above his head it enlarged to over a hundred feet long while the blade itself grew thicker and sharper.

“I will miss you.” With a THUNK Lucifer beheaded Seere and soaked up the former Infernal Lord’s power.

His body swelled even more and he grew larger as more æther than Lucifer had ever held in his life poured into him. The light in his helmet grew brighter, and the Morning Star laughed as he spread his wings and took to the air with a blast that flattened what was left of the several square miles around the high school.

 

***

 

Gerry felt like the rug had been pulled out from under him. On top of that, it also felt like a yellow school bus filled with rambunctious, overweight Sumo wrestlers backed over his head, put the bus in drive, and then drove back over him for good measure. It felt like someone had reached inside his chest and ripped out his heart, and then kicked him in the balls repeatedly.

His whole world came crashing down when Seere’s head was removed from his body. He felt Lucifer’s laughter in his bones as the Infernal Lord leapt into the air and vanished in the opposite direction of Michael and Satan. Gerry didn’t know where he was going, and he didn’t care. It was over, done, kaputz.

Gerry had felt something snap when Seere died and Lucifer consumed his æther. It was like gravity had ceased to exist. Everything Gerry had done, his afterlife purpose in this universe, was to fulfill the will of his Lord. It was an incredibly freeing feeling for a moment, but the weightlessness was crippling. He was a dinghy in the middle of a hurricane, and he could see the sea rising up to swallow him whole.

Seere’s body was already beginning to disintegrate. He was deflating like a balloon while his form flaked away like ash in the wind. It was for the best. Gerry didn’t want anyone to see the once mighty Lord like this. Not that it really mattered. No one was going to see Gerry again.

That was what hurt most about it all. Gerry knew he was going to die. He knew Ava was going to defeat him, but when Lucifer arrived he let hope in. The emotion, one of the most powerful and terrible in this universe, seeped into his mind. He thought, just for a moment, that everything was going to be ok. Images flashed through his mind of him leading a great force to battle against the humans and the Divine. He imagined himself scaling the Pearly Gates and throwing angels from the ramparts of Heaven. He imagined himself in God’s throne room standing at Seere’s right hand as he distributed true justice to the realms.

Now, all of that was gone, and he was left with Ava.  The Dominion looked just as surprised as him, but it wasn’t any consolation.

“Infernals.” She shook her head and moved. Suddenly,she was standing within striking distance.

The link between him and Seere being severed was taking its toll. He was already beginning to wither, and he wasn’t able to follow her movements anymore.

“Just do it.” He sank to his knees and lowered his head to present a target. If he was going to die, he was going to die quickly like his Lord.

He heard her footsteps as she approached but he didn’t dare look. He felt her hand on his head as she jerked it back and made eye contact. Angelic met Infernal and Gerry half-heartedly wished they could have continued to play the cosmic game with each other. She was a worthy opponent.

It was his last thought before she rammed her sword hilt-deep into his chest. His severed heart, shattered ribs, and shredded lungs exploded out of his back like he’d been hit by an artillery shell. He gasped and lurched forward into her arms. His Infernal Iron form began to crack and crumble revealing more and more of the swirling æther within him. It leaked out of him like a waterfall. He instinctively tried to repair himself, but it was like trying to plug Niagara Falls with a wine-bottle cork.

He was dying. This was the end.

The pain was brief but extreme as his mind cut the connection with his body. He was left feeling nothing as the darkness started to creep in on the periphery of his vision. Again, his instincts fought back, but there was no stopping the inevitable.

“What happens next?” he gurgled with the last bit of oxygen he had left.

He’d died as a human, and that sucked, but there was something that came next. He’d died dozens of times in the Legion, but reincarnation was usually on the table, so death didn’t worry him. He’d even shed his human soul and embraced the existence of an ætherial being before becoming a Dux. That transformation had hurt more than most of his deaths.

<But what now?>

What happened when and ætherial being died? Normally, he would return to Hell and the land his Lord ruled, but what happened when there was nowhere to return to. He had no doubts that Seere’s Kingdom was in upheaval, possible civil war, and being invaded on both sides for starters. Gerry had no link to that land anymore, so he had nowhere to go. There was no gooey pit for his body to rise from the ashes of defeat.

“Nothingness.” Ava shrugged as she held him close and twisted the blade in his chest. He didn’t feel the pain anymore, but he felt the loss of æther quicken. “Whatever it is, it is too good for you.”

“That’s fair.” Gerry reluctantly admitted as his æther levels dropped dangerously low. “I’ve never been a great man. In life I thought I was good. I thought I died for a noble cause, but the system put me in Hell, and I just did the best that I could to survive.”

Ava didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. The look on her face was a mix of anger and pity. He couldn’t tell is she felt sorry for him or if she saw him as the most repugnant thing on the planet.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Ava whispered as the sword ignited with Divine fire.

The fire consumed what was left of Gerry’s Infernal essence. His vision was already narrowed to a pinpoint, and it quickly faded to black. His last sight was of the angel’s face shrouded by the smoke of his burning corpse. There were worse ways to die, but as far as last sights went, it wasn’t half bad.

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The First Shot – Part 4

MAJ Ward felt the rustle of grass beneath his head. It prickled his scalp through his short-cropped hair and the itching finally brought him out of his stupor. Years of experience told him not to open his eyes and to fight down the nausea in his gut before trying to sit up.

“Ugh,” he grunted as he breathed in deeply through his nose and out through his mouth. He didn’t remember anything from the prior evening, but it must have been a hell of a night.

He gingerly rolled to his right and smacked his face right into something hard. He silently cursed himself before opening his eyes as little as possible to get a look. His vision swam and the light felt like needles stabbing through his eyes and into his brain, but even with all the distractions he was able to make out the solid object lying next to him.

It was his helmet.

“What the hell?” He grabbed the protective headwear and looked at the HUD

CONNECTION LOST . . . SCANNING FOR SIGNAL . . . SCANNING FOR SIGNAL . . .

The screen never refreshed beyond that point which was odd. The military satellites in orbit were supposed to get some sort of signal just about everywhere. At a minimum, it should have been getting a hit from the nodes of the invasion of Vladivostok.

The invasion! Ward sat up so fast that his stomach revolted and he dry heaved a few times. Everything came flooding back to him: Operation Orpheus, the fight through the complex, the spinning rings, CPL Dawson going down, and then . . .

“Why am I still alive?”

“I’m not sure this constitutes as alive, Sir.” A groggy voice stated from a few yards away. “Feels like a bloody elephant sat on my skull.”

CSGT McGee sat up not far from the MAJ. Ward could have sworn he saw the NCO’s face bathed in fire and light before everything went black, but sitting here in this place made him reconsider a lot of things.

“If you’re there and I’m here then . . .” he pointed to their ten o’clock.

Sure enough, more groans could be heard in the bushes. That’s when the MAJ took a good look at their surroundings. They weren’t in an underground cavern surrounded by the enemy garrison, mad scientists, and supercomputers anymore. They looked to be in a forested area, and not the type of forest you’d find in China. In was a coniferous forest judging by the maples, oaks, and pine trees surrounding them. It reminded him a lot of where he’d grown up in New England.

“We need to get accountability.” The MAJ struggled to his feet. His vision was starting to get better, but his legs felt like Jelly. “Where’s my rifle?”

A Ranger never went anywhere on the battlefield without his rifle, and until he knew what the hell was going on, this was a battlefield. He found his M18 lying in the grass only a few feet away. That grass was knee-high so it was hard to see it until he was standing.

“Whoever owns this land could mow the grass every once and a while.” He grumbled as he heaved the double-barreled weapon and reattached it to his sling strap before he started walking toward where he thought the rest of his team would be.

PO2 Chambers and LT Thrumball were both on their knees dry heaving into the grass. Not far behind them lay the body of CPL Dawson. The LT’s quick synopsis of Dawson going down had been right on the mark. The young marine had taken a shot to the head. His helmet hadn’t been able to take the heat or energy of the blast. It had fused to his skull and melted a good portion of face right off. It was a shitty way to die.

“Everyone on me.” The MAJ took a knee and the CSGT trotted over to join them.

“Anyone else feel like they drank a whole keg.” Chambers grimaced, as he opened and closed his jaw to relieve some unseen pain.

“It feels like someone is playing the tambourine between my ears.” The LT shook his head and pinched his nose between his fingers.

“First things first, check for anymore survivors: Dr. Shaw, the Japanese captain, the scientists, or anyone else who can explain what the hell happened.” He pointed behind him. “LT, look for the females. Everyone else spread out and take a sector.” They quickly divided up the space in front of them into three equal areas of responsibility and moved forward.

They didn’t have to move far before they found something. What remained of the garrison force looked like they were doing what the MAJ’s team had just completed, plus something else. They were stripping down to simple, ragged clothing.

The MAJ didn’t hesitate. He didn’t have his helmet’s advanced optics, but he’d trained on nothing but an iron sight for just this occasion. He aimed so the cross was right on the man he determined to be the leader and pulled the trigger. A large hole punched through the man’s chest and showered the rest of the men in blood.

The enemy were veterans of the same war the MAJ had been fighting, so they organized quickly, but fell back.

“What are they doing?!” Chambers asked as bullets broke off chunks of tree trunks while laser blasts cut right through them.

“It looks like they’re retreating, the bunch of cowardly bastards.” The CSGT poured on the fire and took down two more before they slid behind a hill. “I count four left. Should we pursue?”

The MAJ looked around. Despite the familiar feel of the forest he didn’t recognize it, and it didn’t fit any of the terrain topography or satellite imagery he’d studied before the operation. He’d also heard some horror stories of how the Easterners tortured their prisoners of war, and he had to wonder if they’d been captured and this was some sick game.

“No. Fall back to the LT’s position. Hopefully the good doctor has some answers for us.”

The LT was only a few hundred yards back. He was down in the prone with Dr. Shaw, Captain Tanaka, and the British spy Cuthbert. The short skirmish with what remained of the garrison had sent bullets and lasers flying too close to their heads. Dr. Shaw was visibly shaken, but that was to be expected. She wasn’t used to other people trying to kill her as part of her job.

“Did you get them?” She asked frantically as they approached.

The SEAL kept looking behind them to make sure they didn’t take a counterattack up the ass. “We got enough of them,” he replied.

“I’m not asking if you got enough of them you Neanderthal ingrate. I’m asking if you got all of them?!” She shrieked, taking everyone by surprise.

Captain Tanaka came to the rescue by putting a hand on the frantic woman’s shoulder.

“Ma’am, they ran off. You’re safe.” Chambers tried to make up for whatever slight she felt he’d inflicted on her.

“It’s not that,” the Japanese captain replied in perfect English. “We cannot allow them to escape. If they are able to accomplish their mission everything is in danger.”

“What mission?” The MAJ stepped up and took charge again. “What the hell is going on?”

“This is bad. This is really bad.” Dr. Shaw started to chew on her fingernails, but forcibly stopped before looking at the soldiers. “Have you ever heard of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?”

“Of course. . .”

“Who hasn’t. . .” were the replies.

“Do any of you understand it?” Dr. Shaw got nothing but silence in response. “Einstein theorized that time flows like a river, bending around things like gravity and mass. This is a contradiction to Newton’s thinking that time was an arrow that once shot flew straight and true.”

“Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . .” The CSGT threw up his hands. “Are we talking about time travel?”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” The MAJ hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Did I just step into the twilight zone?”

“No, Major, I assure you that you did not. Time travel has been theorized and proven possible for over two hundred years. One day mankind might travel freely throughout time. We might evolve to become four-dimensional beings instead of existing in our current three-dimensional thought process.” Her eyes filled with zeal. “The only thing that has been standing in our way was the lack of technology and power to complete the process.”

“I still don’t believe it,” the CSGT stated.

“Ok,” the doctor took that as a challenge. “You military men always have paper. Someone give me some.”

The MAJ pulled out a little notepad he kept in his pocket and ripped off a sheet for her.

“Ok,” she drew a line on the paper. “This is a basic representation of time. To a two-dimensional person standing at one point it would look like it was linear and only moving forward. To us as three-dimensional beings we see the line, but we see it from beginning to end, and we can even,” she folded the paper in half so the lines met, “change it.” She smiled at the CSGT who still didn’t get it.

“You have to look at this from a four-dimensional perspective.” She took her pen and poked a hole in the paper before unfolding it. Now, there were two holes on the paper at the beginning and end of the line.

“That is what we did.” She pointed at the hole. “We broke a hole in space and time to make a bridge between the past and the present.” She crumpled up the paper with a flourish to complete her explanation.

“That seems too simple to be true.” Chambers was squinting into the distance, and brought his rifle up to get a better look.

“It’s a gross oversimplification.” She waved off the argument. “The calculations necessary took all of those supercomputers in the lab, some of the brightest minds in the Eastern Block, and enough power to . . .” she stopped like she’d just realized something.

“You!” She pointed at the CSGT. “You did this!”

“You’re a loon. Sir, she’s a fucking loon.” The CSGT looked at the MAJ for assistance. “I did not make us time travel, if that’s what even happened.”

“The explosions.” Dr. Shaw was talking to herself now. “We didn’t have the power requirements on any of the previous tests, but the explosion must have pushed it past critical mass. Then it sucked us through the rip in space-time before the explosion could kill us.” The look on her face was an eureka moment if there ever was one. “If only there was a way to duplicate the experiment.”

“Everyone, we need to move.” Chambers had his rifle trained on something in the distance. “We’re going to have company in about five minutes.”

“Hostiles?” The MAJ put on his helmet and brought up his own rifle.

He exited the menu that continued to remind him there was no connectivity, and instead linked with the scope of his weapon. It zoomed in and gave him a crisp, clear picture of what was coming their way.

“Sir, it looks like women.”

A gaggle of young women were moving perpendicular to their location on some type of game trail. They were wearing long dresses in muted colors that went all the way to their feet. The MAJ had only seen that kind of clothing in period TV dramas and at tourist destinations like Colonial Williamsburg.

Unfortunately, it backed the Doctor’s time travel story.

“Major, we need to find out where we are and what time we’re in. It will give us the key to discovering the enemy’s mission.” The doctor pleaded as the women drew closer and closer. They hadn’t spotted the group of soldiers yet.

“Ok, but I want minimal contact, just me and the doctor. Everyone else,” he scanned the terrain, “give me an OP on that ridge back there. Maybe we can figure out where to go after we talk to these people.”

“Take off your helmet and armor, Major. We are already conspicuous enough.”

“Ha!” the MAJ gave a short laugh. “I’ll lose the helmet but the armor is staying on.” He removed his helmet and handed Chambers his helmet and rifle.” He patted his holstered sidearm when the SEAL gave him a quizzical look.

After all, they were going to talk to a bunch of young girls. The tallest of which hardly reached the big Ranger’s chest. If they were Eastern Block assassins then he’d accept his death with dignity.

“After you, Doc.” He stepped aside for her to lead the way. The woman would probably be less intimidating to the women. There were definitely different standards in whatever time they were in.

If they were in a different time he reminded himself.

“Cover me.” He whispered to the LT as they hurried across the forest to intercept the women.

When they reached the group of girls they were only three hundred yards away – more than close enough to be covered by the M18 or L96A1.

“Hello.” Dr. Swan stepped out from behind a tree in front of the women and nearly scared them half to death. The MAJ stood behind the tree out of sight.

“Good day, Madame.” They took a look at the doctor’s nicer clothes and made the assumption she was a woman of means.

“I seem to be lost.” She tried to act nervous, but her excitement from the interaction was ruining it. “Could you tell me where we are?”

“Just north of Boston. The road to the city is not far behind us. We are here to do laundry. We beg your pardon if we have trespassed on your land.” There was genuine fear in the women’s eyes.

“No. You’re not in trouble. Thank you for the information.” She tried to reassure them. “Also,” she asked before they scurried off. “I have been traveling for a long while. What is the date?”

“The eighteenth of April in the year of our lord seventeen hundred and seventy-five.” The girls gave the information and quickly left.

The MAJ frowned. April 18, 1775, the date meant something to him, but he just couldn’t figure out what. He thought about it all the way back to the observation post the team was securing.

“Sir?” The LT asked when they walked into the small camp. He must have noticed the confused look on his superior’s face.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” The MAJ rubbed his eyes and gave up digging for what that date meant.

“As far as I’m concerned none of this is good news.” The LT gestured around them.

The MAJ chuckled. “Well, the good news is that we’re just north of Boston.”

“That’s great news.” Chambers chimed in. “I could use a good meal. They’ve got a great DFAC.” The SEAL grinned.

“That brings me to the bad news.” The MAJ paused to think of the best way to put this. “To start, we are still in enemy territory.” That got a lot of confused looks. “We, ladies and gentlemen, have found ourselves in the late eighteenth century, seventeen seventy-five to be exact.”

Recognition dawned on just about everyone’s faces.

“Ah bloody hell.” The CSGT summed it all up eloquently. “Doesn’t the war with America start tomorrow?”

It was like a lightbulb went off in the MAJ’s head. “April eighteenth!” Everyone looked at him with confusion. “April eighteenth!” He repeated.

“You said that the first time.” Dr. Shaw frowned. “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ok.” The MAJ organized his thoughts.

He’d studied military history at the War College when first being promoted to major, and was a little embarrassed that the date hadn’t immediately been clear to him.

“The night of April eighteenth is Paul Revere’s ride.”

“That arse in all the movies who’s yelling about the British coming?” The CSGT shook his head.

“Exactly, but that’s not how it went at all, and he never actually said that.” A grin split the MAJ’s face. “Revere and other riders awaited a signal from the Old North Church to determine how the Redcoats were going to advance. Revere and William Dawes set out by different routes to Lexington to warn people along the way. They met up with Samuel Prescott, and he was the only one who actually made it to Concord to warn the Revolution’s leaders. Revere was captured by a British patrol and Dawes was thrown from his horse.”

“That’s a great bit of history, but what good does it do us?” Dr. Shaw sat with her head in her hands.

“That’s what I was about to ask you…?” The MAJ’s and every other eye turned to look at her.

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The First Shot – Part 3

“Shit on a stick.” CPL Dawson looked over the vault door with PO2 Chambers and CSGT McGee. “This is a thick-ass bitch.”

“I have to agree with the Corporal.” The CSGT shook his head. His characteristic grin had vanished from his face. I can try to blast this bastard open, but I can’t guarantee it, and then I’ve got nothing to blow the objective to kingdom come.”

“Allow me, gentlemen.” Dr. Shaw pushed forward to the front and revealed a previously hidden panel.

She placed her hand on the panel, then leaned forward for an eye scan, and finally said a combination of words in what sounded like Russian. She turned around and grinned at the soldiers when the door hissed open.

“The doctor on my ID isn’t a cover story. I graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics before this whole war broke out. A crash course in Russian and I was the perfect candidate to go undercover on this project.”

“That’s all well and good, Doc, but move your arse.” The CSGT grabbed her and pulled her to the side as the soldiers stacked up on the door.

MAJ Ward took the first position. It was his job to open the door, and watch the rear in case the facility garrison came charging down the stairs. “Three . . . two . . . one . . . GO!” He yanked the heavy door and spun to cover them as they surged into the room.

“Motherfucker!” Was the first thing the MAJ heard as the room beyond erupted into an intense gunfight.

The MAJ didn’t hesitate. He spun back around, grabbed the door as he entered, and yanked it closed behind him. They were finally at their objective, and they weren’t going anywhere until they completed their mission.

He turned, looked for his team, and immediately took an energy bolt to the stomach. Getting shot in armor was like getting stung by a big ass bee that left a bruise that lasted for a week. Getting shot with a laser felt like someone tried to dunk you in boiling water and nearly succeeded.

By the grace of the universe’s particular sense of humor the blast didn’t penetrate. It severally damaged the outer layer of ballistic weave, but the laminate plates stopped it. He still felt like he’d gotten the world’s worst sunburn just above his crotch, but he’d live. He was just sweating like a whore in church now.

The impact made him stagger backwards where he tripped and was lucky again. A second blast soared over his head and scorched the vault door. Nearby cover fire cut off the enemy’s lasers and he rushed toward it.

“Stop sightseeing, Sir.” The CSGT’s grin was back. “There’s our prize.”

The MAJ took a quick peak before getting driven back behind cover by Chinese bullets. The room they were in was a huge cavern. Rock had been carved away to make extra room. Power cables and pipes ran all over those stone walls until they collected into two large conduits that snaked down and toward a machine at the center. Whatever the machine was the MAJ had never seen anything like it.

It had a solid, raised platform about the size of a basketball court. In the center were two golden idle rings. The MAJ didn’t think they were real gold, but whatever metal they were made of sure did shine.

Computer monitors and half a dozen supercomputers encircled the rings on three sides. Scientists in white lab coats were cowering behind the technology as laser bolts and bullets flew back and forth between the remaining garrison and the MAJ’s team. He could hear screaming going back in forth in Chinese and Russian.

“Bound forward in buddy teams!” He ordered. “Females and Cuthbert sit tight and let us deal with this.”

If they argued, the MAJ didn’t hear them. “Cover us while we move! Moving!” The MAJ and CSGT got to their feet and rushed forward and to the left for five seconds. Their goal was to get behind the supercomputers and rig the demo. If the computers died whatever this thing was did too. “In positon!”

“Moving!”

“Cover our asses!” LT Thrumball yelled out.

The three soldiers rushed forward toward a group of crates while the MAJ and CSGT flooded the area with bullets. The problem was that there was only two of them, and the garrison had at least a dozen people left.

The second buddy team was two seconds into their three to five second rush when the MAJ saw Dawson go down hard. It was the kind of fall a lifeless body did when momentum took over.

“Fuck! Check Dawson!” The MAJ wanted to rush and check on the marine, but there were fifty yards and sure death between him and where the CPL had fallen.

“Can’t get to him, but I saw him take the hit . . . laser to the head.” The LT’s voice had a hint of emotion in it.

The MAJ pushed down the anger before he did something stupid and refocused on the mission. “Cover us while we move! Moving!”

They made it to the outer supercomputer this time and slid behind it while barely avoiding heavy laser fire. The CSGT didn’t waste any time in getting a charge planted underneath the large, boxy device.

The MAJ and CSGT covered the LT and PO2 as they made their final rush. The garrison wasn’t as well-armed or armored as the MAJ’s team and it was starting to take its toll. A minute later and the garrison was down to half a dozen guys, and they started to fall back away from the machine. All while the CSGT moved around the supercomputers and planted more and more explosives.

The MAJ thought they had the mission in the bag when the room filled with a terrible whining noise and the rings started to spin. One ring was horizontal and the other vertical. The horizontal rings spun within the vertical one giving it a space-warping impression on the mind.

“No!” Dr. Shaw screamed from the back of the room. “Don’t let them . . .!”

The MAJ didn’t hear the rest of what she said as the pitch dramatically increased along with the rings’ speed. They were nothing but a blur now, and a gold-white light was emanating from its center. He scanned the room again. The garrison was still returning fire, but they were at the opposite end of the room seeking better cover. It was the scientists that were the real threat now.

“Take out the white coats!” He didn’t feel bad about giving the order, and his team didn’t feel back about executing.

Blood stained their white coats as they were gunned down, but the spinning rings didn’t stop and the light continued to grow. Two men started running toward the spinning rings with the clear intention of finishing the job.

The possibilities flashed through the MAJ’s mind. This thing looked like a Doomsday device if he’d ever seen one, and the mad scientists that were willing to die for it only solidified its danger in his mind. He weighed the life of his team, Dr. Shaw, Captain Tanaka, and Cuthbert against the possibility of what could happen to the United States and Commonwealth he’d sworn to defend.

The decision was easy.

“BLOW IT!”

To the CSGT’s credit he didn’t hesitate. He hit the detonator at the same moment the machine reached its crescendo, and his shit-eating grin didn’t even falter.

Light and fire reached out and devoured everyone.

 

***

 

Everything within fifteen miles of the facility located on the China-Russia border ceased to exist as an antimatter holocaust scarred the land. Even though the site was several hundred miles away from the battle at Vladivostok, the Eastern Block and Commonwealth governments hurtled accusations back and forth for years.

The invasion ended up being a success. The US Army suffered ten thousand casualties and half a dozen ships were sunk: four from the Royal Navy and two from the Japanese Defense Force. Everyone sacrificed for the victory. It allowed a break in the Easterner’s blockade of the Japanese islands that allowed food and to aide hundreds of millions in dire need. Despite the Commonwealth’s generosity with the island nation, Japan would declare themselves neutral and focus on their solar system assets and future colonies.

The four ships lost by the Royal Navy would come back to haunt the United Kingdom and its ruler King George VII – later know as Bloody George the Singed. The destruction of Vladivostok was a victory in the Battle of the North Pacific, but those four ships would be sorely missed when the Eastern Block feinted south while actually pushing north through civil war-torn Scandinavia. The airborne assault and amphibious invasion across the North Sea would embroil England in a months-long battle for its survival, which would culminate in the King’s infamous but necessary Burning of the Thames.

Ultimately, Vladivostok and the mysterious explosion would become just a footnote in a war that was just getting started. One day it would be known as the Last Terran War, but it wouldn’t even be close to the last war humanity fought against itself.

Major Thomas Ward, Lieutenant Allen Thrumball, Colour Sergeant William McGee, Petty Officer Second Class Dustin Chambers, Corporal Elijah Dawson, and the other fallen members of Operation Orpheus were posthumously awarded medals ranging from a Bronze Star for CPL Dawson to a Silver Star for gallantry in action during combat operations against an armed enemy for MAJ Ward.

Beyond those generalities, nothing else was written about their deaths. The operation itself was as black as night and the Commonwealth would never acknowledge that they had troops on the ground near the sight of an antimatter blast. Tensions were already boiling out of control throughout the solar system, and by the time things settled down a comparatively small explosion in backwoods China was nothing but a footnote in history. The soldiers and what they’d done were lost to the annals of time.

Literally . . .

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 25

“AH! Shit on a stick with a side of ass cream!” Lilly hissed as she gingerly poked the mega-bruise forming on her abdomen.

Her, Nightingale, and Stal were back in the warehouse that was their old base of operations. It was now their old base because Lilly had teleported them directly there from the prison break. Nightingale had momentarily incapacitated Hunter but he’d be back in action soon enough, and it was a tossup if the rip in space Lilly’s teleports created would still be trackable when that happened.

<Better safe than sorry.> It was a good motto for a villain to live by.

“Where the hell are my recruits?” Damascus was not pleased when the small team arrived in a blast of darkness.

“They were neutralized by the Heroes, but they bought us time to escape.” Nightingale didn’t act too concerned, which just made the pyrokinetic that much angrier.

Lilly considered telling them that she’d gotten Morina out, but then clamped her mouth shut. Morina was her friend – if you could use the word in this situation. As stubborn as the other woman was, Lilly doubted she’d help some foreign terrorist in his dastardly plan. She might help out a friend, but Lilly didn’t think the Bloody Bitch was game for all that other stuff.

“So, you failed.” Damascus sneered.

Lilly couldn’t tell if he was happy or sad that they’d failed. Ultimately, she didn’t give two shits. She was here to see Reaper suffer. Anything beyond that didn’t really concern her.

A crew was quickly brought in to help them move locations. Lilly didn’t know them, and she didn’t trust them, so it was a good thing that she didn’t have anything that needed moving.

“Call me if you need me.” She didn’t wait for a response. She just vanished.

The dark embrace of the between space was different. It brought her mind back to the prison corridor when she’d been reaching for something to avoid getting taken out by the waiting Heroes. The darkness had answered her call. It had lingered longer than it ever had before.

<That was something different.> She wasn’t sure if it was just humoring her, if it was protective of her, or if she was able to control it?

It was definitely something to figure out, but she had more important things to handle at the moment. She needed to check on Morina.

 

 

***

 

Daisy sat in the local police station. She wasn’t in a cell – at least not yet – but the local Sherriff was keeping an eye on her.

<You’d think I was one of the villains that broke out of the prison,> she thought as she shifted her weight to her opposite butt cheek. She’d been sitting there for a while.

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, dropping everyone in her half-mile radius when she saw Mr. Morningstar dead hadn’t been the best decision. Most of the Heroes had gone down. All but one of the prisoners was neutralized, but all the cops were taken out. While the remaining Heroes corralled the final criminal the officers on the exterior perimeter were called in to help secure the unconscious people littering the battlefield. When they finally reached Daisy, she was kneeling over Mr. Morningstar’s bloody body. They’d acted appropriately and taken her into custody until they could figure everything out.

Normally, she be out within the hour as the DVA coordinated her release, but she’d dropped everyone she could in her range. That meant the DVA agents and representatives that would normally be fielding the orders from DVA HQ back in D.C. were out of commission. It led to a clusterfuck of epic proportions, and it was all her fault.

<I’ll take some shit for it, but I got the job done.> She still felt a little numb.

The image of Morningstar falling and Wraith escaping with Nightingale and Stal was seared into her mind. She’d seen a lot of death in her career, and it was always tough to see a fellow Hero fall, but this felt like more than that. She didn’t know why she had that feeling, but it was there in her gut. She’d learned to trust her gut a long time ago.

The phone started ringing and snapped her mind away from the images swirling around in it. A deputy answered it, said a few words, nodded, and hung up. He turned to Daisy, gave her a look, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t a bad look. It was more questioning. She didn’t know if this guy had lost someone in the fight, or had helped take down one of those villains the first time around.

She’d overheard that there were three villains still missing from the fight, and none of them were nice people. <Hell, one bathes in other people’s blood for fun.> It sent a shiver up Daisy’s spine. <Creepy.>

She had to wait another twenty minutes before a costumed Hero walked through the front door. It was Bender, with his giant sniper rifle slung across his back, and a smile on his face. His presence seemed to light up the room. This was the ranged-Hero’s home turf, and people loved him.

<Which is why he’s here to spring me.> There was no one better to get her out of the poke than the local golden boy.

He made his way through the growing sea of sheriff’s deputies shaking hands and taking pictures. He worked the crowd like a pro, and she had to respect that. The Sherriff himself even came out to take a few pictures and get an update on the efforts to find the fugitives. Only after all of that was done did Bender finally make his way over the Daisy.

“Reaper,” was all he said as he undid her cuffs. “You pack one hell of a punch.”

“Thanks.” She massaged her wrists where the cuffs had dug in. “There are a lot of scorched-earth Supers out there, but I’m the turn the earth on its head Super. I always have been and probably always will be.”

Bender just nodded and they didn’t speak until they were out of the station and in the DVA SUV. Only then did he start to give her a debrief on the situation.

“We only have three unaccounted for, which for the size of the riot is pretty good. Property damage is severe, but that can be fixed. What can’t be fixed are the fatalities among the guards, and that was just about every one that was caught in the path of the escaping criminals. Our casualties were light, and the healers are working on the rest.” He left it at that. “All things considered, I think we won.”

“Did we?” Daisy just stared out the window.

Bender didn’t have the idealistic glint in his eye of a fresh out of the HCP Hero. He’d been at this a bit, but her comment still caught him off guard.

“Sure, we won the fight,” she clarified. “But we don’t know why it happened. We don’t know what their goal was in the first place. Hell, the three people missing might be the people they were trying to spring in the first place!” She took several deep breaths and controlled her emotions just like Dr. Johnson had taught her.

“True.” He granted her that.

“We need to figure out why the hell this happened in the first place, and we need to punish those that did this.” Her face was hard with determination.

“Of course.” Bender nodded. Whatever their difference, they both had that in common.

They rode the rest of the way back to the battlefield in silence. It was swarming with people now, so he took her to the command center. Her reception was lukewarm at best. Half the people in the room she’d dropped like a dollar bill at a strip club. She eventually found Grace who wasn’t at all pissed that she’d taken out the competition because she was already down for the count.

“Thanks.” She mumbled to the healer as the uniformed man walked away and Daisy replaced him.

“You good?”

“Are you? I heard what you did.”

The two women gave each other a look before nodding. They were both clearly tired and just wanted to go home, but their day wasn’t over yet.

“Reaper?” A SWAT officer walked over to them with a satellite phone. “Call for you.”

She took the phone with a questioning expression, but the guy didn’t offer any more information. “Hello?”

“Hey.” Topher’s voice washed over Daisy like a warm summer breeze.

“Hey.” Her hard demeanor melted immediately.

“Are you ok?” His first question was for her well-being, and that’s how she knew she had a winner, but once she’d confirmed she was fine things took a turn.

“We have a problem.” He explained the situation.

“Shit! You’ve got to be kidding me!” she exclaimed when the call ended.

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who’d seen the inside of a police station today.

 

***

 

<Ugh.> Seth pulled himself out of a hazy world of dreams and into reality.

He had a crick in his neck. It felt like something hard had been poking into his kidney all night long, the place smelled like day-old piss, and the familiar scent of his own vomit made him gag a few times before getting it all under control. Only once he opened his eyes did he understand.

He was in a large communal cell with several benches and a toilet in the corner. He didn’t know how it had happened, but he’d ended up spending the night in the drunk tank.

“You’re up.” A man with sergeant’s stripes was sitting on the other side of the bars with his feet kicked up on a desk.

“Sure am.” Seth would have given anything to not have the acidic taste of puke in his mouth. “Not sure how I got here.”

“Your girlfriend brought you in.” The sergeant got the keys and opened up the cell. “Put your hands behind your back.”

Seth had played this game in bed before but never in real life. Nevertheless, he complied. It wasn’t like he couldn’t turn into a human bonfire and melt the cuffs if it came to that.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he forgot to mention that up front but got around to it.

“Could have fooled me,” the sergeant easily slapped the cuffs around his wrists and tightened them. “I’m not going to lock them since we’re only walking a short way. Struggle and they’ll synch tighter and be a pain in the ass. Understood?”

“Sure thing, but I’m still not sure why I’m here.” Seth shrugged as he was led out of the cell.

“The detectives want to talk to you.”

“About what? I doubt with everything going on in this fine city that they have time to scold a college kid about underage drinking.” Seth was confident enough to smirk.

“That’s not my department. I just recognized you and wanted to have a moment to talk to you on the way to the interrogation room.”

<Interrogation? Who is this guy?> a few questions ran through Seth’s mind.

“I remember you were at Sprout just about a year ago when the place got hit. You were with a now-notorious someone.”

Seth didn’t say a word. He wasn’t sure how far the SI infraction clause at the HCP went, but he sure as shit wasn’t going to give away anything.

“Don’t worry,” the man gave him a pat on the shoulder. “I’m familiar with one of your professors. I gave her a heads up that you were here and why. Someone will be along to pick you up at some point after questioning.”

“Uh…thanks.” Seth didn’t know if the guy had done him a favor or fucked him. He also didn’t know how the HCP reacted to students getting busted by the cops for one thing or another.

“I’d give you the ‘tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ speech, but I know what you’re planning to do with your life, so you know what the right thing to do in this situation is.” They stopped in front of a heavy, plain white door. “Good luck.”

The sergeant led him in and plopped him down in front of two men. Both were older: one fat and one skinny. The fat one was rocking a pretty good mustache and a monster pistol in a shoulder holster. The guy screamed old-school cop. The skinny guy was dressed in a suit and wore his police-issued sidearm on his belt next to his badge. His demeanor screamed “ladder climber”. The two detectives might look completely different, but they had the same look on their faces. It was a relaxed “I got you kid” look.

“Mr. Abney,” skinny detective smiled to show his perfectly white and straightened teeth. “Thank you for coming in after we gave you a call.”

“Whatever I can do to help, Officers.” Seth knew he sounded like a smartass, but he was still pretty hungover and was kind of pissed at Izzy for dropping him off.

“I’ve looked at your record and it’s a little extensive. Mostly stupid juvenile behavior back in North Carolina: public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and one count of public nudity that got dropped.”

“The courts, in their infinite wisdom, didn’t feel it was appropriate to slap that charge on me when I was only one of many sprinting naked through the school’s quad with two dozen others. It was nothing more than school spirit.”

“School spirit?” The fat detective gave a gruff laugh. “Sure.”

“The past is the past, Mr. Abney.” The skinny detective reassumed control of the conversation. “We’re concerned with the present.”

“Me too.” Seth eyed the two men. “Why haven’t I been read my rights? If I haven’t been read my rights then I must not be under arrest, and if you’re arresting kids for underage drinking now-a-days then all the government subsidies pouring into this department are grossly misappropriated.” Seth shrugged. “So, I see this going one of two ways. The first is that you arrest me for something and read me my rights and I don’t talk until my lawyer gets here. The other is that I’m not under arrest, I’m not going to answer any questions, and you have to let me leave. Your holding time for public intoxication is already up I’m assuming.” Seth leaned back in his chair with a confident smile.

The two detectives smiled back just as smugly.

“Fine by us, Mr. Abney. You are under arrest for battery. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you. Do you understand your rights?”

“Yeah,” Seth was stunned.

<Battery?!>

“We wanted to give you the chance to share your side of the story, Mr. Abney, but if you want to play it this way we can.” Skinny detective flipped around a laptop that was sitting on the plain table between them.

It was a time-stamped surveillance video from yesterday. Seth recognized the place. It was his building, his floor, and the camera was directly facing his door. A man came running into the frame. It was the guy who manned the desk in the lobby during the day. Seth had talked to him a couple of times. He was a nice guy for all that Seth knew.

There was no audio so Seth only saw the man pounding on the door and his mouth moving. It looked like he was yelling something. Suddenly, the door flew open and Seth appeared in the doorway.

<Is that me?> Seth had no memory of this. He didn’t recognize the blank look on his face. The blood on his hands and clothes wasn’t a surprise.

The man said something to Seth, but he didn’t move. He said something else, this time looking more agitated. Finally, he said some more stuff and gestured with his hands. That was when Seth reacted. He grabbed the man’s waving arm and twisted. It was clear from the agony on the man’s face that Seth had broken something, but he didn’t stop there.

Granted, the guy took a swing at him, but Seth easily blocked it with a raised forearm, and unleashed a devastating combo on the man’s head and upper torso. One…two…three hits to the head and the man collapsed like a sack of potatoes. His nose was clearly broken and blood was leaking freely from it. In terms of beat downs, it was over quickly and cleanly, but that wasn’t what bothered Seth.

He kept wracking his brain for any memory of what had happened, but he pulled up squat. All he remembered was seeing Lilly kill, then be killed, the broken glass mirror, and then the unconscious guy.

“Anything you want to add?” Young detective asked with a victorious smirk on his face.

“Lawyer,” Seth stated.

“That’s your right,” fat detective spun the laptop around and close it. “But you should also know that the fire was started in your apartment. The fire inspector is looking into it, but if we have arson on our hands then I think we’ve already got our suspect.”

“Lawyer,” Seth repeated.

“I know,” skinny detective made a placating gesture. “But this is the time for you to…”

“That’s enough!” A man dressed in a suit that made the detective’s look like sewed together goose shit strode into the room dramatically. “My client has refused to answer any of your questions. If you do not leave right this minute you’re going to have a harassment case on your hands.”

Both detective shot Seth’s lawyer a withering glare that the silver-haired attorney shrugged off easily.

“We’ll be back.” Fat detective stated before they walked out of the room.

“Don’t say anything.” The attorney stated as he took a seat and gave Seth one of his own glares. “You already have the DVA all over your case and now the local PD is getting in on the action. Do you not understand what the term ‘keep your nose clean’ means, Seth?”

“How did you know I was here?” Seth hadn’t received his phone call yet.

“A Ms. Perko phoned me and stated that you were at the police station. She sounded quite upset about it. Lucky for you, Mr. Abney, you haven’t pushed everyone away who cares about you.”

“Yeah,” Seth thought about that for a moment.

Izzy might have been the one to drop him off at the station, but she’d also called his lawyer. It might not make him totally forgive her, but it certainly helped balance the scales.

“I’ll review the evidence the authorities have against you and have you out of here on bail in no time.” The lawyer continued despite Seth’s lack of attention.

“Yeah, sure, ok.” Seth just nodded as the man left to get everything situated.

His mind was fixated on Izzy. Everything that had happened since his apartment was a bit fuzzy, and that left him wondering just how much of an asshole he’d been.

Now he needed to figure out how to make it up to her because the attorney was right. Seth had very few people he could count on, and Izzy had proved she was one of them.

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What I’m up to

As promised I’m writing a short blog just to give everyone a heads up about what is going to happen over the next few months. It’s been a pretty busy year and it’s only going to get busier, so let’s get to it 🙂

The Harbinger Tales

The first book in The Harbingers Tales Saga premiered last year in mid-later October, so it’s about time for another one! Currently, book Two (Title: TBD) is with the editor for professional proofreading. After that, I need to get a cover done. I’ve got a little break coming up, so with all things considered I’m hoping to have The Harbinger Tales Book Two released in mid-November both for eBook, in print, and on Kindle Unlimited. You’ll get to see all the old characters back at it again,some new ones, and enjoy as the universe expands.

As always, marketing for an indie author with limited resources is very difficult. The best thing a reader can do after they buy the book is to write a short review on amazon and tell their friends. Word of mouth and what is written in those reviews is the best way to get the book out there. The Harbinger Tales Book One is sitting at 20 reviews on the US amazon site. If you read it a while back and didn’t leave a review you can still do it by going to the amazon page and clicking the “Write a customer review button”. Scroll down the page and you’ll see it,and here is the Link. Every review is greatly appreciated and makes me more motivated to write 🙂 so please take the time.

Two Worlds

For now, Two Worlds is going to stick with its twice a week posting schedule (Mon. and Wed.). If something comes up and that has to change then i’ll let everyone know. It also made it’s debut on Kindle a few months back. Overall, the reception was not quite what i was hoping for and i think that’s for one primary reason: what was released was basically a short story.

I initially made that decision for financial reasons. It is really expensive to get books edited and make covers, and sadly I haven’t even broken even on the First Harbinger Tales book after nearly  a year. That’s ok though, i’m not in this for the money, although i’d like to not loose any when it’s all said and done.

So, what that means for the second installment of Two Worlds to come out in eBook is that i’m going to have shake things up a little. Two Worlds Rags & Riches will probably come down off amazon and incorporated into the second installment. This will make a full novel-length release with a fresh cover that will hopefully garner a little more attention. What does this mean for those who already bought and read Rags & Riches? The first third of the second installment – which will be the only installment when released – will be he old Rags & Riches, but the other two-thirds will be edited, polished, and revised material from the web serial. It will be enough that i’ll feel comfortable doing a print version as well. Putting it out on Kindle is the big questions since it will have to come down from my blog and RoyalRoadL. I’ll put that question out to the readers whether or not they want to see that happen. The book will be reasonably priced for one it’s length so it won’t break the bank, but i don’t want to lose bringing in people if they can’t read the first big chunk of TW online.

Let me know your thoughts please and it will help me make a decision

I’m on TDY From Hell

This has been a dip into a new genre for me, and overall the response – although smaller that Change of Page and Two Worlds – has been positive. Once I’m finished with the story I do have rough plans for a sequel, but that will have to wait for me to polish, edit, and release the book on amazon. This will probably come out in eBook, print, and do a run on Unlimited to see how it does. If i don’t see an uptick in sales I can always put I’m on TDY From Hell back on my site and RRL.

Change of Pace 

I’m on to Season 2 if you’ve been keeping up with the Sueprpowereds fan fiction. It is still something i’m enjoying, but i would be lying if i said it was taking away time from other projects i’m interested in. I will continue to post a chapter a week (Sundays) but the length will vary.

Last but not least

I’m going to be taking a step back for a week to refill the tank. The last post before the break will be A Change of Pace on October 1st. I’m taking that week off  and the next post will not be until Two Worlds on October 11th. It might still be the short story: The First Shot depending on how it breaks down. But either way i’m going to be stepping back for about 10 days. Every once and a while a writer just needs to take a step back and take a breath.

Thanks for bearing with me everyone and i hope you love reading my work as much as i like writing it. Below is a short recap of coming releases as best I can determine. Thanks for everything, and please leave a comment if you have any questions. I always love hearing from readers.

Recap

Break: October 2nd – October 10th

The Harbinger Tales Book Two Release: Mid-November

Two Worlds combination release: TBD – probably early 2018

I’m on TDY from Hell Book Release: TBD – probably around spring 2018

Blog posts and RRL continue as usual until you hear otherwise

 

I’m on TDY from Hell – The Beginning of the End

The battle lines were drawn as Michael and Satan walked calmly to their respective sides of the gym. The heavy-hitters stood on the frontlines: Seere, Lucifer, and Satan against the two archangels. Gerry was in the second line. The Dux line. Lucian’s perception of what was going on around them had narrowed considerably. He had his mind fixed on the thirty-foot Emmanuel. Behind him were his lieutenants and Vicky’s people.

They all looked ready to shit their pants.

They might be the big bads in Charlotte, but this was several orders of magnitude outside their wheelhouse. Even Gerry was outclassed. He was standing among titans and he was a very fragile man in comparison.

<It doesn’t matter.> He let the power grip him. <Nothing matters.> It was how he went into every battle. You had to fight like you were already dead or you wouldn’t be willing to do what was necessary.

He wasn’t going to willingly sacrifice himself. He wasn’t suicidal, but he needed to be ready to take risks to win. A flexible mindset helped with that. He reached deep within himself – to the core of his being – and pulled.

His true Infernal form tore through his feeble mortal flesh and replaced it with hard Infernal Iron. His height exploded upward until he was standing slightly higher than Emmanuel.

<Forty feet.> He couldn’t stop the grin from forming on his face. He’d accumulated enough power to tower over the majority of buildings in the city.

He hadn’t had many chances to fully transform since arriving in Charlotte since he had to be in his warded penthouse to even think about it. Those few times he did, he made sure to remember what he’d heard – what felt like a lifetime ago – in the Carver’s chambers: his Infernal form was a blank canvas that he could mold to his will. He’d though it had ben perfection back then, and he’d been wrong.

Instead of smooth metal with blue light shining from the crevices in the armor, he’d made some alterations. Spikes adorned the armor in strategic locations. That would prevent enemies from grabbing a hold of him and using their greater strength as leverage, because Gerry knew no matter what his power level his enemies would likely be stronger.

He’d shifted the metal to form a shield on his left forearm. It was small – not large enough to protect his whole body – but it was enough to deflect the swords the angels were carrying. He had his own broadsword to attack and defend, and a little surprise in his left hand beneath the shield he was saving for a special occasion.

Gerry savored being the biggest guy in the room for about a second before Lucian exploded next to him. What stood next to Gerry – towering fifty feet tall – looked nothing like Lucian. Armor covered the other Dux’s chest, but that was it. The rest of his body was covered in thick scales, and large reptilian wings arched above his back. His arms and hands were still human and gripped twin scimitars, but his legs were thick and tipped with glittering black claws. If that wasn’t different enough, his face had elongated into a snout and smoke was curling up from his nostrils, which made the savage grin – full of rows of jagged teeth – that much more unsettling.

<Glad he’s on my side.> Gerry looked pretty tame next to the other Dux.

In reply to Lucian’s challenge, Emmanuel swelled another twenty feet until he matched the size of the other Dux. Gerry didn’t let his irritation show, and instead refocused on the rest of the group. His eyes found Ava. The Dominion of Charlotte’s eyes were red and puffy, but there was a look in them that made Gerry shiver…and that expression was fixed directly on him.

He focused his attention on those eyes and knew who he’d be fighting when all hell broke loose. Even worse, he soon found himself looking up at those eyes. Ava shifted her stance when she reached her full fifty-foot height so she was ready to attack.

The guardian angels behind her responded to the challenge as well, but each of them only reached a height of twenty feet. That was still half a dozen extra swords to worry about though, and each of those was deadly Divine Steel.

<I need to get me one of those.> Gerry knew the first thing he was going to do.

The growth of the Duxs and Dominions were the equivalent of silverback gorillas puffing out their chests and daring the other to make the first move. The only ones who didn’t seem to be posturing and daring the other to attack were the heavy-hitters.

“Do you have any conditions?” Satan asked, cutting through the tense silence.

“I don’t suppose you will leave the humans out of it?” Michael asked, but his expression wasn’t hopeful.

“No.” Satan shook his head. “It is their war as much as yours or mine. The moment Father incorporated the realm he doomed them to this eventuality.”

“Very well.”

It was a signal that Gerry didn’t see coming. The orb in Uriel’s spear had been glowing brightly since the beginning, and now she used it. It wasn’t a full-scale attack like Gerry was expecting. He put his shield between himself and the spear and channeled all his strength into digging in against the incredible force he was expecting to meet. Instead, Uriel simple raised the spear a foot off the ground and brought it firmly back down onto the ground. Gerry barely heard the impact, but he felt the change.

It wasn’t an attack, but a wave of something passed over and through Gerry. He felt a chill run through him and wasn’t able to suppress an involuntary shiver. It caused him to commit a big no-no in warfare. He took his eye off the enemy to make sure some catastrophic damage hadn’t been done to him.

A quick scan didn’t show any breaches in his armor. His grip on his well of ætherial power was still strong, and a check of his mind showed no obvious signs of intrusion. When he looked back at the heavy-hitters he saw that Lucifer was laughing.

“That’s clever, Sis, but it won’t last long.” Despite his helmet and the odd light shining through the visor, Lucifer’s voice sounded normal.

“Long enough to finish this.” She smiled back.

“They turned us insubstantial to reduce the damage to the humans and their infrastructure.” Seere explained to the people behind him. “The flaw in their strategy is that it is against our will and will only last for so long. In addition, the more power expended during the battle the quicker it will unravel.”

Gerry nodded. His attention was fixed back on Ava.

The tension was back as the forces of Heaven and Hell faced each other across the bloodstained gym. It was like two gunslingers at high noon with their hands poised to go for their guns. Someone just had to make the opening move.

The anticipation ratcheted up and up as the seconds passed by. Gerry wanted to unleash on one of the guardians to get their superior weapons, but it would be suicide to try that, so he waited impatiently.

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but finally Satan moved and changed. Gerry had never seen and Infernal transform into their full-power combat form, or even knew that it could happen so quickly. One second Satan was an old man leaning slightly forward on his cane, and the next The King of Hell was charging straight at Michael.

As Gerry look upon him, there was no question at all that he was the King. Between steps the feeble body of the old man exploded into a three hundred foot creature of power and destruction. Thick Divine Steel armor gleamed, but it had a patchwork of darker Infernal Iron welded onto certain parts. He had the body of a man, with a tattered red cloak streaming behind him, but that similarity ended at his head.

The head of Satan had four faces. The first was a face of the angel he used to be. He was handsome perfection with a charming smile and eyes that made people trust him. That face was currently facing the rear. The face currently facing forward was similar to Lucians. It had an elongated snout with dark red reptilian scales. Golden eyes shown with hate and menace, and its ear-splitting roar would have collapsed a building if he wasn’t currently insubstantial. Rows of deadly teeth populated the mouth, but two fangs were prominent and dripped something bright green onto the floor. The face facing right was a ram’s face with two curled horns. Between those horns was a fiery crown. Lastly, the final face was avian. It had a sharp black beak capable of stabbing and tearing into his enemy, and two cruel red eyes.

When Satan charged Michael changed. He braced himself as he changed from normal, ripped Santa Clause to the three hundred foot Knight of the Almighty. His armor was identical to Satan’s, minus the patchwork repairs the King of Hell had been forced to make in exile. Michael’s armor was freshly polished and reflected the power he held. He also brought a hundred-foot sword into a defense stance as Satan drew closer.

Uriel moved toward Michael’s flank to protect him, and immediately had to deflect a blast of power from Lucifer.

Both the archangel and Lucifer were both towering above Gerry now. They’d engaged their full power as the attack started. There was a difference though. Lucifer was closer to two hundred and eighty feet tall compared to Uriel’s two hundred and fifty feet. They were easily spilling out of the gym now, but since they’d been rendered insubstantial they passed right through the walls.

The blocking move brought Uriel’s orb between the blast and her. Light met light, and Lucifer’s beam ricocheted off to the side. The force staggered Uriel, but she was able to get her footing before Seere reached her.

Gerry’s lord wielding his own giant broadsword as he towered just as tall as Uriel. She parried the attack, but Seere pushed the advantage and drove her back into the football field behind the gym. Sword and spear flourished and flashed as the two giants battled.

What Gerry decided to refer to as Satan’s dragon-face was streaming fire onto Michael, who had summoned a shield to protect himself from the scorching heat. The defensive tactic saved him from burns, but it left him open for the tackle. At the last moment, Satan’s faces rotated and the ram-face smashed into Michael. The archangel went toppling onto his ass and Satan jumped on him with his raven-face facing forward and ready to poke at the weaknesses in the commander’s armor.

Gerry didn’t see much more than the two titans exchanging blows and rolling around on the ground, but he also had other things to worry about. His side had the numbers and that was clear as the Divine’s champions were occupied with Seere and Satan. Lucifer was left open to unleash ranged attacks with his devastating energy blasts that streamed through the opening in his helmet.

Emmanuel moved to counter The Morning Star but Lucian jumped toward him unleashing his own blast of fire. The Dominion of Charleston powered through the attack and crashed into the Dux. They both went flying as the two combatants beat their wings to gain elevation.

That left Gerry, his lieutenants, Ava, and her soldiers. The Soulless and Vicky had done the smartest thing possible under the circumstances.

They’d run for their lives.

A hand gesture from their commander was all the guardians needed. They took to the air and shot toward Lucifer. It was a suicide run, and they all knew it, but they needed to take the Infernal Lord’s attention of Uriel. He’d already scored a hit against the archangel and it left a thick scorch mark on her armor.

The maneuver worked…to a degree. The eight guardians succeeded in drawing Lucifer’s attention, but only six of them were able to avoid the blast from his helmet. The two other were obliterated by the powerful stream of energy. The remaining six fell back, regrouped and split into two teams. One continued to harass Lucifer while the other headed toward Gerry and his lieutenants. Gerry waved for his own lieutenants to join the battle.

They had already transformed. Jezebel was a quasi-feline nightmare of claws and teeth. She had no wings, but she could jump considerable distances. She leapt into the action, and was able to grab on of a guardian’s feet. The two flew off to fight to the death.

Jeb looked more zombie than man. A green mist swirled around him and lashed out to attack anyone he chose. He couldn’t fly, but he could levitate, and he moved forward to engage another guardian.

Lastly, Lono lumbered forward. He was the largest of Gerry’s lieutenants standing almost twenty-five feet tall. He was stark naked, and itt showed off his corpulent frame in all its glory. His skin was a deep, burned red-color that sagged and rolled with his tremendous girth. He looked like an evil Buddha waddling into battle. He had sharp teeth better to eat his victims with, but he relied on his sheer strength in battle.

Gerry saw him engage a guardian. The angel sliced off a chunk of fat hanging from the gluttony-powered Infernal’s arm, but it didn’t slow Lono down. He grabbed the angel’s sword arm, brought him close, and repeatedly punched the Divine soldier in his helmeted-head.

Gerry saw the soldier drop his sword, and saw the opportunity. Ava mirrored his motion, and they both raced toward the fight. She made a key mistake as they both joined the fray. She incorrectly assumed that he was there to assist Lono.

He was there for the sword.

She swung her own sword at Gerry’s chest, assuming he would bring his blade up to protect his lieutenant. Instead, he slid like a baseball player behind Lono to where the angel’s sword lay on the ground. He seized it mid-slid as Lono roared in pain. The gluttonous Infernal had done his best to lessen the blow of the much larger Dominion, but her blade had sliced through his arm holding her soldier, and deep into his chest.

He staggered backwards from the force of the attack and that let the guardian get back in the fight. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a sword to attack with. Gerry channeled his æther into the sword. It blazed with blue fire, and he brought it in a powerful upward stroke as he leapt back to his feet. The sword bit into the Divine Steel armor of the guardian just above the hip. The armor held briefly, before folding under Gerry’s strength and the Infernal fire coating the sword. The sword bisected the guardian from hip to mid-chest, spilling his Divine æther across Gerry’s chest, and throwing the two halves of his ruined body into the air.

Lono waddled away clutching the stump of his arm while Ava landed in front of Gerry. Her eyes were filled with righteous fury as she towered ten feet over him. No words were exchanged. He’d helped kill her daughter and he’d just defeated one of her soldiers. She wanted him dead, and he was determined to avoid that at all costs.

 

***

 

<Stupid, so stupid.> Ava wasn’t cursing anybody but herself. She’d underestimated Gerry twice, and both times people had paid for her stupidity with their lives. <My sweet Maria.> She fought back tears as she repositioned to face the Infernal Dux. Instead, she focused on her anger.

She’d sat right across from the man and hadn’t seen what he truly was. His human guise was flawless and he’d spoken nothing but the truth, but everything had still been a lie.

<I’ve been complacent.> She came to the conclusion as she circled Gerry. <I let my prior victory go to my head, and he cut me down at the knees.>

Now Frederick was dead. His bisected body spilled Divine ichor all over the ground. His essence had returned to Heaven to be recrafted into a new body, but that didn’t stop the trauma of death. The Guardian would remember it for decades to come.

<That’s not the worst thing.> As crude as the thought was, it was the truth.

Frederick’s death had given the Dux possession of a blade made of Divine Steel. There weren’t too many differences between Divine Steel and Infernal Iron in the construction process. It was the empowerment phase that made the crucial difference. Infernal Iron was imbued with power by an Infernal Lord. It made the weapon far more dangerous than anything mortals could contrive, but it was still only blessed with power by a second-rate ætherial creature. Divine Steel was anointed by her almighty Father, a primordial being. The power of his blessing was far superior to one of his own creations.

Now, Gerry had a blade far more powerful than anything he’d ever wielded before, something powerful enough to threaten Ava.

“For the record I find you extraordinary.” Gerry was a full ten feet shorter, so he had to look up at her.

Ava was speechless before she felt fresh rage burn in her heart. “You killed my daughter, you vile creature.” She advanced cautiously and moved through a few forms.

Gerry danced backwards and deflected the attack with skill. “I didn’t kill your daughter. Lucifer and Seere killed her. If you’re looking for revenge then I’d look over there.”

Ava wasn’t stupid enough to take her eye off her target, and she didn’t need to. She could feel the battle behind her. Archangels were battling Infernal Lords. It was hard to miss, and it put her in an uncomfortable position. She’d selected her most powerful form to fight this battle for good reason. You didn’t stand toe-to-toe with the Prince of Darkness at anything less than full strength, but she wasn’t fighting one of her older brothers. She was fighting a weaker Dux; weaker but faster.

Gerry slid away from another attack, maneuvered to the side, before pressing his own. It forced her to bat her wings and spin in the air with a flourish. He came in low and would have done some damage if her blade wasn’t already waiting for him. He moved away at the last second, avoiding a cut that would have bitten deeply into his shoulder.

Ava contemplated decreasing her strength and increasing her speed. Gerry was a competent swordsman, but he was still only an Infernal with a few hundred years of experience under his belt, a millennia tops. Ava had been a soldier since before mankind existed. His speed was the only thing that was saving him.

A hideous scream broke her concentration and made her decision for her. Uriel took the full brunt of a blast from Lucifer to the front of her armor. The Divine Steel held for a fraction of a second before blackening and splintering under his energy. She screamed as the blast burned into her flesh, but tried to use her own momentum to avoid the full force of it. Seere pressed her at the same moment. She was mid-rotation when his giant broadsword slashed upward across her hamstring. It caused her to stagger, and she would have died from his follow-up stab if her orb didn’t pulse and throw the Great Dissenter backwards. She intercepted Lucifer’s next blast with the Orb, but it was clear the archangel was hurt.

Michael was still engaging Satan, so it was up to Ava to help. She disengaged from Gerry with a few powerful beats of her wings and rocketed toward the Morning Star.

 

***

 

“Is this what you wanted, Brother? Are you happy?”

Michael replied by swinging the shield right into Satan’s human-face. It busted the King of Hell’s nose pretty good, but the face moved with the blow. The dragon-face roared its reply, and since Michael’s shield was out of position he received a full bath of flame across his shoulder and side. He felt his flesh singe from the heat, but his armor held. He brought the shield back around with the intent of taking off Satan’s head, but the Infernal Lord ducked under the attack and backed away to avoid any follow on attacks from Michael’s sword.

Behind them battle raged. Both could hear Seere, Lucifer, and Uriel duking it out. That made Satan smile. Michael took a step in that direction, but Satan countered it and cut off the archangel commander’s chance of helping his ally. Satan had the upper hand here. He didn’t have to worry about Uriel attacking him from behind. His brothers were more than able to keep her busy.

“So?” Satan reached toward the middle of his back.

A section of his Divine Steel armor broke off. It was a sword. He brought it around to his front, twisted it, and pulled it apart into dual blades. That had always been Satan’s greatest strength in battle. His whirling faces and whirling blades gave him a versatility that not even Michael could compete with.

“No.” Michael replied firmly. “I don’t wish to fight you, Brother, but you continue to make the same mistake time and time again. You are literally insane.”

“Is it insane to question? Is it insane to think for myself? If yes, then I am most definitely insane, but it also makes you a fool, Michael.” The human-face was back with the nose already mended. “You’re nothing more than daddy’s little errand boy. You have been since our creation and you will be forever unless you stand up for yourself.”

Satan took a few practice swings with the dual blades and they sang through the air. The song was death, and more than one angel had felt it. He’d even killed other archangels with the blades.

“You mistake loyalty to my father and family as foolishness. You have nothing but loyalty for yourself. You would slaughter Lucifer and Seere in a heartbeat if it would take you one step closer to our Father’s throne, so don’t talk to me about sanity.” Michael shot back.

Satan didn’t reject the statement. He just shrugged. “Our brothers know that. They even expect it.”

“And that will always be your greatest weakness, Brother.” Michael brought his sword and shield into a ready stance.

“Weakness doesn’t survive in Hell, Michael.” Satan charged, his dragon-face unleashing a torrent of flame to block the archangel’s line of sight.

Uriel screamed off to their side and Satan feinted one way and went the other. Michael was ready though, he’d fought his brother’s deception before. Their swords met in a vicious collision. The shockwave spread outward from the point of impact.

“No.” Michael was distracted by the physical reaction of the attack. All he was able to do was get his shield up before more flames tried to roast him alive.

He was forced to split his concentration between his attacking brother and the shockwave from the swords as it slammed into the gymnasium with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. Brick and mortar were ripped from the structure. Part of a wall crumbled from the force, but it didn’t completely flatten the building. It hardly mattered. What did matter was that the spell that had turned the Infernal King of Hell insubstantial had failed.

Satan was loose on the world in all his terrible glory.

“Will you look at that?” Satan’s human-face smiled at Michael.

“Satan, no…!” Michael started, but the Infernal Lord had already unfurled his black wings and launched himself into the air.

Radar all over the area would be pinging what looked like a flying aircraft carrier moving at speeds far exceeding anything commercially available. Michael didn’t have the luxury of hesitation. His own white wings sprang open and he launched himself after his brother.

There was no hiding it now. Heaven and Hell had come to Earth.

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The First Shot – Part 2

“MOVE! TAC Channel Bravo!” MAJ Ward ordered as they retreated through the door and down a hallway filled with charred paper and wrecked furniture.

He switched over to the new communications channel and did a quick comms check as they moved with a purpose down the hall. They didn’t flee like a bunch of untrained teenagers. They moved tactically as they fell back deeper into the facility. There were doors evenly spaced down the hallway and they had to cover each of them as they passed. The rooms beyond them looked pretty ordinary: desks, computers, and office supplies like you’d see at any office in the US. The difference was that this hallway alone housed roughly a dozen offices, and a few were larger ones with cubicles. A quick tally told the MAJ nearly fifty people worked in this section alone.

“The objective has massive power requirements.” Cuthbert saw the MAJ looking at his surroundings. “I’ve kept a rough count and at least four hundred civilians work at this facility.”

“We guessed there would be civilians onsite, and that’s why we planned the raid at night. They might be helping the enemy, but they’re still civilians.”

They came to the first corner and CPL Dawson made the motion to freeze by holding up a fist. The marine poked the barrel of his rifle around the corner for a better look. The MAJ tapped into the rifle’s feed for better view.

The video wasn’t the best quality, but it showed another empty hallway in both directions.

“We need to take a right and get to the stairs at the end of the hallway.” Cuthbert informed. “We need to hurry. They were set to start testing the device an hour ago.”

“What?” The MAJ hissed. “Why the hell didn’t you . . .” his statement was cut off as gunfire filled the hallway.

“Contact rear!” He announced as he rotated one hundred and eighty degrees and opened fire.

An energy blast caught the lead enemy soldier in the chest and he went down, but they kept coming. They advanced down the hallway on either side and used the doors and offices as cover to protect their advance.

“We need to move!” The MAJ grunted as a round hit him in the chest but didn’t penetrate. “Dawson, get us the fuck out of here!”

“Go right!” Cuthbert yelled frantically.

“Fuck! I’m trying!” Dawson replied as more gunfire hit them from another position. The young marine stumbled from multiple impacts and ended up going straight into an adjacent office instead of to the right. “I’ve got a light machine gun to your left, my right.” The CPL’s voice was pained.

“McGee . . .”

“On it, Sir.” The CSGT poked his head around the corner quickly to evaluate the threat. “Cover me!” From one of his many pockets the CSGT pulled a cylinder-shaped grenade. He opened up his single barrel L96A1 and slid it into the chamber.

“Cover him.” The MAJ rotated from lasers to good old-fashioned bullets and poured it into the advancing enemy.

The doorway he was using as cover started to disintegrate under the combined return fire of the enemy, but he kept on shooting. If they couldn’t take out that light machine gun and get to the objective, they were totally fucked.

“Frag out!” The CSGT laughed as he pivoted around the corner and fired.

The ground rumbled beneath everyone’s feet as fire and shrapnel destroyed the machine gun and any soldier standing within ten feet of it.

“Move!” The MAJ physically grabbed LT Thrumball and threw him in the direction of the T intersection. “Right! Go right!”

They rounded the corner and abandoned tactical doctrine in order to sprint to safety. They made it a quarter of the way there before more gunfire tore into them from ahead. If not for the armor they’d all have been killed outright, but instead they walked away with a few flesh wounds and a lot of bruises.

“On me!” The CPL put his shoulder into a closed door and crashed into another office.

The group followed his lead.

“It’s the objective’s garrison.” Cuthbert was breathing heavily. He was lucky as hell to be alive. The MAJ knew that. He’d taken two rounds meant for the spy. “There are stairs at the end of the hallway that lead to the vault entrance.

“Objective’s garrison? I thought they were behind us.” PO2 Chambers was wrapping some gauze around his bicep that was bubbling blood.

“That’s the facility’s garrison. The objective has its own platoon-sized force protecting it.”

“Cuthbert, I know you’ve been a captive for a little while and might be off your game, but if we’re about to charge into thirty enemy soldiers please fucking tell me about it beforehand.” The MAJ resisted the urge to grab the spy by the throat and throw him back out into the hallway as a decoy.

“Noted, Major.”

The MAJ wanted to argue more, but they didn’t have time. He poked his rifle out and put more lead downrange. He caught two soldiers trying to sneak up on them and sent them both to meet their makers.

“We need to move.” Options were cycling through his mind, but the CSGT was way ahead of him.

“Allow me, gentlemen.” The man they called fire-crotch jumped to his feet, rolled his neck, and then ran shoulder first into the wall. The drywall crumbled under his assault, and a roughly human-shaped hole led the way into the next room.

“Go . . . Go!” The MAJ waved them through the improvised door while he provided cover fire.

His onslaught kept the enemies behind cover and allowed the CSGT and CPL Dawson to make a bigger hole into the next office, and the next one, and the next one. A minute later and they’d practically reached the stairwell, so of course that was when the universe decided to make their lives even more difficult.

The MAJ ducked just in time as rounds impacted the doorway above his head. “Shit!” he rolled away from the barrage and tossed a grenade at the facility’s garrison mustering behind him. It was a careless toss to buy time, and it worked.

He heard people scream as the grenade detonated. He figured they had thirty seconds before the facility’s garrison ventured forward and pinned the small Commonwealth team between them and the objective’s garrison. Either way, it was the definition of being caught between a rock and a hard place.

“We’ve got about twenty-five seconds before we get pinned.” The MAJ reached the rest of the team.

“And we’ve got more problems.” The SEAL PO2 had his gun on two women standing defiantly in the room across from his team.

“For fuck’s sake check my ID.” One woman, a tall Caucasian one with a scowl reached into her bra and pulled out a slip of plastic.

It looked like nothing but a spare piece of plastic, but she pressed her finger to it and spoke. “Call sign Trojan, security code Delta-Nine-Four-Charlie.”

The piece of clear plastic started to darken and resolve into an ID with three big letters written on top: CIA.

“Of course the Agency is here.” The MAJ grumbled. He’d seen these IDs before and so far he didn’t know if there was a way to counterfeit them. His armor also checked the woman’s ID against known assets in the area of operations and it checked out.

“And of course the army started to blow the shit out of my carefully planned op without so much as a friendly heads up.” Her eyes were filled with fire, which explained the two dead enemy soldiers on the ground.

A quick observation showed they’d been killed by a knife, not bullets or energy blasts.

“She’s with me.” The woman – a Dr. Elizabeth Shaw according to her ID – stepped in the SEAL’s line of fire when he turned his weapon on the other woman in the room.

She was short, Chinese, and had the same fire in her eyes that Dr. Shaw did.

“She’s my partner. Japanese Defense Force Captain Aiko Tanaka. She’s fluent in five languages, is a communications expert, and has been watching my back for weeks.” Dr. Shaw didn’t move despite the SEAL’s irritated look.

“What are you two . . .?” Cuthbert started to ask, but the MAJ cut them off.

“We don’t have time for this.” The whole exchange had taken half of the time they should have been getting out of here. “Chambers and Cuthbert watch them. We take them with us. If they’re really allies, they’ll help. If not, then we’ll use them as human shields and shoot them when we’re done.”

“Major that’s . . .”

“We don’t have time to argue, Doctor.” He cut her off and the look on his face shut her up. “We need to move.”

Dawson opened fire from the doorway. The enemy had taken the lack of counter fire as an excuse to move forward, and the marine made them pay for that.

“Everyone, frag grenades to the right on three. Does anyone have smoke?”

The CSGT nodded.

“Good. Smoke to the left to give us some cover. We’re charging the stairwell on a three-count after the grenades.”

The look on everyone’s faces said it was the last thing they wanted to do, but they knew they didn’t have a choice. Charges made good war stories, but the hardly ever worked out well for the people doing the charging.

“Smoke out.” The CSGT whispered as he lobbed another cylinder around the door and to the left. There was some yelling as the enemy saw it coming and ran, but then just a loud pop and hiss as the thick black gas expanded into the hallway.

“One . . . two . . . three!” The MAJ gave the gas a little time to expand before three grenades flew out of their room and to the right. He would have preferred they had more, but that was all the frag grenades they had left.

He held out his arm to stop Cuthbert from charging toward the stairwell too early. A moment later three loud BOOMs shook the building, and then they charged. No one sounded a war cry during their charge. It was stupid to let the enemy know you were coming to slit their throat, and in their case, to alert the garrison behind them that they were in the hallway.

They had fifteen yards to cross before they reached the stairwell. It looked like one of the grenades hadn’t made it into the doorway and exploded in the hallway. There was scaring from where the high-velocity shrapnel tore into the steel-reinforced walls, and burn marks near the site of detonation. There were also three torn up bodies, which they quickly stepped over.

The MAJ kept his rifle up for the first ten yards. It was still the most efficient way to kill the enemy if they poked their head out on the approach. Once he was within five meters he slung the weapon around to his back. The sling strap caught the M18 and kept it from falling, but it still made him grimace as it smacked into a spot on his back where he’d been shot only a few minutes before. He ignored the pain as he reached across to his left side where a wicked looking knife was sheathed.

It was a six-inch K-Bar given to him by an old First Sergeant when he was a company commander. The MAJ didn’t know it at the time, but the old NCO spent a pretty penny on the parting gift. It was a top of the line model and coated in some synthetic crap that was supposed to keep it sharp. A knife you never had to spend time sharpening was a precious tool in the MAJ’s line of work.

There was no time to be coy at the entrance to the stairwell. They were in a situation where the violence of action would determine the victor. The MAJ went right while LT went left. Immediately, the MAJ came face-to-face with a ragged looking Chinese officer. His eyes were a little unfocused and he had some light bleeding, but otherwise he was still prepared to fight.

Until the MAJ ran his knife through the man’s chest.

He pushed the Chinese officer back, smacking him into another soldier who was trying to get to his feet. Behind that was a wall. The MAJ pinned the enemy officer against the wall and gave a jerk upward with the knife. The man cried out in pain as the MAJ cut into something vital, and then coughed up blood in a gurgle of fear as the Ranger lifted him up and tossed him over the railing to their left. The man’s screams as he fell didn’t hinder the MAJ from turning on the remaining soldier. The man was on his knees going for his own knife. The MAJ kicked him savagely in the face. It shattered the enemy’s nose, knocked him back to the ground, and gave the Ranger an easy opening to jab his knife into the man’s spine.

The MAJ’s eyes swept the scene looking for more targets, but there were none. It looked like the other two grenades found their mark and killed another half dozen men at the top of the stairwell.

“They didn’t send the whole garrison.” Cuthbert did the math as the rest of the team streamed into the small space and took up positions to cover the hallway to their rear. “How are we going to get down?”

CSGT McGee answered the question with a flourish. He pulled a large loop of rope off his shoulders and went to work tying a knot to the thick railing. The MAJ could imagine the royal marine whistling some tune while he worked.  The knot was done in seconds. The MAJ checked it and gave it an experimental tug. Air Assault school had taught him the same knot, and the CSGT had done it flawlessly.

“I hope you know how to repel?” The MAJ turned to Cuthbert, Dr. Shaw, and Captain Tanaka. The soldiers had harnesses built into their armor, but the others didn’t.

“Can’t we just take the stairs?” Shaw looked over the edge and her face paled a little.

It was covered in grime from walking through the cloud of dust from the grenades, but he could still make out some freckles.  Her blonde hair had a gray tinge to it now, but her eyes were determined, and she swept her hair back in her hands and started to tie it up with a small band. The Japanese officer didn’t have any difficulties with her chin-length hair.

“No time.” The MAJ shook his head. “Dawson you go first and do your recon thing; then you ladies, followed by Cuthbert, and then Chambers. The LT and I will be the last to go. Now hurry!” He could already hear shouts and footsteps getting closer as the facility garrison probed the black smoke swirling in the hallway.

The MAJ gave one last look over the railing. It was about three stories to where the Chinese officer’s body lay spread-eagled on the ground in a growing pool of blood. He ignored the inconvenient landing he’d have in the near future and turned his attention to the hallway.

The two females took hold of the rope one by one and wrapped their legs around it. They didn’t have gloves, so they had to go down hand over hand while controlling their descent by putting pressure on the rope with their legs. It was slow going, but once they got down the soldiers would be able to haul ass.

The MAJ and LT paid attention to the hallway during all of this. The black smoke spoofed IR and the normal mark-one eyeball. Millimeter wave radar wasn’t much better, but the MAJ didn’t think the garrison was as well-equipped as his team. They were going for quantity over quality, which was a theme the Commonwealth had seen throughout the war. The UK-US forces might inflict severe casualties on the enemy, but lost the battle because the Easterners overran them and accomplished their mission. The MAJ heard their Space Corps was doing much better, but for the grunts on the ground it was a constant pain in the ass.

The LT didn’t have to announce contact when the first of the enemy garrison emerged through the smoke. He just dropped the guy with two center-mass shots. The MAJ engaged his own targets. They divided their field of fire easily. He took the right side of the hallway and the LT took the left. They took their time and moved methodically from target to target until a small mountain of bodies blocked anyone from passing.

“I’m heading down.” The CSGT tapped the MAJ on the shoulder.

Carabiners could be heard snapping into place and then the hiss of the CSGT fast roping down to the bottom. The soldiers didn’t have to go down hand over hand. They just needed to apply pressure to the rope by tugging it taut behind their back when they got close to the ground and physics stopped them.

“Moving.” The LT announced as he peeled away from the doorway. It was a given that the MAJ would be the last man down.

The MAJ gave it a ten-count after he heard the LT started repelling before turning and hurriedly attaching and feeding the rope through his harness. He made sure to do it off to the side so he wasn’t an easy target for the enemy, but he’d eventually have to step into the open to make the drop. He took two deep breaths, rushed into the open, and jumped over the edge. Right before he cleared the railing he saw two metallic balls heading in his direction.

The enemy had finally taken a page from their playbook.

“Grenade!” The MAJ didn’t bother putting any pressure on the rope and dropped as fast as possible.

The grenade detonated with two ear-splitting BOOMS. The MAJ and the team were down and far enough away to be out of the kill zone, but the sound bounced around the stairwell and amplified it. The women and Cuthbert winced in agony as their eardrums were assaulted, but the soldiers’ helmets protected them.

The one thing that wasn’t protected was the rope.

The MAJ felt it start to give and immediately hit the brakes. He came to a relative stop eight or so feet off the ground before it snapped and he fell. He hit the ground with his feet together, knees bent, and immediately went into a parachute landing fall. The PLF was a technique taught in Airborne School on how to properly land, and it worked in this situation.

He pitched to the side when he landed, collapsing and twisting so he took the brunt of the landing on his five points of contact: balls of the feet, heels of the feet, thighs, ass, and shoulder. Instead of breaking his ankle on the fall, the MAJ went through the practiced roll and popped back to his feet. The most painful part of the experience was his M18 jamming into his kidney, but he’d live.

“Let’s move.”  He pointed down the only way they could go.

“The vault is just up here.” Cuthbert informed.

Sure enough, a big steel door sat at the end of an undefended hallway. The problem was that it was locked.

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The First Shot – Part 1

Major Thomas Ward, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment

Location: Classified Facility between Dongfanghongcun, China and Khabarovsk, Russia, The Eastern Block, 2141 CE

 SATELLITE STATUS . . . CONNECTING . . . CONNECTING . . . FAILURE

SECONDARY SUBROUTINE INITIATING . . . SEARCHING FOR SIGNAL

SIGNAL ACQUIRED . . . REROUTING . . . CWS GERALD FORD . . . CONNECTING . . . CONNECTING . . . SUCCESSFUL CONNECTION

Major Thomas Ward didn’t even notice the connection as a flurry of bullets turned the concrete above his head into tiny shrapnel missiles. He ducked low and ran while using what was left of the steel-reinforced wall as cover. It was a difficult task for a man six and a half feet tall and weighing nearly three hundred pounds with his armor on, but he made it happen. He dove the last five feet like a ballplayer sliding into home base. He landed in a jumbled heap and nearly lost his rifle, but he was alive.

“Where the fuck is my god damned air support?!” His deep baritone cut through the fog of war. “Wilson? Captain Wilson, do you copy?!”

“Captain Wilson got his arse blown off by a grenade twenty minutes ago, Sir.” A man slammed hard into the wall next to the MAJ back-first.

“Shit!” The MAJ got to his feet, pivoted around into the open doorway and let loose with a five-shot burst of energy particles.

He caught two soldiers in the brown and beige camouflage of the Eastern Block’s local defense force. The high-powered laser melted and cut through the ballistic weave of their body armor to create giant, blackened holes of super-heated bodily fluids and organs.

The two men died with a gargle in their throats, as the three men behind them jumped back behind cover.

“Die you slanty-eyed bastards!” The man next to the MAJ poured more fire onto the enemy’s position, but his rounds were traditional bullets.

“Colour Sergeant!” A third man joined them at their impromptu defensive position. “I don’t believe they liked being called that.”

“My apologies, Lieutenant, but what are they going to do; try and kill me?”

Despite the dire situation the three soldiers found themselves in, they couldn’t help but laugh at the off-color joke. What was a little casual racism when you were fighting to the death.

Speaking of death, “GRENADE!” MAJ Ward saw the gleaming steel ball flying through the door.

With impossibly quick reflexes he grabbed the ball out of the air, and tossed it sidearm back through the door. His little league coach would have been pissed at the poor form, but last the MAJ knew the guy was probably dead defending Alaska from the latest Russkie incursion.

The startled yell of the enemy was all the reassurance the MAJ needed before a loud BOOM ripped through the room. Without the noise-canceling effects of his helmet, his ears would have been ringing from tinnitus.

“Fall back!” He ordered as he pointed toward a door on the far side of the room. “If you’ve got any more demo, now’s the time to use it.”

“Roger that, Sir. Didn’t anyone tell you? The Royal Marines always come prepared.” The CSGT gave a smile visible through his own – slightly different helmet.

One by one they fell back into the next room, with the CSGT moving last while the MAJ and LT covered him. There were no sounds of pursuit, but that wouldn’t last long. All three men knew it, so they used their time wisely.

The MAJ unfastened his helmet and placed it on his knee. That freed up his teeth, which he used to rip open an airtight brown package that he removed from a pocket on his thigh. The scent of some pastry wafted out of the bag before he started to wolf it down.

“Major Ward, 2nd Battalion, 75th Rangers, US Army,” he said between bites.

“Colour Sergeant William McGee, 40 Commando, His Majesty’s Royal Marines.” The stout man took a seat.

The MAJ gave a nod and extended his non-pastry-holding hand to the NCO. In the US Army the CSGT would have been designated as a Sergeant First Class. It was a senior NCO position, which meant the guy should know his shit. From what the MAJ had seen so far, he looked like he knew what he was doing. McGee had close-cropped vividly-red hair when he removed his helmet. His eyes had the hard look of a man who’d seen plenty of action, and after years of this constantly escalating solar war who hadn’t.

The CSGT saw the MAJ looking, and ran his hand through his stubble with a grin. “A gift from my mum, the boys all call me fire-crotch.”

“That’s enough, Colour Sergeant.” The third member of the group spoke up, and the CSGT obliged. “Lieutenant Allen Thrumball, A Squadron 22 SAS. It’s a pleasure, Major.” The LT hadn’t taken a seat. He was alert and watching the door they’d come through.

“Likewise.” The MAJ shook the shorter LT’s hand.

The LT was thin compared to the MAJ and CSGT. The MAJ was built like an NFL linebacker – broad shoulders and a big-chested – just like the Rangers liked it. The CSGT didn’t look like he topped five-eight, but he was built like a boulder. If the MAJ needed someone to ram down a door then the CSGT was his man. The LT looked like the kind of man who could run all day and all night and never quit. He had a shrewd look in his eyes that said if he couldn’t run through something he’d go under, over, or around it, and as a last resort just blow the shit out of it. All it took was brief introductions to know that every man in this room was a highly-trained and lethal soldier.

It explained why they were here in the first place.

The mission they’d been given was simple. It was a high altitude drop out of a frigate heading up into low orbit. There were two ten-man teams: one from the US and the other from the UK. The two nations were the primary members in the fledgling United Commonwealth that had been established.

While the governments might have melded, the militaries had not. The MAJ didn’t blame the higher ups for being resistant to change. The MAJ’s Rangers and the LT’s Special Air Services had been around for two hundred years. The CSGT’s Royal Marines were several hundred years older than that. That was a lot of heritage and tradition to overcome in a few years. Still, they needed to overcome it. The war between the Commonwealth and the Eastern Block was constantly escalating. The whole solar system had a stake in the fight now.

MAJ Ward had been in charge of the US team, which was a mix of Rangers, Marine RECON, and a few SEALs. They’d dropped with the latest and greatest gear the most ingenious minds in the United States of America had to offer. The Armored Combat Suit of the Future was an integrated network of information sharing components that collected data and gave the soldier the information he needed to make tactical decisions. The three main parts were the M18 dual-action combat rifle, the two-tier body armor, and the helmet’s heads up display (HUD). The helmet protected the soldier from low-caliber impacts and the HUD filtered the information to the soldier and gave them options.

The two-tier armor was self-explanatory. There were two parts to protect the soldier from the growing threats of modern warfare. The first part was a ballistic weave that was capable of stopping objects traveling at formidable velocities. It still stung like a bitch to get shot, but it was better than having a round blow a chunk of your guts out an exit wound. The second tier was a layer of laminate plating to protect against energy blasts. The idea of the design was deflecting and dispersion of those particles. The plates were flexible enough to take the shockwave of hits to the ballistic weave above it, but they couldn’t take a direct hit without cracking, which was why there was a layer of weaving both below and above the plates. In total, the armor vest weighed around thirty-five pounds. Elbow and knee pads of the same materials added a little more to the total, but Ward wasn’t complaining. He’d taken more than one hit from the enemy and nothing had penetrated.

The last piece of the next-generation war fighting equipment was the M18. The dual-action rifle was a double barrel. One barrel fired Commonwealth-standard 7.62 rounds. Rumor what that they were working on upgrading to electromagnetically-propelled rounds – like the ones used by the warships – but the technology hadn’t been miniaturized yet. Any soldier you asked was fine with their current armament. They’d rather have something a little outdated that they could trust than something new and unreliable.

The second barrel was the tube for the laser. It was capable of twenty-five kilowatt bursts, which was about the average power usage of an entire home packed into a single bolt. After a few hundred shots, it needed to be recharged, but that could be done by plugging it into any electrical socket. Even solar recharge was possible if you had the time.

The UK soldiers – despite being from the same theoretical army as the Americans – wore the same armor, but had different rifles. Their own L96A1 fired the same ammunition and energy blasts, but it was a single barrel and required changing settings and ammunition. It had the advantage of being lighter than the M18, but it really depended on the soldier which one they preferred. The MAJ liked his M18 and the LT liked his L96A1. Both officers were pretty sure the CSGT didn’t care what he was shooting as long as it took down the enemy.

“Well, Sir.” The CSGT stated as he downed a full canteen of water. “This is a right proper clusterfuck if I’ve ever seen one. What’s the plan?”

The MAJ knew the CSGT had a point. They’d dropped into the LZ just fine, but then everything went to shit. Spoofed satellite imagery didn’t give them a clear picture of enemy forces on the ground. They ended up landing a quarter mile from the local militia’s headquarters. They had to fight their way through over a hundred men to reach their objective. The MAJ had seen at least two of his team fall in the battle. Then to make matters worse, they arrived at the objective to find nearly a full battalion tasked with guarding it. They were Chinese regulars, not some local defensive militia. That was when they’d been cut to pieces and dispersed into buddy teams to try and gain entry.

“The plan is to accomplish the mission, Sergeant. Our orders are to destroy this place and whatever the hell they were doing here, so that’s what we are going to do.”

The MAJ really would have liked to know what the hell they were doing at this facility, but that was need to know, and apparently the soldiers tasked with this operation didn’t need to know.

“I do have one question for you.” The MAJ continued. He’d been fighting long enough to know that “because I told you so” wasn’t a very motivating plan, and in their current state someone needed to ease the tension. “Why do you Brits pronounce lieutenant leftenant? That’s always bugged me.”

The CSGT cocked an eyebrow before barking out a short laugh. “Well that’s simple, Sir. Our superiors frown at us when we say they are a resident of a toilet.”

The LT shook his head, but had a smile on his face. The MAJ didn’t get it.

“One of our terms for the bathroom is loo, Sir.” The LT explained. “If you are a loo-tenant, then you reside in a bathroom.”

The MAJ just sat there for a second. “Is that really the fucking reason?”

“Hell if I know.” The CSGT shrugged.

The three soldiers would have continued their lively conversation if the door to an adjacent room didn’t burst open. Three new men in armor rushed into the room. The MAJ, LT, and CSGT had their rifles on the new team in a heartbeat, but the LT’s HUD lit up with blue friendly designations.

“Hold fire!” He yelled just as someone from the other group did as well.

Even in the digital age of warfare they’d all come within a hair of wasting each other.

The MAJ got to his feet and threw the brown pastry package on the ground. “Sound off.”

“Petty Officer Second Class Dustin Chambers, SEAL Team 3, US Navy.”

“Corporal Elijah Dawson, RECON, US Marines.”

“Sir Benjamin Cuthbert, His Majesty’s Secret Service.” The last man’s proclamation surprised everyone. The MAJ knew the PO2 and CPL.

“Where the hell have you been?” The MAJ waved his soldiers forward while the CSGT and the LT watched the two doors.

“Trying to fight our way through this hellhole, Sir.” The SEAL NCO shook his head. “I got a message out briefly before they jammed us up. We were supposed to have air support from a squadron of F-37s, but they aren’t freeing shit up from the invasion.”

The invasion was the reason there had been limited reconnaissance and preparation for their operation. Elements of the 3rd and 12th US Army Infantry Divisions, being supported by the Japanese Defense Force and Royal Navy, were trying to seize control of the key Russian naval base at Vladivostok. They would never hold it – they could never hold it – but destroying it would rob the Easterners of a critical North Pacific base and give the Japanese mainland some breathing room. It might even lead to breaking the blockade that had been starving the island nation for nearly a year.

It was why the Commonwealth commanders were throwing thirty thousand soldiers and dozens of warships at the vaunted base’s defenses. It was also where every member of this covert mission was supposed to be until they got reassigned. Not that it was much of a covert mission anymore.

Now, the MAJ wished he’d been tasked to help assault a heavily defended seaport instead of fighting for something he didn’t understand in a place he couldn’t pronounce.

He shut that thinking down immediately. He was a soldier and he would do his job no matter what the cost,

“Is anyone from the team left?” He feared the answer to the question.

“Not that I know of, Sir, and the radio is dark for everyone else.”

“So we’re it.” The MAJ walked back over to his helmet, picked it up, and snapped it back into place.

His HUD powered up as he regarded the five other men in the room. “We’re all that’s left. Let’s get it done.”

“I can be of assistance, Major.” The only man not in armor announced confidently. “I was undercover with a Russian emissary when I was captured. They’ve kept me prisoner in this lovely little spa for the last four months. I have a good layout of the facility in my head, and can point you to the objective.”

“How do you know what our objective is?” The LT asked from where he was covering the door.

“I was the man sent to discover whether or not it was here. It is,” the secret agent stated seriously, “and we need to destroy it.”

“Bloke doesn’t need to tell me twice.” The CSGT slapped his pocket where he kept his extra demo gear.

“Ok, let’s move out. Dawson you’re on point because you’re such a sneaky bastard.” That got a grin out of the Recon CPL. “Mr. Cuthbert, please tell him where to go and stay behind him to avoid getting shot. I don’t want to be searching this place when the rest of the enemy battalion gets their shit together.”

As if to emphasize the point a loud explosion shook the room and rained dust from the ceiling. The screams of the wounded and dying were only one room away.

Next

A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 24

“This is incredible, absolutely incredible.” The reporter was crouched behind a tree and kept ducking every few seconds as loud explosions or gunshots echoed all around her.

<You don’t have to tell me.> Seth was leaning forward with his eyes glued to the TV.

He’d participated in free-for-all battles in the HCP, and the amount of damage a bunch of teenage Supers could do was incredible. This jailbreak had hardened criminals fighting for their freedom while seasoned Heroes tried to rein them in.

“There goes another one.” A loud crack echoed from close by and she ducked. “We at WKYTV know that sound well. That’s Bender, a member of the Rocky Guard from Denver, and he just made us a little safer by taking out another one of these criminals.”

The reporter was smiling so widely that Seth was sure her jaw was going to be sore for a week. He tried to ignore the commentary and pay attention to the action. The reporter – at least she was cute – really wasn’t adept at covering something like this, and that was a shame because footage like this was never seen live.

Super battles were inherently destructive so the media tended to record from afar. Sometimes there were people embedded in the action, but they never showed it live. It was like war footage. Seth bet in a few months there would be an entire special aired showing everything leading up to and during the fight with some of this footage. The only difference would be that the major networks would edit out the newbie.

“Oh my god! Zoom in…zoom in!” She pestered the cameraman as she pointed forcefully at something in the opposite direction of Bender’s latest victim.

The picture blurred as the cameraman swiveled and had to go around the tree, but once it focused again Seth had a clear shot of the side of the building with several holes in it. There, he got a perfect view of Lilly stalking toward another figure.

“Holy shit!” Seth’s jaw dropped as Lilly and Mr. Morningstar engaged in an intense fight.

The reporter was chattering the whole time, but Seth ignored all of it. He studied the fight. Both of the fighters were extremely skilled. He’d been in the HCP long enough to see that. Lilly was quicker and stronger. She was able to bounce back from hits faster, and that would probably be the deciding factor. Mr. Morningstar was no slouch though, but he either wasn’t using his power or it wasn’t working. Sooner rather than later he began to lag, and Lilly exploited that.

“Hero and villain locked in a titanic battle for…” the reporter was spouting off meaningless dialogue when a Morningstar punched Lilly right in the face.

Seth winced at the sight, but it was quickly overtaken when a vicious roundhouse kick did some real damage. Even from the treeline, Seth could see the kick had hurt the Hero. Mr. Morningstar was cradling his arm to his chest. He tried in vain to stop the follow-on attacks, but Lilly’s fist seemed to blur she struck out so fast and caught the older Hero right in the throat.

“Oh no,” the smile fell from the reporter’s face as Morningstar fell to the ground. “Go to commercial or pan away you idiot.” She reached out and physically moved the camera, but not before Seth and millions of Americans saw Wraith pull a pistol and aim in at the fallen Hero.

“Bender! Over there!” The reporter must have seen the local Hero and pointed out the Hero in distress.

A big man came rushing over, slid on the ground, and practically shoved the reporter aside as he brought up a sleek, deadly looking rifle. The cameraman got a close-up view of the Hero doing his job, but that wasn’t what Seth was paying attention to.

His heart had leapt into his throat the moment he saw Mr. Morningstar go down, and he felt that heart breaking when he heard three shots echo through the TV.

<It could have been someone else. There is SWAT there and other Heroes.> He tried to convince himself that Lilly hadn’t gunned down the leader of the Protectorate. That she hadn’t just thrown the promise she made to him in the dirt and smashed it to pieces.

A resounding boom echoed through the TV as Bender took aim and fired. Somewhere in the back of his mind Seth already knew it was too late. Lilly had killed the Hero, and judging by the nasty looking rifle recoiling into the Hero’s shoulder, she might be dead too.

Something hard, sinking, and dark filled Seth’s gut. He felt like he was going to be sick. He rushed to the bathroom and emptied his stomach into the porcelain throne. He’d been mostly on a liquid courage diet lately, so it flowed out of him easily. It smelled like half-rotted asshole, and that made more come up. He retched three times before everything was out of him, but the darkness in his gut was still there sinking deeper and deeper into his soul.

Depression turned to anger. He lashed out. His fist smashed through the mirror above the sink and into the drywall behind it. Glass and blood went flying as it sliced through his fingers and split his knuckles. He ignored it all.

He just screamed. He screamed his lungs out. He tried to rid himself of everything pent up inside him, but it didn’t help. If anything, it made it worse. He didn’t remember what happened next. His mind went blank with anger and pain. When he finally came to he was standing in the hallway, he smelled smoke, and some guy was unconscious in front of him.

Seth looked behind him and saw flames licking at the sofa of his apartment. The smoke was growing and any second alarms would start wailing. His mind focused on the man in front of him. He vaguely recognized the man as the guy from the front desk. He needed to get him to safety.

He hoisted the man’s unconscious weight into a fireman’s carry and started toward the elevator. He was halfway down the hallway when the fire alarm went off. When Seth got to the elevator he wasn’t the only one trying to cram into the small space. He knew he shouldn’t be taking the elevator when the building was on fire, but he wasn’t going to carry the guy all the way down to the lobby by himself.

His mind started to drift back to the pain and anger of his situation as the elevator plodded along, but he forced it down by checking on the man. His pulse was strong and his breathing was regular, so there wasn’t any danger there. His jaw was clearly dislocated, so he was in for a long and uncomfortable recovery, but he would live.

A soft ding announced the elevator arriving at the destination, and it opened into a lobby full of activity. The fire department had already arrived. The apartment building was on the ritzy side, so they knew their response time needed to be quick. Half a dozen men in fire-resistant clothing ushered the group from the elevator outside where an ambulance and four cops were waiting.

“Shit, kid.” One of the cops helped Seth lower the unconscious man onto the stretcher and noticed all the blood on him. “What the hell happened to you?”

There was a large blank period in his memory, but Seth remembered what happened beforehand. “Glass.” He looked down at his blood covered hands and the multiple lacerations.

“Let’s clean you up.” The paramedic pulled Seth away from the cops and got to work bandaging his hands, while to firefighters went to work.

Thirty minutes later and the team that had gone upstairs came back downstairs with water dripping from their coats. “The fire is out,” they announced, “but no one is going to be able to go back in until the fire investigator and building inspector from the city come take a look and declare it structurally sound.”

That got a bunch of groans, but Seth wasn’t one of them. Sitting there getting bandaged and waiting for the fire to be put out had left him too much time to think. Melancholy had overwhelmed him.

“Do we have to wait here?” He asked the nearest cop. “I’ve got a study group,” he lied.

“After you give us your name and info you should be good to go. We’ll contact you if we have any questions.”

Ten minutes later Seth had given his information to the cops. He refused a ride to the hospital and instead jumped into his car and peeled out of the parking lot. He knew where he was going. Less than a few minutes later he was sitting behind a well-worn bar with his fake ID out and demanding the top-shelf stuff. A swipe of the credit card later and he was upending an expensive bottle of scotch to replace what he’d vomited out.

By the time he was halfway through that bottle his emotions had numbed to the point he didn’t want to lash out in anger. His bandaged hands didn’t hurt anymore either, so he couldn’t think of another place to spend his time.

<Is she dead?>

<Are we done?>

<How can I ever trust her again?>

The questions that had been rattling around in his mind were silenced with every successive shot until he wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

 

***

 

“Isla are you coming or not?”

Izzy sat on the couch with her face glued to the TV. One of the greatest Super battles of the year, possibly this decade, was happening right in front of them and all Marcy wanted to do was head straight to the club so she didn’t miss dollar-shot hour.

“Isla?” Marcy put her hand on her hip and gave her a pointed look.

Marcy was model thin, with model good looks, and model tastes. Her straight blonde hair was done up in a way that made it a little exotic and crazy. Her mini-skirt showed off plenty of toned, tan leg, and her top was tight enough to show off her modest bust. Half the time Izzy didn’t even think the girl needed her power.

Marcy manipulated pheromones, so she could make people do a lot of things for her; including letting the bouncers let her in underage without the cover charge. She was nice enough – a little spoiled maybe – but Izzy didn’t mind her as a roommate. What she did mind, was her as an HCP classmate. In Izzy’s opinion, the beautiful blonde did not have what it took to be a Hero. She didn’t know if it was Marcy’s upbringing or the way her power worked, but the girl was lazy. She always got everything she wanted – even some truly ridiculous things – and because of that she’d never learned the value of hard work. For someone who’d had to claw their way to get where they were it wasn’t an attractive look.

Izzy predicted she’d end up walking a runway or married to some sugar daddy, but Marcy would not be a Hero.

“Isla, focus?” Marcy snapped her fingers.

“No I’m not coming.” Izzy shook her head and kept her eyes on the TV.

The parties that Marcy did drag her to were pretty awesome. She’d give the blonde the credit she deserved. The bikini party at the sorority had been a lot of fun even before Seth jumped over the fence.

“Oh my god he’s so cute.”

“You know that guy?”

“Please tell me you have his number and are going to ride that.” The comments she got when she returned from her short conversation ranged from flattering to wildly inappropriate, and made her the life of the party for ten minutes.

Izzy didn’t think Marcy liked that and might have even used her power to bring the party back on course. Izzy didn’t mind, she had other things on her mind. As the TV showed the breaking news coverage of the Super brawl, he came to mind again.

She’d tried to give Seth some space. Sure she liked him. She wasn’t sure if it was the wounded puppy look, bad boy attitude, or him being an older, more experienced HCP student. If she was being honest with herself, she’d never been good at picking guys.

<If you never try then you’ll never know.> That was her motto and it made her smile.

That smile vanished when the screen showed a girl in black fighting to the death with a man Izzy recognized from local news coverage in Orlando.

“Oh no…pan away or go to commercial you idiot.” The reporter hissed as Wraith knocked Mr. Morningstar to the ground and pulled out a gun.

Even though the camera guy looked away it didn’t stop the mikes from picking up the sound of the three gunshots closely followed by a much louder boom. Her hands shot to her mouth out of shock and fear.

<He warned you.> Her mind told her as she remembered the conversation they’d had in the dining hall. <He told it to you straight and you didn’t really believe him.> Hearing it from Seth and seeing Wraith shoot a Hero in cold blood were two totally different things, and they put everything into perspective.

<What am I doing here?> She looked around and asked herself.

In front of her were a half empty pizza box and a two liter of soda. She hadn’t eaten the whole thing herself, and her HCP workouts didn’t make her too worried about gaining unwanted weight, but they underplayed something so much more.

<I need to be training. I need to get better. I can’t be pigging out and going to the club every weekend. There are villains like Wraith out there who are going to put a target on my back. I need to be ready.> She didn’t want to think that they could come for her at any moment, but she’d be lying if she said that thought wasn’t in the back of her mind.

Despite all of that, some things needed to come first. She fished around in the seat cushions and found her phone. It rang and rang and rang but no one picked up on the other end. She hung up and tried again, but only got the same result.

<Plan B.> She signed onto social media and searched for his profile.

Like a lot of teenagers in today’s world Seth had social media accounts. He hadn’t used them much since graduating high school, and hadn’t posted anything new for months, but he still had them. He also made some of the same mistakes as most kids. He left his geo-positioning software open for some of the apps. That way they could track his location and give him better deals or recommendations on whatever.

Izzy had learned to navigate these features while in the orphanages. They had kids run away sometimes, and she was the person who would find them. They never got far, because no matter how angry or sad the kid was they always took their phone with them, so she could always find them. Now, she was taking those tricks and finding Seth.

“Gotcha,” she whispered even though she was the only person home.

She used another app to call an Uber because the person she would have called for a ride was Seth. Whatever she wanted to think about the man’s attitude, he was pretty generous with his car.

<I need to get dressed.> she was dressed in a baggy t-shirt and sweats. That was fine for a night eating pizza at home, but not for going out to a bar. At a minimum she needed to look like an adult so they’d let her in.

Fifteen minutes later she was dressed to slay bouncers and her Uber was here. The middle-aged driver ogled her a little, but she didn’t pay him any attention. She had to focus on what she was walking into.

There was a line outside when she arrived, so she did what Marcy would have done. She walked right past the line and up to the bouncer. She held out a twenty between two of her fingers, thrust out her chest, and cocked her hip out so her could admire her curves. The man gave her a once over, took the twenty, and waved her in without even glancing at her ID.

<So easy.> She walked through the door and was immediately assaulted by the beer and BO.

There was a reason the guy had let her in so easily. This was a sausage fest. The girl to guy ratio was shit. She ignored the heads that rotated after her, and had to fight the urge to activate her power. Her shimmer protective energy would keep anyone from grabbing her ass, but it would also get her thrown out of the HCP. There weren’t many good solutions.

“Hey there cutie. You a spinner?”

<Here we go.> Izzy sighed.

She spun and grabbed the guy’s wrist that was reaching for her. A little twist and pull and she had it securely in a lock.

“AH fuck.” The guy fell to his knees when she put a little pressure into the hold. It wouldn’t take a lot to break it.

“Apologize to me,” she stated flatly. “Now.”

“Geez, ok..ok…I’m sorry. It was a compliment,” he relented after a little more pressure.

“Think of a better compliment.” She released his wrist and the man immediately retreated back to a group of his friends.

No one else gave her any trouble as she approached the bar. <Thank you, Coach Meyers.>

She really needed to pay as much attention to the alternative instructor as possible. That trick she’d taught them had worked like a charm. She’d called the impromptu class Douchebag Repellent 101, and with hindsight being twenty-twenty the name was perfect.

There weren’t many seats open at the bar, but two on either side of Seth were vacant. The broad spectrum elemental manipulator was giving off a not-so-subtle fuck off vibe. Then there was the tower of shot glasses he’d stacked in a wall around himself.

<Shit.> He was drunk…really drunk.

She took a seat next to him and he didn’t even notice. The bartender did. The worry on her face must have given her away.

“Do you know this guy?” He cocked his head in Seth’s direction.

“Yeah. Has he been any trouble?”

“Not as long as I keep serving him. I tried to stop once, but the look he gave me…” The bartender shuddered at the memory. “Just…will you please get him out of here. He’s going to get alcohol poisoning soon. I’m actually pretty impressed he’s still conscious.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Izzy wanted to order a drink but thought twice about it.

“Oh…and his phone has been ringing off the hook.” The bartender left with those final words of wisdom.

Slowly, glass by glass, she started to deconstruct the wall Seth built around himself. She’d started a commotion behind him, and talked with the bartender while sitting next to him, but it was only when she touched his booze-wall that he finally noticed her.

He turned to face her, and she had to bite her lip. His eyes were droopy, unfocused, and bloodshot. She hadn’t noticed it until now but there was an acrid smell to him that she couldn’t place. He clearly had trouble controlling his movements, because he knocked over some of his wall when he turned to face her.

Glass falling to the ground and shattering drew attention, but people’s attention didn’t linger. In their minds it was just another drunk idiot.

“Heeeeeeeey.” The one good thing so far was he smiled when he saw her. “How’re they hangin’, Iz?”

“Come on, Seth. Let’s get you home.”

“Whooooa. Already trying to get me back to my place eh? You got to buy me a drink first pretty lady.”

She blushed slightly at the pretty lady part, but knew she could use his addled brain to her advantage. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s have that drink at your place.”

“Sorry…nope…can’t.” Seth got irrationally loud, and earned some irritated looks from the people around them. “Place burned down…poof.” He did a hand gesture that she couldn’t follow.

“What?” was the only logical response to Seth’s incoherent thought process.

“Fire…” he held up a finger and a small flame flickered to life.

“Seth!” She hissed and quickly covered it with her hand. That was a bad idea. “AH shit!” the flame burned her palm and she jerked back wagging it back and forth to try and cool it. “Can I get some ice!” she yelled to the bartender.

“Shhhhh.” He held up a finger to his lips and a stupid grin spread across his lips.

“Ok, we need to go.” Irritation replaced worry as she accepted some ice and placed it against her tender flesh.

“You’re pretty.” In typical drunk person fashion he quickly changed topics. “You’ve got nice hair.” He reached for her hair and she slapped his hand away. “Your face is hoooot.” He tried again and was rebuffed.

She half carried, half dragged him to the door and called another Uber with her free hand.

“Ok.” He held out his arms in a stopping motion when they reached the curb. He swayed on his feet. “We can do it, but we’ve got to go to your place. Remember fire.” Thankfully, he didn’t conjure fire in front of everyone waiting in line to get into the bar.

“The only thing we’re doing is getting you hydrated and to sleep,” she stated forcefully as she waved down the approaching Uber.

“But the sex…?”

“I doubt you could even get it up.” She shot back, and got a few snickers from the peanut gallery.

“But…” he pulled his phone out of his pocket and immediately dropped it.

“I’ve got it.” She waved him off. The last thing she wanted him to do was face plant.

She plucked the phone up off the ground. Lights were blinking on it indicating voicemails and text messages. Seth was too busy trying to get himself into the Uber so she opened up his main screen and checked in.

The texts were from his friends asking where he was and if he was ok. They must have seen the same thing that she had. She shot a quick text to Becca saying that she’d picked up Seth at the bar and was taking back to her place to get him to sleep. She wrote SLEEP in bold and all caps. Then she moved on to the voicemails.

She had to pry his passcode out of him, but she finally got it. The first two messages were form his friends again asking the same things they had in the texts. She deleted those.

Then she listened to the third one. Her face paled as she listened to the recorded voice of the detective.

“Seth.”

“Wha…” he’d finally maneuvered himself into the car and had his eyes closed.

“We’ve got to make a stop on the way home.”

That was as far as she got before Seth blew chunks all over the backseat of the car.

Previous                                                                           Next

I’m on TDY from Hell – The Lineup

The deathblow was quick and clean. The dagger of Divine Steel easily sliced through Maria’s chest and into the stone alter below it. It cut her heart in two, and ended her life. She did not suffer. It had to be quick. The healing powers of angels were well documented throughout history, and that was the last thing the Infernals wanted to deal with.

Her chest deflated as her last breath escaped her. Her eyes were still wide with fear, but they were now glazed with death, and slowly the smell of fresh shit drifted outward. Death was not pretty.

Gerry had seen a million deaths over a dozen lifetimes, but he had never seen a mother loose her child. Lucifer’s comment had fileted Ava raw. It was written all over her face.

“No.” Her denial came out as a whisper as her sword clattered to the floor and she fell to her knees. “My baby.” Tear started to stream down her beautiful face, and he had to look away.

It wasn’t hard to find something else to occupy his attention. The power conduits his lieutenants had warded into the floor around the alter were glowing a brilliant gold now. It was nothing like the angel’s radiance, but it was strong enough to state that something was happening. They grew brighter and brighter as he felt the ætherial shift from Maria’s death.

The intensity reached its apex and the power of the Nephilim multiplied by the sacrificial ceremony unleashed itself. Outwardly, nothing happened to the world. The squad of angels still stood around their leader looking slightly confused about what was happening. Gerry and his lieutenants stood around their leader with only slightly more insight into what was happening, and Lucifer and Seere stood next to the alter glowing with power.

Then everything shifted. The æther wobbled like it had been struck a mighty blow. It strained against something, flexed, and then strained again. Gerry felt like he was sitting in the middle of an unnatural disaster. It was like someone had just opened a window in the middle of a hurricane. The æther battered back and forth, and only those sensitive enough to see it even knew something was happening.

There was a deepness to the event that Gerry had trouble identifying. It was like he was back in the Carver’s dungeon with Prince Seere completing the ritual to transform him into a Dux. He felt like he was at the opening of a precipice. Underneath him an ætherial nuclear bomb had just exploded and he was only experiencing a fraction of the shockwave. He didn’t possess the skill to look any further, and he didn’t want to.

He just needed to concentrate on what was right in front of his eyes. Both Lucifer and Seere’s eye were alight with something foreign to Hell: complete and utter joy. An incomprehensible amount of æther was swirling around and into them. The angels saw that just as clearly as Gerry, and they back away in fear. Except for one.

“Now! Before it is too late.” He leapt toward them, passing where Ava was nearly catatonic on her knees.

The halo around the angelic soldier blazed with Divine power. There was a flash of steel as he brought his sword up for a killing blow. His target was Lucifer, The Morning Star.

The world was blotted out by an intense light. Gerry grimaced as he shut his eyes tight and threw his hands over them. It didn’t do much to help. The odd gold-white light seemed to penetrate and fill everything. Slowly, the world returned as his eyes healed. He blinked rapidly to clear the gold-white stars dancing across his vision, and when he did the angel was nowhere to be seen. The wall behind him had been freshly decorated. It was not painted in the soldier’s blood and guts. There was a black scorch mark on the wall. Angel wings were fully splayed out in what would have made a fantastic charcoal painting, and it was made even better since it signified they had one less opponent to face.

Lucifer and Seere hadn’t even moved. They both stood transfixed on the spot soaking in the power of the ceremony while the ætherial fabric of the universe continued to roil beneath them.

 

***

 

Ava was numb. The world had fallen away under her feet. She’d thought she could get there in time before her heart broke again. She’d felt the death of her son. She’d felt him die. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know who was to blame, but she was going to bring Divine justice down on them.

She’d marshalled her forces as she fought through the pain and led them to the location of Gabriel’s demise. What she found was not what she’d expected. She couldn’t see anything as she hovered over the school complex. The lights were on around the gym, but she couldn’t sense anything going on within.

It hadn’t been a leap to suspect wards were at play.

“We go in hard and fast.” She told her soldiers as they unsheathed their swords and started to glow as they summoned more of their Divine essence.

She would take care of the roof. She summoned her own power. Her glow overshadowed all of her soldiers combined. With a grunt she grabbed the æther in the roof and pulled. There was a concussive blast as matter sought to fill the void she’d just created, but they now had a point to assault whatever was happening.

That began the worst moment of Ava’s life: two children gone in one night, two Lords of Hell invading Eden, and the unleashing of an ancient power she hadn’t seen since her Father’s victory that secured them Eden in the first place.

It didn’t help that it was the Father of Lies and The Great Dissenter that she was facing. There was no chance of negotiations. She simply couldn’t trust the two former angels.

Ava didn’t think things could get any worse until she turned her attention to the lesser players. Victoria – the Soulless Maria had been hunting – was there. She was looking half in awe and half terrified at what she was seeing. Most of the others filled with Infernal-tainted æther she didn’t recognize, but she committed them to memory. As a Dominion she was supposed to impartially govern her territory, but she had special plans to send those creatures back to Hell.

There was one face that she did recognize and she had to fight back the crushing guilt when she saw him staring up at The Great Dissenter with admiration and fealty.

<The martial magician.> As if on cue, the man turned and locked eyes with her.

It was clear now he was Infernal, and judging by his greater size and proximity to the Infernal Lords, he was likely someone important. Despite that, his look wasn’t hateful. He wasn’t sneering at her like a conquering army at their prey. If anything there was a hint of pity in his eyes as they met hers.

She ignored it. Even if he did feel bad that didn’t change anything. He’d help kill her daughter. They’d all have to pay.

“Now! Before it is too late!”

Her head whipped around as Lucas took the initiative. Her inaction had led to his seizing the initiative. She encouraged that in her subordinates. <If you see and opportunity than take it,> was what she always said.

The problem was that Lucas misjudged the swirling æther around the Infernal Lords as a weakness. It was the exact opposite. She opened her mouth to yell at her comrade in arms, but it was already too late. The Morningstar’s hand was already raised and pointing at the charging angel. All Ava could do was squeeze her eyes shut and turn her head.

It didn’t help much as the Father of Lies energy blast scorched Lucas from this plane of existence. She felt the heat of the beam blast past her. If not for her armor of Divine Steel her pale skin would be fire-engine red. She hoped there was enough of his æther left to reconstitute him in heaven, but she doubted it.

She’d felt Lucas shredded by the insane power of the former Seraphim. The reminder of Lucifer’s power was a wakeup call to the turbulent emotions churning inside her. She was powerful, the most powerful angel in the area, but she wasn’t a match for the Lords of Hell. The traitor Gerry, and his band of goons she and her soldiers could deal with, but she needed backup if she wanted Charlotte to come out of this fight as anything more than a smoking crater.

The scorching of her retinas began to heal quickly once the blast ended. She didn’t bother to look behind her where Lucas’ scorched remains were on full display. Instead, she bent her head, prayed, and made a call she wished she would never have to in her life.

She was finished by the time the two Infernal Lords lowered their arms. The ætherial aura around them was beginning to fade as they did what they wanted with their new power, but it was replaced by confident grins.

“It is done.” The Great Dissenter breathed in deeply and exhaled.

Reality swirled as he exhaled, and Ava shuddered.

“Now, what to do with you?” The Father of Lies turned his attention on Ava and her squad.

Backup arrived just on time. A comet of bright light shot across the sky and landed next to Ava, fracturing the floor, and jostling the group of angels.

“You called.”  Emmanuel, the Dominion of Charleston, lifted the visor of his helmet.

The other Dominion stood thirty feet tall – towering above everyone in the room. He was clad from head to foot in gleaming Divine Steel, and his curved cavalry saber seemed to vibrate with its blade honed to a molecular level.

“Splendid!” A man next to Gerry clapped his hands with a prideful smile on his face. “I have been waiting decades to place my blade in your heart, Emmanuel.”

Recognition flashed in the other Dominion’s eyes. “Today only one of us will walk away from here, Lucian.”

The Great Dissenter snorted and shared a look with the Father of Lies. “Today, none of you will walk away from here.”

Ava matched his smile with one of her own. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”

She had dismantled matter with her arrival, and Emmanuel had shattered the floor with a flamboyant landing. Both were meant to demonstrate the breadth of their power to their enemies. The next arrival didn’t need to do any such thing.

She simply appeared between Ava and Emmanuel and eclipsed their meager abilities. Ava had trouble comprehending her sheer power, and she thanked her Father that they were on the same side.

The Great Dissenter squinted with displeasure, and The Father of Lies gave an exaggerated huff.

“Hello, Uriel. Long time no see.”

The archangel in charge of the protection of the United States of America looked at the scene with precision. She was a mountain of strength in this churning shitstorm, but even she looked cautious.

“Lucifer, Seere.”

“What, no titles sister?” Lucifer puffed out his chest and swept the archangel a bow. “Uriel Keeper of the Flaming Orb, welcome to our little get together.”

Uriel’s face was passive as she continued to survey the scene. “You are trespassing in our Father’s garden.”

“It isn’t his.” Seere spat. “He took it from its true creator, and turned it into his little soul factory.”

“It is his, brother,” Uriel said forcefully. “Your failed rebellion already showed your inadequacy against his might.”

“That was then, this is now.” Lucifer shrugged. “Are you really prepared to do this?” He spread his arms in invitation. “Many of your precious humans will perish.”

“We have means to mitigate that.” In response to her statement armor started to crawl up the archangel’s dark flesh.

It wasn’t as blocky as the Dominions’ armor. There was more fluidity to it, but one look at the æther showed it was stronger. Lastly, a spear appeared in her hand with a golden orb fixed below the blade. Both Lords of Hell gave the orb a concerned look but nothing more. Ava could tell they were still confident in their chances.

“Very well.” There was a flash of light and Seere stood before them with bloodstained wings, scorched eye socket, and great broadsword. He wasn’t as tall at Emmanuel, but he’d shed his human form for the time being. His armor fell somewhere between the Dominions’ and Uriel, and it swirled with Infernal energy.

“As you wish.” Lucifer grinned and another flash of gold-white light blinded everyone.

Ava gasped as the Father of Lies rose out of the transformation. Unlike the polished silver of the Divine Steel, Lucifer’s had inlaid gold and angelic writing carved into the seams. It went to reason that the carvings would have compromised the integrity of the armor, but a look at the æther contradicted that. If anything the runes inscribed on the fallen angel made his armor stronger and more powerful than Uriel’s.

Unlike the rest of the combatants, his helmet was on and his golden wings were splayed out behind him. With all the large angels gathered together it was getting a bit crowded in the gym. The wings pulsed with æther, but what really caught everyone’s attention was the single slit in his helmet. There was nothing but glowing gold-white light behind it.

Uriel repositioned her spear with the blade toward the two Lords of Hell. Ava thought she imagined it, but she swore she could see indecision pass across her superior’s face.

<Impossible.> Uriel was known for being the most pragmatic of the archangels. She would never waver from doing what was right.

You could have cut the tension in the room with a spoon, but it was a soft clicking sound that finally did it. It didn’t come from either side. It came from the men’s locker room. It was comical to watch all eyes swivel to the door between their two sides, but the levity of the situation ended there.

An old man with a stooped back and a cane gingerly opened the door and stepped out in between the two opposing forces. Ava thought it was some senile old man with a death wish. She almost ordered one of her soldier to spirit the man to safety, but then he raised his head and looked at them.

His eyes told them everything.

Uriel hissed and got into a crouched fighting position with her spear pointed at the new threat. Ava almost did the same, but kept her eyes on Lucifer and Seere. They were no longer the greatest threat, but they still thought they could defeat the forces of good arrayed against them.

“Satan.” Uriel hissed as her spear shook slightly in her trembling hands.

“Sister.” He disregarded her completely and looked at Lucifer and Seere.

To their credit, the two Lords didn’t look too abashed under the King of Hell’s gaze.

“A round of applause for you two.” He lifted the hand holding his cane and clapped three brisk claps. “I’ve been searching for that seal for a long time, but no matter.” He replaced the cane on the ground and took a deep breath. “You’ve weakened the veil enough for me to break through. It is crumbling even as we speak.”

True fear crossed Uriel’s face, and that was when Ava knew avenging her murdered daughter was the least of her problems.

“Soon our armies will meet on the real field of battle, so I leave the decision up to you, Sister.” Satan regarded Uriel. “Die now or die later.”

Uriel hissed again, but didn’t answer. Her orb was glowing so brightly it looked like it was about to explode, but it didn’t, and it was a good thing, because right when things seemed the most hopeless the door to the women’s locker room opened.

“Sorry I’m late.” A man stepped out and regarded everyone.

He had flowing white hair, a great bushy beard, and kind blue eyes. He was the spitting image of Santa Clause if Santa was jacked beyond belief and looked like he could snap your spine with his pinky finger. His face was considerably less jolly as he surveyed the room, and those kind eyes hardened into ice.

“Come on!” Lucifer wings shivered with irritation as the new man stepped up next to Satan.

They were within a few feet of each other, but neither looked uncomfortable with the other’s presence.

“Michael.” Satan gave the new arrival a respectful bow.

“Brother.” Michael returned the bow. “Father sent me.”

Satan’s eyes narrowed at the comment, and he turned to face the commanding archangel of their Father’s Divine Host.

They were quite a contrast. Satan looked old and feeble while Michael shone with health and virility. Of course the outward human appearances meant nothing. This was the Commander of the Host versus the Captain of the Seraphim Guard: the two most powerful of their Father’s creations facing off against each other. The only thing more powerful or destructive would be their Father himself facing one of the other Primordial Beings of creation.

“Father wishes for you to return to your realm, to leave Eden be, and to avoid any further bloodshed.” Michael delivered the demands with the confidence of commanding the most powerful army in existence.

“Those are the demands of a tyrant, Brother.” Satan answered calmly. “He wants no one to challenge his rule or to be free to make their own choices. Don’t you remember how this all started,” Satan pointed at Seere and Lucifer. “A simple case with a simple premise. Why can’t we, his angels, make our own decisions?” He looked back at Michael. “When he got a displeasing ruling he cut out the judge’s eye and stripped him of his authority. If you ask me, that sounds pretty tyrannical to me.”

“Don’t try to twist the issue, Brother.” Michael countered. “You’ve always craved power. You’ve never been content with being Father’s right hand. You needed to be God. That is what this is all about. You’re quest for power,” he gestured at Lucifer and Seere, “and you took many of our brothers and sisters with you into the Pit when you failed.”

The two ætherial beings stared at one another for several tense seconds.

“I see that we will not come to an agreement.” Michael looked genuinely sad.

“I agree.” To everyone’s surprise Satan shared the sentiment.

“May the best man win, Brother.” The two men shook hands and walked to join their respective sides.

<The King of Hell, The Father of Lies, The Great Dissenter, two Infernal Duxs, four Infernal lieutenants, and half a dozen Soulless against our Father’s Champion Michael, Uriel, me, Emmanuel, and my eight remaining guardians.> Ava couldn’t tell if those were good or bad odds. All she knew was that she feared for her life, for the people of Charlotte, and for every human soul in existence.

She couldn’t characterize it any other way. The Apocalypse was here, and it was about to kick off with a bang.

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