The First Age

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Aria could feel the curiosity emanating from Michael. It was a talent almost as unbelievable as wielding the power of the gods as Michale did unless you saw it with your own eyes. He was not the first to question her ability, nor to ask for a demonstration. It seemed she was now also a 'side show freak' asked to perform on someone else's whim.

Aria nodded, "I'd prefer if you were unarmed. As much as a man like yourself could be. I'd prefer not to be shot for doing as I'm asked."

It wasn't the first time she'd done this, everyone always wanted a demonstration, and fear was by far the most common emotion to manipulate, though she could easily enhance the man's underlying anger, he always seemed angry, but that would only disturb an already sleeping beast. That didn't sound safe, not really. Fear would have to be it. Everyone was afraid of something, most fear could cower a man, she smiled inwardly remembering the prose that Father Stone had given when he'd thought to manhandle her person. He'd regretted that movement from then on out. If she hadn't been interrupted...

Aria shook her head to bring her thoughts back to the present, getting lost in the dark places was never a good thing when amongst friends, even dangerous and unknown friends like this one. Michael had proven to be at least an ally, a friend was yet to be seen.

"My ability requires touch."
It was only a cursory warning as she put her hand on his. It was not an intimate touch, but she clung to his hand and fed him fear. It wasn't as potent as it could have been, more like she was sharing with Michael, akin to what she'd done with Lucas the first time they'd met, Or Nox. Nothing nearly as bad as what she'd sent to Father Stone or the reporter. Aria had to fight with herself to stop the desire to make Michael cower before her. It was a fight she was determined to win, unlike the battle when she demonstrated for Ascendancy; she'd not cared about the target, this one she preferred to keep alive.
Michael raised his arms to signal he did not have any conventional weapons on his person. He never did. The only defence outside of his own power was a bullet-proof vest he usually wore underneath his clothing, but he had not worn it since entering the Facility.

It seemed like Aria had come a long way since their last meeting. She barely hesitated, although she knew the risk. In fact, it was probably worse for an Atharim. The imagination was always far more terrifying than the truth, and it seemed the Atharim had a very lively image of the terror their Gods could induce.

As Aria's last words touched his ears just as her hand touched his, the spark in the depths of his mind flared and twisted into an oozing morass.

Instinct made him pull away, but Aria's words rung in his muddied mind loud enough for him to tighten the grip between them before he sunk into an ocean of dread.

Fear... He had almost forgotten the feeling, but his mind began to crumble against the barrage. Like a distant memory returned with twice the force his heart thumped in its cage, shying away from the flood that sought to consume it.

Images assaulted him, scenes he had long since hid away. Blood dripping from the corpse of a monster. Man fading to deadly mist. Faceless assassins with eyes of zealous hatred. A young woman's face spattered with blood floating above him.

No! Not that. Anything but that! He would not suffer that again!

He gripped his chest with his free hand, the other squeezing tighter still.

His vision was lost in a maze of terror his mind wrought. Her face faded in and out as featureless as a blank canvass, but it remained. It always remained.

And he knew. From the darkness in his heart, he knew.

Something besides terror swelled, another spark emerged from the fear that swallowed everything.

"Never again. Never. Never."
he whispered like it was a charm that warded away danger.

Droplets of sweat ran down his temples mirroring the blood that etched itself in his mind.Michael closed his eyes to the world before him, leaving only darkness. And her.

Until night everlasting, beyond the veil of dreams and reality, never. Never again.

The flood receded before the swell of a greater force that shone with the strength of the sun. The hand on his chest dropped.

Michael opened his eyes and saw Aria clearly.

He smiled, icy but true. He did not release her hand, but his grip loosened. He stood on the precipice of grasping the Ascendant power but the desire faded with the fear. "I have not felt that in a long time. Your demonstration is appreciated."

Edited by Michael Vellas, Jun 17 2015, 10:20 AM.
Aria watched Michael through her own fog and fight. She fought to keep from overpowering him, from keeping the brunt of the power at bay. His fear was intoxicating, it called her name with a sweet caress of a lover and she had to close her eyes.

Michale squeezed her hand tighter, his fears whatever they were, did not push past the concept of ending his test of her ability. Time under the influence passes differently, Aria didn't have a concept of time while falling down her own personal rabbit hole, or even fighting the drop into darkness. And in that space of time Michael broke her grip over him. The fear faded into courage, determination. The will to not feel fear. Fear would not control the man before her no longer.

It was a good fact to know, and it might never again work now that he knew what she could do. Not that Aria needed to control such a man when one sat so close at hand ready and willing to help her without too much explanation. There was no need to control Nox, he was ready to fight beside her against monsters, even against Ascendancy himself if it came down to it. Thankfully it didn't go down that way, it was such a waste of life.

Michael thanked her for the demonstration, she'd sent him to his own personal hell and he thanked her. Ironic really. Aria pulled herself together, reigning in the dark desires before she wrapped herself in the emptiness. He looked up, and pulled her small hand from Michael's and rubbed it with her other hand with a smile. "Most people don't thank me when I send them to hell."

She paused in thought, "I'm not exactly sure what Ascendancy sees for its usefulness. It's as dangerous as your own gift, but I find it useful in hunting monsters and humans."
She'd used the ability to find him once upon a time. She could probably do it again.

Aria smiled, "By your presence I assume, you are the reason there are others winking in and out of emotions during the course of the day. Ascendancy is training an army. The Atharim should take note, but they won't hear it from me."

Although he had emerged from Aria's hell, Michael was still shaken by the experience. The thought of going through it again made him yearn for the Ascendant power, but he knew he did not need it. He had overcome it once, and would do so as many times as necessary. It was written in the marrow of his bones.

"I would not have asked if there was no reason,"
he replied to her comment. She had in fact given him a gift, although it was not one he had expected.

It seemed that she did not share the same view. She did not see its usefulness? Michael nearly shook his head in disbelief. He could think of dozens of uses off the top of his head alone. Yes, he could understand why Nikolai would find the power fascinating.

That train of thought was cut short when the woman smiled.


Useful indeed!

Michael felt a stab of equal parts alarm and irritation, but it soon passed. It was hardly his problem. Nikolai shoved her in the Facility and now she had as good as admitted her knowledge to Nikolai himself if he did not know before.

"I have learned one thing about the Ascendancy,"
he finally replied after a pause to collect his thoughts. "I don't think anyone can ever understand his actions. Expect nothing but be prepared for anything."

It was not his first choice of words about the man, but if Nikolai was listening, they were the most prudent.

Michael turned towards the guarded door to be let out. He no longer felt like being subject to Nikolai's game.

"I don't know what he wants, but I wish you well,"
his voice was tight and reluctant, but Aria had earned that much from him. "Perhaps we will meet again."
Nikolai waited nearer the Facility's entrance to confront Michael as he was departing. The distance was great enough, and with several levels of separation between them, that Nikolai hoped his presence would not be sensed by Aria. However, the truth of the matter was that he did not know the full range of her capabilities - such as they were. Once she identified someone, could she blindly pick them out from a sea of individuals by sense alone? Or were her senses more like the power Nikolai sensed among other gods he'd encountered?

Their conversation was enlightening, but Michael was the focus of his study for its duration. Aria was what she was: an Atharim, assigned to kill him. She valued living, and claimed abuse and manipulation at the hand of the Atharim, thus was willing to strike a deal in exchange for her life. While Nikolai would never trust her word, he trusted the instinct the live. She would comply with the statues of his deal while her life was in danger.

Michael was a far greater enigma. Nikolai truly understood little about his motivation or character. Yet unlike Aria, whom Nik comprehended and mistrusted, he trusted Michael to greater degree. A glance away from the glass screen from which he watched their reunion showed a faint reflection of himself, and the Arcus band. His fingers tapped as he studied the cool profile in view. The decision to trust Michael had been made the same night as the decision to identify with the modern Caesar, even crowning himself with a band of metal like the Greeks wore their ivy laurels. Both steps might be insignificant in the grand scheme of his tenure as Ascendancy, but the weight of their matter was heavily considered.

Michael and Aria were certainly familiar. His surprise at seeing her was sincere; as was the fascinating demonstration to follow. Nikolai did not think Michael so talented an actor to fake the scene on improv. He recovered from her poisonous touch, but the claim that the strong of will were immune was false. Nikolai knew few men as strong-willed as Michael, but while he faltered at her hand, he did eventually recover. Perhaps the forcefulness of Aria's funneled emotions eased and Michael broke the spell that held him enthralled. He could not tell from the distance whether Michael held power in his grasp during the trial, therefore the question remained whether or not the power would protect them.

Michael's passage was imminent, so Nikolai moved to intercept him. "You were right,"
Nikolai announced as soon as the commander of this 'ascendant army' came into view. "Of course I watched."
He moved forward, meeting Michael while careful to not grasp the power that circulated just out of range. He could not anticipate whether Michael was threatened. Theirs was a mutual agreement to not reach for power out of intimidation or fear. The moment Michael did Nikolai would have to assume it was meant as a threat and vice versa.

"I want to witness the reaction of a man who realizes his allegiance with the enemy has been discovered."
He nodded, "Yes. The Atharim are the enemy, but not mine by choice. They made me their enemy, condemned to execution at the hand of my friend after I saved his life."
His tone was a cool anger but the stillness of his gaze held steady as he peered into the young eyes of a man on the brink of damnation.

"And you struck a bargain with the same Atharim. Worse, an assassin charged with finishing the task they began forty years ago. One who could kill me with a touch. You are too intelligent to think I would take this discovery lightly."

He was showing Michael a great deal of courtesy out of fairness for the man's service this past year. It was far more than he deserved, but until condemned, Nikolai's cloaked anger would be minced with justice.

Michael had expected Nikolai to approach him, but not so literally.

When the man turned into his path, the head of animosity reared in his mind for a moment before he dispelled it. Whatever Nikolai had in store, it wouldn't be a friendly chat about the weather.

As the Ascendancy spoke, Michael listened. The words drew him in, sending a chill down his spine. There was little anger or even accusation in the man's voice, but Michael was shaken, one image stuck in his mind and would not leave him.

The enemy, their enemy. They were supposed to be comrades born of the same kind. the Ascendancy's works struck a wound deep inside his heart. An ache that tore open by increment.

Michael's voice was unusually low and bereft of his icy confidence. "They are our enemy. I have nothing to hide from you."

He sought Nikolai's eyes and held his gaze with an opening he had never shown the man before. Vulnerability. "Aria came to me in desperation. She was faced with death on both sides, she sought a way out. There are others like her among the Atharim who do not wish to kill us. I told her to delay her attempt on your life as long as possible, at the risk of her own life, in return, I would meet with the dissident faction and secure an alliance of a kind. "

"I agreed, knowing she was sent to assassinate you from the start. I did not believe it possible. Her...powers... hadn't manifested at the time, but I knew of the plot."

Michael took a measured breath. It was a dangerous thing to speak frankly with the Ascendancy, but he was compelled to do so. "I mentioned I had contact with the Atharim, but I was not willing to reveal Aria to you. I could not trust your intention. I would not lose the chance to splinter the Atharim. I do not regret my choice."

"The situation was taken from my hands by fate, coincidence, or whatever you wish to call it. It was..."
the words were thick with reluctance. "more dangerous than I had anticipated... it seems."

Michael grew emboldened. It was more than his life on the line. It was an issue he needed to resolve. His eyes were steel. "Know that if she had attempted to kill you, I would have struck her down myself. I will not be your tool, but I have given you my allegiance. Consider it a failure or incompetence if you must, but I will not be seen as a traitor, not even by you."

The challenge was plain. He would not back down from this if the man chose to take it further. He could not. Not now.
Strategy and politics were closely aligned, but Michael was not a politician. Nikolai doubted the sincerity of his submission was a calculated move designed to appeal to his ego. Yet what anger chilled his presence buried itself deep beneath the confines of logic.

Questions remained. Aria came to him. What was the nature of their initial meeting? Was this before or after Michael's valor on the DV battlefield? Other questions. What intention beyond self-defense would Nikolai take against an assassin foolish enough to confront him? "You want to preserve her life."
He spoke the conclusion aloud. "For your own design? Or for more plebeian reasons?"
His voice hinted disgust mixed with disappointment. Men were known to reject reason and strategy for baser emotions. He had not thought Michael one of such mundane number, but neither did Nikolai claim to know Michael at all.

Nikolai paused before ushering his final decree about Michael's future in the Custody. The truth was that Michael was thus far irreplaceable and only upon great declaration would he banish the strategist from his world.

Michael's design was to splinter the Atharim, but the task was impossible. Yet the existence of Aria's companion, pitiful as he was, suggested potential. The possibility of a broken Atharim beckoned second thought. If the splintering was possible, was that a goal Nikolai wanted fulfilled? And to what end. To rule the Atharim himself was undesired. Or simply to decimate a society that for the most part kept the world from the brink of panic? The ramifications would be catastrophic.

Now was the time for Michael to explain his plans for this faction, if he had any at all. It was time they confront the topic of the Atharim.

Plebeian reasons?

Just as Michael had thought to communicate on the same level, Nikolai hid behind his wall of Ascendancy. Well, he wouldn't play along.

"What do you take me for?"
he growled. "Why do you think I demanded the attention of the Australian military at an age when war should have been a fantasy. I despised them for forcing me into this foolishness, but I am one of the best."
It was not a boast. It was as simple as breathing to him. He knew it just as he knew the sun would rise tomorrow.

"I don't see Aria as a tool, but I would not help a Hunter without reason. There are Ascendants among the order, and others who waver in their faith. The Atharim numbers may be small now, but they are deadly. As we have seen, they possess weapons we know little about. Aria and her ability to influence minds. These people have spent millennia preparing to kill people like us. I do not underestimate their ability.

"However, their assassins are not the greatest threat they pose. Do you recall the Salem Witch Trials? People fear powers they do not understand. I urged you to strike before the Atharim could formulate a strategy. Before the Ascendant power becomes known to the world - and it will, it is happening in every corner of the world - the Atharim must be broken. They cannot be allowed to stand unified. Aria spoke of a prophecy - Apollyon."

"They will not hide in the shadows forever. When they emerge, they will use their dogma against us. What do you think will happen when the people are told tyrants of myth have returned with the power to destroy cities with their minds? Even those who don't believe in myth will witness what we can do, and they will fear us."

"I protected Aria for the chance to divide the Atharim before they can extend their influence. The information these dissidents could supply us with is invaluable. For them, this is a holy war. Do not underestimate the power they could come to wield."
His expression marbled. Michael? This child? Lectured him about the Atharim. Which of the two of them was Atharim? Which of the two branded themselves with their mark only to wish monstrous claws had gouged it more fully from their flesh? The buried anger violently resurrected itself, and Nik's hands curled themselves into white-knuckled fists. He turned away, unable to look upon the youthful face defying him a moment longer.

He was better than this. Michael was not the real problem. The damned Atharim were. Michael was the harbinger of issues Nikolai would rather ignore. Indeed, he would rather the warring between their two armies left the other to their respective peace.

Wishing was as foolish ignoring a festering wound. He growled a low rumble and turned back to face Michael. "Alright."
His teeth ground out the admission. "I agree with you. But be very careful the next time you seek to lecture me on the Atharim."
He lifted the arm he once showed Michael. Nothing like their dogmatic cult could rouse such base anger from him. It displaced the firm grip of control Nikolai kept upon his emotions. He loathed such moments.

"It is inevitable the world will come to know the truth of our kind."
His gaze grew distant. He wanted the world in his custody before that point was reached, but time was running short, and the machinations of global unification required patience. He should use the chaos to come to draw he fearful to himself, a leader with answers. He could be a savior for millions on the brink, but such a summons could breed a rival for dominance of power. How many Michaels and Valdirs waited to be discovered?

He didn't care about prophecy, even one he knew about, even if he claimed the title out of spite. Something else that was beneath him, yet it gave him a daily sense of satisfaction, waking to sight of epithets cresting his symbol. He earned those titles, amulet, archon, apollyon, and wielded his own destiny. It was ludicrous to put faith in fate.

He could not ignore the Atharim much longer, but neither did he have to deal with them himself, although, he would derive a great sense of satisfaction to see their current Regus cowed at his feet.

Michael's claim to be the best was soon to be tested.

"Formulate a plan for these dissidents and present it to me tonight. Use Aria if you wish, but my deal with her remains. And don't delude yourself into believing in your own honor by thinking you're sparing her of manipulation. Everyone you meet has a purpose in your life, or you discard them. It's who you are."
Who they were.

"And Michael. It is my mercy allowing her to live. For that I demand her undying loyalty forever."

If the man and situation were any different, Michael would have smiled. Finally, Nikolai showed that he was still in fact human, whatever he might think of it. More, he could control his pride. Pride could kill just as surely as incompetence. That Nikolai could see things objectively when faced with opposition was reassuring.

Of course, Michael did not go without censure. It was no more than he expected. A general could bow to pride, but he could not let his troops undermine his authority. He suspected ruling a nation was the same.

In all, it had been a productive conversation that had solidified Michael's confidence in Nikolai. The confrontation was over, he was not needlessly defiant.

Michael inclined his head in a respectful gesture. "Of course, Ascendancy. It will be as you say. I only offer my opinion. I will have a draft ready for you tonight."
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