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There are no beginnings
How easily those dreyken died. At the time, Nikolai quivered with what was miniscule amount of power compared to his present capacity. He was certain that if he wanted, he could crack the core of the planet – even if the effort killed him to do so – but in the infancy of his powers, those three creatures burned a gruesome death. He would have been a poor Atharim, he reconciled with himself. The thrill of that only chase did not spur him toward more action. Others, on the other hand, were more suited to the job. Unbidden, like a virus, Nox’s face came to mind. An Atharim and a channeler, powerful from what he witnessed at the ball, the boy could do more for the safety of mankind than a hundred Atharim living a hundred lifetimes. Perhaps he had been too harsh in his treatment of the boy, but the Ascendancy would not come to rule the world through underestimating opponents. Something to think on later.

It was an intriguing thought that while Nikolai and Garret Ravid cornered dreyken in a car park, young Armande sought his own adventures out there in the great, uncivilized wild somewhere. It humanized his enemy somewhat, the story that followed. A man shaped his whole life for this moment. More stunning revelations. He almost felt sorry for him: a child’s destiny carved from the cradle. It framed Armande’s disposition into the context of a compulsion. He knew no other way of existence. He would never relent while his body drew breath.

They were greater opposites than Nikolai ever appreciated. He blinked, stifling a chill at the recognition of his status as Apollyon, Lord of the Grave, and realized that Armande truly believed him to be the god he knew himself to be. The Atharim didn’t seek to prevent him from conquering the world because he was an evil ruler – Atharim did not intervene during the atrocities of Hitler or Stalin nor depose the reigns of Bloody Queen Mary I or Timur the Lame – they sought his downfall because he could channel. That was all. They didn’t care that he was a fair and just man; that he fostered peace and prosperity; that he was beloved. It was so simple. So obvious.

Nikolai laughed at the absurdity of Armande’s question. The darkness coiling about his feet was snuffed as he sat across the table. “Whom would you suggest is this great diviner? Has Patricus' faith influenced you? I did not take you for a man of the Cloth.”

They were eye to eye now. Fate, design, pattern; they were all the same to Nikolai: irrelevant. But they mattered to Armande. He let his expression fall serious, seeming to consider the question in its significance. “If what you suggest is real, then the end is already decided…”

”…For us both.”
Nikolai sat down across from him so they were eye to eye. The tension in the room had lessened the longer they spoke. The need for theatrics and posturing was gone. The parry and thrust, feint and blocking of barbs and insults. At the end of the day, archenemies though they were, they were both men. Both had accomplished astonishing feats. Both would go on to still greater things. Because of each other. It was a powerful reminder.

There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong. The words floated in the air, shining brightly, as if a beacon.

This enemy was the whet stone by which he was sharpened.

And in that more relaxed moment, at Nikolai's words, Armande found himself laughing- really laughing, even as he shook his head rolling his eyes. "My god, Patricus! What a trial he has been." He snorted. "That man couldn't motivate a person on fire to jump in a lake." His laugh subsided, though it had strangely felt good. Cathartic. "I'm sure you have had the same experience with him. He is no believer. He is a politician. His appointment to the Papacy was made on mountains of promises and concessions to the Cardinals."

The quiet loomed as he studied the man that called himself a god. Human, for all of that, with weaknesses and fears. Armande had glimpsed them. The pathological need to overawe. To be recognized. Very likely that had much to do with the death of his father- and the previous losses his family had suffered. A sense that something had been taken from him. That the universe owed him.

"No, I was never a man of faith. I am a man of logic and science." He paused before going on. "But much has happened in the past year. Far too much to ignore. Someone or something has been guiding this. Bringing us- you and I- to this moment." The Eye of God loomed in his mind. "Discoveries. Treasures. Revelations."

He smiled, perhaps with a hint of malice, Sun Tzu's words providing the path. All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem hindered; when using our forces, we must appear to do nothing; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

"The Ijiraq is but a small part of what I control. Things you have never heard of," he said quietly.

His blue eyes fixed onto Nikolai's. "You understand, of course. The god-wars happened, mankind reduced to slaves. Slaves to exploit. Cannon fodder. Endless death and carnage as we were ground to dust. A mouse trying to avoid the trampling feet of elephants."

He swallowed. Acknowledging the truth was not easy. But it was a tool as any other. "One god could be tolerated. One, even such as yourself. I am not blind to the order and prosperity you have brought. But with you have come the others. Your 'Ascendants'!" he said with scorn.

"You are one man, despite your power. And you are not immortal or safe from attack. Ambition is bred from power. And you have gathered men and women of near limitless power to you. Do you think none of them covet your position? Do you think infighting will not occur? And that is not counting China or the US or any other place these 'gods' spring up. Your enemies."

He sighed, suddenly weary. He could see it all so clearly. "The cold war all over again. Only instead of nuclear proliferation, it will be channelers. No one person or small group to control and prevent the use of these weapons. Each will be one unto himself."

It was all so simple. Black and white colored his words. "For mankind, I cannot allow that. It cannot happen again."
Life and liberty for all did not mean all men were equal. Sometimes men really were gods. Neither did Nikolai rise to presidency in Russia – of all the places in the world – without intuition. Others would always covet his position, men were fickle, jealous, petty creatures. The trick was to expect it, and wield the players on the table against one another. Scion, Amengual and Thrice case in point. Three people all promised the role of Patron of the Americas, but only if they survived to the formation of the Dominion over which they may someday govern.

Regus was correct about one opinion. Threats – seedlings though they were – would grow around the world. It was all the more reason why he needed the remaining nations beneath his hand before one rash decision sparked a world war.

“By that logic,” he began, leaning forward, intent in gaze and tone, “then you should be helping me,” he said.

He anticipated an emotional reaction: scoffing or laughter. So he continued quickly, “Help me design a world where we won’t let it happen again. If anyone were to be victim to indentured servitude, it would be the channelers working for those willing to pay for their gifts. Think of the healers, the builders, the artists to come. Sustainable energy, clean water, food. Resources for all without indicting socialism. It would be a glorious future, and we would be half-way there if you weren’t distracting me. The prosperity I brought in the past with the vision I hold for the will be glorious, ” he said.

He shifted in his seat, jaw tilted slightly. Acceptance swarmed his expression peaceful, “You’ll never be able to eradicate all channelers again. The Atharim of today are not your ancestors. I am not Aidoneus. Follow your own logic to the end. The fate you fear will be your own creation should you follow this path, Armande.”

He will have none but himself to blame.
Armande paused. He remembered the world, God help him. The fall of the Soviet Union and the growth of the EU. American hegemony. The violence of Rwanda and the Balkans. The spread of terrorism and the world-wide response. Putin, Erdogan, Kim- and other authoritarian rulers.

Nationalism, the biggest cancer to infect the planet, shivering apart the bonds between nations that had been slowly forming for decades, that had pulled humanity back from the certainty of nuclear anihilation. Radicalization had become very real yanking back and forth as peoples were pulled in one direction or the other.

Whatever else he was, Nikolai had stemmed much of that extremism and violence simply through the creation of the ASU and its Dominances, following the Roman pattern of removing and replacing local governments. To be sure, there was considerable push back, especially at the beginning. But the economic and military might of the risen ASU and then CCD was irresistible.

At what point did the common people, the soldiers and businessmen, continue to prop up and back the old forms of government when the new one brought a massive flood of goods and money, of alliances and access to markets? Those members of Houses and Halls, of Ministries and Magesteriums, who refused to accede and integrate found themselves cut from the very power and influence they craved so much.

It was a brilliant system, Armande knew, nearly bloodless as country after country willfully joined the confederation, just as Bythinia and Pergamum had done with the Roman Republic. And the smart ruling classes easily shifted into the new system. All of this, in only a handful of years.

Peace was well and truly on its way.

Despite himself, he found himself wondering, had fate been different, had Nikolai gone to Syracuse or he to Bologna, what might have happened. He looked at Nikolai across the table thoughtfully. The man who thought himself a god. "I didn't choose to be your enemy, Nikolai," he said quietly. "In another life, we might have been friends. If we had gone to school together, you, me, Vladislavovna, Bykov, Valentin- all of us- yes... Your inner group." A slight smile. "Yes. We know about that too. I would have been there beside you. Not as your servant, of course. That is not my nature any more than it is yours. But as your friend and counselor..."

But logic was logic, the engine chugging on inexorably, unstopably, to the truth. To the reality. He clenched his jaw, the fire returning. "And the wars would come. Come, Nikolai, you are not as naive as this! Destruction is coming. Not because of this struggle between us. The enemies that sharpen their blades against you- against this world you have created- are out there now." He waved his hand angrily, voice hardening.

"And not just your enemies. Those who would be enemies against each other, god against god, vying for control. These 'Ascendants' walk the earth, each step they take telling them the world is theirs to own and control. A person cannot think themselves a 'god' and then walk small. It is not a nature of humanity. The earth will fracture under these wars. You are one man, regardless of the power you command. You cannot hope to defeat them all. Those you would trust to stand by your side- Vellas, DuBois- can you trust them? Your Rods of Dominion? A mere dozen? No, you would need an army of Ascendants- any one of whom could and would see the need to submit as something asked of lesser men. Gods on every side. A powder keg, only the powder keeps growing and growing, until..."

Logic. It was blindingly obvious. He despaired of reaching the man. No. He knew it would never happen. Lissandra's face floated before his eyes, clear and smiling, full of fire and life and pain stabbed into his heart as sorrow washed over his face. A perversion of John 3:16 whispered in his mind. For Armande Nicodemus so loved the world that he gave up his only Daughter, in order that the world might be safe for them all. "You cannot know the sacrifices I have made. Who and what I have given up to save mankind", his voice strained. "I cannot let this happen again, no matter the cost." he said earnestly.
Nikolai eased himself upon the chair, hands folded on his lap, and listened: truly listened. Passion permeated Armande’s voice. It diffused vibrancy through the thinness of his skin, seemingly reinvigorating the old man with energy and vitality. Nikolai would not allow himself to judge on appearances alone, but the flush was surprising. All the venom and vile of their previous conversation was diluted by the waters of real conversation. He found himself surprised by how easily the tide ebbed and flowed naturally between them. In one moment, he marveled at the pattern of fate woven by the hands of a power incomprehensible. If small nuances were traded, perhaps he might have been Regus of the Atharim and Armande ruler of the earth. The man exuded wisdom and calculation, discipline and decisiveness. Qualities necessary of a great strategist and unto now, grossly underestimated by Nikolai. If he departed anything from this virtual face to face, it would be with a greater respect for this enemy.

Unfortunately, fate was already decided on its course of action. Nikolai saw his journey rocket into the future unlike never before. He was here to reshape the world and re-anchor the Atharim while he was at it. He knew what he had to do; Domovoi was grossly insufficient to the task. Their group required immediate expansion, and they would all come to see that even underground cults were subject to the rules of market competition. He knew exactly who would be the man for the job, too.

Meanwhile, Nikolai dipped his head, assenting to their mutual duality. It was never his goal to convert Armande to the congregation of Ascendancy worshippers, metaphorically. It was always his goal to learn everything he could about his enemy in as short a time as possible, and such was truly accomplished.

He rose to his feet, palms upturned with the gesture of departure. Shadows flickered his face as his clothing returned to the billowing robes previously displayed, but this time, stretched, haunted faces blurred within the smoke as if trapped souls from within meant to escape their eternal torment. He allowed himself the faintest smile, but no cruelty razored his eyes.

“Thank you for speaking with me this day, Regus. The next time that I see you, it will be on the day of your death,” he said, voice calm and factual, sympathetic perhaps, as though the future was certain.

Standing near, he dropped the chain of a necklace upon the table for Armande’s study. From the golden links dangled the charm of an hourglass. He assumed the Regus knew its symbolism, but regardless, Nikolai knew the symbol would inspire curiosity. Why would he show it now? Was he one of them? Was it something else?

Recalling the epithet of the man cradling a monster in the Siberian tundra, “Memento mori,” he said as though imparting wisdom to one in need of the reminder. The faces screamed silently from his garments as the lord of the dead exited the construct.
Armande smiled sadly as Nikolai disappeared. Not that he expected a different outcome. Clearly, their fates had been set long before they were both born.

No. It was something wistful. What might have been, they two. Of course, that was but one among many what-might-have-beens.

Armande had lived a solitary life for most of his years. Destiny made sure to cut short any and all connections he had forged despite the impossible circumstances, slicing the deepest of those bonds with ease, red hot blade cauterizing the wound.

But the pain itself was of no consideration to whatever entity had shaped his life.

He could still sometimes see his dearest Gregorio, eyes filled with life and joy, whether hunched over a manuscript, running along a path, or in his arms. The first time Armande had known affection and love since his mother had passed. He had not imagined how starved his soul had been until somehow, improbably, this beautiful man had reached into his heart and shared life with him.

Those same eyes bulging purple the last time he saw him, the light snuffed out, not even a trail of smoke to indicate there had ever been a flame.

It had taken him months to recover, the grief so deep he despaired he'd ever get past it. For a time he had found some brief comfort in the arms of a childhood friend. And gradually, he had found resolve to move on.

No. The sealed wound had still burned, the nerve endings never truly deadening. Instead, they became merely tolerable, a constant companion.

Jova. Lissandra. His heart still clenched at her name, those feelings still raw, rage at the cruelty of fate, of his lot.

All to a purpose. All for Nikolai to have an enemy who could defeat him.

But in another life, he and Nikolai could have been friends, creating the future together. Or he and Gregorio could have lived out their lives as companions and lovers, their minds endlessly questing into the great mysteries of the past. He and Jova could have enjoyed their endless battles together, the deep dark blue of the desert night their tent, hunting by day, enjoying the pleasure of their bodies in passionate embrace by night.

In another world, his daughter was a god....and he didn't care. He'd marvel at her works, sit in awe as Lissandra healed and did good to all, without greed or avarice for power. And he'd give advice and impart wisdom, joyful to sit in the background and be eclipsed by his progeny. He would be a father and a grandfather, eventually dying happy surrounded by loved ones.

But life was life. It was what it was. And none of that had happened. Instead, he had suffered, had his heart nearly burned out of him. But he was also the Regus of the Atharim, the only man capable of destroying Apollyon.

And the fates had not left him alone. He had dear Valeriya. His Eye. His vision into the mists of the future, though he did wish that it could be clearer. More than merely a tool, Valeriya was his consort, an equal where he thought to find none. A fiery leopard. His great love.

Nothing good comes without painful sacrifice.

And Nikolai, there at the end, made it clear that he embraced his role as Apollyon, grotesque distorted and suffering souls writhing in the twists and folds of his robe, agonizing and without number.

Nikolai knew what he was, knew what the cost would be. It was not him who would pay it. Man would shed oceans of blood for his visions to become real. And it bothered him not at all.

He embraced it.

All men must die. Di Inferi. Clearly, he had some contact with them. The gesture had seemed calculated, as if purposeful in its attempt to elicit a reaction. Which bore thinking. What was their role in this?

He stood. It was clear the war had only begun. Battles might be won or lost. Tactics were not strategy. Any general knew this. He needed a grand plan. He needed a clear vision. And he needed every weapon to hand.

Fate had sent him to the Khylsty. For Valeriya specifically. His Eye. The treasure of his heart. But there were other treasures too, things he needed. It was time.

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