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Infidels
#1
Despite what he proposed to Evelyn, he had no intention of moving out of the Kremlin anytime soon. The fortress was more fortified than ever before. Dominions were always on the grounds. Marcus, Alric, and others were embedded within the government. Beyond channelers, his own task forces, the Zetas, ZARS, and others were on highest alerts. The Kremlin security service operated around the clock. They’d stand one at the foot of his bed if he allowed it. Suffice to say, the Kremlin was impenetrable.

Michael continued to oversee the development of a weapons’ program in the north. Domovoi was taking shape now that it was to be ushered into the Custody of Channeler security. Things were taking shape in the United States, Australia and Africa. China remained elusive, but his focus was yet to turn truly toward the east. However, following his conversation with the Regus, Nikolai knew there was one front that was left unattended. If it wasn’t contained, things could spiral quickly out of control.

He’d been too hard on Nox. He recognized that now. The defensiveness was justified, but Nikolai was capable of identifying talent when it showed itself. In Nox’s case, it was proved three times.

He ordered a message be delivered to the young Atharim channeler. It was not a command, nor was it a rebuke. It was an invitation, one he did not anticipate to be declined, but an invitation none the less. His arrival would be treated with respect, albeit welcome, which was probably an unexpected change of pace compared to his usual treatment at Nik’s hands.

Most unexpected was likely to location he’d requested to meet the Atharim. An off-site event carried him into the city for a highly-publicized appearance featuring the dazzling and powerful Ascendancy. Evening rolled, eventually, and call him superstitious, but he’d always wanted to stop at this graveyard. Twenty-five years in Moscow, and he’d never visited it before.

They were other-worldly places cloaked in grim auras. The oldest ones held the remains of tsarist princes and princesses. Great priests of orthodoxy churches occupied others. Nobility made up the necropolis of the most famous dead. He’d seen all of those before.

The one in which he stood, marveling at tombstones and mausoleums that were themselves works of art, was itself an eternal, gothic monument. The Infidel’s Cemetery was its name. A fitting place for a rogue Atharim to conspire with Apollyon.
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#2
The call came from an number Nox didn't recognize, but the Caller ID was unmistakable, 'From the offices of the Ascendancy'. He guessed they wanted you to know exactly who was calling you. The meeting had been a surprise. The location more so. But the meeting had Nox missing cues and just plain scatter brained. Which wasn't good for anyone. He'd told the girls what was going on and they understood completely.

So when he left they were all giggly and wishing him luck. While Nox was just hoping he got out of the encounter alive. Nox didn't dress up - not that he owned anything more than jeans and t-shirts. It was all clean, free of holes - well except the gray hoodie he wore over top it all. The pockets had seen better days, they'd been sewn repeatedly, Nox kept snagging them on door handles. Living inside was obviously rough on his clothes much more so than being a vagabond.

The Infidels Cemetery was an interesting choice of venue. Nox had never been himself. He avoided places where the dead lived. He knew Zombies were real, but the idea of someone reaching up and grabbing his feet freaked him out a lot more than it should. The agents outside the gates let him pass through with a quick pat down and nothing more than a curious glance. Nox had come as unarmed as he possibly could. Not that he carried a gun or weapon other than the lighter in his pocket these days. He really needed to gather up the small innocuous things again - particularly if he intended to enter the tunnels again - which was his plan - soon as he got his life situated again. Dance and hunt, the only two things he was good at.

The Ascendancy stood looking at a particular monument in the grave yard and Nox remembered the first time he'd met him. In a cemetery of sorts - the burial grounds of the monks and Atharim who had attacked the man he was meeting with. He'd dug deep into the ground with weaves Nox enjoyed using now. Feeling the earth was like reliving a memory. Not that he needed to relive any more memories but it was oddly calming. The Ascendancy had done it to find a single pendant in the earth buried long past. The hour glass he'd shown Aria. They never did find out much about it. But then life had a way of distracting them. And now Aria was dead - and he was no longer Atharim. Hunted by his own.

"At least this time the graves aren't covered in snow." Nox said with a smile. "I never expected you to kill me yourself. A bullet to the head is far safer. Not that I'd give you much trouble anyway, specially now that you can just take away my ability to touch the power inside." Nox's hands were in the pockets of his hoodie but he was neither angry or sad, he showed little emotion actually, the power danced just out of reach. Nox said to himself he'd not go down without a fight at least.

"Two things before we do whatever it is you wanted me to come here for. Aria's dead, buried under the streets of the Red Light district." Nox looked down at the ground - it wasn't shame he felt - loss, sadness, maybe. He'd killed his friend, but he was not ashamed of it. "And I wanted to thank you." He raised his gaze to look at the man again. "If I hadn't seen you in Siberia with earth, I might not ever have learned what I have. It was an far more inspiring than the arch to my eyes. So thank you." He had other reasons to thank the Ascendancy, the least of which was for his life, but that was more important - at least to Nox.
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#3
Graveyards never disturbed him. He recalled visiting those of his great-grandparents as a child. Hands pat him on the shoulders, leading him along reverent paths. They whispered around him as though open dialogue about mortality might unhinge so innocent a mind. Even as a child, he was misunderstood.

Memory crept like fog unbidden into the crevices of his mind. Quietude settled like that fog finding low ground. The northeast United States were pockmarked with old cemeteries.  The best ones dated to Colonial times where headstones were covered with lichen and the carvings smoothed to near nothing.

He decided as a child that death was something to rule rather than fear. Death on a man’s own terms was his reconciliation with mortality. In that alone was he able to sever familial connections following his father’s suicide – Nikolai hiked to the car before the casket was lowered. Arguably a youth, but he remained misunderstood.

When the Datsan adopted his wandering soul, he never thought it would become a battlefield, but the graves were easier to dig than that of his father’s. Anger dug the holes, and catharsis burned the rest to the ground. When he turned upon Nox’s arrival, it was with hands clasped behind his back and pensive gaze narrowed upon one he once judged as another irreverent youth. Yet Nox humbled himself in word and posture. If the Ascendancy asked him to bow, he would bend for the headsman before he bent a knee. He recognized now that Nox’s pride was bred by survival rather than ego.

Gratitude was an unusual color for Nox, but Ascendancy nodded an acceptance anyway. His turn, “And I want to thank you,” he said with all the calm of still waters. “You’ve twice saved my life. I owe you a debt,” and with that, he offered a hand to shake it.

A deep breath seemed to pass the tension and he offered that they walk. “When I was young, I once met a man who asked me a question that the swiftness of my answer surprised him. I want to ask you the same question now, Nox.” Ironic that the query was a repetition of that posed by a dead Regus.

“What do you want in life, Nox?”

“Mortal—immortal—Gods or men. We all want something.” A small breeze caught their hair, stirring dark strands along his brow and awakening scents of early buds and wet moss along their path. It was a peaceful place. He drew a deep breath. The aroma of death was a distant, but familiar, friend.

His steps paused, hands remained behind his back. He pondered touching Nox on the shoulder to likewise halt his steps. It seemed the fatherly and warm gesture to do, but he was new at this sort of thing. Instead, he tried a simple smile.
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#4
Those five words left Nox staring at the Ascendancy.  He owned him?  Nox took his hand, but shook his head.  "You owe me nothing.  I was just doing my job.  It makes no difference to me if you were a homeless man or the leader of half the world."  He grinned across their clasped hands.  "But the sentiment is welcome. Thank you."

He didn't need favors or depts.  Just his life.  That's all he wanted.  They walked.  Graveyards were quiet.  He didn't fancy the location himself, but it was peaceful, and in the chaos of his life it was fitting.  His past failures were all dead.  What he'd hoped had been his future was dead, and now, he was fighting to stay alive against what he'd always wanted with his life.  The question asked he'd never really thought about before.  

Life before had been a day to day thing.  Survive to fight the next monster, move to the next location, fight, survive, move on.  Moscow was the only place Nox had ever stopped long enough to find a real life - real friends.  There had been nothing more than his family.  Nox laughed. "If you'd asked me that a year ago, hell even six months a go I'd have said to make my Dad proud of me.  Sadly now, even though hes been dead going on three years now, he would never be proud of me.  I'm what he hates most in the world - a monster."  Nox didn't add that it didn't help that he was attracted to the same sex.  But that was a life Nox didn't really think about.  "Asked me a few weeks ago I would have told you that the only thing I wanted in life was to protect my family and friends.  And then friends betray you and what you thought was life isn't anymore."  

That was his life.  Nox shook his head.  "I don't know what I want in life anymore, kinda what I'm doing right now.  Finding that truth.  My family's dead.  I killed my best friend.  My colleagues want me dead." Nox sighed.  "I know what I don't want thought.  I don't want to live under my family's shadow.  I don't want to be the zealot Atharim like my father - a man who turned his son straight, a man who would kill that very same son the day he found out he weilded the power of the gods.  He'd have killed his beloved daughter just the same - that was the strength of his conviction to the Atharim.  I'm not that.  I beleived in Aria, in her strength to be different.  But she was a tortured soul even from the moment I met her.  I followed her to the monastary to find more information about Apolyon.  This dreaded propehcy she feared yet she couldnt kill.  I followed because of that.  I've helped more men who could channel since then than I knew possible.  I'm nothing.  No one yet I find myself in a position of knowleedge because I didn't blow myself up when I found out what I was."

Nox laughed and looked at the Ascendancy.  "I know you don't like me because I don't bow and scrap.  I won't worship you.  You are not a god.  Just a very powerful man.  I respect what you've done - come from nothing.  But I won't be like the men of old who worshiped the gods of old.  Just like I won't be a god."

Nox realized he probably shouldn't have said that last bit and closed his mouth sharply.  He talked too much when he was nervous and he was standing in front a man who could smite him.  That would make anyone neverous specially when the man threatened his life every. single. time.  they'd met in the past.
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#5
It didn’t take a psychologist to recognize Nox’s dysfunction. What followed to his question was a long-winded recollection of memories stirred up by a damaged psyche. The question itself did that, but the stark contrast between Nikolai’s own immediate, knee-jerk answer and the convoluted monologue of Nox’s admittedly ignorant ideas gave him enormous insight into their differences in personality. Even as a child Nikolai’s focus turned toward the future. He planned the arc of his life early on, which was partly why the interference in such plans was so devastating. Nox lived in the moment, a byproduct of a true Atharim surviving day to day. To him there was no future beyond the immediate needs, so why plan one? The rationalization tempered what normally would irritate him. Not everyone was like himself: strategic, insightful, planning and analytical. Case in point was Nox’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing dynamic of his life. He hinted at the ability in the story. A father’s disapproval, deaths of friends (and lovers?), a conflict of sexuality inside that churned silt best left undisturbed else it clouded his very existence. He was adrift now. It was painfully obvious.

“It’s alright, Nox. Don’t apologize. I don’t really adopt the notion of gods and men, but what is a god but a man who demands worship. I will not demand such a thing of you or anyone. I want the love and respect of my people because I’ve earned it. Surely you can respect that. If I wanted, I could fly into the USA and single-handedly conquer the capital, demolish the government, and build the pillars of my own. I don’t, however, because I know it’s a short-game. I only want to rule a people if they want me to.”

His laughter was enveloped by a soul unflinching of others’ dismissal. He was underestimated by all those who held power before him, and it was at their detriment. Nox was nervous, and he turned to sarcasm as a defense. It was fine, Nikolai accepted it. “If I were to summarize, it sounds like you want to help others because you yourself know what it is like to live alone, afraid, and helpless. Is that it?”

He touched his own sleeve as though their gaze might pierce the cloth. “I was Atharim myself – for a time. Like you, when I learned what I was, I was faced with the same choice as you.” His gaze leered into the distant past, the gun to his head, the burning pain cramping his arm, and the fear in his friend’s eyes. “I also chose as you did. I know my own heart as you know yours. I did not deserve death for being born as I was born; neither do you. But great power in the hands of evil men is a terrible thing. To such a danger must also rise great heroes. You can be one such man, Nox. Not for me, not for the Atharim, but for all those you want to protect. Is that what you want out of life? Maybe even lead others to help likewise?”
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#6
Nox wanted to jump in declare he'd never been helpless.  But there had been a time in his life he had been.  Everytime his father had gotten angry.  Everytime he failed.  Everytime.... He kept silent.  The Ascendancy wanted something from him.  Wanted to guage his reaction to the hard questions.  Nox knew he was dysfunctional in many regards.  Knew that the Atharim had corrupted his mind, gave power to his body but they tormented his soul with all the wrongs and rights of the world.

It was a cult.  "I will do whatever it takes to keep people safe."  If that required him to lead he would if it required him to bend and scrap to some man he would.  But he had to see the point of it.  The reason behind it all.  "I will submit, I will hunt, I will fight.  I will lead whoever I need to if that's what it takes.  My sister would warn you against let me lead anything.  She says I get into way too much trouble for my own good."  Nox grinned.  Case in point - here he was standing in front of the Ascendancy - one of the most powerful men in the world making jokes.
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#7
He waited for Nox to proclaim his deepest desires, but even baited, the path unfurled before his feet, Nox was unwilling to claim his own desires. He remained selfless, adopting whatever it was Ascendancy suggested because it was suggested to him. Was he truly so poorly treated in life that he was disconnected forever from his own wants and needs? It was almost sad, if Nikolai was inclined toward empathy. Yet empathy was the ingredient to bind people to him, and he recognized the advantage it gave him. Analysis didn’t make the choice less genuine, if anything, it made him all the better for it. 

“Yes I believe if I asked it of you, you’d do just that,” he paused again, this time touching Nox on the shoulder, squeezing it slightly. The boy struggled with sexuality, an apt metaphor for his struggles as a monster and man, Atharim and god. Despite the denial, Nox was what he was, but unlike a cruel father, Nikolai would not impose his will upon him. What did Nox see when he looked at him? It would help him understand how to best breech the fortifications built up around his own soul. Did he see a gifted channeler first and man come from nothing second? Did he see the most powerful man in the world first and a threat? Or did he see simply a man standing before another, vulnerable and apologetic?

“Is that what you truly want? And to what end? A world that no longer needs your protection would be a lonely place.”
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#8
Nox laughed. "No offense intended, but the world is already a fucking lonely place.  If no one needed my protection again then I probably died a long time ago."  Nox tried not to pull away from the fatherly touch.  But he couldn't help it.  They were speaking too close to things that he'd beleived as a boy.  Though Nox flinched he didn't escape, he didn't try.  "I don't know what you want to hear from me.  I'm simple.  The fact that I'm still alive today means I can get another day.  I enjoy each breath I take that doesn't come followed by a cough or pain.  Any day I'm not hunted by the Atharim is a good day.  Unlike you, I'm not the most feared man in the world. I haven't returned any bodies to the Atharim unrecognizable.  I just want to keep breathing so I can enjoy the next moment."



Nox shook his head.  "I'm sorry if that's not what you want to hear."
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#9
Another uncomfortable bark of laughter. He was prying open the door, but what was within was cloaked in shadows. He learned much from their short conversation, and hopefully it was not to be the last. For one thing, he pushed too hard too soon, and Nox wasn’t ready.

“It’s okay,” he reassured with a quick squeeze of the neck and pat on the shoulder. Ease him in to trust, Nikolai reassured and quickly receded from the invasion of personal space. “I didn’t want to hear anything, I was merely asking.” He turned, glancing aside as one of his personal guards watched nearby.

“I do find myself in a predicament, however. With the Atharim all but disbanded, there remain scattered soldiers like yourself holding back the darkness. The Custody has a force in dire need of teaching. They’re talented, strong and trained, but no Atharim, and I am an inadequate teacher.” He turned back, “Would you be willing to help? You’ve proven yourself more than trustworthy and possibly the best experienced out there.”

He thought a moment before releasing a pent up toll of laughter, “I laid it on too thick with that last, didn’t I?”  
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#10
Nox sighed a little when Ascendancy removed his hand from his shoulder.  He didn't take offense but even Dorian and Christian hadn't actually tried to touch him.  His father had been a violent man.

The Atharim weren't leaderless - not completely.  "There is a new Regus.  They are only scattered because their head quarters melted. Give them a home.  Pardon their crimes, ban killing humans under penalty of death, include gods, wolfkin, sentient, all of the known sentient monsters."  Nox shrugged. "But that wasn't what you asked.  I've always been willing to help.  All you had to do is ask.  I would have given you full access to the Atharim database the first day we met if you'd only asked."

Nox smirked.  "I'm not Aria and I'm not my sister but I will help how I can. I don't know if your people will like my methods. Ivan and Jay didn't care for being thrown into the fire."

Nox couldn't help but laugh. "Maybe a little.  I'm probably the only friendly Atharim you know. But yes.  I will help teach Domovoi and whoever else you want to have intimate knowledge about monsters.  I can provide a partial database of mostly monsters.  I won't give Atharim personel up but I will give everything I have including the map of the tunnels I have and the nests located underneath the city.  But Domovoi can't go in not without a reborn god with them.  The tunnels are infested with a creature not on Atharim lists, they are scary little creatures.  They swarm.  Aria and I were clearning them but it was just two of us. But just tell me what I need to do, who I need to talk to and I'm there."
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