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The grand ball
#1
A twinge of excitement built in his gut. The fuzzy void of the future was coalescing into a sharp focus that all began tonight. Everything was prepared. The Kremlin was a fortress of security. None would enter the grounds that had not yet been pre-screened and approved by Custody Intelligence. Channelers were embedded within those he trusted. The Nine would certainly be in the forefront of those. The most public of their defenses would be scattered among the guests: black slivers of darkness. Michael and Marcus on their own were formidable in their own rights.

Sergeant Detective Ivan Sarkozy was to be present. Although he would be attired as a guest rather than in uniform, as would Chief Inspector Drayson McCullough. Jensen James was required to be present, also as a guest. Yet together, the two channelers would serve as eyes and ears among the guests and form a sort of last defense should the more public channelers be taken by surprise and all other safe-guards fail.

Not that those safe-guards were not mighty barriers on their own. Between the activity in custody intelligence prepping the guest lists, surveying the area repeatedly, and monitoring any hint of suspicious activity with the physical might of Kremlin Police, Danjou's men, and Nik's personal Barrier Preator agents - Agent Ranier being his very last ace in his pocket - the Grand Palace was either going to be the most impenetrable, safest place in the world tonight... or it was going to be the world's most volatile powder-keg.

With Regus dead and gone, the Atharim was little threat and no match against the thinnest of these safety measures. His guests would be safe tonight. They used the Ascendancy to their ends, now it was time he used them for his.

As fitting with the grandeur of such a night, strict codes of attire and propriety were required. He wasn't fond of white tie, preferring a simpler, although elegant, black suit to anything else. But the opulence was a show he tolerated.

He slipped the elegant evening tailcoat on. The cloth lay across his shoulders like a layer of warm air settling on his skin. Nikolai was of average height, but he had the shoulders and waist of a swimmer. The long, sweeping back of the coat only accentuated and elongated his body. The high-waist of black was designed to perfect the male shape into the living image of some statuesque god - a tradition that dated back centuries in the western world.

Last, threads of the power retrieved the newly reformed Arcus Band. He put it to his temple. Headdresses were typically unorthodox for such occasions. Diadems and tiaras were worn by the women, certainly, but he would be the only male. Of course, this was no diadem. It was a crown, in the less literal fashion, but still a crown.

Then the threads transformed into something far more interesting. He discovered this flow months ago, only to have perfected it now. Darkness rose from the floor and the last Nik saw of himself in the mirror was a dark smile.

***

Guests were to be greeted by staff who will take their overcoats or similar items. A brief search was to be conducted of purses, but a simple, yet nearly hidden scanner, would be passed before fully entering the grand palace.

Upon entrance to the ball-proper, a palace of luxury, opulence and wealth rose up to meet them. Everything from the flowers to the glitter of gold was the best the world had to offer. Gold and marble shone like the sun. Even the flowers seemed alive.

The largest of the palace halls was arranged with two long-tables for the dinner service that would begin later in the evening. Name-places were assigned alternating with the men and women. For now, the social hour began in the adjacent ballroom with hors d'ourves, champagne and other drinks circulated by staffers in elegant attire more formal than the normal person's wedding-best.

But all eyes were drawn to the front of the ballroom. Drawn to a billowing black cloud. It churned slowly on the currents of air permeating the room, but did not dissipate. Some brave souls tried to scoop a bit of the seeming-mist into the palms of their hands, only to find the darkness unwilling to be captured so easily. None could explain it, but many an eye was lit with the promise of excitement to come from the night ahead.

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#2
Christian hadn't driven himself this time, Nox was insisting that he stay with Sage and Ana. Someone had to protect them since Dad was gone and he and Cruz were too. It was funny how Nox retook control the moment he was back at home, and Dad missing. So a strange driver took him and Nox to the gala in a private limo but still. His grandfather had paid for everything, the cost was pricey and Nox was out of his element. He looked good in the tux and Sage had been all goo-goo eyes at him.

They pulled up outside the palace and there was already people filing towards the entrance in elegant wears and high dollar jewelry. This was the first one of these events Cruz had attended without his father and mother, or even his grandfather. He was here as the Jivana representative. He was here to make connections and show off the Jivana name and all of her upcoming tech. His grandfather had briefed him on everything. Cruz was an expert in Jivana Crop's finer points now.

At the door, they checked for weapons and credentials and all that annoying security things. Cruz walked ahead of Nox, who was following much like a bodyguard would, he was his plus one but Nox was not a guest in a guest mode. He'd sit with Cruz, he'd eat with him. His father insisted. And right now Cruz didn't want to upset his father. Life was too difficult and too fragile now. Everyone could vanish in an instant - just like he had. Everyone was looking everywhere for his father but no one could find him. Sage was working night and day to fix his computer. He kept complaining about power and processing speed. There was very little Cruz could do to help but he kept trying and he and Nox kept their grounds safe. It was hard work keeping everything going. But Nox barely broke a sweat.

The moment Cruz walked into the ballroom and the dark cloud at one end drew his attention. The power of another so-called god - an Ascendant. Cruz liked that term, was at the other end, it could only be the Ascendancy. The man himself. Cruz was humbled.

He turned around to see what Nox had to say he'd met the man - twice. But Nox wasn't behind him.
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#3
The whole thing was overwhelming. Nox had never ridden in a limo. Aurora had gone to a prom in one - with Sage which only made things with his dark-haired suitor even more uncomfortable. Sage was Aurora's first and friend. it still bothered him greatly that Sage didn't care.

Arrival was just as overwhelming all the people in their fancy clothes and their expensive jewelry. Their hair probably took them hours to do much less their make up. Nox felt completely out of his element and underdressed though Cruz had assured him several times on the way over that he was perfectly fine. That didn't help him any, Cruz looked comfortable in his Tux, Nox kept fidgeting. Cruz laughed at him more than once as he pulled his cummerbund down and straightened his cufflinks.

There was never a day in all of Nox's life did he think he was going to be going to some grand gala or whatever it was called. Never in his lifetime.

Nox had never been to the palace yet the man who lived inside he'd met twice. And it was hardly reassuring that he'd have a warm welcome. Ascendancy did not like him. He was an annoyance, a gnat to the man. Nox would try his fucking hardest not to get swatted this time. The man had little patience for him though Nox had done nothing wrong other than be Atharim. The tattoo on his forearm itched and Nox tugged at his sleeves again.

Their coats were taken, ids given and Cruz was ushered on. "Mr. Durante?"

Nox looked at the man holding his ID against the paper on the list. He was scrutinizing it like he was on some terror list. And he supposed he was. He was a channeler and Atharim, and Ascendancy probably had him earmarked as a troublemaker. Nox looked up and tried to find Cruz but he'd already vanished into the rest of the decorations and people. Well, Fuck!

The man handed him his ID and waved Nox on with a frown. "Don't make any trouble."

Nox grinned at the man, "Wouldn't dream of it, darling."
Nox rolled his eyes once he was looking away from the man and headed into the opulence of the whole place. Nox had never seen riches in such magnitude. He stopped and stared at everything. He didn't know where to look first. People everywhere, but it was the grand decor that caught his attention. It wouldn't be difficult to hide a sniper in all of this. The Atharim could be anywhere. Ascendancy was still number one on their target list. This would be the perfect place to attempt another assassination.

Nox seized the power and held it tightly to him. It was only a trickle of his power, but it let him see better, farther and clearer than he could without it. He could smell and hear better as well. The Ascendancy wasn't the only one to be hunted, there were people here everywhere that could be a target to the Atharim. Nox needed to find Cruz, Dorian would kill him if he were to get his only son killed while he was away.
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#4
Ryker entered the scanner with barely a second thought. They were ubiquitous upon entering any government building. Subtler versions were housed within the lobby of almost every other building. He had nothing to hide. There were no weapons on his person. The weapon was within.

He had to stop himself from wringing his hands with that thought, however. Without his pocket knife, he felt alone. The power may as well not exist at all for all he could control it otherwise. As the light turned green, an armed guard waved him on through the device, and he told himself there were other ways to inflict pain. Blunt, uncouth ways perhaps. Finding a method to hurt himself without causing serious damage was difficult. Cutting wasn't fun, but it worked. God forbid a doctor discover the scars. They'd call him insane and try to lock him up. It wouldn't go well for anyone involved.

He met the eyes of the next guard in the series. The man held himself like any Red Dog should: these vicious guard-dogs of the Kremlin. They hated the term, Red Dog, for the derogatory undertones. Ryker had no intention of pissing one off, but for all their might, he was confident he could best one if need be, armed or not.

The Kremlin knew exactly who Ryker was, however, and as this Red Dog examined the statement of Ryker's files filling the screen before him, he did as well. When the recognition of Ryker's clearances and operator status arose, the guard asked him to step aside.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mister Petrović." With that, the guard returned his wallet, which Ryker slipped into the slender pocket of his coat. Ryker suppresed an amused smile and made his way into the ball.

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#5
The past few days blurred. Most of it, Evelyn occupied a table alongside her team. The boardroom became a digital meeting for hours on end, with holograph projections of US leadership seated around the table. Thousands of miles away, and with all the progress she made on America’s behalf, and they still mistrusted her judgement.

Yet the work continued. A voice of the future whispered in her mind occasionally broke her concentration. She’d made uo her mind, surely. Yet doubt crept slowly in. She needed a sign. Even now, she grasped the cross in her palm and prayed for a blessing upon her path. Yes, her actions appeared to be traitorous, but it was for the good of all. The longer she remained in Moscow, the greater the potential she imagined.

The ball was proof. The money and good that would be done was the sign. Surely? Yes. It had to be. She could take a deep breath and relax for once. She earned this.
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#6
Ivan had waited. And waited. And waited. The hours had ticked by and he'd hugged his jacket around him to stave off the cold of later spring. Periodically he'd seized the power and scanned the tunnels, sending tendrils of air out, feeling for movement. Over time, he'd found he was able to send them out farther and farther, feelers, whiskers. But for some reason, when he'd tried to make it turn a corner, like the optics that SWAT used to peer under doors too thick for thermal imaging.

Instead, the weaves had fallen apart when it turned the corner and he couldn't see the whole thing. Which was weird. Normally, he might have wanted to figure out the mechanics of the this. Not now though. It seemed like the lead had settled into a pit in his stomach. Yun Kao.

It was close to 2 am when he'd gotten home. And while he'd wanted to go right to sleep, worry about his family and trying to figure out how to get out kept his mind racing. It took a few shots of whiskey to quiet his mind enough. Well, to be honest, he'd just sort of passed out on the couch. And it was more than a few. The full bottle had been drained to just a quarter.

Which meant that morning he'd awakened still drunk, dehydrated and a monster of a headache coming on. After a few pills that did nothing later, he'd called in sick and tried to go back to sleep. Small mercies- it'd worked.

The next few days he was a zombie, just going through the motions. A few people asked him if he was ok. Alex had pulled him aside and talked to him. But there was nothing other than telling her he was trapped. She'd listened and tried to pick his spirits up. Well, again, to be honest, she had. For a little while anyway. And in the quiet of her room, feeling the warmth of her in his arms, he did feel some sense of peace return to him. But always only temporarily.

And then he'd received a message from the Office of the Ascendancy. A ball. Seriously? What the hell would he do at a ball? For that matter, why would he need to be there? Ascendancy was fantastically powerful, as were those others around him. General Vellas. Consul Dubois.

Not like he could refuse. So he'd paid for a rental tux (like he owned one.) For a moment, a light of humor had cut through him and he thought about getting a light blue or light orange one, complete with ruffles on the shirt. But nah. He knew better. And he really wasn't in the mood. Though it did make him smile to at least imagine it.

Whatever help Alex had given though had evaporated at the message he received from Yun. That lead in his stomach became heavier. Not like she wanted him to do anything big. But...doing anything for her was bad. He knew how the game was played. Give him small easy jobs, each one innocent enough. In this case, nothing illegal in the slightest. But he wasn't a fool. Each step would wind another thread around him. A spider and he was the goddamn fly.

Except....no. He'd figure out a way. He had too.

So eventually he found himself being scanned in and heading into a room filled with preening assholes, men and women who'd paid the requisite millions in order to hob knob with the Ascedancy. The man would be here, he knew. But fat chance he'd get to him. He took a glass of champagne from one of the servers and held it after a sip. He'd have to be careful. He couldn't let himself lose his wits. The opulence of the room was lost on him- in this mood anyway.

He knew none of these people and so only wandered around. He kept alert, though, watching for his target even as he ground his teeth. That silk thread was weak and easy to break. But he couldn't take the chance. Not until he had help.

Not from Ascendancy. But he remembered he DID know someone here, if only through one brief encounter.

Two faces to look for then.
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#7
Jaxen was practically giddy as he dressed for the night. Not that he was all that in love with marcella and wing collars, but he did cut a fine fucking line out of it when he did. That he had a date on his arm that promised an evening of mischief was part of excitement. Rubbing it into Matvei's face that he was going with Scion instead of the older brother was certainly another perk. Luckily, his oldest brother didn't have ten million to waste on a ticket, and they were sold out anyway, with second-market prices tripling or quadrupling that cost at the least. The dark shadows of jealosy hanging over Mat's expression only made it better.

No. None of those were the reason a perpetual grin smirked Jaxen's freshly shaved lips. It was the promise of walking the inside of the Kremlin, a place off-limits, with a free reign, and when cloaked in the illusion of another man, a free leash. He had every intention of learning the Kremlin's secrets and exploring the palace as his own castle. Of walking up to Ascendancy, looking him in the eye, and telling him he wasn't as special as he thought he was. Plucking the god of a man off his high-pedestal would be gloriously amusing. Even if only for a second.

Scion had other plans for Jaxen, but he didn't care. Let his father make his play for the seat on the Ascendancy's knights of the round table. In fact, if Scion was such a knight, it may play to Jaxen's advantage in the long run. Perhaps. They would see.

In the limo, Scion fixed him with a familiar, albeit stern look. "Cut the shit grin from your face, Jaxen. Remember why you're here and what happens to you if you try to fuck me over."
Yep. Familiar line. He'd heard that threat once or twice before. Though, he was rather fond of being back in his father's fat wallet again. Mom provided fine, but nothing like the limitless funds Scion offered.

He shrugged and shared a glance with Oriena at his side. She was probably the same age as Scion's date (and newest girlfriend). Jaxen saw the appeal Scion appreciated in the leggy, dark-skinned beauty, but knowing that she was fucking his father completely erased all attraction he may have otherwise felt for her. Oriena, on the other hand, Scion scrutinized openly when they first saw one another. She was not the woman of society Scion hoped Jaxen to entice. Yet there was nothing obviously disapproving about her, so he permitted her presence. Good since he paid for the ticket.

"Don't worry, Scion. I know our terms."
The promise did little to ease his father's apprehensions. As well it shouldn't. But there was little else he could do about it.

They flew through security at the Kremlin itself. There was little to hold them up. Not even Oriena flagged anything in their system. Which only proved the falliability of the system itself. He recalled quite clearly how she worked her way through the Atharim's basement sanctuary.

Admittedly, this was the first time Jaxen had been inside the Kremlin. It wasn't his first invitation by any means, but it was the first one he accepted. Balls and government events were hardly the sort of nightlife he found tempting. He made sure to snake his arm through Oriena's as they walked the grand halls and lean in close to her ear, "like a proper princess,"
he toyed with the inside of her wrist as they walked. "I bet every single one of these idiots are pretending they are the tsar and tsarina of old."
he nodded at one russian woman adorned in an actual tiara.

"Now, this ball will be crawling with channelers. Care to play a game? Who of us can get someone to channel first? Let's find someone and poke them into showing their hand."
Just to see what would happen, of course. And who would respond. They were surrounded by tuxedos and ballgowns, but for all Jaxen knew, every single person in view was a channeler. How else better to test the waters than to toss in a few pebbles and watch for ripples..


"So?" said Loki impatiently.  "This isn't the first time the world has come to an end, and it won't be the last either."
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#8
Ryker studied the wall of black smoke that churned ever so slowly toward the ceiling. Hands clasped behind his back, neck arched, he was a cool, although solitary figure. The enormous wall was the elephant in the room that everyone gawked at but feared too greatly to approach.

He didn't fear it. There was something of an echo in the power that simultaneously called and repelled him yet the curiosity was too powerful to resist. If he squinted, he thought he could make out the faint lines of light embedded within the heart of the blackness, but it was impossible to discern, let alone attempt to recreate. He had little reason to recreate such a device, but something similar could be a useful cloaking device. Regardless, what Nikolai planned didn't matter. He couldn't make out the weaves anyway. If he could but enter into its depths and study it more.

But not now. He smothered the temptation and retreated, features falling into thinly veiled irritation. Nikolai was a showy son of a bitch, no doubt he would learn soon enough.

He accepted an offer for champagne, though he did nothing with the flute other than hold it. Otherwise, he wafted through the bodies of people like a ghost they didn't notice, listening for anything to prick his ear. No doubt, the enemies of the Ascendancy were in this room. He had only to find them.

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#9
One thing Nox noticed was that even the servers were wearing attire that was more expensive than his entire belongings save maybe a few of the guns he used to own. He hadn't needed a gun in well over a year and a half now. Though he still kept a handgun close, but rarely used it. And he hadn't really picked up a cross bow in eons. Ironic that his go to was now blown to smithereens and Nox barely cared.

His thoughts carried him around the room, looking for Cruz. You'd think his friend would be easily spotted, but everyone was dressed the same and Cruz felt at ease. Nox was sure he stuck out like he didn't belong. A cute blond stopped in front of him and offered him a drink. Nox shook his head. "No, thank you. Maybe later."
The latter had barely been uttered before the male server was moving on through the crowd. Nox was a no one. He didn't want a drink no reason to linger.

Fuck! He needed to find Cruz.

Nox tried act cool, but the tuxedo made him sweat, and the power was only making every sight and sound that much brighter and that much louder, but Nox refused to be without. Nox thought he saw Cruz as he disappeared into yet another crowd, he turned quickly and stepped without looking and ran into the back of a man, two inches taller and a hell of a lot bigger than he was. "Fuck."
Nox started then stopped and tried not to stammer as he issued his apology. "Yeah, sorry for my mouth and not watching where I was going. I didn't spill your drink did I?"
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#10
Jay played sports his whole life, but the first time he put on that varsity uniform in 10th grade, he thought he was on top of the world. Not to mention that people treated him totally different when he wore it. And by people, that mostly meant girls. Hot girls.

Good times.

So there was something about the uniform that thrilled him. Same thing happened when he graduated basic training. Only by then, the eagle, globe and anchor was a symbol of pride for something he grit his teeth, buckled down into the soul of his gut, and fucking earned. That he did well on Saturday nights was slightly less important than it was in high school.

The day he relinquished his Blues had been a bad day. A good memory to keep buried. Hard to believe that was not all that long ago. So much had happened. Home. Cayli's diagnosis. Mom and dad. But when the offer of a job in the Legion came, he wanted to cry with relief. Everything was going to be okay. He'd have a good pay check. Cayli could see some real doctors. The house wouldn't be foreclosed. Mom and dad would make it until Jay was able to get their finances turned around. A few years would see them all better off. The days before Danjou was CEO, the Legion was an attractive cause. Jay was willing to put his life on the line for something he believed in. If he died on the job, the death gratuity would be enough to sustain his family back home.

Fast forward .. what... less than a year? And the uniform of the Legion was already replaced with another. The dark cloth settled around his shoulders like the long-lost arms of a brother. The chain lay flat across his chest. The wrapping tucked around his waist like a second skin. He ran his palms along the sleeves, then down the flat of his coat. Fingers grazed the threads of the patch - the skeleton of a winged demon. It was a fucking cool uniform.

Samuel's face filled the mirror alongside him. At least from the chest-upward it did. There was no such thing as floor-length mirrors in the facility. Sam's dark hair and well-trimmed beard fit among the shades of black. He smiled. "Its good, yes Carp?"
The wavy nature of Belgian accent brightened.

Jay nodded. "I hate to say it, but I think I finally feel like one of you."
He clapped Sam on the shoulder and the two departed together.

For the most part, the Nine were of similar stages of approval. They hadn't seen Michael yet, but knowing the guy was constantly draped in his long coat, some side-bets were taken as to whether or not he would be adding it over the top of his uniform. If he even got one. Karim, for all his unofficial status as second in command had no distinction to his from any of the others. Either rank wasn't important among the Nine, or Karim had none to display.

They were dismissed from the Facility as a group for the first time since Jay joined. He was almost worried about peering into the brightness of the sky as they ascended to the surface. Otherwise, the uniforms put them in a good mood. Even Sanjay was prodding Allan, who carried his weight in the belly if you know what I mean, with some good-natured jokes about his fat-ass looking svelte in the flattering cut.

Despite the light-hearted air in the elevator, Jay wrung his hands together nervously. By the time the doors opened, he was sweating, lips licking like he was suddenly dying of thirst. Luckily, Karim was the first of them to seize the power, and when he did, the others followed suit. Jay breathed a sigh of relief when the power flooded his veins. He took a deep breath, savored the painful grasp of glory to his bones, and exited in the company of these new brothers.

The Kremlin was spectacular. He'd seen pictures, even a map of the grounds. Their role tonight was protection for Ascendancy, Representative Evelyn Avalon, Commander Danjou, and the guests - in that explicit order. Though, there was one guest in particular that his baby-blue eyes darted in search of golden hair.

He'd seen the pictures, the map, and virtual reality walk-through, but none of it really prepared him. He grew up in the middle of no where, where the Des Moines mall was about the most spectacular structure he'd ever seen (until later in life anyway). When he deployed to South America and Africa, he wasn't touring the wealthy retail districts either.

The very air seemed to glint with gold. The wealth and luxury of the Kremlin Grand Palace was smothering. He found himself frowning with the discomfort. These were not his people. This was not his home. He'd never fit in here. Maybe with the Nine. Maybe in this uniform. But never with these people.

With that, he was grateful the uniform kept him apart. It made the divide easier to grapple.

"Who are you looking for?"
Samuel's rolling accent interrupted his thoughts. Jay snapped his gaze to the shorter man.
"No one."

Sam smirked, but shrugged off the obvious lie anyway.


Only darkness shows you the light.


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