Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For disclaimers, see Chapter 1
"Add to this, the pleasure of seeing the various revolutions of states and empires; the changes in the lower and upper world; ancient cities in ruins, and obscure villages become the seats of kings; famous rivers lessening into shallow brooks; the ocean leaving one coast dry, and overwhelming another; the discovery of many countries yet unknown; barbarity overrunning the politest nations, and the most barbarous become civilised. I should then see the discovery of the longitude, the perpetual motion, the universal medicine, and many other great inventions, brought to the utmost perfection."
"Thanks a lot, Boss. You have no idea how much this means to me. To us."
"Taldas, stop it," Ally protested as she led the group consisting of herself, Taldas Islin, Laura McGarrity, Marjorie Melan, and Rina bel'Oman along the hallway, accompanied by her now ever-present Guard detail. "And I do know how much this means to you. Evelynne wants to meet you guys as well. God only knows why." She smirked.
"Yes?" Rina asked hesitantly, her eyes wide. "She... knows us? She knows who we are?"
"Of course. I had to tell her so that she would know who to have beheaded." Rina's eyes widened even further. "Relax, Rina, I'm just kidding. It was a joke. Really, she's interested in the work we've been doing at Aztlan."
"She's interested in you, you mean," Laura said dryly. "And you just happen to work at Aztlan."
Ally blushed. "Well... yeah. But she is interested in you, really."
"Not as much as she is in you," Laura teased. "And really, Boss, you should do something about that blush. You are marrying her, after all."
"I'll do my best. I'm sorry this will be such a short meeting," Ally continued, changing the topic. "But with all of the stuff happening this afternoon, the King and Queen and Evelynne don't really have a lot of time. I'll see about maybe arranging something more once the Conclave is over. She wants to come out and see the site some time soon."
"Well, we'll have to be sure to clean the place up for her," Taldas joked. "Can't have Her Highness tripping over broken statuary with her Royal feet." He paused. "Although you're going to have Royal feet one of these days." He shook his head as if to clear it. "That's still weird. No offence, Boss, but I just can't picture you as the Royal type."
"That's okay. I really can't see myself that way, either. Well, here we are." They stopped just outside a set of elegantly carved doors.
Sir Arthur was waiting with three other Guards. "Lady Alleandre," he said formally.
"Sir Arthur, this is Taldas Islin, Rina bel'Oman, Marjorie Melan, and Laura McGarrity. My team."
The Guard nodded his head briefly in their direction. "Isi, eni, if you would stand here for a moment?" He gestured to the side to doors, and one of his Guardsmen produced a handheld scanner. "We just need to scan you."
"Sorry about this," Ally apologised. "Everyone's a little jumpy right now, and this meeting is kind of last minute."
"No problem," Taldas said, submitting agreeably to the search. The scan quickly turned up his pocket change, watch and cellular phone. Searches of Rina, Marjorie and Laura turned up similar items.
"That's quite a PDA," Sir Arthur commented as he inspected Laura's handheld device.
"What can I say?" Laura said wryly. "I'm a technogeek. I have a friend in the computer industry in the States and he's always sending me the latest stuff they're working on. This model is one of his latest projects. It's not quite illegal for me to have it, since it's past the prototype stage, but it isn't in full production yet, so I'd appreciate a little... discretion about who you talk to about it."
"Of course, Ma'am," the Guard said, running an eye over the PDA once more before handing it back to its owner. "Well, everything seems in order."
"Thanks, Sir Arthur," Ally said, smiling. Turning to the door, she opened in and led the way inside, to where Princess Evelynne, King Jad, Queen Cleo, and Duke Thomas were seated in a small, informal sitting room.
The three Royals stood as their guests entered, and Ally walked immediately over to her fiancée, stopping to give her a brief kiss and whispered greeting. Behind her, Taldas, Rina and Marjorie hesitated only briefly before bowing deeply. Laura paused a moment before doing the same.
Turning back to her guests, Ally introduced them. "Your Majesties, Your Grace, may I present Taldas Islin, Marjorie Melan, Rina _____ and Laura McGarrity."
"Pleased to meet you all," King Jad rumbled moving forward to shake their hands. His greeting and actions were echoed a moment later by Queen Cleo, and Duke Thomas smiled and waved a greeting but did not rise from his place in a comfortable chair.
"And, of course, this is Princess Evelynne," Ally continued.
"Of course," Taldas murmured, casting twinkling eyes in Ally's direction. "Your Highness," he greeted, bowing over her hand.
"I'm really glad to meet you all," Evelynne said. "Please, come and sit down. I'm afraid we only have half an hour. So tell me... What's Ally really like when she's not around all us stuffy Nobles? No, wait, let me guess. It's all wild parties, drinking and carousing, right? Dancing girls and staying up 'till all hours?" Her warm, informal manner let them all relax a little.
"Why, of course, Your Highness," Taldas agreed. "Why, the number of times we've had to pour her into bed in the wee hours of the morning..." He shook his head sadly while the subject of this blatant untruth made inarticulate sounds of protest and everyone else stifled outright laughter.
"Of course," Duke Thomas intoned gravely, shaking his head in sorrow. "I knew she was a troublemaker from the first time I set eyes on her."
"I knew it," Evelynne proclaimed in mock triumph. "I knew she couldn't be as decent as she always appears to be. But that's alright." She patted Ally's red face. "I love you anyway."
Ally sighed. "Damnit, you guys were supposed to be on my side. You're all fired, the lot of you."
"Sorry we had to drag you in today, Chorus," Colonel MaecDonaeld of the Guard cryptography division apologised as he led the young man through the perpetually busy Communications Office. It seemed even busier today, which made sense, given the heightened security surrounding the Conclave. "I know you'd rather be with your friend, Lady Alleandre. Tell her congratulations from me when you get the chance, okay?"
"Sure thing, Padraig," Chorus agreed. "And don't worry about bringing me in. I'll have plenty of time to tease... I mean, congratulate Ally later. She'll still be engaged tomorrow... which is more than we could have been sure of yesterday. Besides, she and Princess Evelynne are probably still making goo-goo eyes at each other and won't even notice I'm not around."
Padraig chuckled and shook his head, still unused to the young man's irreverent attitude towards such august personages. "I wouldn't be surprised. I remember when my wife and I first got engaged. Well, I remember her, I just don't remember much else."
"I'll take your word for it. Since I've never been engaged, and don't plan to be for quite some time." Reaching the desk that had been set aside for him, he took a seat, logging on to his computer. While he waited for the myriad security checks to process, he asked, "So, what's the news?"
MaecDonaeld took a seat opposite and leaned back. "We intercepted a couple of new transmissions from Unknown Thirty Seven late last night."
Chorus raised his brows as the screen before him cleared, and he immediately opened the new files waiting for him. "Last night? Why didn't someone come and get me then? You know it helps if I see it as soon as possible after transmission." His eyes were already scanning the lines of encoded gibberish scrolling across the screen.
"Sorry," the Colonel apologised again, "but we've been following up on a rash of anonymous tips that have been coming in since midnight. The entire staff has been going non-stop, and someone only remembered to check that tap an hour ago."
"That's okay," Chorus dismissed. "I know you're always busy." He continued scanning the lines of code. There was a pattern there, and he could almost see it, almost see the rules of grammar, syntax and vocabulary that made up any language. All a code did was add another layer of complexity to the underlying meaning. But even the most intricate code was still based on certain self-consistent laws and rules of translation, and as such could be treated as any other language. Still, it remained maddeningly out of reach, like an itch at the back of his brain.
"So, Nicodemus, you picking up anything?" Padraig asked.
Chorus frowned, then sighed. "No, nothing. It's there, I know it, but it's hideously complex. I would love to meet whoever created this thing. Although I don't know if I'd shake his hand or punch him in the face. Maybe both. Still, since I'm here I'll hang around a while, maybe try a few different visualisations." He smiled at his companion ruefully. "This was not how I was planning on spending my day."
"Well, I appreciate it," MaecDonaeld said, rising to his feet. "Yell if you need anything. I've got to get back to tracing down bogus leads. Of course, it'll be the one that we don't track down that will blow up in our faces. I tell you, it's like someone is deliberately trying to drive us nuts."
"Will do. And I ž" Chorus froze, his face going utterly and completely still.
Later on he would never be able to pinpoint exactly what MaecDonaeld had said to provide the final clue, the key piece of context that suddenly and unexpectedly allowed his Savant mind, operating on a level unknown to most humans, to unlock the final solution to the code. All he knew was that at that moment, the answer seemed to unfold gently in his mind, although with a suddenness that made it seem like an explosion. Whirling back to his monitor, he scanned the lines of code again, and this time instead of gibberish, it was as though he was reading a simple e-mail. And what he read made his black skin pale noticeably.
"Oh shit." It was almost a whisper.
"What?" Padraig asked, startled by the sudden movement and expletive.
Chorus ignored him. He was too busy calling up all the past intercepted messages, their secrets now completely open to him, skimming through them as fast as he was able, and by the time he was done he was an alarming ash-grey colour.
Looking up at the Colonel, he said without preamble, "I need to talk to the General. Now." The urgency in his voice was unmistakable.
MaecDonaeld hesitated. "Are you sure? It might take a ž"
"No. Now," Chorus said flatly. "Do whatever you need to. What's your highest priority alert?"
"What? Er... Alert Code Deluge. Imminent Invasion."
"Good. Use it."
"What? You don't joke about this. Abuse of Deluge nets me five years hard time. I can't just ž"
"Damnit, Padraig, this is not an abuse. Do you understand me? This is real, and we don't have time to confirm it independently."
This time it was Colonel MaecDonaeld's turn to pale, as the meaning of Chorus' words sunk in. Without further delay he grabbed the phone on the desk and punched the large red button that connected directly to the General Danun's office. "This is MaecDonaeld, Communications and Cryptography, 985345. I need the General, now!" The person on the other end began to object, but he overrode them. "Alert Code Deluge. I say again, Alert Code Deluge."
There was a gasp from the other end, echoed by several others in the room as they overheard the Colonel's declaration. Without further delay there was a click on the line as he was transferred directly to the General herself.
"Damnit, this had better be good," Danun snarled into the phone, obviously stressed to the limit by the demands of co-ordinating security for the Conclave.
"General, Colonel MaecDonaeld, ComCrypt. I am reporting a possible Alert Code Deluge. The information is credible and current."
"Who?" Danun asked, her tone going from peeved to businesslike in an instant.
"Civilian Chorus Tladi, Ma'am. He claims to have broken the code." There was no need for him to explain which code he was talking about.
"Put him on," the General ordered. Padraig handed the phone to Chorus immediately. "Talk to me, Chorus."
"If I understand this right, there are already guerrilla fighters in the city, and possibly in the Palace and Conclave Hall itself. Although they claim to be HBLA, they're actually foreign soldiers. I don't know from where, because it's never explicitly stated. Actually, the entire HBLA is just a front for this group and is not a domestic terrorist organisation at all. But they're well armed and their mission is to eliminate the Nobility, including the Royal family. Execution orders have already been given."
"Chorus, I need some kind of confirmation. I can't give the go-ahead for the kind of action you're looking for on just one source's information. Not even yours."
"Listen, does the access code X-Ray Tango Four Seven Two Bravo Zulu Eight Six mean anything to you?"
"Where did you hear that code?" the General asked, her voice deadly.
"It's in one of the latest messages. The soldiers are supposed to use it to gain access to the Palace."
"Tae'e-haka!" Danun swore. "That's a high priority access code dedicated to the Royal Guard. I'm coming down and activating Code Deluge." Without waiting for a reply, the General hung up.
She immediately flipped open a small, nearly-invisible panel set into the surface of her desk. Within was a single large red button. It, or something like it, had been a permanent fixture of every Guard Director's office since before the Second World War, and in all that time it had only been pressed twice. The button was connected to a simple transmitter which would send a signal to a receiver in every military base, Naval ship, Guardsman, intelligence agency, police station and emergency service in the country. It meant one thing: Imminent invasion. Martial law in effect.
The first time the button had been pressed had been shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, when the Italian navy had attempted a sneak attack on the Atlantlan islands. Alerted by covert intelligence sources, the hastily assembled Royal Atlantlan Navy had managed to ambush and eliminate the attacking ships.
The second time had been during the North Atlantic Standoff in the early 1970's, when the United States had tried to blockade the nation, ostensibly as a way to force social reform in the Kingdom. The blockade had been in place for less than two days before the combined diplomatic pressure of nations on both sides of the ocean had finally forced the Americans to withdraw ž although officially the blockade was still in place, only pulled back to a "less aggressive" distance of one thousand kilometres.
The third time the button was pressed, it worked perfectly... which was unfortunate. The signal went out on its dedicated, top-secret frequency, and throughout the country alarms began to wail as startled security personnel scrambled to respond.
Unfortunately for them, the frequency was not as secret as the Guard had believed, as its intended receivers were not the only ones to pick it up. Throughout military installations, police stations, and Guard posts throughout the Kingdom other, less benign receivers also heard the call. These ones were not connected to alarms, however. They were connected to detonators, and what should have been the most secure signal in the spectrum set them off.
Nearly simultaneous with the sirens came the explosions as the small but incredibly powerful charges hidden in otherwise innocuous objects detonated. Not all of them exploded. Some were too well shielded by their location or environment to receive the signal. Some had degraded over the time ž years in some cases ž since they had been installed. A few simply malfunctioned, either through damage or imperfect construction. But those accounted for less than ten per cent of the total, which left over six thousand bombs to do their deadly work. And none of the people they were aimed at knew they were there until it was far too late.
In a police station in Outremer, a coffee maker exploded, instantly killing a quarter of the force, and starting a fire that soon threatened to consume a whole city block.
On the aircraft carrier RANS Enki a heating unit produced a blast so strong that it ruptured the hull, and only the quick actions of the ship's engineer, sacrificing himself by sealing the emergency hatches from the inside, prevented her sinking.
In a Guard post in the outskirts of Jamaz, the microwave that Major o-Miltay was using to reheat his late lunch was next to a small toaster oven, and the interference it produced was the only thing that scrambled the signal enough to prevent the explosive planted in the oven from detonating.
In the main armoury of the Ru'en Army base, the blast from an air conditioning unit installed only a few months before created a chain reaction in the stockpiles of ammunition and explosives stored nearby, ultimately destroying half the base.
Similar scenes were played out with incredible variety, throwing the entire nation into chaos in a matter of seconds. In a few cases, "tainted" objects that had been meant to go to military or security had inevitably made their way to civilian homes and businesses, and more died as their own conveniences turned on them.
And in the heart of the Common Guard Headquarters, the signal was received by a small device expertly concealed in the computer of General Danun's secretary. The resulting explosion destroyed four offices, killing everyone inside... including General Danun.
"But what does Alleandre think?" Queen Cleo asked, looking in Ally's direction.
They had been discussing theories related to the actual construction of the ancient city of Aztlan, and Rina had been explaining her own theory of advanced metallurgical and construction techniques being used. King Jad was less than enthralled, but still listened politely, realising just how devastated the young woman would be at her Monarch's disapproval. Everyone else had been listening and adding their own input with varying degrees of interest.
"Oh, now the Boss' theory," Taldas interjected, "is a little more... controversial. She thinks that the ancient Atlantlans utilised some kind of collective psychic power to help them move those huge stones."
A number of questioning looks in Ally's direction accompanied this assertion, forcing a blush to appear on her skin.
"I never explicitly said 'psychic power'," she protested, carefully avoiding the eyes of anyone present who knew her secret. "I just said that the properly focused collective will of any group allows it to do things the individuals can't. Now whether that includes displays of... unconventional ability, or just a drastic increase in efficiency is open to debate."
"Ah yes," King Jad said. "Your... what did you call it? Emergent spiritualism? I seem to recall discussing the parting of the Red Sea with you in that context."
"Yes, Sire. And while my personal belief is that psychogenic ability is a real phenomenon ž"
She broke off suddenly as a sensation that she recognised as coming from Sir Arthur, standing discreetly in the corner, suddenly rippled across her consciousness. Her eyes snapped to the Guard, taking in his slightly unfocused gaze, obviously fixed on something none of the rest of them could see. It only lasted a moment, and then, with an almost dreamlike motion, his hand reached for the gun resting on his hip. Sir Adun, the King's personal Guard, and Dame Ilanna, Queen Cleo's, saw the movement and reacted as well, mouths opening to ask a question.
Before they could, however, Arthur bellowed, "Moebius! Zulu! Zulu! Zulu! I say again, Moebius Zulu!" Caught by his collar-mounted mic, his words echoed to every Guard in the Conclave Hall and Royal Palace, and throughout both buildings Guardsmen reacted with varying degrees of alacrity as his words were comprehended. In this room, Adun and Ilanna reacted with barely a millisecond of hesitation, displaying the kind of instantaneous reaction that had led to their positions.
Zulu: Subject in imminent physical danger. Use of deadly force authorised.
Moebius: All Guardsmen, all subjects.
Moebius Zulu: Widespread imminent threat to all protectees within range. Implication: Large scale assault in progress. Full combat alert.
Although it was part of every Guard's training, Moebius Zulu had never before been enacted in reality. It was that training that gave them a chance, giving them a full ten seconds to respond before the chime of Alert Deluge sounded over their radios... and the explosions began. Ten seconds after that, realising with the premature detonation of their surprise blasts there was no longer any need for stealth, thousands of well-armed, well-trained, covert soldiers attacked.
The group in the sitting room only knew that three highly trained Guards were suddenly interposing themselves between their wards and the rest of the room, bustling them away from the windows. Two of those Guards did not know exactly why they were suddenly on high alert, but Adun and Ilanna had worked with Sir Arthur long enough and trusted him implicitly enough to take any of his declarations on faith.
The rest of the room's occupants reacted with varying degrees of bewilderment as the tension suddenly skyrocketed. Ally abruptly found herself separated ž almost apologetically ž from her fiancée by a very forbidding Sir Arthur. A moment later, the door burst open as the rest of the five Guard details ž the King's, Queen's, Heir's, Duke's, and Heir Consort's ž who had been on the other side of the door burst in, weapons drawn and seeking threats.
"Status, Sir?" Major Nixon was the first to ask as she took up an alert position by the doors, opposite on of Duke Thomas' Guards.
Before any of the Master Guards could reply, they all winced abruptly as the alarm of Alert Deluge sounded in their earbuds. The long, drawn-out wail was deliberately designed to be the exact frequency required to revive even the most comatose Guard. It would continue to sound without surcease until each Guard entered a specific three digit code in their communications gear, which would both shut off the alarm and signal to the Guard headquarters that the message had been received. Simultaneous with the alarm, a low rumble filled the air, followed several seconds later by a vibration in the floor. Ally risked a glance out the window, her eyes widening as she saw column of flame and black smoke erupt over part of the distant Conclave Hall.
Hands went to discreetly concealed controls as the Guards acknowledged the signal, but they made no move to inquire after details from Headquarters. Deluge assumed that friendly communication channels could be compromised by hostile forces, automatically minimising radio traffic.
"Sire, we are at Alert Deluge," Sir Adun announced, his eyes never ceasing to scan the room, as if he expected gun-toting commandos to burst out of the walls. "We need to get you to Elysium."
Elysium was a code for a specially constructed hidden bunker, from which the King and Queen could take control of the island once again. There were actually several such bunkers scattered throughout the islands, and no less than three in various locations under the Palace and Conclave Hall.
"Closest?" Sir Arthur asked brusquely.
"Kappa-Four," Dame Ilanna replied. "Section Forty-four."
"Good," Sir Adun said. "We'll move together to the arms locker in Section Twenty-eight, then split. Odin will go to Kappa-Four." He indicated his own team. "Hera and Daedelus will proceed to Kappa-Three." Dame Ilanna and the Master of Duke Thomas' Guard both nodded. "Phoenix and Sorceress will move towards Lambda-One." Sir Arthur and Captain el-Jahir signalled their agreement.
"Civilians, Sir?" Nixon asked, her eyes flicking to the other people, who were looking more frightened by the moment.
Sir Adun hesitated. "You, with me." He pointed to Marjorie. "You, go with Hera and Daedelus... Queen Cleo and Duke Thomas." Rina hesitantly moved over to them, reluctantly letting go of Taldas' hand. "You two, with the Heir and Consort." Taldas and Laura moved more quickly over to Ally and Evelynne. The King's Guard looked at them sternly. "Keep your heads down and do exactly what you're told," he ordered. "You are not a priority." The words were harsh but true. Each Guard detail's primary focus was the safety of their immediate ward. Civilians took a distant second place.
"Ready?" Adun asked. He keyed his mic. "Point teams, move out."
Two Guards opened the doors and went through, guns drawn and ready to fire, inching down the corridor outside, taking cover behind statues and decorations as they went. When they had secured a length of hallway, one radioed back. "Go," she said.
In response, the remaining Guards hustled their wards out of the room, and the small group ž thirteen Guards and nine civilians ž began its journey towards the hope of safety.
More than a little frightened, Ally moved closer to her lover and caught her attention with a raised eyebrow and touch to her own temple, which had become their signal for changing to a more secure form of communication.
*Ally? Are you okay?* Evelynne asked, her own worry washing over the link.
*I don't know. What's going on? I know that Sir Arthur had a flash of something, and that's usually bad. And I saw smoke out the window.*
*Wait a moment, I'm going to ask him.* There was a moment of disconnection, as though Evelynne had put her "on hold" while she switched to another "line". A moment later she came back. *It's an invasion,* she said, shock and disbelief echoing through her thoughts. *He knows somehow that there are enemy forces in the Palace and Conclave Hall itself. Every Guardsman is on alert. He doesn't know what caused the explosions, though.* She paused, listening to some silent conversation. *And he wants me to stay out of his head. Apparently it's too distracting. Although... he wants to know whether you can sense anything. Central communications are down, so he doesn't know where the enemy is.*
*Damn, why didn't I think of that? Can you keep me on track for a minute? I've never done this while trying to walk before.*
Without bothering to answer, Evelynne tightened her hold on Ally's arm as they continued to creep forward, ready to keep her balanced while the Adept was focused elsewhere.
Ally slowly slipped into her altered consciousness. While remote viewing was never easy for her, this time it was especially difficult, as the effort to remain walking, the constant worry and fear, and the sounds of the people moving around her conspired to disrupt her concentration. Finally though, with disconcerting slowness, she felt her awareness expand outwards, no longer relying on her mundane senses to provide information. As always, the alien sense of being able to see everything simultaneously caused confusion, as her sensory processing ability, trained only to deal with a single perspective, sought to handle the sensory overload.
Vaguely aware that her body was beginning to shake with the strain, Ally cast her mind forward, beyond the vicinity of their little party, up the corridor and beyond the conventional sight of the Guards. Her sight was limited in range even under the best circumstances, but she was still able to see at least fifty metres ahead, past where the hallway took a sharp turn. At first she was relieved to find the way clear, but then a group of people seemed to abruptly burst into view. Ally was familiar enough with Atlantlan military uniforms to realise that these were definitely not loyal Atlantlan troops.
The suddenness and shock of the revelation caused her tenuous hold to snap, catapulting her consciousness back into her body with a speed that had her clutching Evelynne's arm desperately as she retched helplessly. She ignored the attention of those nearest to her, striving to control her rebelling stomach and speak to Evelynne at the same time. *Soldiers,* she gasped mentally, praying that Evelynne was listening. *In the corridor ahead. Not friendly. Ten or twelve, I'm not sure.*
*I just told him,* Evelynne said. "Are you okay?" She kept her voice low, stroking Ally's back comfortingly. Rina hesitantly patted Ally's arm on the other side.
Ally nodded shakily as she straightened, trying to ignore the smell of vomit.
The procession, which had halted when Ally had begun to retch, prepared to move forward, but paused when Sir Arthur held them back. He appeared to be having some kind of discussion with the other Guards in a coded sign language. Ally couldn't completely decipher what was being said, but the signals for "ahead", "twelve" and "weapons" were easy enough to comprehend. Sir Adun and Dame Ilanna looked as though they desperately wanted to question Sir Arthur on the source of his information, but valiantly restrained their questions.
Turning back to the civilians, Sir Arthur said in a low tone, "Get against the walls and stay down. We have company coming." He fixed a piercing stare on Ally. "Stay close to her." There was no question which "her" he was referring to.
Ally nodded firmly, wrapping her arms around Evelynne and hunkering down behind a large planter. Duke Thomas was helped down stiffly and painfully beside her, and she did her best to interpose herself between him and the corridor as well.
Firmly putting aside her lingering nausea, she cleared her mind, focussing her thoughts and then channelling power into them, wrapping her thoughts around herself, enhancing her aura, just as she had done nearly a year ago. As she felt the protection settle into place with an almost audible snap, she had a moment to lament that she had yet to discover the trick for wrapping a similar field around another person. Thrusting aside the doubts, she carefully moved so that she was between Evelynne and the exposed expanse of corridor as much as possible.
It was just in time, too, as the first of the enemy soldiers of the "Hy Braseal Liberation Army" came around the corner, alert but confident. That confidence proved their undoing. They had been expecting to encounter mostly light, if determined, resistance, counting on the surprise explosions and suddenness of their attack to confuse any defenders, especially ones who didn't even know they were there.
They had not counted on running head on into five of the most highly trained units of the Atlantlan Guard ž thirteen of the best warriors the Islands had to offer, fully alerted to their presence by the incomparable vision of an Adeptus Major. And while the Guard was only armed with small sidearms, they were also able to hold their fire until it could be most effective, turning what had been a covert scouting mission by the enemy into a total ambush. The initial surprise was complete, and five of them went down before they knew what hit them, all with fatal wounds. Another three were more lightly wounded, staggering back from the incoming fire with cries of shock and pain.
Still, the Guards were only armed with light weaponry, while the enemy force possessed a full arsenal of submachine guns, assault rifles, and high-calibre weapons, and even with eight down there were still four left to hastily return fire at the Atlantlans, and even if they were almost completely surprised, they were still professional soldiers. Sir Adun's two subordinates went down nearly simultaneously, one dead from a bullet in her head and the other staggered by wounds in his shoulder and leg. One of Dame Ilanna's Guards took a barrage of bullets square in the chest, and even though his body armour prevented them from penetrating, it could not fully disperse the kinetic energy of the impact, which was enough to pulverise his rib cage. Major Nixon nearly dropped her gun as a bullet passed through the flesh of her upper arm, but she gritted her teeth and switched to the other hand and continued firing, taking down her opponent with a shot through the throat.
Ally herself winced as she felt a ricochet enter her aura, nearly sighing with relief as the psychokinetic field robbed the projectile of energy, bringing it to a halt millimetres from her skin. Her lower back and shoulder ached in sympathetic memory of a similar experience almost a year before, and she had a moment to give thanks that these weapons lacked the awesome power of the sniper rifle that had penetrated her defences in Marseilles.
Despite the initial ambush, the tide was turning against the defenders, as superior firepower took down three more Guards, and Ally could hear one of the attackers calling for backup. Shouts from the other side of the enemy soldiers' positions left her fearing the worst, and she pressed Evelynne more tightly to her. However, the burst of automatic gunfire that erupted was not directed at the beleaguered Guards, but at the enemy, cutting them down from behind. The fierce firefight continued for a few more excruciatingly long seconds before abruptly ceasing.
The Guards didn't let up on their vigilance for a moment. "Identify!" Sir Adun yelled down the corridor.
"Gamma Six-Five," a voice shouted back, and a slight waver in it could be heard, despite the owner's obvious struggle to suppress it. "Blue Two One Delta. Sigma Three."
Sir Adun looked at Sir Arthur and raised an eyebrow in question. The confirmed presence of enemy soldiers within the Conclave and Palace grounds themselves was an unprecedented occurrence, but he knew that all the Guards had come to the same conclusion: the infiltration could only have occurred with inside help. That meant that all access and identification codes and communications were considered compromised, and all contacts had to be considered potentially hostile.
Ally saw Sir Arthur close his eyes briefly, then was surprised to feel the Guard awkwardly reaching out with his mind, the sensation brushing lightly against her own awareness, but not concentrated on her. It was surprisingly similar to what she would feel when her mother used her empathic sense. He's and empath, too? she asked herself. But then it kind of makes sense, if precognition involves contact with the universal unconscious. And he has been practising. Intrigued, she cautiously extended her own empathic senses, feeling ahead to the unknown people ahead. Focusing on the nearest mind, she briefly sensed fear, caution, determination, outrage, battle lust, and nausea in a nearly overwhelming rush of emotion. But no focussed hostility or active aggression.
Opening her eyes to find Evelynne looking up at her fearfully, and managed a somewhat reassuring smile. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Sir Arthur had apparently made the same discoveries that she had, as he nodded at Sir Adun. The Master of the King's Guard looked at him oddly for a moment, but then shouted, "Alpha One. Approach! Keep your hands in the air!" Despite the assurances of a Guard he trusted implicitly, he was still taking no chances. However, Sir Arthur also appeared to be less than completely assured by what his extended senses told him, maintaining a highly vigilant attitude. Ally could only approve, since the life he was primarily protecting was her lover's.
"Understood," the unseen voice called back, and there seemed to be a combination of surprise and relief in it. "Six individuals. We're coming out."
A few moments of footsteps brought the unknowns into view, walking in single file with their weapons held high above their heads. In the front was a Guardsman in the uniform of the Palace Guard, and Ally knew enough of Guard insignia by now to recognise him as a Corporal. His uniform was slightly torn and bloodstained, and there was a long gash down the side of his face, which was white with pain and stress. Behind him came a second Corporal, her uniform in much the same condition, although she appeared relatively unhurt.
The three soldiers walking behind wore different uniforms, and Ally was surprised to find that she recognised them. Although she had yet to meet them in person, she had seen Captain al-Rahan and her officers enough times on television in the last while to find them familiar.
Sir Adun recognised the newcomers as well, and signalled the Guards to relax their vigilance, and they went back to covering the hallway ahead. "Corporal, Captain," the leader of the Guards greeted as the newly arrived soldiers sought cover near him. "Good to see you. Report. Where's the rest of your team?"
"Sir, Corporal Rupert Gyrus, Palace Guard. This is Corporal Benson." The blonde Corporal nodded. Her eyes widened as she recognised the King, nearly hidden behind two Guardsmen several metres away. "We're all that's left, Sir," Gyrus continued. "We were assigned to escort the Captain to the Conclave Hall." He shook his head, his eyes haunted. "They came out of nowhere, Sir. Sergeant al-Hamman never knew what hit him. Benson and I only survived because we were the rearguard. We managed to get Captain al-Rahan down. We wanted to resist them, Sir, but there were too many. Corporal Ramaani covered us while we retreated. He didn't make it. We were on our way to Rendezvous Seven when we heard you."
Sir Adun swore. "How many were there, Corporal?"
"I'm not sure, Sir, but at least twenty five or thirty. We heard other engagements, so there are more around."
"Right. Corporal... Benson? You've just been drafted into the Queen's Guard. Gyrus, you're with the King's Guard now." Sir Adun looked at the Corporal's bleeding head wound. "Can you still fight?"
"Yes, Sir," Gyrus replied instantly. "A bullet hit a pillar I was taking cover behind. A piece of marble did this."
"Good. Captain, you and your people are with the Heir and Consort." The Guard looked down the hallway. "We're going to strip the enemy of their weapons and then keep moving to the weapons locker. I want body armour for the protectees."
"Unwise," Sir Arthur said, shaking his head. "Whoever they are, they've managed to get a very large force within the Palace grounds themselves. And it wasn't through a frontal assault. The only was to do that so stealthily is if they have fiendishly good intelligence. Which means ž"
"Which means that they probably know the location of every weapons locker in both buildings." The superior Guard swore again. "And they know that's where we'll be heading. Okay, change in plan. Screw the weapons locker. We're cutting straight to the nearest Elysium. They haven't got in there, I don't are who they are."
Elysium and its defences were a completely autonomous division of the Atlantlan military, one that answered only to the King and Queen. It was they who ultimately decided, with the assistance of Elysium Guard advisors, access codes and procedures. Not even the Master of the King's Guard could enter without a member of the Royal family, since anyone attempting to enter would be killed without hesitation or retribution towards the Guards. The Guard units protecting the bunkers literally lived in them for months at a time, in a manner similar to the nuclear missile silos in other countries. They were the final line of defence for the Atlantlan Royalty.
The plan set, Sir Adun nodded to the other Guards, and they moved forward with practised ease, some providing cover while the others quickly stripped the fallen soldiers of their weapons, and wounds were swiftly and efficiently dressed. Major Nixon, her wounded arm preventing her from carrying one of the captured assault rifles, was reassigned to a position closer to the princess.
Ally looked up at the Guard from where she was sitting, Evelynne's face pressed into her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered to the Major. "I wish I could have..." She trailed off helplessly.
"Don't be," Nixon replied in a low voice. "She is the reason we do this." She indicated the princess, who was crying softly into the crook of Ally's neck. "You save your... talents for her." She shifted her newly bandaged arm, wincing, but with a resigned expression. "This is what I was trained to do."
Ally nodded, but didn't say anything more. In her hand she held the bullet that only the power of a thought had prevented from seriously wounding her. It was still warm to the touch, and she carefully slipped it into a pocket. She turned her attention to the sobbing woman in her arms. "Evy? Are you... hurt?" Ally knew her lover wasn't, but it seemed a more appropriate thing to say than "Are you okay?" -- especially when the answer was obvious.
Evelynne sniffled a few more times, then looked up at Ally with watery eyes. "No, I don't think so. I'm just... I was so scared." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "You probably think I'm a wimp."
"Hardly," Ally said gently. "I'm terrified myself."
"You don't look like it."
"I've had a bit more... experience in situations like these. Well, not exactly like this, but..."
Understanding dawned in Evelynne's eyes. "When you were doing your Guardian Angel impression with the drug raids."
"Yeah, that. And a couple of other times I've been way too close to guns going off. I'll tell you about it. Later." The implied promise that they'd both survive to share the tales was clear.
"I'll hold you to that. I'm beginning to realise just how many of these stories you haven't told me." Evelynne pulled Ally's head down to kiss her hard. "Later," she promised. Taking charge of her emotions and reactions once more, the princess turned to Laura and Duke Thomas, who were huddled nearby. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm getting too old for this kind of nonsense," the Duke replied, his face twisted in discomfort as his aged body protested the abuse it had been receiving. "But I'll get by."
"I've got him," Laura said. She looked up to where Sir Adun was signalling the rest of their group. "I think we're moving again."
The group set out again, in much the same manner as before, but with more speed as they raced for refuge. It was still slow going, however, as they now had wounded to move. In the distance they could hear sporadic gunfire and explosions, signalling that the battle for the control of the Palace and Conclave Hall was still ongoing, but the hallways remained remarkably clear of other personnel, and the radio frequencies remained jammed, preventing the Guards from determining the progress of the battle. Twice they came across the signs of combat, spent shell casings and pockmarked walls indicating betraying the conflicts that had taken place. Occasional bodies also marked the halls, both Guards and the enemy soldiers in their urban warfare gear. Thankfully, only two civilians, Palace servants by their attire, appeared to have been killed in the fighting.
The hallways all seemed to blur into one another in Ally's mind as she inched ahead with her lover, her mind as open as possible to approaching threats ahead. It was too difficult to fully engage her remote sight, so she settled for opening her mind to the hostile emotions of the enemy, consciously blocking out the thoughts of her fellow refugees. It was still hard going, and she could feel a massive headache building behind her eyes, but she persevered.
Suddenly realising that they had stopped, Ally came back to her physical surroundings, shaking her head to clear it of the stray thoughts she had been picking up. There was a vague feeling of threat permeating the mental plane, but with the stress and alertness around her it was impossible to pin down. She looked up to see Major Nixon looking at her worriedly.
"Are you well, Your Ladyship?" the Guard asked.
Ally managed to smile wryly. "Define 'well'."
Nixon gave her a crooked grin in reply, and even Evelynne couldn't hold back a strained chuckle. "Sir Arthur is asking you to come forward," the Guard continued. "There's a point up ahead that he would like your... input on." She looked at Ally meaningfully.
"Okay," Ally agreed. She gently pried off the death grip Evelynne had on her arm, then leaned down and kis detectedsed her. "I'll be right back." She looked to Laura McGarrity. "Take care of her."
The secretary's face was solemn, and there was an almost deadly light in her eyes. "I will," she promised, moving closer to lay a hand on the princess' shoulder.
"I'll be right back," Ally promised. With a last caress of her fiancée's cheek, she turned to make her way to where Sir Arthur and Sir Adun were crouched behind the cover of a large marble column, Major Nixon escorting her.
"What's up?" Ally asked in a low voice.
"I have informed Sir Adun about certain... aspects of your abilities," Sir Arthur said without preamble. His expression was focused but mildly apologetic. "I'm sorry, but I didn't have much choice. We need you to tell us just what is waiting up there." He leaned out around the column to indicate the hallway junction ahead.
Ally glanced ahead herself and, even without any military training, could immediately see the concern. Five wide hallways radiated outwards from a common centre, a large, open area lit from above by a huge stained glass dome. Under other circumstances it would have been a lovely architectural feat, but right now the only concerns on the minds of the Guards were its potential for a four-way ambush.
"We can get to Elysium through either of the two passages directly ahead," Sir Arthur continued quietly. "The problem is that we've been hearing fighting in this area, and we don't know which one, if either, is clear." He shrugged. "That's where you come in."
Ally nodded. "Give me a moment." Ignoring Sir Adun's sceptical expression, she closed her eyes, trying to reach out with her perceptions once more. It took longer this time, the already difficult set of mental machinations made even harder by her growing fatigue and the stress that was making it difficult to concentrate. Eventually, though, Ally felt the sight fall into place, and she sent her consciousness ahead, seeking those who might threaten herself and her companions. The sight was oddly erratic, giving the impression that she was trying to watch a static-filled television station, but she persevered, striving to maintain her focus through her growing headache.
She "turned" down the first corridor, her impressions of its physical characteristics both more and less real than her more mundane senses would have detected. The sheer volume of sensory data she was processing made her infinitely more aware of physical objects, while the radically alien method of sensing baffled her conscious mind's comprehension.
Ally didn't have time to dwell on the dichotomy, because only a few dozen metres down the hallway she saw soldiers. Lots of them. At least a dozen commandos dressed in the now-familiar fatigues of the invading forces lay silently in wait, concealed behind whatever cover they could find. Cursing mentally, Ally sped her consciousness back to the junction and down the second branching hallway, only to find more soldiers waiting there. The final two corridors revealed even more, and they all appeared alert, confident, and well armed. Ally felt a heavy lead ball of dread form in her mind.
Pulling herself back to her waiting body, she focused once more on her conventional senses, shaking her head to clear the customary dizziness, and wincing as the throbbing headache made itself very well known. "Soldiers," she rasped hoarsely, pressing her fingers to the middle of her forehead. "I don't know how many exactly, but it's at least fifty. They're in all the passages. There's no way we can -"
She broke off suddenly, her head whipping around to look behind herself down the corridor where the rest of the group was waiting, drawn by a sudden spike of pain and terror lancing into her mind from a very familiar source.
Everyone else's attention was also grabbed by the scream, and everyone was stunned for a moment as they took in the improbable scene in their midst. For a brief, insane moment Ally thought that Duke Thomas was trying to attack Evelynne, who was being held from behind by the surprisingly strong form of Laura McGarrity. Then she realised that Evelynne was actually struggling ineffectually against the other woman, who was expertly keeping her off-balance. The Duke was actually attempting to pry the princess from the other woman's arms, until Laura ended his rescue effort with a brutal kick to the chest, knocking him backwards and onto the floor. It was an impressive manoeuvre, coming from a woman who was now using her captive as a human shield, held tight to her own body.
All of the Guards acted on instinct and training, multiple weapons being brought to bear on the two struggling women.
"FREEZE!" Laura shouted, her eyes intent and focused, showing no fear despite the guns pointed in her direction. "Shoot and she dies!" Now Ally could see that she was holding something small and metallic to Evelynne's throat, and for a moment thought that it was a knife, before she recognised the shape. Laura's ever-present PDA, now sporting a thin, razor-sharp needle protruding from the side. "This needle is filled with one of the deadliest neurotoxins known to man." Laura's eyes cut to the electronic device. "There isn't much, but there's enough to kill her within three seconds." She wiggled it slightly under Evelynne's chin. The princess had stopped struggling and was now looking at Ally with pleading, terrified eyes.
"Laura, what the fuck are you doing?" Ally asked desperately.
"What I'm doing," the erstwhile secretary said, inching slowly down the corridor past the impotent Guards, who tracked her every move with dangerous, hungry eyes, "is walking down this corridor, where I will meet up with my friends who are waiting up ahead. Your Majesties -" Her voice was mocking. "- you will both follow me... unless you want to lose your Heir. Once we are all safe and sound we are going to go for a trip. So -" Laura's eyes went to the King and Queen, who were watching with fearful expressions. "- let's go. I'm going to go now. If you don't come along... well, you may never know what happens to her."
Ally couldn't believe what she was seeing, and, judging from the expressions on Taldas', Rina's and Marjorie's faces, they couldn't either. This was Laura, their friend; the woman who kept their project running; who took their anti-American jokes in stride and countered with her own anti-Atlanatlan ones; who patiently collated and organised Rina's jumbles of data into something they could use; who was always able to find what they needed; who was always jotting down notes into her PDA, which she refused to let anyone else touch...
Ally opened her mind to the other woman, barely noticing the strain of bridging their two minds, desperate to know why this person whom she trusted was doing this. She didn't know what she's find. Part of her was hoping to discover the chaotic thoughts of a serious mental condition, something that Laura couldn't control that was causing her to act so out of character. What she found was the opposite. Laura's thought were incredibly tight and structured, alertly but calmly keeping track of her surroundings, calculating possibilities, ready to react at any moment. There was a coldness to them, a lack of emotion, either fear or pleasure at how she'd apparently fooled everyone. There was no guilt, no feeling that the people around her were even people, and Ally realised that the other woman did in fact have a serious mental problem: she was a sociopath. And even with that realisation came another: their minds had touched before. Nearly a year ago, when Ally had r eacted instinctively to a sensation of danger, and had found herself nearly looking through another set of eyes as they sighted down a high-powered sniper rifle, preparing to squeeze the trigger and extinguish the life that was now being held in her arms. And there had been the exact same lack of remorse or anything resembling human compassion then as well.
"You..." Ally whispered. Her voice rose. "You! You were the one who shot Evelynne... who shot me." She was pleased to see a flicker of surprise in Laura's eyes. Ally slowly stood, ignoring the near-frantic gazes of the people around her. Her shoulder and back, where the bullets had hit her before, burned with remembered pain, and she could feel something dangerous, something primal, waking in her mind. Her hand reached into her pocket and, almost of its own accord, wrapped her fingers around the bullet she had placed there earlier. Some part of her was vaguely aware that the soldiers who had been waiting in ambush up ahead were moving towards their position, and a snippet of information gleaned from Laura's mind told her that they had been signalled by a transmitter hidden in the PDA now pressed against Evelynne's neck.
"I think you should sit down, 'Boss'," Laura said, still backing down the hallway. "If everyone's smart, you might see your fiancée again. But that's not my problem. I'm just being paid to deliver her. After that, it's not my problem."
"Maybe not," Ally said, her eyes flashing as she continued to stalk towards them, sending a wordless signal of support and reassurance to her lover. "But right now I'm your problem." She halted, drawing her hand out of her pocket, the bullet clasped tightly in her fist.g her to the
"And what are you going to do? If any of these Guards shoot me, assuming they miss their princess, do you really want to risk that she'll be scratched?"
"Then I'll just have to make sure it doesn't move," Ally said calmly.
And she threw the bullet.
A professional baseball pitcher has the ability to throw a baseball at speeds nearing one hundred sixty kilometres per hour. Ally's pychogenically enhanced arm, capable of buckling ten centimetre steel beams, easily matched that. And for a pitcher, once the ball leaves the hand it is out of control. Ally's control of her projectile did not stop at the end of her fingers. Instead, a mind capable of exerting almost fifteen hundred Newtons of force -- enough to lift a three hundred pound man into the air -- accelerated it even further, and minute control over the bullet's flight turned it from a ballistic projectile into a tiny guided missile.
A guided missile that struck Laura McGarrity between the eyes with incredible force, snapping her head back and causing her to slump to the floor, either dead or unconscious, before she even knew what had happened. There was a gasp from the onlookers as the deadly electronic device pressed against Evelynne's neck looked about to plunge into her neck as well, but Ally's mind was there also, halting its movement nearly instantaneously. A moment later, Ally was there in body as well, one arm wrapping itself around her lover to support her, and the other hand was carefully moving the PDA away from her lover's skin.
Evelynne clutched Ally tightly, too much in shock to even speak, and Ally guided her carefully back towards the relative safety of the group, lowering her to the floor behind the reassuring bulk of Sir Arthur just as the soldiers ahead moved into the star-shaped junction.
"You there!" A voice from down the corridor announced that the enemy soldiers had spotted their party. "Lay down your weapons and surrender! You are now in the custody of the Hy Braseal Liberation Army." The words were oddly stilted Lantlan, with an accent like none Ally had heard before.
Ally glanced at Duke Thomas, who was gasping for breath in obvious pain in the arms of one of his Personal Guards, his eyes closed and his skin ashen. As though sensing her eyes on him, the old Duke opened his own, and an unfathomable look passed between them. Ally gave a short, nearly imperceptible nod.
She looked at Sir Arthur, who seemed torn between gaping at the events that had just occurred, and charging out to protect his wards. "Do whatever you have to," she said. Then she looked back down at the woman in her arms, and her voice gentled. "I'll be right back." She lifted her hands to cup Eveleynne's face, then bent her head and kissed her lingeringly. Gently but firmly she removed her lover's near-desperate grip before kissing the palm and rising slowly, deliberately, to her feet.
"Ally, no," Evelynne whispered.
Ally looked down at her and gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry. I'm not going far." Then she turned and slowly began to walk towards the junction, and Evelynne could almost see her lover wrapping herself in her power like a cloak.
Sir Arthur made a move to stop her and drag her back into safety, but was stopped by the princess' hand on his arm. "Don't interrupt her. She needs to concentrate right now."
As Ally walked forward, she felt like she was moving in slow motion, as was everything around her. She could see and comprehend everything about her, but it all occurred as though it was happening underwater. Contrary to what her perceptions seemed to be telling her, she wasn't in fact moving faster than usual; her physical reactions were still bound by the limitations of her flesh and bone.
Fortunately, she was not relying on mere physical matter.
Wrapped in a near-impenetrable cloak no thicker than a thought, Ally saw several of the soldiers ahead raise their weapons threateningly, and heard, as though from far away, their orders to surrender. When she ignored them, more guns swung in her direction, until one soldier, unnerved by her steady, fearless pace, fired a single round from less than ten metres away.
With more time to prepare herself, Ally's aura was more refined than it had been a year earlier in Marseilles, and she no longer attempted to stop the incoming bullet though sheer blunt opposition. Instead, her aura twisted and bent the projectile's path, sweeping it around her body like a twig swirling past a rock in a stream. It missed by mere millimetres, but that was no concern -- a bullet that misses by an inch is as harmless as one that misses by a mile.
The soldier's shot seemed to act as a signal for the other weapons to open fire, and in an instant Ally was at the centre of a tornado of bullets... in the eye of the storm, where nothing seemed to be able to hurt her.
Then it was the Adept's turn, as she halted in the very centre of the junction and spread her arms to the sides.
There should have been more, Evelynne thought later. There should have been lightning, rumbles of thunder, and coalescing clouds overhead. Ally should have been wreathed in a glowing nimbus of light, her eyes shining and crackling with power, arcs of electricity jumping between her fingertips. The earth should have shaken, the walls should have cracked. There should not have simply a tall, thin, brown-haired woman, glasses perched on her nose, hair slightly dishevelled by her run through the Palace. Something to indicate the immense amounts of power that she was about to unleash.
Instead, there was near silence as the echoes of gunfire faded away, the soldiers staring dumbfounded as Ally stood untouched before them. There was a moment's pregnant pause as Ally gathered her focus, reaching out for the tools she needed. Then she twitched her fingers, using the small physical gesture as an aid to her focus, and suddenly a small marble bust of King Eldin deMolay (1644-1676) flew off its pedestal towards her, only to stop equally suddenly a centimetre from her palm. As the statue began to orbit her head, a pair of ancient sabres decorating the wall sailed towards her as well before joining in the deadly ballet.
It instantly reminded Evelynne of the first time her lover had deliberately displayed her abilities to her, and she vividly remembered the gentle way in which the books Ally had been manipulating settled into her lap.
This was anything but gentle, however, as the objects accelerated faster and faster, until they exploded outwards towards the Adept's enemies. King Eldin would have been pleased to know that his likeness was the first thing to lay low an enemy soldier, as the bust struck the soldier who had first fired on Ally full in the face. Evelynne barely had time to gasp before the two sabres suddenly lost their scabbards in mid-flight, turning two projectiles into four, which pummelled another four soldiers to the ground. Even then, Evelynne noted that the weapons had struck with their pommels, rather than their still-sharp blades, and she knew that it had been no accident.
Then Ally was in the middle of another tornado, this one of her own making, as sculptures, vases, and decorations were turned into a hail of weapons that struck down the enemy soldiers. When she seemed to have run out of ammunition, those still bearing weapons suddenly found their guns torn from their grasp, only to have them returned a moment later, as the source of a blow that knocked many of them unconscious. They could not escape, as the projectiles seemed to hunt them down even behind the scant cover available in the hallways.
Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over, and near silence reigned once more, broken only by the faint groans and feeble movements of the soldiers who were now lying strewn about the junction and corridors.
Ally lowered her arms and drew in a long, shaky breath, then turned and walked back towards the small group still huddled behind her. Evelynne almost forgot herself and ran towards her lover when she saw Ally stumble slightly, and she gasped as the other woman's appearance registered. Ally's eyes were bloodshot, and her face was drawn and shadowed, looking like she had gone days without sleep.
"The hallway's clear for at least a hundred metres ahead," Ally murmured distractedly to a conspicuously stone-faced Sir Arthur. She sniffled slightly, then dabbed at her nose with the back of her hand, not terribly surprised to find it coming away stained with red. Her eyes tracked back to Evelynne. "Are you okay?"
Evelynne could only nod shakily before crushing her fiancée in a crushing embrace. They stayed like that for a moment, until Ally pulled back slightly to kneel next to Duke Thomas. Her eyes cut to Major Nixon, who was cradling him to her chest. "How's he doing?" Ally asked.
The Guard's voice was surprisingly, almost overly, calm. "Not good. She broke at least a half dozen ribs, and I think at least one has punctured a lung. If we can get him to medical attention right away he might pull through."
"But then again, I might not," Duke Thomas spoke up, his voice possessing a weak, raspy quality. His eyes opened to direct clear look at the Guard holding him. "Correct?" Nixon hesitated, then managed a brief nod. "Then there is something I need to accomplish. Jad, Cleo, where are you?"
The King and Queen hurried closer at his call. "You shouldn't be talking, Thomas," the Queen chided gently, grasping one of his hands.
"I haven't shut up for over eighty years, my dear," Thomas rasped. "Why should I start now? Besides there is something more important that needs doing. You are both my witnesses." He took a shallow breath, gathering his energy, and began. "I, Thomas, Duke of Avalon, do hereby bequeath my titles unto the person of Dame Alleandre Tretiak as Heir Potentiary." He coughed. "There is a lot more, but I always found it rather superfluous." He looked at the Royal couple and smiled. "Do you Witness?"
"I do so Witness," Jad and Cleo said together.
"Good, that's done," the Duke whispered. "Now I will shut up. I am in quite a lot of pain." He smiled at Ally. "I don't suppose you can do anything about that?"
"Sorry," Ally apologised, still not comprehending what had just happened. "That really isn't one of my talents."
"No matter," Thomas murmured. "You were quite magnificent, you know. I'm glad I got to see that."
"You're not going to die on me, are you, Domdom?" Evelynne asked, taking his hand, her eyes bright with tears.
"I'll do my best not to," he whispered back, coughing slightly. "I have a wedding to see, after all." He closed his eyes. "For now, though, I am going to rest."
"You do that, my friend," King Jad replied, resting a hand on the Duke's brow.
Concluded in Chapter