Modern Crusaders, Book 2

Even Heroes…

By PsiDraconis

Disclaimers in Chapter 1


Chapter 18

“Mr Ambassador, welcome. Thank you for meeting with me.” Queen Cleo walked towards the diminutive man with a hand outstretched. “I apologise for being late. You know how it is.”

“No apology is necessary, Your Majesty,” Ambassador Frances Mlovo of the Ivory Coast murmured, taking the proffered hand and bowing over it. “And I do indeed.” If he was at all nervous about meeting the Queen he hid it well, but could not hide his curiosity at being summoned so late in the evening.

The Ivory Coast was a moderately important trading partner for the Realm of Atlantl, though it acted more as a gateway to the rest of the League of West African Nations. The Congo and Nigeria were far wealthier and more powerful, so the Ivory Coast's Ambassador rarely interacted directly with the upper levels of the Atlantlan Nobility, instead working through various trade commissions. When one of the Diarchs took a direct interest in one's country it was obvious that something significant was in the air, though whether for good or ill of said country was impossible to say.

“Please, have a seat,” the Queen said, and waved towards a tray covered with food. “Would you care for some refreshments?”

Part of Ambassador Mlovo relaxed. If Queen Cleo had been planning on delivering wholly unpleasant news it was unlikely she would have offered food. Rumours of the way she, along with King Jad, had dressed down one of their own Nobles, before stripping him of power completely, had reached even the foreign diplomatic community. From what was known, the fool had eminently deserved his fate, but the rumour had also ensured that when Their Majesties brought the axe down on some unfortunate there would be no uncertainty.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Mlovo said, filling a glass with fruit juice, and then waited for the Queen to fill hers before exchanging glasses in formal Atlantlan tradition. They sipped at the same time, and then, formalities completed, sat down. Mlovo waited patiently for Queen Cleo to speak.

“I wish I could say I invited you here to impart some good news,” Queen Cleo began, and the Ambassador felt his stomach clench again.

“Yes, Your Majesty?” he asked.

The Queen sighed. “I have been in meeting with twenty-eight ambassadors already today,” she continued, “and I have another six scheduled for after we have finished speaking. I hope you will forgive me if I drop diplomacy and speak plainly.”

Ambassador Mlovo sat up even straighter. Thirty-five ambassadors in a single day wasn't simply significant; it was literally world-spanning. “Of course, Your Majesty. I will take no offence.”

“Excellent,” the Queen said, and her weary smile showed Mlovo just how tired she really was. “Today I have been informing all countries involved of Atlantl's intention to begin criminal proceedings against all of the enemy combatants involved in the Invasion.”

The shock showed on Mlovo's face. “The countries involved, Your Majesty? So…”

“I'm sorry to inform you that several of your citizens were among the Invaders.” Queen Cleo reached for a stack of thick files sitting on a side table. “Eight, to be exact.” She handed the files to the Ambassador, who took them with shaking hands. “The details on the individuals are there, along with what information our investigations have revealed about the crimes they comm—the crimes they are alleged to have commited.” She spat out the correction, and then composed herself. “You will also find the charges our investigators are recommending for each individual. Now, official charges have not been laid yet. You may consider these files as a starting point.”

The Ambassador looked down at the files numbly. “I will admit to surprise, Your Majesty,” he said in a remarkably calm voice. “Your Foreign Department has made no comments about what would be done with those… individuals involved.”

“What, did you think we would place them all on some island somewhere and hope everyone forgot about them?” The Queen's voice was chiding, but deadly serious at the same time. “To be honest, it has been suggested. There are a large number of angry people in my government right now. It has been suggested by some that the Invaders should be considered Prisoners of War, and therefore subject to the Geneva Convention. Our official stance is that to be classified as such those prisoners must be acknowledged and sanctioned by some legally recognised government agency. At that point, we shall take such sanction to represent a deliberate assault and invasion on our citizens and territory by that government, and will thereby consider it an official Act of War. Appropriate reprisals will be considered.”

Ambassador Mlovo shrank into himself at her flat, icy statement. Nobody wanted the Realm of Atlantl to consider them a hostile nation. Even short of outright war, the Realm could do all kinds of nasty things to one's economy and trade routes. “I cannot, of course, make any binding statements before consulting with my government, Your Majesty,” he said carefully, “but I believe I can say with some certainty that my President will not be supporting the actions of these… persons.”

“I understand, Mr Ambassador,” the Queen replied. “And I apologise for my tone. Not all of the people I have met today have been so… reasonable.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Mlovo hesitated. “Considering the nature of these… alleged crimes, I am obligated to ask about the possibility of extradition for my citizens.”

“Extradition will be considered,” the Queen admitted. “It will be decided on a country-by-country basis. Certain guarantees will be required to ensure that these people do not simply walk free once they return to their homelands.”

“Understood, Your Majesty. Again, I cannot make promises, but I believe my government will allow you to undertake proceedings without interference. We may request that observers and legal counsel from my country be allowed to participate.”

“That can be arranged. My office will be happy to appoint a Liaison.” The Queen stood, holding out her hand again with a smile. “And now I'm afraid I must prepare for the next meeting. Thank you for your understanding and courtesy, Mr Ambassador. I can only hope your contemporaries I have yet to meet this evening are as helpful.”

Theodora Nixon rang the doorbell, shifting her jacket uncomfortably. After so long in uniform, it felt odd to be wearing civilian attire. Still, somehow she thought full Guard regalia wouldn't go over so well with the people she was coming to meet. It would have looked quite out of place among the small, quiet neighbourhood of Kilim she was in.

A moment later the door was opened by a young, attractive blonde woman. "Hello? Oh, you must be Colonel Nixon," the woman greeted, smiling. "Please, come in." Theodora smiled a little more uncertainly and did so. "May I take your coat? I'm Jennifer Armston, by the way."

"Pleased to meet you," the Colonel said, surrendering her jacket. "Please, call me Theodora."

"Of course," Jennifer said, still smiling. "Please, come on through to the living room. You're the last to arrive."

Theodora followed the blonde towards the sounds of conversation, which halted as she entered the room. "Hello, everyone, this is Colonel Theodora Nixon. She's also had experiences like ours." Perhaps two dozen people were inside, with a wide range of ages and appearances.

"A colonel? Like with the Guard?" a young dark-skinned man asked suspiciously. "Is that really wise?"

"Please, Hunter, not again," chided an older bearded man in a turban. "We are all here because of our shared experiences. If we have to go through this again every time we have a government official joining us, Imos will begin to think you don't like him." There was a chuckle, as everyone looked at a middle-aged man still dressed in a police uniform.

"Yeah, well how do we know she's not some sort of spy come to lock us away for what we know?" Hunter shot back.

"Hunter, any one of us could be a spy," the older man replied calmly. "I choose to have faith that none of us are, and that nothing we are doing is in any way illegal or immoral in any case."

There was a general murmur of agreement from the group, and Colonel Nixon felt a twinge of guilt at their accepting tone. The fact was that she was there as a spy of sorts, though one without real malicious intent. Instead, she was present in a semi-official capacity as sworn protector to her charge, in a reconnaissance mission to determine what, if any, threat this group might pose. So far nothing she had discovered about them suggested any immediate danger, but considering the unique nature of her ward, a certain degree of extra vigilance was called for.

She had first heard of this group, which seemed to lack any official name, through an email that had been forwarded by a friend in the Customs Office. Almost a year previously, her friend had been involved in a massive drug bust, which had been aided by some mysterious force that had helped save the lives of at least a dozen agents at various times during the operation. Dubbed "the Angel" by those who had experienced it, the being, whatever it was, had never been seen clearly, at best as a flitting shadow in the darkness. It had vanished just as abruptly as it had appeared.

However, Colonel—then Major—Nixon had been one of a mere handful of people who had discovered the true identity of "the Angel": Dame Alleandre Tretiak, now Consort to the Heir to the Realm. Since then, the Colonel had very cautiously extended her feelers into finding out just who knew what about the incidents.

The news had been incredibly sparse, until her friend had forwarded information of a very surreptitiously circulated attempt by certain people to find others with similar shared experiences: namely being rescued from some danger by a mysterious, possibly supernatural agency. Digging a little deeper, Nixon had discovered that the core of the group was a number of people who had been saved from a plane crash in the middle of a massive storm. The head—although she seemed to be more an initiator than a true leader—was a woman named Jennifer Armston, who, along with her son Lemar, had been among those rescued.

Knowing that Alleandre Tretiak had been responsible for both incidents, Colonel Nixon had continued with her investigation into how much of a threat this group posed, and that had led her here tonight.

"Please don't mind Hunter," the older man was saying, holding out his hand. "I'm Hakim abd-al-Rahim. Welcome." He looked at Nixon speculatively. "Nixon. That's an unusual name."

Theodora smiled. "My parents were refugees from the States during the McCarthy Persecution. They weren't actually Communists, but they were left-wing enough to be targeted. Of course, considering who became President a few decades later, the name is somewhat ironic."

"Very," Hakim agreed, smiling. "Well, let me introduce you."

As she passed around the room, even shaking hands with a reluctant Hunter, Colonel Nixon considered her initial impressions. So far they seemed to be a quite normal, if highly eclectic, group. There were actually two policemen from Kilim, a firefighter, a couple of Customs agents, and two members of the Avaloni Army Corp. The rest were a seemingly random mix of businessmen, teachers, workers, and artists. Three religious members—a Catholic priest, an Imam, and a Priest of Osirisrounded out the group. It seemed like a bizarre social club.

After some time of individual socialising, complete with drinks and snacks provided by Jennifer Armston, their hostess, the gathering began to fall into more order. Taking up seats in a rough circle around the living room, the group grew quiet as Jennifer stood. "Welcome again," she began, obviously a little nervous. "First of all, I'd like to welcome you all back, and especially welcome Colonel Theodora Nixon." She turned to face the Colonel. "I don't know how much you know about how we do things here, but we're fairly informal. We just ask that you respect everyone else here. We let everyone speak if they wish to. Now, I know you've told me about your own experience with the phenomenon we all hold common, and if you like, I invite you to tell everyone else here. However, if you would like to wait a while, that is fine also."

Theodora cleared her throat. "Thank you, but I'd like to just sit for a bit, if that's all right." The story she had given Jennifer as proof of her "experience" was in fact a highly edited version of the final battle through the Royal Palace during the Invasion.

"Of course." Jennifer turned back to the rest of the group. "Now, if I remember correctly, last time we met we were just getting into whether this Entity we experienced was of divine nature or not."

"Of course she is," Father John Burnett said. "However, probably not in the manner you think. She is divine, but only in the same manner in which we are all representations of the Ultimate Divine. Granted, she may be blessed by God, but if you are suggesting that she is like our Lord Jesus as a direct agent of His will, I cannot agree."

"She?" Nixon asked, curious.

"One of the things—possibly the only thing–that we all agree on is that the Entity that affected us is female," Jennifer explained.

"Not necessarily female," Edith Nahale, one of the police officers, objected. "Feminine, yes. But not necessarily female in a physical sense."

"Of course," said Hylaeal I'Ranu, the Osirian priest. "But to get back to the point, I have to admit my own uncertainty over her divine nature."

"Or diabolic," Hunter interjected, but without condemnation.

"I do not think she can be characterised as evil," Hylaeal disagreed, shaking his head. "When I was helped from my car after my accident, I got a sense of goodness. A certain amount of uncertainty and even fear, yes, but certainly not evil. The teachings of my Temple say that ethereal beings, be they of the Dark or Light, cannot disguise their true natures. Ma'at forces the good to be good and the evil to be evil. Only the races of man may conceal their souls. So, if she is of supernatural origin, she cannot be evil. If, on the other hand, she is human, I think her actions still show her as good."

"But how can she be human?" Fatima Therreault, a businesswoman from Ekion Bel, asked. "Humans cannot do the kinds of things she did."

"Not from Earth, no," Hunter said, leaning forward as his face lit up. "But who knows what beings from other worlds can accomplish?"

"Oh please, not the alien theory again," a bespectacled man groaned. "It just has too many logical inconsistencies."

As the discussion began to get into full swing and started to verge on an argument, Theodora Nixon watched and listened in fascination.

"So what did you think?" Jennifer asked as she held out Colonel Nixon's coat.

The Colonel was one of the last to leave, and the meeting had continued past midnight. "It was interesting," she hedged. "A lot of different theories."

"I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to hear yours." Jennifer cocked her head at Theodora. "You know, I think you know a lot more than you're letting on, Colonel Nixon," she said in a slow, soft voice. "You are far more aware of what she represents than any of the rest of us are." The Colonel barely repressed her discomfort at the uncanny insight of the other woman. "If you do know who she is… what she is… please just tell her 'Thank you'. She saved my life, and that of my son, and because of that…" She trailed off, leaving the implication in the air.

There was a moment of silence. "If you found out who she is, what would you do?" Theodora asked.

"Do? I don't know. Whoever she is, she's affected all of us. And I don't just mean saving our lives. She's… inspired us. Most of us, anyway. She's given us a glimpse of the possibilities in the world, regardless of who or what she is; the world beyond the banal. Because of her, I'm going back to school. I'm getting my degree in psychology. I'm even thinking of applying to the Advisory College one day.” She laughed. “Hunter has started his own magazine devoted to paranormal events. The latest issue had an article that aliens from Psi Draconis were controlling our lives.” Nixon grinned as well. “It seems silly to us, but he's enthusiastic about it.

“So, what would I do if I met her? I don't know what I could do. She obviously doesn't want acclaim, or money, or worship. That's why I get uncomfortable when they all start talking about her 'divinity'. I actually saw her, touched her, and she's as human as anyone else. I think I could only hope to help her like she's helped me."

"Now, Ally, are you ready?" the short Asian woman asked, looking at her kindly.

Ally took a shaky breath and shifted into a more comfortable position on her cushion. "I guess so," she said. "Ready as I'll ever be. I hope it works this time."

Mrs. Chen shook her head. "It is not about having it 'work', Ally. I cannot simply heal what has been twisted. I do not know that anyone can. I simply seek to let the energy flow so that you may heal yourself."

"I know," Ally said, looking down at her crossed legs. "You said that before. I—I want to be… better."

"I know you do, dear. But that will take time."

"Yeah." Taking another breath, Ally tried to consciously relax herself. "Well, shall we get started again?"

Mrs. Chen looked vaguely sceptical, but nodded nonetheless. "Very well. Now, close your eyes and centre yourself. Concentrate on your breathing… Feel the way the energy flows in and out… and through. It ebbs and flows… Each pulse moving slightly more clearly, more easily through your body…"

Ally relaxed into the softly spoken words. She was able to cut out the gross physical world easily. Slowly even the feel of the cushion beneath her faded.

Finally, after far more false starts that had become usual, she settled into a quiet, calm state, able to examine herself with a degree of objectivity. The trance state was familiar after several years of practice, but this time, like most times recently, there was an uncomfortable undertone, a subtle sensation of wrongness in her own mind. It felt like everything was still "present", but all the aspects of her mind were skewed, like an Escher drawing, or a fun-house mirror. Some parts felt "farther away", or had a different "texture" than she remembered. Of course, Ally knew that everyone's mind changed over time, but these changes were more like the result of an earthquake, rather than the slow change of continental drift.

The though-forms of her powers seemed little affected, but they were just about the only thing. Ally's emotions seemed very far away, even concealed behind some mental barrier. While the mechanism of her eidetic memory appeared intact, she instinctively shied away from any of the remembrances it might call up.

A very diffuse mental pulse registered, a sign that Mrs. Chen was about to enter her mind, and she tried to relax and offer as little resistance as possible. Finally the other presence appeared, somehow both nebulous and solid in this unconventional dimension. The other mind radiated a warm comfort that Ally remembered from years previously, a sign of the skill the other woman possessed. Seeming to smile at Ally's strangely disembodied presence in her own mind, Mrs. Chen "turned" her attention to the rest of the mental landscape. With a feather-light touch she gently brushed over the surface, but Ally still felt the contact as if it were sandpaper brushed over acid-burned skin. She managed to maintain the trance state with difficulty, but found herself fighting rising panic as Mrs. Chen approached the odd barrier that seemed to separate her from her emotions. In some unfathomable way, that barrier segregated the emotions, but also bound them into the rest of her mind. Working to remain calm, Ally was able to remain in control until Mrs. Chen touched the barrier, and then she snapped.

Rocketing out of the trance so quickly it made her nauseous, Ally reached the waking world and realised she was screaming. With a deep ragged gasp she stopped, bending over her knees and breathing hard while a massive headache built behind her eyes. Finally looking up, she saw that Mrs. Chen was controlling her own breathing, and the other woman's deeply lined skin was drawn and pale. She dropped her head again, cradling it in her own hands. Slowly she managed to bring the pain under control, banishing it with another meditative technique that she found strangely easy.

"I'm sorry," she said dully. "I don't know what… I'm sorry."

Ally flinched as she felt the older woman's gentle hand on her head. "No, don't be sorry. I moved too quickly. I went where I shouldn't have. I'm sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for."

Ally just nodded and buried her head in Mrs. Chen's motherly chest, waiting for tears that never came.

"How's she doing?" Claire asked softly as Evelynne and Mrs. Chen came down the stairs from the attic bedroom and into the living room.

"She's asleep," Evelynne said dully, taking a seat on the couch next to her friend and leaning her head back. "It didn't take long, but she went out like a light." Claire hesitantly put a hand on Evelynne's shoulder and squeezed gently, while Mrs. Chen eased herself into an armchair. Evelynne looked over at the older woman. "It isn't working." There was just the faintest tinge of accusation in her tone.

"It's early yet," Mrs. Chen said calmly, though her own expression was troubled. "These things take time."

Evelynne shook her head. "No, it's more than that. If she was just taking a very long time to get better, that would be one thing. But she's actually getting worse. I can see it. Can't you?" She directed the question at Claire.

"I don't think—" Claire began, but stopped when she saw Evelynne's pleading gaze. "Yeah, I think she is. She's not eating, she's staying out later and later, and when she's here, she sleeps most of the time. I'm scared she's going to get sick. Physically sick."

Mrs. Chen sighed. "I know," she admitted. "I truly thought I could help her, heal enough of the damage to let her begin healing herself. She has so many barriers in her mind now, and her energy is not flowing where and how it should. Her chi is very unbalanced, and I'd hoped to restore a measure of evenness. I have tried reiki, acupuncture, meditation, tai chi, in addition to soul-healing, but the barriers are too strong. After all, it is Ally's mind that is creating the walls, even unconsciously, and with a mind as strong as hers…"

Evelynne swallowed back tears. "So what do we do? I swore I'd protect her and aid her in any way possible. Any way at all, without exception. If that means taking the risk of going back to Atlantl, that's what we'll do."

Mrs. Chen shook her head. "I do not believe that is necessary. I have studied Atlantean practices, and there is not much that your people can do that we cannot do here. At times I think it would be a great boon to have Ally's parents come and help, but she has firmly vetoed that idea."

Evelynne and Claire nodded. Evelynne had tentatively suggested either bringing Ally's parents to Vancouver, or have Ally visit them in Parksville on Vancouver Island, and Ally's response had been adamant. With half the world looking for the Heir to Atlantl and her Consort, said Consort's family would very likely be under constant surveillance, or at least Atlantlan protection. Either way, there was no means to guarantee the secrecy of such a meeting, and Ally was about to take no risks with the lives of either her parents or fiancée. Still, on a few occasions Evelynne had caught Ally staring out the window of their attic bedroom, which happened to look in the direction of Vancouver Island, with a sad, wistful expression that had cleared as soon as Ally realised she was not alone.

"So, what else can we do?" Claire asked.

"Well, as reluctant as I am to admit it, it seems increasingly likely that I cannot aid Ally on my own. I can do many things, but I think it likely that she might respond better to a more Western style of therapy. I happen to know a person with a slight degree of experience in cases somewhat similar to Ally's. I can guarantee her discretion absolutely. Perhaps some good old-fashioned psychotherapy will help where I cannot."

Evelynne was torn between two instinctive responses. The first was to vehemently oppose the idea, concern over Ally's safety, and her own, surging to the fore. As much as she trusted Mrs. Chen's word, the past few months were beginning to take their toll on her paranoia levels. The second response was to grab for any means that offered some hope to help Ally, and restore their relationship once more. The struggle between the two impulses was brief.

"So who is this therapist?"

Continued in Chapter 19

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