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MATURE RPG


May, 2010... Fantasy became reality. Worlds overlay for the briefest moment. Outworlders became stranded on earth as more than half the human populace vanished. Our World, our universe, was transformed.

Fiction is now reality. Humans and those now bound to this world will either learn to coexist, or battle for supremecy.

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St. Patrick's Cathedral Vaults and Catacombs

2-7-22

3am

 

 

That tiny little thing on those whistles… the plastic… those leather half circles with the tiny piece of metal and a tambour of plastic that you could put on your tongue like a wafer and press to your palate.  The high pitched whistle they could squeal was piercing, penetrating through your sinuses like a fire alarm, itching the center of your brain like whipping rain against a window of tissue paper until it popped.  It was all he could think, hear, see, feel- that vicious searing sound crescendo through his every sense.

 

Gasp was immediate, the uncontrolled reaction unusual as the world that had spiraled to a pinpoint of focus was broken by some shred of consciousness from somewhere.

 

His hand was on fire, and the dirt floor room was vibrating, fist closing to stave the blood.  He snapped the towel from around his neck and swathed it over the flames to extinguish them and muffle the blood that had almost just created something catastrophic.  Breath seethed through his teeth at the first look of the split knuckles, then the ancient load bearing beam he’d been hitting.  Wood was also spattered with his blood, quickly wiped off as well.  His blood was like gasoline.  Once he bled, his spark could ignite a firestorm.

 

When his consciousness this time had fallen into seizure and errored, he’d no idea.  Meditation was not new to him, physical training and focus were not new to him. Together, was most definitely not new; it was what gave him the intense control he had.  This crack was getting bigger, and he was starting to lose longer moments of time.

 

Under recent intense reflection, he had pinpointed it just to before the binding, before he walked into enemy territory of his own free will.  His consciousness had bucked even the strongest of cuffs, and ever since then there had been a tiny leak in his brain.  Enough to drip over years, testing his patience, his sanity… breaking open a crack that was swiftly destabilizing an already volatile mix of skills and magic.  He could see his past so clearly before the Resonance.  His hell after.  Then numbness as he was a machine, and now.  Now was this person he didn’t recognize.  He was calculating, and angry.  An angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other.  The angel he knew and still loathed, but this devil was seductive and unknown.

 

Now as this person in the deep bowels of the cathedral where even the Vicar didn’t go, he was training again. Why?  A deeply thought out plan.  Physical training was at the forefront, his specialty was quiet and slick death.  He needed to inflict more damage, be able to take more damage.  The more damage he took, the crack would split further apart.  The more he focused on it, the angrier he became, the angrier he became the more darkness flashed in his field of vision.  Somewhere else, something else, and he couldn’t hit hard enough to make it either go away- or find the white rabbit.

 

In the wane electric light of old brick, dirt floors and cement tombs, he just kept hitting, letting the fire flush up from his feet and over his form as his hands fell to his sides and chest heaved before it extinguished.  Growl preceded the heels of his hands smacking together and palms thrust forward, the fierce blade of flame from his hands turning almost white as it scorched a brick wall, extinguishing as quickly as his temper tantrum had started.  Knees hit the floor and he fell to sit, pushing himself back against the wall with the heels of his Tims.  Elbows rested on his knees as he tried to knead the tension out of his skull.

 

It felt like he was splitting apart, and all he wanted was another throat to cut.

 

Or a world to burn.

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He'd not lost his penchant for silence, it had been beaten into his core by the Vatican, but even before the world fell apart he'd been quiet and kind.  Unassuming.  Cups didn't make a noise as he moved them, coffee poured without a splash.  He'd heard the Vicar several moments ago making his way to the small kitchen to get his breakfast.  The old man's movements had changed over the last six months, gate had slowed, breath was more labored.  The assassin studied things most people didn't, and he knew the Vicar was either getting significantly weaker, or something was wrong.  The old man wouldn't hear of it though, and the thought of losing the only one who believed in him even after he found out he was essentially the devil broke the magus' heart.

 

Rhome was by far the youngest in the building, the aging half-dozen that lived there with him had clustered together after the Resonance destroyed their own buildings.  Strength in numbers he supposed.  He was their caretaker now, and of the building by proxy.  Errands.  Repairs.  Even laundry on some occasions.  The building was equipped to withstand so much, and it mostly had.  He'd almost finished rebuilding the side courtyard that had been destroyed by the Resonance.  He'd also replaced the eaves on the alley after he'd melted them to rain molten metal down on several aggressive idiots bent on harassing a fellow fugitive.

 

There was a protective streak a mile wide buried in him, but it was a compass without a north.  Those within his immediate daily life were easy to know, those outside... he never knew who to trust, so they all were enemies.

 

The Vicar was carrying something, hooking it on the top of the door as he came in.

 

Rhome reached up to button his shirt collar, the formal dress donned in favor of the clothes he wore outside and under the cathedral the night before.  Inside, here in the sacred space, he was seen a priest.  He could pretend he was a good man.

 

*npc* Paper collar too, the seated Vicar said quietly as Rhome placed coffee on the small table in front of him.

 

Blink was quiet from the gray eyes up at the hanging coat.  It was a cassock.  He'd given up his vows, but the Vicar kept insisting.  Lips opened to protest, again, but the older man's finger came up to stop him.

 

*npc* Argue with me after I've had my coffee.  In the meantime, collar, and that.

 

Older man nodded toward the clothing.  Rhome paused.  He hadn't worn a cassock since the Vatican.

 

*npc* I know it will fit, you have no excuse.

 

The Vicar sighed softly after a long drink of coffee.

 

*npc* You're just worried if you wear it the girls won't be able to tell us apart.

 

Smile was slight, he was fiddling with his paper collar, "it's just..."

 

*npc*  Just nothing.  You are here, you are family, I will not treat you like an outsider.

 

Older man put the newspaper down on the table he'd brought with him.  It was from yesterday.  Rhome could only make out part of the headline because it was folded, but it was a story about the magus murders.  He reached up and pulled the cassock from the hanger, sliding it onto his shoulders and beginning the buttons. 

 

*npc* I will tell you this until you believe it, you are still a priest because I say so.  I can forgive sin, remember?  You also need to stop working so hard in the courtyard.  Healing knuckles hurt.

 

He swallowed softly, yah those were hard to explain.... smoothing the front of the cassock before flexing the brazen knuckles.  Moving toward the sink, the long coat swished, resulting sound jolting electricity up his spine.  There was an honest to god flinch, vaulting him into another place and another time.  Making that noise would have gotten him beaten at the Vatican.  Assassins made no noise.  Turn back after dropping off a spoon had found the footing drilled into his muscles.  His movement now was eerily silent again.

 

He didn't like this thing, irritation squashed because it made the Vicar happy.

 

"I'm bringing votive candles up from storage today.  We don't have many left, I have to find somewhere that has more.  I'll clean the shelves too."

 

The Vicar nodded, taking another sip of coffee as he opened up the paper.  He caught the headline as he left the kitchen to retrieve the votives from storage downstairs.

 

It was his doing.  The paper.  That headline.

 

One more Order magus had been assassinated.  This one had fought fiercely, but a well placed double strike into the spleen and then between the ribs had been simple.  The pattern from his Order signet ring burned into the man's flesh had been just an extra.

 

A message, to those that would listen.

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Ryan parked his car on the street to the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Polished onyx paint, dark leather interior, matte black accents, the 2010 Dodge Challenger was something of a rarity these days.  It was the last year the muscle car was produced before the first Resonance.  5.7 Liter V-8 engine, race track suspension, the machine wasn’t the fastest on the street, but she could certainly hold her own.  There were no plates on the car, no vin, no identifying marks on any kind.  It was one of several vehicles Harker used for work, but this was his favorite.    

 

The sable clad operative emerged from Challenger’s driver side, adjusting his coat before gently closing the car door.  Harker was armed with his usual weaponry; Sig 226, portable wards, enchanted blades, and extra magazines of enchanted munitions.  He wasn’t looking for a fight today, but considering the type of creature he intended to confront… he was certainly ready for one.

 

Ryan paused for a moment to breathe in the fresh morning air.  Then he made his way toward the church.  His coat swayed as me strode calmly through the church’s courtyard.  His head swiveled as he assessed the environment.  The stone around him felt tired, it had seen better days.  When he reached the entrance doors, he gripped the handles with worn leather gloves and pulled them open. 

 

The ARMA agent stepped into the chapel’s main hall and allowed the doors to slam shut behind him.  The bang of metal and wood echoed throughout the corridor.  Ryan stood motionless for a short time.  An ominous figure standing in the church door’s shadow, he invited the stares that fell upon him.  It was not his intent to be hidden.  He wanted them to feel his looming presence, he wanted them to be afraid.  He was here to send a message.

 

Harker walked purposefully down the church’s center aisle.  He had nearly made it to the alter before one of the priests mounted the courage to approach him.  “Can I help you my son?” inquired the old cleric, a hint of apprehension in his voice. 

 

“I’m here to see father Del Santo,” Ryan’s eyes were piercing and his tone cold. “I need to make a confession.” 

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Sometimes being a priest, was harder.

 

He’d gone through the entirety of the storage room.  Starting on one side to find more votives, then finding something else, that led to something else, then something else, six hours later the entire storage room was reorganized and mentally catalogued.  He dusted off his cassock, lifting both boxes, glass clinking in them quietly.  Some of the votive glass cylinders needed replacing as well and he’d found beautiful new ones, the top box full of votive candles being balanced by his chin.

 

Steps were nimble, each foot placed carefully.  Worn steps, long cassock, double boxes, chin balancing one, somewhere in-between he heard the doors boom shut in the building above, making a mental note on the never-ending checklist of to-do’s to keep the place running.  Seems fixing the tension on the hinges had been on there already.  Damn.

 

It was his name spoken that drew the busy list making to a fine pinpoint.

 

He didn’t have to look to see everything, or listen to know exactly how many were in the vast building.  It just flicked on, like some damnable curse that couldn’t be purged no matter what he did; training beaten over and over into a shattered mind that would think for him.

 

Stepping through a small side door, the balancing continued, using his heel to quietly close the door behind him and continue his path down the shadowed side to the vestibule under the old choir loft.  Despite the imposing stature of the new occupant, the world didn’t cease turning and he had to get these boxes to their destination before he dropped them. 

 

“Father del Santo does not hold confessions until the evening,” he said quietly, answering the need with calm. Silver eyes flicked to the older Vicar emerging from the small transept chapel. 

 

He knew the Vicar was intending to work his charm on the newcomer, but the magus had cut him off at the pass. With all the times the man had hidden him from the world, it made him wonder if he really was the old priest he claimed to be and not someone like him before the world came to an end.  Such was life, and the magus was actually more approachable than the boogeyman ARMA made him out to be.  He took orders from no one. Not anymore. People just couldn't seem to leave him alone.

 

Vanguard.  Order.  The unseen threat.  They knew he was here, it had been ages since he'd heard a whisper from any of them.  Why now?

 

“But maybe I can help you,” the quivering of the glass was urgent and he lifted his chin, balancing to set them carefully on the floor next to the shelf of flickering candles.  He began to carefully collect the empty ones off the shelf, moving the flickering lit ones toward the back and opening the top box.  A small hand towel was pulled out, and he began to wipe the soot from each empty votive glass.  One by one.

 

This was going to take forever. 

 

He had the patience.

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“Father del Santo does not hold confession until the evenings.” Another priest had entered the hall through a side passage.  This one was much younger, and he carried stacked boxes of votive candles in his arms.  Ryan recognized him from the picture in his file.  Rhome Del Santo, rogue assassin of the First Order.

 

“But maybe I can help you.” Del Santo seemed genuinely unbothered by Harker’s appearance at the church.  The magus kneeled before the church altar, presenting his back to the Cloak operative.  Then, as if in a therapeutic trance, the priest began cleaning the vigil candles.  One by one.

 

Ryan could end the rogue’s life before anyone else in the room had a chance to act.  His draw from the holster was without match, and at this distance even a novice could aim true.  He wondered if Rhome welcomed death, or if he just falsely believed Harker wouldn’t kill him in a house of the Lord.  Perhaps the priest was a fanatic.  Believing himself an instrument of God, and thus protected from the unrighteous.  Or, maybe he was just that arrogant.

 

          The ARMA agent glanced back to the elder Vicar.  His hand glided along the edge of his coat, sweeping back the garment to reveal the pistol holstered on his right thigh.  “Please leave us father, I would like to speak to the priest alone.”

 

          Ryan walked forward and seated himself in the pew directly behind the church caretaker.  There was an audible “click” as he drew back the hammer on his double action pistol.  He rest the weapon on his lap, it’s barrel pointed at the priest, his finger pressed to the now featherlight trigger.  The operative spoke calmly, “I’m not from the Order.”  He smirked at his own triteness, “and as cliché as it sounds, if I wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.”

 

A conversation between two professional killers was about ensue.  Such discussions were usually quite civilized… until the killing started. 

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(Note for future reference- the NPC priests in the church are fearless.)

 

If he'd heard the man, he didn't indicate it, reaching again to the top of the shelves to retrieve empty small glass cylinders. The tin discs on the bottom contained a smidge of wax and the charred remnants of a wick, clinking as he pulled them out.  

 

Guns didn't concern him. They were a weak man's weapon. Gauche. Crass. Worthless really.

 

What he was concerned with was completely the opposite; the miniscule expression that flickered across the Vicar's face. He'd been impatient with the Italian before, but this was different. On the surface, the old man was kind, nodding to the visitor even though the ruler of this castle had every right to throw him out on his ass. He would probably call the cops after he left the two and returned to the small chapel. One didn't walk into a cathedral, especially now, and flash a weapon. That was enough to cause a catastrophic press nightmare.

 

Not the Order? Really?

 

By the time the visitor stated the obvious, the Italian was miles ahead.

 

Of course he wasn't the Order. Never. They would never risk this, they had an elegance, as evil as it was. Vanguard, almost as careful. The unseen threat, had already tried and failed. They were very quiet at the moment.

 

Hired. Or ARMA, though to be so brash was uncharacteristic of the group. They still had some semblance of public decorum, perhaps not.

 

"Please, I have this," the Italian said to the older man as he knealt to retrieve candles from the smaller box.  "It's fine."

 

The older man didn't move.  The Italian looked at the floor a moment, sigh soft, then pushed up and approached. It was immediately evident how tall the magus was, and how frail the Vicar stood.  Hands rested on his shoulders gently.

 

"Non erit finis. Perfici istam sermone aliqua proponamus," the magus said.

(I'll be fine.  Finish your sermon.)

 

"Nihil."

(No.)

 

"Est finis. Mihi crede," he insisted.

(It's fine. Trust me.)

 

The Vicar's lips pressed into a thin line, and he finally nodded, reaching up to put his palms on Rhome's cheeks.

 

"Dominus vobiscum."

 

There was a flicker of a smile in the Italian's eyes, melancholy.

 

The Vicar's eyes were kind, but intent virulent as they slid to the visitor.  He nodded to the Italian again and returned to his work in the small side chapel.

 

The magus returned to his work, how many moments ticked by he didn't count.  It was irrelevant.  The world didn't give him enough credit.  The man had threatened the only person he held dear, the fact his flesh was still attached to his bones was out of pure courtesy.  It didn't matter how brash, armed, or whatever -whoever- he was. The magus was unique.  Death from his hand, could come from anywhere in the most sadistic of ways. That's what the Order had exploited, and they were going to sugger for that and all the atrocities they'd done.  He was planning on bringing down the Order.  Suicidal?  Definitely.

 

"What can I do for you."

 

His voice, was everything most didn't expect it to be. Calm, quiet, kind.  Intelligent. Unafraid.

 

It was the first time the mercurial silver looked at the man, if only briefly, then back to his polishing.

 

The first row was complete.

He took a moment, striking a match and lighting the first one, the flame to which the rest would be lit. A fire magus that used matches, the world was a strange place. Glass clinked softly as he continued cleaning one by one. 

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Harker had pinned Del Santo into a no-win situation.  The public venue provided some protection from overt actions from the Order and from ARMA.  However, the magus was still a wanted fugitive as far the Order and law enforcement were concerned.  His only safeguard had been ARMA, and he had turned his back on them.  If a confrontation took place between the two assassins, it would likely end badly for Del Santo. 

 

If Harker killed the fugitive cleanly, he would be a hero ARMA agent.  If the altercation ended with civilian casualties, there was nothing to connect the agent to ARMA.  The rogue magus would be fighting another unknown killer in a cathedral, and the loss of life would be his fault.  If Del Santo killed Harker, it would be a hero agent killed by a ruthless fugitive.  Harker might not win, but no matter what Del Santo lost.  Harker had the upper hand, at least for now.   

 

          The advantage came at an immense risk; as it often did for Cloak operatives.  No back up, no support, just a single agent in the field.  Frequently ARMA covert agents had to gamble with their own lives in order accomplish their missions.  There was a reason Cloak had such consistent casualty rates when compared to ARMA’s other divisions.  The bet Ryan had placed now was that he could duel the rogue assassin and win.  Because if Del Santo killed the agent quietly, as he was known to do, no one would even come looking for the body. 

 

Harker watched the Vicar leave out of the corner of his eye.  A brave old man, he had to give him that.  The magus bid the clergyman farewell, casting a glare to Harker before returning to his work at the altar.  The chapel had cleared out, the two men were alone.  Ryan mildly surprised at the man’s calm when he spoke.  “What can I do for you?”

 

“You have a grievance with the Order of the First Light, and I can appreciate that.”  Ryan’s tone was different from Rhome’s.  Both were calm, but Rhome’s words felt calculated, controlled.  Ryan spoke casually as if addressing a friend at work.  “Truth be told, I can’t stand the hypocritical extremists any more than you.”

 

“I’ve killed more than my fair share of them.”  Harker said with a smirk.  “You’re on a warpath, but there is a time, a place, and a way to accomplish your mission.”  Ryan shook his head in disapproval but kept his eyes on the priest.  “You’re trying to send a message, but you’re going about it the wrong way.”

 

          “I can help you,” Harker’s offer was sincere.  “but my help comes with conditions.”

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The man was thinking as he sat smug with his weapon.

 

That was definitely different than he’d experienced before. Everyone else that tried to corner him thought they could win by gutting in directly for the kill. That had proved fatal for them in most cases. Weapons, fist fights, it didn’t matter. The former assassin always had ways to produce the most pain, with the least effort.  He may die, but the other would regret they’d lived for the rest of their lives, if they even survived at all. Fire, brought pain. His conditioning was indeed sadistic to an epic level, and that was what burned at him as he fought alone to find himself.

 

Someone actually attempting to speak to him was unusual. Was the firearm a precaution to get his attention that the man was only here to talk?

 

Perhaps, but doubtful. Perhaps he thought it would be effective.

 

“You have a grievance with the Order of the First Light, and I can appreciate that.” 

 

He’d yet to identify himself, and the comment didn’t make any more sense than most people’s belief that every Catholic priest was a part of the Vatican- therefore an Order boogeyman. Nowadays they were all thought to be evil magicians that were bent on taking over the world. The majority of Catholic priests were just priests. The simple fact that this man knew his name, knew he was Order, and wasn’t trying to stab him in the face and slit his throat to bleed him dry left only one choice to his affiliation.  ARMA.

 

The last people he wanted to deal with were ARMA. He would have rather they been anyone else. His relationship with ARMA was complicated. Hopelessly complicated.

 

“Truth be told, I can’t stand the hypocritical extremists any more than you.”

 

Forehead wrinkled slightly, a brow quirking briefly as he cast him a disinterested glance and continued his work.  Three rows done, clean glass, replaced where needed and new candles. The man worked quickly, especially when he was focusing on the world around him. Everything else came more sharply into view when there was a mundane distraction, meditation of sorts.

 

They weren’t hypocritical extremists; they were the most dangerous cancer in the world at the moment.

 

“I’ve killed more than my fair share of them. You’re on a warpath, but there is a time, a place, and a way to accomplish your mission.”

 

He knew nothing of his mission.

 

“You’re trying to send a message, but you’re going about it the wrong way.”

 

This man also knew nothing of anarchy.

 

“I can help you, but my help comes with conditions.”

 

He was met with silence. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence; the priest just was comfortable with thought before action. Long silences made some uneasy. He simply didn’t know how much this man knew about him, and he wasn’t about to offer information.

 

“I asked what I could do for you, not the other way around.”

 

It was deadpan as he continued to work. If he wanted help, he would have sought it out. Whatever this man was offering was obviously to his own benefit, and the priest would not be the sacrificial lamb again. ARMA was shaping up to be no better than the Order, willing to sacrifice and use those it deemed trash. ARMA only had better PR.

 

The box was empty now, and he silently collapsed it flat and placed it on a pew to be used for something of need later. The bottom box was also partially empty, and he left it where it was for a moment, sitting on the same pew as Harker at the end next to where he’d been working. He didn’t face him, just sat quietly with his eyes wandering over the front of the cathedral, completely disinterested in the fact there was still a gun pointed at him. Pretty sure the answer to his statement would either be sarcastic, a trigger pull, or maybe nothing at all, he took a slow breath and let it out.

 

He wasn’t armed, but it didn’t matter, the magus was the worst of the worst. At this distance, in a drafty stone cathedral the fact he naturally emanated heat could be felt. It was like an aura, always there. His hair trigger, ready to pull in less than a heartbeat. He was beginning to hate that power, hate himself, just simply hate.

 

“In the interest of full disclosure, that gun won’t save you. There is a reason I’m not armed. You shouldn’t have come.”

 

In contemplating his own horrific ability, his expression followed suit. He was an abomination, and he knew it, the stoic sadness in his features evident as his eyes found light trickling through one of the stained glass windows.

 

“ARMA doesn’t have the information to have warned you, so either you are incredibly stupid, or arrogant, a rogue, exceedingly desperate, or tremendously brave. But, as long as you’re not here to harm anyone, you are welcome to stay as long as you need.”

 

Conversation over.

 

He stood, leaning down to pick up the box and set it down where he was just seated, reaching to pick up the empty one. Fingers tapped on it a moment. This should have been where the conversation ended.

 

Against his better judgement, he looked at the man.

 

“I don’t need help. I need you to stay out of my way. The fact you’re here, talking to me now is bad for you, and ARMA, and people in ARMA. You can’t be seen here.”

 

Cass. Namely Cass. Her brother, was an unfortunate loss. The commander hated his guts, but the priest respected him anyway. Cass didn’t need his troubles adding to the mix. He could care less what she thought anymore, but he cared what happened to her, and he would not allow anyone to bring harm down around her... even a fuck-up of this magnitude. To his credit, the guy was trying to help. In helping, he’d also screwed up. He simply should not be seen here. To be seen here would implicate him as an accomplice in the former assassin’s activities. ARMA didn’t need that, they had something to lose. He had nothing to lose.

 

Flattened box was placed on top of the other as he prepared to take it downstairs. His voice lowered to an almost inaudible level, hands calmly on top of the box.

 

“I will take over the Order,” eyes narrowed slightly. “And I will burn it to the ground. There will be nothing left. There will be no one left. Every atrocity they’ve committed will be burned to ash. You have no idea the depth to which this goes, the torture they've caused. The things they've done. This is beyond war, beyond pain, beyond grief."

 

He picked up the box to deliver it back downstairs. The man was calm on the outside, but a raging inferno just beneath his skin was boiling. There was hell suppressed in a tortured man, and he had it focused on the Order. He was going to self destruct, and take the thing with him. The magus could have brought the information to another group, could have taught them all the Order's secrets... none of it deserved to be remembered. Or used, or survive to hurt another person. He himself, would cease to exist too.

 

“I will burn the Order to the ground. That’s my message.”

 

He pulled in another long breath and let it out calmly, blinking as if to put the chains back on his anger, and nodding once to him.

 

"You're welcome to stay as long as you like."

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“I asked what I could do for you, not the other way around.”

 

 

          The priest appeared to have finished his work at the altar.  His movements methodical and deliberate, as he packed away the empty box and seated himself on the pew beside Harker.  The magus was powerful.  Mana radiated from the man with such potency that it could be felt even by those without arcane gifts.  The sensation of warmth pressed against Ryan’s skin, as if he were sitting by an open camp fire.  The ARMA agent kept his weapon trained on Del Santo’s head, his left hand hidden in the satchel on his left hip; fingers wrapped around a dispelling ward.

 

“You could listen to reason and accept my help.”  Ryan said calmly.  His eyes were sharp.  They continuously scanned the rogue magus, assessing for even the slightest indication of a threat.  A futile effort perhaps, but years of training had engrained the response into his subconscious.

 

“In the interest of full disclosure, that gun won’t save you.  There is a reason I’m not armed.”  Del Santo made the statement as he gazed upon the altar before him, no doubt admiring a task complete.  “You shouldn’t have come here.”

 

“Oh this?”  Ryan replied with an amused smirk.  There was a subtle wave of the pistol’s barrel.  “This isn’t to save me, its to kill you… should the need arise.”

 

“ARMA doesn’t have the information to have warned you, so either you are incredibly stupid, or arrogant, a rogue, exceedingly desperate, or tremendously brave.”

 

          The magus was arrogant.  They all were.  Most of them had been nothing before the Resonance.  Sheep meandering through their dull and insignificant lives.  Relying on warriors like Harker to protect them from the wolves of the world.  Suddenly these little people were blessed with powers and they believed themselves above those without such gifts.  The fact Del Santo had so greatly underestimated the ARMA operative was proof of his arrogance.  Ryan knew the man had training.  The man was a killer, and a good one.  However, he knew nothing of being a warrior.

 

          In the fire magus’ defense, there were probably very few that could defeat him on open ground.  Ryan was an operative that specialized in killing magus.  The combination of his unique abilities, training, and ARMA weaponry made him very efficient at the task.  If the rogue mage were to try and use his magic to inflict harm upon Harker, his sixth sense would alert him.  Then his enhanced reflexes would play their part.  Harker would activate the dispelling ward in his hand before the spell could manifest, neutralizing all magic in the area for a few precious seconds.  Then he would shoot the magus in the head.  There was a reason he was one of ARMA’s best anti-magus.

 

          “For all you know I could be all of the things you just listed.”  Harker answered darkly, his friendly demeanor having all but vanished.

 

          “As long as you’re not here to harm anyone, you are welcome to stay as long as you need.”  The priest stood from his seat and began collecting his things.

 

          “You should accept my help.”  Ryan warned as he rose to his feet.  “Maybe then your death won’t be in vain.”

 

          Del Santo paused for a moment.  Tapping his fingers against the box he held as he contemplated his response.  He looked Harker in the eyes for the first time since the agent had entered the church.  “I don’t need help. I need you to stay out of my way. The fact you’re here, talking to me now is bad for you, and ARMA, and people in ARMA. You can’t be seen here.”

 

          “ARMA isn’t here today,” Ryan said firmly.  “No more than God is in this church.”  The agent gave a sarcastic glance around the chapel.  “There is nothing to see, just a man with a gun talking to a priest. As far as the world is concerned, I represent nothing and no one.”

 

          The priest resumed collecting his boxes.  Harker spoke again, “Your tactics have proven effective, but your strategy is flawed.  You’ll never take down the Order if you keep targeting their foot Soldiers.”

 

          “I will take over the Order,” The magus interrupted.  Staring distantly at the boxes placed on the pew before him, the man seemed vexed by his own thoughts.  “And I will burn it to the ground. There will be nothing left. There will be no one left. Every atrocity they’ve committed will be burned to ash. You have no idea the depth to which this goes, the torture they've caused. The things they've done. This is beyond war, beyond pain, beyond grief."

 

          “Nothing is beyond war.”  Harker corrected the distraught rogue.  “This is war, and that’s exactly the message you just sent to the most powerful collective of magi on Earth.”

 

          The priest picked up his boxes and turned to leave.  “I will burn the Order to the ground.  That’s my message.”  He nodded to the ARMA agent as he walked away.  “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”

 

          “Do you care about these people at all?”  There was an edge to Ryan’s words, but the question wasn’t rhetorical.  He truly wondered if the rogue assassin cared for anything, or if he was a legitimate psychopath.  Just a rabid dog that needed to be put down.  “Or are these priests just pawns in your scheme to take down the Order?”

 

Harker lowered his weapon to his side, but he remained vigilant.  “If you keep waging war so recklessly, there will be collateral damage.  You will get these priests killed, their congregation killed, and yourself killed.  You will fail and the Order will remain in power.”

 

Harker jabbed his Sig Sauer in the magus’ direction, “Is that what you want Del Santo?”  There was a hint of anger in the agent’s voice, “Are you really that self-absorbed?  A narcissist on a suicidal tirade, and what?  Just let the pieces fall where they may?”

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 “You could listen to reason and accept my help.” 

 

Reason was relative. He was tired of listening to people trying to explain the world to him, tired of people waving a leash at him. This conversation couldn’t end fast enough. Everyone saw him as a damn opportunity across the spectrum. The former assassin was after all just a thing, the tool that could sway either side of the fight or become somebody’s trophy and bragging rights if they were to take him down… someone they could lie to, insult and string along with false promises of a daughter survived, trick and fool and bribe… a fighting dog to taunt only to kill because he merely had the audacity to stop someone from beating him. That was the definition of sadistic, not him.

 

Still, he was patient, listening calmly with his eyes focused on the floor as the man said his peace.

 

“You should accept my help.”

 

He’d heard that before.

 

“ARMA isn’t here today,”

 

The priest looked up at him finally, something in his countenance changed even though his expression didn’t. The candles, the church, were no longer his focal point. It was the man in front of him, the eerie mercurial eyes unwavering like a viper as Harker continued his lecture. ARMA didn’t even know he was here talking to him. This was an off-roading member, or ARMA was collapsing to the point the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. Either option was unacceptable where he was concerned; proof of the worst fallout he could imagine. He didn’t care about ARMA. He cared about who was in ARMA.

 

“Nothing is beyond war.” 

 

Yes, something was. He’d ignored the situation for over a year, nothing good could have come from him butting his nose into it anyway. Still, it nagged at him that he should have at least tried to reach out, deciding against it because it would have just made things worse. There were things beyond war. Trust. Proving oneself.

 

“Do you care about these people at all? Or are these priests just pawns in your scheme to take down the Order? Is that what you want Del Santo? Are you really that self-absorbed? A narcissist on a suicidal tirade, and what?  Just let the pieces fall where they may?”

 

Blink was slow as he watched the man. The magus was far from reckless, he was methodical… painstakingly disciplined to a fault, a spider watching a wasp unaware it was caught in a web. This was the type of encounter that got people killed for no reason. Maybe he thought he was helping, but if Harker had stopped a moment to ask someone in ARMA whether or not he was a threat to them, he wouldn’t have wasted his whole afternoon. Unless, there was nobody left that knew he had a crux. The thought raised his hackles. He needed to see for himself.

 

But there was still the current problem of the gun waving guest.

 

The magus could have asked him what was going on in ARMA… but the brashness of outing the former assassin to potentially the entire church didn’t inspire confidence or trust. Bringing names or concerns into the conversation was not a good idea until he knew where this guy stood other than seemingly just wanting another notch on his belt. Eyes cast over his shoulder at all the candles he was supposed to light on the lectern and pulpit. One way to find out.

 

“If you’ve said your peace, I have work to do.”

 

The sheer fact he could do it as fast as he could screamed he was no typical magus. No mana pull, no words, no motion, no fetishes, the depth of the horrible power oddly quite beautiful. Peaceful. The room brightened to glow in warm light as the wicks on the pillar candles began to ignite themselves from behind where he stood across to the other side in a gentle wave.

 

“If you have any more questions, ARMA can officially come speak to me.”

 

Correction. Cass, and only Cass. Until he had some kind of indication she was safe, or this man could be trusted, the magus was a brick wall.

 

It would never happen; therefore this jackass would never come back. If he did without a badge, the conversation would be much different, and someone was going to get burned.

 

He was going to tell him... they weren't foot soldiers. There was a method to his madness and as an insider only the priest would know that. But he didn't. It wasn't time.

 

Sigh was soft, nod final as he turned to return the boxes to their storage and leave him to his own devices.

 

He needed to change, get on the street and find out what was going on in ARMA headquarters. Now.

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“If you’ve said your peace, I have work to do.”

 

          The rows of candles at the cathedral’s altar were suddenly lit aflame.  Like a wave of twinkling lights washing across the staggered shelves, they brought new life to the room.  An impressive display of magic talent.  Harker had seen better.

 

“If you have any more questions, ARMA can officially come speak to me.”

 

          In hindsight, Harker wondered if he had ever really expected Del Santo to cooperate.  Perhaps he had been diluting himself in believing he had come to recover Rhome as a force of good in the world.  Maybe he had known all along the path this encounter was destined to take.  Had this all been an empty gesture to convince himself and ARMA he had given Del Santo a fair chance?  He supposed that truth mattered little at this point.  A crossroad had been met, but the facts remained the same.  Del Santo was a wanted fugitive and a murderer.  There were few scenarios in which killing the magus would be deemed unjustified.

 

“I have offered my assistance only to avoid killing you.”  Ryan said bluntly, his voice dispassionate.  “The war coming is bigger than either of us, and it’s bigger than your feud with the Order.” 

 

Harker stared Rhome in the eyes.  “You could do so much good, but the truth is, you’re a loose cannon.  Already you’ve hurt two ARMA agents in pursuit of a narrow-minded vendetta.  You refuse to align with ARMA, and you refuse to abide by the law…”

 

Ryan paused a moment before he continued, “There is too much at stake for you to be allowed to continue unchecked.”  Pistol was raised to aim at the fire magus, “You’re coming with me.  In cuffs, or in a body bag.”  The mage hunter already knew Del Santo wouldn’t be taken alive, but he gave him the option regardless.  He readied to end the man’s life, “The choice is yours.”

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Stand down, Harker.

 

The command was firm, slipping out of the shadows just like Cassandra herself did.

 

The last time Cassandra had stepped foot inside these walls it’d been in anger and weakness. A moment of foolishness that got her in trouble and almost endangered the deal she'd helped get Rhome with ARMA. She’d been full of hurt and heartache, and confused about the man who she’d still gone to bat for with ARMA. That day held many memories that stuck in her mind: the kiss, the attack, the admittance of love, the reveal of a secret. . . It’d been three years since then, and he’d managed to gain enough trust within ARMA after nearly dying that she’d convinced them to leave him be. It’d seemed too that he’d found a place here; Father del Santo they called him now from what she’d been told, and she spent her time trying to see if perhaps ARMA could find an answer regarding the secret he’d divulged. Continuing even to use the truce as a means to dig deeper into files the Order wouldn’t otherwise allow them to access. She hadn’t looked on Rhome in all that time even from a distance except once just to be sure that he hadn’t vanished too, and then afterward left it to others to give her reports.

 

One of those others, Operative Symons, was doing a check tonight when they’d become concerned. Empowered humans weren’t necessarily as adept at Magus at sensing mana yet Symons had described the mana surge as “mad bonkers”. While that was enough to make anyone cringe, if they knew Symons it’d be easy to figure out that the young woman wasn’t an alarmist. After some internal debate over whether to stay in bed where it was warm or go out into the miserable cold night to check out the situation she’d chosen the latter. And a good thing too what she just walked in on was any indicator.

 

Aside from a brief glance upon first making her presence known she tried not to look at Rhome just yet. Though it’d been three years, and her relationship with Alec was going quite well, that didn’t mean the feelings had just disappeared. That sometimes she didn’t wonder what if. For now, she focused her attention on Harker. Blue eyes were hard as they cut toward the ARMA agent. There being cowboys within the organization was nothing new — even Alistair was known for being one at times  — except previous work experience with Harker had shown that he could get a little more locked into that mindset. Some people thought everything had gone back to the ways of the west after the Nevus event then had trouble letting it go when civilization managed to hold together or re-build in some areas. These were the type of people that Cassandra and Alec, and others within ARMA concerned about the organization’s future, had been worrying about going rogue or creating splinter groups.

 

There won’t be any arrests here tonight. Father del Santo is considered a rehabilitated rogue magus with a protected status which means that he isn’t to be bothered unless he either contacts us or is in danger. She paused to let that be digested before continuing, If there is any suspicion that he has broke the terms of his deal with us then Knight Division needs to be contacted and a proper investigation conducted.

 

It wasn’t like she hadn’t overheard everything Harker had said to Rhome after the candles were lit, but she wanted to de-escalate the situation first before approaching that topic. She didn’t censure by asking outright who’d given permission for him to come here; just stated the facts of the policies that ARMA had in place regarding those considered rehabilitated or protected especially as far as their rights. Violating their own policies, and the rights those policies were meant to help, by not conducting an investigation properly would make them all look bad. There might be a truce, but the Order’s PR would still eat that up.

 

Before coming inside Cassandra had sent Symons on home. Whether or not something had been going on she needed to talk with Rhome. It was long overdue. Harker’s presence was almost a boon as it meant there’d be less risk of it veering from the professional. Unbuttoning the large, gold buttons on her military coat to reveal the simple thick sweater and slacks underneath as the church was warmer than it’d been outside, she turned her attention now from Harker to Rhome as she approached the candles. One hand moved out to hover just over the flame of one. She stared at the flickering light before a simple motion of her fingers produced a slight breeze that blew out three of them.

 

We keep losing people. Some of them are dead. Others missing. . . Right palm turned over to form a little cup where a tiny flame appeared, a simple cantrip taught to her like the wind one, The Nevus event, and the tiny ones that came afterward, have taken from us, but this is different. . . Straightening out three fingers, she watched the flame bounce from her palm to the tips of each as she lit the three candles slowly and closed her eyes to whisper a prayer before speaking again for the other two to hear, and perhaps in some way this can be seen as karma against the Order and the Vanguard, but we know not everyone in a bad organization is necessarily a bad person and in the process innocents are being hurt. Old grudges and issues need to be put aside so we can pull together or we’re going to be wiped out. We’re up against an enemy that is more powerful than us and we understand little about them or their plans, but I saw the lengths people will go who they convince to do their bidding.

 

Cassandra couldn’t help the rage and disgust that became clear in her tone as she recalled the horrors of Lakeville. That experience had forced her to add more deaths to the unknown tally she’d started when possessed. It had been all deemed justifiable, she and Trystan had just been fighting to survive yet that didn’t make her feel any better. This threat had not only stained her hands with more blood, but now they had taken the last member of her blood family left on this planet and were killing members of the only other family she’d known in this screwy world. She was grateful for the candles as they offered an excuse so that she could blink away the tears pricking at her eyes, but the light did show more clearly the dark circles under her eyes and the wanness of her face from barely sleeping. Barely contained rage displayed as both hands curled into fists tight enough to turn the knuckles white as her own mana let off the sensation of a charge; the outside of her hands becoming coated in energy that glowed light blue with a yellow tint to the outline as she fought the urge to strike something. This was not like Cassandra who was generally known for having a more calm reputation and being in control of her anger. Both of them to varying degrees would easily note how out of control she seemed in the moment. She was struggling; her calm and cool attitude worn down to frayed edges.

 

The words she spoke next were low, holding a note of desperation as Cassandra let the fear and concern she’d been doing her best to hide from everyone come out for a moment.


I need you. . . The words weren’t the exact ones she intended to speak, but they came out nonetheless; hanging in the air specifically for one person in the room before she recalled the presence of the other ARMA agent. Adding a hasty, both working together instead of against each other. Everyone does right now.

 

Unknown to them the danger was already near as down the road a good distance from the church, Operative Symons stood perched at the edge of an alley to be sure that none of those inside left while she made a phone call on a secondary phone she carried. “At the Cathedral with the fire magus. . . and the Greene woman is here, and possibly another mana carrier. Send some reinforcements. He’d be pleased if we got at least her.”

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“I have offered my assistance only to avoid killing you.” 

 

He stopped walking. It wasn’t just Harker that drew a pause from him, there was something else. He’d been in the game too long. The air was different, the room -felt- different. There was no mana coming from the man, he was fairly certain he wasn’t a magus. The guy definitely knew him, which meant the fact he was standing here with a gun and nothing else meant there were many things he couldn’t see that were giving him enough confidence he could escape this without getting hurt. Did he have items that had caught his attention?

 

“The war coming is bigger than either of us, and it’s bigger than your feud with the Order.” 

 

There were unfortunately limits to his patience. Limits that had been of late hard to control. Box was set down near a door and he turned to face the man, stepping out finally from the shadows of the overhang. He was not going to cower from a threat. If the man was going to try and goad him to a fight, he would not be shot in the back. Thousands of degrees contained in one mere body were ticking, normally he could feel it by now; the heat, the white hot slide of internal flame thrumming against the inside of his skin like a million points of light licking to break free when he lit the spark on his skin.

 

It wasn’t, and that was truly what caught his attention. The very feel of the world felt odd to him at the moment.

 

“You could do so much good, but the truth is, you’re a loose cannon.  Already you’ve hurt two ARMA agents in pursuit of a narrow-minded vendetta.  You refuse to align with ARMA, and you refuse to abide by the law…”

 

Blink was slow. ARMA had never asked.

 

“There is too much at stake for you to be allowed to continue unchecked.”

 

The moment the aim was taken, he felt an irregular sensation whisper up his skin. A numbness, the feeling of a freefall, light flickering at the edges of his vision. Thoughts, feelings, foreign and unusual.

 

 “You’re coming with me.  In cuffs, or in a body bag.”

 

The numbness turned terrible, slithering up his spine and draining into his blood like spilled ink. He felt it under his feet, vibration… rage, serenity, a sense of the floor falling away to an endless dark sky with no boundaries. No mana, no magic, a pure swell of fathomless energy through his blood that burned. He was going to reduce this man to ash.

 

“The choice is yours."

 

“Stand down, Harker.”

 

Limitless turned to self-consciousness, a viciously charged reality splayed far out from his body reeling back with disorienting speed. Pieces of himself slammed back together like a steel tap snapping shut. What had just happened?

 

Small breath was let out. Not a sigh or relief, but one of horrible realization. On the outside, he was a rock. Cold. Mind tried to connect a voice to a face, then a face to break through the psychological drowning he was trying to wake up from; unable to know that the “mad bonkers” described to ARMA was something he was just waking up to, radiating like a beacon. An identity he had only felt, rolling around in his subconscious, bricked up behind psychological walls.

 

She could not be here. He didn’t want her here. He didn’t want her seeing him here. He was just so… bare. Eyes found the floor, wanting desperately to just excuse himself and let the two take care of their business but… something was wrong. He could still feel something moving beneath his feet like the gears of a clock. Turning, twisting, thrumming. Was it him?

 

“There won’t be any arrests here tonight. Father del Santo is considered a rehabilitated rogue magus with a protected status which means that he isn’t to be bothered unless he either contacts us or is in danger.”

 

How she addressed him hit hard enough to elicit a flick of muscle in his neck.

 

“If there is any suspicion that he has broke the terms of his deal with us then Knight Division needs to be contacted and a proper investigation conducted.”

 

He had no deal. He wanted no deal. He’d burned that bridge a long time ago to get free. Even now, after all he shoved away from him in order to breathe… he couldn’t slip the collar.

 

“We keep losing people. Some of them are dead. Others missing. . .”

 

Dove gray watched her hands at the candles. The urge to insist he didn’t kill her brother was there, but it would taint such a pure gesture he’d seen too many pass through to do. It was all most had left, memories and prayers.

 

So he listened. The shy, often “at a loss for words” Matthias when he was around her was clashing with the identity Harker was exposing, crashing against the controlled cassock and collar he was desperately trying to be. He couldn’t breathe. He just wanted to exist without all this, without being tangled in everything so hopelessly he couldn’t think. Everything she said felt like needles on his skin. When she spoke, he listened. It hit too close, and the stress he could see and feel in waves from her tightened his throat. Harker was right. This was bigger than his feud with the Order. It was bigger than him. He was one man with a vendetta, wanting to draw blood and take down what had hurt him; but what attacked him in this very cathedral had the ability to make factions nervous, to seek out every option for defense, including those it had tortured.


“I need you. . .”

 

Eyes flicked up at her. It was sincere.

 

“both working together instead of against each other. Everyone does right now.“

 

Rami and Dacia had been in this very room asking the same of him. Harker. Everything had conditions. Everything. He just, couldn’t. He didn’t want people to know what he was capable of. Against the Order, he was willing to do the worst because they hadn’t spared the rod with him. It would require him to be… him. There would be questions, and he would have to be truthful instead of a version of him that could deny his past. Eyes fell to the floor again.

 

“I can’t help you.”

 

He’d said the same to the Vanguard, to the Order. There was too much to be said, and Harker was there. The weight of the decision was too much to be decided in that one moment. He too, was different. He’d had time to actually exist without chains for once.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

He went to retrieve his box, just wanting to go down the steps into his world and disappear. Was he retreating because they were there, or was he retreating because he didn’t know how to exist among people who knew what he’d done? Even just a fraction of what he’d done. He would always be tainted in their eyes. No, he was retreating because he didn’t want anyone to know what they’d truly done to him. He would have to be what they made him. In order to be free, he would have to be who they wanted him to be.

 

Now he had a conscience, and now he had free will. It could be different. He would be different.

 

His initial refusals were buckling.

 

He sat again on the end of a pew, forearms leaning on his knees. Thumb kneaded the scar in the palm of his hand. A burn of all things. Stoic reserve was now clearly in turmoil, she’d peeled away the façade. He looked at them both.

 

“We threw our punches and had our black eyes,” he said quietly. “But I would have taken a bullet for your brother. I know he didn’t feel the same about me, and that was fine, but I want you to know that. I believe in what you do even if there isn't a place for me.”

 

Lips pressed together for a moment, a furl in his brow that was truly repentant.

 

“I’ll never be ARMA, it just doesn’t feel… right… given what I’ve done, but as long as you need me I’ll help you." eyes on Harker were absolute. "If I help you, no deals. No terms. No catches. I am not a slave anymore.”

 

The smothering weight seemed to finally lift; scar on his palm was met again with the habitual kneading as he tried to come to terms with what he’d just done. He was advocating for himself, to be free.

 

“Just understand what you may learn about me in the process, I will not apologize for."

 

What he was asking for... was not to be judged. To truly protect, he could not hold back.

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((Just FYI its actually early morning at the moment, but I don't think changes much plot wise.))

 

Ryan could see it in the man’s eyes.  The intent to kill, but also recognition.  In their interaction thus far, Del Santo had arrogantly believed the mage hunter posed no threat.  The operative’s willingness to bring the confrontation to a lethal conclusion seemed to force the magus to reconsider his assessment.  A familiar chill danced playfully along the back of the agent’s neck and the slack was pulled from his Sig’s trigger.   

 

“Stand down, Harker.”

 

          Harker remained focused on Rhome; his weapon still trained on the rogue magus.  As if snapped out of a trance, the violence seemed to leave the priest’s vision.  Rage was replaced by shame.  The magus’ stature shifted from fierce predator, to that not unlike a scolded child.  Harker’s resolve however, was unphased by the interruption.  Cassandra’s stealthy entrance had not gone unnoticed. 

 

“Welcome, Captain Greene.”  The agent responded, though he didn’t bother looking in her direction.

 

“There won’t be any arrests here today. Father del Santo is considered a rehabilitated rogue magus with a protected status which means that he isn’t to be bothered unless he either contacts us or is in danger.”

 

          “Don’t give me that bullshit…”  Ryan spat out of the corner of his mouth, but she spoke over him, obviously anticipating his dispute.

 

          “If there is any suspicion that he has broke the terms of his deal with us then Knight Division needs to be contacted and a proper investigation conducted.” The Captain’s words carried authority.

 

Cassandra was too close to this case.  Having worked with her in the past, Ryan knew she was a good person.  Always well intentioned, but her history at ARMA had a blemish where Del Santo was concerned.  Her emotions for him clouded her judgment.  She had managed to negotiate a deal with ARMA to exonerate the magus, but there were many within the organization that questioned the decision and her motive.  Del Santo turning his back on the agency only confirmed suspicions.  If ARMA knew the facts about the case Ryan was building; Rhome would likely be considered beyond redemption.

         

          Harker didn’t have an “official” case open regarding his investigation of the unseen threat, the Order, or Del Santo.  Cloak operatives in general, but perhaps Harker more than most, preferred to keep their findings quiet until a solid case was established.  Greene probably knew him well enough to wager no public investigation existed presently.  A fact the ARMA Captain now leveraged in conjunction with her rank to control the situation.  This was not the time for Harker to stand his ground.

 

          By now, the foreboding chill on the back of Harker’s neck had faded.  Slowly, he lowered his gun.

 

          “We keep losing people. Some of them are dead. Others missing. . .  I need you. . .”

 

            Both men turned their heads in her direction, both displaying their own sentiments of disbelief.  Cassandra was looking only at Rhome, as if there was no one else in the room. “You have got to be kidding me,” Ryan thought to himself.

 

          “both working together instead of against each other. Everyone does right now.“

 

          The priest turned his gaze to the floor, “I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”  As if defeated in battle, the magus drug his feet as he walked to the pews and took a seat.

 

          “Jesus Christ,” Harker cursed shamelessly as he holstered his weapon.  Cassandra’s appearance had transformed the rogue assassin into a beaten child.  If Rhome wasn’t such a deadly foe, it would almost be pathetic. 

 

          Ryan crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against one of the pews near the center aisle.  Gaze still focused on the fire magus, but he spared an occasional glance in the Captain’s direction.  The operative was obviously annoyed, but he listened quietly as Del Santo mentioned his sentiments for Greene’s lost brother.  When he stated his conditions for helping ARMA, the two men locked eyes.

 

          “Just understand what you may learn about me in the process, I will not apologize for."  

 

             “Believe me,” Harker chimed in, “some of us know more than you might think.”  His inclination to kill the self-loathing priest had yet to dissipate.  “Just know this Del Santo,” back straightened slightly as he continued, “If you hurt another innocent, or another member of ARMA…” Eyes narrowed on the man to whom he spoke, “and I’ll be the one to kill you.”  Aqua blue hues flicked to Cassandra for a moment, “That’s a promise to you both.”

 

          The conversation amongst the three continued.  After a time, the hair on the back of Ryan’s neck stood up once more.  As if a cool breeze had blown across his shoulders.  Chin lifted a little as he surveyed the cathedral.  No signs of any approaching danger.  Eyes looked to Cass, then to the priest.  It wasn’t either of them, at least it didn’t feel that way.  Perhaps Rhome had stifled an urge to lash out at him?  To the others Ryan might have seemed to distracted during their discourse, as he pondered what his sixth sense was trying to tell him.

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Cassandra was not in the mood to be questioned by Harker. She didn’t particularly care if he had an issue with her orders. It didn’t change the fact that they were given nor that the policy was in place. Being given an attitude wasn’t helping her mood. She could only imagine that the Cloak operative wanted to say more  — he’d not been one to withhold his opinion before. She could only imagine that his opinion was in measure with a handful in ARMA that still questioned her involvement with the fire magus. Of course, those people were fools. She hadn’t thought Harker to be one even if they’d not perfectly gotten along the last time they’d worked a case.

 

All of that was put on a backburner though. Harker would get his chance as they’d have to discuss his behavior here this evening, but for the time being there were more important matters. Like convincing Rhome that he was better off with them. The last time she’d tried to convince him to come in with her it’d not gone so well. This seemed likely to be a repeat.

 

The sound of his footsteps moving away made her turn away from the candles as did Harker’s outburst. Annoyance was not helping to calm the anger coursing through her. Though seeing him holster the weapon was a good sign. A nod was given to the Cloak operative before she shifted her attention to Rhome again.

 

Noticing the way his stature shifted made her wish that she had been able to find a means to bring him some pleasant news for once. Instead after years without any word she approached empty-handed to ask him not only to help an organization with some in it that didn’t trust him including her own brother, but was also allied with the organization responsible for his trauma. It was unfair. When Cassandra made that original deal to save his neck the situation had been complicated. It’d not been about the romantic feelings, but understanding of how the Vatican, and the Order by extension, could mess with the mind. The deal had been a good one and if it hadn’t been then her brother would’ve never approved. It was the mention of her brother that helped bring the anger down to a manageable level; the glow around her fists beginning to diminish a little.

 

Not worrying about Harker’s presence or what he thought at the moment, Cassandra approached the pew where Rhome sat and crouched by his right knee.

 

I never thought you responsible. Not even for a second.

 

The words were full of quiet reassurance as she met his gaze. Where before she’d used their connection coldly, and with calculation, during an interrogation to gain his cooperation, but this was different. There wasn’t any of the former hatred behind it. While still confused and hurt by all of it there’d been a point after their last encounter where eventually the hatred started to fade. There were fates worse than death, and they’d been made to suffer them at the hands of people who claimed to help people; both had ended up committing atrocities that tainted them in one way or another as a result, but not many in ARMA were free of that stain.

 

Cassandra couldn’t help that she felt sympathy at how little worth he saw in himself. A reflection of the guilt that she still dealt with even now. Once her brother had pointed out that Rhome wasn’t under any geas or collars or spells, but there were other ways to control people. It’d been going on long before the world went to hell. They’d used some of those ways to try to control her even before the beast took hold. Quietly she listened to his stipulations and observed the way he rubbed the scar on his hand; taking a moment to consider these things when he added another one. . . One she understood all too well. Of course, before she could speak it was Harker’s voice that broke the silence.

 

Immediately Cassandra felt the anger rise up a little and had to swiftly force it back down. Was his goal actually to get Rhome as an asset? Or was it to piss off everyone? She wasn’t sure, but in the moment she wanted to ring his neck.

 

Find a little serenity, Harker. You got problems with my decisions? Come see me later. But right now, remember that I am your superior.” Looking back to the fire magus, she gave a little sigh and shook her head, her words holding regret, “Once I told you that if we let what they did control our lives we’d never be free, and that redemption isn’t as easy as doing the right thing once, but something you continue to work at. I still believe those things. You took the first step when you chose not to kill me, the second step when you turned yourself over to ARMA. . . You didn’t know what ARMA’s response would be, and yet you were still willing to burn bridges with the Order, the Vatican just to save me. Since then, while they’ve been small, you continue to take steps though we’ve given little in return and yet here I come asking you to help us which means helping your enemy. It’s unfair. . .

 

Slipping her hand into the thick collar of her sweater, she pulled out the chain always worn around her neck to show him what was on it besides the locket: a knotwork in the form of a wolf. Cassandra had tried many times to get rid of it, but was never able to do it. At first she’d even tried hiding it away, but had continued to wear the gift.

 

If those are your terms then we’ll meet them. We now help magus who don’t fit with ARMA find a place that suits them after training, and they’re no longer considered rogue. They owe us nothing in return though are free to seek us out for help at any time. I’m not asking you to join, just be an alley. An asset. To help us on your own terms.” Dropping her voice to a whisper meant just for his ears, she pulled a breath into her lungs before speaking softly, “I never thanked you for the great risk you took to save my life, Matty. I’m sorry. I want you to know though that I have not stopped trying to save her life.

 

While she let Rhome digest that information and make a decision, it was Harker’s behavior that made Cassandra rise to her feet. Though she had issues with the operative that they needed to work through he wasn’t the sort to not pay attention or be easily distracted. Something had him on edge. She approached him slowly, each step purposefully measured as she looked down at the floor and began to listen to her surroundings. The place seemed just as quiet as before, but there was something that felt off. Shifting on her right foot, she paused by Harker and he’d notice that her left hand casually make a motion akin to unsheathing a weapon behind her back just before one of her purple-blue energy daggers appeared. She casually leaned against a pew nearest him.

 

You good? Or are we going to have more problems?

 

Blue eyes cut away from him as she spoke, focusing on the upper level and though her body would seem relaxed it’d be easy to note that she could be unleashed in a moment. The Greene siblings were always getting mocked for being paranoid, but just cause you’re paranoid. . .

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 “Welcome, Captain Greene.”

 

Just his voice made his nerves irritated, but the former assassin’s senses were never trained off the gun, even when it was lowered and holstered. Her presence when she moved closer seemed to make him flinch slightly, the scar in his palm a distraction to keep him focused.

 

“I never thought you responsible. Not even for a second.”

 

He blinked at her quietly. Inside, he always knew that. To hear it spoken pulled the weight from his shoulders a bit.

 

Eyes fell again on Harker at his quip, it was fierce hatred that bubbled up like a volcano and seemed to wash over him every time he made a few steps forward. That was almost it, the flash of white in a vicious dog’s eyes before they tore someone apart.

 

Until she spoke again. Lashes lowered, blink was slow.

 

“Find a little serenity, Harker. You got problems with my decisions? Come see me later. But right now, remember that I am your superior.”

 

The ticking under his feet kept him concentrating on her words. It was like a clock.

 

“…yet here I come asking you to help us which means helping your enemy. It’s unfair. . .”

 

Brow furled, looking at her again.

 

“The Order doesn’t help anyone but themselves. They will betray you…” it slipped out quietly between her sentences, unknowingly prophetic.

 

Silence hung a moment before he delivered his terms. They were his terms, and whatever the consequences he would not be shaken from them. The wolf caught his eye as she pulled it from her sweater and held it in her fingers. He’d not seen it, thought about it in… ages. It tapped at a crack in his brain that itched and ached. From a cave, as a child. With the ring. Found while exploring. The thoughts almost seemed rehearsed.

 

Eyes closed as she spoke only to him.

 

“It was a lie… they lied to me about her. They lied to me to get me to run,” he didn’t elaborate, evident he'd been manipulated to defect from ARMA's eye. The level to which he’d been used was staggering. A pawn. A pawn with the power of the entire board. Twisted to a breaking point.

 

He found himself choosing a side. The decision taking even him aback for a moment. Standing. It felt, new. A baptism of a soul. Cleansing of intent. Words spoken that couldn't be retracted.

 

“Believe me, some of us know more than you might think.” 

 

Eyes leveled at him again, the mercurial flash one that heralded the growing viscosity of the air around him as all the magus' invisible walls came sliding off. His presence became heavy, stifling almost.

 

“You know what I want you to know,” the quip was quick and absolute; verbal lash unashamed. He almost seemed to have stood a foot taller, presence radiated with a calm complexity that was not there before. Hiding before. Humiliated before. He’d been given a blessing to be the weapon he was, only now pointed in the other direction.

 

The man though he knew him, but the magus’ invisibility to the world was irrevocable fact. The magus had seen the inner workings of the Order that few alive were privy to. He was the hand that dealt the silent vendettas, and no one would ever know what he truly was or had done.

 

The pressing force that settled around him finally came to a calm equilibrium, elegant and warm. Alive, electric. Comfortable in its intensity. It was as if his natural state wasn’t squashing things under control, and instead when left to flow unchecked they were ultimately the most skilled.

 

“and I’ll be the one to kill you. That’s a promise to you both.”

 

The real tragedy was the man thought he would walk away from it. ARMA needed him, but they needed him clear headed. He watched her approach the man. Something wasn’t right.

 

“You good? Or are we going to have more problems?”

 

Harker had picked up on something, his eyes betrayed him. Anywhere else it would have been a diligent soldier keeping tabs on his surroundings, here… here there was a precedence of the unseen. They had both glanced at the upper level. Had he been betrayed? The enraged thought leapt into his throat, seared away by another realization as the shadowed flicker in the upper level brought unparalleled mortal reflexes to life.

 

No, no no!

 

They were looking up, which meant…

 

He moved toward both of them without hesitation, knowing he was risking getting shot and really hoping Harker was as quick to retract a shot as he was to fire one. The magus was immediately engulfed in a twisted spiral of white-hot flame and the pew to their right was set in motion with a tremendous shove of his foot. Sliding backward toward the wall with the force of a freight train, it slammed into the solidifying shadow in its path, dispersing it with a pained cry before the pew crashed and splintered into the wall and a garrote clinked to the ground next to them without an offender.

 

The world was silent again save for the sound of air rippling fiercely. The evil one… the enemy, the assassin had placed himself between them and the rest of the world, one hand out to tell the two not to move, the other producing a vicious wall of white-hot flame between them and whatever was coming. It seemed alive, focused, and angry.

 

Cass or Harker, it was uncertain who the immediate first target had been, but it was evident they all were now. Brought together into the same place. Three for one. Set up. Betrayal. Something else... it didn't matter now; the world was about to move faster than they could imagine. The moments before the storm needed to include as much information as possible.

 

“Watch where you stand and what you're standing on. Watch where they’re going to force you to go, watch your back. Don’t get close and don’t get isolated. Do not let them push you from this room. Force them out or kill them. Do not engage the phasing mage. If you can call for back-up, I’d do it now.”

 

Shadows swirled again, and she was standing in the middle of the pews. Cynical and normal looking, his age. She looked like she could just be walking through a coffee shop.

 

*npc* How long can you hold that? Can’t stay in there forever.

 

She was right. Current cast would run out in two minutes, the floor already thrumming as he readied to throw the other when this one failed. Fingers slid his athame from the sheath, the razor sharp blade a distinct pitch. A priest with a knife… not just any knife, the one that had ended countless lives. No shame. He would not let himself feel shame.

 

“You forgot I’m not just a mage,” he said to her.

 

This was not a fight. It was a collection. They would take him, take Cass, probably kill Harker or torture him for information.

 

He was going to lose this fight with the phase magus. She was fast as hell and never gave him anything to grab onto. He had failed up to this point so far… one minute on the good guy side and he was already going to martyr himself. The thought that this may be the one responsible for all the disappearances was logical. Without a trace. It was a sound theory. But, if he kept her busy enough, they could get out. He was not going to win this fight with her, but she wasn’t walking away from this in one piece.

 

He looked at both the ARMA agents… they were about to see the worst of him. Promises made would not be forgotten or forgiven. Eyes fell on Cass a moment, he had to get his shit together with this magus or they were going to die. Now, later. Either they got out of here, or this was it. This was the chance to prove himself.

 

Gaze flicked back to the woman that had tormented him for years.

 

The candles flickered and he moved suddenly through his own shield as it fell, one foot off the pillar to launch over a pew and grab her arm before she phased. His movements were insanely fast, no wasted kinetic energy or motion, cassock still spinning as he landed and she was gone. Knife repositioned in his hand with a simple flip as he remained motionless, waiting. He could feel blood on the blade, he’d hit her…

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“Find a little serenity, Harker. You got problems with my decisions? Come see me later. But right now, remember that I am your superior.”

 

          Harker’s jaw clenched at the word “superior.”  It was true the ARMA Captain outranked him within their shared organization, but she wasn’t his superior.  She wasn’t even in his chain of command.  Greene was a Knight Division Captain.  Respect and courtesy were expected to be shown for rank regardless of Division, but she had no sway over the Cloak Division’s operatives.  If Harker had opened an official case, he could have disregarded Greene’s orders entirely.  Alas, he had not.  In the absence of case jurisdiction to a specific Division, ARMA standard operating procedure dictated the ranking agent in the field had command.  Despite the ARMA Captain having no authority over Harker, it could easily be articulated they were now jointly involved in a field operation, and thus she was assuming command.

 

          “Should have just made the fucking case official,” Harker lectured in his own thoughts.

 

          “You good? Or are we going to have more problems?”

 

          “Something’s wrong…”  Ryan answered without looking at her.  Both the magus seemed to que of the mage-hunter’s intuition, paying greater attention to their surroundings.  Cassandra would know from past experience, any time Harker said “something’s wrong,” really bad things tended to follow.  She seemed relaxed as she leaned against the pew, not unlike Harker, he could tell she was poised to strike.

 

          The feeling of impending danger loomed all around him, without specific aim or direction.  It felt as though they were being stalked.  A predator on the cusp of deciding whether or not to strike.  Suddenly, the threat manifested.  It was behind him.  Time expanded for the mage-hunter alone.  Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours.  One hand moved toward his pistol, the other pushing Cassandra from the enemy’s line of fire.

 

          Rhome’s movement caught Harker by surprise.  The rogue assassin pushed off with his back foot, propelling himself toward the operative.  Handgun cleared the holster swiftly, muzzle swiveling to align itself with Rhome’s heart.  Even as the fire magus closed the distance between them, Harker still sensed the danger was behind him.  Slack was already taken from the trigger.  The agent would kill Rhome before he crossed the center aisle. 

 

Still the danger was behind him.  Ryan looked into Del Santo’s eyes just as his pistol’s barrel paralleled the man’s heart.  The magus’ eyes were focused on something beyond the agent, something over his shoulder, something behind him.  “Damn it all,” he cursed privately in his mind.  Then he pivoted sharply, turning his back to the man who had been his enemy just moments ago.

 

Coat flared outward as Harker spun to face the enemy to his rear.  A ghostly figure stared back at him; its intentions obvious.  Weapon punched out and the agent fired a controlled pair into the faceless shade’s center mass.  Bullet’s sundered the smoky figure, leaving cyclones in their wake before impacting the stone wall beyond.  Physically the munitions had no effect on the intangible phantom, but their enchantments afflicted pain enough to cause the being to cry out in anguish.  Almost simultaneously, Rhome’s weaponized pew impacted the shadow, dispersing what remained of its incorporeal form.

 

Harker glanced to each of the magus beside him.  “What the fuck was that?” he asked bluntly.  Instincts told him the attack had been a feint to test their capabilities.  The main offensive would come soon. 

 

          “Watch where you stand and what you're standing on. Watch where they’re going to force you to go, watch your back. Don’t get close and don’t get isolated. Do not let them push you from this room. Force them out or kill them. Do not engage the phasing mage. If you can call for back-up, I’d do it now.”

 

“You got a phone?”  Ryan cast an inquisitive look to Cassandra, a hint of amusement in his tone.  It was evident he had come to the church without any intention of calling for ARMA assistance.

 

Smoke swirled in the center aisle between the unlikely trio and chapel’s main entryway.  The shadows congealed into a woman’s form, like a demon summoned from another realm.  Del Santo placed himself between the ARMA agents and the conjured woman.  A barrier of mana infused flames circling around him, “You forgot I’m not just a mage.”

 

          When Rhome had glanced back Cassandra, Harker had seen his face as well.  The man hadn’t been wearing the face of someone about to win a triumphant battle.  He bore the face a man prepared to die fighting his foe.  Harker had seen the same face from others many times in his life.  Rhome doubted whether they would survive this encounter.

 

          The flame magus’s shield failed, and he lashed out at the shadow woman.  At the same time, another priest came running into the room from one of the cathedral’s several side passages.  Ryan recognized the man; it was the old Vicar from before.  The priest trotted toward Del Santo at a moderate pace, “Stop this at once!  This is a house of…”

 

          The Vicar was silenced by a pair of bullets tearing through his heart.  Gunshots cracked through the air, resounding throughout the church’s halls.  Harker’s killing of the man had been sudden, and too swift to prevent.  The priest’s torso recoiled from the impact, but momentum carried his body forward so that he collapsed in a lifeless heap at Rhome’s feet.  The quiet that followed was tense, as if everyone in the room was collectively holding their breath.  Pistol lingered in the air, still aimed where the priest had stood.

 

Ryan’s stare shifted from the felled priest to Rhome.  Circumstances had forced him to place trust in the rogue magus just a moment ago… he hoped Del Santo would be able to return the favor now.

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Admissions from Rhome squeezed at her heart. To lie about something of that nature was needlessly cruel. To tear away what little peace the man had been able to achieve just for manipulation. She felt angry on his behalf. Yearned to march over and tell that blonde-haired ice queen a piece of her mind. She wanted to talk to him about how he’d come to that realization except there was little time for talking. It wasn’t necessary for Harker to explain the sensation creeping along her spine. Had she not been as focused on Rhome, and the matter at hand, she’d have picked up on it sooner. They had all been distracted though to some extent which made it too late to get out now. Something told her that the window of opportunity for escape had passed. The last time Cassandra had stepped in this place to speak with Rhome it’d resulted in fight and flight. Now, it was either fight or die.

 

Cassandra’s blue eyes had dropped focus from the upper level to survey the large, double-doored entrance of the cathedral when two things registered in her mind: the intent in Harker’s gaze and the proximity of Rhome’s heat. As fast as it took for the fellow ARMA agent to draw he’d find that between his gun and Rhome’s heart was her body. It was only the enchantments of her coat that protected her from the fire. The rhythm of her heart felt loud in her ears as she waited. . .

 

One.

 

The dagger in her left hand vanished.

 

Two.

 

A blue-white glow starts to extend outward from her hand.

 

Three.

 

The shape begins to take form until becoming a small, round shield 18 inches in diameter.

 

Just as that fourth beat set into motion, Harker turned to fire on the threat behind him. As she expelled the breath she’d been holding, the buckler disappeared from her hand to remain clear until a better understanding of the situation could be formed. And it was about to be. She felt the heat move away from her just before a pew crashed into, and at the same time through, the malleable form ahead. The cry of pain brought a raised brow and then there was information being tossed out as a wall of flame danced between them and the enemy.

 

One specific part of Rhome’s speech caught in her mind.

 

Do not engage the phasing-mage, repeated itself in her head as she watched the woman appear on the other side of the flame-wall.

 

She should’ve taken her down that day she saw her strike him. Instead she’d let her escape. Not today. This one seemed like she might have useful information if they could take her alive.

 

If possible, we take them alive. . .

 

But her tone said the rest quite clearly: not at the cost of lives. Their own or otherwise.

 

Information would be valuable, but not that valuable it meant any of them dying. Of course, the look from Rhome kept any further words from coming forth. Blue eyes stared intently into his dove gray ones, reading a message that made her stomach churn.

 

No. . .

 

She reached out to tell him not to do anything foolish except he was already flying through the air. As he made his attack so did there come shouts from behind them that had her instinctively pull up a half-shield as she crouched by a pew just as Harker fired off several shots. Sticking her head out to the side let her know that he’d killed someone in robes, but figured that if he’d fired it likely wasn’t an an innocent bystander. Now with her front shielded by the pew and the rest of her shielded by the glowing white energy shield she put her focus on calling for help. An ARMA issue cell was hastily pulled from her coat pocket. It was specially encased to be shielded enough that the magic around them shouldn’t be interfering yet it still refused to work.

 

Something’s blocking it. There’s nothing.” That quite plainly meant there wasn’t any help coming; at least not until she could figure out what was causing the issue. “There has to be more than just her and that other one. There’s no way they’d try to take him on again without more numbers, and certainly not with me here.

 

Had their goal been the same the last time they’d attacked? Had it not just been Rhome the phasing magus was after that day? They’d thought she’d come to kill him, but perhaps it’d been more than that from the start. Cassandra glanced over to Harker then up where Rhome was now. At least two of the enemy had made themselves known, right? Or had the phasing magus been responsible as well for the odd shadow-ghost thing? Or perhaps it was a whole other being? They wouldn’t want to risk them escaping so ensuring the ways for them to flee were blocked would be the first step.

 

Like making sure there’d be no conventional way to call for help. Of course, there were other ways.

 

If they haven’t encased the place,” A totally plausible thing that could happen these days and that an enemy might use to their advantage, “we could send up a magical flare. Though we’ll need a distraction.

 

Sending out a magical S.O.S. was the only idea that came to mind at the moment. It’d have to be done from a high point and sent out through the roof, and done by someone with fire magic though. That person would have to be able to get to a high enough point first which meant a suitable distraction to occupy an unknown number of enemies. She looked at Harker, knowing that he’d be amenable to playing the distraction. He had enough toys in his bag of tricks to distract anyone. As she turned to look at Rhome to see how he felt about being the flare gun, her eyes took notice of the blood on his blade and a slow grin appeared on her lips.

 

Also, I have a way to possibly slow her down if you want to work together. . .

 

The ability throttled people and objects, but it had to be done right in order to work. That meant contact for a full minute. They’d have to keep her from phasing away before then. Afterward though, she’d be down for at least 5 minutes and that’d give them the upperhand. They'd have to set a suitable trap to bait her first.

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 “Find a little serenity, Harker. You got problems with my decisions? Come see me later. But right now, remember that I am your superior.”

 

Eyes moved to the hunter, but his head never turned. The cowboy was not pleased, dressed down in front of someone who he clearly had no respect for. The assassin wasn’t sure how he felt about it either; the quiet morning had gone from bad, to worse.

 

“You good? Or are we going to have more problems?”

 

There were things that could be beaten into a person’s soul, fighting skill, lack of empathy, survival, even instinct. Missing social cues and being punished for it could literally make a brain more unconsciously aware of their surroundings. Abuse was as much psychological as it was physical, and the man had been severely conditioned with both. There was no second thought when he caught the flicker in mana that most definitely wasn’t Cass. He had no illusions that the hunter could aim on a dime, but could he think and reason that fast? If he couldn’t, not just the fire mage would die.

 

Harker’s pivot, said yes.

 

The hunter was fast.

 

They might win this round.

 

Cassandra’s actions said otherwise.

 

She’d stepped between them, the expression on his features when the initial threat was neutralized a mixture of beaten and confused. No, she couldn’t do that. She shouldn’t do that.

 

“What the fuck was that?”

 

“Death,” the answer was cryptic, but absolute, eyes still on Cass.

 

She couldn’t do that again.

 

“You got a phone?”

 

The Italian’s gaze moved from Cass to cock a brow at the cowboy. Christ. He could hold them off long enough to get the two ARMA’s out of the church, then he would unleash hell. He’d never met anyone who could inhale fire, and he could fill the air with it but there was doubt in his ability, and it lingered deep in his gut. Here too long. Alone too long, away from his training too long. His lack of discipline cast considerable uncertainty, a hitch in his drive. The uncontrollable rage he’d been wrestling with. A reaction from Cass when he’d attempted to contain a threat some time ago, the expression on her face when his brutality was visible and unchecked. It made him hesitate even now. Reservations could kill them all. They would kill them all, and it would be his fault.

 

“If possible, we take them alive. . .”

 

Brow furled slightly, he understood the sentiment, but doubted it would be possible. He doubted, and she could see it. He had never been able to hide his thoughts from her.

 

“No. . .”

 

Instinct pushed him forward. Fight, or die. A flicker of motion was met with brutal force, almost impossible someone his size could be so agile and come to such stillness after a devastating blow. His hand was wet, his blade was wet. He’d hit her, the blink disbelieving until eyes flicked to a voice, unmoving when the gunshots rang out and his beloved mentor came to a halt at his feet.

 

Gaze shifted to Harker, heavy. Slow.

 

The room trembled, the very air and stone sounding like twisting leather as mercurial irises leveled at Harker with a distinctive white flash. The floating flicker of a rational voice tickled at his higher thoughts, Vicar Strocsio did not move with speed, nor speak with force anymore. The lucid mind couldn’t hear it. It didn’t make it to the man’s higher consciousness, flittering to ash before it became a second thought. There was no more carefully controlled outward patience and inward fury, it was turning itself inside out with the ire leveled like a scope at Harker.

 

“Something’s blocking it. There’s nothing.”

 

Voice barely penetrated the furled heat that was spilling across the floor, a tick on his cheek. He would reduce the hunter to ash.

 

“There has to be more than just her and that other one. There’s no way they’d try to take him on again without more numbers, and certainly not with me here.”

 

The massive draw suddenly shivered against another’s, a shield, pushing against his like opposite magnets. He flinched. Stroscio didn’t move that fast. Stroscio could not have raised his voice. The thoughts crashed against each other. Logic crushing into instinct, reality locked in a battle with rage. He was pulling violent amounts of mana, but it was dragging across Cassandra’s shield like an anchor, denting his focus on Harker.

 

“If they haven’t encased the place, we could send up a magical flare. Though we’ll need a distraction.”

 

She was speaking to him, and his higher thought was trying to grasp the logical conclusion Harker had acted rightly against a shapeshifter designed for diversion.

 

“Also, I have a way to possibly slow her down if you want to work together. . .”

 

He heard it before he saw it, the slice of a blade through the air just out of his eyeline. It wasn’t the same woman that shimmered from nothing this time.  There was more than one that could phase. No time to think, it was an ultimate battle of speed, the two moving so closely there was no help to be had. Thoughts were smooth, instinct, training, a lethal dance with razor sharp weapons.

 

Not just a mage.

 

The ingrained mantra pulsed his thoughts a split second before he was hit, pommel of the blade first across the temple and the foe's blade backhanded for a jugular strike. He locked their forearm with his to stop the blade inches from his skin. He was stronger, readying his grip to push him off.

 

Not just a mage.

 

Stumble forward was sudden as the foes phase rendered his flesh to air. The assassin checked his surroundings… heel of his hand to his temple to check to see if he was bleeding.

 

They’d disarmed him. Powered him down. Notched his fighting style and were using it against him. He only used his magic as a last resort and they knew it. They were not here by accident. Studied, trapped and captured. Nothing was left to chance. They’d pegged the damaged assassin’s weakness. He loathed his magic, been trained to control it so tightly it was a furnace contained. Pressure with no release until it exploded. ARMA binding it had pushed it down further until it couldn’t contain itself… what was he? A man that had become a mage, or a magus they had forced to be a man? Forced to develop control of something the Order had been afraid of? Was he even human?

 

The expression cast to the two was nothing they’d seen before, a realization of self. What he truly was would have to be sought later. Right now, to survive he would have to change. Unhinge. Unashamedly.

 

Air quivered, blade coming back at him through the ether for a second round. Arm snapped toward it this time, the thrust unleashing white hot flame from his palm as the momentum of the man surged toward him. Blade incinerated as it crashed against his hand, squeal of a man trying to recoil from burning to death echoing across stone, choked off as the mage grabbed his throat with the same hand and held it, then turned up the heat. The mage erupted in a controlled, violent, licking blue flame that crackled and scorched the stone beneath his feet, dispersing violently in a rushed swirl upward as hand came back to his side. A barely recognizable black lump slumped to the floor.

 

No shame.

 

“The rounded door at the back of the cathedral on the right, go down,” he said quickly as motioned and moved in that direction without losing a step. It was contrary to what they would need to send up a flare, but it would buy them some time. They wouldn’t be ambushed, and he knew the twisting tunnels. If necessary, he could lead the other two out to safety and lead the assailants on a goose chase. “Tell me what you need me to do. I’m right behind you.”

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Harker couldn’t believe Cassandra’s attempt to save Rhome’s life.  First, he was fast enough to hit his mark regardless of the ARMA Captain’s efforts.  Second, even if she had intercepted his attack, he was using enchanted rounds.  Which meant the bullet would have pierced any meager shield she managed to summon so hastily.  Lastly, she knew all of this… and still she tried to place herself between Rhome and Harker’s gun.  Did she really care for him that deeply?

 

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          Ryan’s sixth sense had alerted him to the threat the Vicar had posed.  When he looked at the elder man, something had been wrong.  It was as if the priest’s face had been blurred over another, but somehow, Ryan knew none shared his vision.  The wards tattooed across his torso were channeling his mind in an endeavor to see through their foes’ façade.  For the most part the runes had failed, as seeing through shapeshifting magic had never been their intended function.  However, they had succeeded enough to confirm the danger the hunter had sensed, and he eliminated the threat with prejudice.

 

          The same prejudice now smoldered within the flame magus’ eyes as they fell upon Harker.  The operative could feel the massive surge of mana, and the intense heat that accompanied it.  It felt as though a hot oven had been opened in his face.  Despite the sudden rise in temperature, a cold chill seemed to drip slowly down the back of Harker’s neck.  The magus meant to kill him.

 

Cassandra’s barrier rushed to meet Rhome’s emanating wrath, but she remained calm.  Still focused on the mission.  Her serenity was almost contagious, and it kept Harker relaxed enough to refrain from killing Rhome where he stood.  Though it didn’t stop his Sig from casually drifting to point in the flame magus’ direction.

 

“I’m not your enemy,” Ryan’s words were firm and without emotion, contrasting from the antagonizing tone they had held before.  Circumstances had changed, and his mentality was changing with them.  Persona of the callous and lonesome mage hunter, transitioning to disciplined, team-oriented Soldier.  “At least not for the moment.”

 

“Something’s blocking it. There’s nothing.”  Captain Greene’s ability to manage both Rhome’s temper and mission priorities, gave credence to her position within ARMA.

 

“Looks like it’s just us then,” Harker said without looking away from the fire magus.

 

“If they haven’t encased the place, we could send up a magical flare. Though we’ll need a distraction.”  Del Santo still seemed battling his own thoughts.  Ryan however, immediately understood Cassandra’s plan.  Shared experience from previous missions had given them a good appreciation for each other’s strengths.  Brute force and healing were more Cassandra’s wheelhouse than his, but precision, cunning, and evasion were well within Harker’s repertoire.

 

“I can handle the phasing magus,” the agent offered with a nod of agreement.  He had sensed Cassandra’s fear, Rhome’s uncertainty, and their shared apprehension of the shadow woman when she had appeared.  A sentiment the mage hunter didn’t share.  Since the initial Resonance event, he never encountered a magus that couldn’t be slain.  Whatever this phasing magus was, she had bled, and if she bled, she could be killed.

 

“Also, I have a way to possibly slow her down if you want to work together. . .”

 

          Cassandra’s thoughts were interrupted by the phantom’s unprovoked assault upon Rhome.  Anticipating the Knight Captain would focus on protecting Rhome, Harker moved to cover her instead.  The operative may have preferred working alone, but for years he had trained and fought as a member of a team.  Covering down for his team on an exposed flank came naturally to him.   

 

The phantom hadn’t been the ghostly woman from before, and Ryan expected the attack was a feint to conceal a calculated strike.  He was right.  When Cassandra’s attention turned to Rhome’s attacker, there was a swirl of smoke behind her.  Figure of the shadow woman rapidly taking shape.  The phasing magus had nearly solidified in corporeal form, when she seemed to realize Ryan’s pistol would be pressed to her forehead. 

 

Another gunshot echoed throughout the cathedral.  There a pained and ghastly shriek, then the smoke dispersed as suddenly as it had materialized.  Behind him Harker heard the agonized cry of another poor soul.  He felt the heat against his back.  A moment later, the familiar scent of burning flesh choked his senses. 

 

Thousands of images seemed to flood into the Soldier’s vision all at once, each as gory as the last.  Eyes slammed shut and Ryan couldn’t help but cringe.  An odd shiver shuddered through his shoulders, as if he had heard nails scraping against a chalkboard or seen someone’s nails ripped from their fingertips.  The sensation distantly familiar to the chill of his sixth sense, but one he appreciated far less.  A quick shake of his head helped him to quell the demons.  Then his eyes snapped open, and he was back in the fight.  The disorientation had only lasted a second, and it was unlikely either of his magus partners had noticed.

 

“The rounded door at the back of the cathedral on the right, go down,” Rhome was already ushering Cassandra towards the back of the church.

 

Harker remained in place.  He looked to Cassandra, “You two should head for the roof.  I’ll make a break for courtyard out front.  Once you guys send off the flare, try to get out.  If you can’t, then I will come to you.”

 

The Cloak operative was clearly waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from the Knight Captain, but even as he waited, he was already jogging toward the church’s main entrance.

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