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There are no beginnings
It was an odd sensation, that of his arm moving in an arc before him and visually seeing the rendering of its copy n the digital space. His best VR specialist explained the process for the Ascendancy, who operated similar constructs previously, but the metaphysical notion echoed a sense of awe to this day. The idea summoned thoughts of the definition of reality; questions first posed by Plato, later Descartes to no avail. Modern man had yet to reach a consensus. What was reality? Was life a simulation of neural maps controlled by masterminds of the universe? Did it matter?

Nikolai's physical body stood within a sphere that projected the view of their connection with such resolution, he might as well have reached out to confirm its existence. Reality persisted, warped and changed. The floor moved with his steps, allowing for movement. The definition didn't matter after all.

Given the short time frame, the rendering of their digital meeting space was rather simple: the interior of a Buddhist temple. A thatched ceiling was held far above by wooden beams. Warmth gleamed around them with unnatural light. The floor was deep gray stone. No furniture, no décor, no windows. Yet, somehow, the environment was fitting. It reminded him of the Datsan that Wilhelm Ravhid burned to the ground in that first attempt at assassination. Was this Regus aware of his predecessor's failed legacy?

The time approached. Nikolai did not fidget at his suit jacket nor did he tug at his sleeves. He merely waited, hands behind his back, holding a small stream of the powers of the universe within his soul. Darkness wafted at his feet like smoke, as though the wood smoldered with his steps.

A flicker, and the mortal man appeared.
Armande sat in his chair, headset on, focusing on his heartbeat and breathing, finding the rhythm, a river bubbling, a sea, waves gently lapping against the shore.

Everything began to slow. His eyes closed, he still saw the room, heard the sounds from outside, felt the press of the air as the conditioner kicked on, the slight change in temperature and the faint movement of the hairs on his arm.

One by one, he began to remove items from his vision of the room. The desk. The computer. The bed. The walls. He was in formless black now. Next, he shut out the sounds, the hum of the fan, the faint noises beyond the door, until dead silence hung in the air. The sensations of the chair underneath him, the aches and twists of his body, the feel of the air and temperature against his neck and face. The smells in the room vanished, each signal cut off and ignored. Finally, his body itself was erased.

He hung in nothing, a mind floating free, as free as any person could be. Almost.

Odd. He had the sensation of being watched. Of a presence. It did not make him nervous, exactly. But it was alien. Strangely, he felt a sense of comfort. If he had lips he would have smiled.

So much had changed since his descent. Armande had always been the practical one. Perhaps others might find that an odd way to describw him, given his position as leader of the Atharim, a hunter of creatures out of lore. Barovsky certainly had disdained his hunger for esoteric texts and legends, prophecies and myth, as if it were all useless theory.

But for Armande, every bit of that was for a purpose. The truth hidden inside the stories. The nuggets of gold amid the dross. The world was as it was. And he sought every tool to help in the struggle, to win the war. It was as practical as he could imagine even if those without the intelligence or foresight didn't see it.

The Khyslsty had changed that. A people hidden and vouchsafed for some future time. Valeriya most of all. The Eye, who looked beyond.

It was not simply a matter of having another tool, another source of information for the war.

No. What he had found went far beyond that.

There was a Mind at work. A Purposer. A Planner. God. Fate. Maya. Qismet. However it could be called, something more than humanity was here.

And the most amazing thing had happened in the process. Armande had found faith. He had disdained it his entire life even as he used it over others. His ego could not conceive of trusting to anything but himself.

But in hindsight, there had been a hand at work. Guiding events down to this day. Preparing him for this moment.

It was not an accident that he and Apollyon were born the same year. Indeed, Armande had been birthed the very day after Nikolai Brandon first drew breath. Every step of his life, long before the man set down the road to becoming the Destroyer, had been made to shape him into his opponent. Of the man he would see in minutes.

And so Armande knew he was not alone. Peace enveloped him. The gift of the Eye, Valeriya. Faith. Trust. Armande knew the victory would come.

Spirit at rest, he let the meditation fade into mist, each sensation returning one at a time, until he again sat in his chair, ready.

It was time. He flipped on the connection and the headset lit up. It was a familiar sensation. In that meditative formlessness, he would often recreate his offices in the Vatican, but far larger. His own virtual world.

This was comparable.

A table formed, long with a chair at each end. Armande stood behind his. gazing at the man at the other end. He studied him. The reports from the Ball were not vague. He looked for signs of stress and frustration. A small smile played on his lips.

But he said nothing. Brandon called the meeting. Let him speak first.
Would the enemy show his face? Had he indeed agreed to this confrontation or was it all a ruse?

Nikolai’s thumb tapped his hand, rhythmic like the beating of a distant drum of war, as he waited. Moments, minutes. They blurred in this reality. Even his body was disconnected from his soul. The power of the universe burned celestial in the physical form, but here, only the fragments of his imagination translated the effects.

He turned when an injected presence rippled this reality. There stood the man himself. First impressions were flattering, but Armande was an aged mortal. Wrinkles cut lines in the stony façade of his face. His hair was thick, but gray. The body of one bound by the rules of time.

Above all, Nikolai’s first impression was one of serenity. Not so the last he glimpsed the figure.

They watched each other in silence for some time. Two students of the east, two reflections of opposite realities. He wanted nothing more than to crush this creature in the palm of his hand. 

“I remember your face.” Ascendancy spoke first. His own voice was realistically projected, his bearing lordly and wise. “You were angry last I saw you.”
Armande's smile deepened and he sat down, relaxing, watching the man across the room. He called himself Ascendancy. Clearly he believed it to be true, that he had somehow risen above ordinary men.

And yet...Armande's voice was deep as it carried across the room, a voice born of hardship and command, of loss and of victory. "And of course everyone knows your face, Nikolai." There was more he could say. Carefully crafted images. But this was a conversation.

And a man who truly thought himself a god had thin skin. Ironic, that. It seemed almost sad. To hold so much power. And yet with every added drop, to become more insecure and prone to insult.

"As to the other, have your source of power. And I have mine." He paused, not being able to help the curiousity that came over him. "Have you ever asked yourself if the power you so desperately rely on has made you weaker or stronger?" An idle question, one he didn't expect an answer to.

He had wanted to look into the man's eyes. The person before him, as stern as his gaze might be, was just so.....ordinary. The most powerful of the reborn gods. Apollyon. Just a man.

"You asked to speak with me."
His face, unchanged these last 30 years, was the most recognized in the history of the world. He nodded in agreement. Regus spoke true.

The barbs were thrown quickly. A fitting retort to the highlight of Armande’s most recent failure. The enemy sat. A symbol of fearlessness, though Nikolai took it as one of deference. He remained standing, though he walked the length of the table until he stood over the old man of the Atharim.

“I did.” He replied, studying the eyes of one whom might have been a brother had fate designed another pattern to their lives.
“Nikolai..,” he murmured, mirroring curiously. The familiarity with which Regus uttered his name spoke to a lifetime’s obsession.

“I have likewise known your name, Signore Director.” Only another Atharim of the highest standing was aware the Regus masqueraded as Director of the Vatican Historical Society. Nikolai sat in the office once, conversing casually with another Regus.

He pivoted slightly, charcoal smoke obscuring his feet as he walked. Patience. Statuesque. His very profile a marble carving. The power rippled his true body, darkening his countenance, but a trick of the augmented reality translated his intention into specific design. “Yet for all my power, I left your office undisturbed. Why do you think that was, Regus?”
Despite the words to unpack, Armande couldn't help the chuckle that formed from deep within as Brandon swirled away, black smoke seeming to form at his feet. Perhaps it was more than a chuckle."Oh come now. Adults use tricks to scare children. No child sits before you. I know exactly who and what you are."

His look hardened. He had a clear answer to his question. Even in VR the man had to restort to showmanship. Weak. Pathetic. "If we are to speak, let us do it as men. And not with these pathetic games." And then, as an example, he made a flame appear. VR was not real, after all.

He considered the words, then. "You were once Atharim, which we knew. And one of rank, to know the office." He paused, thinking on the timeline, steepling his fingers. "Regus....Raved, I should think. Winjgaard was far too much of a weakling to have one as you among him. As to are no fool. You know what we do is crucial."

And then he looked at him pointedly. "But you do realize that everything you have done proves that the Atharim of old were correct in exterminating the gods. That we are correct to oppose you now. You behave exactly as the gods of old did." His voice hardened. "Of all those that might be gods, you knew of this. And still, the power corrupted and weakened you."
The haunt of a smile. The tilt of a barest nod.

“That is why I bother you so much. I knew what I would become, and I became it anyway.” He knew it had to be something personal. Had to be some fault in his consciousness not the twists of fate. “You find me a hypocrite.” How interesting that Regus named him a god. He did not shy from the title.

He paced a few steps, simple roaming, perhaps as opposition to the stagnant Regus, perhaps out of boredom. Perhaps to make his guest uncomfortable. The smoke continued despite the demonstration by Armande.
Armande regarded him as he continued to pace. Full of restless energy, it seemed. And arrogance. His tricks continued, though.

And in that moment, he had a flash of great appreciation. The power might have given him sway over multitudes. He knew his abilities and strengths. Had he chose to, he could have rivaled Brandon in every way.

But the power would have become his crutch. He would lean on it to overawe people, to cow them. An adult showing his power over children. What a glorious victory that is, he thought sarcastically, contempt showing in his eyes.

The Roman Republic of Marius and Sulla had it right. Prima inter pares. First among equals. The way of true men.

His voice grew quiet. "You think you bother me because you are a hypocrite? I have known hypocrites. I have killed them, with no more thought than swatting a gnat. No. You are Apollyon. At your coming death has flourished like weeds. It sprouts at each step you take."

He paused, thinking. It was something he had considered for a long while. The timing matched, especially given his revealed abilities. A gamble to reveal his suspicions, though. Still...."Your rise to power- concurrent with the ASU's- was rather fortuitous. World wide disasters seeming to strike at the heart of potential enemies on the world stage. The America's west coast devastated by flooding. Others." A pause. "Even the disaster in Ohio was rather....interesting, I would say. The death toll of all those events was staggering."

His look was pointed. "Even if you had never heard of the Atharim, I would be your enemy. The fact that you knew, though, only speaks to the correctness our position. The power of the gods corrupts."
It boggled his understanding, which was likely why Armande flummoxed his logic so greatly, that the only real reason Armande stood against him was the strings of fate tied to their limbs. Prophecy ruled his motivation. How powerless he must feel to live a life riding the waves of great design, but who was the designer? Let not Armande say fortune, as though she was a mistress to court.

If this awareness was the sole revelation of their meeting, Nikolai would count it a success. He might have spoken to it until Armande levied his accusation. He studied the man a moment, how callously he spoke of killing those whom he deemed deserving, yet how empathetic he described mass casualty. As though he was no more sociopathic than himself. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

“You said it, I am the Lord of death, am I not?” For the first time, he might have accepted the cloak of darkness as a proud mantle.

The Ijiraq called him such a name, Aidoneous, lord of the grave, but peering backward through mists of memory was a futile task of his precious time. Perhaps the name held meaning, though.
“I received your message,” he said as though offering a symbol of praise to his enemy. Well-strategized, it said. “I cannot say it was well received,” he almost laughed, but it was a morbid joke. He assumed Armande was aware of the happenings within his home that night, how the Ijiraq woman escaped.

“I must say though, she was quite inspiring. It is said that the first Atharim stole the weapons the gods made to war upon each other, and turned them against the gods in defense, until all were destroyed. She must have been a corruption of one such weapon. It has me thinking how great the opportunities are for the future. So much untapped potential. We gods really are limited by our own creativity, wouldn’t you agree? How primitive they would judge our weapons of war.”

He thought a moment, studying the wrinkles around Armande’s eyes, “You realize I have only to outlive you a few more years and I have won forever.”  
Armande studied Nikolai curiously. He offered not one shred of defense. Not one excuse. Not one denial. Merely acceptance. What must be must be. Lord of the Grave. A chill traveled his spine. Not at the title. At the easy acceptance of it and all that it meant. Here was a man resigned to the carnage and destruction he'd bring to the world. Resigned and at peace with it.

After a moment, he spoke. "The gods of old did indeed possess creativity. They were at their peak, both in power and numbers. I- and you too-" he smiled slightly "-have both fought and killed the tools of their endless wars." He looked of into the distance, musing. "Their need for endless creations- new ways to kill others of their kind- was insatiable." A small smile touched his lips, his eyes a burning blue flame, as he turned back to look at Brandon. "Before we Atharim exterminated them, of course."

He tried to imagine Nikolai then, young and devoted to his training. Of that he had no doubt. One did not rise to power as this man had without supreme will and self discipline. He had read Rahved's private dictations and personal diaries, his notes. None of them mentioned Brandon. Then again, the man had been driven mad, and had become obsessed with the death of his son. Fury and a need for revenge fueled him to the point that it affected the way he led the Atharim. After his death, the choice of Wijngaard was an understandable if still foolish decision.

So how long ago was it when Brandon had trained? Before he suddenly appeared out of nowhere, an American who would somehow end up becoming president of the Russian Federation. 2013. He knew it from the documentaries and articles, the endless hagiography and biographies that surround this man who believed himself a God. And ten years prior in a monastery in Siberia. 2002 or 2003 maybe.

They had both been 19.

And Armande suddenly smiled. He could see the Eye floating in the darkness, felt the presence in the great beyond. Faith. It amazed him.

His voice was quiet, almost friendly. "I wonder if you have considered who your opponent really is. Me, of course. That goes without saying," he said, airily waving off the obvious fact. He leaned forward, fixing Nikolai with a stare. "But where did I come from?" He paused. "You did not come to the Atharim's attention until you were in your late 20's. At least not according to any records I could find. And I have looked. And yet, I have been training to be your enemy since I was in my early teens, never knowing you existed. Apollyon was some prophesied threat for the far distant future. I certainly had no inkling that he had been born." He paused, letting the words sink in. "Do you realize what that indicates?"

He rubbed at the stubble on his chin absently. "I was born one day- less than 24 hours- after you drew your first breath, to a poor prostitute girl. My father, whoever he was, was nothing more than a random sire. My beginning, my path. Every step of my life has been training, a cauldron, a furnace, forging me to to be here, to stand against you. Long before anyone knew Apollyon lived, I was being prepared- history, science, mathematics, languages, Atharim lore, legends, the endless hunts." He couldn't help the next, given Brandon's insinuating comments on the female Ijiraq. "I command the Ijiraq because of that preparation. They do not attack at your word."

He steepled his fingers pointedly. "So the question is, Nikolai Brandon, Lord of the Grave, Apollyon, by whom was all this set in motion? What eternal superhuman force or entity out there is your true enemy? Because make no mistake. Our being here, tied together from the beginning as we are, is no mere accident."

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