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The Greats
This was his twenty-fifth Christmas in the Kremlin.

The first one was clear as yesterday in his mind. At the time, he was the newly elected president of the Russian Federation. What struck him at the time was the scale of the scenery. The tree in the Red Square was a perfect cone that dominated the foreground of St. Basil's Cathedral. Every ornate corner of GUM was illuminated by a miles and miles of lights. He recalled the sound of his footsteps muffled as he strode the red carpets of the Grand Palace and trying not to gawk at the decor. The Russians bathed him in luxury at first, trying to win the heart of their new president like he was a Tsar reborn.

Twenty-five years later, the Ascendancy stood in the same Grand Palace hours before his twenty-fifth state Christmas dinner, although it was still days before Christmas. December twenty-fifth; his twenty-fifth state-dinner; twenty-five years in the Kremlin. Forty-three years after Bologna; after the car park and the Dreyken, after the Atharim and Rome, after Garret tried to kill him for saving their lives in a way Nik knew not how.

He closed his eyes and swallowed the sting of emotion. The hurt was an old wound now but fresh as his memory of that first Christmas in Moscow... and Rome.

He absently rubbed his arm. The scars were covered by the pristine sleeve of a white dress shirt but he could feel five ridges beneath his fingertips. He would be wearing a tuxedo tonight. The affair was white-tie, opulent and gaudy, but Nik tolerated it for the necessity it was. People needed to see the CCD celebrate their power, to see the Ascendancy calm and collected; confidence in his authority kept him in authority. There were many an instance of men coming into power who knew not how to keep their power. That's what the dinner was about: Christmas happened to be the excuse.

A quiet ding drew his attention to a glass workstation suspended from the ceiling. When powered down, the glass glittered like a crystalline work of art. Everything in the god-awful room was art. The Grand Palace itself was a show of force, but the Royal Apartments were built for Tsars, for the gods of the Russian empire.

Alek Brandon, Nikolai's father, was of Russian descent, but when Nik swept his gaze across the wider room to reach for the tuxedo jacket, he felt little connection to the suite. Mosaics of jade, topaz and gems adorned the walls like jewelry. A panel in the reception room contained thousands of precious stones dripping forever in a waterfall of riches. Antique Parisian clocks ticked on marble mantles. Fireplaces of alabastar or malachite blazed with fires large enough to stave the chill off the harsh Russian winters. A swirling sky of chandeliers scattered drops of light like the beams themselves were bent to the will of the empire. A box stamped with the gold leaf of the Imperial Treasury waited on a table. He had yet to decide if he could bring himself to wear what was within.

The glass workstation brought up the image of a staffer. "Commander Vellas has arrived, sir."

"Let him in."

"Yes, Ascendancy."

Why bring Michael to the Royal Apartments rather than the executive offices in the Armory building?

Nik settled his tuxedo jacket on a suit rack and muted the work station of all its screens. With the glass quiet, they might as well have been plunged into the middle ages. It was a fitting place for the greats to convene.
Michael no longer looked forward to Christmas. In Moscow it meant snow, ice and pain. He missed the warmth of the southern sun and seafood on golden beaches. This Christmas he hoped would be different. 'Invited' to meet with the Ascendancy in private before his official dinner party held some promise.

Tonight he was clad in a heavy black coat, much to the Ascendancy's attendants annoyance. It covered the gaudy shirt of orange and grey they had forced upon him. They were certainly none to pleased but at least the coat was tailored by the best Moscow had to offer.

Michael did not remove his thick gloves as they ushered him through the Palace of the Kremlin precinct. If he had had the time, he would have stopped to admire the cultural history inlaid upon the very walls, but the meeting with Nikolai Brandon drew him far more than any artefact would. Tonight could decide his fate, and the thought was exhilarating. After Mecca and the mist-monster, he wondered if he had lost his mind. He should be nervous, surely?

"Mr. Vellas, we have arrived. Please remember what an honour it is to be invited to attend the Ascendancy. You must act with the greatest respect at all times,"
his guide said in accented English.

Michael studied the pretentious man for a moment, which seemed to unnerve him. "Thank you."

Worry painted on his pale face, the man opened the expertly crafted door and announced his guest. Michael stepped into the room and his eyes fixed on the man that stood awaiting him. He barely heard the door close behind him.


A cool, deep rage filled the marrow in his bones at the sight of Nothing in particular distinguished him. He was handsome perhaps, and held himself with dignity and polish.

Michael was well adept at stifling his abiding anger that swelled in him at times but he held himself ready like a wolf with bared fangs. "So...You are Nikolai Brandon."
Nikolai turned at the sound of the door. The young man of image and video entered. He was calmer than expected and somehow managed to fill the room with his presence, but a spindle of a staircase drew only the eyes of children where iconic columns of the temple loomed.

Silence held between them: the dead of night, the void between the drums of war. Yet solemnity turned to amusement. Nikolai rounded a pair of flanked chairs and approached, undeterred. The power of gods remained ever close, their order gave him confidence.

He offered a handshake. "You are Michael Vellas."

They clasped hands. Michael held himself stiffly, but Nikolai assuaged the posture to be one of more than military formality. Intriguing. Nik's gaze lightened somewhat. Vellas was in for a surprise.

He stepped away, personal space not withstanding. "Please?"
He gestured at the seats. There was a sense of honored humility at the invitation. "Thank you for coming."
As though declining were an option. The corners of his mouth quirked, gratified.

"I'm going to commend you tonight, Michael, for your bravery and selflessness in the Operation at Jeddah."
He toyed with saying the young man's first name rather than his rank, such as it was. Though they were seemingly near of age, antiquity crimped Nikolai's gaze as it held onto his companion.

He laced his hands together in his lap, relaxed, and crossed one leg despite the sharp line steamed into the crease.

"Before then, I think it wise we discuss your display on the battlefield. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Michael took Nikolai's offered hand, forcing the fury aside. He had no quarrel with the Ascendancy, why should he hate the man? Still, the amusement in his eyes made him itch.

The informality with which he was greeted, as if between two equals - although manufactured, he was sure - eased the tension and Michael sat, pointedly ignoring the man's self-satisfied smirk. If he wished to play games, Michael would not indulge him.

"I'm going to commend you tonight, Michael, for your bravery and selflessness in the Operation at Jeddah."

He expected no less of Nikolai Brandon, ever the diplomat as he took his time position himself with precise care. Michael waited with an emotionless gaze for what would surely come next. Perhaps the man sought to unnerve him. He would be disappointed.

For that, I thank you Dr. Weston.

The question was a long time in it's coming, but eventually Nikolai Brandon proceeded to the heart of matters.

"Before then, I think it wise we discuss your display on the battlefield. What do you have to say for yourself?"

He did not need to think on his reply. "I did what had to be done. You know the feeling. I won't waste my time explaining what you already know, Nikolai."
Nikolai appreciated the brevity.

His hands lifted. "Very well."

He did not appreciate the informality assumed, however. "Its best you address me as Ascendancy,"
the suggestion held a firm expectation to it. Michael wore Nikolai's colors. Why respect Nikolai's realm and flag if not the man they represented?

"I do know the feeling you describe."
Had Michael alluded to more than leadership in the comment? Perhaps.

"And what do you suggest we do about the fact that your display is now in hands of foreign Intelligence? As you can imagine, you have single-handedly altered the trajectory of warfare. As a strategist, surely you have some thoughts about the repercussions of you've elicited for the sake of a few dozen civilians."
Michael's smile was as sharp as a razor.

"Very well, Ascendancy. I have some information for you,"
he replied in a cool tone. "al-Hasan's 'miracles' are fuelled by the same power. Nicolas Trano thinks he is a wizard. There are hundreds of us, Ascendancy."
He paused watching the man for any reaction.

"And there are those who would seek to eradicate us. The Atharim they call themselves. I have been hunted by assassins for years."
The anger in his heart did not reach his voice or face.

"I know very well what I have done,"
and now came the gamble. The best of strategies were the most dangerous. "The eyes of the world will be fixed upon a sensation they do not understand; one they fear."

"You now have the opportunity to strike while the world is stunned. It is only a matter of time before others such as Nicolas Trano become another al-Hasan."

"Let the Atharim strike out in fear and the people recoil from the unknown. Use it to your advantage."

Edited by Michael Vellas, Jun 22 2014, 04:57 PM.
He sensed the tone.

Despite the childishness, there were truths. First among them, Michael's estimation of their numbers. Of 'us.'

He knows. Nikolai held his gaze. But how?

Doctor Weston. The head of The Facility held clearance far exceeding Vellas. According to reports, they spent a great deal of time together. Had the doctor betrayed his confidence?

Another truth: The Atharim. Their mission was clear. To eradicate them all without thought for logic and friendship. 'I am the worst monster to walk the world, and you will never succeed.'

They were likely the reason he fled from his Australian home. "You've been hunted by assassins for years?"
Nikolai's question held no sympathy; he'd been tracked by them two-fold the length of Michael's short life, but, inwardly, he moved on from thoughts of his former society. 'I'm joining the occult, aren't I?' He'd asked with a laugh, 'Yeah. You're going to love it.' But the betrayal haunted. He'd been content in his master's Datsan.

"Indeed, there will be more men who think themselves more worthy of my title."
The title he created to rule an empire he united. Trano was right: the empire would collapse the day he died.

Which is why he did not intend to die.

He laid his arms on the sides of the chair and leaned forward, voice calm and quiet, gripping Michael's gaze. "While fear is a great power, there is something greater."
He paused, seeking the young man's face for a guess as to what that might be. Nikolai could see the man's nature: collected rage and brutish methods. He doubted this young man contemplated this level of wisdom. But perhaps. Perhaps.


... They follow the grass.

The answer was plain in his writings.

His head tilted. The sensation of rightness spun around him. If Nikolai looked quickly enough, he was sure he'd be able to glimpse the cloak of fate itself settle upon their skin.

"Do I have yours?"

It came as somewhat as a surprise, although it should have been obvious that Nikolai Brandon would be so perceptive. Perhaps he should have appealed to his sense of honour instead of desire to rule.

It was a pleasant surprise.

the words hovered on his tongue for a moment. "You have my loyalty."

The words lifted a great weight from his chest. "But I have a request. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of our kind. Allow me to teach them. Extend a hand of salvation to the hunted and I will turn them into hunters."
Michael hesitated.

Nikolai shifted ever so slightly, reading volumes into Michael's every nuance. He wasn't particularly sure how to react should Michael turn away, but he would deal with any threat that built between them. His power swarmed close.

The young man announced that loyalty was his, and fate clasped its lock around their throats. For reasons unknown, Nikolai believed him.

"The Atharim,"
Nikolai started as though suddenly flipping through the pages of a thousand monsters. Strange to speak their name aloud. "They hunt other things than just our kind. When it comes to this purpose, they are unmatched."

Nikolai worked the button at his left sleeve. "But your proposal has merit,"
he held Michael's gaze, "and I believe we will work something out, but rather than slaughter the guard-dogs of humanity, the Atharim need to be trained."
He rolled the sleeve and held up the bare arm beneath.

Through puckered flesh drawn elbow to wrist, the remains of the tattoo were barely legible. "And I have an idea about how to do it."

Repressed anger faded to irritation before turning to wry amusement. Nikolai's knowledge of the Atharim was not surprising. If they had targeted Michael, they would surely keep a closer eye on the man who owned half of the world.

That the great Nikolai Brandon had been one of them was an irony he appreciated far more than he should have. If it weren't for the gravity of the situation he would have barked a harsh laugh.

Instead, Michael simply nodded. It was strategically fundamental. Eliminate the enemy by creating an ally. He was reminded of the strange Atharim Aria and her doubt. Yes. The Atharim could be fractured and the heart of the murderers cut out. The remnant could be re-forged.

But first he wished to discover something. "I have encountered such monsters the Atharim hunt. The Rogarou, I believe they were called. Not a formidable foe, but dangerous to innocents. However, there was something I met outside Mecca."
The memory still gave him chills. "An assassin that could turn to mist. It was the most deadly creature I have ever met. I think it hunts people like us."

Michael shook himself out of the mood and addressed Nikolai's plan.

"Using the Atharim. A wise strategy, if it can be done. Many cannot be reasoned with, but I have met some who doubt their cause. I shall assist you in this as a strategist and God."
The latter term was used in scorn, but something told him Nikolai believed the Atharim's claims. Who but a God would have the audacity to conquer the world?

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