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The pit of doom
After collapsing on a bed, Jay slept hard. Maybe they laced that last shot with something, but he slept like the dead. When he woke, his neck ached from not having moved all night. At least, he thought it had been night. Lacking a view of the outside world, it was hard to tell.

Speaking of lacking views, the only thing surrounding him were bunks. Each neatly made, he found himself tucking his own into good order out of sheer habit before going off in search of someone when a wave of darkness rushed his senses. It immediately cast his heart into a harder beat as he followed its origins.

When he came upon an open chamber that reminded him of a concrete gymnasium, he flat out gawked like an idiot at what he found.

Five men faced one another in line. Each wore athletic apparel as more than one brow was slicked with a sheen of moisture. Jay suddenly felt ridiculous shirtless in sweat pants and bared feet. But what really stole the show was the symphony of flows lashing around the room. He could barely follow the lights, though the sweep of each weave cast a shadow on his heart that made him want to retreat.

Instead, his fists opened and closed, itching with anticipation. The power rushed into his grasp and filled him to the brim. It was only a moment before one of the men spun on a heel and thrust a storm of power at him.

He threw up a shield of light, and his own arms in front of his face. A flash of light sparked like a beam across his eyes, but the attack never landed. The flows were cut by another. Jay didn't even know that was possible.

Blinking, panting, he looked up when a clap landed on his shoulder. One of the men, an Indian a few years older than himself helped him up.

"You must be the newbie. Welcome to the pit of doom, Carpenter."
He leered with a smile.

Jay blinked as each of the five came to appraise him.

"Uhh-- Thanks?"
He tried to smirk, but honestly, was too fucking shocked to do anything but stand there like a fool.

Only darkness shows you the light.

An ache spread warmth across his jaw like he'd been punched. Except nobody in the room so much laid a hand on him.

Remembering how hard he'd grit his teeth, he rubbed his chin until the muscles fell slack while his other hand held up the sign to halt. Despite the signal, he sensed the shadow of Dominik's weaves loom closer. If that son of a bitch thought he was going to get in an easy hit while Jay was plucking a bottle from the drink station, he was in for a surprise.

Luckily for him, Karim interrupted. "Rules are not suggestions, Taichechski." The man grumbled something in response. Jay smiled at the rows of glass bottles without so much as glancing over his shoulder. Taichechski was a hot-head, but he wouldn't stand up against Karim. The guy was a good leader and held the respect of everyone. Taichechski wasn't stupid, even if he thought the newbie of the group was an easy mark. So maybe it was partly true, but Jay was learning.

Like now. He stopped himself from grabbing the nearest bottle of water. Each glass bottle sported the shape of a wine-bottle, but was filled with crystal clear (albeit, tepid) liquid.

Jay took a breath and summoned the power to his grasp. That was another thing. The guys didn't refer to it as magic and spells. They called the power something eternal and all-permeating. Channeling.

Brow furrowed, he wrapped cords of air around the bottle and hoisted it in front of him. Funny how all the channeling in the tunnels seemed so easy at the time and now it was nigh impossible to pick up a bottle of water.

Splitting the flow, he held the first solidly while the second was curled around the cork. It wasn't that tight and would pop out easily by hand. The flows bent, tightened and the sound of its freedom was a satisfying pop.

He was vaguely aware of faces watching him to see if he could do it. He'd only been here a day, but the Ascendants pushed each other hard. Everyone seemed to grow differently, so nobody could predict how fast Jay would progress. What was known was that their power grew in spits and bursts and depended strongly on how often it was used and how hard it was pushed.

Air held the bottle before him. The cork rolled on the floor at his feet. It would take a flow of fire to cool the water to a refreshing temperature. So far, he hadn't accomplished the task. Two flows at once - air and fire - were exponentially harder to control than two threads of the same thing.

His heart beat in his chest. His jaw clenched, although he did nothing to loosen the muscle at the moment. It seemed his face was likely to ache for weeks to come at this pace.

Air and fire. On their own, both seemed easy. Together was another story. At least, together on demand. He'd done something with them in the tunnel, but like hell if he could repeat it now.

Fire slipped. Again and again. It escaped his grasp. The split focus was too much. Frowning, he gave up for the time being and snatched the bottle from mid-air and put the rim to his lips, fully aware that releasing the air freed up his head to use the fire and draw out the heat. But that felt like cheating. Until he could do it at the same time, tepid water was the brew of the day.

When he turned, Taichechski only shrugged and stalked off to take his own break. Jay met eyes with Karim, the only other one paying any attention at that point. As the Arab channeled a bottle over to himself and the glass turned a frosty shade, he didn't say a thing.

Only darkness shows you the light.

Dominick smirked as the newbie drank the lukewarm water before he saw Karim look at him. The power still slithered through him, roared and bucked and snapped. It called to him and his muscles corded as if he were physically wrestling with someone.

It was like a cage match, a street fight, and he ached to do something with it. More than open bottles and stuff. Holding the power, feeling his mastery over it made him want to use it, to lash out. Aggression seemed to come out with his sweat.

But of course he could do nothing. Karim was always watching. Always. Well, he wasn't bad for all of that. Vellas had made a good choice there.

Not that he liked Vellas all that much, though. Guy walked around like he had a stick up his ass. Only a couple years older than him, but acted like he was the almighty master. All those guys close to Ascendancy had that air. Vellas. Ranier. That prick DuBois. Even Sanjay had gone topside and was now palling around with the guy.

Of course they were all massively strong too. Assholes. Maybe if he had gotten in on the training they had or whatever, he'd been in their little club too.

And now another dick head shows up with the Ascendancy's stamp all over him and is primed to move up. Already as strong as him. Well, could you blame Dominick for wanting to show the guy up a little bit? Strength was important, of course. But so was skill.

Karim seemed to sense his energy and paired him off with Monserre instead. Yeah, Karim wasn't a bad guy at all, not really. Sprint drills. Vellas wanted them driven hard and into the ground, physically and with the power.

Each pair would let go of the power and when given the signal, run to the wall at the other end as fast as possible. Whoever got there first got to seize the power and attack the other. Nothing bad, really. Just blows of air, not too hard. The other person had to block and parry and slash as best they could to avoid getting hit. This went on none-stop for five minutes until the whistle blew and they could rest for a moment. And then it started over.

You could only do that for for maybe 3 or 4 times before you got a real break. And maybe some food. Vellas said it was all about learning control in all circumstances. You couldn't ever let the power get away from you. It was like holding the ears of an angry dog or a massive python by the neck.

Too bad he was too busy to see if Carpenter got hit a lot. That woulda been funny. He'd been paired up with Leweski, which was a lucky thing. That guy was slow.

Break time. Dominick got his water, chilled it and opened it with the power, and headed over to Carpenter. Karim gave him a warning look, but then headed away. He was looking out for the guy but this wasn't a preschool either. People had to make it on their own. Or make friends with someone who'd help.

"'d you get on the Ascendancy's radar?"
He looked at Carpenter with only a bit of challenge. He really did want to know. Get some of that special training for himself.
"Good and ill. 
We're like the wind, 
we blows both ways."
- Mad Sweeney, American Gods
So far as Jay could tell, he was the only American in the room. The guys spanned the globe, in so much as he could guess by accent and surname. But by globe, he really meant Europe and Asia. The seat of all Custody authority. It seemed these guys were plucked from lives of all sorts. Details were hazy, though. Not that Jay was asking a lot of questions. There seemed to be an unspoken sort of agreement to not talk about their pasts. Which was why Dominik's question surprised him.

He wiped sweat off his head with a towel and sank to a stool. His arms were heavy. Breathing hard to catch. Jay wasn't a wimp, but he had no idea how exhausting this training would be. Things the others did almost effortlessly left him depleted. Like he'd ran a twenty mile ruck in record time only to turn around and climb a mountain with his bare hands, get to the top and decide to build a stone fortress with an old hammer and chisel. Maybe that was exaggerating. But still. Not what he expected.

He waved an abstract circle in the air with one hand. "If all this is Karim's training, what the hell does Vellas put you through?"
He didn't even want to know what Ascendancy demanded. If he ever came down here at all. Regardless, at least things were progressing. He'd kept up with Leweski. And by kept up, that was more of a barely avoid getting his head smacked against the wall all the time let alone actually land another assault in return. Still, it was better than where he was that morning. Six weeks in San Diego changed him into a new person. The same was likely to happen here. In shorter amount of time. Probably best not to think on it too much.

Leaning back, he laid his head against the wall gently. His head rang like a bell. "Could ask the same of you. Let's just say I 'volunteered' in a sense. As i'm sure the rest of the guys did too."
He had to wonder at their histories. Supposedly, this group of men were the most elite force of channelers in the world. Or so the tv said. And hate to betray the Legion and all that, but the uniforms were better.

Only darkness shows you the light.

Dom rolled his eyes and shot Monserre a glance from across the room. The burly man looked over to Karim for a moment- he was speaking to Sun- and then ambled over. This could be a bit of fun. Not exactly like his old days on the force. He'd had a bit more of a free hand back then. As long as he was careful. You could lean on someone when you needed to. No real need to tune anyone up. Mostly a mental game, really. Get people to tell him what he needed to know.

But he and Julian were sick of being relegated to the back. Up top they had been the big dogs. They'd had different lines of work- probably woulda gone at each other back then. They'd had respect. He'd thought that once they learned the power Vellas would send them out. His elite team to take care of trouble. Like being in the ZARS or something. Only moreso.

He'd lay awake at night imagining all the cool things he'd do. All the hot women he'd nail. The rich and powerful watching him carefully, treating him with the respect he was owed. The battles against other Ascendants. His name splashed across the news or in the Scroll. And all the douchebags he'd known who'd slighted him would walk carefully.

But instead, he kept getting ignored. Singled out. Humiliated. And now this new punk all greased up to be sent topside and eat the best caviar and go to all the parties and get all the glory? What the hell had he done to deserve that?

There was only so much a man could take- would take- before he fought back. Let them keep ignoring him. He was stronger, now. And more skilled. And Julian was his bro. He'd have his back. Maybe even one or two of the others.

You don't tell men they are Ascendants and then expect them to bow and scrape and sit however many miles they were under the earth and just wait. At least not a man like Dom.

So maybe he and Julian took a stance that was a bit more intimidating. The guy didn't look that tough. And he knew he was the least skilled here. Mind games.

"Yeah? You just signed up? Just like that? And so the Ascendancy comes done to greet you all personal-like?"
He laughed as he looked at Julian. There was no friendliness in it.
"Good and ill. 
We're like the wind, 
we blows both ways."
- Mad Sweeney, American Gods
Evelyn's proposal was better written than Nikolai anticipated. Her hand in the composition was obvious. None but a channeler could accurately depict the nature of the power as it was described within. Interestingly, she captured the essence of the dueling natures of their powers. Fingers flipped idly through the pages, he wondered whose wording was whose - Trano or Evelyn.

His eyes floated beyond the opacity of the screen, landing in a haze into the background. Evelyn was ... distracting. He had to use his emotions carefully. A sliver shown to Evie; another to the public; a final to his councils. Until the world was his, control was mandatory.

If Evelyn was the key, then the lock to be turned began with the ball. They would use it to fracture the political landscape in the States. One by one, he would watch them crumble. Until it all fell in his lap.

He waved the screen minimized and sent it off to his advisers for analysis. From the little he read, it was sufficient. Unless advised otherwise, he would sign it and announce the declaration at the ball itself.

Meanwhile, every detail of that night had to be perfect. The show of prosperity, opulence, luxury and peace was of the utmost importance. From the flowers to the speeches, Nikolai had the final say over every decision. While his best speech-writers conjured their magic, Nik went back to thinking over what show of the power would be best. The city - nay, the world - was already awed by the creation of the Arch. They knew the might of the Ascendancy. They have seen his immortality. What emotion to play next? Fear? He hesitated to use such forces of darkness too often. Majesty? Perhaps.. Perhaps. The guests were his aristocracy. They would welcome a kingly embrace.

He scrolled through the day's reports next. Each Consulate's executive summary only took a few minutes to read. When he came to Marcus', the shadow of a smile touched his lips. The boy was growing well into his new position. He read of Ms. Northbrook's new accommodations, and he momentarily turned upon the memory of speaking with the girl.

Which led to thoughts of the ascendants. He'd visited briefly with Michael and two of his best that morning over breakfast. A not-so-subtle show of force for the Secretary and the two Congresswomen.

Trano was building a similar empire of channelers. Nikolai guaranteed it, even if he lacked official proof of the campaign. The Americans would be stupid not to be doing so. Although stubborn fools, stupid Dawson was not. And Nikolai did not underestimate the younger Trano. They thirst for Custody blood, and they called Nik the tyrant.

Perhaps there was one among them whom could answer freely.

He straightened his suit jacket across his shoulders, tugged the cuffs straight, touched his hair a moment and aimed for the path below.

"Tell Al'Shaddis I will be there in five minutes. Have the men ready."

Jay sensed the tone.

He looked up, gaze going from Dom to Julian. Who was now apparently roped into whatever this thing was between them?

The two stood over him. Just up for a casual and friendly conversation it seemed. "I don't know guys. Guess you'll have to ask him next time you chat with him. Wait. Has that ever happened with you two?"
He shrugged, got up and took off to grab a fresh shirt and maybe a shower if there was time. It seemed like the group was splitting up for a longer break this time.

Karim met him in the doorway before he could leave, waving him back to the group. Their unofficial team leader gathered everyone together.

"Gentlemen, I was just informed that Ascendancy is visiting us. You have five minutes. Clean yourselves up. I'll take care of the room here,"
he seized the power as he did and sent tendrils of light across the floor, buffing it to a shine and collecting debris.

Before Jay hurried off to change shirts and splash some water on his face, he had a parting word with his two new besties. "Guess now's your big chance."
He grinned like he knew he may get a punch thrown at him later for it, but it would be worth it.

Only darkness shows you the light.

Little shit! Dom's eyes narrowed. Prick was all innocent enough in how he spoke. Just like when he would talk to someone in interrogation. But Dom knew disrespect when he heard it. For him personally. He threw a side glance at Julian, especially when Jay got up all nonchalant to put on a shirt.

He hoped the guy tried something. Just a move. Something. Be easy enough to justify to Karim after the fact. Nothing too bad, you know? Just enough to teach him to keep his god damn mouth shut. To know his place.

No such luck. Even as he mentally prepared himself Karim called everyone's attention to him. Reluctantly he turned to listen with the others.

And then he couldn't help but feel a thrill of excitement at the thought. After months of ignoring them, Ascendancy visits twice now in such a short period of time? Yhis was his chance. He needed to think about this. Figure out a way to standout, get the man's attention. Finally get out of this fucking prison.

He became aware of Carpenter's presence behind him. Excitement turned to a feeling of dread which twisted into rage as another thought occurred to him. Can't be this soon! His eyes narrowed and he shot Julian a glance. Lewesky seemed to notice his look and Dom nodded slightly and then angled his eyes behind him to Carpenter. The man had to chafe down here too. The guy learned at a snail's pace. He'd be down here forever. That had to chap his ass too. Maybe they could talk if they had a chance.

Karim started to clean up as they were dismissed. And of course. Fucking Carpenter. Couldn't help but rub their noses in it. Dom wanted to smash his face with a wall of air.

Yeah. If the guy wasn't gone after the visit, he was gonna pay. Big time. Dom would make sure of it. He was done getting passed over.
"Good and ill. 
We're like the wind, 
we blows both ways."
- Mad Sweeney, American Gods
He swept into the training chamber without preamble. Ranier hung back, just another Barrier Preator agent that shadowed his steps. Quite unusually, there was a briefcase propped at his feet. Michael was obviously absent, what with being occupied with planning the African mission.

A smile touched his lips like a father reunited with beloved children. He clasped hands with Al'Shaddis, greeting him. Having seen the man already once that day in Michael's company, he moved by soon after.

He appraised each man individually. Eager and bright-eyed, Nikolai approved of their collective presence. Once Karim joined the line, they were nine strong.

"I have three objectives for you today. The first is this."
Tech in the room flashed to life, depicting the invitation to the ball. "Two days from now, the Kremlin is hosting a fundraiser ball for the elite of the CCD. The funds will benefit humanitarian efforts abroad,"
he glanced at Jay as he finished. "In our partnership with the armed forces of Legion Premiere and the mission in Africa."

He released Jay of his gaze and addressed the group once more. "The ascendants will attend this ball for three purposes. You will provide the ultimate source of protection to our government, our guests, and to me. Second, the world will come to know you for what you are. Finally, we will together - all of us - combine the power into a display of sorts."
An amused sort of smile ghosted his expression a moment. He had ideas, but had not yet decided on the nature of the display.

"The following week, some of you will be deployed to Africa under Commander Vellas. I have decided that Al'Shaddis will remain here and hold ranking command in Vellas' absence. I will leave it to Commander Vellas to outline your objectives abroad. The members of the deployment party are yet to be determined, but I assure you, I am carefully considering who these will be. But-"
he turned to Jay, "Lieutenant Carpenter will certainly be one. His experience on the continent will prove invaluable. He will be responsible for debriefing the final party on what to expect."
He dipped his head slightly. Hopefully the boy has learned more control by then. If not, the battlefield would be a harsh teacher.

The last order of business followed. Nik glanced over his shoulder as threads of the power retrieved the briefcase resting at Ranier's feet. It came to float at his side when he opened the lid and beheld the contents.

He thought about preparing the medals prior to arriving, but the experience would be more valuable if their creation happened before their eyes.

The power flowed through him, that glorious and majestic river of wrath. He willed it into submission and a silvery orb floated to the forefront.

Twenty flows penetrated the orb and it writhed and warped in response. The metal splintered and nine silvery globs broke off. The metal became part of him as the stone and earth of Lenin's tomb once had been. Though with far less strenuous efforts, his gaze was sharply tuned to the work.

The nine pieces flattened, turned to spheres, then two bars were laid across. The metal, a mix of platinum and tungsten, shone with hundred needled facets around the edge, some shining bright silver, the others a dark matte metal. Unnatural, made only by the hand of the power, nothing of man could be so intricate. Embossed across one bar was a sword, the other cascading olive leaves.

The symbolism was drawn from the CCD seal, of course. The crossing of strength with peace - the sword and the olive leaves. He plucked the first medal from the air and held it in his hands. It was heavy but small enough to not tug on the cloth to which it would soon be pinned. It easily fit in the palm of his hand, but the sharp edges of the facets pricked like needles. The others hovered behind as he approached Karim and handed him his medal. One by one, he went down the line, distributing the medals to each man and speaking the same words, "You are one of the Nine. A rod of Custody dominion."

"Wear it at the ball. You're being conscripted new uniforms as well. Prepare well. Our time is coming."
He closed up the briefcase and returned it to Ranier's safekeeping. Finally, before departing, he had one last item to discuss. "Lieutenant Carpenter."
He beckoned the man to join him in a circle of silence, a sphere to protect others from overhearing.

Twice in two days, Jay found himself before the most powerful man in the world. He took up a position at the far end of the line of nine. Karim stood at the first. Jay at the last. The others in between. The individual that followed Ascendancy in the room drew a few moments' worth of study as well. The man seemed different than the other officers of Ascendancy's detail. His confident air was mixed with amusement, a dangerous combination. He was one to watch. Strip away the power from those at his side, and there were none that Jay wasn't sure he couldn't neutralize in a hand-to-hand confrontation, but that guard lurking in the shadows was a different story. Best to keep a wary eye on him.

Ascendancy redirected his attention when he began outlining his objectives. Jay was a quiet, calm listener up until the man said one very specific phrase.
Legion Premiere.
Jay blinked. What? Since when did the legion partner with the CCD? Was this like what happened in DV? They weren't private mercenaries any longer. They had a mission of their own now. The very reason Danjou was in Moscow was to solicit funds to finance that very mission. Somehow, over the last twenty-four hours, Danjou climbed straight to the top of the world's largest mountain of cash. What'd he do? Sweet-talk Nikolai Brandon into being their benefactor? Did he ask nicely? Did he charm Ascendancy with some grand speech?

Definitely not. Brandon did nothing without an ulterior motive. What was in it for him? Partnering with the Legion? Raising money? A ball? The strain tugged on his eyes from having stared straight ahead for so long. No, Brandon didn't host fundraisers. His entire career as a politician was built on the exact opposite platform. Did he want to annex Africa? Was that it? That didn't seem right. The Custody had interests there, certainly. He squeezed his eyes shut... images of explosions and gunfire at the refinery flooded his mind. But he forced himself to shake it off.

Then, slicing through the shroud of his thoughts, a name. Lieutenant Carpenter.

Jaw tensed, Jay held his hands behind his back, careful to not move a muscle else the others would sense the anxiety. Brandon wanted to send him back to the Legion, a new weapon, to help Danjou's objectives in Africa. Next week? I have to get better. And fast.

When Ascendancy turned aside, the utter silence that followed in the absence of his voice was deafening. Every eye was honed upon the threads he wielded while he summoned the briefcase. Jay felt his brows furrow. What was going on?

Some sort of metal sphere was retrieved. It looked like some kind of melted down object that made Jay think of the tomb in the Red Square when it was reformed into the Arch.

What followed next was something Jay never imagined was even possible. More threads than he could even watch flowed from Brandon into the globe as it was remade. His jaw dropped, slowly, and probably didn't even take a breath the whole time it was worked. The power radiating off the man was incomprehensible, but probably nothing compared to what happened at the Arch.

Memories of working with Marcus blossomed in his own head. Of tracing lines of steel and welds of metal in the bedframe in that room. The power at that time had been enough to warp the corners and crash the frame under its own weight. But this, he couldn't even imagine the delicacy it would take to craft such a piece of art with the power. Let alone do nine of them at once.

When Brandon placed one in his hand, the medal was cool to the touch, small, but heavy. He lifted it closer to his eyes, and every time he looked, he saw more details than he had previously. It was beautiful. But Jay was pretty sure he didn't deserve anything like this. He looked into Ascendancy's eyes as he had the day before when he begged the man to teach him the control he needed, but now pleading that he take the honor back. "I haven't earned this."
He uttered quietly.

When Ascendancy did not recollect his gift, the facets dug into the palm of his hand as he closed his fingers around the medal.

Jay glanced at the others. Most were admiring theirs. One guy was already pinning it onto his shirt. But he didn't really see them. All he saw was a line of men repurposed into something else. What frightened him the most was knowing how right it felt. They were a unit. A team? Ascendancy called them The Nine. It was everything Jay desperately needed in his life that he hadn't known since his days with MARSOC. But this was better. There was more right in that very moment than any other moment of his life.

Then Ascendancy called him forth, and Jay swallowed nervously.

A dome of light engulfed the man. Jay marveled at its beauty, hesitating before passing through the weaves. But there was no sensation as he stepped within. Suddenly, the chatter and noise of their surroundings fell deaf. They were in some sort of bubble of protection from sound.

Jay lowered his eyes as he had yesterday when he pledged his powers to this man. "Ascendancy, I do not know what is going on with the Legion, but I don't think I'll be ready by next week. There are others more--"
he fell quiet as Brandon cut him off.

Edited by Jay Carpenter, Apr 12 2018, 11:54 AM.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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