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A Memory
Armande sat in his study, the rows of aged leatherbound books on the shelves and papers on his large desk forgotten. The screen in front of him was motionless. The video had ended. He had watched it over and over again, each time listening less and less to the words and more and more watching the face of his enemy. An enemy who had launched a new attack.

It was devastating. He was no fool. With this revelation, this uncovering- not the first in the history of the Atharim, certainly, but certainly the most powerful given the ubiquitous nature of technology- he could imagine the walls of the mansion crumbling down around him.

His mouth tightened, determination inflaming the blue ice of his eyes. Not while he still drew breath. There were still tools at his disposal. The majority of Atharim were loyal to him. Their sway with people in powerful positions- most having no idea who owned the secrets that prompted a vote here, a purchase there - was still theirs to use. The vast reserves they had built up over the millenia, hidden in shell corporations inside shell corporations, a matreshka doll of concealment, the tracts of land and pieces of artwork, the gold and the silver stashed in the most unlikely of places, would still fund them. They had been around far too long for even modern technology to put a dent in that.

And there was Petricus. His ally. A man who had much to lose if it were discovered that the Pope himself not only knew of the Atharim, but was complicit in their work, had been for 800 years. Their secret alliance had been forged out of necessity and together, they had covered for each other over the centuries. The Inquisition that was placed on the back of the High Inquisitor Torquemada, a name reviled in history in all places but among the Atharim. Men who knew the truth of who and what he was. The vile business of the Enlightenment. They would be laughing now. He could feel them sneaking about, the traitors. That it happened 500 years ago, long before he was born, did not change the feelings of anger and betrayal he personally felt. He wondered if they would, at last, come out of the woodwork.

His jaw clenched and he saw the screen again, the face of Nikolai Brandon, Apollyon. He had revealed himself even as he had revealed them. But Brandon had to know that there would be backlash. As people realized that these reborn gods could be anyone, masquerading as anyone, as coworker or school mate, living gods, able to bring death and destruction with a thought, had brought death and destruction to them, their support would grow.

People would know these reborn gods for what they were.

As he had learned.

He closed his eyes, letting the Chong Rann meditation enveloping him, let the room gradually drift away until he was home. He was in his private office under the Vatican, its infinite shelves and plinths holding a library that dwarfed any that existed. Here was the true Historical Archive that he oversaw.

He stood and walked, his steps echoing in the room as he walked. In the distance he saw the door, heavy with age. Finally, he stood in front of it, its wooden planks worn and warped and dusty. He waved his hand and the ancient lock clicked. His heart beat loudly as he looked at the door, his rage and hatred beating in time with it. He stared at the door, could feel the power emanating from behind it, a sun whose energy gave him life and purpose.

He opened the door. The room was small and bare, a single old table in the center. And on it, something wrapped in cloth. He clenched his jaw as he stepped toward the table, each step bringing a new wave of fury and hatred, of pain. He touched the cloth, his hand shuddering. It took all his concentration to keep his hand there, to overwhelm the disgust that welled up in him, and, for a moment, the walls of this place faded, the Chong Rann discipline wavering. He breathed and calmed himself and they firmed.

Carefully, so very carefully he unwrapped the cloth, a wash of emotion threatening to overwhelm him at each unwinding.

At last he saw what was inside it. He looked at it, made himself see.

A single picture. A girl's smile, piercing green eyes on a face that was still more girl than woman. And he felt the hatred and disgust and, God forgive him, love, explode as the memory took him.

Edited by Regus, Jul 11 2016, 11:39 PM.
The air was wet and salty, the sun high and strong in the sky, long shadows cast by tall ancient stone buildings over narrow streets and alleys, wide plazas and marketplaces, the sounds of bustling crowds, honking cars and squawking seagulls in the air. To anyone else, it might have been the sound of home. Anyone but him.

Home wasn't a thing he understood. He lived where he lived, slept where he slept, and worked where he worked. Home, though, as a place where he belonged? He didn't know what that meant. If he ever had, he didn't remember it. Living on the streets, pick-pocketing strangers, snatching fruit or a freshly backed loaf of bread or sugary scone from an inattentive clerk; moving from place to place, as his mother plied her trade, brothel keep, house or flat or room or couch, wherever she could find room for them. None of that meant home to him. Nor was it the monasteries and universities that he had spent so much of his life in. Syracuse, Sicily was merely the place he was born and lived until he was 17.

So why was he here? Why had he traveled the long journey the slow way to get here? The memory kept playing in his mind. He'd rolled over in their blankets, feeling the cool empty place where she usually was warm and firm against him, the moonlit night that peaked through the now open flaps of the tent casting its blue shadows, to see her tying her belt on her waist. A word. What had he said? Where are you going? An assignment. They had hunted together for years. Why alone now? But he did not voice his question. Theirs was not to question. Dressed, she leaned down, kissed him on the lips, a long kiss, a good-bye until she returned, her sharp tilted amber eyes smiling at him, and he pulled her to him, felt pressed against him.

Perhaps that had been home. With Jova. As it had been with Gregorio long before. And dimly he remembered the feel of his mother, body sheltering him when he was a child.

And now they were all gone. And he was alone. Intellectually he was accepting of this. This was how things needed to be. In this life, ‘in the dream’ as the Atharii said, you accepted what was. But he had been with Jova a long time. And for some reason he felt the need to come here. Just as when he’d come after Gregorio died. Perhaps it reset his bearings, reminded him from what he came from, that his life had a purpose, each experience another test and shaping, beginning with it here.

The last time he had been here, it had been worse. The magnitude of Gregorio’s death, the image of his swaying body hanging in his simple quarters, that sweet smiling and tender face now bloated and purple, the stink of evacuated bowels filling the room, was something he had a hard time forgetting. Before his summons to Rome, before his trip into the desert, he had come here and for a moment, had felt the cleansing of the air and the salt of this place. It could have been anywhere. But it was here he came. And had met a girl from his youth, a childhood playmate, nothing more.

And for a week or two, he found warmth and a measure of peace in her arms. She was no substitute for Gregorio, nor did she imagine herself to be. Her mother, like his, had been a prostitute and it was what she knew. Both understood that for most men, it was not about sex. It was about connection. And so Armande allowed himself to mourn in his own way, with someone for whom he could casually care about, but not lean upon. It was what he had told himself, anyway. But Armande was not a youth anymore at 43, though physically was far stronger and deadlier than he had ever been. He was not here to find comfort in the arms of another. He had been weaker then, naïve.

Still, he walked the streets, passed through the ornate plazas and buildings whose history he could have given lectures on. The ancient weight of the city pressed in on him, these vestiges of time, left behind by long ago. The wide streets gradually gave way to narrow alleys, the further up the hills he walked, rabbit warrens of closely pressed houses and an apartments, laundry still hung across lines outside of windows, the sounds of families and people shouting or talking loudly. He knew where he was. The last place they’d lived when his mother died. The place from which he first escaped out into the world, despite the kindness and shelter of his mother’s old friends.

He closed his eyes and let his mind drift for a moment, remembering, seeing what was the same and what was different. “Do you need something?”

He opened his eyes to find a fierce green eyed girl watching him. Lissandra.

For a moment, his memory wavered as that first sight of her took him, everything warped and faded as if about to be swept away in a wind. His heart squeezed, anger and pain and hate compressing. He breathed, relaxed, firming everything to reality. Frozen in the memory, he looked at her. Now it was obvious. From that very moment he’d met her he felt a connection. He learned why soon after.

A daughter. He had a daughter. And yet, he was no father, no. He could never be a father. He was Atharim. He was his work. He felt no paternal affection for her. He had not attended her birth. He had not help raise her. He had not been there to see her grow into the young defensive woman that stood before him. He could see the hardness in her eyes- hardness that echoed his own, and yet forged in very different fires. But while he was no father, he felt a connection.

Jova was gone. But he was not alone, not completely. And as the months went by, he found in her the same fierceness and intelligence in himself, the same fearlessness and hunger. So he became, not a father, but a mentor, teaching her as he had been taught; and she became his pupil. And strangely, in doing so, he found that what had seemed a hole had been filled. He even dared to contemplate loving, though in a very different way. His purpose had changed. He had a legacy he could pass on.

Dark tendrils coiled around the memory, poisoning it. Lissandra’s face seem darker, warped, the fierceness to her eyes took on a demonic quality and he felt the pulsing of rage and horror.
Edited by Regus, Jul 7 2016, 04:19 PM.
His memory froze and he breathed carefully, making sure not to be overwhelmed. It was why he never came here, why it was guarded. It was the thing that he hid even from himself. He was mostly successful. The core memory stayed locked, only the peripheral emanations radiating outward, the sun eclipsed, ghostly corona still waving gently around the edges.

Now…Jump cuts of memory flashed across his mind, played out before him.

Flicker. A cafe patio, the sounds of birds and faint strains of a violin, the hum of traffic and the clinking of glasses and silverware floating above the air, aroma of coffee redolent, mixing with the wet salt. Armande with Lissandra, blue ice peering into green fire, listening to her speak, probing, curiosity fired. She is passionate, angry, fiery- so very alive, so very hungry; steely, determined.

Flicker. The small row boat gently rocks in the azure Ionian, the noise of waves softly lapping against the side, against the sand, the wind in his ears, the heat of the sun beating down on his head, Lissandra's attention focused on his words, her brows knitted against the glare of the sun not hiding wide eyed excitement, nostrils flaring, breath shallow.

Flicker. An alcove under a church, the smell of old parchment and candle wax. Flicker. A beach, near the caves, the flash of arms and legs and feet and metal. Flicker. A tower wall, the full moon hanging fat overhead, climbing each foot- and finger-hold carefully sought out and tested. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.

Life had come back to him again. Not as a partner, not as a lover, not as an equal. But a protégé, a student, a companion. And even a friend. His daughter. Only 17 but already better than he was at that age, instincts and skills honed to razor sharpness. The ache in his heart, the emptiness, the loss that had threatened, during the dark nights when he allowed himself to be human, to feel the vast weight of his isolation contrast with the joys he’d known only months before, that ache that had threatened to overwhelm him had been filled.

And Armande was happy. Cautiously happy, warily happy, provisionally happy. But happy nonetheless. He was content.

Flicker. Armande crept along the wall, Lissandra behind him. The only sound the whisper of their breathing misting in the cool winter night air. The island of Caprera off the coast Sardinia was quiet, especially here in the country. Garibaldi, the ‘father of the fatherland, ’a united Italy, had lived out his final years here in this place, his home and the church once a heritage site and tourist attraction, now a private residence. This was what they had sought, following the trail of whispered rumor.

The islands of La Maddelena and Sardinia both had reported missing people, tourists and vagrants mostly. No one local, no one to raise alarm. Quiet investigation had turned up only a few leads, but it was enough. A sports car riding off into the night. They traced and followed until they were here. The tan coupe sat off to the side of the building under an awning, reflecting the supernatural glow of the winter moon.

Armande turned and looked at her, her eyes green fires that burned with excitement from behind the slits of her hood. This was their first real hunt together. Her primary weapons were blades, tucked into sheaths along each forearm. A gift from him from a craftsman in Spain, the telescoping blades would extend with the force of unsheathing to the desired length. Like himself, she wore lightweight mail armor, spike and stab resistant, as well as numerous other melee and ballistic weapons for any situation.

A dangerous hunt, but he was confident. Not just in her, no, but in his training of her. Their prey was dangerous, if it was what he suspected. And he was sure it was. They affected to be rich playboys from the French Riviera, renting the house, who occasionally went into town or to the surrounding islands to enjoy a discotheque or restaurant.

They crept to the window and carefully Armande lifted his fiber-optic lens to the corner and looked at the shadowed display. Four “men”, lounging, attired in riche-casual. He angled the display to her, letting her see the positioning. Removing the lens, he switched to Through-the-Wall (TTW) mode, allowing him to get a good idea of where other bodies might be. It wasn’t perfect. TTW was useless when walls were thicker than a meter. But it was enough. Two more in another room, a third body supine between them. He showed her that as well.

Surprise was one of their biggest tools, but not the only one. Dreyken were sensitive to light. He pulled his flashbang and motioned for her to do the same. They wouldn’t use HUDs for this. They would need natural peripherals, not those overlaid with delay and the interpretation of software. He would take the four out front, she the two in the room.

He nodded to her and they worked their way to back door. He felt the thrill of anticipation and could see it in her movement as well. She wasn’t bouncing impatiently. It wasn’t something he could put his finger on specifically. And yet it was there. He could feel it. The years of being helpless, of life on the streets, the prey of so many others, had forged her as his own life had him. And now, she would be the hunter.

It all went so fast. The door kicked in, the flashbangs going off. The Dreyken screamed, the sound of nails on chalkboard. Claws raked at them, finding no purchase on armor as blades flashed. They were like the wind, blowing through trees, flowing around and through them, death incarnate, splitting into streams, he the whirling dervish to the front, her into the room.

In moments, he stopped, sprays of blood fanning out across walls and over-turned furniture. The sounds from the room came to him and he rushed in to find Lissandra fighting like a demon with the two Dreyken. Pride swelled his heart. So deadly, so graceful. Of course, they had been feeding and were in a dazed and satiated state. The dark red stains of wine on the table and floor, when it was differentiated from blood, absurdly indicated their drink of choice to go along with their meal. Had they been completely alert, Lissandra might- might- have been overwhelmed.

But she was up to the challenge and he let her have this. He quickly cleared the other rooms before returning to watch the ferocity of her strikes, her quick dance of death, flowing from one form to the next. In what seemed like minutes at the time but had to have been seconds, it was over, their butchered bodies now slumped, as if puppets with cords cut. The mewling victim was beyond saving and she mercifully dispatched her with a simple blow, an end to her suffering.

The kills weren’t as clean as his had been, but that was to be expected with her youth and inexperience. The Dreyken had required more strikes to put down, limbs and torsos the main focus of her attack rather than head and neck and chest. They had suffered, something he didn’t mind in the slightest, but that strategy had also increased her danger. She would learn though.

The house was silent, the quiet palpable after the clash of violence that had filled it moments before. The ticking of an antique clock in the other room seemed to echo throughout. Lissandra pulled down her hood, a rapturous smile on her face, green eyes radiant with joy. Breathes deep and satisfied.

He found himself smiling. So alien. So foreign. How long since he had smiled? Surely a long time. Pride coursed through him. He saw the future.
Edited by Regus, Jul 21 2016, 08:31 PM.
Just the memory of hope was nearly overwhelming and he paused, froze the images in his mind, letting it wash through him, a flood scouring the canyon of his mind, ripping away detritus and brush, unstoppable.

It its place was left emptiness, a breeze in the now deathly quiet of his mind. He saw his daughter now, rapturously fierce joy on her face, green eyed goddess looking down on the carnage she had wrought. And he remembered her, saw himself in her. He even saw Jova- his heart clenched at the memory of her, the pain of her leaving still so raw- in her, though that was not possible.

And for the next few months, they hunted throughout Italy. Wolfkin, Drainaka, Harpies. It did not matter. They were happy. When she hunted, it was as if she were unleashed. There was no fear, no trepidation. She was an Atharim such as had not been seen since...since him. It was fitting. If anyone were to surpass him, it should be his seed.

He did not begrudge her the occasional slip. A life such as hers was not easy, the daughter of a prostitute who had died when she was young, a young girl surviving on the streets. He suspected. No. Deep down he knew. But it was her right. Those deaths were justified. Men like that did not deserve any mercy.

He saw peace in her eyes. Peace and pride and confidence. And her hunting skills continued to improve. She was not a scholar and for once, Armande was content with that. She didn't need to be. The hunt was what she lived for. It was enough that she was what she was.

And he felt pride and love.

So it continued until events at the Vatican called him away and he left her for a short time. Just a month. A month was all it took.

He returned to their home in Syracuse. And gradually he realized it was a demon that looked out at him through those eyes. Oh it had tried to hide, tried to pretend. And for a while, he had been fooled. But those eyes, they showed him the truth.

They are hunting a sentient among a Roma encampment. He feels the ancient contempt for these traveling people, these thieves and lay-abouts who litter the streets of Europe with their presence, begging and pick-pocketing. He remembers the struggles with them as a child, taking what should have been his, being down upon with the same contempt and disgust that belonged to them.

The man is drunk and walks away from the fires of the camp unsteadily, large belly protruding and stretching his red shirt so that the coarse black hairs on his stomach are visible in the moonlight between the strained fabric and buttons. The sour stench of sweat and wine and unwashed flesh fills his nostrils as he and Lissandra grab the man from behind and drag him to a secluded location. Lissandra wipes her hands as if they are soiled, doubles over dry retching and breathing hard. When she looks at him through tight eyes, he does not see the usual joy of the hunt. He sees fear. Why does he see fear? He sees rage and a mouth twisted down, a glare for the man before them.

The man talks. The green fire in Lissandra's eyes burn hot and Armande doesn't know what this means. Armande looks at his daughter, concerned, but they know who their quarry is now. The take will be easy, a simple shot from a distance. The man is of no consequence. So why is she looking down at him with such hatred and rage?

"Come, Lissandra. Leave him. He is nothing."

She says nothing but continues to stare down, shaking. And then she kneels over him hesitantly, the man propped against the tree, and sniffs. And in that moment she spins her head to him, eyes wide with rage and glassy with tears, he sees the mouth twisted into a rictus of agony. Involuntarily he steps back. He sees demon looks out those eyes and back at the man and suddenly she is hacking at the man. When did she get her blades out? In a rage she strikes again and again and he is frozen in confusion, unable to fathom what he is seeing.

And suddenly she is done and the blades are flung to the ground and she sinks to her knees, sobbing. He rushes to her side whispering fiercly, "Lissandra! Lissandra! What are you doing?" She says nothing. He tries to get hold her by her shoulders, arms around her to pull her back, but she pushes him away, looking at him with such hatred and rage and fear.

And then he is blown back by nothing. He is on his back, the muscles of his chest and shoulders sore, his head ringing at striking the ground. Suddenly he sees Lissandra looking over him, tears and concern filling her eyes, apologies spilling from her lips.

But all he can see is that face, that twisted face moments ago, the demon face. And hope dies. His daughter is gone. She has been taken, replaced by this creature before him. As if she had touched something and it had stolen her soul, replacing it with this thing.

He knows what she has touched. The power of the gods. He had felt it on him moments ago An infection, a contagion. Even his own daughter. Inside, he is dying, railing against God and the universe that would take his last chance from him, that consigns him to solitude for all time.

But outside, on the outside, he wears his mask. As his heart breaks, he shows none of that to her. He cannot. He dare not for fear he let the creature know he sees the truth. She stares at him, letting him see fear and uncertainty. A trick, to steal his heart.

It is not his daughter. It is not his daughter. He says this to himself over and over again, a litany, a chant, a prayer, to protect his heart, to steel himself, to resist the succubus before him. He cannot help clenching his teeth at the face gazing up at him. So sweet, so pure. His daughter. No!! Not his daughter. The litany fills his mind. Not his daughter...

After a moment, it gives up, showing sadness, and turns to pick the knives. And Armande knows that this is his only chance. He cannot be around it. He will surely break under her spell. He must. He is only a man. It has stolen his daughter, taken her form. It will win.

It is only a moment, but so slow. So very slow. His heart clenches at what he is doing, the spirit pleading with him, her power infecting him, fighting him. But!! Without at word his sword whips out and buries itself in her back.

Why does he feel like he has been stabbed? The sword is in her heart, not his. Her cry is nearly silent and then she is on the ground. With her last bit of power she calls him to her, feels it pulling him on strings of love, playing him in one last attempt. And despite himself he is at her side, rolling her over, looking down into those eyes.

Eyes filled with confusion and fear. Eyes accusing and betrayed. It plays him like an instrument. He can feel her doing it, feels her tearing at him with her look. The tears she brings to his eyes makes her blurry and he blinks them away, dropping to her face. And then, finally- O merciful God, please, I cannot last any longer!- finally, the light goes out.

But the bewitching remains and he bows his head over and weeps at what he has done, howls silently into the bowels of the earth. And his pain and torment becomes rage, a volcano of fury. Cheeks wet with tears, her blood tacky against his skin, he burns with fire, tries to burn away all remnant of her. But even then, she is too strong. What she has wrought before she died is permanent. A wound to his soul, an injury to his core. His heart has been cut out and this shell remains. This empty shell.

She will be avenged. The resolve builds in his mind, hardening into walls that hold him up. He will avenge her, he will make them pay. The power. The call of the ancient gods...that was what stole his daughter. He bows his head over her, forehead to forehead and makes his vow. To avenge what must be avenged. To wipe all users of the power from the earth. The tears fall onto her face, into her unblinking eyes.

Finally, he stands, legs stiff from kneeling for so long. He looks down at the body, at what had once been his daughter. Move. He cannot. The residual hold of her power is still there. Move! Nothing. Finally, with effort, as if trying to shift a mountain, he takes a step. Another. Another.

And he walks away.

Each step builds the wall, a brick, layer by layer, row by row, walling off this image, this place. Until, finally, mercifully, her power is closed in, trapped. He locks the door. Behind the door, the light of her power glows, trapped. Safe.

Armande stood outside the room again, door locked. Memory safe. Contained. But in his heart, determination has been renewed. And something new. Something he hadn't let himself remember until now. The hunger for vengeance. Lissandra.

Vengeance for his Lissandra against all.

His eyes opened. It was time.

Edited by Regus, Oct 20 2016, 08:01 PM.

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