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On the Heights
#1
The morning air of northern Slovakia was crisp and chill. The city of Zilina was a hive of Custody commerce. Little was left to remind the people of the rich Slavic heritage; it had evolved into the perfect vehicle of modern industry.

Michael was glad his business would take him elsewhere. There were too many officials lurking in the depths spinning the Custody's webs. Too many people were wont to recognize him these days, and now was not a time he wanted to be noticed. The fact that he had rushed to the former Slovakia on an early morning flight was suspicious enough as it was.

Armed with a small luggage case he stood behind and elderly couple waiting at the airport taxi rank. True to the Custody's smooth efficiency, it was not long before was seated - thankfully out of the cursed winter cold - in the back seat of robust driver's car.

"Where to, friend? Are you celebrating tonight with family?"


Michael showed the driver the location pinpointed on his Wallet. He wasn't going to make a fool of himself trying to pronounce the name and confuse both of them. "I plan on having a quiet New Year."


"That's quite a way, friend,"
the driver said with a troubled smile. "It will definitely be quiet there! I do not go so far, it would take at least three hours."


Michael stared at the man without expression. "I would not be here if it was not important. I will pay double the rate."


That seemed to placate him well enough, as money often did, but it did not help to ease Michael. Three hours travelling in a taxi was more than long enough for his taste. Luckily, he did not have trouble occupying his time. In fact, three hours was not enough, but the world did not run by his schedule and he would make do with what he had.

Michael opened a data-pad beside his wallet that was not connected to the Internet. The information was too sensitive to gamble with. He opened the Atharim database with a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration, scrolling through the list of names until he reached the desired information.

A picture of a man in his forties with unkempt greying beard posing for what appeared to be a licence photograph met his cool blue eyes.

If only the fool had kept his head down like the rest, he rued the thought, not for the first time. Tales of demons possessing men were all but obsolete in the modern era and the officials at least dismissed it as country superstition. Unfortunately, it drew the gaze of hidden beasts. Beasts that would rear their heads far too soon.

For it was too soon. He had not finalized a strategy to deal with this mess, but events had forced his hand and he could no longer ignore it.

The sun was fading by the time the village came into sight. When the driver alerted him to their imminent arrival, Michael looked up from his contemplation to study his destination.

He found his eyes beset by a dilapidated village akin to a twentieth century small farming community. Acres of ice-covered smooth hills were framed by a backdrop of white mountains spotted with dark dots of human presence. It took half and hour of winding through the narrow road to reach what he supposed was the village centre, a collection of outdated brick houses surrounding the main thoroughfare.

"Here will be fine,"
he eventually said as they approached the centre next to the local grocery store. It was closed, and the entire street was silent beside the hum of the taxi's motor.

The driver looked concerned. "Are you sure? Do you want me to wait for a bit?"


The day had cooled and the country air, unblemished by the pollution of industry, numbed his nose and ears but the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end for a different reason.

As soon as he had felt it - the dark foreboding like a distant storm-cloud - he had to resist the urge to grasp the power. "No need. I know exactly where I am going,"

Edited by Michael Vellas, Sep 14 2014, 11:28 AM.
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#2
The crunch of ice underneath Michael's feet was drowned out by the beacon of power. Half of his task was thus completed. At least some of the information was accurate.

The narrow road he followed was full of potholes and covered in a thick layer of snow. As he travelled north, further away from the main stretch signs of activity gradually diminished. No tracks disturbed the serene and silent stasis. The silhouette of distant heights in the dusk loomed large and heavy under a pall of thin mist.

Anticipation snaked it's way through his stomach and wrapped itself around his heart, squeezing hard. Without the power to shield him, Michael could do nothing but endure. He worked to steady the rhythm of his breath, gathering his concentration. The power blazed tantalisingly close, but cool deliberation overcame temptation.

The beacon grew stronger at a steady pace, almost in time with his footsteps. That he was close, there was no doubt. He did not need the power to confirm it. Where the stasis reigned behind, desolation ruled ahead. The small brick houses were abandoned. Possessions lay discarded in the snow.

Michael bent down and ran gloved hands over something covered in a white film. A bicycle made for a child. The metal frame was bronze with rust.

Michael stood, facing the beacon that now thundered overhead from inside one of the houses. There would be no prizes for guessing this time. The demon did not make any effort to hide itself. Across the road, lights shone within the only home that was not deserted. In the front yard, he could make out green grass under only the thinnest layer of fresh snow.

Well then, I suppose it's about time to deal with the devil Michael thought with a wry twist of his lips. The grip on his heart tightened, but it was not one of fear. He would have preferred fear. No. He found himself excited. The thrill of the challenge once again betrayed his heart.

Careful to muffle as much sound as he could, Michael arched around the house to approach from behind. Darkness had now descended upon the village that he had to strain to see. He did not take up the power, for all it would have made his path easier. Caution prevented him from opting for convenience.

Now behind the residence, he crouched down to analyse the situation. A small wired fence enclosed the property along with a wooden shed. He made his way over the wire and settled down to search for a back door.

As he watched, the source of the beacon started to move and Michael tensed. The soft sound of footsteps made him rise and turn the corner of the shed, only to stop dead in his tracks.

What on earth!?

He had come prepared to deal with the Slovakian demon. He thought himself ready for anything.

He was sadly mistaken.
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#3
Annoyed, Nikolai muted the drone of New Year's Eve coverage buzzing in the background. Blessedly, the noise fell silent and he was alone with his thoughts. Marcus, DV, Atharim, anything of note that stole his interests this past week were as ignored as the news coverage. There were greater things to ponder. The affairs of the world, for one. The United States was stirring like a dying lamb on the altar.. futile, but in need of containment. Mexico was rallying to a murderer and felon; ironically, an American, and Nikolai recognized the strategy that won him Russia unfolding in that country. Then there was this other nasty issue. For the time being, Nikolai was content to let Michael and Alric bear the brunt of the burden, but things would not always be so. Eventually Nikolai would be forced to deal with the rise of gods. But on his terms.

A knock at the door roused him. "Come in,"
he said without turning. He was in what the former presidents of Russia once called their home. Just outside Moscow, the palace was originally built by Putin. The man had taste, but Nikolai preferred his dwelling beneath the Kremlin. Yet on New Year's Eve, the Red Square was a stadium of celebration: packed with millions of people, bodies, packed like crows in the air blocking out the sun. Nik might choke to stand in the eye of such a storm. Not to mention the inherent danger of a world knowing exactly where he would be at the fall of midnight. The Ascendancy - or a replica of him - would be atop the walls of the Kremlin, standing where dictators and presidents once addressed the crowd, an image of power and loyalty silhouetted against a sparkling sky of colored fire. That the blood and flesh Nikolai Brandon took the evening for himself, few knew such truths, even among his own staff.

One man that did entered behind him. "Ascendancy, there's a problem."


Nik did not look up. There were always problems, but his chief of staff's judgement was sound. He'd not interrupt unless he thought the Ascendancy would wish to hear specifics.

"Yes?"


Viktor slid the view of a satellite image onto Nikolai's screen. A reference map to gauge the location in the context of his new world's order accompanied. "Žilina District of Dominance VI. The houses north of this village are ... well."
Viktor cut himself short as Nikolai's expression grew grim. He could see for himself. Desolation.

"A 'god'."
Nik was not proud to say the word.

He lifted his gaze, the blue cold and tempting as a danger undecided to release itself. The look on Viktor's face was almost one of recoil. As frequent the time they spent together, it was good to see his Chief of Staff remember exactly what they each were.

True steel held the man's spine straight, though. Viktor was a spike of the CCD. Nikolai surrounded himself with the best. "Would you like me to have your aircraft activated?"
Although always in the ready to deliver him from evil, Nikolai shook his head. "Of course not, Viktor. Your Ascendancy will be celebrating the New Year this night with his people."
The hint of amusement over such inherent power skimmed the edges of his voice. "I will take Cronos."



Several hours later


Nik and Alric journeyed side by side across the snow. Alric was the stealthier of the two, but Nikolai was the better prepared. They were followed by two additional agents, both solely assigned to Nikolai's direct security. Together the four men would not stand out but for the purposeful way in which they proceeded. All wore similarly cut black coats, but Nik's was of the finest wool, the best fit to his frame. The pin was absent from his lapel, but the slivered spike of the Arcus band wrapped his skull like a diadem of death.

The maelstrom moved in the nearby structure, and the distaste for their task filled the back of his throat with ash. Footsteps, soft as a rabbit in the snow, poised all four of them to the edge of their senses. A signal from one of the others and Nikolai flattened himself against the shed.

The agents held their firearms at the ready, but Nikolai shook his head at Alric. They could not reveal themselves. Not yet.

The figure rounded the corner. Nikolai removed himself from the cusp of hell's unleashment and stepped forward to greet Michael.

"Sight-seeing in my beautiful land, Commander?"
Despite the quiet of his voice, the claim to ownership of the ground beneath their feet was indisputable.
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#4
The first thing that came to mind was that damn headband. It was grand enough, but it seemed like overkill out in the middle of nowhere. Michael did not bother hiding his surprise as he pulled himself away from the golden river of power.

Frustration was etched over his features at Nikolai's greeting. "Hardly,"
he replied.

After a glance at Nikolai's attire and his bodyguard, Michael shifted his focus back towards the house. It appeared the man inside was oblivious to their arrival. The steady beacon had neither waxed nor waned in the hour or so Michael had been in it's presence.

"I doubt you'd be here on my account,"
he continued. "Still, I am surprised to see you would come yourself."
The 'why' was obvious. "It seems he is strong enough to level the street if he wanted to,"
Michael explained. He did not know how much Nikolai knew of their powers - in all likelihood, much more than himself - but assumptions were for the lucky and the dead. He did style his explanation as a report though, quick and efficient if the man already knew and would not expose his ignorance if he did not. "I cannot say how skilled he is. There are no signs of open violence, for what that may be worth."


Michael did not like this. It would have been much easier by himself. There was no telling what Nikolai would do, nor how experienced he was with others of their kind or in battle itself for that matter.

Ultimately, Michael used technicality to deliver them both from further antagonism, even though he felt the urge to lash out at the inconvenience of the Ascendancy's presence. "How would you like to proceed, Ascendancy? It is my duty to oversee the Ascendant beings. In your stead, of course. Did you want to lead this operation yourself?"


Damn... Nikolai brought the worst out in him.


Edited by Michael Vellas, Sep 19 2014, 04:41 AM.
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#5
He might have been surprised to see Michael, but the man's character was consistent with coming here on his own initiative. To do what, exactly, had yet to be determined. Nikolai himself had yet to decide on the specific course of action, but there was only one of two possible ways to handle it. Either the man would live or he would die. If he lived, it would be because Nikolai saw a potential advantage in willing it. If he died, it was because the disadvantages outweighed the alternative. Simple and clean. So why had Michael come?

"You should have brought this to my attention. I can't deal with them all, but this one certainly deserves a special hand. You think you could have handled him alone?"
Nikolai's gaze roamed upon Michael, testing him even as he studied him, and finding him lacking - not in talent, but in raw time.

"As we are both here. We will take him together. As to how?"
The shadow of a smile briefly darkened his focus. "We shall knock on the front door."


Such was a good place to start, and it was the civil thing to do.

They approached the house as a pair. Although they were certainly not equals. Nikolai strode half a step ahead of Michael, but only to keep his periphery clear. His focus was razor sharp even without the enhancement of his powers. Like Michael said, the beacon within was powerful enough to level the street, and Nik was not going to die today.

He signaled to the others to prepare before knocking. Alric and a second guard took positions flanking the front door. The third man rounded to the back of the house.

That left him and Michael seemingly alone on the front patio. The beacon had honed in on the front room of the house. Perhaps watching television?

Without preamble, the Ascendancy knocked a loud, triumphant knock on the front door. One impossible to ignore.
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#6
For all that it seemed to make their caution futile, Nikolai's plan was the correct one. In that he gained some measure of relief. However arrogant he might be, he was not stupid. The reconnaissance was only a means to evaluate the potential threat and uncover unwanted surprises. Breaking in to the residence would not have endeared them to a potential ally.

Following the Ascendancy's lead, Michael took note of his earlier suggestion. Of course, he hadn't informed Nikolai for the same reason the man had come himself with only three guards on New Years eve, but now was not the time to discuss trivialities.

As for Nikolai's question, he was not interested in proving himself with words. It was not for lack of faith in his abilities. It was simply a question that an answer would not satisfy. His manner was impartial to the questioning, once again focused on the task.

While Nikolai did the honours, knocking on the door, Michael was prepared to strike in the event of hostilities. He had given the matter some thought and decided on a course of action. His response would be twofold using simple nets to balance the disadvantage.

They waited, feeling the beacon as it moved towards the door. There was nothing abnormal in the pattern that suggested hostility or awareness. No sudden or unexpected movements. Just a man answering a knock at the door.

Michael was on the precipice of the torrent when a wall of warmth split the cold air. His gaze fixed on the face that he had memorized. Valdir Schenzek. The man showed no sign of recognition, even with the Ascendancy's headband on display.

"Welcome!"
he said, spreading his arms wide. "It has been some time since I have had visitors. Please, come in!"


Michael's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Schenzek seemed quite taken by the grandiose of Nikolai's appearance, and he would make sure that it stayed that way.
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#7
Nikolai crossed the threshold and passed a glance at Michael. "Seems like a nice person."
His comment was without expression: his attempt at humor.

Valdir Schenzek showed them toward the living room. The hallway was dim, but tidy. A row of shoes was lined along the wall. A narrow flight of stairs led upward. The carpet running its center was worn by years of footprints, but without stain or smell.

In gesture, Nikolai swiped the moisture from the bottom of his shoes before properly following. The sounds of a television wafted from afar, but otherwise no chatter of person or pet broke the silence, Valdir excluded.

"Mister Schenzek we need to have a discussion,"
Nikolai called in perfect accent. The man in question returned to view carrying a tray of coffee mugs. Strings of tea bags were draped over the edges.

"Apologies, apologies! So long since a guest! I have tea! Come in, come in."
Valdir backed against the door to the room the television was in. His guests looked at one another in turn, and for not immediately complying, the man's very presence grew like a tumor on Nik's mind.

"SHUT THE DOOR!"
His screech pierced, carried by threads of power like a blizzard on the wind. The blast passed, and Valdir smiled. His normal voice returned to him. "Come in, please."


A deep sigh, and Nikolai gestured that they close the door. He paused when he reached the threshold to the room Valdir chose for tea. "Mister Schenzek, do you know who I am?"
He kept his voice level like he was speaking with a child. Something told him he was. A very, very dangerous child.

Valdir straightened. The blankness of his expression coiled its way up and down Nikolai until it shifted to recognition.

"Oh yes! I am so sorry! I didn't recognize you at first! I am a big fan! A big, big fan."
He grabbed a black contraption that Nikolai recognized from his youth and with it flipped through tv channels. "You should be on right now! I watch you every night."


Nikolai frowned, curious more than concerned. "You watch me do what?"


Valdir dropped his shoulders, and turned to face them. "You're the host of Family Fortune! I watch you every night. It should be on right now. Why isn't it on? Its all these dumb fireworks."
He finally gave up searching. The channel he came to rest on was running a live New Year's Eve special. Fireworks around the world. Moscow's would be starting within the hour. Nikolai was obviously going to miss it. Of course, nobody would know that.

But Family Fortune? Valdir had mistaken the Ascendancy for the host of a game show?

That answered one question. Valdir was crazy. Harmless, perhaps, but crazy. Nikolai didn't have the time nor interest in adopting a hopeless case. Was anything in the man salvageable?

Suppressing a sigh, Nik slipped his gloves to his pocket and stepped into the actual living room. And realized they weren't alone after all. This time, his frown was one of disappointment, and perhaps, strangely, slightly impressed.

He waited for Michael to notice. "A pleasant man, indeed."

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#8
Crossing the threshold into Valdir's house felt a little like entering the lair of a beast. The atmosphere was taught and Valdir's stark presence loomed as an ever present threat. Nikolai's comment was met with a raised brow.

While Nikolai spoke to their host, Michael inspected their surroundings. The house was immaculate. Disturbingly so. Despite evidence of wear, there was no trace of recent use. Three pairs of shoes lined the wall adjacent to the door in perfect order. They were brand new.

Michael glanced at Nikolai at the offer of tea and the room grew darker in a way that had little to do with lighting. The following cry pieced his ears on a tangled web of power.

Nikolai spoke carefully as Michael sketched a standing bow and closed the door. Usually, it was almost impossible to contain his presence but Nikolai dominated the room. He was Aconcagua in the shadow of Everest.

Michael watched Nikolai and Valdir as 'recognition' sparked in his eyes. No smile cracked his lips, but amusing was an understatement. He remained silent until Nikolai stopped after moving into the living room.

It did take long to notice the source of Nikolai's frown. Michael's face remained neutral while the fires of power raged just beyond his reach.

"A pleasant man, indeed."


"A god among ants,"
was his whispered reply.

Michael turned to address Valdir for the first time, circling the scene like one would view a prize portrait. Valdir seemed eager for his reaction. "Your daughter is lovely,"
Michael said in a soft voice laced with steel. His blue eyes were cooler than Arctic ice. His gaze lingered on the tiny pale figure who's head was bowed in imitation of a prayer. Reverence.

"Would you like an autograph? I am sure our host would be happy to give you it. Why don't you fetch a pen, I'm sure your daughter would be pleased."


Valdir's face darkened at his instruction but the prospect of a personal meeting with a television star brightened his mood. "An excellent idea!"
Valdir exclaimed with a sudden clap of his hands. "Your assistant is perceptive, sir! If you would sit down, I shall be right back!"


Michael turned his back on the room to approach Nikolai and lean in close. "We must disable him. When he returns. I shall follow your lead."
His tone and stance brooked no argument, even if Nikolai was the ruler of half the world. War was his kingdom.

When Valdir's footsteps grew louder, Michael raised his voice, once again circling to the opposite side of the room. He quoted a passage from an author of the 30's who wrote about ancient conflict. He had no doubt Nikolai would understand his meaning. "'And it was said his left hand was a shield, the right, a sword.'"



Edited by Michael Vellas, Sep 23 2014, 11:19 AM.
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#9
Nikolai felt Michael's presence pass behind like a wind on the back of his neck. The other man circled the room, studying the scene with an expression carved from ice. Nik remained where he was to study Michael as he studied Valdir. There were gods among ants in this world, and Nikolai now held two in the palm of his hand: but only if Valdir could be salvaged.

He'd gone to retrieve a pen. Nikolai did not care to uphold the pretense that he was some sort of television host; in fact, the very charade made his jaw clench. Nik turned his line of sight away from the seats and considered their positioning. Michael's suggestion did not go unappreciated.

Valdir returned with an old spiral notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. A wide grin bared a toothy smile. It stretched the man's face like an old clown's mask. Nikolai accepted the pen and paper and used the excuse of inscribing a message to distract Valdir. He flashed a glance at Michael. They shared only that one look and a heartbeat later, the universe raged through the house like a storm.

Valdir's starstruck expression melted, but confusion was short lived. He lashed out while the glazed eyes of his family bore silent witness. Rage took the form of tangled chaos, but Nikolai fluidly stepped aside to deal with it.

"Don't kill him."
Despite the visual thunderstorm blackening the air, Nikolai's order was rather casually spoken.
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#10
It ended as it began, in a furious maelstrom of power incarnate. When Nikolai gave his signal, Michael embraced the thrill of battle, tempered by a thin edge of icy determination for the sake of their impassive audience.

As Valdir struck out in blind aggravation Michael's web of Spirit and Fire raked through the man's body and mind. Nikolai spun an obscuring sheet of cloud; dangerous if his opponent decided to blast the entire area, but Valdir was unconscious before he could launch a second assault.

Disappointment was the only appropriate way to explain the dampened euphoric blaze. Even within the shell of the void he could not suppress that.

"He's unconscious,"
Michael explained, spinning a coil of Air that lifted Valdir's limp frame from the ground to hang suspended like a hologram. When the man awoke, he would wish he did not. It was distasteful, but the pressure of constant pain was the only way Michael could ensure Valdir could not attack again. The web he had used on Jaxen a lifetime ago he put to use again, although it was more refined.

So this was the demon? A plague of emotion battered at his defences, disgust, anger, pity, disappointment. The last strongest of all.

Such a waste...

Valdir moaned and his eyes rolled open. Michael said nothing, leaving Nikolai Despite to do as he wished.


Edited by Michael Vellas, Oct 16 2014, 06:51 PM.
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