1 The Rise of the Red Horseman

Sammael sat up, a sheet draped over his nude loins, reading reports from his various research units. Suddenly he felt a blast of energy and stiffened.

Across the room quivering in the corner, Andrew quieted his soft whimpering. “Mmmm,” he began, before clearing his throat, and beginning again hesitantly, wiping the soft hair from his teary eyes. “Mmmmy lord?”

Sammael shook his head and closed his eyes, but could sense no focus for the tremendous burst of power that had rippled through the cosmos, through world after world like a warm wave. Sammael shivered in disgust. Shaking that off, he looked at Andrew and made a joke he thought might appeal to the man’s inner nerdiness, “Nothing…. I sense a disturbance in the force!”

Andrew had the good sense to be too afraid to laugh, though Sammael hoped he would. He was trying to make Andrew feel comfortable again. Ceaseless terror was less enjoyable than the psychological torture of mixing it up. Sighing, he said to Andrew, “Come here,” holding out an arm. Andrew jumped and hurried to him, his fear of what would happen if he didn’t overcoming his fear of Sammael.

Sammael smiled, feeling the conflict build in the young man’s heart as Andrew felt himself held sweetly. After a moment, he allowed his head to rest on Sammael’s shapely chest, his hand stroking the light dusting of reddish blond hair on Sammael’s belly, and even began to relax. Had he seen the evil grin, Andrew would have known better.

Shortly, as Chase departed from the Temple, Sammael felt that power in the world, no longer a single, powerful burst, but a low, dull throbbing that can’t be isolated…. A chronic pain! While Sebastian made his straightforward project of bringing the darkness into the light that much more interesting, this new threat represented a definite problem that required addressing, Sammael thought to himself. But first, there was the matter of Sekhmet.

Soon it would be Monday morning in Egypt, and intelligence indicated a great deal of activity at Sebastian’s had been followed by a lull. Where had the good consul gone? No matter. Now was the time! His men had broken the encryption on the video feed from the temple and he knew about the bombs, which would do little to him but could reduce Sekhmet to ash. But he had a plan. Oh yes, he had a plan….

***

In Chase’s living room, the atmosphere was turning festive. Everyone wanted to see the rings and hug the boys, and talk to Chase. In a way, they were avoiding the inevitable heavy discussion of what had transpired at the Temple. But they needed to let that go for a moment.

Sebastian announced, “I couldn’t think what to get you for your birthday…. James thought you might visit some weekend and let us take you guys out!”

Chase smiled and nodded. “That’d be great!”

Sebastian nodded, and after a long pause continued. “I also … know William isn’t as keen on me as you are and I wanted to do something for him, for you both, as well….”

All eyes, especially William’s and Xavier’s, were focused on him now. Sebastian took out a beautiful mahogany box. “William, your father and I weren’t as close as I would have liked, but we were friendly.  He was one of our best men for certain kinds of work. Over the years, certain of his possessions came into my care for safekeeping. He left some things for you, in case anything ever happened to him on a mission. When he left the Council, he never … well, here are his things. I know you lost most everything in the bombing.” He handed the box to William, who looked from him to the box and back, tears in his eyes. William felt Sebastian’s hand on his shoulder as he stared at the dark box in his hands.

Sebastian backed away and sat quietly next to James, who put a soft hand on his knee. Xavier turned to wipe his eyes. Even he had to admit, the gesture was lovely. William and Chase left the room quickly and talk resumed in subdued tones.

“Sarah, Steve, I hope you’ll let the boys come up? Perhaps their uncles could accompany them,” Sebastian asked, looking quickly at Xavier. “I’m sure they’d enjoy the chance to catch up with Avery?”

Xavier squeezed Aiden’s hand affirming, and Aiden smiled. “Of course!”

Sarah looked at Steve and nodded. She didn’t know what her little boy was, but she knew it was beyond her. Maybe these people could help him discover himself. She was still uncomfortable with letting go a bit, but they would settle it later.

Meanwhile, William and Chase sat next to one another, the box in front of them. Chase held William’s hand, running his free hand over the box. “What’s in this?”

William gently opened the box, removing an envelope. He emptied the contents into his hand and saw with his parents’ wedding rings, restored to like-new condition. “He got their rings!” Chase squeezed his shoulders as William dropped the rings back into the envelope and slipped it into his pocket. Inside the box was a handwritten letter, a handwritten journal, a few more photographs, and a few trinkets.

William, his voice fragile, began to read aloud, “Dearest William, Forgive the cliché, here of all places, but if you are reading this, that means something has happened and I am gone….” William couldn’t help but pause and laugh through his tears. “Tell your mother I love her and I’m sorry! You know I love you both, but I couldn’t turn my back on my responsibilities. What I do out there is for you and your mom too. Our powers, which grow from generation to generation, place an enormous burden upon us, and I could not ignore that. The enclosed journal I kept with me these past many years. It records things I’ve kept secret, knowledge discovered and some things perhaps best forgotten. Use it as you may, and remember me—these few trinkets are not mere ornaments: the book will tell you what they are and how to use them. Go to Sebastian if there’s anything you need: he is trustworthy beyond all measure! Look out for your family and friends, and look after yourself, my dear boy. Gideon once told me that you’d know an epic love, and I hope that I’ve lived to meet him (never doubt I’m proud of you). Gideon may not be pleasant but I believe him, so don’t question the feelings that will lead you to the one.  Dad.” William sat staring at the familiar writing on the page, hear his father’s voice as he read.

“He knew he might not come back to us, but he never imagined this,” William numbly stated, letting the paper fall softly into the box. “It does make me wonder why he left the Council, after what he wrote….”

A soft knock drew William’s attention, but Chase announced, “I’ll leave you two alone….”

“How did you know it was me?” Xavier asked with a soft laugh.

Giving him a quick hug, Chase smiled up at him and said, “Family resemblance: you both have such a strong presence!” Chase returned to the living room and unselfconsciously settled onto the couch next to Sebastian, who casually draped an arm across his shoulder.

“You aren’t having an anxiety attack on contact anymore,” Chase said, poking fun at him.

Sebastian laughed, squeezing James into him on the other side. “You remind me of him so much! I think the shock of it, and the lack of recognition, unsettled me!”

“Who was he?” Chase asked.

“You don’t know?” Sebastian questioned, looking surprised

“I haven’t been told,” came Chase’s unconcerned reply.

“Who? What are you two talking about?” Sarah asked, trying not to get short. It looked like now was the time.

“We’ve all had a shock tonight, some of us a lot of shock,” Sebastian said. “Perhaps that is better left for later? It’ll take some time to adjust. Suffice it to say that your son is…. Well, he’s not unique; there have been a number like him over the course of human history. But I have only known one, personally.” Sebastian looked around with a sigh. “I’m going to trust you all with knowledge that I’ve kept even from my inner circle, except for Avery. The being responsible for the attacks on me, on you, on William’s parents…. How to say it? They were coordinated by a force of extraordinary power, of extraordinary evil! A purely malicious spirit.” Seeing a look cross Sarah’s face, Sebastian added, just as William and Xavier returned, each with an arm around the other. “Events tonight have shown that, had William not come here, Chase would have been in danger! More danger because we would not have known about him; we could not have protected him!” Sarah exhaled and nodded. “As Chase’s power grows, the enemy’s attention will be drawn to him more. Right now, he’s focused on me, I think!”

“Is there any way to train Chase? To prepare him?” William asked, looking concerned.

Avery was about to reply, when Sebastian cut in, “William, Chase’s power is … beyond us! There is no training we know of for what he is! It will come to him as necessary. But he has us! He has you! And then there’s Gideon, who is a force to be reckoned with when freed to act!”

Chase turned slightly. “You know Gideon?”

“Our paths have crossed,” Sebastian said cryptically. “Never liked him much, but you’ve got to respect him….”     

“He’s always nice to me,” Chase said, letting a little crossness slip into his expression.

Sebastian smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “Of course he is, Chase! You’re you! I’m afraid he doesn’t hold most of the rest of us in the same affection….”

“Yeah, Chase, cool your heels,” William laughed. “Even my dad thought he was bad-tempered…. Or so his letter would make it seem!” Chase shrugged noncommittally and smiled.

“So what or who is this enemy?” Xavier asked, melting the smile from Sebastian’s lips.

“That is in the same category of heavy as, ‘What is Chase?’ Haven’t we all had enough for the evening?” Sebastian nearly pleaded, but Xavier gave him a hard look. “Xavier….” But the man did not give an inch. Sebastian’s face fell, as he said, “The last witnesses said that he introduced himself as Sammael.”

Xavier’s look of surprise and horror shook them all, almost as much as the fear on Aiden’s face. “Sammael?” Steve asked, sitting forward.

Aiden looked at his friend and shook his head. “It’s not possible. An imposter?”

Sebastian shook his head. “I’m sorry, Aiden, I wish it was true…. He killed Chang with his bare hands and burnt him to ashes in an instant. And the scheme he’s hatching reeks of him! He plans to resurrect Resheph, to awaken Sekhmet, and Aethon is already moving to join him….” Aiden blanched.

“Sammael? Resheph? Sekhmet? Aethon? What does this mean?” Steve insisted.

Sam Roth interjected, “Sammael is … the angel of death, the evil inclination. He is the destroyer!”

“Satan,” Aiden whispered, “the devil….”

Sarah shook her head, finding it too much. “Are you people really sitting in my living room in 21st century Richmond telling me that the DEVIL is after my little boy? Are you all out of your fucking minds?”

Chase’s eyes went wide, and he barely restrained his instinctual laugh.

“I know it’s a lot,” Xavier said. “But you need to listen! It gets worse!”

“Sekhmet was an Egyptian goddess. In reality she was simply one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty of my kind. But oh what power!” Sebastian said. “To be honest, the thought of her still haunts me! She made war against humankind. Resheph was a near eastern god of plague, and Aethon was a Greek god of famine! But like Sekhmet, the reality behind the mythology was that they were some of the most ancient, evil and powerful vampires of all time!”

“You talk like you know them,” Aiden observed quietly.

“If you’d not left the Council, you’d already know. Resheph was my sire, and I met Sekhmet in Egypt. Sammael understands my fear of Sekhmet, and the antagonism between Resheph and I,” Sebastian offered.

“What antagonism is that?” Aiden asked.

“I killed him and chopped him into pieces and had them distributed to the far reaches of the world. Sammael is nearly ready to resurrect him.” Aiden grunted at Sebastian’s words and nodded. “This is some kind of psychological attack on me….”

“No, it isn’t,” Xavier said, looking suddenly aware.

Chase smiled at him with amusement. “You’ve figured it out, then?”

Xavier responded, uneasily, “Yes,” giving Chase a funny look he couldn’t have seen. “Sammael is death…. Then you’ve got war, plague, and famine. Death, war, plague, and famine….” They all looked at him as if he were stating the obvious.

Chase startled them by speaking in his authoritative voice, “‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth….’ The words of John the Diviner.” Chase shook his head and looked around. “What?”

“You just quoted to us from the Book of Revelation,” Sebastian said, befuddled.

Chase looked lost for a moment. “That’s where that’s from?”

“You didn’t know that?” Aiden asked.

“He doesn’t need to,” Sebastian said, standing and walking to the window. “I should have seen it! That’s what he’s doing! He has to do it with … style! God damn him! He’s going to try to carry out his attempt to destroy everything by acting out the prophecy of John!”

“Holy shit,” Avery exclaimed. “He’ll put on the show and let them do the rest…. He’s going to stand in the midst of it and watch the whole thing burn!”

“It’s true,” Sebastian granted. “Once the humans sense what’s going on, they’ll see it through to its conclusion! Lately, they barely need an excuse! No offense….” Steve shrugged as if to say, none taken. “I’m sorry to dampen your evening!”

William shook his head. “Thank you for coming! It seems that your being here has helped us all learn a lot….”

“And given you all a heavy burden to bear,” Sebastian replied wryly.

“It was already ours! At least now we know,” William answered, taking the ancient vampire’s hand and drawing him into an embrace. “Thank you,” he whispered and felt Sebastian’s head nod almost imperceptibly.

“Rabbi, if you’ll kindly escort us back to your sanctuary, we need to get home. There are things I need to see to … quickly,” Sebastian said, as William let him go. Sam nodded. “Thank you for having us, Steve, Sarah…. And thank you Chase and William, for inviting us to such a beautiful moment in such dark times!” He softly kissed Chase’s cheek and took James’s hand. After a burst of well-wishing and hugs between Sebastian’s party and Chase’s family and William, they parted ways in a flurry.

When they were gone, a silence fell. “Mom, dad,” Chase began, not knowing what to say.

“You aren’t angry? When I decided to offer Chase the gift, I had no idea,” William added.

“You didn’t make him what he is,” Steve said with a sigh. “Which is a boy we’re very proud of, no matter what else he may be!” he finished, wrapping his arms around a young man who felt very much the little boy in his daddy’s arms. Sarah joined them in a family hug, waving at William to join.

“We’ve got a lot to talk about, boys,” she said. “But we all need our rest…. I think that perhaps a round of hooky is in order tomorrow! We still need to get some uniforms for William and get his paperwork in order with Xavier and the school…. I’ll call in for us in the morning, Chase, so you boys can sleep in!”

Both boys immediately headed for the stairs, drained and exhausted from an overly long day and a most unusual ritual. When they were cuddled beneath the sheets, Chase laid his head on William’s chest. “The gift you gave me tonight,” he whispered, “I don’t know what to say….”

“You already said what matters,” William responded, a smile in his voice, “You said yes!”

“Yeah, but … wow! Was it hard … getting all that stuff?” Chase asked.

“You know the answer to that…. You found me in the back yard,” William said.

Chase squeezed him again, warmly. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine….” William raised his eyebrows questioningly and looked down at the sweet boy. “The voices…. That’s what they sang while we kissed!”

“Can you still hear them?” William asked.

“Yes…. Not like in there, but it’s like background noise, almost, unless I tune in to it, then I can hear … a little,” Chase tried to explain.

William laughed a little, observing, “When you listen to them, you get this look … like, spacey, or stoned, or something!”

Chase’s giggle was accompanied by a cute blush and William kissed him on the cheek, taking him into his arms. From sheer exhaustion, they both fell asleep before they knew it.

***

Sebastian and his convoy arrived at Sam Roth’s synagogue in the middle of the night, with Xavier and Aiden following, and the large group congregated inside.

“What just happened tonight?” Avery asked, impatiently. “That was no normal Bonding ceremony, Sebastian! We all know that….”

Sebastian looked at Sam Roth long and hard, and the man shrugged. Then he looked to Aiden and Xavier. “I’m sorry, but I feel like I shouldn’t say anything more until I talk to Chase and William alone….”

“Damn it, Sebastian, now is not the time!” Avery yelled.

“Avery,” Xavier barked sharply, surprising his old master. Xavier lowered his head submissively, “I’m sorry! It’s just, Sebastian doesn’t trust us…. Me, I mean! Perhaps I should go….”

Sebastian grabbed Xavier’s arm and peered into his eyes. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Xavier! It’s that you don’t trust me! And what I need to say shouldn’t get to Chase indirectly, not even through you! Xavier,” Sebastian stopped midstream, looking into his eyes pleadingly. The young man’s shoulders slumped and he nodded. “If you promise me….” Xavier looked into the vampire’s brown eyes and nodded again.

Sebastian turned his back on his friends and walked into the sanctuary with the group hot on his heels. Sam gasped as Sebastian walked up to the ark and removed a Torah scroll, and began turning it. “For those of you who haven’t heard through the grapevine, my father’s name was Nahor…. I was born in a city called Ur.” Sebastian looked up into Sam’s eyes, catching the man off guard. These were familiar names and places. “Nahor had two brothers, Haran and Abram…. Abram was close to my age, and I always called him cousin, though he was my uncle. In truth, he was like an older brother to me, carefree and strong! Oh, what a laugh he had! He could light up a room…. Just like Chase!” Sebastian sighed and rolled the scroll a little more. “I always felt there was something special about him! Not just because he alone was kind to me despite knowing what he knew…. But something changed. As the time was coming for me to be banished, he suddenly became distant. He had that same faraway look you saw on Chase’s face tonight. After I was sent away, they say he went to his father’s shop and destroyed all the idols! Part of me always hoped that was because of what they had done to me, what my grandfather had let my father do! In any case, shortly after that, Abram left his country and his father’s land. And so begins the story of the people of the book: ‘And the LORD spoke unto Abram, Go, get ye out of your country, and away from your kinsmen, and your father’s house, unto the land I will show you,’“ Sebastian read in Hebrew, translating for his friends.

“Our paths crossed once more after Resheph changed me…. His eyes were sad when he saw me, but he greeted me as a brother. I felt, then, the surge of power I felt when I touch Chase,” Sebastian sighed.

“What is he?” Avery demanded again.

Sebastian looked helpless, until his eyes settled on James, who nodded. Sebastian shook his head and laughed. “The voices! The voices he hears … are the voice of the One!” Sam Roth gasped. He himself suspected, but to hear it confirmed that he had been in the presence of such a person. “My friends, Chase is a prophet. Compared to him, the Oracle was a carnival’s fortune teller! Compared to him, what? The only presence I’ve ever felt that approximates his was that of Abraham, my beloved kinsman….”

Xavier sat down slowly, silent. James was the one to break the silence. “What does this mean?”

“Until tonight, I thought we were waging a hopeless struggle against an invincible enemy, but the scale may very well have been balanced! William’s devotion, going to the Temple … it seems to have brought Chase’s power to fruition just when it was required!” Turning to Xavier and Aiden, he softened. “I don’t know what part those boys are to play, but they must be protected and those looking after them must have all the resources required! I’ve already asked Sam to join us. I’d like you two to do the same!”

Aiden nodded instantly, but looked to Xavier. The younger man shook his head and rested it in his palms. “Of course…. For William,” he muttered without looking up.

“Avery, you’ll be training William along with James from here on out?” Avery and James smiled. “You two don’t have to look so happy about it,” Sebastian said with a put-on frown.

“What?” James grinned.

“He’s a handsome boy,” Avery said, teasingly, raising his eyebrows at James.

“Nobody said training had to be unpleasant,” James answered with a bit of swagger.

“I didn’t think it had been,” Avery replied, feigning insult, so the James wrapped an arm around him and put a head on his shoulder.

“Don’t pout, big daddy, you know we all love you,” he said, kissing Avery on the cheek, causing the man to blush as Xavier snorted reflexively.

“Well, we should get home,” Sebastian announced.

Sarah Light called the wizard at the other entrance of the portal to announce their readiness. She walked to the invisible door and placed her hand in the right spot so that the portal appeared. “All ashore who’s going ashore!” They all bid farewell to Sam, Xavier and Aiden and stepped through the shimmering door, finding themselves once again in Sebastian’s basement. Drained by the day’s events, each couple retired to a bedroom. Sebastian knocked on Richard’s door, while James went ahead upstairs. Rather than invite him in, Richard stepped outside.

“How was Richmond?” he asked.

“Unbelievable…. How’s Peter?” Sebastian asked.

“Not good! He’s … hurting and I don’t know what to say. He knows he hurt James this morning, but he … can’t see any way around laying blame,” Richard said.

“Maybe with time? It’s all so fresh,” Sebastian said.

“Here’s hoping! He can’t blame you two without blaming me, and … I don’t know, Sebastian, I do feel to blame! If it weren’t for me he wouldn’t have come back that night,” Richard said.

Sebastian took Richard in his arms and let the man wipe his tears on his shoulder. “There are four people to blame, and three are downstairs….”

“Three,” Richard asked, confused.

“Chang is in a plastic baggy on a bookshelf in my office,” Sebastian said.

“I can’t say I’m sorry,” Richard sighed.

“Problem is, we have Sammael to thank for that, and he’s the fourth,” Sebastian said.

“What are we going to do?” Richard asked.

Sebastian shrugged, “After tonight, I give us even odds….”

“What happened?” Richard asked.

“Can I fill you in tomorrow?” Sebastian asked. “I’m actually tired….”

“Do you need to feed?” Richard asked, concerned. “I can call someone….”

“Thank you, Richard, I’m fine! We’re all fine! I’m going to take James out to hunt tomorrow night; he needs to train…. Get back to Peter, and call me if there’s anything you need,” Sebastian said, gently squeezing his shoulder.

When Richard retreated into his room, Sebastian made his way upstairs heavily and, closing the door behind himself, began to strip silently. “Every time I see you, I think you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” James said softly, laying naked between the sheets.

Sebastian crawled in next to him and put his head on the big boy’s chest, sighing. “It’s amazing how tired I’ve felt the last few weeks…. I haven’t felt this way in two millenia!”

“It’s the stress,” James said, running his hand down Sebastian’s silky smooth back, squeezing his behind.

Sebastian sighed, kissing him softly, putting a hand on James’s chest and stroking it gently. “In the morning?”

James nodded, squeezing him tightly and drawing Sebastian’s body into his, cuddling close and feeling Sebastian slowly begin to relax in his embrace.

Neither Sebastian nor James was ready to get up when Sarah Light burst into their room the next morning. “Sebastian! James! Wake up!” When they looked up at her with bleary eyes, she apologized, “I’m sorry, but there is a CODE BLACK alert coming from Egypt!”

Sebastian sat up straight and knew immediately—Sekhmet’s temple complex. He only took the time to throw on a robe before running to his office, logging on and finding the consuls beginning to assemble.

Sebastian dispensed with decorum and demanded, “What the hell is going on, Musa?”

The man sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Sebastian! We just don’t know. Our cameras went dead and then seismographs picked up the explosions. We don’t know any more than that. No one in the complex has answered our communications, but we have a forward team on the surface that is entering the….” Musa broke off as his phone rang and he picked up the phone. A few moments later, he continued, “The scientists, archaeologists, and guards in the temple are all dead! Bloodbath, none of it on camera!”

“The sarcophagus? Was it opened? Did we get her?” Sebastian asked, wearily.

“The sarcophagus is gone; it seems to have been … transported out just before the charges blew.” Sebastian drove his hand into his desk and let loose with a string of obscenities fit for a sailor.

“What is the significance of this development?” the local governor of Germany, Americ’s most senior underling, asked, perplexed.

“I’ll make an announcement this evening to the entire leadership of the Shadow Council…. This meeting is over!” Sebastian said, shortly. Shutting down the conference, he summoned Christen, Americ, Musa and Pedro to a private chat. He filled them in partially on the developments of the previous evening, omitting any reference to Chase and William by name and never using the word prophet in the conversation. Nevertheless, the new elements of the prophecy were disturbing to his advisers, despite his assurances that things seemed to be looking up. They were concluding their long conference when Ivan Breslov requested to join.

“Excuse me,” the man said as he appeared on the screen. “Excuse me for interrupting, but I have news about the dragons that attacked Avery at the Oracle’s temple!”

“Please, Ivan…. Thank you for coming to us!” Sebastian said.

“Sebastian, it’s terrible, terrible…. I had to liquidate them!” Ivan responded.

“What? Why?” Sebastian asked, aghast.

“It’s an abomination! They’d been experimented on, Sebastian! Their brains’ control centers had been destroyed and some sort of mechanism implanted … for mind control, I suspect. And there is evidence of genetic engineering. These dragons were engineered, mindless killing machines!” Ivan explained, breathless.

“My God,” Sebastian exclaimed, running a hand through his hair. “I’m so sorry, Ivan….”

The man nodded subtly and shook his head, continuing, “The dragon clan that their genetic material comes from is in central China….”

“Chang,” Sebastian muttered, shaking his head. If the fucker wasn’t dead! “Do you think they were involved, or do you think they were drawn in unwittingly somehow?”

“I haven’t been able to discover that yet,” Ivan noted with disgust in his voice. “If I discover they were anything other than unwitting participants….”

“The Council will stand behind your decision, Ivan,” Sebastian said, showing the man a great deal of confidence. “I trust you’ll let us know if you require our assistance?”

“Thank you, Sebastian…. I’ll report back soon.” Ivan nodded as his screen went black.

“Sebastian,” Americ sighed. “What’s going on here? Genetically altered dragons, revivified ancient vampires? It doesn’t make any sense!”

Sebastian leaned back and looked to the ceiling. “Of all the things I have told you so far, this is the most sensitive, perhaps the most devastating to morale. For this reason it must not get out! I know who killed Chang; I know whom we are up against! The being orchestrating the doom of our world is none other than the archangel Sammael….” The assembled consuls stared blankly, except Musa, who gasped reflexively.

“NO!” the handsome Arab exclaimed, his face bearing an almost pained expression.

“He walks among us, Musa! This being, known to the humans as Satan, Lucifer, Iblis….” These were names that meant something to his faithless colleagues, who shook their heads and tried to dismiss the news. “Think about the power required to do what is now being done!” They paused, and realized how much of what they dismissed as mere myth had proven true in latter days.

“What can we do, then?” Americ said with a sigh.

“All is not lost,” Sebastian said with a weary smile. “We have unexpected resources at our disposal! James, and others…. When I faced Resheph last, I only had a band of vampires! Now we’re organized, we have weapons that can burn a body to a pile of ash. We have alliances with wizards and dragons! Resheph, Sekhmet, Aethon … they can all be dealt with!”

“But then there’s Sammael,” Christen Wheeler added with a note of abject fear in her voice, her green eyes shining, for once not appearing fierce beneath her flowing red hair.

“Friends, I am confident! In a couple of months, I’ve met two of the most powerful angels! Powerful forces are at work behind the scenes!” Sebastian comforted.

“Angels DO nothing,” Pedro demanded.

Sighing, Sebastian answered, “This is true, generally, but it is not always so…. Why shall we presume that the stories of demon gods are true and not find some truth behind the other myths? When they are given leave to act, then the tide will turn! Until then, we have no choice but to fight!”

Grumbling, his friends logged off until only Musa remained. “Confident words, little Sebastian,” he began with a smile.

“Do you think He might be real?” Sebastian asked, knowing the answer he’d receive. “I want to believe that there’s someone up there, someone who’ll make this all right….”

“Sebastian, after all you’ve seen, how can you doubt it? Your kinsman,” Musa began.

“I saw the light in his eye, to be sure, the confidence of spirit! And the power. I know … someone was talking to him, guiding him, and empowering him. I can remember that power clearly now,” he added, earning a peculiar look from Musa, who smiled to let him know he should go on, “but was it God? The angels think so, but do they really know? Perhaps he’s just the oldest and most powerful of them? I don’t know! How would we ever know?” Sebastian poured out, begging for an answer.

“You have to believe, in the end! You’re right, you’ll probably never know. Not even if he came down and tried to smack some sense into you! You could still ask the same question—are you HIM?” Musa replied.

“I want to believe…. But in the end, what does it matter? He doesn’t care whether we believe or not, if He’s up there! He doesn’t need us to believe!” Sebastian retorted.

“No, my friend, He doesn’t! But we do! Be well, Sebastian,” Musa said softly.

“Goodbye, Musa,” Sebastian said, lost in thought. Shortly, he wandered upstairs, but, as it was lunchtime, Avery and James were off training, Sarah informed him; Chris and Steve were taking a break, as well, he could hear from downstairs. Sebastian shook his head and laughed. He knew too well that not even crises like these could interrupt the most intimate of urges entirely.

The sound of voices raised shook him from his reverie, however, and he made his way to Richard’s door. He was about to knock, when he heard Peter’s voice somewhat urgently demanding. “I feel like a prisoner here!”

“Peter, it’s going to take a while for you to learn to control! It’s not safe for you to go out in public yet…. We’re just trying to look out for you!” Richard pleaded.

“Like you were looking out for me when you all got me involved in all this shit?” Peter challenged.

Sebastian could feel the rush of emotion as Richard winced from guilt and hurt at the accusation. Sebastian felt it, too, though he also felt a sudden rush of indignation. How dare he take it out on Richard?

But Richard was more than willing to accept responsibility. “You know I’d do anything to…. I’ve said I’m sorry, but I’ll keep saying it! It was selfish of me to want,” Richard began.

“Richard,” Peter said, softening. “I … it’s just hard for me! I can’t help it, sometimes! I wish they’d killed me! I wish someone would put me out of my misery!”

“Don’t say that,” Richard whispered, begging.

There was a knot in Sebastian’s stomach as he listened, wondering how many such interactions the men had had. Projecting, he thought, ‘Richard? Take the boy out hunting. Try to teach him. Maybe he just needs a change of scenery?’

Sebastian felt a sort of mental nod as Richard replied, ‘Thank you….’

Sebastian then made his way back through the kitchen, bumping into Avery and James. “How’s the training?” Sebastian asked.

“Great,” both replied at once, making Sebastian laugh.

“I think Horatio’s about ready to begin again with Chris and Steve, if you want to join them,” Sebastian added, winking at James. After the boy ran off, he asked Avery, “When will you start working with William?”

“I’ll contact him and Sam tonight. I believe he starts school tomorrow. James and I can work privately at lunch, and then I’ll work with them together after school lets out. They should be well-matched, given James’s rapidly developing power and William’s ability and prior training. I’m sure Alex taught him well!”

“His mother was a prodigy, too,” Sebastian smilingly reminded.

“No doubt,” Avery said with a laugh. “There is the reason I took them with me to the sacred grove when I forged my bond!”

Sebastian had wondered if Avery would talk about that. “Why didn’t you…? I mean, I’m your oldest friend, and your teacher.” He tried his best not to sound disappointed but did not succeed.

Avery smiled a sad smile, grabbing Sebastian’s shoulder softly. “How many times had I heard you lament your loveless fate? You had no faith, not even in love! I could say I did not bring you because I needed people who knew love and could understand what I was trying to do, but the truth is I didn’t want to rub it in your face!”

Sebastian took a step closer and felt the man’s arms encircle him. Sebastian shook softly as he cried, Avery rubbing his back in soft circles. “So many wasted years!”

“Not wasted…. Preparation! How much more do you appreciate it now? You’ve got as long left as you want, if we can just get through all this shit,” he added with a laugh.

Sebastian squeezed him and stepped away, wiping his eyes and laughing softly. “Cheery thought, that! Thank you, Avery….” Avery nodded and walked off with a quick glance over his shoulder. Avery was one of a handful of men Sebastian had ever allowed himself to be vulnerable with, and they both knew it. Without Avery and James, he doubted he could see this through to its conclusion—he couldn’t be strong for the whole world. He just hoped he could still be strong enough.