Rise of the Archmages (1x1 Private)

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    October 5th, 2016
    The Ivory Tower
    London, England

    The ancient stones of the Ivory Tower had stood for over a thousand years, the castle-like structure having been expanded upon and modernized over the generations, but the central fortress itself was virtually unchanged from its battlements, to its walls, to its keep. A testimony to the birth and growth of magical research, the Tower was a vestige of times long past and a haven for those who would continue to plume the secrets of the ancients. In the highest tower of the castle was the office of the Archmage, the appointed leader of the Ivory Tower and the highest-ranked officer and teacher of the institution. For decades, this particular Archmage had mentored apprentices, delved into the mysteries of magic, and led the secret community of mages scattered across the modern world.

    He was a tall and strapping man despite being in his sixties, with broad shoulders, a proud bearing, and a neatly trimmed white beard to complement a crown of equally white hair around his temples. A bald pate and the wrinkles around his eyes were proof of his age, but his hard visage - all stony planes and angles - were also silent proof to the fearsome will that many students had come to both fear and respect. He was dressed in customary black. From turtleneck, to trousers, to shoes, he matched the chill fall night of London, though unlike the sky, his black was not interrupted by flecks of starlight.

    He swiveled out of his cushioned chair and stood by the window looking over the city of London with his hands clasped behind his back. Behind him, one of his older and more gifted apprentices stood by his desk with a report in hand in a manila folder.

    "Master," the apprentice said stiffly, "what shall we do about the Elmore girl?"

    That had been the bulk of the report. Natalia Elmore. A teenager, a prodigy. Little was known about her, distressingly little. Even the finest spies and familiars under the Tower's command found little to go on other than that she had been interred in a mental institution for a number of years and rapidly grew in magical prowess at an unprecedented rate. The Archmage had his suspicions, but kept them to himself; he was a man with enough age, experience, and hard-won wisdom to hold his own counsel and all of the Tower knew it.

    Even as powerful as she was, the Elmore girl was a quantity that the Archmage could plan around. It was her companions that complicated matters. That had been the other component of the report - the activities of a known mercenary, one feared by every mage in the community, a man of secrets long thought to be myth and legend until the Battle of Boston had verified his existence.

    The Skullman.

    Before Boston, only a few in the Tower knew that Sam Ebayan was real. Those few were in positions of power and authority as well as wealth and influence - all components required to hire the finest assassin and deadliest killer in the world. The Archmage had met the man years ago in order to assassinate a particularly dangerous renegade whose research threatened the Tower's cloud of secrecy. Later, the Archmage had to feel the sting of the Skullman when a rival mage had hired him to kill a Tower colleague. The Archmage's feelings on the man did not show on his face, but within, the older mage held the Skullman in equal parts respect and trepidation. Sam Ebayan represented everything that magic was not and he had the ability to fling that truth in their faces. He was a powerful tool, but could potentially be a powerful problem.

    The fact that Elmore had been reported in the Skullman's company was the one reason that the Archmage had not yet sent his hounds after the girl.

    The Archmage pondered the situation carefully before speaking.


    October 6th, 2016
    Paris, France

    Living in a flat right outside downtown Paris was an expensive affair, but being at the center of the hustle and bustle and the culture and excitement made it a worthwhile endeavor in the minds of a few.

    Sam Ebayan was not one of those.

    His girlfriends, however, were.

    While there were many - primarily physical - benefits to living and loving two beautiful women, there were downsides as well. A lack of hot water in the shower, having to constantly leave the toilet seat down, a fairly regular loss of button-down shirts that end up being repurposed as female sleepwear, and a marked propensity for using up funds for a choice number of luxury items. Two of which were living in a downtown flat and accompanying said lovers on a shopping trip.

    He adjusted the various shopping bags in his hands with a sigh and a slight wince. The items were hardly heavy, but his left hand and right shoulder were not fully loose yet since it was still before noon. He had noticed his joints felt a little better after about two in the afternoon and he suspected hefting around shopping bags and other accoutrements would counteract any relief he might get from the tincture of time. The arthrtitis was getting worse, it seemed, and on any given morning he was stoically ignoring four or five different aches when he got out of bed. He was certain that Raven and Jeanne had noticed - it was hard not to when they shared the same bed - but they had not inquired; they knew how stubborn and taciturn he could be on certain things. Complaining about war injuries was one of them.

    The two women had gone into a high-end lingerie store and he obediently followed. When they had been younger, going to such a place made him uncomfortable. After years of being together, Sam had turned into pretty much every other adult male in the store - simply following around until the shopping was done. He did not expect their foray to take very long, as it was nearing lunch and they had reservations at a favorite cafe of theirs to meet with with Natalia and Cherie. It had been a while since all of them had gotten together, especially after Sam, Raven, and Jeanne had moved back to Paris some months ago. Natalia and Cherie were presently sightseeing, wanting to soak up a little culture on their European getaway.

    Sam was amused by the situation, really. For the last few weeks, absolutely nothing was happening in the world, or so it seemed. No world-level threat, no rampaging extranormals, not even so much as a goblin skulking about in the shadows. He had not even gotten a request for a hunt in three weeks. A part of him itched to get back in the field, but a surprisingly larger part of him enjoyed the time off, as boring as it was. His joints certainly appreciated the impromptu vacation.

    "You think Natalia would like this?" Raven was conspiring with Jeanne, showcasing a tasteful set of lingerie. The blonde swordswoman fingered her chin thoughtfully before providing her own commentary quietly, but from what Sam could observe, he predicted that Natalia would be receiving a gift that Cherie may not entirely approve of.

    Over the years, Natalia Elmore had become something of a surrogate little sister to the two women, especially after her mental state had stabilized considerably. Raven and Jeanne had doted on the girl - young woman, now - and continued to treat her favorably. This would not be the first gift they had gotten her, or the first time the two women had bought gifts so they could turn Natalia into a dress-up doll. Though this was the first time that Sam was aware of that the article of clothing in particular would have been more appropriate on a sex doll rather than a dress-up doll. He shook his head in quiet amusement, anticipating a small shock to Cherie's system.

    "All right, you two," Sam called out. "We're going to be late for lunch." With that, purchases were made and the trio headed down the street to meet with old friends.

    They were not aware that others watched them from the shadows.
    #1 Razilin, Dec 30, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2014
  2. Open air cafés were a stereotypical French staple, and one Natalia and her Aunt Cherie couldn't resist. Cherie sat at her seat, smiling, taking in the sights, while Natalia sat beside her with her eyes closed. The sorceress did this often. With each passing day it seemed her power was growing, and with it her perception of the world around her. She inhaled and felt the oxygen leave the trees, heard through the sounds of traffic birds and the wind moving the clouds miles above. The heartbeats of everyone in the plaza were hers to hear, like her own private orchestra of life.

    That was Natalia on the inside. She could almost feel each step she made towards her ultimate goal of ascension. But that wasn't all she was. She had time for normal everyday things too. She had time for vacation with her aunt, had time for a boyfriend back in the states, and of course had time for a visit to see some old friends and surrogate family members.

    She smiled as a blind spot in her cosmic sense of everything around her appeared. Sam. Even when she couldn't sense him she could find him. And there was Jeanne and Raven.

    "They're here," she said just before they rounded the corner into view. Natalia immediately got up and rushed into an embrace with the women who were like big sisters to her. She waited until Sam set down the bags, then spread her arms for a hug from him as well.
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  3. Sam entered Natalia's open arms with a broad smile - a sight that would have been rare indeed just two years ago. The mercenary was only thirty-two, but nearly two decades fighting on countless battlefields had burned his skin brown and wrinkled it before its time, left his body maimed and scarred, and grayed his hair. Even the neatly-trimmed beard he sported these days had more salt than pepper. The smile gave him back the youth he had lost, even if only for a brief moment.

    The two friends ended their embrace and the mercenary took the opportunity to give the young woman a once-over. He had not seen her in a few months, with his return to Paris and Natalia's continuing education back in the States. She had never been a large woman, but her bearing was more confident, that of a woman rather than a girl, and her eyes were filled with life instead of confusion. She was a far cry from the mentally-shattered child he protected two years ago. There was a surge of pride in him that she had come so far.

    His touch would have shut down her powers once. But these days, Natalia Elmore's abilities had grown to the point that his Empiric Field simply dampened it slightly - a measurement of trivialities, given how powerful the young woman had become in the last few years. It was a testimony to her strength. Very, very few things were left in the world that outright resisted Sam Ebayan's Empiric Field of Reality.

    "You look good," he commented simply in greeting. "Come, let's get something to eat." He directed the women to the open air seating.

    Raven and Jeanne wasted no time in interrogating Natalia on her flight and the most recent gossip from the States. And then, of course, there was their gift.

    "Here," Raven said, passing the bag containing the lingerie to the young woman. "I think that guy you're dating's going to like this."

    "He'll probably like it more on the floor though," Jeanne added with a twinkle in her blue eyes. "Be careful, fleur. Raven and I know men. And your man's going to lose it when he sees you in this."

    Their lighthearted conversation stopped two hearts. One of the victims, Cherie, asked Sam sharply, "What did those two get my niece?"

    "You don't want to know," the mercenary replied dryly, sipping at a glass of cabernet. The comment that stopped his heart was the one about dating. Evidently, he had been kept out of the loop concerning certain aspects of Natalia's life. Paternal overprotectiveness surged in him. "It seems I'm a little behind the times in a few respects. Anyway, how have you been holding up, Cherie?"
    #3 Razilin, Dec 30, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2014
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  4. The prey was particularly dangerous this day and the shadow following them knew it. Excitement at the prospect of a challenging hunt was tempered by the foreknowledge that the prey were among the deadliest known to his kind. The hunter stayed in the safety of obscurity, blending seamlessly, unseen, and undetected, within the roiling mass of the downtown crowd. He followed the man and his two women as they joined another pair at an open air cafe, safe in the anonymity of the bustle.

    It was a gift born of a strange mix of skill, training, and magic. Hiding in plain sight, oneness with those flitting about around him. Complete invisibility while standing in front of the naked eye. A human's gaze simply melted off him like water on ice without even the briefest acknowledgement.

    This was the secret skill of the Order of Autolycus, also known as the Hounds.

    Theirs was a brotherhood of faceless men who were the eyes and ears of the Archmage of the Ivory Tower. They served whoever held that highest of mystical offices with the loyalty of trusted soldiers and the guile of the titular master thief from whom the order received its name. They were the Tower's spy network and assassins. Professional. Discreet. Invisible.

    But even the Hounds stepped lightly around two in particular. Natalia Elmore was one of the strongest magic-users on record, if not the strongest. And the less said about the Skullman, the better.

    This Hound's orders were simple. Follow and observe. Reconnaissance, no more and no less. To do either against these two would doubtlessly lead to disaster. And the Archmage had no tolerance for failure.

    So the Hound stayed hidden in full view, obscured by anonymity.

    And he watched.
    #4 Razilin, Dec 30, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2014
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  5. It always surprised her when Sam accepted an offer of a hug, though the opportunity had not come often. It was a nice surprise, though, and while it broke her heart to see how life had treated her friend, his smile was a welcome relief to his scarred features.

    Natalia talked with Raven and Jeanne like they had grown up together. Life had been good to her since Emily reincarnated and the Magister was trapped away. No doubt the greatest change in her life had been Cody.

    She couldn't help blushing as the mischievous girls told her about their gift. Aunt Cherie knew about Cody, but the details of their relationship was strictly between them.

    "Aunt Cherie, don't worry," she assured her with a small smile. "Cody and I aren't that serious."

    The moment her aunt turned away she gave Raven and Jeanne a wink. She avoided Sam's gaze.

    There was a reason she'd kept Cody a secret from him. Her boyfriend was, firstly, superhuman. He had a habit of eating metal and it had worked its way into his body, giving him unbreakable bones and superhuman strength. The other thing Sam might not approve of was that he had been in prison. Not knowing his own strength, he'd accidentally killed a mugger with a single punch. He was gentle, not wanting to hurt anyone like that again.

    Natalia paused. Her power of EISU had detected something. She looked in the crowds, but couldn't pinpoint it. Still, they were definitely there. It seemed her friends couldn't help bringing uninvited guests.

    Cherie, meanwhile, was talking to Sam with a smile.

    "I've been doing great, actually," she was saying. "My bakery's doing well at its new location, though I've heard from my friends in Boston that they really miss having my shop in the neighborhood. And Natalia's learned a new word. One of the ovens doesn't always light, so she bakes them with her bare hands."

    "Natalia, that's a new trick," Raven said appraisingly. "When did you learn that?"

    "About...four months ago. Didn't get any real control until last week," she replied. She let her guard down regarding the presence she felt. At least to her, he wasn't a threat, and he didn't seem to be about to attack either.
  6. Lunch passed by with swapped gossip, a few rounds of wine, and several plates of light fare. Sam was quiet for most of the meal, content with listening to Raven, Jeanne, Natalia, and Cherie catch up. The revelation of Natalia's growing control over her abilities and expanded knowledge of mystic words had him pensive the rest of the afternoon. He seemed distant, hanging to the back of the group while the women walked along the boulevards. Jeanne took an animated lead in pointing out the sights to Natalia and Cherie, while Raven insisted they all detour through the museum. Through it all, Sam pondered.

    Over the years, he had done a little research on the Magister and the sorcerers. What bits Natalia remembered from her past life corroborated his findings. An ancient gathering of sorcerers, capable of reincarnation. Their magic tied inextricably to words of power. The concept of Ascension. He kept his research to himself, even from Jeanne and Raven. He had traveled far and wide, consulting with philosophers, mages, and underground contacts, slowly piecing the puzzle together. He didn't even let Natalia know just how complete his research was concerning sorcerers like her.

    The closer the young woman got to full realization, the closer she became to transforming into something beyond extranormal. The concept at once terrified him and filled him with a sense of pride for his friend. She had only a few more words to go before she Ascended. However, even his thorough research had drawn little concerning what would happen after a sorcerer Ascended.

    Lost in thought, it was unsurprising that Cherie caught him unaware - a true rarity. They were in a park, sitting on a bench, side by side. Jeanne, Raven, and Natalia were admiring some sculptures erected in the center of a grassy field while Cherie and Sam sat in silent companionship. Finally, the older woman asked the mercenary, "What's on your mind, Sam?"

    "Am I that transparent?" he asked back.

    "Oh, you're terribly hard to read. But you get this look in your face whenever you're tackling a problem."

    The mercenary raised an eyebrow.

    Cherie smirked. "Matthew mentioned it to me a while back."


    The older woman persisted. "So. What's on your mind?"

    Sam nodded in Natalia's direction. "She's closer to Ascension every day, isn't she?" Though phrased as one, it wasn't really a question. "What happens to her after she learns the eighth word?"

    "She Ascends," Cherie said simply.

    "And what happens to the rest of the world?" he inquired. "Power doesn't come without a price, Cherie. You and I know that. She knows that. She's done so much good these last two years. Thanks to her, we've done things...I never dreamed of."

    "Are you worried about the world or her, Sam?"

    He was silent for a time. Then, "They aren't mutually exclusive. And you haven't answered my question."

    It was Cherie's turn to be silent. Finally, she murmured, "She Ascends. Simple as that. What comes, comes. You have a right to be concerned. When she does fully realize her potential, she will no longer be human. She won't even be extranormal. She will become something else entirely."

    "...I don't know how to feel about that. I knew it was coming for a while now. I just didn't expect it to come this quickly."

    Cherie smiled at him kindly and rested a hand on his strong arm. "You care for her. I'm glad. For so long, it was only me. I may not say it often enough, but thank you for being there for her, Sam. You, and Jeanne, and Raven. Thank you."

    They shared a companionable quiet on the bench, watching the other three examine the unusual sculpture as if it were some alien ship that crashed in the middle of the field. Sam broke the silence. "I may not be able to be there for Natalia for much longer."

    That raised an eyebrow from the older woman. He went on, "Things have changed."

    "Your injuries?" Cherie inquired.

    He nodded reluctantly. "Its been coming for a while now. On my last hunt, a routine job, I nearly didn't make it. I didn't tell Jeanne or Raven. But I almost died to an amateur because my body failed me. I can barely use my left hand and my right limp is worse than ever. I won't even talk about my back or shoulder. The point is, I won't be able to stay in the game for much longer." Frustration and self-loathing seeped into his voice with each word. He hated saying it, hated admitting it. He was only thirty-two, a young man by any measure, but years of abuse and battle and war had left him with a body seen on eighty-year-olds.

    Had he been any other person in the world, healing magic would have mitigated or outright reversed the countless injuries he had accumulated. But not even Natalia Elmore's magic could undo seventeen years of punishment. He knew. He tried.

    Cherie rested a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. "There are other ways, Sam."

    "Are there?" he asked wryly. "I'm a fighter, Cherie. I always have been. I don't know how to be anything else. I always thought I'd fight until I couldn't fight anymore. I didn't think it would be this soon."
    #6 Razilin, Dec 30, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2014
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  7. The conversation between the girls quickly changed from the everyday events and fun places to see into something more serious. Natalia's powers may not work on Sam, but she didn't need them to see her friend wasn't in full health. She'd spotted his limp, and while they ate lunch she had discreetly watched him flex his left hand as if he were trying to either regain feeling or repel pain.

    "How is he?" she asked, turning her head as if to get a different angle on the statue, but in fact catching a glimpse of Sam talking with her aunt.

    "He doesn't let us see how bad it really is," Raven said. "But he's hurting. All those injuries have taken their toll."

    "I wish I could heal him," Natalia sighed.

    "You know how it works with him," Jeanne whispered. "Even Matthew's blood, which can bring people back from the brink of death, does nothing for Sam."

    "Matt's just a demigod," the young sorceress replied. "I should be able to do something."

    "What are you saying?" Jeanne asked, suddenly looking at Natalia very strangely. The girl frowned. She hadn't meant to insult Matt, especially not in front of the person who had known him the longest.

    "I'm sorry," she said. "That's not what I meant."

    "Back to Sam," Raven said, wisely changing the subject. "He refuses to tell us how bad it really is. Still, we notice him struggling sometimes. We've known him for half his life, so there's not a lot he can hide from us. Hopefully a bit of relaxation will help."

    "We've been without a mission for a while," Jeanne explained when she saw Natalia's confusion.

    "But that's good. You and him - especially him - need a break." Natalia fidgeted suddenly and looked down. "I've actually been meeting more people. I know two other extras personally and I've been getting visits from Fae folk ever since we sealed the Magister's gate. It seems they're grateful for me keeping them safe, though I hadn't really been thinking about it."

    She paused as once again she felt something. She did a double take and scanned the area, but...she couldn't pinpoint it. Why should she care, anyway? It was probably nothing.

    "Are you alright?" the alchemist asked.

    "Yeah...it's nothing. EISU's never been very reliable."

    Surprisingly, that seemed enough and Raven let it go. "Okay. So I guess now we can move our conversation to that mystery boy of yours. Come on. You must have a pic."

    Natalia blushed and handed over her phone. The opening image was of her and a muscular boy the same age. His hair was silver and his eyes were the color of polished copper.

    "He is cute," Raven commented. "Is he an extranormal?"

    She nodded.
    #7 Quiet One, Dec 31, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2014
  8. Jeanne smiled reassuringly at the blushing young woman and bumped Raven's knee with her own from where she, Raven, and Natalia sat on a block of sculpture in the center of the park. Her dark-haired lover had a propensity for needling others. Usually, it was Sam getting the sharp edge of her tongue - generally because of one of the overly stupid things he does in the various bouts of noble self-sacrifice or machismo he found himself in - but others were not safe from her gentler, but no less direct, prods. Raven was the kind of woman who found getting under others' skins amusing. And juicy gossip like this was low-hanging fruit for the taking.

    Thus, like a knight in shining armor, Jeanne came to Natalia's rescue in order to save her from the jowls of a mischievous Englishwoman. "Tell us more about him, fleur."

    Natalia glanced down into her lap, face reddening, but she managed to get out, "Well...his name's Cody. He can eat metal and it gives him super strength." The other two women nodded, taking this as merely a matter of course. Their experience with magic and the extranormal in general meant they had seen quite the variety of abilities over the years. This one was a tad unusual, but nothing earth-shattering. Natalia continued, her words growing more dreamy as she went on, "And he's protective, understanding. A little impulsive, but sweet and loyal. We have, um, similar backgrounds in a way. We come from a similar place in life. He...he understands me. And I, him."

    It took her a moment to realize that Jeanne and Raven hadn't said anything after her little speech. Instead, the older women were looking at her with twinkles of delight and mischief in their eyes. The kind of twinkles that made most people cringe in fear.

    "That is the most adorable thing I've heard all week," Raven squealed, sounding very much like a teenager in that moment. "Ah, young love. Remember those days, Jeanne?"

    The blonde swordswoman flashed a grin and sarcastically added, "As I recall, it involved you and Sam getting flattened on your asses on a regular basis by Karin and Matthew."

    "As I recall, it involved a lot of you and Sam dancing around each other and me," the alchemist countered back, leaning her chin into her open palm, looking for all the world like a cat playing with a mouse. Jeanne froze and looked a little off guard as Raven continued to unveil their sordid early love life to Natalia. "If I hadn't grabbed the two of you, pulled you two into a room with me, and started making out with you, you two would have just kept on doing your silly little 'love from afar' thing."

    Suddenly, she pointed at Natalia, startling the young woman. "Natalia! That's the key to a successful relationship! Remember this lesson from your big sister Raven! You got to be aggressive and let him know what you want out of it."

    Jeanne sighed and buried her face in a hand. "Raven, I don't think -"

    "Because otherwise he's going to end up like Jeanne or Sam and never make a move on his own!"

    Jeanne's eyebrow twitched. She said, all too calmly, "Don't listen to 'big sister Raven,' fleur. If you do, you may end up just like her." More seriously, she went on, "Just let it take its course. You're a smart girl and it sounds like he's a good young man for you. We're both happy for you."


    The group left the park as the sun began to set. By the time they reached the flat, it was already night. Sam pulled out a pair of spare futons he kept for the occasional visitor. In the past, he never needed them. It was not as if he kept much of a social circle outside of his lovers and professional contacts. However, in the last few years, he had taken to making some attempt at making sure his guests had more than a couch to crash on. Now that he actually had friends enough to have guests.

    Dinner had been a special affair to commemorate the Elmores first visit to their Parisian home. Sam had taken it upon himself to cook while the women chatted. He still felt a little out of place in big social events and, for him, a gathering this size was big. After the meal, he had prepared rounds of tea. He stood now on the balcony overlooking the city. The lights of cars flitted below like so many fireflies in the crisp fall air.

    He felt Natalia's presence behind him. There was no magic to it. It was simply heightened awareness of his surroundings from years of practice.

    "Its a lovely night," he murmured to her. "Hard to believe its been two years to the day since we met at the Battle of Boston. I'm glad you were able to come here, Natalia. We've always loved it here, Paris. I grew up in the States, but I never really called it home after my parents died. Here, though. Here was home."
    #8 Razilin, Dec 31, 2014
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2015
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  9. It took all of Natalia's considerable power not to fall onto the grass laughing at the banter between the two girls. When they had begun drilling her on Cody she had been on the verge of dying of embarrassment, but when it had magically turned on themselves the candid alchemist and honor-bound knight were an act that rivaled any comedy.

    When they arrived at their place, again Natalia felt something on the edge of her vision. And, once again, she waved it aside as unimportant.

    Sam was quiet that night. Usual for him, she learned, but she had very little experience interacting with other people, and would have liked all three of her hosts to be sociable. But she supposed she couldn't blame him. And it didn't surprise her that he distanced himself soon on the balcony. He was the only one she hadn't talked to personally, and she resolved to remedy that.

    "Very nice," she agreed. She spared a glance out at Paris. A sense of déjà vu came over her. "I think I've been here before, during one of my past lives. It's strange...I know I've been around for nearly four thousand years, but this feels more real than any other life I've lived.

    "Two years...wow...a lot has changed,"
    she mused.

    And indeed it had. She wasn't crazy, her long time enemy was an infant friend once more, Sam had both his women back, and dare she say it looked like he was finally settling down.

    "I'm still looking for my home, I think," she added after ruminating on the thought again. "I think that's what Ascension is for. I don't want to think about that tonight, though. I just want to spend time with those who helped put me back together."
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  10. "Well, until then, you will always be welcome here," Sam offered sincerely. He scratched at his salt-and-peppered beard with the fingers of his good hand. Then he faced her squarely. "You've come a long way, Natalia. When we first met, you were this wide-eyed, half-crazy little girl with barely any knowledge of what you were really capable of. Now look at you." He ruffled her hair. "Cherie's proud of the woman you've become. Jeanne and Raven are proud of you. I'm proud of you."

    He drifted off then, not knowing what else to say or add. It seemed he didn't need to, though. Natalia surprised him by throwing a tight hug around his chest and he awkwardly patted her back. Finally, they parted and he said, "The others are getting ready for bed. You get some rest. Jet-lag can be a hassle. We'll take you around town tomorrow."

    With that, he led her back inside and a few minutes later, he was undressing in the master bedroom he shared with Raven and Jeanne. His two lovers had already discarded their day clothes and were clad in his dress shirts. He gave Raven a raised eyebrow. "Isn't that the shirt I bought last week?"

    "Yes," she answered nonchalantly.

    "I reiterate: last week."

    "And I reiterate: yes."

    He sighed, giving up and curling under the covers. He drifted off to sleep against the shared warmth of two other bodies, not noticing the heated gaze of another outside the window.

    The Hound scurried away from the bedroom window and up the side of the building toward its rooftop. All lean limbs and plain clothes, he carried neither rope nor tools. His hands and feet seemed to cling to the brick surface of their own accord. He made no noise as he reached the rooftop, his movements as quiet as a spider crawling on a wall. A cellphone came to his ear as he called the man who held his leash.

    "Master, the Third Brother is reporting."

    A clipped, older voice answered, "Report, dog."

    "The Third Brother has learned that the Elmore child has gained control over another word of power. She can control fire and heat. The Third Brother believes she may have been able to sense this one, but this one remains undiscovered. Her powers cannot piece the Brotherhood's mask. Finally, this one has learned that the Skullman is weaker than before. His left hand and right leg are his greatest vulnerabilities. He may at least be a man we can slay."

    There was silence for a long moment on the other side. Finally, the gruff voice commanded, "Attack, Hound."

    "As Master commands, the Brotherhood obeys."
    #10 Razilin, Jan 1, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2015
  11. Sam, it always seemed to her, was the hardest to please. So when he said he was proud of her Natalia couldn't help but to dive headlong into a hug.

    That night Natalia and her aunt slept soundly, and slept late. Jet-lag wasn't something she was used to. She visited baby Emily twice a year, but she had traveled by means of teleporting, and sleep deprivation didn't often accompany that. Plus, she only ever stayed a few minutes, so the time zones couldn't throw her off either.

    So she woke groggy to the smell of breakfast the next morning. Again too, she got the sense of being watched. She shook her head of it and walked into the kitchen, where Sam and Jeanne and Aunt Cherie had combined forces in the name of breakfast. Bacon and eggs, and about twenty minutes later fresh-baked muffins joined them.

    After they ate, more sightseeing was on the agenda, and they would have had to have been crazy not to pass up The Louvre while they were in Paris. And Natalia wasn't crazy anymore.

    With so many things to see, she was unconcerned about the one thing she couldn't see, even as it walked behind the five of them, a knife casually concealed in his jacket.

    Imminent danger finally forced her power of EISU to tell her something was wrong and she spun around. She looked right at and then right over the Hound, even taking a step towards him as she tried to pinpoint what had set off an alarm in her brain.

    Sam had noticed she was distracted from the art and turned, soon staring right at the man, and seeing him. They were close enough for his Empiric Field to penetrate the veil. He noticed the stranger's posture and concealed hands.
    • Love Love x 1
  12. OCTOBER 7, 2016

    Everything happened in a blur over the next few seconds.

    One moment, Jeanne was regaling Natalia and Cherie with factoids about the Louvre and recounting a hunt she, Raven, and Sam had a few years ago in the vicinity. The next she knew, Sam was attacking someone behind them. It was odd, really, but she had difficulty trying to see just whom it was he was punching at. She guessed it was a man close to Sam's height, perhaps a little thinner, lean but not skinny, wearing very plain clothes. When she tried to describe him in her head, she found she could only say he looked like a very normal man.

    What she did notice, though, was the knife in his hand. By his positioning, it seemed he had been about to attack Natalia.

    Jeanne stepped in front of the young woman instinctively, even though she knew Natalia had more than enough magic to render physical protection unnecessary. "Get back!" she called out in warning, catching Raven and Cherie's attention as well.

    "The hell?" Raven got out, a look of confusion on her face. It seemed she had trouble figuring out just whom Sam was fighting as well.

    The mercenary's forearm deflected a thrust from the plain man's knife, opening up a spot for a wicked counter combo. Left hook, right hook into the ribs, left knee into the same - the plain man spiraled back, crashing into a trash can before rolling over his shoulder. He regained his feet and threw the knife at Sam, who caught it from the air with his good hand.

    "Stop him!" he barked out.

    All around, bystanders watched the scuffle in surprise and many fled in terror as the knife was thrown. The plain man darted into the crowd, vanishing into the bustle. Sam went off after him, likewise growing lost in the throng.

    Jeanne looked to Raven, "Help him, I'll stay with them," and nodded at Cherie and Natalia. As Raven took off, she stayed close to her charges. "Do you know of anyone after you, Natalia?"

    Before the young woman could answer, the swordswoman's clairvoyance fired warnings in her head. Instinct took over and she called forth the dark blood magic she had mastered long ago, after the Magister's influence was finally stripped away. A gleaming sword appeared in her hand, slashing down and catching air.

    But mere centimeters from its path was the plain man again, having dodged by a hair and seemingly appearing out of the crowd like a ghost. He struck out with a fist, forcing Jeanne back. The man was lightning quick and his attacks deadly precise. Jeann's head bobbed around as she stayed just far enough away to avoid a hit. When she tried to return the favor, she found herself missing almost every stroke by fractions of a centimeter.

    What's going on here? she wondered. The plain man was good, but he wasn't that good. She should have been able to take him apart at leisure, but somehow he was staying out of her reach, as if she had trouble really seeing that he was there.

    Finally, the man managed to get a shot in, his foot connecting with Jeanne's temple and making her vision blur. Once it cleared a few moments later, the man was charging down Natalia....
    #12 Razilin, Jan 1, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2015
  13. As the two fought, Natalia tried to follow their movements, but Sam was still so fast and his opponent...she couldn't explain it. Half the time it was like he wasn't even there.

    Things were quickly getting out of hand and Natalia struggled to clear her mind and focus on their attacker.

    "EISU homas..." She could feel every panicked soul in the museum. Every one but two. One was just a void, a blind spot. Sam. The other was...fuzzy, but strong. And she felt it approach her.

    An old soul met with him - Jeanne - and Natalia broke her focus and watched them fight. What she saw didn't make sense. Jeanne kept missing. When he had knocked her out of the way, Natalia didn't care how he was doing it anymore. She'd had enough.

    Making objects combust was easy for her now. Natalia scowled, thrust her hand forward, and the man was blown backwards as his clothes spontaneously exploded. He fell to the floor in rags.

    "Not so anonymous anymore," she grimaced as she walked towards him. Her clothes had already changed to her alter ego Asylum. He sat up, fumbling for the knife. She let him retrieve it. He would be holding on to that toy for longer than he thought.

    He got it back and came at her in a stabbing motion.

    "HRAF siri!" She bellowed. A white ripple traveled through him and he was left frozen in place. Tiny bits of frost crisscrossed his clothes and skin. His mouth was open in mid breath and ice could be seen in his mouth.

    The screams and grunts of battle died down, and Sam and Jeanne came up and examined the body. Raven joined them.

    "Is he...dead?" Raven asked.

    "He seems to be frozen," Jeanne commented. "Like that Futurama show you introduced me to."

    "Flash frozen," Natalia said. "So ice crystals wouldn't form in the body. I have no idea who would be after me, or even if I'm the one he's after," she added, expressing the point that they were just as likely targets, "so I figured we shouldn't kill him and try to learn from him instead. And we'd better get him out of here quick. I see some fresh water on the floor."
    • Love Love x 1
  14. Sam scanned around him, noting that a crowd was starting to form. He caught a few bystanders already clicking away at their cellphones. Asylum was a fairly high-profile extranormal and right now, in full regalia, she definitely drew in a crowd - even more so than Jeanne waving her sword around.

    "We need to go to ground," he said. "Natalia, teleport everyone - including our new guest here - back to the flat. I'll meet up with you." Her powers wouldn't work on him, meaning he would have to foot it the old fashioned way. Disappearing into a crowd wasn't exactly hard for him and he could use the extra time to do some damage control. The last thing he needed was a repeat of the media fallout from the Battle of Boston.

    He left the women with their frozen prisoner and slipped into the bustle, discarding his jacket as he did so and mussing his hair - anything to change the details of his appearance just enough to distance himself from the fight and the plethora of videos and cellphone pictures that had no doubt been taken. The trick about hiding in plain sight was a matter of body language and giving the illusion that one belonged in a given place. A discarded coat, some rumpled hair, a stolen baseball cap, and an added slouch to his normal gait made him just different enough so as to deflect attention.

    As he walked, his fingers tapped away at his cellphone. Asylum fansites across the Internet were full of replies and hits concerning the fight - mere minutes after it had ended. As a small grace, the most common photographs and videos failed to catch any solid facial details on any of the combatants. Asylum, though, in her full costume, had gotten the bulk of the attention. Most people were wondering if it was even real or simply a hoax. Others were eagerly scoring Asylum's attractiveness on a one to ten scale. A rare few were wondering who her assailant was.

    He got to work, trying to debunk the more dangerous questions with his own replies designed to redirect the conversation into a flame war. The more asinine comments a site had, the less likely it was to be taken seriously. Social media was useful in that regard. The legitimate news sites, however, took a lot more work. He kept a running list of prodigious journalists who would be keeping tabs on extranormal news. These he anonymously emailed tips and theories to redirect them. Each one got a different story. Sowing even a little confusion could buy a little time for Asylum to go to ground again.

    He had been working for almost an hour. During that time, he took a train back to his flat. By the time he rejoined the others, he had managed to deflect the more annoying fallout while delaying the rest. At least he could be certain that the name Natalia Elmore wouldn't be solidly connected to Asylum at the moment.

    "Where's our would-be assassin?" he asked, entering. Raven met him at the door and brought him to the living room, where the coffee table had been moved so the ice-clad statue of a man could be comfortably positioned.

    "We were waiting for you to arrive before thawing him out," Jeanne explained. Natalia and Cherie sat on the couch next to her. "We'll get to the bottom of this."

    "He's a Brother of the Order of Autolycus," Sam cut in suddenly, catching everyone's attention. At their unspoken question, he continued, "They're spies and assassins. They can blend in anywhere. They say you can stand in front of one and never know they are there. Its probably why none of us saw him. Obviously, part of that skill must be magical in nature; I was able to see right through it."

    "The Hounds are nothing but a myth," Raven murmured in disbelief.

    "It sounds like you know something about them, too," Jeanne noticed.

    The alchemist shrugged. "They're kind of like the boogeymen among mages. An older vintage than the Skullman. They are the reason we have stories about hobgoblins, Anansi the Spider-God, creatures who live under the bed or in the closet. These guys can break into any prison, hide anywhere, and can walk right up to you without anyone seeing them. They're named after the Greek thief, Autolycus. Most people just call them Hounds because it seems like they could hunt anyone." She gave the frozen man a frown. "I guess some myths are true."

    "The question is," Sam went on, "why is a Hound here and after us?"
    • Love Love x 1
  15. Natalia wasn't nearly as panicked at the thought of being discovered as Sam was. In fact, in all honesty, she really didn't care. She had never made any effort to conceal her face and felt no need to hide. Death wasn't permanent for her and she was now so powerful the number of people who could hurt her didn't even make double digits.

    But...there were some hassles that would come with being exposed. She knew about the fan sites, and the kids at her school combed through videos of her displaying her power often, while never knowing she was right there. She remembered the attention she got as a new student, back before her mind was fully resettled. They treated her like a freak. She didn't want that again.

    So she, Raven, Jeanne, Aunt Cherie, and their mystery attacker all vanished in the blink of an eye, reappearing in the flat.

    She kept glancing at their captive while she sat on the couch, thumbing through her pocket spell book. She'd frozen his every cell, so his brain wasn't willing the magic cloaking of his body. There were no outstanding features to him at all. He was just so...ordinary. Forgettable.

    When Sam came back and explained who this guy was Natalia stood and faced the frozen man. A boogeyman.

    "There's only one way to find out why he's here," she said.

    What followed was a string of magic words as Natalia used VAWM to levitate the body, HRAF to thaw it out, and INNI to turn one of the walls into a temporary liquid and trapping him in it. His forearms, shins, and head were visible from their side of the wall.

    She nodded to Sam.
    "He's all yours. I don't think I'll be able to break into his mind - unless you want me to crush his subconscious - so you'd better interrogate him the old-fashioned way."
    • Love Love x 1
  16. The mercenary nodded and approached the trapped Hound. The mystery man's pale face was contorted in fear at his predicament.

    Good, Sam thought. That will make this easier.

    "You attacked us, Hound. Why?" Surprise glinted off the man's face. Sam smirked in such a way that made him look like a predator about to pounce. "Oh, yes, I know what you are. I've never met one of you, but after seeing what was happening when you fought Jeanne, I pieced it together. Throughout all the stories and legends about your kind, none of them ever mention anything like being invulnerable."

    As if by magic, but truly more sleight of hand, a knife appeared in Sam's right hand. He brought the tip up to the Hound's chin.

    "Being invisible doesn't do you a whole lot of good stuck in a wall. Have I made my point?"

    Reluctantly, beads of sweat running down the sides of his face, the Hound nodded.

    "Now then - who sent you and why?"

    When the Hound spoke, his voice was soft and even like a meek mouse, as forgettable as the rest of him. "I was sent to kill Natalia Elmore at the instructions of the Ivory Tower."

    "What!?" Raven barked out.

    Cherie asked, "What's the Tower?"

    "A magic organization," the alchemist explained. "The biggest one there is. The main university operates out of London, disguised as a private school for gifted students. In reality, its been the hub of mystical research for the last thousand years. There are other schools hidden throughout the world, but all of them are affiliated with the Ivory Tower."

    Jeanne clasped Natalia's wrist, giving her a serious look. "The Tower doesn't take well to other magic traditions. Your sorcerer background is as alien as they come. If the Tower is after you, its probably to end the line of sorcery for good...or...."

    "...Or to study your corpse," Sam provided darkly. He turned to the Hound. "How many more of you did the Tower send? And which mage was it?"

    The Hound was silent. Sam pushed the knife tip against the man's chin hard enough to draw blood. His captive stubbornly remained quiet.

    Suddenly, there was a cracking sound. Sam jumped back with the knife before him defensively before realizing the sound came from inside the Hound's mouth. "Shit!" he swore. "Natalia! Release him!" The man's body fell out of the wall as the plaster turned to liquid and solidified again. The mercenary knelt at the man's side, but it was too late. Froth formed at the man's lip and the shredded remains of a pill capsule spilled out of his mouth. The man jerked and seized before finally going still.

    "A suicide capsule," Sam murmured, tucking his knife away and searching the body. All he found was the man's own knife - a plain affair - and a cellphone without any contacts. There was a manually-typed phone number in the recent calls list, however. A place to start their investigation.

    "The Ivory Tower is mainly a research organization," he said, committing the number to memory. "Assassination isn't their main game and most mages working there legitimately are there to study and learn. Raven herself is a part of the Tower - that's where she learned most of her alchemy. That being said, there are members who don't exactly subscribe to 'scientific morality.' Whoever this Hound was talking to is most likely his employer."

    He walked over to Natalia. "Looks like you're getting pretty popular, kiddo."
  17. Natalia stared down at the body, a dozen thoughts turning over in her head. She was being hunted again.

    "After four thousand years of running, I thought I was done," she said.

    She watched Sam take the cellphone and then destroyed the body. They couldn't have anyone finding it and tracing it back to them. She turned it to fine sand. She then sat at the couch and picked up a handful, squeezing it in her hands.

    "HRAF...VAWM..." As she muttered to herself she stretched out the molten glass in her hands and made them into thick spikes

    "Weapons," she explained as her friends watched her work, unnerved that she was openly grabbing and morphing chunks of the Hound's body. "I ran the last time I was hunted. I ran from Emily because I didn't want to hurt her. I ran from the FIA because I didn't want to hurt them. Always I was unprepared because of this, and always innocent people died. That will not happen this time."

    "What would you do then?" Raven asked. She looked worried. Not everyone at the Tower was bad, she knew this from personal experience. But Natalia looked more serious than the alchemist had seen her in a long time.

    "Why not infiltrate?" she asked. "You were taught there, so you must know how to get accepted. And they would have to welcome you if you came to them or else admit to being responsible for today. I can pose as a relative of yours. A cousin maybe. I can pretend to be a mage even."

    "I don't know, Natalia," Raven replied. "It would be dangerous."

    "We'll see what we can learn from the phone first," Jeanne added.
    • Love Love x 1
  18. She's quick to come up with a plan like that, Sam praised silently. Natalia must be hanging around us way too much. He couldn't help but smirk at the steel he heard in her voice as she vowed to take a stand and fight for herself instead of being docile prey. His pride in her had not been misplaced.

    Even as the women talked, he took the phone over to a laptop set up by the dinner table. In a few minutes, he had a name and address attached to the number, but checking those had turned up some abnormalities. For one, the address was an abandoned flat due for demolition in a few days. For another, the owner of the phone, Elias Arborman, died of a heart attack last week. His obituary was still readily accessible and mentioned that the man had been a maintenance worker for the trains.

    A professional job, Sam thought, knowing this from personal experience. These were the same techniques he used to stay off the grid. Dummy addresses, using previously owned electronics and contact information, all of it were ways to quickly and cheaply disappear. However, there were still tracks one could follow, if one looked hard enough.

    The mercenary opened a separate web browser and used it to pull up a map of the area, focusing on Arborman's home address, place of death, and grave site, as well as the location of the abandoned flat. He was looking for a commonality, preferably a building of some kind, where any of those locations intersected with his own home.

    There. The hospital where Arborman died is only a few miles away from here. Whoever sent the Hound must be around there - he could easily obtain the cellphone from a corpse if it were nearby. Let's see.... A few more keystrokes brought up some residential zones near the hospital, but nothing stood out. He would need more clues.

    "What did you find?" Jeanne inquired, leaning on his shoulder to look at the computer.

    "I think the Hound's owner is near the hospital. At the very least, he probably stole the phone from a patient who died there recently." He waved the cellphone for everyone to see. "Its a dummy phone."

    "So a dead end?" Raven asked.

    He shook his head. "I'm going to check out the hospital, see if there are any leads. In the meantime, I think Natalia's idea is a good one. If we pursue both avenues, we'll cover more ground. Raven can get you in without a problem, Natalia. And the professors there know Jeanne as well. They'll have your back."
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  19. OCTOBER 7TH, 2016

    Another of the Hounds came into the Archmage's office. Like the Third Brother, this one was plain and unmemorable. To the casual observer, he was interchangeable with his counterpart. The man stepped up to the Archmage's desk and bowed his head deferentially. "Master, the Third Brother is dead. He was captured, interrogated, and committed suicide."

    The Archmage turned in his cushioned seat, his fingers steepled against his lower lip. Finally, he spoke, "And did he divulge anything?"

    "He did, Master."

    "And the result?"

    The Hound smiled thinly. The Archmage almost missed it. "We believe that the Elmore girl knows the Tower is after her."

    "Thank you, dog. You may return to your kennel." When the plain man was gone, the Archmage sighed in delight. It had been a gambit, instructing the Third Brother with this particular backup plan in case he failed to take the girl. If captured, give only enough information to pique her interest. If conventional methods proved unable to secure the girl, then a riskier gambit was required.

    The old mage was banking that Elmore would take the fight to the Tower eventually. At least here, in this place, he had the home court advantage. Even fully realized, Elmore would not have guaranteed victory in a direct confrontation against the full might of the Ivory Tower. That would force her to take subtler methods, methods that he could deal with.

    "A clever ruse, limiting her options like that," a voice commented from the shadows. A dark-haired man in a conservative business suit stepped into the light. He was shorter than the average man, but bulkier in build, and moved with the easy grace of a trained fighter. The quality that made him stand out, though, was the fact that he was Asian. While all cultures had their magical traditions, and many of them represented in the Ivory Tower, the islands of Southeast Asia had comparatively fewer. In fact, outside of this man, the Archmage couldn't think of the last time the Tower hosted a Filipino mage.

    "That has always been the problem, hasn't it?" the Archmage dryly replied. "She is too powerful to face directly. I must plan carefully from here on out, continue to manipulate her options and reduce them to the ones I know I can manage. I must plan very carefully indeed. Especially since Sam Ebayan is her ally."

    "I certainly hope you don't mean to kill him," the dark-haired man said.

    "Would it trouble you so much if I did, Norman?" the old mage countered, raising an eyebrow.

    The other man frowned, went silent, and then finally answered, "Not in the slightest. I take back what I said. I would prefer him alive, but I only strictly need his corpse. He has something I want back, after all. I can take it from him alive...or dead."
  20. October 14, 2016

    It had taken two years for Natalia to get used to Mecca City, and for the city to get used to her. But Cody - she and him had gotten to know each other in minutes, and got along famously. She lay on the roof of her and her aunt's apartment in his arms. They had placed a thick blanket over a lawn chair, and she rested on his cool, firm chest.

    "I don't know about you going over there, Natty," he said.

    He meant London. She told him everything, and he the same. It's why she knew he and his friend moonlighted as superheroes. Plus, he saw the Paris footage before she returned from her vacation.

    "It's only mages," she replied. She brushed her dark hair aside. She'd turned it black for her infiltration. The sudden appearance of a blonde student at a magic school would draw attention after what happened last week.

    "Mages aren't weak, Natalia," Cody reminded her. "Remember your merc friends."

    "I don't care. I'm on a whole other level. You know that. If I have to...I'll tear that whole school down."

    Cody sat up, looking at her with a look he'd shown her before. She sometimes troubled him with those kinds of statements.

    "You wouldn't really do that?...Would you?" he asked.

    She sighed and shook her head. Sometimes she wondered if it would really matter if she did do something like that.

    "No...I don't know what I'll do."

    "And how's your aunt feeling about this?"

    "She's anxious about the whole thing, but she's not trying to stop me," she said. Not that she could. Really, Natalia could pretty much do whatever she wanted. "Tomorrow Raven will pick me up, and I'll be Sarah Tallwood. Then we'll settle this and I'll be back in your arms before you know it."

    He kissed her forehead and slowly the couple settled back into would could become their last night together.
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