“The enemy of my enemy… is not necessarily my friend.”
‘You… have got… to be kidding… me…’
At the top of a hill in Lisserton in front of a bench in the middle of the afternoon New Zealand sun, Russell was panting and out of breath and already was bent over, hands on knees, trying to recompose himself. Beside him, Katrina, Atticus and Castiel were already waiting for him.
Normally, Russell had no problem with running. However, today was different, as he, Katrina, Atticus and Castiel were wearing bulky black weight vests of varying heaviness.
‘Yep, he definitely needs more work,’ Katrina said, raising both eyebrows at the apprentice paladin. She didn’t even look puffed. ‘I have to say, this is quite an overdramatic reaction given the fact that new weight vest he’s wearing is just forty pounds, Dad. Hell, I’m wearing ninety, Att’s on fifty and you’re wearing a hundred and we’re not too puffed.’
‘It ain’t easy… is it, dude?’ Atticus asked, giving Russell a supportive pat on the back. The mage almost had his breath back. ‘Don’t worry… You’ll get used to it soon enough. I only got started with this whole weight vest training thing… about… five months ago.’ He looked at Castiel. ‘Good thing you didn’t start him off on fifty… or else he’d be dead, Cas.’
‘You never start someone new off with too much weight, Atticus,’ Castiel replied, having just caught his breath back. ‘It’s dangerous. And Kat, give the boy a break. I started training you almost as soon as you could walk.’
Katrina snorted. ‘Just saying, Dad. I thought he was fitter than this. Hell, after last night, I’d expected… well… a bit more.’
‘Kat, it’s quarter of a mile in fifteen minutes on a reasonably steep incline and he hasn’t run with a forty pound weight vest on before. Give him a break, willya?’ Atticus said. ‘He isn’t a werewolf like the both of you are.’
‘He isn’t, but he’s a paladin, Att. Blessing of Might ring a bell?’
‘Blessing… of… Might?’ Russell managed.
‘One of the few passive bonuses of going through the Rite of the Holy Spirit, boy,’ Castiel explained. ‘Gives you extra strength, stamina and makes you tougher right off the bat, and increases as you get more and more experienced. That’s why I started you off on forty rather than, say, twenty. Heck, without it, you’d be worse off right now.’
At that, Atticus found himself attempting to stifle a laugh. ‘That sounded so wrong, Cas-’ Suddenly, the mage jumped, his hand reflexively going to his side. ‘Hey! What the hell was that for, Kat?’
‘Your gutter mind, that’s what,’ Katrina growled, narrowing her eyes at the mage as she retracted her elbow from his side.
‘Oh, dear,’ Castiel said, not looking at the two. ‘I think we’ve broke him.’
Atticus and Katrina switched their gaze towards Russell. The apprentice paladin had plonked himself down onto the bench, still trying to recover.
‘My God. It’s that bad?’ the werewolf asked. ‘And to think, when I saw you doing what you did last mission, I thought you were fit…’
‘That’s… because… I didn’t do… that much running…’ Russell panted. He swallowed. ‘Can we… take a break?’
Katrina rolled her eyes. Atticus shrugged. Castiel, after a moment of thought, nodded. ‘Sure. We want to train you, not break you, boy,’ the senior paladin said.
The apprentice paladin looked up. ‘Can… can you remind me how… running with a weighted vest… is supposed to help, Cas?’
Castiel shrugged. ‘Easy way to put it; if you can run quarter a mile up a hill in fifteen minutes with that weight on without getting puffed, just imagine what it’d be like without it on.’ There was a shrug. ‘It’ll take your body a little while to get used to the rigour of the training, but once it does, that’s when we’ll get you started on actual freerunning, and after that, freerunning with the vest on.’
‘Now that’s the fun part, Russ,’ Katrina said excitedly.
‘Call it parkour… but hardcore,’ Atticus added, with a smile.
Russell swallowed. ‘So… wait a sec… you said there was… a delivery tomorrow?’
‘Yep,’ Atticus said. ‘That and a mission. Mikkie’s tracked down a warlock coven that needs eliminating.’
‘And before you ask what warlocks are, Russ, they’re mages that use demonic powers and work for Lucifer,’ Katrina added. ‘They oftentimes know the best strategic positions in order to maximize the effect of their long-range demonic spells.’
‘Which is why it’s important that you’re doing this beforehand, boy,’ Castiel finished. ‘When facing warlocks – or any mage in particular, there’s going to be a lot of running and dodging.’
There was a pause. ‘Of course, since you’re new and still getting used to the training, I’ll teach you a simple spell that should help give you a much larger margin of error. It’s called Shield.’
One of Katrina’s eyebrows rose. ‘Dad, don’t you think Assault Jump would be a better spell to teach Russ? It’ll help him close the gap, plus it doesn’t cost Mana.’
‘Assault Jump?’ Russell asked, his ears pricking up. ‘Now that… sounds like an awesome spell.’
‘In due time,’ was the senior paladin’s reply. ‘Russell knows at least one spell from the Holy and Retribution trees – Mend, Smite and Exorcism. Better he get the basics down first, Kat. But good thinking, though. Maybe I ought to teach him that next.’
‘Some good news, too, dude,’ Atticus piped up, ‘it’s Sunday tomorrow, and from what we know, your mum’ll be able to stay with Sarah. So that means that Mikkie’ll be able to come along from the get-go, unlike last mission, and she specializes in taking out still targets.’
‘Okay, then. Looks… like we’re set, then,’ Russell said.
‘Oh, yeah. Of course, when we get back to the HQ, the training isn’t over,’ Castiel said, standing up. ‘Good news is, you won’t have to worry about using the weight vest then.’
Russell groaned lazily as Katrina and Atticus got up from the bench as well. ‘Do we have to?’
Katrina smirked as she grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. ‘Come on, up we go. There’s still half a mile left to go. And, good news, it’s all downhill.’
Russell gave her a pathetic look. ‘Can’t I just roll down the hill?’
‘Hm. Maybe. But then my werewolf senses might kick in and think you’re a rolling chewtoy,’ the werewolf said with a smirk. ‘And don’t think I won’t chew on you if I catch you rolling.’
With that, she gave him a hearty push down the hill. Russell groaned as the four of them resumed their run.
‘Now, dude, first rule when it comes to facing a mage; don’t stand still.’
Flames engulfed Atticus’ hands. The light from the mage’s spell added a little more illumination to the large, spacious underground storage area. Neat stacks of wooden crates and cardboard boxes rose up like columns to the ceiling.
About twenty meters away from Atticus, Russell stood, Invictus in hand and eyebrow raised. ‘Isn’t that the case with everything we’re gonna face?’
A smile crossed Atticus’ face as he brought his hands together. The second later, a fireball materialized. The second after, he sent it flying.
Russell’s eyes widened. Instinct caused him to jump to his right just in time. While the flaming boulder missed him by inches, when it impacted two meters away, he felt the heat of the spell through his shoes and jeans. He landed hard onto the floor as the fireball exploded against a stack of cardboard boxes, setting them alight.
Second rule of facing anything, boy, came Castiel’s voice telepathically, is to not distract yourself by talking. As Russell scrambled to his feet and dived for cover behind a stack of wooden crates, there was a psychic cough. As you’ve just found out, you have action, and you have reaction.
Russell pressed his back into the wooden crate for cover, trying to regain his composure. And action is always faster than reaction, right? He could hear the sound of another fireball casting. Already his heart was pounding hard in his chest.
Correct, Castiel said. Never let your enemy have the first strike. The moment you sense trouble, move.
‘Oh, duuuhuuude…’ Atticus’ voice resounded through the underground storage area. ‘I don’t think hiding behind a stack of wooden crates is the best idea when your opponent,’ the sound of flames licking the air could be heard, ‘has fire at his fingertips.’
Russ? I’d suggest you move. Now, Katrina’s voice sounded in Russell’s head. It’s obvious, but Att knows where you are. He’s toying with you. Get the slip on him!
Russell scrunched his eyes shut and balled his right hand into a fist, his left gripping Invictus tightly. He took in another breath and tried to focus for a few seconds.
When he reopened them, however, standing in front of him was Atticus, fireball in hand. The mage raised an eyebrow. ‘Dude. Seriously? Kat told you to run.’ He scratched his chin with his free hand. ‘I don’t think sitting behind cover and hoping the enemy will piss off-’
It was then Russell opened his right hand. It crackled with a Smite. Atticus’ eyes widened as Russell immediately sent the holy spell flying towards him.
There was a small explosion as the mage was sent flying back. Russell immediately got up and started running in the opposite direction.
Holy shit, Katrina’s voice said telepathically. For a second there I thought you’d given up.
Kat, no swearing, Castiel’s voice butted in. I will have to admit, I thought the same. There was a cough as Russell slid into some more cover behind another stack of crates. That said, it’s too risky a tactic, so I’d suggest you don’t use that again.
Wait a sec, Katrina said. Russ, why are you running? Smite is normally a one-shot against human targets.
Russell’s eyebrow rose. Uh… I dunno. He scratched his head. My instinct tells me otherwise.
From the other end of the storage area, there was the sound of boxes falling over. ‘Ach, shit. Good move, dude,’ Atticus called out. ‘Third rule; pretty much almost every… ah, fuck… mage… has a passive Mana Shield up that absorbs the impact of spells. So…’ More crates fell over. ‘…what Kat said was a trick question.’
Wow, looks like you did some damage there, boy, Castiel mused. While Atticus’ Mana Shield took most of the brunt of the Smite, the impact of landing in the boxes put down some hurt.
Yeah, Katrina added. Remember, one thing you always want to be thinking of is the side effects your spells will have.
Russell pressed his back against the crates. He could hear Atticus getting to his feet. ‘Oh, dude… I’m coming for you! So you better watch the fuck out!’
Good work with the escape and evasion, boy, Castiel said, but I think it’s time you started going on offence. Check how much Mana you have, and act accordingly.
Russell looked at his forearm and checked the Mana Tattoo. Since he’d had his Mana recharged for training, the tattoo was almost completely full, save for the little he’d spent beforehand.
From the sound of Atticus’ footsteps could be heard. He was now in the middle of the storage area.
Russell smiled as he cast another Smite. A few seconds of extra charging later, the spell had become brighter than normal. When the Empowered Smite was ready, he lobbed it out into the open and shielded his eyes.
The moment the storage area exploded with a bright light, Russell bolted from cover, Invictus in hand. He only had one shot at this.
‘Shit! Fuck!’ Atticus cried out, covering his eyes. He flailed about blindly, his hand still alight with a Fireball.
Russell had to fight the urge to yell as he charged the blinded mage. He quickly closed the distance, and with the momentum of his charge, tackled Atticus to the ground, planning to hit him with Invictus until he’d won.
Atticus cried out as he hit the ground. Russell looked up in time to see the mage’s fireball hand now pointing towards his face. He rolled to the side and off the mage, once again barely dodging the fiery boulder sent his way.
Almost instantly there was another fireball in Atticus’ hands. Russell took this opportunity to scramble to his feet as fast as he could. He jumped as yet another fireball missed him by inches.
However, this one hit the ground he’d been standing on seconds before. The fiery explosion sent the apprentice paladin flying a few meters. With a thud, he landed hard on his stomach. He could hear the sound of Atticus laughing.
‘Holy shit dude, that was awesome,’ the mage chuckled as he got to his feet. Another fireball materialized in his hands. ‘But not awesome enough.’
Russell rolled onto his back to see Atticus grinning evilly at him. His eyes widened.
‘Fourth rule,’ the mage said, ‘the closer you get to a mage, the faster you have to be.’
With that, he flung the spell. It was at that moment Russell thrust his hand forward and thought the word; Shield.
That very moment, a bubble of light surrounded the apprentice paladin. The second later, the fireball hit.
It exploded on the surface of the bubble, but while he could feel the heat of the spell and was pushed further into the ground, he was unharmed. Flames quickly spread around the Shield, but couldn’t penetrate it.
Russell’s eyes widened. Atticus, however, wasted no time casting yet another fireball. It, too, exploded harmlessly off Russell’s Shield as he sat there, still surprised at the spell he’d cast.
Boy, Shield can only take a limited amount of damage and lasts only thirty seconds if it doesn’t drop earlier, Castiel’s voice barked hastily. Move!
It was at those words Russell snapped out of his stupor as Atticus was about to launch his third fireball. He scrambled to his feet and once more charged at the mage, swinging Invictus with all of his might.
Just as he made contact, Atticus had just cast the fireball.
The resulting explosion caused both mage and apprentice paladin flying in opposite directions. As he hit the ground, Russell could feel his chest burning. He groaned in pain as he coughed, his chest flaring in fiery agony as he sat up. He looked down to see a smouldering hole in his shirt, as well as burns over his chest.
Ouch, Katrina said. That would’ve been a lot worse if your Shield hadn’t taken most of the brunt of the damage, Russ.
‘Fuck,’ he swore, and he began casting a Mend. As the holy light seeped into the burned area, he grimaced as he felt the burned sinews stitch themselves back up. Seconds later, it was over. The only evidence he’d ever been hit with the fireball was the gaping hole in his shirt.
‘Fifth rule,’ Atticus’ voice said, ‘always know where your opponent is, dude.’
Russell looked up. Atticus had already managed to get back onto his feet and was now only a few steps away from him, yet another fireball in hand.
Russell’s eyes widened. His hand rose, but it was too late. His world turned red as the fireball impacted on his face. Then white.
Everything went black.
Then, everything went white again.
Russell immediately sat up, gasping. His hands immediately went to his face and his chest, leaving Invictus by his side. He blinked. He could feel the damage wasn’t there anymore.
‘Helluva system, isn’t it, Russ?’ Katrina’s voice asked.
He shook his head quickly and blinked some more. The whiteness began to fade to reveal a reasonably large room. He knew he was in one of the underground rooms of the Iron Crucible Headquarters, but he couldn’t remember much more. What seemed to be six black masses sat along the wall to his right. Through the blurriness, he could see what he thought were computers on the other end of the room, their light illuminating the dimly-lit place.
To his left and right next to his pod were two blurry figures that looked like Castiel and Katrina. He looked down and noticed he was sitting in what appeared to be a black pod, and that he realized the six black masses were other pods. His world was still a little fuzzy.
‘What the…?’ he managed.
‘Oh, it’s normal to forget the last ten minutes of what happened before you went into Stasis Mode when you enter it for the first time, boy,’ Castiel said. ‘You’ll get used to it soon.’
‘You alright, Russ?’ Katrina asked. She stuck her hand in front of his face. ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’
He shook his head quickly once more. When he opened his eyes, everything returned into focus. He blinked. ‘Uh… three,’ he said.
Katrina nodded. ‘Alright. Looks like you’re fine,’ she said. She gave him a smile. ‘Just to remind you, Russ, what you were just in is what we call Stasis Mode.’
There was a raised eyebrow. ‘Stasis… Mode?’
‘A somewhat dreamlike state, boy. It’s initiated when you lie down in these special pods,’ Castiel said, putting a hand on the pod Russell was in. ‘Named for the state your body is in while your mind is in it. Stasis Mode is, quite simply, a state of perceived consciousness that allows us to simulate real combat situations for training purposes.’
Russell blinked. ‘Like… like in Inception?’
Katrina smirked. ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘Although without all of the philosophical bits and bobs attached.’
‘There are kinks in the system, of course. It isn’t perfect, Russy.’ Russell turned as soon as he heard Minxy’s voice. She and Atticus appeared at the foot of the pod, smiling. ‘That said, they’re normally minor. Temporary short-term memory loss after using it for the first time ‘round is one.’
‘As well, if you die in there… when you wake up back out here, things get real fuzzy for a short while and all that, dude,’ Atticus added. ‘Plus, while it’s supposed to simulate real combat, the pain you feel when you get hit in there sucks.’
‘That’s so you’ll learn quicker, Atticus,’ Castiel pointed out. He turned towards Russell. ‘Mind you, Atticus was going easy on you, boy. Had he wanted you dead inside Stasis Mode, he wouldn’t have stuck to a simple Fireball spell.’
‘Word,’ the mage agreed. ‘And while warlocks have a tendency to rely heavily on Fireball since it’s extremely cheap and easy to infuse with demonic power, there are other fire-based spells they use. I’ll show them all in the next round so you know what you’re gonna be dealing with.’
‘Demonizing spells is a concept that’ll become important when we start facing bigger stuff with you coming along,’ Minxy added. ‘Me and Big Red are sorting out the last bits and bobs for the mission, so don’t worry.’ She gave him a supportive smile. ‘Good luck in there for round two, Russy.’
With that, the vampire turned and headed out of the room. Russell’s eyebrows rose as he watched her go-
Without warning, Castiel’s fingers were suddenly snapping in front of his face. He recoiled in surprise.
‘Boy, focus on the next round of Stasis Mode and not on Minxy’s arse, will you?’ the senior paladin said, causing both Katrina’s and Atticus’ eyebrows to rise. ‘After this round, we’ll get to work on the mission, so try to focus.’ He turned towards Atticus. ‘Don’t go so easy on Russell this time. I think he’s learned enough for you to step up the game.’
The mage nodded as he turned to walk back to his own pod. He stopped and took a look at Russell as Castiel was helping him lay back in his pod.
‘Well, dude,’ he said as Russell’s world began fading to black, ‘time for Round Two.’
‘Are the preparations made?’
Inside a dark, abandoned warehouse, a large, heavyset man paced a dimly-lit office. Hands clasped behind his back, he was deep in thought. Were it not for the vocal address, the cultist at the door would’ve thought the casually-dressed head warlock was ignoring him.
At the top of the wall, the clock read eight at night. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
‘Yes, master,’ the servant cultist said. ‘The blood has been prepared. The neophytes are casting the first incantations and will require your assistance to finish the ritual soon. After, Berzelius will be set loose upon this place.’
The head warlock’s mouth curved into a smile. ‘Good. The last thing the Iron Crucible will be able to handle is a fully-fledged Paladin Slayer.’ He stopped his pacing and turned towards the cultist. ‘Carry on.’
There was a nod as the servant closed the door to the office. The head warlock stood there, looking at the door.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Then, all of a sudden, the ticking from the clock stopped. The head warlock took a look at the clock. Then, on the desk, the small blinking light that came from the cordless phone went out.
There was only one last thing that would go out.
Seconds later, the only light in the room – a single, hanging bulb – went out. The only illumination came from the light underneath the door, but in one of the corners, it was completely pitch black.
‘You do realize Berzelius isn’t exactly the tamest of the Paladin Slayers, Cain McLachlan,’ said a voice from the dark corner. ‘He may be powerful and he may be the only Paladin Slayer you have the summoning directions for, but he tends to be… unpredictable.’
‘He also tends to be loyal to Lucifer and to his servants, as you should know, Lord Mephistopheles,’ Cain simply replied. ‘That should be enough.’
There was a demonic snort. ‘It had better be. Only one who that beast actually listens to is Lucifer himself, and he’s still trying to break out of that prison Ezekiel put him in.’ There was a pause. ‘I hope you know what you’re doing, Cain. First thing Berzelius may end up doing after you summon him is rip your head off. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen to bigger fish than you. And it’d be a shame to lose you. Out of all those pieces of shit warlocks that have betrayed the Circle of Magi lately… you’re one of the most competent.’
‘Then my life is a worthy sacrifice to please the beast,’ the head warlock said simply, crossing his arms. ‘Once he’s set loose in Lisserton, the Knights of the Holy Order will be hard pressed to remove him, giving us enough time to find the-’
‘You assure victory by the beast’s mere appearance, warlock,’ Mephistopheles’ voice interrupted. ‘If you think he’ll become a distraction just because you want him to, then you have another thing coming.’ There was another snort. ‘You want my opinion? You won’t find the last Hellhole Key just by letting Berzelius loose. And-’
There was a knock on the door. The knob was turning, but it wouldn’t open. ‘Master!’ The voice of the cultist from before came through the door. ‘I have news!’
Cain snorted as he turned towards the door. ‘I am preoccupied with Lord Mephistopheles. The only reason I can think of that justifies you interrupting our conversation is that the ritual is almost complete.’ There was a pause as he narrowed his eyes. ‘Is it?’
There was a nervous cough. ‘I’m… I’m afraid it is not that, master, and I apologize… but it is just as important, I assure you!’
In the darkness, the head warlock rolled his eyes. ‘Fine. Humour me.’
‘The cameras picked up movement outside, master,’ was the reply. ‘Four targets. The sigils of identification say they’re hostile.’
Cain’s eyebrow rose. ‘Hostile? Can you… elaborate?’
‘Master… it’s the Iron Crucible,’ was the reply.
At the mention of the Crucible, there was a demonic roar of frustration. Cain ducked the moment he heard the sound of the phone cord ripping. He felt the machine pass over his head seconds later. It broke on the wall.
‘MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!’ Mephistopheles boomed. ‘I should’ve known Castiel would’ve… FUCK!’
Cain cowered as the demon spouted more expletives. ‘I… I take it you’ve had a run-in with the Iron Crucible recently?’
While he couldn’t see the demon, the head warlock could feel his malevolent gaze. ‘That piece of shit had his stupid apprentice exorcise me last night!’ the demon’s voice snarled. Suddenly, Cain could feel hot, angry breath at the back of his neck. ‘I… don’t give… a flying FUCK where the ritual is at now… send ALL of your warlocks to slaughter those motherfuckers… or else… I will rip… your spine out… through your asshole!’
After a few seconds of cowering, the head warlock cleared his throat, a very uncertain look crossing his features. ‘And… what about you?’
There was an enraged snort. When the demon spoke, he seemed to have had calmed down a little. ‘I’d rip their throats out myself if I wasn’t still recovering from that exorcism.’ Once more, Cain could feel the hot breath at his neck. The explosive anger had given way to a terrifyingly frosty demeanour. ‘Don’t make me do it myself, warlock.’
With that, the hot breath stopped. The power flickered back on. Mephistopheles was gone. Cain blinked as the door opened.
The servant stood there, trembling in fear. ‘M-m-m-master? Yy-your orders?’
Head Warlock Cain McLachlan’s eyes narrowed. ‘You heard what Lord Mephistopheles said. Slaughter them,’ he said.
He brought up his hand, which burst into flames. ‘Slaughter. Them. All.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
Katrina’s eyebrow rose at Russell as they walked. ‘Didn’t you say that earlier?’
There was a shrug. ‘Yeah… but that wasn’t when we were about to approach a warlock hideout,’ he said.
Outside, the afternoon sun had given way to a dark night. The moon shone upon Russell, Castiel, Katrina and Atticus as they made their way towards the old Lisserton Warehouse.
‘Well, it is what it is, dude,’ Atticus simply said. ‘Could be worse.’
‘Yeah, but how come it always has to be in abandoned buildings?’ Russell asked. ‘As creepy and as much sense as it makes, not only are there a limited amount of abandoned buildings in Lisserton… it’s also clichéd.’
‘Oh, today and yesterday were quite surprising, to be honest, boy,’ Castiel said. ‘Normally the things we face are in inhabited buildings. It doesn’t happen often.’
‘That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a great thing, though, Russ,’ Katrina added. ‘It’s awkward as hell when you’re in the middle of wrestling down a pack of semi-mindless werewolves and then all of a sudden Granny opens the door wondering whether or not the kids have been messing with her laundry again.’
‘Oh, yeah. I remember that one,’ the senior paladin chuckled. ‘The looks on everyone’s faces were priceless.’
‘Yep,’ Atticus agreed. ‘Heck, even the werewolves were just as shocked as we were! And then the old lady said, “You aren’t the neighbour’s kids.”’
‘You remember what you said back then, Att?’ Katrina asked, a smile crossing her lips. ‘Topped off the entire thing.’
The teenage mage grinned a sly grin. ‘Oh ho, hell yes. I was like, “Miss lady… excuse my French… but no shit!”’
At that, everyone, Castiel included, burst into laughter.
I take it you guys are reminiscing over that werewolf fiasco three weeks ago? Minxy’s voice came over telepathically. Russell could hear her smirk. See, Russy, these are the little moments that make it all worth it.
A smile crossed Castiel’s features. ‘Indeed.’ Russell still found it strange to see the senior paladin talking out loud to someone who wasn’t there. ‘Minxy, Are you in position?’
Yeppers, was the vampire’s reply. We’ve got good news, bad news, and even worse news, though. What do you want first?
Katrina’s eyebrow rose. ‘Surprise us,’ she said.
Well, okay. There was a pause as the Russell, Castiel, Katrina and Atticus kept walking. Their leader’s performing some sort of ritual – and it’s bad. It’s to summon a Paladin Slayer. I can’t get past his warding spells without being detected.
‘A Paladin Slayer?’Russell asked, even though it felt weird to talk out loud. ‘What’s that?’
‘I’ll explain it to you later, boy,’Castiel said. A worried look crossed his features – the first time Russell had ever seen the senior paladin worried. ‘All you need to know for now is that it’s most definitely not a good thing.’
‘If that’s the bad news, I don’t wanna hear what the worse news is, Mikkie,’Atticus said.
That was the worse news, Atty, Minxy replied. Now, to the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that they know we’re coming. They’re setting up warlocks at the entrance right now, and there’s lots of them.
Katrina scrunched her eyes shut and groaned. ‘And what’s the good news?’
Well… the good news is that they know we’re coming, was the simple reply.
‘And how is that good news, exactly?’Russell asked, worried.
‘They’ve moved their warlocks from the ritual to deal with us, boy,’Castiel explained. ‘Means we have longer to take them out and stop them from summoning the Paladin Slayer.’
There’s also another good part to that news, too, Cas, Minxy said. They know we’re coming – that is, if “we” consists of only you four.
‘They don’t know you’re in there with them, do they, Mikkie?’Atticus asked, a smirk crossing his face.
Yeppers. And since they’re setting up, the moment they start casting is the moment they’ll get knives in their backs.
‘I’d suggest you take out the leader first while we’re working on his warlocks, Minxy,’ Castiel said. ‘First and foremost thing we need to do is stop them from summoning that Paladin Slayer, or else we’ll have more on our plate than just warlocks.’
Got it, Minxy said. After I’m done with the leader, I’ll get to helping out. But there’s too many blocking the way to the chamber their leader is in. I’ll need you guys to be a distraction loud enough for me to slip past them.
The senior paladin nodded. ‘Sounds good. ETA on the Paladin Slayer?’
Eight minutes, by the looks of things was the reply. So if we’re gonna crash this party, we’re gonna have to make this quick and fast. There was a pause. Oh, I almost forgot. They’ve got you guys on security cam right now as we speak, so act like you guys are just talking. I’ve hacked the security system so that there’ll be about a minute delay from what they see.
‘Is there a blind spot, Minxy?’ Katrina asked. The entrance to the abandoned warehouse – an open garage, which spilled out yellow light into the evening darkness – lay up ahead.
Yep. Just keep walking up to the entrance, was the reply. I’ll tell you when you’re in the clear to stack up. The four of them kept walking. After five seconds of walking, they were about fifteen meters away from the garage entrance. Okay… go!
The moment Minxy telepathically said that, all four of them bolted straight for the wall next to the garage entrance. Quietly, they pressed themselves up against it.
‘Okay. We don’t have much time,’ Castiel whispered. ‘Atticus, go ahead and Scout the place.’
There was a nod from the teenage mage as he put his index and middle finger on his forehead and closed his eyes. Two seconds later, he re-opened them, and put both fingers onto the wall.
Right before Russell’s eyes, a circle of shimmering light sprung from Atticus’ fingers and splayed itself out onto the wall. The image projected onto the wall, he figured, was what was inside.
Illuminated within the image was a large, well-lit spacious room, which was somewhat similar to the warehouse where he’d trained with Atticus earlier in Stasis Mode. Stacks of crates littered the place, and on the second floor, a large balcony overlooked the place. Underneath the balcony was a closed garage.
‘Hm… we’ve got ten on the balcony,’ Atticus whispered as he observed the image projecting itself from his fingers. He used his other hand to point out the figures in black robes that were positioned around the warehouse. ‘And approximately… hm… sixteen on the floor. All ready to cast Fireballs.’ He paused. ‘Mikkie, you’re behind the ones on the balcony, right?’
Yep, was the vampire’s reply. Again, I could use a distraction to slip past them and into the vents to enter the closed-off garage area on the ground floor. That’s where their leader is.
Castiel nodded. ‘Atticus, Russell, the both of you’ll charge the warlocks on the floor. Katrina and I will try to take on the ones on the balcony to provide Minxy with the distraction she needs. We need to make as much sound as possible.’
‘Att, make sure your Mana Shield is up,’ Katrina added. ‘And Russ, cast Shield the moment you go through the door, and run.’ She pointed towards the closest stack of crates to the garage entrance, which was positioned near the right wall. ‘Make a break for there first, take cover, and then do your thing.’
Atticus nodded as he turned towards Russell. ‘Dude, when we enter, you have to run as fast as you can, follow me, and watch out. There’ll be lots of fireballs flung at us when we enter, so get ready to dodge.’
Guys, you’d better hurry, Minxy said. Your images are gonna pop up on the screens soon.
Castiel nodded as he cast a Smite. ‘These warlocks want a fight,’ the Senior Paladin said with a grin as the spell charged and sparked with Empowerment in his hand. ‘Let’s indulge them.’
With that, he lobbed the Empowered Smite through the garage.
‘GO GO GO!’ Castiel roared.
Atticus and Russell immediately bolted into the warehouse, Russell casting Shield the moment he passed through the entrance. Cries of anguish and annoyance greeted them.
The sprinted towards the stack of crates Katrina had marked out as fast as they could. While some of the warlocks were still dazed by the explosion, some had regained their sight quickly. Fireballs flew past the two as they ran.
There was the sound of two loud bestial roars from behind them. Russell looked in time to see two giant brown wolves – presumably Castiel and Katrina – dart past and into the throng of warlocks that were still recovering.
As the fireballs flew past him and Atticus as they sprinted, Russell saw both father and daughter leap at the warlocks. In mid-air, they turned into humanoid half-wolves and began ripping into the traitor mages-
Suddenly there was a fiery explosion as Russell was knocked off his feet and landed hard on the floor. He groaned. While his Shield had taken the fireball, it hadn’t absorbed the impact of landing.
‘Shit! RUSS!’ Atticus cried out. Russell looked up to see the mage over him, casting spells at the warlocks as fast as he could, purple-bluish arcane projectiles launching themselves from Atticus’ fingertips. There were small explosions as Atticus’ spells hit. The mage turned around and grabbed Russell by the arm. ‘Dude! Get up!’
Russell took hold of Atticus’ hand. His right hand immediately sparked with a Smite as he pulled himself to his feet and flung it as soon as he was standing. The mage looked behind in time to see the Smite impact on a warlock that was behind him.
With a quick nod, the pair continued their sprint towards the cover of the crates. More fireballs were flung by the panicking warlocks in an attempt to stop them. Fiery boulders exploded around both teenagers as they dived into the cover of the crates.
Putting their backs up into the wall, Atticus grinned at Russell as the both of them caught their breath. ‘It’s fun, isn’t it, dude?’
Russell couldn’t help but grin back. The whole thing, while dangerous, was strangely exhilarating. The screams of agony of the warlocks, the explosions of the fireballs and the bestial roars of both Castiel and Katrina somehow heightened the sense of adrenaline.
There was another roar. Both Russell and Atticus looked in time to see either one of the werewolves slam into the wall. Even with the fur covering the body, Russell could see that whoever it was, there were heavy burns on their stomach and arms.
As the werewolf landed on the ground, it shifted back into a human. It was Katrina. She gritted her teeth in pain as she sprinted towards where Atticus and Russell were taking cover.
Atticus looked in time to see a warlock emerge from the gap between their stack of crates and the wall. The man had presumably seen Katrina hit the wall. A fireball was in his hands and a grin crossed his face. He was about to launch the fiery projectile towards the somewhat-vulnerable werewolf as she sprinted towards partial safety.
Atticus stood up and flung his left hand out towards the man, his arm hovering over Russell’s head, and uttered a single, incomprehensible word.
The man stopped as his fireball suddenly sizzled and went out. He gasped, but no sound came out. The warlock then turned towards Atticus, but looked just in time to be greeted by a blue, frosty bolt that had sprung from the teenage mage’s other hand.
As the spell hit him, he was slammed into the wall, and in a single second was frozen solid to said wall in a block of ice.
‘Chill, motherfucker,’ Atticus simply spat as Katrina slid into the cover next to Russell.
The werewolf grimaced in pain. She opened her hand, but stopped when she saw Russell had already cast a Mend. She looked down as he began healing her burns, and then up at him in surprise.
Seconds later, it was all done. She smiled at Russell, who looked up to meet her gaze. ‘Thanks, Russ,’ she said. Suddenly, her ears pricked up. She looked towards Atticus. ‘Att! Table! Quick!’
Nodding, Atticus immediately went down on all fours. The moment he did, Katrina rose up, took a step back, and sprinted towards him.
Russell’s eyes widened as she took a step on Atticus’ back and launched herself into the air. In mid-air, she shifted back into her half-wolf form. It was at that moment he saw a warlock emerge from the other side of the crates the three of them had been taking refuge in.
Katrina had timed her leap off Atticus’ back perfectly. The unfortunate warlock’s expression turned into one of horror just in time to see two-hundred kilograms of werewolf ram into him.
‘Holy shit,’ Russell said in awe as he watched Katrina quickly dispatch the unlucky warlock.
‘Dude! C’mon! Let’s go!’ Atticus said, grabbing the apprentice paladin’s shoulder. ‘Follow me!’
Both mage and paladin went straight to the wall and from there headed towards the balcony. Keeping close to the wall, Russell could see Castiel taking cover behind another stack of crates. The senior paladin had turned back into his human form and was gritting his teeth as fireballs rained down upon him.
Before Russell’s eyes, Castiel grabbed a hammer from the floor. Seconds later, the tool began to spark with what seemed to be yellow electricity. With a loud roar, Castiel flung the hammer towards the warlocks remaining on the balcony.
It didn’t hit anyone, but rather embedded itself in the wall right behind the warlocks raining down the fireballs. After a second, it exploded, sending the warlocks tumbling and screaming off the balcony-
Shit! Minxy’s voice suddenly came across. I can’t get through his shields! Guys, we’ve got a big prob-
Before the vampire could finish her sentence, a loud, unholy bestial roar filled the warehouse. It was unlike anything Russell had heard before. Around them, even the warlocks had stopped.
Russell turned to Atticus. ‘What the fuck was that?’
The teenage mage was aghast. ‘Oh, fuck,’ he said. ‘We’re too late.’
Atticus! Russell! Get into cover! NOW! Castiel’s voice mentally barked.
Without a moment of hesitation, both mage and paladin did as they were told and slammed their backs into some crates. Atticus immediately put his middle and forefingers to his forehead, and then placed them onto the crate they were taking refuge behind. The Scout spell revealed what was going on behind.
Castiel and Katrina had dived into cover as well. One of the warlocks had come down from the balcony and made his way towards the garage. With one pull, he opened the garage.
There was another bestial roar – and Russell was sure this time it was coming from within the garage. The warlock looked up, and then, without warning, he dived to his right.
He barely managed to get out of the way as massive creature leapt out from the dark garage and into the warehouse.
The creature was unlike anything Russell had ever seen before. He could’ve said it was a wolf – that is, if wolves were the size of small lorries and were walking badass nightmares. Its eyes were midnight black, and as it growled menacingly, Russell realized its teeth and claws were razor-sharp jagged metal. Massive, burly slabs of muscle lurked almost unsuccessfully under its black fur, which, to Russell’s surprise, appeared to be alight with black flame.
This was a creature designed for only one purpose; to kill.
‘Holy fuck,’ Russell managed.
‘BERZELIUS AWAKENS!’ roared a voice from the inside of the garage triumphantly. There was the sound of maniacal laughter. ‘You have been awakened, great Paladin Slayer. Now, FEED!’
The beast roared in response. The warlock on the ground was too terrified to move as the Paladin Slayer turned towards him. Berzelius bared its teeth and roared before pouncing and closing its jaws upon the unlucky mage.
The other warlocks were staring in shock and horror as their unfortunate colleague screamed his last as the beast ripped him apart in mere milliseconds effortlessly. ‘Wait! What is this?’ the voice from inside of the garage demanded. ‘Don’t feast upon my brothers, you imbecilic creature!’
At that, the beast stopped its feast and turned back towards the garage. It snarled angrily, presumably at the man inside. And then, to Russell’s surprise, it turned, and with a few quick bounds, it left the building. Everything went silent. Nobody moved.
‘Uh… M-m-master? I-i-is it supposed to do that?’ one of the warlocks on the ground floor, after a short period of silence, asked nervously.
It was at that, a man stepped out from the wrecked garage. He was large, burly, and wore the same black robes as his brethren, although there were ornate patterns on his, which presumably made him the leader. He was bald, had a goatee, and right now looked like he was about to have an aneurysm.
He took a deep breath and shook his head as the rest of his fellows that were on the ground floor gathered around him. ‘No. But that’s not of any consequence. Berzelius will still do what we summoned him for.’ He looked around. ‘Are the Iron Crucible dead?’
‘Well… we’re still alive and kicking, if that’s what you’re asking,’ Minxy’s voice came from the rafters.
Minxy, what the hell are you doing? Katrina demanded as the warlocks began to look around, a little shaken. The vampire didn’t respond.
The leader put his face in his palm. ‘We’ve all had one hell of a fucking long day. Tell you what. Lucifer wants you all to suffer. But, if you give in and surrender now, I give you my word I’ll kill you all quickly.’ He looked up at the rafters. ‘How about that?’
There was the sharp sound of air pressure being released. One of the warlocks fell to the floor, clutching at the ballistic knife blade that was suddenly stuck in his throat. Another blade was hovering just in front of the head warlock, suspended in mid-air just inches away from his face.
‘Okay! We surrender!’ Minxy called out. ‘Come a little closer!’
At the taunt, the head warlock’s lips curved into a snarl. ‘Fine. Have it your way, vampire,’ he said.
With that, he extended his arms down towards the ground, scrunched his eyes shut, and clenched his hands. At first his hands ignited with red flame, but with seconds, he was completely immolated.
‘Oh, shit,’ Atticus gasped as he watched. ‘Mikkie! He’s casting Hellfire! MOVE!’
‘Already one step behind you, Atty.’ Russell and Atticus spun around to see Minxy behind them. ‘AMZ?’
‘AMZ?’ Russell asked as Atticus immediately put his palm onto the floor. Blue streaks of Mana sprung from the mage’s hand and began to draw itself into a circle just big enough to surround the three of them, the mage gritting his teeth as he did so.
‘Anti-Mana Zone,’ Minxy quickly explained. ‘It should protect us from the Hellfi-’
Suddenly, a roar ripped itself from the lips of the leader. There was the sound of what could only be described as a burst of air, and then, all of a sudden, there was an explosion. Russell’s eyes widened as crimson-red flames swamped the area. The flames would have engulfed the three teenagers, but it was as if they were protected by an invisible sphere – almost like a Shield. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
He looked down to see that the edges of the invisible sphere ended at the edges of the Mana circle Atticus had drawn seconds earlier. Russell then looked towards Minxy.
To his surprise, the vampire had drawn two serrated knives – at the hilt of each was a length of black rope. She pulled back the sleeves of her shirt to reveal she was wearing a pair of leather gauntlets. Calmly and almost as if oblivious to the fiery spectacle around her, she quickly wrapped a good deal of the rope around her forearms quickly, as if it was something she’d practiced over and over.
Noticing the look Russell was giving her, Minxy looked back up at him and smiled sweetly at him. She gripped both of her knives with the blades pointing away from her pinkies. She then bowed her head and closed her eyes, focused.
‘Dude,’ Atticus spoke up to Russell, ‘stay behind cover. There’s still too many bunched up for us to take out. Wait for Mikkie’s signal.’ He then once more cast Scout on the crate, revealing the head warlock radiating what could only be called pulses of flames from his immolated body. His followers, which numbered around fifteen, stood around him, unharmed.
Seconds later, the flames had stopped. The moment they did, Minxy opened her eyes. Russell looked in time to just see her blur as she left cover and headed straight for the warlocks.
The apprentice paladin’s eyes widened as he saw Minxy in action. One of the warlocks suddenly dropped to his knees, clutching at his suddenly-slit throat. The others immediately turned towards their unfortunate brother. Fireballs were almost instantly in their hands.
Minxy didn’t pause. The moment after she slit her first target’s throat, she spun. Using her first victim as a springboard, launched herself over the head of her next victim. In mid-air, her right knife became a blur right before it embedded itself into the back of the neck of her second target. She twisted the blade the instant it was in, severing the man’s spinal cord.
Landing on her feet, she looked behind her to see fireballs being sent her way. She dive rolled out of the way in time. The moment she broke out of the roll, her left arm lashed out, sending her knife flying. It embedded itself in the wrist of one of the warlocks, who cried out in pain.
Wasting no time, the vampire immediately yanked the rope, pulling the man towards her. Propelling herself off the floor, she landed with her knees on both of the man’s shoulders, ripping her knife free from his wrist as she did so. In that instant, she brought her legs together, locking the head between her knees. Then, she twisted.
There was a snap as the man’s neck broke. Using the momentum of her twist, she tumbled off her third victim and landed gracefully onto the ground. Like a rubber ball, the moment she hit the ground, she had already propelled herself into the air again – this time at two more warlocks.
Gritting her teeth, she plunged both knives into the skulls of the warlocks she’d leapt at. Using the momentum, she swung herself out of the throng of warlocks as fireballs flew past her. In mid-air, her hand became a blur as she snatched a black pellet from one of her pockets.
The moment she hit the ground, she flung the pellet straight to the ground. The instant later, smoke exploded from the pellet, shrouding her in a black mist.
‘Now!’ Minxy cried out.
At that, there was a loud bestial roar. The vampire looked up in time to see both Katrina and Castiel, already shifted into their half-wolf forms, sail over her head and into the confused and disoriented warlocks.
There was a quick tap at Russell’s shoulder as he watched the spectacle. ‘Dude! C’mon! Let’s go!’ Atticus quickly told him.
There was a nod from the apprentice paladin as they emerged from cover. Atticus’ left hand began to spark with electricity, while his right started to glow blue. As they got closer, the teenage mage flung his left hand forward towards one of the warlocks.
Tendrils of lightning flung themselves from Atticus’ fingertips and attached themselves onto the warlock. The moment they did, Atticus brought his left hand up. The warlock cried out as the tendrils of lightning sent him into the air. It was then the teenage mage sent the Frostbolt from his right hand towards the flying man.
Russell stopped in his tracks in awe as he saw the spell hit the warlock and froze him into a solid block of ice. Then, he watched the frozen man descend back towards the earth, where the poor sod shattered into a thousand pieces.
‘Holy shit,’ he managed.
All of a sudden, the apprentice paladin felt a stinging sensation hit his chest. He looked down to see familiar tendrils of lightning attach themselves to his chest. He looked up to see that these tendrils weren’t coming from Atticus.
They were coming from the head warlock, who was now standing in front of the open garage.
Russell’s eyes widened in time before the man, who had a grin on his face, yanked his hand back. Suddenly, Russell felt his feet leave the ground. The next thing he knew, pain all over his body flared up as he slammed into a wall.
Groaning, he got up to his hands and knees. His body was hurting, his mind was reeling and his vision was a little blurry, but he knew that the head warlock had hurled him into the large and spacious darkened garage. The only illumination was the moonlight that shone down from the skylight above.
He looked up as the blurriness quickly faded. He could see the head warlock enter the darkened garage.
‘RUSS!’ Atticus’ voice cried out from the warehouse. Suddenly, fireballs whizzed past the warlock’s head.
The traitor mage simply turned, and pushed his left hand out towards Atticus. Suddenly, the teenage mage was sent bowling by an unseen force. The head warlock’s other hand then pointed up towards the garage, and flicked his wrist downwards.
The garage slammed shut. Russell could hear pounding and even metal scratching on its metal surface seconds later, presumably by the rest of the Iron Crucible.
‘That door is reinforced by my powers, whelp,’ the head warlock said, his lips curving into a smile. ‘Your friends cannot help you here.’ He cocked his head to the side, as if scrutinizing Russell. He began to walk closer. ‘Pitiful. For a boy who exorcised the great Mephistopheles, you don’t look like much at all.’
Russell kept quiet, keeping his focus on the head warlock.
‘Then again, I suppose appearances can be deceiving,’ the man went on. ‘I am Head Warlock Cain McLachlan. Wanted by both the Knights of the Holy Order, the Circle of Magi and the Illuminati as public enemy number… hm, wait… was I number five?’
As Cain took a moment to ponder to himself, Russell snorted. ‘I don’t know anything about you. Cas just said we’re here to take you down, nothing else.’
At that, the warlock’s eyebrow rose. ‘Is that it?’ There was a snort. ‘You know, I can see why he took you in as his apprentice. You have potential. You just need to be… better informed.’ He paused. ‘If it weren’t for the fact that you’ve pissed off Mephistopheles and that he wants you dead, I would be offering you a chance to join us instead of staying with these… these winged prick worshippers.’
The head warlock’s hands ignited with fireballs. Russell materialized Invictus into his hand.
‘I could completely incinerate you right now, whelp, but Mephistopheles wants me to make you suffer,’ Cain went on. ‘Let’s see how well Castiel has trained you.’
With that, he sent the fireball flying. Russell dived out of the way of the first and landed hard on the ground. He looked up to see the second one headed straight for him, and brought up Invictus in time to block the spell.
While his paladin weapon took the brunt of the spell, the force of the explosion sent him sliding across the cold concrete of the garage into the wall.
There was a chuckle from the head warlock. ‘You still have some fight in you. Good.’ His hands ignited. ‘It’ll make it all the more pleasing to break you.’
He then slammed both of his hands into the ground. Russell’s eyes widened as flames erupted from Cain’s hands and began to ignite the floor around him in a perfect circle – and the circle was rapidly growing wider, and was headed towards him.
Russell knew what the spell was – Ignite. He tried to remember what Atticus told him to do to counter an Ignite-
‘Shit! Lava floor!’ Russell suddenly blurted out. He looked behind himself. Next to him was a table. Without hesitation, he scrambled onto it. The flames just barely missed him, the tips licking at his heels. Everything in his body was still hurting as the garage very quickly began to resemble hell.
Cain began to chuckle, standing amidst the flames unharmed. ‘Hah! “Lava floor”? I’m going to have to remember that one,’ he said. ‘That may come in handy the next time my brothers and sisters face mages who use Ignite.’ His right hand burst into flame. ‘But it ends here.’
Suddenly, he thrust his left hand forward. A blue tendril of lightning arced out and attached itself to Russell’s chest. Before he knew what was going on, he began to scream in pain. A searing agony coursed through his body as he felt his energy being siphoned away from him. Within, lactic acid began to swamp his already-battered and fatigued muscles.
Grinning, Cain then sent the fireball flying.
Russell managed to thrust his hand forward. The Shield spell had been cast just in time, the spell interrupting the energy siphon Cain had been casting before. The fireball exploded harmlessly on the protective spell. His teeth gritting and hands clenched, the rushing adrenaline being the only thing keeping him from collapsing, Russell decided he’d had enough.
Cain’s eyebrow rose the moment he saw the Smite fly towards him. He ducked, the holy spell disintegrating an already-burning shelf behind him. When he turned back towards Russell, he was surprised to find yet another one headed straight for him.
He sidestepped the Smite, although part of the spell caught his robes, and disintegrated a good chunk of them. Snarling, the warlock began to send fireball after fireball towards Russell.
Russell still had Mana. His tattoo wasn’t quite yet depleted, but his body was from the beating he’d taken the past few minutes. He would’ve sent more Smites flying towards the head warlock if his arms weren’t already dead from both pain and exhaustion.
As the barrage of fireballs impacted upon his Shield, he could feel it getting weaker and weaker with each explosion. He knew he was done for.
Finally, one of the fireballs caused his Shield to collapse. The explosion slammed Russell into the wall. His vision went blurry again for a few seconds. His body flared up in pain once more, but this time it was accompanied by a fiery agony that resided in his chest and forearm.
There was a grin from Cain as he readied his last fireball. Russell knew that it was over.
Suddenly, there was the loud sound of the skylight shattering. A large silhouette slammed right into the floor in front of Cain from above. The impact caused a shockwave that both sent the head warlock flying and put out the flames in the room.
From his position on the table, Russell forced his vision to focus. As the figure rose, he saw he wore all white baggy cargo pants and tank top that showed his muscled and toned arms. He wasn’t able to see his eyes or facial hair, but he could see the man had blonde hair. Black tribal tattoos covered his shoulders, and there was a sword strapped to his back. Above all, however, Russell realized that this person, his saviour, was all human save for one thing.
A pair of blue, regal wings extended from his back.
‘Cain McLachlan,’ he said, standing tall. ‘Judgement. Has. Arrived.’
Cain gritted his teeth as he got up to his feet. ‘Samael,’ he said. The venom was obvious in his voice. ‘I didn’t think the Illuminati would figure out I was here.’
The figure identified as Samael shook his head as his wings folded neatly behind him. ‘When a Paladin Slayer emerged out of an abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere, it was obvious you were here.’ Before Russell’s eyes, a shield materialized within the angel’s hands as he unsheathed his sword. ‘Now, it is time to face judgement.’
Cain smirked. ‘You know what? You Illuminati think you’re all so high and mighty and invincible. You think you’ve got me.’ His hands opened. ‘You thought wrong.’
All of a sudden, Cain’s hands began to spark with electricity, although to Russell’s surprise, the streaks of energy weren’t a bluish-white. These were crimson red.
Samael charged, but then the head warlock thrust his hands forwards towards the charging angel. The tendrils caught Samael by both of his arms, and before the angel knew what was going on, Cain spread his arms out wide.
The tendrils of red energy forced the angel’s arms wide and stopped him straight in his tracks. The tendrils left Cain’s fingertips and anchored themselves into both sides of the garage, tethering the angel into place. Russell’s erstwhile saviour struggled, but couldn’t move.
‘You know, it’s insulting that you try to attack me like I’m just another mage,’ Cain said, rubbing his hands together. ‘I know that you Illuminati are almost invulnerable to all magic – that is, except for anything demonic.’ A malicious smile crossed his lips. ‘Oh, don’t give me that look. I know your weaknesses. I think today will be a good day. Two birds with one stone.’
The head warlock brought his hands together, as if holding a ball. Then, they ignited – only this time, it was with a crimson-red flame. Cain then threw the fireball at Samael. There was an explosion as the angel cried out in agony. Then, another one. And another one. After each demoniacally-enhanced fireball, the grin on Cain’s face only grew bigger and bigger.
Russell had to do something. Once Samael was dead, Russell knew he was next. A plan, a crazy plan formulated itself in his head. It was suicide. But it could be just crazy enough to work.
He forced himself to get up, Invictus in hand. He grimaced as the pain and exhaustion tried to force him back onto the table. He managed to get onto his feet for a second, but then fell to his knees.
He gritted his teeth and took a step forward. He sank again into a kneeling position, but he wouldn’t give up now.
He took another step. Every strand, every fiber of his being screamed at him to stop. He fell once more. His eyelids were getting heavy.
He took one more step. His grip on Invictus began to weaken. Then, all of a sudden, his paladin weapon slipped from his fingers and fell onto the floor just before he fell to his knees once more.
On his hands and knees, all Russell could do was look at Invictus, the sounds of Samael’s cries of agony and the explosions of the fireballs fading from his ears. It was then an image of three people flashed in his mind.
The first person was his father, Ethan, as both he and Russell crafted Invictus from the piece of wood they had found. The second was his mother, Penelope, as she admired their work.
The third was of his little sister, Sarah, watching intently as they worked.
It was a memory of the Corschach family. A tear dropped from Russell’s tired eyes and landed upon the wood of Invictus.
His father was gone. His mother worked hard enough as it was. He was the only father figure in little Sarah’s life. He couldn’t die here. He couldn’t let them down now. It was his responsibility.
It was his duty.
Suddenly, it was as if the exhaustion had disappeared. It was as if the pain no longer mattered. Russell’s mind was clear. Clenching his fist, he gritted his teeth and punched the ground. He was not going to die here. He now had the energy for one last heroic effort.
He grabbed Invictus from the floor and rose to his feet. Cain, seemingly satisfied by the amount of damage he’d inflicted upon Samael, was now casting one final demoniacally-charged fireball, one bigger than the rest, to finish him off.
Russell knew he had one chance at this.
Time slowed. Desperate for victory, he ran in front of Samael just as the head warlock’s hands sent the final fireball springing from his fingertips.
Russell gripped his faithful, indestructible rubber band launcher with both hands on one end as he saw the execution fireball sail through the air towards him.
A cry ripped itself from his lips as he swung Invictus like a baseball bat at the incoming spell with all of his might.
The fiery boulder was only a meter away from Russell when Invictus made contact.
There was a loud, rocky crack.
The fireball didn’t explode.
Time sped back up. Cain’s eyes widened in time to see his own spell, which ricocheted from Invictus, head straight for his chest.
Russell shielded his face with his arm as the fireball exploded.
When he looked next, the head warlock was on his back, covered in first and second-degree burns. The twitching of what fingers he had left and agonized gurgles told Russell the man was still alive, but just barely.
Behind Russell, the tendrils of red lightning that had held Samael in place had dissipated. The angel took only a moment to recollect his wits before making straight for the body of Cain, sword ready.
‘Judgement has been delivered,’ Samael said. Without hesitation, he immediately plunged his blade into the warlock’s throat.
It was over.
Russell was trying his best to stay on his feet when the angel looked up from the corpse, straight at him. Russell blinked as Samael strode towards him, sword still in hand.
Samael was, Russell had to say, a handsome fellow. He had a chiselled face, with deep blue eyes and had a scar across his cheek, which was only partially hidden by his short stubble.
‘You…’ the angel mused. He swallowed as he examined Russell’s face, and then looked at his sword. Russell wasn’t sure what was going on, but while he had a bad feeling about it, he didn’t have the strength to do anything about it except stand there and watch.
Samael looked back at Russell’s face. To the apprentice paladin’s surprise, the angel then put the tip of the sword at his throat.
Russell gulped. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down nervously from being within such close proximity from the business end of the sword. Samael’s eyes narrowed and shook his head.
‘No,’ he said. He took the sword away from Russell’s throat and sheathed it.
It was then Russell’s legs gave out. He fell to his knees and was close to blacking out. Samael, for a few seconds, seemed bemused by this. He muttered something incomprehensible. Suddenly, Russell felt the angel’s hand on his forehead. Seconds later, energy began to course through his body. His pain began to cease, and his fatigue and tiredness disappeared.
Within seconds, Russell was back to normal. He blinked, looking down to find the burns he’d sustained had disappeared, before looking up at Samael. He swallowed nervously. ‘Th… thank you,’ he said. ‘S…sorry if I’m a bit awkward. It’s just that, well… I’ve never met an angel before.’
It was at that Samael snorted. ‘I do not know whether it is ignorance or honour that drove you to help me, Russell Corschach. I have the inkling it is both.’
Russell swallowed again. ‘Duty, as well,’ he said. ‘You’re an angel, aren’t you?’
At the mention of angel, Samael smirked. ‘It appears it is just as much ignorance as it is a sense of honour, then,’ he said. ‘If you knew what I really am, you would not be so hesitant in saying that.’
Russell’s eyebrow rose. ‘What do you mean?’
The angel shook his head. ‘Tell me something, paladin; how do I know your name?’
The apprentice paladin gave this a few seconds of thought. ‘I… I figured angels knew the names of everyone in the world or something, isn’t it?’ He scratched his head. ‘Well, that’s the impression I get from church, anyhow.’
Samael once again shook his head. ‘Assumptions, Russell, nothing more.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘I know your name because I was tasked to kill you.’
It was at that Russell’s eyes widened. He wasn’t sure what to do. ‘Then… then… wha-’
‘Let me introduce myself. It will help you understand,’ the angel interrupted. ‘I am Brother-Seraphim Samael of the Illuminati.’ He did a little bow, allowing his blue wings to extend regally behind him. ‘I have the feeling your Senior Paladin Castiel has not told you about the Illuminati.’
Russell simply shook his head and swallowed.
‘Then I will make this simple,’ the Illuminati said. ‘We are angels. But we are not angels who serve your false Highfather. We do not aid the Knights of the Holy Order, nor do we help the demons who serve under the fallen Archangel Lucifer.’ He scratched his stubble. ‘You came to my attention while spying upon Mephistopheles yesterday. Archangel Jericho, the leader of the Illuminati, was worried that you had the potential to become a champion of your false Highfather and oppose us.’
It was at that Russell scrunched his eyes and rubbed his face with his hand. ‘Excuse my French, but why the fuck does everyone keep saying I have potential?’
Samael simply smirked. ‘Because it’s true,’ he said. ‘I’m sure Castiel would have taught you this, but everyone has the potential to become great, to become champions, no matter what ails them – the only thing that stands in their way is their ability to believe they can. The only thing that separates you from everyone else, however, is that psychologically, whether you know it or not, you are more able to see yourself to succeed.’ A smile crossed his face. ‘Castiel picked up on that. Cain picked up on that. And, right now, I am, too.’
‘And this… Jericho… thinks that because of this, I’m a threat?’ Russell asked.
‘Almost precisely,’ the angel replied. ‘If it weren’t for the fact that you are currently under the mentorship of Senior Paladin Castiel, who serves the false Highfather…’
‘…You would be recruiting me instead,’ the apprentice paladin finished.
‘Exactly.’ Samael crossed his arms over his chest.
Russell narrowed his eyes. ‘So then why spare me?’ he asked. ‘Why help me?’
There was a nod. ‘I will admit, I wasn’t expecting to find you here,’ Samael said. ‘All I saw was a Paladin Slayer leave this warehouse and figured Cain McLachlan was here,’ he gestured towards the head warlock’s body, ‘and I was right. My task was to assemble a force of my brothers and sisters and then kill you sometime in the near future – probably next week. However…’
The angel looked away for a second and sighed.
‘Unlike the vast majority of my brothers and sisters, I am ashamed to admit on their behalf, I have a sense of honour,’ he said finally. ‘You saved my life. I owe you yours.’
Russell was bemused. ‘But… but then what about your orders-’
‘I actually have a plan for that,’ Samael said. ‘You have potential. It would be a shame to put a waste to that.’ He smiled. ‘Archangel Jericho may be a bit brash at times, but he is reasonable. I’m sure I can convince him to let you join our ranks – but on one condition.’
There was the raising of an eyebrow. ‘And what’s that?’
The angel looked into his eyes. ‘You have to leave the Iron Crucible.’
Shock crossed Russell’s features. He swallowed. ‘Leave the Iron Crucible?’
The angel nodded. ‘Leave. Join us. I, myself, will take you under my wing.’ He took a look at one of his wings, which had extended. ‘Pun not intended.’
‘But then what about Castiel?’ he asked. ‘He got me into all this-’
‘Got you into this mess, you mean? Pulled you unwillingly out of a comfortable life without knowledge of all of this pain and darkness? Used you as bait for cultists? Even suppressed your swearing habits?’ The angel cocked his head to the side. ‘Tell me, Russell. If it weren’t for Castiel, would you still be wanted dead by the lieutenant of Lucifer’s armies? I can only guess that you’ll only make more and more enemies who want you dead the more powerful you get.’
As Russell pondered over this, Samael continued.
‘Before you start to think I’m only giving you only one side and trying to pin all of this on Castiel, let me tell you something. If there is an enemy of mine that I truly respect, it is Senior Paladin Castiel,’ he said. ‘From the times I have faced him in battle, he has proven himself to be a worthy, honourable, and, more importantly, understandable foe. I am sure he will understand your decision should you decide to join us.’
Suddenly, there was pounding on the garage. Russell turned as it began to open.
‘I will not force you to make your decision now, Russell,’ Samael said, not looking towards the garage opening. ‘I will give you time to think. And, should you decide to join us, I will find you.’
Russell shielded his eyes a little as the light from the warehouse filled the room as the garage door opened. Standing there were Atticus, Minxy and Katrina.
‘Russy? You okay-’ Minxy began. She stopped the moment she saw Samael. Her eyes widened at the sight of the Illuminati, as did Katrina and Atticus.
‘Oh, shit,’ Katrina said.
Atticus was shaking. He gritted his teeth and clenched his teeth. ‘Dude…’ he said, ‘get… the fuck… away… from Russ.’ All of a sudden, the teenage mage’s hands burst into flames. ‘Get the fuck away from my friend, you fucking piece of shit!’
He was about to throw the fireball, but not before Minxy and Katrina grabbed his arms to restrain him. As he struggled, he let loose a string of obscenities at Samael.
The angel ignored him and turned towards Russell. ‘Remember what I have told you, Russell. Just as I cannot force you to join us willingly, so too can Castiel not force you to stay with the Iron Crucible.’ His wings extended. ‘I will be in touch.’
It was with that, he left, flying through the broken skylight. Russell watched him go as the angel disappeared into the night.
Minxy and Katrina let Atticus go. The moment the mage was free, he immediately sent a fireball flying put of the skylight after the angel before turning towards Russell angrily.
‘Fucking hell, dude! I hope you’re not seriously considering that piece of shit’s offer!’ he shouted. ‘FUCK!’
As Atticus proceeded to punch the wall and let loose a litany of profanity, Minxy and Katrina just stood there, looking at Russell worriedly, unsure of what to do. Russell could only look back, lost for words.
He saw Castiel enter the garage. The senior paladin’s eyebrow rose when he saw Atticus raging.
‘Atticus! What did I say about swearing?’ he demanded.
The mage angrily turned towards the werewolf-paladin. ‘With all fucking respect, Cas, for five fucking minutes, fuck you and your no swearing policy!’ He clenched his hands and teeth before putting his back to the wall and sinking down it. Minxy took this opportunity to help comfort her brother. ‘Fuck!’
The look Castiel was giving the mage almost instantly worried Russell. The senior paladin looked like he was about to explode, but just short of doing so, he stopped. He took a deep breath to calm himself down before turning towards Russell. ‘Boy? What happened?’
Russell just stood there, still at a loss for words. With no response from the apprentice paladin, Castiel took in another deep breath and sighed. ‘Well? Can someone tell me what happened?’
‘Samael happened, Cas,’ Minxy explained nervously before continuing to try and calm Atticus down.
At the mention of the Illuminati, Castiel covered his face with his hands, and took in another breath. ‘Highfather above…’ He slid his hands down his face, trying to figure out what to do. ‘Kat, start the clean-up with Reversals on the balconies. Minxy, once Atticus is calmed down, start erasing the security tapes and get Atticus to work on the bodies.’ There were nods from Katrina and Minxy. The werewolf immediately left the garage as Minxy continued to try and calm her little brother down.
Castiel squatted down and quickly began to paint a cross on the ground with his Mana. After it was finished, he looked up at Russell, who was still standing there. ‘Boy, you’re coming with me. We have to talk.’
Russell nodded and without question joined his mentor.
The senior paladin gave him a stern look before putting his fingers on Russell’s forehead.
Seconds later, both mentor and apprentice had arrived back at the Iron Crucible’s Headquarters. The room they had teleported to – the one with the big red couch - was what Russell had quickly come to learn was the “living room”.
Big Red was already in the kitchen, fiddling with what appeared to Russell to be some sort of coffee-brewing contraption. Six mugs were already lined up on the counter, and there was a bottle of milk and a container of Milo next to them.
The demon artificer looked up almost as soon as Castiel and Russell arrived. ‘Good to have you guys back so soon,’ he greeted cheerfully. Then he noticed it was only just Castiel and Russell. ‘Where’s Katty, Atty and Minxy?’
The senior paladin shook his head. ‘They’re cleaning up. The boy and I have to talk.’
There was an understanding nod from the world-class coffee brewer. ‘Ah. One of those talks, I see.’ He turned to Russell. ‘New fish, you drink coffee?’
Russell shook his head. ‘Milo’s fine,’ he said. With that, Big Red nodded, and grabbing two cups from the row, got to work. The sound of the coffee-making contraption’s loud hiss could be heard.
Castiel and Russell sat down onto the couch. ‘I have to admit, I don’t know where to start with this, boy. And if you ask the others, you’ll find out just how rare that is.’ He paused. ‘So I’ll start by asking you a question. What did Samael tell you? In short.’
Russell swallowed. Basically… he said he was part of the Illuminati… saw the same thing you apparently saw in me… he owed me his life… uh… and he offered me an apprenticeship under him if I left the Iron Crucible,’ he said simply. His eyebrow rose. ‘I don’t get what’s the big commotion, Cas-’
‘I’ll explain it later,’ the senior paladin interrupted. ‘Anything else?’
There was a moment of thought. ‘He said you were a respectable and understanding foe, and that he was originally tasked to kill me.’ He paused. ‘But then I saved him, and then-’
From the kitchen, the hiss of the coffee-maker stopped. ‘You did what?’
Russell turned to see Big Red was giving him a surprised look. When he looked back at Castiel, the senior paladin also sported the same look. ‘I… the head warlock was about to finish me off inside that warehouse. But then Samael burst in through the skylight and stopped him, but then the head warlock almost killed him, too.’
An eyebrow rose on Big Red’s face. ‘And then what happened?’
‘I… well, I deflected a fireball sent at him and almost killed the head warlock with his own spell. Samael did the rest,’ he said. He gave the both of them a surprised look. ‘I know he was meant to kill me, but… he said that wouldn’t be a problem if-’
‘Boy, if there’s one thing you need to learn, it is that the Illuminati are amongst the most deadly enemies the Knights of the Holy Order have to face,’ Castiel interrupted again. ‘I don’t know how much he’s told you, but they are against the demons, the Highfather and everything that either serves to gives Him power, and will not stop until all they perceive as enemies… are dead.’
There was the sound of a spoon clinking and scraping one of the mugs. Russell noticed Big Red was stirring something in one of the mugs. ‘There’s a reason that’s a bad thing, new fish. It may be a bit complicated, but put simply, believing in a religion, almost any religion that doesn’t suppress the freedom of others or of their own members to the extreme, gives God the Highfather power.’
‘That’s basically almost everyone in the world,’ Russell mused.
‘Exactly,’ Castiel said. ‘Put simply, they won’t stop until almost everyone in the world is dead. That is why we fight them. I don’t think Samael told you that part, did he?’
The apprentice paladin shook his head. ‘No. He didn’t.’
‘Of course, that being said, when the demons do rear their heads and become a big enough threat, they have a tendency to be able to work alongside us for a rather short period of time,’ Castiel went on. ‘But even if it does happen, keep in mind that once the threat’s eliminated, they will not hesitate to turn on us.’
Big Red emerged from the kitchen, holding two steaming mugs. ‘There’s a little tactic that we use against the Illuminati, new fish,’ he said before handing the cups to Russell and Castiel before standing ‘Animosity. They hate demons more than they hate us, so if you stumble upon them fighting, let them fight.’
Russell took a sip of his Milo. ‘Cain gloated to Samael that the only thing the Illuminati were susceptible to were things demonic,’ he said. ‘Is that why?’
‘That’s the practical reason why. The other reason is, well, they’re angels, too. It’s in their nature,’ Castiel said. ‘I’m not sure what else you saw, but Illuminati are resistant to spells and physical attacks, and almost completely immune to the Holy spells.
‘And while there’s not many Illuminati compared to the number of the angelic host that serves the Highfather that still remains on Earth, they are more… elite. You could say the difference between a loyalist angel and Illuminati is like comparing the Army and the Marines. That is what makes them extremely dangerous.’
‘And that’s why you keep Big Red around, isn’t it?’ Russell pointed out. ‘To make things demonic to help fight against the Illuminati.’
Big Red shot Castiel a look. ‘Cassie, it’s only his third day in all of this and already he knows about the Illuminati and their weakness,’ he said. ‘I believe you said something about not comparing the new fish to Ezekiel? I tell you, a quick study like him’ll make him the next Archpaladin.’
Castiel rolled his eyes at the demon. ‘Again, let’s not put ideas in the boy’s head, shall we?’ He turned back to Russell. ‘That’s some good insight. Yes, that’s mostly correct. He also forges demonic sigils that keep the Illuminati from besieging the Headquarters, and, since you still have your mother and little sister living outside of all this, protecting your home from their attacks.’
It was at the mention of his family Russell’s eyes widened. ‘Wait a second. Why the hell didn’t I realize this before?’
‘Realize what?’ Big Red asked.
‘Cas, I can’t do this,’ the apprentice paladin said worriedly. ‘Any of this. Illuminati, Iron Crucible, anything. I… I just can’t.’
Castiel’s eyebrow rose. ‘And why’s that?’
Russell took in a deep breath and sighed. ‘No matter what side I take, I’m going to be wanted dead,’ he said.
‘It’s already done, new fish,’ Big Red said. ‘You’re in. You’ve pissed off my brother – which, let’s be honest here, gets pissed at anything these days – and, well, it comes with the job.’
‘No, you guys don’t understand,’ Russell replied. ‘Mephistopheles knows who I am, and I’m sure the Illuminati will soon find out regardless of my choice. They’ll get to me through Mum, Dad and Sarah. I… I…’
Castiel nodded. ‘You want out to protect them.’
Big Red sighed. ‘New fish, I hate to break it to you, but like I said before, it’s already done,’ he said. ‘I’m not one for asking sarcastic one-sided questions, but do you really think my brother is going to let you off the hook because you’re quitting? As well, the Illuminati have you on a hit list. The Pariah Archangel Jericho isn’t exactly one for leaving things up to chance, if you get my meaning.’
‘I understand your thinking and that you want to protect your family, boy, and I applaud it. But as much as I hate to agree with Big Red on this one… he has a point,’ Castiel added. ‘Nobody from the Knights of the Holy Order will try to stop you or do anything should you try to leave this life completely, that I know. But the demons and the Illuminati, on the other hand…’
‘They won’t show mercy,’ Big Red finished. ‘Hate to break it to you, new fish, but from where I’m standing… as “swim towards the tsunami to avoid the worst of it” as this may seem, you’ve got a better chance either sticking around with us, or, dare I say it, join the Illuminati.’
Russell sighed and slumped down onto the couch, rubbing his eyes with his palms. ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ he said.
‘Normally, I would be scolding you for swearing, but I know this is a hard decision for you, so I’ll let this one pass,’ Castiel said. ‘Look. I know a little bit of how Samael works, and admittedly, out of all the Illuminati, he’s the most honourable of the winged buggers I’ve ever met. You’re lucky Jericho decided to assign him to kill you and not another.
‘I also know how he works. He’s managed to convert fifteen paladin neophytes so far that I’ve seen during my career to become willing vessels or apprentices. From what I’ve seen, there is a phrase he used on all of them, and unfortunately, no matter how much I try, I cannot refute it, for it is the truth.’
‘“Just as I cannot force you to join us willingly, so too can Castiel not force you to stay with the Iron Crucible,”’ Russell mused.
‘Exactly. Just as I know he has a sense of honour, so too does he know I have mine,’ Castiel said. ‘If you decide to join the Illuminati, I swear on behalf of God the Highfather that I will not use the information I have to strike back at you, nor will I allow anyone to do so. I know how much family means, boy. I lost my wife and Katrina lost her mother when she was a toddler, and we’ve never been the same since. I will not put you through that.’
‘When a paladin swears upon the Highfather’s name, he means it,’ Big Red explained. ‘He has to follow his Paladin Oath, or else he will die immediately – no matter how high or important he is. The Ritual of the Holy Spirit gave you much easier access to your powers and the Blessing of Might, but it will not hesitate to kill you should you go back on your Paladin Oath.’
‘But then what about my family? Samael said that as I get more and more powerful, I’m going to make more and more enemies. That’s going to put them at risk,’ Russell said. He cupped his face in his hands. ‘It’s all my fault if they get hurt.’
‘Not if we have something to say about that, Russy,’ came a voice from behind the couch.
Russell jumped at the sound. He turned around to see Minxy, Katrina and Atticus behind the couch, looking at him. ‘Woah! How the hell didn’t I hear you guys come in?’ He paused. ‘Heck, now that I think about it… how long have you been standing there?’
Katrina cocked her head to the side. ‘Oh, about a minute,’ she said. ‘Look. Russ, I haven’t known you for too long. But I can tell you right away that Dad doesn’t make Paladin Oaths lightly.’ Her right hand closed into a fist. ‘And I can tell you that I know just how important family is. So, whatever happens, I will keep to my Dad’s judgement. And if you decide to stay, I give you my word I will treat your family as if it were my own.’
‘Same here,’ Minxy agreed. ‘Russy, I’d rather you stay with us. But all of us have been forced into this life one way or another. We’re not going to force you to stay.’ She smirked. ‘And heck, I like Sarah. I won’t let anyone hurt her or your mom, even if you…’ she sighed. ‘Even if you turn Illuminati.’
Russell then turned to Atticus. The teenage mage was definitely uncomfortable with the situation. He was quiet until Minxy gave him a sharp elbow to his side – but even then he shook his head, put his forehead into his hand and sighed, defeated. ‘Dude. I can’t stress how much I don’t want you to join those winged pricks,’ he said. ‘And while I won’t be happy about it… if you do, I’ll…’ he sighed again. ‘I’ll do what Mikkie and Kat said.’ He looked at his sister. ‘Happy now?’
‘To avoid the possible illusion of a loophole, I’ll agree with everyone else,’ Big Red added before making his way back into the kitchen. ‘Not that I get out that much these days, but there it is.’
‘You see, boy? We aren’t going to force you to stay with us if it’s not what you really want to do,’ Castiel said. ‘And if you do, we’ll try our best to not only keep your family safe, but give you a fighting chance to keep things in order.’
The senior paladin paused. ‘So, boy. What’s your choice?’
Russell pondered for a little while. ‘Can I ask a question first?’
There was a nod. ‘Go ahead.’
‘You said the Illuminati take people who come willingly. I take it by the wording there’s unwilling people that are forced to join their ranks?’
It was at this Russell noticed out of the corner of his eye Atticus’ hands and teeth clench.
Castiel nodded. ‘Unfortunately, yes. Those they cannot convince to join their cause, they try to capture and forcefully convert and brainwash,’ he said sombrely. ‘The good news is that they do try to avoid unwilling conversions, since the process has a tendency to cut their natural combat effectiveness in half. The bad news is that once it’s complete, it’s permanent.’ The senior paladin’s eyebrow rose. ‘That’s an awfully interesting question to ask. I thought you wouldn’t pick up on that, boy.’
‘That’s not all I’m picking up on,’ Russell said. He relaxed back onto the couch. ‘Tell you what. I’ll stay. But on three conditions.’
Atticus immediately relaxed. Smiles formed on Minxy and Katrina’s faces as Castiel almost breathed out a sigh of relief.
‘And those are?’ Big Red called out from the kitchen. There was the clanging of cups as he brought out three more steaming mugs of Milo for Katrina, Minxy and Atticus.
‘First, keep my family safe,’ Russell began.
‘Was always part of it, boy,’ Castiel replied.
‘Second, stop calling me “boy”.’
‘I’ll stop calling you “boy” when you’ve earned the right not to be called that anymore,’ was the response. There was a smirk. ‘But, of course, thank you for reminding me.’
Russell smirked back. ‘Third…’ he turned towards Atticus. ‘Tell me what happened.’
There was surprise from everyone – even from Atticus himself. ‘Uh… what?’ the teenage mage managed, just about to take a sip from his mug.
‘It’s obvious you have a beef with the Illuminati that even Minxy here doesn’t seem to share, dude,’ Russell said. ‘And I noticed your reaction when I asked about unwilling Illuminati conversions. Something must’ve happened.’
‘I rest my case, Cassie, Archpaladin material right here,’ Big Red whispered to Castiel.
Atticus sighed. ‘Alright, alright,’ he said. ‘I’ll explain.’ It was at that he sat down on the couch. Katrina and Minxy manoeuvred themselves to sit as well. ‘I warn you, dude, this isn’t going to be a short,’ he added.
There was a smirk.
‘I’m all ears, dude,’ said Russell Corschach. ‘I’m all ears.’
To Be Continued in Episode Four: Illuminatus, Part One