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Chapter 12

            “Did you have to blow it up?” Aaron asked rhetorically moving through the thickening green brushwood of Croatoa.

            The actual name of this part of the city was Salamanca, but the public was very good at sticking nicknames on places that matched perception, rumors, and urban legend. Baumtown became Boomtown after being obliterated during the Rikti invasion. Faultline was previously, BLAH, and was named after the villain that caused the local earthquake. Therefore, Salamanca became Croatoa, named for the mythical realm that was reputed to be absorbing this part of the city. It is believed Roanoke was also consumed by the spirit city.

            Norman remained silent not feeling the need to justify any of his actions to a hero of Paragon.

            “People could have been injured,” Thauma added dodging yet another low branch. The deep path they followed narrowed and widened erratically. She beginning to shiver damp chill in the air that came being beep into forest, although she could feel the touch of eldritch in the mist.

            “It was on the roof,” Norman finally growled. “Your valued civilians will live another day and the fire department will once again get a chance to practice their craft. It’s not like Longbow or Wyvern perform worse acts of terrorism on the Rogue Isles daily.”
            “So that justifies it then,” Thauma stated flatly. She hugged herself rubbing her arms, fighting off goose bumps. Traveling this deep into the forest lowered the temperature by at least fifteen degrees. It was here were Norman’s higher body temperature was evident. He was like a walking furnace and could feel the heat he emanated several paces back.

            Norman stopped and spun around to face the couple. The denser parts of the forest even filtered rays the sun its blades of light piercing the thick shroud. The smell of pine needles, leaves, and even wet dirt hung in the air like a humid invisible miasma. Both Thauma and Aaron had changed into t-shirt and jeans. Although, Thauma’s cut-off pants and thigh-high white boots demonstrated she could dress down and still appear chic. “What I am doing isn’t exactly following orders. It has been frowned upon by my superiors.”

            “Is that even possible?”  Aaron asked, “For a Protector to not follow orders?”

            Norman removed his helmet, so he his eyes could reflect the seriousness of what he was about to say. The strange environment that permeated Croatoa was affecting his electronics anyway. It was not crippling, just causing some sensors to go haywire, drastic temperature fluctuations in the surrounding area, errant life signs, etcetera.

            “Do not fool yourself in thinking Protectors are mindless automatons like Crey’s Protectors or even common soldiers. We are given wide encompassing powers to protect Arachnos, and with that the Rogues Isles. We are given this right by demonstrating absolute loyalty. We willfully sacrifice ourselves to the servitude of Arachnos for the promotion of a greater technological society. Protectors are not the villains you think we are. I am just the hero to my populace as you are to yours.”

            “You sound like a propaganda poster,” Aaron shot back. “Does the future include killing and terrorizing when you feel like it?”

            “We suffer no restrictions in the execution of truth and justice. The ends always justify the means.”

            “Who are we meeting again?” Thauma asked try to diffuse conversation. She was afraid where this conversation was headed.

            Norman traded glares with Aaron and literally had to force himself to acknowledge Thauma.

            “Ockham,” he responded turning to face her.

            “Ah,” she replied trying to remember the drake’s schedule. She thought he was scheduled to assist Portal Corporation this week with Dr. Night.

            Norman turned and continued walking down the path deciding to carry his helmet.

            “How’s that- ” Aaron started to say before Thauma turned and kissed him deeply on the lips. The two were momentarily lost in each other.

            “Please shut up,” she commanded opening her eyes and placing a finger on his lips.

            Aaron found he had nothing further to say.

            For the next half an hour Aaron and Thauma traded small talk. Norman kept at least a five step pace in front of them feigning disinterest in their banter. Aaron had many current events to catch up on since his return from the afterlife and the conversation revolved around the little things.

            “So,” Aaron addressed Aaron, “this is the long way then? Would have been easier if you hadn’t attacked the University.”

            Norman remained silent. He was using his recent memory and although the trail narrowed with twists and turns, they had arrived at a large clearing underneath the thick canopy of leaves. He turned and gestured forward like a Matera Dee.

            They emerged from the overgrown path into a large clearing. Each paused in surreal awe.  A large scraggly stone throne was positioned near the center of a clearing with four lit torches surrounding it. It was as if someone took pieces of Stonehenge and assembled a makeshift throne for a giant. That was not the true reason the three stood in awe. Ockham sat crossed-legged and meditating upon the thrown appearing as a child in comparison. Surrounding the drake like moths to the flame were creatures of Fae. About a half dozen of red glowing orbs, known as Will of the Wisps, and another of blue glowing orbs, known as Sprites. They encircled the cloned half-dragon seemingly drawn to the drake if he was a long forgotten friend. Each of the three new arrivals felt almost giddy with mysticism. A feeling Norman kept locked and hidden, oddly even though his soul felt carefree. Of course, he attributed it to the anxiety of the journey that still stretched before him. The end so close now.

            Thauma smiled at seeing her old friend, Occam. She had spent some amount of time with him after Aaron’s death in the land of Faerie. Ironically, they had embarked to the other world from Croatoa.

            “Occam…” she said her voice trailing off. Approaching her friend, she noticed the physical differences. Thauma turned to Norman embarrassed, “You said Occam, not Ockham’s Claw.”

            Both Aaron and Thauma had encountered Occam’s clone, when the real drake confronted the reborn Saurian god a few years ago . The god had mocked Occam taking the moniker, Ockham. The Dark Lord then named his apostles with the prefix. Ockham’s Ninja, Ockham’s Hound, and Ockham’s Thunder were all prior minions. This also paralleled names students of Occam took to honor their mentor. Among the first were Occam’s Blade and Occam’s Mind. Today, an entire super group could be so formed with the numbers Occam counseled.

            “No,” Norman flatly correctly, “I said Ockham.”

            Thauma shook her head and bit her lower lip. This was getting confusing, but chaos and confusion had been the Dark Lord’s intention. Technically, she did misunderstand, but that was splitting hairs. It was possible Norman did not know the circumstances on how they first met the cloned drake. That was the day Occam’s Blade was murdered by the Dark Lord and Ockham’s Claw tried to kill them. She hoped her Protector just did not know, and was not manipulating the truth for his gain. She really wanted to believe Norman could be a better person.

            Ock opened his eyes and arose. The Will of the Wisps and Sprites continued their swarming growing in numbers, but expanded their orbit to contain the whole group.

            “Greetings, Dame Thauma,” Ock said bringing his hands together and bowing at the waste.

            Thauma paused. There was a stillness and tranquility emanating from Claw. What she felt was surprising and unexpected. After their deadly encounter, Occam had turned the rogue drake from the Dark Lord, whom he had circumcised from Crey. Ockham’s Claw then returned to the Rogue Isles to fight the evil that grew there. Occam said he was the only hero on the Rogue Isles, and would lay the seeds that would eventually free the Isles forever. She and Aaron had never seen him since. Now with this sense of serenity she was taken off guard.

            Ock recognized his presence was a surprise to the duo bowed and greeted Sir Aaron in turn.

            Aaron just nodded his head. Returning from the afterlife gave him a different perspective on life. One, which for the time being, was more easy-going.

            “I never had the opportunity to apologies for my actions all those years ago. I am truly sorry.”

            “It’s okay,” Thauma answered. Everything was okay, now. Looking into Occam’s eyes was like staring into the sun, blazing with a passion for freedom, life, and hope. Ockham’s Claw, the clone of Occam, had a similar penetrating stare. His was more like looking into a mirror that reflected your soul. It was not accusatory in a nature, but a forgiving and understanding stare.

            “It’s ok…” Aaron paused wondering what to call the drake.

            “Ock,” the half-dragon finished. He locked eyes with Thauma.

            “Uh… yeah,” she stammered. She felt like crying, strangely feeling guilty of holding a grudge against him. She easily was able to suppress the tears, but it irritated her that she felt that way without apparent reason.

            “Enough with the reunion,” Norman said curtly. “Time is short.”

            “Your patience shall be rewarded,” answered Ock.

            “Really,” Norman said. “With more of your dragon philosophy?”

            “Brother,” Ock responded.

            “Don’t brother me.” Norman was restless. Trained to control his emotions and show no weakness, this skill of late had been waning. He felt his world collapsing in around him. The answers were in his lost memories. Well, that is what he believed. So close he was to finally claiming what he so long sought it was becoming an unbridled obsession.

            “What do you require of us?” Thauma asked.

            “How much did Norman tell you?” Ock asked.

            “Very little,” she replied.

            “That sounds like him,” Ock said smiling relaxing Thauma who felt she was speaking with a long lost friend.

            “Are we actually going to do this here?” Aaron asked walking up to stand by his love. “This place isn’t actually the safe.”

            “Yes, I am going to perform the ceremony here, and yes it isn’t safe. I have asked for assistance and others will arrive soon. My friends...” Ock gestured toward the orbiting Fae creatures, which now seemed to be racing along the perimeter of the clearing. “They will be helping us as well.’”

            “And why here?” Aaron said crossing his arms. He was not convinced that this was the right location. Hell, he was not convinced of anything. He fully put his faith in Thauma. That was unconditional. Norman bothered him more than he was letting on, if he hid it at all. Aaron still had to come to grips that years had passed since his death and life had moved on. He had not thought anything happened between Thauma and Norman, but he could never be sure. The villain did look similar to him, hell he even had a form of his powers. What he had trouble dealing with was they appeared to have some history together. The returned hero rolled his hands into tight fists to stop his mind from running away with stray thoughts. I am not jealous!

            “Croatoa is swallowing this place into the Spirit World,” Thauma volunteered keeping her eyes locked on Ock. She then looked into the brown eyes of her love. “It can be used as a nexus to other places. Occam taught me that.”

            “You are not sending her anywhere without me,” Aaron demanded.

            “Be at ease, PhoenixHawk,” Ock assured holding his hand up. “She is not traveling anywhere but inward.”

            “Huh,” Aaron grunted and even Thauma found the response lacking.

            “Thauma and Norman will be traveling into his psyche, his soul if you will.”

            “Whoa, she isn’t traveling into his mind,” Aaron was serious. He did not want the villain’s corrupt thoughts exposed to the women he loved. “No telling whaat might happen.”

            “It will be okay,” Ock assured gesturing. “They will be safe. The true challenge lay out here. Once the denizens of Croatoa learn of our intrusion, there will be real battles to fight. The Red Caps, Tuatha Dannon, and Fir Bolgs have a long-standing feud with dragons. No doubt, they will relish a chance to take vengeance from past deeds.

            “Well, no then. I don’t approve,” Aaron said raising his voice.

            “Aaron its okay,” Thauma said taking Aaron by the arm gently. “I… I am actually okay with this.”

            “But I am not,” Aaron responded breaking her grip. If I didn’t accompany you here, Ock would be defending you by himself. Let me at least summon the Onami Strike Force, so we may mount an adequate defense.”

            “That’s not going to happen, dead man!” Norman said. “There is no other time to do this, and a low profile must be maintained.”

            “Like kidnapping Azuria and attacking a Longbow operative!” Aaron pointed out. Norman’s dead man comment was grating on him.

            “Actually,” Ock said hoping to diffuse the obvious tension between the two genetic brothers, “I have summoned Occam’s Wall.”

            Aaron’s brow furrowed, “Who?”

            “He is a newer Onami member from after you were killed,” Thauma explained. “In fact, he’s been with the group quite a while.”

            “Wall is an Elemental and should arrive at any moment. However, I think his current assignment is holding him up. He has been entrusted to Occam, but is unable to differentiate between him and I. Very fortuitous for us.”

            Thauma realized Aaron was going to have a harder time transitioning back into the living. It was definitely frustrating watching him struggle with all the changes.

            “Very well,” Aaron grunted dismissing the topic with a wave of his hand. He had no choice, but to place everything on Thauma’s judgment. It was not that he did not trust her, unraveling all the changes was wearisome.  Aaron waved a flippant hand at Norman, “I am already tired of dealing with this… wuss.”

            Take a match to wood soaking in gasoline and the resulting detonation would have been a mere spark to Norman’s response. Everyone felt the explosion of heat and flame and the thundering boom was sure to attract unwanted attention. Norman stood in a micro-storm of fire and flame. The tongues danced hungrily around their controller ready to feast, whispering prayers of joy to the flesh.

            “Go for it,” Aaron said standing defiantly. “You don’t exist in my world anyway. I don’t care you’re the big bad boys of Arachnos injected you with my DNA. You’re nothing to me.”

            Norman!” Ock said raising a voice without quite yelling. “This will delay the ceremony.”

            Thauma jumped in front of Aaron, “I am here to help you. Obviously, you don’t want it. We’re leaving.”

            Norman, momentarily lost to his black sea of fury, was able to pull back relaxing his powers. The extent of his loss of control was now evident. His emotional state was beyond his control. He even felt embarrassed.

            “Be glad you’re hiding behind her,” Norman said burying the flames. “One day she won’t be there to save you, again.”

            Aaron sneered and grabbed Thauma by her arm in an attempt to push her aside. Already the energy was enough to cause an azure glow to emanate from his hands.

            Norman braced himself making fists with his hands that hung at his side.

            “Stop it!” Thauma yelled. “Both of you! I am so sick of this shit.” She glared at Aaron who backed down. “Norman do you want my help or not.”

            “Yes,” Norman sighed shallowly relaxing his stance and grip. “I… I am sorry. I need you.” He hated admitting that out loud. It was a sure sign of weakness. One that would get him killed. He stared at Thauma and was completely enraptured by her beauty. Emptiness swelled within him knowing she could never be his. Whatever lay within the darkened recesses of his mind had to be the answer to his problems. Or, so he had hoped. It was too late now.

            With the air temporarily cleared from thick egos, Ock went on to explain the ceremony they were about to undertake. Both Thauma and Norman would sit lotus position facing each other. Ock would began the chanting and weave the magic required for the journey. The travelers would then grasps hands so neither would get lost. The journey into ones soul and back through genetic memories would be greatly disorienting. Norman would most likely spend time inhabiting those related to his blood, while Thauma would be an observer. There was a chance she would end up in other people’s perspective as experienced by Norman, but not definitely. While this sounded like time travel, it was not. Well, not exactly. There were similarities and Ock was sure with more time to study his incantations and right acquisition of other eldritch props someone could attempt such a trip. The difference was like a paper airplane and interstellar travel.

            “One last, thing Norman,” Ock said. “Your true name will be revealed to you. You may not even realize it at the time. Be wary.”

            Norman just nodded taking a deep breath. He could feel his pulse racing and was glad he did not have his helmet to see the readout. This whole situation was a mess.

            Aaron kept his mouth shut watching his true love sit across from someone he did not like. They grasped in an embrace and he just watched unmoving standing to the side of them. Ock began his chants, and slowly danced a circle around the two travelers. Aaron noticed the Will of the Wisps and Sprites suddenly accelerated in their orbital path around the clearing.

            The balls of energetic life, creature of Fae, suddenly rocketed passed the group in a straight line missing them by inches. They seemed to form a wall of protection.

            “Hold,” Arbiter Leery said entering the clearing from other direction only fifty feet away or so.

            The Wisps and Sprites shivered in what Aaron thought was anger, or fear. Hell, they were balls of light what did he know?

            Ock stopped the ceremony and walked up to the wall of light and it parted like a curtain. He waved his hand and the creatures slowly returned to their previous nonchalant orbit.

            Leery held his Arachnos shotgun at his waist; behind him, two drones hovered scanning the area. He had dispatched all of the spiderlings and arachnobots, to encircle the clearing. He was not sure what to expect here and hated going in blind.

            Norman slightly disoriented from the beginning of the spellcraft rose to his feet, helping Thauma rise.

            The unmasked Protector recognizing the voice quickly walked over to Ock. “Arbiter Leery?”

            “Protector,” Leery responded walking over to the drakes. The two drones followed him staying perfectly five feet back.

            “Arbiter,” Norman replied bowing down on one knee.

            Norman,” Leery said. “Please get up.”

            He did.

            “What is going on?”

            Norman weighed his words carefully, when Michael stumbled into the clearing behind Leery. “I am going to reclaim that which Arachnos took from me.”

            “Really… against our explicit orders not to?”

            “Yes,” Norman replied.

            Aaron helped the disoriented Thauma approach Ock.

            Michael tried to approach the group stoically, but he was extremely exhausted. More tired then any other time he could remember. His solution to fix the Flier was that he himself acted as the power source. Drawing all the electrical energy he could generate he transferred it direct into the undamaged conduit. The drain on him was like something he never felt before. If only he could take a nap.

            “I have to do this,” Norman continued. “If I do not reclaim those memories, then I will remove myself from active duty and report to the medical center. I cannot continue without them.”

            “What if you can’t remember?” Leery asked. “Some things are not worth remembering.”

            “Is there something I should know,” Norman prodded realizing Leery was actually trying to protect him from something.

            “No,” he said flatly. “You would not believe me and only follow through with the procedure anyway.”

            “Yes,” Norman agreed, “I probably would.”

            “Even against the will of Lord Recluse?”

            Norman sized up Leery, trying to figure out what he was hinting too. The conundrum he was experiencing bothered him greatly. Not doing anything was like asking someone to stop breathing. It would be like asking Aaron and Thauma to stop loving each other.

            “Are you going rogue?” Michael said bending over resting his hands on his thighs. He could not believe how tired he was.

            “What?” Norman said his face wrinkling. “That’s nonsense.”

            “But you are disobeying direct orders,” Leery pointed out.

            “All Protectors know what they were getting into,” Norman began. “They have the luxury of making the decision and living with the consequences. I do not. I know I wanted to join, but that is more of a feeling, not a true memory of a decision I made. Other Protectors are not denied information on the life they had before their enhancements and training.”

            “Some of those dead,” Leery pointed out.

            “Yes,” Norman agreed. “But who am I? Why did I survive when others did not?”

            “Maybe you didn’t survive?” Leery revealed.

            Norman’s eyes instantly narrowed. He knew Leery was hiding something. “Then how can I go further. Not knowing why I love this woman is haunting my waking thoughts.” Norman gestured to Thauma. “I cannot stop loving her and it hurts. In this condition, I cannot fulfill the obligations of my oath.”

            Leery pondered that response. Feeling the awkward silence of enemies staring across from each other he decided. “We should have expected this kind of response from the Destined One.”

            Norman snorted at those words… Destined One.

            That response made Leery smile devilishly. He did not know what caused such a retort from a man he knew for years as the most loyal of the loyal. “Very well, my friend, go with the blessings of Arachnos. We cannot afford to lose you or your loyalty.”

            Norman bowed low and turned to Ock, “Let’s finish this already.”

            Michael, Thauma, and Aaron quietly exchanged pleasantries thin-lipped.

            “Are you happy with your choice Michael?” Aaron asked while Ock restarted the ceremony

            “Hell, yes.”

            Leery walked over to the former mates, “Protector Michael has demonstrated superior dedication and achievement to Arachnos.”

            “Is that so?” Aaron said surprised by the response. It seemed he could have been talking to any U.S. military commander like a proud family member. Frankly, he did not know if that was a good thing or bad thing for Michael.

            “Yes,” Leery continued, “As a matter of fact, I plan on awarding him an achievement medal for selfless actions in carrying out his duty,”

            Aaron nodded and Michael bowed slightly to his commander his smile leaking from underneath the mystic helmet.

            “Is there anything further I can do to assist you and Nor- er, Thauma,” Leery said to Aaron smiling.

            Aaron looked around, not believing what he was about to say. “Sure, we need to secure the perimeter.”

            “Done,” Leery said sending commands to all of his drones in the area. “Then lets mount a terrific defense. Protector Michael, feel free to remove your helmet in the presence of your friends.”

            Michael did, but would have anyways.

            The ceremony continued…

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