(AN) AUTHOR'S NOTES: Ah… finally another update I trust all my readers and fans from the USA have been having an awesome thanksgiving and black Friday weekend/ holiday?

Well this comes right on time for when it ends I did not think my editor would make it in time before since she messaged me a few days ago that she was burning gas per se in getting this update to be before thing go back to normally until the winter holidays come rolling around soon. Have splendid time in reading the chapter everyone.

(*) As always many special thanks to my editor and co-partner in helping finally get this story off the ground and back burner dragonwriter24cmf. So far we have been getting by with this fan fiction by bit by bit with story and with you guy the fans that love reading each new chapter that comes out. Thanks to everyone, I appreciate your support through this 100% everyone. Keep the constructive criticisms, outgoing comments and reviews coming in.

DISCLAIMER: All rights to Trinity Blood was created and © by late Yoshida Sunao, the anime directed by Tomohiro Hirata and produced by the studio GONZO, as well as a manga drawn by Yoshida Sunao's friend Kiyo Kyoujou. All © rights revered by their respective owners. I own nothing except © to this story, it's plot and it's OC's that will eventually show within later chapters.

Warning:This fan fiction is rated (M) AKA Lemon. This story is ABSOULTLY NOT suitable for children or teens below the age of 16 [So if you're under the age limit turn back now, come back when you old enough to read this. I'd rather not get flamed nor sued by parents whom are just looking for trouble in places their underage children should not be looking nor reading for that matter.

This story contains strong explicit adult themes and sexual ones such slight foreplay - as in hand sex, one-sided love, Attempted Rape, Explicit Sex or anything else mild to hard core kinky for that matter!, references to violence, and strong coarse language. If this disturbs you, do not read any further.

Notice:Trinity Blood War Continuum takes place one month after the events from the anime's finale episode 24 along with some elements, characters and things that will be used and taken from both manga's Rage against the Moons (RAM), Reborn on the Mars (ROM). In addition to some spoilers from stories untold notes left by Yoshida Sunao which he intended to finish off the manga series supposedly. Basically 50/50 will be used on both the anime and manga to those whom are more familiar with manga then others will see this implants as the story develops. Trinity Blood is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Roman Catholic Church/the Vatican is portrayed as a military and spiritual power. The series also strongly implies major and controversial changes in the Church of present reality, such as women being bishops, cardinals as well as romantic relationships and marriages between members of the clergy. If this disturbs you of form or shape of or on imagination then do not read this story.

Trinity Blood: War Continuum - Chapter: 37 – Armageddon, Angel's War

Esther woke the next morning tired and slightly sore, but very content. She and Abel had made love again during the night. She had woken, sometime after she'd fallen asleep, to the feel of Abel growing aroused inside her. It was a strange feeling, but it was stimulating as well. Abel had held her, kissing and caressing her, as his own body hardened and lengthened inside hers. Then, when they were both flushed and panting, he'd rolled her gently onto her back and made love to her once more, still as gentle as before. He'd maintained a quicker, stronger pace the second time, but Esther didn't mind in the least. After they'd both found release, he had held her some more. He hadn't stayed within her that time, wanting not to hurt her, or disturb her rest too much. She had to admit, he had a point. Besides, it had been enough, to be able to curl up beside him, wrapped in his arms.

Esther smiled, then turned to look at her sleeping lover. Abel had rolled onto his back, the sheets rumpled and pushed down to his waist, revealing his lean body. After two rounds of lovemaking and a few hours of sleep, his face and body were completely relaxed, the lines of strain erased from his countenance.

Esther glanced at the clock. She'd woken early, and there was plenty of time before anyone came for her. She smiled, then leaned over and kissed Abel.

Abel woke, startled, then relaxed. Esther held the kiss for a few moments, then sat back. "Good morning."

Abel smiled. "Good morning." He chuckled. "Honestly...I could get used to waking up that way."

Esther felt her own smile widen, and reached out to brush his jaw. "I could get used to waking you up that way. Although, the way I woke up last night wasn't bad either." She grinned at him.

Abel flushed. "Yes, well...I did warn you."

Esther leaned her head against his chest. "You did. But...I don't regret it. It was a wonderful evening."

Abel laughed gently. "It was, wasn't it? I will admit, I'm rather inclined to tell all your advisers that you aren't feeling well, and simply stay here with you for the rest of the day. Although, that would hardly be proper. In which case, I suppose I ought to get out of bed and get a bath ready for you."

Esther smiled and ran a hand over his arm. "There's still plenty of time."

Abel laughed again, then leaned in to kiss her lightly. "So there is, but I'm very likely to lose track of time, if we don't get moving now."

That was probably true. She'd seen him lose track of time more than once and, despite Mary and Virgil's respectful attitudes, they were both shy about being embarrassed by her advisers. She kissed him back, then let him go. Abel smiled, caressed her cheek gently with the back of his hand, then untangled himself from the sheets and rose from the bed. Somehow, he managed to sling his discarded shirt over his shoulders as he did so. It didn't offer a lot of protection, but it did provide some.

Esther smiled as he disappeared into the bathroom, and the water started running. She felt better than she had for days. Their late night discussion and its unexpected aftermath had not only cleared the air, but revived their relationship.

Abel came out when the bath was ready and gestured her in while he collected his clothing so he could run across the hall to his own rooms. Esther took a longer bath than normal, enjoying the heat and relaxation. Finally, she emerged, toweled off, and dressed for the day.

Abel met her in the hall, cleaned up, in a freshly laundered uniform. He smiled as she emerged. "Shall we go down to breakfast? I know we're a little ahead of schedule, but I confess, I'm a little hungry."

"Of course." Esther smiled as Abel held out his arm, in proper Albion fashion, and took his hand. "But there's no need for formality, not for this early, Abel."

"As you wish." His tone was properly solemn for a Queen's escort, but his eyes were dancing with happiness, and his fingers intertwined with hers.

They arrived at the table to find Astha and Ion relaxing, holding cups of tea. Virgil was there as well, serving the other two Methuselah, though his relaxation spoke more of friendly companionship than service. All three of them looked up as they entered, eyes flicking to their faces and their joined hands.

Astha snorted. "It took you long enough, tovarish. I thought I was going to have to slap you, to get you to speak to her."

Abel flushed, and Esther stepped forward. "It isn't his fault. I was actually avoiding him this time."

Astha stared at her, unblinking, for a moment. "Well, that's fine then. Although...I take it you've resolved matters?"

"We have." Esther nodded.

"I beg your pardon. I thought I overheard someone say something had been resolved?" The Professor limped into the room, followed by Leon and an all-too-alert looking Seth.

The Empress glanced at their faces, and Abel's hand holding Esther's and grinned. "Well. It seems the two of you have finally managed to reconcile. I have to admit, I was getting a little worried there."

"It's all right. Esther and I talked a bit last night, and everything's fine." Abel smiled, but Esther saw a shadow darken his eyes. Seth must have noticed too, because a similar one touched her expression.

Leon made a rude noise. "Finally! I thought you were going to sulk forever, Four Eyes. I was about ready to punch you." He smirked. "He didn't give you too much trouble, did he, Red?"

Esther started to protest, but Abel's hand tightened on hers, and he shook his head slightly, a smile tipping up one corner of his mouth. Esther relaxed and shook her head. "No. He was very polite."

"Good. Then I won't have to crack his skull." Leon shot Abel one of his wolf's grins. "I vote we eat. I think I can hear Four Eyes' stomach growling from here."

Abel managed a sheepish grin. "Probably. It actually woke me up this morning."

"Well then, we should take care of that." Seth stepped over, took their joined hands, and dragged both of them to the table.

The meal was fairly lighthearted, little conversations starting up here and there and then dying away into the clink of plates and glasses and silverware. Mary joined them shortly after the servants brought the food, and Virgil courteously offered to fill her plate. Yet despite the small talk and the interest everyone applied to their plate, there was an odd undercurrent to the meal, as if everyone was only waiting for it to be over for something to happen, and no one was particularly eager to rush whatever they expected.

Finally, the last plates were cleared, and cleared away. Esther glanced at the clock. Her schedule was rather open. Given the current situation, she had a Council meeting every day, but not morning Court, so she had a few hours free. She'd been planning to do paperwork, but the odd silence among the others was making her uneasy. She was just about to break it when Seth spoke. "So then, Abel, if you and Esther have talked things out...does that mean you're ready?"

"Yes." Abel's voice was rough.

Esther blinked. "Ready? Ready for what?"

Abel rose slowly from his seat, all the laughter gone from his expression. "Do you remember, Esther, what we discussed about Cain, last night?"

Esther nodded. "Yes."

Abel's hand clenched slowly. "Do you remember...what I said I would do?"

"Yes, you said...you'd do whatever you must." Something clenched in her gut. "You don't mean..."

Seth sighed. "The rest of Rosenkreutz is a threat, but the truth is, this battle has always been between Cain and Abel. Ever since Lilith's death, and maybe even before then, you know. We've been fighting, but really, we've been waiting for Abel to decide what to do."

Leon's eyebrow rose. "You finally gonna go after him, Four Eyes?"

Abel swallowed hard, face pale. "Yes."

Leon nodded. "About time. I can get why you aren't exactly anxious, but I was getting tired of waiting."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. This is a difficult decision to make." The Professor rose from his seat, and moved to lay a hand on Abel's shoulder. "What do you want us to do?"

Abel swallowed again, took a deep breath. "I need to call a full War Council meeting, with Caterina, all the AX members we can get online, and Brother Petros."

Virgil and Mary both nodded, and the Count rose. "It will be done. When do you want to schedule it?"

Abel hesitated. "I...as soon as possible."

Virgil nodded, then turned to Esther. "Majesty...if the War Council is convening, may I suggest we alert the formal Council that we shall be delayed, and meet this afternoon? That way, we'll be in a position to inform them as to the plans that are made."

"Yes. Of course."

Mary rose from her seat. "Lord Walsh if you can summon the War Council, I will inform the other Albion nobility." Walsh nodded, then both of them bowed to Esther, and left.

Seth stretched. "I'd better help him get Mirka and Baibars online. You two." She gave Ion and Astha a quick glance. "I'd appreciate it if you could collect our notes on the current situation, as well as everything we've previously discussed, and bring it to the Council." Both nodded, rose, bowed, and left in a hurry.

Wordsworth stretched. "We should probably get our information together as well."

Leon nodded. "Yeah." He pulled himself out of his seat. "See you in Council." he gave Esther a half-hearted salute, and he and the Professor left the room.

That left Esther and Seth with Abel, who was still staring at the table, a strained look on his face. Seth moved to cover her brother's clenched hand. "Abel...are you sure?"

"I am. This has gone on far too long. Cain...he must be stopped. And there is...there is no one else."

Seth nodded. "I just don't want to lose you again, Abel. After everything..."

"I know." Abel took a slightly deeper breath, then gave her a wan smile. "It will be all right. After all, I can hardly leave you alone again, and Miss Astha and Leon will certainly beat me up if I don't keep myself together. Besides..." He raised his head, to look Esther in the eyes. "I have a very important promise to keep to Esther."

"Hmph. So you do. As long as you understand, that there are people who want you to be all right and come home safe, whatever happens." Seth managed a weak smile as well. "If you're sure, then I suppose the three of us had better get to the conference room." Esther and Abel nodded, and the together, they left, Esther and Seth linking arms with Abel.

Half an hour later, they seated themselves around the Conference table. Vanessa had come up from the Underground to join in. Several of the wall screens were lit, showing Caterina, Hugue, Brother Petros, Mirka and Baibars. Vaclav hovered in the background with Lady Caterina, as Sister Paula did with Brother Petros.

Caterina was the first to speak. "I take it, if a full Council is being called, that something has happened, or is about to."

"Yes." Abel rose from his seat, facing his superior. His face was pale, but stern rather than drawn.

Caterina studied him a moment, steel gray eyes locking with Abel's. "I see. You're ready then?"

"I am." Abel swallowed. "It's time to finish things."

"Very well then." Caterina nodded, leaning forward and lacing her fingers together in front of her face. "What's your plan, Abel?"

Esther was surprised. She hadn't expected Caterina to defer to Abel. She was far too used to seeing Abel as Caterina's subordinate. But no one else looked at all confused. In fact, they were all staring at the silver-haired man, simply waiting for his lead. It shook her a bit, to realize that Abel had become the war leader in her absence. He'd always been so gentle, so kind. It was hard to see him as a commander, and it woke uneasy memories of the past, when he'd been Cain's commander, against them. She shook the thoughts away and listened to Abel speak.

"We need to take the battle away from non-combatants. Anywhere Cain and I fight is going to be leveled, especially if we're both at full strength."

Caterina nodded. "We're all aware of that. I take it you have a location in mind."

"I do. The ARK." Abel swallowed again. "It's isolated, the only people who would get there would be the combatants for both sides." One hand clenched. "I plan to call Cain out, and summon him to the ARK. And this time, we're not leaving until this is finished." There was a harsh, terrible finality to the words that made Esther shiver, and she wasn't the only one. Beside her, she saw Seth make a face, pain and grief and fear on her young face.

She saw a flash of similar emotion in Caterina's eyes, but the older woman masked it well. "I see. It's a viable plan. However, there are two things that need to be addressed. One, how we can convince the Contra Mundi to agree to the terms. And two, despite my confidence in you, Abel, we need a backup plan. Should the unthinkable happen, and you lose, then how will we stop the Order of Rosenkreutz."

Abel's hand clenched, then relaxed. "If I lose, truly lose, then the ARK will detonate. Seth and I saw to that, while we were visiting. I hadn't mentioned it, because there was no use for the information, but we implanted a code that will allow the ARK to be fully destroyed upon my death." One hand reached up to lay upon his chest. "The cycling process will take a few minutes, and will look like an ordinary start up, or power surge, which Cain and the others will probably expect. You'll have that time to retreat."

Esther felt her heart sink, and further down the table, Leon cursed. "You sneaky little bastard." Dark eyes glared at Abel, then at William. "Did you know about this?"

"Of course. I did help set it up after all." William leaned back in his chair.

"But you didn't inform me." There was only a hint of reproach in Caterina's tone.

"I did not. Abel asked me to assist him with a fail-safe measure months ago. I have to confess, I was a bit reluctant, and I did consider reporting it, until he explained things to me. However, what he's proposing is not a suicide attack, but rather, a distraction and a stopping measure in case of total defeat. Considering what our circumstances will be if that occurs, I thought it well worth the risk."

Esther blinked. "Of course. You've created something like the Ibilis haven't you, Father?"

Abel's eyes cut to her, startled. Then he nodded. "Essentially, yes."

"In that case, we'll have to assume that it will work." Caterina frowned. "I do wish you'd told me before hand, Abel."

A small, sheepish smile touched his mouth. "I know. But, to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure how to bring it up."

Astha growled softly. "You'd better make sure you never use that trigger, tovarish, or I will resurrect you myself and beat you to death."

Abel actually laughed at that. "I understand. But I've already promised to do my absolute best to survive, so...there's no need to be concerned."

Caterina snorted. "With you, Abel, there's every reason to be concerned. However, there's nothing we can do about it at this point." She sighed. "Since we've covered that, I assume you have a plan for drawing the Contra Mundi out of hiding as well?"

Abel's face paled slightly, but his eyes were resolute. "Yes." He gestured to the battle map that spread between them. We know there is a base of operations for Rosenkreutz and their associates near Amsterdam. They've been particularly difficult to handle, because of the unofficial hostilities between the current Count Four, as well as other upheavals in the region."

Hugue nodded and spoke softly. "I've been working on it. But there are numerous underground factions, and the Order members move among them too easily to track." The pale face was impassive, but the way he shifted slightly betrayed his frustration. "Some of them are moving among the local Terrans as well."

Abel nodded and looked to Caterina. "I'd like permission to join Hugue in Amsterdam. It's my guess that if we make a concentrated effort, we may be able to force their hands."

Caterina frowned thoughtfully. "You think you can force their main agent in the region out of hiding?"

Abel nodded. "Everything we've seen indicates one of the major lieutenants in the area. My guess is Isaac von Kampfer, or the Ice Witch. The Nuemanns have always played back-up, or extreme situations, and Cain's been keeping von Lohengrin on a short leash of late."

Caterina nodded. "Quite logical. And once you've uncovered their agent..."

"I'll send Cain a message, demanding he contact me. Then, however it happens, I will challenge him to combat, aboard the ARK."

Petros scowled. "A sound plan, but how do you know he will behave with honor, and meet you as a warrior should? He is no servant of the Lord, to act in a righteous manner. He will most likely betray you."

"It is possible. However, we know that Cain will meet me. After all..." Abel's voice was soft. "He's been after me all along. Me and Esther, once he discovered her association with me. If I summon him of my own accord, even for battle, he will come."

William frowned and pulled the pipe from his teeth. "Be that as it may, you can't be considering meeting him alone? You should at least take some back-up. After all, he may well bring the rest of the Order down upon your head, and even you can't handle those odds, Abel."

"I know. I had intended..." Abel swallowed. "I had not intended to go alone, this one time. After all of this...you all swore, this past year, to see this to the end." His eyes flickered around the table, resting longer on Caterina, who had stood with him for ten years, on Ion, who had followed him, even at the risk of exile. On the Professor, his friend. To his sister, watching him gravely. "I will not ask you to come with me, but I will not stop you."

Astha made an exasperated noise. "Don't be stupid, Nightroad." She met his eyes, her expression fierce. "Did you truly think I would send my tovarish into such danger alone?"

Abel acknowledged her words with a slight bow of his head. From her position, Caterina sighed. "The Duchess of Kiev is correct. However, first we must get the Contra Mundi to agree to the meeting. We can plan our most effective strike force once we know that we'll be engaged in combat aboard the ARK."

Abel nodded, and the rest of the Council echoed the gesture. Seth folded her arms. Tapping one finger thoughtfully against her cheek. "Well, that just leaves one question, doesn't it? Are we sending Abel to Amsterdam, or sending someone else in his place with a message?"

Esther bit her lip. She didn't want Abel to leave, but she knew it was selfish of her, especially with his role in the war. She also didn't want him to be in danger, but the truth was, as long as the Contra Mundi and Rosenkreutz still existed, he wouldn't be safe.

At the center of the table, Caterina's projected image was also frowning thoughtfully. "Since Esther has returned, Abel's primary objective is to keep her safe. Considering the situation, even with trusted guards and extra security measures put in place, I'm reluctant to reassign him, even temporarily."

"That's quite true." Abel's voice was calm. "But there's no guarantee that any member of Rosenkreutz, particularly one of the top members, would even bother to deliver a message given secondhand. Especially not if they thought we were bluffing. And even if we ensured that it was delivered..."

"Cain might not listen. He's really rather unpredictable that way." Seth sighed and leaned back in her seat. "I really don't think Abel should leave Esther's side, and I don't want to send him to the front lines again, but I'm not sure there's any other way to guarantee Cain will receive and listen to the message. I honestly don't see how it can be avoided in this case."

"It can't. Not if we want to be sure." Leon scowled at the table. "Damn."

Abel stood where he was a moment, then turned. "Esther? What do you think?"

Esther bit her lip again. She didn't want him to leave. But they were right. Only his presence would ensure that the Contra Mundi took the bait. He might not listen to anyone else.

"Esther?" Abel spoke again, his voice soft and gentle. Esther looked up to meet the solemn blue eyes. Abel held her gaze a moment, then stepped away from his seat to come around and lay one hand gently over hers. "It's true that Cain might not listen to anyone else, but still...it's all right. If you don't wish me to go, then I won't." He offered her a crooked half-smile. "It will take some work, but I'll find some way to force Cain to listen to me. There has to be something that will convince him the message is genuine."

The warm smile, coupled with his promise, warmed the cold fear that had settled in Esther's gut. She found herself smiling weakly back at him. "No. It's all right. I can't say I like the idea of you leaving, but if it's necessary to end all this conflict, then I'll manage. And I'm sure Colonel Spencer and Lord and Lady Walsh will take excellent care of me."

Virgil and Mary nodded, almost in unison. Virgil turned, to share a quick glance with his sister, then turned back to face Abel, his expression solemn, like that of his two companions. "We would see that no harm comes to her in your absence, Father Nightroad."

Abel nodded. "I know."

"Very well." The words were quiet, but the authority in them was unmistakeable. Caterina leaned forward, surveying Abel over her folded hands. "We'll send you to Amsterdam as soon as arrangements can be made. Will you require an escort?"

Abel frowned, then shook his head. "No. Not with Father Hugue already there. Besides, Gypsy Queen is on standby, isn't she?" Caterina nodded. "Two addition agents should be enough. With their combined skills, I shouldn't be in danger of being over-matched. Not even if Cain's Order commander has back-up for some reason."

"As you wish. Father Hugue, you'll need to prepare for Father Nightroad's arrival. I'd like you to pinpoint where the highest concentration of enemy forces are, and be prepared to strike. Whatever alliances you have, or threats you know of, have them dealt with before his arrival. I want this mission to go quickly, gentlemen."

Abel nodded. "Yes." He studied the map. "It will take an all-day flight. How soon can we put this plan in motion?"

Hugue shifted, a faint frown marring his usually impassive face. "I'll need a few days to prepare. Especially if we're planning on launching a full assault."

"Very well. Abel, you'll leave in three days for Amsterdam. However, I expect you back in Albion as soon as you've delivered your message." Caterina's steel gray eyes mat her subordinate's.

Abel flushed. "Well, you really don't need to remind me, you know. I do have things I want to protect here." His hand slipped sideways, to brush Esther's lightly.

Caterina smiled. "I know. I'm sorry." She sighed. "The past year, you were rather difficult to keep track of."

Abel sighed as well. "I know. But I did promise, you know, to stay with Esther. Besides...I'm feeling much better."

"That's good." Caterina ran a hand through her long blond hair. "Is there anything else we need to discuss?"

Abel frowned. "If this works, you'll need extra protection for the Vatican, especially in a worst case scenario. And if it doesn't...Cain will most likely launch an all-out attack, and even I can't be sure where. Probably Albion, but he may attempt to destroy the Vatican."

"We will be ready for him." Petros scowled.

Mary nodded. "The reinforcements we've put in place over the last several months should make us fairly safe. And if needed, we can always flee to the Underground and lock it down."

Seth smiled grimly. "We've been preparing in the Empire for quite some time. If needed, we can even retreat to the Underground waterway." Esther noticed Astha making a face. Abel did as well, and a small smile touched the corner of his mouth for a moment.

Caterina nodded. "It appears we're as well prepared as we can be. Let's hope this goes well." She glanced around the table. "I assume we'll reconvene as soon as we have news?"

"Of course." Esther nodded, along with the rest of the table. "I just have one question. Assuming the Contra Mundi agrees to combat...will we need an army?"

Abel grimaced. "I'd prefer not to, but we do need to destroy Rosenkreutz. Even without Cain, they're a force to be reckoned with."

"True. However, at least two Order members possess the ability to control, manipulate, or mimic other people." William frowned thoughtfully. "Under such circumstances, having a large force is dangerous. Our own fighters could be turned against us, or used as shields."

"Sounds like a strike force kinda mission." Leon scowled. "Elite soldiers only, and everybody in combat should know everyone else's fighting style."

Abel nodded. "That was my assessment as well."

"I see." Esther looked around the table, thinking. She had a feeling everyone else was thinking the same thing she was. The most qualified individuals for close combat with the Order of Rosenkreutz were here. The AX. The top guards for each of the three countries.

Caterina finally broke the silence. "We'll consider that if we get so far. In the meantime...we all have work to do. So if you'll excuse me...Father Hugue, you have preparations to make. And Abel...I wish you Godspeed on your mission." She gave him a nod, one hand raised slightly in benediction. Then the image disappeared.

Petros gave a curt bow. "I must return to His Holiness." His image disappeared as well, followed shortly by Baibars and Mirka.

Abel sighed as the last of the connections closed. "Well, if that's settled...it seems I have some more traveling to do. Professor, if you don't mind contacting Kate for me..."

"Of course." William rose from his seat and moved around the table to pat Abel on the shoulder. "You just concentrate on planning your strategy and keeping an eye on Esther. Leave the rest to us." Abel nodded. Those in the room shared one last glance, then disbursed. There was, after all, work to be done.


Abel left three days later, aboard the Iron Maiden. Esther watched him go, Mary and Virgil and half a dozen guards serving as her escort. It felt odd, to see him board the ship without her, to watch it lift into the sky without her on it. She wanted to go with him, even though she understood it couldn't happen. Still, her heart ached as she watched the ship disappear into the sky.

The days that followed some of the most trying that Esther had experienced in her life. She missed Abel. She missed his quiet presence at her side, that gentle smile and warm encouragement. She missed his rare insight, his suggestions. She missed that easy sense of humor and kindness that eased her stress and her worries.

It was worse at night. Then she missed his kiss, his arms wrapped around her in the darkness, promising safety. She missed his warmth to curl into. She missed their lovemaking, and all the little ways he indicated how much he cared for her.

She also worried for him. William kept her updated, with reports from Kate on the Iron Maiden, but there wasn't much to say. The battles of the Four Cities area were largely underground, off the radar. Rosenkreutz operated in the shadows, therefore, so did Abel and Hugue. More to the point, Hugue was erratic in his updates at the best of times, and impossible to keep track of when he was hunting, or in combat mode. Abel was usually more reliable, but he was in Hugue's territory, following his lead. Besides, having determined his plan of action, Esther knew that most, if not all, of Abel's focus was on his quarry.

It didn't help her worry, but she understood it. And there was plenty of work to distract her. Spring was coming, and with it came a whole mountain of concerns, and the paperwork they produced. There were people petitioning for specific privileges, or assistance, particularly the farmers. There were permits to sign, trade issues to look over, and other such details. More to the point, spring was the time when she was meant to do her review of each noble's holding, and approve it or make any changes she felt might be needed. She had lands and production reports to review, though they were summarized for her by the Councilmen in charge of such things, namely Virgil and another gentleman she didn't know well. It was also tax season, time to collect money and document the budget for her country.

In addition to that, they were still operating under war conditions, which resulted in extra precautions and conditions to everything. With the potential battle that lay ahead, that was more important than ever, even though her country had been in combat readiness for over two years.

She'd informed the Council of their plans in a general way, announcing that the Alliance was opting for an all-out offensive, hopefully to be engaged on neutral territory. She informed them that they had sent agents to attempt to provoke and direct the final conflict, at a place of their choosing, rather than continue the nasty, drawn out, shadow war of intrigue and escalation they'd been dealing with. The Council had mixed reactions, but the overall response seemed to be one of relief and support. She, Virgil and Mary made sure to clearly outline what they might expect, the best and worst case scenarios, and what each noble's duties were in either circumstance. They also outlined the precautions that could be taken before hand. The best case scenario was that the conflict would be confined to the ARK, but she knew better than to depend on it, and her Council appeared to be of the same opinion.

In addition to those concerns, Esther had her own preparations to make. She wanted to be ready for combat. If Abel's plan worked, she had every intention of accompanying him to the final battle. She knew there would be objections, but still...she had the skill and experience necessary for the strike team, and she didn't want to be left behind. When she thought about it, she had a string feeling she needed to be there, for Abel's sake, possibly for her own. Remembering what she and Abel had spoken of the night before the Council, she even wondered if perhaps she was needed there for Cain as well, though she pushed that thought aside as soon as she could.

To that end, she spent at least an hour in day training. Mary and Virgil were always with her, along with a handful of guards. The others joined her some days, all of them working together to hone their skills. They paired up, switched pairs, went two or three or even five on one, testing their abilities, learning how to compensate for weaknesses, practicing their own unique techniques and styles. For her part, she wasn't as fast or strong as a Methuselah, but she'd learned how to compensate. William and Leon both showed her a few more of the tricks they'd picked up, as veterans of other battles. Astha, Ion and Virgil gave her sparring partners to practice on, and Mary continued her hand to hand and weapons training. Esther's reflexes were good, and her technique was flexible. She even managed to get a tap in on Ion and Astha every so often. Her battle experience in the past had honed her sensitivity to what was going on around her, even in a chaotic situation, and increased her stamina tremendously. She made good use of both traits in her training, and was gratified to see the results.

In the first week, Esther also called together a small, highly secret Council. She'd seen, both with her predecessor's death and her own absences, what leaving the country with no heir or designated figure of authority to turn to could do. She had no desire to cause that problem again. With the help of William, Astha, and a few other trusted members of her Court as witnesses, she formally drew up documents naming a line of succession in case of an incident. Virgil and Mary were still named as her stewards, but in the event of her death, she made it clear who would follow her. Mary Spencer, followed by Lady Jane Jocelyn, followed by Ludwig II King of Germanicus. Any of these claims would be rendered null if the person ahead of them produced children, or another viable heir with good reason for the change.

There were some complaints about Mary's status as an illegitimate daughter, to which Esther pointed out that she'd been brought up and raised as an orphan of the church. Mary had at least been raised in court, aware of her status, trained in the behavior of nobility and the inner workings of politics. She was also an excellent fighter, crucial in the potentially unstable times they faced, and she understood the situation, and what it would be in circumstances surrounding Esther's death, far better than anyone else, which made her position even more important. Besides, she was a well-respected and well-known leader, talented and responsible in her use of authority, and she had at least wary support from the Underground, even the more rebellious factions. She was exactly the kind of leader the people would need. It took a bit of arguing, but eventually, her advisers and Council were forced to concede the point.

Virgil and Mary were both startled, and unhappy, when she presented them with the papers, Mary particularly so. However, neither of them commented, and she knew they both understood and agreed it was a necessary precaution. A few days later, in fact, both of them presented her with their own documents detailing lines of succession.

Virgil's will passed the responsibility of the Manchester House and the Underground to Vanessa, followed by his two most promising advisers and lieutenants, then a prominent and influential family Underground, whom he knew to be well liked. In fact, it was the same family he'd sent the never land children to.

Mary's document was split into three parts. The first reiterated that the Crown of Albion was to pass to Jane Jocelyn, if she died without child, and from thence to either Ludwig, or a distant relation she felt to be more suited, though they were only related on her mother's side. The second part indicated succession for the title of Countess of Carlisle, her inherited title on the maternal side as well. The final section detailed her recommendations on who should succeed her as Captain of the Palace Guard. Her second in command was named, as well as a short list of other possible candidates.

Esther had all three documents read, witnessed and signed, then had four copies made. One went to Caterina. Aside from being safer with her allies, it was important that the pope know of their decision and validate it, as he had with her. It didn't hurt to have the support of The Duchess of Milan either. Another copy went to the Empire, for much the same reasons. The third copy she had put in the Council archives, as official documentation. The final copy she placed into her private safe. She felt a little ridiculous, and paranoid, going to the trouble, but she'd seen enough of Rosenkreutz to know they'd try to stop her. Besides, she remembered clearly all the issues that had surrounded her own identification and coronation. Granted, some of those had been deliberate, but not all. She didn't want the documents conveniently destroyed.

The official documentation took a few days. After that, there was nothing to do except attend Council, work on her paperwork, and wait for Abel's return.

Finally, twelve days after his departure, Kate contacted them. Esther was in her office, catching up on her paperwork for the afternoon, but she immediately put it aside when Virgil told her who was calling. She watched him set up the connection, then smiled as a familiar holographic face appeared. "Sister Kate."

"Your Majesty." Kate bowed her head in a brief greeting, then looked up with a smile. "I have a message for you from Father Nightroad."

Esther swallowed, feeling that little spark of hope and relief leap to life inside her. "How is he?"

Kate's smile widened. "Well, and unharmed. He and Hugue have completed their mission. I'll be picking Abel up within the hour, and we'll be back in Albion tomorrow evening."

"I see. That's excellent news." Esther swallowed again, hoping the myriad of emotions roiling in her gut weren't showing on her face. "Please tell him I'm looking forward to seeing him."

Kate nodded. "I will. Stay safe, Esther. I'll return Abel to you shortly."

Esther nodded. "I know. I wish you Godspeed, Sister Kate, and pray that both you and your passengers have a safe journey." Kate nodded in acknowledgment, and farewell, and the connection went dead.

Esther spent the day in a state of restless preoccupation. She did manage to get a little more of her work done, but she couldn't keep her focus, and it was a relief when she was able to lay aside her pen and retire for the evening.

The following evening found her out by the landing pad, with the others standing as an informal escort around her. It seemed like forever before the Iron Maiden appeared above the Palace, even longer still before it landed, and the boarding hatch opened to extend the ramp for it's passengers.

Finally the ramp was down, and the last whisper of the engines faded. Esther clasped her hands together, heart suddenly pounding in overdrive as a tall, slender, silver-haired figure emerged from the ship and strode toward them. Abel's hair glittered in the low light, as did his glasses. He looked tired, and his expression was grim and resolute. Then he got closer, and Esther saw his shoulders relax, the hard lines on his face softening into a warm and gentle smile. He stopped two steps down from where she stood, still smiling. "Miss Esther? You're doing well?"

Esther swallowed. The words seemed so inane, and there were a thousand other things she wanted to say to him, but they were in public, and she wasn't totally sure what his mood was. "Yes, of course. And you, Abel?"

He laughed, ever so gently. "I'm fine." He must have caught the flicker of disbelief in her eyes, or someone else's. "Truly. I wasn't injured, after all, and I was very well taken care of, so..." His voice trailed away sheepishly.

Behind Esther, Leon snorted, and a strong hand thumped her gently in the back, pushing her forward into Abel's arms. "Honestly Four Eyes. After over a millennium, you can't tell me you don't even know how to properly greet a pretty woman when you come home." There was another snort, and what sounded like a muffled snicker from someone else. "If you keep this kind of crap up, I'm not gonna let you stay with such a pretty little senorita. Red needs a man who's going to treat her right, you know."

Abel blushed. "hmm...well, you might have a point, Leon. And as it happens..." He paused, then cupped Esther's face gently with one hand, bringing her eyes up to meet his. "I know exactly how to greet a pretty young woman." He bent forward and kissed her gently, then leaned his forehead lightly against hers. "I'm all right, Esther, really."

Esther smiled, feeling the cold worry that had plagued her finally dispelling. "I'm glad."

They stood like that a moment, then William coughed from behind Esther. "I do hate to break the pair of you up, however, I believe you have a report to make, Abel."

Abel sighed, but released Esther from his embrace. "True. Sister Kate should have made contact with the Vatican by now, so Caterina will be waiting." He straightened and held out his arm. "Shall we, Miss Esther?"

She nodded and looped her arm through his, walking beside him as he escorted her inside and toward the smaller chambers used for the War Council. She was vaguely aware of Virgil excusing himself and going on ahead, but she didn't really pay attention. She felt almost overwhelmed by her emotions. Relief that he'd returned safe. Joy at his presence. Apprehension at the outcome of his task, and what the next course of action might be.

The communications panels were already online when they arrived. The effect sobered the group immediately, all of them moved quickly to their seats and settled in, except for Abel, who took a standing position by Esther. Caterina waited for them to settle before addressing him. "Well, Abel?"

"It was a rather successful mission, actually." Abel's hand twitched, as if he wanted to rake it through his hair. He offered his superior a smile, but it faded quickly into solemnity. "Hugue and I managed to discover and shut down several locations being used as hide outs for Fluer du Mal and lower ranked Order members. Three nights ago, we were confronted by the commander of that region. Helga von Vogelwiede, code name Eisehexe."

Caterina nodded. "The Ice Witch. She's reputed to be formidable, however, I believe you've had dealings with her in the past."

Abel nodded. "There was a brief combat while Hugue and I dealt with her guards." he sighed. "Once she was disabled, I delivered a message saying I wished to speak to Cain. I told her nothing concrete, only to convey to him that I was tired of these games, and wished to end them."

"Excellent." William bit the end of his pipe thoughtfully. "With wording like that, it's impossible to tell if you intend combat, surrender, or simply truce."

Abel's face twisted in a slightly bitter half-smile. "Well, yes. Knowing what I do of the Eisehexe, she probably wouldn't have told Cain if I'd said I wanted to meet him in combat. I suppose the Wizard or the Puppet Master might have delivered my message, but even then..."

Caterina shook her head. "You did very well Abel." She folded her hands together in what was her habitual listening pose when seated at her desk. Are we to assume that you anticipate an attempt at communications by the Contra Mundi?"

Abel nodded, his face tight. "Probably within the next two days."

Caterina nodded. "Then we have preparations to make. Once they've contacted us, we'll have to be on our guard. And, assuming they agree to meet with us, I suspect we'll have to move quickly."

Abel nodded. "We should decide who will accompany me."

Caterina frowned in consideration. "I will stay with Francesco and His Holiness. As for guards...you'll need Sister Kate, for transport and possibly combat. But we can't afford to lose all our air support. I'll keep Gypsy Queen and Know Faith with me. The rest of the AX is at your disposal."

Abel bowed his head in acknowledgment. "It's their choice." His gaze lifted. "Professor..."

"I'm coming." William smiled grimly around his pipe stem.

Abel's expression tightened. "Your injuries..."

"Are mostly healed and quite manageable. Besides..." William's expression darkened. "I have a score to settle with von Kampfer. If this is truly to be our final battle, then I shan't allow even you to interfere, Abel." His gaze was determined as he met Abel's.

Abel held his stare a moment, then bowed in surrender. "As you wish." His eyes shifted. "Leon..."

Leon grinned ferally. "Don't even ask, Four Eyes. There's no way in hell I'm gonna miss this."

A brief smile touched Abel's mouth. "Of course." He frowned. "Hugue is still on the Iron Maiden with Kate. He came back with me, but he didn't want to leave the ship. Miss Caterina, I'll need to borrow Tres."

Caterina nodded. "He'll be on the next flight to Albion. You can expect him within a day."

Abel nodded. His gaze turned to the other Vatican call. "Brother Petros..."

Petros snorted. "I have already obtained permission from His Holiness to accompany you. Sister Paula and I will join Father Tres Iquis." One fist clenched to tap his chest. "In the name of God, we will destroy this unholy threat once and for all."

Abel offered him a half bow. "Thank you." He straightened. His gaze traveled over the circle to the slight figure sitting across from Esther. "Seth."

His sister smiled. "I'm coming with you, Abel." Abel opened his mouth to protest and she glared at him. "I'll bring Baibars, and I'm sure Astharoshe and the Earl of Memphis will be coming as well." Both nobles gave a sharp nod. "I'll be quiet well-guarded. I shan't go after Cain again, I promise. But I won't stay behind while the two of you fight." Green eyes locked with blue. "You're my family Abel. You can't ask me to stay behind. Not for this." Defiant tears glittered in her eyes.

Abel's expression softened and he stepped around the table to embrace her. "All right. I understand, and I won't try to stop you this time. Just promise me you'll try and stay as safe as possible."

"That goes the same for you, brother of mine." Seth reached her arm around him and gave a quick squeeze. "I'll do my best." Her gaze moved to the projected images of her two main advisers. "Mirka, I'm trusting you to take care of things while I'm away.

"Of course." Mirka inclined her head respectfully to her monarch.

From his own projection, Baibars saluted. "I will be on the fastest transport within the hour."

Seth nodded. "You should probably use my private high-speed transport. It's a bit cramped for you, but you'll get here quickly."

Baibars nodded. "As you command." His gaze met Abel's. "I will be there within three days, at the longest."

Abel gestured in acknowledgment. Then his eyes moved to the Albion section of the circle. "Esther..."

Esther braced herself as Virgil spoke. "Colonel Spencer and I will accompany you. Vanessa will be in charge of the Underground. Colonel Spencer's second-in-command and Lady Jane will coordinate the aboveground efforts." his eyes came to Esther. "Majesty..."

"I'm coming." Esther took a deep breath and put as much conviction as possible into her voice. "I'm coming with the combat team."

Virgil and Mary both stiffened. Virgil's voice was tight when he spoke. "Majesty, I would request you rethink this. We cannot afford to endanger you."

Esther swallowed. "I know. But honestly, if the two of you are gone, then I'll probably be in just as much danger. Besides, I've named at least three contingency heirs, as have the both of you, so it's reasonably safe. I won't be leaving Albion without leadership."

"Esther..." Abel's voice was soft, entreating. "Esther, please...I don't want you to...please, stay here."

Esther shook her head. "I can't. I have my own scores to settle. Besides, I think I need to be there." She laced her fingers together.

"Interesting." Caterina studied her over her laced hands. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, it's just..." Esther raised her eyes to meet Abel's. "You'll have to fight at full strength, won't you?"

Abel nodded, his face tight. "Most likely." His voice was rough.

Esther swallowed again. "In that sort of situation...I want to be there to make sure you come back."

Abel's eyes widened. Then he was back at her side, his hand gentle on her shoulder. "Esther..." His voice cracked on her name, and she looked up to see him swallow. "I promise...I will always come back to you wherever you are."

"I know." Esther raised her hand to rest over his. "But I want to be there for you. Besides, after everything...I can't simply stay here. You're too important to me. I suppose I feel a little like Seth does, about that."

A rueful grin touched Seth's face. "She does have a point there, Abel." She brought one foot up to rest on the chair and laced her fingers around her knee. "Esther really does have as much right to be there as I do. And there's about as much risk." She grimaced. "I don't really like it much more than you do, but I think perhaps she should be there. Anyway, you know she'll probably just follow you if you try to leave her behind."

Esther nodded. "I would." She looked at Virgil and Mary, both standing ill at ease at her side.

Virgil held her gaze for a moment, then took three steps forward to kneel before her, blond hair curtaining over his face. "If you truly wish this, Majesty, then I will not defy you. But I ask that you stay close to us during the combat. Please."

Esther nodded. "I'll do my best." It was the best she could offer. Virgil looked up into her eyes for a moment, then bowed his head in acquiescence, rising gracefully to his feet. Esther looked up at Abel once more.

Abel looked into her eyes for a moment, then bowed his head. "All right." his fingers brushed her cheek in a quick caress. His voice was barely a whisper, as if the words had been pulled from him.

They stood in silence, then Abel raised his head. "Is there anyone else?"

Caterina shook her head. "Given the situation we discussed, I'd hesitate to include anyone else. There's simply no one else we can trust, or be sure of preventing the Wizard and Puppet Master from manipulating."

Abel's face was grim. "Then we prepare, and wait for their call." There were sharp nods all around. Then the Vatican and Empire representatives bid them curt farewells and silenced the connections. The rest of them sat still in grim silence for a moment, then dispersed.

There was no contact that night. The resulting silence left all of them restless and uneasy. Even Virgil showed signs of tension. When Esther retired a few hours later, Abel joined her without a word, enfolding her in his arms as if he was never going to let go. Esther was more than grateful to snuggle into his arms, relaxing into his warmth and unspoken promise of security.

They all spent the next day getting ready, handling last-minute duties, alerting those that needed to be alerted, preparing supplies. Esther spent part of the afternoon in sparring practice with both her advisers. It served to ease her nerves a little. Abel stayed by her side the whole day, silent and brooding.

Tres arrived around midday. William immediately pulled him aside for an extensive diagnostic and full combat armaments. Petros and Paula cornered Abel at evening for sparring as Esther finished with Mary. Astha, Leon and Ion joined in, creating a melee-style free-for-all that left everyone, including Abel, tired and at least a little calmer.

The next day brought Baibars, equipped with UV gel, in one of Seth's emergency messenger ships. He greeted Seth and Esther respectfully. He then engaged the others in a series of mock combats, familiarizing himself with their fighting styles. He even managed to engage Abel in a match, a ten minute vicious brawl that left Abel the clear victor and Baibars smiling grimly in approval.

Esther participated in a few more mock combats, trying to plan strategies. Then she retired to her office, watching Abel and trying to keep herself busy. Abel stayed with her, ostensibly writing his own reports, though he spent most of the time staring out the window, his expression solemn and brooding. Esther left him alone, knowing how much strain he was under.

The others seemed to understand as well. They stopped in to check on the pair of them often. They spoke very little to Abel, but most of them stopped to clasp his shoulder in silent camaraderie. Abel didn't speak in response, but Esther saw the flicker of relief and gratitude in his eyes at each silent touch of support. For her own part, Esther was equally grateful for the interruptions, to keep her mind occupied.

She was just putting her work aside for dinner when the console flashed for an incoming transmission. Esther froze, and she saw Abel tense, one hand clenching at his side.

Less than two minutes later, Virgil opened the door. "Majesty, Father Nightroad...we're receiving a call from Old Berlin. There's no specific ID, however..."

"It's Cain." Abel seemed to barely breathe the words. He stood at the window a moment longer, his breathing suddenly harsh in the silence. Then he turned and sharply strode to the door, Esther and Virgil following quickly in his wake.

The others were already assembled when they arrived. Esther noticed Vanessa controlling the communications panel as she stepped quickly to her seat. Abel moved to the viewing area of the console. He waited until Esther had reached her seat, Virgil at her side, then gestured. "Open it."

"Yes sir. I'm accepting the connection now."

Vanessa tapped a few buttons, and Esther fought to suppress a shiver as Cain's image appeared. He was wearing his knee-length uniform jacket, his white wings flared behind him.

Cain's image regarded Abel a moment, then he smiled. "Hello, Abel."

"Cain." Abel's voice was tight and hard, but controlled.

"I was surprised to hear from you, you know. But...I heard recently that you found Esther. So tell me, Abel, is she safe? Is she with you?" Cain tilted his head to one side, the empty smile widening on his face.

"Esther is none of your concern." Abel's voice sharpened.

Cain's eyes flickered with amusement. "Oh, come now, Abel. Esther is such a part of your life, just like that woman. And, of course, I've already placed a claim to her. Once you've joined me, then we'll both be able to be with her."

"I'm not going to join you." Abel's voice was beginning to crackle with anger.

"Hmm. Well then, what did you want, Abel?" Cain studied his brother with detached interest.

"There has been enough bloodshed in this world. It's time to end this." Abel's voice deepened. His hand was clenched into a fist, so tight Esther feared he might cut his own palm. Abel didn't seem to notice.

"I see. Well then, if you don't plan to join me...are you going to surrender, Abel?"

"No. I will not let you destroy this world."

Cain's head tilted a fraction further. "Then what do you plan to do, Abel?"

Abel's back stiffened. "I'm returning to the ARK. It's time to settle this, where we began it, away from this world."

"Interesting." There was a flicker of heightened interest in the ocean-blue, empty eyes. "And if I refuse?"

"Then I will destroy your base in Old Berlin, and set the ARK to a complete auto-destruct. I will destroy everything aboard, as well was all the information I have on the God's Template." Abel's eyes hardened, and electricity began to gather around him. "And then, I will find you, and destroy you."

A small but terrifyingly genuine smile curved Cain's mouth. "Well, that's certainly refreshing. It looks like you've finally regained your old spirit, 02."He studied his brother. "You really have been rather fierce this past year, you know. It's cost me quite a bit of effort, dealing with you."He shrugged."Still, I suppose I can afford to indulge you. After all, if I win, you'll have no choice but to join me, and we can remake the world in fire. Not to mention, I'll have a complete body, and we'll both have Esther."

Esther bit her lip to prevent herself from speaking. Abel paled, fury in every line of his frame. The charged feeling in the air grew stronger. "I will not let you touch Esther."

"Well, we'll see. But you should bring her along, you know." Cain's smile was once more cool and empty.

"Cain..." Abel's voice dropped to a low growl and Esther thought she saw static sparks slither over his hands and his sleeve, and the links of his crucifix.

Cain shrugged. "Ah well, I suppose we'll settle this soon enough. I don't mind meeting you aboard the ARK again."He studied one hand idly. "Three days should be sufficient for Isaac to stabilize this form for me to face you properly."

Abel nodded. "Three days. Then we end this."

Cain nodded. "Of course. I'd intended to last time, when Esther disappeared. Now will do just as well, though." Cain rose. "I'll see you in three days, 02. Abel." He smiled once more, then the connection went dead.

Abel stared at the broken connection, then slowly relaxed. After a moment, the static in the air died away.

Leon was the first to break the silence. "Three days, huh? I didn't think it took that long to get there."

"It doesn't. Seth spoke softly, "You heard Cain. He'll make sure he's at maximum strength when he faces Abel." Her voice was wavering, and Esther knew exactly what she was feeling. Fear, concern.

"Abel." William's quiet voice drew his attention. The Professor met his friend's eyes, his own expression grave. "If your opponent is planning on maximizing his strength...at the risk of upsetting you, I recommend you do the same."

Abel stiffened once more, but before he could speak, Caterina interrupted. "He's right, Abel. You need to build your own strength."

Abel paled. "I..."

"Father Nightroad." Vanessa stepped away from the console, moving to stand before him. "The Underground would be proud to donate to your cause." She bowed. "Please, allow us to assist you."

Abel swallowed hard. His gaze moved to Virgil, and the lord gave him a quick, encouraging nod. Abel swallowed again, then nodded sharply, once. Then he spun away and left the room. Esther rose and followed him.

She found him standing at a darkened window, staring out at the gardens. Esther watched him for a moment, seeing the strain and the shame that darkened his face, then moved forward to lay one hand gently on his arm. "It's all right. I'm sure you won't hurt anyone, and Lord Walsh and Vanessa trust you as well."

"Esther..." His voice was hoarse, and the word died away into silence. After a moment, however, he reached over to cover her hand with his own. "Cain..."

"I know. But really, it hasn't changed since the last time I faced him. And I'm sure everyone will be looking out for me." She tightened her hand on his arm. "Really, I'm much more worried about you."

Abel sighed. "I know." He took another deep breath, then turned slightly and leaned forward to brush a kiss across her head. "You should get some rest, Esther."

"All right. As long as you do as well." Abel didn't reply, but he didn't resist when Esther led him toward the bedroom. And if he was silent as he joined her, at least he was there.

The next day, Abel disappeared shortly after breakfast. Virgil reported that he was in the Underground. When he reappeared that afternoon, Esther could see the difference. His posture had changed, and his eyes were sparkling with fire and barely restrained power. In fact, he looked as he had in the past, before Lilith's death. The thought was both comforting and oddly unsettling. Seth was with her when Abel returned, and she saw her thoughts mirrored in the other woman's gaze.

The others noticed Abel's change as well, when he joined them for dinner. Esther saw grim approval on several faces, including Virgil's. Abel's eyes met the advisers as they sat down, and Virgil nodded in reply. Esther didn't understand the silent exchange, but she saw Abel's shoulders relax slightly.

The next day felt strange. The hours passed with maddening slowness, and yet, the day as a whole seemed unbearably long. Esther rechecked her armor and weapons a dozen times, consulted with her stand-in ministers at least twice, reviewed information with Vanessa, and went over her battle strategy until she thought she could have done it in her sleep. Her nerves felt like they'd been replaced with tight strung wires. She spent a restless night, barely able to sleep, and Abel was as bad as she was. Despite the churning in her gut, it was almost a relief when they prepared to board the Iron Maiden the following evening.

The journey to the ARK was a quiet one. All of them were grim, quiet, locked in their own private thoughts. Esther found Abel at one of the observation ports, staring at the earth as it fell away beneath them. She hesitated a moment, then joined him, Mary and Virgil standing back as her silent guards. None of them said anything, but the warmth of his presence was comforting.

Finally, the ARK appeared in the view-port. Esther watched for a long moment as it grew larger in their view, then moved across to lay a hand on Abel's arm. "Will you be all right?"

Abel shuddered, his face pale and tight in the light. "I don't know." His voice was a harsh whisper.

Esther nodded. She understood what he meant. She squeezed his arm sympathetically, but didn't press him further.

Finally the engine sounds changed, the deeper thrum of the landing engines kicking in. Abel stiffened visibly, then turned away from the observation port, heading toward the doors. Esther followed him, her two advisers right behind them.

The rest of the crew met them at the doors. As the ship touched down, Kate shimmered into view. "Everything's secure. I'm reading an energy signature though, rather large, and it's not the ARK. It looks to be a major Rosenkreutz battleship."

William smiled grimly. "It appears as though our opponents have arrived ahead of us. Do you suppose they've been here long?"

"Yes." Abel's voice was quiet.

Leon smiled his wolf's grin. "Enemy on the high ground, and they got here first. Bet they'll outnumber us too."

Astha matched him. "I think we should have a rematch, priest."

Leon nodded. "You're on."

William nodded. He moved forward to lay a hand on Abel's shoulder. "Shall we go?"

Abel nodded, and Kate opened the hatch. Abel took a deep breath and stepped forward, and the others followed him. As they stepped off the ramp the group fanned out, with Abel as the center of the formation. Esther saw Astha, Ion and Baibars form a loose group around the Empress. Virgil and Mary took up flanking positions on either side of her. Leon, Hugue, Tres and William split two on either side of Abel. As they settled into combat positions, Esther heard the ship close, and the deep hum of the engines as Kate lifted off, seeking a more advantageous position for combat.

Esther slipped one hand onto her gun, eyes scanning the landscape. The others were doing the same thing. Only Abel remained still, his eyes fixed directly in front of him, toward the doors that led to the entrance of the ARK.

For a moment, there was nothing. Then, with a deep rumble, the doors slid open, framing a white-clad figure with wild blond hair, flanked by two grinning men. Abel stiffened, and Cain smiled. "Hello, Abel."

Abel stepped forward, energy beginning to swirl around him. Darkness began to gather around his frame, even as white wings unfolded to either side of Cain's form. "Cain."

Cain tilted his head, studying them. "Hmm...well, I didn't expect you'd bring your friends, but I suppose that's all right. It will make things easier in the long run." His eyes drifted to Seth. "03." Seth didn't bother to respond, but her back was ramrod straight, her knives in her hands in a fighting posture. Cain smiled. "You know, those security protocols you put in place really did give me a hard time. It took Isaac and Dietrich almost a whole day to bypass them. I had hoped that I'd have better control of the ARK by now."

Seth snorted. "Well, if it took them that long, they must not be as good as I thought." Esther saw a flash of anger on Dietrich's face.

Cain shrugged, and his gaze moved to her."Esther."

"Don't speak to her." Abel's voice was a low growl.

Cain smiled. "Well, you are in a temper. If that's the case...shall we get started?" One hand extended, and a spear formed.

Abel's black wings flared his skin darkening as his scythe formed in his hands. Electricity crackled around him, power swirling over his body. Standing behind him and to his right, Esther couldn't see his eyes, but she saw the crosses that appeared, branding themselves on his skin.

Behind Cain, more figures were coming from the door, fanning out behind him. She saw the rest of the Order, Helga and Gudiern, Balthasar and Melchior Neumann. And behind them were the slouched forms of Auto-jagers, and the slim forms of Melchior's Dolls. She couldn't see the exact numbers, but they filled the door, fanned out around it. Her heart sank.

Tres spoke. "Enemy forces, estimated attack force, 200. Rewriting program from search to genocide mode. Special disregard, leader of opposing forces."

"200, huh?" Leon grinned. "Sounds about right. If the odds were any better, then this wouldn't be any fun." The easy confidence in his voice, the matter of fact tone of Tres' somehow eased the cold fear in Esther's gut.

Abel and Cain were still staring at each other. Then, Cain's hand twitched, and Abel exploded forward. Cain smiled coldly and launched forward to meet him. The two crashed together in a burst of red and blue fire. Esther ducked, shielding her eyes as power exploded around the two brothers.

The two of them locked together. Esther couldn't see anything besides two blurry forms, surrounded by flashing coronas of energy. Then, with a roaring scream, Abel launched himself skyward. Esther caught a brief glimpse of him, skin dark as midnight, the cross scars replaced with the electric blue tattoos that slashed across forehead and cheeks.

Cain smiled coldly, flaring his white wings to full extension, then shot upward after him. Esther followed his path upward, her heart in her throat as the blue form in the air turned, meeting the red head-on. Lightning slashed across the sky, arcing between the two, but they were too far away for Esther to see what was happening.

A low chuckle brought her attention back to the Order. Kampfer was watching, an amused smile on his face. "Well, it seems everything's working quite well."

"So it is. And since our two leaders are out of the way, I believe you and I have some unfinished business." William stepped forward.

"Well, well. William Wordsworth. I'd heard you were injured. What a surprise to find you on the battlefield again." A cold smile flickered over Kampfer's face. "Or is your department so weakened that they're sending even the injured reserves out?"

"Hardly. But I'd hate to miss the chance to discuss things with you. After all, our last meeting was hardly satisfactory. So then, shall we finish it?"

"Well, you're welcome to try." Kampfer raised his hands, and dark power spun up around him, glowing from the pentagrams on the back of his hands.

"You always were one for theatrics." William smiled coldly. "So then, let's see what you've really got." He gestured, and a bright spark jumped from his hand, to explode in a ball of cold fire. Esther winced as a shadow demon howled, disintegrating under the blast.

"Combat engaged. Mission start." Tres lunged forward, firing with both pistols. He was intercepted by three Sieglind Dolls, their swords spinning to block his shots. At the sound of the shots, the rest of the army surged forward, attacking with silent and deadly speed. One group was led by the von Neumann's. Esther saw one wave being led by the silent Gudiern, a wolf's snarl twisting his features. Then the two sides slammed together.

Astha released a wild battle cry and launched herself straight at Helga. Petros met Gudiern in battle, the two giant men slamming into each other. Leon simply charged in amongst the auto-jagers, his weapons spinning. Hugue was right behind him, his sword and sheath swinging in twin arcs around his body as he moved.

Esther found herself shoulder to shoulder with Seth. Baibars, Ion, Virgil and Mary spread out, protecting them as the wave of attackers surrounded them.

Esther shot three auto-jagers straight on, winged two more, ducking as Seth went past her with her knives. Seth's slight form and speed made her a deadly opponent, ricocheting from one opponent to the other. Esther kept an eye out for her and the others as she fired. She didn't want to hit anyone by accident.

"Hello, Esther." The soft voice made her spin around. Dietrich was behind her, flanked by his auto-jagers. "You've become quite the good shot, haven't you?"

"Dietrich." Esther brought her gun up to point at him.

"Now then, there's no call for that." Esther felt the strings touch her gun and let go quickly. A twisted smile pulled at one corner of Dietrich's mouth. "You do learn fast, don't you? But then, that is one of the things I love about you, Esther."

"Get away from her!" Ion was suddenly between them. Seth landed at her side, the four advisers moving to protect the pair of them. "Don't you dare touch Esther, or I'll rip your head off!"

"Again with the theatrics. Honestly, I thought you'd have learned by now, you're really rather helpless, aren't you?" Dietrich's cold eyes raked over the group. "As a matter of fact, I doubt there's a single one of you who can even touch me, aside from her Majesty there." He leveled a dark smile at Seth. "But of course, you know if you try, I'll simply use someone else as a shield, don't you. In fact..." One hand flicked out.

Ion gasped as the strings caught one wrist, but before Dietrich could do anything further, Virgil's hand caught the wires. "Earl of Memphis...I would ask you to withdraw. Now." He twisted one hand, and the wires snapped. "Protect Her Majesty. Both of them."

Ion nodded, and Virgil took a step forward. "Von Lohengrin."

Dietrich's smile widened unpleasantly. "Well, if it isn't the Count of Manchester. Apparently our last little game wasn't enough. Or perhaps, you actually think you can make it turn out differently."

"Indeed." Virgil shifted his stance, hands outspread to either side.

"Well then, if you're so confident..." Dietrich's hands raised. Esther saw light shining on his threads as he made a complicated gesture.

Five auto-jagers attacked. Virgil took one quick step forward, then he was among them, his hands slashing, moves quick and efficient as he struck them down. Esther saw Dietrich gesture again, then twist and jerk one hand, clenched into a fist. One of Virgil's hands was trapped. Virgil ducked, then twisted his hand around the cord, his face a mask of concentration. Seconds later the wire snapped. Dietrich took two stumbling steps back.

Virgil's eyes were alight with grim triumph. "You forgot, or never knew, the Walsh families various defenses. In hand to hand combat, any one of us can handle you, my lord von Lohengrin. Use your strings, and I will burn them away." He held up his hands, both palms shining darkly. Esther recognized it. Acid. His secondary weapon, besides his hand-to-hand combat skills.

Dietrich's face twisted in an ugly scowl, then he stepped back, flinging his hands out. Auto-jagers surrounded them, and Esther saw silver strands weaving through the attackers. She fired, shooting two of the undead soldiers, then gasped as someone grasped her sleeve and yanked her back.

Seth had her by one arm. "Come on. This fight is better left to the Earl of Memphis and your Count." She offered Esther a small, tired smile. "I'll admit, the Earl's a little hot headed, but he's a good fighter, and I think they'll do all right. But they'll do a lot better if they don't have to worry about protecting us." Both of them jumped aside as an auto-jager fell past them, armor and helmet smoking. "Besides, Lord Walsh might be immune to that acid, but we aren't."

Esther nodded and ducked backwards with the smaller woman. She didn't want to leave Ion or Virgil facing Dietrich, but Seth was right. She dodged two more auto-jagers, leaving bullets in both and blowing one helmeted head to smithereens. She caught a glimpse of Virgil, his jacket gone and his shirt worse for the wear, but he looked unharmed. Ion had been scratched, but his eyes were still shining with determination, and the sword in his hands was steady.

Seconds later, she and Seth emerged from the edge of the fighting. She'd sustained one minor scrape to her arm, and Seth had as well, but they were both unhurt. Mary and Baibars joined them, forming a protective guard. Seth sighed and sank back on her heels. Esther followed suit, her eyes drifting over the battlefield.

Petros and Gudiern were still fighting. She couldn't tell which of them had the upper hand, but the leader of the Inquisition was still going strong. Paula was occupied in protecting her superior's back against auto-jagers and Dolls and, from what Esther could see, living up to her name as the Lady of Death.

Leon had encountered the Nuemann's and was keeping his distance from Balthasar. Tres was supporting him, fending off the Dolls with his lethal accuracy. Esther was surprised he hadn't run out of bullets, but she remembered when she'd seen him on the Iron Maiden in full arsenal, and knew he could hide reloads just about anywhere. Besides, he had been trained in hand to hand as well.

The Professor and Isaac were still fighting as well, surrounded in a barrier of dark, sickly glowing energy that made her stomach turn. The Professor looked worse for the wear, but so did Kampfer, and there was an expression of grim determination on the older man's face. A little apart, Astha and the Ice Witch were in full battle mode. It seemed to be an even match between the two of them, fire versus ice.

Esther's heart clenched. Her friends were in danger, and she wanted desperately to help them. Her hand tightened on her gun. She jumped as another hand touched hers, and turned to find Seth watching her sympathetically.

Seth held her eyes a moment, then nodded. "I know. I know how much you want to help them, Esther, but you and I need to stay as far as we can. Believe me, if I could, I'd transform right now and turn all of the Order soldiers to dust." Seth's body was tense, her eyes hard with anger. "If I could, I'd join Abel right now, to face Cain. But if I interfere, it will only make things harder, and if I join Abel..." Her face twisted in momentary anguish. "Then Abel will protect me, and he'll probably die. All I can do, all we can do, is remain here, and do what little we can to help."

Esther nodded, swallowing hard. It's just like the past, with Lilith. I mustn't go rushing into a confrontation, no matter how worried I am. All I can do is support the others from the sidelines, and pray for their safety.

Another auto-jager broke through from Mary's side. Esther shot it twice, then turned and shot three more that were being held at bay. She stared at the fallen bodies, then bit her lip in renewed determination. No matter what else is true, I can at least do this much, to help everyone. Even if this is all I can do...I won't let them down. Nor Abel. Her gaze drifted skyward, toward the flashing points of red and blue fire. Please, Abel, stay safe.


Abel snarled, dodging another strike from Cain's lance. Below, he could see the battle raging, see the dark forces surging around his companions. But it seemed so very distant. The madness of the Crusnik danced, sang and pounded through his blood, urging him to violence. And only a few feet away...Cain.

Cain sneered, shot at him again, and Abel dodged, then swooped forward, lashing out with both weapon and lightning. Cain caught the scythe with his spear, though he didn't dodge the whip end entirely. Abel snarled in satisfaction as it gouged Cain's side, then cursed as an invisible force pushed him backward. He was barely able to catch the ionized bolt that followed it on his weapon, flinching slightly as the energy crackled over him, though he'd deflected enough to prevent serious harm. They circled, energy crackling around them, then he lunged forward again. Cain met him, power flaring between them. Lightning burst all around them, both electricity and plasma as they both unleashed their power. Abel winced again as Cain's power struck him, then gathered his own strength to strike back, a vicious blow that opened Cain's chest. It wasn't deep enough to do him serious harm though, and second later, Cain dealt him an equally damaging blow, forcing him back.

Energy crackled again and red fire blasted past his defenses, searing across his shoulder. A guttural snarl ripped from his throat, even as the black mist circled his shoulder into his wings, being absorbed and restoring him to perfect health. He dodged a second burst, fired back saw Cain reel in the air as one arm was vaporized. Then he too was renewed.

Abel charged forward, slashing with his weapon. Cain blocked, the two of them locked in a savage back and forth. More energy burst around them, hammering both their forms. Abel flinched as Cain's power slammed into him. His own power carved wounds on his opponent, then they were both blown back. He staggered in the air, then recovered, just as Cain attacked again.

Violence burned between them, madness flaring in his blood. He saw similar fury in Cain's eyes, felt the roar of the Crusnik's satisfaction. He held sanity by the thinnest of margins. A violent snap of energy broke his thoughts and he parried yet another burning flare of scarlet plasma.

Abel growled and launched himself forward, striking out. The whip on his scythe slashed Cain's leg, severing it just below the name. Cain's return strike destroyed his lower ribs. He continued forward, slamming into his brother, putting all the force he could into a vicious back-handed blow. Cain dodged, but blood sprayed as Abel's claws slashed ragged rips in a diagonal from shoulder to hip. Abel snarled and toppled backward as Cain's spear crushed his shoulder and pulverized his arm.

Both of them hung in the air, trading bolts of incandescent fire as the wounds healed. There was nothing but savage madness in Cain's glowing red eyes. The same insanity hissed through his mind. He flung a ferocious bolt of fire toward his opponent, dodged a returning blast. They circled each other, attacked and retreated in a haze of fire and mist and blood.

Sudden pressure blasted him backward, an invisible gale force wind that threw him off balance. Red fire crackled around him. He deflected two shots, returned one, then screamed in savage pain as crimson lightning vaporized his wings. Black mist exploded around him, as the pain burst through him. Then he was falling, falling toward the stones below, unable to do more than fire defensive energy behind him as he fell. He saw one blow strike Cain, knocking him back, blowing him away. Then the ground rushed up to meet him.


Esther ducked, shot another auto-jager, then dodged backward as Mary and Baibars closed ranks in front of her. The others had formed a fence in front of her, giving her a brief respite. She took a deep breath, reloaded, waiting for the next shot.

A high, feral scream shook her concentration, sent her head snapping skyward, even as she saw Seth stiffen and look up. She followed Seth's gaze, and felt the air leave her lungs in a rush.

High above, a figure outlined in blue fire was falling. Falling toward the ARK with no sign of stopping. Abel...

{*} dragonwriter24cmf Author's Note: The Iron Maiden was not originally a space transport. However, in order to keep up with Cain's maneuverability and forces it was modified over the year Esther was away, for emergency situations. This counts as an emergency.

* Monica is not in this fight because there is no way in hell Caterina would want her on something like this. Too many opportunities for sabotage and Monica is too unpredictable, her loyalties are also questionable. When you see in the manga how Caterina treats Monica compared to Tres you can understand why we are not including her in the fighting on this big of a scale.