Cythera Chronicles: The Hand of Fate - part 2



  • Part 2 - The Last Word of Fate

    by cache22

    -~-~-~-~-~-~-

    Chapter 1

    "Excuse me."

    Jennifer looked up from her inventory list at the young man who'd spoken. He was carrying a clipboard in one hand and a parcel in the other, and was dressed in the livery of a popular courier company. It didn't take a Ph.D. to deduce his purpose in being there. "Yes?"

    "Could you please direct me to Dr Goodman?"

    "You're looking at her."

    The young man didn't appear to be in the least surprised that someone so young could hold a doctorate; in his business, he was probably used to meeting all kinds of people. He proffered the clipboard, indicating a particular line on the pad. "Sign here, please." Jennifer duly signed, and accepted a large, padded envelope, about the size of a text book.

    "What is all this stuff?" the courier asked, indicating the array of crates and packages that almost filled the large room.

    "Items for the Cythera exhibit," Jennifer replied. "It's opening next month."

    "Oh, yeah," the man replied, interest draining from his expression. "Say, you don't really believe all those stories they tell, do you? About that island suddenly appearing out of a once impenetrable mist, and the amazing things the people from there could do?"

    Jennifer laughed. If only he'd known; that had been the very subject of her doctoral thesis. "I don't believe all the stories, no," she answered. "Some of them are just too fantastic to be credible. The island always existed, of course, but certain strange climatic conditions resulted in a constant band of mist about the area. Ships tended to avoid the fog, so the zone remained largely unexplored. When conditions changed, probably caused by something like the el niño effect, the mists vanished - and there it was, this previously completely unknown island. Of course, if they'd had satellites back then, they would already have known all about it."

    She stopped abruptly. The courier's eyes had taken on the familiar glazed appearance that she'd come to expect whenever she talked about her pet subject. She sighed regretfully, failing completely to see how anyone could be bored by such a fascinating topic.

    He started edging toward the door. "Anyway, must run, deliveries to make..." and he was gone.

    Jennifer shook her head and sighed, as she returned to her office. Once seated at her desk she examined the parcel, looking for some indication of who might have sent it, but found none. That in itself wasn't too surprising, anonymous bequests to the museum were quite commonplace. She shrugged, tore open the envelope, and carefully removed its contents.

    It was a rather unusual looking book, crudely bound in thick, brown leather, with an intricate but oddly regular design embossed on the cover. There were two small circles of polished seashell embedded in it, positioned close together but completely asymmetrically towards one side. The design meant nothing to her, and she was quite certain it wouldn't have meant anything to any other Cytheran scholar, either.

    She ran a finger quickly down her inventory list, but none of the descriptions of the items still unaccounted for matched the book. There was nothing written on its front cover or its spine, and the binding made a crackling sound as she carefully opened it; it was plainly quite old. There was no title on the first page, either, nothing at all to give any indication of the book's contents; yet she felt a tingle of excitement, as she realised that the hand-written text was fluent Cytheran, a variant of ancient Greek. The number of people that knew that particular dialect could be counted on one hand, and none of them were likely to try and falsify something like this. It might even be something completely new! With a thrill of anticipation, she settled down to read.

    "I, Lucius the bard, record these memoirs for my long-time friend and beloved wife, Elvira. At her insistence I will write her words faithfully, although I cannot bear witness as to their truth; I can scarcely find it within myself to believe her story at all, although I know her to be among the most honest of folk.

    "In her youth she was bright and outgoing, always eager for adventure; but on one quest - the last she ever undertook - she confronted something that left her spirit broken. She has kept her secret locked away all these years, until at last she could contain it no longer, and took me into her confidence.

    "The quest had to do with investigating the lack of communication from the city called Abydos, and its leader, a mage named Tavara..."

    A frown wrinkled Jennifer's brow. "Tavara? That name sounds familiar. Now where have I heard it before?" She pondered for a moment, then abruptly rose and walked over to a bookshelf. She wasn't in the habit of collecting books for the sake of appearances; every tome on her shelves was there for a purpose, and each had been well used. A master of any trade thoroughly knows his tools, and Jennifer was no exception. She homed in unerringly on the correct volume, and thumbed through it quickly to the passage she wanted.

    "Tavara: another of the so-called 'mages' of Pnyx, and ruler of the south-eastern city of Abydos from it's inception until the time it was destroyed. Little factual information about him exists, but some early Cytheran texts cite rumours that he made a pact with some great force of evil, which resulted in the undetermined disaster that befell the city. Lars Thorson, in his book 'The Myths of Cythera', argues quite convincingly that Tavara formed a cult, every member of which later died as the result of a mass suicide pact."

    Jennifer snorted. She'd met Thorson; the man was an oaf, with scarcely enough imagination to formulate the question 'how's the weather?' in polite conversation. Nevertheless, his was the most rational explanation, especially since the idea of a school of 'mages' was so patently ridiculous. She replaced the reference book, and returned to Lucius' journal.

    Some hours of somewhat duller reading later, her drooping eyelids suddenly snapped open. She blinked, gathering her wits before reading the most recent passage again.

    "No ordinary methods would be effective against a mage of Tavara's ability, and so began their quest to construct a weapon of extraordinary power: Fate's Hammer..."

    Jennifer breathed out slowly, barely controlling her rekindled sense of excitement. "An artifact," she whispered. "One nobody's ever found!" She briefly fantasised over the looks on the faces of the other experts on Cythera when she returned with her prize, but shook the daydream off with a little effort. "Who am I kidding," she admonished herself. "It's just a story, it couldn't possibly really exist."

    She glanced out the window, noting with astonishment that night had fallen while she'd been so engrossed. Sighing, she marked her place, returned the book to its envelope, and placed it carefully in her shoulder bag. At the door she took one last look around, then turned out the lights.

    The commute home took no more than twenty minutes. She spent the time considering the different floor plan proposals for the exhibit, one of which would have to be selected within the next two days to allow time for appropriate cabinets and other housing to be purchased and constructed. She was annoyed at the small budget she'd been allowed for security; she considered it mildly insulting to an exhibit of such importance. She turned the corner at the end of her long, tree-lined drive and slammed on the breaks, screeching to a halt. The sight that confronted her shocked her to her very core.

    Beneath thick, billowing clouds of black smoke, her house was wreathed in flames.

    ---------

    Sergeant Harry Wells stood next to one of the fire engines, well back from the smoking rubble where the firemen were packing up their hoses and equipment. This had been a beautiful home, once; he'd driven past it often, on his way to work. He shook his head, clicking his tongue softly. "What a waste."

    He stopped the Fire Marshal as he was walking by. "What's the verdict, Tom?"

    The grey haired man, whose soot-stained uniform couldn't conceal an aura of steady competence, paused before giving his carefully measured reply. "Well Harry, on the record, I'd have to say it's really too soon to be sure."

    Harry nodded; he'd expected nothing less. "And off the record?"

    Tom glanced at him sharply, and a fleeting grin played about the corners of his mouth. " Off the record, I've seen a lot of fires in my time - no way this was anything but arson."

    Harry nodded in the direction of the young woman with long brown hair and gold rimmed glasses, huddling on the ground under a tree and staring glassy eyed at what had once been her family home. "Think she did it?"

    Tom glanced at the girl, and shook his head. "No chance. She's not the type."

    Harry nodded. "I agree. Body language is all wrong. Well, thanks again, Tom."

    "Sure, Harry, that's another one you owe me. Hey, remind your dad that he still owes me a beer." Harry paced slowly over to the girl, while Tom went about the business of getting his crews back to their stations.

    "Miss Goodman?"

    "Doctor," she corrected absently, her focus never leaving the smoking ashes.

    "Doctor Goodman," he corrected himself. "I'm sorry to disturb you just now, but do you have any idea who'd want to do this to your home?"

    Jennifer blinked, and looked up vacantly at the man standing next to her. He wore plain clothes, she noted absently with the small portion of her mind that wasn't too numb to function. Not a fireman; that meant reporter - or cop.

    "Who - who are you?"

    "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sergeant Wells."

    "Then no, sergeant. I have no idea - wait, are you suggesting this was deliberate? "

    "It's not official yet, but old Tom over there is hardly ever wrong. You can pretty much bet it was arson."

    Jennifer's reaction instantly laid to rest any last doubts he might have had about her innocence. She began to cry.

    ---------

    Harry leaned back in his chair with an exasperated sigh, and shook his head at the girl on the other side of his desk. Streaks from her tears were still visible on her cheeks, and she was shivering, in spite of the warm evening and the hot cup of tea she cradled carefully in her hands.

    From what he'd been able to learn so far, he had to agree with her earlier assessment. She was a bookish, stay-at-home type, the kind of person that didn't get out enough to make any serious enemies. Naturally, she had some rivals in her field, but a bunch of dusty old historians were hardly likely to burn down her home just because she disagreed with their pet theories.

    "Do you have anywhere to stay?" he asked gently. Jennifer shook her head. Harry indicated a female police officer standing by the door. "Look, officer Perez will arrange a hotel for you for tonight. You can decide what you want to to do in the morning, when your head's a bit clearer."

    "Thank you," she replied softly - by instinct, he thought; she was acting like an automaton. He signalled to Perez, who took Jennifer by the arm and gently pulled her to her feet.

    "Come on, Doctor, let's get you someplace you can sleep for a while."

    Harry watched them leave, his mind adrift in a sea of random possibilities. The whole situation made no sense - but then, he liked mysteries. It was why he became a police officer in the first place.

    There was no question now that the fire had been intentionally set. Whoever had done it had been inexperienced, unlucky, or both; the arson inspector had found parts of the incendiary device almost immediately.

    His phone rang, shattering the still silence. He started slightly, then distractedly picked it up. "Hello?"

    "Harry? Tom Falkes. Look, I've been thinking about that fire tonight, and something's been bothering me."

    Harry became more attentive. Tom had been a friend of his father's longer than he himself had been alive, and he'd learned to trust the Fire Marshall's judgement when it came to fires. "What?"

    "Well - I don't like to make a fuss, and I might be wrong..."

    "Tom, do I have to get dad to come over and force it out of you?"

    Tom chuckled. "All right, boy, you got me. It's just that, the way I figure it, that fire couldn't have started much earlier than 8:00 pm. The doc was a pretty lucky lady; if she hadn't gotten home so late -"

    The handset dropped to the desk with a clatter, as Harry rushed out of his office. If Tom was right, then there was a lot more to this than just arson - and Dr Jennifer Goodman might still be in a great deal of danger.

    ---------

    Chapter 2

    The sun was riding high in the sky by the time Jennifer awoke. She'd spent a restless night, unable to keep her mind off her loss for any length of time. It had been more than just a house to her, it was the home she had grown up in, and inherited upon her mother's death. It was as if the fire had burned away all her roots, casting her adrift in a bleak and malevolent world. She'd finally drifted into an uneasy slumber in the predawn, as the eastern sky was just beginning to brighten.

    When she finally surfaced, she found a note by her bed. "Dr Goodman - Please make yourself at home. Call down for room service when you want breakfast. I'll be by to check on you a little later." It was signed Lucy Perez. "Lucy," Jennifer thought, inconsequentially, "what an ill fitting name for a police woman."

    After a late breakfast out on the balcony, she gazed tiredly out over the rooftops, already slightly hazy with smog. Her mind refused to settle on any one subject for too long, always returning to the traumatic events of the previous evening. The image of the angry orange flames, consuming practically everything that meant anything to her in the world, was burned into her cortex like brand, a gaping wound in her psyche that would take months - perhaps years - to heal.

    She began to pace up and down, reliving the feeling of helplessness, unable to settle in the unfamiliar surroundings. "I need to walk, I need to get out of here," she thought. Snatching up her jacket and bag, she hurried from the room, and downstairs through the lobby.

    Once outside on the sidewalk, Jennifer felt even more helpless than she had before. She stood, looking from side to side, unable to decide which way to go. Arbitrarily, she chose to go left, and merged with the bustling crowd.

    How far she travelled, the corners she turned, the stores she passed - none of these things seemed to be of any importance, and she'd have been hard pressed later to recall them to mind. She was content to just let herself go, allowing the sights and sounds, the sheer energy of the city overwhelm her senses, for a short while submerging the pain of her loss beneath an overload of sensory stimuli.

    After a series of random twists and turns that would have confused a boy scout's sense of direction, Jennifer suddenly realised she'd wandered into a dark alley - and she was lost. Turning about helplessly, she noticed she wasn't as alone as she'd first thought; there was a man approaching from the street.

    "Excuse me - this is terribly embarrassing - I think I'm lost. Can you help me?"

    "Why, certainly - Doctor. Just as soon as you help me , I promise you that all your problems are going to disappear - forever."

    Jennifer froze. The man exuded an almost palpable aura of menace that reached down inside her and brought forth her deepest, most primeval fears. Unconsciously, she backed away from him, until her back was pressed hard against the wall of the alley.

    "What - what do you want from me?" She tried to keep her voice steady, but failed utterly.

    The man shrugged. "Oh, nothing much - just a certain small package you recently received."

    He edged closer, almost within arm's length. Jennifer tried to make a break, but the man grabbed her roughly by the arms and slammed her back against the wall.

    "Where is it, Doctor? Where's the book? "

    Jennifer's mind went blank; she was too terrified to think.

    "Freeze!"

    Both Jennifer and her assailant glanced in the direction of the authoritative voice. Lucy Perez was running down the alley towards them, gun drawn. The man released his hold on Jennifer, and made a dash for the opposite end - only to run headlong into a flying tackle from Harry Wells.

    "Who are you, and what do you want with Dr Goodman?" Harry demanded, once he'd regained his breath. The man merely glowered at him, until Harry's patience was exhausted. "Answer me!"

    The man's expression twisted into a contemptuous sneer, then he spoke one single sentence. "You shouldn't have interfered." He clenched his jaw, and Harry heard a faint splintering sound. The man spasmed once, then lay still.

    By the time Lucy and Jennifer ran up to him, Harry was staring down in perplexity at a dead body. "What happened?" Lucy demanded.

    Harry shook his head. "I think - I think he had a false tooth..."

    Lucy looked puzzled, then her eyes widened as comprehension visibly dawned. "Poison? That's insane!"

    Harry shrugged. "It'll take an autopsy to be sure - but we can't wait that long. Dr Goodman, I don't know what these people want from you, but until we're sure there's no more of them, we have to assume you're still in a great deal of danger. It's a good thing we were watching you closely."

    For the first time since the previous evening, Jennifer began to feel a strong emotion other than fear: she was rapidly losing her temper. "Am I to understand that you knew - or at least suspected - that something like this would happen, since yesterday? "

    Harry sighed. "My suspicions were first raised after you left last night, when Tom Falkes - the Fire Marshal, you remember - called me to let me know that he didn't think the fire was meant to start until after you got home that night. The only thing that saved you was the fact that you were so late. By the time I got to your hotel, officer Perez informed me that you'd gone to bed."

    Lucy broke in hurriedly. "I figured you needed your rest, and talked him out of disturbing you. We posted a guard overnight, and I was going to talk to you this morning. Somehow you managed to slip out past the man we had on your room, but I was just across the road when you left. I followed, and called Sergeant Wells the first chance I got. I almost panicked when I realised that guy was following you."

    "Actually, Perez, you did extremely well. It'll be noted in my report."

    Lucy blushed slightly. "Thank you, sir."

    Harry took a deep breath. "We've waited here long enough. Perez, keep her out of sight, and I'll go for the car. Doctor, a safehouse has already been arranged, and we can make plans once we get you safely there. I'll only be a few minutes." With that, he ran down the alley and disappeared out into the street.

    Jennifer shivered, and pointedly turned her back on the body. "Are you all right?" Lucy queried.

    "It's okay," Jennifer replied. "It's just that - I've never felt so alone. You and Sergeant Wells are the only people left that I feel I can really trust."

    Lucy nodded understandingly. "That must be hard. I can only imagine what it must be like." A pause. "What prompted you to become a historian, Doctor? If you don't mind me asking."

    "Not at all. I guess it was my obsession with Cythera."

    "That island? The one in the middle of what they called the Mediterranean's Devil's Triangle?"

    Jennifer laughed, for what felt like the first time in days. "Yes, that's the one. I used to read all about it when I was a kid. All the factual stuff, and every mystery novel ever published that had the island as its setting - and there were a lot of those. The place fairly breathed mystery. I was completely infatuated with it."

    "I guess you're like me," Lucy responded with a grin. Jennifer looked at her quizzically. "You never grew up, either."

    This time, Jennifer's laugh was rich and full. Eventually, she calmed down and wiped the tears from her eyes. "Thanks, I really needed that."

    Lucy glanced at her watch. "I don't like this, Harry should have been here by now." She chewed her lip in momentary indecision. "Look, I know where he parked - what say we go look?"

    Jennifer nodded. "Sure. We'll probably meet him on the way."

    Together, they made their way up the alley in the direction Harry had disappeared. The car was still where it had been left, not far from the mouth of the alley. Lucy checked the coast was clear, then waved Jennifer past her while she continued to keep watch.

    Jennifer could see Harry in the driver's seat as she approached, and ran up to his open window. "Harry, why didn't you come get -"

    She broke off, as she registered his staring, sightless eyes, and the dark red stain spreading over his otherwise pristine white shirt. She reached out , as if to confirm it wasn't a dream. Harry's body slumped over at her touch. Jennifer shrieked. Only then did she notice the crudely scrawled note secured under the windshield wiper.

    'He shouldn't have interfered.'

    It was written in fluent Cytheran.

    ---------

    Chapter 3

    Nick carefully placed his fishing pole and tackle down on the dock, and stretched. It looked like it was going to be another gorgeous day; warm sun, peaceful fishing, and little else to do on an island that relied almost completely on its fishing fleet and tourism for its income. Every now and then he felt a little guilty, thinking he should be doing something more with his life - but never for long. Cythera was in his blood.

    The fishing turned out to be far too peaceful; by noon, he'd had scarcely a nibble. Boredom increasing by the minute, he allowed his attention to wander as it willed, until it settled on a faint dark speck on the horizon. It was too soon for the fishing fleet to return to Cademia, so that left only one possibility.

    His speculation was confirmed when Jamieson, the local tourist operator, arrived on the dock and began pacing impatiently up and down. Of all the people on Cythera, he was the only one Nick knew that didn't actually like it there. Why he stayed was anyone's guess.

    The ferry was soon tied up at the dock, and crowds of tourists began to invade the town like a horde of locusts. The local storekeepers quickly changed into their best clothes - and best prices. Each time a tourist boat pulled in, it was like winning a minor lottery. Jamieson pulled out his clipboard, and began checking names off his list. When he was finished, he gathered his charges together, and herded them off to the priciest hotel.

    Nick watched them disappear from sight, then turned back to his fishing. It was then that he noticed the woman, still standing by the gangway, and looking decidedly lost.

    She seemed rather plain, the kind of person you'd easily overlook in a crowd. The only really striking thing about her was her shoulder length, straight, dark red hair. She was of average height, and her button down shirt and shorts were nondescript and dull. her wide-rimmed dark glasses effectively hid any trace of expression in her eyes. Her boots looked quite practical, rather than the casual-style footwear that tourists usually wore. In fact, she hardly looked like a tourist at all.

    She became aware of his scrutiny, and seemed a little annoyed that he didn't flinch away from her return glare. She pointedly turned away, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and made her way up the dock. As she drew level with him, she stopped in momentary indecision. Nick could almost see the thoughts passing through her head before she came to a decision, turned, and hesitantly approached him.

    "Excuse me, I need to hire a guide. Can you please point me in the right direction?"

    Nick studied her appraisingly. It was quite clear that she wasn't here on a sightseeing trip; she was looking for something in particular. "You need a guide? I can guide you. I know pretty much everything there is to know about this island. Fifty U.S. dollars a day. Where do you want to go?"

    She hesitated. "You really know the island well?"

    "Sure, I was born here. You doubt me?"

    "It's just - your accent. It's so... English!"

    Nick laughed. "Educated at Oxford, believe it or not."

    "Oxford? And you came back here?"

    He shrugged. "What can I say? Once a Cytheran, you never really leave. This place is... special." He stood up and extended his hand. "I'm Nicholas Stavros. Call me Nick."

    The woman tentatively took his hand, but her grip quickly firmed up. She even smiled slightly. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Lucy Perez."

    "Glad to make your acquaintance, Lucy. Now, I'll need to know where we're going, before I can recommend supplies."

    Lucy took a deep, trembling breath, and looked around furtively. When she spoke, her voice was almost a whisper. "First, I need to get to a place called 'Abydos'."

    "Abydos! You sure know how to pick them, that's one strange place. Are you sure you wouldn't rather see Land King Hall?"

    Lucy began to show a degree of agitation. "No - I really want to see Abydos. And I'd rather not take the road, if you don't mind. I'd like to see the native terrain," she added hastily.

    "All right, it's your money. I know where we can borrow a couple of horses. Now, supplies..."

    Lucy set a strict spending limit, from which she refused to budge. Nick sighed, shrugged, and pared his list down to the bare minimum. Finally, they were both satisfied.

    "Right," Nick said, "Can you keep yourself entertained for a couple of hours, while I get started on getting all this together?"

    "Sure. Oh, before you go, can you point me in the direction of the post office? I'm expecting a telegram."

    "Right over there," Nick replied, pointing to a solid, yet somewhat run down building just up the street.

    "Thanks." Lucy set off without a backward glance. Nick watched her go, frowning thoughtfully. Rousing himself from his musings with an almost physical effort, he walked off down a side street.

    As soon as Lucy was out of sight, Nick broke into a run. He had only a short distance to cover, and was easily able to reach the back of the post office before Lucy reached the front. He slipped in through the open door, blessing the fact that serious crime was such a rarity on the island that locks were seldom used.

    Peering cautiously from behind a door frame, he watched Lucy approach Nina, the single postal worker that worked in the building. Nina rifled through a shelf off to one side, retrieved a large, thick pad and tore off the top sheet. Lucy accepted it gratefully, then left.

    Nick didn't have long to wait. Nina, following her regular routine, soon closed the building and adjourned to the coffee shop across the road for her morning tea. Even though the building was now empty, Nick couldn't keep himself from tiptoeing across the floor to the shelf on which the telegraph pad rested. He picked up a pencil, and lightly rubbed it across the entire sheet. "Just like on television," he thought, as the message from the previous sheet appeared on the page. He quickly tore the sheet off, and crept back out the way he'd entered.

    Once well away from the building, he stopped to read the telegram. The message was simple, but far from clear.

    'Nothing new. All roads lead to Cythera. Be careful. SiA.'

    Nick shook his head in puzzlement. "My, my, Nicky; what have you gotten yourself into?"

    ---------

    Nick returned just within the stipulated two hours, leading the promised horses. The food, tents, coleman lamps and other equipment Lucy had allowed him to purchase for her were distributed fairly evenly, along with some items of his own that he'd fetched from his home.

    Lucy was waiting right where they'd parted. Nick wasn't certain, but he thought she looked even more troubled than she had earlier. "All set?" he queried, giving no sign that he suspected anything was amiss.

    Lucy nodded. Nick moved to help her mount her horse, but to his surprise, she swung herself expertly into the saddle without aid. Nick nodded approvingly. He hadn't been looking forward to babysitting a novice rider through the terrain they'd have to traverse.

    "We can either follow the road east, through the pass to the ruins of Pnyx," Nick advised once he'd mounted his own steed, "or we can take the southern route. It's longer, since we'd have to hook round under the end of the alps, but it's all native forest."

    "Like I said, I'd like to see the scenery. It won't be all that much longer, will it? I mean, the island's not that big."

    "To be honest," Nick replied, "it's more the kind of terrain that's the problem. On the eastern route, there are roads or tracks all the way to Abydos. There're no established paths on the southern route."

    Lucy's mood seemed to brighten somewhat. "Okay, that's ideal. You're the guide; lead on."

    ---------

    They set up camp beside the river a little before dusk, after traversing a good half of the distance towards the end of the mountains. Lucy initially objected, since there was still considerable daylight in which they could have travelled, but subsided when Nick assured her that they'd still reach Abydos in good time the next day. "It's really only a one day trip on horseback," he explained, "but we started out rather late in the day."

    As guide, Nick assumed responsibility for the evening meal. To Lucy's surprise he pulled a well wrapped packet of diced steak from a saddlebag, and set about preparing a stew. Once it was beginning to bubble over the open fire he disappeared briefly, returning with a small collection of aromatic leaves which he proceeded to crush into the pot.

    "Is that safe?" Lucy queried nervously.

    "Sure. It's how we always cook our campfire stews. Trust me, I know my herbs."

    Once she tested it, Lucy had to admit it tasted pretty good. Nick grinned at her obvious enjoyment. She glanced up, and caught him smiling. "You're just showing off, aren't you," she teased.

    Nick laughed. "Yes, you got me. More?"

    Lucy returned his grin. "Yes, please."

    Nick leaned back and contentedly watched her finish off her second helping. It had been the first time since he'd met her that she'd seemed genuinely happy about anything.

    ---------

    Once the meal was over, Nick took their plates down to a nearby creek to wash. As he disappeared from sight through the trees, Lucy's troubles once again began to crowd to the forefront of her mind. She pulled out the crumpled telegram, reading and re-reading it in an attempt to make some sense of it all.

    'All roads lead to Cythera.' Their guess had been correct; there was something larger than they knew behind everything that had happened, the events that had culminated in Harry Wells' murder - and it centred here. 'Nothing new.' There was no trace of Harry's killers; all other leads had dried up. 'SiA.' Sister in Arms. It was good to know that there was someone else back there, that was still fighting for answers - even if she did have to keep her identity concealed.

    Her frustration finally got the better of her. Convulsively, she screwed the telegram into a ball and threw it into the fire. She found watching the flames lick over the paper strangely soothing; by the time it was totally consumed, she was once again in control.

    The sounds of the native nocturnal wildlife were quite disturbing, as used as she was to city life. She began to pace about nervously, unable to settle in the unfamiliar environment.

    None of it made any sense. The assailant in the alley had demanded the book, but what was its significance? It was just a story book, by an early Cytheran equivalent of Mary Shelley. Wasn't it? What else could it be?

    Some unknown instinct caused her to glance up at the wall of vegetation around their campsite. She caught her breath as the fire flared briefly, illuminating a pale face among the trees - a face she'd last seen in that dark alley, back home. She screamed.

    By the time Nick made it back to camp, the face was gone. "What's wrong?" he panted, staring at Lucy in concern. "You look like you've seen a ghost!"

    Slowly, she broke out of the shocked trance, and turned to face him. "Not a ghost..." she replied, weakly. "But... I think - I think I just saw a walking dead man."

    ---------

    Chapter 4

    Nick didn't sleep that night, leaving him extremely drowsy in the saddle the next morning. It was plain to him then that Lucy had chosen the 'scenic route' in the hope of avoiding trouble on the road - and also that her business in Cythera was something extremely dangerous indeed. Even without knowing the contents of the telegram, her shocked revelation the previous evening had made that plain.

    After her brief outburst she'd retreated back within herself, keeping him at bay with her stubborn silence. Regardless, he doubted she'd found enough peace to sleep at all; perhaps that had contributed to his own difficulties.

    The silence irked him, although he wasn't sure why. He tried to fill the void with a continuous chatter about inconsequential things, but Lucy's lack of response was disheartening. He was on the point of giving up when she finally broke in with a question of her own.

    "I've heard that ratlizards still exist on the island. Is that true?"

    Caught off guard, Nick hesitated before replying. "Yes. They infest the old sewers, and are occasionally seen elsewhere on the island. They fill approximately the same ecological niche as the rat, in other countries."

    Lucy nodded. "I still find it hard to accept that there are creatures with six legs. That just seems so - unnatural!"

    "I guess we're just like any place that's been isolated for a long time, keeping any animal species from spreading. Other places have unique creatures, too - like the kiwi from New Zealand, or the duckbilled platypus from Australia. Now, that one had the skeptics up in arms for years, until it was proven to really exist."

    Lucy nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I remember reading about that." She became introspective again, and the conversation lapsed into silence. She roused herself a short while later, and smiled apologetically at Nick. "I'm sorry, I haven't been very good company. I've had... things on my mind."

    "Anything you want to talk about?" Nick probed gently.

    She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "A few days ago, a friend of mine was killed - rather violently. That's why I'm here, on this trip; I had to get away, I couldn't stay where I was anymore."

    "I'm very sorry about that," Nick murmured, trying to sound comforting. Lucy continued as if he hadn't spoken at all.

    "What happened last night - well, it just brought back more than I was prepared to deal with. That face - I must have imagined it. I guess I've been a lot more traumatised than I thought I was."

    "Yes, that might be it," Nick agreed. "If my chattering on bothers you, I'll stop."

    "No, that's okay. I think it actually helps to hear another voice that doesn't remind me too much about what happened."

    Nick smiled briefly, and once more began filling the air with trivialities. The day was warm, and the forest was alive with the sounds of birds, insects and other creatures. The air was filled with the fresh smell of pine, tinged with the occasional breath of wildflowers. Nick never tired of the wilds of Cythera; he sincerely hoped that 'progress' never reached the tiny island. His enthusiasm, or perhaps his incessant talking, seemed to be having a good effect on Lucy. She was slowly being drawn out of her shell, taking an active interest in her surroundings. Nick was pleasantly surprised to find himself actually enjoying her company.

    Which was perhaps why it was such a surprise, when they rode around a small bluff and found themselves surrounded by half a dozen men with guns.

    ---------

    Nick heaved against the ropes binding his hands behind his back, but it did no more good than the first time he'd tried - or the second, or the third. The man that had tied him had been no amateur. He sighed resignedly, and leaned back against the wall of the cave.

    Nearby, Lucy wriggled uncomfortably, trying to find a better position. She glanced at Nick apologetically. "I'm sorry, Nick, I didn't mean to get you involved in this mess."

    Nick smiled briefly. If they hadn't been tied behind his back, he'd have waved a hand dismissively. "It's not your fault. I blame myself, for getting caught by surprise."

    "But you couldn't possibly have predicted this."

    Nick ignored her protest. "What I don't understand is why they've done this. What do they want from us?" Lucy squirmed, a slightly guilty cast to her expression, but remained silent.

    Another voice echoed around the corner. "Yes, tell him what we wanted. There's no harm in it now, we've already found it." The speaker stepped into their line of sight, to be greeted by a gasp of astonishment.

    "You're dead! I saw you die!" Lucy exclaimed.

    The man smiled evilly. "Really? Are you sure you saw what you thought you saw?" He waved an arm dismissively. "No matter, we have what we want. Now you're of no further use to us. Whether you live or die is of no more consequence to me; in a few hours, it won't matter at all. I think I'll leave it to fate - or your own ingenuity - to decide. I'll be leaving now, but there'll be enough guards to keep you out of trouble. Good bye, Nicholas. I wish things could have turned out differently." With that, he was gone.

    "You know him?" Lucy queried, incredulously.

    Nick sighed. "Believe it or not, we grew up together. His name's Alexandros; he's a local, like me. But what did he mean? What did they want?"

    "I think it was something I was carrying," she confessed. "It's what started all this mess - and what got my friend killed. It's a book. A very old book, a journal written by a Cytheran named Lucius. I thought it was just a storybook at first, but disaster seems to follow it everywhere. That man - I saw him die, in an alley back home. He poisoned himself. Although... I didn't stay long enough to see the autopsy report..."

    "Well, perhaps he faked it," Nick suggested.

    "I guess so..." In spite of the concurrence in the words, she still sounded doubtful.

    "But why would they want the book so bad?"

    "I don't know. I just don't know! It doesn't make any sense at all! None of it does! That's why I came, I needed answers!" Her feelings got the better of her, and tears of frustration began to trickle down her cheeks. Nick shuffled closer, until their shoulders touched.

    "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stir things up. Hey, things will work out - you'll see."

    "It's nice of you to say so," she sniffed, "but I don't see how."

    As if in answer to her question, several muffled thuds resounded through the cave. Soon, a familiar face poked around the corner.

    "Hi there, Nicky. You look like you could use a little help."

    "Jamieson! It's about time!"

    The portly tour guide pulled out a pocket knife and quickly severed their bonds. Lucy could do no more than stare at him, completely at a loss for words. Jamieson lead them out of the small cave, through a long, narrow tunnel and out into a forest clearing. Lucy gaped at the handful of armed people standing guard over a few unconscious bodies. Some of the guards she knew; they'd travelled with her on the ferry.

    "Why - how - what is going on here?" she stammered.

    "I'm sorry for the deception," Nick apologised. "We knew the Apethanene were on your trail, and we hoped to keep you safe - unfortunately, they seem to have anticipated the route you'd choose to travel, or somehow managed to follow and get ahead of us."

    "And just who is 'we'?" Lucy demanded, her temper slipping into a fast burn.

    "'We' call ourselves Thanatos Roloi, " Jamieson answered, as he and another brought what remained of their packs over to them. "We watch the Apethanene, trying to learn what they're up to, and doing what we can to hamper their efforts."

    "'Apethanene'; does that come from the Greek, 'to die'?" Lucy asked. Jamieson nodded. "And 'Thanatos Roloi' - Death Watch?"

    "That's right. It's a little hard to explain - at least in the time we have - but essentially, the Apethanene are a death cult, and we, the Thanatos Roloi, keep a watch on them. They usually don't cause much trouble, but they can be extremely dangerous when opposed. As your friend Harry Wells discovered. We're all very sorry about that; our people were spread thin, and just a little too late."

    Lucy sat down heavily against a tree, resting her head in her hands. Events were progressing far too quickly for her to take in. She had just been getting used to being all alone in her search, and now she'd discovered a large group of allies that had been watching her closely for some time. She slowly looked up at Jamieson, hoping she could contribute something worthwhile. "They wanted Lucius' journal. I don't know why, but once they found it, they left us alone. I don't know where it came from, it was sent anonymously. What's their connection to this 'Tavara'?"

    Nick and Jamieson exchanged a quick glance. "Their cult traces its beginnings back to him, many centuries ago," Nick explained. "The popular theory is that he lead the whole town of Abydos in a suicide pact. But it wasn't suicide - it was murder."

    Lucy shuddered. "He must have been insane! "

    "Perhaps. But there was a sick method to his madness. He believed that by draining the lifeforce of enough people, he could transform himself into an immortal being of immense power - a lich. He and his lieutenants were brought to justice by a small group of champions, but all but one of them lost their own lives in the attempt. The last of them never spoke of her ordeal."

    Lucy nodded in understanding. "Except to Lucius."

    "Exactly. We think the journal contains more than just the tale - it also holds the key to finding Tavara's resting place."

    Lucy frowned, puzzled. "But why is that so important to them? Tavara's long dead. What good is he to them now?"

    Nick and Jamieson exchanged another uncomfortable look. "We're not really sure," Jamieson replied. "It's possible they've found a way to free him from his prison."

    Lucy gaped, staring at them in disbelief. "You actually believe all that stuff? About mages, and liches, and people rising up as undead? You're as insane as they are!" She struggled to her feet. "Look, I'm out of my depth - could you please just point me in the direction of town, and I'll leave you to your little games."

    Nick sighed. He lead Jamieson off a little way, and whispered briefly in his ear. Jamieson shrugged, then wandered off a short distance and pulled out a small two-way radio. Nick returned to where Lucy was standing. "Look, ignore what Jamieson said, it doesn't matter what you believe about all this. But think about it - don't you want to know what this is all about? If you leave now you'll never find out - and you'll wonder for the rest of your life. Don't you want to know what Harry Wells died for, and perhaps even take a little revenge?"

    Lucy stared down at the ground. Eventually, she raised her eyes to meet Nick's; he was gratified to see that the look of determination was back. "All right," she said. "I'll see this through."

    Nick smiled. "Good. I have a feeling we'll need your help before we're done. Now, we need to make plans; we have to get that book back." He turned away, walking quickly toward Jamieson.

    "Remind me not to go up against you, Nick," Lucy called after him. "You fight dirty." The sound of Nick's rich laughter floating back over his shoulder brought a rare smile to her face.

    ---------

    Several hours of far too rapid travel later, Jamieson's radio crackled. He signalled the small group to halt, and held the device to his ear. After a brief conversation, he wandered back to where Nick and Lucy were resting.

    "We had another small team already at Abydos," he explained. "I called them earlier, and they started back this way. What we hope to do is trap Alexandros' party between our two groups. We're almost on them, now. I don't know how rough it will get; I'm no fighter, so I'll be holding back here while Nick leads the others in. Will you go or stay, miss Perez?"

    Lucy looked thoughtful, and shivered briefly. "I'm no fighter, either. I'll wait." Nick nodded, and set off with the rest of the team.

    Lucy and Jamieson sat waiting in silence, having little in common and nothing to say. The wait wasn't long; Nick and the others returned within twenty minutes. Nick handed the book to Lucy, but she wondered at his grim expression.

    "What happened?" she asked.

    "Well, we were successful; but Alexandros and some of the others escaped."

    "That could be trouble," Jamieson broke in. "They know we have the book, and if it's as important to them as it seems... You two keep on toward Abydos, and see what you can make of that journal. The rest of us had better go after Alexandros."

    Jamieson gave orders to the rest of the team, who quickly began to move out. He turned for a last word with Nick and Lucy.

    "Stay alert, you two. If anything goes wrong this time, I doubt we'll be around to get you out of it."

    Nick nodded solemnly. "We'll be careful."

    The rest of the group departed. Lucy shivered, feeling even more alone than she had when she arrived on the island. "I must have gotten used to the company," she thought. She gazed up at Nick's worried, but set expression. "Well, what do we do now?"

    "We go, I guess. There's no need to rush; it's more important to remain undetected. Ready?"

    "Not really." She breathed deeply, then gave a wry smile. "But hey, why should that stop us now?"

    They set off, this time on foot; Nick didn't want to risk the horses being heard by anyone who might be watching for them. As a consequence, the journey took several more hours than it would have otherwise, but Lucy didn't mind in the least. She preferred to keep as safe as possible.

    Having little else to occupy her attention, she contented herself with observing the surrounding jungle as they passed through. The bird and insect life was abundant, thriving in the dank, humid atmosphere. Larger creatures could sometimes be heard lumbering through the dense growth, but she never succeeded in catching a glimpse of any of them.

    A colourful bird flitting ahead of them captured her attention, and she followed its flight until it alighted. It sat there chirping, eying them curiously as they approached its perch. Lucy suddenly realised it was resting on the crumbling remains of a wall of stone, almost entirely covered in the lush vegetation of the encroaching jungle.

    They'd reached Abydos.

    ---------

    They spent some time wandering the ruined streets and buildings, searching vainly for some clue to its continued significance. Lucy eventually stopped, and ran a hand through her hair.

    "This is a waste of time, I have no idea what we're even looking for."

    "I know," Nick replied, "but I don't know what else to do."

    Lucy sighed in exasperation, and sat down against a wall. "I'm going to take another look at the journal. Maybe I can find what the fuss is all about."

    "Okay. I'll keep looking around. You never know, I might get lucky." He wandered away, but was careful to keep Lucy in site.

    Lucy opened Lucius' journal and began to read. She was already familiar with the earlier sections, so picked up where she'd left off.

    "The small band of companions returned to Abydos, bearing with them the newly constructed weapon. Elvira was deathly afraid of what she might face there, yet knew the importance of the task; in any case, she would not abandon her companions in the time of their greatest need.

    They found the entrance to the hidden catacombs without much difficulty, having the directions to hand; otherwise, their quest might have been in vain, so cunningly was it concealed."

    "Oh, wonderful," Lucy thought. "How are we supposed to find it, then?"

    "The catacombs were unnerving in themselves. In their absence, someone had removed the dead of Abydos from the surface, and secreted them in the crypts and tunnels below. Only Taj's stalwart and steadfast heart kept them all moving forward.

    The final chamber, when they ultimately reached it, was large and eerily lit, with a pale light that issued from no visible source. At the far end of the chamber stood the unholy altar, where Tavara had conducted his researches in the black arts.

    Behind the altar stood the fiend himself, with all his minions. Their transformation was complete; they had become the undead, the skeleton mages - the lich.

    Tavara spoke then, a grating, skeletal sound. 'Welcome, brave, yet foolhardy warriors. Your coming has not been unexpected. You should know by now that no force at your command will be effective against us, yet we embrace this chance to test our mettle against a living foe!'

    Taj raised his sword high in one hand, holding Fate's Hammer firmly in the other. 'We may not be so easily vanquished as you believe, accursed one,' he called out, stirring the last dregs of courage in Elvira's heart. 'We will not permit you to reign your terror upon the unsuspecting land!'

    'Prepare for your ending, fools,' Tavara replied, 'for your doom is at hand!'

    He gestured with a skeletal hand, and a rattling sound began to grow around about them - a sound that froze the very soul with dread. Their imaginings were not wrong; the dead were rising to walk again.

    Only then did they realise the full strength of the evil they faced. At Tavara's mere beckoning, the dead rose up to become an indefatigable army, an army whose ranks would swell with every enemy it conquered. An insidious horde that knew no fear, required no sustenance, and desired no reward.

    'This must be stopped,' Tanuin gasped. 'It cannot be allowed to spill onto the land above!'

    There was time for no more; the horde was upon them.

    Tanuin turned and blasted the undead that arose by the wall nearest the door, clearing a space into which Elvira could retreat; her power was in healing, she could contribute nothing to the combat. She observed her companions closely, to aid when she could. Tanuin fell back half the distance; her offensive spells worked best at a distance. Taj and Roth were left to bear the brunt of the assault.

    Tanuin's magics early accounted for many of the foes, blasting them to oblivion and beyond. But her strength soon waned, and she was forced to become selective in her targets, wasting as little as possible of her dwindling power.

    Taj used only his sword at first, saving the Hammer for its intended task. His sword alone was formidable, shredding rotting flesh and shattering dry bones. With Roth at his side, guarding his flank, he could have held the line for quite some time.

    Alas, it was not to be. Roth was the first to fall, in spite of Elvira's best efforts. He was brave, but not as skilled in the ways of combat as Taj. He was overwhelmed, and perished beneath a flood of adversaries.

    Taj realised that all was certainly lost, unless some action was taken. He began to use the Hammer.

    If the dead could know fear, they would certainly have known it then. The merest touch of that device, and the power with which it was endowed, sent an undead minion back to the dust of the earth. It might alone have turned the tide of the battle; but the numbers were too great, and constantly being augmented as undead flooded into the chamber from the catacombs.

    Back and back Taj was forced, until he and Tanuin fought side by side. The two old friends, bonded by many a shared campaign, fell easily into the task of guarding each other's backs, even as Elvira struggled to mend the wounds that they constantly accrued.

    Tanuin faltered under a heavy blow, falling to her knees. Elvira prepared to expend her largest single spell yet, but Tanuin halted her with a word. 'Protect Taj! He is our only hope, now!'

    Dumbfounded, Elvira could do no more than watch as Tanuin's life was snuffed out before her very eyes. With a roar of anguish, Taj began to force his way forward towards the lich at the far end of the chamber. He abandoned almost all care for his own defence, fighting only to gain ground. Elvira prepared and cast spell after spell, striving to keep him alive, dreading the moment when the undead must surely take cognisance of her and strike.

    Elvira's power ran out. Helpless, she could again do no more than watch as Taj, grievously wounded again and again, forced his way step by step to his goal.

    Supremely arrogant, Tavara gave no thought to his own possible danger. Perhaps he thought that if the warrior reached him, he would strike the final blow himself. Instead, it was Taj that struck.

    With a cry that carried the agony of both body and soul, he stretched out and touched Tavara with the Hammer. Even as he fell, mortally wounded, his countenance bore an expression of satisfaction. He had completed his task, and fulfilled Tanuin's last wish at the same time.

    The effect on Tavara was far more devastating.

    Elvira hadn't thought it possible for the undead to scream, but Tavara screamed then. Power rippled visibly from his body, as its immolation released all the energy pent up within. The other lich were torn apart in the violent eddies, and the remaining undead fell in their tracks, never to move again.

    The ground began to shake. Dust and debris fell like rain from the ceiling. Weeping in torment over her inability to save her companions, Elvira could do little more than flee back through the tunnels.

    By some miracle, she found herself back at the ladder to the entrance. Without thought she climbed, reaching the top by another miracle, since the ground on which the entire city was built was now in violent upheaval. Buildings collapsed around her as she ran, throwing billowing clouds of choking dust into the air. By a final miracle, she escaped the city unscathed. At least, physically.

    Her memories of the next few days are a blank. She was found by a trading caravan, starving and dehydrated, after wandering the trackless jungle for several days. The only thing she said, over and over again, that made any sense to them was my name, Lucius. Being kindhearted souls, they sought me out. I nursed her back to physical health, but there was little I could do for her soul.

    This is the secret she's kept, and has now imparted to me. I leave it to you, my dear reader, along with a key. Should the need ever arise, it may help you find what you seek.

    I pray that this account is nothing more than delusion.

    I pray; and yet I fear. What if it is not?

    I pray that we never find out.

    My hopes go with you. Lucius the Bard."

    Lucy closed the book gently. The tale had lost none of its impact the second time around, Lucius could probably have given Shelley or Stoker a run for their money if he'd been a contemporary of theirs.

    Yet, sitting here in the ruins of the very town Lucius described, it was very hard to deny the possibility that Elvira's tale was absolutely true. Even today, the cause of the demise of Abydos was still a mystery. On an island the size of Cythera, something like that simply couldn't stay a mystery for too long - if its cause was anything run of the mill. Paradoxes within paradoxes. It was enough to cause her to begin to question the validity of everything she'd ever taken for granted.

    She sat with the book on her knees, staring down at it in frustration, and running her hand absentmindedly over the design embossed on the cover. What had Lucius meant about a key? What key? There was nothing...

    Her mind went numb, stunned by a sudden inspiration. Standing up, she quickly looked around to orient herself. She walked a few paces, paused, and looked about again; turned to the right, walked a few paces more. She repeated the same process several times, each time her smile growing larger. Nick, intrigued, sauntered over to see what she was doing.

    "I think I've found it," she burst out excitedly. "Lucius said he left a key - he should have said a map! Look at this!" She held out the book towards Nick, cover outwards. "See? The pattern - it's a street map of Abydos! "

    Nick gaped at her for a moment. Taking hold of the journal, he quickly made a visual inspection of the nearest streets. They all coincided. Laughing uninhibitedly, he scooped Lucy up and swung her around excitedly. "You've done it. This book was lying around for centuries, and you're the only one that's ever solved the puzzle! You're amazing!"

    "Hold on, mister, we're not through yet," she protested as he lowered her back to the ground. "Lucius mentions some hidden catacombs. I have a feeling that all our answers are down there."

    Nick sobered a little, and stared at the map again. "Well, what about these two pieces of shell? What do you suppose they signify?"

    "Beats me," Lucy grinned. "Why don't we go find out?"

    The points on the map marked by the pieces of shell were located in the same building, at opposite ends of a long, narrow room. The room itself appeared to have been hidden, once, but the collapse of much of the enclosing structure had exposed it to view. At each end, there was a replica of the map.

    "Lucius must have travelled here. His map is identical to these," Nick commented.

    "Assuming it was Lucius," Lucy replied. "It might have been Elvira herself."

    "True. But now what? There doesn't seem to anything else here."

    Lucy ran her hand over the carved stone in front of her. "Here, Nick - feel this!"

    Nick pressed his hand against the spot she indicated, which happened to coincide with one of the shells on the book. "It gives!" he exclaimed. "Wait here, I'll try the other one." He jogged to the other end of the room. "Yes, this one has a spot like that too! Now, try pressing at the same time!"

    They both pressed their respective maps together. There came a muffled click from the floor, about mid way between them - then a square slab of stone, almost a metre on each side, fell away with a crash, as if it were hinged on one side. They approached slowly, almost timidly. The trapdoor gave onto a vertical shaft, descending into a gloomy blackness. A slightly rusted, but still solid iron ladder was set into one side.

    "I guess we'd better go get our torches," Nick commented.

    "No need," Alexandros replied, as he and two other armed men stepped out from concealment. "We have enough." He turned slightly to address Lucy. "I really must congratulate you. We couldn't have found the entrance to the catacombs without your assistance - Dr Goodman. "

    ---------

    Chapter 5

    Alexandros lead them through the dark, underground tunnels, with the other two men bringing up the rear. Even without being completely demoralised and emotionally drained by yet another swift reversal of fortune, Jennifer would have felt unequal to the task of escaping their captors. Nor did she feel she could look to Nick for help; his despondent expression was a mirror of what she herself felt.

    She completely lost track of time as they wound their serpentine way through the grim corridors, backtracking at times as they found tunnels that were blocked by fallen rubble, or that were simply dead ends. Their intended function as a communal crypt was obvious, although there was no sign that any of the numerous crude alcoves that lined the walls had ever been put to use.

    Alexandros never once complained, or gave any indication of frustration at the many delays. His calm assurance appeared unshakeable. It seemed to be something of a paradox, very unlike the man that had accosted her in the alley, so long ago now. Five days, she realised with a start. It felt much longer.

    Alexandros' inhuman patience was ultimately rewarded. The tunnel opened out into a comparatively vast chamber, about ten metres across and three times as long. At the far end was a tan coloured stone altar, stained slightly in places as if some dark fluid had been poured over it and allowed to run down over the edges. Dust, rubble and broken timber was piled and strewn about, as if a bomb had gone off upstairs and blown the ceiling down into the room.

    Jennifer gasped slightly, and pressed closer to Nick. A skeletal hand protruded out from beneath one pile of debris near the door; the first sign that death had indeed once walked these halls.

    "Tanuin," Nick breathed, almost reverently.

    Alexandros heard his remark, and turned about. "You are correct, Nicholas. Indeed, here lie three of the blasphemers that dared to strike at our lord. The fate of the fourth, you well know - you, the last descendant of Lucius the Bard, and Elvira the mage!"

    Jennifer gaped at Nick, reeling from the repeated blows of information too shocking for her scientifically oriented mind to absorb. Moment by moment, she sensed herself being drawn inexorably into Lucius' tale, felt it coming to life about her. The evidence of her own senses betrayed her sense of rightness, as every new fact she saw, heard and perceived served only to reinforce the unreality of the situation.

    What happened next didn't help her state of mind any. From some place of concealment, Nick pulled a knife, lunged forward, and plunged it into Alexandros' heart, before anyone could so much as react.

    Alexandros stared down at the knife protruding from his chest in surprise - then casually pulled it out. There was no blood.

    "That was foolish, Nicholas. You've ruined my shirt."

    Nick nodded calmly. He didn't seem to be at all shocked by the results of his attack. "I just had to be sure," he shrugged.

    The last bastion of Jennifer's disbelief crumbled, unable to overcome the proof her eyes beheld. Harry Wells hadn't been mistaken; Alexandros was dead. Yet he walked, talked, plotted, and held sway over a number of men; it might even be said that they held him in a high degree of regard.

    "Oh?" Alexandros responded to Nick's comment. "I assumed Dr Goodman would already have explained what happened in the alley. As you can see, my dedication has been well rewarded. But no matter." He was interrupted by the sound of several sets of footfalls in the corridor outside, as more of his men entered the chamber carrying sundry unidentifiable items. They gathered at the far end of the chamber, and began to prepare whatever it was that they'd brought.

    "Now you will see what this is all about; the culmination of centuries of research! Tavara will arise once more!"

    "But he was destroyed!" Jennifer blurted. "Lucius said so in his journal!"

    "No Doctor, not destroyed. The weapon the blasphemers used had only limited power; the man that wielded it wasted much of it simply clearing a path to Tavara. However, it still held enough energy to banish him from this realm, imprison him, until such time as we could free him - and at last, the time is here!"

    "We're ready, Alexandros," one of the men called from near the altar. "You may begin."

    "Hold them over there," Alexandros commanded, indicating an alcove to one side, near the front of the hall. The two men behind them shoved them roughly forward.

    Alexandros stepped into the middle of a pentagram that had been painted on the floor. It was dark red, and might even have been drawn in blood. He began to chant. The words were unfamiliar, but quite eerie; it was like no language that Jennifer had



  • Good, a little confusing in parts, but good. Kept me one the edge of my seat, metaphoricly speaking. Nice suprise twist there, too.

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    In general, what exactly makes a game good isn't that easily
    quantified - perhaps the absense of things that make it bad? - Words of Wisdom from Glenn Andreas

    Where do you want to (url="http://"http://www.macclassics.com/cythera/tricks/rJade.htm")teleport(/url) today?



  • Yes, it could certainly have benefitted from another week of polishing, there are a few loose ends I didn't tie off or explain effectively. Ah well, that's the nature of writing to a deadline ;)

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  • I say again: Wow!
    A good conclusion, even without the extra week of polishing that could have been useful.
    Congratulations cache22.

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    -Zaphod Beeblebrox - President of the Universe
    All hail El Presidente Beeblebrox



  • Thanks on my own behalf, this time. :)

    I'm afraid that's all there'll be in this particular series. It was intended to be a special presentation for the 100th chronicle, so we decided to use completely new characters, and use them only once. I suppose it's possible that Kat might choose to write a 'prequel', using a couple of the characters she devised, but I have no plans for any 'sequel' with mine.

    Of course, it's always possible that I'll get a new idea...

    Anyway, we each have another ongoing series which we've yet to complete, and I hope you'll enjoy those as much as you did this one.

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  • It seems the new board has a stricter word limit than the old board, so the last section is missing. You may find the complete story here.

    This post has been edited by Avatara : 12 November 2005 - 09:03 PM



  • In order to make sure that the lost parts don't disappear completely, I'm posting them each in their respective chrons.
    So here is the missing part from the Hand of Fate part 2 beginning with the paragraph where the board cut it off (Note: the italics didn't transfer over. I'll add them if people really want them added):

    Alexandros stepped into the middle of a pentagram that had been painted on the floor. It was dark red, and might even have been drawn in blood. He began to chant. The words were unfamiliar, but quite eerie; it was like no language that Jennifer had ever heard.

    The ground began to tremble. Above the altar, the air began to radiate a cold, white glow. It slowly grew with the chant, pulsing with the words, expanding into a huge sphere. Dimly, Jennifer could discern dark forms moving within, as if struggling to escape.

    The chant rose in volume, terminating abruptly in a loud shout. The sphere became blindingly bright in that instant, forcing everyone to look away. When they looked back, it was gone - but something stood in its place.

    "At last," the thing said in a grating, skeletal voice. "I am free! You have done well, my servants. Now, I hunger - hunger for revenge, hunger to destroy those that imprisoned me!"

    Alexandros bowed. "My lord, we have one here - the last scion of the blasphemers!"

    Tavara made a noise that could almost have been called a purr. "You have done extremely well, my servants. You will be well rewarded."

    Alexandros stepped over to where Nick and Jennifer were standing. "I'm sorry, Nicholas. I wish there was another way." Nick refused to reply, just glared at him balefully.

    "No!" Jennifer screamed, throwing herself at Alexandros. What she hoped to accomplish, even she didn't fully comprehend.

    Alexandros simply picked her up in one hand, and threw her across the room. She landed with a bone jarring crash on a pile of rubble, collecting several cuts and scrapes as she slid to the ground on the far side. "I can't believe how strong he is," she thought, as she lay there, catching her breath.

    Tavara watched as Nick was led forward. He didn't struggle, facing his doom defiantly to the last.

    "So," Tavara boomed, "what have we here?"

    "This is the last known descendant of Elvira, the healer that escaped after the blasphemer's assault, my lord," Alexandros replied.

    "Then he shall be the first to join us!" He began to laugh, a horrid, menacing sound. For the first time, Nick began to quail.

    Jennifer couldn't stand it. The thought of Nick becoming like Alexandros - becoming undead - that was just too much. "No!" she screamed again, pulling a stick from the rubble, brandishing it like a weapon as she leaped to her feet.

    Time seemed to slow. She knew she was rushing headlong at the monstrous creature towering over Nick, but everything appeared to be in slow motion. Alexandros, Nick and Tavara, as well as the rest of the men in the room, were slowly turning their heads towards her. She felt light, as if she were floating, her feet barely touching the ground.

    She became aware of a voice, whispering in her mind. It carried with it an insistent desire, to strike Tavara down; to destroy the vile creature that threatened all that she held dear. Lost, carried through the events by forces beyond herself, she began to repeat the words the voice intoned into her mind.

    "For Roth! For Tanuin! For Faïyen! For my children!" The words carried no meaning to Jennifer, yet as she called them, she felt other presences join her, moving by her side, hastening her forward to her goal.

    She reached her target.

    She struck.

    The flow of time returned to normal.

    At last, she understood what Elvira and Lucius had been trying to describe in the closing passages of the journal. Tavara howled, as power flowed visibly from his decayed body. The Apethanene fled in terror. Alexandros stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe what was happening, then suddenly broke out of his trance and ran - straight at Tavara's rapidly disintegrating form. He'd barely covered a fraction of the ground, before he himself exploded in flames.

    "Run!" The voice inside her head hadn't left her, but continued to drive her onward. Barely stopping to think, she grabbed Nick's hand and dashed for the exit. The already shattered structures were suffering an even greater punishment, as the ground began to quake savagely, reaping its own revenge for the perversion of nature perpetrated there.

    Like Elvira, centuries earlier, they raced through the collapsing tunnels to the exit, uncertain of the way - yet whenever there was doubt, Jennifer heard the voice once again, guiding her, leading her to safety. The rest of Tavara's followers weren't so lucky, becoming lost in the maze of tunnels beneath the surface.

    At last, they reached the surface. The city wasn't safe; they sprinted for the jungle, not stopping until they were deep within its sheltering darkness. They collapsed against a large, moss covered tree, panting desperately for breath.

    "What - what happened?" Jennifer gasped.

    At first, Nick didn't reply. He slowly reached out and took the innocuous seeming tubular piece of wood from Jennifer's unresisting hand, and examined it carefully. Slowly, he raised his eyes to hers. "Do you know what this is?"

    She shrugged. "It's just a stick. It was at hand, and I grabbed it instinctively, I wasn't thinking."

    "It's more than that," Nick replied in an awestruck voice. "You found Fate's Hammer."

    Memories of the voice, of the things she'd said, came flooding back. Those names - names of people that were important - to Taj! Yes, even now she could sense his presence, as if he was smiling benevolently down upon her. The feeling faded, but somehow she knew that he would be there if ever she needed him. Yet, one thing still didn't make sense.

    "Last time - the Hammer wasn't powerful enough to destroy Tavara! Does that mean he'll be back again, someday?"

    Nick shook his head. "Remember what Alexandros said? Taj wasted some of its power just trying to reach Tavara; you didn't. The Hammer continually recharges, and this time it had centuries in which to reach its full potential."

    Jennifer was relieved, and it showed. "I hope you're right, Nick. I hate the thought of anyone else having to go through that."

    "There's more you don't know," Nick said, breaking her train of thought. "The way the Hammer was constructed meant that it could only be wielded by Taj Lykaon - or his heir."

    Jennifer was stunned. "You mean - I'm one of his descendants?"

    Nick nodded. "The last."

    "But that's incredible! I mean, what are the odds of me being here, now, right at this time?"

    Nick grinned. "Actually, not that bad. I knew the Apethanene were on to me, and that they were after the journal. That's why I sent it to you - the only other living descendant of the four champions."

    Realisation suddenly dawned on her. "You knew who I was, all along!" Nick burst out laughing at her furious expression. It was contagious, and her expression softened as she began to chuckle.

    "Yes, we knew. Your family may have forgotten its heritage, but the Thanatos Roloi didn't forget you. Except you didn't forget. Many took your fascination with Cythera to be a sign, but I know what it's like; it's simply that it's in your blood. So, Doctor Goodman, what will you do now? Return to the groves of academé, where adulation awaits you over your astounding discoveries?"

    She thought hard before replying, but the firmness of her reply surprised them both. "No. Too much has happened, there's too much I still have to sort out in my mind. Besides, it's like you once said, this place is special - it grows on you." She paused, a grin spreading across her face. "And you know - it's in my blood."

    Nick smiled back. "That's great! With the threat of Tavara gone I'm out of a job, you know. I'll have plenty of time to be your guide. There are sights to see you haven't even dreamed of, yet!"

    Jennifer returned his smile. "That sounds wonderful. Just promise me one thing."

    "What?"

    "No more secrets!"

    The jungle resounded with the sound of their laughter, as they began the trek back to Cademia, and civilisation.


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