Cythera Chronicles: New Horizons - part III



  • Author's Note & Acknowledgements

    Since this chapter deals with events that have already been extensively written about elsewhere, many parts of the story have been adapted from parts (url="http://"http://www.AmbrosiaSW.com/webboard/Archives/Archive-000003/HTML/20011231-5-000807.html")III(/url) and (url="http://"http://www.AmbrosiaSW.com/webboard/Archives/Archive-000003/HTML/20020101-5-000920.html")IV(/url) of the Alraeican Tavern - in some instances, even quoted verbatim. Such being the case, it would be unfair of me to claim sole authorship of this story. I therefore wish to give credit for the contributions of the following members of the Cytheran community, past and present, in alphabetical order: Avatara, Magpie, Moonshadow and Verran.

    Those readers that recall the original sources of these events may wonder why several other characters that took part don't appear in this chronicle. The short answer is that this story only has to do with those aspects of the events that have direct relevance to the Ronin, events into which the absent characters had no input. If this offends anyone, I apologise - but this is my story, about my characters; I haven't specifically set out to rewrite the entire Undead War into chronicle form, except as it relates to the tale I wanted to tell. Parts of this story can be considered to be an alternative point of view of those events which, when combined with the original sources, creates a more complete whole.

    I hope you all enjoy it.

    Regards,
    cache22.

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

    Book 2 of the Ronin Saga

    The Dark Before Dawn

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

    Once the decision to track down our missing transgenics was made, everyone got down to work. Ogden still grumbled, I don't think he ever believed they were still alive. He never did show much imagination.

    The primitives had given up searching the area of the blast by that time, so my squads moved in. The natives didn't find anything, but we've got better tools. Mostly, we were looking for radiation signatures, but one scan turned up something interesting: a sword, embedded in the fused rock. I had a couple of men dig it out with plasma cutters. It's definitely either Flynn's or Sasha's, but nobody's sure how it could have survived the intense heat. I hope someday I'll be able to return it.

    The initial readings, combined with those my teams brought back, seem to have given the scientists enough to go on; at least, much sooner than expected, they claim that they've isolated the most likely destination of the sidestep field. If there was one. No, I can't let myself think like that. They have to be alive.

    At any rate, I'll know soon enough. We leave in two days. The coordinates are set and all that's left is to push the button, so we could go at any time; but for once, Ogden put his foot down, and declared he was going to stick to the agreed schedule.

    Maybe I'm just getting paranoid in my old age, but Ogden seems to have been acting stranger and stranger over the last few days, ever since things went so drastically wrong. If he wasn't such a jellyfish - no, I find it difficult to picture him as a conspirator. Besides, it's his ship. He could just decide to take us all home, and there's nothing we could do about it.

    So why are my nerves so on edge?

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Cleitus glanced behind himself at the men following him, and frowned. It wasn't easy being a bandit chief these days; the general population hardly ever travelled in groups small enough, or rich enough, to be worth attacking, and his men were getting frustrated. If he didn't come up with something new and profitable soon, he'd have to start fending off challenges to his leadership.

    Of course, it was no use making excuses about the number of warriors that had appeared over recent years, making life difficult for him and his kind, hounding them without mercy. Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely true; mercilessness was more his own stock in trade than that of those so-called 'heroes'.

    It all started with that 'Bellerophon', the man that had saved Alaric - and wiped out a good portion of Cythera's more overt criminal element while he was at it. After that, things just kept going from bad to worse. Cleitus wouldn't have minded the increased competition so much, except that none of the powerful people that had appeared since then were on his side.

    He was startled out of his disgruntled musings by a sudden bright light shining in his eyes, through the dense jungle. It fairly reeked of magic, and he'd normally have avoided it like the plague; but he was in a foul mood, and welcomed the diversion.

    He reached the origin of the glow just as it faded - and stopped dead in his tracks, mouth agape. A few of the more timid among his men turned tail and ran.

    A man stood where the radiance had been, but he was no ordinary man. He stood a full eight and a half feet tall, but was so broad in the shoulder that he appeared short and squat. He gazed about himself owlishly, seemingly at a loss to comprehend his surroundings.

    An idea leaped to the forefront of Cleitus' thoughts. "This must be another of those 'heroes' that keep arriving. What if we can convince him to join our side?"

    "Greetings!" he called out. "Welcome to Cythera. I am Cleitus." The huge man blinked at him, but said nothing.

    Cleitus tried again. "What is your name?" Again, the giant merely blinked.

    Cleitus frowned, but made one last attempt. "Don't be concerned, you're among friends here."

    The giant's face broke into a grin. "Don't know name," he said, in a voice that might have been mistaken for the deep rumble of an earthquake.

    Inwardly, Cleitus breathed a sigh of relief. Physically, the man was enormous; but mentally, he was a simpleton. "At least he'll be easy to manipulate," he thought. His Lieutenant, Kodros, caught his eye and smiled.

    ---------

    Once more, a strange, glowing sphere appeared in the northern forests of Cythera. As the portal faded away, an armed and armoured woman stumbled forward, collapsing to one knee, as she stared about with strangely vacant, tired eyes. The light of intelligence behind her dark, penetrant gaze grew stronger, as awareness gradually returned.

    The sound of running water drew her attention, and she realised she was extremely parched. She climbed weakly to her feet, and in a few minutes was bent over a small creek, lifting water to her mouth in the palm of her hand to slake her thirst.

    Her reflection in a nearby pool caught her attention, and she spent a few minutes studying her face. Her jet black hair was long, framing a high-cheekboned, pale-skinned face. Her eyes were a deep, piercing blue; her complexion might once have been considered flawless, but it was marred by a two inch long, almost knife-edge thin scar from some past conflict, above her left eye. Many might consider her to be quite plain looking, but the scar served to elevate her appearance to 'distinctive'.

    She raised a hand to her forehead, running a finger lightly along the faint trace of the unremembered wound, and frowned - not out of vanity, but in puzzlement. "Who am I?" she queried, of no-one in particular. The trees answered her with silence. Abruptly, she struck out violently at the surface of the water, shattering the unfamiliar image it presented. "Who am I?" she cried out again, anger and desperation filling her voice.

    She jerked to her feet with tears of frustration trickling down her face, and fled blindly into the forest.

    ---------

    Given the new recruit's unusual size - and their own collective lack of imagination - it was inevitable that Cleitus' men would christen him 'Tiny'.

    Cleitus had instructed them all to rest in a clearing they'd been passing through, while he and Kodros spoke to 'Tiny', planting the seeds they hoped would flourish into complete loyalty to them and their group. They had to be careful, of course. Although a simple minded man, Tiny was undoubtedly very moral at heart. They would probably get themselves in deep trouble if they tried to convince him, for instance, that it was all right to maim, murder and steal at whim.

    "What we do," Cleitus explained, with a subtle wink at Kodros, "is patrol around, looking for people who are looking for trouble. Then we stop them."

    "It's a noble line of work," Kodros continued. "The rewards aren't great, but we have the satisfaction of knowing we've done some good - and the gratitude of the king."

    "Yes! He's very pleased with our work. Considers it very important, he does, very important indeed!"

    "That's right. Why, just last week, he gave our little troop a personal commendation! Now that doesn't happen every day!"

    Cleitus glared slightly at Kodros, letting him know he was laying it on a bit thick. He paused, to let what they were saying sink in. "Thing is, Tiny, we'd very much like it if you'd join up with us. What do you say?"

    The colossus lowered the shank of unicorn venison he was gnawing on, and smiled happily at them. "I help!" he rumbled.

    "Splendid!" Cleitus exclaimed, clapping the megalithic man on the arm, and smiling a somewhat relieved smile at his lieutenant.

    ---------

    The black-clad woman raced blindly through the trees and brambles. She paid no heed to the branches and thorns that whipped against her, bouncing off her armour and shield, but leaving a tracery of fine, bloody lines on her exposed face and hands. She was so adrift in the void of forgotten memory that she never noticed the wounds, nor the fact that they were healing almost as fast as they were inflicted.

    Her careening, headlong dash finally brought her to the edge of the forest, where she emerged onto a well worn path. She skidded to a halt, staring in indecision, first one way then the other. With her present state of mind, there was no way for her to choose one direction from another.

    Exhausted, she collapsed to a seated position beside the road. Her mind was a blank, shying skittishly away from the myriad unanswerable questions that would engulf her at the slightest opportunity. With neither the rock of her identity to cling to, nor the distraction of company, she was rapidly sinking into madness.

    ---------

    Cleitus turned back and ran his eyes along the column of men following him. Several of them were giving the giant timid or hostile glances from beneath veiled eyelids, but Cleitus was well satisfied. He was quite sure the new member of the band would be worth several normal men.

    That still didn't alter the fact that his men needed action. The potential boost to morale from recruiting the giant would soon dissipate unless his worth was proven in a fight, but worthwhile marks were scarce in this area. It was time to move back towards the coastal cities.

    They still had several hours travel ahead of them before reaching their goal, when Cleitus heard a crashing noise from the trees not too far ahead. At a quick signal, his men slipped quietly into hiding among the trees on either side of the road. He worked his way back stealthily to where Kodros and a bewildered Tiny were concealed.

    "Kodros, choose a few men and we'll scout ahead." Kodros nodded, and slithered off. "Tiny," Cleitus continued, "stay here unless I whistle for you. We can probably manage without you this time, and we really should get you trained up a bit before throwing you into the thick of things." Tiny grunted in acknowledgement. Kodros returned, and they crept off down the track.

    Cleitus was almost disappointed at what he saw. "Only one woman," he murmured, "and not a very rich one, by appearances."

    "True enough," Kodros responded, equally quietly. "But the men are itching for some action, and she looks like she may have some skill. So why not take the opportunity?"

    Cleitus nodded. "Right. Six other men should be plenty. Make your choices."

    ---------

    The first the woman knew of the attack was the roaring of voices, as the eight men thundered down the track towards her. They were waving their weapons about in a manner that left little doubt as to their intentions.

    Her befuddled and traumatised mind remained completely blank, allowing her battle-hardened instincts free reign. She leaped to her feet, drawing her sword to face the charge. The strange fact that her sword glowed blue barely even registered.

    One man swept in ahead of the others, perhaps expecting an easy victory. The woman easily turned his sword thrust aside with her shield, leaving him defenceless to her counter thrust. And then there were seven.

    The next two ran up, keeping wide apart in an attempt to divide her attention. Perhaps they expected her to wait passively for them, but if so, they were disappointed. She closed in aggressively, slamming the man on the left with her shield while blocking the other man's swing with her sword. Without compunction, she kicked the man on the right in the groin. He doubled up in agony.

    Temporarily relieved of the necessity to fight a battle on two fronts, she quickly closed with and eliminated the leftmost bandit, and still had time to dispatch the other before he could recover. It was over so quickly, that the remaining five brigands had only just reached her position.

    As she was forced to defend herself from the multiple, simultaneous assaults, she fought hard to maintain her freedom of movement. The bandits, furious at the loss of their comrades, smiled gleefully as the rapidity of their combined attack kept the woman from capitalising on any openings she created. True, they weren't getting through her guard either, but she was working five times as hard as they were. Time was on their side.

    And so it proved. Kodros finally succeeded in nudging the woman's shield aside enough for Cleitus to slip past her guard, and strike a mortal blow.

    "Sasha! No!" an anguished voice cried out.

    For the first time since the pool, the woman's paralysed mind admitted a thought, accompanied by an immense feeling of relief. "Sasha. My name is Sasha." Then the pain crowded in, followed immediately by the black, soothing blanket of oblivion.

    ---------

    Cleitus turned to face down the path, in the direction from which the cry had originated. Gathered there, shock still frozen on their faces, stood four men and a redheaded woman.

    "Only one in armour," Cleitus mused. "This should be easy. Besides, there's always Tiny." He turned and gave a whistle over his shoulder, before turning back to his newly arrived victims. "So, you want to take us on?" he jeered.

    He smiled knowingly, as he heard the sound of some extremely heavy footfalls, approaching thunderously through the forest. Before the five strangers had time to react, Tiny burst onto the track, ahead of the remainder of Cleitus' men. Roaring like a madman, the colossus rushed straight at the man in armour, the apparent leader of the five, catching him up in a crushing bear hug with his feet dangling at least a foot off the ground.

    Gasping for breath, the man struggled to speak. "Ulf! Put me down, before you break something!" Tiny dropped the man and stood to one side, grinning sheepishly.

    "This isn't in the plan," Cleitus thought, nervously.

    The armoured man gasped a couple breaths, then his eyes snapped up and locked with Cleitus'. There was no hint of mercy in those icy blue eyes; Cleitus could almost feel the vengeful coldness radiating from them. In that instant, he knew he was dead.

    He had a fleeting moment to register a flash of red arcing through the air, followed by a searing heat in his neck, before thought ceased.

    ---------

    Kodros gaped, open mouthed, as Cleitus' head, completely severed from his body, bounced back along the path towards him. The rest of the men turned and fled.

    One of the newcomers, dressed like a mage, pointed an arm at the fleeing figures. There was a flash, and a sound like a small explosion. One of the men pitched face first to the ground and lay still, as the 'mage' beat out a small fire that had been kindled on his sleeve.

    Another of the strangers drew a bow, and with amazing speed and accuracy, began to fire arrows that burst into incandescent flame as they left the string. Several more men fell to the ground, unmoving, before those that were left reached the shelter of the trees.

    Kodros glanced briefly at the sudden carnage, and reacted as any self-respecting bandit lieutenant would do: he panicked.

    With a total lack of reason he ran, shrieking, down the track - towards his enemies. Through his terror he saw a small man step into his path. The next thing he new, he was sailing through the air to land on his back with a breath-dispelling impact. By the time he came to his senses, the small man was holding him securely in an unusual and highly painful grip, which he maintained until the archer approached and covered the prisoner with his fearsome bow. All thoughts Kodros had of escape died, stillborn.

    The red-haired woman ran to Sasha's body. "Look at this!" she exclaimed, after a cursory examination. The amazement in her voice was apparent to all, even Kodros. With the exception of the bowman, the others crowded around the body.

    "The wound's closing," the blonde-haired warrior breathed, in a relieved tone.

    "Must be one of those 'other effects' the voice mentioned," the mage replied, also relieved. "Still, we don't have time to wait. Leandra, you'd better use the healing magic that Lindus taught you."

    The woman agreed, and began her work. The warrior approached Kodros, with Tiny - or 'Ulf', as he was apparently known, tagging along.

    The shock and frustration of the sudden turn of events finally got the better of the bandit lieutenant. "Why'd you turn on us, you big dumb ox?" he spat at his onetime comrade.

    The warrior glanced up at his far taller companion. Ulf looked confused for a moment, then smiled. "Flynn Ulf's friend. Ulf help Flynn," he declared, as if it explained everything.

    Flynn returned his attention to Kodros. "I don't expect you to understand this, but we've been friends since long before you were born. We don't have time to waste with you just now, and we don't kill in cold blood. So you're free to leave."

    Kodros looked uncertainly at the loaded bow the archer was still pointing at him. The arrow jerked, motioning along the path. That was all the encouragement Kodros needed; he scrambled up and ran off down the trail, never once looking back.

    When he was sure he was safe, he stopped and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. "I swear," he panted, "I'll pay them back, someday!"

    Once recovered, he set off to find the rest of the men that had escaped.

    ---------

    Sasha opened her blue eyes, to encounter a look of concern in a very familiar pair of green ones. Leandra smiled her relief; Sasha returned the smile, all the more relieved that she was among friends - and had the anchor of knowing her own identity.

    A short while later, Flynn, Trinias and Ulf rejoined the group.

    "I'm glad to see you, my friends," Sasha greeted them, "and thank you. Leandra and Wolmark have informed me of recent events; we have no more time to waste."

    Flynn grinned. "I'm glad you've recovered. For a while, I thought we'd lost you - and we'd only just found you!" He sighed contentedly. "The voice never mentioned how many of us there are; but somehow, I feel complete." The others nodded their agreement. "Then that must be it; we're the Seven Ronin." His expression changed, became touched with anxiety. "We'd best move quickly. We have no way of knowing how our new friends in Cademia are faring in the battle."

    The Ronin resumed their journey northward: toward Land King Hall, the city of the Seldane - and the end of their quest.

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

    This is a very strange world. For the most part it's like ancient Earth, but there's an odd area in the Mediterranean that seems to be somehow isolated, and I don't mean just by the permanent bank of fog that surrounds it. There doesn't appear to be any way to penetrate the field, except from high up in the stratosphere.

    Sure enough, our transgenics are here, behind that screen. The science division has been quite intrigued, they think that zone would be a perfect setup for some controlled experiments. Makes me wonder who put it there, and why.

    There are races there that I've never seen before, and they seem to possess some extraordinary abilities. It's almost enough to make me believe in magic. Right now, Lorhin's people are busy drawing up some proposals for some detailed study, with the prospect of incorporating their genetic material into the next generation of genetically engineered soldiers, but I don't think they've got much of a chance with those fire creatures. And how are they going to extract DNA from a sentient ball of gas?

    For the time being, my teams are confined to the ship. There are no other humans, elves, dwarves, lupuren or kattorn in that area, so they couldn't exactly blend in with the crowds. If they were discovered, there would be too much to explain.

    Lorhin's quite happy to set up shop here and keep up the observations from orbit, but Ogden's getting twitchy. The time variance here is still negative relative to our home continuum; but not by much, and he's anxious to get home. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps he had someone left there after all.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Inside Land King Hall, chaos reigned. Sasha stared about at the pandemonium and smiled slightly, recognising the signs of an army mobilising to face an unexpected attack. It was a total contrast to the exterior of the hall; she had already expressed her surprise at finding the front gate unguarded.

    "I guess they know," Flynn commented wryly, as a succession of soldiers and people carrying supplies swept past them from all directions. Not one of them even seemed to notice their presence. The only unmoving person in the wide hallway was a small man dressed like a jester, crouching down against one wall. Sasha stared at him intently. There was something odd about him, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

    Flynn also seemed to be drawn to the strange character, an island of stillness amid the storm of confusion. He approached him diffidently.

    "I am Bahoudin," the wizened man declared, before Flynn could phrase a question. "What seek you, and who might you be?"

    Flynn paused a moment, taken aback by the unorthodox phrasing. "We're known as the Seven Ronin, and we seek the Seldane. We used to know them - a long time ago."

    The man stood up, staring at them with something akin to wonder in his eyes. "The Seven, say you! And seeking Metics, of all times, now? What proof offer you?"

    Flynn blinked several times, at a loss how to answer the question. "Only what we know, and can remember," he eventually replied. "I recall a blue skinned people, with pointed ears, and something about a city called 'Maayti'."

    "These things, to many, are known," Bahoudin responded, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What tales have you, besides?"

    Flynn shook his head sadly. "That's all any of us can recall, as yet. Wait!" He carefully unslung his sword, half drawing it to reveal its pale red radiance. "Perhaps this might add weight to it?"

    Bahoudin slowly stretched a hand out over the blade, careful not to touch it. "Ignae!" he exclaimed softly. "Ruby Fang! The Seven you are, indeed!"

    His eyes once more met Flynn's, and he smiled warmly. "Help you, I can. I will! Come!"

    The Ronin followed Bahoudin back towards the entrance, the way they'd come, but he turned aside to the left, into a storeroom. Stepping up to a wood-panelled wall, he fumbled with a concealed catch. A panel slid quietly aside. Bahoudin lit a torch, and beckoned over his shoulder. "Come! Follow!"

    After quite some time making their way through a series of dark tunnels, Bahoudin led them out into a large, dimly lit cavern. A tall, blue skinned, elf-like man stood motionless in front of a building, seemingly waiting for them. Bahoudin motioned for them to stop; he himself approached the Seldane, and spoke with him in low tones.

    As the oddly matched pair approached, Flynn held out his hand. "Hello, we're the Ronin. My name is -"

    "Flynn," the Seldane interrupted, grasping Flynn's proffered hand warmly before moving on to the next person. "And Sasha. It is good to see you again." One by one he greeted them by name. The Ronin exchanged confused glances.

    Flynn cleared his throat. "You have us at a disadvantage. We seem to be known to you, but we don't know who you are."

    "You do not recognise me, old friend?" the Seldane replied with a smile. "Well, it has been so long, I suppose it's not surprising. I was but a boy when I saw you last. I am Sabinate."

    Leandra gasped. "I remember you! Your family took us in, made us welcome. You spent a lot of time with us - and you named our weapons!"

    Sabinate nodded, still smiling. "That is all true; and now you have returned. I cannot express how pleased I was when I heard the earth once more take up your song. The songs the land sings to us have become muddled of late, it was only with the utmost effort that I was able to separate the melody of your music from the general chaos of the strains - and that was only because I knew it of old."

    Sabinate's expression became grave. "But come, there will be time enough to renew old acquaintances later. There is the sound of battle in the earth, and in such a time, I know the Ronin would not come to us merely seeking refuge. What drives you to us, in this time of need?"

    "You're correct, Sabinate," Flynn responded. "We didn't leave the battle by choice, but because we were instructed - and because we weren't yet whole. Sasha and Ulf were yet to be found."

    "Instructed? By whom?"

    "We don't know. A golden light appeared to us, and told us that we had to complete a quest before we would be ready to face the invaders. The first part of that quest was to seek the 'heart of the island' - and so we came to find you."

    Sabinate frowned in deep thought. "There is an ancient prophecy among us, that predates even your first arrival here. "

    Dead will walk upon land,
    Legends emerge from the mists.
    Deep in the earth, gifts await,
    Legends, in war, to assist;

    Gathered and stored for an age,
    Guarded by Hearts of Earth.
    Trials for Seven await,
    Legends must prove their worth.

    "The time of fulfilment for this prophecy is plainly here. Follow me."

    Sabinate lead them to the western side of the cavern, where the Ronin stared at the blank wall in puzzlement. With a casual gesture from Sabinate, the ground began to quake; with a loud rumble, a vertical fissure yawned open in the previously featureless rock. The opening seemed to soak up light, allowing none to return. No matter how closely they held a torch to it, they could see nothing inside.

    "What you will face beyond this doorway, I do not know," Sabinate told them gravely. "All I know is that whatever you face, you will each face alone. The choice to enter is yours; but the fate of many may hang upon the choices you make."

    Flynn nodded once to Sabinate and unhesitatingly stepped into the fissure, followed by the rest of the Ronin. The blackness swallowed them, and they were instantly lost to sight.

    ---------

    Flynn found himself in a narrow passage, filled with light from some unknown source. He was also completely alone.

    "Sabinate said we'd face it solo. I guess he was right."

    He had two choices: go on, or go back. Returning would be pointless, he hadn't come all this way just to back out at the last minute. He pressed on, into the unknown.

    The tunnel proceeded through many twists and turns, but there were never any side passages or intersections to confuse an unwary traveller. When it became apparent that the journey might take some time, Flynn slowed his pace to a more sustainable speed.

    With the unchanging light, and little in the way of landmarks, he soon lost track of time. It had certainly taken a few hours, but just how many, he couldn't guess. He would have liked to rest, and perhaps sleep for a while, but the thought of the people under assault back in Cademia spurred him onward.

    Finally, some distance ahead, he saw a point where the tunnel diverged into three different directions. There was no obvious difference between them, and so no easy way to make a choice. Uncertainty gripped him, a sensation that he always found unwelcome.

    On the left, just before the tunnel branched, there was a small alcove. At ground level, Flynn could see the toes of a pair of shoes projecting beyond the wall. They were old, and covered in dust - much the same as their owner, when Flynn drew close enough to see him.

    He was a gnarled old man, grey hair and beard hanging almost to his waist. He wore a robe and pointed hat, and was leaning on an equally gnarled and twisted staff. The man was such a caricature of his idea of a wizard, that Flynn almost laughed out loud.

    "What are you s######ing at," the ancient individual snapped, in spite of the fact that Flynn had allowed no outward sign of his amusement to show.

    "Forgive me," Flynn replied, good manners prevailing over indignation. "I seem to be at something of a loss. Do you know what any of this is about?"

    "I certainly do, but why should I tell you, when you haven't even introduced yourself?"

    "Again, forgive me. My name is Flynn."

    "Ashinthuw." Flynn almost responded by saying 'gesundheit', but realised it was the old man's name, and caught himself just in time.

    "Pleased to meet you, Ashinthuw."

    "What, no wisecracks, like 'gesundheit'?" Flynn blinked in surprise. Was Ashinthuw some kind of mind reader?

    "Oh, never mind," Ashinthuw continued. "Well, I suppose you could call me a kind of advisor. I'm here to give you advice."

    "What sort of advice?"

    "Advice you should follow, of course. Now, listen up. Back there, where you came from, lots of bad people are doing lots of bad things. Undead armies marching on cities, bandits murdering innocent people on the side of the road, that sort of thing."

    He paused, studying Flynn's face to make sure he had his full attention. Of course, with revelations that struck so close to home, he couldn't now have distracted Flynn if he'd tried. He nodded in satisfaction.

    "Right, imagine this. Villages being razed to the ground by fire. Bandit groups so powerful, even the entire army isn't strong enough to deal with them. Burning, looting, pillaging, all the way across Cythera and back again. An ugly picture, yes?"

    Flynn didn't have to imagine the scenes Ashinthuw was describing; as the old wizard had spoken, it was as if his words played themselves out on a screen in front of Flynn's eyes. He saw buildings burning. He saw men, women and children, running and screaming before the ravening hordes. Everywhere, there was death and destruction.

    The images faded, leaving Flynn pale and shaking. "Why did you show me this?"

    Ashinthuw ignored the question, waving his hand dismissively. "Oh, the heroes will do their bit, of course. But one by one, they'll be cut down. Then nothing will stand in the way of the final assault."

    The screen opened up again, and Flynn was once more bound in enthralment. Before his eyes the last of the Seldane died, tormented by other, watery beings that he couldn't name, but whose appearance played an arpeggio on his deeply buried memories. He shivered. Then he saw the sea roll in, and Cythera itself perish beneath the waves.

    The screen faded from view. Flynn sat down heavily on the bench beside the wizard, too shocked to speak. Ashinthuw eyed him for several minutes, resting his hands and chin on his staff. Flynn hoped the respite would go on, or the darkness swallow him up, anything to wipe the horrible visions from his mind.

    "It can be prevented, you know," Ashinthuw spoke into the silence.

    Flynn grasped at his words, like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood. He raised his ashen face until his eyes locked with Ashinthuw's piercing gaze.

    "Tell me how."

    Ashinthuw held Flynn's eyes for a moment, then nodded, as if the younger man had passed some kind of test. "Deep inside this labyrinth lies a powerful weapon - in appearance a sword, but really so much more than that! Claim this weapon, and you'll be able to stand as a barrier to any evil that threatens Cythera!"

    "That's it?"

    Ashinthuw nodded. "Oh, just one minor point - the sword's guarded by a strange creature, one of the best fighters its race has produced. It's completely immune to magic, or I'd deal with it myself. You'll have to defeat this beast in order to claim the sword."

    "Do you know the way?"

    "Of course."

    Ashinthuw set off, with a grim faced Flynn following closely behind. They journeyed in silence; there was nothing left to say.

    At last, they reached the final cave. There before them, mounted on a pedestal, was the sword. It's craftsmanship was exquisite, and it gave off a radiance powerful enough to light the entire cave.

    Standing before the weapon's resting place was one of the most hideous creatures Flynn could imagine walking on two legs. In height, it was mid way between himself and Ulf. Its body was well trained, with considerable upper and lower body strength. Its face was the very epitome of ugliness. Flynn failed completely to recognise its race.

    As it took a defensive stance, Flynn carefully observed the way it moved. He concluded that the way it had evidently trained could give him an edge; he might just have an advantage in speed. His appraising eyes met those of the creature; they had a wary, hunted cast to them that somehow made Flynn uneasy.

    He glanced aside at Ashinthuw. "What's it done?"

    The wizard looked back at him, confused. "Beg your pardon?"

    "What's it ever done? Why should I kill it?"

    Ashinthuw stared back at him in bewilderment, chewing on one end of his moustache. "It's in the way; you have to kill it to get the sword."

    "I know, but why does it deserve to die? "

    "Does it matter? You need the sword! You've seen what will happen without it; do you want that on your conscience for the rest of your life? Which won't be all that long, believe me."

    "Oh yes, it matters. You say that by obtaining the sword, I might do good. Yet how can good come out of evil? One murder here, at the beginning, would taint all I ever tried to do from this point onwards. Even if no-one else knew, I'd still know - and I don't think I could live with that."

    Ashinthuw threw back his head, letting out a long howl of rage. When he again looked at Flynn, his eyes had become orbs of flaming red. His voice, when he spoke, echoed oddly in the confined space of the cave.

    "Fool."

    Flynn flinched at the contempt the voice held for him.

    "Long have I waited for one such as you, with the power to kill the beast and free me to claim the sword, and all the power that it controls. At last you arrived - and now you defy me! I cannot allow that to go unpunished!"

    even as he spoke, Ashinthuw pointed at Flynn and unleashed a barrage of energy. In the fraction of a second before the bolts struck, the events of the last few hours flashed through Flynn's mind. He'd behaved with honour at all times. His one regret was that he hadn't known, hadn't seen sooner what Ashinthuw truly was...

    Darkness crashed over him, and he knew no more.

    ---------

    Sasha emerged from the well lit tunnel, into what appeared to be a forest clearing. It was a large area, fully thirty metres across, ringed completely about by trees. On the far side, she could make out a ramshackle house, in front of which was clustered a large gathering of people. A large group of men, dressed in mismatching armour, was milling around a smaller group; five people, civilians, were kneeling on the ground in a line, hands bound behind their backs. Two men, old and young, a woman, and two others that were no more than children; probably the family that lived in the old house.

    She didn't have to count the soldiers to know she was hopelessly overmatched.

    As she set foot in the clearing, the elder man appeared to say something defiant to one of the soldiers. His reward was a sudden, brutally swift sword strike that almost severed his head from his shoulders. Sasha winced. At least it had been quick. Almost without conscious thought, her shield snapped to the ready, and her sword leaped to her hand, glowing its icy blue as she held it aloft. With a bloodcurdling cry, she rushed headlong at the startled troops, without thought or concern for her own safety.

    Like a scythe through a field of ripe wheat, Sasha cut a swath through the enemy, leaving them decimated in her wake. She wasn't unscathed, her armour was battered and rent, and her shield was notched and dented. She herself had been fortunate enough not have received anything worse than a few scratches where her armour had failed.

    Most forces would have been thoroughly demoralised by the sudden devastation of the impetuous attack. Unfortunately, these men were different. The worse the battle appeared to be going for them, the harder they fought. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they were facing only one opponent, or possibly that their foe was a woman. Whatever the reason, Sasha found the battle getting harder with each step. Finally, the unthinkable happened. She came face to face with a man that failed to fall to her first blow - or her second.

    The man was tall, midway in height between Flynn and Ulf. He fought with a heavy mace, and a shield much like Sasha's own. He had a speed and agility that she judged to be not quite on a par with her own, but she was hampered by still having to defend herself from the ongoing assault of the other men.

    She made a quick, lunging strike, which the man easily turned aside, before being forced to block a thrust by another man. She tried again, and again, with no more success. She blocked a strike from her right, while interposing her shield in front of the mace.

    The shield had taken enough punishment, and disintegrated.

    For an instant, as the mace swung towards her, and she tried desperately to interpose her sword between it and her head, Sasha wished she'd been more cautious. Then she caught a glimpse of the two bound children, still kneeling on the ground. She had a brief moment to recount all her regrets in life, but trying to save this family wasn't one of them. Then darkness crushed her, and she knew no more.

    ---------

    Trinias stepped into the black fissure, and instantly found himself in the middle of a starlit forest. He turned about, looking for the way back to the cavern, but there was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see.

    There were no landmarks that he could recognise. The terrain was flat in all directions, encircled by a ring of low hills. He seemed to have ended up almost in the exact centre of the basin. One direction seemed as good as another, so he picked one at random and set off.

    It was almost a relief to be in the wilds again. After the bustle of the city, and the closed-in feeling of the cave tunnels, breathing the pine-scented air felt like a reprieve. Since it was so isolated, this small tract of nature had an ambience all its own, an array of sights, scents and sounds to which Trinias soon became attuned.

    After what seemed like several hours walking, he gradually became aware of a foreign note impinging upon his senses: a dull, discordant murmur that felt distinctly out of place. He paused, trying to determine a bearing to the source of the disharmonious sound. It wasn't hard to place, and his course veered in that direction.

    The murmur grew louder as he approached, but somehow he could never quite discern the pattern of it. It sounded like speech, but he couldn't separate out the words. Not certain what to make of it, he began to exercise his utmost woodsman's skill at silence, honed by hours upon hours of stealthily stalking the most skittish among forest creatures, testing himself again and again against ever raising standards, until he'd become known as the most proficient hunter with a bow his native land had ever produced.

    To all intents and purposes completely silent, he crept from tree to tree. Cover was by no means sparse, and he made good use of it. Few and far between were those that could have tracked his progress, even among the elves. He reached a clearing and stopped, peering through the fronds of a fern.

    His heart seemed to freeze in his chest.

    It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation. He'd felt it precisely once before in his life - and that less than a day earlier. The cause now was the same as the cause then. The clearing was filled with undead, gathered around a white bearded necromancer.

    Terrified, but still in control, he tried to reason out the situation. The undead army was marching on Cademia. Yet here, somewhere that must have been close to Land King Hall, another force awaited. Waiting for what? He had no way of knowing.

    Once again, Trinias found himself in possession of knowledge of imminent danger. As before, he knew he had to warn someone.

    He still had no idea where exactly this depression was, and he'd be unable to tell until he reached the top of the surrounding hills. That being the case, the best choice seemed to be to take whatever direction would most quickly get him safely away from the hideous sight he'd seen. He began to slither quietly backwards, then froze.

    One of the things looked straight at him.

    Wordlessly, it pointed. Others turned, appeared to see him through the brush cover. They began to move towards him.

    The time for stealth was past. Trinias sprang to his feet, and sprinted off at the fastest pace his legs could carry him.

    He had a long way to run, and the creatures hunting him were implacable and untiring. The end was inevitable, but Trinias' woodsman's training stood him in good stead; he lead them a far longer chase than might have been expected.

    Reaching a point near exhaustion, he doubled back on his trail and found concealment from which to watch his pursuers pass by. After the last of them had gone, he breathed a sigh of relief.

    He heard a noise behind him, and glanced quickly around. He just had time to register the moon, reflected on the blade of the battleaxe the walking corpse was swinging at his neck. His one regret was that his warning would never get through; then the stars went out.

    ---------

    Wolmark made good time down the well-lit, winding tunnel. He had no idea what he'd find at the end, but he was determined to reach it as quickly as possible. As long as the corridor didn't branch, there was no reason to pause or delay. His internal clock told him it had been nearly three hours since he'd stepped into the black fissure and found himself suddenly alone.

    He had paused at the beginning, before setting out, to examine the brickwork of the walls and try to determine the source of the light. His study of the masonry told him little, and the light source proved elusive; it seemed to radiate from everywhere at once.

    Around one final bend, the passageway abruptly ended, still without branching, in a brick wall built of the same kind of stone as the rest of the tunnel. In the centre was a heavy wooden door, with a large keyhole. There was no sign of a key, of course; that would have been too easy.

    With little expectation of success, Wolmark tried the handle. His expectations were fully met; the door remained firmly shut. He stepped back and crossed his arms, frowning in concentration as he studied the obstacle as best he could without tools of any kind.

    The door appeared to be completely impassable, yet what was the point of bringing him here if there was no way out? Briefly, he considered the teleportation spell Ferazel had taught him, but discounted it. In order for it to work, he had to be able to clearly visualise the exact place he wished to go, and he had no idea what was beyond this barrier.

    There just had to be some way through that wall. It would have taken Ulf's brawn to force the door, so it had to be a test of something else. Perhaps brain? He began to rummage thoughtfully through his pack, hoping for inspiration to strike.

    "What's this?" he asked himself, holding a small, grey cylinder up to get a better look. It was an innocuous looking thing, just a metal tube with a screw cap at one end. In a sudden flash of memory, he saw himself pulling a glass vial from an identical metal tube, and throwing it. The resultant explosion had been most impressive.

    Gingerly, he unscrewed the cap and withdrew the glass vial from inside. It was a fairly simple construction, containing two different coloured viscous liquids, separated by a glass partition. "A binary chemical explosive?" he wondered, not thinking to question where he might have learned terms like that.

    He stepped back to the corner, carefully threw the glass tube at the door and quickly ducked around the corner away from the blast. The whole area shook violently. Dislodged dust fell from the ceiling and walls, only to be swallowed by the clouds of dust and smoke billowing down the corridor from the doorway.

    Choking, waving at the clouds of dust in front of his face, Wolmark peered down the gloomy corridor at the destruction he'd wrought. He smiled elatedly, as he perceived moonlight streaming in through the hole where the door had been. He made his painstaking way across the loose rubble, and basked in the fresh, open air.

    A tiny sound caught his attention. It was off to one side, and sounded like someone sobbing. Wolmark quickly searched the ground over in that direction. Behind a shrub, he found a young girl sitting amid the rubble strewn about by the explosion, and crying. As Wolmark drew closer, his attention was drawn to a shapeless form in front of the girl. He realised with a start that it was the body of an old man, probably the girl's grandfather. He'd been struck in the head by a piece of flying debris. He was also quite dead.

    The colour drained from Wolmark's face, as he realised the enormity of what he'd done. "Oh no... I should have thought... should have checked..."

    Despair and regret filled his mind as the moon and stars winked out, immersing him in total darkness, within and without.

    ---------

    Time unravelled, then rewove itself...

    ---------

    The darkness receded slowly. Flynn gingerly opened his eyes, finding himself in a large and dimly lit cavern, not much different from the one in which the Seldane had made their home. He slowly sat up, groaning as his head began to pound. An answering groan revealed he was no longer alone, and a brief inspection revealed all his companions were now present, as unmoving as he himself had been a moment before. Sasha groaned again, and levered herself up on one elbow.

    "Ah, good, you awaken!"

    Flynn turned his head painfully to face the source of the comment. "Ashinthuw!" he exclaimed, reaching for his sword.

    "Peace, Flynn," the old man replied, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. "I mean you all no harm. I'm merely what you might think of as a sort of a guide."

    Sasha stared at him with an expression of wonder. "I saw you die, I couldn't save you. How is it that you are still alive? And my armour - it's intact!" She picked up her shield - or rather, what was left of it. "And yet my shield is shattered, just as I remember!"

    "I also saw you dead - but that was by my own foolishness." Wolmark's tone was decidedly bitter.

    " I saw you commanding the undead!" Trinias exclaimed. The Ronin exchanged bewildered glances. They'd all apparently encountered the same man, albeit in very different circumstances.

    "It seems there is much to explain," Kwon commented thoughtfully. "I presume that is your intent?"

    "Yes indeed, Kwon Chen, the time for explanations has arrived - although I dare say you'll find them maddeningly incomplete. Some of the gaps will be things I simply don't know, others will be things I'm not permitted to tell you. I'm just a servant, you see, and I must keep to my brief."

    "Could you at least tell us your name?" Flynn queried, leaning against one wall of the cave, and massaging his aching temples.

    "Oh, how thoughtless of me," the elderly man exclaimed. "You must be feeling terrible after your ordeals. Please, follow me, I believe I have something that you'll find an adequate restorative." He lead them through a short tunnel to another, smaller cave, in which they found a small dining table and chairs. The Ronin edged themselves into the chairs, not failing to note that there were exactly the right number, if the old man was included in the calculations.

    "Now then, my name," he said absently, as he filled the eight cups with a pungent, yet pleasant-smelling green liquid. He distributed the cups, then seated himself in the one remaining chair. Wolmark, reckless as always with regard to his own safety, took a sip.

    "Delicious!" he exclaimed. "What is it?"

    "Fascha berry juice," the old man replied. "It's very rare, from a land far to the east of here. It has extraordinary properties. This is the most I've ever seen in one place, we are very fortunate that my benefactor thinks so highly of you."

    "Your name?" Flynn prompted gently, after they'd each taken a sip and felt energy flowing into their bruised and battered bodies.

    "Oh, yes. Sorry, I'm easily distracted. I'm afraid my true name is one of the things I can't tell you, although I dare say you'll learn it in time." He seemed to find that amusing, and chuckled softly. "For now, why don't you call me - Aeonis. Yes, that will do, I think."

    "Very well, Aeonis," Flynn replied. "I suppose we'd best let you tell the story in your own way, and we'll save any questions for the end."

    Aeonis nodded politely. "Most gracious of you. Now let me see, where should I begin?"

    "How about at the beginning?" Leandra scowled, not quite as forgiving as Flynn.

    "Ah, now that is something I cannot do. Your beginnings must remain shrouded in mystery, hidden even from yourselves - even when your memories fully return, I doubt you will suspect the real truth. One may come, someday, that can tell you secrets... which you might well wish had remained hidden. But that's neither here nor there, my young friends. For now, we must keep to the more recent past."

    He paused, sipping cool juice from his cup. "While none of you have much in the way of memories before a very short while ago, you all know that you have met and travelled with each other before. In fact the bond goes far beyond merely being fellow travellers, you're more like family. Yet in spite of that, you have no idea how you came to meet."

    He paused again, staring anxiously about their faces. "You should know that that will pass, with time."

    The Ronin collectively breathed a faint sigh of relief.

    "My benefactor," Aeonis continued, "believes that you have many great adventures ahead of you, and one day will fulfil a vital role in preventing a great disaster. He decided to present you with gifts, artifacts of great power, to aid you in your many quests, but other powers determined that such gifts as he would bestow could not be given without a test of character."

    "You mean all of that was to test us?" Leandra exploded. "None of it was real?"

    Aeonis moved uncomfortably, although his discomfort wasn't physical. "Oh, it was real enough - as you understand reality. You only have to look at Sasha's shield to know that it wasn't entirely an illusion. But it wasn't exactly real, either. Both my benefactor and I would have spared you your recent pain if it had been at all possible, but it was out of our hands. Needless to say, you all passed with flying colours." He stood up, pushing his chair back from the table. "Now, the time has come. Please follow me."

    Aeonis lead them to yet another chamber of the cavern, slightly larger than the other two. Seven alcoves had been carved, about waist high, in the curved wall opposite the entrance. In the shadows thrown by the flickering torch Aeonis carried, they could just make out the shapeless forms of cloth-wrapped bundles within. Aeonis stepped up to the first alcove, withdrew the bundle and unwrapped it with a slight flourish, revealing a longsword of exquisite craftsmanship, which glowed whitely with an inner power.

    "This is the Sword of Truth," Aeonis said reverently. "It can only be wielded by one who has shown himself to be completely honourable, choosing always the right and the good, no matter what the personal cost. Nothing the blade touches can lie in any way, and the blade will always strike true its target. Nothing undead can withstand its virtue, since such creatures are not truly alive. Demons and other hellspawn are also powerless against it, since their power stems from the Father of Lies." He extended it reverently to Flynn, hilt first, who took hold of it with the same degree of reverence. "You have shown yourself in every way to be worthy of this blade. May it serve you well."

    He then withdrew the bundle from the second alcove, which revealed a kite-shaped shield that glowed with a golden light. "Sasha, this is the Shield of the Bold. It's designed to serve well the kind of person that rushes quickly into the fray, without thought for their own safety."

    Trinias chuckled. "That's Sasha, all right."

    Sasha scowled at him. "Quiet, you. Aeonis, please continue."

    "It cannot be damaged by any force known," Aeonis continued, "and it will generate a magical bubble through which nothing material can pass, when the tip is firmly grounded. Be careful not to be standing upright when you do this, as the bubble is quite small. The shield itself will also protect you from any magical force, although the bubble will not." He passed the shield to Sasha, who stood looking at it in amazement.

    "The third gift is for Trinias." He unwrapped a plain, hooded cloak, a dull grey in colour, and a very ordinary looking quiver. "In your test, you failed in your duty as a scout, by being captured before you could get your warning through."

    Trinias winced. "Please, don't remind me!"

    "It's all right, lad. Few could have done as well as you did, in the circumstances. However, this cloak will aid you in your role as scout. It's a very special garment, known as a chameleon cloak, which has the power to render you completely invisible. This particular cloak is exceptional, in that it can also screen you from any known magic of detection."

    "Astounding!"

    "Further, this is a replicating quiver. With it, you will never run short of ammunition for that bow of yours."

    "Thank you, Aeonis!" Trinias said quietly, quite dumbfounded by the gifts.

    "Now then," Aeonis continued, "Wolmark. Tell me, what was your one regret?"

    Wolmark's face showed great sorrow. "That, through my short-sightedness, I caused the death of an innocent."

    "Indeed, and you vowed it would never happen again. However, what you cannot know, is that that recklessness is an inherent part of your boundless curiosity, an essential part of your being."

    "But I don't want it! Isn't there anything you can do to help me?"

    Aeonis drew the fourth bundle from its alcove, and unwrapped a short, ebony staff, topped with a glowing blue gem. "We cannot take away from what you essentially are, but we can provide you with something than may help. This rod is called the Staff of Reversal, or the Staff of Second Chances, by some. It possesses the power to turn back time for a short period, no more than twenty minutes. Just follow the directions." He pointed to a small inscription on the staff.

    "That's not a very long time!" Leandra interrupted, annoyed. "What good can twenty minutes possibly do?"

    Wolmark was holding the staff, staring at it reverently. "It's enough. Enough time to avert a terrible disaster." Aeonis patted his shoulder, and moved on to the fifth bundle.

    "Leandra. In your test, you thrust me away from the path of an assassin's blade, without any thought for your own safety. While I am most pleased that you considered me worth saving, the consequences to yourself would have been, shall we say, catastrophic?"

    Leandra blushed in embarrassment. "Well, I couldn't just stand there and let you be killed!"

    "Indeed. While it may be very noble, you won't survive long displaying that kind of behaviour." From the fifth bundle Aeonis pulled forth a strange, spiral-shaped bracelet, designed to be worn on the upper arm. "This is called a soulbinder. It stores up a small part of your lifeforce, and uses it to sustain you for a short while in a time of extremity - in other words, when you would otherwise have died."

    Leandra studied her gift, as awestruck as the others had been with theirs. "That's - that's amazing!"

    "Be warned, however," Aeonis continued, "once used, it needs a good while to recharge. And it won't heal you at all, you'll need swift help to save you from whatever it was that would have killed you."

    "I'll remember. Thank you!"

    Aeonis turned to stare up at Ulf, towering almost three feet above him. "Ah! Now for you, my enormous friend. You're very quick to trust, and as you discovered in your test, that can have dire consequences." Ulf stared at the frail old man in abject confusion.

    "What he means," Flynn said, grinning, "is that not everyone who says they're your friend, really is your friend."

    A look of concern spread slowly over Ulf's face. "Flynn Ulf's friend?"

    "Of course!" Flynn replied, patting the huge man on the arm. "But you can't just take my word for it, you have to decide for yourself."

    Ulf's expression reverted to it's previous appearance of confusion. "How?"

    It was Flynn's turn to be at a loss for words. Fortunately, Aeonis came to his rescue.

    "Precisely," the old man said, "how, indeed? Well, that's where this comes in." From the sixth bundle he pulled forth a glowing yellow gem, suspended from a thin gold chain, and placed it in Ulf's gigantic hand. "This is the Friendsooth Amulet, and it will help you tell friend from foe - in spite of anything they might say. Not much is known of its abilities beyond that, you may find other uses for it over time." Ulf grinned happily, and Aeonis moved on to the seventh bundle.

    "Last, but not least, Kwon Chen. For you there is this haversack which, like Trinias' quiver, will replicate your throwing weapons for you."

    Kwon bowed, accepting the offered gift. "I thank you, Aeonis. I am certain it will be of great use to me."

    Aeonis drew him aside, where a quiet voice wouldn't be overheard by the other Ronin. "There's one more thing, something of a far more personal nature." Kwon's eyebrow twitched upward. "Your test," Aeonis continued, "was both different and more difficult than those faced by the others - because what you confronted, was yourself." He stared piercingly into Kwon's eyes, but the small oriental's expression remained as inscrutable as ever. Aeonis sighed. "Tell me, what did you see?"

    Kwon paused long before answering, and when he did, his voice held a barely perceptible hint of sadness. "I... saw myself. I do not fully remember it, but I somehow know it truly happened - I murdered four men."

    "You call it murder. But what if I were to tell you that you had good reason?"

    "It would not matter. No matter what those men had done, I had no right to take their lives in that way."

    "And how will you cope with the knowledge of what you've done?"

    "I... do not know. It is in the past, and cannot be undone. I have little choice but to live on, and try, somehow, to find peace - but I will never permit myself to do such a thing again."

    The words were spoken calmly, but Aeonis detected a note of steely determination underlying the quiet voice. He smiled. "Good, good. There is one more gift, that may assist you in your struggle." He pulled a small, shiny metal disc, about four inches in diameter, from the wrappings of the bundle. "This is a soul-mirror. It has properties you might find very useful."

    Again, Kwon bowed in gratitude. "Once more I thank you, although I have little hope that I will ever find release from guilt."

    Aeonis patted him on the shoulder. "Anything is possible, my friend - in time." He turned away and rejoined the rest of the group. "Well my friends, as much as I would like to spend longer with you, our time is at an end." He swept his arm through the air in a graceful arc, leaving in its wake a shimmering, pale glow that quickly coalesced into a series of moving images.

    The Ronin let out a collective gasp of shock. Before their eyes, the ranks of the undead slammed down upon Cademia like a tsunami, terrifying in their irresistible force.

    "You are needed," Aeonis continued. "You must go."

    "But what can we do?" Flynn asked, desperately. "Is there no other advice you can give us?"

    Aeonis smiled at him kindly. "You have all that you need. For now, you must find your own path." He waved his hand once more, and a golden glow began to envelop the seven Ronin. As the cavern faded from their sight, they faintly heard the old man call to them one last time.

    "Until we meet again!"

    Alone in the cavern once more, Aeonis returned to the table, and sat down. He picked up his still partially full cup of Fascha berry juice, and sipped it delicately.

    "Well, Kronos, how did I do?"

    In one corner, the air began to coalesce, and glow a rich golden hue. From the centre, a deep voice resonated.

    "Well. Very well indeed, Temrel. I know those tests were as trying for you as they were for the Ronin, and I'm grateful for your help."

    Temrel was very glad for his benefactor's praise, but was nevertheless troubled. "Is it all going to be worth it, Kronos? Will we triumph, in the end?"

    "Anything is possible, my friend - in Time."

    Temrel chuckled at the good natured riposte. "Very well, what's the next step?"

    "Tonight, you can sleep well. When you awaken, you have an appointment to keep; in a small cave at Lands End - back when Alaric was yet still a child."

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

    We've lost them. Again!

    They seemed to have landed on their feet, as always, and were settling in well with their hosts, an elf-like race with blue skin. They were making new friends, and looking for ways to be useful - not easy, when your greatest skills have suddenly been rendered completely useless. Only Boralis wasn't really making the best of things, and he didn't really count.

    It'd been like that for several months, and Lorhin was starting to grow noticeably annoyed. These were soldiers he was trying to build, after all, and how were they going to prove their capabilities if there was nobody to fight?

    As his frustrations grew, he took to drinking. I started keeping him company; mainly because security's my business, and I was worried he'd say something he shouldn't. My fears proved well founded - but the one person he shouldn't have told, was me.

    One evening, when he was drunker than usual, he leaned closer and began to whisper conspiratorially. "What we need to do," he said, "is start a little war."

    I tried hard to conceal my apprehension, hoping that he'd forget all he'd said when he woke up in the morning - for all our sakes. "Isn't that a little drastic?" I asked him, keeping my voice as low as his.

    He waved his hand nonchalantly. "We need them to fight, to show what they can do. What better way is there?"

    _I was still prepared to
    _



  • :eek: Amazing! Cache22 has done it again... and we'll leave it at that. Well, I might add for extreme encouragement to hurry with the next segment! ;)

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    Do not hurt when holding is enough, do not wound when hurting is enough, do not maim when wounding is enough, do not kill when maiming is enough. The greatest warrior is he who does not need to kill.



  • Excellent work, as always. I'm glad you're writing chronicles again. I really liked the part where Slayer defeated Magpie. ;) Too bad that was the wrong thing to do.

    Slayer's guide to web formatting

    Really long words can mess up the formatting on the page. I had to shorten "sleeeeeeee" so that it didn't stretch all the text off the right end of the window.

    ------------------
    Slayer's guide to Cythera:
    (url="http://"http://www.macclassics.com/cythera/cythera.htm")http://www.macclassi...era/cythera.htm(/url)



  • Quote

    Originally posted by Mr. Somebody:
    **...extreme encouragement to hurry with the next segment!;) **

    Sorry to disillusion you, but that was the last chapter of New Horizons. However, the good news is I'm already working on the next story. :)

    Quote

    Originally posted by Slayer:
    I had to shorten "sleeeeeeee" so that it didn't stretch all the text off the right end of the window.

    So much for my impression of someone falling asleep on the keyboard ;)

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    "The e-mail of the specious is more dangerous than their mail" - Tom Holt, 'Snow White and the Seven Samurai'



  • Quote

    Originally posted by cache22:
    Sorry to disillusion you, but that was the last chapter of New Horizons. However, the good news is I'm already working on the next story. :)
    (/B)

    I know that, you were talking about how eager you were to get to it, but it's still in the over-arching theme of the Ronin and their arrival, and that could be considered the next segment.

    On a note for Slayer, I want to write chronicles, but I find myself completely rendered without a shred of creative ideas.

    ------------------
    Do not hurt when holding is enough, do not wound when hurting is enough, do not maim when wounding is enough, do not kill when maiming is enough. The greatest warrior is he who does not need to kill.



  • Great story man. Pity I can't write like that :frown:

    ------------------
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  • I know that this is a bit old and might be considered gravedigging, but, as I was looking at this story again, I observed that part of it has been cut off. :o I have no doubt that this is the same thing that happened with the Hand of Fate Chronicles; as with those, it is possible that the remainder of this story can be found on the internet archive and reposted here, something I shall attempt to do later today (if cache doesn't mind that is).

    This post has been edited by Selax : 28 December 2006 - 07:20 PM



  • Here it is. I guess it's not surprising it got truncated, since it's over 106,000 characters long!

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

    We've lost them. Again!

    They seemed to have landed on their feet, as always, and were settling in well with their hosts, an elf-like race with blue skin. They were making new friends, and looking for ways to be useful - not easy, when your greatest skills have suddenly been rendered completely useless. Only Boralis wasn't really making the best of things, and he didn't really count.

    It'd been like that for several months, and Lorhin was starting to grow noticeably annoyed. These were soldiers he was trying to build, after all, and how were they going to prove their capabilities if there was nobody to fight?

    As his frustrations grew, he took to drinking. I started keeping him company; mainly because security's my business, and I was worried he'd say something he shouldn't. My fears proved well founded - but the one person he shouldn't have told, was me.

    One evening, when he was drunker than usual, he leaned closer and began to whisper conspiratorially. "What we need to do," he said, "is start a little war."

    I tried hard to conceal my apprehension, hoping that he'd forget all he'd said when he woke up in the morning - for all our sakes. "Isn't that a little drastic?" I asked him, keeping my voice as low as his.

    He waved his hand nonchalantly. "We need them to fight, to show what they can do. What better way is there?"

    I was still prepared to overlook it, and tuck him in for the night before someone overheard him. If only he'd left it there.

    "Besides," he continued, "it worked before."

    If he'd been sober, I'm sure he'd have seen immediately that he'd gone too far. An icy fist took hold of my soul and squeezed. I'm sure I couldn't have kept the coldness from showing in my eyes, even Lorhin would've been savvy enough to shut up if he'd seen it.

    "Tell me about it," I prompted, by some miracle keeping my voice steady. He complied without hesitation, perhaps even with a little glee.

    He'd been intrigued by what had happened to Sasha, all those years ago. After her surrogates were killed, she'd immediately sought out an instructor, and begun to learn how to fight. That was probably the time he first began to rethink his hands-off policy.

    Some time later - years for our subjects, but only a few months for us - as he'd grown more and more frustrated by Quan's involvement with the monastery, a plan had slowly formed. He identified a key emotional weakness, and struck it down.

    The bandits he'd paid off had completely levelled the orphanage, and forever changed the course of Quan's life. He hadn't expected Quan to find the men, but he certainly had nothing to complain about in the way he dispatched them.

    By this time, I was having a hard time keeping myself from hitting him. Somehow, I just knew there was more to come. My instincts were right. He'd had nothing to do with Flynn being framed for murder, but he'd still been dissatisfied with the apparent stability of his home life. So he struck again.

    Even more, now, I wish I'd kept a closer eye on Katie! That poor girl; murdered, thrown off a cliff for a cause she couldn't even begin to comprehend - and there's nothing anyone can say that would convince me it was justified.

    I'd heard enough; I placed him under arrest. The Paradox is too small to have a brig, so I ordered Lorhin confined to his quarters, pending trial. I don't know how long it will be before he faces justice, but I'm determined to see it happen.

    The entire ship's complement became quite subdued after that. I had to tell Ogden what Lorhin had done, of course, but it wouldn't have been right to tell all the others before the trial. A lot of them might yet be called as witnesses. They tried to go on with life as normal, but I could tell their hearts weren't really in it. As for myself, I immersed myself in watching the transgenics, perhaps hoping to forget.

    Not long after that time, the seven went off on some expedition. Most of what we think happened is built on conjecture, since we couldn't get close enough to monitor the situation properly. Some broader scans showed Boralis some distance ahead of them; they appeared to be chasing him, I can't imagine why.

    When they finally caught up with him, there was an enormous burst of energy; once it cleared, they were all gone. This isn't like the last time. The scientists claim they have no idea what it was. I don't trust them, I think they might be trying to get back at me for locking up their director.

    Whatever the reason, I have to find a way to motivate the search. I refuse to believe they're dead.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    In Cademia, things weren't going well. Without the support of offensive magic, the warriors of Cythera were finding the battle hard going. They'd taken a greater toll on the enemy than the enemy had on them, but the sheer weight of numbers was threatening to overwhelm them. The healers were doing their best to keep up, but their supply of mana and potions was beginning to run low.

    "We need more help, and we need it quickly!" Moonshadow sighed to herself. "Oh, where are Avatara and the Ronin?"

    At that very moment, a portal rent the air not far from her. The five Ronin she knew rushed through, along with two new figures she'd not seen before. They looked around, rapidly taking in the situation and prepared, each in their own way, to fight.

    Flynn drew his swords - "Swords?" Moonshadow thought. "Where'd he get the other one?" The Ruby Fang she already knew. The new sword glowed with a white radiance of the utmost purity.

    Trinias, Leandra and Wolmark climbed up onto roofs and battlements where they could get the best view of the battle below. Leandra and Wolmark began casting healing spells, wherever they could see the need. Trinias began raining arrows down on the Undead. His first few arrows were each charged with different magic - one fire, one ice, and so on - until his eagle-eyes showed him they were having no effect; ordinary arrows did some damage, but he quickly discovered that he could be most effective by shooting at their weapons. An undead warrior with a broken sword is a far less potent threat than it would otherwise have been.

    Flynn and Sasha pushed their way to the front line, and began to wreak havoc among their foes. Ulf followed wherever Flynn went, to keep the pesky skeletons off his back. When Ulf brought his fist down on a skull, there wasn't much left but dust. Kwon performed much the same function for Sasha. His new haversack provided him with a never-ending supply of shuriken and other throwing weapons, and he could hurl them with uncanny accuracy. In his own fashion, he took care of more of the enemy than Ulf did.

    Sasha drove straight on into the ranks of the enemy, sapphire sword flashing. Its magic had little effect, but it was nevertheless a worthy weapon - and Sasha was a master. No enemy, once struck, continued to fight, and no attack, however strong, got past her defences. Her new shield showed no sign of damage, regardless of the strength of the attacks it fended off.

    Flynn seemed to be everywhere, his swords moving so quickly that they were crimson and white streamers. Like Sasha's sapphire blade, the Ruby Fang's magic had no real effect, but Flynn was almost as much a master as she, and he wielded it with telling effect. Yet it was his new weapon that caused the undead to falter, and draw back. Every undead creature that that blade even touched, crumbled to dust. The Sword of Truth, forged by the ancients, imbued with their deep power, was true to Aeonis' word. Against that blade no lie, nothing born of lies, nothing untrue to its own nature could stand - and as Temrel had said, the undead are not truly alive.

    Moonshadow climbed up beside Leandra and gazed out over the battlefield. She saw the effect the Ronin had on the enemy. They crashed upon the horde like thunder from a storm filled sky. But thunder is fleeting, it begins to fade as soon as it is heard; and as she watched, the Ronin slowly began to tire. Hope failing, she looked out over uncountable hordes of undead still pouring into the fray.

    "It's not enough!" she said, almost in despair.

    Leandra stopped, and looked out, sensing the same thing that Moonshadow was feeling. A look of sadness passed over her face, only to be wiped away as a sudden memory of Sabinate opening the black fissure struck her.

    "Lost magic! That's it!"

    Leandra raised her arms in the air and closed her eyes in concentration. Moonshadow looked outward in amazement, as the very earth began to tremble. Many of the warriors on both sides were knocked to the ground, as a gigantic chasm opened up beneath the ranks of the undead. Five thousand or more of the enemy fell into the pit, before Leandra grew too weak to maintain her hold and allowed the chasm to close - crushing those trapped within.

    "It worked!" she cried exultantly, and promptly fainted dead away.

    Moonshadow caught her as she fell, and with the assistance of a nearby mage, carried her back to where the wounded were being treated. Her pulse was weak and thready, but she nevertheless seemed stable. Moonshadow couldn't think of anything else to do for her, and returned to the battlement.

    She surveyed the battlefield again. Leandra had helped, but it still wasn't nearly enough. The battle was still growing more hopeless by the minute.

    "There must be some way to beat them!" she thought, despairingly. No immediate answer came.

    ---------

    On another battlement some distance away from Moonshadow, Wolmark was reaching the same conclusions she had. He was a tinkerer, a deep thinker, and he weighed a vast amount of facts and information in a very short time. He reached a decision.

    Climbing down from the battlements, he carefully made his way to the point towards which Flynn was drawing back, to catch his breath. When Flynn and Ulf arrived, Wolmark drew close and spoke quickly into Flynn's ear.

    "This isn't working!" Wolmark stated firmly. "We need to try something else!"

    Flynn stood panting for a few moments, gazing about at the spreading carnage. The air was filled with dust, thrown up by the thousands of feet scuffling over the dry ground, making it difficult to breathe. The bodies of the wounded almost covered the open ground of Cademia as far as he could see. The dead and the dying lay almost as thickly on the battleground. The few mages that still had power left for healing were rapidly expending it, and the fighters that were still standing were tiring, almost to the point that exhaustion was becoming a greater threat than the enemy.

    Flynn turned back to Wolmark. "I'm open to suggestions."

    "Cut off the head of the snake..."

    Flynn nodded, frowning. "Take out the leader. Without him, this army loses its purpose. That's all very well, but this Magpie's almost certainly far in the rear. By the time we can get around the edge of his army and find him, this will all be over."

    Wolmark smiled tiredly. "I have an idea..."

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

    I should have listened to my gut. I can't believe I let myself get taken so easily!

    I was called to a meeting with Captain Ogden, and two of my men fell in with me. It wasn't unusual, they often did that. It's that kind of unit. Which made it even more surprising when they drew their weapons, and relieved me of mine.

    We went through the usual routines, like "What do you think you're doing?" and "You don't seriously think you'll get away with this?" They were very apologetic, but also highly determined. They explained that the Captain, themselves and many others from all three personnel branches - crew, science and marine - had decided that the mission was a bust, and they just wanted to get home. They knew I'd try to stop them, so they had to neutralise the threat.

    It's easy to say I had no choice but to do as they said, but in this case it was true. I've seen those men fight, and it's doubtful I could have taken even one of them, hand to hand. They directed me to head aft, to the escape pods. I knew where they were, although I'd never had occasion to visit them.

    Now, on a ship the size of the Paradox, the pods are barely big enough for one person, and can double as cryogenic chambers in a pinch. We passed several that were already in use before they halted me. I guess they'd been busy, rounding up anyone that might get in their way.

    The hatch closed with a very final sounding 'thud'. Of course, I checked if there was any way to get it open again from the inside, but they seemed to have covered everything. They'd rigged the controls on the ship side of the hatch to read zero pressure, and the built in safety interlocks did the rest. There's no way to get at those from inside one of these pods, they're designed to be idiot proof.

    They must have a rather high opinion of my skills, though, because they've also triggered the cryo-freezing process. I've been breathing the prep gas for about twenty minutes now, that means I've got just under ten more before I lose consciousness. I'll probably be too groggy to finish this journal entry when I wake up, so I'll keep going as long as I can.

    I'm feeling quite calm now, and I don't think it's just the drugs. The decision's been taken out of my hands, there's really only one course of action left to me. I've finished my preparations; I just have to sit back and wait for things to happen. Let them have their little mutiny. In five minutes, I'll be asleep. In ten, my pod will jettison.

    They were wrong, you see. I wouldn't have tried to stop them leaving. I just wouldn't have gone with them.

    Cabin temperatur's starting to get lowwer, niw; itt wpn't be much loger. I'm gtting tired. Can't sem to fokus on te kybord properlt. eyes hevy. just wabt to goto sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

    > >ERROR: buffer overrun; entry terminated

    > >Energy conservation mode activated

    > >RESUME

    I'm awake - I think. Head feels like it's stuffed with cotton wool.

    I don't know what happened. I've reread the last few entries of this journal, but it all seems so unreal. It's hard to accept that my men would do that to me. Still, the evidence is all around me; I guess I just have to accept it.

    Most of the pod's systems seem to be inoperative. I doubt the mutineers would have wasted time taking shots at me, so I guess it was just the jolt of separation, or else something that happened on entering the atmosphere. The door panel reads positive pressure outside, so I assume I've touched down.

    I wonder how long it's been?

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    "They've breached the gates! They're overrunning the city!"

    Slayer whirled at the cry, and saw a squad of skeletons charge down the thin line of men that held the gate. "Not good!" he yelled, raised his sword and leaped at the undead warrior nearest him.

    Verran realised there might never be another opportunity to spring his surprise. He looked to his left. Rogar was around a hundred yards away, and Katze was another hundred further on. They both gave the signal that they were ready.

    "Now lets see how the undead like water," thought Verran. The three broke their cover at hundred yard intervals along the army's flank, and pulled out their scrolls. Soon, a wind began to blow.

    Magpie saw the three and laughed. "Fools! No matter how powerful the spell, my army will be unaffected!"

    But the spell did not gain its usual magical energy. Instead, the wind grew stronger, and stronger. Suddenly, it gained an amazing boost of power. Entire legions of undead were hurled into the nearby sea, and into oblivion.

    Their work done, Verran teleported the three back into the city.

    With no support behind them, the undead that were already inside the city were soon eradicated by Cademia's valiant defenders.

    Verran was quite pleased, but it was short lived. There were still an amazing number of undead warriors left, although it gave the healers a brief respite to replenish their dwindling power, before they were again pressed into service to support of the defenders, as the undead closed on the city walls once more.

    After thanking Rogar and Katze, Verran returned to the Tavern to pick up his sword.

    Sasha and Kwon had seen the enemy breach the city gates, and had slowly fought their way back inside. After they'd finished helping clean out the stragglers left behind by the wind, they collected some food and water, and found a spot to rest. Slayer and Moonshadow walked over, and Kwon introduced them to Sasha.

    "That's an interesting shield you have," said Slayer.

    "It's called the 'Shield of the Bold'," Sasha replied. "It has some - interesting properties. It was given to me on our quest, as was Flynn's new sword and - other things."

    At that Sasha began looking around, as if looking for something. "Come to that, where is Flynn, and also the others? I lost track of them in the battle."

    "Wolmark opened a portal, and they left," Moonshadow replied. "If you weren't still here, I might have thought they'd abandoned us."

    Sasha frowned in concentration, then smiled broadly. "Wolmark has a plan! Did all five of them go?"

    "Not Leandra. She's being tended to by the healers," Moonshadow replied. "After she opened the chasm, she just collapsed." Moonshadow looked curious. "The healers can't make it out; they say it almost killed her, but her mana is still strong. What kind of magic does that?"

    Kwon, unnoticed, raised one eyebrow. Sasha just shook her head in wonder. "Leandra did that!?"

    After a few moments, Kwon spoke up. "The enemy are almost upon us once more; it is time to prepare." He began scouring the ground, looking for sundry pieces of weaponry or debris that he could throw efficiently.

    ---------

    Ferazel turned suddenly, startled by a sound behind him.

    "Hi Ferazel, my mission was a success," Avatara said, smiling, and pointed a little behind himself. Three half-invisible warriors stood there impassively. "Allow me to introduce Shinikath, Ithrun and Eldiren. They're dark elves. Don't underestimate their power."

    "Avatara! Just in time too! The city is under attack, and at this rate we'll lose!" Ferazel burst out.

    Avatara took a quick survey of the battle scene. Pointing at something off to the west, Avatara spoke "I'm thinking Magpie would be standing on that hill over there. The clearing in the forest, it's a perfect place to witness the battle. Now, I've got a plan, and I'm going to need your help."

    Avatara, Ferazel and the three dark elves vanished into the night.

    ---------

    Magpie turned, sensing danger near. Shinikath stepped out, his two dark elven brethren also appearing from the woods, forming a triangle around Magpie.

    "So, you are the person causing all that trouble. I admire your plan, but I have a promise to keep. Your time has come, now you will see why the Dark Elves are greatly feared!" Shinikath laughed.

    Magpie repressed a smile, this should be easy enough for him. The elves attacked in unison, but Magpie unleashed one of his highly potent spells. An elf fell to the ground. Snatching up the fallen elf's sword, Magpie spun around in a desperate attempt to fend off the other two. With another quick incantation, he blew a hole in Shinikath's chest. Shinikath stared down at it in helpless shock, while Magpie impaled the remaining dark elf with the sword.

    "That was simply... too easy," Magpie smiled, the battle being over in a manner of seconds.

    Avatara stepped forward from the forest. "Perhaps I can add some challenge."

    "And maybe this time we'll be a much harder challenge." Magpie whirled once more, to see Shinikath smiling, his two brethren already flanking Magpie.

    "But... you died. I just killed you!" Magpie gestured to the bodies on the ground.

    Ferazel also stepped out of the trees, forming a pentagon of warriors around Magpie. With a smile and a wave of his hand, the three bodies vanished in a puff of blue smoke. "Did you like my hallucination spell?" Ferazel asked.

    Magpie ground his teeth and picked up a sword from the ground, holding it as if he wanted to fight. With a false thrust at Avatara, he turned and fled, thinking desperately of his next move.

    Avatara didn't immediately follow, nor did any of the others. The bait had been so masterfully crafted; Magpie was running into a trap. If all went well, Slayer, Moonshadow and Rogan would be waiting for him - and he had no idea of what was coming.

    ---------

    Sasha and Kwon had rejoined the defence of Cademia. No longer fresh, Sasha could feel herself tiring rapidly; the weight of her shield and sword were starting to become too great.

    "I hope somebody ends this soon," she thought to herself. "Before much longer, I'm going to start making mistakes."

    As if in answer to prophecy, she missed the proper deflection angle for an incoming blow. Her opponent's weapon slid off her badly positioned shield, and nicked her shoulder through a chink in her battered armour.

    "Could have been worse," she thought, as the small cut rapidly healed. She turned the Sapphire Fang on the foolish wight who'd been so bold as to cause her harm (however minor), and dispatched it with a single, clean stroke.

    ---------

    Verran walked out of the tavern, quickly took stock of the situation, and concluded he didn't like what he saw. The Cademian defences had been stripped of almost all of its most valiant fighters, just when they were most needed.

    The wall of Undead fell upon them in redoubled force, warriors were falling, and the healers were almost entirely drained of power. He heard Katze call out to someone in shock, as a warrior close to him fell, wounded, to the ground. "Who's Ejay?" Verran wondered, as he charged into the middle of the battle to help.

    He loosed a lightning bolt at the nearest skeleton. "Great, that was stupid," he thought to himself. "They're still immune to magic." Little did he know that the flash of light had saved his life, as the skeleton behind him was distracted just long enough for him to turn and obliterate it with a swift slash of his sword.

    Remembering to activate his shield this time, he ran to the fallen warrior and began to drag him away. He didn't do too well, as he wasn't that strong. He suddenly remembered he could teleport, and in an instant he and the warrior were inside the Tavern. Casting a healing spell, he helped the warrior to his feet.

    "Thank you," the man said, gratefully. "Assuming we both get through this, I'm in your debt. Just ask around for Sideline, if you think you could use my help." With that, he quickly vanished back into the fray.

    Verran surveyed the scene. "Darn!" he exclaimed. "They're breaking through!"

    It was no understatement. They were butchering the warriors, smashing the hard-held line. Half the warriors had already fallen, and any healer attempting to help became a target, and was quickly killed.

    "I hope they get Magpie soon!" Verran muttered to himself, as he climbed on to the tavern's non-existent roof. On a distant hill, his keen eyes made out the figure of Magpie running away into the forest. On impulse, a quick wave of his hand he sent a powerful lightning bolt crackling through the air towards their chief enemy. He had no time to spare to see if it connected, the battle at hand demanded his attention.

    As he gazed about the scene below him, he noticed Leandra totter unsteadily out of a hall being used as a medical centre. She sat down on a box, put one hand to her head and shook it, as if trying to clear it. Verran climbed down from the tavern roof, dug out a vial and hurried over.

    "Here, drink this," he said.

    "Thank you, that helped a lot," Leandra said, after gulping down the potion. She blinked her eyes wide, and looked around. "All's not going well, I take it?"

    "Not by a long shot!" Verran replied, with considerable depth of feeling.

    "I think I can help a bit," Leandra said. "I didn't know the power I was dealing with before." She absently touched her left arm between shoulder and elbow, where the soulbinder was concealed beneath the sleeve of her dress. "Thank goodness for the gift," she thought.

    "I'll do better this time," she continued. She looked around, and saw three gates had been forced by the undead army. Choosing the gate at which the warriors were being hardest pressed, she said "call the men back from that gate; don't worry if a few bonebags get through."

    Verran looked uncertain, but gave the call. The men pulled back, and undead began to stream through the now undefended gateway. "This was a really bad idea," he thought.

    Leandra raised her hands toward the gateway, and squinted in concentration.

    At first, Verran didn't notice anything happening, but then he felt a slight tremor in the ground. Then, before his eyes, a great tree began to grow in the centre of the gateway, growing so fast that there wasn't even time for it to be trampled under the feet of the undead army. It grew so large that it effectively blocked the entire gate before Leandra stopped.

    The men who'd been called back from that gate quickly set about the task of wiping out the few skeletons that had managed to get inside, while Leandra and Verran turned their attention to the next gate.

    ---------

    Magpie avoided Verran's lightning bolt with ease, but he knew he wouldn't be so lucky next time. He was worried, his master's plan wasn't working. Suddenly, Slayer leaped out at him from the fringe of the trees, slicing his head off with one powerful blow! His dead carcass fell to the ground, and rolled down the steep slope of the hill.

    Slayer stood triumphantly on the spot where Magpie died. "I have slain Magpie! Our foe is leaderless, attack now while they are weak!" he cried. The defenders were inspired. They attacked with a ferocity never before seen, crushing skeleton after skeleton, hewing them down like weeds.

    As the battle force ran forward, Lurga, a simple guard from Odemia, tripped over Magpie's body where it had come to rest. As he clambered back to his feet, a glint of gold caught his eye. He bent down to investigate, and found it was a plain gold ring. "What a find!" he thought to himself, slipping the ring over his finger. There was a blinding flash of white. White, but tinged with darkness. Tinged with evil.

    Magpie arose anew on the battlefield, gleaming the same corrupted white as his predecessor. He stared down at Valkier's dead body with disgust. " You were weak, Not I," he spat, and held the burning ring up to his face.

    A voice spoke, cold and brutal, into his mind. "Welcome, Nectas."

    On the other side of the battlefield, an uncountable number of skeletons arose from the ground. Several pillars of burning fire erupted from the sky, burning and shrivelling all those that were touched. Out of the burning columns crawled at least four hundred armoured, clawed, fanged, fire breathing dragons. The dragons let out a tremendous roar that seemed to shake the very ground, and the defenders quailed.

    Nectas grinned.

    On his dark throne, in another world, Magpie struggled for control, and lost.

    The usurper laughed evilly. "Do not fight me, Magpie. For the time being, our intent is the same. Soon, they will all be dead."

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

    Once I was out of the smoke from the undergrowth set alight by the heat of the pod, the air was more than just breathable - it was the best tasting stuff I'd inhaled since leaving Irené! I seemed to have landed someplace with a lot of vegetation, which is probably why everything smelled so fresh.

    I was still pretty groggy; sometimes the aftereffects of cryo can last for days. I didn't recognise the terrain. I'd never been groundside on this world, and I had no idea where I was, anyway; all the location gear on the pod was inoperative. I salvaged what I could, which wasn't much. I figured the obviously mechanical nature of my hand (lord knows what they'd make of the electronics) would startle the natives, so I put on a pair of gauntlets. I think I can probably get away with the eye, they'd just think it's a polished steel ball or something.

    Then I had to decide on a direction. A long way in the distance, at the extreme limit of zoom for my eye, I could make out what looked like a city, so I set off in that direction. It took me a few hours to reach it, but it turned out to be nothing but ancient ruins.

    That pretty much convinced me that the pod had missed the screened-off section, since there wasn't anything like that in the zone. In fact, there were only two settlements in the whole area, and neither of them were anywhere near the coast, like this one was. It hit me hard, since I didn't know of any way through from the outside. It seemed I'd finally lost all hope of finding them.

    I figured the best thing I could do was follow the coast. Eventually I had to run into a settlement, most likely a fishing village. I couldn't see the point of going back to the pod, so I carried on in the direction I'd taken. There was a mountain down that way, but I had a long way to travel before I had to decide which way around I wanted to go.

    A few hours later, that mountain had turned into a volcano, smoke and all. No chance of a village anywhere near that, but I could see that the coast veered around behind it. It must have been on a point or peninsula, or something. Anyway, I didn't see the point of wasting time on the off chance some fool had built a home at the foot of that geological time bomb, so I headed inland.

    After a while, I heard voices ahead. They seemed to be arguing about something. I worked my way closer through the brush, trying to make out what they were saying. Sometimes, I almost regret that I never lost an ear. Just almost.

    "It's no good, the signs have faded."

    "Wonderful, now what do we do?" That was a woman's voice, and it was strangely familiar.

    I finally broke through the screen of trees, and saw a startling sight.

    "Illyana!" I couldn't stop myself calling out her name, before I remembered she was dead. My sluggish memory churned, and I realised it was Sasha. She was with Trinias and Ulf, but there was no sign of the others.

    We introduced ourselves. It was strange pretending I didn't know them, but I wasn't sure how they'd react if I told them the truth. Besides, I need some time to gather my thoughts.

    I asked if I could help; apparently they were having some trouble following some tracks that were several days old. I ran a topographical scan, but I had to increase sensitivity to maximum before I could pick anything up; it's no wonder Trinias couldn't make anything out. I went along as they followed the tracks. It'd been a stroke of good fortune, finding them; I wasn't about to let them slip away from me now.

    The trail ended in a clearing, with some decidedly un-primitive gear lying about; there was evidence of beam weapons having been used, too. Plenty of tracks of people arriving, but none leaving. I don't know what trouble Flynn's gotten himself into now, but this time he's on his own. There's nothing I can do.

    We made our way to a city they called Cademia. They've allowed me to stay in their barracks for a while, until I find a place to live. I hope it's just out of kindness, but I'm not certain; I think I might have said Flynn's name, back at the clearing - and at that point, they hadn't mentioned it. I don't think any of them noticed; but I just can't be sure.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    The four absent Ronin had been watching, awaiting the chance to spring their surprise, and saw Slayer advancing toward Magpie.

    Suddenly: "Mustn't kill!" Ulf exclaimed. This was something of a shock to the others, since the only statement Ulf had ever been known to make with such certainty, was "Flynn Ulf's friend!"

    "What do you mean, Ulf?" Flynn queried.

    Ulf held out the glowing amber jewel, fastened around his neck on a golden chain. "Am- amyu- stone tells me: that one friend; but not friend. Is very confusing."

    The Ronin watched uncertainly as Verran's lightning bolt streaked past, then in horror as Slayer rose up and slew the one known as Magpie. Seeing the undead army weaken at the death of its master they still they couldn't decide what to do, and kept watching.

    They alone saw the guard stoop and take up the ring; they saw the flash of light as he put it on, and the sudden appearance of the new, and far deadlier, foes.

    "Magpie's more dangerous to us dead, than alive," Flynn commented.

    Wolmark nodded; it was time to act. He drew from within his robe the short, ebony staff, topped with a pale blue orb. Holding it high, he began to speak in a low voice, yet the words seemed to penetrate into every nook and cranny of Cythera. Quietly as they were spoken, no noise was loud enough to drown them out. Every man, woman, child, beast and dragon heard him speak.

    By the power of the ancient ones,
    let what was done,
    be undone.

    The orb began to glow, stronger and stronger, until the pale blue light touched the whole island. And then it faded away.

    ---------

    Time unwound...

    ---------

    Magpie avoided Verran's lightning bolt with ease, but he knew he wouldn't be so lucky next time. He was worried, his master's plan wasn't working. Suddenly, Slayer leaped out -

    Slayer stopped dead in his tracks, both surprised and shocked, as what he'd thought was a boulder shimmered, and rose up in front of him. Trinias opened his chameleon cloak and threw back his hood, holding out an open hand toward Slayer.

    "He'll only be more trouble to us if he's dead!" he shouted, not really hoping to convince Slayer, but needing only to buy some time.

    Magpie, not about to look a gift 'rock' in its igneous face, sprinted away in another direction. He hadn't gotten far when Flynn, swinging down on a rope, collided with him and drove him to the ground.

    "Swinging down on a rope?" Slayer asked himself in surprise. He looked up to see what, in an open clearing, a rope could be attached to and saw, hovering in the sky - a giant sausage. At least, that's what it looked like to him, it was something totally outside his experience.

    As Ulf climbed down a rope ladder, Wolmark leaned out over the rim of the basket secured beneath the sausage, and yelled down to Slayer: "How do you like my Zeppelin?" Slayer could only shake his head in amazement.

    As the Zeppelin was being securely anchored and Wolmark climbed down, others came running up, and a group began to gather around the fallen Magpie: Avatara and his dark elf allies, Slayer, Moonshadow, Rogan, and the four Ronin.

    Flynn drew his white-glowing sword. "Now," he said, "let's get to the truth of the matter."

    He extended the sword until the tip just touched Magpie's neck - then a strange thing happened. Magpie began to shimmer and waver, as if there were two Magpies, sharing the same space. Then one of them, a ghostly image, began to grow in size until it towered over the group. The image didn't look like Magpie, it didn't look like anyone any of the heroes knew - except the Ronin.

    "Boralis!" Flynn breathed, in shock.

    ---------

    Katze stared over the battlefield in an attempt to make out their situation. Nothing seemed to work as it should. Then something caught her eye - Magpie, lying on the ground by a group of her friends - and the ghostly image. It still grew in size, a ghostly apparition towering over the battle. She didn't notice the sounds of the battle subside as everyone, no matter whether undead or alive, turned their eyes towards it, hypnotised by its appearance. It struck a chord deep within her, but she could not place the feeling. She was sure that, somewhere, sometime... She just stood, staring.

    ---------

    Moonshadow stared at the apparition, transfixed. With an effort, she managed to shake the feeling off, and looked around. The others were staring at the apparition, as if hypnotised. Unknowingly, she turned her eyes back towards it, too. Boralis... Boralis... had she not heard the name somewhere? Oh, damn! She frowned, turning towards Flynn. "Who is he?"

    No response.

    "Flynn?"

    "I don't think they hear you," Avatara remarked.

    "Yes, all of those humans seem frozen..." one of the dark elves agreed. "It must have something to do with him..." he nodded in the direction of Boralis.

    "So... why are we not?" Moonshadow inquired.

    The four of them stared at her. Then Shinikath spoke up. "Must be because we're elves." He hesitated. "Tiny humans... what will we do now?"

    "I -"

    At that moment, they heard footsteps approaching them. They turned around quickly, weapons drawn and spells ready, but relaxed when they saw it was Verran. He came to a standstill in front of them.

    "The battle... stopped," he breathed heavily. "Everyone's... hypnotised... they all... seem afraid." he stopped to catch his breath. "Afraid of this." He looked at Boralis and his eyes widened, as his voice trailed off.

    Moonshadow quickly stepped in front of him, shaking him. "Look at me!" she commanded.

    Verran did. "It almost caught me there... thanks."

    "So what will we do?" Avatara repeated impatiently.

    Verran shook his head. "I don't think there's anything we can do. I tried, but they don't react, neither the undead nor the living. I fear we have to wait and see what this ghost wants."

    The Ronin stared at Boralis, as the apparition started to speak.

    "Ah, we meet again," the apparition addressed the four Ronin, totally ignoring the others present. "I see you've broken the enchantment that banished you. That is good. This is well met. Really, most opportune. I have been seeking a new host, a new proxy, and here you've provided me with just the thing. I shall enjoy enslaving you, Flynn. To think, I will take from you, what you and your little band once took from me: the freedom to go where you wish, and do as you will."

    The ghostly image let out a long and evil laugh.

    The six still unaffected by the mass paralysis looked at each other in uncertainty. While they could understand the words the image spoke, they were completely unable to fathom the context; the only fact they could glean was that the Ronin and this 'Boralis' had a history that must have dated back to their first appearance in Cythera.

    From back down the hill toward Cademia, there came a noise like someone stumbling, followed by a woman's voice muttering some very unladylike things. Looking downhill, they saw Sasha struggling carefully up towards them - carefully, because she was holding her shield before her face, and couldn't see anything that wasn't directly in front of her.

    Moonshadow frowned, then her face cleared. "The Shield of the Bold! It must deflect magic."

    Sasha reached the group just as the apparition resumed speaking.

    "Now Flynn, bend down towards Valkier."

    Flynn slowly began to do as the image instructed; he clearly had no ability to resist. Valkier, equally powerless, extended his left hand towards Flynn.

    "What's going on!?" Sasha demanded, unable to see for herself. No-one quite knew what to tell her.

    Hidden inside Ulf's tunic, the Friendsooth Amulet began to glow. Deep within his simple mind, a thought began to form. Slowly, it took on substance; building and building, until it began to force all other thoughts out of his head. Ultimately, one thought filled his entire mind: "Flynn in trouble!"

    Boralis' hold was broken. In a sudden flash of memory, Ulf saw an event that had no longer happened: the Odemian guard, Lurga, stooping to pick up a shiny golden object.

    "The ring! Is the ring!" Ulf shouted.

    Sasha, hearing his cry, lowered her shield so she could see where to strike - and instantly froze, as she fell easy prey to the hypnotic spell.

    But Sasha wasn't the only person present who was armed.

    Avatara's sword swept out, and Valkier's severed hand fell to the ground. In that same instant, the apparition vanished.

    Those that had been under Boralis' spell, living and undead alike, began to stir, and look around in confusion. In a few places, skirmishes broke out; but for the most part, the undead simply began to walk away into the hills. There was no real thought of pursuit - everyone had seen more than their fill of fighting that day. There would be another time, another place, when they'd regained their strength. For today, the war was over.

    ---------

    "Don't touch the hand," cautioned Avatara. "We don't know the properties of that ring. It'll need careful study."

    Moonshadow nodded, and lifted the severed hand with a telekinetic spell. One of the dark elves found a leather bag that had been discarded on the battlefield, and Moonshadow wafted the hand inside.

    Verran approached the man he thought of as Magpie, who was moaning on the ground, holding the stump of his left hand. Verran used what little mana he had left to heal him as much as he could. "Come on, lets get you to someone who can fix you up," he said as he led the man toward Cademia.

    ---------

    Later, many veterans of the short, but bloody war were crowded into the Alraeican Tavern, which Talos had once again restored to its former (somewhat) solid condition.

    Teams of woodsmen, led by Trinias, had obligingly removed Leandra's great trees from two of the city gates, but the town council had decided to let the third remain, as a monument. Some of the lumber had found its way into the reconstructed Tavern, where it was noticed that the wood glowed luminously - presumably due to the magical way the trees had been grown. Many patrons claimed that the resultant strange lighting effects gave them headaches.

    Off to one side of the room, the Ronin and several other notable heroes were seated around a long table. A very pale Valkier was admiring his new left hand, and Avatara was conducting a minor council of war.

    "We still don't know much about this 'Boralis' character," he said, "other than the fact that he's had past dealings with the Ronin, and for some reason is holding a grudge."

    Flynn winced at that. He knew no-one there was blaming them, but he still felt a little responsible for the whole thing. Besides, his head was beginning to ache.

    Avatara continued. "We've no way to trace him, unless the ring gives us a clue. Some of the best researchers and historians at Pnyx and the Ancient Library are working on that. For now, I think that's all we can do."

    "Sooner or later, we're going to have to find him," said Trinias, after a long pause.

    "And fight him," added Sasha, grimly. "And we're going to have to win."

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

    Thousands of years! I still can't believe I was in cryo that long, my pod must have been launched into an extremely erratic orbital path. Still, that explains the condition it was in when I woke up.

    Flynn, Wolmark, Leandra and Kwon (I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that mis-spelling) have finally returned, along with a few friends. I've been hoping for this for so long - and dreading it, at the same time. Now that they're all together again, what do I tell them? How do I tell them? Somehow, I don't think "Hi Flynn, I'm your father" would cut it.

    Every time I thought I was close to working up the courage to bring up the subject, I lost my nerve. Lucky for me that that elven girl, Moonshadow, has become an almost inseparable part of the group; she's extraordinarily perceptive.

    One evening, she cornered me alone in the tavern, and wouldn't let me leave until I told her everything that was on my mind. I'm sure she got lost among all the terms like 'DNA' and 'gene splicing', but she's determined when she wants to be. She refused to give up.

    Strangely, she seemed to understand a lot about cloning - at least, she was very interested when I explained that Flynn is basically a copy of me, but with some elf and other things thrown in for long life, among other benefits. That seemed to make her extremely happy.

    Of course, she wouldn't let me keep it to myself after that. She called all the 'Ronin' together - a strange choice of name, that, but understandable once you learn the legend - in their barracks, shut the door and froze the lock. No way any of us were getting out until I'd spilled the whole story.

    I was almost afraid to look at their faces, towards the end. When I'd finished, Sasha came and sat beside me, and hugged me tight. "Papa Lucas!" she called me. It sent such a warm glow through my heart. "I remember you, now," she continued. "I'm glad I finally have a chance to thank you, for saving my life."

    Quan still appeared calm, but there was nevertheless a wistful sadness about him. "Did this 'Lorhin' ever face the justice you intended?" he wanted to know.

    I told him I had no way of knowing. I'd been forced to leave the ship because of the mutiny; I may never know what happened after that.

    Wolmark had questions, of course. He kept me busy, on and off, for weeks. He has such an extraordinary mind. Each in their own way, the others expressed their feelings about what I'd revealed. There wasn't the slightest hint of what I'd been most afraid of: rejection.

    Flynn's reaction was perhaps the strangest of all. He just sat there, eyes wide, and staring at Moonshadow. She pretended she didn't notice, but my prosthetic eye is extremely sensitive to variations in colour; ever so slightly, she was blushing.

    I kicked myself then, mentally, for not seeing it sooner. All those sad looks they'd kept giving each other, when they thought nobody was looking. Something I said must have broken down some barrier they thought existed between them.

    She's a nice girl, and I'm sure they'll make each other happy. I'm sure Illyana would have approved.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart


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