Cythera Chronicles: New Horizons - part II



  • 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 the Team Story (url="http://"http://www.AmbrosiaSW.com/webboard/Archives/Archive-000003/HTML/20011231-5-000870.html")'The Search for the Thieve's Cavern'(/url), and 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, Ferazel, J.Ace21, 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

    New Genesis

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

    I reported aboard the science vessel Paradox at 0700. It's a small ship, with a crew of only fourteen. The scientific staff totals thirty-five, made up of researchers, lab assistants and support staff, while the security complement - my branch - numbers twenty. It surprised me that I was to have so many under my command on such a tiny vessel.

    I discovered quickly that the master of the vessel, Captain Ogden, is a tired, weak individual kept totally under the thumb of the chief scientist, one Doctor Lorhin from Induraal. It's unusual to find an elf in charge, but not unheard of; not all elven worlds are as politically unstable as Carnak.

    I asked Lorhin what his field of research was, and got much more of an explanation than I bargained for. Scientists, elven or human, are the same everywhere, I guess. It turns out that practically his entire team is involved in some way with genetic research and cloning. They've already conducted extensive studies into the genomes of several major species, such as humans and elves. He was reluctant to talk about the in-depth details of the project at first, until he realised I wasn't another scientist out to steal his work. Then I couldn't have shut him up if I'd tried.

    The project is an attempt to create the ultimate warrior; a soldier with the best attributes of all the major races, with a few genetic tweaks thrown in for good measure. I'm not sure I think it's entirely ethical, but my job is just to make sure the scientists are kept safe.

    One of the things that makes the project feasible is the new Sidestep drive, which allows the ship to 'sidestep' into alternate realities. It turns out that in some of those realities, time moves a lot faster than it does in ours. Talk about a mind bender! That means that we won't have to wait twenty years to see the results of a test. We can set the subject down in a 'fast' reality, pop back to our own, return in a couple of days and do a three-month evaluation. There's also a sophisticated satellite monitoring and inter-dimensional communication system, that can alert us if anything goes wrong. In the later stages, some of our people will be stationed in the alternate reality on a three-month rotation, to keep a closer watch on things.

    This will be far different from the type of missions that I'm used to; I think accepting this posting was a good move. I still miss Illyana, but the memories aren't so painful here. It helps that I'll be doing something I can believe in, the same thing that she was doing when she died: keeping people alive.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Timon tried hard to shake off the depression that haunted him. It had been many months since his sister vanished, and not a single trace of her had been seen since. Extremely important matters had kept him occupied at the time, but now that Alaric had been saved and there were no other pressing matters he had to deal with, he'd finally found the time to look into her disappearance.

    By then, the trail was long cold. Timon couldn't make any headway at all against a brick wall of ignorance; nobody knew anything at all of any relevance. In fact, the last people to see Larisa were himself and his companions. After that, she and her assistant had vanished off the face of the earth.

    Finding himself unable to answer the question where, Timon turned instead to the questions why and who. Why did she vanish? Who had anything to gain? It wasn't likely to have been bandits, he and his companions had themselves cleaned out the only local encampment. He couldn't escape the conclusion that Larisa had discovered something in the ruins of Maayti - something someone didn't want found.

    He had no choice but to return to the ruins, and attempt to discover whatever it was that Larisa had uncovered. It was his only hope of finding her alive.

    His search of the outer ruins was quickly completed, and revealed little; but he hadn't really expected to find much there. The exposed areas had already been picked over very thoroughly, by Larisa and those that had come before her. No, if she'd found anything important enough to get her in trouble, it wasn't going to have been in an obvious location.

    She hadn't mentioned anything about discovering any way into the great underground hall, but it was the only place he could think to try next. He stood before the gaping entrance, still left wide open after the occasion Bellerophon, himself and their other companions had visited, in their quest for the shards of the Crolna. He took a deep breath, and stepped into the darkness.

    On their previous visit, there wasn't much time to explore; they'd had a specific objective. This time, exploration was precisely Timon's purpose. He couldn't be certain that his answer lay beneath the ground, but there was nowhere else left to look.

    ---------

    Lindus watched Magpie closely, as Slayer picked up the crystal they'd travelled so far to find. As they'd neared their objective, he'd observed the strange mage's behaviour becoming increasingly peculiar, although only to one who had known him for a long time - and who'd made a long career of making judgments based on observations of minutiae of behaviour, as Lindus had in his role as headmaster of the Magesterium.

    "Wait!" Magpie called. Slayer, still holding the crystal, turned to face him. "That crystal is too dangerous for mortal men, it must be destroyed!"

    Lindus glanced past Magpie at Slayer, in surprise. The warrior appeared grim, engulfed in an internal struggle. "No!" he suddenly yelled, and convulsively hurled the crystal at Magpie.

    Magpie caught it cleanly. Holding the crystal triumphantly above his head, he chanted a few words in some unknown language. The crystal lit up, blazing with inner light. Magpie laughed, an evil, wicked laugh filled with hatred and disdain. "For aeons I have been hidden!" He laughed again, filling all those who could hear with dread. "You pitiful creatures are too simpleminded to understand your danger. Now all realities are in my control!" He turned to Slayer. "You are hardly worthy to do so much as stand in my presence," he spat. "Filth!"

    Lindus realised he was the only one outside Magpie's field of vision. If anyone was going to do something, it had to be him. With a cry, he swung the metal bar he was wielding at the crystal, shattering it into a million fragments. Magpie screamed a horrid, piercing scream. Around him a bright light appeared - a light that was pure white, yet with a tint of evil; a tint of darkness. The light enveloped Magpie, searing brightly. It faded, leaving no trace of Magpie or the crystal; distantly, the company could hear hollow mocking laughter. An evil voice, like Magpie's, spoke to them.

    "I will have my revenge!"

    A chill ran up Lindus spine, like the ghost of a premonition. For a brief moment, he shivered.

    ---------

    Several months after he'd begun, Timon had found much - and none of it useful. However, as a researcher, perseverance was one of his strong points. He wouldn't give up, as long as there were still further possibilities to explore.

    He'd been puzzling for several days over the entrance to the latest new chamber he'd found. It didn't seem to respond to any of the typical keys the Metics - or Seldane - had used, and that in itself was intriguing. In exasperation, he kicked the door - and it swung open. Grinning sheepishly, he pushed it wide and peered into the room.

    What he saw astonished him; the contents of the room didn't even look to be of Metic origin. Against one wall leaned an array of huge toroidal rings of varying sizes. They appeared to be made of wood, a substance rarely used in Metic construction. Nearby rested a large basket, and a pile of carefully folded silk. Given the immensity of its probable age, it was astoundingly well preserved.

    A workbench filled one wall, with an array of carelessly abandoned tools. That was also extraordinary; the Metics had never been known to use any implements for construction, relying instead on their native power over the earth. In the middle of the bench lay a strange device, the purpose of which he couldn't begin to fathom. It was fairly large, but with some effort, he was still able to carry it outside into the light for a closer examination.

    He was still unable to make any sense of it, and was trying to find a way to open it up, when a subtle change in the quality of the light attracted his attention. Looking up, he was startled to see what appeared to be the terminus of a directed nexus forming, although the shade of colour was slightly different.

    The light grew in intensity, until he had to shade his eyes from the glare. When the radiance had faded and he was once again able to see, the portal was gone - and a stranger stood in it's place, blinking, and staring about with a bewildered expression in his glazed eyes.

    Timon cleared his throat. "Hello, I'm Timon." The stranger swung about to focus his attention on him, but still said nothing. "Who are you?" Timon prompted. "What brings you here?"

    "Who am I?" the man finally responded. "My name is - I don't know. I don't know my name." He appeared to find the fact very curious, but showed no undue signs of panic. "Um, what are you doing here, if I may ask?"

    "I'm looking for my sister, Larisa," Timon replied. "She was last seen here, and I was hoping to find some clue to her disappearance." He returned his attention to the device. "Right at this moment, though, I'm trying to figure out what this thing is."

    "It's a compressor," the stranger informed him, absently.

    Timon looked up in surprise. "A what?"

    "A compressor. For the zeppelin."

    "The what?"

    "The zeppelin. You know, wooden rings, big bag of silk, basket underneath; a zeppelin."

    Timon still had no idea what a zeppelin was, but he was starting to get a very odd feeling about this man. "Would you follow me please? There's something I'd like you to see."

    He led the man back into the deep hall, to the unusual room he'd discovered. He watched the man's reactions closely, but he showed nothing out of the ordinary; unless an apparent total familiarity with the room's contents could be considered unusual.

    "Toroids, balloon, basket, and the compressor outside - yes, it's all here. Just requires assembling, that's all."

    Timon gave him a very peculiar look. "What?" the stranger asked, uncertain what Timon was thinking.

    "I think," Timon replied after some deliberation, "that I should take you to Pnyx."

    "Pnyx? Never heard of it. What's it like?"

    "Oh, you'll like it, trust me - and maybe we'll start to get some answers as to who you are."

    The man smiled happily. "Sounds good. Can we take the parts for the zeppelin along?"

    Timon chuckled. "Oh, most definitely! After all, it might just prove to be the key that unlocks the mystery of your identity."

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

    My team's duties have been stretched to performing intelligence gathering and evaluation. I have no objections; the duty on board the Paradox has been boring and uneventful so far, and my people were getting soft.

    Lorhin's people found a reality with a sufficiently large variance in the relative rate of time flow, and picked out a world to conduct their experiments on. Our first job was to select the hosts for the embryos - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

    One day, about sixteen months after I joined the project, the scientists suddenly announced that they had their prototypes ready, and it was time to begin phase two - a 'field test'. Now, I thought I'd kept well up on what was supposed to happen, but this was something that Lorhin had conveniently neglected to mention - I don't know why, maybe it was just his native paranoia.

    The prototypes had each been grown in the lab environment as far as was feasible, and living 'hosts' were required for the next phase. The scientists want to see how their creations cope with the pressures of real life, so once implanted, we're supposed to stay 'hands off'. The transgenic elements are supposed to be inactive for the first part of the test, they want to see if there are any obvious side-effects caused simply by the presence of the extra genes.

    They chose a primitive world in the alternate reality, that was remarkable for one thing: in our continuum, it was the world on which all human life began - Earth, Terra, Tellus, or whatever else people have called it. The development of the primitive world seemed to be mirroring that of our own ancestral home, but had only reached a point roughly equivalent to sometime in the middle of the second millennium.

    Somewhere on that world, we're supposed to locate one woman for each embryo. Lorhin insists that the women be unable to bear children of their own, and in that I agree; the risks of this procedure causing infertility are quite high. Apart from that Lorhin made no other specifications, other than that we must match each host's racial type to that of the embryo's principle donor, and that they were never to know what had happened - to all intents and purposes, the child would be theirs.

    We used the satellites to narrow it down, then I sent in members of my unit to scout and collect data on all the candidates. The final decision was mine. I chose a lower class family in western Russia for the first implantation. They were very poor; farmers, but working someone else's land. As specified, the woman was unable to bear children.

    The embryo was born a girl, which they named Sasha. She was a lovely kid, the spitting image of Illyana's pictures from when she was a girl. The extra genes don't seem to have had much effect on appearance, I'll say that much. I regret losing the lock of Illyana's hair, but it was worth it to see her face, alive and happy once more. I know it's not really her, but I like to think of Sasha as her daughter - the daughter we might have had, given the chance.

    I was surprised the scientists didn't pick up on the substitution. I can only surmise that I made the swap early enough that they didn't have a profile of the original sample mapped out yet. Anyway, Illyana was certainly as good a match to their requirements for the prime donor for that sample - perhaps better, from what I saw of the other woman's file.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Timon poked his head around the door of the Library at Pnyx. "Selinus?" He called loudly. A muffled sound from somewhere deep among the musty shelves might have been a reply, so Timon wandered in that direction to search for the old librarian.

    "Ah, there you are," he said, finding the grey haired, wrinkled man staring myopically at the pages of a book, that looked like it might well have been older than he was.

    "Hmm? Did you want something, young, um, what was your name again?"

    "Timon."

    "Timon! Yes, that was it. What can I do for you?"

    "Do you remember that Seldane scroll you asked me to translate a few years back? The one from the Ancient Library?"

    "Of course I remember it!" Selinus snapped testily. While his memory for names was fleeting at best, Selinus never forgot a work of literature.

    "Could you tell me where the translation is? I need to see it."

    "Oh, very well - what was your name, again?"

    "Timon."

    "Timon? He's probably off digging up some ruins, somewhere. What do you want with him, anyway?"

    "No, I'm Timon!"

    "You sure? I could have sworn you were someone else. Oh, never mind! I think that elven woman, what's her name, was reading it last, but that was a while ago now. Let me see, where did she put... ah! Here it is!" Selinus pulled a comparatively new looking scroll from a shelf, and handed it to Timon.

    "Thanks, Selinus. I'll return this as soon as I'm done."

    "Oh, very good, very good; but you know, I could always have Timon make another copy. Very good with languages, that young feller."

    Timon shook his head in disbelief, and retreated from the library before he could be caught up in another round of mistaken identity.

    ---------

    Timon knocked on the door to Lindus' chambers, heard a faint "come in", and briskly entered the room.

    "Here Lindus, take a look at this." He handed over the scroll he'd retrieved from the library.

    Lindus unfurled it, and glanced at the title. "'The Legend of the Displaced'? Is this something to do with that stranger you brought to us?"

    "I don't know, really. All I have are suspicions. But those artifacts were old, and he knew all about them."

    "Yet he doesn't even know his own name. How extraordinary!" Lindus began to read. It wasn't a large document, and it wasn't long before it was finished. "Yes, I can see how you might think this relates; but it's not much, and is hardly conclusive."

    "No, it's not. I just wanted to alert you to the possibility. But if he is one of them, and he ever regains his memory, just think what he could tell us! He'd probably know more about the Metics than we've ever been able to learn in all our years of studying their ruins, or from the small community we found beneath Land King Hall; they're not very forthcoming about themselves, you know."

    "Hmm, true; but Pheres has tried everything she could think of to restore his memory. Pity, he appears to have a great deal of potential for magic. He could be quite an asset. Pheres thinks he might have suffered some kind of traumatic -"

    Lindus was interrupted by a knock at the door. One of the senior students poked her head in. "Sorry to interrupt, sir, but there's someone here I think you should see; you too, Timon."

    Lindus and Timon exchanged curious glances. "Very well," Lindus said, "bring them in."

    The student stepped back out into the hall, and ushered a strikingly beautiful red-haired woman into the room.

    "Hello, I'm Lindus, headmaster of the Magesterium. And who might you be?" The woman just stared at him blankly.

    The student cleared her throat. "That's just it, sir, she doesn't seem to know. We found her wandering beside the river, up towards the northern ruins."

    The glances Lindus and Timon now exchanged were looks of surprise. After a moment, Lindus broke the awkward silence. "Where's that man, at the moment?"

    Timon didn't have to ask who he meant. "He'll be outside, working on that 'zeppelin' thing like he always is."

    The red-headed woman registered a degree of interest. "Zeppelin?"

    Lindus and Timon once more exchanged meaningful glances. Timon turned to address the woman. "Hello, my name is Timon. There's someone I'd like you to meet; would you come with me?"

    The woman nodded. "All right; I don't exactly have much else to do."

    Timon led her back outside the pyramid, and around to the southern side. There, the man he'd encountered among the ruins of Maayti was hard at work, assembling all the components that Timon had discovered and had brought to Pnyx. The machine was starting to take shape, and Timon was beginning to get an inkling of what it was, but he still had no idea how it could be made to work.

    Suddenly, the woman broke from his side and ran towards the other man. "Wolmark!" She cried.

    Wolmark looked up from his work in surprise. He dropped his tools and hurried forward to grasp the woman's outstretched hands. "Leandra! It's so good to see you!"

    "Astounding!" Timon exclaimed. "You know each other, then?"

    "Yes, of course," Wolmark replied. "We've known each other since... since..." He stopped, his face showing confusion. Leandra's expression mirrored his.

    Timon nodded, smiling. "I see. Well, it's a start! Don't worry, I'm sure your memories will return; you remembered each other's names, after all. In the meantime, you're both welcome to stay here at Pnyx."

    "Thank you, Timon," Leandra smiling in relief. "I've been worried - I mean, not knowing who I am, where I fit in..."

    Timon nodded. "I understand. Take your time, both of you; we won't put pressure on you. Feel free to make use of any of the facilities; just think of Pnyx as your home, for as long as you need it."

    A short time later, he was back in Lindus' chambers.

    "They recognised each other, instantly!" Timon declared, with a very satisfied expression. "They even knew each other's names. He's called Wolmark, and she's Leandra."

    Lindus pondered the news. "I must admit, this old legend of yours is looking more likely all the time; but I'd suggest we keep it to ourselves, for now."

    "Agreed. It might be disturbing to them if it came out the wrong way."

    Lindus leaned back in his chair, tapping the rolled-up scroll on the edge of his desk. "You know, this document doesn't specify exactly how many of these people there were. We should keep alert for any sign of others like Wolmark and Leandra; there's no telling where or when they might appear."

    "We should find out what's been going on elsewhere on the island, too," Timon added. "There must be some reason why they've started appearing now."

    "You're right. Their appearance could be the result of something that's happened; but it could also be a precursor to an event most terrible." Lindus frowned in concern. "I greatly fear that I'm at least partly responsible," he muttered, before continuing in a louder voice. "Go and assemble the heads of the schools, and bring them here. We must begin preparing for the worst. Oh, and if you see Ferazel, send him to see me - I have a task that will suit his talents."

    Timon nodded and walked towards the door. He glanced back just as the door was closing, catching a brief glimpse of Lindus' expression. What he saw disturbed him; he couldn't remember ever seeing Lindus so worried. He wondered what it was the old man thought he knew. Unconsciously, he began to hurry.

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

    Over the next six local years, we dispersed the rest of the embryos throughout Asia and Europe. We 'sidestepped' back in every few months, local time, to check up on their progress.

    Things progressed without significant incident, until Sasha was about nine years old. I'd taken a considerable interest in the girl, going groundside to observe her whenever I got the chance. Nobody questioned it; after all, I was the one that gave out the assignments, and the scientists were never interested in who were the original sources of any of my reports.

    On this occasion, I knew something was wrong as soon as I came close enough to the house for the zoom function of my prosthetic eye to be effective. I could make out a group of rough looking men loitering about, but at first there was no sign of Sasha or her surrogate parents. Then I saw the two bodies, lying side by side out in the field.

    I was furious. They'd been good people, and deserved far better than to die at the hands of such worthless scum. If Sasha's body had been lying there too, I doubt I could have kept myself from slaughtering them all right then, hands-off policy be damned.

    A quick topographical scan, shown in false colours by my artificial eye, revealed Sasha's footprints heading away from the house out into the fields, but not returning. She must have been off playing somewhere when the bandits moved on the house. Keeping out of sight, I went to make sure she was safe. I could do that much legitimately, the scientists would want to know.

    I wasn't the only one that had spotted her trail; one of the thieves must have been a fair tracker. We were well out of sight of the house when I saw Sasha skipping along back towards her home, completely oblivious to her danger. I'd been keeping well behind the criminal, so I could keep him in sight at all times, but that meant there was little chance I could get to Sasha before he did.

    I don't think I've ever run so fast in my life. I just had time to register the killer maliciously grinning at her, before I got close enough to break his neck. Sasha stood there staring at me with a shocked expression, frozen to the spot in fright. There wasn't time for lengthy explanations, or to soothe her fears; I had to make her understand, and quickly. "They've killed your parents," I said. Maybe it was too brutal, but I had to break her out of that state of shock. "You have to get away. Don't stop until you're sure you're safe. You hear me? Run!"

    As I yelled that last word, she jumped like a startled rabbit, whirled about and ran like the wind. At the edge of the field she stopped, turned back and waved, before darting off out of sight. I hated what had happened to her, but at that moment I was as proud of her as any father could be.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Since the beginning of time, Kronos had watched. He was a solitary being, the only temporal elemental in existence, at least in this continuum. Being of the element of time, he wasn't himself bound by it. Moving freely through the timestream at will, he contented himself from the first with exploring the paths of possibility that defined all that could, or would take place, throughout the ages.

    As time advanced, each choice made by each creature that existed in the Cytheran world served to further define the one thread of possibility that was the true timeline. The other potential timelines still existed to Kronos' perception, but merely as shadows of what might have been.

    How does one measure the passage of time, when time has no hold? One doesn't. After what might have been a brief instant, or an aeon, Kronos gradually became aware of a trend, as he followed thread after thread to its terminus. Each thread ended in a disturbingly similar way - the end of Cythera, along with two other related continua. Finally, Kronos realised that the event was a constant across all potentialities; it was inevitable.

    Unless he intervened. For the first time, Kronos considered attempting to change the course of events.

    Distributed across the three planes of existence were three crystals, known as the Triliad. Together, they forged a delicate balance that if disturbed, would ultimately bring about the end of everything in those realities. As chance would have it, the Cytheran crystal was the Tempus stone, the crystal that governed time.

    In every case, the event that set the end in motion was the shattering of that stone.

    Kronos chose one of the more ephemeral beings, a Seldane, that existed at an opportune point in the timeline, and began to whisper to him, coaching him about many events that would occur in what could be thought of as the future. That Seldane quickly became known as a prophet.

    His prophecies were largely ignored at first, until Kronos guided him to the resting place of the Tempus crystal. He returned to his people, bearing his prize, and was rewarded with a new degree of respect. He spent his remaining years penning many prophetic writings, including this warning: that if any crystal of the Triliad were ever broken, a great disaster would befall the land. The Seldane heeded the warning, and kept the Tempus stone as secure as they could imagine necessary, in their great Hall of Wisdom.

    Kronos watched in satisfaction as new potentialities sprang into existence, in which the Tempus crystal was not shattered, and the true timeline shifted to one of those threads. If time governed Kronos, it might have been said that he spent an age exploring the new realms of possibility. As it was, it took him an eternity - and yet no time at all.

    He was dismayed at what he found. His intervention had had the desired effect, and the Tempus stone would no longer be broken; instead, every possible outcome saw the destruction of one or both of the other two stones - which existed outside the sphere of his influence.

    With great sorrow, Kronos had to admit he was beaten.

    --------

    In a clearing atop a hill, in the forest just north of Cademia, a strange light bloomed. It quickly grew far too bright to observe directly, if anyone had been there to see it, but that area was seldom travelled; most people preferred to use the roads.

    The light faded away just as quickly as it had come into being. A bewildered man, dressed in forest green, stood blinking in its place. He wore on his back a quiver of arrows, and a peculiarly shaped leather pouch about 5 feet long, a foot wide at the top, and tapering to a point for the bottom third of its length. He turned once around, taking in his surroundings. "Where am I?" he asked. His only reply was a chirp from a small finch, that observed him curiously from its perch on a nearby branch.

    Not far to the south, he could make out a fairly large and bustling city. His first impulse was to go there, to try and find some answers to the many questions that were echoing in his mind, yet he found the idea of being among the crowds strangely repulsive. On the other hand, the dense forest to the north beckoned to him strongly.

    It was really no contest. He shrugged, and turned north.

    He walked for many hours, never with any specific objective in mind. He enjoyed the scenery, and found he was easily able to identify much of the flora and fauna. His wandering took him further and further up the mountain. When he grew hungry, he either found some edible shrubs or hunted game. When he grew thirsty, he found a small stream or brook from which to drink.

    All in all, he found that the forest was quite able to supply all his needs. The only thing that prevented him from being completely content, was a vague sense of purpose, like there was somewhere he needed to go, or something he needed to do.

    Try as he might, he couldn't call it to mind.

    --------

    Atop a lonely mountain, a tiny white speck appeared. White tinged with darkness. The spot grew, becoming large enough for one man to ride through. It expanded again, large enough for three riders abreast. After a second or two, the glowing portal was large enough for a thousand men to walk through, side by side. And that is what happened. However, they weren't men; they were undead.

    Just to make sure, Magpie cast a fireball into the middle of the huge force of undead warriors. It exploded brightly, but after a few minutes the blaze died. The skeletons were flaming, but it didn't seem to affect them; just like all types of magicks, they were immune.

    --------

    The man dressed in forest green stood just inside the tree line, near the peak of the mountain he'd spent most of the day climbing. A bright light had enveloped the mountain's peak, and held his attention. His keen eyes strained to penetrate into it's heart. As his eyes grew accustomed to the light, and he began to make out what it hid, his breath caught in his throat, and his heart seemed to freeze in mid-beat. Never in his life (that he could remember) had he seen such a terrifying sight - the dead, decaying, even skeletal bodies of men long since slain, burning, marching purposefully side by side, in perfect formation.

    "I've got to warn someone!" He thought - and an image of the city, one of the first sights he could recall, flashed into his mind. He turned to make his way purposefully back down the mountain, and was soon enveloped by the forest.

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

    Rumours have been spreading amongst my men and the crew that some race from outside the galaxy has begun an invasion. I don't know how a story like that could get started way out here in the middle of nowhere with restricted communications, and frankly, I don't care. I do my best to squash the rumours and reassure everyone. I think they appreciate having someone high up who can tell them none of it's true.

    I don't have that luxury; I get the information straight from the Confidential Command Reports, my eyes only.

    There's nothing in there like an overall summary of the war effort, but I've been around long enough to know how to collate the individual reports into an overall picture of how things are going - and they're not going well.

    The enemy came out of nowhere, striking without warning. Three star systems fell before word finally made its way back to Command Central. The nearest fleets were dispatched, and were never heard from again.

    The reports were full of wild talk for a while after that, about mutinies, and whole fleets going renegade. I saw that for what it was - the desperate flailings of sycophants in a tyrannical system, unable to believe that anything more powerful exists in the universe. All of that nonsense stopped when the battlecruiser Saroyan's emergency buoy was picked up after finally drifting into friendly space.

    The images were frightening, even to me - and I've seen a lot of terrible things. The enemy's ships were swift, dark, and merciless. Their weapons were overwhelming, and no cries of surrender were ever heeded. Our foe obviously has no use for prisoners. The recording only lasted a few minutes, interrupted by a burst of static signifying the point where the buoy was launched. The buoy's on-board camera took over, recording the last moments of the Saroyan. I must admit, it shook me up a lot. I had friends on that ship.

    As best as the intelligence service has been able to determine, a few worlds were captured and occupied - but most were just bombarded out of existence. There never seemed to be any reason for it, none of them had anything resembling a planetary defence system capable of stopping those ships. Why some worlds were spared was equally a mystery.

    I knew there would come a time when a decision about our own mission would have to be made, so I broke regulations and consulted both Captain Ogden and Dr Lorhin. They were shocked, but the outcome of that conference wasn't all that reassuring. Lorhin is solely concerned with his project, and seeing to it that nothing upsets his experiment; Ogden just wants to stay out of the way. I suppose it's not his fault, there must be a reason that Command has him skippering a research vessel instead of a ship of the line.

    When the time comes, I'll probably just have to make up my own mind what's best - for all of us here on the Paradox, for the children on the planet in the other reality - and maybe for what's left of the galaxy.

    It won't be easy to remain objective. Irené was destroyed, three weeks after the first attack.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Time blinked.

    Kronos observed, with an emotion as close to bordering on surprise as was possible for a being of his inherent stability, as a host of new possibility paths opened to his view. As far as he knew, the only thing capable of causing such an occurrence was his own intervention, and he knew very well that he'd done nothing of the sort. Could he have been wrong from the beginning? Did others of his kind exist? Selecting several of the new potentiality threads at random, he began to trace them backwards to their common point of divergence.

    What he found astounded him. The trigger event was nothing more than the arrival in Cythera, from some other plane of existence that he couldn't identify, of eight individual beings of a kind he'd never before seen. That, and the subsequent banishment of seven of them from the timestream. They were weak, next to their elemental counterparts. They called themselves 'humans'.

    Reversing his direction, Kronos followed the threads to their conclusion, in the far distant future. At first, he was disappointed as he found that in a few of the threads, the Tempus crystal was once again destroyed - but disappointment turned to glee, as he tracked those threads further, and discovered that in a small number of them, the disaster was averted! He was quite astounded that such a small group of beings, apparently so weak, could make such a difference.

    Wanting to know more about them, Kronos backtraced their path through time. When he reached the point when they appeared in Cythera, he hesitated; he needed to go further, but he'd never before attempted to pass beyond the boundaries of his own dimension. He tried - and succeeded! Instinctively, he knew he could only observe this new reality. He would be unable to interact with any beings unconnected to Cythera, but that was fine. His quest was only for knowledge.

    He continued to follow the lives of the Ronin, back towards their point of origin. Ultimately, he found himself aboard something called a 'spaceship', eavesdropping on a conversation about genetics and the blending of human, elven and other races.

    "I begin to understand why they're so different," he thought. He swiftly returned to his own reality, to a point after the Ronin had been banished, and made a careful examination. "Their elven genes aren't being activated quickly enough," he concluded. The additional genetic factors were beginning to function, but at their present rate, the Ronin wouldn't reach their full potential until long after they were dead.

    Kronos tried an experiment. Even though the Ronin were in a timeless state, unaging, he could still apply a selective field that would cause certain aspects of their biological processes to progress at an accelerated rate - in this case, the genetic activation that would give them long life and a superior rate of healing - among other things.

    The transgenic (Kronos wasn't sure he could really call them 'human' any more) screamed silently, unable to cope with the stresses being applied to his body, then lapsed into a state of catatonia. However, a quick foray forward along the timeline showed that there were no lasting negative effects, other than a short period of amnesia. Kronos considered the matter carefully. Concluding that the benefits far outweighed any temporary discomfort, he extended the field to cover the other six Ronin.

    He then turned his attention to the multitude of new possibilities. Carefully, thoroughly, he began to study and evaluate the consequences of each thread. If he was going to attempt to shift the prime thread to one of these alternate timelines, he needed to make an informed choice. There was a small chance that his interference would create an entirely new set of potentialities instead of fixing a new prime reality, but it was worth the risk.

    All it took was a quiet whisper in a Seldane boy's ear, an unseen suggestion that he show his new friends through the Hall of Wisdom - which happened to contain a certain crystal of great power.

    --------

    The strange nexus-like glow once more came into being, on the shoreline north of Odemia. When it faded, a small oriental man was left standing there in its stead. He wore a simple cotton tunic and matching trousers; his boots were made of a light grey material that looked soft and supple, but not too tough. He bore no obvious weapons, but carried a good sized leather bag slung over one shoulder. He stared impassively out over the sea for a time, then turned and began making his way inland.

    The jungle was quite dense, and he had to retrace his steps many times to attempt an alternative route, never once displaying any annoyance, nor changing his expression by so much as a raised eyebrow.

    A wolf-lizard suddenly broke cover and charged at him, growling fiercely. The man stopped, gazing at it with his serene eyes. The creature slowed, then halted its charge, growing quieter by the moment. After staring into the small man's eyes for a short while, it 'whuffed', turned about and retreated back into the jungle. The man continued on his way.

    Eventually, he reached a well worn road, cutting north and south through the dense growth. He gazed speculatively first in one direction, then the other. He thought for a moment, then sat down, cross-legged, beside the road.

    He closed his eyes, and dropped into a meditative state. He couldn't have said where he'd learned the skill, but it came as naturally to him as walking. His attention focused inward, into the core of his being. After some time, the corners of his mouth twitched into a slight smile. He'd found what he was seeking: himself.

    His inner gaze began to focus outwards once more, sensing the pattern of life in the forest around him, in ever widening circles. The place felt very familiar. It was teaming with life of dozens of different varieties, each unique in it's impact on every other living thing around about it. While each was seemingly random, the whole had a kind of order that the man could sense and interpret.

    The pattern of that order began to change. He didn't have to open his eyes to know what it meant; it was the event he'd been waiting for. Someone was passing by.

    There was something odd about the texture of the traveller's presence. It didn't seem to have as strong an effect on its surroundings as the man would have expected. "They must, in some fashion, be disguising their presence," he thought.

    He reached a decision, and broke the silence. "I know you are there. Come, you have no reason to fear me; perhaps I may be of some assistance," he said, in a calm, gentle voice. The stranger halted, turned, and released the power that had masked his presence.

    Sensing the change, the oriental opened his eyes. "Ah, that is better." He stood, then put each hand up the opposite sleeve, holding the opposite wrist, and half bowed from the waist. "I am called Kwon Chen; you may call me Kwon. By what name may I call you?"

    Kwon was somewhat intrigued by Rogar's pointed ears; for some reason, a flashing image of blue passed through his mind at the sight, but he was unable to fathom its significance.

    "I'm called Rogar," the traveller replied, staring intently at the small man. "Now tell me, Kwon Chen, are you with me or against me?"

    Kwon thought briefly before responding. It was evident that this Rogar expected Kwon to know his name, and was looking for some particular reaction; if so, he was bound to be disappointed - or at the very least, surprised.

    "That is up to you, Rogar. Do you believe your heart is good, your motives pure?"

    "Of course I do, and of course they are!"

    "That is good; then I am with you."

    "Just like that? Just because I say I believe what I'm doing is good?"

    "For now, that is enough. The future will tell if it is true or false, and at such a time I will act as my conscience demands; until then, may I accompany you on your journey?"

    "First," replied Rogar, hesitantly, "tell me how you knew I was there?"

    "I listened," replied Kwon, cryptically. "No man walks alone; I could not see you, nor hear you; but the forest could. Like a stone dropped in a lake makes ripples, your passing made ripples in the stirrings of the forest; those changes told me all."

    "Very well," said Rogar after a moment's thought, "something about you appeals to me; and it will be nice to have company, even for a short while."

    Kwon nodded his head once, and the pair turned and continued north.

    As they walked in silence, Kwon continued to test the texture of life in the surrounding countryside. Something unusual tugged at the fringes of his awareness. He turned his focus in the direction, and strove to penetrate the obscurity caused by the great distance involved. What he found almost shocked him out of his inscrutability.

    Far away, almost at the limit of Kwon's perception, something was stirring. Life, in the form of the creatures of the forest, fled from it's touch - the touch of death.

    Abruptly, the dread force veered southward. Kwon glanced sideways at Rogar. He was uncertain as to his companion's mission, but theorised that it had something to do with this living, yet lifeless force. And now, that force was heading right back in the direction Rogar had come from.

    How much did Rogar know? Were there others in danger, that needed their aid? Kwon searched for a delicate way to test Rogar's motives.

    "Friend Rogar... It would save us much time if we simply returned to the others."

    "And why is that?" Rogar asked, somewhat surprised.

    "The forest around us knows more than it is credited for. It tells me to return to the others, if we wish to be of any help."

    "Hmm... I trust nature, and I know that it is always true to those who listen. Though I have lost my own ability to listen, if that is what you have heard, then so be it. Let us return to the city. But I will keep my spell of concealment until we get to the tavern. I can trust the many people there that I have been adventuring with, but the general population doesn't seem to like me."

    "I understand. Then let us be off; for the wind tells of an evil plot, and I fear that things have gone greatly wrong."

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

    The growing threat, as well as Central Command's obvious inability to effectively counter it, has finally driven us to take refuge in the alternative reality. Time may flow faster, but it'll still seem the same to us - and not one of us has anyone left to go back to, now. That's how desperate the situation has become.

    Some fleet operations were successful, when they managed to throw enough forces together to outnumber the enemy a hundred to one; but losses were still high. The techs managed to cook up a defence against the planetary bombardment weapon, though, finally forcing the invaders to face our troops in ground combat.

    I'm not sure they wouldn't have been better off letting them blow up the planet.

    They're hideous beasts, when you can see them; they seem to have a remarkable natural cloaking ability. Even if you manage to hit one, nothing we have seems to affect them much. They rarely use weapons, preferring to close on our troops and fight hand-to-hand - well, claw, whatever. Oddly enough, in the only clip I saw of someone actually injuring one of the beasts, the soldier was using an antique sword.

    That renewed my interest in this genetics project. If hand-to-hand combat is the key to this war, then Lorhin's genetically enhanced super-soldiers might be the only chance we have. There's no way to rush things, though; Lorhin's right, we have to know if there are any dangers arising from his genetic tampering.

    We can't take the risk of skipping back and forth between the universes now. Seeing this project through is going to consume a large chunk of each of our lives. It's a good thing time moves faster here; that might allow us to finish, while there's still something left to save.

    Everyone was extremely subdued, the moment Captain Ogden finally gave the order to sidestep permanently into our new universe. Once it was over, I returned to my quarters for a little private celebration. Nobody else had realised, but it was also Sasha's twentieth birthday.

    I decided to spend some time groundside, watching one of the test subjects. The first slot that came up was observing the Chinese martial artist, Chen Quan Li; I'd read the file, of course, but hadn't spent much time actually observing the boy until then. He was eighteen years old at the time, roughly two years younger than Sasha.

    For some reason, he'd taken it into his head to join a monastery. Lorhin was almost livid, and couldn't understand it; Chen was bred for mayhem, not meditation. I could have explained it to the scientist if he'd been prepared to listen: at heart, all good soldiers want peace. I almost envied Quan the life he'd made for himself, but somehow I couldn't see him fitting in with those monks forever.

    Once or twice a week, he visited a nearby orphanage. If he wasn't fixing the place up, he was spending time with the children. They doted on him, and I'm quite sure it was mutual. The joy on his face as he played with the kids made me wonder what it would have been like if Illyana and I had ever had children of our own.

    It all ended quite suddenly, one bright spring morning. Quan arrived at his usual time, monitored by our long-distance surveillance. What he found was a shock to all of us; the orphanage had been completely razed to the ground by fire. Arson, they said, and I saw no reason to doubt them. Several of the children had been killed, along with the elderly woman that ran the place - she'd died saving one of the smaller children.

    Quan kept apart from everyone else that had gathered. He sat down on the ground with his eyes closed for many hours, then abruptly rose smoothly to his feet. He strode purposefully off in a direction none of us expected; we couldn't think of a single thing of consequence in that direction.

    He made his way unerringly to a camp in the woods, at which there were four very rough looking men. Witnesses later identified them as the men who'd started the fire, although nobody could ever explain why. They couldn't ask the men themselves; Quan killed each and every one of them.

    He never returned to the monastery; from the camp, he set out directly to leave the area. I don't know if he was worried about being accused of murder, or just couldn't face the tragedy he was leaving behind. Either way, I could sympathise. From then on, he lived like a nomad.

    Lorhin was ecstatic when I reported to him; Chen had finally acted as he was always intended to. Personally, I wasn't so happy about it. I never saw him smile again the way he had with those children; I don't care what Lorhin says, no man should have to suffer a loss like that.

    I only hope that someday I can find a way to make it up to him, even just a little.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    The glow slowly faded from before the man's eyes, revealing a most unusual tableau. There was an acrid smell of burnt wood in the air, that left a bitter taste in his mouth. The sight of the blackened floorboards bore testament to the accuracy of his other senses.

    Sunlight streamed in through what should have been the ceiling, but was now a gaping hole where the roof had collapsed. On the far side of the room was a long counter, behind which was an array of alcoholic beverages, in bottles of differing, and sometimes unusual shapes. Clearly the place was a bar of some kind, but it had definitely seen better days.

    The man had been aware of the group - three men and two women - seated about a table at the far end of the room from the first, but he was quite confused, and needed time to get his bearings. He finally turned to them, feeling quite bemused by the apparent paradoxes the room presented, and said the first thing that came into his head.

    "Pardon me, but is this establishment open for business?"

    One of the women frowned at him. "If you'd have bothered to come through the door, " she said, while pointing at the entrance behind him, "you'd have seen a sign hanging there, saying 'Temporarily out of order'."

    The man glanced back at the door, but decided that it wasn't the time to mention that his entrance hadn't been by any choice of his own - nor that he had no recollection of how it had come about, or anything that had occurred prior to that event.

    Misinterpreting his expression, the woman sighed and made her way over to the bar. She looked him up and down, apparently trying to make some assessment of him, but he couldn't guess what conclusions she'd drawn. She put some bottles on the counter, and beckoned him over.

    His proximity to her allowed him to observe her closely, without appearing rude or presumptuous. She was a very beautiful woman, in an exceedingly delicate way. Her hair was silver-white, but clearly not the grey of old age. Her skin was extremely pale, as if it had never been touched by sunlight. Her dress was also white, matching the colour of her hair and skin. Her eyes were an unusual amber colour, and seemed to flash with life. The man was surprised to see that her ears tapered to fine points; as he studied them, a fleeting image flashed through his mind - but all he could make out was a pervasive aura of blue.

    Overall, he thought the woman to be one of the most unusual, yet lovely creatures he'd ever seen - not that he could be certain of what he'd seen before, with his present state of mind. What her race might have been, he couldn't begin to guess,

    The woman indicated the array of beverages. "Now, I don't know how much they are, I'm not the bartender; but in the best interest of this... establishment... you could help us with our little problem at hand." She tilted her head slightly, intently regarding him with her strange eyes, which were glowing golden in the dim light. "Will you?"

    "Whatever we do, we should act fast ," one of the men at the table interrupted. "Magpie is probably going to try to harm or kill Alaric, and there is still the essence of the crystal left out there, or maybe inside Magpie still."

    "Wait!" said the woman. "We don't know if - oh, I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself. I'm Moonshadow; and you are?" She waited, expectantly.

    The stranger looked a little confused for a moment. "You know, I'm afraid I honestly don't know, at the moment - but you can call me..." He searched desperately for something, anything, that might have some connection to his identity. "Ronin. Yes, that feels right. Ronin."

    Moonshadow's eyes widened briefly in surprise. She quickly regained her composure, but not before Ronin's sharp eyes registered her reaction.

    "She knows something," he thought. "Is it something connected with me, with the reason I chose that name? Or is it just coincidence?" There was no way to find out without coming right out and asking, but he wasn't prepared to do that - yet. "Maybe if I keep an eye on her, I'll find a clue to who I am."

    Moonshadow, now fully in control of herself, led him over to the table where the small group was seated. "This looks like a war council," Ronin thought, "but planning for what?"

    "Look, this might sound strange," he continued aloud, "but could you tell me where I am?"

    "You're in the Alraeican Tavern," the darker woman answered sarcastically. "You know, in Cademia?"

    "Cademia? I don't know that city," Ronin replied.

    "How about 'Cythera'?" asked a tall man with strange, distant, dark eyes that seemed to burn with an inner flame.

    "No, that name's also unfamiliar to me."

    "Perhaps, the city of 'Maayti'?" Moonshadow hesitantly asked, after a brief silence.

    "Maayti'?" he repeated. An image of a peaceful city in the midst of tranquil surroundings burst into Ronin's mind. People walked its streets - a blue skinned people, with pointed ears. "Ah," he thought, "so that's why she felt so familiar." He continued out loud. "Yes, I was there once, I think - a strange place, a strange people. So, this is the same land?"

    "Yes," said Moonshadow, and frowned in deep thought. She looked intensely at Ronin for a moment, nibbling her lower lip. "Look, I'm sure regaining your memory is important, but right now we have some pressing matters to discuss; will you join us, until we have more time to assist you?"

    Ronin smiled mischievously, and indicated to the largely empty tavern with a sweeping gesture of his right arm. "I seem to have no other pressing engagements; I'm at your service. Although, perhaps you could all introduce yourselves?"

    Moonshadow blushed slightly, embarrassed at her oversight. Each in turn, the people seated at the table responded to Ronin's query and identified themselves: Verran (the man who'd spoken first), Slayer, Katze and Avatara (the man who'd spoken later.) Ronin noted that Verran, at least, appeared to be from a race similar to Moonshadow, although the differences between them were still quite obvious.

    As the introductions proceeded, Moonshadow leaned back in her seat. Ronin thought she had an air of smugness about her for some reason; but he also sensed she had deep reservations about him. He sincerely hoped they were unfounded.

    --------

    Once again, time blinked. Kronos began to wonder if it was going to become a common occurrence.

    Human ships sailed out of the mists surrounding Cythera, and made landfall on the island. A village formed at the mouth of a river. Then another, further north, and another, and another. The villages grew into towns, the towns into cities. Governments rose and fell, to be supplanted by others. Kronos barely noticed. To him, such events were unimportant.

    Potentialities changed. New lines of probability came into being. Kronos abandoned his previous calculations, and began once more to study the timelines.

    It was no longer simple, he realised, to bring about the ends that he desired; but it was still possible. Instead of a single intervention it would take many, at widely separated points in the selected timeline. Kronos felt a slight tingle of excitement; he would enjoy the challenge.

    The Ronin, the instruments with which Cythera might just possibly be saved, would need better tools. Kronos set about prompting the construction of the various items, and arranged for them to be gathered into a repository, in a hidden location on the island.

    Kronos planned ahead carefully, fully aware that another arrival from 'outside' could occur at any point, and throw all his work into chaos. He accepted the possibility. If it occurred, he'd just have to start again.

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

    I spent time observing each of the subjects over the next six years, but after that incident with Chen Quan, it was a fairly uneventful time. Sasha was a professional soldier by then, highly trained and experienced. Although I made sure I kept tabs on her, I wasn't too worried. She's a survivor, like her mother.

    This particular time, I was watching Flynn. I'd chosen a stout-hearted Irish couple for his surrogates: Liam and Katherine O'Connor. How they came to be living in the middle of Europe I have no idea, but they turned out to be a good choice. There was one anomaly: somehow, the implantation of the embryo enabled Katherine to bear children. Two years after Flynn was born, the O'Connors had a daughter; they named her Kate.

    I thought Lorhin would be mad, but once again he surprised me. To him, it was just another scientific puzzle, a minor part of the experiment that should be explained, if possible, but wasn't worth spending much time over. I was glad of that; I was growing tired of intruding in other people's lives.

    Flynn had somehow gotten appointed official companion to the son of the local count. This had given several advantages, as far as Lorhin was concerned: it guaranteed him a good general education, as well as excellent weapons training. He was designed to excel in combat, after all.

    Part way through the three month posting I'd given myself as observer, things started to go wrong.

    From what I'd seen in the reports, I'd always disliked the young viscount. He struck me as a typical spoiled brat, too used to getting his own way. The signs of discord showed whenever Flynn exceeded the viscount's ability in anything, and inevitably, that was often. Flynn seemed prepared to overlook it, which suited everyone concerned - even us.

    The bubble burst the day young Katie's fiancé was murdered.

    I cursed myself for not seeing it coming. The viscount had been showing an interest in the pretty young girl, but Flynn always managed to intervene somehow. I'm not sure he was even aware of it; he didn't overtly dislike the guy, so I guessed it was his engineered instincts kicking in, and driving him subconsciously.

    The whole murder situation stank from the beginning, so I made a point of getting into the scene of the crime before the local law examined it. I removed a locket from the body that contained a lock of Katie's distinctively Irish red hair; then in one corner, I placed a gold button. It was well hidden, only an extremely careful search would find it. Then, I returned to the observation post and waited; there was always the possibility that I was misjudging the young man.

    I wasn't.

    I must admit, the frame up was a pretty slick piece of work. The rival, Katie's fiancé, was killed with Flynn's easily identifiable dagger, which was conveniently left at the scene; then the viscount spun some yarn about Flynn constantly bad-mouthing the poor young man when the two of them were alone. On the strength of that, they locked Flynn up to await trial. The scoundrel was the son of the count; who was going to doubt his word? Me, for one.

    I knew in my gut that Flynn hadn't done it, but even without that we had the visual recording of his every move at the time of the murder. But if I'd tried to use it to free him, I'd have been burnt at the stake for witchcraft. Quite a dilemma. So I got creative.

    A few careful whispers in the right ears brought a burly, middle-aged deputy to the crime scene, where he proceeded to perform a meticulous search. Of course, he found the button with the viscount's crest on it, right where I'd left it; on the strength of that, he sought and received permission to search the viscount's rooms at the castle. The count almost refused out of hand, but the Sheriff just mentioned something about word getting back to the king. That summarily ended any thought of interference.

    In the viscount's room, they discovered the locket. I'd have been surprised if they hadn't, I didn't conceal it all that hard. The victim was known to carry such a locket, and nobody else in these parts had hair remotely close in colour to Katie's deep red. That pretty much wrapped it up; Flynn was released almost immediately.

    I only wish I'd been watching Katie more closely, I might have been able to prevent her walking off that cliff. Her death was so unnecessary! Everything I do seems to end in tragedy, one way or another; there are so many memories I regret.

    But I'll never regret taking the chance of planting the evidence that freed Flynn, even though it was completely against the hands-off rules. I couldn't very well do anything else; after all, he's my son.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    After many hours walking, Kwon and his new



  • Truly astounding work, Cache! This must be our longest chronicle to date, and is definitely among the best. Have you ever considered becoming a professional author?

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



  • supero, cache!
    Your writing is exelent, I look forward to a time when I see "Michael Carey' written across book covers at out book store.

    Keep up the good work. (ciché thing to say, I know :) )

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    "Why do these candles say T-N-T?" - (famous last words 104)

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



  • Thanks, guys. I must admit, posting these stories has rekindled my interest in writing, and the idea of writing novels is quite appealing. I do have some ideas that could probably be turned into something book length; so you never know, it might just happen.

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    The e-mail of the specious is deadlier than their mail



  • Quote

    Originally posted by cache22:
    **I do have some ideas that could probably be turned into something book length; so you never know, it might just happen.

    **

    Looking forward to it!!! :)

    Anyway, a comment, a comment, a kingdom for a comment.... seriously, what can I say? I already told you I loved that chronicle, and I don't see a reason to repeat that (except that, of course, I enjoyed reading it so much :D ). I'm only doing it because you asked me to :p

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    Wer denken kann, ist klar im Vorteil.



  • Ahah! persistence pays off! ;) Well, at least this way there's a permanent record. :p I sometimes like to come back and re-read what people had to say, good and bad - ok, I admit it, I do have an ego. ;)

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    The e-mail of the specious is deadlier than their mail

    (This message has been edited by cache22 (edited 07-25-2002).)



  • Quote

    Originally posted by cache22:
    **ok, I admit it, I do have an ego. ;)
    **

    Don't worry; most people do. ^_^

    Now...a comment! Oh, what do I say? It was great! Better than can currently be described by my tired self. :D

    Well, I finally got around to writing a comment, but what to say...If I had any criticism I'm sure I would have posted it right away, so none of that to deal with...what can I say other than, I loved it.

    I'm a bit confused about Flynn coming through the roof of the Tavern...what's with that? Oh well, I probably missed some important fact somewhere that was the answer.

    Thankee kindly for writing this as a chronicle. One less old TS for me to go back and read. ^^ It made things a lot clearer.

    Well, congrats, anyways! I agree with Slayer...you should look into novelism. :)

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    Arrogance and ignorance walk hand in hand.



  • Thanks again, Kat. :)

    Flynn didn't actually come through the roof, it was a legacy from the older, wilder times of the tavern. Just before the start of 'The Search for the Thieve's Cavern', the tavern was half destroyed in a drunken brawl, leaving it scorched and roofless. It was still in that state when the Ronin started arriving. Flynn appeared through an effect similar to a directed nexus, except instead of moving from one place to another, he was moving from outside of time back into time. He just happened to appear inside the Alraeican Tavern. Hope that makes it clearer. :)

    Oh, and this series shouldn't be taken as a complete coverage of those events, there's a lot I left out since it's not directly relevant - like the statuesque Talos. ;) If you want to get a complete idea of what happened, I suggest you read the relevant sections of the Tavern III and IV. However, not reading them shouldn't overly affect your enjoyment of this series.

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    The e-mail of the specious is deadlier than their mail



  • Just discovered that the last part of this chron is missing, as with several others - so here it is.

    After many hours walking, Kwon and his new friend Rogar finally reached their destination: a smart looking building, that proclaimed itself to be the 'Alraeican Tavern', in words burned neatly into the boards above the door.

    Kwon opened the door wide and stood aside for Rogar to precede him; Rogar, at least, was assured of a welcome, and Kwon preferred to let the people he could sense in the tavern see a familiar face first.

    The greetings were well under way when Kwon stepped through the door, and gazed around at the faces of the people gathered there. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as his eyes made contact with Ronin's. When he spoke, however, his voice retained its habitual calm timbre.

    "Ah, friend Flynn; it is agreeable to see you again."

    "Kwon!" Ronin exclaimed, running over to grasp Kwon's hand. "I'm so glad to see a familiar face!"

    "Who's 'Flynn'?" Moonshadow queried, staring suspiciously at the newcomer.

    "I believe I am," said Ronin, "although I didn't remember it until Kwon called me by name."

    "So, you also have lost much of your memory," commented Kwon. "It was only with much meditative self-searching, that I was able to recall the little I have regained; but I, at least, found an identity - I am greatly impressed that you have survived so well."

    "I was fortunate," Flynn replied. "I fell in with a group of good people, who were too preoccupied with larger problems to worry too much about me. That's allowed me to find my balance at a pace I could handle."

    "Has there been news of the others?" asked Kwon. "I remember no specifics, yet I sense that there are more of us."

    "No, no news. I've had flashes of memory, but I couldn't learn any more from them than you have."

    "Then we must make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves," stated Kwon, in his calm fashion. "Let us aid, however we may, these people in their endeavours."

    "Agreed," replied Flynn, who was becoming gradually more comfortable with his regained identity.

    They turned back to the group and listened attentively to the discussion.

    --------

    Ferazel peered in through the tavern window, not close enough to make out much of the conversation, but still able to hear the somewhat louder greetings. Lindus had been quite clear in his instructions on what to look for, and the two unfamiliar men in the tavern seemed to fit the pattern - right down to the defective memories.

    He stepped back out of sight to think. He really needed to get closer, to observe them in greater detail, but he couldn't just walk into the tavern.

    He slapped a hand to his head. "What am I thinking? Of course I can just walk in!" Besides, it would be a chance to show off his latest trick.

    He was so distracted in preparing the spell that he didn't notice the firmly closed door of the tavern until he walked headlong into it. He regained consciousness a few minutes later, finding that someone had thoughtfully carried him inside.

    He climbed to his feet and sat down at a table, concentrating on his spell again. He muttered a few words and an exact duplicate of himself appeared, standing next to him, with a faint bluish glow. The real Ferazel then stood up, and ran around shouting. "It works! It works!" He then walked over to the occupants of the tavern, gathered around another table and watching him with amusement. "Just testing a new spell, 'Hallucination'," he said. "Anything I can do to help out?"

    --------

    Magpie absently fingered the plain gold circle around his finger. He suddenly became aware of what he was doing, and examined the ring closely. On the outside, in some mystical runic writing, was engraved 'Nectas, Slave of Magpie'. He felt a presence stirring in his mind, and smiled evilly. "No, Magpie; you can't have him, yet. In time, I will depart - when I've had my revenge! Someday I must thank you properly for the knowledge and tools you've unwittingly provided me with; but not yet."

    His eyes once more became focused on the here and now. He proudly surveyed the legions he'd summoned to fight in his cause. "Rise, my army! Crush all those who would defy me! Give me vengeance on my enemies!" He laughed, a grim, bone chilling laugh that made even the dead tremble.

    --------

    The maniacal laughter was heard throughout all Cythera. Shivers ran down the spines of everyone in the tavern at the sound. Kwon's eyes locked with Flynn's, before he spoke. "Our time is running out."

    Kronos was ready. This was a delicate point in his plans, since it required a more direct intervention than he'd ever attempted before. It was certain to result in a series of new potentialities, but it was both necessary and worth the risk. For the first time in his existence, he prepared to reveal himself to the mundane, timebound mortals of Cythera.

    The occupants of the tavern looked up in surprise as a spot near the door, about waist-high, began to shimmer and glow a warm golden colour. From out of the bright centre of the glow Kronos' deep, resonant voice began to sound.

    "Fear not," he intoned. "All is not lost; although your time grows short, I come with news of hope."

    "What news?" asked Avatara, just a smidgeon quicker than the others to recover from the surprise.

    Kronos continued. "While the threat is dire, and the strength of this evil is strong, there is now enough strength of good to overcome it, if correctly applied; but there is much to be done before you face the forces of evil."

    "What do we need to do?" queried Slayer.

    "All the forces of good that can be mustered will be needed to defeat this foe. You must seek out those you know, of skill and good heart. You must find the last of the Ronin, for while many of you are stronger than they, their help will be needed. But know this: none of the Ronin are yet prepared for this war. Once found they must undertake a quest, which will increase their strength, and their usefulness. Seek the heart of the island; this answer will be found there. Their quest must be completed alone, but the journey does not."

    "How did the Ronin come to be here, at this time?" queried Moonshadow.

    "In an aeon long past, the vertex of the Triliad that mastered time was stolen, and used to banish the Ronin from time for as long as it should exist; when that vertex was destroyed (an act in which many of you played a part), the banishment ended and the Ronin re-entered this existence. But they were scattered, and the banishment wrought havoc with their minds; memory can be such an elusive thing. There are other effects, which you will discover as time passes."

    "But why now, in time for this war?" asked Verran.

    "The quest which brought the destruction of the vertex, also brought upon you this war; so you see, all is linked."

    "Where can we find the others!?" Flynn interjected. Even though he couldn't number them, or picture their faces, his feelings for his missing friends were strong

    "They will come, each in their way, in their time. You need not seek too hard; go about the tasks before you, and they will arrive - some sooner than you think, and some are already about tasks they must complete, before they will be ready."

    Kronos paused, knowing he'd reached the limit of what he could safely reveal at this point in time. "I would I could help you more. My time is ended, and I must go; know that the future of all is in your hands..."

    His voice trailed off into silence, and the glow faded away.

    Moonshadow stared at the spot where the glow had been for several long moments, then addressed the group. "There was a document found in the ancient library, of Seldane origin. Timon translated it. It told the tale of the first humans to enter Cythera, millennia ago - a group that called themselves 'Ronin'."

    "So that's why you had misgivings about me!" Flynn exclaimed, relieved. "I was worried I might have done something wrong in my past, that I couldn't remember."

    "You give yourself too little credit, my friend," Kwon said. "The fact that such a thought concerned you, reveals the goodness of your heart."

    Moonshadow gazed at them both speculatively for a moment, then gave a little smile. "At any rate, I'm glad to have one less problem to be worried about at this time. I think we've got enough on our plates as it is."

    Avatara thought deeply, assimilating the words spoken by the gold-glowing emissary. "What other forces can we gather, in the time available?" he asked himself - then smiled, as a thought came to him. He walked towards the door of the tavern. "I'm going to hide some more 'cards' up my sleeve," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be back before the full moon is high."

    Some of the occupants of the bar looked at the night sky, to see that the full moon was just creeping up across the eastern horizon. Avatara opened a deep red oval-shaped portal, the red writhing energy emanating from it ready to trap any stray person into the clutches of chaos. Walking into it, he vanished. the portal closed behind him.

    --------

    The man in green stepped out from the edge of the forest just north of Cademia. Being a forester, he'd made good time; the moon was only just cresting over the easternmost trees. He looked around, as if trying to get his bearings, then crossed the bridge to the city.

    He noticed that the inhabitants seemed to be making preparations to repel an assault. "Good, my warning is unneeded," he thought to himself. "I'd better find someone in charge, and see what I can do." Asking several people how to find whoever was organising the defences, he was directed to the Alraeican Tavern.

    The people gathered inside the tavern were trying to decide what to do next. Just then Flynn, who'd had little to contribute, glanced over at the door and saw the stranger standing there.

    "Trinias! Good to see you!" he exclaimed.

    "Flynn! Kwon! I'm so relieved to see familiar faces at last!" replied Trinias.

    Kwon looked his usual, imperturbable self, and shook Trinias' hand. Ferazel noted the reactions of all three, quite certain that he'd encountered yet another of the people Lindus was interested in.

    The rest of the group took the arrival of the third of the Ronin in stride; besides, they had bigger things to worry about.

    After being introduced, Trinias related what he had seen at the mountain. The news of the magically immune army was greeted with some dismay. Discussion turned to any possible courses of action. Ferazel saw an opportunity to make a helpful suggestion, and at the same time fulfil his assignment for Lindus.

    "Cademia's defences have been arranged as well as can be, right now," he said. "I think someone should go to Pnyx, quickly, to request whatever help they can send. Magic may not affect this army, but we'll at least need healers for our warriors."

    "What about this 'heart of the island' thing?" asked Flynn. "If we have to complete a quest before the battle, it might help to know where it is."

    "I can only think it means somewhere near the middle of Cythera," Moonshadow replied. "That would put it in the mountains, just South of the pass to Pnyx. But remember, the quest is for all the Ronin; you have to wait until they arrive."

    "Then I hope they hurry up," Flynn muttered under his breath; "there isn't much time left."

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

    Liam moved his family away, after that incident. Again, I find it very easy to sympathise; the loss of a someone as dear to you as Katie was to them is a hard thing to be reminded of, day after day.

    That left Flynn out of work, in need of some gainful employment. Since he'd excelled at combat, soldiering was a logical choice; so he signed on as a guard with a local merchant named Boralis.

    He was completely unaware of the deeper forces at work; it was inevitable that he would end up there. The test subjects were genetically programmed to seek each other out at the appropriate time, as well as having a connection to each other that allowed them to subconsciously determine each other's position. All the others were there already. It was so good to see Sasha again, fit and well.

    Lorhin was acting pretty smug about this time, and I must admit, with good reason. Everything seemed to be working out pretty much as he'd hoped. The scientists that had worked on this project designed the test subjects to form a natural military unit: one commander, a vice-commander, a scout, an engineer/demolitions expert, a hand-to-hand combat specialist, a medic, and someone for those tasks that required nothing more than brute strength.

    The six that were already there hadn't quite connected as well as the scientists would have liked, but Flynn's arrival changed things dramatically. He quickly formed a rapport with Sasha, who'd been keyed to act as second in command, and then began to draw most of the others into a coherent group. All before nightfall, on the day of his arrival.

    The exception was Ulf, the 'brute' as some were calling him; I preferred to think of him as the 'berserker'. Through a difficult childhood, he'd developed a strong aversion to interacting with people that prevented him from making friends. Flynn bided his time - but not too long; an opportunity to show his good intentions arose within a few days, when some local thugs tried to make sport of Ulf. Of course, Flynn came to his rescue. Lorhin was extremely pleased - until Flynn got hit in the head from behind with a rock, knocking him out cold.

    Seeing the huge berserker in action was almost enough to ease Lorhin's mood over Flynn getting caught out so easily. I've got my own suspicions about what really happened, though: Flynn's demonstration of friendship towards Ulf was only half of what was needed; Ulf had to have a chance to return the favour and complete the circle, before a solid bond would be formed. And if a bang on the head was what was needed to do the trick, I think Flynn was prepared to pay the price.

    Drastic measures, perhaps, but I think my boy knows what he's doing.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart

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

    Ferazel rushed off - on foot, since he didn't have enough power to use a spell to teleport to Pnyx; he'd wasted it on his hallucinations. It didn't take too long. When he got there, two guards stood blocking the entrance. "Halt, who goes there?" one said.

    "Ferazel," he muttered and shoved them aside. He knocked aside a few of the students and staff as he rushed to Lindus' chambers. He banged open the door to the large room, panting.

    "Ferazel!" the old man exclaimed in surprise. "Why such a rush?"

    "Magpie's turned," Ferazel gasped out between breaths. "He's raised some kind of undead army, that's immune to magic; it's marching on Cademia." He used his remaining power to conjure an image of the army marching towards the city, and the pits and fences the forewarned populace was constructing.

    "Hmm, Magpie was a faithful ally before," Lindus murmured.

    "Listen," Ferazel continued, "we need the biggest group of healers possible. Send all students training in healing, as well as Pheres."

    "Quite right!" Lindus muttered a few words, and his voice began booming throughout the school. "Listen. All who know at least minor healing, report to my office at once."

    Soon, a large group of mages and apprentices was gathered. Lindus quickly brought them up to date, opened a portal, and dispatched them to Cademia. He then turned back to Ferazel.

    "Is there anything else I can do?"

    "My mana is about drained; can you do anything?"

    "Certainly." Lindus muttered a brief incantation, and waved a hand towards him.

    Ferazel sighed in relief as he felt the power flow into him. He nodded to Lindus, and stepped in front of the portal. At the threshold, he turned back briefly. "I almost forgot. There are three of those people you asked me to watch out for, back at the Alraeican Tavern. They call themselves 'Ronin'." Without waiting for the old man's reply, he stepped through the glowing circle and vanished.

    --------

    Wolmark hurried through the corridors of the Magesterium, searching for Leandra. He finally found her, sitting in the peaceful garden in the centre of Pnyx, reading a book. Every now and then she unconsciously mumbled a phrase out loud.

    "Lost magic... elements... drew power... elements themselves... drained life-force... ratio of drain... rate of expenditure... each person unique..."

    "Leandra!" Wolmark called, as he came panting up.

    Leandra glanced up in annoyance. "Wolmark, can't you see I'm reading!?" she snapped.

    "I've been looking for you everywhere," he replied, used to her short temper, and ignoring it entirely. "Have you heard about the attack? They were asking for healers, to help."

    While Leandra had a quick temper, she was equally quick to make up her mind - besides, the word 'healer' tugged strongly at something at the core of her being.

    "I'm going," she said, springing up and running for the door.

    "Thought you might," Wolmark smiled wryly at her retreating form, then hurried after her.

    Lindus was sitting slumped in his chair, pondering what was becoming of the world, when the two burst into his chambers.

    "Ah," he said, "have you two decided on your specialities yet?"

    "We heard about the war," Leandra replied. "We want to help. Teach me everything you can about healing."

    "Very well," said Lindus. "And you, Wolmark? What have you decided?"

    "Well," Wolmark mused, "I don't want to specialise in healing, so just give me the basics; enough to be useful."

    "Right," said Lindus, "here we go..."

    As soon as their instruction was complete, Lindus gestured to a bundle of vials lying in the corner. "Take those healing potions along with you; the others left in such a hurry they forgot them."

    They picked up the bundle, as Lindus continued to speak. "I wish Ferazel hadn't left so fast, I don't know the best place to send you; oh well, I'll just try for the tavern and hope for the best." He muttered a few words, and the pair stepped through the newly formed portal.

    He walked tiredly around behind his desk, and slumped in his chair. "Imagine, not knowing who you are or where you came from. Perhaps I should have warned them about the others. Oh well, they'll find out soon enough."

    Wolmark and Leandra emerged into a cold, dimly lit room, with starlight shining through the apparently collapsed roof.

    Several people turned to look at the newly arrived pair; suddenly, Leandra glimpsed a face she knew well.

    "Flynn!" she yelled, and raced forward to give him a smothering embrace; for a brief moment no one could tell which was more red - Leandra's hair, or Flynn's face.

    Trinias and Kwon greeted Wolmark; Kwon almost forgot himself and smiled, as he realised that they were now five.

    --------

    Verran was getting bored. He was a pretty strategic person but he wasn't a natural born general. No, Slayer was doing nicely at that. What was worse was that he barely even knew how to use his sword - and from what Trinias had said, the army was quite Immune to magic.

    Just then he had an idea, one he thought was quite good. The only drawback he could see was that not too many people around spoke elven. "Well, Rogar and Avatara might be enough, anyway," he thought to himself.

    He got up from his table and went over to a door to the basement. After a few minutes of searching he returned with some parchment, and sat at a secluded table in the back of the tavern. There he started writing.

    Moonshadow came over and glanced at what he was doing. "Magic?" she asked. "In case you didn't hear, that may not help." Verran just kept writing.

    Moonshadow leaned closer and took a look at the scroll. It was completely new to her, even with her extensive knowledge of spells. She shrugged, and turned back to the discussion.

    Verran concentrated, and the writing began to glow blue. Apparently he had drained a lot of mana into it. He then reached somewhere inside his cloak and withdrew a deep blue glowing liquid, and took a small gulp of it. He then started on another scroll.

    He finished and stood up. Looking skyward through the collapsed roof, he saw that the moon was in the centre of the sky.

    "Good, Avatara should get back soon," he mumbled to himself. "I wonder what he's doing?"

    Verran walked over to Rogar. He gave him one of the three scrolls he had made, whispered something in his ear and sat back down.

    --------

    The real Magpie woke up, to find himself standing in the midst of an army of undead. He fingered the plain gold circle around his finger; he longed to remove it but couldn't. Try as he might he was unable to bring himself to pull it from his finger. He looked closely at the ring, and observed the strange writing on it.

    "Who or what is Nectas?" he asked himself. "And who was this Magpie? And who am I? My name isn't Nectas, or Magpie. My name is... is... Valkier!" He looked about himself in bewilderment, still unsure of what was going on.

    The ring on his finger felt cold and hard. No, he was mistaken - it wasn't cold, it was burning a white hot, white but tinged with evil; with darkness. He held it up to his face. A voice spoke to him.

    "Valkier." Valkier/Magpie shifted uneasily. "I see you have returned from the power of the ring. Well done, that couldn't have been easy. However, this will not do!"

    Valkier/Magpie winced, as the ring became a burning circlet of fire around his finger. Then it grew cold again, and the slave of Magpie returned.

    "Attack the city!"

    At his order the huge army plunged into Cademia, smashing and crumpling the puny battlements. The war had begun.

    --------

    Trinias had been thinking. Something in what he'd been told of the voice's message had struck a deep chord of lost memory, and he'd been trying to bring it to the surface.

    "Flynn, do you remember what the Seldane used to call themselves? Something like 'the Heart of the Earth', wasn't it?"

    "Of course!" Flynn enthused. "You've got it!"

    Flynn turned to the group at large. "Excuse me, where can we find the Seldane?" he asked.

    "The Seldane?" replied Ferazel in surprise, "I think you'll find their city under Land King Hall."

    "We need to be able to get there and back, fast," Wolmark said, thinking quickly. "Can you teach me that teleport spell, and then send us there?"

    "Well... all right."

    Wolmark was a quick study, and soon had the spell memorised.

    "Right," he said, when he was satisfied. "Now we just need to wait for -"

    He was interrupted by the sound of the warning horns, followed quickly by the clamour of a full scale battle.

    "We can't leave now -" Flynn began to shout.

    "You must!" Moonshadow interrupted. "You have to complete your quest! I only hope you find the rest of your friends, on the outside!"

    "I can't spare the power to send you all the way there," Ferazel said, "I'll need all too much here, soon enough. I'll do what I can!"

    Ferazel opened a portal and, one by one, the Ronin leaped through until only Flynn was left. He turned back, catching one last glimpse of those entrancing amber eyes.

    Moonshadow grasped his arm. "Hurry back," she said; "or there may be all too few of us left when you return." She gave him a gentle shove him toward the portal, and turned back to the others.

    Flynn stepped through the glowing circle, and vanished.

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

    Things went pretty smoothly for the next few years, and the signs were that the bonds of friendship that had formed between the seven were stronger than ever. On occasion they'd fought hard and well, each performing the functions they were always intended to. The success of Lorhin's project might have been well measured by the high reputation our little unit had made for itself.

    A small degree of discord seemed to have sprung up between our subjects and their employer, but that wasn't of any concern to us. Boralis was just a convenient point of focus when the subtle urges to find each other began to take effect; he has no part in the overall equation.

    Lorhin declared phase two a complete success, and preparations began for phase three.

    As good as our transgenics have proven themselves, the better part of their genetic enhancements, especially the genes transplanted from other species, are still inactive. All they've had to work with so far is their slightly tweaked human DNA. Phase three will bring them to full activation.

    The process isn't difficult, it's keyed to a specific but unusual wavelength of radiation. The Paradox is equipped to transmit the beam whenever Lorhin gives the word.

    They were on the trail yet again, so we had to change the ship's orbit in order to meet Lorhin's schedule. It's strange how he can get so stubborn about things like that, when we could just as easily have waited until they returned.

    It looked like we were going to be just in time, our super-soldiers had bitten off more than even they could chew. They were being attacked by force more than five times their number, not counting the dozen or so they'd already dispatched. I could see that their opponents had the advantage of position, as well as having sufficient forces to outflank them.

    Lorhin was fussing and fuming over the targeting problems, since the seven of them were widely separated from each other, as well as being constantly on the move. Just when I thought he was about ready to throw in the towel, they managed to regroup in a small depression, halfway up a hill. The timing was perfect.

    Lorhin pressed the button.

    Where the green flash of energy came from, we never determined; but it certainly wasn't from the Paradox's transmitter. It was so powerful that several of the ship's sensors blew out. When the glare faded, there was no sign of our people. The whole area was scarred over into an enormous, glassy scab.

    Ogden was all for abandoning the mission right then, and reporting back to Central Command. For once, I found myself on Lorhin's side. Neither of us was prepared to leave until we could adequately explain what had happened. Besides, I hadn't had the heart to tell them - Central Command abruptly stopped transmitting, several local years ago. I can only assume that our entire galaxy has been overrun.

    Extensive analysis of the sensor records that survived showed that the origin of the beam was extra-dimensional. Our first thought was that the invaders had found us, but further study led Lorhin and his people to believe that the blast was some kind of breakdown product, from the destruction of - and that was where they got stuck, they had no idea what could have generated a discharge of that nature.

    But one ray of hope emerged from it all: the initial energy pattern was astoundingly close to that generated by our own Sidestep Drive.

    I have to believe they're alive. Flynn, Sasha, they're like my own children. Whatever it takes, however long - I'll never stop searching until I find them.

    - from the journal of Lucas Hart


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