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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/1092185-The-Return
Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Fantasy · #1092185
So the gods are free, the queen is crowned, what's next for our fearless heros?
[Introduction]
Welcome to the Kingless land:

^^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^Icy Rim^^^^^
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^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Blue Grass Plains^^^^^^
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^^Gates of Heaven^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^++^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Dante's Peak^^^^
^^^^^^^Magical Forest^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Fire^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Berry^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Stonehenge^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Mts^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Tang^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Mines^^^^
^^^^Blessed Village^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
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^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Whispering Cliffs^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Silent Sea^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
^^^^^^^^Island of the Monkeys^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
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A century and a half past, Dame Masako the Serene, the Queen of Vrede, died and the crown passed to the nearest blood relation, the Count of the Fire Berry Mountains, Sir Desmond. He ruled the land in an iron fist, squeezing the heart from the people. At first, the people were happy. Sir Desmond was a popular man in his homeland, great-nephew to the long-lived queen. He started his rule by replacing all the queen's ministers with younger men, of his own choosing.

Small changes to the laws came next: an increase in taxes, more stringent import/export fees, and a trade blockade with their southern neighbor. The next decree by the new king abolished the kingdom's university and outlawed the written word. Still, the people believed the propaganda, that those barbarian "monkeys" had seized control of the university and subjected the students to all kinds of horrors.

King Desmond took advantage of the uproar and declared war on what he now dubbed "the Island of the Monkeys." An entire generation, between the ages of 18 and 30, were conscripted into the army and navy and set sail for the island. They never returned.

Meanwhile, magic users fled for their lives as the king sought to tighten his grip. He turned his eye on the guilds and increased their tithes, to the extent that most of the merchants also fled the capitol, and then the kingdom. Mercenaries were hired to stop the exodus, killing many in their efforts to close the borders.

Needing to pay his mercenaries, King Desmond turned his attention to the Church. But the priests had anticipated this. They baricaded the Gates of Heaven at the foot of the Sacred Mountain and refused to surrender, even with the army camped just beyond their walls. Armed with little more than prayer, the Cathedral, its surrounding village, and all the people who had sought shelter within, were massacred, down to the last child.

At that moment, the mountain rumbled, day turned to night, and lightning flashed down from the sudden clouds, striking Desmond dead where he stood. The Cathedral crumbled to ashes before the panicky mercenaries, who broke and ran.

A madness seemed to descend upon the remaining people. Small atrocities begat larger ones until the land was a smoldering ruin and the madness had run its course. The nightmare days concluded with a terrible curse. The horrible plague spread like wild-fire. No one was spared.

First came the black and blue discolorations, small, and then growing larger and more numerous until the whole body was covered. The rash was followed by raging fevers, hair loss, open lesions, and tooth decay. Loved ones turned on each other like rabid animals, drooling and screaming in their madness, their minds no longer theirs.

Mutations were common. In some survivors, the rashes became permanent. Some lost teeth, or limbs. Few regrew their hair. Suddenly it was rare to not have blue eyes and a whole village was deprived of the ability to speak. Many others lost their wits completely, becoming little more than the monsters they resembled.

When their neighbors began to see the horrors crossing the borders, they began their own enforcing, killing any once-human beast from entering their own lands. Vrede was closed off from the world and was soon referred to as the Kingless Land, or the Land of the Cursed, or the Cursed Ones.

Within time, of course, the plague ran its course. Or so the survivors thought. Soon, however, the truth was discovered. Before the Gates of Heaven stood a monster from ages past, blocking the way up the Sacred Mountain to the Home of the Gods. The winds were unpredictable, but if the wind blew from the Gates of Heaven elsewhere, the plague struck anew.

The dragon thrived on the people's despair like a delicious elixir and soon began its own mission of destruction, laying seige to the gods. It fought its way up the mountain, brushing aside the ancient guardians like flies until it stood at the very summit. None remain who remember those dark days, but a few chronicles were stored away, describing the days of nights, when fire streaked across the heavens, smoking boulders the size of houses fell from the skies, the earth shook, the sea rose up to drown the coast, and the Sacred Mountain blasted itself into a smoldering pile of rubble.

At the conclusion, the dragon was seen no more. The Sacred Mountain was perhaps a quarter of its original size, and the Gates of Heaven fell into perpetual darkness. Still the plague remained when the wind blew down from the north.

Ground beneath the heel of misery and despair, the few, scattered villages manage to survive, praying for an end to their curse. Finally, more than a century after the cataclysm, hope is stirring.

A few, isolated people, are dreaming. They are being summoned to Stonehenge, the ruins of the once great capitol city. They know there are others, but the details of the dream are shadowy and defy description. Each individual carries a piece of the puzzle, but only together can the riddle be solved and an end made to the suffering.

* * *

You are one of these saviors. You are a survivor, touched by the plague and yet you lived. The death rate is about 50%, madness takes another 25% of the survivors, and someone you love dearly may die, unless you can find an end to the plague. You pack a few belongings, say your goodbyes and leave.

Thus begins a journey towards Stonehenge and an end to the evil stalking the land. Only you and your mysterious companions can bring hope and life back to your people.

Remember, these people have lived through a hundred years of horrific mutations and plague. They've seen a lot of nightmarish things in their short lives. Everyone fears a breeze from the north, as it brings plague with it. Each time the wind blows, the plague strikes and everyone is vulnerable. The more times you survive, the more likely you'll survive the next attack, but it's still a 50-50 chance to retain your wits. Those who go crazy are immediately killed by the others, because the plague can spread like rabies from an infected person. Bodies are burned.

Each character must be from a different place on the map above, with the exception of the Isle of Monkeys and the Gates of Heaven; those are reserved. I'll color the towns as people claim them, so we'll know.

For your first post, use the bio block below to create and describe your character. He/she must be between the ages of 20-30. Life-spans are shorter, with few people living into their 50s due to the plague, so the average marriageable age is 15. Just so you know.

Anyway, here's the bio block. Be realistic! You have 3 days to add before I skip you. The normal rules for campfires also pertain here (no killing other chars, stay within the rating, etc).

Hey! I found an item where someone had actually written down all the "Rules!" Take a look: "Invalid Item

As you accept your invites, I'll email you your portion of the rede. Good luck!


* * *

Generic Bio Block
Name:
Age:
Home:
Physical Description:
Trade/Job:
Other:

I'll post everyone's bios as they come in so you'll easily be able to see who everyone is.


* * *

Bios so far:

Name: Dmitri Pavel's Son
Age: 25
Home: Whispering Cliffs
Trade/Job: Baker
Physical Description: Dmitri is 5 ft, 6 and a quarter inches tall, and roughly 130 pounds. He's survived three bouts of the plague, the last depriving him of his right eye. His remaining eye is a light brown and his hair has turned a peculiar shade of bluish-purple, a reflection of the plague scars covering most of his body. As a Baker, Dmitri is stronger than he looks. He labors in the heat from well before the sun rises until late in the afternoon so that his village will have bread to eat. Fighting the tough dough has toughened his upper body, giving him strong muscles to carry out his trade.
Other: Whispering Cliffs is organized as a communal village. Everyone works to support everyone else. Babies are watched by one or two while the rest toil in the fields or fish or any of the other thousand or so little tasks to support the population. There are no other villages or towns around for miles and miles, until the coast, a day's fast journey away.

Name: Kiera Stants
Age: 23
Home: Blue grass plains
Trade/Job: Artist
Physical Description: Kiera has long chestnut hair that falls to her waist. Her growth has been stunted becuase of the plague, so instead of being 6 feet tall like she was supposed to grow, she is only 4 feet tall. She weighs only 94 pounds because the last bout of the plague drained her. Her eyes are a golden yellow, for reasons unknown, because they have always been that way. She is very skinny and because she is so underweight, her bones show through her skin. Her wrist is broken because of the effects of the plague also.
Other: Her village has many survivors and when plague strikes, they hide in the underground hut of holiness. All the rest must try to survive and when the plague has run it's course, the bodies are taken to the ritual house and burned.

Name: Anglis Gliscan
Age: 22
Home:Icy Rim
Physical Description: He has survive two bouts of plague, the first turning his eyes a brilliant and eerie green, the second destroying the muscles and nervous-system in his left arm, rendering it unusable. He wears his left arm in a sling under his coat. His hair is a deep ebony and he stands just shy of 6 foot.
Trade/Job: hunter
Other: The winds from the south were once welcomed for their warmth, but the sickness that comes with it has destroyed the villages of the Icy Rim. Anglis lives alone, wandering between the tiny villages, selling his meat and furs and generally trying to stay away from anywhere the infection has settled. Every time he sees the smoke rising he turns aside and changes course with a heavy heart

Name: Mordred Kaybil Vance
Age: 19
Home: Magical Forest
Physical Description: He is tall and strong, not burly, but well-defined (think Ryan Reynolds) and with a few more eccentricities. His hair is originally white, the colour bleached out from the plauge, but it's still thick and wavy, so he dyes it with roots and leaves, varying from pink to blue to green and various other colours he can make from plants. He's made himself jewelry and has many piercings on his ears and other places. He doesn't bleed much, the plauge adjusted his blood flow so it's not as fast as it once was, therefore he doesn't bleed. The plauge left him with grey eyes, not the customary blue, it seemed like it took away all colour, so with his jewelry and his hair dyes, he gives himself life and pizzaz.
Trade/Job: Blacksmith
Other: He has a quick mind and as soon as he came down with the plauge, he isolated himself from his family and attended himself, he refused to die, and his stubborness prevailed, he survived the plauge with only the trees around him. Funnily enough, it's only humans that are affected by the disease, the trees and animals were perfectly fine as they gathered around him to see. He studied himself and several of the bodies that were left when he came back to his villiage in the trees. He learned that the plauge attacked the blood, mutating it and making it like electrical signals, read by the nerves, and drowning them, sufficiently killing them, that's why people lost limbs and hair. He returned to find his sister, the only to survive the change in the winds, his family dead and madness creeping through the village. He took up his sister and fled, wandering now from place to place seaching for food and gathering what tools they can.

Name: Ataira (Tai) Norther
Age: 21
Home: A village near the ruins of the Gates of Heaven
Physical Description: Tall, and long-limbed, and as thin as most plague survivors, Tai looks like she's been stretched out. The sickness has touched her at least a half-dozen times, dragging all the colour and all the softness out of her; her skin's bone-white, pulled taut over sharp bones and wiry muscles, and her face is so thin and sharp it's almost triangular under a dirty, messy, tangled crown of once-auburn, now dull black hair. The only bits of her that couldn't pass for already dead are her plague-blue eyes, their colour intensified by each bout of disease. Large and curious as a baby's, they seem far too big for her shrunken face.
Trade/Job: Barfly / general hired hand
Other: Tai's village is the closest place to the Gates of Heaven that people still live in. As a result they're pretty used to the plague, and the ghosts that come from the ruins. It used to be that the braver people from the village would go and loot them (Tai's gone a few times), but in the past few years they've stopped doing that. Largely since they've stopped coming back.

Name: Marius of the Agony of the Gods
Age: 20
Home: Silent Sea
Trade/Job: Priest
Physical Description: Marius is bald and has eyes so dark a blue they are almost black. He stands at about 5'11. The left side of his ribcage, his lower back, right hip, and the back of his right thigh are marked with the scars of the pox. Although his musculature is good, his immune system was severely affected by the pox, and he looks pale and sickly.
Other: The Silent Sea was once the home of the Order Of Renunciation, which trained young men and women for the priesthood and sent their finest new ordained priests to the Cathedral. However, after the slaughter at the Cathedral, the Order of Renunciation renounced their old name and duty, becoming the Order of the Agony of the Gods. Their quest was to chronicle everything they could about the Cataclysm and to protect and maintain records of the great civilization that was quickly being eradicated by war and later plague. Today, although the gods have long since been destroyed, the priests and priestesses of the Order of the Agony of the Gods await their rebirth, believing that when the gods come again they will eradicate the plague from the land.

Name: Derrick Maluse
Age: 22
Home: Tang Mines
Trade/Job: Miner/Wild Catter
Physical Description: It is said that when Derrick was born, his mother died from fright and his father from outright shock. To call this man ugly is an understatement as vast as calling the plaque the daily flu. It is as though the Gods smashed his body with a sledghammer and used super-glu to fix him like putting a puzzle together with pieces in the wrong places, and/or reversed entirely. Furthermore, compounding his hideousness, is his outright size. Skirting 6 inches under 5 feet, he is often mistaken for a dwarf. A redeeming value for him is that even though he is ugly, his face is perfectly symmetrical.
Other: Before the fall of the kingdom, the Tang Mines were a place where military diserters, and political prisoners were kept. Once the kingdom fell, the prisoners took over the mines and have operated it along strict military lines ever since.

Name: Marguerite Alasdere
Age: 23
Home: Fire Berry Mts
Physical Description: Just a little taller than average. She has an athletic and graceful build. Rusty-red hair that falls just past her shoulders, dark green eyes that notice everything. Untouched by the plague, Marguerite's skin is deeply tanned from a lifetime in the sun.
Job/Trade: Princess
Other: Marguerite is the kind of person who makes friends everywhere she goes. These friends have taught her at least a little bit about a great many topics.

* * *

Oh, yeah, and I've finally remembered to put in the link to the forum!

 Redes and Rhymes  (13+)
This is a forum for one of my campfires, so that the writers can brainstorm together.
#1106100 by KC under the midnight sun


Welcome to the Kingless Land!


Name: Dmitri Pavel's Son
Age: 25
Home: Whispering Cliffs
Trade/Job: Baker
Physical Description: Dmitri is 5 ft, 6 and a quarter inches tall, and roughly 130 pounds. He's survived three bouts of the plague, the last depriving him of his right eye. His remaining eye is a light brown and his hair has turned a peculiar shade of bluish-purple, a reflection of the plague scars covering most of his body.

As a Baker, Dmitri is stronger than he looks. He labors in the heat from well before the sun rises until late in the afternoon so that his village will have bread to eat. Fighting the tough dough has toughened his upper body, giving him strong muscles to carry out his trade.

Other: Whispering Cliffs is organized as a communal village. Everyone works to support everyone else. Babies are watched by one or two while the rest toil in the fields or fish or any of the other thousand or so little tasks to support the population. There are no other villages or towns around for miles and miles, until the coast, a day's fast journey away.

* * *

         Dmitri watched the flames rise. It was Burn Day, when all the dead from the latest strike of the plague were reduced to ashes. He felt cold, even standing so close to the pyre, hollow, numb even.

         It was spring, or close to it. Warm air blew in from the sea, bringing rain, but a welcome end to the unusually cool winter. Except - except this year he faced spring alone. And he could not cry. The tears just would not come. Penda would have been a year in another month. A year, which was the youngest anyone had ever survived the plague. Now she would never have that chance. And neither would her mother. Ania had never successfully carried a babe to term, Penda being their first in almost six years of marriage. She had wanted this child so much!

         "Brother," came a soft voice at his elbow, "Please, come inside, you've been out here for hours."

         Dmitri at first couldn't focus on his brother-in-law's face. "I --" he began, but his mouth was too dry, he couldn't fuel the words.

         Lel threw a burly arm over the smaller man's shoulders. He dwarfed his brother-in-law by at least six inches but his sizeable strength was nothing to the grief which burned in his heart. There was nothing he could say or do to console Dmitri, he knew that, but from his own experience he knew better than to leave the man alone.

         "Come," he said, gently steering the grieving baker away from the pyre. "Come inside now. You must eat. Mourning begins tomorrow and you will need your strength."

         Dmitri let himself be guided indoors. He sat mechanically down at the table. The usual hustle and bustle was gone, replaced by another kind of quiet. Lel, too, had lost loved ones. His wife, gone these three years now, had just been joined by her two eldest sons and the only daughter. Chessa, her name was, always laughing and singing. Dmitri looked down at his plate without seeing it, picking up a spoon, but unable to summon the will to eat.

         They observed five days of mourning, days spent fasting and reflecting on the lives lost. There was a feast held on the sixth day, to celebrate those who lived still.

         Three years since the last attack. The plague was early. For many years they had been able to count on the five years in between attacks to rest and rebuild their population. That was no longer the case. What would it be now?

         "You must eat, Uncle 'Mitri," said a small voice from next to his elbow.

         Dmitri looked down. Young Burian, the remains of his left arm still in bandages, looked up at him earnestly from his pocked face and huge, blue eyes. They looked so solemn for one so young.

         Dmitri stood abruptly, walking away. He stopped with his hand on the latch, not wanting to return to his own, empty house of memories.

         "You are welcome to stay."

         That was Lel's voice, but Dmitri didn't turn. His body felt frozen in place and he sucked in lungfuls of air as he waited, the unshed tears burning behind his eye. His hand went to his face and massaged the new scar idly. If only Ania hadn't been so intent on nursing him back to health! If only he'd been stronger when the time came to care for her himself. He'd only just managed to hold onto her as the fever burned her up just as surely as the pyre outside.

         "It's not your fault," said Lel slowly, in an eerie echo of Dmitri's thoughts. "It's the plague. Ania was just too weak, she --"

         "Don't!" Dmitri shouted, whirling around so fast he almost lost his balance. His hands clenched into fists as he glared at his brother-in-law. "Don't say it! Don't say she wasn't - wasn't worth it!" His throat closed up on him, but Dmitri gasped for the breath to force it out. "How could I have - have just toss - tossed her aside? I loved her!"

         Lel flinched. It was true, what Dmitri said. The whole village had been thinking it. Why didn't the man take a second wife, one who could bear children? One who wasn't so sickly and could add to the prosperity of the village? Dmitri's breads were well-known. He could easily have traded for the goods to gift to prospective in-laws, just as he had those many years past won his way into Lel's heart.

         "She was Alina's sister," Lel reminded the grief-stricken man, "which made her my sister, too. I raised her after her parents died. I know what you're going through."

         True, Dmitri admitted to himself, he'd helped Lel cope with the loss of Alina three years ago. Still, their marriage had been of amiable friends, not the all-consuming love that had filled Dmitri's home. Since he'd met Ania, he hadn't been able to imagine a day without her. And now?

         Dmitri hung his head, his body slumping in sorrow and exhaustion. "I know you have suffered more than I, my brother, I apologize. Ania was my life. Who was I to deny her the one thing she wanted more than anything?"

         He barely noticed when Lel grabbed him by the shoulder to keep him from falling. The older, larger man helped Dmitri to a bed and pulled off his shoes to ease his way to sleep. Lel couldn't sleep, himself. He felt the loss of his children deeply, though they'd gone quicker into the next world than Ania had; he'd had longer to mourn. He checked to make sure little Burian was in bed asleep before he crawled into his own, to lay awake listening to the crackling of the pyre outside.

         Dmitri tossed and turned restlessly. In his dreams he heard bells ringing and he was running through an endless field of flowers, trying to find her, trying to get to his Ania, for she needed him and called to him. In his dream, though, she didn't wear a hood and had long, gleaming blonde hair cascading down her back. She'd always loved Dmitri's hair, embarrassed over her own baldness, though it was a common condition. He reached out to her, smiling in his own happiness to see something that would bring her so much joy - only to reel back in horror as his beloved turned on him, changing into some kind of hideous, fanged monster and striking at him with clawed hands.

         "Ay-eah!" he shouted, flinging himself away and awake, but feeling the burning pain in his chest and stomach as the claws sliced through flesh.

         Lel was down the hall and in the other room in an instant, flinging away sleep with practiced ease. But his feet took him to where Dmitri was, not Burian. He yanked open the door without thinking, gasping as he saw his brother-in-law trussed up in blankets on the floor and staring at the blood streaming between his fingers.

         "Redes are often subtle . . . and dangerous -- you may think they mean one thing when they mean something else altogether," cautioned Gavril soon after. He unscrewed a jar of paste and sniffed it.

         Dmitri scowled at the healer. "Talk sense, old man!" he growled. "How can my dreams do this?"

         "I dare say that someone's trying to get your attention," said the healer wryly, scooping up some paste to spread on the baker's wounds. "What else do you remember?"

         "Just what I told you!" Dmitri snapped. "Augh, that stings!"

         Gavril gave the younger man a withering stare. "Bells and flowers are pretty far removed from a monster. Where were you?"

         Dmitri hissed as the healer dabbed more of his paste on the oozing cuts. He'd lost a lot of blood before Lel had returned with the healer and wasn't too sure he was speaking clearly and that this wasn't also part of his dream. Except, he could definitely feel Lel's worried gaze from across the room.

         "Just a field, with blue flowers," Dmitri answered through his clenched jaw. "I could hear bells ringing and I was chasing Ania toward the stones."

         "Stones?" echoed Gavril in surprise. "What kind of stones?

         Sighing with relief as the paste began to soothe away the pain, Dmitri said, "I dunno, big ones, piled on top of a hill."

         Gavril put away his paste and grabbed a roll of bandages from his bag. "Well, I sh --" He stopped in midsentence as his patient closed his eyes and toppled over sideways. Lel was at his side in an instant.

         "Dmitri? Dmitri! Gavril, he's not breathing!"

         "Get out of my way, you big lummox," said the healer, pushing the big farmer off to the side. He bent down close to him, listening intently for sounds of breathing.

         It was then, bent over with his ear close to Dmitri's mouth, that the healer heard the words: "When silver bells sing while blue bells grow .." something something, he wasn't sure what that was, then, "And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all...."
Name: Kiera Stants
Age: 23
Home: Blue grass plains
Trade/Job: Artist
Physical Description: Kiera has long chestnut hair that falls to her waist. Her growth has been stunted becuase of the plague, so instead of being 6 feet tall like she was supposed to grow, she is only 4 feet tall. She weighs only 94 pounds because the last bout of the plague drained her. Her eyes are a golden yellow, for reasons unknown, because they have always been that way. She is very skinny and because she is so underweight, her bones show through her skin. Her wrist is broken because of the effects of the plague also.

Other: Her village has many survivors and when plague strikes, they hide in the underground hut of holiness. All the rest must try to survive and when the plague has run it's course, the bodies are taken to the ritual house and burned.

Kiera stared at the wide expanse of grass laid before her. It would be so beautiful to paint, if only her wrist wasn't broken. She sighed. "Well, I best put the supper on the table, Martin will be hungry." She wandered back into the small cabin just as Martin walked in the door. "Welcome home Martin." She happily cried.
"Ahh, my wife." he responded. They both hugged quickly and then Kiera got to cooking.
"If you don't mind," Martin said, " I'd like to see Rose."
"She was pronounced dead this morning." Kiera solemnly responded, "they said that the plague hit her harder then it did the other children." Kiera started to sob. Martin quickly picked her up and carried her to the couch and set her down lightly. She slowly drifted off, fast asleep. He opened a window to let a breeze in and then heard a whisper. "And if you should fall, remember
you almost had it all... Don't forget....Death's wind shall blow once more when spring comes upon the land ... and then the unity will break" Martin absorbed the words and then sprinted to shut the window. As he went back to the kitchen, his mind was filled with very disturbing thoughts. Who would be next? Their daughter was already dead, who would be the next?


         Dmitri stared out at the sunrise. He shivered under his cloak, watching the colors spill over the surface of the ocean far below. He rubbed blood-shot eyes and took a sip of his tea. The wind on the cliffs were light today, merely ruffling Dmitri's long hair where it had fallen free of the restraining clasp.

         It was the beginning of the Second Day of Mourning, the first having passed in silence unbroken by tears or the spoken word. This day heralded the Third Day of Mourning, the day of Fasting. Dmitri would not cook this day. The Third Day of Mourning was observed with ritual, the ancient prayers to be said at noon, accompanied by the intricate dance. It was a complicated ritual, and one that implored the ancient gods to return to guide their people.

         On the Fourth Day, they would fast again. On the Fifth Day, each individual lost would be remembered by those who remained. Dmitri had not decided what he wanted to say. He had two people to Remember: his wife, Ania, and their daughter, Penda. Chessa, Lel's daughter, might have helped him craft an appropriate eulogy, but she was dead now, too. Lel had to speak for three of his family, now dead.

         Dmitri was sure that he would be able to give a long enough speech to set Ania's spirit to rest and pay her the honor to which she deserved, but he dreaded the end of Mourning. After would come Celebration Day, where he would be expected to bake cakes and sweets and sing and dance and .. laugh. Tears prickled in Dmitri's eyes, but still would not fall. He didn't think he would ever be able to smile again. And laugh?

         Why was it that no one else seemed as filled with sorrow as he did? Why was everyone telling him that he must move on? Work, they said, mourn now, so that you may again be happy. Did they not understand? Ania was gone! It was if someone had carved out a piece of his heart; his chest was hollow, and empty inside.

         A small sound caught his attention, pulling him from his melancholy thoughts just as completely as if he'd been struck. What was that? That ringing? It was beautiful and sad and seemed to come from up the coast.

         But as soon as Dmitri sought it out, the ringing faded. He stood on the cliffside, facing north, captivated by the sound, somehow calling to him. He remembered then the monster that still shadowed his dreams, chasing him through a meadow of blue flowers. What had Gavril told him he'd said?

         While being treated for the demon-sent injuries, Dmitri had whispered a few words that Gavril had instantly declared as heaven-sent and told him he must find out the answer. They had no priest, had had no one to intercede for the people of Whispering Cliffs in many generations, but Gavril insisted that someone had spoken through Dmitri and he must go wherever or do whatever the mysterious person had instructed.

         Dmitri wasn't sure, himself. How did he know it wasn't the monster, trying to lure him in and destroy him?

         "The demon wouldn't be after you if Heaven didn't need you for something - something important," Gavril had insisted.

         They hadn't spoken at all yesterday, due to the mourning traditions. Today, Dmitri was sure, Gavril would be after him to see what more he had learned ... as if the bread oven had the power to explain everything.

         Dmitri sighed and turned to give the new day a last, lingering look. He would go and help Lel break ground for the new spring's planting. Hopefully, the work would leave him too tired for dreams.
Name: Anglis Gliscan
Age: 22
Home: Icy Rim
Physical Description: He stands just shy of 6foot with shoulder-length dark hair. He has survived two bouts of plague, the first mutating the pigments in his eyes to a brilliant, eerie green and the secind killing the nerves and muscles in his left arm, which he now wears in a sling under his coat.
Trade/Job: Hunter
Other: The winds from the south were once welcomed for their warmth, but the sickness that comes with it has destroyed the villages of the Icy Rim. Anglis lives alone, wandering between the tiny villages, selling his meat and furs and generally trying to stay away from anywhere the infection has settled. Every time he sees the smoke rising he turns aside and changes course with a heavy heart. The first bout of plague left another scar: at first his short-term memory was damaged, then later he began to forget where he was or what he was doing. Now it has also taken a turn to occassional blackouts.


   In the Icy Rim it was cold. Villages were small and compact, families keeping close together to share fuel and warmth. Villages were wiped out quickly by the plague. The bodies would lie until the fires went out and the snow and ice would creep in. In the darker months they would be frozen quickly, eerily preserving everything. Including the plague itself. Wanderers and traders had to be careful not only of avoiding these villages, but of wary customers.
   Denien watched his ‘patient’ carefully. That fool of fisherman had thrown a harpoon at Gliscan: one of their regular visitors. The man had survived two bouts of plague already, one of which he had caught in this very port. He was also one of the worst patients Denien had ever had. It wasn’t that Gliscan was violent, or stubborn, or whiny. He barely ever spoke a word, and ashamed as Denien was to admit it those eyes unnerved him. Particularly the way that Gliscan could stare at nothing for hours.
   In any case, luckily the weapon had struck the dead left arm and although it wasn’t healing, the wound was also minor. No. The main reason that Gliscan was being kept under Denien’s care was because of the blackouts. The fisherman had been terrified that he had killed their hunter when Gliscan collapsed. It happened again while Denien was treating him. People were afraid that he had brought the fever over from another village, but he wasn’t showing any signs of the plague. Of course Gliscan wasn’t volunteering any information.
   There was a knock at the door: a weaver fetching Denien away for a girl that had fallen in the ice and cracked her wrist. Gliscan waited for him to leave before standing. It wasn’t as though the blackouts happened anything near frequently, and they weren’t new. What was new were the dreams. Bright plains of gold, unlike anything he had ever seen. Tall standing stone hat shone in sunlight. Dark smoke, weapons, horns, war.
   to quench the fumes of war, seek the aid of those not men.
   He disliked redes. He had always thought the so called seers amongst villages to be mad, fools or charlatans. He was not a fool, and he was not a charlatan. So either he was mad or he was wrong. It was more likely madness from the plague, another development of the scar on his mind. Either way he meant to leave the Icy Rim and seek out those fields. If he was mad he needed to leave before he was found out and believed dangerous. If it truly was a rede, then those field were where he was meant to be.
Name: Mordred Kaybil Vance

Age: 19

Home: Magical Forest

Physical Description: He is tall and strong, not burly, but well-defined (think Ryan Reynolds) and with a few more eccentricities. His hair is originally white, the colour bleached out from the plauge, but it's still thick and wavy, so he dyes it with roots and leaves, varying from pink to blue to green and various other colours he can make from plants. He's made himself jewelry and has many piercings on his ears and other places. He doesn't bleed much, the plauge adjusted his blood flow so it's not as fast as it once was, therefore he doesn't bleed. The plauge left him with grey eyes, not the customary blue, it seemed like it took away all colour, so with his jewelry and his hair dyes, he gives himself life and pizzaz.

Trade/Job: Blacksmith

Other: He has a quick mind and as soon as he came down with the plauge, he isolated himself from his family and attended himself, he refused to die, and his stubborness prevailed, he survived the plauge with only the trees around him.

Funnily enough, it's only humans that are affected by the disease, the trees and animals were perfectly fine as they gathered around him to see. He studied himself and several of the bodies that were left when he came back to his villiage in the trees. He learned that the plauge attacked the blood, mutating it and making it like electrical signals, read by the nerves, and drowning them, sufficiently killing them, that's why people lost limbs and hair.

He returned to find his sister the only to survive the change in the winds, his family dead and madness creeping through the village, he took up his sister and fled, wandering now from place to place seaching for food and gathering what tools they can.

<><><><>

Mordred gathered Lillya in his arms, she was still small enough to pick up as he wandered into a relatively small town, searching for an inn to stay at, though he doubted he would find one, with this thrice times cursed plauge they holed up against intruders. He felt eyes on him and he turned seeing a half-blind man watching him and his sister, his hair colour was eccentric, like Mordred's own pink today, but it looked like it grew that way. He gnawed his lip, carefully pondering his decision until he gave in and moved towards the man, "Excuse me, sir." He said, pulling his sister higher on his hip, "Do you know where there's an inn we can stay, just for a few days?"

"There's one up the road." He said, his face emotionless.

"Thank you." Mordred nodded his thanks and moved down the road, the man's eyes still burning into his back.

<><><><><><><>

Mordred was lying in the bed at the inn, the lady who owned it was grateful for the business. Lillya's breathing was hitched and heavy, she might be coming down with a cold. His eyes wandered to her bed as his vision fuzzed, he blinked trying to clear it, when a voice, loud and clear as a bell sidled through his head... "Hear..."

The room was dark and Lillya's heavy breathing surrounded him, "Bwothew..." She sounded croaky, "Brother, help." Her eyes were blue as she stared at him, the black-blue patches on her skin stood out starkly, "Bwothew!"

"Lillya!" He took her into his arms and held her tightly, "No, nononono. Please." He whispered.

"Listen!" That voice from before, indistinct whispering came to him, until words formed from them, "...Else evil triumphant will ascend and rule forevermore.... and if you should fall, remember, you almost had it all..."

Mordred's eyes flew open and he looked into his sister pale pink eyes, her black hair mussed from sleep, "Bwothew? Awe you otay?" Her voice was small and hoarse, she was only six years old, already lost her parents.

He hugged her, petting her hair as she buried her face in his chest, "I love you Lillya." He said into her hair.

"I wuv you too bwothew." She replied, "Can I sleep wif you tonight? I'm scawed."

"Yes, you may, come on." He helped her into his bed and he curled around her protectively, his mind churning over the words he had heard, "... Evil triumphant, evermore..."


         Once voiced aloud, Dmitri couldn't get the words out of his head. Lel was unhelpful in that respect, only suggesting he go speak to Gavril, the very last thing Dmitri wanted to do. The healer was a strange old man, half-cazy most of the time, and way too much of a gossip. Were it not for the Mourning, Dmitri was sure that the story of the "Crazy Baker" would be known up and down the coast.

         But with dawn came the start of Celebration Day. . . .

         Dmitri sat on Lel's porch and drank his tea as the sun went down. He was tired, but didn't want to go to bed just yet. Monsters still haunted his sleep, always chasing him across that field of flowers while bells rang somewhere in the distance.

         Little Burian sat beside him, quietly eating his supper and drinking his milk. He looked up, feeling his uncle's gaze, and smiled. "What'cha thinking, Uncle 'Mitri?"

         "You look like your mother," Dmitri answered softly. "I was thinking of her - and -"

         "Aunt Ania?"

         Dmitri nodded. "Yes."

         "That was a nice speech, ever'one says so."

         "I am glad you thought so. What else does everyone say?"

         The youngster frowned at him and shrugged. "I'm only a kid, Uncle 'Mitri," he scolded.

         Dmitri hugged him. "So you are, Burian, so you are."

         "So, are you going to go?"

         "Go where?"

         "I dunno. Papa said you're leaving." The little boy looked at him anxiously. "I don't want you to go."

         Dmitri took a gulp of tea. "I don't want to, either, Burian, but the Gods don't always give you a choice."

         "That means you're leaving?"

         "Well, I hadn't really thought about it, kiddo, but, yeah, I guess I am. I'll come back, though --"

         "Promise?"

         "I promise that I will do everything I can do to come back. Beyond that, well, I don't know, but I'll try." He thought a moment, then decided to tell the child. "You see, I've been sent a message from the Gods."

         As the child stared at him in awe and excitement at the coming tale, Dmitri thought, I sure hope it's Gods and not Demons ....
    Gliscan was used to navigating by the wind. In the Icy Rim the wind almost always came from the west, and when it did not, you could smell the pyres on the southern wind. However, it did not help when the wind you were navigating by was blowing your boat off course. Neither was it particularly easy to sail with only one functioning arm.
    He was sailing south-east to the Blue Grass Plains. It was best to try and island-hop in a small craft than attempt to take the whole journey in one go. It took a few days and nights of little rest and a heavy anchor. He finally saw land ahead of him, and aimed for the beaches on the north side of the Blue Grass Plains. He dragged his boat up onto the sand, pulling out his pack. He would have to abandon the craft here. It wasn’t heavy, but he couldn’t pull it over land alone. He would need to buy a new one on the southern coast. From there he planned to sail to Dante’s Peak once he found out where it was he was going.
    With that he began to walk south-wards and towards the distant town.
Mordred yawned loudly as he woke, the warm weight on his chest stirring as he stretched.

"Go back sleep, bwoth..." Lillya opened sleepy pink eyes and glared at him as he laughed at her.

"No Lil, we gotta get going, and soon too..." The words from last night returned to his once more, perhaps he would seek the diviner of the villiage, or at least the healer to check Lillya for a cold. "Up, up! Come on Lillya, rise and shine."

"No." Lillya tried to borrow further under the blankets, but Mordred caught her ankles and tugged her from beneath them, setting her upright.

"Lillya." He warned softly and she sighed.

"Awight, fine, m'up." She stretched and gathered her things for a bath as Mordred got dressed and pulled his pink hair from his face in a tail.

"Lillya." She looked up at him as she clambered out of the tub and dried herself, "We're going to see the healer today, see if you're coming down with something." As if the plauge wasn't enough. He thought, picking her up after she was dressed and gathering their things.

"Bwo..."

"Brother." Mordred interrupted, "You need to use the 'r' instead of 'w'." He glanced at her.

"B... Brother," She said carefully, "You didn't sleep last night. Felt you kicking lots."

"Rough night." He replied, knocking on the door that a townsperson pointed him to, "Excuse me? Healer Gavin?"

An elderly gentleman opened the door, peering at Mordred and his sister, "What do you need?" He asked.

"I'd like you to check my sister for a cold or the flu, she's been breathing funny, if you will." Mordred pushed a bit of hair from his eyes, showing his many adornments all down his ear.

"Mmm..." The healer looked at him disapprovingly, but opened the door nonetheless, "Come on..."

Mordred entered, setting Lillya down and pushing her towards the old man, "Be nice" He said sharply, "Don't kick, bite, claw, or hit him.... And don't, in any way, hurt him, got it?" He added as an afterthought.

Lillya sighed in disappointment and followed the healer dutifully as he checked her over.

"So, she doesn't like healers, eh?" Gavin asked him.

"Not since our village in the Forest was wiped out. Our healer, she used to like him lots, tried to kill her, since then, it's been a struggle." Mordred said, absently stroking her hair.

"Which village? The one in the trees or on the ground in the outskirts of the forest?" Gavin asked, his eyes gleaming for gossip.

"The trees, most didn't die, they were diven mad, and Lillya here was the only one that got away with her life and her sanity. Well, her and me, we got away and we haven't stopped travelling." Mordred looked up at the old man with a shrug, "So goes life, my mother used to say, so goes life."

"And so it does, traveller." Gavin said, "It seems like you sister has a slight case of the head-cold I'll give you something for it... ah! Dmitri! Hand me those leaves there, good of you to come... yes, good..." The old man puttered about, ordering the newcomer about, as Mordred watched.

"Gavin..." Dmitri said, "My wounds..."

"And they'll need rebandaging before you leave. Reapplication of the healing herbs..."

"You're leaving?" Mordred inquired, "Mayhap you can come with my sister and I, it'd be nice to have some company, and three is better than two or one even."

Dmitri looked at him speculatively, "Perhaps..."

"Ah but you see, Dmitri has been sent on a mission of the Gods! He's had a dream and he's gone to fulfill it." Gavin said, a twinkle in his eye.

"Mordred's been dreaming too, he talks in his sleep." Lillya said, crawling into his lap and cuddling up against him.

"Lillya, it was just a dream." Mordred reprimanded.

"But you were talking funny, didn't sound normal." She shook her head to emphasize her point, "Evil, evermowe or somefing like that."
Name: Ataira (Tai) Norther
Age: 21
Home: A village near the ruins of the Gates of Heaven
Physical Description: Tall, and long-limbed, and as thin as most plague survivors, Tai looks like she's been stretched out. The sickness has touched her at least a half-dozen times, dragging all the colour and all the softness out of her; her skin's bone-white, pulled taut over sharp bones and wiry muscles, and her face is so thin and sharp it's almost triangular under a dirty, messy, tangled crown of once-auburn, now dull black hair. The only bits of her that couldn't pass for already dead are her plague-blue eyes, their colour intensified by each bout of disease. Large and curious as a baby's, they seem far too big for her shrunken face.
Trade/Job: Barfly / general hired hand
Other: Tai's village is the closest place to the Gates of Heaven that people still live in. As a result they're pretty used to the plague, and the ghosts that come from the ruins. It used to be that the braver people from the village would go and loot them (Tai's gone a few times), but in the past few years they've stopped doing that. Largely since they've stopped coming back.

***

His name was Jonathan, or so he said; nobody really cared whether it was true or not, as long as his money was good. He was the first traveller that'd come through this forsaken place in a long time. And, like most people do when it's getting towards the dark end of twilight and it's raining outside and there's nothing for them anywhere else, he'd ended up in the inn and discovered Tai sitting alone, drunker than she looked. They'd struck up a conversation, and he'd asked about the ruins of the Gates of Heaven - because there was really no other reason why an intelligent person like him would want to come to this place; the last outpost of life on the fringes of the place of the dead. So she'd told him. With a few drinks in her, Tai was a fantastic story-teller, and Jonathan sat with eyes widened by alcohol and interest as she told him what she knew of the ruins. She told him how she found it ironic that her very best memories were of the few, daring, terrifying, mercilessly thrilling scavenging-runs she and her brother Iain and her childhood sweetheart - who she declined to name - had made, as far as they dared into the ghost-town. You'd only dare to go in the brightness of the sunshine, and even then the ghosts would be lurking, sobbing, in the shadows; so in summer, when you covered yourself entirely because not even the air was to be trusted in that dead place, you sweated and burned and sweltered and swore but you never sought out the shade until you were back in places where living things could be.

Jonathan bought her another drink, and Tai explained how in this place, the wind from the north-west doesn't just bring the plague from the ruined Gates; it brings with it all the wraiths who couldn't pass through. All the dead of the world... the ghosts of the plague victims, and those dead in the violence that follows, those who die nobly and badly and painfully and thankfully and the tiny infant ghosts who died before they could even live; you'd hear them, sobbing at your door, and sometimes you'd see them too.

The first time Tai had seen them (she explained, accepting another drink from Jonathan), she'd been seven years old, in the grip of a plague-fever, and convinced she'd die; but the next day the sickness had lost interest in her and killed her baby sister instead. Since then she'd learned that it was only when they touched you - when you felt their icy fingers stroking your disease-torn face - when you heard their silent voices call you by your name - that you knew, for sure, that you were doomed. She knew all this because her husband had described it to her, three weeks after their wedding, in a rare moment of lucidity while he'd been dying on a blood-stinking bed as the north wind rapped ceaselessly on their door and the wraiths moaned and sobbed and stroked his pretty face with their cold fingers.

"He brought the plague back from the ruins," Tai said, after a pause to angrily scrub the tears out of her eyes. "He never let me go there once we were engaged, because there are a thousand and seven ways to die in that haunted wreckage, but it used to be a good way to make money. He was the last person to come back... and he brought back a present for me, and the plague for himself. Which," she added with a dash of bitter, caustic and entirely inappropriate humour, "he was good enough to share with me, as well. He died. I didn't, much."

"What was he called?" Jonathan signalled for yet another drink, noticing hers was nearly empty, slightly worried by the casual way she tossed it back.

Tai turned a sad blue gaze on him. "We don't name the dead," she said bleakly. "Not when they come knocking on your door every damn time the wind comes from the north-west."

"Oh... oh, I'm sorry..."

"It's okay," she said bravely. "We're used to death around here. The entire world is dead, up where the Gates of Heaven used to be - even birds don't fly over that place anymore." Tai took a long, shuddering breath, held it, and continued in a more normal tone - at least, as normal as her gravelly, grating voice would ever sound. "And it was a long time ago. Three years... and since then not one person who's gone there has come back. Which is why you had better go back to wherever your home is, and not take the road to the north-west."

Jonathan risked a smile. "How did you know that was my plan?"

"Why else come to this hell-hole? Haunted places always draw treasure-seekers. I know, I was one. And it used to be worth it but trust me it isn't now. Nobody has come back for three years. Please don't go there." Tai put her empty pint mug down on the bar a little too hard. "Please! You'll only die for nothing. Like... like my..." her hand went to the pendant hanging around her neck; the present he'd brought her, the last thing but the plague to come from the ruins of that cursed place. She gripped it so tight her hand hurt, but her eyes were stinging more as the tears began to well forth.

Jonathan looked at the barmaid in helpless worry. "Will she be alright?"

"Tai generally ends up like this once a week or so," the barmaid replied heavily. "Tip her over by the fire, let her sleep it off. Come on, I'll help you."

Between the two of them, they manoevered the sobbing Tai into a more-or-less comfortable position on the worn rug by the low fire. The barmaid arranged a blanket over the curled, crying figure, and stroked her limp black hair away from her face with weary compassion.

"You know where your room is?" She asked Jonathan.

"Yes." He paused. "Should I... is she right about the ruins? Are they that dangerous?"

"It's certainly true that nobody's come back for years. Ask anyone here and they'll give you the same advice she did. Stay away, that place is haunted. It's..." she shook her head, lacking the words to express the deep revulsion she felt. "It's a bad place."

"Well... thank you. Goodnight."

"Sleep well." The barmaid turned back to Tai, sobbing herself slowly into drunken dreams. "And you," she murmured to the younger woman, adjusting the blanket and leaving her alone by the low, hissing fire.

Tai dreams, and she does not like what she sees in her dream. Then again, she rarely does.

In her dream, Tai is sitting in the looming skeleton of the Cathedral. She's never been there, waking, though she's seen it, and been afraid of its size and emptiness and menacing aura. It has no roof anymore, and the frowning overcast sky is pressing down on the soaring walls as though it wishes to bring the place down on Tai's head. There are fragments of gorgeously-coloured glass littering the floor; pieces that were once in the windows. Maybe they were pieces of angels, saints, gods... who'll ever know, now? They are shattered, and cannot be remade.

Someone is speaking, although Tai is alone here. A young girl's voice, high and clear; it's not so much speaking as singing. It's a beautiful voice. Once upon a time, Tai had a voice a little like that. Was it really that lovely to listen to? She cannot recall anymore.

The girl is speaking nonsense, her words are butterflies that die the moment they hit the poisoned air of this bad place, to lie beautiful in death among the fragments of angels and gods on the broken ground. But now the dead butterflies join in, the words are still nonsense but somehow the nonsense makes dream-logical-sense, and Tai knows she'll remember these words because they're terribly important to someone.

The girl's visible now as she speaks the important nonsense, speaking along with the dead butterflies and broken angels in her wonderful singing voice.

"Else you will fail to find the jaded soul. Else you will. Fail to find! The soul, jaded... the jaded soul, else you will fail to find. Fail, to find the jaded soul - else you will." She blinks, and the dead butterflies dance briefly before remembering that the dead aren't supposed to do that. "Else you will fail," she repeats, sadness weighing down her young girl's words like tons of stone. "Else you will fail to find the jaded soul..."

Something's happening here. The little girl - she has hair as auburn and as curly as Tai once had - is growing, ageing; her eyes shift from bright chestnut to plague-blue, the colour deepening with each attack. Tai watches, helpless, sickened, as her own young self is torn and ripped by the plague's iron claws five... six... seven times, and her unspeakably beautiful voice becomes rough and gravelly and strained... and in the throes of the eighth time, she spits out words that are blood on Tai's hands.

"And if you should fall... remember, you almost had it all."

Tai would cry if she could move. The girl - no, woman - she's facing now has finally ceased moving after the ninth attack of the terrible disease. Her skin lies in tatters around her and her hair is gone; her eyes are the blue of the blind; only her thin, dead lips move to spell out a few final words.

"...I almost had it all..." Tai has to lean in close to catch her own parting phrase.

"I was only twenty-one when I died."

The butterflies flap their gorgeous dead wings once, and are still.
{b]Name Marius of the Agony of the Gods
Age: 20
Home: Silent Sea
Trade/Job: Priest
Physical Description: Marius is bald and has eyes so dark a blue they are almost black. He stands at about 5'11. The left side of his ribcage, his lower back, right hip, and the back of his right thigh are marked with the scars of the pox. Although his musculature is good, his immune system was severely affected by the pox, and he looks pale and sickly.
Other: The Silent Sea was once the home of the Order Of Renunciation, which trained young men and women for the priesthood and sent their finest new ordained priests to the Cathedral. However, after the slaughter at the Cathedral, the Order of Renunciation renounced their old name and duty, becoming the Order of the Agony of the Gods. Their quest was to chronicle everything they could about the Cataclysm and to protect and maintain records of the great civilization that was quickly being eradicated by war and later plague. Today, although the gods have long since been destroyed, the priests and priestesses of the Order of the Agony of the Gods await their rebirth, believing that when the gods come again they will eradicate the plague from the land.

***

"Come boy, don't dawdle!" The Precept’s voice seemed unusually loud as it echoed down the cold stone halls, sounding as dry and crackly as the ancient scrolls he so prized.

Coughing in the dusty Archival Chamber, Marius carefully reached for the last book on the table and placed it on the top of the towering pile he already held in his other arm. Then, moving slowly but steadily to balance the numerous scrolls, leather-bound books, and loose leaflets, he made his way down the hall toward the impatient Precept.

The flickering torchlight bounded on and off the walls, at one moment illuminating scenes of the gods performing their sacred Arts, and the next casting them into deep shadow. Marius’s own shadow was like a great monster, leaning back awkwardly with a thick, sinewy head--which was, of course, nothing more than the chronicles the young man carried.

The hallway between the Archival Chamber and the Precept’s office was only about a hundred feet long, but it seemed like it took an eternity for the young priest to traverse it. But eventually he arrived at his destination, and leaned forward to place the records on the Precept’s desk.

The books and scrolls fell in a heap to the ground, and Marius fell with them, landing hard and not moving.

Eyes wide, the old Precept jumped up and limped to the young man’s side. “Marius, lad?” There was no response. He lay a hand upon the priest’s chest and to his horror did not feel the beat of his heart.

“Brother Selbert!” he cried, and the old physician came hobbling in with his cane.

“Do your legs pain you, Precept?” Brother Selbert asked as he rounded the corner. The man was covered from head to foot in pox scars, but his eyes were sound; he took in the scene at once and knelt beside Marius, feeling for his pulse.

“He’s alive,” the old man breathed after a moment. “What happened?”

The Precept did not get a chance to answer, for at that moment Marius began speaking in a weak, almost hypnotic voice.

“Where fell the final blow; life once more will spring.” The young man was reduced to incoherent mumbling for a moment, and then his words took on a semblance of meaning once again and he said, “and if you should fall, remember you almost had it all."

The Precept and Brother Selbert stared at one another in surprise.

“What in the world?” the Precept asked, eyes wide.


         Gavril stared at the little girl. She stared back. His gaze focused on the crazy-haired wanderer. "What did she say? What did you say? In the dream, I mean."

         "Nothing - it was nothing!" Mordred protested, glaring at his sister.

         "Don't be ridiculous!" Gavril snapped, then, without turning his head, "Come back over here, Dmitri, and take off your shirt."

         Dmitri, trying to nonchalantly edge out the door, halted. He might have blushed, it was hard to tell under the peculiar color of his face, but he mumbled something and made a gesture towards the strangers.

         "It's okay," said Mordred, correctly interpreting the mumbling, combined with the rather pained expression on the one-eyed man's face. "We're just leaving."

         "No you don't!" howled the healer. "You, sit," he ordered Dmitri, "There's no sense in being shy, you'll be traveling with these two when you leave."

         "What?" the two men shouted.

         Lillya quietly smothered her giggles as the three men shouted at one another. When there was finally a break in all the commotion, she pointed at the door and said, slowly and carefully, "I'll just wait outside."

         Mordred nodded and off she went. "Stay close," he added.

         "Now, Dmitri," said Gavril, "sit down and take off your shirt."

         Grimacing, the former baker hauled off his shirt and perched awkwardly on the stool by the healer's workshop.

         "Hand me that pile of bandages there, Mordred," said the healer, unscrewing a jar of thick, goey, yellow paste.

         He set it aside and began to unwind the blood-soaked bandages from Dmitri's torso. There were not many places not bluish-purple on Dmitri's body, but the bright-red blood seemed to glow in the light of the lanterns.

         Mordred, turning around, whistled as he saw the jagged cuts. "Those're some marks!" He frowned. "Something around here does that?"

         Dmitri and Gavril both shook their heads. "He was attacked in his dreams," Gavril explained, "by a demon." He gave Mordred a piercing stare. "Now tell me what you heard."

         But Mordred was staring at the oozing wounds. "How long ago did that happen?" he asked instead.

         "Evening of Last Day," Dmitri answered. "We had the Celebration yesterday, you must have noticed as you came in, so that would make it six days ago."

         "Shouldn't they be healing by now?" Mordred asked uneasily.

         "Yes," said Gavril, "but don't think you can escape your fate so easily."

         "What?"

         The healer waggled a finger at him, "Don't think I don't know what you're thinking," he chuckled. "You want as little to do with this quest as Dmitri here does. Too bad, you're stuck with it. Both of you are," he glared as Dmitri opened his mouth to protest.

         Gavril continued, "Dmitri is packed up and will be leaving as soon as we're done here. You should go with him, traveller Mordred. Leave your sister here, she'll be safer. Lel can look after her, he's got a son only a bit older than she is."

         "No, no I couldn't!"

         Dmitri grunted as Gavril began to smear paste over his cuts, thus sparing Mordred another of Gavril's glares.

         "Do sit still!" he snapped. "Just how do you expect to apply this without help? If these get infected, you're toast. Now, I've packed up a stack of extra bandages and you'll take one of these jars with you," Gavril continued, wiping his hands and screwing the lid back on tightly. "You," he said to Mordred, "make sure he cleans the bandages every night and reapplies them every morning."

         "But I'm not --" began Mordred weakly.

         The healer speared him with a disgusted look as he began to wrap bandages around Dmitri. "You're going. Together. Fine, don't tell me about the riddle, it's not like I can help you, anyway!" He sighed. "Just go, both of you, it's safer that way."

         Arms filled with Gavril's packages, Dmitri said to Mordred, once they were safely outside, "You don't have to come with me, you know."

         Mordred grimaced. "I know."

         "To be honest," said Dmitri, "I'm not entirely sure why I'm going, but I'll tell you what. Come break your fast with my brother and I, and we can discuss it."
    Gliscan paused. This was the fourth town he had encountered so far. He had seen the pyres burning in the other, and while there were none here, he could taste the ash in the air. He hesitated a moment before heading into town. He still hadn’t talked to anyone yet and needed to find out some clue as to where and what those standing stones were. He didn’t much fancy wandering every island in the world to find out.
    Everywhere people were in pain. This was why he hated towns. Parents were crying, children were limping, young men were blinded, and a mad woman was being dragged out of town by what were probably her executioners. Whatever sin mankind had committed to cause this he couldn’t imagine. Any god that would inflict something like this was cruel and undeserving.
    He paused, observing his surroundings for a moment. He had felt something. He wasn’t quite sure what, it was more an instinct. Something important was here. Something he needed, although whatever half-thought that had preceded it had left his mind completely. Something important. He needed information on the standing stones. They weren’t here, he knew that much, but… what was it?
    Gliscan blinked slowly, sitting down on the side of the street. He head swam. His mind was temporarily caught on that one thought of need. He could taste the smoke in his mouth; the sickeningly familiar bitter tang that proclaimed death. He pressed his hands to the soil and attempted to stand, but they slipped in the bloody mud. A shard of broken bone scratched his palm, and he lifted it. His left hand. He turned it over curiously. This couldn’t be real but…
    He struggled to his feet, the stinking ooze clinging to his legs so he could hardly walk. The smoke rose up, drifting in thick clouds, making him choke. There was the whisper again, colder, more distant than before, as though it no longer understood its own message.
    To quench the fumes of war, seek the aid of those not men.
    He couldn’t breathe, the smoke was too thick and was settling as smog over the grotesque field. He pulled at his collar, pressing the cloth over his mouth to try and filter the air some. There was a slimey burble and he felt himself start to sink. He pulled his foot out of the ooze, but only sank deeper as he set it down again to free his other leg. He looked up at the silhouette in the distance. The one walking by the stones in a golden field beyond this death plain. He called out to it, but it did not respond. The whispering continued as he was dragged down.
    If you should fall, remember, you almost had it all.
    Gliscan struggled and fought to no avail. He was sinking and there was no way of pulling himself out. His arm went dead again, and there was nothing to grab or pull against. He called out to the figure again and again but it couldn’t hear him or didn’t care.
    He awoke with a start, bright emerald eyes connected with those of a complete stranger. That was what he needed. There was someone here. Someone else who had been sent a rede.
Mordred fidgeted unomfortably in Dmitri's dining room, not quite sure what to expect from the man's family, it had been so long since he had been part of one. He sighed, relaxing as Lillya placed her hand on his arm, a reproachful look on the little girl's face. "Yes, Lillya, I'm aware that I'm fidgeting." He said, with a smile.

"So, Mordred, was it?" Lel said, looking over the eccentric traveller with a critical eye, "What exactly is your trade?"

Mordred fidgeted more, "Blacksmith..."

"You make those things yourself?" He gestured to the earrings, liprings, and nose button he wore.

"Aye." Lillya laughed somewhere to his left, "Shut up, sister mine." He hissed at her.

"Why did you poke holes in yourself?" Lel seemed intent on pursuing his lack of respect for his body.

"I was... too monotonous without them." Mordred responded, a glint of a glare in his eye.

"And what colour was your hair?"

"Before or after the plauge?"

"Both."

"Before it was red. Crimson as the sea at sunset, and now, after, it is white..."

"Perfect for making dyes and changing brother's colour, I like it, it makes me smile." Lillya jumped in, trying to protect him.

Lel looked at the girl as well, his eyes narrowed, before bursting into uproarious laughter that infected the entire table, including Mordred and Lillya, "Your sister is bold and protective, I like her!" He said between bouts of laughter.

"I'm kind of fond of her." Mordred replied, his mirth dying down as he ran his fingers through her hair, "Lil, would you mind staying with these people?"

Lillya's giggles died down abruptly, "NO!" She crawled into Mordred's lap and clung to him, "Don't leave me! You promised!" Her cries silenced the table.

"But where I'm going, I don't want to risk you." Mordred picked her up, bowing slightly, "Thank you for your hospitality, excuse us for a moment."

"I don't want you to leave me." Lillya said quietly, fat tears welling up in her eyes. "Not like mommy and daddy, and uncle, and auntie, g-granna, granbabba, and... and..." She started crying, "Don't go away."

"Lillya, I'm not gonna do anything like they did, promise I'll go on my quest, then come back and you can have me all to yourself again." Mordred put his forehead against hers, "I'll never leave you alone for very long, I'll be back, no doubt about that."

"Pwomise?" She had reverted back to her baby talk in her fear.

"I promise, and if I don't these nice people will care for you, k? And that boy inside, he's very nice, he might be able to be a brother to you in my stead."

Lillya shook her head, "He's not you, Mor."

"Is everything ok? Lillya? Mordred?" Lel's head peered out.

"Yeah, we're fine." Mordred stood, Lillya in tow, "So, Dmitri, about this trip, where are we going exactly?"
When she woke up, Tai felt like she might have already died. The inn was emptying after the breakfast-time crowd had come through, leaving only a few lurkers who either couldn't or didn't want to go back outside and face whatever the world had to throw at them; the lurkers, and Tai's brother, who tried to use the guilt-trips she always went through at times like this to stop her drinking so much. But by the time she'd had one or two, she'd already forgotten how guilty she'd feel afterwards. Tai's brother was ill - not with the plague, all he had was a mundane sickness that in times without supernatural diseases stalking the land would have been terrifying but now was almost a relief. When he saw she was awake, he trembled over and passed her a bottle of water without comment.

"Where did Jonathan go?" Tai asked, once most of the water had gone towards soothing the nausea that lurked maliciously in her throat.

"He took the north-west road," Iain replied.

"He's dead then. Idiot." She struggled upright, wincing as the stubborn stiffness in her neck and back made itself known. "Iain, do you believe in gods?"

"Yes, and we've had this argument before... can't we just agree to disagree?"

"No, it's not that." In the harsh light of day streaming through the open windows, the dream seemed as insubstantial as fog - nothing you can get a grip on, nothing to hold, but once it's there you can't see the world in quite the same way as without it. "How d'you reckon you'd know, if they sent you a dream?"

Iain raised an eyebrow at his sister, and signalled the bartender for two mugs of tea. "I think you'd know because it doesn't vanish like most dreams do. It'd seem important, surely? But, Tai... alcohol isn't a god."

"No, it's a spirit," she grinned wickedly as her brother winced at the pun. "I guess. I just hoped... I just kind of hoped... that it was something important."

"Why don't you tell me what it was? You never know, maybe it was from the gods. They're tricksy bastards sometimes."

Tai smiled, and dragged herself off the floor onto a chair. She recounted the dream as best she could - somehow the vividness of the thing wasn't suited to being caught in the webs of language - watching the expression on Iain's face shift through several flavours of surprise, before settling into an unencouraging pattern of gloomy disapproval. By that time the tea had come, and the bartender had lingered to listen to the tail-end of Tai's story. She didn't mind - she'd already decided that even if the dream was nothing more than the drink-fuelled neuroses of a plague-twisted mind, it was as good a pretext as any to leave this place.

"Tai, that wasn't from the gods. If it was, it would have made some sense at all."

"One, I don't even believe in any gods, so I don't care. Two, it did make sense. Just not a kind of sense that's easy to explain." Tai drained the last of her tea, the dregs dirty with flecks of leaf. "Even if you're right I'm choosing to believe you aren't."

"So you'll deride a curious traveller as an idiot before chasing off after a dream? When did you become so stupid?"

"Go to hell, Iain. I have only ten and a half months left to live, and I'd rather see something more than this wasteland before I die."

"What? Where did you get that from?"

"My birthday was a month and a half ago. So I have ten and a half months left before my next one." Tai hesitated before quoting her own dying dream-self. "I was only twenty-one when I died."

"And you believe that because...?"

Tai shrugged. "Why shouldn't I?"

"It's stupid?"

"So is hanging around here, filling in time until I die." Iain couldn't help his expression softening at the look of despair on his sister's gaunt face. "Iain, I really don't want to fight you, but I'm getting out. Maybe if I'm doing what your gods want me to they'll even decide not to kill me before my next birthday."

Before noon, Tai was riding south-east on the only horse left in town which looked like it could reasonably survive the trip. Its master had died recently, so he wouldn't mind overmuch. This would be the first time Tai had been far away from the village; and as she went, she imagined she could see the colour and the life leaching slowly back into the world, as she left the dead places behind her.
“Nothing!” the Precept roared, slamming the mammoth of a chronicle shut and tossing it onto the already enormous pile of literature on Marius’s bed. “There is nothing, in any of our books, about those words you uttered during your fit. I‘m beginning to think it was just madness, and not the will of the Gods!”

Coughing lightly in the dust, Marius pulled the coverlets back and prepared to swing his legs over the side of the bed. “Precept, perhaps there is something in the---”

Brother Selbert’s staff was long and hard, and it tapped Marius soundly in the chest. “I did not give you permission to get out of bed, young man,” the priest wielding the staff growled.

Marius sighed. “I assure you, Brother Selbert, I feel well.” At least, as well as I’ve ever felt, which isn’t saying much… “I think I know where another useful scroll may be.”

The old priest shook his head and said adamantly, “Do you remember what happened last time you got out of bed before I had determined you were well enough to be up and about? What was that, your second bout of the Plague?”

“Third,” Marius whispered. He glanced up at Brother Selbert’s pox-scarred face in horror. “You don‘t think I‘m coming down with the Plague again, do you?”

Brother Selbert looked at him closely, then sighed. “I don’t know, lad. It never seems to manifest itself the same way twice, with you.”

Neither of them mentioned that another bout of the Plague would probably kill Marius.

“Tell me where this book of yours is, my son,” the Precept murmured after the awkward silence that followed Brother Selbert’s words. Using his cane, he levered himself painfully to his feet. “I will get it myself.”

Marius swallowed. “It is on the third floor of the Archival Chamber, in the section on the god Veddin…”
Name: Derrick Maluse
Age: 22
Home: Tang Mines
Trade/Job: Miner/Wild Catter
Physical Description: It is said that when Derrick was born, his mother died from fright and his father from outright shock. To call this man ugly is an understatement as vast as calling the plaque the daily flu. It is as though the Gods smashed his body with a sledghammer and used super-glu to fix him like putting a puzzle together with pieces in the wrong places, and/or reversed entirely. Furthermore, compounding his hideousness, is his outright size. Skirting 6 inches under 5 feet, he is often mistaken for a dwarf. A redeeming value for him is that even though he is ugly, his face is perfectly symmetrical.
Other: Before the fall of the kingdom, the Tang Mines were a place where military diserters, and political prisoners were kept. Once the kingdom fell, the prisoners took over the mines and have operated it along strict military lines ever since.


         Looking back, the journey was going quite well. Others might think that riding on an ass was slow going, but compared to walking, it was joyous. Still though, Derrick wondered if he packed too much gear, the donkey was moving rather slowly, even for him. Granted, considering the way the dream had arrived...it was better not to take any chances.
         He had been on level 39, the lowest you could go since the Great Flood, scouting for a supposed strain of platinum that a miner claimed he saw when it happened. The floor beneath him was rent in two pieces, as if a giant knife had cut it, and he fell. The only thing that saved him was an arm, and a voice.
         "As still winter grips its icy hand, then come hunting that ancient lore."
         When he came to, Derrick was on the elevator headed to the surface. The doctor was such a beautiful lady. She told him that he had, in fact, discovered the platinum, but that he must've hit his head rather hard. She said that he kept repeating the line, "And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all."
         He had left that night.
         With permission from the General Manager, he had packed all of his belongings and set out on a pet ass. His two 30 pound sledgehammers never left his back, and with them went his most sacred possesion, A book written by his great-grandfather Matthias. It was a poem of considerable length. He had never read it, because he had never learned to read, and only knew two lines that his grandmother had read to him. He hadn't thought about those lines in years, but with the mining accident, they came flying back.
         "Seek the hunter in the sand, and find the others where the tall rocks stand."


         As the two children stood morosely on the steps of Lel's porch, Dmitri and Mordred left town. Aside from Lel, everyone else was out at work, so the streets were deserted. Dmitri only stopped once, in front of the little house next to the bakery. He didn't go in, only stared sadly at the tiny porch and the flowers crawling up the trellis and the squeaky swing.

         Mordred watched his companion silently, reflecting on his own losses.

         But at last, Dmitri took the reins of the packhorse and smiled a sad smile at his strange traveling companion.

         "The best I can figure," he said softly as the last of the village homes faded behind them in the distance, "is that we have to go North. Somewhere," he gestured vaguely in front of him, "up there, is a vast field of blue flowers and a bunch of rocks in a lake."

         Mordred frowned. "Rocks in a lake?" he echoed.

         Dmitri shrugged. "Ruins of some kind, I guess. Don't know what it means." He sighed. "Wish I did."

         "Is that what your rede says? 'Go to the rocks'?"

         The corners of Dmitri's mouth twitched. He shook his head. "No, but I dream about it." He stared off to the side of the dirt trail they followed. "It's where I .. got cut."

         "Oh, great," Mordred muttered.

         "What?"

         "Oh, nothing!" Mordred called back. "So how far is it?"

         "Beats me," came Dmitri's reply. "North."

         Double great, thought Mordred. "Then how do we know we're going in the right direction?"

         "How should I know?" Dmitri demanded. "North, so we go North - I don't know any more than that!"

         "Okay, okay, jeez."

         They walked in silence for several minutes. Then Dmitri said, "My rede went like this: When silver bells sing while blue bells grow."

         "Huh. Mine was 'Else evil triumphant will ascend and rule forevermore.' Pretty strange, eh?"

         "And I thought mine was vague!"

         "Oh, yeah," said Mordred, "there was something else. It went like this: And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all."

         Dmitri stopped short and stepped around the horse to stare at Mordred. "Me too!" he said. "I knew that part, too."

         They stared at each other a moment before moving onward once more.

         "So what does it mean?" Dmitri mused aloud. "What do bells have to do with evil?"

         "Your monster?" Mordred suggested.

         "Hmmm, it did have wings ..."

         "What did it look like?"

         "Um, well, it's head was bigger than this pony, with big teeth, and smoke coming out of its nose. I really didn't get a good look. It .. It looked like something else at first and I woke up before it had fully changed."

         "Huh."

         "You've never seen it?"

         Mordred shook his head. "No. And nothing I know of matches that description. Smoke coming out of its nose? I don't know."

         "Yeah," sighed Dmitri, "No one else knew what I was talking about either. I'm lucky they just didn't decide I was plagued!"

         "Those slashes are pretty convincing," said Mordred with a snort.

         "I guess...."
They camped out on a hilltop that night, a tree provided a bit of shelter from the cool breeze that rustled Mordred's hair. He tossed rocks into the night that pressed around them, his chin resting on his knee, and his eyes half-closed in lazy silence.

"The stars are bright tonight." Dmitri said, his face upturned to the heavens.

"Are they?" Mordred looked up as well, tugging on one of his earrings, "I never used to be able to see the stars, we lived in trees, the foliage was too thick. If we wanted to see them, we'd have to leave the forest."

"I used to look at the stars all the time." Dmitri replied, laying back and tucking his arms beneath his head, "We used to do it together, my wife and I." He fell silent.

"She was a victim to plauge, wasn't she?" Mordred said softly.

"Aye."

"My entire village was wiped out... the lucky ones died and the rest... they went mad. I had just come back, I had isolated myself when I got it, I wanted to protect Lillya and Mama and Papa, and everyone else, but... I returned to find Lillya cornered by Granbabba, Mama, Papa, Auntie... they were all going to kill her, the madness in their eyes was horrifying and I had to kill them. She was four at the time, but she still has nightmares about it. We got out of the house, only to be assaulted by the healer and he almost got her, the reason she's never really trusted healers. We left, burning the village to the ground, and everyone in it. Since then, we've been on the road, moving from town to town, occasionally I'll work for a week or so in the forge, I make a bloody good weapon, be it sword, battle-ax, or what have you." Mordred had picked up a stick and was drawing absently in the ground as he told his story.

"I'm sorry." Dmitri said.

Mordred shrugged, "No choice but to move on, gotta keep going. Mama used to say I wanted to live so bad that I'd die for it..." He laughed slightly, "I suppose that's true."

"Well, we were sent here for a reason, maybe it's to find a cure for the plauge, that way, you don't have to have a will to live, you can just live." Dmitri said, his eyes (even the bad one) fierce with hope.

"That's a nice thought, a messenger of the Gods, lovely, just lovely." Mordred sighed, "This is for my sister and my family."

"You two, your sister and yourself, you're very close, aren't you?"

"We are, we've had to be since then, this is the first time I've been without her since I went to the forest. She's never had the plauge, I intend to keep it that way." His grey eyes flashed in determination.
She'd reached the outskirts of the magical forest before Tai realised that she had no idea where she was going. The past couple of days she'd spent on the road without seeing anyone; which suited her fine, as she had an idea that people from the north would be about as welcome as the wind from that direction. But at some point she'd have to work out what, exactly, she was going to do with herself - all alone in the big wide world. Tai still wasn't convinced that the dream had been a rede. The further away it got, the less likely it seemed; but still it lingered, stubborn beyond the short life-span of most dreams.

Well, whatever, Tai decided as she rode into town. She'd care about her ultimate destination later; for now, this place would do. To her eyes, used to the bleak despair of the dead place, it seemed a bustling haven of life and vitality. Though judging by the number of abandoned houses, it was merely a ghost of itself these days. The townspeople gave her quick, furtive and not entirely friendly glances; clearly she wasn't diseased, clearly she had been, at some point in the past, which left only the question of which bits of her mind had been rotted away. She could almost see the judgements forming behind their careful, narrow eyes - how insane is this one? Killing-insane or just worrying-insane?. Some days she wondered that herself. But their looks wandered off when she returned them.

The half-dead boy wheezing into a rag in the inn's little stable didn't protest when she found a home for her borrowed - come on Tai, say the word, stolen - horse. And despite the sour smell and the flourishing of even more sour glances, Tai was smiling as she strode into the bar. She would never have consented to the tag 'alcoholic', but she firmly believed that all people were equal in the sight of the Spirit. That thought almost made her giggle, but sensing that such open amusement wouldn't be taken well here, she turned it into a cough.

"I would like," she rasped to the innkeeper - haunted by plague-scars, half-blind, looking sixty which meant he was probably half that age - "a room, doesn't have to be nice, and a bottle of whiskey. Or something similarly vile. Okay?"

He shrugged, and turned away to get the drink. "Whole bottle?"

"Yes. Actually, make it two."

"Got something to celebrate?"

"I haven't had a drink for a few days. I'm celebrating the imminent end of my sobriety."

The innkeeper smiled at that. "If the world was full of people like you, I'd be living like a king... anyway, room's the last one on the corridor upstairs, here's the key and your distilled evil. You want to pay now, or tomorrow morning?"

Tai grinned. "Oh, tomorrow, please." She pocketed the key, and picked up the two dirty bottles with loving care. "Thank you. I hope for your sake the world shortly becomes overrun by drunks."

"Want something to eat as well?"

"No thanks. I am fuelled by alcohol."

It was still pretty early, but Tai had been driving herself hard since she'd left home and felt she deserved some time to relax. Locking the door of the cramped little room - it was clean, which was about all she could say for it - behind her, she stretched out on the bed that wasn't quite long enough, kicked off her boots, and started happily on the first bottle; discovering that the name 'distilled evil' was pretty accurate, though it wasn't as vicious as some of the stuff she'd had back at home. Still, ganging up with her tiredness, it was more than sufficient to knock her out.

That night Tai dreamed again, and she still didn't like what she saw. Another ruined city... it wasn't the Gates of Heaven.

She knows this, with the certainty of the dreaming. This was once somewhere far, far greater - ruined by time and war, gnawed by the centuries to a mere stub - a collection of standing-stones, jumbled like the bones in a plague-pit, barely distinguishable from a natural outcrop. But Tai knows. She knows that once this place was a city. Teeming. Bursting. Seething with life - the perfect antithesis of the dead world she calls home.

Someone's singing. A beautiful voice that sounds like it's singing, even when it's cursing. Not that a girl as happy as she once was would curse. Tai doesn't see herself this time and for that she's glad - but the word she's singing is Stonehenge, and she knows as you do in dreams that it's the name of this place.

And then the dream becomes a nightmare again, and Tai wishes she could wake up but she can't so she dies and screams and sobs and dies again all through the endless, tormented night.

          One has to wonder about the stars. Are they other places? Are there other worlds orbiting those innumerable stars?
          Sleep had never come easily to Derrick, and he tended to lay awake most nights and just stared off into space. He wondered if space was like the mines, lots of hard work with little (if any) reward.
          Granted the mines were home. By decree, he had to maintain a dwelling on the surface, but he could only really sleep in the vast silence of the tunnels. Staring at the glittering minerals that seemed to dance across the ceiling, just as the stars danced across the night sky...
          Night passes so quickly when you are contemplating the world around you, at least that is what Derrick thought. That's why he does it, just about every night. Grumbling he roused the mule, and in short order was once more on the road north. You could, after all, only go north with the valley. The mountains that flanked it were near impassible this time of year, and the south of the valley was flanked by cliffs that came out of the mountains. Therefore the only path out of the valley, was near the roots of the Fire Berry Mountains, granted noone from the mines had ventured this far up the valley in a generation, and no one that had done so before was still living.
          Time seemed to move very quickly for Derrick, and before he knew it, he stood upon a hill gazing at the foot of the mountains. Like giant teeth clothed in sheeps wool, they are gourgeous. However, the dark clouds that have been moving in all day do detract from the scene, and soon force Derrick into the cover of a low overhang where he spends another restless night.


         "That's it!" Dmitri said, pointing.

         "Are you sure?" asked Mordred, coming up the hill behind him. "There's no flowers."

         Dmitri frowned. "True, no flowers, but those are definitely the ruins I saw in my dream. Maybe the flowers only bloom at a certain time of the year?"

         Mordred dropped his pack at his feet with a sigh. "Well, if you're sure, now what?"

         Dmitri looked out on the view with a helpless shrug. Not quite two weeks of travel and he still didn't have an answer to that question. "Maybe we should look around."

         "And run into that monster of yours? No thanks."

         "The villagers back there," said Dmitri, pointing his chin back the way they'd came, "said they'd never seen a monster like that."

         Mordred laughed. "Hey, they'd say anything to keep you around!"

         "It was only a job!" Dmitri objected, flushing.

         Mordred's grin widened. "Sure, sure."

         "I only wish we hadn't had to trade the pony for passage up the river," commented Dmitri, looking back over the view. He rubbed his own shoulders. "But I just don't think we have the time. C'mon, let's go down there while it's still light."

         Mordred groaned, but he hefted his pack again and headed down hill after Dmitri. The two trekked out to the edge of the water, staring up at the great stone columns.

         "Why do you suppose it's under water?" mused Mordred.

         "I don't know," answered Dmitri with a shrug. "This must'a been some place!"

         "I think we need to go that way," said Mordred, stepping off into the lake.

         Dmitri closed his mouth with a snap and followed him. Mordred might be a little odd, but so were most survivors. And, he relfected as he strode through the ankle-deep water, perhaps being odd wasn't so odd after all.

         Within the outer-most ring of stones, the water deepened until soon the two men were in water up to their knees. Still they pressed onward. They paused only for a moment when Dmitri stepped in a hole and came up spitting and yelling. Mordred had to grab hold of a nearby stone to keep from falling over himself, he was laughing so hard.

         "Who would have thought," he went on to say later, "that someone so close to the ocean has never learned to swim!"

         Dmitri merely scowled and squelched on. The paused, by mutual consent, almost at the very deepest part of the lake, at the heart of the ruins. It was twilight now, and they could see a soft, red glow from beneath the water. They looked at each other silently.

         "Can you swim?" asked Dmitri.
Mordred snorted, "Like hell, grew up in a forest, remember?"

"Oh, right, well you had to do some fishing, right?" Dmitri asked, cocking his head.

"Not on the whole, we usually caught deer and other wild game, fishing, not so much." Mordred shrugged.

"Well, what are we gonna do?" Dmitri demanded.

"Learn to swim real quick, you first." Mordred ducked behind Dmitri and nudged him forward.

"What? Why not you?"

"Because, I haven't the slightest idea on where to begin, you have at least been around big bodies of water before. Me, not at all, I was lucky if I got to go wading in the ankle-high stream." Mordred yelped as bubbles surfaced and stumbled backwards, "I'm not liking water right now."

"Great, just great, well we might as well stand here until someone comes back and decides to paddle down and get it." Dmitri climbed up on a stone and sat down, "Come on."

"Yeah, yeah..."
In the twilight, Tai saw the two indistinct forms sitting on rocks in the lake. The soft noise of their friendly bickering floated over the calm water to her, too quiet to make out words, too quiet to really do anything more but define the silence. Tai had to admit that this place scared the hell out of her - with the fading blue light and the total stillness and the time-blunted bones of the once-great palace rising like admonitions out of the lake, it felt too close to the Gates of Heaven for comfort. But at least she hadn't heard any wraiths. They seemed to be a phenomenon restricted to her local area. Which gave this place a bit of an edge. In fact if she didn't look at the enormous stone skeleton and focused instead on the tiny little blue buds forcing their way out of the rough, scrubby grass - a week, maybe two, and they'd be blooming - then what with the peace and gentle cool of the twilight, this could actually be a lovely place. Except that she couldn't not look at the huge scary ruins of the dead palace.

Stonehenge. It more or less had to be. And she'd finally gotten here, so now what? Tai considered sleeping on it and dismissed the idea as soon as it'd crossed her mind. For firstly, the nightmares'd been so bad she hadn't had the courage to sleep for a while. For secondly... she knew those perching men. She'd seen their faces and heard their voices in her dreams, before she'd stopped sleeping; they'd died, too, generally a little after she had, generally in equally unpleasant ways. And in the way of the dreamer she'd known them, known they'd had the same sort of bizarre riddles posed to them by way of night-pictures, known they'd be here... there'd been more than two, but probably the others would be turning up soon.

Tai hobbled her horse and left it to roam - there wasn't a whole lot of trouble it could get into in this deserted place. Leaving her bag and boots on the shore, she sloshed out through the lake - walking where she could on the tops of submerged walls - until the water was high and freezing and they'd seen her and she had basically no idea what to say, because by the looks on their dusk-dimmed faces they didn't recognise her. Tai smiled and waved.

"Hi," she said. "My name's Tai. I had the dreams too. So what are we supposed to do here?"

The men exchanged slightly bemused looks. "We don't know either," the older said. "By the way, I'm Dmitri."

"Mordred," the younger told her, in reply to a questioning look. "Can you swim?"

"Sort of. Why? Do you guys know what the hell's going on here?"

As an answer, Dmitri pointed to the dark water. "There's something down there. Can you see it?"

Tai peered into the depths of the lake, wondering whether the red glow she saw pulsing softly from under the clear, shadowy water was what he meant or whether she'd just finally started hallucinating. Somehow the red glow, more even than the rest of this haunted old heap, made her nervous.

"Yeah," she said uneasily. "Why didn't you get it?"

"Can't swim," Mordred replied shortly.

Tai looked up at them in exasperation. "Go back to the shore and light a fire. This water's really cold and I'm going to get soaked."

Somewhat taken aback by Tai's suddenness, Mordred slid off the rock and waded back to do as she said. Dmitri stayed, with the expression of one who had a million questions but wasn't sure how to ask them without sounding impolite. Or maybe Tai was reading too much into what little of his shadowed face she could make out. With a mental shrug, she shoved aside the sensible bit of her mind and hurled herself, with the courage of those drunk on wakefulness, head-first into the lake.

Tai had never learned to swim. She'd gathered, by practicing in the margins of the grubby little lake by her village, the rudiments of propelling yourself through water without drowning overmuch; but she hadn't liked it, she didn't like water, she didn't like the feeling that her feet weren't pressed against something solid that pushed back. Still, the red glow - the only thing she could see down here in the darkness of the lake at dusk - wasn't far down; and in a few splashing, graceless, worryingly breathless moments, she'd gripped one of the two handles that projected from the heart of it. It wasn't a large chest, and thankfully wasn't heavy enough to be much trouble; but when she pushed off from the broken rock surface it'd been sitting on, its weight added to hers slowed her down enough that she didn't reach the surface before she started to sink again. For one terrified moment she knew for a fact she'd drown here, despite her frenzied kicking - her feet weren't touching anything solid, she was in free-fall (free-float?), this was horrible beyond anything - and then her one free, flailing hand broke the surface, a moment later Dmitri grabbed it and hauled her spitting, gasping and cursing onto a broken fragment of wall. The chest's glow had dimmed in the air to a mere suggestion of crimson, crawling over the night-black wood.

"You take it," Tai said, when she'd got enough breath back to do more than swear. "I'm not touching that thing again."

Puzzled, Dmitri picked it up and they began wading back through the lake and the near-dark dusk back to the fragment of fire Mordred was building up. "What's the matter with it?"

"Can't you hear the damn thing singing?" Tai snapped back. Dmitri shook his head. "Well... I could." She shivered, half from the cold of the lakewater draining from her hair and shirt, half from the recollection of the freezing, quiet whisper of song that'd flowed up her arm like spiders when she'd grabbed the box. She had no idea what it was about - like water it'd drained through her, leaving only the nasty aftertaste, like bad alcohol.

In the firelight, Mordred and Dmitri examined the thing. Tai didn't particularly want to look at it.

"It won't open," Dmitri said, disappointed. "What's this written on it?"

"I don't know," Mordred replied, peering closely at the insane-looking sigils and scrawls and swirls burned into the sides. It was actually from them that the eerie red light was seeping. "It doesn't really look like a language though." Indeed, it looked like what happened before you got language, or once the need for it had been long surpassed - these wierd symbols were more than representations of ideas - they were the ideas themselves. And they didn't look happy. Tai crept back into the light - having slipped away to put dry clothes on - and took a quick peek before turning her back to the lake and her face to the fire, and curling on her side under a blanket.

"Don't wake me," she pleaded; and, now she was finally here for whatever purpose the dreams had in mind, Tai let herself fall asleep.

This time she doesn't dream.
“I dreamt last night,” Marius said.

“Yes, I know,” Brother Selbert said as he pressed his hearing instrument to Marius’s chest. “Breathe deeply, my boy.“

Marius did as he was told, inhaling slowly and then letting the air out of his lungs again in a slow hiss between his teeth.

Apparently satisfied with the state of Marius’s lungs, the old healer returned the hearing instrument back into its protective pouch, then pulled a thermometer out of his larger supply bag “Your screams were loud enough to wake the entire monastery, but when I came to check upon you, you had quieted once again.” He slipped the thermometer into Marius’s mouth. “Do not bite down upon this,” he commanded.

“I dreamt that I was standing within a circle of towering stones, and there were others with me,” Marius said, balancing the thermometer between his teeth. “They had a chest of some sort with them, and they couldn’t read it. I was very frightened.”

“Frightened?” Brother Selbert asked. “Why?”

“I am not sure,” the young priest admitted. “I only know that it was very urgent that they open the chest, but… I don’t know… I felt that they needed me there with them, that disaster would befall them if I were not there. Does this sound prideful, Brother Selbert?”

“Don’t talk so much,” the healer priest commanded. “You’ll mess up the reading.” Then he sighed. “No, it does not sound prideful. It is the wish of very human being, to be needed.”

They were silent for a few moments, as Marius thought about what Brother Selbert told him. Then the healer priest took the thermometer from Marius’s mouth, and squinting in the dim light, examined it. Marius held his breath, hoping. At last, Brother Selbert said, “You have no fever. I believe you are well enough to get out of bed.”

“Good,” Marius said, slipping immediately out of the covers. “I must speak to the Precept at once.”

“You’d do well to wash up a bit first,” Brother Selbert laughed. “You’ve been abed two days, and smell it.”

Marius nodded, and leaning heavily on his cane, the healer priest levered himself to his feet and hobbled out of the room.

When he had bathed and donned a fresh robe, Marius made the long walk from the acolyte’s abbey to the Precept’s office. When he arrived, the Precept looked up, and gestured him in.

“I suppose you are here to ask my permission to leave?”

Marius jumped. “How… how did you know?”

The Precept smiled grimly. “After you read the Book of Veddin, and after your dream last night---yes, Brother Selbert told me of it---how could a curious young man such as you not wish to seek answers?”

“Precept, I---”

“Oh, don’t worry, my son! It is the dream of very priest of the Agony of the Gods to be caught up in a quest laid forth by the gods, but it is the right of those with young bodies and minds to actually embark upon one. You have my permission---and blessing---to do what you believe you must do.”

“Oh, thank you, Father!” Marius breathed.

“Don’t thank me, thank Brother Selbert,” the Precept said. “If he had not pronounced you well, I would not allow you out of bed, no matter how much you desire to leave. Now go, and pack. And don‘t forget to take your Writ with you!”

“I will not forget,” Marius said with a grin.

***


The next morning Marius set off. The monastery had granted him the supplies for his journey, as well as the mule to carry them. Marius himself rode his gelding Bairacctar, the horse upon which he had made his journey to the monastery twelve years before at the age of eight.

The other monks gathered outside to see him off. It had been a long time since a priest of the Agony of the Gods had ventured into the outside world, and there were many tears and well-wishes that had to be shared.

“Do you know the way?” the Precept asked.

Marius nodded. “It is near the village of my birth.”

“Ah, the Blessed Village. That’s right.”

By the time the noon sun had climbed into the sky, Marius was gone. Four days he rode, camping by the roadside when there were no inns to sleep in, and renting a room in exchange for consecrations or---more grimly---late rites.

At last, weary after days of almost nonstop travel fuelled only by his strange, overwhelming desire to reach his destination, he arrived at Stonehenge.

But… where were the people he’d seen in his dream?

He found them, kneeling on the Western side of the lake that entombed more than half of the ruins. They had lit a fire against the cold of the night, and beside it one of the three figures slept curled up beneath a blanket. The other two knelt beside a faintly glowing object---the pitch black chest he’d seen in his dream. Its faint red glow illuminated the faces of the two men as they reached forward to open it.

“No, don’t!” Marius bellowed, leg-reining Bairacctar into a full gallop.

The two men turned away from the chest in shock, and stared with open mouths as the horse and rider bore down upon them.

         Introductions had been short and sweet. Derrick reveled in the company his two new traveling companions could provide, but he found himself withdrawn from them. He had always been a loner, and had only worked with others when he had been forced to.
         He had been standing upon a cliff gazing upon a wonderous sight. The ocean was truly blue and the sky was as clear as fine glass. He didn't know how long he had sat there watching, but it had been long enough so that he had been noticed.
         The two travelers made an odd couple, a woman (shorter than him) immediatly drew his eye. She was gorgeous. Unfortuneatly by the way her companion walked, she was also taken. Her fellow was a monster of a man. Standing almost twice Derrick's height, he was taller than any man that Derrick had seen before.
         As it turned out, Kiera was in fact married, but not to Anglis. Her husband was at home doing what needed to be done while she was away. And Anglis was not so much of a monster.
         Together, albeit loosly, they traveled west. Often it was with Derrick taking the lead, with Kiera and Anglis following behind. None of them knew where exactly they were going, but the members had come from opposite directions with the sea to the east, the only way left was to go west.
         It took them almost a week to reach the plain.
         In the distance Derrick could see the sun glint off a body of water, raising his hopes that he might once again be upon the sea. Those hopes were dashed when all they came upon was a lake with large stones rising from its depths. Depressed, they quickly made their camps upon the shore.
         The first night was dangerously cold and it forced the two men to share a campfire, and their blankets, with their female companion (much to her enjoyment). After all she thought, This was the closest the two men had been to each other the whole trip, despite her many, and varied attempts to get them to talk.
         The next day was spent wandering the perimeter of the lake, until the relentless march of time once more brought on the night.          "Look! A campfire!" shouted Kiera. Her seemingly endless energy causing her bounce around with exitement. "It could be the others that we've dreamed of."
         "True it could be," began Derrick, "or it could be a band of thieves."
         "Don't dampen the ladies mood, Miner, or I will dampen you."
         "Oh, what are you going to do? Throw me in the lake? I can swim. Can you?"
         Moving in the night kept them warm, and the animosity between the two men kept them moving at break-neck speed. Neither wanted the other to arrive first, but both lost out to Kiera.
         She had heard the shouting. She had heard the horse. And She was there first.
         Dmitri dropped the chest with a muffled shout, throwing himself backwards. The impact with the ground caused him to gasp and double-up in pain. He just laid there for a few moments in the dark, blinking his eyes and catching his breath.

         Mordred had no such compunctions to avoid trouble. He lunged for his walking staff and swung it at the approaching rider.

         "No - wait!" More shouting, and a female form threw herself on the smith. Together, they rolled down the slight embankment towards the lake.

         Similarly, Tai rolled out of her blankets, knife in hand and snarling something that sounded like, "I'll teach you to mess with m' sleep!"

         Two more figures, one short, one tall, ran into the light of the campfire. They halted abruptly as Tai swung at them.

         "Whoa, there!" yelped Anglis, dodging out of the way.

         Derrick held his empty hands out in front of him. "Mean you no harm," he said, slowly stepping backwards, "Honest!"

         From atop his horse, Marius snapped, "Enough with this nonsense already! I'm a priest in the Order of the Agony of the Gods - not a monster! Put your weapons down, all of you!"

         Anglis snickered. "That's quite a mouthful!" But he stayed out of Tai's reach.

         With a painful wheeze, Dmitri pushed himself to his feet and grasped the horse's reins, half for support as his other hand went to the bandages he hadn't yet changed for the night.

         "It's all right," he called to Tai. "Mordred, stop playing around and get over here. If these folks were hostile, we'd already be dead."

         Mordred laughed from somewhere behind him and squelched back into the light of the campfire. Equally wet, Kiera grinned as she sat down and began to steam. Tai lowered her dagger slowly and scowled at the dwarf. The dwarf and his taller companion inched around the fire in the other direction, sitting down by Kiera.

         "Thanks, friend," said Marius, looking down at Dmitri. "I didn't mean to startle everyone, but you cannot open that chest."

         "We found it!" Tai protested with a growl.

         Marius sighed. "I must apologize again. Perhaps it would be best if I told you why I'm here."

         Dmitri and Mordred exchanged a look. "I think we're all here for the same reasons," Tai answered. "That box," she continued, pointing at the glowing chest, "might have some answers, and I, for one, want to open it."

         Marius slid down from Bairacctar's back. "If someone will fetch my donkey, I left him behind a ways in my haste, then I will be free to examine the chest and can determine the best way to open it."

         There was silence around the campfire.

         "Well, I don't know about everyone else," said Kiera, "but I'm hungry. I'll stir us up a pot, if you two lugs," she peered at Derrick and Anglis, "will fetch our things from our campsite."

         "I guess I'll fetch the d--- donkey," grouched Tai, and she slunk off into the dark.

         Marius stared at Dmitri as the other made no effort to move. "Are you okay?" he asked.

         The dwarf and the tall man, the woman by the fire, and Mordred's head all snapped towards the others, pausing in their tasks.

         "It's nothing," Dmitri said, feeling a strange reluctance to admit to his wounds.

         Mordred was soon by his side. "Why don't we tend to your horse, then?" he asked the stranger. "That way, there's nothing to keep you from the chest."

         Marius smiled evenly. "Yes, and without my horse, I'm not likely to run away with it, am I?"

         Dmitri was feeling a definite weakness in his knees and he took a small sideways step to draw Mordred out of the conversation. He used the horse to mask his halting progress.

         "Sit down," Mordred hissed at him as they stepped off into the darkness. "You're going to fall over! What's got into you? Why didn't you tell them?"

         Dmitri sagged to the ground with a groan. "I don't know, Mordred, I just didn't want to. Somehow, it felt, well, wrong to tell them just now."

         "Well," said Mordred, with a practical shrug, "it's your funeral. Okay, wait here a minute and I'll go get the stuff."

         Dmitri held the dangling reins and patted the horse's smooth nose while Mordred went to grab the medicine and supplies. He watched as the strange woman asked Mordred about food and set about on building a stew in the one cooking pot the two men had carried with them. It would be good to have some decent food again. Mordred certainly knew how to make food out of what they could harvest from the land they passed through, but that didn't necessarily mean it would taste good. And while Dmitri could make decent flapjacks, those got old after awhile.

         The stranger, the priest, he'd said, dragged the chest closer to the fire, as Mordred heaped more logs on, and sat down to peer closely at the eery lettering. Dmitri knew how to read, somewhat, anyway, but those curling hieroglyphs made no sense to him. And then Mordred was back and the gruesome and painful task of unwinding and replacing his bandages began.

         "I need something from my saddlebags," Marius called, standing up. He walked toward Bairacctar with a frown. Whatever those two men were doing, it wasn't tending his horse.

         The taller one stepped from around Bairacctar, with a friendly slap to the horse's rump. "What is it? Can I get it for you?"

         "It would certainly be easier if I just grabbed it myself." Marius paused. From the way the man was looking at him, Marius got the impression that he really, really didn't want him to come any closer. "Uh, well, if you want to, toss me that satchel, the heavy one. Be careful, it's got books in it."

         Toss it? Mordred said to himself, Yeah right! Aloud, he asked, "What'ev you got in this thing? Isn't this something you'd normally saddle a pack animal with?" He dumped the bag into the priest's arms.

         Marius struggled a minute under the weight. "Yes, normally," he agreed, "but I wanted to read while I traveled. Research."

         Marius heard him say, under his breath, of course, "Uh-huh," as he turned away.

         The priest looked at the other's retreating back for a long moment, considering, before he turned back towards the chest. Sitting down, he pulled a scroll from the bag and wieghed it down with some rocks within the light from the campfire. He looked at the chest again.

         The writing is definitely Old Vredian! he thought with a surge of glee. He'd guessed right! Some long time ago, one of the followers of the Order of Renunciation had carved the runes into this chest. What was the reason, though? The runes were different than any written on the scroll.

         Derrick and Anglis trekked back to the campsite with their belongings and dumped them in a heap to one side. "Hey!" said Kiera, scowling at them. "At least shake out the bedding so it's not all filled with dirt!"

         Anglis rolled his eyes, but Derrick was attracted to the priest and that weird, glowing-red chest. Some of those runes looked familiar. "Hey," he said, squatting down next to the priest and pointing at a corner of the chest. "That looks like a symbol we have in our mine. It's like a prayer for luck."

         "A prayer?" asked Marius, looking up at the horrifically ugly man. "What do you mean?"

         The dwarf traced part of the rune with his finger. "This is the symbol for luck, and this," he traced part of the encircling glyphs, "looks like the word for blessing."

         "Then what's this?" asked Marius, pointing to the rest.

         Derrick shrugged. "Beats me."

         "It's a focus," said Tai, coming up behind them.

         Marius jumped. Somehow, the dagger-weilding woman had crept up unheard and bedded down the donkey without anyone noticing. Now, she knelt down and traced a symbol which went in and around the other two.

         "This," she explained, "is a symbol I've seen many times, although then it was a warding, warning of something within. I don't know what it means written like this."

         "Hmm." Marius looked down at his scoll, then fetched another out of his bag. He stared at it while the other two looked on. Clearing a spot in the dirt next to the fire, he began to draw with a twig.

         "On the chest are these symbols," he said, drawing them as he spoke. "Luck, protection, safety, elemental symbols for water, lightning, and fire, two different forms of the blessing rune, this warding one that you say focuses the spell on the box and whatever's inside it, and this one." He paused for a moment before drawing the last, central rune, a simple circle with a dot inside it. "I don't know what this one is."

         The other four were now also leaning over the box, Kiera with half her attention on the pot over the fire.

         Marius looked up, catching Dmitri's eye. The priest caught a smothered grimace on the other's face, and he saw that one of the stranger's hands rested lightly over his stomach. Hmm, he thought.

         "Well, you're the one who didn't want us to open the box," said Dmitri, misreading the priest's expression. "You tell us what we should do."

         "Hey!" said Anglis suddenly, "There's more writing on the lid."

         They all looked where he was pointing. More writing, of a different style, had appeared along the metal portions of the box, flickering in a blue light.

         Marius gasped. "I don't believe it! It's High Vrede! I've never seen anything written in that before! It was only spoken in the temple at the Gates." He frowned in thought. "According to our histories, only the Keeper of the Gate was allowed to write it, and the royal family, of course." He looked up into the puzzled faces of the others. "It's the private language of the Gods," he explained. "The Keeper was the high priest in the Temple at the Gates of Heaven and wrote down the prophesies he received from the Gods. When they would come to him, they came like this, and then had to be translated. I, I don't know if I'll be able to translate."

         Tai swallowed, fighting down a rising panic. Her right hand clenched an item inside her shirt. Slowly, she drew it out and pulled the cord from around her neck. She held it out towards the others.

         Marius' mouth fell open. "Where'd you get this?" he gasped.

         "It was a gift," she replied, fingers curling around the medallion.

         Marius' fingers hesitantly traced the silver medallion. Symbols, etched in gold plating, made a dazzling display on one side. On the other, a simple circle of gold, with a dot in the middle.

         "Do you know what this is?" he breathed, barely daring to blink, for fear it would vanish before his eyes. The girl, who vaguely smelled of old alchohol, shook her head, old pain shining from her eyes.

         "This is the Keeper's Medal of Office!" The priest touched it again. He looked up at her and opened his hands to receive it. "May I?"

         Opening her hand and releasing the grip she had on the cord supporting it was one of the hardest things Tai had ever done. "I want it back," she said as she finally let it drop.

         "Of course!" Marius cradled it in his own hands and turned it over and over. He looked up at them again. "I need to study this more. It might take a while."

         "Ack!" cried Kiera, at about the same time. "The stew!"

         With a laugh to break the tension, the group broke apart. They sat down around the campfire, traded stories and names, and ate their way through several helpings apiece of Kiera's cooking. Gradually, one by one, they rolled themselves into their sleeping blankets and fell asleep. All, that is, except for Marius, who stayed awake through the rising and setting of the moons; and at last, with a victorious shout to rouse everyone from their slumber, Marius had decoded the box.

         As the sun rose, they all gathered round again.

         "This chest," Marius told them, "is the treasure trove of the Keeper's last prophesy! What it's doing here, I have no idea, but his medallion is the key. The heavenly script is a warning to the unfaithful." He looked up at Dmitri and Mordred with a tired smirk. "You should be glad that I stopped you in time. There's dire consequences for anyone who should attempt it, and I can't read most of them. Anyway, the outer symbols are to safeguard the contents, and they're all peaceful ones." He gripped the medallion in his hand. "You may want to back up, in case I got this wrong ...."

         They looked at each other and grinned. Dmitri answered for everyone: "I don't think so, Marius, go ahead, do it."

         With a deep breath, the priest turned the medallion over and touched the two circles to each other. There was a soft click - then nothing.

         Mordred laughed. "Man! What a let-down! Is that all there was to it?"

         Marius eased the lid open and they all peered inside. "Oh no!" he cried.

         The bottom of the chest was covered in mud. The one remaining hide was soaking wet and fell apart in Marius' hands.

         "No, no," he moaned. "One of the spells must have failed."

         "Wait! Look," said Kiera, pointing. "There's another piece."

         Marius was the only one who dared put his hands inside the box and he carefully sifted through the mud to pull out another thin sheet of vellum. This, it seemed, was mostly intact.

         "What does it say?" asked Anglis.

         Dmitri offered Marius his waterskin. The priest accepted it without a word, using some water to wash off the mud. "Well, it's a prophesy, of course. Here, listen:

         "Blue Midget who Hides; The Dwarf in the Darkness; One-Eye marked by Evil's Hand; A Priest of Destiny's Lost; Mad Hunter traveling the Forgotten Way; Lover in Disguise, alone; And the Dreamer of Fortune: Take these with thee, no more, no less ...

         "And there's something else, but I can't tell what it is."

         Dmitri chewed his lip, his hand going to his stomach and the bandages hidden under his clothes. "I think that riddle is describing me," he said.

         Marius nodded. "That makes sense, but if that's true, then each of us are in here somewhere. What do you think means you?"

         "I'm the One-Eye marked by Evil's Hand."
Mordred fiddled with his hair, making note that he had to re-dye his hair sometime soon, the white was beginning to come back. He stood, "I'll be back." He said over his shoulder, moving towards a patch of various coloured plants that he could see in the barren area.

"Where are you going?" Kiera asked, standing with him.

"To attend to something that should have been attended to awhile ago." He replied.

"I'll go with." Dmitri stood and Mordred slowed down to match the baker's pace.

"One-eye, huh?" Mordred laughed, raising an eyebrow.

Dmitri snorted, "Yeah, I guess, no one else is missing an eye and was attacked by a great big... thing, so one begins to assume."

"Assuming is a dangerous thing." Mordred said, sitting in the middle of the group of plants, pulling a mortar and pestle from his bag, "My Da said to me once, 'Never assume anything, son, it makes and 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'. And I suppose that was the truth."

"You speak of your family a lot, you must miss them." Dmitri observed.

"I do, but I bear them no ill will for leaving me, they have it better now that they are at rest." He plucked a few purple flowers and scooped water into his bowl, mashing the inredients together.

"How do you get it so... bright?" Dmitri asked, glancing at Mordred's hair, still that violent shade of pink.

"With this." He pulled a few items from his back, a sort of powder in five different colours, red, blue, white, black, and yellow.

"What is it?"

"Sediment powder, with the oils of various plants to get it the right colour." He sprinkled some of the red powder in with the purple paste and mixed it in, "It a simple combination of colours to make the one you desire, painters use it all the time to make their paints and I add it sometimes to the steels and bronzes and other things to make variations in the metals and the customers love it, they usually pay very highly for colour alterations to their weapons and armour."

"Interesting." Dmitri touched some of the paste and smeared it on his hands.

"Careful." Mordred raised an eyebrow, "Too much and your hands will be stained."

"Any idiot should know that." Kiera had appeared from nowhere to startle the two men.

"Where did you come from?" Mordred demanded.

"From camp." She replied, plopping down next to him, "What are you doing?"

"Making dyes."

"Not for clothing, I hope." She replied, prodding the thick purple liquid.

"No, for my hair." Mordred said, picking up dab and rubbing it between his fingers.

"I see." She sounded skeptical.

"Just watch." He said, standing with his bowl of dye. He ran water through his hair, and applied the heavy paste through his long pink and white hair carefully.

"You're sure you know what you're doing?" Kiera asked, watching him nervously.

"Yes. I do." He scrubbed, producing brightly coloured bubbles that ran into the water, popping and dispersing quickly. "There." He stood wringing the water from his hair and lo and behold, his hair was another violent shade, this time of purple.

"Wow, that kinda hurts my eyes." Kiera said.

"Thanks." He said, cleaning his things and heading back to camp with Dmitri following behind and Kiera behind him.
"Dreamer of Fortune?" Tai raised an eyebrow skeptically, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt. "Dreamer of misfortune, more like."

"You think it's you?" Marius was still bent like a giant bird over the cracked and stained sheet of vellum.

Tai shrugged. "Who else? I've seen you die, Priest of Destiny's Lost."

Marius's head snapped up as though dragged by a rope, and his creepy near-black eyes fixed on Tai's narrowed blue ones. "You've seen what?"

She laughed harshly and flopped backwards, staring up at the cloud-stained sky. "I've seen you die. In my dreams of 'fortune'. Don't take it personally, I've seen everyone die in all sorts of horrible ways. But you know what the worst bit is?"

"No."

"If the dreams are real, then maybe there's a hope of doing something useful, otherwise why are we all here? But then I know I, at least, have ten months at most to live. On the other hand, if they're just random dreams, then we all might have a lot longer than that - but the world will stay just as comprehensively screwed-up as it is right now because this 'prophecy' or whatever is just a decaying chunk of baby cow's skin with some wiggles of ink on it, inside a box in a lake. Damned if it's true, damned if it ain't," Tai explained in a wierdly cheerful tone of voice, and started humming.

There was a strained silence following that gloriously bleak statement, broken by a scraping and scrabbling sound, and a mutter of satisfaction as Anglis, who'd been rooting through the muck in the box, held up a lumpy stick-like thing in one muddy hand. On close inspection, it might actually have been a key; the hunter - Mad Hunter, Tai thought idly - splashed it clean, revealing that it was, indeed, a key. Maybe three inches long, covered in a lumpy skin of corrosion that came off in sullen flakes with a little bit of scrubbing.

"This was in the box too," Anglis said. "What do you think it opens?"

"Let me see that!" Derrick pounced, snatching the key roughly from Anglis's surprised grasp, and turning into the thin sunlight to see better, holding the thing close to his hideous face. "I don't... this metal, it's... odd. The rust was only a little, a surface layer, the inside's still sound." He weighed it thoughtfully in his hand - it felt far too light, lighter than a metal really had a right to be, as if there wasn't actually anything there at all. But when he tested it, cautiously bending and tapping and scraping it, it responded in all ways as a metal would had it been not only lighter but also harder than any metal, really, had a right to be. If it was an illusion, it was a pretty tough one.

Finally, the ugly little dwarf shook his head. "This either came from a long way away, or a long time ago. It's not like anything I've seen before. Hey, blacksmith!" Mordred, returning with Kiera, Dmitri and startlingly purple hair, caught the key as Derrick tossed it to him - glinting with a cool blue shine as it arced through the sunlight. "Recognise anything like this?"

Mordred took a few seconds to examine the key before admitting that he, too, knew of nothing else like it. "What does it open?"

Marius shrugged, exasperated by this seeming dead end. "There's no way to tell. Is there anything written on it?"

"Just decorations. Leafy vines and the like." They were etched into the wierd weightless key with a delicacy and detail that, Mordred knew, no smith or craftsman around today would be able to match. He passed it on to Kiera, who'd been hovering curiously by his elbow to see. "Recognise anything?"

Kiera rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Honestly, do you know nothing? See, here's lotus, and this is obviously amaranth. Lotuses are mystery, truth, knowledge, that kind of thing, and amaranth is the flower that never fades. Which is generally a good sign."

"Okay, it's very pretty." Dmitri glanced at the little shining thing in Kiera's hand. "What are we supposed to do with it?"

"Find the door it opens," Tai offered. "You guys can have fun with that. I'm going back to the village."

"Why?" Mordred asked.

"You see any bars around here? Me neither." Shrugging off objections before they could form, Tai caught her wandering horse and pointed him up the road to the village.

         The water looked so nice to Derrick. Nothing at all like the water in the mines. This water was dark and murky, but unlike the mines it had the sun to shine off it. And that makes all the difference.
         Or so he thought.
         Completely intent upon the water, Derrick failed to notice Dmitri's arrival until he spoke, "The water here is awfully murky isn't it?"
         "I hadn't noticed."
         "Tell me something. In my village, everyone has to look out for everyone one else, and so we all have to get along with each other or at least...try to."
         "Is there a question in there?"
         "Well yes actually. Assuming the current situation with the plague and all is kingdom-wide, why do you sit off by yourself and not even try to talk with the others?"
         "I was kind'v talked out, what with all the yacking that Kiera did on the journey out here."
         "Really," Dmitri stated with skepticism, "She said that you hardly spoke a word except to argue with Anglis."
         "Much goes unsaid between two men who are used to being alone."
         "Such as?"
         "Don't you have a bandage to change?"
         "How did you know about that?"
         Derrick actually turned to face Dmitri and lean closer to him before he said, "It is obvious that you wish to keep it hidden from the others, but you don't carry yourself well."
         "And what is that supposed to mean?"
         "I have seen many stomach injuries in my time, short as it is, and yours appears no different from my experiences."
         "Yes well...wait. What do you mean YOUR experiences?"
         Derrick sat and thought. He turned back to face that murky lake and its moss covered stones. "Where have the others got to?"
         "That's not what I asked."
         "You want an answer, then trade one for one."
         "Tai went to town, and Marius went with her to 'Keep her out of trouble.' Kiera decided to go to town to replenish her supplys, so Anglis is escorting her on foot. Mordred is out gathering firewood, and here we two sit. Staring out at the lake."
         "Our elders recorded that back when the plague came, the overlords panicked. They threw the bodies of the dead and dying into the lower levels of the mines and blasted them shut. Unfortuneatly when they did that they sealed in healthy people. They even went so far as to blast the entrances to mines when just one case of the plague appeared.
         "Over time, reports came back of some monsters in the lower levels of many mines." Dmitri nodded staring at the standing stones, "No case was actually confirmed, and all of the members of the only expedition to find out the truth drowned when the bottom twelve levels of the main mine flash-flooded."
         "That's terrible. Do you believe the records?"
         "I do."
         "Why?"
         "Because, some of the beasts survived the flooding. They prey on isolated teams of miners." He turned to Dmitri, his eyes glazed, "I have seen the...remains of the attacks. You see, the beasts go for the belly first," he made a gesture as if his belly was being cut, "then they feast or somehting..."
         "If that is so, then why don't the miners send down teams to kill them all?" The question seemed to come out of nowhere and it startled Derrick and Dmitri. Mordred took a seat off to Derrick's left, and asked his question again.
         "It is because there is very little proof! By the time that others are brought, the tunnel is as if it never happened. And when there have been survivors, they usually don't live very long."
         "That must be why you carry your hammers, isn't it?"
         Dmitri pondered then spoke, "But they must also serve a practicle reason too? Right?"
         "My sledgehammers were passed down to me from my grandfather. They were his before, and now they are mine. They have seen their fair share of violence, mostly in my hands, but their job is to break rock so that I can see inside of it."
         "You HAVE fought one of those things, haven't you?" Mordred pried.
         "Yes. And if I had to venture a guess, I would say that I killed it too. Not much survives the impact of two 30 pound sledges."
         "Well then isn't that your proof?"
         "I was...forced to withdraw without the body."
         "Why is that?"
         "Hmmm, is that the sun going down already? Perhaps we should get a fire going..."


         Dmitri sat, lost in thought, staring into the darkness, the flames of the campfire at his back. It was late, or, perhaps, just really early. Dawn would arrive in another couple of hours, and the others were still gone, possibly still in town. It was a fairly long walk and they only left in early afternoon.

         Derrick and Mordred slept, their two bundled forms half-hidden in the dark. He'd been more than ready for his turn at watch. The dreams had been particularly fierce tonight. Even now he wasn't eager to return to them, so he let Mordred sleep on. Derrick had wanted the first watch, the miner saying it would take him awhile to fall asleep anyway, so why waste someone else's time?

         The .. dwarf .. puzzled Dmitri. A man so deformed probably should not have been allowed to live, and yet, there he was, a grotesque parody of a man, but one with an uncanny knack for making Dmitri uncomfortable.

         He sighed and stood, beginning to pace again. Being so close to the ruins bothered Dmitri in ways he couldn't even begin to describe. Maybe it was the proximity to those old stones that caused the dreams to be so particulary fierce lately. Dreams. It would seem that most of this group had the nightmares, too.

         Dmitri shivered and turned his back to the lake as he made a circuit of the camp. The mules still grazed peacefully but even they kept a respectful distance from the ruins and the lake surrounding the jumbled stones.

         As he passed the spot where Gavril's bandages lay drying, Dmitri grimaced and put a hand to his stomach. Derrick had said he'd seen plenty of wounds, had defended himself even. What was Dmitri to that? He was only a simple baker, the son of a farmer. The most serious fight he'd ever been in was a bar brawl as a kid. Who was he to go up against the monster in his dreams?

         He shivered again as the breeze shifted, blowing in from across the lake. This country, he mused, was very warm in the daytime, just like at home, but the temperature dropped once the sun went time, much cooler than he was used to.

         Fog? Dmitri looked up sharply, his eyes immediately drawn to the lake. Thick, billowing clouds were spilling out from the ruins, covering the stars, out just moments before. The sight sent chills up and down Dmitri's spine. He began to wish he had some sort of weapon.

         Shivering in earnest now, Dmitri began to edge back towards camp. Soon he was running, stumbling in the blinding dark. Then he tripped, fell, and when he looked up, the face of his nightmares loomed above, fangs glistening, smoke billowing like the mist, eyes blazing, and claws - claws reaching, slashing, rending -

         With a yell, Dmitri threw himself sideways and rolled. The claws came after, gouging deep trenches in the soft clay. He ran, dodged and jumped, this time in the opposite direction of camp. He could feel the monster's hot breath behind him and threw himself down on the ground again as the monster took another swipe at him, but he went down hard and didn't move again as quickly.

         Almost lesiurely, the great beast used one of its huge paws to pin him down. It bent its neck to look down at him, the fangs dripping as it stretched its jaw into a hideous grin. The ground sizzled where its drool landed. Dmitri yelled as some hit him and redoubled his efforts to get loose. But the monster only laughed and displayed the claws on its other paw.

         The shaking got worse and now the monster seemed to be saying his name. It bent down towards him, closer now, its teeth bigger than Dmitri's head. He breathed in its awful breath, rolling over and retching. Suddenly, the pressure on his legs was gone and he could move. Looking up, he stared into Mordred and Derrick's worried eyes.

         "Are you okay?"
"Dmitri..." Mordred heard the rustling of the other man, "Dmitri, your..." He heard him yell and was on his feet in an instant, "Dmitri!"

Dmitri was scrabbling against the ground, his hands clenching into fists and his mouth open in a silent scream as he kicked his legs against something, as if a great weight held him down before he leaned over and gagged, the remains of his breakfast ending up on the floor.

Mordred rushed over and shook Dmitri awake, “Are you okay? Dmitri, focus. Are you okay?”

Dmitri’s eyes focussed on Mordred’s hair first before he brought his eyes down to Mordred’s face, “Yeah,” He said softly, “Yeah, I’m all right, but I think my wounds split again.”

“Well, get up, and we can fix them in a jiffy.” Mordred and Derrick helped Dmitri to his feet and helped him to the horse as they made it lie down so that the injured One-Eye could lie against it.

“What happened?” Derrick asked.

“The same thing that injured me the first time.” Dmitri said, wincing as he took off his shirt and Mordred ran to get the herbs and bandages.

“What was that?” The dwarf asked, sitting next to him as Mordred returned.

“The thing with smoke in it’s nostrils, claws and teeth like a demon’s and monstrous breath.” Dmitri replied.

Mordred undid the old bandages, “Then someone needs to show it some mint.” He replied seriously, smearing the distasteful herbs into the ghastly wounds on Dmitri’s belly and back.

Derrick snorted, “And you honestly think that a monster would listen to advice from a wild-haired blacksmith?”

“Hey it was a joke. You know, ha-ha funny?” Mordred said, helping Dmitri sit up so the he could rewrap him.
"We have," Tai said, staring into the remains of her fourth pint, "a prophecy that's mostly gone. A key to a door we haven't found yet, some random dreams, and a devil trying to murder Dmitri in his sleep. Are you sure you don't drink?"

"Positive," Marius answered.

"I'd better have some for you, then. Anyway. Can't you just ask your gods straight-out what we're meant to do?"

"No. They're dead."

"What, the gods?" Marius nodded. "Well... damn. So now what?"

"I don't know. Maybe there's something in the ruins of the Gates - you've been there, right?"

"Yeah." Tai caught the barmaid's eye and signalled for another pint. "But I don't recall anything that looked like it'd be any use now. And I'm not going back." She shrugged, grinning. "It's nicer down here. I guess I'll just have to dream us some fortune, huh?"

"Be careful with that. Dmitri might not be the only one the monster attacks."

"Ha! I'm not scared of devils. If the plague doesn't kill me I'm going to live forever... what's the matter, see a ghost?"

Marius had gone white with the sudden excitement of discovery. "No! The prophecy - listen, there's seven people described, and there are seven of us. 'Take these with thee' - it's not for us to follow, there's someone else."

"And, what, we just go along for the ride?" Tai scowled. "Well, this mysterious other had better show up soon." She pulled the pendant from inside her shirt, the one that'd opened the chest. "What did you say this was?"

"The Keeper's Medal of Office."

"So given that this is what it takes to find the thing, probably the one who was supposed to follow the prophecy would have it. Who's the Keeper?"

"Long dead."

"Everyone's goddamned dead! Let's find someone and just make them the Keeper. You'll do. Right, Keeper, where do we go from here?"

Marius was laughing. "It doesn't work like that. The full rites of the Keepers - we don't know them any more, in their entirety. And, besides, they were based up in the Gates of Heaven."

Tai rolled her eyes and sat back in exasperation. "Dead people, dead places, whatever. You can think that one through. Dead drunk and happily passed out is all I'm planning right now."

***

Dead drunk, and happily passed out, she's sober as she wanders dreamlike through the ruins of the Cathedral at the Gates of Heaven. As dreams do, it manages somehow to twist geography so that the next thing she sees is the ocean. Or so she assumes. She's never seen one whilst awake but it isn't possible that a mere lake could be this big. Out in the ocean is a heap of rocks which she understands is just a vague sort of representation of an actual island.

"How much do you want me to spell it out for you?" Tai's younger self asks, annoyed by her inability to grasp what she's being shown. "If you didn't drink that brain-cell poison you might have worked it out by now."

"Hey, you're the one of us that died," Tai reminds her. "Spell it out, I'm tired of riddles."

In answer, the little girl points to the island. Lithe little brown figures are scrambling over it; little brown figures with fur and tails, flinging water at each other as they squabble over nuts.

"Monkeys?" Tai guesses. "Dammit, monkeys!"

And in that moment, as dreams do, it makes sense. All of it. Every last bit.


But when she woke, the beautiful entirety of meaning slipped through her hungover fingers like sand.
Marius sighed, looking down at the drunken woman collapsed over the table. A gentle shake did nothing to rouse Tai. Nor did picking her up about the waist and lifting her to her feet; she simply lay limp in his arms, like a rag doll, snoring softly.

“An’ where do ye think yer goin’ wi’ that lass?” a voice said sharply to his right.

Trying to balance Tai in one arm---it was hard, because she was a tall woman, and he was not a particularly strong man---he turned around and found himself standing face to face with a large, middle-aged barmaid. She had pox scars stretching down the length of one side of her face, and sagging wrinkles on the other. He honestly wasn’t sure which side was less attractive. Probably the un-poxed, because there was enough mobility left in that side of her face to twist her expression into a deep, stern scowl.

“I am going to take her to her horse, then try to find the rest of our company,” he said pleasantly.

The woman stared at him suspiciously. “I saw th’ twa of ye talkin’. Ye hardly seemed t’ know one another. How do I know ye ain’t gonna take ‘er away somewhere, an’ ‘ave yer way with ‘er?”

Marius tried really hard not to laugh in her face. He succeeded, concealing every sign of amusement but the faintest of smiles. “My good woman, I am a priest of the Order of the Agony of the Gods. The deities I venerate are dead and unable to enjoy the carnal pleasures, and like many of my brethren, I remain celibate in recognition of this fact. This woman is safer with me than with any other individual---man or woman---in this town.“

The woman still looked skeptical, but when Marius reached into his robe and drew forth a silver chain upon which hung the symbol of his Order---an obsidian pendant inlaid with a silver circle surrounding a jagged silver line---she nodded. “Ah, very well then. But ye be makin’ sure none of th’ others in yer party be tryin’ to take advantage, ye hear?”

Marius did laugh this time. “That I will, my good woman! And thank you for caring so much about your customers; it is not something one sees often, in today’s hard times.”

The woman’s face softened somewhat. “Kindness is all we ‘ave left, young man.”

“That it is,” Marius said softly, then bowed slightly and hauled Tai out of the bar and to the post where their horses were tied.

He pushed her up over the horse’s back, then mounted Bairacctar and took her reins, gently leading her horse as he began his search for Kiera and Anglis.

         One might think that any quest with only seven people in it would be doomed to failure, but Derrick knew better. It was three wildcatters who had redirected the river water in the flood several years back, and it was 5 miners that unblocked nine tunnel entrances in less than a day after that earthquake in autumn. So a quest with seven people seemed just the right number to save the world, if that was in fact what they were supposed to be doing.
         Still though, this monster from Dmitri's sleep sounded awfully familiar. If only he could place it...
         Walking through the woods with an arm-load of wood seemed the perfect time to muse about past events, unfortunately Derrick WAS a wildcatter. Therefore he had to stop to examine every large boulder and rock for mineral ore. The rock he was currently looking at was larger than a man, at least it was taller than him, and it seemed to squat in this rather odd clearing.
         Covered in moss a small sliver of something shiny reflected the torchlight right into Derrick's eyes as he walked past. "Wonder what that could be." muttered Derrick as he walked over a low rise that separated him from the stone. Approaching the rock, he unslung one of his sledgehammers, and gave the stone a solid whack.
         The hammer nearly vibrated its way right out of his hand.
         Rocks aren't supposed to do that, thought Derrick. At least not solid ones...With that he placed the bundle of wood off to one side and withdrew one of his many tools for examining a rock. It was a flat blade, designed to split a rock along a possible vein it also worked to scrape off surface crud. Starting at the strip of silver, Derrick worked quickly and it was not long before a shape began to take place.
         However, no matter how quickly it was that he worked, he didn't believe that he was going fast enough. Something seemed to drive him to reveal the shape hidden by the moss and rock. He worked until the torch went out, and the sky began to lighten around him. And still he worked...
         Finally it was finished. The statue had been revealed for what it was. And as he gazed upon it, he turned to view the circle which lay to either side of the monument. The circle was far from uniform, it could barely be called a circle actually. The shape was made by mounds that rose from the ground, buried under dirt and grass and who knows what else. But even so, Derrick began to work.
         He had revealed three more of the statues fallen upon their sides or back. The black rock had once been painted, although who would paint Obsidian escaped Derrick's grasp. The paint had been worn away with time until it had only remained upon the grounded side of the statues. Given the features of the first four statues, Derrick started to work on revealing a fifth, when he heard crunching behind him.
         Upon turning to look, he saw Mordred and Dmitri staring upon the standing stone. While the features had been slightly eroded by time there was no mistaking the woman standing before them.
         Weilding a scimitar and a small buckler, the amulet of office draped around her neck, its silver shining in the broad morning sun. Her blue eyes were done up with beautiful blue sapphires and a trace of white paint could be seen on her cheek. The shield sported a strange inverted V, and a web of entangling lines surrounded it. She appeared to be wearing some sort of armour, but it was hard to tell, whereas the face had been spared the ravages of time, the body had not been exempt.
         "Now if you think that that is odd, wait until you see these." Derrick motioned towards the three fallen stones.


         "Do you think this has anything to do with my rocks?" Derrick asked, ignoring Mordred.

         "Rocks?" echoed Dmitri, struggling to hold still as Mordred smeared him with goo.

         Mordred scowled at the miner. "No, Derrick!" he snapped, "But do we need to have this argument again?"

         Derrick frowned back. "I wasn't doing anything," he grumbled.

         "That's the point!" growled Mordred right back. "You were supposed to be on watch, and instead go digging at rocks. We could've all been killed!"

         "Mordred, Derrick," said Dmitri with a groan, "give it a rest."

         "Well there's no way I'm going to be getting any sleep tonight," Mordred grumbled, "and I'm always cranky when I haven't slept."

         Derrick opened his mouth to argue, but Dmitri cut him off. "Why don't we go look at those rocks, then? Between the three of us we could probably uncover them all before dawn. I don't know about you, but I'm not staying here another night."

         Mordred shook his head in silent agreement. "I need something to drink."

         They moved over to the campfire and Dmitri poked the coals into life while Mordred went to get water.

         "Hey, what's this here?"

         "I wanted to see if any of those paper scraps actually said anything."

         Derrick poked at the scattered pieces. He could barely make out a few words, if he held them just right against the light of the fire. "What does it say?"

         "I don't know. We'll have to save them for Marius to look at later. I cleaned out the box, too. We should probably take it with us."

         "Where, though?" asked Mordred, coming back up the hill.

         Dmitri shrugged. "Anywhere other than here."

         "Why the rocks?" Mordred asked with a sideways look at Derrick. "I mean, granted, it'll keep us busy, but why bother? What difference does it make?"

         "Didn't you see?" demanded Derrick. "They're not just rocks, they're probably the last remnants of a temple or church or something."

         "Look," Dmitri interrupted, "we'll just have to wait and see what Marius says, but in the meantime, let's just clear them off. We can pack up camp afterwards and be ready to go when the others get here."
Mordred grumbled under his breath. He didn't like rocks, rocks meant the end of the forest. Rocks meant no more trees. Rocks were not nice. He huffed, yanking the moss off a part of one before sneezing. "I don't like this." Mordred sneezed again, his eyes crossing.

"No one said you had to, smithy." Derrick rumbled.

Mordred snorted, "I haven't been a smithy since I left the village." He replied.

"That's beside the point, you're still a smithy." Derrick huffed.

Mordred sighed, dropping down, "This isn't my thing." He looked over at Dmitri, "Forgive me. Come find me in an hour and we'll change your bandages." He frowned, unwilling to leave Dmitri in the hands of the miner, but did anyways, in favour of putzing through the box again. He liked the funny symbols on it and traced over them absently, thinking. He finally gave up when his thoughts left him with an empty mind, and opened the box, poking through the mud and ick on the bottom, unearthing a piece of less-decayed... something, written in the funny symbols and he set it aside for Marius when he returned, perhaps he could make heads or tails of it, he sure couldn't. He nosed through a bit more when he heard the sound of hoofbeats and looked up to see Marius with Tai in tow over the horse's rump and Anglis and Kiera pulling up the rear. "Hey, Priest, can you read this?" Mordred point to the squishy bits of writing he had uncovered.


*Star**Star* Hey, guys, I changed a few words in the letter, FYI - KC *Star**Star*


Marius took his time in answering, poking the fire up still higher to cast as much light as possible before he settled down to wipe the mud off the scrap Mordred had uncovered. Whoever had written it - and it wasn't the same hand as had written the rede - had pretty bad handwriting, which the passage of years and mud and wriggling things hadn't improved. Only bits and pieces of it were still legible; even less of it made actual sense.

"Insel," he said slowly, rolling the word around his mouth. It tasted like a place-name; that strange tang of something that's almost recognisable; something he'd heard once, in passing, and never known anything more about. "Have you heard of a place called Insel?"

Mordred shook his head. "What about the big bit?" He pointed to the largest piece he'd salvaged, and the priest took it up carefully.

Marius' eyes brightened as he scanned the text. "This is a letter... to someone called Marguerite." he began to read aloud. "Ever since your grandfather arrived I'm afraid it's only become worse... can't read a bit here... it has to be said that Prince Desmond wasn't a wonderful man and now, well, I'm sorry to lay such slander on your family, but all one has to do is look at the evidence and it becomes all too clear that..." the priest struggled with the decayed scrawl for a few long moments before shaking his head in regret.

"It always ends before you get to the interesting bit," Mordred grouched. "Who's this Marguerite?"

"Prince Desmond's granddaughter, from the sound of things. I wonder if she's still alive."

Mordred shrugged. "By the way, Derrick found some rocks."

"What rocks?"

"Standing stones, statues... I don't know, I'm not a rock person. He thinks they're important. And also, we're moving."

"You're joking," Kiera stated flatly. "It's too late to go anywhere. Besides..." she pointed, grinning, to where Tai had finally succumbed to gravity and slid, still asleep, from her horse to lie in a crumpled mess on the ground. "If you boys are so eager to move on, go and we'll catch you tomorrow."

Marius nodded agreement. "Besides, I want to see those rocks of Derrick's... but tomorrow, when it's light, and also when I've had some sleep."
Mordred and Dmitri exchanged a glance. After a moment Mordred shrugged, and Dmitri, looking displeased but resigned, sighed and turned to Kiera.

“Alright, I’ll agree to camp here one more night, for Tai’s sake. But tomorrow let’s please pack up camp after we show Marius the rocks or statues or whatever they are, and then leave. I don’t like it here.”

Marius didn’t like it here either, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. There was just something… creepy about this place. It shouldn’t have made him this uncomfortable; the artifacts they’d found so far suggested that this place had once been holy, but now a cold, slimy feeling of defilement seemed to crawl up his back every time he looked around.

Maybe it was just that this place of past splendor was now dead and in ruins?

The priest tried to shake off the feeling as he stepped over to Tai and knelt by her side, lifting one of her arms and slinging it over his shoulder. Anglis joined him, supporting half the woman’s weight with his good arm, and together they levered the tall, heavily-intoxicated Tai to her feet.

“We’ll get her into bed,” Marius said with a nod toward Mordred and Derrick. “Why don’t you see to her horse?”

A good fifteen minutes later Tai was bundled in her blankets, the horse had been de-saddled and brushed, and Marius was settling into his own bedroll beside the warmth of the fire.

“Good night,” Marius said.

Dmitri’s voice was so soft the priest almost didn’t hear it. “I hope so.”

Marius hoped so too.

*~*~*


The statue of the woman towered over him, and the obsidian stone of her body seemed to flow like black blood just beneath the surface of her alabaster, flaking skin of paint. Without warning, she began to topple toward him, her face stern but compassionate as it rushed to fill his whole sight.

With a strangled gasp, Marius sat bolt upright in his bedroll, cold sweat streaming down his face and plastering his shirt to his back. His aethiara---the symbol of his Order---was clutched in his hand.

A quick glance around assured him that he’d just been dreaming, that no statue was about to crush him. To his right, Tai snored peacefully, while Dmitri on his left shifted restlessly in his sleep, muttered something, then stilled. The campfire had cooled to faint, angry embers that barely illuminated the night with a dull red glow.

Marius shivered in the cool night air. What had his dream meant?

Trying to be as quiet as possible, he slipped out of his bedding and knelt beside his pack, where he’d set his robe that night before climbing into bed. He felt warmer as the deep crimson garment settled over his soaked tunic and pants.

Not wanting to risk waking the others with the sound of him pulling on or lacing his boots, he instead padded barefoot away from the campfire and toward the standing stones just a little ways in the distance.

The silence of the night was oppressive, and his every footfall seemed to thunder through the forest to the beat of his racing heart. There should have been insects chirruping from their hiding places, or the stir of nocturnal animals searching for prey, but there was nothing save his own footsteps. Only now did he realize that, during all the time he’d been here, never once had he seen an insect or animal.

The moon was high in the sky, and bright, casting a silvery-blue light over the land. Marius needed neither sun nor candle to make his way around rocks and shrubs and down to the standing stones.

He came to stand before the statue he’d see in his dream. She was much smaller, standing only about a foot higher than him. But the obsidian stone was the same, and the face…

The face he knew.

Marius stared at the statue for a moment in amazement, and then his eyes flickered down to her feet.

There, a single pale blue flower grew, its petals opening to the moonlight.

         "It's beautiful, isn't it?" The question seemed to come from nowhere, and everywhere. Marius felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and something seemed almost unreal about the situation.
         "It is funny that so desolate a place can harbor such a wonderful flower." Marius turned, and saw the eyes of the miner shining amid a dull green glow. He looked every inch the gargoyle that the order had adorning its monastary, and Derrick just sat there, with his head on his sledge's handle gazing at the flower and the statue.
         "How long have you been sitting there Derrick?" Marius questioned warily. Of all the party members, Derrick was the one that he knew the least about.
         "It is alright monk. I have no intention of killing anyone this night, let alone a defenseless religious man. And to answer your question, I have no idea."
         "How can you not know?"
         "Because I went to sleep with the rest of you, and the next thing I knew, I was here, staring at her. Wondering how she could possibly be standing there. Wondering who she is, and what she says."
         "What do you mean?"
         "For a learned man, you are somewhat stupid aren't you." Marius looked at him a rebuke slowly bubbling to the surface and the tip of his tongue, but he held back. This miner knew more than he was letting on about these statues, and if he kept quiet, maybe he would tell him.
         "Perhaps by your definition I am stupid, but I would prefer to say that I am ignorant. I know not what you do, and you must remember that this is the first time I have seen these monoliths."
         "Ever the words of the wise pass your lips. Look then at the base of her statue, and read the words that she says."
         "How can I read them? I don't have a torch or a fire. And that glow does not illuminate the base well."
         "Well then, we shall simply have to wait for the dawn, won't we."
         Time passed slowly in the pale green light. Much was exchanged between the two, miner and monk, and slowly light crept back into the world.
         Marius had fallen asleep curled up at the base of the statue and when the sun had risen fully over the horizon, he was rudely awaken when the ground began to shake violently. Suddenly the statue that had not moved in perhaps a hundred, began to waver, and then to fall. As he had dreamed the statue's face began to fill his entire field of view.
         Then it was gone...Derrick had risen and in one swift motion, he had grabbed the hapless monk and flung him out of the way. By the time that the two of them had gotten themselves reorganized, the others had arrived and where staring at the now fallen statue, and the pile of rubble where its head had been.


         The falling rock roused everyone from their sleep and, en mass, ran towards the source of the commotion.

         "What happened?" Dmitri demanded.

         Marius shrugged. "I don't know. It fell. It just fell."

         "That's it!" Dmitri declared. "I'm not staying here another minute!" He stomped back to camp and began to throw his few belongings into his pack.

         "What's going on?" groaned Tai, propping herself on an elbow to glare at him.

         "What're you doing here?" Dmitri asked, surprised. "I thought everyone was down looking at those blasted rocks?"

         "What rocks?" she asked, stretching. "Urgh, it's obscenely early." She raised a hand to shield her eyes against the dawn light. "So what are you doing here, then?"

         "Um," Dmitri looked down at the bag in his hand and grimaced. "I'm leaving."

         "What?" That announcement woke Tai more thoroughly than any coffe could. "Where?"

         He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. Home, I guess, since my whole purpose seemed to be in getting here. I don't know what else to do, Tai, I can't sleep, I can't think, and without anything else to go on, what else can I do?"

         She stared at him. "I think we need to go to an island."

         Now it was Dmitri's turn to stare. "Island?" he echoed.

         "Yes. The Island of Monkeys. Isn't that what part of the rede says? Seek the aid of those not men? What else can it be?"

         "You've had another vision, haven't you?"

         "Yes." She shrugged. "Or, it could just be the beer talking."

         Dmitri smiled, chuckling a little. Then he sighed. "I don't think I'm cut out to be some kind of messenger or what-not to the gods."

         "It's hard to be a servant to gods who are dead," replied Anglis, returning to the campsite. He stopped by the fire and stoked the coals into flames.

         "That's right," Tai said, "I remember Marius saying something like that last night."

         "Why?" asked Dmitri. "Why do you think they're dead, Anglis?"

         "Only demons would enjoy watching people suffer," he answered. "I prefer to think that the gods are dead, rather than believe they'd let something like this go on like it has."

         "You know," said Tai, fumbling from her blankets to sit up, "Marius said something else last night. He said that he thought there was something else in that riddle, from the box, I mean. He seems to think that there's someone else who's supposed to be involved in this."

         "Who?" asked Dmitri and Anglis together.

         She shrugged, yawning. "No idea."

         "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not going to stick around here to find out."

         Anglis tossed a couple more logs into the embers and propped the cooking pot over the small fire. He was quiet for a few minutes while Dmitri stuffed some more items in his bag and Tai rolled herself out of her blankets.

         "It seems to me," he said after awhile, "that I think going home is a good idea."

         "Hmm?" He had Dmitri's attention again.

         "I've travelled much of the north, you know, but I seem to recall maps indicating that this isle of monkeys lies to the south. You live that way, don't you, Dmitri, along the coast?"

         "Yes, but if you want a ship, we'll want to go west of my village, towards the monastery along the edge of the Silent Sea."

         "Oh good," said Tai, "then it's settled. What's for breakfast? I'm starved!"
Gods. What god would throw such a curse to taint the wind? What deity would sicken children or turn people mad to turn on their families?
Not that he had any thought against the mad ones. They were not always dangerous and those that were could be easily put out of their misery. No, it was the healthy, the ones that still had their minds that he despised. Those that would stare, full of suspicion, full of hate for anyone they didn't know. The ones that would kill the harmless addled or ignorant stranger in the name of safety and go back to their wives. The ones that would murder a man in cold blood for speaking oddly or simply losing his way. The only thing worse than the plague itself were its survivors. What gods would allow that happen? No, the gods were dead. He knew, because the world was neither over nor saved.

He paused, pressing his fingers over his eyes. The sensation that had come on so suddenly had barely been a whisper of a threat, and subsided easily enough.
The hoarse gir had her vision, the priest his words. The dwarf his eye for steel and stone. How did the rest fit? Keira had a smooth enough tongue and sense in her head, but that was as much as he had gathered from them.
And Dmitri's wound. He didn't understand what manner of creature could have caused it by attacking in a dream. It was a worrying thought, so it was only natural that the man had been taking a great deal of care to conceal it. Too many years picking trails out of ice and taking the trail by the wind had given Anglis glimpses enough to understand the man was injured and the wound was not healing well.

All of this, these pieces of... nothing. Shards of shards amongst mud and glass. He was not a scholar, he knew land and animals and how to find something in miles of glacier when it seems your best hope is to freeze in your sleep before you starve. What was a one-armed hunter, who relied on traps and ambushes in this prophecy left behind by dead gods and dead priests?

To quench the fumes of war, seek the aid of those not men. The Isle of Monkeys? If she said so, but what war, something past or dawning? He had heard that once the world was all siezed under the control of one King to the south, that this had angered the gods when his armies touched upon the last free foothold. Were those fumes the plague taint on the wind, or did the rede mean something newer.
In all of this, knowing that for all the simplicity of the North he would be hard pressed to piece anything out of this mess, there were the few whispers that the Icy Rim still feared to forget. He might not have believed in gods, but there was always still that hint of something more than air and taint in the wind. The whisper that men claimed to hear to guide them back to the path. Partly they held it in case it was even the ghost of a remaining god, but mostly because men were afraid to die alone in the wastes.
If that whisper was even the ghost of a god, even if it was only the fear of dying alone, anything that could put an end to this plague had to be done.

He stood up from warming his hand over the fire and wandered towards the lake. He was a light eater, too used to rationing his food. Instead he gazed over the water, listening to the dead place and all the creatures that would not tread there. Barely a breeze stirred and when it did he could feel the false imagined taste of dry decay. This was a place of dead, corroded saints and bitter prayers.
He narrowed his eyes. For amoment he had seen something amongst the ruins. A dark shadow that had turned to him for just a second before it was gone. If it had ever been there.

Anglis stalked back to the fire where the horses were being readied, not that he liked horses. Animals that size were for salting or eating, not using as mounts. People had feet, they should use them. That and the accursed creatures had no love for him either.
Once again he lifted both his and Kiera's packs to carry them while he walked. The young woman made soothing company. The headaches were less frequent and he had not had a blackout since he had met her, which was just as well. Like Dmitri's injuries, it was not something he particularly wanted the others to know. What Dmitri had done to earn an injury was one thing, having them know that the plague had left its scar on his brain was another.

On their way past the statue he paused at the fallen warrioress, or whatever she was. He knew the armour styles from his rede, but bothe she and the stone were unfamiliar. Another lost name, perhaps even another dead god.
He closed his eyes as their path finally found the wind and he inhaled deeply. This, as ugly as it was, was the world. Not his world of ice and snow dusted forests, but it was the same wind anywhere. The same voice that whispered in the dark, the same tail that whipped up a cold fury in winter. As long as there was wind Anglis could never be lost.
Except when the pain hit and he was too blind and too deaf to know anything but fear and dark and the desperate need to not be alone.
He barely stumbled once before he passed out and hit the floor.
Mordred tsked at the remains of the statue, circling around it as the others made to go pack up camp. He shuffled through the bits of it, slipping a piece of the stone into his pack to examine later in better light as Dmitri called for him to join them. "Yes, yes, I'm coming." He sighed, trotting up to Dmitri who had fallen to the rear to wait for him, "What's up?"

"Let's get out of here, we've already..." Dmitri was cut off from a squeak from Kiera.

Mordred trotted ahead to see Anglis out cold, flat on his face in the dirt of the road, "Woah, what happened here?" He asked, rolling the heavy man over and checking to make sure he was breathing, "Hey?" Mordred shook him, "Anglis, was it? Hey, come on..." He trailed off as he could nearly feel the pain radiating off the man, "He's... not so good..." Mordred sighed, "We need to get out of here, yes?" He glanced at Dmitri who nodded, "Keh..." He bent down and hauled the heavy hunter to his back, carrying him like he had done with his sister many a time, piggy-back style, "Let's go." He murmured, setting about placing one foot in front of another.

"Mordred, we could wait until he wakes..." Dmitri protested quietly, so only Mordred could hear.

"We could, but this place... it is... disconcerting to you, is it not? It is better we are gone from here, isn't it?" Mordred glanced down at the baker, "Come one, Dmitri, let's greet what comes next with raised fists and deafening roars of defiance, we'll not let out world perish without a fight, yeah?" Mordred smiled broadly, the rings in his lips and in various other places on his face stretching the smithy's face oddly as he did.

Dmitri shook his head, "Impossible..."

"Humph, at least he's better than the rest of us, all smiles and a grin." Tai muttered, walking awkwardly beside the horse, "With dead gods and a world in chaos, I suppose it's good to have someone who does not look on this place with a bleak gaze."

"I don't think the gods are dead..." Mordred mumbled, "I think that they sleep, since whatever it was that started this plauge... I think they were forced to sleep. In the village... before it was gone, people used to tell stories of a time where the plauge did not stike everytime the wind blew, instead people looked to the wind for hope... for life and for the rains. People used to dance for wind and water and sun, and there were great parties, just because, not for only mourning those who passed on." He looked up, "And when the bad things happened, no one knows quite what the story was, the gods were forced to sleep, and turn their faces away for a season as their creations reaped that which they sowed. I think... I think that they are beginning to awaken and see what their lack of guiadance has left us... that's why we're here, to help return the world beneath the gentle sway of the mother goddess' wind." He paused in the road as the others stared at him.

"Quite a theory you've developed, child. You are the youngest in our group and you would impose upon us the teachings of gods? Isn't that the Preist's job?" Derrick asked, his face turned to the bright-haired man.

"Sorry, you all gave your theory's I thought it was time to give you mine." Mordred growled, muttering something unintelligible, but the word 'dwarf' and 'bleedin' mental' could only just be heard.

* * *

Okay, here's the part I was going to add in. If I get too far off your char, Reamie, give me a shout and I'll fix it, k?

One minute Anglis was walking along with the others, the next he was face-down in soft, moist dirt. The air around him was heavy with, well, something, almost oppressive in its weight, and making him feel heavy and sluggish. Strange sounds filled his ears, unfamiliar bird calls and rustling of great trees.

Slowly, he levered himself to his knees, looking about in wonder. It was so green! Flowers of every size, shape, and color imagineable drew the eye, quite like that Mordred's hair, in fact. Anglis leaned so far back, searching for a break in the tree canopy above that he almost fell over.

A young girl giggled. Anglis started and turned about to stare at her. She had long, rusty-red-brown hair, which hung down her back in a thick braid, heavily laced with white flowers. Her green eyes shone with amusement and the thick freckles on her face moved as she smiled with even, white teeth. She wore a simple, one-piece dress of a dull, brown color, and was barefoot. She fiddled with a necklace of blue beads as she giggled, and stared back at him.

"Who are you, where am I?" he asked.

"Dreaming," she replied. "I'm not even really here." For a moment, a flicker of annoyance crossed her face. "We've had such conversations before, don't you remember?" Her voice seemed much older than she appeared to be.

"Uh, no," he stammered.

She shrugged. "Well, no matter, I suppose I've gotten good at explaining things." She sighed, looking sad. "You can't get there, you know, you never will until the gates are unbarred. Until then, you'll just end up coming back here."

Anglis just stared. "Huh?"

She either ignored him or didn't hear, for she continued, "I've tried to get there myself, of course, but have failed. I can only ever get here." She frowned, definitely not seeing him now. "I wonder sometimes if I'm not just imagining things, imagining you, too, except you never appear the same way twice."

She looked at him sharply as he stared, seeing her becoming less real to him and more dreamlike.

"Wait! Don't leave yet. Here, take this!" She leaned towards him, holding out a bracelet of white, carved beads. "Rangsey says this charm will ground you in this time and allow your mind to remember - that is if you're real, of course. I'm not sure he believes me. His letters are so confusing."

His hand on the bracelet, Anglis thought the place seemed to become more real, and rather familiar. He was beginning to feel a discomforting sense of deja-vu. Still, he couldn't seem to stop staring, or voice the questions that burned with the need to be asked.

She was watching him again, waiting for something perhaps, or merely trying to ground her own thoughts, just as Anglis found it harder and harder to concentrate. There was blackness again, creeping up on the edges of his vision and his head was pounding. The girl was fading again.

"Remember!" she cried, speaking ever faster as Anglis dimmed to her own sight. "Remember the way is barred and you'll only be hurt if you keep trying without help! Stay away! It'll be the death of both of us if you keep summoning me."

Anglis felt himself slide into unconsiousness, her last words echoing in his head: "Stay away - stay safe ...."
The afternoon sunshine tried to burn them, but through the grumpy layer of thin clouds all it could manage was a sort of soupy, directionless light. They'd stopped a little way off the road for a lunch-break, letting their horses - and Derrick's donkey - wander down to the noisy, inefficient stream for a drink. To Mordred's relief, Anglis had floated back to the surface of conciousness and muttered that he was perfectly able to walk. None of them had really known how, exactly, to put the question to him - asking straight out, 'what is wrong with you?' didn't seem like the diplomatic, or even intelligent, way to broach the subject. Anglis volunteered nothing.

"Where fell the final blow..." Marius was going over the rede for what seemed the millionth time, determined to understand what they were meant to be doing before they started doing it.

"I don't know," Tai answered. "Where fell the final blow?"

"Sacred Mountain. Life once more will spring?"

"About time. Even the weeds die young- okay, what the hell is that thing?" She pointed to a bright scrap of vermilion fluttering nearby.

Marius peered, but couldn't see it well enough to make out what it was. "It's a butterfly," Anglis called.

"They exist? Wow. I thought they were only real in dreams."

The hunter grinned. "No, they're true enough."

"Nice to know... hey, you're talking. What happened?"

Anglis looked away from the suddenly attentive group, uncomfortable and uncertain exactly what had happened. "A green place," he said at last. "And... a girl who knew me, though I don't recall seeing her before." He stuck a hand into his pocket and pulled out a bracelet of carved white beads, holding it up. "She said this would 'allow my mind to remember', whatever that means."

"Has it?"

"No," Anglis admitted. Then he shook his head and shoved the bright thing away, back into one of many pockets. "We should get going," he got up, provoking a general trend; before long they were back on the road, silently trudging towards some longed-for sanity.
"Where are we headed, exactly?" Marius asked after about four hours on the road.

The sun was beginning to beat down overhead, and Marius's stomach kept rumbling. He could eat in the saddle if need be, but he saw no reason why the group could not take a break to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal. Yet Dmitri drove a hard pace and seemed to be determined to reach some destination with speed.

"Somewhere else," was all Dmitri said.

Marius shrugged and twisted in the saddle to reach into his pack. He had some dried meat in here somewhere...

An hour later they reached a fork in the road. A small, unkept sign dangled precariously from a leaning post. One half was marked Tang Mtn., the other Blessed Village.

"So..." Anglis said. "By 'somewhere else', do you mean right or left?"
~*~*~*~*~

Dear Marguerite,

It was a pleasure having met you at the ball a fortnight ago. I enjoyed our
conversation immensely. Such impetuousness and courage is seldom seen in young
ladies these days and, as I mentioned at the time, I would be pleased to
correspond with you. The country these days is indeed lovely and I could only
wish that my duties allowed me out more.

I am back home now, you see, away from the hustling and bustling of court, and
shall endeavor to write you at least monthly, but as you shall have ever so
much more fun things to accomplish, I shall expect your letters quite a bit
more quickly.

From what Lady Adamma said before she whisked you away to meet some other
stifling guest, you are about to venture into the frozen north. Take care, if
you would, to enjoy the solitude of the heavens some evening and write me back
on what you shall experience. I dare say you can convince your parents to
allow you the privilege of staying awake until you can write back about
something truly spectacular.

I await your response with sincere pleasure,

Rangsey

~*~*~*~*~


Dear Rangsey,

I am so happy that you agreed to write me. As much as I love traveling with my parents there aren't many people I can talk to. The adults in our party think I'm too young and mothers won't let their children talk to the 'visiting nobility'.

Right now we are back on the road. Grandfather wanted us to stay longer but Uncle Juro - he was always with father, do you remember? At the party? - said that we had to go before the mountain passes closed even though we had plenty of time. I don't think anyone said anything because Uncle Juro is always doing things like that. I don't think he likes Grandfather very much.

We're going home before heading north to drop off the award. I can't wait to get there and see all my friends and favorite places. I'll write again when we get there.

Marguerite


~*~*~*~*~


         They were at a crossroads. Dmitri could feel the different paths ahead like a strong wind. There were the Fire Berry Mountains and Derrick's home, the Tang Mines, to the East. To the West was the legendary city called the Blessed Village, behind them to the North was Stonehenge, and directly south was Dmitri's home along the Whispering Cliffs. He yearned to return to his baking oven, and to his family, yet a stronger tug pulled him onward, towards the Silent Sea and the Monastery dedicated to the old gods. Somewhere, beyond the coast to the south, was the Island of the Monkeys.

         Tai had said they needed to go there and no one had argued. The way things were going, however, Dmitri had to wonder if there wasn't something driving each and every last one of this odd-ball company. Tai had her dreams, Marius his books, Mordred's hair, Derrick's hammers, and now Anglis was acting strangely. He was dreaming, too, and had brought something back with him.

         Hand rubbing the bandages concealed under his clothes, Dmitri frowned at the signpost. "Well," he said out loud, "if we're really going to the island, we need to take a right and head South-West towards the Monastery."

         Mordred gave him a questioning look. "That 'gut feeling' again?"

         Dmitri shrugged. "I just think Tai's right and the island is our next stop."

         "Well, let's get going then," said Derrick, pulling his donkey's head out of the weeds again and forging on ahead. Shrugging, Kiera and Marius followed, then Tai, and Angli dropped back to walk by Dmitri in the rear.

         "What do you think these are?" asked Anglis after a few minutes of quiet, staring down at the white beads in his hand.

         "Marius is the priest, why don't you ask him?"

         "But you've been in the dream-world ...."

         "So has Tai."

         "But, you - look, Dmitri, I'm not so good at plain talking and I have no desire to argue. Tai's asleep for her visions, but you've had yours awake, too, Derrick and Mordred said so."

         Dmitri cocked an eyebrow at him, but didn't deny running from the dragon two nights past. He sighed. "I really don't know, Anglis .. but, well, I think you should wear them. I haven't figured out what the dragon wants of me, but the girl of your vision told you straight out. Whatever she wants you to remember, it'll probably be worth it."

         Anglis stared down at the beads for a few more minutes, then slipped the bracelet around his numbed left wrist.

         Dmitri watched, but said nothing, leaving the man to his thoughts. They walked together for several miles until making camp in the dusk. The climate was definitely cooler, and they huddled around the campfire for warmth. It was Mordred's turn to cook, but Kiera bargained a story from him in return for one of her delicious stews and the whole group enjoyed light-hearted banter as the night slowly settled around them.

         Derrick took the first watch, so the rest slipped into their blankets and one by one, fell asleep.

         It was a day of strange occurrances, it would seem, for Dmitri found himself back on his field of blue flowers as soon as he'd closed his eyes. This time, though, he could make out the spires of a magnificent tower through the mist up the slope from where he stood.

         Low chuckling quickly drew his attention to the side. The dragon, it's monstrous jaws pulled apart in a hideous grin, laughed at him. It was curled up on a rock in the sunshine (and a part of Dmitri wondered if it was always daylight in this meadow).

         Remembering his words to Anglis, Dmitri forced himself to hold still and, trembling, shouted, "What do you want of me?"

         The monster only chuckled, grabbing Dmitri in one claw, too fast for him to react. Then he squeezed, and squeezed, and squeezed, and laughed ....

         And this time woke to Derrick's urgent voice, and a hand over his mouth. He sat up, gasping for breath, tears still pouring from his eyes.

         "He's enjoying this!" Dmitri sobbed, wiping at his eyes furiously. "He likes it!"

         "Shh!" hissed the dwarf, "You'll wake the others!"

         Dmitri gave Derrick a weak smile. "Thanks. I was screaming again, wasn't I?"

         A nod. "And you're bleeding again."

         Sighing, Dmitri said, "It hurts to breathe, too."

         "Should we wake Kiera? She seems to know a few things about herbs and stuff."

         "No, let's wait until morning. I want to see how bad it is myself."

         "Well, stay there, then, I'll wake Mordred for the next watch instead."
Anglis was woken for last watch sometime later. He sat up by the fire, turning the beads on ths string again. Stop summoning her, huh? It wasn't as though he could help blacking out let alone do it on purpose. He did well enough avoiding it as much as he already did. He'd never seen anything so green.
"Come on," he whispered to himself, "You must have a name at least. What's your name?" Red hair and such green green eyes. White flowers.
<i>You never appear the same way twice</i>
Was that true for her too? If so and these beads worked, then there was a chance he might recognise her later whatever state she was in. She couldn't really be so young could she? No, she had to be older than he'd seen her. At least he remembered the last time.
M. Was there an m in her name or was he just trying too hard? He slipped the bracelet back onto his left wrist and paused a moment, but whatever half-formed thought that had grabbed him just then had gone just as quickly. He lifted his eyes to the sickly glow of the horizon as the sun rose but before it had broken over the shadow of the land.
They would have to sail again to get to the Isle of Monkeys. Which would either mean trading for a boat or bartering passage on a ship headed closer that way. He had no idea if they could afford a boat, but he much preferred a delay to sailing with strangers. He could trust these people. At the very least they were as deluded as he was, at the worst (and most likely) this was all real and they were linked by fate or however you described it. Strangers had no such loyalties and therefore little reason to tolerate him and his peculiarities.
Mordred threw a rock as they rested, his boredom and his youth showing as his impatience grew. The hunter was out fetching something for Kiera to put in the stew, Dmitri was stoking the fire and helping the others gather firewood while he was on watch. Usually he was busy keeping Lillya out of trouble and making sure she was fine, however, Lillya wasn't here, she was back in Dmitri's village. Alone. He sighed, throwing another rock, sorely missing his sister, and feeling rather self-depricating at the moment, though he knew it would get him nowhere. He glanced around, his grey eyes settling on the dancing fire, being lulled into the yellow and red streaks flashing up and around the dull pot. He weaved back and forth, almost seeing... seeing... images, a battle... a dragon... his eyes drooped, he was falling down on the job, and he knew he was, but the fire had it's allure and he was drawn to it...

"Mordred!"

He drew a dagger and spun, startled at Dmitri's voice, "What's going on?" He asked, his eyes darting around wildly.

"You fell asleep. Are you all right?" He asked, kneeling down in front of the usually cheerful man.

"I'm fine." Mordred leaned back, "I think I need to dye my hair again." He raked his hands through the soft purple strands.

"Again?" Dmitri looked skeptical, then shrugged, "Do what you will. Are you sure you're okay?"

"I... I wanted to go the other way." Mordred admitted, standing, "I wanted... I..." He turned away from Dmitri, "I wanted to see my sister again. I wanted to be selfish and go back to your village and take her and leave. I even told myself that I would if we went to your village, but we didn't, so I couldn't be selfish." Mordred looked up, his gaze drawn to the now-dark sky, the stars spread out for them, just like the first night he and Dmitri had spent in each other's company.

"I know the feeling. I wanted to go back too." Dmitri murmured, "I wanted to return to my life at the bakery, but I knew I couldn't. Because..."

"Because we have to save the world, yeah?" Mordred raised an eyebrow as he turned his head to look at the other man.

"Yeah, because we have to save the world." Dmitri murmured.

"Do your bandages need changing?" Mordred asked, sitting back down.

"No, Anglis helped me." Dmitri said.

Mordred didn't say anything to that, throwing another rock instead and rested his chin on an upraised knee as Kiera came over to tell them that dinner was ready and Tai had somehow scrounged up a bottle of foul smelling liquor and was drinking it herself while Derrick and Marius murmured to one another quietly over the fire.
Monykom City. It shouldn't really be possible for a city to have that many people in it. Marius had said there were around five thousand - and at first Tai hadn't really believed him, as this was ten times the size that a large town could really get away with being. And yet, here they were, riding the last stretch of gently sloping road down to the main gate, and she was beginning to suspect that the priest may not have been that far off in his estimate. Certainly the place looked grossly swollen, bloated in a way that suggested it had expanded massively, and very quickly, at some point in the past; like a starving man bolting down far too much food to decently hold, and then lying down for a week or so until the swelling went away. That was what Monykom City reminded Tai of. And when they got closer to the wide-open gates in the high wall, the smell suggested that maybe our rhetorical starving man had died at some point, but had still been left to lie for a week or so. She wasn't a particular stranger to bad smells - she'd lived with the Plague and its attendent pyres all her life - but after some time in the fresh air of the uninhabited places between her home, and Stonehenge, and here, the foul reek was an unwelcome reality check.

The week's journey had been, thankfully, uneventful; the only point of excitement being two more showdowns between Dmitri and the devil in his dreams, the beast attacking with frightening new strength, as though determined to stop him before he reached... somewhere. Somewhere he was heading, that it didn't want him to go. The monster, whatever it was, had so far not been very inclined to attack anyone else; but that didn't stop the nightmares. Tai's were back with a vengeance - violent, screaming, bloody affairs that even alcohol couldn't entirely kill anymore. Judging from the other's drawn faces in the mornings, they hadn't been seeing pretty things behind their eyelids either. Eventually she'd just gone back to her unsleeping ways. It beat the nightmares, but not by much.

The sky was crowned with ugly thunderclouds as they reached the gates. For the past few days the air had been heavier and heavier - at times, it felt like heaven was, somehow, in league with Dmitri's devil in trying to stop them in their tracks. Now the sunlight forcing its way through the ponderous storms slung low between the horizons was diffuse, desperate, and clanged like a bell in the hot, still air. Strung out by nights of pain and terror, wrung out by the effort of forcing themselves through the stifling, smothering weather, the last thing any of the party particularly wanted to come across was a pair of guards, irritated by the heat itching beneath their livery and by the sheer soul-sucking boredom of their unfortunate lot.

"Okay, who are you lot?" The man's voice fell flat and lifeless on the dirty road as they dismounted.

Marius, unofficial leader - because out of all of them, he knew what he was doing, he'd been here before - answered in an equally enthusiastic tone, introducing them all. But once he'd explained that he was a priest here, the guards waved them through, directing their attention only at a large notice posted on the open gate. Like everything else, it was wilting and curling in the oppressive mugginess. The rules written thereon weren't anything special. Mostly just common courtesy; Tai guessed that when you had this many people all crammed together inside a big stone wall, you needed to spell things out. Make absolutely sure that everyone knows what's allowed, just so the city doesn't suddenly decide to explode.

Once inside, Marius urged them to keep going; apparently it wasn't allowed to hang around the city with nothing to do. Either you lived here, or you had business, or you went away. "We'll most likely be able to stay at the monastery," he said, yawning. "They have a hostel there; I can probably get you all space. It's not luxury, but it's free."

"Tomorrow we start looking for ships?" Mordred suggested, looking around wide-eyed with curiosity at this strange new place.

"This evening we find a pub, and we lay out our plans." Tai had already spotted one or two. This looked like a good place - well-supplied with such establishments, though it did stink rather a lot. "What's it now, just past noon? A couple of hours of not moving sounds good to me."

Kiera made a small, tired noise of assent. "We'll all be able to think better after a rest," she agreed. Crushed by the weight of the impending storm, nobody argued as Marius secured themselves and their horses a place to stay in his monastery's little hostel.

The afternoon wore on in a fog of exhaustion; although everyone was curious, nobody went exploring - they lay around in the shade, talking fitfully, waiting with tired impatience for the storm to break.
As soon as he had arranged for his companions to stay in the monastery hostel, Marius reported to the Precept.

The old man glanced up when he heard the priest's rapid footsteps approaching, and his face lit up when his eyes fell upon the young man. "Marius! You have returned! Have you succeeded in your quest? Did you find the people you saw in your dream?"

Marius smiled wryly. "Yes, I found them. They are housed in the hostel, actually. I cannot say that I have succeeded in my quest, however, for in finding the individuals in my dream, the quest has... changed, somewhat."

"Oh?" the old man asked with a raised eyebrow. "Do tell all. But first... are you well? Brother Selbert can examine you if you are not..."

The young priest shook his head. "There is nothing wrong with me other than road weariness, and that is easily-enough alleviated. In truth, I have felt healther these last few days than I have in years. There's someting curative about being out and about in the world. I feel very... alive."

The Precept nodded. "Yes, I understand completely. I was a missionary when I was only slightly older than you are now. It was one of the best times of my life. But alas, such days must eventually come to an end. I am old now, and I must live vicariously through you. So tell me, what has occured these last few days?"
         As the party rested in the tower room that Marius had procured for them, an
insidious sleep stole through the room and even Derrick, scared to death of the height of
the tower, was soon asleep.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         As Anglis sleeps, he dreams:

         Anglis looked up from the mud he was digging at the bank of a river. He had a long, broad, dull knife in one hand, and a clump of red clay in the other. He was covered in varying degrees of damp clay, and he didn't seem to be wearing any clothes! What the --!

         A little girl giggled from somewhere behind him.

         Anglis whirled around. "You again!"

         The child hopped up and down in excitement. "You remember!" she cried, clapping her hands. "What do you remember?"

         "I, uh, um .. beads! You gave me a bracelet. Why?"

         "Rangsey said it would help you remember. I guess I can tell him it worked." She cocked her head at him. "I thought I told you to stay away?"

         Anglis shrugged. "You did, I guess, I'm just not to good at controling .. this .. this, whatever this is."

         "Well you better learn!" she snapped. "I can't just keep disappearing like this, you know, people talk."

         Anglis gave her a blank look. "Huh?"

         She sighed and picked her way down the bank to sit on a rock, regarding Anglis thoughtfully. "Well, it's, um, illegal to have magic where I come from. If I'm found out, well .. well, let's just say that bad things'll happen to me." She cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Just where do you come from that you don't know any of this?"

         "Uh, from the North, originally up along the Icy Rim, but I've traveled all over, really."

         "Hmm, I've been there once, long ago. You don't look like the people I saw there." She stared at him, her expression hardening. "Are you sure you're telling me the truth?"

         Anglis scowled. "Of course I am! You seem to know everything, though, why don't you tell me where I am and what I'm doing here!"

         Unexpectedly, she laughed. She stopped as Anglis turned an even darker shade of red. "You mean you really don't know?" She rubbed her chin. "I don't know where we are, either, except back in this jungle again. We always seem to come here, you know, but it's like nowhere else I've ever been, and, believe me, that's saying something."

         Anglis sighed, feeling his anger fading. "I've traveled a lot, too, and I've sure never seen anywhere like this, either. Do you," he paused, shaking his head as the scene before him flickered and faded into double-vision before settling again. "Do you know how I get here?"

         "I'd say it's somehow like how I get here," she answered, "and I don't know the why or how to that, either." She looked down at the ground, frowning.

         Suddenly, Anglis was seeing double again. The ground seemed to be shifting beneath him and his stomach rebelled at the movement. "I, uh," he stammered, lurching sideways and falling, falling, falling ...

         BAM!

         Anglis sat upright on the hard stone of the hostel's floor. He shivered. Looking down, he saw that one of the beads had turned black, and then, before his eyes, crumbled into dust, and vanished. Half-closing his eyes, Anglis staggered into the privy-closet and gave in to his heaving stomach. It seemed like hours later before he was able to stagger back into bed.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         The next day dawned sunny and bright, with the storms having passed in the night.
The light air, however, did not last long and a renewed mugginess descended upon the city.
         As scared as he was of heights, Derrick soon found himself looking out upon the
city and observing it. The people were always in a hurry, the vendors were very pushy,
and the soldiers that were clearly visible in their livery seemed to be feared.
         Then there was the city itself. The monastery sat inside an enclosed area, called
a bailey if Derrick remembered right, and it was placed oddly close to the motte upon
which the palace sat. The palace itself was surrounded by a tall stone wall, and a tower
sprang forth as the tallest building in the city.
         The first bailey, inside which sat the monastery, was enclosed by a thick stone
wall, and a moat (the contents of which may, or may not, have still been liquid). Outside
of that was a second bailey enclosed by a rather rough looking wooden palisade. The only
real thing going for that wall was the hill upon which it had been built. The outermost
areas of the city was also enclosed by a wooden wall, but it was slowly being replaced by
a stone structure. That wall had been started at the gate and wrapping its way around the
outside of the wooden fence. It already featured four monstrous square towers, one on
either side of the gate, and one more a ways down the wall.
         Derrick would have given almost anything to see what stone was being used in the
construction, just so that he could be working again. Still...it was nice not having to
work alone. He may be on a quest, but he had allies in it.
         Being one to grouse, Tai grumbled, "Well, seeing as how we managed to sleep
through yesterday, what is the plan for today?" Seeing as how the question was not
directed at him, Derrick turned back to the window to study the city once more.
         Dmitri took up Tai's challenge when he answered her, "We need to find a ship that
can take us down to the island, and back again." Ahh the docks. The pungent smell of the
sea was quite clear to Derrick at his position by the window, and he was forced to wonder
how the outer wall would incorporate the bay area.
         "Even if we do find a captain willing to take us there and bring us back, how do
we get him to agree?" The question came from Anglis. He knew that things were bartered
for other things, and he also knew that the group had very little to trade, if anything
at all. Suddenly a slab of metal hit the table upon which their breakfast dishes still
sat. The clattering drew everyone's attention, but Mordred was the first to pick it up.
Turning it over in his hand, he plied the metal with a finger, and tossed it from hand to
hand. After which he tried to bend it in-between the two. Then scratching his head, he
placed it back on the table and stated matter-of-factly, "It's platinum."
         With that all eyes turned towards its source. Derrick sat facing them and said,
"It's not just any type of platinum. That bar is of the purest strain that I ever found
in the mines, and it is worth all our weights in gold." To the astonished eyes of his
fellows he mumbled, "I always said I was a miner, and its only natural that I get to keep
some of the stuff I find."
         "How much more of that do you have?" questioned Tai, her eyes aglow.
         "Does it matter? That bar of platinum will more than buy our passage to and from
the island. Now. If you will excuse me, I am going to find the local Miners Guild."
         "Why?" asked Kiera.
         "Because they will have a representative of the Tang mines there, and I have
questions and things to take care of. Not to mention that I need a drink, and they are
likely, the only place around to have miners ale at the bar."
         "A bar!" Tai sat up straighter, "Why didn't you say so? I'm coming too. With that
Derrick and Tai departed, the platinum bar still sitting on the table, being stared at as
if the others expected it to get up and follow its owner out the door.

* * *

I'm sorry, guys, but I've been in kind of a rough patch and I haven't been feeling well. I hope you'll forgive me, but I haven't been able to finish my add. Best I can do right now is to say that I figured our characters would go explore the city and I'd planned on Dmitri going to see one of the monastery's doctors.

All right, I'm back in business. Let's get this show back up and running, okay? I'll start pressing with the cf, with the 3 day limit on additions again, starting Monday, 9 pm eastern. Remember to ask me for more time if you need it.

Ready?

* * *


Mordred sighed, he had departed from the group rather quickly or, moreover, they had separated from him and he was left to wander the city all by his onesy. This place was enormous, he reflected, the buildings were tall and high up, almost like that of his forest home, but he doubted he could climb these buildings to reach the top like he used to. He meandered around for a bit, looking at all the things, shiny, dull, vibrant, and strange. He picked up a necklace with small pink stones on it, they matched his little sister's eyes...

"That's tweleve silver coins, young man." An older woman emerged from the shadows of the street shop.

Mordred smiled wanly, "I don't know if I'm going to buy it."

"For Lillya?" She asked.

Mordred looked up sharply, "How do you...?"

"I know many things, you and your friends are on a God's mission. A massive undertaking for your group, do you think you will succeed?" She asked, wide green eyes seemed to look through him and stare beyond.

"Of course we will." Mordred growled.

"You are so positive... good, good, you will need that attitude in the coming storm... fire... always trial by fire... beware the dragon, the cruelty of the beast is unmatched. Dmitri will not find what he seeks here." She stepped forward, her skirt jangling with the bells and coins that adorned her.

Mordred stepped away, "I... Don't come any closer."

"Be gone with you traveller, the necklace is a gift, but the gem in your pocket will cost you a silver." She held out a gnarled hand.

"I don't have..."

"Check and see if I lie. The dieties will smile on you if you succeed." Her eyes refocussed upon him and he shifted uncomfortably.

Mordred checked his pouches rapidly, his eyes widening as his hands came upon the small black diamond in his palm, "How did..."

"Do not question those that know most." She shook her hand.

Mordred dropped the silver coin in her hand, turning and fleeing into the crowded street. The black gem in his hands emitting a soft glow as he ran towards the docks.
Another night, another vision. Or dream. Or evil brain playing tricks on her. It's hard to tell, when you're asleep; but tonight's show at the Mind's Eye Theatre rings with a sort of hollow-eyed truth. Familiar with how these things play out - and glad in a muzzy way that at least it's not turning into a nightmare just yet - Tai watches the scene unfold before her dreaming eyes.

It's Monykom City - long ago, she knows, when it was still fresh and unswollen; before the human flood poured in and bloated it to its present monstrous, oozing size. Floating with a pair of chatty gulls above the city, she sees how careful and regular it is: the streets run as straight as man can make them, cutting each other at polite perfect square angles. The sun is shining down on the calm water of the docks, which plays host to a small forest of ships flying more brightly-coloured flags than Tai ever imagined there could be countries in the world. Hard by the docks is the market, and clearly today is market day because the big square is stuffed with happy, smiling people, going about their cheerful business in the glorious summer sunshine. This is when she knows it must have been long ago. There hasn't been this much general good cheer in the Kingless Land for a hundred years or so. Under the rich sunshine the bustling crowds seem like some vibrant, colourful living organism; that is, until a note of unease creeps into Tai's sleeping mind, and she finally realises that everyone here is either very young, or old, or sick, or injured. And these aren't plague-injuries. Somehow Tai can tell that these are war-wounds.

Looking up from the ageing, but happy marketplace-throng, Tai recognises the monastery in which her body is currently snoring. For a lurching, sick second she thinks that somehow it's the Cathedral from the Gates of Heaven; but then she realises that, no, this building has more outliers; the massive graceful church-building is merely the centre of a modestly clutter of monastery-related buildings, unwalled, open to the business of the city it nests in. And, unlike her Cathedral, its bell-tower still stands. Devoid of bells, on a platform high up in the tower stands the a heap of flame big enough to burn up the world, or so it seems. A lighthouse; tiny figures scuttle around the edges, feeding the monstrous flame that flings a tail of scarlet and vermilion and bright yellow, near-invisible in the sunshine, into the perfect blue vault of the sky. Looking out to see, Tai watches a ship come in, noting a miniscule navigator keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the dragon's-head of flame that the monastery's lighthouse sends up.

Tai feels the dream-breeze twist under her invisible wings, tumbling her away to the northern edge of the city. There's no wall here, not anymore - no, not yet, this is the past before the fortifications were necessary - and the city blends gently into a surrounding patchwork of fields and farms, quiet and fertile and so green that it seems unreal. Through this blanket of lush production, contented livestock, and happy farmers runs a ribbon of well-mantained road, that stretches out northwards as far as she can see.

Down this road comes the nightmare.

First a trickle, then a flood of worn-out, exhausted, near-dead, starving refugees drag their wagonloads of salvaged possessions and drive their depleted flocks of exhausted, starving animals. As the frightened flood approaches - they're so tense they would start at butterflies, had they the energy - dark clouds pour in from the horizon behind them. The first of the refugees reach the city at the same time as the storm paints the perfect blue sky with leaden tones of heavy, brooding thunder, rattling the black clouds with menacing drum-rolls like the march of the armies of Heaven.

Chaos and terror ride with the refugees, spreading like a storm-front through the previously peaceful city, smashing through the happiness of the bustling market day as the panicking refugees commandeer through sheer force of desperation every one of those clean, many-flagged ships. After about the fourth time of watching a scared captain being torn half to pieces and flung overboard into the increasingly violent, blood-frothing sea, Tai turns her face away. But there isn't anywhere that's less horrible to look. The city is overrun; havoc and panic and primal, animalistic rage have turned it into a seething witches' cauldron of violence and terror. Even the militia, nominally trying to keep the peace, are resorting to increasingly brutal acts.

And then the world splits apart, and everyone - including Tai - shrieks in a mixture of spine-rattling terror and sympathetic agony as a boulder, a chunk of rock the size of a house, through some dark sorcery set aflame, blazes like a comet across the storm-nighted sky. It smashes into the lighthouse-tower, knocking it over and demolishing a good half of the cathedral with brutally insolent ease. Fires begin to spring up in nearby buildings, their rich blood-light the only illumination as the afternoon becomes nightmare-dark, and streams of dark blood begin to run through the panic-violent streets. As though the first had launched a new fashion, more flaming boulders come, tearing and smashing the city to pieces. Desperately overcrowded, every single ship that tries to leave the harbour is seized by the raging sea and shaken to sodden match-wood.

The apocalypse dims as wakefulness begins to make its timid demands of her. The last thing she sees is a puddle of flames and smashed rock that once was a prosperous, happy city; it rings with the roaring crackle of the devouring fire and the screams and prayers of those still able to make a sound - over which comes, as unexpected as an albatross in a mine-shaft, the pleasant singing voice of a much younger, much happier, dead Tai.

"Well, now you know. Wasn't too pretty, was it?"


***

Outside in the muggy, brassy sunshine of the - rebuilt, swollen, stinking - city, Tai was glad that Derrick didn't seem inclined to fill the air with idle chatter as last night's dream rampaged through her head again. Following the hideous little dwarf through the odiferous streets - which she began to recognise, in places, from the apocalypse so recently played out behind her eyelids - she barely paid attention to where they were going.

The lighthouse was gone, though; she noticed that much. It'd been the first thing she'd looked to see that morning. Evidently they hadn't seen the point in rebuilding the thing, not when so few ships came to the Kingless Land anymore.

"Who can blame them? Everything here is under a death sentence."

Tai startled, thinking it'd been Derrick, wondering how he'd managed to strike so exactly into her own morbid thoughts. Then she noticed the little ghost-girl walking beside her, strolling unimpeded right through the hasty passers-by that jostled carelessly into the living Tai. The ghost grinned impishly at her. "Yes," the girl confirmed. "You've finally cracked."

"Great. Go away."

"Make me!"

"Go away!" Tai lashed out, instinctively, only just avoiding punching a small one-legged boy in the face. He cried in alarm and shrank back against the Plague-blinded man by his side. "Sorry," she mumbled to the aghast faces glaring at her, and ran on behind the swiftly-disappearing miner, trying her best to ignore the giggles of her own dead self.

But she couldn't ignore the rest of the ghosts.

The first ones were engaged in building a house, where a cracked fountain now stood in a puddle of stagnant water. The sight brought Tai to a dead halt.

"What is it?" Derrick asked.

"Look."

"What? A fountain?"

"Can't you see the wraiths?" Derrick shook his deformed head. "There's four of them. Building a house."

"Long ago," the dead girl said, peering around her living counterpart. "Before the city was even really here."

"Shut up," Tai replied.

"I didn't say anything."

Tai shook her head to indicate not you, and turned away from the industrious ghosts, deeply troubled. But no matter where she and Derrick went on their quest for the bar, dead-Tai followed, and more wraiths appeared. A century of ghosts, carrying out their daily business right past and right through the living and each other. There was the newly-wed couple, smiling and laughing, unable to keep their eyes off each other as they strolled together to the market - "Pretty recent," the ghost of Tai remarked, "look at her plague-scars." - and the militia-soldier patrolling with the weary tread of someone who's only got half an hour left of his watch to go, before he can go and get some much-needed sleep. "Just after the attack," was the ghost's verdict. "Look, he's still stepping around piles of rubble."

Tai didn't answer herself, and tried not to notice the throngs of ghosts; in places they seemed to outnumber the living, as they went about the everyday business of the dead. But the next one she couldn't but notice, because it was a nightmare sprung out of the darkness to haunt the light. The courier on his exhausted horse, galloping hell-bent towards some distant payment; the child, blinded by the plague which had left delicate patterns of sores on his bald head; the inevitable sickening end which she couldn't turn away from, horrible though it was... and as the ghostly hoof-beats faded away into the city, Tai found herself looking down at the mother's ghost, cradling the ghost of a dead child in her translucent, foggy arms. The mother looked up at her, and for a second Tai knew that this dead woman was looking at her, was aware of her presence.

"He wouldn't stop bleeding," the wraith said softly, rocking her dead son. "Wouldn't stop bleeding..."

Tai screamed, and shut her eyes, and ran in some direction hoping for sanity.
The ground was chilly against Marius's forehead and the palms of his hands, but even as a shiver began to roll from his aching shoulders past his sore knees all the way down to his stiff toes, the priest refused to move.

In truth, the discomfort seemed far away, an irritating buzz in the back of his mind that wasn't a great enough concern to truly warrant his attention. He was deep in meditation, and he could ignore far greater discomforts than this… and had.

A vague memory rose in his mind, filling the void that he’d built for himself. Briefly he considered banishing it---banishing all thought---but then he let it come.

Bone-deep tremors shook him, ripping convulsively through screaming muscles. The left side of his ribcage, his entire lower back, and the back of his right leg were a fiery mass of poxy sores whose searing heat overwhelmed that of his feverish body. The stone beneath his face was cool and comforting, but taking a deep breath, he tried to ignore the simple pleasure of that comfort, to ignore the pain of his body. But that breath caught in his lungs, and a single rattling cough erupted from his mouth.

Footsteps sounded in the sanctuary, vibrating through the stone. Marius heard them with every fiber of his body, and cringed.

The voice that sounded in the sanctuary was soft, but it carried. “Marius, lad! What in the names of all the gods are you doing?”

Marius didn’t bother rising from where he lay, prostrate on the sanctuary floor before the alter of candles. Each of the tiny flames represented one of the gods, and Marius liked looking at their flickering lights even though he knew that he was supposed to avoid worldly pleasures as he meditated.

“I am doing my morning meditations, Brother Selbert,” Marius’s twelve-year-old voice whispered. It was still high, and would remain so another three years; those afflicted by the plague did not mature as quickly at other children.

“It is three in the morning, and you are ill, lad!” Brown robes suddenly obscured Marius’s view of the candles, and a moment later Brother Selbert knelt and gently with cool but rough hands, gently encouraged the young priest off of the floor and out the door toward the infirmary.


The memory ended there. Marius had fainted then, or perhaps simply been too delirious to remember the walk back toward the warmth of his cot. Brother Selbert had asked him, later, why he’d gone to meditate when he knew he should have been in bed.

“The gods are dead,” Marius had said. “I am not. While I yet live, I will try to do my best to remember them, to believe. For is it not said in the Writ of Kalais that only remembrance and faith can return the gods to our world?”

Lying on the sanctuary floor now, eight years later, Marius couldn’t help but feel differently than his young self. He doubted that faith and remembrance alone would be sufficient to bring the gods back. It was becoming increasingly more obvious to him that the events unfolding around him and his companions would be far more likely to facilitate the rebirth of the gods than mere prayer and meditation.

But still, old habits die hard...
~*~*~*~*~


Dear Marguerite,

Business called me back to the city, on a matter of great import, so forgive me for not responding to your letters sooner. Each one I received brought to me a happiness and sense of adventure, bringing back memories of my own childhood. I thank you for that. During these past few weeks, those letters have been my only joy.

I still can smile at your sketch of the baron. He is indeed a pompous old fool, but he is a shrewd businessman, nonetheless. In fact, the country could stand to have a few more like him, for he pays a large sum in taxes. Ha-ha!

But, you cannot deny that he takes care of his employees. He would be a good master, and would indeed be a good teacher, should you wish to own a merchantry business yourself when you get older.

So you are learning to ride the white tigers, are you? That is good practice for when you get to the far north and are introduced to those great white bears up there. The tigers were a gift from Insel, and the baron has spent many years breeding them into the fine creatures we have today. Should you meet a scarred female, named Sheba, please tell her that I apologize for staying away so long and will endeavor to visit soon. The baron swears that the beasts understand much more than we think.

Enjoy the tigers, dear Marguerite. I look forward to your next letter with pleasure.

Rangsey

~*~*~*~*~


Dear Rangsey,

I couldn't wait to read your letter so I hid it under the table and read during dinner. Having you call Grandfather a pompous old fool was almost too much; I nearly laughed out loud. I'll have to read your letters in private from now on.

It is funny that you should mention Grandfather being a good master. I think he wants me to go into the merchantry business. He is always trying to keep such close ties to us. He wants to know where we are all the time. I think mother and father want me to make my own choices so they won't let me see him often. I don't know for sure, because they won't talk about it. What do you think, Rangsey? Am I making all this up?

I'll find Sheba and deliver your message,
Marguerite


~*~*~*~*~
Tai looked so unhappy when Kiera found her that the shorter woman was tempted to turn around and run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. She had never before seen drunkenness, a splitting headache, frustration and a bad response to visions in one person, and to look at Tai was to understand why they didn't combine. She blinked and gulped several times before she plucked up the courage to approach the stony-faced woman at the bar.

She hoisted herself up onto a bar stool, favouring her slowly-healing wrist as she did so, struggling slightly because the stool was so high. Tai didn't look at her: by the looks of things the evil-smelling drink in her hand was demanding all her attention. Kiera ordered "something reasonably benevolent" and stared straight ahead for a moment. Finally, mostly because Tai's silence was becoming oppressive, Kiera picked up the end of her long chestnut braid and tapped Tai on the shoulder with it.

"What?" Tai said blandly, her voice harsh as usual.

"I need to talk to you," Kiera said, equally blandly.

"What about?"

"Equal division of labour among the group, a non-discrimination policy, and, while we're at it, a worker's union. Actually I just want to sue the gods, and I figured you hate them enough to help me out on this one."

Tai finally turned to look at Kiera, her expression softening visibly even though her face didn't move. Kiera grinned. "Thought that might get your attention," she said, sipping demurely at the drink the barman handed to her with a distinct lack of ceremony. Tai allowed herself to smile, recognising the smell of fruit juice and mentally acknowledging that that could probably be classed as benevolent.

"You know," she said, "you always make me laugh. I don't know how you do it, but thanks. What can I do for you?"

Kiera kept sipping. "I just told you," she said. "Is this guava? Didn't think that grew here."

"Joking aside," Tai said, punching Kiera lightly in the shoulder, "what do..."

"I wasn't joking," Kiera interrupted, turning to face Tai directly. At close quarters her yellow eyes were slightly disconcerting, and Tai wondered why she hadn't noticed this before. Kiera continued: "I don't think things are fairly organised, and by that I mean I feel left out. All I've done is cook and tell jokes. Fine, none of the rest of you can cook for old rope, and someone needs to lighten the mood when Dmitri gets all 'Oh, my personal demon, the pain, my stomach, owch!' (Tai spluttered: unorthodox as it was, Kiera's impression was pretty good), but I haven't done anything useful."

"That's not true," Tai countered, wiping spilled alcohol from the bar with her sleeve. "That stew the other day was extremely useful. Took the taste of that poison from the tavern right out of my mouth."

Kiera grimaced. "See?" she complained. "That's what I mean. Back at that creepy lake I got the impression everyone on this mad expedition is supposed to be here for some reason or other. Well, except for that one fragment of dream I had before I started out, I don't have a reason. Everyone else gets technicolour visons. Me, I get a soup ladle. Even Anglis is blacking out and seeing things - do you know we were travelling together for three weeks and he completely failed to mention that to me? It's not fair. I want in."

Tai raised her eyebrows. "And what do you need me for?" she asked, downing the rest of her drink and ordering another.

Kiera shrugged, her plait sliding off the shoulder she'd slung it over and thumping heavily onto her prominent spine. "You've got enough visions for the rest of us put together. I've got...some knowhow as to...well, as to how they work. Don't ask how I got it: you don't want to know. I want a trade. You get some respite, I get a reason to be here."

Tai almost had trouble believing Kiera. Almost, but not quite. Because something about the crazy idea rang true. She'd had trouble working out how the small, frail woman fit in, except to prevent the rest of them starving. She'd been waiting for a revelation, sure she'd be able to work it out in a second except for the alcohol gently cushioning her synapses. Well, her synapses were still cushioned, but something was falling into place. She just didn't know what.

"No deal," she rasped finally, toying with her glass. "I don't want you or anyone messing with what goes on in my head. It's messed up enough already, thanks."

"You got that right," Kiera snapped, her yellow eyes narrow. "Come on, Tai, I can help you. You need a break. I've seen you, everywhere and every time we stop, nearest tavern, chucking back the drinks like there's no tomorrow. And you know what that's called?"

"Surprise me," Tai retorted, drumming her fingers on the bar. She suddenly wished Kiera would leave. The thin slip of a woman was no fun when she was serious.

"Self-fulfilling prophecy," Kiera said. "You'll be dead before you're twenty-one because your liver's about to pack in. Your liver's failing because you drink. You drink to get away from the visions, and guess what the visions tell you? That you'll be dead before you hit your twenty-first birthday. If you want a way out, think about what I'm offering. I'm more than just a good cook, Tai. I was even a mother for a while."

Kiera took Tai's drink from her hand, and downed it herself, replacing it with the half-full glass of fruit juice, put down on the bar just hard enough to make a point. Then she slid off her stool and headed out.

Tai stared at the juice for a while before she tried a sip. Her tongue was numbed from whatever she'd been drinking before, but she could tell the juice was supposed to taste good. But Kiera's odd, disturbing words wouldn't go away with fruit juice. She ordered something potent, and drank the rest of the juice while she waited for it to arrive. Something was bothering her, something just out of reach of her well-cushioned synapses. If she could just jolt them slightly...

"Kiera," she said slowly, "when did I tell you the visions said I'd be dead before..."

But Kiera was already gone.

***


Kiera bumped into Mordred - literally - as she stormed away from the bar. He was wandering in a daze; from his direction, she guessed he'd come from the market, though she still wasn't well-enough aquainted with the geography of the city to be sure. The impact knocked her off-balance and she fell heavily, Mordred catching her before she hit the ground. "Thanks", she muttered, too annoyed to make one of her usual quips. He set her on her feet again and she massaged her wrist, which ached from the collision.

Mordred just stood there, one fist clenched, the other curled protectively around it. A necklace of delicate rose-pink stones was laced around his fingers. Kiera admired it silently as she rubbed the pain out of her wrist. When Mordred still didn't move, she reached out to touch it, asking, "Present for someone?"

Mordred snatched his hands back as though Kiera had stung him, and she started in surprise. "I'm sorry," she apologised hastily, "I didn't realise...I mean, is it delicate? I wouldn't break it."

"How do you know about..." Mordred started to ask, then trailed off when he saw Kiera's eyes lingering on the necklace. "Oh," he said, understanding dawning. "Not that."

"Then what?" Kiera asked. Mordred looked more than dazed, she realised gradually, as he opened and closed his mouth once or twice but didn't answer. He looked afraid, almost hurt. His hands were clenched so tightly his knuckles showed white, and looked like they had been that way for a while. The cramps in his hand would be agony.

"Here," Kiera said gently, reaching out again. "Let me see your hands." Mordred tensed, but this time he let Kiera touch first the necklace, then his tightly clenched fist. The tendons were knotted and straining; Kiera drew in her breath as she felt how taut they were. "Gods, you must be in agony," she whispered. "How long have you been like that? An hour? Two?"

As she spoke, she rubbed the tense skin gently, warming and loosening the muscles, working in the same patient way she used to soothe her wrist when it ached. Gradually she felt Mordred relax: his shoulders eased and he stopped resisting as she worked on his hands. Finally, after what felt like hours, he loosened his fist a little, just enough to hear the joints pop as they shifted. He sighed in pain, and Kiera moved her small hands to ease the muscles in his fingers. As she shifted them, they parted for a second. For the briefest of moments Kiera saw a blackish glow stealing out from something hidden inside Mordred's closed fist, a dark light oozing from between his fingers and casting shadows on her own. Mordred clenched his fist shut again hurriedly, and Kiera looked up at him, directly into his uneasy grey eyes.

Suddenly she understood.

((Mostly Tai's POV - I apologise, but I needed it for Kiera's exposition. I've tried to keep her in character, but if I've failed anywhere please go ahead and edit it to fit.))


         Dmitri went to the marketplace after visiting the physicians. As he'd feared, they'd been unable to tell him why his wounds refused to heal; but, he had been able to get more of the yellow goop that Gavril had given him what seemed like ages ago. There were no monsters in the monastery archives that matched the description of the monster in Dmitri's dreams and Dmitri was too self-conscious to press that matter.

         Most of the group had vanished into the city shortly after Derrick and Tai had left. Marius was still in the monastery. Derrick and Tai were looking first for a money-changer and second for a bar, and who knew where the rest of them had gone? Kiera, Anglis, Mordred .. Dmitri hadn't seen them at all.

         For a wonder, he hadn't dreamt at all, although from the haggard looks on some of his companions' faces this morning, not everyone had been so lucky. But, as if the thought had conjured the monster in real life, Dmitri rounded a corner and ran smack into the monster --

         "Augh!" he cried, leaping back, but tripping and falling onto the cobbles.

         There were a few curious looks, but no one wanted to borrow someone else's troubles, so he was left alone, listening to his thumping heart. He looked up, to where a monstrous mask banged against the pole of an awning shading the storefront. Outside, in haphazard piles, was an assortment of bizare junk.

         Grimacing, Dmitri hauled himself to his feet and stepped towards the little shop and the mask. The piece was heavy, hanging by a rope around the back of -- the skull! He dropped it with a bang back against the pole and stepped back, shivering. Finally, getting up his courage, Dmitri went back to study the mask.

         It was an old cow's skull, he saw, painted gold and red, with the teeth sharpened into points, and some sort of device fashioned into horns. Setting it down, Dmitri heaved a sigh of relief. Now that he knew what it was, he could see it for the farce it was and it no longer frightened him.

         Sticking his hands back into his pockets, he continued down the street. It was getting to be late in the afternoon now and the streets were beginning to fill with people. Dmitri's stomach led him to a busy cafe. He purchased one of the meat rolls and a watered-down beer, taking his late lunch further down the street to listen to the minstrel on the corner; but the pox-scarred youth was singing some stirring ballad of courage in the face of mortal danger, so Dmitri soon moved on.

         Darkness fell quickly and suddenly in the city, and the streets emptied of people even quicker. He hunched his shoulders against the sea breeze that cooled the air just as cool as it had been warm a few hours earlier, and hurried towards the black silhouette of the monastery. Hands in his pockets, Dmitri completely missed the two darker shadows emerge from the darkness of an alley.

         In moments, he was trussed up, blindfolded, and dumped into a cart full of other moaning bodies. With the smack of a whip, the cart trundled off through the night, jarring Dmitri's ribs with every wheel-turn over the cobblestones. After what seemed like forever but was probably only a few minutes, the cart stopped and Dmitri felt himself lifted and dumped into a boat that pitched frantically as more bodies followed. Dmitri moaned through his gag at the impact of others, then frantically had to concentrate on not being sick as the small boat set off somewhere else, the oarsmen pulling hard against the swells of the outbound tide.

* * *

         The bar closed down at nightfall, the bartender forcibly tossing Tai out onto the street. "We're closed!" he growled, shutting the door.

         Through her drunken haze, Tai frowned at the peculiar behavior. She began to stagger down the street, pausing to clear her stomach on the cobblestones. When she looked up, her little ghost-girl was back, leering menacingly at her.

         "You're a sight," laughed the dead girl.

         "So're you!" snapped Tai, grumpy at having her binge interrupted. "Go away!"

         "Oh, no, there's something I've got to show you first. Follow me."

         "What? No way! Haven't you tormented me enough for one da?"

         The little dead girl laughed. "Gods, no! I've barely gotten started." She stopped laughing and glared at Tai menacingly as she said, "And if you don't follow me, right here, right now, I really will drive you insane."

         Tai stared at her. "Kiera said she could make you go away."

         "Oh, sure," scoffed the ghost, "with some sleeping potions and herbs. But that won't make me appear to her."

         "Why not? Why does it have to be me?"

         The dead girl grinned at her. "Because I like you so much, that's why!" She turned and skipped across the street. "And besides, I'm you. Now come one, this way, hurry!"

         Spitting, Tai followed. She dodged the city guard as they lit the street lanterns and talked to and arrested up other curfew-breakers. Slowly, she made her way down towards the docks. The area was not well lit and Tai huddled against some barrels of foul-smelling fish as a gang of sailors wandered past, singing drunkenly at the tops of their lungs.

         The little ghost-girl popped through the wall of barrels. "There!" she said, frightening Tai half out of her wits. "Look there!"

         Tai squinted through the gloom. There! Half obscured by a stack of wine kegs, and completely oblivious to the men loading the kegs into a cart, hunched three hooded figures. Tai frowned. What was so darned important?

         "Shh! Keep watching!" hissed the dead girl.

         Shrugging, Tai returned her attention to the hidden trio. After a few minutes, the figure furthest from Tai lifted its hand and pointed. Quickly, they darted from cover and dashed across the road. There was a shout and the clatter of hoof-beats, but the men with the wine kegs kept on, oblivious to the drama being enacted right in front of them.

         The three were almost across when there was a twang of a crossbow and one of the cloaked figures fell. There were two cries, one deep and yelling in pained surprise, the other high and frightened. The remaining of the cloaked figures grabbed the middle one and dragged him/her/it? down off the road and into the shadows. There was a splash of oars and then nothing.

         Back on the street, the men on horseback had dismounted and seemed to be having a heated argument over the hunched figure on the ground. The injured one said something in a strange language, quickly silenced by a flash of silver. One of the horsemen wiped a dagger on his cloak, said something to his companions, then mounted and rode away. Two of the others grabbed the body and slung it over the backs of one of the horses, already shying from the smell of blood.

         Tai gasped. That guy had a tail!

         "Hope you've seen enough," said the ghost-girl suddenly, "because it's now time to leave."

         "Why? What's all the rush?"

         "The press-gang's here. Go on! RUN!" the ghost screamed at her.

         Without thinking further, Tai lit out as fast as she could go back towards the monastery, hounded at every step by the little dead ghost-girl screaming threats and warnings. She arrived, panting and heart pounding, threw open the door and gasped: "Dmitri's been kidnapped!"
Anglis turned to look at her. He hadn't left the monastary grounds the entire time and unfortunately was the only one in the room.

He walked over to her and lifted her chin a little, studying her for a moment.

"Stop it! There isn't time!" Tai smacked his hand away, "Where is everyone else?" He finally decided she was telling the truth and not just off her head.

"Around. Where is he?"

"At the harbour. They took off in a boat." she followed him as they hurried off round the monastary gathering the group. Anglis didn't give any explanation until they had all gathered. Understandably they didn't take the news well.

"They'll be out at sea by the time we get a boat." Marius mused, "We could just carry on the way we were, but..."

"I can find them." Anglis said firmly, "And we have Tai. We get the boat and we follow them. The wind only blows one way and it wasn't a big boat."

"Yes but if the wind turns away from their destination and they take to oars?" Kiera pointed out.

"We'll deal with that when it happens. The more time we wait the more time Dmitri is in danger." Anglis replied.
Mordred let himself breath once Kiera had left, she had rattled him, if only slightly when she had run into him. He held up the pink necklace sighing and tucking it away in his pack before letting his hand open once more to reveal the black diamond. He stared at it contemplatively, sighing heavily, what was it? He turned it over in his hands, perhaps he could lay it in a sword...

"Mordred! There you are!"

Mordred was suddenly hauled off his rear and to his feet, running beside Anglis who was dragging him alone, "What the hell?!" Mordred yelled, struggling to keep up with the other man.

"Dmitri's been kidnapped!" He replied, releasing Mordred and galloping after Kiera who had appeared out of nowhere and Tai as well.

"Oh for hell's sake!" Mordred snarled, rushing after them, "Could this get any worse?" He mumbled mutinously, quickly catching up to the others with his long strides.

~*~*~

The docks were easy enough to navigate through and they immediately spotted the ship that had set sail.

"Well, now what?" Marius asked, "Do we even have a boat to chase them with?"

Derrick scowled, "No, we don't." He harumphed.

"Well..." Mordred said, "We could... borrow one." He glanced at Tai, "Does anyone know how to sail?" He itched the back of his head.
Marius stared morosely at the boats bobbing in the water. “I most certainly do not. I cannot even swim.”

“I don’t know how to sail either,” Mordred said.

“Nor I,” came the general response

Tai’s wild, drunken blue eyes rolled toward the water. “Then we won’t use a sailboat. We just need something with oars. I think even we can figure that out.”

Marius stared at her in stark amazement. “You want us to go out onto the ocean with a rowboat?” he demanded.

Tai shrugged. “It can be done. I think. We have another option?”

Kiera pointed. “There!” She and Derrick, spotting the rowboat first, took off at a dead run down the pier. The waifish midget and the ugly little dwarf only got halfway toward their destination before the others --- spotting the boats later but covering nearly twice the ground with each step --- caught up with them.

Mordred, taking a running leap from the docks, nearly overturned the boat in his haste. He had successfully steadied it by the time the others began to pile in. One of the oars he took up himself. The other, he handed to Marius.

The young priest looked at it dubiously, then carefully lowered it into the dark waters.

Together, they began rowing. Or, rather, they tried to begin rowing. Unfortunately, Mordred was much stronger and fitter than Marius, and his strokes were more vigorous. The boat kept turning about itself, for a solid ten minutes, before they finally worked out a rhythm and started out across the water.
~*~*~*~*~


Dear Rangsey,

I've sent this letter by bird so it would get to you sooner. I have a question that greatly needs to be answered.

Grandfather met us in the Blue Grass Plains earlier this month. Mother and Father weren't pleased. The entire time he was with us he was either talking to them or trying to talk to me alone. I swear, Rangsey, everyone was trying to keep us away from him and he was trying just as hard to be alone with us. We left weeks earlier than when we had planned. A week and a half out we were attacked. Everyone with us says that it was bandits but...

This can't be right. It's a horrible, horrible thing to even think let alone write. Please Rangsey, don't think any less of me. I think Grandfather had something to do with the attack.

I think... I think Grandfather wants to keep us close at hand. I think Mother and Father don't want us to be just as much.

Please help me understand this all,
Marguerite


Dear Marguerite,

I've disguised this letter with all hopes that you will receive it. The courier is a special friend of mine, should he survive to place this letter in your hands. I trust that you will know him - or will sense foul play.

My child, do not discount your feelings, your instincts will tell you what to do and who to trust.

You can confide in the courier - he will relay your troubles to me. I feel that we should be careful in discussing these matters until we can be sure of our safety in doing so.

My prayers are with you,

Rangsey

~*~*~*~*~
         The press-gang handed their prisoners up to hands on the ship waiting for them. As Dmitri was hauled up the side, he saw several small rowboats, empty but for their rowers, making their way back towards shore. He hit the deck hard enough to make him cry out, and received a kick for the outburst.

         "Hold your tongue!" snapped one of the sailors.

         A few more bodies tossed to the deck later, one of Dmitri's captors hauled himself over the side. "That's the last of the night's catch," he said, looking down his nose at the huddled prisoners.

         The other sailor grunted and handed the man a heavy bag of coins. "We've our cargo now," he replied. "We'll be heading off soon's we get it stowed."

         "Aye, and a good profit awaits your return. Get more travelers in the summer."

         They both laughed and the first man slipped back over the side. In response to the other's barked commands, other sailors grabbed the helpless prisoners, divesting them of their bonds. In their place, however, were slapped metal shackles to ankles. The prisoners were then marched below decks and chained to the end of a long line of waiting prisoners.

         Dmitri couldn't believe his eyes. What was this horror? Slavers! He was in the company of slavers! He'd thought he might at least be pressed into service on the ship, but sold somewhere?! No! This couldn't be real!

         With a moan of horror, he sank to the deck where he huddled with the others, waiting for morning and whatever might await them. He slept, fitfully at best, waking as the slavers began to walk up and down the rows of chained captives with water and hard biscuits. Dmitri took his biscuits and got his sip of water while trying to hide the blood stains on his shirt. It stuck to him, but either the slaver didn't see or he didn't care, passing on without a word.

         The prisoners passed most of the day in solitary silence, broken only by a few scattered bouts of hysterical or frightened weeping. Toward mid-afternoon, they heard an odd, rythmic beating upon the water.

         "Pirates!" came the cry up the line of captives, from the ones who could manage to look out. The hold was soon full of excited and frightened moaning and whispers.

         Then the slavers were upon them again, dragging lines of shackled prisoners up on to deck, arranging them in rows up and down the decking. Other sailors on the ship patroled the lines, laying about with whips on unruly or disobediant captives. Dmitri's line was one of the first hauled out, so they went nearest the bow and was consequently the last to be brought before the pirates when they finally came aboard.

         They came in a group of five, plus a handful more who set about arranging the planking walkway between the two ships. The pirate ship was powered by two large sails, but also by oars. The ship was much larger than the clunky merchantship and looked alarmingly fierce. Neither ship flew flags Dmitri recognized and he'd seen many from his home on the cliffside.

         As each line of captives was brought forward, the pirates looked them over and separated the ones they wanted, driving them across the plank to the other ship. Some didn't make it across, causing jeers and laughter from the pirates as they watched.

         It was late in the afternoon before Dmitri's line was brought forward. Now he was to find out what were the pirates' determining factors. The captives were stripped of their clothes whilst the pirates checked for signs of the plague. The woman to Dmitri's right was rejected for simply having blue eyes. She began screaming when the young girl at her side was hauled off to the pirate ship. The woman was silenced only when the pirates threatened to toss her and her daughter overboard.

         The pirates didn't so much as glance at Dmitri. "Unexceptable," grunted the leader with a curt gesture.

         For once, Dmitri was glad to have the bizarre shade of hair-color that had made his younger years miserable. The slavers gathered the remaining prisoners, chained them back together, and marched them back down into the bowels of the ship. Dmitri counted some twenty in all. He figured that more than three times their number were now huddled in the bowels of the pirate ship.

         The muffled weeping trailed off eventually and Dmitri curled up to sleep as best he could. It was cold and he was on the outside of the group, and so he shivered and turned restlessly, worry - and who knew what else - gnawed at his belly.

* * * *

         Anglis, Derrick, Tai, Marius, and Mordred paddled as fast as they could out of the harbor. Kiera clung to the bow and whispered back directions, like, "You're going too far left!" and "Shh! A boat coming our way...."

         They were close enough to see the sails unfurl on their goal, but paddle as fast as they could, they couldn't keep up. Just as they realized that, another rowboat loomed up out of the darkness. Quickly, all but Tai and Kiera ducked out of sight.

         "Eh, you missed them!" shouted a man in the other boat. His companions laughed.

         "Yeah, ye'll just have to wait 'til next month!" said one.

         Kiera let out a stream of curses that made even the stalwart Tai blush. "But we want our #&$* money!" Kiera finished.

         The men in the other boat merely continued laughing, with one suggesting a particular bar if the lady were interested in earnin' some dough the old-fashioned way, nudge nudge, wink wink. A few catcalls from them and some nasty replies back from Kiera, and the other boat paddled out of earshot.

         "Jeez, Kiera," Marius whispered loudly, "where'd you learn that kinda language?"

         "Does it really matter?" Mordred interrupted, "the ship's long gone, we'll never catch it now."

         "So what do you suppose we do, then?" asked Tai, "Give up?"

         "It's too cold out here, not to mention wet," added Derrick. "Let's go somewhere else to argue."

         "You know," said Tai thoughtfully, "those guys might be worth talkin' to, to see what else we can learn about this little operation."

         Marius nodded his head in the darkness. "I agree. Tai, why don't you and Derrick hit up that bar, see what you can find out. Pretend you're one of them, or whatever it takes."

         "Why me?"

         Derrick laughed. "You 'cause you're female and me to keep you out of trouble, why else? What're you guys going to do, then?"

         Marius answered, "I have to let the monks know what's going on, see what I can find out that way, and see if I can put a stop to it."

         "Well, I'm not getting the bags this time," said Anglis suddenly. "We're going to need a boat."

         "I'll help," Kiera volunteered.

         Mordred sighed. "Then I guess I'm with you, Marius. So why don't we meet back at the room at dawn? If Anglis and Kiera can find a boat, we'll sail on the next tide."

         "Agreed - just don't let the guards catch you on the streets at night," warned Tai.

         Planning complete, the small group began to paddle back toward shore. They were all fairly quiet, thinking their own private thoughts. Only Marius made any comment aloud: "I can't believe I've lived here most of my life and never heard about any of this ...."


* * * *

         From what Dmitri could tell, the slavers pressed south and east from Monykom City. The captives talked little amongst themselves, each too caught up in their own grief, but Dmitri soon came to find out that most were either criminals or debtors, and often both. All who were arrested, and who didn't have a rich family to pay for their release, were sold to slavers, although when sentenced, all agreed that they'd merely heard that they'd go to jail. There was some grumbling that now they knew why no one ever escaped. Was there even a jail in the city?

         A few, like Dmitri, were strangers to the city, unaware of the curfew, captured by the captives to supplement what the city would sell them. And all wondered at the fate that awaited them. Most of the others, on the pirate ship, would be used to power the oars, and the rest sold on elsewhere.

         The woman next to Dmitri kept muttering, "I couldn't read - I couldn't read the sign!" over and over again until she'd half driven Dmitri mad. Eventually, he figured she was talking about the sign at the gates of the city and he couldn't offer any comfort, even had she been able to accept it, for he couldn't, and hadn't read the sign, either.

         This new place where they were held was more accustomed to holding prisoners, Dmitri saw. Here the were well below the waterline, with no vents, leaving them in near-total darkness and breathing stale air. But they were just above the bilge, so over the passing days they began taking on water - not much, never more than ankle-deep, but too wet for most goods, which must've been the main reason the prisoners were kept there: they wouldn't spoil like other cargo would.

         But as the days passed, the prisoners grew weaker on their one meal of water and biscuits. Dmitri kept to himself, as did the others, glad for the hull he leaned against, alternately shivering or sweating as his body's chills came and went. He'd lost a lot of blood and had pulled off his shirt, to add to the soaking wet bandages. He stood when he could, but was too dizzy to put up with it for long, and there was no slack in the chains to walk around.

         He'd lost track of the days by the time they were hauled back out. Strange sights and sounds greeted them, as well as blinding sunlight and thick, oppressive heat, like trying to walk through steam. The prisoners crouched on the deck, too weak and intimidated to struggle or object to their transport to shore. Dmitri managed one look back, at the merchantship sailing back out the harbor. He couldn't have been happier to see the last of that ship. But where was he now? What was next?
Mordred shifted slightly as they stood, looking up at the monastery, "So, where do we start?" He asked glancing sideways at Marius.

"I don't know." Marius replied, pushing open the doors and stalking inside.

"Perhaps the head of this place, the pope, or whatever?" Mordred guessed, scratching the back of his head.

"The Pope?" Marius raised an eyebrow, "Not a pope the Precept."

Mordred shrugged, "I was never much for religion."

"Obviously." Marius replied dryly.

Mordred snorted, moving deeper in the dark halls. It reeked of old papers and ancient something-or-others that Mordred didn't care to name just then. He looked around as they walked, keeping note of the turns they took in case he got separated from Marius, "Is there even anyone here?" He hissed at the silent monk.

"There should be, but if you don't keep your yap shut there won't be." Marius growled at the youngest member of their group.

Mordred humphed and crossed his arms, grey eyes searching again for any sign of movement.

"Brother Marius! How do you fare today?"

Mordred nearly jumped from his skin at the voice so close to them, and he whirled with a glare, "Don't you people know how to make noise?" He demanded.

"Hush, Mordred." Marius hissed, clearly getting irritated at the exuberant youth, "We need to ask you a few questions, if you will..."

~*~*~

"So we get ablsolute jack about the possibility of slave-trade in Monykom, or your priest friend was lying when he said he had no idea." Mordred huffed, blowing his hair from his eyes.

"I sincerely doubt he was lying, what with you breathing down the poor mans neck and mentioning you were once a blacksmith and knew how to handle weapons, I don't think he was capable of telling lies. And he was a Monk, like me." Marius glared at the ex-blacksmith.

"So I dropped a few threats, big deal, you know it helped... some. And Marius how do you honestly expect me to tell preists and preacher-boys, and Precepts and all that other junk apart when I was never taught the slightest lick of religion other than 'The Gods will Watch you Forever.'? Like every other man, woman, and child has posted over their door, outside, inside or in between." Mordred snorted in semi-disgust.

"Well you said you didn't believe that the Gods are dead, you gave that whole speech before we even got here and it seemed like you..." Marius was cut off.

"Of course I don't believe the Gods are dead! I've believe in the damned people all my life, how the hell can I think they just up and disappear. Nothing, nothing, dammit, disappears just like that! Not even some bloody gods!" Mordred's hair was standing on end with the the force of what he was saying, even the shaggy hair on the top of his head was starting to bristle, when he was startled out of his tirade when the crunch of gravel announced the arrival of someone new.

It was a guard, spear carried in his hand, and the signs of plauge upon him too, by far worse than Mordred's own bleached state, "What're you two doing arguing in front of a monastery, don't you know it's bad luck?" He asked.

Marius seemed startled at this proclamation, "Um, well..."

Mordred started as an idea hit him, there was hope yet for their quest for information, "Um, say, what's your name?" He asked smoothly.

"R... Roger, why?"

"Well, Roger, we are... kind of in a jam, you see, perhaps you can help us?" Mordred raised an eyebrow and winced as he felt an elbow jab him in the side.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Marius hissed into Mordred's ear.

"I think I'm getting some info, we tried it your way, now we go my way." Mordred growled in return.

"What kinda jam are you in?" Roger asked, the guard's curiosity was clearly piqued.

"Well... I, ouch! We need some inside information on the goings on of this city..." Marius started rubbing his own side where Mordred had elbowed him.

*Star**Star**Star*

Dear Marguerite,

Since our last conversations, I've come to the conclusion that your fanciful conspiracy theories are nonsense, amusing, but not something that a young woman should be spending her time thinking about. Attached to this note you'll find a professor from the academy who has agreed to tutor you in the ways of the society of other young women. Professor Cesare will see to it that you are ready to enter gentile society when your parents give up that incessant wandering.

But I'm curious as to how you like the Plains. The people run small in size, but they have large hearts and the most beautiful horses in the kingdom. If you get a chance, you should take a ride along the border country. It's a wild land, desolate and empty. In my youth I spent a great deal of time fishing out there with some distant cousins. Should you meet the Wolfsblade Clan, give them my good wishes.

There are days I envy your freedom,

Rangsey


*Star**Star**Star*
The hidden bar - that wasn't as hidden as the people inside probably wanted it to be - opened its grimy front door a thin crack at Tai's insistent knocking, and a suspicious pair of eyes peeped out

"Well?"

"We've got business," Tai growled, shoving first her foot then the rest of her body through the widening door. Derrick scuttled in behind as the doorkeeper stood back, as though afraid he might catch the hideousness that the little dwarf wielded. The secret bar was larger than a passer-by would guess, even if they knew it was there; a series of low rooms, rambling away into the guts of a crumbling building that might have been a workshop or an office or anything, really, but was now a series of storage-spaces where men went to drink after curfew. In place of tables and chairs there were barrels, crates, crude things put together out of nothing that would be incriminating. In daylight, when the alcohol and the drinkers were gone, this place would be merely empty and dusty and sad in the way that neglected places are. Now, it was a close and suspicious cubbyhole of drunken-tinged candle-light and conversations that rarely rose above a whisper.

"What business?"

"Well I'm starting to sober up, and that's never good. Hangover's lurking, you know?" She tossed the words behind her as she made a beeline for the bar - little more than a few broad planks resting between barrels, nothing that couldn't be dismantled into total innocence at a minute or so's warning. Derrick slid after her, waiting until she slouched down to his level on a bar-stool, and muttered in her ear, "Do you have a plan?"

"Plan?" Tai grinned. "Not really. Why, do you?"

Derrick growled under his breath and managed to snag the lurking bartender's attention. "The slave-ships," he said quietly, absently playing with a fat silver coin on the bar-top. "Where do they sail to?"

The man's eyes were fixed on the coin, flashing brightly in the dull light. The mere fact that Derrick knew about the slave-ships, that he knew to come here to inquire, granted him some trustworthiness in the man's eyes. Not a lot, granted, but enough for the money to work its magic. "Dunno," he shrugged. "You gonna buy a drink or what?"

Derrick put the coin flat, and began playing with another - the twin of the first. "The lady'll have a beer. Miners' ale for me. Someone here knows where they go. Who?"

The barman's eyes glittered with avarice, but suspicion held him back. "What's it to you?" He asked warily, filling a grubby mug with beer and putting it in front of Tai.

"They owe us money," Derrick answered baldly. "My friend here isn't too good with numbers, and they ripped her off."

The barman glanced over at Tai, smiling a little. She returned the grin hugely around her beer. "It's true," she affirmed. "Bastards tricked me out of my drinking money." Leaning forward, she whispered conspiratorially to the barman - something Derrick didn't catch, but it made the man laugh as loudly as he dared in this quiet place.

"Okay," he said, plonking a second mug in front of Derrick and raking the two coins into his pocket. "There's a man in the other room wearing a dark red shirt. He used to captain one of the ships. Talk to him, and I didn't tell you this. Got it?"

"Thank you." Taking their drinks, the pair wandered into the room the barman had indicated. This room was smaller, with a ceiling so low Tai was half-afraid she'd brain herself on the beams that loomed out of the shadows of the ceiling. There was, indeed, a man sitting here, shuffling a deck of dogeared cards on the cracked surface of an ancient crate; and, indeed, he was resplendent in a shirt that would probably be dark red in proper light. The fact that it was unpatched and still fairly clean pointed to this man's status - a little more exalted than the majority of the customers in this dingy place. He looked up, instantly wary, as Derrick sat on the barrel across the crate from him. Tai lurked nearby, listening, drinking slowly - not a usual situation for her, but she was already drunk, and didn't want to pass out here.

"We heard you could help us," Derrick began.

"Heard from who?"

"The voices in my head told me," Tai said dryly.

The man hesitated, then nodded slowly, still shuffling his cards. "Go on."

"We hear that you captain a ship that carries... um... special cargo?"

"If you mean the slave-ships," the captain replied coolly, "say so."

"Alright." Derrick appeared relieved to be able to talk plainly. "Slave-ships. Where do they go?"

The captain put his cards down, stared at the backs of his hands, and spoke so quietly Tai had to lean down to catch his words. "I'm out of that business. It stinks, and I don't want any more to do with it."

"But -"

"Any more," he repeated, more firmly. "Find someone else to do your dirty work."

Derrick got up, frustrated, and caught Tai's eye with a Now What? expression. She hesitated, looked into her near-empty mug, gave the miner a significant look, and with a little shrug took his place on the barrel. Derrick, understanding, hurried off to get her a refill. "You just shuffle those things, or actually play?"

The captain looked up, smiling when he saw the grin on her face. Tai had never really bothered to learn to flirt, or even thought of herself as someone who could, but she knew enough about men to know that a smiling woman could get better results than a hideously ugly dwarf-man. "I play. Mostly against myself, though. Why? Up for a game?"

"Hell, no, I'm poor enough as it is."

"You don't know how bad I am, though..."

"And you don't know how drunk I am," she retorted, laughing.

"You're not lying on the floor yet, which makes you more sober than most of the people I meet in this hole..."

Derrick passed Tai her second pint, and withdrew. She wasn't a particularly stunning woman, and the plague had stolen what attractive figure she might once have had, but the dim light and her slightly-intoxicated smile suited her - Tai was at least recognisably female and the man was, after all, a sailor. A drunken sailor... what do we do with a drunken sailor? Trick his information out of him, of course...

"Nah, no sleep for me... my cousin's in such a damn rage since your col- sorry, ex-colleagues ripped him off, he won't let me rest."

The captain sighed, and grew grave again. "I told you. I'm not interested in helping you, if you're working with them."

"Sorry?" Tai forced herself to giggle - it sounded bizarre coming from her harsh vocal cords. "Working with them? When did we say we liked them? I doubt they've got a mother between them." She paused to take a drink of the somewhat horrible beer. "And if they do, they probably sold her long ago."

The captain laughed at that. "Okay. So why do you want to know where they sail to?"

"Secret," she replied.

"Oh yes?"

"Yeah. Look, I'm -" she glanced around, pretending to be afraid, really scrabbling for a convincing lie. Tai lowered her voice to a near-whisper, leaned close to the man. "I'll be honest, since you're out of the business, okay? I'm trusting you here, this could - no. Forget it." She pretended second thoughts. "Can't tell you."

The captain sat back, his interest clearly piqued. Tai had to stop herself from laughing when she realised he could probably see straight down her loose shirt. There wasn't a whole lot to see - and the shadows in this dark place obscured it still further - but, she guessed, male instincts were strong and rather un-picky.

"I'll make a deal," he said, conspiratorially. "You tell me why you want to know, and I'll tell you where the ships go to."

Tai grinned, nodded, and saluted him with a raised beer-mug. "Deal," she said. "Okay. I want to know so I can tell the people who are planning the crack-down where to go, to catch them in the act."

Stunned, the captain sat silent for a few seconds, digesting this piece of news. "The monks are moving in force?" He asked, cautiously, not sure whether to believe her.

Tai hadn't known the monks even cared - that whole fabrication had been a gamble, but she nodded anyway, as convincingly as she could. "Yeah. So. You gonna honour our deal?"

*Star**Star**Star*

This here is Reamie's add:

Anglis and Kiera walked though the docks aimlessly. Anglis had never been on anything larger than a fishing boat so wasn't entirely sure what he was looking for. Mostly he simply followed Kiera along the piers.

"What about..... that one?" Kiera stopped by a boat that looked very familiar.

It was in fact exactly the same as half a dozen other boats except that it had a different name which Anglis didn't understand and a different battered figurehead. Anglis looked at Kiera for an uncomfortably long time, then shrugged and walked up onto the deck.

Yup. It was a boat alright. It looked like it might be fairly fast too. But why this one?

“Watch it.”

Anglis turned and the figure in the cabin doorway lifted the lamp higher.

The stranger pulled a face, “You put that down.”

“Put what down?” It took a moment for Anglis to realise what he meant, then he pulled his coat off his shoulder and open. It was easy enough to see why the northerner wasn’t going to be reaching for weapons with that arm anytime soon.

“Hmn, I don’t get many people out here, not at this time of night with the curfew. What are you two, eloping?” He leant back against the wall, lowering the lamp a way so that it wasn’t blinding them.

“No! I mean, we were just trying to find a boat we could borrow. We’re not running off anywhere.” Kiera answered a little too quickly, earning her a suspicious look.

“We need to catch up with someone, preferably leaving as soon as possible,” Anglis continued.

“Only smugglers leave in the middle of the night. I’m still waiting for my boys to get back.” He set the lamp down, “You should try again in the morning. There’ll be more people around and less chance of you getting taken advantage of. I'm a merchant, you know, and not in the habit of taking on passengers.”

“They’re not coming back,” Kiera said suddenly, “They won’t because they’re with Dmitri.”

The owner of the boat stared at her long and hard. “You saw this?” he asked slowly.

“They took our friend too.” She carefully avoided specifically claiming to be an eye witness. “Will you take us out to get them back?”

There was a bang before he answered.

“Anglis?!”

The northerner rubbed his eyes, but shooed Kiera off from helping him up. There was something weird about the fall but just now he was concentrating on trying to stay conscious. It had never come on so fast before. He blinked, but Kiera's worried face was fading fast ...

He reached up to rub his eyes and opened them again to jungle. This time he was sitting on a dock dangling his feet into the water and the little girl of his dreams was sitting beside him with a fishing pole.

She gave him a quizzical stare. "Remember me?"

Anglis nodded. "Yes." He rubbed his head; he had a pounding headache and his vision seemed blurry. "What's going on?"

"I don't know," she replied, "but I'm safe for the time being, we can talk as long as we want."

Anglis groaned, holding his head in both hands. "I don't feel like talking much right now."

"Yeah, you don't look so good. Don't worry, it'll be okay."

"Why's that?" Anglis asked, blinking through his double-vision.

She laughed. "I don't know! But everyone's always telling me that!"

He regarded her for a moment. She looked truly young this time, as if some of the fear and worry had been pushed aside or gotten rid of somehow. "You said you're safe," he said. "How so?"

She turned serious again. "Well, it's a long story. How long you plan on sticking around, anyway?"

He looked down at his hand, at the strange bracelet he wore. One of the pearls was glowing, red-hot amongst the others. "I don't know." He looked up at her suddenly. "This all has a purpose, right?" he asked, "a reason? I'm not really going mad, am I?"

The corners of her mouth turned down as she pondered. "I would say no, that you're not going mad, but if I'm just a figment of your imagination, that would be just what I'd say, wouldn't it? I was never that much good at philosophical discussions, but what I think I can say is that I believe that there is a reason for this. I've read something that sounds like what this is, and I'll find out if I'm right or not when I get to where I'm going."

Her face closed down in sorrow for a moment and Anglis waited. He could see that there was more going on, but he didn't want to provoke more pain by asking the questions he wanted to ask. So he waited.

Eventually, she looked back at him, in control of her features once more. "There's a lot of things I want answers to as well - and I'm this close," she held up two fingers, close together, "to getting those answers. I feel ... trapped, sometimes, like being in the center of a hurricane, with the winds all whipping around and yet all is still, for the moment, where I am and yet there's this feeling, always pressing against the edges of my thoughts, that all is going to break loose, any minute and I'll be flung to only the Gods-know-where!"

She stopped, panting a little, her eyes gone a little wild. She kept eye-contact, though, and continued with, "And it all seems to revolve around you, somehow. Who are you?"

But the double-vision was back, the girl fading before him. Still he fought out the words, "Traveling, I'm a Traveler, my name, my name is ...."

*Star**Star**Star*
The guard eyed the two men before him dubiously. "You two new to Silent Sea?" he asked finally.

Marius tried not to glance down at the symbol of his order, which hung even now from a silver chain around his neck. If Roger did not recognize a monk from the monastery right in front of him when he saw one, then Marius saw no need to enlighten him. As unobtrusively as possible, he elbowed Mordred once again in the ribs.

"Ow-Yes, we're just visiting." He clapped Marius on the shoulder --- a little harder than the priest thought necessary --- and gestured toward the monastery. "I met Marius here on the road on the way here," the wild-haired man lied. "We were, er... traveling with a third companion. Um, Marius' little brother. He's gone now. He was taken by some men."

The soldier looked concerned. "Taken?"

Marius felt an answering sharp elbow to his ribs. His turn, then. He tried to look distraught, which wasn't too incredibly difficult when he thought of his "little brother".

"I don't know who else to come to for aid!" Marius cried, grasping the soldier's arm and looking pleadingly into his eyes. "I am a simple man, and accustomed to no more than a priest's life. I didn't know how to defend him from those men, who handled him so roughly as they tied him to the others and hauled him onto the boat."

The guard's eyes widened. "He was taken with others onto a boat?" he asked.

"Yes!" Marius said frantically. "He was tied and tossed into the boat with the others! I need your help!"

With a frown, Roger scanned Marius' face. Apparently the monk did not display any improper emotions, because a moment later the guard continued. "Did your brother recently get into trouble with the law here in Silent Sea?"

Marius frowned. "The law? No... but what would that have to do with him being taken across the sea..."

Roger cursed. "You two, follow me. I'll explain something about Silent Sea to you, but not here, where anyone can hear us."

And with that, he turned sharply on his heel and started away from the monastery steps.

Mordred and Marius exchanged a glance. The taller man shrugged. "Well, it worked," Mordred whispered.

"Luckily for you," Marius growled.

They ran to catch up with the guardsman.

*Star**Star**Star*

Dear Rangsey,

Professor Cesare and I have spent many nights talking about many subjects. For the most part, I find him to be useless. If I have to mimic that...puppet to enter 'gentile society' then I will happily exile myself from court for the rest of my life.

Marguerite


*Star**Star**Star*

         Upon his return to the captain's table, Derrick saw that the captain and Tai were in deep conversation. "Ahem. Is there something going on that I should know about Tai?"
         "Nothing at all dear cousin..."
         "So how much of our business have you told to your new friend here?"
         "Well I..."
         "A dwarf and a streetwalker! What are you doing in this bar?" A gruff voice demanded. Turning to look the livery of a city guard literally shone in the low lamplight.
         "We are attending to business with our 'friend' here." Derrick responded.
         "Well, I don't recall you asking me about wether you were capable of asking this citizen ANY questions."
         "And I don't recall asking your opinion on the matter." Derrick retorted.
         "What you recall doesn't matter dwarf! I say what can or can't be done in this bar! And I get a cut of any 'business' that goes on in here. Or would you like to take a trip with a slaver?"
         "How much will it cost to make you go away?"
         "Well, maybe some...services, from the lady." With that Tai stood up and strutted over to him, on the way grabbing her drink from Derrick.
         "Well I think that that is completely..." she leaned over, staring in the gaurds' face and placing her free hand on his chest, "ridiculous." Her drink then managed to find its way out of its mug and onto his tunic.
         "You'll pay for that WENCH!" shoving Tai away he drew a sword from his belt and waved it threateningly at the trio. "I will kill your fellows for that! Then I will have my way with you girl!" Lunging at Derrick, he was surprised to find twin sledgehammers deflecting his every blow. Suddenly his blade was stuck. Grinning, he looked at the dwarf only to see a mask of...ugly staring right back. His blade was firmly in the grip of the heads of the hammers, and try as he might he couldn't free them.
         "Well boys, it looks like we have a wannabe swordsman here. Get Him!"
         Twisting the sword sharply, the blade snapped clear of the hilt and was flung aside as Derrick bellowed, "In the name of the Mountain, the mine, and the ore that's in it!" The sound of scraping chairs answered Derricks' call, as a dozen men stood up and drew whatever weapons they had on them.
         "What is this?" yelled the head guard.
         "Need any help 'Rick?"
         "Anything you could offer would be nice 'Hal."
         "You aren't the only one with friends, Dwarf! Soldiers of the city to me!" More scraping chairs sounded out.
         The bar had effectively been divided up into three groups. The first being the guards, the second being Derrick's allies, and the third were like the red-shirted captain - pressing themselves against the wall and making a bee-line for the exits.
         "So who should start this party?"
         "Oh, its already started." Derrick muttered under his breath as all hell broke loose. Soon the bar was filled with brawling men, weapons flashing, fists flying. And through it all Tai was, curiously, absent.
         Meanwhile Derrick and 'Hal fought back-to-back from one end of the bar to the other, overturning tables and shattering bottles. "'Hal?"
         "What?"
         "We need to get out of here!"
         "Awww, but I was just starting to have some fun."
         "Business before pleasure 'Hal."
         "Right. Well then, follow me!" 'Hal forced his way through the crowd, swinging his staff from left to right. Clearing a way for the dwarf's twin hammers to pass. Reaching the door the two escaped out of it, leaving the brawl behind.
         Cursing her own haste in dumping her beer on the head-guard, Tai had followed the captain along the wall and out the main door. She had barely finished grilling him when Derrick and his friend came bursting through the door, dual sledges making short work of the light wood construction.
         "Derrick." Tai hissed, "Lets get out of here before more soldiers show up."
         "I think that 'Hal can handle any that do, but you are right it is time to leave." A strong hand fell upon his shoulder, restraining him before he could move.
         "'Rick, aren't you going to introduce me to your..." he checked Tai out as best as he could in the dim moonlight, "Lady friend?"
         "Fine, if it gets us out of here any quicker. Tai this is 'Hal, 'Hal..Tai. There intros made, lets get out of here."
         "Hold it. I do believe you are forgetting something."
         "I didn't forget, but I had hoped you had." Placing a strip of platinum in 'Hal's outstretched hand, Derrick then gripped his friend in a handshake. "Thanks for the help 'Hal. It was like we were back at the Rock again."
         "Yeah well, I found it to be quite...enjoyable. Now if you will excuse me, there is a fight that goes unfinished." With that he turned and strolled back into the bar, his Halberd swaying with his stroll.
         "Derrick, lets go find the others."
         "I take it you got what we needed from the captain?"
         "He gave me a map to the island, and he said that the people untouched by the plague were sold to pirates. The leftovers were taken to the island and sold to the occupants. Who, by the way, stop the ships at the mouth to the bay and conduct their business on the decks of he merchantmen themselves."
         "Great. So we get a map, and a few vague descriptions of his former trades...How do we know they haven't changed methods? Or stopped allowing merchants in at all?"
         "We can only hope that they haven't done either. By the way, what is the 'Rock' that you mentioned to 'Hal? And who were all those people that helped us out?"
         "Halberd and I fought together in the mines. He was the only one that could stomach being around me for extended periods of time, and as such we have a close bond. Those were mercenaries that I hired at the Guild."
         "Wait, wait, go back. Fought, fought what? I mean its a mine after all? Isn't it?"
         "You think that the plague ridden are on the surface alone? They are everywhere, even in the mines. They wander in from the surface through abandoned shafts, and they become a problem for us and them."
         "Them who?" Tai looked at him quizzically.
         "Never you mind." The walk to the warf had been quick and soon they reached a square of crates. "Lets rest here until dawn, then we can search for the others."
         "Why can't we go back to the monastery?"
         "You mean other than the press-gangs, and the soldiers and the other parties that would do us harm. Especially since you are drunk, and I am exhausted. I may not be city born, but even I'm not that stupid. Now, lets try to get some sleep."
~*~*~*~*~


As was his habbit, Uut walked out onto his balcony and looked at the city sprawled below him. The sun had hardly cleared the horizon but Uut knew that plenty of people were up. He could even see some activity at the temples that stood between the palace and the rest of Insel. As a palace healer, Uut didn't have to be up this early. If there were no serious injuries or illnesses he liked to go into the city and see what he could do around noon. But Radit was up with the sun everyday and Uut had always made it a point to have breakfast with his teacher at least twice a week.

Uut stretched himself once more before going back into his room to get dressed. He walked down to Radit's room and knocked lightly.

"Radit? Are you awake, or have you finally gotten the sense to sleep in?" No matter how many times he said it, the old joke never failed to bring a smile to Uut's lips.

The old healer opened his door without his usual quip and instead stepped aside to let Uut in.

"Is something wrong?" Uut asked.

"No," Radit said slowly, "I think something right might be happening." He motioned Uut further into the room. The young man offered his arm for support and led Radit to the low table where their breakfast was laid out.

"For two nights, I have had dreams of Antono telling me about the traveler who is destined to arrive. Last night makes three," Radit said.

Uut gasped involentarily, "You think he's coming today?"

"Once is nothing, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a warning. I believe that he is coming soon," Radit said, quoting an old proverb.

"Have you told Their Majesties?" Uut asked.

"No, I don't want to get their hopes up. Uut, I am too old to go into the city inconspicuously. I would like you to tend to the new arrivals and keep an ear open for anything unusual the next few days."

Uut nodded, "Of course."

~*~*~*~*~


"Sir?" Uut looked up from his patient at the nurse who had called.

"Yes?"

"There's a man, he's delirious and he has scratches on his chest that I can't get to stop bleeding -"

"Where is he?" Uut was striding toward the nurse before he had stopped talking.

The nurse showed him to a man with bluish-purple hair and a surprisingly well developed upper body. His eyes were closed and he was muttered something Uut couldn't understand to himself. Uut knelt by the man's pallet and peeled back the bandages to see that the man's scratches were indeed oozing slowly with blood.

"What could have done this?" Uut asked himself quietly before laying his hands over the man's wounds and sending his magic out.

The second Uut's magic touched the man's body his eyes flew open and he gripped Uut's arm.

"I have to go back! The others will be looking for me. I need to go back to them!" Uut ignored this for the most part. It was a common thing for the new arrivals to say. He did note distantly that the man's right eye was missing but that it seemed to have healed well.

"If I don't the dragon will find me. It'll kill me and we have... have to get to the Island of... Monkeys." This got Uut's attention.

He called a nurse over and tried to keep his tail from twitching excitedly.

"I've done what I can for now. Take this man up to the palace and see that he is taken care of until I get there."

         Redit looked at the fevered man and slowly shook his head in disappointment. "This is not the one," he told his young friend sadly.

         Uut sighed. "It seemed it must be, for he spoke of needing to get to 'The Isle of the Monkeys.' I am sorry."

         "No matter, Uut, I am still certain that the man for whom we wait can't be far away now." He shook out his arms and shoulders. "Now that I'm here, I might as well take a look. Hmmm...."

         Redit pulled aside the blankets and the blood-encrusted bandages to take a look at the wound. His young students made various noises of disgust, but a slight wrinkle of his nostrils was all that Redit allowed himself. He'd seen many a wound on the rescued men and women, but never one so ghastly. The blood that continuously oozed from the cuts was the only thing that held the gangrene at bay. He probed the edges of the wound gently, his two students ready to hold the man down, but he was already too far gone, too weak to really put up much of a resistance. Still, Redit's healing magics had rarely failed in the past and, despite the swelling and angry red streaks around the man's torso, Redit had faith that his magics would again bring about a full recovery.

         He relaxed his stance and placed his hands, palms down, a few inches from the wound. Closing his eyes in meditation, Redit called forth his magic. He could sense the power flowing through him and into his patient, but then it seemed to hit an impasse. Suddenly, he was forcefully and ruthlessly expelled, his repulsed magic stinging him like so many barbs.

         There was an image in his mind, a dark, frightening image, dripping with evil, and it spoke: "NO! He's mine!"

         Uut grabbed for his mentor as he flew away from the bedside. "Master!" he cried. "What's happened? What's wrong?"

         The old healer gasped for breath for a minute or two before struggling to his feet and snapping at his students, "Fetch me Lord Cesare's Journal! Now!" He steadied his nerves by pacing, muttering to himself.

         "Master, please! What's happened?"

         Redit paused a moment, to look at his protege, worry clouding his expression. "I've just seen something, young Uut, something so . . impossible! Something so evil in nature that I am bewildered." He glanced over at the twitching form of his patient. "What else do you know of him?"

         "Well," said Uut slowly, forcing his mind to deal with the question and answer fully, "One of his shipmates said that he used to mutter to himself under his breath, almost the entire voyage. She couldn't say whether he was asleep or awake of course."

         The older healer nodded. "Fever?"

         "She didn't know, but said that she didn't really start to pay attention to anything after they were put down in the dark." He shrugged. "But something might have been lost in the translation. Healer Loma said her mind was mostly gone, the shock of capture and of losing her loved ones. I don't know, Master, but that it's not just the ravings of a mad woman."

         Redit nodded absently and continued in his pacing. His mind kept whispering, "Impossible! Impossible!" at him until it was almost impossible to think, and so he paced, fuming at the time needed to fetch the precious journal from its place of safe-keeping. Still, sending his students was faster than going himself.

         "Ah!" he exclaimed as the panting students rushed back into the room, cradling several large, thick books. Redit grabbed for the first of the books, the oldest, and began flipping pages hurriedly, ignoring his students' gasps of surprise at his careless handling of the precious manuscript.

         Then he got to the page he wanted and stared at it in shock. "No! It cannot be!"


*Star* *Star* *Star*

         Tai woke with a start. She stared about her, panic threatening until she recognized her surroundings. She was in the cabin formerly belonging to the ship's captain's sons. Kiera snored softly in the other bunk. Anglis was unconscious in the other cabin, the one the captain said was for passengers he never had ... And Derrick, Mordred, and Marius, were asleep in hammocks strung up in the cargo hold. They were four days out of Monykom City, following the map Tai had acquired.

         Now why am I awake? she wondered.

         "Me, that's why."

         Tai jumped. "You!" she hissed. All she could see of her little ghostly shadow was the girls' glowing eyes. "What do you want?"

         The ghost was clearly aggitated, from the sound of her voice. "You must get up! Now! Go to the helm - we're drifting off course."

         "Huh? And what do I know about sailing a ship!? And aren't we at anchor anyway?"

         "No time, no time!" snapped the ghost. "You don't need to know anything, just do as I say!"

         "Okay, okay," Tai muttered, swinging her legs over the side of the bunk. She pulled on her pants, not bothering to tuck in her shirt or grab shoes, and staggered for the door.

         With the ghost heckling her at every step, Tai managed to make it to the deck of the ship. It was a beautiful, cloudless night, and chill. Tai shivered.

         "The anchor!" prodded the ghost.

         "That takes all of the boys together to haul that thing up!" she protested. She was rapidly waking up in the cold air and occassional cold water across the deck.

         "So cut the rope!"

         "What?"

         "It's not like you have the time to waste sleeping," replied the ghost. "You'll need to sail day and night to get there in time."

         "In time for what?" yawned Tai.

         "Just do it!"

         Tai jumped. "Okay, okay! Geez."

         Grumping across the deck, Tai pulled out one of the knives she always had upon her person and attacked the anchor ropes. The exercise warmed her up and she maintained her silence against the ghost's tirades and wearily took the wheel. She slipped off the restraining rope and silently followed the ghost's directions.

         The chaos of the following morning was certainly to be expected, but Tai was really tired by then and merely snapped that they were running out of time and stomped back off to bed. Henceforth, Mordred, Derrick, and Marius worked the day shift and the captain and Tai maintained the night watch.

         The tension on the little boat by the end of the week was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Kiera reported that Anglis had infrequent bouts of consciousness, but there didn't seem to be any indication of his returning to sanity any time soon. And Tai kept seeing other ghosts during the daytime, so she tended to avoid everyone else altogether.

         Mordred had run out of herbs to die his hair with and groused about it continuously when he wasn't talking metal-working with Derrick and Marius kept his nose in a book. Kiera also seemed to be going rather stir-crazy, muttering dark words under her breath and glaring at everyone she encountered. She pulled ship duty whenever they needed an extra hand, some days, some nights, for she seemed to sleep less and less, just like Tai.

         There was one ghost in particular, other than the one whispering predictions of doom every few seconds, that Tai saw most often. It was a young woman, not too much older than Tai herself, with long hair that might've been red if she wasn't the silvery grey of a ghost, and a tall, thin, and graceful athletic build that tended to make Tai feel shabby and envious.

         The girl stood in the bow of the ship for the most part, staring out ahead. The people she spoke to were rarely seen, but she paced much as Tai did and managed to look both exceedingly worried and rather happy and carefree all at the same time.

         Like the ghosts in the city, this ghost didn't seem able to see Tai, but Tai saw her, or saw glimpses of her, everytime she turned around, it seemed. And always there was her own little spirit whispering in her ear that they were all doomed - doomed! if they didn't somehow manage to go faster.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         Anglis left the dock, but opened his eyes only the a world of gray. He stood still at first, waiting to wake up, but time didn't seem to matter here. He didn't know how long he waited, but it seemed like forever; and so when nothing happened, he got up and began to walk. He walked first in one direction, and then another as first a mild concern, then worry, and finally panic began to set in.

         He stopped his head-long rush into nowhere when he regained his wits and took deep breaths, trying to calm down. I'm not crazy, I'm not crazy, I'm not crazy, he told himself, over and over until he thought he might actually believe it better if he said it out loud and only stopped when better sense told him that he needed to conserve his strength and shouting would only dehydrate him. He didn't know where he was or how long he'd be there, or even how he'd gotten there --

         Oh really? he thought silently. Come on, you can do better than that!

         "Fine!" Anglis said, giving in to the urge to talk out loud. "It's the dreaming, isn't it? Isn't it? Hmm, it doesn't seem to even echo in here. Well, if I'm dreaming that I'm here, why can't I wake up? I want to wake up, I feel like I'm going crazy! You hear me? I want to wake up!"

         He kept walking. Funny thing about that was he didn't really feel tired, or thirsty, or hungry, although his feet hurt and his eyes hurt from squinting into the grayness, trying to make shapes appear from nothing. And even more worrisome than that was his hand seemd to be hurting, too. His left hand. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt anything in that arm, and now his fingers tingled. Well, sometimes, but often enough that he was beginning to think he wasn't imagining it.

         So he walked. He kept walking . . . and walking . . . and walking. Hmm, he hadn't changed directions in a while. He stopped and turned to face to his right. He took a few steps . . . and continued walking back along the direction he'd been going a few minutes (hours?) - anyway, a few moments ago. Hmmm, that was new.

         Again Anglis tried changing directions, and again, and again; and then he realized that he actually had a direction to take, and that cheered him immensely. For a while he even jogged, just to feel his arms - both of them - swinging along at every stride. But he slowed eventually back to a walk and kept going.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         Kiera leaned on the railing, unconsiously mimicking the pose of Tai's ghost-girl (although considerably shorter) at the bow of the ship. She chewed her lip, thinking. She was the one who kept an eye on Anglis, and fed him, and cleaned up after him, and gave the others daily reports on his well-being, but she was getting a little freaked out by the whole affair.

         If she stayed with him too long, she got horrid headaches, something that hadn't taken her long at all to figure out. Being around him was like, like being in the middle of a thunderstorm back out on the plains, with her hair all sticking up at odd angles and every nerve jangling. Tai sent out a little cloud of energy like that, too, only not quite so bad.

         But Kiera didn't dare mention those feelings to the others. She'd had it bad as an outsider amongst her own people and didn't want to alienate her friends, too, not now, not when - she stopped, puzzling. She'd been thinking, Not with what we're going to be facing soon. Now why she was she thinking that? It seemed like more than just the usual strong hunches. Hmm, maybe she'd come back to that and think about it again later.

         The captain was easy to read. He was frightened for his sons. The first few days they'd stayed up late into the night, discussing what each had found out in the city that last night and what it might mean for them, and for the missing. The captain was practically sick with worry, but the prayers Marius included the captain in seemed to ease him somewhat, although Kiera always seemed to come across the captain while he was muttering prayers.

         Marius also prayed a lot, but he was too engrossed in one of his books, usually, to be annoying. Except, Kiera supposed, for the occassional "Ah-ha!" and "Hmmm,"s as he digested page after page of dusty, moldy old tomes.

         Mordred was equally difficult to be around, although his atmosphere always left Kiera feeling depressed. He spent a lot of time staring at that beautiful black diamond he'd gotten in the city, and an equal amount of time staring into nothing, obviously thinking about his sister. Kiera always knew when he was thinking about Lillya by the way he would twist her bracelet, also something he'd gotten in the city, in his hands. Kiera hadn't given much thought to knowing the girl's name, but Mordred had.

         "Oh, I'm sure you've mentioned her to me before," she replied airily to his question, and hadn't thought any more about it. Mostly. Occassionally. Okay, fine, she was obsessed by it. She really couldn't remember when or even where she might have heard Mordred talk about his sister, or even mention her name, other than their brief encounter in the city. Mordred really was quiet about his past.

         But then again, so they all were. Except maybe Derrick. Now he was the only person on board the ship that Kiera felt at all comfortable to be around; she didn't feel like she was on pins and needles when she spent time in his company. And so she spent more and more time in his company, cajoling him into telling her tales of life in the mines and even listening to snoringly-boring details about rocks and mining techniques. But even that after awhile lost its ability to put her to sleep.

         She was just so keyed up all the time, and there was something else she didn't want to tell the others, something that made her back all of Tai's efforts to make the little ship go faster. They needed to get to Insel. Now! It was a feeling that made fear freeze her insides when she looked in on Anglis. The man just seemed to be . . . getting thin? No, he was becoming see-through! All the color seemed to be leaching from his bones and his bouts with consciousness, so frequent in the first few days were now rare. Kiera was afraid that he'd vanish entirely....

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         They caught their first glimpse of the island late afternoon of the 9th day at sea. The map had long been discarded - Tai was a better sense of direction anyway - and they felt completely lost, but Tai insisted that that was the place. She looked as crazy as her antics now, but all aboard the ship were feeling the strain, except maybe for Anglis, unconscious below decks. All were red-eyed from lack of sleep and snapping at each other without need for a reason at all.

         And so they kept on. Tai was at the wheel, but everyone was on deck, staring out at the colorful lights in the distance. Tai sailed them straight past the sentry ship and its startled guards and the make-shift crew quickly and smartly brought the ship to harbor at the dock. Mordred and Derrick hopped overboard to tie down the ropes, Marius rolled out the gangplank, Tai tied down the wheel and rudder, and the captain bustled about checking to the orderliness of his deck.

         And then they were swarmed. The dockmen were upon them like a cloud, and suddenly, one moment they were alone in the silence of the early morning hours, and the next they were innundated with frightened, angry, and armed dockmen.

         Kiera and Tai found themselves separated from the men and hauled to one side. They were frisked and glared at in silence and they could see the men being searched and hear the captain putting up a fuss about his spic-and-span ship being torn apart by the searchers.

         And then there was a loud shout from the direction of the hatch, and silence fell as all attention turned to a young man running full-tilt off the ship and across the docks. The next thing Tai and Kiera saw was a handfull of dockmen hustling a blanket-wrapped burden up the stars onto the deck, off the ship, and out of sight.

         "HEY!" shouted Kiera, hearing the others' complaints echoing hers. "What are you doing? Where are you taking him?"

         But they were ignored, then shoved into a group around the mainmast and guarded until a man in rich robes and what appeared to be a badge of office appeared and apologized profusely for the misunderstanding and inconvenience, and would they all mind coming to the palace to rest?

         Very tired and on the point of dropping where they stood from exhaustion, no one objected, too dazed to really protest, and allowed themselves to be placed in some litters and carried who-knew-where. All that they really cared about was that at the end of it all there were warm, soft, comfortable beds waiting to enfold them and carry them off to sleep.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         Uut roused his mentor from sleep as soon as servants told him of the unprecedented visitors. Both he and Redit felt sure that this was what they had been waiting for and practicing for over the past week or so. They gathered their materials, sent pages to wake the others, and hurried to their appointed meeting place.

         Redit had said that they would need all their power and knowledge, and so they went to their most sacred of all places, the center of the palace, and the point at which their own intelligence had sprung. This then was where their very first temple had stood, in ages too far past even to be remembered in the written word, but a square stone block still stood, the cornerstone of the church, and the source of their inner-most, deepest, and strongest magics.

         One by one they gathered in a circle. The limp, weightless body of the stranger they placed in the center and all but the twelve strongest mages stepped outside the warding barrier that Uut and his chosen assistants put in place. Then they could rest . . and watch.

         Uut and the other mages began by first calling on the most ancient of ancient powers, the Gods of Wind, and Water; Fire, and Earth. Uut had long-since memorized the words in Lord Cesare's journal, the words that the scholar had sworn came from the Keeper of the Gates, the Holy Emissary Rangsey himself. Was it foresight or merely chance that had caused Lord Cesare to record that meeting on that day?

         Uut shrugged aside his errant thoughts and concentrated on the spell. Lord Cesare had wrote that Emissary Rangsey had pressed into his hands a particular book and told him that one day a lost spirit-walker would one day have need of it. He'd then told Lord Cesare the incantation that would draw an errant soul back to its body.

         The spell next called to other powers, that of the Gods of Thunder and Lightning and the Gods of the Sun, and Moons, and Stars. Ancient powers all, as if the last Keeper of the Gates had foreseen such necessity.

         As each name was intoned with reverance and need, a small token was tossed into the circle by the waiting members: a handfull of chaff, to blow about in the sudden gale-strength winds, a spark, a dribble of water, and a handful of dirt. Thunder called itself, rumbling across the sky, and Lightning answered, flashing down upon the keystone - and then it was time to call upon the soul of the lost, calling forth their need, calling for the powers to heed them and return what was lost to its own time and place!

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         As Anglis was walking, he was starting to feel lighter and lighter, his aches and pains fading away, and a new surge of energy putting the spring back into his step. He was starting to feel a purpose now to his wandering and strode quicker, almost running, aware, for the first time, of a sense of urgency, of time running out.

         He was running so fast he missed the first signs of color. When he finally did notice, it was like blinking and the world had changed from silvery-gray to greens and yellows and oranges and blues and reds and all the colors of the rainbow, only more vibrant, more, well, ALIVE than anywhere he'd ever had occassion to be before. And he was starting to get the strangest feeling of deja-vu.

         His legs slowed down of their own accord, halting him suddenly in a large garden. He'd come face-to-face with a young woman, not too much older than he was, and in fact he was looking her straight in the eye, for she was just as tall as he was, and maybe a little bit taller. Her hair tumbled loose down her shoulders and back, gorgeous in its rusty-red color and blonde highlights. She was deeply tanned, but at the moment her eyes had gone wide and her face white with shock.

         "You!" they both said together, recognizing each other at once.

         "What are you --"

         "How did you --"

         They both started to speak, then stopped just as suddenly, a little embarrassed, but Anglis could feel now something tugging at him, a calling he could not refuse, and he knew now why he had come, why he'd seen this woman-child in his dreams.

         "Take my hand," he said, extending his hand, his left hand. "Please! I've made it this far, who knows if I'll ever be able to come again. You must come with me now. Please!"

         Again that tug, less of an insistent urging and more of a claws-in-flesh yanking now. Still he held out, just a little longer, a few seconds more as he read the indecision and fear in her face.

         "This is it," he said calmly, extending his other hand and, crazy as it looked, leaning against the invisible hook in his back pulling him away. "This is what you've been searching for. Come, meet your destiny!"

         Whatever she'd been thinking, she made up her mind in a hurry and placed both hands in his own. Then Anglis gave in to the summons and he was flying through an invisible, silvery-gray landscape once more, feeling the energy being sapped away, feeling the small pains coming back, feeling the fatigue - oh, he was tired, so very, very, very tired! But he held on to the girl's hands, held on and held her gaze.

         "Don't be frightened," he tried to say, but the words were torn straight out of his mouth by the invisible wind that battered them.

         The girl screamed as they flew, or at least that's what he supposed she did, with her mouth open like that. He could feel the nausea in his own stomach, only he had nothing to lose, and empathized with the girl's vomiting, sort of wishing he could do likewise. He watched as sweat beaded on her face and was instantly swept away, felt the vigorous trembling and shaking, and felt the hook in the girl's back at at last give way, sending them hurtling even faster, and throwing them finally together into one great heap.

         Anglis tripped on something hard and unyielding and went flying, screaming his own terror at losing his grip on the girl. He hit the ground hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs and rolled and rolled until he fetched up against something that felt like wood, rolled over the side and thumped gracelessly to a halt in something rather cold and wet.

*Star* *Star* *Star*

         Uut sprang into action as the two figures burst into existence and dashed the magic circle into pieces. The spent mages collapsed where they stood. Uut dropped the barrier instantly, yelling at the dozing students and fellow mages to aid the others at once!

         As for Uut, he'd followed the flight, watched as the male hit the keystone and half rolled-half flew through the busted magic circle, down the hill, hit the old bridge and rolled off the side into the decorative stream. Still, even a little water was dangerous to someone who would be as exhausted as Uut instinctively knew this man would. He dashed to his side and pulled him out, grateful that his head had remained out of the water. He had one brief glimpse of startlingly vivid bright-green eyes, and then his eyelids and drooped shut and he relaxed so quickly and completely that he stopped breathing. Hastily, Uut put his own magic to work again, pushing air into lungs too tired to work on their own, and trading a little of his own energy into the husk of man before him. He was rewarded minutes that seemed like hours later by a little color returning to the man's cheeks and he began breathing on his own.

         Uut staggered to his feet, holding himself up by holding onto the bridge. "Here!" he croaked, to weak himself to grab the first tail that went by. Dazed, he watched as fellow healers, students, and other mages aided the spell-casters, coaxing many a weary heart to keep beating, and enfusing a little extra energy when needed. Until he was able to flag someone down and direct his aid for the strange man and himself, Uut dared not sit down. He waited, letting the healers work their magic. He'd done all that could be done for this strange spirit-walker that could be done for the moment, and only needed rest himself to be back at full strength.

         A spirit-walker, one of the rare, favored few, with the ability to traverse the lands of the gods. Suddenly, Uut found himself smiling. If there were still spirit-walkers in the land, then there was hope after all!

*Star* *Star* *Star*

Name: Marguerite Alasdere
Age: 23
Home: Fire Berry Mts
Physical Description: Just a little taller than average. She has an athletic and graceful build. Rusty-red hair that falls just past her shoulders, dark green eyes that notice everything. Untouched by the plague, Marguerite's skin is deeply tanned from a lifetime in the sun.
Job/Trade: Princess
Other: Marguerite is the kind of person who makes friends everywhere she goes. These friends have taught her at least a little bit about a great many topics.
Slowly, Anglis opened his eyes, staring upwards into the ceiling. It wasn’t made of wood, so he wasn’t on a boat. This was not a good start. It was probably safe to assume that as he could swear he remembered being outside he had been moved, and therefore Marguerite had also been moved.
He measured the amount to ache. First he waited for a moment and decided that he had been unconscious for some time. All of his limbs were telling him he didn’t need move, and even if he did they wouldn’t co-operate. Secondly, there was just that hint of ache over his back, not a lot, but enough to say, he had hit the ground nice and hard the day before. Not that bad over all. Some rest and food would set him right again. Assuming he could get any.
Very, very slowly he sat up a bit, lifting his left arm and looking at it. Apparently its movement when he had taken Marguerite had been lasting, perhaps even permanent, but he didn’t dare hope it.
Also, his clothes were gone. Nice.
He sighed and pressed the heel of his hands to his eyes. It was fairly bright in here, so it must have been daytime. What’s more there were bright shiny things in a bowl to the right of his bed. He assumed they were fruit, but he wasn’t in the habit of eating things he couldn’t name.
There was an excited grin in the room. He could feel it the same way you could feel the sound of metal grating against stone. Cautiously he looked at the odd little man. He was wearing what looked suspiciously like the garments of a priest.
“Good morning! Not that it is morning. I heard the bells some time ago.”
Anglis muttered under his breath, “Where am I?”
“Insel of course!” the man answered all too cheerily.
“Insel… Insel….” Did he know Insel? Monkeys, “The Isle of Monkeys. At least we’re not that lost. What are you doing?
“Well… I’m waiting for instructions. Grien just missed you by a half hour.”
“Lucky me.” He mumbled. He looked at the man seriously. He was giving Anglis such an eager pleasing look and it was incredibly disturbing “I want to know where the passengers from the ship are then.” He said. That kept him happy for the whole of eight seconds.
“Oh! They’re around the palace. Most are out of bed and doing whatever it is they do.” He looked at Anglis expectantly.
“Probably a bad idea. Marg- the red-haired woman, where is she?” He could almost feel the terror of when he’d lost his hold of her again.
“Much the same. She was up almost the instant you arrived. Would you like something to eat? Drink? Do you want Master Redit or Master Uut? I’ll get you some fresh clothes!” He hurried out the room.
Anglis groaned. Not only had he pulled Marguerite years into her future, but apparently he’d inspired a nice little cult as while was at it.
“Wait.” The man appeared again, leaning round the doorway, “These Masters, they know what I did?”
“Well yes! We’ve been preparing for you.”
“They know how as well?” Anglis was rewarded with another grin and the promise of having the men sent for. As irritating as it was to have people hovering around trying to do everything for him, at least they knew what they were doing.
Mordred sat on the dock staring at the water, one knee pulled to his chest, his chin resting atop it, the other left to dangle lazily over the side. The spray of the ocean against his face was nice, and watching the sun set over the crystal blue was nothing short of breathtaking. He felt a pang in his chest, this was something he wished he could see with Lillya... it was her birthday today he thought, pulling the paddle of wood from his pouch, marking another notch in the wood, yes, a year had passed since they had celebrated. He swallowed heavily, trying to force down the lump that was forming, and his hand unconsciously tightened around the bracelet, he'd grown quite attached to the thing since he had gotten it. That and the black gem... He pulled it from his pocket staring at it absently; largest piece of rock like this he'd ever seen, even when his father had taken him to the mines to make trading for raw silver, steel, iron and other metals for their weapons trade, he'd never seen anything like that. He stared out sullenly, suddenly wishing that this whole thing had never happened, that he and Lillya hadn't stopped in that town, hadn't been bothered with her cold, hadn't done this thing or that thing... and just as suddenly, the feeling was gone. Mordred shook his head, raising his chin up, in truth he was glad he was here, grateful for the group he was surrounded with, in unwavering support and trust in one another, and the feeling that they all simply... fit together. Like pieces of a puzzle that wasn't done being built yet, much of their journey had passed, but there was a potential that more lay beyond even this place, this place where it seemed as though a strange energy flowed into everything, lighting up the place, even in darkness, he could see lines of light that travelled through everything. It was similar back home, but it was so much brighter here, it was almost like day even when the sun went down.

He glanced up as he heard someone come down the wooden planks, his chin remained on his knees, merely sparing the person a slight glance upwards as they sat beside him. It was Kiera, she had changed into new clothing, (he hadn’t bothered) and her hair was tied back as she stared in the same direction, “You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you?” She asked, swinging her feet back and forth.

He returned his own attention to the water, “Yes.”

“What was she like?” Kiera asked quietly.

Mordred looked at her again, “Why do you want to know?”

“You’re always thinking about her, there must have been some reason that she occupies your mind like that, even regular siblings fight and don’t do such things while far away. So there must be something more special about her than simply she’s your sister.” She replied, looking down.

Mordred considered the woman for a moment, looking away and to the ocean once more, “She… She’s all I have left of the home I used to have.” He said, thinking over his answer slowly, “She… She and I were very close when we burned our village to the ground… well it was more me, but she said she wanted it gone as well.”

Kiera glanced at him, “Why did you burn it?”

“Our village was infested with the plague…” He said softly, “Most survived, but… the consequences of their survival was…”

“Insanity… right?” She looked up.

Mordred was silent, but he got the feeling that that was all the answer she needed.

“So… what then?” She prodded, encouraging him to continue.

He was silent for a few more moments, his grey gaze serene and resigned, “Then?” He bit his lip, “Then, we left.” He stood, signalling the abrupt end to their conversation as he began walking away.

“Wait a minute; it can’t just end like that!” Kiera protested, “There has to be more to the story other than, ‘we left’, right Mordred?”

Mordred shoved his hands in his pockets, staring upwards, “That’s all, Kiera…” He blinked rapidly as images he desperately had tried to erase began surfacing faster and faster, “That’s where that chapter of my life ended, in flames and plague. That’s it.” His bloodied sword… “I have to go.” He took off then at a steady run down the docks, leaving Kiera wondering where the small spots of water on the planks had come from; there wasn’t any sign of rain at all.

~*~*~

Mordred ran until he couldn’t breathe, his eyes were unfocussed and blurry as he pushed away his memories of the night that he and his little sister had fled the damned village, “Please… Lillya, forgive me…” He pressed his fists into his eyes, dashing away the semblance of tears that had formed in the corners of his eyes, “Dammit…” He slumped next to a tree, his head drooping slightly and his eyes begging to shut, if only to block out the sounds of the screams that had echoed the rest of the night and far into the day. “I didn’t want it to end like that…”

“Mordred?”

Mordred swore standing up so suddenly he got a head-rush as Marius appeared.

“Mordred, what are you doing all the way out here? Anglis is awake now, come on.” Marius reprimanded the smithy pushing him back up to their rooms.

“But…” Mordred twisted away, “I can walk on my own you…!” He tripped over a rock and fell on his face.

“Is that so?” Marius grinned down at him.

“Humph, the rock just moved in front of me, I swear it wasn’t there earlier!” Mordred turned, glaring at the rock in question.

“Yes, it’s an evil rock, it must be sentenced to…”

“A lifetime in the ocean!” Mordred held up a finger of proclamation, nudging the rock with the foot that had tripped over it, “You hear that, rock? You’re doomed to drowning.” He muttered, watching the little veins of light thread out and throb slightly as Mordred pushed at it.

“Right, because it’s soo evil.” Marius helped Mordred to his feet, “Come on, Anglis isn’t going to be awake for very long…”
When Tai first began to surface, a little before noon, her only instinct was to twitch her stiff and aching neck into a new position and dive back into deep, black, blissfully dreamless sleep. Unfortunately, things were never going to be that simple - a fact she grudgingly acknowledged while still battling against with whatever little energy she could scrounge up.

"Get up now. Now. I'm not joking. Get up before I force you to."

Tai growled a string of hoarse swear-words at the little ghost. "How could you force me to do anything?" She added, eyes still shut, burrowing down into her screwed-up pillow.

"If you don't do what I say, then the moment you go anywhere near home again I'll... find his wraith. You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd like to see Ni- "

"Shut up!" Tai screamed, her throat screaming too in protest, and launching her on a full-blown lung-beating coughing fit as she sat bolt upright, glaring red-eyed at her own ghost. It hurt to cough, hurt a lot - in fact everywhere was stiff and painful - but not coughing was impossible, so Tai endured the shrieks and agonised twinges of her ribs as she tried to suppress the violence shaking her battered and bruised respiratory system apart.

After a while, pain still shooting through every muscle that dared to move, Tai swung her legs slowly out of the deliciously comfortable bed and gingerly tested the cool wooden floor. It swayed a little. On reflection, though, that was just her.

"You're a sadistic little bitch and I hate you. You're not me. I was never that cruel."

"You know I'd do it."

"I know you'll do it. Fine. You win," Tai said resignedly. "So now you've cut my much-needed sleep to nothing, what should I do?"

"Go and bath. Did you know they have indoor plumbing here?"

"What?"

The ghost pulled her stiff, pained, older, living counterpart impatiently along to the bathroom set off to one side of the large bedroom she'd unwillingly woken in. "It's called civilisation, it's a brilliant invention. Look!" She presented the enormous stone tub, set into the floor, as though she'd made it herself. "Turn the taps."

Tai did so, impressed despite the pain and the exhaustion and the grouchiness. The steam that arose from the hot water seemed to carry some faint scent with it - flowers or something, or maybe just cleanliness. At any rate, Tai had to admit that her ghost had a real point. A decent hot bath was civilisation. As she relaxed, feeling the grime float off her skin and some of the stiffness in every muscle ease, the ghost talked. Her little translucent face was animated with excitement and something else that Tai couldn't recognise in her sleep-fogged state; and she played endlessly with the perfect ringlets in her long auburn hair. When Tai was little she used to do that, too. Back when life was more than a hollow joke. Before the plague. Before things fell apart.

"This is Insel," she said. "Here's what you're going to do. Find Dmitri, then find Marguerite."

"Who?"

"Marguerite! Are you stupid or something? Marguerite! The one the letter was addressed to! The one who's going to make Dmitri not die!"

That got Tai's attention. Ignoring the pain, she sat upright in the bath and stared at her ghost in shock. "What? Dmitri, dead, what?" She surprised herself at the depth of feeling this conjured up - if asked, she probably wouldn't have named the current group of wierdos and loonies she was with as close friends; but there you were, apparently she was mistaken once again about the workings of her own head.

"Nearly. I don't know where he is. Find him. Come on! Don't lie around!" The ghost shouted like a drill instructor, eliciting a groan and an agonisingly stiff and slow obedience from Tai. "Dry! Dress! See that food? Eat it!"

Tai hadn't noticed before, but someone had slipped in and left a tray by the bedroom door while she'd still been dead to the world. On it was what probably counted as breakfast in this part of the world - basically some sort of flattish bread (delicious), little baked pastries (delicious) and fruit (also delicious - but then, she was starving). It'd been longer than Tai liked to admit since she'd started a day with a real meal that didn't come from a bottle. Fortified by food, cleanliness and fresh clothes, she felt almost good despite the continuing harsh stiffness as she let herself out and explored cautiously down the gentle, curving passages and verandas of the palace on the Island of the Monkeys.

It wasn't long before Tai saw the first of the ghosts.

It wasn't long after that before she realised that they could see her, too. They'd catch her eye as they passed, sometimes smile, or give a little nod of acknowledgement. Somehow they knew she could see them. Soon she didn't even notice the strange looks the living gave her when she returned their smiles and nods.

Humans and... well... monkeys - ghosts of all shapes, sizes and ages, outnumbering the living in the bits of the palace she found herself drifting through. But when she stumbled outside, into the sudden humid heat and glaring sunlight of a big city square; once her eyes had adjusted to the impossible brightness of the sunshine; she was stunned by the profusion of life.

Tai had grown up in a dead place. There had been few birds, and fewer flowers, and no butterflies at all.

This - this was the most living place that she could possibly believe could exist. Dogs squabbled in the dusty cobbled streets; crowds of humans and monkeys moved happily through the square and the surroundings, even their brown and grey clothes somehow managing to look bright and glorious, the most faded khaki lent vividness by the brilliance of the sun. Most of the young girls and young women wore flowers in their hair - it took a while of staring, dazed, for Tai to allow herself to understand that these were real flowers that were so huge and bright. Looking at those colours almost made her want to believe in gods.

And everywhere were the ghosts. As many as the living. They walked right through their breathing brethren, but were careful about jostling each other; when Tai cautiously crossed the square to buy fruit juice from a cheerfully vulgar vendor, they extended her the same courtesy, which she unthinkingly returned - tripping the living to make room for the dead. Her own ghost walked by her side, silent, allowing Tai to soak up the unimaginable vibrancy of Insel. Juice purchased - it was something called pineapple, which she'd never heard of, but one taste cemented in her mind as a glorious invention - she slunk into a quiet corner and struck up a conversation. She wasn't sure why it was easier to talk to the dead than the living. Maybe because there wasn't really anything that could shock, appall, or annoy them - the worst had already happened.

"Hello," the monkey's ghost said courteously. He had a lovely dark-brown accent, the colour and shape of darkness in the jungle - without ever having been to the jungle, Tai knew this. "You came in with the hero, didn't you?"

"What hero?"

"Ang-liss?"

"He's a hero?"

"Oh, yes."

"Cool." Tai sipped her juice. "Nice city, Insel."

"You like it?" He smiled when she nodded. "We have had our tragedies but... it is impossible to stay dead here. The city survives. The city regrows. The people heal and move on." He gestured to himself, and another ghost that had drifted up to join them. "We were killed in Desmond's invasion. As were many others."

"You don't have plague here?"

The monkey-ghost's smile grew even wider. "How could the plague be here? It is a thing of half-dark and half-truth and cold death. Here..." he spread his hands, inviting comparison to the heat and life all around them. "Here there are only light and dark. No places in between for things to fester."

Tai shrugged. "Everywhere's had bad things happen. This place just seems to handle it better."

"We wear our scars lightly," the ghost agreed.

A man walked by with a parrot in a cage: the parrot stared wisely at Tai, silently gaudy in a coat of feathers so pure and crimson they couldn't possibly have been touched by anything so mundane as the real world. Where the hell had she ended up?

"I'm looking for a friend," she said to the ghosts, and described Dmitri. "He might be in hospital, he's badly hurt. Where should I look?"

The ghosts exchanged looks. "I have seen him," one voluteered. "Master Uut was most discomfited at his injuries."

"Master Uut?"

"The palace healer. I think your friend will be in the palace - in the eastern building. Second floor."

"Thanks very much," Tai said, finishing her juice and saying smiling goodbyes before her own ghost dragged her away. To her surprise, the dead girl was grinning to herself, looking as happy as Tai had ever seen her.

Passing through the palace gardens on their way to the east building, Tai paused to watch an enormous butterfly painted in a shade of blue somewhere between summer-sky cerulean and her own diseased eyes, highlighed by specks of black and white and crimson, settle on her hand. It moved its huge wings lazily, decided she wasn't a flower, and fluttered drunkenly away. Tai looked down at her smiling ghost and suddenly recognised the expression on the dead girl's face.

She felt alive here.

Tai surprised herself again by feeling the same way - there was a smile on her face and a spring in her step that hadn't been there for years and years. She didn't even feel the particular desire for a drink.

Insel was turning out to be a pretty good place after all...

***

Marguerite. How did she not guess? The lovely red-haired ghost on the ship had somehow... been dragged... into the future... or into life or... something... by Anglis's feat of 'spirit-walking'. And here she was, alive and well and sipping mango juice (something else new and delicious), giving Tai a politely incredulous look as she finished explaining the rede and the riddle and what, precisely, was going on here.

She'd found Dmitri, who'd been totally out cold, and then asked around. Apparently the ghost hadn't been kidding when he said Anglis was a hero here - everyone she spoke to, alive or dead, told her to ask him for help in keeping Dmitri from walking through death's looming door. So she had, somewhat exasperated, and he'd looked a little bewildered by the turn of events and suggested she find Princess Marguerite.

So she had.

Tai was hot and tired and stiff and despite how much she was growing to love Insel, she definitely didn't love being looked at as though she were a trifle off her head. The fact that she knew she probably was didn't help matters one bit.

"You going to help, or not?" Tai asked at last.

"Of course I'll help," Marguerite replied briskly, getting up from her chair on the shaded veranda and leading the way confidently back to the east building where Dmitri lay. Though she couldn't have been much more familiar with the place than Tai, she walked as though she owned it - trailing behind her, Tai decided it was probably a princess thing.

Marguerite caught her breath sharply at the sight of torn-up, injured, infected, oozing, near-dead Dmitri. Tai, who'd seen dying people more that she wanted to, was more interested in the vague broken shape hovering nearby - thinner, fading here and there, the ghost of a ghost drifting around the room with the demeanour of a lost child.

Dmitri's ghost, unmistakeably.

"Can you see him?" Tai asked; the princess looked startled. "Dmitri's ghost," she clarified.

"No. Can you?"

"Yeah." Tai pointed. "He's there."

"Speak to him," Marguerite suggested. "I have an idea."

Tai looked sceptically at her. "Yeah? Go on." But she wasn't listening to the princess's words because her own ghost had started to speak, with the cold precision and determined expression that meant that what she was saying was a decree, that Tai would follow whether she liked it or not.

"That's not a ghost you can talk to. That's just a shade." A twinge of nervousness flitted like a butterfly across her face. "But I can. I can try..."

Tai watched, fascinated, as the dead girl that used to be her began waving her hands through and around the shade; as though conducting an invisible symphony. Frowning in concentration, she waved the two older women over - Tai grabbed the princess's hand and dragged her across the room.

"What is it?"

"This might feel... wierd..." the ghost said, concentration straining her voice as she took hold of the dim hovering shade and, before Tai could protest or twitch away, pushed it bodily into her ribs. It felt like her lungs had been suddenly replaced by a single huge block of ice - and in that moment of blinding shock, Marguerite's concern came as fading dying words written in trailing thin grey across a world fading rapidly to charcoal.

Tai's ghost slid one hand into Tai, and one into Marguerite, and her little fingers closing on their hearts were like tiny, bitter reminders of mortality; and then the world went away, for both of them, and they followed Dmitri's shade into the darkness.
At first, Marius hadn’t been able to tell why his presence in the palace corridors was attracting so much attention. Although there were more monkeys here than men, his kind was not an incredibly small minority; about two in five people walking the spacious, sunlit hallways were human.

After the sixth collared, sashed, or belted monkey started at his presence, the Vredian priest caught on. It wasn’t his race that was attracting notice, but his clothing. The majority of the individuals going about their daily business were scantly clad, if at all. The monkeys wore little save small tokens of rank or affiliation. Here, a noble passed wearing a deep crimson, gold-embroidered sash, and there, a healer ran past on the way to an assignment, only a belt of herbs and vials denoting his purpose. The humans, lacking the fur to keep them warm and cover them modestly, were for their part dressed in little more than white linen robes.

Marius, ever the ascetic, was for the first time in his life not dressed in simple clothing compared to other people. In fact, standing next to the other humans in their plain, lightweight robes, he felt positively overdressed. Where others wore sandals or even walked barefoot, he wore great, travel-worn leather boots with their numerous straps and shining buckles. His robes were layered, with a black robe worn over a grey underrobe, and tied securely about his thin waist with a black sash. The symbol of his Order hung freely from his neck, glinting in the sunlight.

No wonder they stared. Compared to them, he looked like a husband-hunting old noblewoman at a Masquerade Ball!

It was his suddenly uncomfortable clothing that attracted the attention of the Shrivijayan priest.

He was a young monkey, judging from the strength of his build and the lack of grey in his fur. His eyes were a dark violet, at once comforting and commanding. Like Marius, he wore a pendant about his neck, a pendant so familiar that the Vredian priest gasped.

“The Keeper of the Gate!” Marius blurted out, before covering his mouth in mortification as several individuals walking quietly through the palace halls turned to stare at the strangely-dressed---and now overly loud---stranger once again.

The priest turned to stare as well, startlement alighting in his eyes as he took in not Marius’s clothing, but the pendant around his neck. Then he crossed the hall in a hurry, people parting before him as he made his way toward Marius.

As the Shrivijayan priest neared, Marius realized the monkey did not wear the pendant of the Keeper of the Gate after all, but one very near.

“The phrase ‘Keeper of the Gate’ has not been heard here in quite some time,” the monkey said, drawing the still-surprised and now a little embarrassed priest aside. “But I can tell from your clothing that you have not been visiting Insel long. Tell me, are you from Vrede?“

“I… yes, I am.”

The priest took in Marius’s clothing, his eyes resting once again upon the pendant around Marius’s neck. “The Gods are not only worshipped there still, but are served by an established priesthood as well?”

“Yes, sir,” Marius said politely, assuming this man, by virtue of the similarity of his pendant to that of the Keeper, must be a high ranking priest.

The monkey suddenly smiled. “Come. If you have the time, I would like to speak to you. I have not had the opportunity to talk with anyone about the state of affairs of religion in Vrede. Your land has been… closed to us, in many ways, for quite some time. Any information you can provide would be of great value to the Cathedral.“

“The Cathedral!” the Vredian priest exclaimed in renewed shock.

The monkey touched him lightly on the arm to calm him. “Not the Cathedral of Vrede, friend, but of Shrivijayan. Ours stands yet, as once yours did. Long ago, they were like Brothers, one standing in the north, one in the south. But come, I will show you. It lies within the palace complex, and, indeed, is not terribly far from this place.”

“What is your name?” Marius asked, still feeling somewhat plague-stricken.

“I could ask the same of you,” the monkey said, with a humorous sideways glance toward the human.

“I am Marius of the Agony of the Gods.”

The monkey nodded thoughtfully. “And I am Ramelan, priest of Eirny and Keeper of the Faith in Shrivijayan.”

         It was some time before Derrick awoke in the bed in which he had been laid. The first thing he noticed was that he had apparently been bathed, and that his sledges were nowhere to be seen. Grumbling to himself, Derrick rose and realized that in addition to the bath he had unwittingly recieved, his clothes had also been washed.
         "What kind of savages live in a place like this? And where are my sledges?"
         As if to answer his question, a monkey with nought but a belt on entered his room bearing a tray full of food. Laying it on a table he turned to the miner and stated, "The food is yours to do with as you wish."
         "Then you mean I can do this?" Derrick grabbed the tray and flung it as hard as he could out the window, a clattering could be faintly heard as it hit the ground. The miner scowled at the monkey-man, and the monkey impassivly watched right back. Then with no other words exchanged between them, the monkey departed, his tail swinging from side to side, much as an excited dogs' does.
         Derrick proceeded to check all of his pockets in his vest, pants, and tunic. Just to make sure that everything was accounted for, and it wasn't. His metals were as he had left them, tucked away nice and safe, but his grandfathers' book was gone, as were his sledgehammers, and his backpack. Then the thought of his mule back on the mainland struck him, I just hope that pack of scholars back in the city doesn't sell my mule, it would be nice to actually have something where I left it for a change.
         Continuing to grumble and mumble to himself, Derrick dressed, and was about to exit the room when a cohort of monkeys entered the room. Unlike the first, these monkeys were armed, to the teeth, litteraly. The shields they bore were round and had multiple intertwining vines embossed in gold upon their face. Their spears were of the short, thrusting, variety and their swords, strapped to their hips, looked like they followed the thrusting-motif of the other weaponry. Even their teeth looked to have been sharpened, that and they seemed to be covered with a metal grill of some kind, that also fit into their helmets.
         A moment of catious staring at each other ensued, before another monkey entered. This one bore a stange pendant around his neck, and he seemed to be in charge of the cohort.
         "Where are my sleges?" Demanded Derrick.
         "You where the only armed member of the heroes entourage, and you have proven yourself to be dangerous since."
         "Just how is that? Monkey?" Venom poured from Derrick's mouth, and his barely restrained temper threatened to break loose.
         "Your resistence when you arrived caused us to render you unconcious, and you stank so badly that you had to be bathed before the Lady of the Palace would let you be placed in a bed. That and your actions with the steward earlier, earned you no friends here."
         "You call me FILTHY! You are just a Mon-Keigh!"
         "Your mining equipment will be returned to you when you have earned it, until that time," the centurian said, "you will remain in this room. Unless escorted by one of your companions." With a curt nod towards the cohort, the centurian moved back through the doors, quickly followed by the soldiers.
         Rushing the closing doors, Derrick arrived a minute too late and was treated to the unmistakable sound of a wooden bar dropping into a metal latch. Pounding on the door, Derrick shouted, "I will get you for this! If it takes the rest of my life! Noone takes what is mine!"
         Turning back to the bed Derrick found himself drawn to the idea of a little hell-raising in the city. And the window was just big enough for him to fit, and the sheets on the bed seemed strong-enough.
When Marguerite and Tai (and whoever else was with them that Marguerite couldn't see) came out of the darkness they were standing in a field of blue bells. There were mountains all around them and what seemed to be ruins to her far right.

"I know this place," she said quietly, "We're at the Gates of Heaven."

"Glad to see none of that affected you," Tai - who had had to sit down - grumbled from behind her.

"Having visions while one is trying to lay low is rather counter productive," Marguerite said over her shoulder, turning her attention to something else, "I taught myself to recover quickly."

This new thing that had attracted Marguerite's attention was a dragon, presumably the dragon that had Dimitri's soul.

Marguerite turned to look at Tai.

"I'm going to see if I can get your friend Dimitri back. If things should take a turn for the worse, go back to the palace and tell Radit. Please."

With a fortifying breath, Marguerite set off across the field toward the dragon. Pointedly ignoring Tai's shouts and the way her knees shook.

Best if I get his attention now. Certainly don't want to startle him, Marguerite thought to herself.

Marguerite stopped walking and shouted as loudly as she could, "Hey! Sir dragon!"

The dragon's head snapped up at the sound. He squinted at Marguerite and growled.

"Who are you? How did you get here?"

Before Marguerite could even think of anything to say she found herself standing right before the dragon.

This is his domain, Marguerite thought, trying to not look as scared as she felt, He can manipulate it to fit his needs.

Once she had herself under control, Marguerite forced herself to smile and spread out her hands in an innocent manner.

"I am nothing more than a friend of the soul you have there. Perhaps we could talk?"

The dragon continued to squint and growl, "What do you want?"

Marguerite's mind scrambled, "Well... That is my friend you have there..."

This earned her a very incredulous look.

"So? He's mine."

"Why? What claim do you have on him? Other than having him right now?" Marguerite demanded.

Even though Marguerite refused to look in that direction, she could tell he was gripping Dimitri's soul closer to him.

"He must pay for what he has done. What business is it of your?" he growled.

Marguerite spread her hands out again, "Only the business of a concerned friend. What has he done?"

"None of your business!" The words were delivered with such force Marguerite almost lost her balance. She thought desperately for something to say before the dragon decided to kill her then and there when she remembered what Cesare had told her.

"Go away!" These words actually did knock Marguerite over. Lookig up at the dragon, she finally noticed his hunched, protective posture and how his eyes flicked around their surroundings.

He's not used to this, Marguerite realized, I've got him off balance.

Marguerite pulled herself up-right and gave the dragon her most withering look. Hands planted firmly on her hips she shouted, "What? You can't kill the whole royal family so you take your frustrations out on a baker? Good job, O Mighty Dragon."

The dragon straighted, "Baker?" he asked, "This?" He looked down at Dimitri, "You must be joking."

"I am not," Marguerite sad, just as affronted, "That man is a baker, and obviously not who you think he is."

The dragon stopped examining Dimtri and pinned Matguerite with a very annoyed look.

"You, child, are the one who is mistaken if you think you can come here and call me a liar. You're awful young to be so confident in yourself."

"One must if one hopes to survive any royal court," Marguerite said promptly.

The dragon did something that could only be described as an eyebrow arch, "Royal court? There's no royal court - not anymore."

Marguerite returned his smug look with one of her own, "You're right. Not anymore."

The dragon leaned forward a bit to look at Marguerite more closly, "You seek to speak in riddles now? Isn't it a bit late for that?"

Marguerite shrugged in an airy manner and said, "All we seem to be getting is riddles I thought I might return the favor, see how you like it." While another part of her screamed, wondering just what the hell she thought she was doing.

"Bold words, girl-child." With this the dragon brought Marguerite even closer and bent down to get an even better look.

Marguerite shrugged, "I told you, a royal up bringing will do that to a girl."

Ignoring her, the dragon said, "You look familiar to me... Who are you?"

Part of her watched in horror as Marguerite smirked and said, "Marguerite Alasdere."

"What?!" The dragon reared back and then craned his head down to look at her again, "Impossible! You're dead!"

"Not anymore. Now, I didn't come here without a purpose. I am a proposition for you."

This caught the dragon by surprise, "What? My you are a bold one. What is it that you want?"

A very good question. "First...answer a question for me. Dimitri is too small a prize for a creature such as yourself. Why else are you here?"

The dragon grinned wickedly, "To destroy the Gates and allow my brethren free access to this world of light. Those evil gods shall never meddle in our affairs again once I am through with them."

"Let me speak frankly," Marguerite pointedly ignored the look the dragon was giving her, "This man and his friends pulled me through time. I am as real and alive as the body that holds that soul. Powerful though they may be, these people have no idea what they are up against. I do, and I have no intention of standing against you."

"Go on..." the dragon said.

"These people found the key to the Gates, I can get it for you. Of course you'd have to swear an oath that you or your brethern won't kill me when this is done."

"Of course," the dragon said, clearly wanting Marguerite to get on with it.

"Even though they don't know what the key is for, they've already figured that it's important. It's only a matter of time before they figure it out. If there's any chance of my getting it, I'll have to gain their trust quickly. Getting Dimitri's soul back would be a great stride toward that end."

"What?" the dragon demanded, "His soul is mine!"

"And more important than the key?" Marguerite demanded just as harshly, "Think about it. What better way to prove that I am on their side and a very important asset than to bring back their dear friend from death's very door."

The dragon came very close to Marguerite then, eyeing her as he growled, "Even if I give him to you, I can take him back whenever I want. I'll use him to keep an eye on your progress - "

"Unnecessary, but if it'll make you feel better," Marguerite shrugged, even as her mind screamed at her to stop before the dragon just decided to step on her.

"It will," the dragon growled, "If I find that you are lying to me, you'll beg for the sweet release of death."

Marguerite dipped into a graceful curtsy of awknowledgement, "Of course. You know you'll have to let the healers fix his chest now."

The dragon dipped his head mockingly, "Of course. Go away now. I'll find you as soon as you have the key."

Marguerite found herself suddenly standing next to Tai.

"What the hell happened?" Tai demanded.

"It's been taken care of," Marguerite said through clenched teeth. Her hands were shaking when she grabbed onto the other woman. She wanted to go back to her rooms before the full impact of what just happened hit and she completely lost it.

"Just get us the hell out of here."

         Dmitri ran across an endless field of flowers. Behind him came the dragon, always just a little behind, taunting him. At his leisure, he monster reached out an enormous paw and knocked Dmitri to the ground. Lazily, the dragon settled on the field, pinning Dmitri down.

         "What, too tired to run?" jeered the creature, laughing.

         The acrid smoke of his breath burned in Dmitri's lungs. The hapless baker stared up at his captor.

         "Why?" he gasped. "What am I to you?"

         The dragon laughed. "What jests!" He idly poked Dmitri with one, long claw. Dmitri shuddered.

         "We have played these games before," continued the dragon in an almost thoughtful, reminiscing tone of voice. "This time," his voice turned hard and menacing, "I promise you, will have a different ending. He raised his paw to strike.

         "Hey! Sir dragon!"

         The dragon's head snapped up at the sound. He squinted at a figure in the distance and growled. "Who are you? How did you get here?"

         To Dmitri's amazement, a young woman allowed the dragon to fetch her across the field. She was tall, taller than he, beautiful and graceful, like an angel. For an instant she seemed bathed in sunlight, and then the pervasive gloom recast her in shadow.

         Dmitri struggled, but he was tired - ever so tired! - and the dragon had little trouble cradling him closer and staring at the intruder. There followed a conversation that filled Dmitri with dread. He could barely breathe, the monster held him so tight, and from time to time he'd squeeze even tighter, making Dmitri's ribs ache.

         Dmitri couldn't believe what he was hearing. This woman had such an aura of goodness about her. How could she even be contemplating a bargain with this evil monster? And what key was she talking about?

         At last she vanished from whence she came and the dragon eased his grip. He stared at Dmitri, a speculative look pulling his features into an even more menacing appearance.

         "A baker, eh?" he growled softly. "What game do you play at, Brother?" He poked Dmitri in the side. "How twisted have things become."

         He looked off into the distance, oblivious to his captive's struggles. Sometime later, he craned his huge head to observe Dmitri once more. He smiled an evil grin.

         "I find it most amusing, Brother, that these ... mortals," he made the word an epithet, "have placed you right into my hands, and as my servant, no less!"

         Dmitri scowled. "I'll never serve you, Monster!"

         "Oh, won't you?"

         Dmitri stared, horrified, but transfixed, at the dragon. The beast opened his mouth, dribbling corrosive spittle over Dmitri like rain. Dmitri screamed as the acid ate at him.

         The dragon moved Dmitri to eye level, the better to glare at him. "Oh, you'll serve me all right, Brother," he snarled. "You will serve me, or you'll remain here in eternal torment until the end of time."

         He opened his paw and Dmitri fell. He sat up, gasping, in his bed back in the monkey hospital, startling one of the attendants. She yelled, jumped, and the tray in her hands went flying. Dmitri ignored the fuss, rolling to his side and curling around the mass of agony in his stomach. He wept, in pain, fear, and frustration.

*          *          *

         Attendants fetched Master Healer Redit to the hospital. He took a stool at the bedside of the gut-wounded human. Something else had apparently happened, for his hands, arms, and head were blistered as if burnt. The attendants swore they hadn't touched him. The man wept softly, but stilled as he felt Redit's touch.

         "Rest easy," said Redit. "You are safe here."

         The stranger parted dry, cracked lips. "No," he rasped. "Not safe. Not ever."

         Redit took in the fresh blood, new injuries, and stark terror written on the man's face and had to admit to a certain amount of truth in that statement, but still ...

         "What is it that you dream?" he asked.

         "A monster!" The man's eye widened in horror. "Why does he plague me?"

         "Perhaps he is afraid."

         "Of me?" There was the barest of bitter laughs. "Not likely."

         Redit reached for the book he'd brought and flipped it open to a previously marked page. He showed it to the man. "Is this the creature?" he asked.

         The man shuddered. "Yes!" he whispered.

         Redit eyed him in wonder. "You are ever so full of mysteries, my young friend. What is your name?"

         "Dmitri. My name, good sir, is Dmitri, son of Pavel, from Whispering Cliffs Village."

         "Well met, Dmitri."

         The man stared at Redit, incredulous. Redit smiled. He found the irony of the situation rather humorous. As he contemplated the situation, watching the man, there was a slight change in the man's facial expression, as if he pulled back, ready to guard himself again, and no doubt wondering where he stood at the moment.

         "Are you going to help me?" he asked uncertainly.

         Redit patted his arm, carefully, around the burns. "As to that, young Dmitri, no. The only one who can heal you is you."

         "You're mad!"

         Redit chuckled. "Not to worry. You are no longer in danger." He shook his head at his inadvertant choice of words. "From your injuries, that is." Redit tapped his head. "What's in here, though, well, that's quite another matter." He stood to go.

         "Wait! Isn't there anything you can do?"

         Redit gazed back, impassive. "Faith, young one, that is all you need." He left.
   Anglis looked up into the leaves of the tree and watched the shifted to let the breeze pass through. He had only seen a world this green in his visions, and he suspected that it was the same place. No doubt there was a reason why he kept returning to this island in particular, but he didn’t know why yet. It might have had something to do with the monkeys that had… what? Summoned him? Not quite. They’d been putting him back into his body not calling him out of it.
   …
   Why did he know the difference? This whole thing was bizarre. He wondered if Tai felt this when she’d first started dreaming? This strange feeling as though he understood, yet at the same time it was so alien to him it was almost frightening.
   He looked down at the book in his hands. It was ancient and the paper crumbled if he stroked the edges. Redit had given it to him with such ceremony and dignity. Anglis hadn’t dared tell him he couldn’t read. The other one, Genki, had been so excited. He seemed to think it was some magic tome that revealed the secrets of time and space. Maybe it was. He wouldn’t know until he found Marius to read it for him.
   He closed his eyes and listened. Genki would be frantic looking for him, but he couldn’t stand being in that room any longer. He needed to hear the wind. It was different everywhere and yet the same. This wind felt green; soft and thin, slipping between the leaves and trees, spreading pollens and life throughout the island. Moneykom had been bitter with sewage, fear, and salt. The wind of a hopeless city.

   The scrambled through the snow, ducking under the branches of the blackened trees.
   ”We’re gonna get in so much trouble….” Eki muttered under her breathe. But she followed anyway. She wanted to see it as much as the others, “There’s a reason we’re not supposed to leave the village you know!”
   ”Hush up!” Muttan called, “Cowards aren’t any good for the village any way.” He broke through onto the top of the hill first, running over to the Site, “I beat you anyway!” he laughed, “I told you I’m going to be the hunter one day!”
   ”You talk to much to hunt. You can’t even catch a squirrel.” The fourth child pulled out of the vegetation with bright green eyes and hardly a scratch on his skin. He turned and pulled out Eki first. She smiled at him and kissed his cheek. Muttan glared at him.
   ”Show off.” The boy muttered. The last child crawled out, muddy and scratched and his clothes soaked through. He stood up and shivered.
   ”I told you not to come! If you freeze here the dogs will eat you,” Muttan threatened.
   ”Leave him alone.” Eki snapped, “He’ll be fine so long as you don’t try to push him off the hill again.” The boy just smirked in response.
   ”Is this it Den?” the soaked boy looked up as Anglis walked over to the circle of stones.
   ”It’s not very big.” Eki leaned over and wiped snow off of one, “The stones aren’t big either. I think maybe it broke and they tried to fix it.”
   ”Fix what? It’s a circle.” Muttan kicked one, “Bo~ring. I thought you said this place was special?”
   ”It is!” Denien protested, “Nanna said it was to do with spirits.” He explained, “She said they carved new stones and put them up here, even though no-one knows how to-… huh?” They all looked at the boy in the centre of the circle. He’d closed his eyes and just seemed to be listening.
   ”My mother said that people used to come out here so the priests could talk to the gods.”
   ”They’re dead.” Muttan said coolly, “All of them are dead. They sent the dead wind and it flew back and killed them,”
   ”…” the others watched him warily.
   ”What did you say?” Eki and Muttan looked at Denien, then over to Anglis.
   ”
Aeth.” Anglis said, hardly any louder. He turned around, “We should go back. It’s getting dark.”
   ”But we only just got here!” Muttan sighed, “Fine. I’ll take you babies back down. If you weren’t so slow we might have been here longer.”


    “Aeth.” He whispered, opening his eyes and looking upward. He’d heard it once or twice, that whisper the lost claim leads them back off the glacier. Except that he’d always known its name. The ghost of a god, huh?
He looked down at the book again. He really needed to get this read to him before Genki tried to put him back in bed. He stood up slowly and stretched out. Things still ached, but it wasn’t as though he was unused to it. He looked across the view of the ‘streets’ in front of him.
   ”Well Aeth. Where does a lost priest go?”
Mordred was gathering herbs in a field, only the familiar ones, mind you, he didn’t dare with the ones that looked hinky. He plucked a few odds and ends, mostly blue colours as he put them in his pouch and made his way over to a clean stream, pulling his mortar and pestle free as he sat. “Let’s see… I need this…” He began pulling his powders out, he was left with precious few, his red, blue, and white needed replenishing, but for now he had enough for what he was doing. He ground his flowers, adding water and his powder quickly as the paste began to take form beneath the pounding of his pestle. When he was satisfied he dunked his head in the water, wetting his shoulder-length hair, and grabbed his now zippy-blue paste, scrubbing it into his hair, admiring the bubbles that ran into the river and away, just the colour he wanted.

“What’re you doing?”

The voice startled him and he yelped, teetering precariously at the edge of the river before falling in with a loud splash, “What the hell did you do that for?” He demanded upon surfacing, glaring at the monkey-woman that stood on the banks staring from the paste in his mortar and to Mordred with his similarly coloured hair.

“How… did you make this?” She asked.

Mordred glared at her, “I can’t tell you that, it’s a smithy’s secret.” He clambered out of the water, scrubbing at his hair again, sighing as he scooped the paste and rubbed more of it into the thick white strands.

“Smithy…? You’re the one they call ‘Mordred’ correct?” She asked.

“What’s it to you?” He inquired, glancing over his shoulder at her.

“I’m Kade, the local steel-worker around here. You seem like you might know what you’re doing, what with the colours and all, how about I show you some of my things? Would you be interested? Maybe show me what you can do?” She seemed earnest enough, an open face (well, as open as a monkey could be) and a cheerful enough smile on her face so he finished scrubbing his hair and rinsed it clean.

His hair was now a nice shiny blue and he gave a small grin at the colour, quite satisfied with his work, “Sure, I’d love to go.” He said, finally, something to do, seemed like everyone was off doing their own thing now, he supposed it was his turn.

“Great!” She took his hand and pulled him to his feet, dragging him towards a road outside of the city.

Mordred kept pace with the eager monkey’s strides with relative ease and he hopped the road along with her as she kept a tight grip on him the whole way. He noticed, albeit belatedly, that there were fewer monkeys around on this side of town and none crossed the walkway at all, in fact, it seemed as though they were avoiding it like it held some sort of plague, or crossing it was forbidden. However, he wasn’t able to pay much attention to it as the female monkey dragged him around towards the heady sound of a fire, a fire the likes of which he hadn’t heard in so long… “A forge.” He murmured.

“Yeah, it’s mine, come on, this way.” She pulled him inside, a small smile on her face.

He looked around, an expression of wonder on his face, “Wow, this is better than the one I used to have…” He sighed, running his fingers over the swords and other pieces within the shop. “Hey! This looks like one of mine.” He said, pointing to a blue tinted sword, polished to perfection.

“That is something that we picked up from one of the ships that came through here, one of the men had it and had just picked up something better he said and he traded this one for money. We were happy to have it, it’s quite lovely.” She said.

Mordred picked it up and flipped it over, examining the hilt, “Yeah, it is mine, this is my signature.” He pointed to a small marking of a lark carrying a sword with the sigil ‘M’ behind it.

“Why a lark, from what I hear, they don’t even exist over there.” She said quietly.

“It’s been a part of our family for so long now we don’t know anything else, the Lark is part of the Vance family crest and we were all blacksmiths at one time or another, so the sword and this mark is apparently the first letter of my name. Mordred.” He explained, “It was the last thing I did before the village was burned.” He said, glancing at Kade.

“Oh, I’m…”

“Forget, it’s in the past, don’t apologise for anything you can’t change or that you didn’t do.” Mordred smiled, once again going through her shop as he heard the door jangle open.

“Kade, what is an outsider doing here?” A stern female voice made Mordred turn and glance at Kade who was saluting.

“Merpati ma’am! He’s another blacksmith, I figured he could help out.” Kade said.

The female monkey was old, but she carried an air around her that demanded respect, even from the most ignorant of fools, her dark fur only marred by the long scar that twisted over the bottom side of her face, just behind her ear it seemed and to her opposing hip, making the wound stand out, stark white against black. She graced him with a sharp once over that felt like he was being seen through and looked at with a razorblade.

She pressed her lips together, “Hmm.” Was all she said at the moment, adjusting the soft black/red loincloth about her hips, the red griffin embroidered on his flashing slightly in the light, “Is he any good?” She asked finally.

“Depends on what you make of me.” Mordred replied as she glanced his way once again.

“I don’t believe I asked you.” She said sharply.

“I don’t like being spoken about as if I were not in the room.” Mordred retorted.

Merpati raised an eyebrow and wrinkled her nose at him, “Just make sure you keep to yourself, Mordred.” She said, glancing at him, “The ground force here on the Island is very different from the Navy that you met on the way here. You may end up in a fight that you may very well not want to be in.” She warned, turning quickly and walking out.

Mordred’s upper lip curled, “What a…”

“Don’t say anything bad about her.” Kade interrupted, “She’s the leader of the troops around here, she has the whole Army under her thumb. They all report to her and she has ears everywhere.”

Mordred sighed, “All right, I’ll keep my opinions to myself, but… will you answer a few questions?”

“Those that I can.” She replied.

He continued browsing the shop as he opened his mouth, “That road, no one else was crossing, in fact it seemed as though the majority of the people over there avoid the road, why?”

“Because, the Army is an elite force, not just anybody can come in you know, we are chosen, the best among the best. The South Side, which is where you are, by the way; is where we do all of our training and here, I make all the weapons, shields, and other armour we may wear.”

“Is there only monkeys in the Army?” Mordred paused at his sword again, staring at it as he turned his head slightly to hear Kade speak.

“Humans are almost half our force, and they take up most of our leadership positions as well, with the exception of Merpati, the head priestess and commander…”

“Of all the troops, yeah, I remember.” Mordred finished for her, nodding his head as he moved on, glancing over the weapons, his fingers dragging across them just as his hand knocked something down with a quiet clatter, “Oh! I’m… wait, is this… yours? It’s very nice.” He reached down to pick up the long crystalline flute, it was about a foot and a half long and it weighed next to nothing as he twirled it between his fingers.

“Where did you get that thing? It’s not mine whatever it is.” Kade said, backing up away from it with a grimace, “I don’t even remember purchasing something like that.”

“I like it…” he smiled a bit and gripped the flute. He felt as if something had been lifted away from him and he had a few less burdens to bear, as if helping to save the world was just nice and he could carry it without a second thought. “Do you mind… do you mind if I have it, I’ll pay you for it.” He rummaged around in his pack and held up a few silver pieces and a couple gold ones.

“Take it, just get it out of my shop and out of the South District.” Kade said, glaring at the little tube.

“But I can’t take it without paying you at least a few silvers…” He handed her four silver pieces as she shooed him out and onto the street.

“Come on, I’ll take you back.” She took his hand again, “You know, I should bring you back so you can roughen up your hands again, they’ve gone soft in the time you’ve been away from your forge.” Kade said, leading him along the roads, this time letting him look around a bit.

He saw humans and monkeys alike this time, watching them interact and watch him with suspicion, giving Kade a few incredulous looks and some of disapproval and even curiosity. “Kade? If you didn’t buy this… then where do you suppose it came from?” He asked, looking over the flute.

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, just put it from your mind, and whatever you do, don’t play it until you’ve had someone look at it.” she said sternly, waving a hairy finger in his face as they reached the dividing roads.

Mordred leaned away from the reprimanding finger and did as he was pushed, crossing the road with a little bit of reluctance that he didn’t actually go in to see her forge, but he shrugged it off for next time, and made his way back up to the city with a friendly wave in Kade’s direction as he left. “Pretty.” He said, holding the flute to the light, “And now, you belong to me.”
Though it wasn't quite the worst awakening ever, Tai would be prepared to rank this at least a seven and a half on a one-to-ten scale of nastiness. Instead of the bile that sometimes rose unstoppably on the regaining of conciousness, Dmitri's shaded spirit erupted from her lungs and out of her mouth like a roomful of icy butterflies bursting out of their coccoons; smashing its way out of her, battering aside internal organs, random memories and occasional personality traits.

Nearby, Marguerite had levered herself up off the floor of the sickroom already. She brushed stray hair out of her face, regarded Tai, and smiled. "Thank you," the princess said, offering Tai a hand up. "He should be alright now."

"Good for him," Tai muttered, staggering somewhat as she dodged around an attendant and out of the room. Moments later there was a yell, a crash, and the shuddering sounds of the beginnings of tears; apparently whatever Marguerite had said to the dragon in the man's head had worked. Leaving the princess to be concerned and helpful, Tai turned to the ghost of herself - who didn't look to good either.

"Now can I sleep?"

"Yes. Rest now."

Tai found a shaded balcony equipped with handy couches, and went in search of her lost sleep. It wasn't hard to find.

***

Dreaming again. Bright vivid dreams, sparkling in the eruption of life that is the Island of the Monkeys.

The monkeys are peaceful people. Happily going about their lives in the sunlit cheer of Insel city; with a sinking heart, Tai recognises the same sense of impending doom that hung around her vision of Monykom City. Looking at the simple lively exuberance of these people, she knows - the future is gathering around them like storm clouds, though the sky is clear and empty and bluer than heaven.

Then the ships come; invasion fleet, tearing through the waves that are blue as deep depression, vomiting out armies that tear through the city. Armies of... what? Living breathing empty automations. All they do is kill and burn. No life flickers behind those glassy eyes... the monkeys turn and flee into the sheltering, overcrowded dimness of the jungle. Here their enemies cannot pass in force, but the deep urge to kill they possess in place of a soul leads them on.

Many die; many burn; the soil is crimson now and the leaves of the trees are turning red in a parody of autumn.

The monkey-priests pray desperately, hoping for guidance, help, respite - anything. But there is no answer. The monkey-gods have abandoned their people, and Tai knows how that feels.

But despite the gods turning their faces from their people, something seemed to care - something changed, one bloody day, and the invaders switched from hunting the monkeys to fighting each other. Seems it's simpler to satisfy their desire to kill this way, rather than seeking out the increasingly difficult to find intended victims. The monkeys watch, amazed - eyes wide in the shadows of the trees, as their killers destroy themselves.

For a moment, all is still.

Then, slowly, the monkeys begin the mournful task of clearing up afterwards.


***

Tai woke in darkness, and for a moment wondered whether her dream had ended - and where it had begun. She didn't feel on the verge of throwing up, and wasn't hungover - then she noticed the peaceful stars scattered across the black-velvet vault of the sky, and remembered where she was. Hungry, Tai swung herself off the couch and wandered over to the railing of the balcony.

Night was kind to Insel.

It must be very late - few lights still burned in the city spread out below, little to challenge the magnificence of the burning diamond stars, as painfully vivid as everything else about this place. Over the harbour, the moon sailed high in the sky, haloed by a soft corona, smiling calmly at its own reflection in the peaceful water. The light was bright enough that Tai betted she could read by it.

"The angels were brighter," a soft voice nearby said. Turning, Tai smiled at the ghost of a young monkey - a girl leading her dead younger brother by the ghost of a hand. The dead boy looked up at the living woman with huge, solemn eyes - set in the darkness of his face like the eyes of the watchers in the trees.

"Angels?"

"There used to be angels."

"Flying," the boy added solemnly. "Before the cursed people came and chased them away."

The girl shook her brother's arm to quiet him. "I used to love watching them fly. We never knew what they were doing but it helped to see them. They made things peaceful. And when they left, we all died."

"That was Desmond's invasion?"

The girl shrugged, then nodded. "I guess. I- we were killed when they came after us, once we'd run away..."

For some reason, Tai had noticed, ghosts liked to talk about their death. She wasn't entirely certain why that should be.

"We ran to the jungle. But we weren't very fast. They caught us. We died."

"It hurt," the boy whispered, huge eyes bright with remembered pain.

"We lost everything," a new voice put in, as a third ghost joined them on the balcony. Tai, head muzzy with dreams of blood and butchery, turned from the ghosts of the violence to the scene of untouchable peace before her - the contrast was so sharp it stung. "First the angels vanished from the sky. Then the gods would not answer us. I was a priest, Child of Xhaiden - I cried to the gods that had always spoken so kindly to me before, and was answered only by emptiness and silence." He paused, returning the look of religious awe directed at him by the children's ghosts with a small smile. "Then our lives were taken - many of us. Not I. I lived to see the sun swallowed up and the sky veiled in ash."

"The mountain exploded," Tai guessed. "The Sacred Mountain." Even when talking to a priest, she couldn't stop the twinge of bitterness in her voice.

The dead monkey nodded regally, adjusting his headdress. "Indeed. The sky wept rock and ash and soot for many days; the sea raged and leaped; even the ground beneath our feet writhed. Our world was full of dragons, and of rage that shook the sky to dust and the sea to frenzy... the water ate the land. I died in that flood, and now my ghost eyes do not recognise the shape of Insel Bay that I lived and died beside."

Tai, a proficient story-teller herself, was hypnotised by the deep, slow, sculptured forms of the priest's words. But his next pronouncement snapped her fully awake: back into the reality of late-night conversations with ghosts (though what kind of a wierd reality is this, in truth? Speaking to dead people about the wrath and demise of the gods. Sometimes Tai wondered if they weren't alive and laughing).

"I have seen Anglis, and the princess he brought back, and I know that our time is here. We cannot die again, Child of Xhaiden - we dead ones will fight beside and behind you."

"Fight? What? Behind me?" Tai blinked in shock, shaking the images out of her head. "I'm no good in anything bigger than a barfight! I get drunk and fall over! I don't want to- what did you call me?"
         It was starting to get dark outside the bar in which Derrick sat. He had amused himself all day with various activities that had caused an undue amount of humiliation, and or shame, to the monkey residents of Insel. Derrick had done mulitple things, some as simple as laying down a slick spot in the road to watch somemonkey slip, and some things as elaborate as getting that pot of sun-tea to fall on the monkey just exiting the bakery. Derrick laughed when he thought of how she looked after the drenching, not to mention that the bread she had had literally melted in her hands.
         "What are you laughing at gargoyle?" Derrick turned to see a man, that would've easily dwarfed Mordred, standing over him, and breathing on him. That foulness that passed for breath reeked of whatever was passed for as alcohol in this bar.
         "It is an inside joke."
         "Well, shall I spill your insides so that I can hear the joke?" The drunk waved a scimitar about in the air.
         "You could try. You wouldn't succeed, but you could try."
         "Oh really?" The man turned to face the hushed crowd, "I am a member of the army! No one can beat me in the entire military sector! What chance do you have?" He sneered at Derrick, "Gargolye, how many times did you have to get struck by the plague to look like that anyway?"
         "I have never been struck by it, what's your excuse?" The man reeled back, as if struck.
         "Wha...You will pay for that comment!" He raised the scimitar for a strike at Derrick, but Derrick was no-longer sitting on his stool.
         Grabbing a tankard of ale that was sitting on the counter, Derrick flung the liquid into the soldier's face and landed a powerful punch (as he was at just the right height) to the man's groin. Immediately, the scimitar dropped to the ground, as did the man who fell into a fetal position.
         "How did that feel, oh so great soldier?" Derrick mocked. "Betcha didn't see that coming, did you? Weren't trained for that, were you? By the gods, if your entire army is as bad as you, this place sucks worse than I already thought it did." Placing a strip of silver on the bar, Derrick apologized for using the ale, and began to leave when he heard the unmistakeable sound of a brushing tail.
         "Derrick Maluse. You are to come with us immediately."
         Derrick could only stare at the three monkeys before him. All were dressed in the same black tunics, with batons of some sort tucked into the belt. Each had another baton already in their hands.
         "What is this? I came here 'cause I was told that this is a HUMAN bar, not some sort of animal farm." Sneering at the monkeys Derrick then said, "You can want me to go anywhere you like with you, fact of the matter is, you can go to whatever you consider hell!" Grabbing a nearby table, Derrick hefted it like a discus, and threw it like one too.
         Unfortuneatly, Derrick had never tried to fight monkeys before, and they all were nimble enough to avoid the table which then crashed into the bar. Seeing as how talking was obviously out of the question, the monkey leader drew his other baton with his tail, and attacked.
         The batons turned out to be very hare, as Derrick discovered. They impacted him from all directions, at least until he could grab one. Staring at the monkey on the other end, Derrick spat at him, wrenched the bar free and while watching the look of surprise that bloomed on the monkey's face, clubed him right between the ears with it. One down, two to go. Derrick thought, but the other two were gone...
         "Come out you cowards! I know you are there!" Then the two monkeys, who had been clinging to the ceiling, dropped onto Derrick and began pummeling him mercilessly with their batons. Crouched against the floor Derrick withstood the assault until he could use his baton to smash one of the monkeys in the foot.
         Letting out a howl the monkey jumped backm cradled his foot, and gave Derrick enough room spin around and to pound the other monkey with the baton under the chin, dropping him like a hot rock. Then, turning back to the other monkey, Derrick picked up a wooden chair and brought it crashing down onto the monkey's back. The fight over, Derrick smiled to himself and was satisfied that he had finally been able to relieve some frustration. Then he heard them.
         A column of soldiers had been summoned to the bar, undoubtedly by one of the patrons that had fled the scene. Derrick, being ever the practicle man, picked up the table that he had earlier thrown and tucked his baton into his belt. Then approaching the door, he waited until he was sure that the head of the column was outside, and using the sheild like a battering ram, he charged outside.
         Had he waited two seconds longer the four soldiers would've been inside the bar, as it was Derrick caught them with their guard down and the force of his charge carried all five into the wall on the other side of the street. Having knocked the soldiers heads together hard enough to knock them out, Derrick grabbed the table and once more threw it like a discus, but this time the targets couldn't dodge in the narrow street. The unmistakeable sound of breaking wood came from the column, and Derrick followed his projectile in. Striking right and left, Derrick beaned, smacked, and stabbed with his baton until not a single soldier was left standing.
         "What a dissappointment!" he shouted. "I was expecting so much more from you!" he grabbed a still semi-conscience human and yelled at him, "How can you serve these filthy monkeys. They are nothing but deamons in fur!" Slamming the soldiers head down, Derrick realized that it was in fact dark. and that he should probably be trying to find a place to stay for the night.
         However, a great deal of time must've passed because the lamps that had been lit at dusk had now been put out and the streets were as black as they could be. Reaching into a breast pocket, Derrick withdrew a metal sphere. Popping the top to the sphere let loose a soft green glow that easily illuminated the street and allowed Derrick to see.
         What he saw was that every inn that he had passed that day, was closed. So, he instead chose one of the many alleys that was piled high with trash, and while it smelled worse than a methane filled mine shaft, Derrick hid himself amoung the garbage, resealed his sphere, and went to sleep.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

This is Andante's add. Andante, I added a sentence and fixed a spelling error; hope you don't mind. I have just added some additional info to this bit. Enjoy! *Bigsmile*

Marius did not know whether to kneel down before or embrace the young monkey before him. As a result, he did nothing, only staring with his mouth hung slightly ajar.

The nobles walking through the halls were beginning to notice, now. “…foreign priest…” he heard somewhere, and from another individual, “…but why would the Keeper…”

“Come,” Ramelan said gently, taking Marius’s upper arm and gently steering the awestruck priest down the hall. “Let’s go somewhere where we can speak in private. You and I have much we need to discuss.”

*~*~*

The cup was full of a sloshing amber fluid that looked like whiskey but smelled like roses.

“Drink,” Ramelan urged Marius. “It’ll calm your nerves a bit. It’s Frual. Ah… ‘Zeroun’s Nectar’ in your language. Do not fear, it is… not alcoholic.”

Marius, who had just been trying to think of a way to politely turn down the other priest’s offer of forbidden wine, smiled and sipped. “I thank you,” he said, holding the liquid in his mouth for a moment and marveling at the strangely sweet yet floral flavour.

They sat in the Keeper’s office in the Cathedral of Shrivijaya. Ramelan hadn’t been joking when he’d said the Cathedral was nearby; Marius had actually seen it when he’d arrived in this strange land, for it towered above the other structures within the palace complex. Indeed, he’d thought it was the royal family’s residence, but Ramelan had explained, “No building stands so great as the Cathedral.”

Marius had been shocked, as he and the Keeper had walked through the Cathedral’s spacious marble hallways, by how many people occupied the halls. In every holy place Marius had visited---and admittedly there had not been many, for his was a reclusive order and he was young enough and sickly enough that he had rarely been permitted to travel to neighboring monasteries---there were few priests and no outsiders. He knew that the Cathedral, as a public place of worship, would surely house clerics as well as unordained worshippers, but he hadn’t expected there to be so many. Everywhere he looked there were monkeys and humans, men and women, young and old, priests and laypeople, all hurrying from one location to another or strolling sedately with their heads buried in books, moving to the confusing toll of bells.

And oh the bells! They were fantastic; a deep, rich sound carried over the din and they varied in tone but never clashed. He could not understand what they signified; one moment they seemed to ring every second, and then he wouldn’t hear them for a minute, or an hour.

“Ah, the bells,” Ramelan said with a smile at Marius’ inquiry. “Yes, they take some getting used to. Let’s just say they mark everything; the rise and fall of the sun, the cycles of birth and death, marriages, graduations, the start of classes, the end of classes…”

“Classes?” Marius asked, perking up.

“A scholar, Ramelan?” a new voice broke in. “Have you brought me a new pupil?”

Marius started. Ramelan’s smile widened as another monkey entered the room. “Not a pupil, Setiawan, unless he desires learning. Marius is a priest. From Vrede.”

“Vrede!” the new monkey exclaimed, reaching for the bottle of Frual then drawing his hand back at the last second and casting a surprised glance toward Ramelan. He sat down in the other seat before Ramelan’s desk, and turned to look at the other monkey for explanation.

Ramelan laughed. “Marius, I would like you to meet my brother and colleague, Setiawan. He is the Academy’s Headmaster and a priest of Zeroun, god of the Sun and the Stars and patron of Wisdom and Justice.”

Marius did not know how to ask the question burning in the back of his mind, and so he took a breath and simply blurted it out. “The gods of your land, are they… do they live?”

Ramelan and Setiawan exchanged glances. Ramelan held up two fingers to his brother, who nodded and glanced at Marius. “Yes,” Ramelan said. “They live. This may be difficult for you to understand, but I will try to explain as well as I am able. When the Cathedral in Vrede was destroyed, the gods of Vrede were not so much killed as… shut out of your land. We know not how this happened or what may be done to reverse it. But the gods are---and have long been---alive and active in the rest of the world. Here in Shrivijaya we feel their power often. As will you, soon.”

“As will I…” Marius echoed, feeling very strange and wondering if it were the shock of the revelation or his inability to believe it. “But the Books all say… my Order teaches… the gods of Vrede have been dead for… why do I feel so strange?”

Ramelan smiled gently. “It’s the Frual,” he explained softly. “Zeroun’s Nectar. It allows those whose hearts are true to pierce through confusion to truth. We give it to new initiates, so that they might break through the barriers within their hearts and experience oneness with the Gods without confusion or fear. Come. We will show you the gods.”

“You drugged me,” Marius heard himself saying as if from a distance, but he didn’t truly care. Already he heard a deep thrum, like a heartbeat---no seven heartbeats pounding in unison---down the hall, and knew he was about to witness something no Vredian had seen for centuries.

“The Nectar would have had no affect upon you if Zeroun had not accepted you,” Setiawan told him.

“Come,” Ramelan said, rising. He walked around the desk and offered a hand to Marius. “Some men do not get to experience this in their entire lifetimes. Clearly, Zeroun has some purpose for you. We will show you the Sanctum.”

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

         Ramelan and Setiawan guided Marius down the halls of the Cathedral. With the drug coursing in his system, all Marius saw was a confusing kaleidoscope of images. Big, thick, stone blocks, small windows; flickering lamps; light shining down from somewhere overhead; cool, moist air brushing against his forehead; the slap of sandals on the stone floors; the swishing of garments; the muted sounds of whispers and talking and laughing and singing and chanting and praying; and above all else, the thrum, the pulse of seven heartbeats drawing him closer.

         Ramelan and Setiawan fell back as Marius began to walk faster. They looked at each other in surprise and worry. The Vredian priest couldn't know where he was going, and yet, he walked purposefully and exactly where he would have been led.

         "Why did you give him the Frual?" Setiawan hissed at his brother as they followed close behind Marius.

         "Honestly," sighed the Keeper of the Faith, "I'm not really sure. But it seemed the right thing to do at the time."

         Setiawan shook his head, tail switching from side to side in agitation. They didn't have all that much remaining, as the secret to its making had died long ago. "Had you already shown him around?"

         "No," replied Ramelan. His eyes, when he turned to regard his brother, shown with excitement. "No one's had this strong of a reaction since, well, since the gods left. This could be it! This could mean the Time of Change is at hand!"

         "Don't be so sure," muttered Ramelan. He grunted as Marius turned a corner and started to jog. "Now where's he going?"

         Ramelan and Setiawan increased their pace to follow. Instead of heading further into the temple, to the center, the Vredian priest was now running up the first of what turned out to be several sets of stairs, to the very top of the temple. Gasping for breath, the two monkeys staggered out into the garden at his heels.

         Marius strode down the paths to the very heart of the garden, at the center of the top-most floor of the Cathedral. He stopped at last and turned in a wide circle, taking in the scene. The two Shrivijayan priests halted at the edge of the miniature sanctum and watched.

         Marius stood in the center of a ring of seven statues, approximately life-size, standing on small pedestals on the border with the garden's picturesque, living beauty all around them. The clearing was empty, save for a layer of sweet, soft grass. Small baskets of flowers, fruits, and other offerings rested at the feet of each statue. There was a presence in the garden that stretched over the city, above, below, and in all directions, centered on the clearing. It felt powerful, but benevolent, a warning, and a welcome.

         Slowly, Marius sank to his knees and bowed to each of the statues. He started with the one in the center, facing directly north.

         This first one was a woman, her long hair entwined with flowers. She wore a long, flowing garment, with just the toes of her sandals showing beneath. Her arms were bare and she held a flat basket of wheat balanced on one hip. In her other hand she held seeds, casting them as one might when sowing a field. She had a kindly, benevolent expression. Her name came to him, whispered in his ear: Menabra, this was, Goddess of the Seasons, Patroness of Farmers.

         Next, Marius bowed to the statue to Menabra's right. Again, came the whisper, to name Zeroun, God of the Sun and the Stars and Patron of Justice and Wisdom. Then Marius turned to the god to Menabra's left side. This was Prem, God of Love and Music, Patron of Artisans and Craftsmen. Animals, some that Marius had never before seen, crouched or slept at his feet and on his arms and shoulders as he played his flute.

         Then to Prem's left was a woman with wild hair, holding a lightning bolt in her hand. Her name: Kendaleigha, the Goddess of the Sea and Storms, Patron of all those who sailed the oceans. Across from her, to Zeroun's right, was Xhaiden, God of Light and Darkness, Ruler of the Underworld. Further to his right was a woman dressed different from the rest, in battle armor, with the symbol of a griffin painted on her shield. She was Bellona, the Goddess of War, the Killer, the Deliverer of Justice, Messenger of Mercy, and her other names swirled around Marius' head like fog.

         The last of the gods stood next to Kendaleigha and across from Bellona and was as different from both of them as night was from day. She alone wept, her face turned up away from the earth, and her hands outstretching towards the heavens. Her name was as soft as a sigh. This was Eirny, Goddess of Healing and Prophesy.

         As Marius made his last bow and faced towards Menabra again, the surrounding greenery seemed to merge, to meld into a solid curtain, blocking his sight, and narrowing his focus so that he only had room for the sculpture of Zeroun, now seeming to bend forward from his pedestal, pointing East.

         Marius followed that arm, turned his gaze and saw, not the shrubbery of the garden, but a lush mountainscape, covered in the rich beauty of the jungle. He followed that gaze to stairs cut in the side of the mountain and the two figures climbing. At the very top, the mountain seemed cut, the regularity of its design standing out amongst the foliage. There in the center stood a single block of obsidian stone. Even from the distance Marius could see the swirling, glowing symbols.

         Marius stared at himself, and Mordred, standing before the stone. He reached out, to touch the stone.

         Come. Come to me. Come.

         Then the whisper was gone and the vision faded, spinning around and around and around until, dizzy, Marius closed his eyes, lurching forward into the thick carpet of grass he knelt in. He opened his eyes.

         Setiawan and Ramelan crouched on either side of him. Instead of daylight, they were bathed in moonlight. "Are you okay?" asked both togther.

         Marius looked up, rather dazed and a little disoriented. "What happened?"

         "We could ask the same of you," said Setiwan with an amused snort.

         "You've been kneeling there for hours," Ramelan added.

         "I've ..." Marius paused, gazing about, wonder still in his voice and face. The world still looked the same, and yet subtly different. He frowned. "Where am I?"

         The monkeys, surprised, glanced at each other.. Ramelan stammered, "Why, you're in the Cathedral's roof-top garden. You brought us here, do you not remember?"

         "Vaguely." Still filled with irrepressible joy, Marius spun about in a tight circle, arms spread wide. "I have felt the gods!" he crowed, grinning like a loon, but not caring at all. He almost giggled, he was so giddy.

         He stared around him, oblivious to the shock on the faces of the monkeys, taking in, instead, the sheer delight and wonder he felt, at this very moment, to have witnessed the power, the majesty of the gods.

         Ramelan caught him by the arm in a tight grip. "What is it?" he asked. "What did you see?"

         Marius pointed, "Lord Zeroun came down from his pedestal and told me to journey into the East, to find an obsidian wall." His voice took on a puzzled aspect. "Mordred was with me. We climbed a staircase where each stair is taller than I am, to the top of a small hill, surrounded on all sides by mountains, in the heart of the jungle. I touched it. I touched the wall! Do you know what this means?" Marius grabbed the monkey by the shoulders and shook him in his excitement. "They're not dead! The gods - they're alive!" He wiped away happy tears, turning to stare at Zeroun's statue, hands falling to his sides. He spoke softly now. "You don't know what this means to me. I ...."

         Ramelan smiled. "I think I do. Welcome, Brother Marius, to the Faith. Come," he said gently, drawing the Vredian priest back through the garden, "the Princess Marguerite has sent for you and your companions. But first we must stop by my office again. I have something for you."

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*
After Dimitri had woken up Marguerite left him to the healers. If she was correct, he had heard her conversation with the dragon and probably wouldn't be happy to see her. She wandered the palace, not really paying attention to where she was going but avoiding the halls with heavy people traffic. She knew that Monkeys were very long lived, but she couldn't get used to seeing her friends and mentors look so different. They carried the physical changes of past experiences that Marguerite did not know.

She finally came to herself at the door of the temple of Eirny. She walked in, glad to find it empty, and went right up to the alter. Even the statue of the Goddess of healing and prophesy had aged visually. And like a punch in the stomach, it hit her; I'm dead. I'm dead and have already rotted in my grave. She gasped with the force of the thought and staggered back, landing heavily on a pew.

It was a skill Marguerite had developed shortly after she had begun her correspondance with Rangsey. She was able to push her feelings and thoughts to a corner of her mind and do what needed to be done. Unfortunatly, she couldn't keep the thoughts in that corner indefinatly.

I'm not supposed to be here. I have to help save a world that isn't even mine.

"To destroy the Gates and allow my brethren free access to this world of light."


She had already begun hyperventilating; the echo of the dragon's words now made her shake all over. The memories flooded back. The stink of rotted flesh (flesh like mine) and old blood on the dragon's breath, the dried blood on his claws, the hunger in his eyes, the chill of being in that harbinger of death's shadow, and the bone deep terror that hadn't really left since she'd come back. Marguerite clasped both hands over her mouth to muffle her screams.

She didn't know how much time had passed before her could pry her hands away from her face and concentrate on slowing down her breathing. She spent the next few minutes walking around the temple, getting rid of her shakes and waiting for the marks her fingers had left on her face to fade.

Marguerite had hardly gotten ten feet from the temple when a tall, thin monkey obviously belonging to some new rank of the army came up to her.

"Princess," the monkey said, bowing, "One of the humans that came with the hero was taken into custody this morning. I thought you would want to deal with him first."

"Really. What did - he? - do?"

"He's been trouble since he got here, Princess. Doing everything in his power to be uncooperative and just last night he got into a fight with several soldiers."

Marguerite closed her eyes for a full two seconds and exhaled.

"Take me to him."

~*~*~*~*~


Before going down the stairs to Derrick's cell, Marguerite took off her light weight rode and handed it to one of the guards.

"I don't think he's going to like me right away," she said conversationally to no one in particular, "Don't intervene unless I say so."

She strode down the stairs and to the end of the hall in her customary breast band and loincloth and stopped before the man's cell. Just as the guard had warned, Derrick had been found among garbage and is showed.

After taking a shallow breath Marguerite clasped her hands loosly behind her back and addressed the shorter man.

"Derrick Maluse?"

"Yeah? Who're you?"

"Princess Marguerite Alasdere. For all intents and purposes this is my city."

"So?" Was the decidedly unimpressed reply.

"I've been informed of your...activities of late and I can't say as I'm pleased."

"That I beat some manners into those - " Derrick was cut off by Marguerite.

"Master Maluse, I am aware of the circumstances surrounding your fight last night. I realize that it wasn't your fault, however, as I've said before this is my city. I am responsible for the well-being of its people. I don't want to see your actions escalate to harming an innocent civilian - monkey or human - or damaging property you can't pay for."

"I'm not doing anything until I get my sledges back," Derrick growled, "And you can tell those filthy monkeys that I want the rest of my things returned the way I left them."

Marguerite was tempted to pinch the bridge of her nose to stave off the headache she could feel approaching.

"If I may remind you, Master -" now the title dripped with scarcasm, "Maluse. You are a guest in this city. I don't know how things have 'progressed' in Vrede since my time but in polite society if one had such feelings about one's host they kept their thoughts to themselves, at least until they were out of said host's home."

"'Poliet society'? This city is run by filthy mon-keighs!"

"Said the man who spend the night in garbage," Marguerite snapped. Her words now had a band of iron running through them. "You'rew right, though, in door plumbing, the ability to use magic, no plague - ever, and the greatest libraries of my time, to name a few. How have these heathens survived so long? Tell me, Master Maluse, how have the libraries of Vrede developed since I've been gone? Do you still have libraries? Do people still know how to read? Or is it an honor saved only for priests?"

Surprisingly, the man stayed silent. With a sigh, Marguerite held out her hand without looking away.

"Give me the key." She didn't even hear the guard approach before she felt the key placed onto her palm.

Marguerite unlocked the door and stepped back.

"Because we have more pressing matters to deal with, I will over look last night. I have some things I wish to discuss with you and your companions, if you will come with me to the palace?"

Without saying anything, Derrick walked out of the cell. He didn't fully pass the threshold before Marguerite's foot lashed out and caught him in the face.

"After we've hammered out a few details, of course."

The fight that ensued was short lived. While Derrick was powerful - Marguerite had no doubt a single blow from him would break bones - she was always able to stay out of reach. True to her command the guards didn't interfere. They did, however, toss her rocks that she threw at Derrick with enough force to bruise.

Marguerite could tell that Derrick's initial rage was beginning to fade. As much as he disliked her, he was beginning to respect at least her skill. Seeing her opening, Marguerite flipped over him and, before he could turn around, kicked him in the back of the knee. When he fell she kicked him in he back of the head to make him fall onto his stomache. Before he could get up, Marguerite was crouching on his shoulders with a dagger (thoughtfully provided by one of the guards) pressed to his eye.

"If I'm jostled it would probably end very badly for you, unless you want to be blind on one side," Marguerite said softly.

"Get off of me," Derrick growled, but he stayed still.

"In a moment. First of all, let me assure you that your belongings have not been tampered with. You will get all of your things back, including your sledges, if you behave. That means keeping any unflattering thoughts to yourself and avoiding fights. Are we agreed?"

"Yes," Derrick finally ground out. Marguerite took the dagger away and got off the man's back. She offered him a hand up that he pointedly ignored.

As she dusted herself off, Marguerite noticed something oval shaped that must have fallen off of Derrick's person during the fight. She picked it up and examined it. It seemed to be a two inch long piece of glowing jade.

"What is this?" Marguerite asked, holding it up.

Derrick snatched it out of her hand, "Mine."

Marguerite gave a forced smile, "Fair enough, I'm glad we could reach an agreement. Of course, I will make sure you are left alone as much as possible. Shall we go to the palace?"

Derrick gave a curt nod and the two left together. Marguerite gave back the dagger and accepted her robe before exiting the jail. Since she was a few steps behind Derrick one of the guards at the door tried to stop the miner. With one punch the guard crumpled. By then Marguerite had caught up she stopped the other guards in their tracks with an upraised hand.

"Let it go. Master maluse just needed to vent. It won't happen again." As she spoke she watched Derrick from the corner of her eye. He didn't seem to object.

~*~*~*~*~


Once she had arrived at the palace it didn't take Marguerite long to call a meeting. Of course, Derrick was the first one there. Tai was the next to arrive. The others Marguerite wasn't familiar with. She stayed to the wall as they filtered in, introducing herself to the ones who asked.

Seeing Radit and Uut made Marguerite much happier than she would have guessed. Smiling the first real smile in what felt like years, she pushed off the wall and took over leading the aged healer to a comfortable chair.

"Radit! I hear that you've finally retired."

"The last few years," Radit agreed, nodding.

"You must be driving yourself mad with boredom," Marguerite's smile dropped a notch as more old memories she had no knowledge of revealed themselves.

A warm hand on her own brought her back and looking into Radit's concerned eyes, "Have you had an episode again?" The healer was familiar with Marguerite's coping mechanism. He had told her often that it probably wasn't good for in the long run. Probably because she had never let him examine her afterwards. True to form, Marguerite waved his concern away with a covert look around the room to see who else might have heard.

"Just a little tired. Time travel doesn't seem to agree with me." Before Radit could press the issue Marguerite turned to embrace Uut.

"Uut, you've become a such a fine young man! I bet you have to beat the ladies off with a stick." As Uut blushed someone behind her cleared their throat. Marguerite turned to find that everyone had arrived.

"Forgive me," Marguerite took a seat next to Radit and otioned for the ones standing to take a seat as well.

"Perhaps the best way to start this meeting is to...explain myself," she began, "My name is Marguerite Alasdere." She paused and bowed her head for a moment, trying to decide what information they really needed to know.

"My grandfather was King Desmond, the man who put this whole...thing into motion. He was in line for the throne when his aunt - Queen Masako - believed that he was too old and began looking for a new heir. Desmond didn't waste any time eliminating the competition. Luckily, before he could get to me, I was hidden here and adopted by King Purnawarman. Now that you know me, I hope that I can get to know all of you in due time. Unfortunately it will have to wait. As you know, your friend Dimitri - who is in his room resting?" Radit nodded, "Had an injury that refused to heal. I don't know how much you all know of his condition but that was because his soul had been claimed by a demon - a dragon actually. Not too long ago Tai was able to take me to this dragon's realm and I was able to get back Master Dimitri's soul. Now, in order to do this I had to convince the dragon that I was actually on his side. I told him that I would get him the key to the Gates, but to do that I needed your trust and getting Dimitri's soul back would be a great stride toward that end. I believe that Dimitri heard what I said and that the dragon can check on my progress through Dimitri. In order to keep him out of the dragon's grasp the dragon must believe that I am working for him - Dimitri must believe that I am working for him. When he is well enough, he will try to warn you. I suggest that you don't believe him and you don't tell him the truth."

There was a pause when finally Derrick spoke.

"How do we know you're not actually working for the dragon? That you're not getting our trust just to use it against us?"

"You don't, fortunately what you believe doesn't concern me - only Dimitri. However, I would like to point out that one of your own pulled me through time and that I havn't, nor will I ever, make a move toward the key."


         "How do you know we found a key?" asked Kiera suspiciously.

         Tai sighed. "I told her. I told her everything. I had to, it was the only way to save Dmitri."

         There was general grousing around the table and small, whispered conversations. Marguerite let them talk, rising from the table and leaning on the windowsill to gaze out over the city. It was late in the morning, perhaps ten o'clock by the reckoning that Margie knew.

         She felt rather than heard Radit lean on the sill next to her. "It's quite a bit different, isn't it?"

         "I don't feel like I belong here, Radit," she said quietly. She groaned and rubbed her forehead. "Why's this happening to me?"

         He took one of her hands in both of his and squeezed it firmly. "We need you, Princess. We need you. That is why you are here." He kissed the back of her hand. "Our lives are yours, Princess, you know that."

         She sighed.

         Kiera leaped up on her chair and stamped a foot angrily, attracting the attention of all in the room. "What is it that the prophesy says?" she demanded, glaring at each and every one of her companions and friends. "Think!" She stamped her foot again. "We're here for a reason! Look, I can't tell you why, because I don't know why myself, but I trust her. I trust Marguerite. I think we're here because of her, and we should listen to her." She sat back down.

         In the silence, Marius thumped a box onto the table. He stood now to address the others. "The Prophesy we found in the box at Stonehenge said Take these with thee, no more, no less. Else you will fail to find the jaded soul. We know that it wasn't referring to us. I think it means Marguerite, too, and I think that whatever's in this box will prove it."

         "That box looks just like --"

         "Yeah," Marius interrupted. "The Keeper of the Faith gave it to me."

         Blank looks.

         "Who's that?" asked Mordred, frowning.

         Marguerite answered before Marius could. "The Keeper of the Faith is a historian, charged with keeping the faith strong in those who worship the Seven. It is a similar position to the Keeper of the Gate. In my day, the Keeper of the Gate served the Queen directly as an advisor and received visions from the Goddess Eirny. The Keeper of the Faith kept all the records of the priesthood and of Vrede. Their priests wandered freely, teaching and preaching to both kingdoms, Vrede and Shrivijaya. Those at the Gates were more warrior monks, charged with protecting the home of the gods, atop the Sacred Mountain."

         "Yes, well," said Marius, "Ramelan gave me this box. Apparently some guy named Cesare --"

         "Cesare?!" Marguerite interrupted again. She flushed under Marius' irritated scowl. "Sorry," she muttered.

         "Like I was saying," Marius continued, "this guy named Cesare came here from the Gates with a whole bunch of books and stuff from. He had this, it was to go to the Princess, he said, but no one could open it. Tai," he looked up at her, "do you still have that medallion of yours?"

         Tai shrugged and pulled if off her neck. Marguerite gasped as she recognized it instantly. She reached out a hand to grab it, then hastily withdrew. Without a word, Tai handed it to her.

         Marguerite held the thing in her hands, eyes blurring with tears. "Rangsey," she whispered. She clutched it a minute more and then passed it on. "I remember the box," she told Marius. "Cesare was frantic when he realized that I didn't have the crest," she nodded to the medallion and sighed. "He was a little crazy by the time he got here. We really weren't sure what to believe."

         Anglis, Kiera, Mordred, Tai, and Derrick stood or leaned over to watch closer as Marius insert the medallion as he had back at Stonehenge and pop open the box. He reached inside.

         "There's a letter, but that's all." He lifted it out. Looked up at Marguerite. "It's addressed to you."

         She swallowed against her dry throat and accepted the sealed envelope. The letter looked freshly written, as if it had been put inside the box only that morning. Her hands trembled as she noticed the imprint of Rangsey's signet ring in the wax. She could feel the others' eyes on her and wished - oh, how she wished! - she could read Rangsey's last letter alone.

         She cracked the wax and opened the letter. It was short, written in a hasty hand, and splattered with ink stains. In some spots the ink had run, suggesting that the letter had been folded before it had proper time to dry. She licked her lips. "It says ....

         My dearest marguerite,

         I am writing this letter under the most dire of circumstances. Your old friend, Professor Cesare, will be the messenger, to join you there in Insel; and I can only pray that you are well and far removed from the madness that your Grandfather has unleashed upon us all. His armies are at the Gate, even as I write. Alas! I fear bad tidings for us all.

         Cesare bids me flee, but I have one last task that must be accomplished. Cesare will, I pray, be able to tell you all upon his arrival. You are the heir, dear child. Dame Masako had always intended for you to follow her as Queen. But, allow an old man his follies, for I feared greatly for your safety and thus prevailed upon old friends to take you South. From here on, however, I will not be able to guide you. You must trust to yourself to know the right course. If in doubt, go to the Wailing Wall.

         I pray that I might complete my task and hold the Gates until you arrive, but I fear that I have underestimated the force which Desmond could bring against us. Alas, we have nowhere else to flee and it is my greatest fear that we will fall and there will be no one left for you to save.

         Such is the nature of this war that I must instruct Cesare to lock up this letter. I will send the key to you -- I must go. The assault begins!

         May the Gods bless you and keep you from harm. Your servant always,

         Rangsey
"

         Marguerite folded the letter carefully and slid it back into the envelope. She stood up from the table and left the room. Outside, she could hear the others' voices raised in argument once more. She didn't care. She collapsed on the closest chair and let herself indulge in a good cry.

         Or, she was going to, but a heavy object hit the floor with a thud that made her jump. She whirled about. Nothing. The room was empty. A silver candlestick rolled on the floor. Hmmm, she must have knocked it as she exited. She sighed, and turned away. As she did so, however, she thought she caught a glimpse of something gray in the corner of her eye, like a curtain.

         Jerking her head around again, she saw nothing. A little creeped out, Marguerite decided to head back into the counsel room.

         "What's the Wailing Wall?" Marius asked her the second she sat down.

         "Um ..."

         Radit answered: "It's a legendary place, where the gods first met the people of Shrivijaya and bid them come here, to Insel, and worship them." He shook his shaggy head. "I had no idea anyone knew of it outside of our own priesthood."

         "What does it look like?" that was Marius again.

         Radit rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I don't think anyone knows anymore, but it's supposed to lie at the very heart of the jungle."

         Marius went deathly pale and sat down abruptly. "I think I saw it!" he whispered. He stared at Mordred. "When I went to the Cathedral, I had a vision, and I saw both myself and Mordred at what looked to be a huge wall, made of a black stone." He shivered. "We're supposed to go there."

         "Oh, hell," murmured Mordred.

         Kiera surprised them all by laughing. "Well," she said, "at least that riddle's straightforward enough!"

         The tension in the room eased a bit.

         Marguerite stood. "Before we go off on our separate ways again, we need to get some things straight. Please, I don't know any of you, could you tell me a little about yourselves? And then we need to get down to some serious business."

         She began ticking things off on her hand as she went along. "First, I know you haven't solved the riddle, Tai told me that, so we need to do that. Second, I need to know how you found the Crest and the Key. Third, Anglis, does everyone know who - or rather what - you are? And why I'm here? Fourth, I need you all to tell me, as best as you can, just what has been happening over in Vrede. Fifth, we need to formulate a plan to deceive Dmitri and thwart the dragon. And sixth, well, I'm sure we'll get to what that is eventually."

         She glanced at her two friends from ages past. "Uut, could you get us some food? I think we may be here a while. And why don't you fetch the Keeper of the Faith. We may have need of him."

         Marguerite sat down. The others were staring at her expectantly, and a little awed.

         "So?" she prompted. "Where do we begin?"
   There was a short paused before “What do you mean ‘what Anglis is’?” came from Derrick.
    “ ‘Mad hunter who walks the forgotten way’, remember? I can leave my body.” He looks at Marguerite a little uncertainly, “I’m not sure of the details, except that I wasn’t doing it on purpose before, and that every time I met you here,” he gestures to mean the island, “I was supposed to be somewhere else.”
    “So… that’s what happened when you brought Marguerite here? Why you were unconscious the whole way?” Kiera said slowly. Anglis gave a nod.
    “That was harder than it was supposed to be. If I don’t go as far back then it should be easier.” He replied.
    “As far… you can go backwards in time?” Mordred stared at him.
    “I could if I can figure out how. The other part though, I don’t think it’s ever going to work.”
    “You mean visiting the dream plane?” Marguerite frowned, “Why not? It’s hard for me, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to.” This got a few more glances at Marguerite, but Anglis kept talking.
    “There is. The gods are blocked off. Not dead, just… I don’t know. They can’t get through to the priests and I can’t get close enough. It might just be that I haven’t tried to do it myself yet, but this whole thing is about fixing this mess, right?”
   There was a long pause.
    “You can’t get close enough to the gods. You. The man who has been the most blasphemous and atheistic during this whole journey.” Marius said slowly and coolly. Anglis looked across at him and placed the book in the middle of the table, taking care not to damage it. It looked as though it might fall apart if you so much as blew on it.
    “You’re the priest. Tell me why it doesn’t work. You should probably be the one to explain what happened to Vrede as well. As for why Marguerite is here, she just is. I brought her here because I was supposed to. We know the other riddle was for her."
Mordred had been listening to the conversation between the others and the monkeys, not paying much attention through most of it, until he heard his name and some mention of a wall. He glanced at Marius, who had apparently had a form of a vision, and frowned, the centre of a jungle, a legendary place… he really didn’t care for the way this was going, he’d heard stories, people who go to legendary places usually died… or came back babbling idiots. He didn’t wasn’t really partial to either fate, one way or another. He tugged on the ends of his lightning-blue hair, jungles too, he’d heard of blood-drinking slugs, tiny fish that ate people alive, giant striped cats that could kill you by stepping on you… He shivered glancing up as the others began speaking rapidly again, this new girl, Marguerite asked to know more about them, before they left. He sighed, supposing it was his turn once Anglis had spoken.

He stood, shaking out his hair and clearing his throat, glancing around, “My name’s Mordred, for those who don’t know, I’m a smithy, or was until this… thing started.” He shrugged, “I’m the Lover in Disguise, or at least that’s what the majority of us think, though I have a very vague sense of what that means to me in particular.” He adjusted the beads of pink on his wrist and fiddled with one of his many earrings, sidling over to Marius a bit before taking a seat. “I haven’t done much since I’ve been here… though, I did find this.” He rustled in his pack, pulling his flute out, “The monkey blacksmith, Kade, let me have it. She seemed awfully paranoid about it…” He murmured, twirling it between his fingers.

“It’s… familiar, I think…” Marius said, looking at it, a furrow between his brows.

Mordred shrugged, “Mine now, so I think I’m going to hold onto it.” A clatter went across the floor and Mordred looked down as everyone else did, swearing softly to himself as he saw his diamond skitter across the floor. He chased it, snagging it before anyone else could and examined his pocket, wrinkling his nose at the hole he found in it, making a mental note to stitch it up later as he sat down again.
Tai slouched low in her chair, long legs scrawled under the table, paying little attention. She was brutally tired, having not realised how much sleep she really had to catch up on until now. Somehow it was safe to sleep in Insel. The nightmares evidently hadn't found a way to cross the sea. And last night hadn't been massively restful - after her disturbing dream she'd stayed up talking with the ghosts until breakfast.

Yawning massively and twitching somewhat upright, Tai opened her eyes into silence and realised the room was looking at her - evidently they'd decided that her movement was a sign of volunteering to speak. Twirling the worn leather thong on which the medallion hung around her fingers, Tai prodded her tired and skittish thoughts into line.

"Apparently I'm Dreamer of Fortune. Because I have nightmares where horrible things happen, and sometimes they're true." She yawned again. "Also the ghosts call me Child of Xhaiden, he's a... god?" Marguerite and Marius nodded simultaneously. "Which is wierd because I don't believe in gods."

"Take it from me. They exist," Marius said, a glint of remembered glory in his eerie eyes.

Tai merely shrugged, watching the play of light over her pendant's surface. "I'm happy for them. Happy for you. Not happy that there's going to be a war."

"What?"

"So the ghosts say." A smile twisted her face, as she shot a glance at Marius. "Take it from me. They know things. Anyway. Vrede. Riddle..."

Marguerite somehow found a pencil and a scrap of paper, and began scribbling the words down as Kiera recited from memory.

"Death's wind shall blow once more
when spring comes upon the land,
as still winter grips its icy hand;
then come hunting that ancient lore.

When silver bells sing
while blue bells grow,
where fell the final blow;
life once more will spring.

To quench the fumes of war,
seek the aid of those not men;
else evil triumphant will ascend
and rule forevermore."

Silence ensued. Tai sank back in her chair and shut her eyes as the talk slowly began picking up again, washing over her in waves of empty sound. The rede that they'd all been picking over for so long and still didn't understand... maybe Marguerite could fix this puzzle because Tai knew she sure as hell couldn't.

The medallion was cold against her fingers. It always seemed to be cold. She wondered if it'd been cold when he'd found it - at the end of summer, in those unexpected days of heat and sunshine that were a farewell to blue skies... whether it'd picked up some of the heat of those times, or whether it stubbornly remained cold. She'd never thought to ask.

The mixed babble of talk drifted further from the realm of Mattering To Tai, as her mind wandered gently down Memory Lane, wrapped in a cloak of exhaustion.

...last time she'd been, the last time, it'd been late spring - the bluebell time. They were always a marvel. Colour, in the dead place? Strange. Uncanny. Beautiful. If you picked them, they never lasted - they faded to grey within hours. But for a week or so, the entire ruins were shaded in a fine haze of purple-blue, as the flowers came out and flaunted themselves in the face of desolation...

"...while blue bells grow? Where fell the final blow -" Marguerite stopped when Tai began to swear.

"It's home," she explained hoarsely to the roomful of curious expressions. "Blue bells and the final blow and that. Gates of Heaven. Full of bluebells. Blue flowers. I have a horrible suspicion that we're going to end up there sooner or later."
"I don't know why we didn't see it before!" Marius whispered. The others turned to look at him with confusion and---from Marguerite---a little irritation. "It makes perfect sense. Tai, you're from the Gates of Heaven, right?"

"Well, a village nearby. Nobody lives at the ruins anymore. People say we're crazy for even venturing as close as we do."

"What time of year do the blue flowers grow there?"

"Late spring," Tai answered.

Marius nodded. "The plague is coming again. In the spring this time."

"No surprise there," Derrick grumbled.

Marius barely even heard him. "But this time we have a chance to stop it," he said, rising. His eyes seemed to burn as he looked at each and every one of them in turn. " 'As still winter grips its icy hand; then come hunting that ancient lore.' The will of the gods is clear. This winter we are to seek the solution that will return life to the land."

"Haven't we already done that?" asked Kiera. "It's already spring, I can't believe that we'd have to wait another year to fix all this...."

Marius shrugged. "All I know is that if we succeed, Vrede will be healed. The gods have promised it. For did they not say, 'When silver bells sing while blue bells grow, where fell the final blow; life once more will spring'? If we do as they ask, then there will be healing."

"How do we know the riddle came from the gods?" Anglis challenged.

Marius ignored him. "We've already fulfilled part of the prophecy. We came to seek the aid of those not men. The Keeper of the Faith gave me the Frual. I've had a vision; I know where we---or rather Mordred and I---have to go next. Maybe we'll find the answers there. And if we do, life will return.”

Anglis looked at him skeptically. “And while you and Mordred go tramping about the mountains because of some dream you had while drugged out of your mind, what do you suppose the rest of us are to do?"

Marius paused. “I have no idea,” he said finally, a hint of defeat in his voice and heart. Then he shrugged. “But I know what I have to do. And I know what Mordred has to do. Perhaps the gods will show you all visions to help you along. I don’t know.” He glanced sideways at Anglis, worrying. Would the gods deign speak to the irreverent man? Then again, they had chosen Anglis for a purpose, just as they’d chosen Marius. So perhaps in time they would give him guidance as well.

“You still haven’t answered my question, priest,” Anglis said, startling Marius out of his private thoughts.

“Yes,” Kiera said, “Do you know why Anglis cannot reach the gods doing… whatever it is that he does?”

Marius studied Anglis for a moment. “I don’t know enough about what Anglis does---or how he does it---yet to know what is or is not possible. I hesitate to give any definitive answers before I’ve had a chance to speak with him---and Marguerite as well---about that. The three of us can discuss that later in private. For now, Marguerite has requested that we fill her in on the last one hundred fifty years of Vredian history. So I suppose I’ll start there.”

“I will not presume to tell you about the reign of Dame Masako the Serene or about King Desmond. I am sure you know those details all too well. I assume from the letter you just shared with us that you know little or nothing about what happened after the attack on the Cathedral. So I will begin there. Everyone was slaughtered at the Cathedral, not only the priests, but the villagers and even the little children. Desmond himself died that day, struck down by lightning, Some say it was the gods that killed him, because he dared commit this atrocity against the Cathedral. Most say it was just a random part of the calamity that followed; the sky blackened into a magnificent electrical storm. There were earthquakes so powerful that the great Cathedral itself collapsed. Perhaps Desmond merely stood in the wrong place. But Desmond did die in a strange and horrific way, and the Cathedral did collapse into ruins. And then the dragon arrived.”

Marguerite shivered at the mention of the dragon. Marius nodded slowly. “Yes, I know you’ve met him. My order believes that the dragon is a demon who destroyed the gods on the day the Cathedral fell. For we have not felt their influence for years, and our land has been without their protection---cursed, in fact---since that day. You have noticed our strange scars, and other abnormal features? Yes, I know you have, although you have been too polite to comment. These are the marks of the plague. It has struck repeatedly since that day the Cathedral fell. Sometimes it arrives once a month. Sometimes it disappears for two or three or even---once---ten years. But it always returns, and it weakens Vrede each time. Those who do not die are scarred for life or go mad. The seven of us here are survivors; some of us have lived through multiple plagues, myself included.”

Marguerite’s eyes were wide with horror. Marius suspected she had not realized that the horrible fate of the Cathedral and the strange appearances of the men and women before her were linked.

He continued. “What the link between Desmond’s rule, the strange occurrences at the Cathedral, and the plague is, we do not know for sure. My order believes that Desmond became the tool of a demon---perhaps willingly because he desired the power it offered him, perhaps unwillingly and without his knowledge---who used Desmond to kill the priests at the Cathedral, whose job it is to guard the home of the gods. Once the priests were out of the way, we think the demon---this dragon you’ve encountered---was able to the slaughter---or as I now believe, banish---the gods.”

“So, you see why we’re here,” Marius said into the silence that followed his words. “The gods are giving us a chance to free them and reverse the curse on our land.”
         “And how do we know that the gods even sent this vision, Marius? For all we know it is a trap by the dragon.” Derrick snarled.
         ”We just have to trust in the prophesy.” came the reply
         ”Trust! Trust? Trust in the gods that brought us to this forsaken island. Trust in the gods that have us standing side-by-side with filthy Mon-keighs? Those that do not know honor, and cannot themselves be trusted? I don’t think so. I was willing to believe that the gods sent the visions before we came here, but not now. Not that I now know who those not men are.”
         ”Why?” all eyes turned to Marguerite, “Why do you hate my people so much? What have they ever done to you?”
         ”What have they ever done to you?” Derrick mocked. “You take from me my family’s legacy and its heritage, and then you have the gall to ask that?”
         ”I don’t understand…”
         ”When we were boarded, upon arrival - in the wee hours of morn, I might add - I struggled against the dockmen, and their pikes. I think I managed to get two of them, but I don’t remember. As I was swiftly clubbed myself.”
         ”You were resisting the authority of the Dockmen, and the guards had never had anything like this happen before.” Radit answered. Turning to look at Marguerite he continued, “Every ship is stopped at the mouth of the harbor, and the trades are conducted there.” Forestalling the Princess’s question he then stated, “It is to protect the merchants and us…”
         “At any rate,” Derrick interrupted, “when I awoke I found that my things had been gone through…and some were missing entirely.” he crossed his arms and leaned back against the chair, “and I want them back.”
         ”What items are missing?” Marguerite inquired. The sincerity of the question struck Derrick as odd. Perhaps she was not as bad as he thought, she was after all an excellent fighter, and she did appear to actually be in control of the monkeys. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps, she would return what had been taken. He knew that the sledgehammers would be rewards, but the other…
         ”I told you,” some of the venom had drained from his voice, not much but some, “My family’s legacy and its heritage.”
         ”And just what are those?” Marguerite questioned, batting away, in annoyance, a bang that had dared to droop in front of her eyes.
         ”My family’s legacy are my sledge’s…”
         ”Which I have promised to return, in return for your good behavior…”
         ”Hmmph,” Derrick snorted.
         ”So what is your family’s heritage then?” The question came from Kiera.
         ”It is a book. Like the sledges it has been in my family since my ancestor came to the mines from the Fire Berry Mountains. My grandmother used to read to me from it. She always said that it was the family’s heritage, and that I should let nothing happen to it.” a note of desperation had entered Derrick’s voice, “I guess I failed on that count.” Rising he walked to the window and rested his body against the cut rock wall. Then he slid down it and placed his head in his hands, “This ‘dwarf in the darkness’ should never have left the mines. Let alone to have left them to go hunting for some sort of ancient lore at some ruins in a lake.” Then quietly he murmured, “May the ancestors forgive me…”
         ”What?” The question came from Mordred who was staring at Derrick with a mixed look of pity and empathy.
         Derrick looked up and addressed Marius, “You said that Desmond was struck down, right?”
         “Hmm. Oh, yes, yes I did.”
         “Where?”
         “At the Gates of Heaven.”
         “Yes, but where exactly?”
         “In the cathedral, I suppose. Or, perhaps outside it…Why?”
          Rising, Derrick stuck out his hands, “Don’t you get it? Where fell the final blow? What ended the attack on the Gates of Heaven? Desmonds’ death. The final blow! Don’t any of you get it?” His hurried looks were met with nothing but blank faces, and maybe a spark here and there. Exasperated, Derrick returned to the window and sat upon the ledge, looking out, “Must’ve just been my imagination…and I thought I was onto something, too.”
         The talk around the table circled and circled the room for several hours. They'd worked out that they needed to be at the Gates during the week that the bluebells were in bloom, meaning they had 4 weeks in which to figure everything out and get there, but the rest of the riddle was still pretty much a mystery.

         Towards the middle of the afternoon, palace servants came for Marguerite and Anglis. Once those two were gone, the others likewise made for their rooms, to get tidied up. There they found other servants and dressy clothing for the occassion. By nightfall, all were scrubbed clean, dressed in their new finery, and escorted to their grand entrance.

         The Ball took place in the garden and the place had been wondrously altered, with fairy lights and decorations. A 50-piece orchestra was set up along the edge of a large grassy field and there were already people dancing to their merry tunes. Tables were set under the trees and along the garden paths, buried under mounds and heaps of food of all kinds. Palace servants in their green and gold livery dashed everywhere with drinks and food trays and jugglers and acrobats and clowns and other entertainers wandered about to the delight of the children.

         A select group from the army, resplendant in their shining armor and uniforms, marched across the little footbridge first and formed a long line. With a sharp tweet of a whistle, the line stopped, faced about and brandished the sharp rapiers they carried, to form an arch leading onto the dance area. The king's Minister of Protocol, a human man also wearing the green and gold uniform of the king's service, but with an elaborate sash over the top, entered through the sabre arch first. At the end, he called the Ball to order.

         "Hear ye, hear ye!" he called, "This Ball is now begun!" He waited until the applause had died away, and then called, "I give you the Hero Anglis' companions!"

         The minister's aids hurriedly escorted each member through the arch as they were introduced and then to the pagoda set up for the king and his guests. Everyone in Insel and the important personages from elsewhere on the island were invited to the Ball and the place was packed!

         And then came the king and the two guests of honor: "I give you now King Purnawarman, Beloved of the Gods, High King of the Island of Shrivijaya by right of birth and by right of election by all territories; Magician and Royal Consort, the Duchess Tuti, heir to Kalimantun; the adopted daughter of Shrivijaya, the Princess Marguerite, Heir to Vrede, beloved of the Gods, newly returned to us from her long journey ... And the Mighty Hero Anglis, Spirit-Walker!"

         Following their introduction, the garden fell quiet for an instant's surprise and then immediately exploded with loud cheers and excited whispering. "A spirit-walker!" and "the Hero!" and "Lord Anglis!" were all clearly heard, as were "the Princess!" "Magic!" "Marguerite!" "the Princess is back!"

         The king waved to all and escorted the group to the stands. From there, the Honor Guard formed up into a square formation, with 7 columns and 7 rows, and Kade as the leader out front. She saluted the king and performed a complex maneuver with her sword. Upon its finish, the formation broke apart as the members marched and drilled in a dazzling display. They formed patterns that weaved through each other while at the same time flinging their swords about. They passed them to each other, flung them across the grounds to each other, threw them high above their heads and spun about before catching them again; they twirled them whilst others passed through the spins, unharmed; and all the while they performed in complete silence.

         Following the display, the magicians dimmed the lights to practically nothing and filled the dark sky above with colors and lights, forming pictures and words and symbols with their lights and sending arrows of magical lights to explode upon each other in new pictures and fascinating displays.

         When the lights came back up, King Purnawarman led his consort and Margie and Anglis into the center of the grassy area in a regal dance. Then the other nobles and everyone else were allowed to join in or make their way to the food.

         King Purnawarman kept Anglis and Margie close by his side, circling the dance floor for several hours to introduce them to everyone of importance and letting them be fawned over before finally letting them eat. Then he took them back for more dancing ....

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Kiera darted onto the dance floor as soon as possible, ignoring the complicated patterns to dance free-style in and out among the other dancers. She whirled about, unnoticed for the most part, and enjoyed herself to the utmost. When she'd satisfied herself there, she went to see what everyone else was up to.

         She couldn't get near Anglis or Marguerite. While Margie looked resigned, but smiling and mingling like a pro, Anglis looked like a whipped cur. Kiera muffled a giggle behind her hand. The poor guy looked about ready to alternatively drop from exhaustion and throttle the very plump monkey he was currently being forced to make small-talk with.

         She managed to snag a dance with Mordred. Who could have guessed that the smith could dance? He was in such demand that ladies, both human and monkey, were lining up and even shoving each other to be able to dance with him next. He only shrugged and laughed when Kiera asked him, jokingly, if any of his charm could be bottled and sold. He whirled her about the floor, expertly guiding her in the steps, and set her on her way.

         Derrick sulked about the outskirts, prowling and glaring at his not-so-subtle guards. Kiera tried to cheer him up but gave it up as a lost cause and went looking for Tai and Marius. She found Marius easily enough, his nose in a book and absently shoveling food in his mouth.

         "What are you reading?" she asked, straddling the bench next to him.

         "Oh, this's Anglis' book," he replied, not even looking up. His hand moved from his fork to his quill and wrote furiously for a few minutes. Then he said, "I'm translating it."

         He wasn't particularly inclined towards conversation, so Kiera soon moved on. Tai proved to be a little more elusive. Once she'd been found, however, Kiera realized with a start that she must've passed her several times without recognizing her.

         The monkeys had persuaded her to wear a beautiful gown and had done something marvelous with her hair. Tai was completely transformed. She clutched a fan in one hand and a glass of some kind of juice in the other and was encircled by admirers. Some even persuaded her to dance, but that didn't last long! Kiera stayed awhile to chat ....

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Some time after Kiera had left, Marius found himself with other company. The Keeper of the Faith, Ramelan, sat down next to him.

         "Ah!" he sighed, "A beautiful night for a Ball!"

         Marius decided to take a few minutes' break. "Ramelan," he said, "I've been meaning to ask you, what is the Frual? It is like nothing I've ever seen or read about before."

         The monkey priest sat with his back to the table, resting his elbows on the edge. "Well, as to that, I'm not really sure. Its secrets were passed down to each Keeper of the Faith, verbally, to the next. Unfortunately, the last one with the secret died in the invasion many years ago. All I can tell you really, is what I was told as a new initiate, that it's a drug that allows the gods, Lord Zeroun in particular, to choose his followers."

         "So you don't know how to make it?"

         Ramelan shook his head. "No. And we haven't seen so strong a reaction as yours in probably two hundred years. Why the sudden interest?"

         Marius' lip curled up in a lopsided smile. "Well, you did dose me with it yesterday ...."

         Laughing, Ramelan lifted his glass to acknowledge the hit. "I didn't have a reaction to it myself. Setiawan did. He was given his calling that day and was taken immediately to be the apprentice to our last Headmaster."

         "And you?" prompted Marius.

         "Me? Well, I wanted of course to be with my twin, but when I wasn't accepted by Zeroun, I went to the Sanctum, the inner one, by the way, not in the garden. Only senior priests are allowed up there, but anyway, I went to the Sanctum and opened my heart to the gods, praying for guidance. When I opened my eyes and could see, I knew that I must serve Lady Eirny."

         "See? You mean, you were blind?"

         "Yes, from birth." He ducked his head a little in embarrassment. "And you?"

         "Oh, I've been serving at the monastery all my life. But the Frual, how does it work?"

         "Well," the monkey drew a small flask from inside his robes, "since you're so eager to know, why don't you take this as yours and study it? Maybe the gods will grant you the knowledge of its making." He handed the bottle to Marius. "Be careful with it, though, only a few drops are needed with this, it's a concentrated form. If you get it on your skin, it will burn. To use, simply put three drops into water and it will be transformed into the elixer."

         Marius eyed the small, blue bottle curiously. "It is such a little thing."

         "But powerful."

         "Yes," Marius agreed. He found that he couldn't draw his attention from the liquid sloshing inside.

         Ramelan had to force his hand down, breaking his eye contact. "You'd better take some," he said with some concern. "You're being Called. I've noticed that effect on my brother sometimes. He carries another of these with him at all times, hoping that he will be Called to drink and receive a message."

         "Has he had any?"

         Sadly, the priest shook his head. "No, not since the first. Still, he hopes. Maybe, if you and your companions complete your quest, he will be able to do so."

         Ramelan flagged down a servant with a pitcher of clear, sparkling clean water and poured Marius a glass. He showed him how to put in the drops, but then quickly ducked away.

         "I so don't want to talk to him!" he hissed in dismay, spotting someone heading their way. "Sorry, Brother Marius, but I'm going to flee and see if I can hide elsewhere!"

         Marius laughed and waved. The monkey soon disappeared into the crowd. Marius sipped at the water. It did not taste the same as what he'd had in Ramelan's office. He considered the bottle again, and added three more drops. He tasted it, and then added three more. Now it tasted right! He quickly drained the cup and waited. And waited. He sighed and returned to the book.

         Reading and writing along, Marius felt a sudden jolt of excitement. The words he stared at changed shape and flew about him, his surroundings fading away. He looked about and saw that he was in a vast storage area. Dust was everywhere, on the floor, on the shelves, on the scrolls -- hang on! Marius recognized this place! This was part of the Archival Chamber from the Monastery in Monykom City! His mouth fell open in shock.

         Hearing voices, Marius went that way. Although it was dark he could see well enough to notice that he left no tracks in the dust. He followed the sound of voices to a priest he recognized, carrying a basket of scrolls and a lantern. The priest returned to the Precept's desk.

         "I've some records here, Precept," the first priest said, setting down the lantern, "with your permission to turn over for destruction."

         He set the basket on the desk and the Precept dug through them, examining each one. The scrolls were all ancient, too illegible to be re-copied. Some were even falling apart from decay. One in particular came apart as the Precept handled it.

         "No!" said Marius suddenly. For him, blazing words in blue shown from the torn scroll. He reached for the scroll, but his hands passed straight through it.

         Both priests jumped, staring. "Marius?!" gasped the Precept. "Marius! What --"

         Scroll in hand, Marius returned to himself with a jolt, standing in some obscure corner of the garden, but the symbols he'd seen still burned vividly in his mind. Turning on his heel, he ran through the garden. He had to write this down! He had to, it was something to do with the Gates!

         However, he ran into a solid wall of people in the grassy overhang. He edge around and ran, dodging people, back to his book - which, to his amazement, was completely translated! - to pick up an empty sheet and a quill and start to write furiously....

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Tai had a headache. She switched from the exotic juices to water, but still couldn't shake it. She could see the ghosts dancing amongst the living and they flocked to her, to swear for their own revenge and to beg her to allow them to fight by her side. The living were just as annoying and clinging, but in a different way.

         Finally, she managed to snag Mordred's arm for some peace as they danced. For a wonder, he somehow kept her from stepping on his toes or stumbling in her fancy shoes or trodding on the edge of her dress. After a while, she even began to relax. But then Marguerite passed her in the arms of another noble and Tai really did trip and fall in shock.

         A ghost followed Margie's every move, watching her closely, but dragging behind her thick, heavy chains. The ghost tripped other dancers and knocked over servant's trays and was otherwise making a nuisance of herself.

         Tai ignored Mordred's hand and concerned words and stared.

         The ghost was tall, a giant of a woman. Her hair was silvery-white and fell in tangled locks to her shoulders. Wings, bat-like in appearance, hung in tattered shreds from their spines on her back. Her right arm was tucked into her belt, the shoulder crushed in, the arm lifeless. She wore a dark-gray, sleeveless tunic and matching mini-skirt and had a length of black fabric wrapped around her waist as a belt. She had no shoes, no gloves, and she occassionally shivered, as if she were cold. The only other article of clothing were the chains, attached to a thick, black collar about her slim neck.

         She looked up, sensing Tai's gaze. Her eyes were silver. Her mouth dropped open in amazement. "A Child of Xhaiden!" she whispered. She immediately rushed to Tai's side and dropped to the ground beside her. "Listen to me! The princess is in danger!"

         "W-what?" Tai stammered.

         "Metatron!" hissed the ghost. "He knows!"

         "Knows what? Who are you?"

         The ghost scowled. "My name is unimportant, I've forgotten it long ago." She looked behind her and to all sides, quickly and furtively. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Where's your guide?"

         "My what?"

         Now the ghost was impatient again, "You should have a spirit-guide, to guide you as you learn your powers, don't you have one?"

         "Uh ..."

         "Oh, nevermind! Look, I'm a servant of Lord Xhaiden as well, but I've been captured by Metatron. Shh! Don't say his name!! He's sent me here to watch the princess." She rolled her eyes, "Fine, to spy, then!"

         Tai gaped. "When? For how long?"

         The ghost looked grim. "Long enough. He'll soon know everything I do. Look, how much do you know?"

         "Um ..."

         "Oh, great, nothing!" She closed her eyes a moment, gritting her teeth. "I will have to try and forget ever meeting you, but listen now! You're a Child of Xhaiden. You should have received your spirit-guide when your powers awakened in you. Lord Xhaiden gifted the power to see the dead to certain mortals. From those first, the gift flows through inheritance to those who are worthy.

         "It's a powerful gift, you see, for a ghost is 'simply' a," she rolled her eyes, "Yeah, I know, nothing is ever simple, but I'm trying to be quick! But a ghost is a soul without a body, a soul that has not passed on to its Final Judgement. Lord Xhaiden created his Children to be able to convince those souls to move on. There's more to it, of course, but we don't have time to go into that now.

         "Shh! Let me finish!" She started talking even faster, "Ghosts will be drawn to you. They just can't help it. But the gods are locked behind the Gates, which means that the way to the afterlife is blocked. They have no choice but to remain here. Metatron has found a way to harness those souls to his service."

         She gestured to herself. "He didn't start with me, but I was among the first to be taken." She shivered. "You don't know what a torment this is, to be in the service of that creature!"

         "Who is he?" Tai whispered back.

         "A demon!" The ghost's eyes widened in horror. There were tears in her eyes. "He perverts all he touches. The ghosts he catches, he, he does things to them, I - I can't bear to think about it, but you must beware of them! He will send his strongest here to kill the princess! You must stop them! Only you can! Please!"

         Scared to death, but too stubborn to admit it, Tai promised. "I will! Or I'll die trying."

         The ghost laughed mirthlessly. "You may at that, Child, you may die. Look, Metatron isn't to be trifled with. He was an angel, but was tossed out, exiled from these lands. He's determined to crush the gods and take their place for himself! I -- "

         The ghost suddenly fell over backwards, choking. The chains, Tai saw now, were taut, pulling the ghost, dragging her away.

         "Wait! Let me help you!"

         Tai lurched forward, but the ghost threw herself away to avoid contact. "No! Don't - don't touch me!" She screamed, loud and long.

         Tai clapped hands to ears, startled to now notice that the sounds and dancing around her had halted in awkward silence.

         The ghost thrashed and fought, screaming all the while. She knocked over everything in her path and her voice made those nearby flinch or cover their ears. They all stared around, and most eyes settled on Tai. She sobbed as the ghost was dragged away, through the orchestra, scattering musicians right and left.

         At Tai's side, Mordred hugged her, turning her head into his shoulder. He looked as frightened as Tai felt, for, at the very last, as the ghost's screams died away, she could hear laughter, deep, powerful, and quintessentially evil. She'd never been so scared in her life.

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Marguerite pulled away from her partner amid the chaos. People were running and screaming and pushing each other. This was a disaster! She ran to the center of the storm, dropping by Tai's side.

         "Tai. Tai!" She shook the girl. "Tai, you've got to stop this! Snap out of it! There's going to be panic!"

         Mordred forcibly removed her hands. "She can't, Princess. Stop! She can't do anything!" He looked shocked for a second as his flute materialized out of nowhere into his hand. A determined look crossed his face. "But maybe I can."

         He stood, giving Tai into Marguerite's care. He brought the flute to his lips and began to play. The tune was soft, gentle, and not immediately heard or paid attention to, but it was pervasive, stealing around thoughts and emotions to draw away the fear and the confusion and the other, darker emotions, like drawing out the poison from a wound.

         Mordred didn't think, didn't wonder at his sudden ability to play this instrument, no more than he'd thought about his dancing. He didn't want to know, didn't want to start wondering, because then he might start to fear himself, wonder about himself and who he was. He couldn't think about his own knocking knees or pounding heart, couldn't spare the energy or attention to be embarrassed or self-conscious of the hundreds of eyes now locked inexoribly upon himself. No, he did his best to clear his mind of all thoughts, all desires, all emotion, and let the tune fill his mind and heart and soul and thus filter out to the humans and monkeys in the palace garden.

         He played, and calm came once more to the garden. The fallen righted themselves, the musicians once more began to play, and the dancers returned to their patterns.

         He opened his mouth to breathe and .. stopped, stopped playing, but no one was paying him the slightest attention any more. No one, except Marguerite. She stared at him, Tai now sobbing in her arms, as if she'd never seen him before. Her lips moved a few times before she managed to get any sound out.

         "We have to go see the king."

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Marguerite, Derrick, Kiera, Anglis, Mordred, Marius, and Tai (albeit laying down with a cool cloth on her head) sat with the Keeper of the Faith, the old healer Radit, and King Purnawarman in seclusion from the bustle of the ball, inside the king's personal chambers. After serving some drinks, the servants departed.

         The king gave Marguerite a stern look. "You'd better tell me everything you can, Daughter."

         "Wait!" said Tai suddenly. She propped herself on an elbow and stared around. "Okay," she said after a moment, "it's okay to talk." Then she lay back down and replaced the cloth.

         "Ah," Margie hesitated, "there's this rede ...."

         "... And all that we've really figured out," she finished some time later, "is that those two," she pointed to Marius and Mordred, "have to go to the Wailing Wall, and we," now she gestured to include all of them, "have to get to the Gates of Heaven in the next four weeks, maybe less."

         The king hadn't said a word through her whole explanation. He leaned back on his cushions thoughtfully. "Well, Daughter," he sighed, "we knew you had left us for a reason and by the gods! this is a difficult task you've been set." He pulled at his whiskers. "We shall send the army at once," he decided, "and I will send our best with Masters Marius and Mordred to the Wall. Do they know the way?"

         Marius nodded. "I do. I can lead us there, and .."

         "Yes?"

         Marius swallowed. "Um, I think I know what happened to the gods."

         Everyone stared. "What?" Anglis whispered.

         The priest looked at Marguerite. "That 'last task' Rangsey mentioned? I think he locked the Gates."

         Margie's mouth dropped open, but Ramelan jumped to his feet. "What?" cried the monkey. "But why?"

         "Because of a demon," answered Tai dully. "I cannot say his name, but he wants to kill the gods."

         Marius paled. "Oh, God," he murmered.

         "This cannot happen!" the king decried. "You must stop him!"

         Margie sighed. She patted the old monkey on the knee. "Yes, Father. But we don't know how yet."

         "Then you have to find out!" he told her fiercely. "If anything my kingdom has can aid you, you have it! Anything!" He smacked one fist into the palm of his other hand. "This demon must be stopped! Whatever the cost!"

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         This time when Dmitri dreams, he dreams, not of the dragon, but of darkness and oppression. Eyes, malevolent and strange, watch him from the darkness. He can't move, he's tied down and, and ... He screams!

         "No! No! Nononono!"

         His mind shrinks away from the memories, shies away, bolts for the nearest exit. He has tears in his eyes, his body is clenched tighter than the head of a drum, his muscles spasming, his fingers cutting into his palms.

         And then he sees the dragon again, his hideous face looming closer, but indistinct somehow, as if he's far away, the grassy field discolored and strange, and there's an odd music, all around, invading his mind, encasing him in its peaceful tune.

         When he opens his eye again, he's floating above the ground. He looks down. From his position, the world below is all greens and browns, beautiful and peaceful. He feels calm and relaxed, as he had not been in many weeks. He breathes in great lungfuls of the cool, crisp air, hearing only the occassional flap of a passing bird's wings.

         He feels dislocated from everything, floating there among the clouds. His cares melt away, worries gone, stress gone, tension gone, his whole body, mind, and spirit at rest. In that state of dreaming, his body sleeps.

         This time when he wakes, Dmitri brings some of that calmness and peace back with him. He has a smile on his lips, opening his eyes to the carven stone ceiling without worries or concerns. He hoists himself up to a sitting position, leaning against his pillows and headboard. He marvels. He has not slept that deeply or well since the last onset of plague, several weeks ago. He hasn't dreamed of flying since before his daughter was born. In fact, he feels so good that -- he stares at his arms.

         The marks and blisters from the dragon's acid are gone! As if they'd never happened. He touches his face gently, prodding for injuries that aren't there. He pulls at the bandages on his torso. Oompf! No, those still hurt, still bleed, but cleanly now. He peels back an edge. The angry, red lines are gone.

         Hesitantly, he swings his legs over the side of the bed. Nothing. No light-headedness or dizziness. He feels good. His gaze finds a stack of neatly-folding clothing, new, except for his eye-patch, laying on top.

         Quicker now and with more confidence, Dmitri pulls on the simple, homespun trousers and shirt, wrapping the belt over all. Last, he slips on the eye-patch, grateful to have his scar and missing eye covered once more. He feels somewhat smaller, or the clothes are just overly large, and somewhat clumsy. He sees the chamber pot, but ignores it, wanting out of the suddenly claustrophobic room. He strides to the door; opens it, and walks through. The halls beyond are dim and quiet, the hour just before dawn.

         Dmitri hunts for, and finds, the palace gardens. He steps outside, following the pathways and stopping by a single block of stone, in a clearing, by a small brook and a bridge. Rather tired now, he sits down on the rock, watching as dawn brings new color and life to the city around him. There's debris here, all around, the remnants of a party, he guesses.

         From somewhere in the palace complex, bells begin to ring. They are glorious. Dmitri leans back, reveling in his peaceful solitude, bathing in the sunlight and listening to the music. At that particular moment in time, Dmitri feels sure that he must be in heaven.

         He sits up abruptly. Wait! Bells! That's it! Silver bells!

         In his haste, he lurches to his feet and runs from the garden. He's breathing hard within a few steps, but his feet know the way through the palace, taking him to the sounds of hustle and bustle. There's a group in the streets before the palace, a milling band of giant, gray beasts and their riders, and some people that Dmitri recognizes, standing, chatting with .. with Her!

         He starts to back away, to leave, but Kiera spots him and runs over, chatting animatedly and dragging him towards the group. Soon Mordred is there too, hugging him and thumping him on the back and saying something that Dmitri doesn't hear. All he can see is the woman, all he can hear are the words she spoke to the dragon: "I have no intention of standing against you."
   Anglis turned the page carefully, reading over Marius' notes whilst sitting on the floor. Genki watched him excitedly as though he was about to perform some great and powerful spell or utter some deep wisdom. The Northerner had gotten used to ignoring him by now though. He had found it incredibly easy to faze things out of his attention.
   The tome was the journal of another Spiritwalker. The name wasn't as important to him, but it described just how to use his abilities. Apparently the gods had told him it would be a long while before another Spiritwalker was born. The translation was a little tricky to get through though. Marius hadn't exactly made a user-friendly version and once or twice Anglis found himself correcting it.
   He closed the book and set it aside, closing his eyes for a minute.
   Cut loose the mind from false sight and open the roads to truth. Look upon the world as it is and stride forth into land beyond to serve as They command.
   Complete nonsense. A preist would translate as a priest, but he had read that piece only once to understand it. It was more difficult to imagine the place you wanted to go if your senses were open to the place you were in. After just a few moments he could feel nothing of the room he had been in. He simply wasn't there anymore. Instead he filled his mind with snow and chill, with blackened bark and white-coated beasts, with whispers and stars. And a stone circle.
   Then he opened his eyes.
   Flakes fell lightly from the sky with deceptive grace. The stones were as worn and featureless as always. He felt the freezing breeze sweep through him and he shivered. He wouldn't be able to stay here long dressed like this.
   There was a sound from lower down the hill. Voices. They bickered and argued as children do. Ah. He hadn't been trying to do that, but this was only his first attempt.
   "We're gonna get in so much trouble...."
   It was easier to get back. All he had to do was shut himself out again and open his eyes to the room on the island. It seemed his body ached for him to return to it when he left. He was half sure there was a way for him to take it with him, or at least affect things as a ghost might. He wouldn't have been able to grab Marguerite otherwise.
   "Did it work?!" Genki smiled far too brightly.
   "Almost," he replied irritably. The problem with the circle is he had only visited it a few times, so the memories of it were too strong. They pulled him back to that same scene every time he tried to go there. Going back to the lake was the same. It was hard to appear either before or after the group had arrived there. The best he could manage was just before Mordred and Dmitri had arrived.
   However, several attempts found that he could find his way to Moneykom at anytime he liked. He always arrived outside the monastery or the gates, but when was another matter.
   The book also talked about an anchor, a fail-safe location. There was one here he knew. When he had read about them he remembered the stone he had hit on his arrival. There was supposed to be another though, at the Gates of Heaven. It had probably been destroyed. That or he simply couldn't remember visiting it. In any case, his visits to the green land had been to here, although the time was dubious. He wasn't even sure if he had met Marguerite there or somewhere else as it seemed odd for the anchor to lead them to the same when.
   He exhaled deeply and stood up, stretching out. He would play with it more later. In anycase it seemed like it could be useful, even in this condition. He wasn't particularly interested in talking to the gods. Sure he would help fix this mess, but only because it was a dangerous mess.
   He looked outisde. Everyone seemed to be congregating down there so he gave Genki orders to tidy up and wandered down to them.
   It was shortly after that that Dmitri came running up, only to freeze and give Marguerite the most hateful of looks.
The alcohol was back, with a vengeance, like an old friend who's so glad to see you've not forgotten him entirely. The bottle in Tai's hand, like everything else here, tasted sweet and fruity - well, sweet and fruity for liquid fire, anyway. She was aware of the gathering happening downstairs, but preferred to sit on her balcony with its view of the sea, and get reacquainted with her neglected friend. The ghosts knew not to bother her - they seemed to have decided, without her knowing particularly what was going on, that she was the general of their spectral army. Some of the more enthusiastic had appointed themselves an honour-guard of sorts, after the events of the Ball.

Tai didn't mind. She was getting to quite like the company of the dead. At some point, she was aware, she'd have to get up and do something useful. Perhaps go and find some living weapons-master to help her hone her somewhat home-made fighting skills - she knew how to brawl effectively, knew how to use a knife as emphasis in a punch, but had no idea about how one formally went about maiming and injuring another. Also, eventually, she'd have to face up to the dark cloud of what exactly being a Child of Xhaiden entailed.

You must stop them!

The angel-ghost's words rang unpleasantly in Tai's awareness. She was smart enough to work out that this wasn't going to be an easy job; contrary enough to wonder what was so special about Marguerite anyway; realistic enough to know that the poor enslaved ghost was right. That if nobody else could even see the ghosts, sure as hell nobody else could stop them working their mischief.

Idly, Tai pulled a knife out of her belt and spun it on the table beside her. She wondered vaguely how she was supposed to stop the ghosts, given that she couldn't touch them. As far as she knew. She'd never actually tried. There'd been that once - when her ghost had sent her and Marguerite into Dmitri's troubled dreams... but... that was probably not going to be a representative sample of spectral encounters.

"Madam?"

"My name's Tai," she said, swinging her head back to focus on the ghost standing awkwardly before her. Most likely, he was a young man - this was an educated guess on Tai's part, as he'd most definitely died in a horrible way. Plague. She recognised the signs - the way his skin hung in limp tatters from wasted, scarred and stained flesh was something of a clue. There wasn't much of a face left, and what there was made her faintly nauseous to look at. "What d'you want?"

"To tell you what I know." He sucked ghostly air into his ravaged lungs. "I lived near Monykom City. By the sea. I saw... my brother and I saw, when we were young... a dragon." The ghost rushed on. "When I heard talk of a dragon among the living I thought you may want to hear."

"What'd it look like?" Tai was curious to hear what the dead man had to say, but not particularly eager to look at that ravaged face, meet those blind and staring eyes. She focused instead on the clear, pinkish liquid sloshing seductively inside the bottle in her hand.

"I - I didn't see it very clearly. It was so fast!" He shivered, and went on to describe a monster that sounded pretty much the way Marguerite had described the dragon she'd encountered in Dmitri's dream. Close enough that Tai was sure they were the same creature.

"What'd it do?" She took another swig of the alcohol, seeing the ghost's ravaged form distorted further by the glass bottle.

"Well - there was an angel. My brother and I hid to watch him, playing on the surface of the water. He had green wings - deep, dark green. Suddenly there was a huge splash, and he was gone - dragged under!" Blind eyes wide with excitement and remembered shock. "Then the water bubbled, and the dragon erupted into the sky, with the angel in his claws, and then he was gone.

"My brother and I - well, we were afraid to move for a long time. Maybe the dragon would come back? Until another angel came. She was beautiful, a warrior in bright red silk and armour. She saw us, and said she was looking for two of her kin that had gone missing. We told her what we'd just been witness to, and she - she was... very upset..." he finished lamely, focusing on something behind Tai.

Puzzled, she twisted to see what he was looking at, at the same moment as he shouted and leapt. Tai yelled incoherent horrible things, scuttling to her feet, alcohol forgotten as the two ghosts - where had the other come from? - crashed to the floor, grappling madly. Through a daze of shock and growing intoxication, Tai noticed that the newcomer wore a collar similar to that of the ghost with wings who'd been spying on Marguerite - but his chain was slack, thin, and his eyes were two blankly staring flat sheets of blackness. He shoved away the plague-ghost, and rushed for Tai, mouth open and twisted into a soundless snarl of mindless hate.

She promptly shrieked, grabbed her dagger and her fallen liquor-bottle, and slashed first one then the other through the spectre's head. Neither had any effect, but when her hands brushed through his ghostly skin, she felt something - a faint pulse, a touch, light as a kiss and cold as midwinter - a brush with death. The feeling increased to the nausea-level as the wraith closed, his grasping hands flailing through her, seeking... seeking her heart.

Tai threw herself sideways, landing hard against the railing of the balcony, as two more ghosts rushed out and assisted the plague-dead in pulling the attacker off her.

"The heart," one shouted at her. "It's all in the heart!"

It would be, Tai thought bitterly, retrieving her knife and stabbing the flailing ghost in the chest as the three others held him steady. Nothing happened. In drunken frustration, she slammed her free hand into the place where she figured a heart should be - and shrieked again as the rush of deadly cold greeted her fingers, little twinges of mortality like excitable puppies curling up her skin. But her hand passed, with resistance like water, through the ghostly organ - and the wraith stiffened, faded, blew away.

Attracted by her screams, living monkey-guards rushed out onto the balcony, and looked in puzzlement at the drunken woman lying shuddering on the ground with a knife in one hand.

"Are you alright, madam?" One ventured to ask.

"Who's the weapons-master here?" Tai replied at length. "I need to learn to fight."


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


This is part of Andante's add:

The wallpaper in Marius’s room had one of the most intricate patterns the Vredian priest had ever seen in his life. From the other side of the room it appeared to be a strange, somewhat plain, mottled brown, but even from that distance there was something about it that caught his eye and drew him to it. Up close, the thousands of thin, intertwining golden and chocolate lines captured the mind and led it away down the winding, trailing paths.

He was still standing there, staring at the wall in rapt fascination, when Setiawan and Ramelan arrived.

“Marius we’ve been looking for you for… what are you doing?” the Keeper of the Faith asked.

It was hard, but Marius managed to peel his gaze away from the wall and focus on Ramelan’s face. He wasn’t good at judging the expressions of the monkeys yet, but if they were anything like those of humans, that was concern he saw in the Keeper’s warm brown gaze.

“Hmm?” Marius asked absently. “Oh, I…”

“How much of the Frual did you take earlier today?” Setiawan demanded, reaching forward to draw the somewhat dazed priest away from the wall.

Marius frowned. Closing his eyes made it easier to count in his head; at least he couldn’t see the trailing lines, that way. “Six… no eight? Nine drops, yes.”

Setiawan sighed heavily, then twisted to face Ramelan. “Did you not warn him, brother?” he hissed. He glanced back toward Marius, whose gaze kept shifting between the two monkeys and the wall. ”Frual is very powerful. And very rare; too rare to use wrecklessly. You only need a little. Three drops, Priest of Vrede. Not nine.”

Shame cleared Marius’s mind somewhat. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It just… it didn’t taste like it did that first time, when I first felt the gods. Increasing the dose made it taste as strong as before, and I thought… well, it worked.”

With a low growl of exasperation, Ramelan pressed the palm of his hand into his eye. “Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough before. I will strive to do so now. Frual is a drug. It is a valuable drug---a tool with which we may achieve communion with the gods---but it is a drug nonetheless. Now, I have never heard of anyone overdosing on Frual, but like other drugs, it can have negative effects if it is misused. It produces euphoria, yes, but it can also cause depression. One feels energetic under its influence, like the very power of the gods is running through your veins, but when it wears off people often become tired, achy, and occasionally suffer from nightmares. You haven’t had enough to become addicted, and you must make sure you do not ever become addicted, for the drug has a harsh withdrawal and Frual is, as I told you before, a rare substance of extremely limited supply.”

Marius swallowed. “I understand. I won’t take the Frual again unless I feel the call of the gods, and I will only take the recommended three drops.”

“Good,” Ramelan said. “Now come, if you can convince your limbs to take up the task. We must gather Mordred and discuss your journey tomorrow. Your escort is ready to meet you and I’d like you to inspect your provisions so that the two of you might let us know about anything else you may require. Speaking of which, is there anything you would like to take with you? The Cathedral’s Archival Chamber has many texts which may be of interest to you.”

“Wait,” Marius said, more than a little flustered. “Tomorrow? We leave tomorrow?”

Ramelan looked at him like he was crazy, which he was beginning to realize was entirely possible. “Of course. Time is of utmost importance. You and Mordred must depart as soon as possible.“

Marius nodded somewhat dizzily. “Yes, of course you are right. I just… everything has been happening so quickly.” He took a deep, steadying breath. “Well, let us begin!“

Mordred was not particularly excited to see the three of them at his door, and less so to hear what they were doing. “It’s late,” he pointed out, rubbing his eyes and then turning their steel-gray glare upon the men. “I was sleeping.”

“Yes,” Ramelan said. “I’m sorry, but it would have been improper to address these issues at the Ball itself and now is really the only time we have. Will you come? I have selected six men from the army to serve as your bodyguards, and there are two scouts and two messengers for you to meet besides.”

It took some convincing, but eventually the grumpy blue-haired man was coaxed out of his quarters and across the palace complex to the barracks.

There they were greeted by four humans and six monkeys, all of which stood at stern attention in the darkness outside the building waiting for the arrival of their charges.

“Master Mordred, Master Marius, I would like you to meet Lieutenant Danyl and Sergeants Rian, Kydor, Sarral, Binyad and Eson. They have sworn to protect your lives, even at the expense of their own.” Both women and one of the men indicated were monkeys, and the other three men---including the Lieutenant---were human. They were all large and muscular and yet strangely graceful in their movements as they turned and bowed toward Marius and Mordred.

Standing beside the six large soldiers were another two monkeys in the green and gold sashes of the army were a smaller pair of soldiers. One, a dark-haired woman, was a human, and the other, an older man, was a monkey. They too bowed when introduced as “Corporals Torii and Shaje, the scouts who will be accompanying you.”

Finally, they were two messengers named Borin and Klire---both of them monkeys---who wore the gold medallions of palace servants.

Ramelan and Setiawan led them next to the stables where they were presented with---of all things---riding elephants. As Mordred stood staring upwards at the beasts in dismay and Marius with ill-concealed fear, the two Shrivijayan priests laughed.

“Never seen an elephant before?” Ramelan asked.

“No!” Mordred said, as Marius admitted, “I have seen them in books, but never in real life, let alone so close. We’re supposed to ride these?”

Setiawan chuckled. “Clearly special saddles are necessary,” he told his brother. “If these two have never ridden an elephant, stirrups and pommels may be desirable.”

Mordred scowled but said nothing. Marius merely nodded slowly; he felt no shame in admitting his lack of experience might require certain considerations. But… did he really have to ride an elephant? For two weeks?

“Come,” Ramelan said with a grin, “Your provisions are here in the storeroom. You should both take a look at them and tell me if there is anything else you need. We’ll be sure to add kippi saddles to the list.”

They gathered in the large tack room behind the barracks, There, hanging in neat rows upon wooden stands, were some of the largest saddles, blankets, bridles, harnesses, and other riding equipment the two Vredians had ever seen. Marius felt a touch of fright just looking at it, then laughed softly to himself. They were going to be traveling through a jungle and climbing a
mountain to seek a strange, legendary wall, and he was worried about riding elephants?

The two Shrivijayan priests led the way to a smaller back room, where liveried servants hurried to and fro bringing the last of the provisions and laying them out for the men to see. There were, of course, tents and torches, travel rations and some fresher foods such as fruit and cheese. There were a couple swords there, short and curved, obviously for Marius’s and Mordred’s use. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that; he’d never used one before, and he was a little worried at the implication that one might be needed. What dangers would they be facing, that nearly two squads of soldiers would be necessary?

“Anything you need or want that you do not see?” Ramelan inquired.

Marius surveyed the items but could think of nothing.

“A map?” Mordred asked sourly.

Ramelan and Setiawan exchanged a glance. (sorry, Andante, I altered this a tad ..) “The scouts will not be able to guide you to the mountain nor help you to climb it. The gods set that as a task only for you. The soldiers are there only for your protection.”

Again, Marius felt those faint heartbeats thrum through him. “I think I will be able to find it,” he assured them.

Mordred did not look convinced, but the blacksmith did not say anything.

They called it a night, then, and returned to their rooms. Four hours of sleep passed rapidly---too rapidly---for Marius. One second it was dark and he was awake and the next it was light and he was awake again. A dull headache throbbed at his temples; from lack of adequate rest or the aftereffects of the Frual he did not know.

He dressed sluggishly, carefully pulling his blue robes on over his underclothes. He had just finished washing his face and hands in a bowl of water when he heard a heavy knock on the door.

“Priest! Open up!” He heard Mordred calling through the door.

With a sigh Marius did so, and found himself looking up into the taller man’s annoyed steel gaze. “Well look who finally decides to get up and greet the day,” Mordred said “I thought priests were used to rising early, for prayers and such.”

“Meditation,” Marius said absently as he pulled on his boots. “The gods were dead. We had nobody to pray to. So we meditated upon their fate, and our own.”

Mordred rolled his eyes. “Wonderful. Really. But we don’t have time for theological discussions right now. We need to go. Everyone’s outside, ready to depart on this little quest of yours. Only one we’re missing is you.”

“Yes, yes,” Marius snapped, “I know, I’m sorry. Let’s go.”

Their escort---all six bodyguards, two scouts, and two messengers---were waiting outside upon elephants. Marius swallowed when he saw the beasts; they were gigantic, far larger than he’d imagined. Each beast was laden with packs and other supplies and two---both of them unmanned and obviously for Marius and Mordred wore strange saddles.

Ramelan and his brother stood there, waiting to see them off. The Keeper of the Faith held a small package wrapped in canvas and tied with twine. “For you,” he told Marius.

“The texts!” the priest of Vrede said after opening it and examining the contents. There were three books: “The Gods of Shrivijaya,” “The Writ,” and “Thirteen Sermons of Zeroun,” “Thank you!”

The Keeper of the Faith nodded. “I know you have studied religion your entire life, but Shrivijaya may have a… slightly different testimony, as I’m sure you realize after your recent experiences. We can discuss what you learn when you return.”

Thus began one of the longest days in Marius’s life. It began with the fear of approaching the elephant and the discomfort of being so far away from the ground once he managed to summon the courage to climb up onto the thing’s back. It ended after nearly eleven hours of riding---interspersed with occasional but too short breaks---filled with sore muscles, Mordred’s near incessant complaining, and the quiet chatter of the guards.

As the sun was beginning to set they reached a small estate near the edge of the city. One of the messengers maneuvered his elephant alongside those of Marius and Mordred. The other messenger had departed nearly two hours earlier, his beast moving at speeds Marius had never imagined any animal could go. “It’s a racing elephant,” one of the bodyguards had explained with a smile before returning to her stern silence.

“Masters, we approach the home of Lord Kaivan, who will offer you his hospitality tonight,” the messenger announced.

Marius shifted stiffly in the saddle, trying to alleviate the soreness of his lower back, rear, and legs. It felt like his seat was going to be bruised, and the scars on the back of his right thigh burned hotly, irritated from the long ride and the press of the rough fabric of his robe and the hard saddle. Sleep was going to be interesting tonight, but he welcomed the opportunity to rest in a real bed, at least. The rest of the nights they would be too far away from any other people, and would be camping in the jungles.

A half hour later everyone had dismounted---some, like Marius, far more stiffly than others---and the elephants had been taken away by servants to… Marius did not precisely know, but he assumed there was some sort of elephant stable here.

Their host, an elderly, but extremely cheerful monkey, greeted them as they approached his home.

“Friends of the Princess, do come in! I know you must be tired from your journey; there is food waiting inside, and hot showers and warm beds besides. Do come in!”

The evening passed in a haze of exhaustion so great Marius did not even have a chance to think of the Frual in his robe. The old lord did not have a wife, but his son and daughter lived with him still, and their table that night was alive and cheerful. Marius did his best to be a good guest, and he and Mordred entertained---or more likely, disturbed---them for a time with tales of Vrede before finally turning in for the night.

A young servant led the two men to their rooms for the evening. Marius vaguely recalled thanking her, before he closed the door, changed hastily in the cool air, and collapsed into bed to fall immediately into a dreamless sleep so deep he didn’t have the chance to worry about sore muscles, elephants, or the Wailing Wall.

And thus passed the first day of their journey.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


And here is Virgo's add:

To say the blacksmith was unhappy would be a very nice understatement. To say he was displeased would also fall under the same category, as it were, Mordred was very nearly raging as he sat on the back of the large… long-nosed… grey… thing, his body swaying back and forth with the motion of the el-fant and its large, lumbering legs. He glared at the monkeys that came near him, trying to ascertain as to why he seemed so angry, but he would snap and turn away, even going so far as to run his own el-fant into theirs to drive them off. Marius, of course, was tsking and frowning at him, but Mordred didn’t care, if he wanted to be spoiled and disagreeable, he would be spoiled and disagreeable as it suited him. He was now sprawled across the back of the grey-skinned lumbering thing, keeping his balance as it moved, following the others, leaving Mordred to stare at the canopy of trees, watching all the bright fluttering things move. He sighed again, watching the treetops pass, the saddle more irritating than helpful once he had gotten used to the thing rocking back and forth, he decided it was an easy enough rhythm to remember and he climbed out of the saddle, much to the protest of their bodyguards and other members and laid down. The sword at his side clanked quietly with the movement of the creature, it was the sword he had made so long ago, Kade had let him have it as a gift when they left, she offered to suit him up in full armour and though he had used to be able to wear it, he didn’t think he was strong enough now to support it all, all the time.

Marius looked pained, he reflected, watching the priest, whom he had to wake earlier in the day, which hadn’t pleased him from the start… He glanced at Marius again, a contemplative frown of the blacksmith’s features, Marius seemed… wrapped up in something within his own mind, and as Mordred looked around, so did many of the others it seemed. He growled, rolling forward and
hopping in the saddle, sliding his feet into the stirrups and he leaned forward, perhaps he was being over the top about this, truth be told, he just wanted it to be Marius and if, if he even had to go at all. He wasn’t thrilled about being dragged somewhere without his consent, just a ‘Get up, let’s go Mordred!’ and that was it. He hated being told what to do, and it irked him that so many had come to… guard them, yes, but he felt, for some reason, it was also to keep either of them from turning back, deciding they didn’t want to do this anymore, and spiriting away. Or perhaps it was just his mind warping it and twisting it how he saw fit to do so. It wouldn’t have surprised him if it was.

“Marius…” He mumbled, rolling his eyes as the Priest either ignored him or didn’t hear him, so he let his question drop, leaning forward onto his knees and fiddling with the sword at his side, smiling slightly as he realized something, his sword matched his hair.

“Something amuse you, Master Mordred?”

Mordred started as he heard the monkey, Shaja or Shojo maybe, speak. “Maybe,” he said with more than a little harshness to his tone.

“Pray tell what it is? Or will you attempt to run me over with your elephant as you seemed so keen on doing when we started out? You’ve given the younger soldiers quite a reason to be wary of you.”

“Good.” Mordred said in a brusque tone, “What amuses me is that the sword your blacksmith gave me matches the colour that I dyed my hair earlier that same day that I saw it.” He huffed, glancing at the male monkey.

“I suppose that is a bit on the amusing side.” Shajea (he hoped was the right name) replied.

Mordred looked at him, only mildly annoyed, before returning his attention to the jungle around them.

It was close to sundown when one of the others rode up beside the two of them, manoeuvring closer to Marius when Mordred looked at him with a gleam of maniacal mischief in his eyes, “Masters, we approach the home of Lord Kaivan, who will offer you his hospitality tonight,” the rider announced. Mordred inched closer until the messenger was forced to stop his elephant in order to avoid being smooshed between Marius’ and Mordred’s rides.

Mordred snickered as they came across the home of the aforementioned monkey, who greeted them enthusiastically as Mordred hopped down, Marius with a little more care to his pained body.

“Friends of the Princess, do come in! I know you must be tired from your journey; there is food waiting inside, and hot showers and warm beds besides. Do come in!” The elderly monkey man exclaimed enthusiastically, his children coming to see the visitors as well.

A few hours later, Mordred was gleaning some vague sadistic pleasure from telling their little caravan as well as the host and his son and daugher the more… gruesome details of Vrede.

“Sometimes the plague strikes so hard, you are brainless and all you can ever think about his the more baser instincts that lie within the bloodstream, the urge to hurt, to maim, to mur…”

“Mordred!” Marius scolded for the fifth time at Mordred’s attempt at telling how the plague worked, “Please, there are children…”

”So? There isn’t anything really around here to give them nightmares, nightmares build character… or that’s what Granddad said, then again, Granddad was slightly insane himself…” Mordred shrugged, “Anyways, you start to a little crazy in the head and many times the people around you are forced to kill you. But that’s only if the plague hasn’t caught them too.”

The daughter was gripping to the boy like her life depended on it, “That’s horrid!” She exclaimed when Mordred fell silent.

The boy, however, seemed enraptured, “That can’t be true, Mr. Mordred! That just doesn’t happen!”

“Ah! To you folks maybe, but for those of us across the sea…” Mordred shrugged, “You don’t have to believe me, just go visit sometime when the wind was blowing particularly harsh that year… You’ll believe me then.” He was quiet, standing suddenly and dusting off his pants, “Well! I’m going to turn in for the night, so long!” He smiled and vanished into the room that had been assigned to him.

~*~*~

The following days had them all more tired, more cranky, some days they failed to find shelter and needed to camp out. The fourth day had them all more than a little nuts, Marius constantly held Mordred back, refusing him any fun and always reprimanding him when he decided to try and out run the messengers as they went ahead. Mordred had finally figured out how to work the el-fant properly and more often than not hopped out of the saddle and laid down over the creature's head.

He noticed that Marius was getting jumpier and jumpier, seeming to be straining to hear a voice none of them could hear or demanding to know what whomever had said when it was deathly silent among them. Marius still rode in the saddle, seemingly not caring how to make the el-fant work so much as go, and kept to his books, either scribbling something down or reading as they moved.

The jungle was getting denser, Mordred noticed it after the second day had come and gone, the going was slower than before, but the el-fant’s had an easy time of navigating and the soldiers just cruised along with them.

He sighed, twirling his flute through his fingers; he had found himself unable to be rid of it for more than a half-hour at a time, like it always got out of his pack and sat in front of him every time he tried to put it away and from his mind. The diamond didn’t seem to want to stray far either, whether he dropped it or tossed it in his pack, it always reappeared on the pouch he kept at his side. He blew a couple notes on the flute, listening in the far distance as thunder rumbled, almost imperceptible. He was bored, tired, sweating in places that he believed shouldn’t sweat, he smelled peculiar, and he just all around wasn’t in the most pleasant of moods. He growled, thrusting the flute to his mouth and blowing a strange, almost hauntingly disturbing melody on the shiny object as lightning flashed from nowhere and scared them all half to death as the sun slowly went dark.

“Mordred! Stop playing!” Marius called.

Mordred growled, “What else are you going to tell me not to do, oh great Priest who knows where the hell we’re going? Breathe!?” He huffed.

“No! Look what you’re doing!” He pointed to the sky.

Mordred rolled his eyes, “Don’t blame the weather for my bad moods, my bad moods are my own!” He called.

“No! You…” Marius growled back, “Just, nevermind, forget it, forget I said anything. Bull-headed Blacksmith.” He mumbled.

Mordred stuck his tongue out at Marius and played his flute again, just playing with it, for the sake of playing, continuing the melody he had started before. He was mildly startled when he realized that nothing he was playing sounded horrid or awful. It sounded… right. He had never picked a flute up in his life, much less a crystal one that appeared out of nowhere in a blacksmith’s shop. He set it aside, trying to put it away in his pack, but when he looked down, he noticed that the flute rested there, as if it belonged there not in his pack.

Mordred huffed, ignoring the others and Marius’ yelling as he nudged the el-fant into motion again, faster than Marius’ and faster than the others were travelling at the moment, he wanted to release pent up energy, and he figured, other than getting off and walking, this was the best way to do it. He pulled a flower from its place on the vine he passed by and sniffed it, it was a pretty scent, almost womanly, girly and sweet-like, similar to vanilla, he mused, placing the flower on the elephant’s head.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*
Marguerite was saying good-bye to Marius and Mordred when Kiera suddenly broke away from the group. Dmitri stood not far from their group, glareing at her. Pretending that nothing was wrong, Marguerite walked over to him and held out her hand.

"I don't believe we've been formally introduced," she said, "I am Princess Marguerite Alasdere."

Dmitri didn't make a move, just continued to glare at her. Finally he said, "I had hoped that you were a figment of my imagination."

"You're not the first," Marguerite replied. She remembered that the rest of the group hadn't seen Dmitri since before they arrived. They deserved a chance to catch up and he wouldn't relax with her there. She quickly wished Mordred and Marius a safe journey and kissed their cheeks in farewell then left, saying that she had packing still to do.

Marguerite spent the rest of the day visiting with friends among the palace staff. Her dinner was a private affair with just her family and afterwards she found a hold-in-the-wall balcony and settled down. She had a lot to think about.

Dmitri had looked different. Like...like he was cracking. There were thin lines of white light all over him. She was sure that it hadn't been any trick of the light, nor had the others seen it. She also didn't have any idea what it meant aside from Dmitri being very important and most likely powerful. She'd avoid him for another half day at most to give him a chance to get used to everything and possibly relax then she would try to understand what those lines meant.

Then there were the gates. From what Maruis had said the ruler of Vrede and the Keeper of the Gates had to work together to open them. The Keeper used the medallion to...do something which made it safe for the ruler to use the key. The problem was that there wasn't any Keeper anymore. On one hand, Rangsey had been able to close the Gates by himself. On the other, it had killed him. And she didn't know nearly as much about the Gates as he had.

Thankfully there were people packing for her. Marguerite didn't think she'd be leaving this balcony anytime soon.
         Tensions were high among those who stayed at Insel. Still, the busy week left little time for 'discussion' as everyone in the city worked sun-up to sun-down (and sometimes more) getting the army ready for war and onboard ship.

         Dmitri had important news for the group when they conferred. "We need silver," he said. "The middle verse of the rede went: when silver bells sing while blue bells grow, where fell the final blow; life once more will spring. I've been thinking about it and I think that my part of the rede means we need to build bells made of silver. Get it? Silver bells? We need to ring the bells during the time that the blue bells grow."

         "I get it!" exclaimed Kiera. "And the part about the 'final blow' means we have to ring the bells at the Gates! Right?"

         Dmitri nodded. "I think so. I think it means that if we can do that, then the plague will be ended."

         "But how are we going to get that much silver?" asked Anglis.

         "I'll get it!" offered Derrick. "I'm going to Monykom with the army, I can easily add the request for bells to the message I'm sending to the mines."

         The others stared at him. "How? What? Why?"

         Derrick grinned. "Me and Marguerite made an agreement. This army here is all fine and good, but they've never seen combat, for the most part. Plus, I don't think I could stand being on this island for another minute, let alone two weeks."

         Dmitri, Anglis, Tai, and Kiera looked at each other, a little shocked, but not particularly surprised. Finally, Tai asked, "But can they build the bells that fast?"

         Derrick shrugged. "I think so, but it won't take long to smelt the metal if we have to pack it with us." He looked at Dmitri. "How big do they have to be?"

         "There's still the remnants of a tower," answered Tai, "Least there was the last time I was there. I'd say it's at least as big as the bell tower at Monykom City."

         The discussion soon trickled away to speculating about Marius and Mordred and this mysterious wall they were looking for. It was easy to laugh at how anxious the two had been when they departed. The elephants, as the Shrivijayans called them, were immense beasts with feet bigger than serving platters and 2-3 ft long sharpened tusks. They also smelled weird.

         Marius had waved good-bye with a smile, Mordred didn't wave and he scowled the whole time. Dmitri missed the smith. He'd been a good friend, and he sincerely hoped that he would complete whatever mission it was he was on. All the others could tell him was that Marius had had some kind of vision that said they had to go. Seemed crazy, but no more than tramping off towards drowned ruins because of a wacky dream.

         Dmitri sighed to himself as he moped around the palace. He went often to the temple, because he wanted to learn to read, but also because he felt comforted there. It felt safe, which was bizarre, because he was always cognizant of the dragon moving about in his head. He had constant headaches now, that only the dim coolness of the temple seemed to soothe.

         He was kept out of battle discussions and planning, much to his frustration. He kept trying to tell Kiera or Tai or Anglis or Derrick that really it was the princess that they shouldn't trust, but they ignored his warnings. Portions of the city and the palace were closed off to him and, however much he tried to spy on her, the princess always seemed just one step ahead of him. He just couldn't get close enough to her to demand explanations.

         And then the week was over and they walked as a group to the harbor with the princess, to say fare-well to the last of the ships, carrying Merpati, and most of the healers. Derrick had left on the first ship out with the quartermaster and Merpati's second in command and weaponsmaster, Sargent.

         The weather had been crazy all the night before and the captain of the last ship was pressing to leave, but the last supplies were late in arriving. The group caught up to the supply wagons just short of the docks. And then the sky just opened up and let them have it!

         Chaos! One minute the sky was blue and lovely and had a few clouds - the next the sky boiled with clouds and day seemed like night as the sun was hidden. Wind picked up anything not really heavy or bolted down, and threw it around. Thunder rolled ominously, and lightning snaked through the sky. The mules dragging the wagons panicked and bolted. Running people were everywhere, dodging each other and large pieces of wind-swept debris.

         Dmitri had never questioned his excellent nighttime vision and now was one of those times where he was awfully glad to have it. He saw the frightened mules break free and bolt right at them. He pushed Anglis sideways into an alley and picked up Kiera and tossed her onto a nearby roof. Tai was gone and that left Dmitri to jump to safety himself. He watched helplessly as the wagon caroomed into a storefront and turn on its side, trapping its driver amidst screams from inside. The terrified mules were likewise knocked from their feet and clambored upon each other in their efforts to get free.

         Running before he'd even realized he'd moved, Dmitri raced for the cart. The princess materialized out of where-ever it was she'd jumped to and took charge of the mules. Cutting the traces, she yelled at Dmitri to help the driver. From their respective places, Anglis and Kiera ran elsewhere to help others. A fire was burning somewhere to the north and other wagons were in dire straits as well. And still the sudden storm raged overhead, sending down rain in big, thick drops.

         Dmitri located the driver, scared, but unhurt, pinned beneath his seat. The wagon was filled with barrels of salted meat that even with the crash had stayed firmly tied aboard. Still acting on instincts alone, Dmitri crouched at the corner nearest the driver, and heaved.

         Margie, attempting to calm the frightened beasts, looked up as Dmitri dashed by her. She stared in amazement, mules forgotten as he lifted the wagon and set it back on its wheels. As he did so, the cracks she'd first seen a week ago visibly grew larger. She hadn't looked closely at Dmitri in a few days but she was still startled by the changes she saw.

         Before she'd even realized what she'd done, Margie raced up to his side, grabbing him by the arm and half-spinning him around. "What ...!" she began, but halted in shock and awe.

         She'd been able to see him in the gloom before because he kinda glowed to her eyes, but now, as she'd touched him, she'd felt something slide beneath her touch, like grasping for a slippery piece of soap. His body was overlapped by the ghost of an image, someone taller, thinner, and then when he'd looked at her, that eye of his had for a moment, shone blue in color. She'd seen a different face, a familiar face, with two whole eyes and an amused quirk in the corner of his mouth.

         "Rangsey!" Margie gaped.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Tai ignored the ruckus. She had eyes only for a ghost, kneeling in an alley, alone, and weeping. This was the same winged ghost from the ball. Her ghostly self seemed thinner somehow, paler and more see-through, but otherwise she looked relatively the same. Tai hurried towards her.

         "Spirit," cried Tai, dropping to crouch beside the ghost, "Please! Let me help you!"

         The ghost looked at her with sorrowful eyes. "I am damned, Child," she said sadly. "There is nothing you can do."

         "At least tell me who you are, maybe someone I know can do something."

         "What I am," said the ghost softly, "is a demon undead. What I was, well, that no longer matters..."

         "Please," Tai pleaded, "can't you at least tell me how you were captured?"

         The ghost regarded her a moment, then said, "I suppose I can say, though I know not how it may help. I am not like others of the dead. I am, was ... well, I could separate, in a way, my soul from my body, but in a way that allowed me to still operate within the mortal world. It was while thus, that Metatron's foul creation came upon me and slew me." She fell silent. "It is a thing of great power and evil in this thing that he made. A thing that casts dark, deep despair in the hearts of all who look upon her. I wish I could tell you more, but there is a great binding upon me."

         Tai insisted, "There must be something I can do!"

         " ... Perhaps, perhaps there is something after all..."

         "Yes?"

         "Ask my brother to pray, to pray to the Mother, that she may shred my soul rather than leave me in this wretched state for eternity. I know I will never again walk this earth in living form, for I can never be forgiven for the things I have done, but, perhaps, perhaps the Mother will have pity on me."

         "Your brother?" Tai followed the ghost's gaze, but there was such a mess of people, animals, and army supplies that the subject of her intense look eluded Tai.

         The ghost sighed. "He was the youngest, though he was eldest. I loved him dearly, we all did." She looked at Tai suddenly with a deep, penetrating gaze. "I've been assigned to kill you, Child of Xhaiden," she said flatly. "If the ghasts fail, and they will, you shall come to the mountain and I will kill you."

         Tai gasped, but the ghost continued: "You cannot win, it would be impossible for a mortal to defeat me. Your only hope would be to kill Metatron, and sever his hold over me. Do this before I kill you." She shook her head softly. "That you must do, Child, because I could not bear to see Metatron win."

         The ghost looked down at the ground. Her good hand tucked her disabled arm back in her belt as she stood and wiped her eyes. She took one last look into the crowd and turned away. "Farewell, Child of Xhaiden, until we meet again." Stepping away, she faded into the shadows.

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


This is Shogun's add:

          As Derrick lay upon the floor in the Miner’s Guild room, he marveled at the star-studded ceiling. Well, they weren’t real stars, he knew, only spots of silver reflecting the light from the Angel’s Tear. The gem sat upon the only wooden structure in the room, a table, and its green glow seemed to be brighter than ever before, as if it knew what was coming.
          Reaching for the key tucked away in his vest, Derrick fiddled with it. He wondered when Marius would notice that it was missing. Spinning it between his fingers, its cool metal light in his hands, Derrick hoped that neither Marius nor Mordred would need it at the ‘wailing wall,’ whatever that was. His intention had been to keep it away from the princess, originally, but after that last night in Insel, he wasn’t sure why he had kept it. He had also noticed Dmitri acting strangely, and in truth, he too was unsure of the Princess. However, he rolled on his side, the Princess was not the one he feared. Ever since Dmitri had awoken, he had been acting strangely. Maybe that was how he was before the stomach injury, Derrick didn’t know, but he didn’t believe so.
          Still, the Tear seemed to glow even brighter when the key was nearby. And there was his book. The monkey, Radit -- was it? -- had rebound the leather, and darkened the lettering where it had faded. On top of that, he had translated it. That copy was bound in a matching color of leather, and it rested next to the original. Reaching for it, Derrick thumbed through. True, he couldn’t read, but the monkey…Radit, could. And, at his request, Radit, read the entire work to him. It was marvelous, and horrifying. And he finally understood why his grandmother had always skipped the first half of the chronicle.

          Following the marathon reading by Radit, Derrick had gone to a balcony to watch at the stars, and to think. It was there, hours later, that he was found by the…the…Princess…Marguerite. At first she had just watched him, and he her. Unsure of what to do, Derrick had just lain there, his guards watching him for the slightest signs of any movement.
          “Master Maluse,” Margie began, “Radit told me of the book…” with a grunt, and a twist of his head, Derrick both acknowledged and ignored Marguerite’s comment. Taking the cue, Margie dismissed the guards, and after a stern glare, they obeyed.
          “Master Maluse, I can only imagine what you must be going through. Learning that about your family…”
          “Princess, I don’t know you,” He sat and swung his legs out over the abyss, “and you can’t possibly know what I am going through. To find that my family has that in its history, explains a lot. Namely why no men in my family have ever caught the plague. And why we have voracious appetites.”
          “But surely that could be explained another way?”
          “Princess…”
          “Marguerite, or Margie, if you prefer.”
          “Whatever. Let me tell you a short story about my great-grandfather Matthias.” Marguerite leaned in, “Every year the mines have a feast on the summer solstice, and one year Matthias had just returned from the deep mines, and he went at the meal with an appetite not seen since. My grandmother told me this story when I was six. She said that Matthias had eaten through what was on his plate, but he was so hungry that he took a bite out of the table, and did not notice. He apparently chewed the wood, and took another bite, completely ignoring the looks of the assembled workers. She told me that he ate and ate, until the woman who was to become my great-grandmother laid her had upon his shoulder and pointed out the…mistake.”
          “I can’t believe he didn’t notice, surely, what about the splinters? Or the taste?”
          “I don’t know, but the bites in the table remain. In fact it is customary for the men in my family to sit at that very spot. That is how I learned about Matthias’s hunger.”
          “If that is true, then why have you eaten so little? And don’t try to tell me otherwise, I have talked to your guards, and they say that you take one look at your meals and then either ignore them or destroy them…”
          Sighing, Derrick turned to face the Princess of Insel, “I ignore them because I cannot eat fruit, and can only handle small amounts of vegetables.”
          “What…do you mean?”
          “What I mean, Princess is that I can only eat meat in any quantity.”
          “But according to Kiera, you could eat her stew?”
          “Yes, but the stew had MEAT! And there is precious little of that here in Insel.”
          “So basically you have been starving since you arrived?”
          “Yes…”
          “Well we can’t let that continue now can we.” Margie stood up, “If you will follow me, I am sure we can find some meat for you to eat.” Turning to go, she was surprised to find Derrick holding her sleeve.
          “Before that, I should let you know that I am planning to leave with the army tomorrow.”
          “What? Why?”
          “Because, a part of me is afraid. Not of the coming war, but of your monkeys.” Forestalling her comment he continued, “It would appear that a portion of my legacy is afraid of your monkeys. I don’t know why, but whenever I am around them, I am uneasy…as if a part of me trying to claw its way free. I don’t understand it, and until I do, please don’t tell anyone. Besides Princess, you know little in the ways of war. Granted I too know little, but even I know that your army isn’t big enough. Nor does it have the combat experience it needs.”
          “I have faith in Merpati’s skills. And I trust that she has trained the army to the best of her ability.”
          “Yes, but does any portion of your military actually have combat experience?” staring her in the eye Derrick saw a glimmer of defeat, “That’s what I thought.” turning away he continued, “Like a chain, an army is only as strong as its weakest link, and should even one link break…your army, will fail.”
          “But…”
          “NO! No buts. It will fail. Your military lacks the combat tested leaders it needs. Can you, with any certainty, tell me that your commanders can rally your troops to fight an unexpected challenge? No? Then, perhaps your generals inspire more confidence. Not them either? Then how, tell me HOW can you expect to win this fight? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a way to bring down a dragon. I don’t even know what one is!” Scratching his head, Derrick leaned his head against the balcony’s railing, “Besides, if the dragon and its master have other allies, there is no way your army will stand. It needs more men! And men that have been tried before.”
          “Then tell me where you plan to get these troops. These saviors.”
          “I would not call them saviors, even with them, I do not believe we can win.”
          “Well who are they? Surely not the militia from Monykom? And I don’t know of any other military force, except…you can’t be serious?”
          “I am.”
          “But they were responsible for the temple’s destruction in the first place!”
          “Yes, those who were responsible for that are dead anyway. Besides, as I said, you have no choice! Either take the mercenaries with you, or we all fail, and Desmond wins.”
          “What! What did you say?”
          “Before Marius left, I talked to him about the cathedral’s fall, and when his order records the Dragon’s first appearance. I believe that the dragon is Desmond. Mutated and changed by this Metatron character that Tai was babbling about at the party. Perhaps that was his reward, and his curse.” Turning once more to face the Princess, Derrick continued, “Perhaps he made a deal with this Metatron, a deal for power. The price being the deliverance of the gods. Failing that, Metatron must’ve made him guard the gates, waiting for them to be unlocked.” Shrugging, Derrick turned to go inside, “And I still believe that it’s either the cathedral or the gates themselves, that the final blow was struck. Likely it was the gates, after all the gate keeper had to be killed by someone, or something…”
          “All that aside though, I will still bring as many mercenaries as I can muster.”
          “With such short notice, how many can you get?”
          “I don’t know. It depend on how many showed up for the caravan this year…”
          “Caravan? What caravan?”
          “Every year, after the thaw the General Manager of the Tang Mines sends out a caravan of goods. It stops in every major settlement, trading for what we can’t produce ourselves. And due to the value of the metals and gems that it carries, it also moves heavily armed. Last year over two hundred mercenaries accompanied it.”
          “Two hundred! How can you trust them?”
          “Easily, after each one makes a successful run with the caravan, they are gifted with a piece of armor or a weapon of their choosing made from the smithies in the mines. But, that is only if they return with the caravan, and the trader whose wagon they are protecting gives a favorable report. It is such a good deal that many hundreds, if not a thousand or more show up each year. Besides, there are others that I will call upon too.”
          “And who are they?”
          “Odds are they won’t respond anyway, so don’t you worry about it. But for now! You promised me food!”
          “Yes,” Marguerite bit her lip, “this way.”
          “Oh, Margie…”
          “Yes…”
          “One last thing…”
          “What is it?”
          “Can you help Kiera?”
          “What do you mean?”
          “She knows things, I don’t know how, but she can usually just the right things to cheer people up, and she knows things that haven’t been told to her. Besides, I have seen…well I don’t know what I’ve seen, but I think it’s magic.”
          “What!” the shocked face that appeared on Marguerite’s face would’ve made Derrick laugh, if he hadn’t been so preoccupied.
          “I’m serious, I don’t know if it is in fact magic, but could you find out? She just, I don’t know.”
          “As a favor to you, I will. Master Maluse.”

          Opening his eyes, Derrick could feel the stone beneath his back on the floor of his room in the guild. He had spoken more that night, to Marguerite, than he had on any other night, since Marius and he had sat awake staring at that statue. Thoughts of the statues brought confusion to his mind again. That one, the one that had still been standing, from Tai’s description of the ghost at the party, they were the alike, maybe the same. But, who was she? She felt…familiar…
          He had meant to bring up the statues with Marguerite, but after she had led him to the kitchens and ordered some roast boar for him, she had disappeared. He hadn't seen her again until their brief farewells the following morning. And now, now what?
         Upon disembarking at Monykom City with Sargent, they'd been greeted by a welcoming party, to include Halberd and some of the very mercenaries he'd been hoping to make contact with. Plus the city leaders, of course. Certainly a shock, to say the least. Confusing, but those were problems to be dealt with in the morning. Derrick rolled over and soon was fast asleep.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


This is from Andante, who wished to add some more information to his last post and fill in some gaps between what Mordred describes in Virgo's next add below.


Three days into the journey, Marius had his next vision. He woke that day to the smell of an old and mostly cold campfire and bright sunlight burning his face where the sleeping bag failed to cover it. Slowly, feeling like he was waking for the first time after a fevered bout of plague, he opened his eyes and looked around. The guards and other members of the escort were milling around, preparing the camp as they had the previous two days for departure.

Marius blinked slowly in surprised confusion; he could hear none of it---not the clank of pans being tucked into packs, not the solemn conversing of the guards or Mordred’s brash complaints, not the trumpet of the ele-beasts as they protested their saddling. Instead, seven loud heartbeats drowned out all sounds, and there was a strange feeling in his stomach, like something was pulling him southward... and up.

A sudden shadow blocked his field of vision. He started half-heartedly, and stared in confusion as Mordred knelt before him. The blacksmith’s lips were moving and his expression was a strange blend of annoyance and concern, but Marius could not make out what he was saying.

A moment later Mordred handed him a plate of fruit. Ah, it was time to eat, he realized fuzzily. Slowly he sat up, touching his forehead as the faintest twinge of a headache awoke in his temple. It felt like he was moving through water; everything seemed strangely slow, and laborious.

Mordred looked at him strangely as he took the food and began to eat, then went back and began to roll up his bedroll.

Marius took a small bite of his food, but the sliced melon tasted... wrong. And suddenly, he wanted nothing so much as to taste the Frual again.

Stoically he chewed a piece of fruit; it was like cardboard in his mouth, flavorless and dry. Frual, he knew, wouldn’t be like that... But still he forced himself to continue eating; Ramelan and Setiawan had made it abundantly clear that he should treat the sacrament with respect. Yet he also knew, from Ramelan’s description of Setiawan’s experiences, that sometimes the gods would make one obsessed with the Frual when They wanted that person to take it and have a vision.

Sighing, the priest opened his robe and pulled out the tiny vial of Frual. A quick glance around revealed he had no mug of water ready nearby. Oh well, he thought, how different could it be straight? Three drops were all Ramelan and Setiawan reccommended, and this time three drops were all Marius took. They fell, one at a time, upon his tongue.

Cool, was his first sensation. He carefully allowed another drop to fall.

Delicate. The third drop landed with a sharp, sweet spash.

Burning!

Without warning he was thrust into the vision. Before, the visions had come to him slowly. This time, however, it hit him hard and fast.

He was a disembodied eye floating above a field of blue flowers. The setting was familiar, yet alien. In the distance rose the stark remains of Stonehenge from their watery grave. It was that strange grayish-blue time just after sunset; not a single star had appeared yet.

Through the long grass and the flowers strode a single figure he thought he recognized. Lithe, female, with auburn hair, she moved with a determination he rarely saw---even in the most devoted of priests---toward the ruins in the distance.

He didn’t so much choose to follow her then as was grasped by some unseen hand and hurled toward her. The scenery blurred about him until suddenly he stopped.

Directly above Stonehenge.

The woman was standing before the once great palace now, and this time Marius recognized her. It was that princess, Marguerite, wearing a simple dark blue robe. Her green eyes were very intense as she stared into the depths of the lake, and Marius realized for the first time that she could not see him.

Whispering something under her breath, the young woman extended both of her hands and held them out toward the water. Her fingers trembled slightly---with excitement or nervousness or something else entirely Marius did not know---as she narrowed her eyes and began to speak.

Marius did not know what she was saying and couldn’t have heard her if he tried. Each syllable she uttered seemed to blend into the heartbeats of the gods seamlessly. And as she spoke and raised her arms, something began to happen in the water.

At first, Marius thought something was swimming down there in the murky depths. But very quickly it became apparent how very, very wrong he was. A piece of stone, sparkling in the moonlight, rose from the water, followed by another, and another, and another. They grew like crystal, their forms natural but with a cosmic order inherent in every arch, angle, and line. One by one they rose from the depths toward the sky and took their place in Marguerite’s... City.

She was building a shining city of white stone out of the ruins of Stonehenge...

Suddenly the vision disappeared, like a fragile bubble being destroyed with a finger touch. Marius opened his eyes to reality to find Mordred clutching his shoulders and staring deeply into his face. The members of the escort were all crowded around; one held water awkwardly, as if he didn’t know what to do with it.

This time Marius could hear his companion; the heartbeats and voices were faint now, somewhere in the background. “What’s wrong, priest?” Mordred asked, as if for the tenth time. Then, when he realized Marius was actually looking at him, “You look like you’ve see a ghost.” He took it from the monkey behind him and thrust it at the dazed priest, who drank eagerly.

Feeling dizzy and slightly nauseous, Marius wiped cold sweat from his eyes. However, even terrible as he felt, he could not stop the grin that stretched across his face. “Oh, I did, in a manner of speaking. You’ll never believe... Mordred, Stonehenge is going to be reborn. I’ve seen it!”


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


A special trip for Anglis:


         Anglis strode the palace grounds, thinking hard. In his mind he struggled with a problem, the problem he had with this whole venture. They had a week to get more than 5,000 people to the Temple at the Gates. Even with favorable winds and rowing, it would take a minimum of three days to reach Monykom City. Add to that the time it would take schmoozing with the town council and buying provisions, even the first ships to rech there had probably only just now organized to march North. Walking, the trip would take at least ten days, already more than they had; and that was assuming they traveled light and fast-marched all the hours of daylight. How was this going to be possible?

         Anglis fretted and paced.

         Unless, he thought suddenly, they actually had more time!

         The Gates, he realized, are in the mountains. Spring comes later at higher elevations, just as it does the farther one travels North. Now given what he knew from home, that could add as much as two weeks to their estimate, but that still left big holes in their plans. He just didn't think it was realistic to think that Monykom would just let them have whatever they needed. Having all these troops just foisted on them would no doubt be alarming. But then what could he do, really? The first ships were already there! There was no --

         He blinked. When had it gotten so dark? He shook his head, pulling himself forcibly out of his gloomy thoughts. He had somehow taken a bad turn and was in some dark, quiet corner of the city. He sighed and looked around for a landmark.

         "Um ..." he gulped.

         Looking up, there were no stars, just darkness. There weren't as many lanterns as he was used to. The ground looked and felt like hard stone and not Insel's cobbled roads. He could also not see the temple or the palace rising above the walls. He looked more closely at where he was. It was definitely an alley between two buildings, made of stone, and not wood. There were no windows. Thick fabric ribbled slightly in what could only be doorways. They seemed to be held tightly by some means on the inside. Sound felt muted here, and yet echoed. He could hear water, but not like the ocean or the beach at Insel; no, this was more like the gentle lapping at the shores of a great lake, only there was nothing green in sight.

         Still puzzling over what to do next, Anglis heard a sliding sound as one of the curtains moved aside. He turned around and hustled in that direction.

         "Um, excuse me?" he began, but the young woman, baby in one hand and bucket of something in the other, took one look at him, screamed, and slammed the door shut.

         "Okay, never mind," muttered Anglis, backing away.

         He went to the end of the alley, towards where all the light seemed to indicate a major road. Indeed it was, and what a road! Fully large enough for two fully-loaded wagons to past abreast of each other without touching, the road was pure solid stone inset with reflective stones and metal to indicate two major lanes and walkways. Hooded lanterns on poles hung at regular intervals. The houses bordering this magnificent road were all of stone and metal to indicate two major lanes and direction. They also all had the curtain doors and glittered with precious metals and gemstones. Everything was made of stone. There was no wood to speak of. With the complete darkness Anglis found it impossible to judge the time of day, but as he stood there, gangs of young boys darted out of the houses along the street. They each ran to a street pole, shimmied up, and opened the shutters of the lanterns. From back pockets they added what looked to be lumps of rock and adjusted the sides of the lantern so that the newly-fed flames blazed brighter over the street. Completing their task, the boys closed the lanters, slid down and ran down the street, laughing and joking as they went. Soon the cavern, for now Anglis could see that that's what this was, brightened considerably and the streets filled with people hustling to and fro. Door opened and merchants displayed their wares along the street. Hammering started from multiple locations along the roadway, followed quickly by lean, muscled men carrying pickaxes or shovels and carts. They trooped by in large groups, talking companionably about minerals and the latest veins of ore.

         So caught up was he in watching these strange sights, that the man in a soldier's garb, wearing armour, and holding a barred long-knife, quite caught Anglis unawares. He did, however, hear the click of a crossbow bolt from behind him. He froze.

         Just then, the man with the knife declared, "Don't move! Hands in the air! Declare your purpose!"

         Slowly, Anglis moved his hands away from his belt and shrouding cloak. He kept them visible and turned to face the man. His mind raced.

         "My name is Anglis," he said calmly and steadily. "I am a messenger and unarmed. I need to speak to the leaders of this city."

         "Not so fast!" barked the man. "How did you get here? No stranger can traverse the caves alone!"

         Anglis shrugged. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

         The man looked Anglis up and down. "Where are your supplies? Who's your contact?"

         "I tell you I am alone. I didn't come through your caves. I came here myself in my own way." That did not seem to alleviate the man's suspicions at all, so he added, "I assure you that I am not dangerous to you. As you can see I'm unarmed. I am a messenger, that is all."

         The man scowled, but he lowered his blade and sheathed it, giving a nod to whomever stood behind Anglis' left shoulder. To his relief, Anglis then heard the sound of a crossbow bolt eased back.

         "I am Tomas," said the first man, dipping his head in a bow, "I'm the Sherrif here. My friend there is Jack. I apologize for the scrutiny, but we are a suspicious lot. You don't survive long down here without learning to be double cautious of everything and everyone."

         Anglis copied Tomas' head-bobbing bow. "I understand perfectly," he replied. "People are jumpy where I come from as well."

         "Please, come this way. Resume patrol, Jack."

         "Yes, sir."

         Tomas led Anglis through the maze of the stone city, quickly and easily. They were stopped by no one, but this was evidently not a path frequented by many at this hour. They eventually halted before a large square building with what looked to be a bell tower. But instead of bells, a large, circular metal apparatus hung at the top. There were numbers around the outside edges that almost seemed to glow in the reflective light of the city. Two long metal rods pointed outwards from the center to rest on the numbers. The long one pointed to the number "9" and the other looked like it rested between the "25" and the "30."

         "Oh, do you like it?" asked Tomas. He puffed out his chest in pride. "There's not another one like it in the world. It's a clock. It's how we tell what time of day it is here, and the seasons, too."

         "A clock," murmured Anglis. "Fascinating."

         "This way."

         Tomas ushered Anglis into a large anteroom with a desk in the center and chairs full of waiting people. The lady at the desk waved them through and Tomas led Anglis to a door (an actual, wooden door!) towards the back and on the left. The man inside, working at the desk, greeted Tomas with a smile.

         "Tomas! Come in, man. What brings you to my office?"

         "I found this man," Tomas replied, steering Anglis into the plush room. "He claims to have come here alone, with a message. His name is Anglis."

         The man did the head bow that Anglis was learning to be the normal, formal greeting here, and said, "Greetings, Anglis. I am Matthias, Mayor of Lake Town. What is your message?"

         Anglis bowed, as he'd seen the monkeys bow to Marguerite and gathered his thoughts. "I come to you on behalf of Princess Marguerite, Adoped Daughter of Shrivijaya, and Heir to Vrede."

         "Heir!" exclaimed Matthias, just as Tomas sputtered, "Princess!"

         "Yes," replied Anglis. "She asks for your help in re-taking her kingdom from the foul demons who stole it."

         Matthias sat down, his face going white. "Does this have anything to do with my cousin?"

         "Cousin?"

         "His name is Derrick. Just yesterday I sent him downriver, with our family heirlooms. He was quite insistent, kept saying that he meant to solve a riddle, help save the world, or some such ...."

         Anglis grinned. He couldn't help it. He chuckled a little. "It seems I have come here in time after all," he said in apology to Matthias. "Yes, I have met your cousin. As yet, I have not met him yet, but I will."

         "I don't understand."

         "I have been granted certain powers by the gods," Anglis began.

         "Bah!" harumphed Tomas. "What gods? There are no gods here."

         "Ah, in that you are correct, but if Princess Marguerite's plans bear fruit, then there shall be gods in Vrede again."

         Anglis talked to the two men until they called a halt for lunch. He told them all about his adventures since Stonehenge and as much of the princess' plans as Anglis knew. The two men of Lake Town were fascinated by his abilities, and of all the magical events he'd experienced and pressed for as much detail as he could remember.

         "You're in luck," Matthias remarked as they were brought food and ale, "Tonight we celebrate our town's founding and we have visitors from all over. If we address them tonight, we will surely have an answer for you by morning." He grinned wolfishly. "If it takes that long, that is."

         "You see," said Tomas, "we're all descendents of either murderers or thieves or worse, or those descended from the original mercenaries Desmond brought in ages ago. We've not forgotten the shame in these roots, we've all been raised to expect that one day we'd be called on to expunge our past and we all live for the day we can scrub off our shame and replace it with honor!"

         "Hear! Hear!" cried Matthias. He winked at Anglis. "We're a rabble-rousing lot. We love a good fight."

         "There is one more thing," added Anglis. "We need bells. Derrick said you'd be able to make them for us. They must be of pure silver."

         Matthias almost choked on his ale. He spit it out. "What?! Bells, did you say? Bells of silver?"

         "Uh, yes."

         Matthias stared at Anglis, a strange look in his eyes. "Three of them?" he asked, "about yay high by yay tall?"

         "Uh, I don't know. Is there something wrong?"

         Matthias looked at Tomas. The younger man seemed quite confused.

         "Well," said the mayor, "no, nothing wrong, precisely, it's just that I'm surprised. You see, in our stores, we have exactly what you just said you need, the molds to pour silver and make bells. I only learned of them recently. Only our Warehouse Manager and I know of them. But, silver is totally unsuited to making bells with. Silver is very fragile. You'd need magic in their makig to make them turn out right."

         "Then maybe I'd better see them."

         Matthias stood, taking a key out of his desk. "This way, please."

         The mayor waved cheerfully to the receptionist as they went out and led the way down the street to what looked to be a large warehouse. They went in. The first room was set up the same as the mayor's place, with a receiving area. Matthias stepped up to the young man at the desk.

         "Lawrence, is your father here?"

         The boy nodded, staring curiously at Anglis. "Yes, sir, he's in the storeroom, taking out some charts for --"

         "Thank you, lad." He stepped past, waving for Anglis and Tomas to follow. Unlike the mayor's place, the warehouse only had one door (wood again!) behind the desk. Matthias opened it and went in. Inside were shelves stretching the length of every wall and stacked so high they touched the ceiling. Those that worked there scrambled along the aisles with clipboards and lanterns; the ladders were built into the shelves. Matthias walked directly to the back.

         "This place," he explained, "is where we keep the parts we bring in from other places and where we keep odd pieces and bits of machinery and tools for use by everyone. A vast library, if you will, except, obviously, for the books. The storeroom is for original blueprints and molds belonging to the town. At any time, any citizen of the Deep may come here and petition to borrow anything from the main archives or the back storeroom. They use it and when they're done they bring it back."

         "And this works? I'm amazed."

         "We have to look after each other down here," replied Matthias with a shrug. "Okay, here we are." He pushed aside the curtain to the storeroom. Inside were two men sorting through hanging sheets. They both looked up, saw Matthias, and bellowed a hello. They looked at Anglis suspiciously until he was introduced and then he, too, was greeted like an old friend.

         Frank, the manager of the warehouse, led the way to a small room in the back, barred by a locked, stone door. Matthias used the key and the four men cranked open the huge door. The other man, Zack, Frank's assistant, held up his lantern. The sole occupants of the room, the bells didn't look like much, but to Anglis' eyes, they pulsed with magic. He could even feel the vibrations through the stone floor when he stepped inside.

         He looked at Matthias. "They'll do."

         The mayor stared at him. "Are you sure? How can you tell?"

         "I don't know exactly," Anglis admitted, "but they are infused with magic. It's very old." He walked forward and circled the bells. The molds were almost square. They were taller than he was and looked like they weighed a ton. Hesitantly, he reached out and touched one.

         He woke up on his back, staring up into the concerned faces of the men. He blinked.

         "Are you okay?" asked Tomas, nervously glancing at the bells. They towered over him.

         Anglis rubbed his head and sat up. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just had a glipse of a long time ago. Someone made these on purpose for the Temple at the Gates, but for some reason they were never delivered." He looked at their blank faces. "These are actual bells. They're already made. They just need broken free of the molds."

         "Oh!" Matthias and Frank stared at each other. "What a find!" crowed Frank, rubbing his hands together.

         "Sir," said Anglis to Matthias, "we have more details to discuss."

         "Yes, yes, of course, let's go back to my office and finish lunch."

         Back in the relative comfort of the mayor's office, Anglis impressed on the man the importance of being ready on time. "You must be at Monykom City to greet Derrick and the others when they arrive. They will be there the first week of April, by your calendar. Everything must be set. We will need to move 5,000 men and supplies to the Gates in ten days. Can you do it?"

         The mayor looked affronted. "Of course we can! We'll send men out right away to prepare the roads and cache supplies. We'll make arrangements to have mules ready, and horses, to haul everything that your men can't carry. I dare say we should be able to get enough volunteers, though it will take time to get messages to all the Deep. Once the Foreman is convinced, we can move more quickly. I shouldn't worry too much about those stuffy, old fools in Monykom City. They need our riches too much. They'll support us." He tapped at the sheaf of papers he was writing his notes on. "That really only leaves you and your friends. How are you going to get there in time?"

         Anglis shrugged. "I don't know, but we will. Don't worry about them."

         "Them?" he echoed. "Aren't you going back?"

         Again Anglis shrugged. "Perhaps, but I must see this mission through to its end. I can just as easily travel with you to Monykom. Derrick is there, or will be, I should say. We can travel together. You know, you don't look a thing alike."

         "He ..." Matthias hesitated. "Derrick inherited some old family traits that I did not. Come, Anglis, it's gotten late. Wake up, Tomas! It's time to go rabble-rousing!"
They were all sleeping, at least to Mordred’s knowledge; the monkey’s and the others, besides him and Marius were all asleep. He snagged a few things, throwing this and that into a pack, mostly the necessities, as he shuffled as silently as he could through the camp. His footsteps were whisper light and his ears were pricked for sound, but nothing came to him but the snores of the soldiers and the heavy breathing of the scouts. He breathed out slowly, grabbing Marius’ sleeping bag, with Marius still inside, and dragged it carefully towards one of the el-fant’s side. The creature was already awake and saddled, after a weeks worth of watching and paying attention, Mordred had picked up on how it was done and had done so this particular night. He grabbed the shiny liquid that Marius had by his side at all times, somehow it seemed… less than when he had looked at it last, (perhaps the priest had drank some?) and threw it in the pouch on the grey things hips, hoisting Marius’ limp form onto the el-fant and lashing him there for the time being. He didn’t feel like waking the man, this was the most peaceful he had seen his friend since the trip started. He pulled himself up as well, nudging the animal to its feet and steering it in a more or less forwards direction, he was content just to leave their body-guards behind; he would have gone by himself, but he didn’t dare without Marius to guide him, the Priest seemed to know where he was going and Mordred wasn’t about to be stuck in this forest alone, and lost with who knew what out there with him.

Marius mumbled something as he wriggled in the bag and seemed to reach for something in a different direction that Mordred was going, so, figuring that even in sleep could the man know where they were going, he turned and headed in that direction. Marius mumbled again and seemed to settle again, shifting within the confines of his sleeping state slightly before dropping off again.

Mordred glanced worriedly at his companion, it had been a few hours before Marius had been awake enough for Mordred to force some water down his throat and some stale bread biscuits before the fru-fru stuff made him mumble and point again. Mordred had figured out that Marius had taken the funny smelling liquid and was still currently under its influence as they came ever closer to the Wall, now by themselves, either the guards had gone a different direction from them or they had decided not to give chase after the two of them skedaddled. Mordred sighed, boredom was not a pretty thing on the smithy, so he decided to play his flute some more, the storm that kept lingering was beginning to irritate him, but now that he was away from those monkeys… he felt better. So a few notes into his playing, the storm dispersed and made way for clearer, bluer skies, or blacker as the case was, it being night and all, Mordred was able to see the stars, still as clear as the first night they had landed here at the Island of the Monkeys, if clouded a bit more by trees and other sundry branches. He played quietly on the crystalline instrument, the notes pure and clean as he swayed to the song in his head that his fingers translated.

When he opened his eyes again, he was covered in vines, the great twining pieces curled around his torso, arms, legs; a leaf was tickling his nose and he was surprised not to have noticed them before. He stood, the vines allowing him to brush them aside and he exhaled sharply, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes and moving over to Marius who seemed to be waking from his fru-fru induced dream.

“Marius?” He inquired, concerned and brushing sweaty hair from the Priest’s damp forehead, “Hey, you okay?” He asked as Marius blinked slowly and seemed to regain his bearings.

“Where are we?” He asked muzzily.

Mordred shrugged, “No clue, just which ever way you pointed in your drugged up state.” He said matter-of-factly.

Marius looked around, seeming to accept the answer, “Where’s the others?”

“Ditched.” Mordred replied, a faint grin on his face.

Marius nodded for a moment before starting, “What?! Ditched!? You’re not serious! You ditched our guards! Our protection in this forest! How could you Mordred!? How could you?!” Marius groaned and sunk to his knees, burying his face in his palms.

“What’s wrong?” Mordred asked, moving closer to the despairing Priest.

“We’re not safe here anymore! Our position, compromised! Mordred! You left them there, we are here! You took away all that stops the creepy animals of this place from attacking! We’ll be eaten by the giant striped cats or devoured by wolves or…”

“You making an awfully big deal out of this, we have a giant… thing on our side. Nothing’s going to kill us with that thing around.” He pointed to the el-fant.

“You don’t know that Mordred! They might travel in packs, like wolves and then…”

Mordred slapped Marius across the face, forcing him to fall silent and clutch the offended body part in question, “Look, nothing is going to hurt us, if something gets past the giant grey thing, there’s me to contend with, I know how to use a sword after all.”

Marius glared at him, “Just because you make weapons doesn’t mean you can handle them.” He said coldly, stomping over to the creature and attempting to climb on its back with little success. “Mordred! Help me. NOW.” Marius said, a rather nasty looking grimace on his face and a hand pressed to his back.

Mordred sighed, “Very well.” He huffed, pushing Marius up to where he could sit comfortably on top of the creature, “Come, point me in the right way Priest, when we reach the valley we’ll deal with the real issues.”

“How’d you know there was a valley?” Marius asked.

“I do pay attention when it suits my needs. Honestly I had half a mind when I kidnapped you to turn right around a leave, but…I figured we’d come this far, too late to spoil the ending by going coward.” He sighed, “I still don’t wanna be here though.” He mumbled.

“Oh do shut up Mordred, the world doesn’t revolve around you and your damned sister. Just stop your mumble grumble for awhile, it’ll all be worth it in the end.” Marius hissed, clocking Mordred around the head a bit.

“Ow! Yeah, yeah! I get it okay?” Mordred rubbed the sore spot, “You don’t need to hit me…”
It'd been fairly easily established that Tai was, by inclination, a knife-fighter - when she'd tried to learn to fight with a sword, the damn thing had just frustrated her; all the fancy pointing and waving and riposting just seemed silly. How were you supposed to properly control something that far out of your reach? After the third time she'd hurled the practice sword to the ground in disgust and snatched a knife, she and the weapons-master had agreed that probably it wasn't worth the effort. And so after a week of training and practise, she'd turned out to be fairly good at causing harm in close quarters and short spaces of time. Sometimes Tai surprised herself with how vicious she could be.

Sitting on her balcony with a half-empty bottle, she watched the storm clear up and grumble away. Tai was aware that it was late, and she was drunk and exhausted, but the peace out here was too soothing to pass up. All wounds are healed by these oceans of calm... the thought made Tai rub a hand carefully up the long swathe of bandages around her right arm - a painfully deep training cut. Thankfully she was left-handed so it wasn't that much of a big deal, but it'd still hurt.

In a knife-fight, you're going to get cut. The trick is to cut the other person more, and deeper, and quicker.

Well, the sentiments there were nothing surprising. Life hurts, deal with it.

Apparently, thought, death hurts too - that was something she hadn't considered before. She'd fought three more ghasts that week, mostly late at night while drunk and on her balcony - just like right now, in fact - but they got easier each time, once she'd overcome the rush of fear that the sight of the staring, gasping, gulping, hate-blinded, screaming horrors always sent dizzying up her spine. They also never seemed to get the hang of stealth - unable to stop themselves making little animal sighs and snarls of anticipation, she could usually hear them coming, if it was moderately quiet. Also, the waves of nauseating desperation they gave off helped - desperate to get to her, to tear her skin with their death-chilled fingers and steal the warmth of life they were denied.

Anyway, the ghasts were horrible and frightening and nothing to laugh off, but she was fairly confident they were only a minimal danger. She'd grown up being afraid of having her life sucked away by wraiths, after all - the only difference now was that she knew it was true, and she knew how to fight them off. The winged ghost, though - she was a different story. Tai knew, the way she knew the sun was hot and that gravity acted downwards, that if she fought the winged ghost, she'd die.

Soundless and malicious as a knife in the back, the first real dream floated through her mind. I was only twenty-one when I died. Not long now. Maybe the poor crippled ghost would kill her. Tai hoped not, but it was a vague sort of hope, without any real force.

The last shreds of the storm drifted off, muttering unhappily, and the stars came out to sparkle happily over Insel. Tai took a gulp of the fruity evil in the bottle, and a deep lungful of the freshly storm-washed night air, and felt the alcohol and the coolness of the star-flecked dark dissolve her cares. She still couldn't make herself be optimistic - nothing could do that - but right now the fact she was going to die fairly soon and the world still seemed more or less doomed didn't matter quite so much as it did during the blinding heat and harsh sunshine of the daylight. Tai liked the night. She could forget that things mattered, in this calm dark. She barely even noticed when she fell asleep.

***

Wonder of wonders - it's not even a nightmare. Not tonight.

Great blocks of bright stone are summoned; the earth lifts them up as if in a great pair of hands, willingly lending her own bones to build the structures that Tai recognises after a moment as the palace and the Temple of the Faith. This must have been very long ago. Ancient element-mages guide the willing sea and sky to their aid; Insel builds itself these magnificent structures, trees practically fling themselves carven to the ground to be fashioned into railings and panels and doors.

Here and there, among the happy chaos of willing labour, stride the gods.

There really isn't anything else they can be.

They look superficially like ordinary monkeys - albeit particularly tall, strong and beautiful monkeys. But dreamers see in other ways than just with their eyes, and it's obvious to everyone that these are avatars of the gods Marius was going on about. Laughing with the people who serve them, they lend the most direct sort of divine aid Tai's ever imagined. Insel and its gods, building a temple to themselves. Each fashions its own likeness as it would have itself seen - the marble leaps eagerly at the gods' touch, bending and contorting with silent earthy grace.

Tai begins to reconsider her atheism.


The first six or so hours he and Mordred spent completely on their own were some of the worst Marius had experienced thus far in the journey.

It didn’t help that he was still more than half-drugged. A slowly fading lethargy flowed like molasses through his veins, and time seemed to wash over and through him with the infinite, sluggish heartbeats of the gods marking each separate eon.

Yes, it was bad enough that the drug left him feeling half ill---although the Frual did have an amazing way of leeching the pain from his sore rear and back---but woven into the soft, dark blanket of grogginess and heartbeats was the constant buzz of Mordred’s incessant complaining.

“If one more of those giant beetles stings me, I swear I’m going to…”

“How the hell am I supposed to see anything in here? The damn trees keep blocking all the sunlight…”

“My ass hurts… my back hurts… I hate it here…”

“You need to wake up and talk to me, priest! You’re the most boring traveling companion I’ve ever had…”

Marius didn’t really have the energy---or the will---to comment. Instead, he felt the stirring of another vision deep within him, and fought it down harshly. Another vision meant drinking more Frual, and he couldn’t afford to do that right now. He was practically asleep as it was, and without the escort he really needed to be vigilant.

A sudden motion directly in front of Marius’s eyes started him back to awareness. As soon as the priest returned to himself, Mordred stopped leaning precariously over the edge of his elephant and waving his hand in front of Marius’s face.

“You were doing it again,” the blacksmith said once he had settled back in his saddle.

“Doing what?” Marius asked, still slightly dazed. All he could think about was the Frual in his pocket. With great effort, he resisted pulling it out and looking at it.

“Sitting there, staring into space, like you’re sleepwalking or something,” Mordred replied, with a mixture of annoyance and concern.

“Hmm,” was all Marius could think of to say. Then---“Where are we?”

The landscape had almost completely changed. A moment ago they had been moving along the bank of a river. There, great, creeping lattices of roots and strange vines had grown thickly on either side of the river, forcing Marius and Mordred to occassionally walk their ele-beasts with infinite care through the swiftly moving water so as not to get stuck in the treacherous vegetation. Now, they were completely surrounded by the jungle’s lushness and the river was nowhere to be seen or heard.

Mordred looked at him strangely. “What do you mean, ‘where are we’? We’re where you led us. You sure as hell better know where you’re going, Marius!”

“I led you?” Marius asked, confused. “But…”

Mordred looked at him like he were mad, and perhaps he was. “Yes, Marius! You’ve been tramping through the jungle for over two hours. Don’t you remember?”

“No!” Marius said, staring about him in wonder. “I was thinking… I think…”

“Thinking,” Mordred echoed in disbelieving dismay. “It didn’t seem like you were doing a whole lot of thinking. Looked more like you were in a trance or something.”

The heartbeats seemed louder now, almost as if they were rising out of the muddy ground. His head pounded in pain with each beat. However, as Marius focused upon them, they faded away once again to a manageable level, and---

“Marius!” Mordred snapped.

Marius’s eyes snapped to the blacksmith. “I know, I know, I’m sorry. Let’s go.”

To be honest, he too was a little concerned. This seemed to be happening more and more often.

They rode without any further incidents until the already dim moonlight filtering in through the canopy began to fade into morning. The sounds of the jungle slowly changed, as the nocturnal animals lay down at last in their hiding places and the other creatures awakened with the sun.

It was then, in the predawn grayness, that the two men were attacked.

“Marius, down!” Mordred shouted, his voice barely audible through the haze of Frual and the drone of heartbeats. Not really comprehending what his companion was saying, the priest turned slowly to glance at the blacksmith, who reached with a curse behind him to grasp his sword.

Just then a rattling growl pierced through the strange fog clouding Marius’s thoughts. A large black form crouched above him in the trees, a shadow among shadows. A moment later it leapt, snarling, onto the ground before the two ele-beasts. The giant creatures trumpeted their outrage at the cat, swinging their heads wildly and stomping their feet.

“Keep your seat!” Mordred shouted over at Marius, struggling to get his beast under control with one hand and hold onto his sword with the other.

“What?” Marius asked, before tumbling a moment later out of the strange saddle to land on the ground with a loud expulsion of air from his lungs.

As he sat up, trying desperately to recover the breath that had been knocked from him, the jaguar turned to look at him, its eyes glowing faintly in the early morning light.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


Mordred, cursing, leapt from the saddle to land lightly on his feet next to Marius. His flute had once again found its way into his hand, but he didn't use it. Instead he stared straight into the hissing cat's eyes and said, "You will not harm him."

The cat hissed in rage, flicking its tail back and forth, ears plastered to its skull. It yowled and Mordred got the distinct impression that it wasn't going to let them pass. He didn't try to puzzle that one out.

"We must get through," he told the spitting beast. "We - we've been summoned."

The beast crouched, snarling, ready to attack.

Mordred held up the flute like a scepter. "You WILL let us pass!"

The cat sat back on its haunches in surprise, staring back at him with its odd, yellowish eyes. Then it got up and padded towards them.

"Don't move, priest," Mordred instructed, quite unnecessarily, for Marius didn't know if he could've moved. He was petrified. His head could entirely fit within the great cat's mouth.

Speaking of cats, the jaguar trotted right up to him and inhaled deeply. It pawed at him, but the gesture didn't seem like a threatening one. Then it lowered its head to breathe right in Marius' face. The priest struggled not to make a face from the beast's awful breath.

Looking up, the cat sat down again facing Mordred. It inclined its head gravely and placed one paw on Marius' shoulder. It snarled at Mordred. The blacksmith came closer, one hand clutching his flute and the other held out away from his weapon. Behind him, the ele-beasts had calmed down and seemed to be waiting patiently. Now Mordred was conscious of other eyes in the jungle watching.

He held out his hand, the one holding the flute, for the jaguar to sniff, but the great cat didn't let him get that close. It bounded away down the path and yowled loudly. Both men flinched. Three more cats joined the first, soundlessly from the concealing foliage. As one, the cats lowered their forequarters, bowing, in a way, in the direction of the men.

Tongue-tied with wonder, Mordred bowed back. Satisfied, the cats leapt to their feet and the three disappeared into the jungle. The first cat trotted down the path, stopped, and looked back.

"I think he wants us to follow," said Marius.

Mordred shook his head. "This gets stranger by the hour, priest. Can you get up?"

Marius nodded and clambered to his feet. Mordred helped him mount, and then they were once more on their way.

They followed the cat for several hours until the jungle parted before them. They found themselves on a small ledge looking down into a bowl-shaped valley. At the center was a small mountain and a block of stone at the top. The direct sunlight was dazzling after so many days in the dimness of the jungle.

Marius shivered. "That's it!" He looked over at Mordred. "But how do we get to it?"

Looking down at the jaguar, now sitting peacefully between the two ele-beasts. "So?" he asked, feeling foolish for talking to an animal, "What do we do now?"

It looked up at him and bared its fangs, almost looking like it was laughing at him. Then the jaguar got to its feet and sprang away, out over the cliffside .. and disappeared.

"Uh," stammered Mordred.

"You're out of your mind," Marius stated flatly. "I am not jumping over the edge."

Mordred brought the flute to his lips; he felt compelled to do so. The tune he played was haughty and demanding. He felt like shouting, "Let me in!" but the flute would not be denied. He heard Marius gasp in amazement, but he could not stop playing until the sunlight vanished into shadow and he felt a chill lift all the hairs at the back of his neck.

When at last he could lower his arms, he too, stared in amazement. Instead of a valley stretching forever before them, they stood in the shadow of a great mountain. The jaguar stood on a step above them, staring down, its mouth open in silent laughter.

Marius turned to stare at Mordred. "It was an illusion!" he said excitedly. "If we'd gone down there, we could have travelled forever and never reached the mountain. And yet here it is, directly in front of us!"

Making a face, Mordred said, "I better get the gear."

He returned to the elephants and pulled down the packs. The two men sorted through them for rope, gloves, and other climbing gear and made ready to go up the stairs.

The stone stairs were not naturally occurring. Each step was exactly seven feet above the first, in a direct path to the top. They found the way relatively easy and only used the rope to tie each other together. Alternating, one would hoist the other to the next step and then the one above would help to pull the other up. They paused about halfway to rest.

Marius, standing at the edge and staring down, turned suddenly to face Mordred. "Do you hear that?"

Mordred shook his head. "Hear what?"

"That sound .. like .. crying maybe, or moaning."

"Wailing?" asked Mordred, his lip curling a little in sarcasm.

"Yeah! Yeah, that's exactly what it sounds like!"

Mordred rolled his eyes. "I think it's your imagination."

Marius shook his head stubbornly. "No, I'm sure it's real. Listen. Don't you hear it?"

"No. C'mon, let's keep going."

Three steps later, Mordred had to admit that he heard something. He shivered. It sounded like plague. He stared upward. He might have turned back, but Marius had turned into a zombie again and continued forward, scrambling up the cliffside. With a sigh, Mordred followed.

They both lay flat on their stomachs, breathing hard, once they reached the top. The wailing of the ghost voices was louder now, almost drowning out the pounding of their hearts and their labored breathing.

They looked up, at the object of their journey.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*



         The Wailing Wall is a 50 ft wide by 20 ft tall by 3 ft thick length of black stone. It is completely smooth, but has tiny grains through it, like granite, that sparkle when the sun hits it just right. There are symbols cut into the wall, long, flowing symbols unlike any language that Marius has ever seen. They flicker with blue energy and shift into new patterns before his eyes. The wailing now seems more like singing, a joyful noise, as the two men help each other to their feet, shrug out of the ropes, and move around to the other side.

         On the backside, the side facing east, towards the sun, there are no symbols. Instead, pictures are carved thereon, seven distinct pictures, seven times in seven distinct incarnations of the gods. The figures shine brilliantly with color and flicker and fade and dance across the stone.

         The oldest, the ones that shift less often, are of seven columns of bright light. Somewhat later on the pictures shift to what seem to be monkey people, then to human-looking with animal heads, and lastly to pictures closely resembling what Marius had seen in the small Sanctum on the top of the Temple of Faith. In these pictograms, however, the gods sparkle with fine gems, in addition to the firey blue carven lines. There are emeralds and rubies and topaz and saphires and diamonds and pearls, opals and crystals and peridot and quartz, and so many more that they dazzle the eyes, all placed upon the gods as eyes and buttons and belts and decorative trim on their clothing.

         The two men, Marius and Mordred, act together. Marius, caught up in memories of his vision, leans forward to touch the stone. Next to him, and with a gasp of recognition, Mordred pulls a black diamond from his pocket and rams it into an empty slot, in the hilt of a sword held by one of the gods, a god who bears in his hand a flute, a flute depicted by a single crystal shard.

         The surface of the wall flashes and the figures there begin to move, to coalesce, into one distinct picture: a face, that of a woman, the Goddess Menabra. She smiles.

         Marius flattens into a bow, head on his knees. Mordred stares back, frozen in shock, with his mouth hanging open. The mouth of the goddess moves, but the words come separate, from the whispers, the wailing and singing that surrounds the wall.

         "Good," she/they says, "You received my message."

         "W-why do I have a sword?" stammers Mordred, just as Marius says, "I am yours to command, my Lady."

         The voices laugh. The goddess smiles. She looks first to Mordred. "My brother," she/they says, "you made the sword, not I. Hold forth your hands and take it, for you will know its purpose." Her image looks down upon Marius. "Priest," she says, "speak your name to me that I might know you."

         "M-Marius," he mumbles.

         "Ah!" she breathes. "Then touch the stone once more, Marius. You shall experience the true might of the gods."

         Mordred, staring wide-eyed in amazement, watches as Marius hesitantly unfolds from his bow and inches forward, still on his knees, to place both hands upon the wall. Blue light engulfs him and he cries out, falling backwards, and cradling burnt hands.

         "Why do you not wear the symbol of your station?" cries the goddess in anger. "Only its power will allow you to survive the magic of this place. Foolish mortal!"

         Her eyes snap to Mordred. There is a pause as she stares at him, as if she is trying to make up her mind. Her gaze softens.

         "Brother," she says, "it is dangerous, but we must communicate. There is that which must be said. We will have very little time. Take the sword now and come."

         "Uh ...."

         The goddess' face vanishes, to be replaced by the earlier images. Reluctantly, Mordred steps forward and reaches for the sword. To his intense surprise, the sword pops free of the wall. The image remaining winks a pale saphire eye and gives him a thumbs-up gesture. The sword feels like nothing in Mordred's hands and as he watches, it shrinks and melts until only the black diamond remains.

         The goddess' face is back. She looks impatient. "Yes, it is your handiwork. Quit admiring it and let's get on with this."

         "She means for you to touch the stone," says Marius, through jaws clenched tight in pain.

         "But," Mordred stares at Marius helplessly, at his hands, blistered and raw.

         "Haven't you figured it out?" Marius replies with a grimace. "She can't hurt you, wouldn't even if she could. Do it. She's right, there's danger here, not only for us, and we're running out of time."

         Clutching the diamond in one fist, Mordred reluctantly places the other on the wall. He takes a step forward, and into somewhere else entirely. He looks back and can see Marius, still on the ground, but as if he looks through a gray curtain that shimmers with blue light. He turns back. Only Menabra is a distinct figure, the rest are the merest suggestion of human bodies, their power shining through to muddle the outlines.

         Mordred trembles in fear and awe. "H-how may I be of service?" he stammers.

         Menabra throws her arms around him in a hug, tears falling from her face to splash his clothes. "Oh, my brother!" she cries. "It does indeed hearten me to see you!" She pulls away. "Come, we do not have much time. Metatron will have felt the power of this place and sent his minions to find you."

         Mordred shivers. That name, that name! He fears the bearer of that name, for he killed him once.

         Menabra grins and holds his fist in her own hands. "In our long imprisonment, we have devised a plan to rid ourselves of Metatron forever. This," she caresses his palm to fall open, revealing the diamond. "This mortal stone, the sword that you made, holds all of our gifts. You need to add yours and bless its powers upon a great warrior. This mortal, for mortal it must be, will then become, for a space of time, the equal of Metatron, capable of his destruction."

         "What? How?"

         "Eirny has seen that a mortal man has the blood of our enemies within him, Metatron's blood, of Creation. Only he can use the power of this stone. He must call out for Bane, the Archangel of Destruction, and thus release the powers of the stone."

         "Price," gasps Mordred. "What's the price? There's always a price."

         The goddess shrugs. "I do not know. All this power in the hands of a mortal will be dangerous. Even Eirny cannot see the outcome of this battle. You must wait until the very last moment to activate the stone. Imbue it with your gifts and wait. The sword will choose its wielder. In his hands, it will become a great weapon of destruction, with one purpose only."

         "But, but there is no such angel!" protests Mordred.

         The goddess gives him a swift smile and a peck on the cheek. "And there never will be again," she says.

         There is a flicker of movement from one of the other gods. Menabra drops Mordred's hand.

         "Go," she says, "we cannot hold this contact any longer. Metatron's minions come and you must flee. Go! Go quickly!"

         Mordred steps backward and away from the wall. The images are there once more, dancing with lights. He stares at Marius.

         "What?"

         Marius shakes his head mutely.

         Mordred grabs the injured priest and begins to run. At the edge, he jumps (and Marius screams, "What are you do--aaaaah!"), and lands smoothly and easily next to their startled ele-beasts at the foot of the mountain.

         "We must go," Mordred shouts to both Marius and the waiting Jaguars, now four again. "Now! Quickly! Move!"

         The flute comes to his hand even as he shoves Marius onto a waiting ele-beast.

         "Leave us!" Mordred snaps. "Run!"

         He jumps to mount behind the injured priest. Seconds later, they race back into the jungle. The flute is at Mordred's lips. He plays, the tune a fast jig. He doesn't look behind him, but can hear Marius gasp. Elephants trumpet in alarm and jaguars scream in rage.

         Mordred's fingers fly along the flute, faster, faster, faster ....


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


This is Shogun's add:

          “Derrick! Wake up! The tunnel‘s collapsing!” came the shout, and with a resounding smack, Derrick’s head slammed into the low-lying ceiling above the alcove in which he was sleeping.
          “Halberd! When I recover my wits I’m going to strangle you!” rolling over, Derrick landed with a dull thud upon the rock floor.
          “How can you do that, gargy?” Halberd taunted, “you would need a chair just to reach my chest!”
          “Then I will find an axe and cut your legs off!”
          “Ya, you and what army? HA!” with that outcry, Derrick tackled Halberd and dragged him to the floor where they wrestled for a time until Hal managed to stand up. “As fun as this is ‘Rick, there is something you ought to see…”
          Gathering himself, Derrick buckled on his sledgehammers, grabbed his vest, and turned to face Hal, “Well, what are you waiting for? The plague?”
          “Just waiting for a little gargoyle to get ready. Now, on to business.” Halberd exited the bunk room with Derrick right beside him. “The local mercenaries have been summoned, their envoys have been arriving all through the night. Next, the local militia has joined the army,” forestalling Derrick’s question, “down to a man.”
          “I didn’t expect that…”
          “No one did. Also, a caravan from the mines just arrived.”
          “What! The caravan shouldn’t have set out yet, you just sent the messengers two days ago!”
          “I know, and even my fastest riders can’t cover that much ground that quickly. Speaking of which, the riders I sent to Dante’s Peak and the upper Fire Berrys should be arriving back soon.”
          “Do you think the clans will help?”
          “Well the caravan has a force from the independent towns with it…”
          “The independents have thrown in their lot?”
          “It would appear so. They were even organized by your cousin, no less.”
          “Matthias…” Derrick rumbled.
          “”Rick,” Halberd turned to face Derrick, “this is no time for your rage. I know that the two of you have never gotten along, but he also brought the mercenaries, and that Anglis fellow that you told me about.”
          “Anglis! How did he get to the mines? Last I saw him he was in Insel…”
          “I don’t know, but you can ask him yourself.” With that they entered a meeting room inside the Miners Guild.
          Arrayed in the seats before them were the mercenaries and lining the walls were the leaders of the caravan, the monkey commanders, and a representative of Monykom City’s militia. All in all, some seventy people were crammed into a room designed for less than half that. A rock podium stood at the head of all this, with a thoughtfully provided stool for Derrick to stand on.
          “All of you have been summoned here, and I thank you for being prompt, even though I do not see how you got here so quickly…” he motioned towards the caravan. “However, that is not the reason we are here, and is thusly unimportant. The business at hand is war. Not just any war either. This one will decide the fate of the kingdom, such as it is. And it will either reinstate a royal line, along with the gods we all believe to be dead, or we all be dead. Butchered by the very thing that has caused this plague among us.”
          “And just what is that?” spoke up a mercenary from the front.
          “That would be a dragon. Or as it maybe is called, a fire wyrm. This particular beast is in the service of a being known to me only as Metatron. Who he is, or how he is responsible for this, I don’t know. What I do know is that he stands between us, and absolution.” Staring out at the mercenaries and the miners he continued, “We all have things that we hide from, and ours is our past. We must be absolved of it once and for all!” he pounded on the rock.
          “But what do we get out of it?” another mercenary questioned.
          “You get to repair the damage that our kind did a brace of years ago!” Halberd shouted back.
          “I’m sorry, but I wasn’t alive when the temple was sacked. It’s going to take a lot more than a promise of absolution to get my band’s aid.”
          “You un…”
          “All warriors will be outfitted with the best Tang stock," Derrick interrupted. "Our armories and forges have been emptied. The equipment that you are issued is yours to keep, saying you survive the battle. If for some reason you do not survive, then we will take back our gift. If you take no part in the fighting though, I will personally hunt you down and kill you myself.”
          “Oh, I’m so scared!” the mercenary mocked, “How can such a little gargoyle of a man hurt me, I’m afraid my spear outranges your mace.” He swaggered back to his seat, but before he could sit down a sledgehammer slammed into the rock and pulverized it. A ghost white face turned to face Derrick, “H…how…”
          “As you can see, my sledges have quite the range. Now back to business. We march for the Temple tomorrow, relaying the Monkey troops as they arrive.”
         "Where will we be going?" someone asked.
         "We go to the Temple at the Gates," Derrick responded.
         Matthias raised his voice to add, "We've sent out scouts to determine the best place to make our stand."
          “Now will the dragon be all that we are fighting?” rose a militiaman’s voice.
          “We don’t know. From what we do know, we will have to deal with both the dragon, and this Metatron fellow. That is all. Now, see to your supplies from the caravan. We travel as light as possible, there's not a whole lot of time. And remember: tomorrow we march!” Leaning upon the podium Derrick watched the assembly leave, at least until he saw Anglis sitting in a chair, watching him.
          Rushing him with his shuffling gait, Derrick grabbed him a bear-hug and squeezed a hello. “Der…rick…I…can’t…breathe….”
          “Sorry, I just didn’t expect to see you! How did you get here so quickly? No! Never mind that! How did you get to the mines? And how did you rouse the independents to march?”
          “Well, as for your first question,” Anglis rubbed his chest, “I apparently used my spirit-walking ability and went there…”
          “Really? I thought you couldn’t control it?”
          “Well, I can’t. Not exactly at least…And as for the independents? I didn’t know there were different groups of your miners. Besides it was mostly your cousin that did it.” Anglis turned as Matthias walked up.
          “It’s nice to see you cousin.” he started.
          “I wish I could say the same.” Derrick replied, “Our last meeting wasn't precisely cordial. And I could’ve gone the rest of my life without seeing you again.”
          Nudging Halberd in the ribs, Anglis asked as quietly as he could, “What is he talking about? Matthias said that he was the one who sent him off…”
          “That isn’t possible.” Leaning down Halberd whispered in Anglis’s ear, “Lake town, where Matthias is from is in the northern reaches of the mines. Those that dwell there are called independents, because they are independent of the General Manager’s control. Furthermore, Derrick hasn’t set foot inside the town since he was eight years old.”
          “What! Why?” Grabbing Anglis’s arm, Halberd walked him back a few paces.
          “You know that Derrick was orphaned as a child right?”
          “Yes.”
          “His uncle, by way of his Father’s sister’s husband, claimed his wife’s brother’s possessions, as is appropriate when there is no male heir.”
          “But…”
          “Yes, Derrick was alive, but his uncle had him declared a nonentity by the Foreman of the town. That effectively stripped him of any claims that he may make on his father’s property. Suffice it to say, he was thrown out onto the street. And, I imagine that he had to desecrate his parents’ tombs to get the only things he was able to smuggle out, the sledges and the book that his family has had since who-knows-when.”
          “That’s horrible!”
          “Yes, but it doesn’t end there. As a nonentity, Derrick couldn’t work in Lake Town, and was forced to leave. He joined a caravan heading towards the Guild mines, and met up with his grandmother, on his mother’s side, and she raised him. She taught him everything he knows. She wanted him to be tough, and tough he is.”
         They both watched Derrick and Matthias, still shouting at one another, and rapidly approaching blows.
         "I was trying to help you!" Matthias was shouting.
         "Some help!" thundered Derrick. "If throwing me in jail was your version of help, then --"
         "You can't just expect to break into the tombs and walk off without anyone giving a da--!"
         Redirecting his attention, Halberd grabbed Derrick and Matthias and held them apart, “Now gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, enough of this! We have other things to be worrying about!”
          Still glaring at Matthias, Derrick shrugged off Halberd’s hand, “I still don’t want him here!”
          “Well too bad ‘Rick, because he is here. And HE is the head of the caravan too. And that means that he is a general in his own right! So stop fighting a losing battle!”
          “Fine! I’m done.”
          “What? Where are you going?” Anglis worried.
          “I am going to check the bells you brought, I mean, you did get the silver bells, right?”
          “Look, Derrick! I may be my father’s son, but I am no fool! I can do my job!”
          “Yes, you can do a job that shouldn’t be yours. Good for you, would you like a pat on the back, or maybe a cookie. Or do you remember we have a dragon to slay?”
         "Blast you, Derrick! I'm trying to do the right thing here!"
         Matthias and Derrick glared at each other, making Halberd swallow nervously. He really didn't want to get caught in the middle.
         Finally, Matthias took a deep breath and looked away. He gave himself a little shake and struggled to calm down. “The bells are lashed to a cart out front.”
          “Then led the way. Oh mighty Mayor…”
          “Enough of this!" snapped Halberd, as Matthias turned bright red and took a threatening step forward, "Derrick get in front of me, or I will carry you out like a spoiled little brat!”
          “You don’t need to threaten me, ‘Hal.”
          “Then get going! Little gargy.” Halberd ushered the three men up the spiral staircase, until they reached the main floor, then using his halberd he chased all of them outside to see the bells. Each one was lashed to its own cart, and they had drawn quite the crowd.
          “We broke them out of their moulds just before we left Lake Town, we’ve been polishing them all the way down here,” said Anglis.
         Derrick climbed up on a cart, and quickly placed and withdrew his hand from the bell’s surface. Jumping down, he favored is left hand and Anglis noticed what appeared to be burns.
          “Derrick are you hurt?”
          “No.”
          “Liar, show me your hand.”
          “I’m telling you I am not hurt.”
          “Then show me your hand!”
          “NO!”
         Halberd solved the problem by simply grabbing Derrick’s left had and raising it up. “How did you burn your hand Derrick?”
          “I just touched the bell, that’s all. And it burned me.”
          “It’s a SILVER bell, how could it burn you?” Matthias questioned doubtingly.
          “I don’t know. But I won’t touch it again, that’s for sure…”
          “Sirs!” a militiaman rushed up, “There are three men being escorted this way, they claim to represent the Clans. Who are the clans?”
          “The clans? I didn’t think…”
          “Nobody did.”
          “Why do you think they responded?”
          “I don’t know…What are you waiting for? Get them into the guild, NOW!” Heading back into the guild themselves, Derrick, Anglis, Halberd and Matthias had barely gotten seated when three muscular men were hustled in. Dressed in what looked like armor, but may have been only a skirt/dress/whatever, the three men each had a bandolier crossing from left shoulder to right hip, and on each one was a different metal shard.
          “I am Kang of the Ironore clan. These are my blood-brothers Koloth of the Silverore clan, and Kor of the Wolfsblade clan. We have brought 17 and a half score warriors to fight for the temple’s sacred summit.”
          “Seventeen and a half score? How many is that?”
          “Honestly didn’t you ever learn to count?” Matthias’s statement was met by a glare from Derrick, “Sorry, they brought 350 men with them.”
          “Only 350. With the 5000 monkey army, and roughly 2000 mercenaries, we won’t stand a chance…”
          “What do you mean, Anglis?”
          Nudging Matthias, Anglis murmured, “Tell them, you know better then me.”
          “Fine. Derrick, I don’t know if you have had to deal with them in the southern mines, but the gremlins in our area are moving.”
          “The goblins?” Derrick’s hatred forgotten, he leaned towards Matthias, “How many, and in what direction?”
          “Our scouts reported that the beasts are moving west, through the mountains. And the parties that we ran into with the caravan had numbers ranging from a few to 50 of the little beasts. We were even able to track them back to several caves, which we then blasted shut.”
          “So you brought the blasting powder?” A wicked smile crossed Derrick’s face, highlighting his fang-like teeth, “Listen up, I’ve got a plan…”


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


And now here comes transition time. Brace yourselves! *Bigsmile*


         Derrick, Anglis, Halberd, Sargent, Matthias, and most of Monykom City, were up before dawn the following day. If truth be told, few of the myriad militia and army leaders had slept much. Despite himself, Derrick even felt a bit of grudging admiration for the careful and complicated planning done by Matthias and the other miners on his staff. As the monkey army had disembarked from their ships all during the day and most of the night, militia from the city had escorted them in groups to camps outside the city walls. There was a constant stream of people and animals and supply wagons winding through the city. Once outside the gates, Matthias' helpers briefed the groups on what to take with them and what they needed to leave behind. They then steered them to the supply wagons where items were exchanged, and then to the camp where most settled down to sleep or arrange their packs.

         Matthias and Anglis had planned a short, tough trek North. The almost eight thousand men and women of the combined armies would be broken up into groups of about fifty, leaving at thirty minute intervals. They would march at a fast pace and those that fell behind would be left behind, to fall in with the next group or be rounded up by the supply wagons following far to the rear. Men of the Tang Mines even now were setting up temporary campsites, to be used each night. At each stop, every soldier, mercenary, miner, militiaman, or volunteer would recieve a fresh waterbag and food to take him or her to the next stop. The men manning the waystations would spend their time feeding and watering and lending whatever help was needed. They would pack up and follow once the last groups had passed.

         It was a complicated system, and the worst part were the horses and mules to pull the bells. Even light though they were, the horses and mules would be hard-pressed to keep up with the army. Extra animals were allotted to go with them and were waiting at each rest stop, but few were hard-hearted enough not to care about how much they'd be asking out of the animals.

         Matthias had a scout in each group and himself led the first party as soon as they'd gotten it arranged. Anglis went with the bells in the second group, and Derrick and Halberd in the third. Sargent left a capable man with Matthias' second in command to organize those following in the days ahead. He himself went with Derrick and Halberd to discuss battleplans. He knew what the princess' main idea was, but, having personally never seen the place where they would be fighting, he wasn't feeling too comfortable with the whole thing.

         All went well the first day for Anglis. As the horses and mules tired, they were exchanged for others and by noon Derrick's group had passed them by. They reached the first waystation with a minimum of difficulty and pressed on until it became too dark to see. They rested, and pressed on again before dawn. They broke a wheel midafternoon of the second day, but they were close enough to the next waystation for help to reach them without seriously setting them back. Even still, by the time they camped that night, three more groups had passed them by.

         "We are still making good time," said Frank, easing down beside the wagons with a sigh.

         There was no fire away from the waystations, as there was no way to carry it without overburdening horses they needed to pull the wagons. At most, each man among them carried his or her personal weapons, armor, a bedroll, waterbag, and food packet. Plus any personal memento or item that just couldn't be left behind. The monkey army was well-disciplined, but others on the march had not been and items had been strewn along the path as their bearers decided they weren't worth the weight.

         Anglis played with a grass whistle and stared up at the stars. He sat with his back against the wagon, his blanket about his shoulders. He was tired, very, very tired, and his feet hurt, but he wasn't yet sleepy.

         "How do you figure?" he asked Frank idly.

         "Well," said Frank, lighting his pipe. "We're beyond the second waystation, and they were spaced out on purpose to the pace of our wagons. We'll reach the next by nightfall tomorrow, and then it's just a matter of camping at one each night until we get there. That others passing us is a good sign, too. It means we'll likely have everyone with us by the time we reach the end."

         "I suppose you're right," sighed Anglis, but he couldn't help but wonder about the friends he had out there. Derrick to the North, marching ahead; Kiera, Dmitri, and Tai in Insel; Mordred and Marius wandering the jungle somewhere. And the princess, Marguerite, who he'd been looking forward to actually befriending. He felt guilty for jolting her forward into this time, and then abandoning her. He hadn't even said goodbye.

         "Thinking of your girl?" asked Frank with a chuckle.

         "Hmm? Me? No, why?"

         The older man laughed. "You've been over there, staring into the dark for the last five minutes, sighing deep enough to be pondering the deep questions of life." He chuckled. "Must be a girl."

         "No," said Anglis, shaking his head, "I'm merely wondering about this .. quest we're on. I know it's worth it, but all the same, seeing Derrick again has only reminded me of how far away all my friends are. I wonder how they're coming on."


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Derrick and Halberd's group slowed down as they reached the mountains. They had lost some of their men, but had filled in the holes with men who had fallen back from Matthias' group in the vanguard, continuing on through evening of the seventh day. They made camp and posted sentries, being too close to the enemy for everyone to get a full night's sleep. Sometime after moonrise, Derrick woke to a hand on his shoulder. Halberd crouched by his side, finger over his lips.

         "What is it, Hal?" Derrick whispered, throwing off his blanket and rolling it back up. After so many days on the road, he was ready after only a few seconds.

         "Matthias is here," replied the mercenary. "He wants us to follow him back to camp."

         Derrick rubbed the sleep from his eyes and helped him rouse the rest of their men. A few minutes later they all crowded round Matthias and a couple of scouts as they told them of the route.

         "We've found a better passage up the mountain, and a good place to make camp," Matthias said softly, but clearly. "I've sent my scouts back to the last waystation to re-direct the others our way."

         "Where've you decided to make camp, then?" asked Derrick.

         Matthias grimaced. "Well, the gremlins know we're here, so it didn't seem worthwhile to try and hide. We're setting up camp just on the edge of the meadow before the city."

         "What?" hissed Derrick, hearing his men grumble around him. "Are you crazy? In plain view of the enemy?"

         A flash of irritation crossed Matthias' weary face. "Not exactly, Derrick," he replied. "There's a slope and trees that will keep us from direct view. But the goblins are everywhere in these woods. They watch us, but they don't get close enough for us to hunt them down. Oh, I suppose we could, but we'd be hopelessly scattered before we'd gone more than a few steps. This place is hazardously rocky. The meadow is the only flat land around for miles. We'll all be somewhat on a hill, but it's flat enough to be useable, and the the little valley is stout enough to be well protected with a minimum of effort."

         Halberd gave Derrick an inquiring glance. "Seems all right with me," he said.

         Derrick shrugged. "Better to join up anyway," he grumbled. "How far're the bells behind us?"

         One of the scouts spoke up. "Look to be behind by about three days. They're making good time. We've also located four other of our groups and we're all re-locating to the valley. It'll make a good place if we have to make a stand."

         "Fine," said Derrick. "Let's go."

         "We have to make a slight detour," said Matthias. "The supply cache is on the way."

         Rolling his eyes, Derrick sighed.

         They crept through the forested mountainsides slowly and carefully. The scouts led the way to a series of small caves and proceeded to haul out the supplies. Every man among them were heavily encumbered by the time they'd hauled out the last of the items. But the trek from there to Matthias' chosen site was fairly close and they were all grateful to the fresh food and heavy blankets they were able to dole out. As dawn crept closer, Matthias sent out men to hunt as well as others to scout, with instructions to stay as far away from the enemy as possible. Then he took Derrick, Halberd, and Sargent up to the meadow.

         "Blue flowers," Derrick murmured.

         "What?"

         "Nothing."

         Dawn crept over the mountain, bathing the meadow in sunlight and it glowed blue from the flowers that grew among the grass. Far in the distance, still hidden in shadow, stood a huge wall, built into the side of the mountain. From where they stood, little was visible, but they could see the tops of ruined buildings and the roofs of others, with one that must be the old bell tower. As the day brightened, they could see what at first appeared to be a seething mass of darkness at the foot of the wall, but eventually broke into the individual bodies of their enemies.

         Matthias silently handed his spy-glass to Derrick. He said, "Goblins. Take a look."

         Derrick looked. He handed the spy-glass to Halberd. He stared at Matthias for a moment. "This is suicide," he said at last.

         "It certainly doesn't look good," Matthias agreed, rubbing at his beard.

         "Well I think that's the understatement of the year," growled Derrick. "It certainly gives me a better appreciation for the old tales."

         "Agreed," said Halberd, passing the spy-glass on to Sargent. "I understand now how they," he nodded to the city, "were able to hold out so long. That must have been something!"

         "That still leaves us with something of a problem here, though," muttered Matthias. "Do you want to get closer? We can move around the edge here and still keep some cover."

         "I don't see it, the dragon," said Sargent, handing the glass back to Matthias. "Did any of you?"

         They shook their heads. "We didn't see him last night, either," replied Matthias. "Wish we had. Gives me goosebumps to know he's out there, without knowing exactly where."

         "Yeah," grunted Sargent. "I saw that picture of Radit's. I'd rather have the thing where I can keep an eye on it."

         "But it may be better for the men this way," Halberd pointed out.

         "Let's get back to camp," suggested Derrick. "We need to go over Marguerite's plan and see to the organization of things. We've got to figure out how to pack eight thousand people in that valley without the goblins seeing too much."


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         Following the storm, Dmitri avoided the princess as much as possible. She made him distinctly nervous. After helping during the storm, she'd given him such an .. odd look and had told him that they would 'discuss this later.' Dmitri found himself loathe to talk about whatever was bothering her. The few times he'd caught her watching him had pretty much freaked him out. He felt .. unsettled under her gaze, both strangely thrilled and yet threatened, frightened almost.

         He paused by one of the stone pillars in the temple, looked both ways down the corridor and then, seeing that no one was there, turned and rubbed his back against the stone. He sighed with relief as the incessant itching eased.

         "Dmitri!"

         He jumped, spilling his books and slate across the floor. He scrambled to retrieve them, flushing under Kiera's curious look.

         "Have you seen Anglis?" she asked, handing him one of the primers.

         Dmitri shook his head. "Not since the storm. Why?"

         She frowned in concern. "No one else has, either. His servants say he hasn't been back to his room in days."

         "He -- what, Anglis has servants?"

         She laughed. "Of course." She gave him a quizzical glance. "Does that bother you? I didn't think ...."

         Dmitri shook his head, but he felt ruffled. Was he upset? Jealous, perhaps? That didn't make sense, he hated people waiting on him, especially when he was sick. Why then did he feel so weird? He sighed. Kiera was laughing at him. Somehow that made him feel a little better.

         She patted him on the arm as she gave him the last of the books and his little bag of chalk. "Don't worry, Dmitri," she laughed. "I won't tell. I'm rather envious myself. Everyone else seems to be off on grand adventures except for us!" She lowered her voice conspiratorily. "I'll bet he's off doing his spirit-walking thing again. Never mind us twiddling our thumbs off in boredom back here! Well, I'm going to go watch Tai at weapons practice. See you later!"

         Dmitri absently scratched his back again, musing.

         "Ah, Dmitri!"

         For the second time, he jumped, dropping his books all over the place. He scowled, feeling perilously close to cursing. Why was he so tense?

         "You're jumpy," observed Setiawan, lending a hand to pick up the books.

         Dmitri grunted, not trusting himself to speak.

         Unfazed, Setiawan asked, "So how are you coming on your reading? Brother Palus tells me you're progressing well in the older script, but not so well on what we currently use."

         Shrugging, Dmitri answered, "The old stuff just seems to make more sense."

         "Hmm, few would make that observation. Why don't you walk with me? I'm going up to the gardens and I thought you might want to see."

         "The garden?" asked Dmitri.

         "Yes. You see, we built a grand garden at the top of this temple," explained the priest. "Any flower that has ever bloomed on this island blooms above. It's the most beautiful, most peaceful place in the world."

         "Insel seems like that to me," replied Dmitri. He shifted his books, letting his fingers slide along the wall as they walked.

         "We weren't always so, you know," continued Setiawan. "Our people were a very war-like race, before the gods came to us. Once our people sailed all the world's oceans, raiding others for what we wanted. With the gods' teachings, we soon realized that such was wrong and we turned to learning for knowledge's sake, of crafting and building things and making things instead of destroying them." He touched the wall, too, and smiled at Dmitri.

         The smile vanished. "Dmitri, you're bleeding!" The priest grabbed Dmitri and pulled him around, gingerly touching his back. "Does this hurt?"

         "No, I -- ah, yeah, that hurts."

         "Come on, we'll go see Radit first."

         "Oh, no, do I have to? Surely it's not that bad, is it?"

         "You don't want to have Radit look at you?"

         "Well, um, no, but .. couldn't I see the garden first?"

         Setiawan blinked, staring at him, but then he shrugged and began walking again. "Very well. I'll send someone to fetch the healer."

         Dmitri groaned. What now?

         Setiawan spoke about the temple as they walked, and climbed. Dmitri was absorbed in the stories. He even laughed at the antics of some of the students, and was entranced by the stories of the building of the temple and of the engravings on the walls. He'd done quite a bit of wandering around in his days there, but now some of what he'd seen began to make more sense and he began to feel the immensity of the building. The halls were quieter over the last few days as healers and priests joined the army and some of the students packed up to help out as a large majority of the city just seemed to vanish. Some of them would come back, but most might never return and that left a huge gap in the workings of the city.

         But they arrived in the garden at last and Dmitri stared about in wonder. He breathed deeply of the life all around him and felt an indescribable weight lift from his shoulders. He turned his face up to feel the warmth of the sun. He sighed and smiled, kicking off his shoes to run like a child through the grass. Books forgotten, he romped through the semi-wild garden, climbing trees and marveling at the colorful birds. Eventually he settled down and strode the paths quietly, lost in the beauty all around him.

         After a while, Dmitri realized that he was anticipating the twists in the path and the turns he took were no longer random, but as if he knew where he was going. The serenity of the garden had him in its thrall, however, and he couldn't gather enough concerns to be worried. He closed his eye and let his feet take him where they would.

         He saw the statues first and stared at them in wonder. He stepped forward, towards the central figure, as someone cleared her throat. He whirled around, startled. Marguerite stood there, with Radit, Setiawan, and Ramelan.

         "Wait!" Marguerite called, as Dmitri made as if to bolt. "Rangsey, wait!"

         Dmitri tripped over his own feet and fell, bruising his knee on the edge of one of the statues. He turned around, hobbling, wanting to stay and yet needing to flee. He felt trapped and the air around him seemed to be closing in. He was conscious of his head hurting again, throbbing in painful accompaniment to the dim pain in his bruised knee. He backed up until there was nowhere else to go.

         "Don't!" he said, but Dmitri didn't recognize his own voice. That confused him even more.

         Marguerite approached cautiously, Radit close behind. "It's okay, Dmitri," she said. "I just want to talk."

         "No!" Dmitri dragged in air, struggling to keep breathing. He was shaking all over and felt disoriented.

         Radit touched Margie on the shoulder, shaking his head at her. They stopped, only a few feet away from Dmitri. The man was like a wild animal trapped in a cage, spooked and dangerous. He clutched at the statue of Prem as if that were the only way he kept standing.

         "I know you're there, Rangsey," Margie said, "I have felt you. Please, we need to talk. How can this be?"

         Dmitri shuddered, falling to his knees. He felt like someone had just hit him in the head. The gardens spun around him at a dizzying pace and the agony in his head intensified. He felt someone touch him on the arm, and then blissfully slid into darkness.

         As when she had touched him during the storm, Margie felt something slide beneath her hand when she touched Dmitri's arm. He physically slumped to the ground, but someone else remained, kneeling calmly in the grass. Although in shades of gray, she recognized him instantly.

         "Rangsey!" she cried, "I knew it was you!"

         He smiled, the laugh lines at the corners of eyes and mouth crinkling, just as she remembered. He had less hair, and what was left was now mostly silver, but the eyes shined pale-blue and the old, wrinkled hands gripped hers tightly.

         "Dearest," he said. He bowed and kissed her hands, a soft breath of air.

         Tears poured, unheeded, down Margie's cheeks. "Oh, Rangsey! What has happened? I'm so afraid! Tell me what's going on!"

         He squeezed her hands gently and sighed. The pleasure at seeing her faded, to be replaced by an infinite sadness. "I'll tell you, child, but it is a long story." He looked away for a moment, gathering his thoughts.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         The ghost of the Holy Emissary Rangsey, Keeper of the Gate, begins:

         "The beginning of this story is not at the time of the gods' arrival to this world, nor to their conversion of the people of Vrede. No, this tale begins between those two times, when the gods discovered Shrivijaya. They fell in love with the island and its inhabitants, and they were anxious to please their new followers. To this end, the gods between them created a great angel, the Archangel of Creation, and they named him Metatron.

         "To Metatron the gods gave many gifts. The angel grew powerful. He began to act more and more of his own initiative. He soon began to desire his own pedestal amongst the gods, to be a part of the adoration of the people. He grew angry when denied, but still wished to earn his way by proving that he was just as powerful as they. He made his own angel, Bayarmaa, the Archangel of Joy.

         "The gods were outraged and banished Metatron and his creation, forever denied what he desired above all else. That dejection turned to anger and was soon fused into a seething armor of hatred.

         "The Goddess Menabra was worried. Her sister, the Goddess Eirny, foretold of devastation and destruction from Metatron. The gods decided to branch out to the mainland, to extend their influence and seek for some means of protection. Their loyal servants found our land, converted the wild wanderers here, and so was founded our Kingdom, Vrede.

         "Metatron had many powers and Menabra, determined to avoid a repeat of the past, bid her fellows to create their own angels. Only one each, to guard the vast new Citadel and their new home at the top of the Sacred Mountain. Menabra was the first. She took of the living substance of the earth itself and melded it into a mighty angel. As she did so, Eirny had a terrible vision, terrifying in its depiction of the violence to come should this angel be allowed life. She warned Menabra and instructed her to split the angel into two equal parts. This earthen vessel then became two angels: Raphael, the Archangel of Life, and Dimitrios, Archangel of the Harvest.

         "From each of the other gods came other angels: Skuld, the Angel of Wisdom; Remiel, the Angel of Mercy; Vivek, the Angel of Justice; Amando, the Angel of Love; Gaenor, the Angel of Darkness; and Tempest, the Angel of Lightning, Child of Storms. To each was given the solemn duty of protecting the gods and their home, the Gates of Heaven at the top of the Sacred Mountain.

         "The angels were created over many centuries and for many more all lived in peace. Then one day the Goddess Eirny had another vision, summoned all the angels home, and called a counsel with the other gods, myself, and the Queen. Dimitrios and Raphael were missing. 'They must be found,' Eirny told us. 'The fate of us all rests on a knife's edge they hold in their hands.'

         "Saint Skuld it was who returned from Monykom City with news of the missing angels. Dimitrios had been sighted in the claws of a great beast, flying low over the ocean to the East. She believed that the beast was indeed the monstrous dragon form of the Archangel Raphael. Now Skuld had a mighty gift, of communicating without speaking to all her brothers and sister. Raphael, she told us, would not heed her, and Dimitrios could not. She could not tell us if he yet lived.

         "Then we knew great fear, for the Queen died soon after, without speaking the name of her appointed heir. The inheritance of the line went instead to the nearest relative, Prince Desmond, and the time of darkness began. So we began our preparations, building up the defenses of our great citadel and helping those persecuted by Desmond and his laws.

         "One day Dimitrios returned to us, bearing ill tidings. He told us of his capture by Raphael and the angel's fall to the path of evil at the side of Metatron. He also braved the Gods' anger to relate to them the loss of one of their kin: Prem, Lord of Love, Patron of artisans and craftsmen, had fallen in battle with Metatron.

         "All creatures of the wind and light revile the darkness and loathe enclosure. So Dimitrios had been held against his will. He called upon the love he held for his brother to free him, and such was the power of his need that Lord Prem was able to follow that prayer all the way to its source. He freed the angel, but it came at a terrible price. Metatron returned to his fortress of stone, brought also by the angel's prayer, and the two, God and Betrayer, battled. In the end, Prem was defeated, giving credence to all the gods' fears. Indeed it was as Eirny had predicted. Metatron could destroy them.

         "The evil news Saint Dimitrios brought us also warned us that Metatron had built his own army, deep within the bowels of the Tang Mines. These minions, led by Bayarmaa, were charged with conquering the land of the gods and claiming it in the name of the 'One True God.' Such was Metatron now claiming to be.

         "Shortly after, Desmond marched on the Gates. Soon, we were to learn of a terrible pact, whereas Desmond swore to convert this land to Metatron's followers, in exchange for rule for himself. Our armies fought before and above the Gates. We lost. Only from the information that Dimitrios brought back was anything saved at all.

         "Queen Masako had entrusted me with the key to the Gates before her death, to be passed on to her heir. The gods told me not to recognize Desmond, for I had no successor of my own and they feared to allow me in his presence, even with their protection. On the eve of battle, I made ready to climb the Stair and lock the Gates. Then I should send both my medal of office, and the key to you, Marguerite, the last of the royal line, in the hope that you could do what we had failed to do. I sent you as well Eirny's last gift to me, a prophesy of hope. Or so I intended, but in my haste, I gave the empty box to my messenger, keeping the prophesy with me.

         "With the help of the angels, I attained the Gates and locked them. In so doing, I lost my crest and my hopes seemed extinguished. I fled with Dimitrios as far as the Queen's City. It was there that Metatron's curse caught us. We were both dying, but the Lady Goddess Menabra had entrusted Dimitrios into my care and I did the only thing I could think of to save his life. We merged, an old secret I'd learned, among others, whilest studying in Insel. I was able to shield us both from Raphael and Metatron by that alteration and when he rose refreshed and whole I knew the time had come. I still strove to shield him from notice. They thought him dead and I wanted them to keep on believing that. And then the rede came to him in a dream and I could no longer protect him. I've tried, but Raphael has sapped my strength until there is very little left.

         "Wake him up. You are the only one who can break the spell I cast. This is the only hope I can give you now. Saint Dimitrios must return to Vrede and face his demons."

         "But how am I to do that?"

         He brushed her forehead with a kiss and smiled gently. "I have faith in you, Dearest Marguerite. You will know what to do."


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         As Margie watched, Rangsey faded and was gone. She turned to Dmitri, still laying prone on the grass. She noticed that his shirt stuck to him; his back was wet with blood. Margie frowned, disconcerted and concerned. To her eyes, Dmitri still looked like a large jigsaw puzzle, with the darkness now seeming to be holding back the light, jagged cracks through which spilled white-hot energy.

         Sighing, Margie reached out and shook him by the shoulder. "Dmitri!" she said. "Dmitri!"

         No response. Her hand tingled and she looked at it, wondering. Then, she shook him harder. "Dimitrios! Saint Dimitrios! It's time to wake up!"

         Although outwardly nothing else changed, Margie felt Dmitri tense under her hand. She watched as his single eye opened, and she gasped in surprise. His eye was normally a murky light brown, but now it shone golden in color. He also seemed to be quite confused, even frightened, and the changes to his facial expression made him seem like a totally different person.

         A voice that was not his issued from Dmitri's throat, a younger voice of early adulthood, trembling with emotion as even his body shook. "Do not ask this of me, I beg you! I - I am afraid."

         "We need you, Saint Dimitrios," Margie insisted, forcing herself to stay calm. "Please."

         "No!" His whisper had the force of a shout but although she flinched, Margie stayed put.

         "I need you," Margie pressed. "We need you if this quest is to succeed."

         Dmitri dared to look up at her. His one good eye begged, as he would not let his voice betray, "Please! Do not ask this of me!"

         Margie tore her gaze from Dmitri's tormented plea. She turned instead, to stare up at the statue of the Goddess Menabra. She said a silent prayer and faced Dmitri again.

         "Your Goddess needs you. Would you turn your back on her?"

         Dimitrios whimpered and a lone tear escaped before he could squeeze the eye closed. He reached inside his battered psyche and, pain and grief flooding his heart, reached for the kernel of himself he'd hidden deep away, and gave it back to himself, to the person he'd become...

         Margie jerked as the body beneath her hand stiffened and then was still. She then had to shield her eyes with her hands and staggered back. When the brilliant afterimages faded from her sight, Dmitri - no, Dimitrios, knelt in the garden, his face a tangled mass of confusion, fear, pain, bitterness, and determination. He was a startling sight, having grown slightly taller and broader, his tan darker, his muscles more pronounced. The past had reclaimed part of Dmitri's face, turning him into someone else, though the hair remained the same. The most striking part of the transformation, however, were the wings, glistening with moisture, but rapidly drying into a rich, deep, dark, evergreen color.

         "I," he murmured, in Dmitri's old voice, "I feel really strange."

         He put both hands to his head, unmindful of the fact that he was suddenly all but naked. Margie blushed. "Uh..."

         He looked up, staring at her. A thousand expressions flashed across his face, but mostly alternating between surprise and embarrassment. He clutched at the remains of his clothes and flushed. He seemed to have trouble remembering who and where he was.

         "I'm Marguerite," she said softly, gently. "Remember me?"

         "P-princess?"

         She smiled. "Yes, that's right. You're in Insel, in the gardens of the Temple of the Faith."

         "But ..." he paused and looked around, seeing the others. He shook his head slightly. "I don't - this isn't right ..." He stared at her, blinking rapidly. He groaned and clutched at his head again.

         "Dimitrios? Are you okay?"

         The angel folded in on himself, collapsing with a sigh into the grass.

         Radit ran up, reassuring Margie with a smile. "It's okay, your highness, he's just disoriented. It'll pass."


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


And now to the Gates!

         Kiera and Tai waited for Margie at the army's practice grounds. There weren't too many people there now, only the old or the very young, and they were all dispirited because they hadn't been allowed to join the army when they left. Still, the older ones trained the younger ones, and Kiera and Tai awaited their turn. Tai was in a funk, drinking heavily, and muttering about killing ghosts. She made Kiera nervous, but not as much as some of the others, who studiously avoided them.

         "Oh, hey look," said Kiera, pointing. "Margie's coming! Who's that she's got with her? Dmitri?" Kiera shook Tai's arm. "C'mon, Tai!"

         Kiera ran up to Margie and Dmitri. He looked .. different. "Wow! Cool wings!"

         He blushed, shifting from foot to foot awkwardly. Margie laughed.

         Tai snarled, sliding her knife from its sheath. "Who are you and what do you want!"

         Dimitrios backed away as she slashed at him. "Tai! Tai, it's me! Stop it!"

         "Oh yeah? Prove it!"

         He ducked under the next attack and caught her hands, holding her easily and effortlessly off the ground. "Stop it. I'm not going to hurt you. Remember the ruins of the Queen's C -- I mean, Stonehenge? You fished out the chest, remember? I was there, I'm still Dmitri."

         She scowled, but quit struggling. "Then I'm either drunk or you've got wings."

         He laughed and put her down. "You are drunk and I do have wings. Meet the new me."

         "What are you?" asked Kiera, daring to touch the silky soft feathers.

         He blushed again, deeper this time. "I'm an angel. I -- " He stopped and looked south-east, into the jungle. "Something's coming!"

         Elephants crashed out of the jungle, trumpeting in alarm, their harnesses flapping in the force of their passage. They were surrounded by light and wind, and did not seem to be running on the ground. Tai, Kiera, and Margie covered their ears and turned to flee, but Dimitrios stood rooted to the spot. He could feel the demand coming from the center of that chaos. He could feel the music at the core of that maelstrom of power. There was rage and something else that hinted at time itself.

         Dimitrios grabbed the princess' hand. "Grab Kiera and hold tight!" he told her. Then he snagged Tai and leaped into the storm, wings flailing to keep his balance and direction.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*


         They arrived at the army encampment in a confused and tattered pile. The elephants trumpeted in alarm and confusion. Soldiers from the camp hurriedly ran to take charge of the beasts and calm them. Derrick ran towards them from his tent. Mordred slumped over the side of his elephant and slid to the ground in a heap, unconscious. Soldiers helped Marius to dismount and to fetch the healer to see to his hands. Tai and Kiera stood off to the side, staring around in amazement.

         "What just happened?" asked Kiera.

         Marguerite took the uprooting and sudden arrival at the Gates in stride. She shook off her remaining disorientation and beckoned to Dimitrios, leaving the swarming beesnest of the army camp.

         Dimitrios and Margie strode away together towards the edge of camp. The army had progressed as far as the meadows before the mighty gates leading into the city of the Temple at the Gates. There were no doors now, of course, but the walls remained. The sentries saluted Margie as they passed. She beckoned and one of them hurried over.

         "What have you seen?" she asked the man.

         He swallowed nervously. "Um, we've seen all manners of creatures, human-like but not. Some with wings, most without. I, um, would you like to use my spy-glass?"

         Margie took the instrument with a soft word of thanks. She looked through one end and pointed the other at the gates. Too many monsters moved beyond for her to really get a good look at any individual, but at her side, Dimitrios moaned. Margie turned to him, concerned. He gave her a desparate look and sank to the ground, all hunched over and holding his stomach.

         "Ugh, I think I'm going to be sick!"

         Margie stared. The transformation was so quick that her own stomack did a few flips. Instead of the majestic, powerful angel she was getting used to, she now saw just the old Dmitri, and he looked terrible. All color had leached from his face. He trembled and his body was shiny and slick with sweat. He also seemed to be staring, transfixed, at something atop one of the walls. She trained the spy-glass at that spot. What she saw made her catch her breath. A woman stood there - no, an angel! She had large, feathery, blood-red wings. She wore black garments and armour. A sword hung at her waist. She stood with both hands on hips and appeared to be laughing. Really, she was strikingly beautiful.

         Margie gave the spy-glass back to the sentry, instructed him to go for help, and then crouched beside Dimitrios. He gasped for air in great mouthfuls and his eyes were wide and staring.

         "Dimitrios? What's wrong?"

         "It's ... her!" he managed to say. He cast a desperate look in Margie's direction. "B-Bayarmaa."

         "Who?"

         He retched again and spat a little, shivering even more vigorously now. He groaned. "I don't know if I can do this! I'm sorry, I ...."

         "I can't understand unless you tell me," Margie said softly. "It's all right, we all do what we can."

         His eye, when he looked back up at her, seemed much larger than usual, and clouded with old memories and remembered pain. His teeth chattered and he clenched his jaw for a moment before he spoke. "Y-you can't look straight at her," he said, "or you'll ... go mad. I-I, um ...."

         Margie patted his shoulder awkwardly while he dry-heaved again. "Oh, Dimitrios," she sighed sadly. "When you were captured, she was there, wasn't she?"

         "I-I wished I was dead!" he whispered back. Tears filled his eye, but did not fall. "We didn't have t-time for me to fully recover. We used mind blocks so that I could focus on the defense of the temple. But --"

         "So that's what Rangsey meant," interrupted Margie. "He was trying to keep Raphael from accessing those memories. Oh, Dimitrios, I'm so sorry."

         Anger pulsed wildly in Dmitri's veins. "H-he must have known I'd react l-l-like this!" he spat. "I c-can't d-do this, Princess! I-I'm useless!"

         "No!" she protested.

         And then Mordred, ashen-white and shaking a little from his own ordeals, crouched at Dmitri's other side. He waited silently for the angel to somewhat recover and then took his face in his hands and stared directly into Dimitrios' single eye.

         Dimitrios was in shock. That one glimpse of Bayarmaa had severely handicaped his mind. Booby-trapped, all the blocked memories had flooded his mind, sending him psychicly reeling. He cast about frantically for help but he could feel the present slipping away from his grasp. The afternoon was fading into darkness; the Princess' concerned face morphed into his enemy. He could feel the shackles on his wrists again, digging into skin.

         But as he had so long ago, the God of Love came to his rescue. He held back the darkness, and gave him something solid to cling to.

         "Concentrate," Mordred instructed. "Focus on my face. Hear my voice. Listen. You are free. Whole. New. Focus, Dmitri. Concentrate. Feel the sun, warm on your back. There's grass beneath your feet. Your friends are here with you. We are here. Bayarmaa --" Dimitrios' head jerked in Mordred's grasp and his whole body shuddered. Mordred started over.

         "Focus on my face, Dmitri. Feel the sun. Hear my voice. She can't get to you. Understand? Concentrate! Do you understand? Listen to me, Dmitri. Bayarmaa cannot harm you while I am here. Focus on my face. Hear my voice. I will not let her get to you. Do you understand?"

         The angel nodded,