This plot thread was recently concluded upon the news group. It was initiated by Destrius Dragon, and to date has had subsequent contributions from Cat (Christopher A Tew or the Dragon Formerly Known as Abstract), Concussed Dragon, Dalboz Dragon, Darkling Dragon, Dracos Dragon, Goldenflame Dragon, Great Siberian Dragon, Helgraf Dragon, Landon Skyfire, Library Dragon, Paulon Dragon, and St George's Dragon. The final Update was on the 10th of April 2000.

This page is an attempt to lay the thread out in a coherent story format, so the order of text given here does not match the actual posting order or structure as it appeared on rgcud. Obvious typos will also be corrected if they get noticed. This archive is the work of Paulon Dragon, but all that's really being done is laying out the work of the other contributors for ease of reading.

This plot thread is a sequel to one entitled 'A New Age of Darkness' which concluded in early June.


a plot thread from RGCUD

The ground rules for this thread, as set out by Destrius, are as follows:

Yep, here it comes. The mini-plot-thread that will serve as a prequel to ANAoD2.

But first, before I begin, a few rules and tips to get everything going smoothly.

First, this is a serious plot, so no flying cream pies, monster cinnabons, or rubber duckies of DOOM!!~.

[glances at Moa]

Next, do note that this will not be a standard fantasy adventure plot. I'm aiming at more of a mystery plot, so while fighting is ok, try to keep it to a minimum. Major contributions to the plot would be in the lines of leaving clues embedded in your post, like perhaps a staff which has a spider etched on its base which proves as a key to a later discovery.

This is also more recon, as you may gather from ANAoD, because we're going to find out who and what is Amsereth, who is by now somewhere in another realm. Think Indiana Jones, not Batman. :)

Okay, now that's settled, we'll start. Anybody can join in, and people who want to get into ANAoD2 but were not in the first plot are strongly encouraged, as this will help tie in the plots better.

So onwards to the story...

It is dark tonight.

Far away in his homeland, Destrius gazes out of his hut, pondering the new information he has just recieved.

There is more to him than I had first guessed, then. I could leave this matter to rest, yes, and forget about it all. But it still haunts my mind, burning it with questions. I must find out. But I cannot go alone.

Making up his mind, the mage exits his home into an open field, and draws a large circle upon the ground with his staff.

Then, he closes his eyes and collects his power...




<< Britannia >>

In the middle of Spiritwood lies a small white stone. Many have seen it before, but paid it no attention. Stones of this type are plentiful and common, and virtually worthless.

Tonight, however, the stone glows brightly, a pulsating yellowish haze of energy surrounding it.

Britannia is swept by a strong wind. Horses awake, and people close their windows in fear of an oncoming storm, but soon the wind disappears and everything returns to its calm, pleasant state.

But some things have changed.

Across the land, yellow doors of light open, strange moongates that lead to a common destination.

<< Tideron >>

The mage sighs, and waits.

In an ancient and mostly forgotten cellar beneath the Lycaeum, a hunched figure starts from his near-slumber as one of the gates opens near the room.

"Hmph!" He peers at it, shrugs, and puts down a pen he's been doing nothing with for far too long. "Well well well..."

He stands, stretches, and stares at his bookcase, trying to find something he hasn't read at least fifteen times already. Giving up, the Library Dragon snatches one off the shelves and stumps towards the moongate.

"Yellow..." He thinks. The word yellow wanders through his mind, looking for something to connect with.

And then he is gone.

A man rides on horseback through the plains of Britannia. It is a quiet time, and he rides for pleasure.

Britannia is swept by a strong wind. Horses awake, and people close their windows in fear of an oncoming storm, but soon the wind disappears and everything returns to its calm, pleasant state.

The wind blows back his hair and carries with it a strange scent. The horse stops, and for a moment refuses to move.

Goldenflame, Paladin of Trinsic, turns his horse around and cuts short his ride. "That," he thinks, "felt like a Call." The wind dies down but Goldenflame's resolve does not die with it, as the horse's hooves spraying dirt behind him.

Goldenflame drops an extra coin into the hand of the stableboy. "And take good care of him, you hear?" The stableboy nods in wide eyed wonder and leads the Paladin's horse deeper into the stables, while Goldenflame turns and exits into the cool air.

As he walks down the cobblestone street of Trinsic he wonders what this sense of urgency means- it has not decreased but rather grown in intensity since the sudden wind that spooked his mind. But he is disciplined- there are things that much first be taken care of before he can answer the call he felt resonating within. And so he walks, swiftly, home.

His home is a small building just outside the walls of the city. Close enough to be fairly safe, but not within the constricting confines of city life. A small garden grows behind the cottage, a tribute to the life of his wife, who died in one of the riots that ensued in the wake of the dismantling of the Fellowship. Goldenflame can count the number of times since taking up the Sword that he lost control of himself on one hand- that night counts for two digits. She loved flowers and gardens, and is in fact one of the primary reasons why their home is outside the walls... Goldenflame maintains the small garden for her.

He checks on the garden, taking precautions to make sure that it can survive his prolonged absense, and then goes inside.

A shimmering yellow gate stands stark in his front room. The calling inside him rises to a fever pitch, and he can barely resist the urge, no the need, to step through. But he does, and he moves to the back of the cottage to a large wooden chest, which he carefully unlocks with the key behind the fireplace mantle, hidden within a false brick. As quickly as he can, he dons the armour found within, and belts at his side his sword, Ezwildon. Shield on his right arm, helm in that hand, and head high, he gives in to the calling and steps through the Gate.

A ranger wanders through the woods by himself. In the night of the forest, he is perfectly shrouded, except of the occasional snap of a twig under his feet. Dalboz does not feel a need for stealth at this time. He has simple come out to the woods tonight to think, to ponder, to meditate.

He pauses by an exceptionally large tree and looks up. This looks like a good place to rest. In a matter of seconds, Dalboz has climbed tree, and is sitting comfortably in a small nook between branches. He looks over the landscape, bathed in the light of the moons, and ponders. He begins to lose himself in thought as he ponders the forest and his place in life.

Suddenly, he blows past him, blowing his hood back, as if in answer to an unasked question. Normally, Dalboz wouldn't take no heed of the wind, but something something is different about it. There seems to be something in this wind that he can't quite put his finger on. The more he think about it, the more curious he becomes, and the stronger the feeling in the back of his mind gets; the feeling that something important is about to happen.

He begins to climb down...

Moving through the darkness of the forest, Dalboz still feels the chill wind at his back, despite the cover offered by his cloak and hood. Something is amiss, something big. He can feel it feel it, like a distant call, a call for help, a call to arms, a call to justice...

Dalboz stops in the middle of the road. The wind has suddenly stopped. Not sure why he choose to do this, Dalboz stops and waits, simply feeling that this is the right thing to do.

With a brilliant flash of light, a yellow moongate appears before, as if showing the path to destiny. Pondering the meaning of this, Dalboz checks himself over. He is dressed simply and casually, in forest garb with a dark green cloak and hood. He made sure to were his new, sturdy boots tonight as his old ones would not have withstood a trip this far. He only armourment is a long bow, a full quiver of arrows, and a small dagger strapped to the inside of his boot with handle barely showing over the top. But somehow, Dalboz feels that he isn't going to need these weapons, that something else, something to be provided, something within himself will be the key.

With little hesitation, Dalboz steps into the moongate and into his destiny...

It is raining in Minoc, a pure clean rain washing away the collected soot originating from the city's many forges and fireplaces. One such forge casts a dim light on a small room somewhere in the city. Hanging on the walls of the room are the various tools of a Tinker, hammer, tongues, anvil, bucket and a large fierce looking axe. Also, in the room stands a coatrack, piled with clothing and casting a shadow in the flickering light like some shambling monstrousity that crawled from the Stygian Abyss. A simple wooden table flanked by two chairs is also in evidence in the room and a set of cupboards are attached to the wall, their contents kept secret behind the closed doors. In the far corner from the forge shrouded in darkness is the sole exit from the room. The rain patters down the outside of the only window in the room, forming strange patterns as it travels down the glass. Under the window is a bed the blankets so creased and ruffled it is impossible to see if it is occupied.

Suddenly, one of the aforementioned Yellow Moongates makes an appearance in the this room, casting a strong but eerie light on the surroundings. Something in the bed stirs.

"What in Britannia is that doing in my room." Saint George's Dragon rising up from the bed exclaims. "Hmm, a summons, if its not one thing its another. I think I'll need my hat for this one." He grumbles as he stumbles over to the coat rack and pulls a plain grey looking fedora from the depths of the rack.

He places the hat firmly on his head looks himself over to make sure he is properly attired and then grabs his trusty axe from the wall. He stares at the portal for a few moments as if sizing it up before confidently stepping into it and into what ever lies beyond.

<<Serpents Spine Mountains>>

In a dark, lonely cave, after nearly two hundred years of non-ending slumber, a large silver-scaled dragon opens her eyes. She feels drowsy and confused, her mind chaotic, her thoughts scattered, but it doesn't take long to discover that her body still obeys her. With a slight groan, she stands up and tries to look around.

There's nothing to see but darkness, scary, silent darkness which feels like a chocking black velvet bag over her head. Still too confused to be really scared, Great Siberian finally remembers a lighting spell. A sight revealed to her by the spell is not appealing at all: thick blankets of disgusting cobwebs covering the barren walls, spiders and rats crawling on the floor. What in the name of virtues had happened to her beautiful tapestries, family silver, magnificent carpets that her mother had woven so patiently many, many years ago?

Shaken and disgusted, she stumbles out of the cave, completely forgetting the first rule of her family: change to human form before you even think of sticking your nose out of the safety of the cave. Suddenly, she stops, her attention arrested by a fantastic sight. A few metres away from the cave entrance, an unusual yellow moongate is standing. For a few moments, she just stands there in amazement, then takes a few careful steps forward. Only then she realises, in horror, that she has broken the family rule, and after a few futile attempts, she changes herself into a human, tall, dark-haired young woman called Daria.

Daria takes a deep breath and steps into the light... She has absolutely no idea what strange place the gate will lead her to, what people or creatures she would meet, or what dangers await her. All that she knows is that her awakening and the appearance of the strange yellow gate was no coincidence at all...


In a small room in a small house in some distant corner of reality, a man's screams for mercy had just been cut short. His arterial spray coated the walls and the ceiling. For a coward, he had a strong heart. Or maybe just too much sodium in his diet. In any case, he was dead, and my job was done. My sword, even though it had just cut a head off, was clean.

I have a nice sword.

I went into the kitchen and dug in the dead man's refridgerator. I found a Dos Equis least the coward had good taste in beer. I popped it open, took a pull, and decided that I'd go on vacation from the assassination business for a month or two.

My employer wouldn't mind...he'd know about the death tomorrow.

So...where to?

Yeah...that's the place...wait, no, there's that one bastard who wants to kill me for killing his son. Hmm. Yeah...Paris in the summer...

I finish the beer and throw it against a wall. Then I reach into my long black leather coat, which is as neat as my sword, and pull out the assassin's best friend. See, some really brilliant guy managed to figure out how the universe *really* worked, and invented this expensive little thing. A five-dimensional teleporter. Go anywhere, anytime. Wanna kill someone from within their mind? Go for it.

So I tell it where and when I want to go through the typical neural interface, and the usual silver gate pops up. I step through...


...And I'm falling. Falling through a beautiful, crisp night sky. Falling from so high I can't see the ground. Falling from so high, I'm waxing poetic, cuz I know I'm gonna die. This ain't Paris in the summer.

A cry from somewhere far away rings in my ears, and the world becomes a white void.



A man clad in a black coat wandered in the blizzard. His thin, pale face showed no signs of cold. It did, however, show signs of extreme anger and loss. He tripped on a buried rock and fell to his knees. He looked down at the ground, praying, maybe. I do not know. Looking back up, he saw a yellow gate, much like the black one that he had fallen through hours earlier. He gazed about the snow blasted waste, shrugged, and stepped through the gate. It closed around him, and that was the last that we, the Gwani, ever saw of him.

<<Moonglow - late at night.>>

High above the dwellings of the plebs stand the towers of magery. Moonglow is a city of contrast; magic is the fluid that makes everything work, yet money, the most unmagical of all things, is the machinery that holds the system together. This, at least, is what the mage Dracos thinks. He thinks it a lot these days, for his life blood has changed from casting to pure chicanery. The mage Dracos has lost his magic.

Once his body was covered in tattoos; generations worth of spells scrawled on a parchment that would not easily burn, would not easily be lost. Now his skin is a light blue in texture, the magic words blurred into nothingness. This is the least of his problems; spells can be bought in Moonglow for thrupence, but the once-mage Dracos cannot even cast these. His body, borrowed by a variety of entities, has beenwracked and ruined.

When he had sufficiently rested from his ordeal as Mondain, Dracos had found that simple spells were hard to concentrate on, but still worked. As his body grew in physical strength, even the minor cantrips were taken slowly away from him. A local healer told him that it was the ether; his body had absorbed so much of it he had developed an immunity to it, or at least a high tolerance. The healer had waxed lyrical on how pleased Dracos should be; he might not be able to cast anymore, but magic would not effect him either. Fireballs, death spells, rains of ice; all of these were magical in origin, and could never harm the once mage. Dracos smiled ruefully and paid the fee, and left the healer's hut.

He had gone to visit the Shrine of Mondain then, to ask the arch mage whether he could be cured; nay, demand the arch mage to restore the body he had ruined. Mondain never spoke. The Gargoyles told him he was a figure of prophecy, and he should not be worried. Dracos had paid them their fee and smiled ruefully as he left the temple.

The only reconciliation was that he now had access to Mondain's cellar; still extant under the city of Moonglow. He had found a variety of devices that seemed non magical, and yet provided the results of high level spells. A glass screen that showed images of other places. A long needle that could cure diseases, and many more. So Dracos had kept quiet about his disability to his clients. Nicodemus had realised, and Dracos found that confiding in him made it all seem a little better. The taste was still sour, though.

Mondain's proto-Gem, once bright and powerful when he had first received it, was a dark, heavy stone now. Dracos used it to keep his door closed against the winds. He awoke one night to find sunlight pouring into his room. His mind was reeling; it was still night, the tinge of smoke upon the air told him that, and yet the door had blown open, and yellow light was pouring into the upper storey room he called home. As his eyes adjusted, he noticed that whatever the light was, it wasn't sunlight. Squinting, he walked towards it slowly. The light enveloped him, and he was gone.

<<The Isle of the Avatar>>

A theoretical observer would have been startled as the silence of a vast chamber is dispelled by the chiming sound of a rising Moongate. As the yellow glow pours forth from the mystic portal, the newfound illumination shows the remnants of a platform and fragments composed of a mysterious light-absorbing stone - Blackrock. The observer would have noted that the newly formed Moongate had risen up through several pieces of the magic-disrupting material. And thus would be unsurprised to watch the gateway writhe and twist away, vanishing into a place beyond the intentions of it's creator.

The Black Gate chamber once again lies silent and empty in the dark.


The rain beats down through the twilight upon a figure trudging beside a wide road, sealed with black stones. The occasional vehicle roars along it, propelled by strange noisy devices contained within. The figure's hair is plastered to his head and his clothes to his body, the result of the twisting gusts of wind blowing rain around the large umbrella he holds above him. Light shines ahead, as the twisted yellow Moongate appears from nowhere. The drenched figure of Paulon sighs as he looks upon the gateway and hesitates. A strong gust of wind heralds the arrival of hail, and as the twisting Moongate begins to fade away and the white stones pour down on him, Paulon dives for it, muttering "Any port in a storm." He enters the Moongate and is gone.

<<The Deep Forest>>

Stepping out of his home, Concussed breathes deeply, taking in the fresh forest air. A cool breeze is blowing, and the twin moons shine brightly in the clear night sky.

It had been months since the confrontation with the Stranger, and all appeared well with Britannia. With the disruption of the Ring of Xiesh and the strange departure of the Shadowlords, the threat of a new age of darkness had been lifted, and life had returned to normal.

Yet, for some reason, Concussed had found it impossible to fall asleep tonight. He felt a dread sense of foreboding, as if some terrible doom was soon to unfold. After an hours of tossing and turning, he had decided to take a walk outside.

"Since I'm not going to get any sleep tonight ..." Concussed walks around the tree that his house is built into and approaches the recently constructed shack behind it. As he enters the dark shack, Concussed touches the amulet he wears, muttering a short cantrip.


Briefly, tiny multicolored sparks dance nosily in the air before Concussed like fireworks before fading away. With a wry smile on his lips, Concussed fumbles in the dark to light a candle instead. "Hmmm...I guess this new gem stills needs a little calibration...".

The light from the candle reveals the wreckage of the Barataria, recovered from the Isle of the Avatar,thanks to Lumina. Concussed wonders what has become of the others since that time. He prepares to continue his work on the machine.

Suddenly, a strong draft blows out the candle. Concussed walks over to the door to shut it - and stops in surprise. A strange glow appears to be emanating from the nearby forest, flooding the trees with a unearthly yellow hue. Concussed runs to investigate the apparent source of the glow.

Standing before the yellow moongate in amazement, Concussed considers going back to the house to get his gear - but already the gate begins to waver and fade. "Why has Destrius sent this gate? Or did he send it? I know of no one else who travel by the yellow gates ..." he thinks. Hesistantly, Concussed reaches out towards the portal and steps into the yellow light...

<< Somewhere in the Banestead plains, Tideron >>

...and reappears in a foriegn land.

Destrius looks at Concussed, and grins, glad to see a familiar face.

"Concussed! Tis good to meet you again. You are obviously wondering why I have brought you here. Well, do wait for a moment till the others fate has summoned arrive, and I shall tell you all what it is I wish to do.

"In the meantime, though, do relax and take a drink."

So saying, Destrius motions in the direction of his hut and brings the dragon a small cup filled with a sweet-smelling liquid.

The passage from Britannia to Tideron feels rough and painful to Dracos. In the few seconds that the travel takes, he supposes that his high magic resistance is only just below that of gate travel. A good thing too; Dracos hopes that whatever lies beyond this yellow moongate might be able to restore to him some of his ability.

He falls roughly to the ground, feeling sick to the bone. Destrius and Concussed are walking towards a bamboo hut, and the noise of Dracos' retching makes them turn in their tracks.

"Dracos?" cried Destrius as he moves towards the once-mage. Dracos looks up, and smiles slightly. "Hello, Destrius. It seems that every time I meet you it's in the form of some pain to me. Whether falling through ceilings or having a bad trip, I always feel really bad around you." Dracos laughs, and then is sick again. "Remind me not to be happy in the next few minutes. We should stop meeting this way." Dracos stands slowly. "Concussed. Hello."

Destrius casts a healing spell, and is surprised to find it does not work on Dracos. "There is something wrong with you..." he begins.

"Yes, I know. I've become magic resistant; to both good and bad magicks, which is the worst part. Let's go inside; I need to sit down, and I'll tell you both about it." Dracos takes Destrius' hand, and the three walk towards the comfort of the hut.


Just as they are about to enter the door, however, a powerful wind blows from the direction of the field. Knowing that this signals the arrival of the remaining people who had entered one of the gates, he turns around and surveys the already rather crowded clearing.

Standing in a rough circle surrounding the centre of the spell focus, are two large Dragons, one of which Destrius recognises to be St. George's, a Paladin, and 3 humans: a dark-haired woman, a pale man in a black coat, and another of Destrius' old acquaintances, Paulon.

Destrius grins and motions for the motely group to enter his hut, apologising for having brought them here so suddenly, and promising to give an explanation once they were all settled.

<<The exterior of a tavern.>>

The shape of a falling dragon can be seen silhouetted against one of the moons. It lands with a loud CRASH into the road outside of the tavern.

Onlookers back away in fear as the monster stands up and walks out of the small hole that was formed by his impact, a mad fury in his eyes.

The dragon snaps his fingers in disgust and a cloud of smoke envelopes him. As it dissipates, a young man in a black mage's robe is left in his place. He takes a moment to get his bearings.

He looks on the sign of the tavern. It reads, "Keg and Anchor".

He is heard mumbling, "Trinsic..."

He begins to walk, a fire still burning in his eyes, towards the gates of the city. The people move out of his way in fear.

As he reaches the western gate, he notices a yellow moongate hidden behind the trees and bushes, slightly to the north.

His eyes narrow slightly. "Destrius?"

He enters the moongate.


Suddenly, another gust of wind blew, but this time from the far north. Destrius frowns.

"Please have a seat. I must leave for a while to check on something."

Before anyone can utter a word, Destrius fades away into the air.

The mage walks out of the moongate into a large dimly lit room. To one side the room opens into a balcony. Standing on the balcony, looking to the night sky, stands the figure of Destrius.

"Greetings", he says, back still towards the young mage.

The young mage walks to Destrius, still fuming.

"What have you DONE?!?!", he asks incredulously.

Destrius turns to slowly, peers at him for a moment, and returns to star gazing.

"Well?, the mage asks.

"I have issued a summons, Darkling."

Darkling gapes at Destrius.

"A summons??? One of you multi-gate/multi-plane summons, I take it???"

Destrius turns around and back into the antechamber.

"Yes... There is something terrible coming... I needed help."

"Oh? Really? And just what IS this Something Terrible?", Darkling asks sarcastically.

Destrius sighs and slowly explains the matter to Darkling.

"That's IT?!?!"

"What else is needed, Darkling? Isn't that enough?"

Darkling shakes his head for a moment, a wild expression still on his face.

Destrius asks, "What is wrong? Why are you in this mood?"

Darkling peers at Destrius for a moment... Finally he says, "I KNEW about this. I had been working on plans to stop it before it started... Your summons shot right through my home in the ether!"

Destrius exhales slightly... He understood.

"That's right! IT'S GONE! It's been totally blown away!"

Destrius thinks for a moment. "I'm.... sorry..."

He regains his composure. "But... It HAD to be done. This is bigger than you or I, and we need help."

Darkling begins to walk briskly back towards the moongate. "No... This is just the beginning!"

Destrius begins to follow him, "Where are you going???"

Darkling stops for a moment, and turns. "I'm going to rebuild my home! Call me when things REALLY get bad..."

Before he walks through the gate, Destrius can hear him say, "... Like, during the aftermath..."

Darkling disappears into the moongate.

Destrius looks up and says, "He will not help us."

A moment later, he returns, a sad look on his face.

"I have met Darkling. Fate had it that he would enter the gate, but he refuses to join us. But he may do so later, I hope. Only time will tell.

"But nevermind him. The important thing now, is that we introduce ourselves, and then I will explain.

"Oh, and I'd advise you dragons to morph into a more human form while they are in this world, or you might arouse the interest of those I'd best not let loose information of our gathering."

With a shy and nervous smile, Daria awkwardly stands up from her chair, adjusts her very long and very uncomfortable skirt and brushes the strands of long dark chestnut hair away from her face. I look like a bloody beggar, she thinks unhappily. "Just a moment," she says aloud, and snaps her fingers. Next second, a sparkling cloud of dust masks her figure from view, but before anyone can say anything or even gasp, the cloud disappears, revealing a tall young woman with short dark-red hair and green eyes, dressed in soft leather pants, jerkin and high leather boots. "Sorry for that," Daria smiles, "I just thought that this look would be more appropriate and hundred times more comfortable. The previos one was my 'frumpy village girl' look. I use it when I want to pass through the village without guys whistling and asking me out for a date."

So, let me introduce myself. I come from an ancient family of Great Siberian Dragons, who've lived in the Serpents Spine Mountains for countless generations, dodging encounters with Britannian superheroes and piling up the treasures of gold. Family legend has it that our kind had originally come from one of the coldest places on Earth, Siberia, and that they somehow migrated to Britannia thousands and thousands years ago. To me, it sounds like an absolutely moronic nonsense, but there you go."

"So, how old are you?" she is asked.

"My, what a question to ask a woman!" Daria exclaims in mock indignation. "But I'll answer it anyway. I'm only fifty years old, practically a baby by our family standards. But no..." here she remembers something that makes her face darkened and sad. "Technically speaking, I'm 250 years old. You see, two hundred years ago... something really terrible happened." She speaks with difficulty now, remembering painful things that she would rather ban from her memory.

"Once, I came from the village pub late at night... and found all my family dead, lying on the floor with their throats slit. And there stood a stranger, a man dressed in black-silver armour; I couldn't see his face, but he had a symbol engraved on his chest - an image of a hawk holding a serpent in his talons. I tried to fight him, of course, but I was slightly drunk after the pub and, most importantly, unexperienced, and the bastard was bloody good at slaying dragons. It took him only five minutes to drive a sword through my heart. But a second before that fatal blow, I managed to cast a special spell on myself. It made me fall into a special kind of sleep: nor fire, neither steel, nor time itself could harm me while I was under this sleeping spell. The downside was that I could spend eternity in that state. Cities could fall, wars could be fought, mountains could crumble down, Britannia itself could be burned out and turned into Hell, but I would still be there, in the Serpents Spine, sleeping like a schoolgirl after her graduation party. It would take something special to wake me up, and I think Destrius's sending yellow moongates here has something to do with my awakening. So, I think I owe you my consciousness, Destrius, if not my life itself, and for this you have my eternal gratitude."

"That's all I have to say about my biography, so lets move on to my talents, which I believe could be useful to this company, and my faults, which I must warn you about. I can resurrect, even if the physical body of a person is completely destroyed, but the ritual itself usually leaves me drained and weak for at least a fortnight. I'm a lousy healer though, always messing up the potions and herbs, so don't rely on me there. As you've seen, I can change my physical appearance whenever I want to, but I've got only ten or dozen to choose from, so I cannot change into whoever I want. I'm good with the crossbows, but when it comes to swords, even a ten-year-old farmboy could beat the sword out of my hands. I'm good in magic, although 7th and 8th circles are still unreachable to me. I'm good at reading maps, remembering things, but I'm afraid I don't have a good sense of direction, for I could get myself lost in a village market. So, that's basically it."

With these words, Daria smiles and sinks back into the chair.

...and Dracos sits up from the cot he has been lying in.

"As two of you know, my name is Dracos. I am, sorry, was, quite a powerful mage; my body was my spellbook, and I had a wealthy set of clients in Moonglow. The Blackrock Moon changed all of this; the march of the Shadowlords piqued my curiousity, and due to my own stupid heroics, I ended up possessed by a Shadowlord, and then by Mondain. The aftermath of these entities has left my body near totally resistant to all magicks... Moongate travel still seems barely possible...

"I am here because I stumbled into the yellow moongate during the night. The Gargoyles would assure me that this is all due to prophecy." Dracos stands slowly. "You'll have to forgive my barely robed form; these are my night-clothes. A few months ago I would have cast myself new garments, but I cannot. If someone would provide me with new garments; preferably something suited for movement; I no longer need the deep pockets and suchlike of the mage's robe."

"God knows just what'd happen if I tried something like that, Dracos." Paulon replies. He looks down at his own sodden garb and grins. "I can't even get myself dry."

Looking around the group, Paulon briefly studies each in turn. The others return his gaze, seeing a nondescript human male, dressed in strange garb, which nonetheless is noteworthy mainly for the amount of water it currently contains. Brown hair has been turned nearly black with wet, and silver-framed spectacles complete the image. "I suppose it's my turn for introductions. Some of you already know me, but some don't, so I may as well go through the whole deal. I'm Paulon, from Earth. As far as skills go, I'm not all that wonderful at anything, but I tend to be able to take a stab at doing most odd jobs. Generally I wind up improvising on the spot instead of learning how to do something properly, but I get lucky often enough to survive. My most dependable trait is a knack for locating any anomalies in space and time around me. Or more simply, if there's a hole or gate between places I'm liable to trip over it. It makes for an interesting life. Somehow I always manage to get back home, but it makes for an interesting life." The wet human sits back a bit in his seat. "So, who's next?"

"I'll take the next stab, if no one minds." As some of the others nod, the Paladin continues. "Some of you obviously know each other- your faces are all unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, I answered what I felt was a calling, and here I am.

"My name is largely unimportant. I am known as Goldenflame, for reasons that may become evident if we go into battle together. I am a warrior- I have very light skills on magic, on the cantrip level... but many of my accoutrements are magical, in particular my sword, which I obtained after many difficult trials and quests. I only wear the armor when I need to, as it is not the most comfortable thing in the world, and impedes my movement.

"I have meditated a great deal on the virtues of Valor and Honor, though I know that I do not have the Avatar's spirit in me. I was honored to meet him once, briefly, while the Fellowship was still strong..." Goldenflame stops for a moment, then shakes his head. "Not particularly relevent, in any case."

The others in the room note that his shield, emblazened with a stylized blue and gold flame, rests against the chair he sits in, while his helm sits in his lap. He is wearing plate armor, with a slightly different flame motif on the chestplate. His dirty-blonde hair is cropped well above the shoulders, and his beard is neatly trimmed. His blue-eyed gaze is calm as he looks around the table at his current companions.

"I am of course very curious why we are here and what brought us here. You, I assume," he says to Destrius, "are our host- I am eager to hear your story. But first, let the introductions continue."

"Well, I guess it's my turn." Concussed says. leaning foward in his chair. "Several here already know me, but not, I suspect, my background." A distant look comes into Concussed's eyes. He pauses for a few moments, recollecting events long past. "In truth, I no longer recall my given name, but many in Britannia know me as Concussed, for one reason or another." he says, with a slightly embarrassed smile.

"I have lived in Britannia since the age of Exodus, but it was not always so. I remember flying through a magical tempest between worlds, fleeing some horrible catastrophe. A green light flared up before me, then I blacked out. When I awoke, I was lying on a mountaintop in Sosaria, my dragon form bruised and battered, with gaping holes in my mind."

"Soon, I found that most inhabitants of Sosaria were hostile to those of our species, and took on human shape when travelling amongst them. For many years, I sought a way home, though I knew not where it lay. Descending into the depths of the earth, I sought out the legendary Time Lord in the hope that he could restore me to my home and memory. Unfortunately, he could offer me little aid, save for the gift of this amulet that I now wear. I was told that when I had understood its true purpose, the road home would be before me. Alas, ages have come and passed, but the only use I have ever found for it was as a simple focus for Sosarian magic." The blue cloaked ranger looks down and folds his arms.

"These days, I have all but given up on this futile quest, living instead the life of a recluse in the Deep Forest. I have the use of the lesser spells of Old Sosaria, though I'm more a dabbler than a mage. As a result of my earlier history, I have some knowledge about artifacts. I study and restore them as a hobby. My weapon of choice is the bow, but I can wield an axe or hatchet fairly well too."

"Well, that's about all. Greetings to all and well met." Concussed finishes with a slight nod and sits back, waiting for the next introduction.

"Hmm? Ah, well, that would be me." A short rotund figure beams at all present, then frowns slightly. "I thought I had introduced myself earlier, but I'm probably mistaken, and some of you may not have heard me. My presence here seems to be - " And for a brief second, the man shimmers slightly, before settling down again. "Oh my! Well, that was not entirely pleasant. As I was saying, I don't seem to be completely here. Or all there, if you prefer."

The man stares vaguely in to space for a second, then suddenly returns from whatever planet he was visiting. "Ah. I am the Library Dragon, or the Librarian when I'm not a dragon. Oh, and I've never been or will be an Orang-Utan.

"I've been working in the Lycaeum for a while, cataloging - well, everything. Trying to complete a list of Virtues when the anti-principles are added to the mix. It may seem frivolous compared to some of your deeds..." Here the Librarian pauses and shuffles his feet uncomfortably. "Well, it is fairly frivolous. But it passes the time, and it may come in useful someday."

A thoughtful look crosses his face. "Actually, I don't suppose anybody here could come up for a meaningful word for a combination of Truth, Courage, Hatred and Cowardice? Ah. But that should wait. Introductions first, then explanations as to why we're here."

The Librarian starts to sit down, then stops and turns to Daria. "Oh, and, um... terribly sorry to hear about your family. Tragic. Tragic." With that, he sits down, pulls a book out of his pocket, and starts making notes in it.

Saint George's Dragon in his tinker garb and Bogartesque fedora steps forward. "Uhh, hello as some of you know me from the last little adventure I was on with those pesky Shadow Lords and that strange guy.. I mean er. I am known as Saint George's Dragon, I take on human form to practice the tinker trade, I do like a good handcrafted widget, doohickey or gizmo, of course as a dragon I am a fair hand at magic and indeed these days I am made up mainly of the stuff, uh magic that is. Uhh, I am done thank you." He takes a seat.

Destrius stands up.

"I think it's time for me to do a bit of explaining, since I don't think any of you walk into yellow moongates to join a party of adventurers on a quest in another world very regularly. First, though, I should introduce myself.

The pale man in black, standing in a shadowy corner of the room, snorts.

"Mine name is Destrius, and I am a native of the world which you are now within. This world is known as Tideron.

"Although I usually live here, I often spend some time in other worlds, worlds such as Sosaria, Faerun, Krynn, Myran, and Earth. While I was in Britannia recently, an event occured that demanded my interference. All that had happened is likely to have been penned down by the Librarian, I believe.

"Anyway, this previous quest which I was part of involved an individual known as Amsereth. He carried with him much power, through a ring that he had created known as the Ring of Haeth.

"Amsereth is now dead, but his life is still a mystery to all of us. I feel that it is extremely important that we find out more about this man, and how he had managed to create such a powerful artefact. None of this reality would be safe if a more intelligent being harnessed the energies that Amsereth must have used.

"After spending a few months here investigating, I discovered that Amsereth is in fact a native of my world. But not this part of the world. Before I continue, I must give a little geography lesson so you will get the idea.

"The planet that I call Tideron is in fact divided into two portions, one of good and one of evil. The gods in this world had created a Divider, a magical barrier separating the good half from the evil half.

"In accordance to the rules set by the Council of Neutrality, the gods of good would only have control of the good half, the gods of evil only control of the evil half, and the neutral gods a little control of both. This policy was meant to prevent too much strife between the gods from destroying the planet altogether.

"An unusual land indeed, this world of yours. These gods hold power over the hearts of men under their rule, then? How would Good and Evil be defined in Tideron? Do you mean to say that deceit, hatred and strife is common on the evil side but less so on the good?" Concussed asks, with a raised eyebrow.

"As you may have guessed by now, Amsereth was born in Balfas, the other side of Tideron. And this is where all of you come in.

"So ... I assume we are on the side of the good right now?". Concussed says, with a slight smile on his face.

"The gods have no true control over us mortals. However, they posses certain powers that make it possible to influence us greatly under the correct circumstances, and the magical environment within the Divider is a perfect spot for that. The actual workings of this is quite technical, so I'll skip it for now. Do tell me if you wish to know more; there is a library here with some interesting books on the subject.

"And as for Good and Evil, this brings us to the Diagram. As the gods were created out of a mix of differing powers in the beginnings of reality, each possess a certain way of thought. The gods somehow managed to quantify themselves and divide into the 3 sectors: good, neutral, and evil. There are also 3 basic circles of Order, Balance and Chaos that underly each deity. I am no cleric, or theologian, so I know not exactly what differentiates the various belts: sectors and circles combined. But I do see the difference between the evil and the good in mortal forms, and try to keep things in balance.

"As for there being less evil in the good side, I doubt it at times. I have never actually ventured into Balfas before, though, so I have no way of comparing the two. But since the gods of evil have considerably less power here, you would expect to find few of their minions. But then, not all evil is a result of divine presence."

"As I am a native of this world, I am not supposed to be able to cross the Divider and enter Balfas to further my investigations. With my magic, however, I am able to visit Balfas.

"The gods know that one such as me may be able to do such a thing, and so have devised a trap, which will trigger once any non-Balfasian entity enters the other side. This trap will cause the victim to forget all about his or her reason for crossing.

"I have no way of escaping this ward, so it will be quite useless for me to cross the Divider. However, the rest of you being aliens to this world, have a chance of not being affected by the spell. Actually, its not really a spell in the magical sense, but more of a divine power, so Dracos' magical resistance may not help much.

"Anyway, I created the gates to bring to me a random group of people, and all those willing to follow me in this group will be brought to Balfas by my magic. With luck, at least one of you will not lose memory of the reason we are there, and remind the rest of us. Then, we can continue on the quest.

"Since none of you knew of this before you arrived, I will willingly gate anybody who does not want to follow me to wherever they want, as long as my magic allows it. Just tell me so."

The mage takes up a glass of water and takes a sip, his throat dry after the long explanation. He then looks at the group in front of him expectantly.

<<The far side of Tideron>>

"Yes, Karlton?"
"The walls are holding, despite the enchanted catapult that was just unleashed. Our warlocks are concentrating fire upon it."
The general nods, but his look of pleasure turns to shock and dismay quickly as a large explosion rocks the command barrack. The general curses, turns and incants a few words, and a large mirror on the far wall begins displaying... a daemon has breached the barrier! It roars, and near it can be seen the bodies of four purple robed warlocks... the Daemon takes flight and the mirror loses track of it.

Cries go up in the streets as the dying commences, an army begins to pour through the hole in the defenses.

The general begins giving orders, first calmly then with increasing panic, until he chances to look out the window in time to see a huge red face, and the Daemon, grinning at him. An explosion rocks the barrack and flames billow out of the openings.

Evil, left to itself, turns on itself.

<<Destrius' Hut, Tideron>>

"There is a reason I was called here, a reason I am needed. I feel this very strongly. You may count me in, Destrius.

"And, Librarian- Truth, Courage, and Hatred together are Righteous Fury, which I have experienced on a very few occassions of which I prefer not to think. How to add Cowardice into a mix with Courage is beyond my meagre vocabulary." He smiles slightly.

"Destrius, one question. This divine forbidding- my scabbard," he gestures at the silver-hued scabbard by his side, "protects me from curses. Might the forbidding be a curse?"

Destrius considers this for a moment. "To tell the truth, I do not know. I have my doubts, however."

Goldenflame nods. "I am in anyway, have no fear."

Destrius nods.

"A sturdy fighter is much welcome."

"Thank you," responds Goldenflame.

"The vanishing of Amsereth's body has worried me from some time now. It shows that he probably wasn't acting alone. But what was Amsereth's true objective in Britannia? What was he attempting to do with the Ring of Xiesh and the Black Moon?" Concussed wonders aloud. For a moment, he gazes into his glass as if for answers. Then he looks up.

"Very well. If there is a hidden danger to Britannia in Balfas, it is best that we discover as soon as possible its exact nature. Count me in."

Destrius grins.

"I am glad to have your company once again, Concussed."

"This world of yours sounds like an intriguing place," muses Daria. "You can count me in, Destrius, no hesitations here. I would be both glad and honoured to offer my help."

Besides, it's not like I've got something to return to, she reminds quietly to herself. There's a fleeting moment of sadness as she wonders just how much Britannia has changed in those 200 years she had been asleep, and what has happened to everyone she knew. Her stubborn cousin from the Dagger Isle mountains, for example: has he -really- found the guts to marry that female human from the other world, thus going against all the rules and codes of her kin? But Daria bans all those thoughts away from her mind, also reminding herself to dump self-pity and concentrate on the task that is lying ahead them now.

After Destrius finishes explaining, the man clears his throat and says, "I suppose that I should introduce myself now. All of you can call me Cat." He runs a hand through his short black hair. "The only reason why I'm sticking around is because in transit to another place, I was thrown into a void and I lost a few important things while falling. I doubt that they're still in that void, but I figure that if I help you people I'll probably find them again."

He looks at Destrius and says, "I don't suppose that you know where they are, given that you're the one who brought me here?"

He looks back upon the room. "As for these gods of yours, well..." he whips out a beautiful long sword and crosses it over his chest. Blue-white energy makes a serpentine path around the blade and up to the point, where it starts sending off small black bolts. A small blue wyrm forms at the point, rears back, and screams.

The man smiles as everybody's soul tries to hide. He says, "...gods are easy." The sword vanishes in its sheathe, and a general sense of peace fills the room. Cat melts back into the shadows.

Goldenflame turns to Cat and looks as if about to sat something... but then he looks away, seeming to have changed his mind.

Paulon eyes Cat a bit nervously, then turns to Destrius. "I have to admit I'm a trifle dubious about how wise it is to try to get around the expressed wishes of deities, but I'm in. I want to see the loose ends that Amsereth left after his defeat all wrapped up just as much as you do."

"Two more to join us then. Good." Destrius replies.

"And as for the gods, there is no real need to worry. They may be a little irritated, but as long as we do not really disrupt the balance, they'll not bother with us."

The Librarian coughs. "Well. Introductions over, I take it? Erm, one or two questions about this 'forgetting' business. I'm sure there's a way around it - Gods usually leave one in somewhere, especially those that love a good story, or something to aim at - but as to what it is..."

Goldenflame smiles. "I'm not sure we want to bet our lives on the presumption that the gods of evil like a good story."

"Now assuming that none of us remember when we get to the other side, be it whatever it be..." The Librarian pauses, thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. "What ever it may be, do you know whether or not we'll know we've forgotten something, and can the problem be solved as simply as me writing it down in my notebook?"

"My question then is, if we write it down and read it on the other side, will we believe it?" Goldenflame states.

"A mage of reasonable power crossed from Tideron to Balfas once. He had tattooed his mission upon his arms in an effort to keep them in his mind. But the tattoos disappeared when he arrived there, and he wasn't even aware that he had them in the first place till he came back.

"I am not sure how the Divider works exactly, but the powers invested in it are quite potent. It may even involve some dangerous reality-bending for all I know. Gods are not very particular about this sort of thing till its too late.

"Anyway, writing it down definitely won't help. The effect is not just one of memory, but of occurence itself." Destrius clarifies.

From her chair, Daria coughs gently. Still feeling shy and somewhat uncomfortable in this company of older strangers, she begins to speak hesitantly:

"I, um have a suggestion about this whole crossing-forgetting thing, it may be useless and probably wouldn't work, but I'll say it anyway. Destrius, you've said that you can use your magic to transport us to Balfas. Can you transport objects as well, like crystal balls or notebooks or something, where a message to ourselves would be written or recorded visually in case of a crystal ball? And would the magic of the Divider affect those objects if they're sent to Balfas -separately- from us?"

"It seems," Dracos began, "that we will get nowhere with this endless debate as to the working of the divider. So let me suggest another argument.

"Most of us here are connected to Britannia, and some of us were involved in defeating Asmereth. Once we cross the divider, we will forget why we are in Balfas, we have agreed upon that, but firstly, Asmereth's deeds are well known some of us, and we will naturally want to discover more of who and what he was, and secondly, an operation like his must have been big; you don't just plan to take over a world without help. We might discover there are other Britannians in Balfas.

"So I say we go, and see what happens."

Paulon grins suddenly. "Maybe we're missing the obvious. If this Divider blots out sections of our memory when we pass through it, why go through it at all? If all it does is separate the 'good' and 'evil' sides of this world, then we could go somewhere else, like Britannia, then return directly to Balfas. Or is there something I'm missing from your explanation, Destrius?"

Up to this point, no one has noticed the robed figure standing silently in the corner, and not moving. He seems to have been silently watching this meeting.

"Those are my thoughts exactly," says Dalboz in rough, gravelly voice.

Everyone is startled, mainly at the realization that Dalboz had been standing there the whole time.

"Hmm. I must have missed a moongate, it seems." Destrius says to himself.

"Sorry, I was asleep for a little bit there. Minor narcolepsis..."

"I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Dalboz. I'm a relatively young ranger. At one time I tried dabbling in magic, but none of my spells ever worked right. So I took up a life in the forest. I'm a reasonably good shot, and relatively good with a sword. I prefer the intellectual arts though, such as find answers to mysteries, so obviously I'm up for this little adventure."

"Welcome then." the Mad Mage says to the Ranger.

"As I was saying, I agree with Paulon. According to logic, the entire principle of losing ones memory seems to be based on actually crossing the Divider. If you don't actually cross the divider, say by enter Balfas from another world, the Divider becomes insignificant. Or am I missing something?"

"Well, it's hard to explain, but think of the Divider not as a physical barrier, but more of a mental one.

"You could imagine the two halves as oil and water, for example. I am of Tideron, which is oil. No matter where I go before entering water, I will still be pushed to the surface. There are some methods of bypassing the barrier totally, but those require extrememly powerful magics that I have no time and no wish to use.

"Actually, my spell will do something similar to what you just described. We will not "walk" through the Divider in the sense of the word, but be teleported there, which uses a temporary 'buffer dimension' to hold us while we move.

"Which is all well and good for most of us here, but not for me." Dracos replies to Destrius. "I am virtually immune to magic at the moment; moongate travel is difficult enough. A teleportation spell, no matter how complex, is not going to work for me. So how am I going to get across?"

"Anyway, I'd imagine most of you to have a much better chance of entering and retaining your memory than me, because you could say that I have been 'programmed' to forget once I enter Balfas. The rest of you are not subject to anything like that.

"There isn't much of a chance that we'll get hurt even if nobody remembers, because we will be able to return back here without much trouble.

"I'd rather not spend too much time here discussing theories. I say we get prepared, and cross as soon as possible."

The Librarian sighs. "I'm sorry I brought this up. We're getting a little side-tracked, people, sitting here discussing the mechanics of the first part of our quest instead of actually getting up and doing something about it. Maybe we should talk about what we do when we get there, instead of - "

The Librarian pauses, shakes his head and starts again. "That wasn't quite what I meant. I mean we should get started on the quest itself, discussing our plans - "

A look of confused anger crosses his face. "NO! That's not what I want to say at all! We should stop planning and begin talking and stop TALKING AND START PLANNING STOP THIS!"

With a shriek of rage, the Librarian jumps to his feet, rushes outside and begins shouting and waving his fists at the sky. "I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING! I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING SO STOP IT STOP IT STOPITSTOPIT NOW!"

" Mmm'kay..." Dalboz says.

With a final yell of pure rage, a strange golden flare seems to break away from the Librarian and upwards towards the sky. A new light enters his eyes as he stalks back to the rather shocked looking group of Dragons.

"Enough talk. Enough planning. Whatever happens when we get there happens. I say we go now, before whatever was blocking us before happens again."

"Well, right now we're trying to figure out how to start the quest." states Dalboz. "The first phase of the quest is getting to Balfas which may have some serious complication. Although, according to Destrius, these complications may not really exist for us, only for him.

"So, it seems that we no longer need to discuss how to get there, but instead discuss how we go about our investigation when we do." the ranger concludes.

The Librarian turns to look at Destrius, a slightly sheepish look on his face. "That is, of course, assuming that this *is* the right time. If there's more we need to know, we can probably learn it on the way, unless you think otherwise."

<< Somewhere >>

A simple study. A small wax candle lights a desk, casting flickering shadows about the chamber. On the wall opposite, before a table weighted down with devices and appartuses, a figure in black hooded robes with silver trim looks deep into a sphere of black, perfect save for small flecks of silver which might represent stars - or perhaps not. A small, greyish cube of some material nearly indestructible lies within arm's reach.

Time passes, and a series of images pass through the murky depths of the sphere. The figure regards each one in turn, seeming to grow somewhat agitated by what they portend.

Finally, the figure turns from the globe, and extends his arm to remove a book from a nearby shelf. He opens the book, turning about two thirds of the way through, and begins to quietly speak the words written therein.

"Time's flow calls the strange one to a matter thought resolved
Called he is, though unknowing, and called the others involved
From many worlds they arrive, heralds of the prime gate unknown
To the home of the strange, where mysteries deep intoned.

"Hence unto the world, sent the Stranger for the aid
To be sent to help those working, the puzzle unmade
To seek the answers which will light the path to come.
To light the darkness laid by the death of the one."

He closes the book, and looking around the study, finds his sabre, laying discarded in a corner in its scabbard. He picks it up and girds it to his belt. He returns to the desk, and hesitates a long moment - then picks up the black sphere and the grey cube, secreting them both in hidden interior pockets.


<< Deep in the Ethereal Void >>

The silvery torus, quiescent for an ageless time, a timeless age, begins once more to move through the deep tidewaters of the Etheric Ocean, moving with purpose and direction, heading toward the Hallway of Worlds. As it progressed, those creatures natural to the Void moved to avoid it, those not quick enough being absorbed, then appearing again behind it, shaken and severly weakened - often falling prey to other inhabitants of this realm.

And the torus rolls on . . .


<< (Later) Ethereal Void - Hallway of Worlds >>

As the torus floats through the part of the void known as the Hallway of Worlds, it extends pseudopodia of itself, touching each door in turn, briefly, as if perhaps probing the world beyond for some sign - a sign not found, apparently, as it continues its search. Relative hours pass, until finally, one of the probing tentacles seems to discover something - and something within the torus distends the probing pseudopod, then seems to pass through it, and through the doorway.


<< Tideron - Balfas >>

A slightly dazed Helgraf finds himself in the midst of a dark, forboding city. Everywhere around him, the reek of evil fills his nostrils. But he feels right for the first time since he left Britannia. Whatever his purpose in coming to this cesspool, he was *meant* to be here - instead of with Destrius and those who came before. Which meant he was meant to meet them here, somehow. Quietly he sent out an expanding probe - only to run across some unusual barrier which seems to encompass about half the planet. He curses under his breath, and needing some quiet time to organize his thoughts and investigate these phenomenon, finds a local inn, and pays entirely too much for a room.

<<Destrius' Hut, Tideron>>

There is a whining noise as Paulon pulls a tab on his pack, opening it along a ridged seam. He digs into the contents, extracting several small items, all composed of various hues of a strange somewhat shiny substance, which he then stores in his pockets. As he does so he comments to Dalboz, "I think we ought to get moving now. It's clear someone already knows just where we are, so we've got to move now before he, she or it comes up with some other way to delay us. This little trick makes it certain that something time-critical is going on, something we won't like at all..."

Paulon seals the seam on his pack, stands, and swings it onto his back. "Dracos," he says. "You arrived here by moongate, so powerful enough magic can still affect you. I think a spell designed to get around divine restrictions must take a lot more power than a moongate, so you should be okay for the trip to Balfas." Paulon pauses as a thought strikes him. "You know, if anything I'm more susceptible to such transits than most, given the way I keep getting dumped around willy-nilly. Maybe if you're in physical contact with me when Destrius' spell is cast that susceptibility can offset your magic resistance and make the trip easier."

"An interesting theory, but a theory nonetheless, methinks. In Britannia I had Nicodemus test my immunity; moongate travel is possible, but all other spells seen to wane in power around me. I suggest that I do not travel with thee all by magick; instead I will seek more 'divine' means of traversing the barrier. The Gargoyles tell me I am fated; let me see whether that holds any currency in this world." Dracos bows. "I will take my leave of you now; it is best that I am far away when your spells are cast."

The once-mage turns and walks out of the hut, whistling half-heartedly. It pains him to leave his compatriots behind, but he feels he is a greater danger with them; this world's magicks are different to those of his home, and they cannot afford to have any variables working against them.

Dracos walks for a number of minutes, mulling over his task. He wishes that he had had the sense to ask Destrius where he might find a temple or priest; his exit may have been dramatic, but it was stupid. As he thinks, a word that the Gargoyles at Mondain's Shrine had told him comes to mind; Dorantic. His mind wandering, he speaks it.

'Dorantic greets Dracos, Fated of the Dying'. The wisp's arrival was silent, and Dracos is surprised by it's discordant speech.

"Ah, hello," Dracos says.

'You see information.'

"Ah, yes, I suppose I do. What price will I need to pay for this?" Dracos asks.

'Price is dependent on type, quality and quantity.'

"In wish to contact a divine force that can move me from Tideron to Balfas."

'This information is free; had you asked a local, they could have supplied you with the names you need.' The wisp's speech was oddly human.

"And the names?"

'Pray to Lo-kathda; he is a foreign god in this realm, but will be able to move you, Fated of the Dying.'

"Thank you, thank you."

'This is all good and proper. Dorantic will be going...'

"Wait, wait just a moment. Why do you call me 'Fated of the Dying'?"

'Not even a Melnorme would sell that information. Goodbye.' The wisp faded into the air.

"Intriguing creatures, aren't they?"

Dracos turned suddenly and found a humanoid figure standing beside him, dressed in red clothing. While Dracos could make out every feature, it seemed impossible to describe any aspect of the man.

"And you might be?" Dracos asked.

"Lo-kathda. I heard my name muttered, so I came. That wisp of yours must fear you greatly, or you must be of value to them, for it to lie to you like that." Lo-kathda walked around Dracos, staring at him.


"I am not known here to the locals; my visit to this world is unofficial. I am checking up on their development. No, the wisps must value you greatly; you are no threat to them as far as I can see." Lo-kathda held Dracos' face. "No threat at all."

"Perhaps they fear my immunity to magic?" Dracos ventured.

"I doubt it. The Wisps' magical abilities are of such a different

magnitude to your species that they appear divine, which is where I fit in. I can transport you to Balfas, and I can even make sure you have an inkling of what you are meant to be searching for. Oh, your memory of your purpose will be gone, but the circumstance of your arrival will open up many avenues. Are you ready to go?"

"Well," began Dracos, "I suppose so, but first..."

"Nothing. Be off with you." Lo-kathda waved his arms, and then Dracos was aware he was somewhere else.

<<Somewhere in Balfas>>

Dracos' first thought was where was he. His second was why was he where he was. His third was more a question of why he felt so cold. This third question was answered very quickly, when two burly guards stepped up to him.

<< The Gilded Granddad >>

There was a commotion going on outside the common room. This was nothing new - there was *always* some sort of disturbance going on, Helgraf had noted, in this place. By keeping a low profile and carefully avoiding commiting to any position, he had avoided the more obvious entrapments here. But something seemed to draw him to the curtained window this time, as if he somehow needed to see what this particular bruhaha was about.

Pulling back the edge of the curtain, he peered into the street, and saw a face he hadn't seen in . . months, relative to how much time he had passed. He swore mentally . . 'What is he doing here!', and dropping too many coins on the bar for his drinks, hurried to the door, to hear the guards arrest the familiar figure.

"By order of the Canon Laws of Abbot Alberic, we hereby arrest you for indecent behaviour in a public place; please walk with us to the court so your crime can be processed."

Silently, Helgraf slipped into the street and edged closer to the guards and Dracos, waiting to see what would unfold - and lend a hand, discreetly, of course, if need be.

Dracos, disoriented, and not quite certain of why he is here, sits there numbly for a few moments, as one of the guards approaches with a rope to secure his hands.

It was becoming quickly evident Helgraf was going to have to take action.

Quietly, he gathered his will, and invoked a petty motion spell, causing the guard approaching to trip.

Again he gathers his will, and sends the other sprawling with a carefully directed glancing blow to the back of the knee.

While the two guards are re-orienting, he grabs Dracos, slings him over his shoulder and darts back inside the Gilded Grandad.

Dropping several coins on the bar, he grabs a room key and heads upstairs, looking for the room corresponding to the key. Finally he finds it, nearly snapping the key in the lock, and throws the door open, dropping Dracos on the bed, closing it behind him and locking it.

"In trouble already?"

Dracos eyes gain focus, and the strange sense of movement he had just experienced is brought to new light. These aren't the surroundings he was in just a few minutes ago. That isn't the guard who was arresting him, although he looks familiar...


The figure nods.

Dracos shakes his head to try and get rid rid of the cloud that is sitting on his mind.

"I'm in Balfas, Helgraf is standing before me, and I have no idea why I am here. Something to do with Destrius..." Dracos mutters to himself, and then looks up.

"Sorry. Just thinking aloud. Thanks for rescuing me, although I'm not quite sure why I was there to be arrested in the first place. I have no idea why I'm here... Do you?"

Before Helgraf can answer, Dracos stands and starts to pace the room. "How did I get here anyway? I'm pretty much resistant to magick; the moongate travel to Tideron was almost impossible for me to handle... Something is going on here, and for the life of me, I don't know what."

Dracos turns to face Helgraf. "Ah, I have a small request; as you can see, I'm improperly clothed at the moment; could you get me something to wear?"

Helgraf nods, and opening a bureau, removes a spare set of black hooded robes. He looks over Dracos with a critical eye for a long moment, then passes his hands over the clothes several times, each pass adjusting a seam, or length, or stitch set, until the clothes are properly sized for him. He hands them over, and indicates an adjoining room where he can change if he prefers his privacy.

One way or the other, afterwards, he pours two cups of tea, placing one before Dracos, before taking a seat.

"I was taking a drink in the tavern below when you . . . arrived. I presumed you had used some sort of transportative magic, but I did not actually witness your arrival with my eyes to verify it."

Helgraf then brings Dracos up to date on what happened from the point he stepped out of the tavern.

"If Destrius is involved, I am sure he'll find a way to us sooner or later. I suggest we wait it out here until the situation changes or we are contacted. The innkeeper won't mention our presence - I made sure he was liberally paid to "forget" my arrival."

"If you have any other questions, I will attempt to answer them, but be aware I may know as little or less than you."

"I hope so, Helgraf." Dracos sips his tea. "Thank you for your help. What can you tell me of this place we are in; you seem to have a better knowledge of our current surrounds than I..."

Helgraf considers the question for a long moment, sipping his tea.

"Not much better, to be honest, I arrived but a scant hour or so ahead of you. But I can tell you this much.

"We're in a real sinkhole of a city. This place makes Buccaneer's Den look like an ideal place to raise a family and children. Bribery and corruption are commonplace, and there is enough political scheming going on just here in the dives to make your head spin. The primary religion seems - and I emphasise seems because I haven't had enough time to really investigate - to be one of the major power factions here.

I'm guessing the easiest way to buy yourself limited protection would be to make yourself an attache to one of the more powerful groups in town. All in all, it's pretty ugly."

<< Destrius' Hut, Tideron >>

Paulon looks after the departing Dracos, then turns to Destrius.

"Given Dracos' sheer stubborness, I would bet he gets to Balfas pretty quickly. There's no telling just what kind of trouble he'll get into on his own there, so I think we ought to get after him. There's safety in numbers.

"I'd prefer to lay some sort of plans, but Balfas is a big unknown to all of us, so even if we did set out a course of action, we'd have to change it as soon as we got there. We might as well stop wasting time and get moving, before we get more interference."

"As much as I hate to rush headlong into a situation unprepared, I expect that Paulon is correct," Goldenflame says with a nod towards Paulon.

"Whatever that was that the good Librarian... dealt with, should not be given a second chance. You have all convinced me that this is obviously too important."

Destrius nods. "If we are ready to go, I am ready to take us."

"We have not yet decided on a strategy for investigation," points out Dalboz.

Paulon chuckles. "We know little enough about the other side that it would be difficult to truly plan... and besides, I already worry about the trouble Dracos might be getting into."

"Time is no longer our ally," says Destrius. "We go now.

"Join hands, everyone."

With the occassional suspicious look, the group of strangers do so.

Destrius begins chanting, a low monotone that becomes louder, and begins risingly slightly in pitch. The bodies of the others begin to resonate with the sound, giving off harmonies, until a full chorus resounds in the tiny chamber. Destrius's strong voice commands the sound, deftly using it with masterful precision... and then there is silence. The room is empty.

From near the door, a solitary Wisp floats away from the hut, satisfied.

<< Between >>

Darkness. Silence. Nothing.

They cross the Divider...

...and some of them Forget.

Blackness. No self, no identity.

Who am I? he thinks.

A thought. I AM, and he clings to that.

The ocean of darkness around him roils and laps at his feet, threatening to take away his sanity. He clings to the fact of his existance and seeks identity. "Eric," he thinks. "Timtrane." A family line, long but thin. A wife, gone. An identity to the world: Goldenflame.

"I am," he thinks, pleased, and remembers who he is... but his mission is still a gap in his mind.

From the darkness, a wave crashes over him, and the gap fills... and his eyes open.

In his mind, the dreamer stands in a circular room with windows opening in all directions. Through them, nothing can be seen but the inky blackness of the infinite void. Where is this, he thinks. How did I get here?

A cloaked figure stands by one of the windows, gazing out into the void. It raises its hood, and the visage of a gray haired man is revealed. As he slowly turns around, the dreamer sees in his eyes a strange sorrow, and feels a deep sense of loss. Around the man's neck is a glass amulet, traced with the symbol of the sun, represented by a seven pointed star. Suddenly, a faint sense of familiarity overcomes the dreamer, as if dimly recollecting a long forgotten face. "Who are you?" he thinks to himself, but already the phantom begins to fade away.

"Wait! Who are you? WHO ARE YOU!" he tries to scream, but no sound pierces the complete silence of the room. The image vanishes completely, as the room crumbles away about the dreamer.

For a long time, he drifts alone in the black emptiness. And then, a soft echoing sound breaks the noiselessness of the void, slowly growing louder ...


"Wake up!"

The feel of the soft earth beneath ... A dim light - the breaking dawn?

...Someone is trying to wake him ... Consciousness.

Elsewhere in Balfas, another dreamer awakes from restless slumber and

sits up in bed, heart beating rapidly from fear and anticipation. He is lost in thought, considering the strange vision that he had been given - until he looks up. Imprinted upon the wall of the room, glowing in an eldritch violet light, is a fiery handprint - a mark left by his gods. In that moment, all doubt is erased from his heart and he hastily dresses. Exiting the bedroom, he addresses a sentry standing guard without brusquely.

"Summon Sir Kadric to my chambers. The gods have ordained a mission for his Templars."

"Yes, your Grace."

With a slightly stunned expression on his face, the guard bows and hurries down the hallway to carry out the order.

The High Priest of Balfas waits alone outside his chambers. A lustful smile crosses his face as he mutters to himself.

"So, the strangers from another world have entered our land as foretold. With their unwitting aid, the Barrier will soon fall, and all of Tideron will be united under the might of Balfas!"

<<An Alley in Balfas>>

"...No, I don't remember," someone is saying.

Goldenflame opens his eyes. He blinks once, twice. "Yes, I do remember you all." He says, seemingly out of nowhere.

The others look at him, somewhat confusedly.

Goldenflame stands, slowly. "Perhaps the experience wasn't as bad for most of you. I, for whatever reason, forgot who I was, until I fought for my identity."

Paulon offers a hand up. "What's more, you were speaking aloud while seemingly unconscious when we first got here. Are you sure you don't know why we're here?"

"No, I don't. What did I say?"

Destrius interrupts. "Are you sure you don't remember what you said?"

Goldenflame concentrates for a moment. "No, no I don't."

Daria speaks, softly, "You said, 'To find the light, you must give life to the Fated of the Dying.'"

Goldenflame blinks. "Before anyone asks- no. I have no idea what this Fated of the Dying is."

<< The Gilded Granddad >>

It took Dracos some hours to realise that the murky skyline had no sun.

"Remarkable, isn't it," Helgraf had said when Dracos had mentioned it. "Either the cloud cover is deep and unchanging, blocking this planet's star, or we aren't in a traditional reality... Not that Sosaria is that typical..."

Dracos nodded. He knew all about Sosaria's ability to change geography.

Dracos supposed that whatever night was here it had passed; people thronged the streets now, and the smell of cooking was heavy in the air. Helgraf had been polishing a silver blade all 'morning', leaving Dracos to simply watch the comings and goings of the tavern. The people here looked and acted like the people back home, except the priests; Helgraf had had to explain what priests were, since Dracos had never met one before. The priests, dressed in formal robes like a mage whose stomach had grown faster than his ability to remodel his clothing, they carried spiked maces with them, and seemed respected, if not feared, by the populace.

"Any thoughts on what we are going to do?" Helgraf asked.

"Yes and no. I don't know why I'm here; you don't know why I'm here, but I am here, and someone went to a lot of trouble to transport this magic-immune body to this place. I want to find out why. I figure that if I make myself as public as possible, hopefully whatever brought me here will make itself manifest, and I'll know what's going on."

"And how do you think you'll do this?" Helgraf asked.

"I'm going to turn up for court on an indecency charge; the one placed upon me the other day..."

Helgraf clutches his temples for a moment as he feels a massive translocation.

Dracos looks up in concern, "Are you alright, Helgraf?"

Helgraf quitely focuses, tracking the source. Suddenly his eyes flicker open.

"Our friends have arrived. I must make sure they find us. I suggest you remain here - it is safer."

He belts on his silver sabre and leaves the room, heading down into the tavern below, then out into the street. Once on the street, he crosses his wrists and brings the left arm down sharply - in responce, a series of small blue flickering lights flow outward, each paced twenty feet from the one before it. The lights then fade into invisibility, visible only as magical emanations.

He then ducks back into the tavern and upstairs to the room, and waits for the others to arrive.

At the end of the dark alley where the adventurers have appeared, a blue light appears briefly and fades, then another blinks into existence amid the party, illuminating them with an eerie glow before vanishing into invisibility.

"I think someone noticed us," Paulon says dryly, stating the obvious. He looks closer at the place where the light had been, and squints. "It's still there, just not visible unless you can see magic. So's the first one too. It looks like part of a trail.

"If no-one has a better idea, I guess we may as well follow it."

As Paulon walks to the end of the alley, the glowing magical point behind him vanishes tracelessly.

"Is this wise?" asks Goldenflame.

Paulon grins cheerfully at him. "Probably not, but if whoever it was wanted something nasty, they probably wouldn't have announced themselves." He looks around the group. "Of course if it is a trap, then I have every confidence in our ability to handle it appropriately. I've traveled with some of you folks before."

The party follows the trail of magical points for a while along darkened and deserted alleyways surrounded by buildings so crowded together that the sky was blocked from vision, before reaching wider streets, and people using them.

Above the streets a grey-brown miasma covers the sky, shrouding whatever source of light lies above in anonymity. The folk on the streets are dressed in somber hues, and seem to pay little attention to each other, as if their own concerns are more important than others.

The party slips back into the shadows as a patrol of armoured soldiers marches down the roadway, oblivious to the magical beacons scattered along it. Daria hisses as she sees a sigil of a bird holding a snake emblazoned on their shields.

After the patrol has passed them by, the group moves out into the street, once more following the beacons, which vanish silently as they are passed. The folk upon the street seem not to want to notice the gathering of strangely garbed adventurers who move quietly among them, as if sensing that being seen too close to these people might mean trouble for them.

Finally the party reaches a seedy seeming inn. They shudder as the difference between this world and those which they know is rammed home by the nature of the hanging sign - in their own worlds such a name would be written, not simply delineated by using the real thing...

Despite this gruesome marker covered in gold paint, the next beacon is in the doorway itself, indicating where the party must go, into the inn called the Gilded Granddad.

The party enters the inn, shocked by the grisly signpost and half-expecting to encounter unspeakable horrors within. To their surprise, however, the interior of the inn is unremarkable, and appears to look exactly like any other inn in the multiverse, if somewhat dilapidated.

Scanning his eyes across the crowded public room, Concussed looks for familiar faces. A bunch of rough looking men sitting nearby notice the party's entrance and gesticulates at them rudely, laughing. Apparently, Britannian fashions are somewhat outre here in Balfas.

Catching sight of a familiar tattooed form sitting at the far side of the room, Concussed starts to walk over to Draco's table, and is about to hail the mage when he is tripped by one of the men. In a vain attempt to break his fall, Concussed grabs the chair of the nearest bully, and brings him crashing down to the floor of the inn as well. Recovering from his fall too late, the dazed Concussed gets up only just in time to avoid a kick to the head. The man is holding a hand up to his bruised head, and his companions rise up from their table in fury.

"By the gods, I'll have your head for this, outlander! Get him, boys!"

*F@#k. So much for keeping a low profile,* Concussed thinks, as he prepares to defend himself in the imminent brawl.

Oh Mighty Dragon Lords, whoever you are, this pointless brawl is the last thing we need right now, Daria thinks in dismay as she watches the desire to see blood and guts spilled lighting up every face in the tavern. Some men are already taking out their weapons, hungry for a fight, no matter on which side or for what cause.

Just as the first sounds of steel crushing steel fill the air and the first chairs are smashed against human skulls, an angry voice, which sounds more like a hungry lion's roar, booms throughout the tavern: "Stop this at once!!!"

Everybody stops fighting, and turn their heads to see a figure standing at the base of the staircase which leads to the guestrooms on the first floor. Daria is amazed to see that the owner of that deafening voice is in fact a woman. She's taller than anybody else in the room, and seems even taller because of her incredible gauntness. Her unattractive, angular features and dark-blue hair seem faintly familiar to Daria, but she brushes that thought off as ridiculous. The woman's grey eyes are as cold as steel, and their merciless stare is fixed on the fat man whose anger Concussed has accidentally provoked.

"Sarron, I thought I told you never to come to my tavern again, and I thought you'd have enough brains in that thick skull of yours to follow my request. But, as if showing your face here wasn't a stupidity enough, you've made an even more foolish mistake by starting a fight and making me dislike you even more."

"Now, call off your dirty fleabags," she points to the man's companions, "and get the hell out of here."

"You half-blood bitch, you'll ****ing pay for this!" Sarron hisses furiously as he approaches the woman with a short sword clutched in his hand.

Not intimidated by his threat at all, the woman just stands there, her hands planted firmly on her hips, her lips curving in a smile that would make a liche shudder.

"Poor little fat Sarron. Do you want me to paint a pretty picture for everyone here of what's happened the last time you've tried to be a troublemaker?" She speaks loudly now, so that everybody in the tavern can hear: "I seem to recall you crawling at my feet, whimpering with fear and trying hard not to piss on my floor. Now, for a second time, get out of my sight, or I might have a sudden whim to make you my next signpost. "Fat Gilded Sarron" - what a lovely, catchy name for a tavern that would be!"

For a moment, Sarron looks as if he's ready to explode from the inside. Finally, he turns away from the woman and cries out: "C'mon, boys, let's get out of this dunghole! No one in his right mind would want to drink this filth she calls ale anyway!" He deliberately spits on the floor, then storms out of the tavern, making sure the woman hears every 'bitch' and 'witch' that slips from his tongue on his way out. As he goes past Concussed, he gives him a look of utter hatred, and mutters something about the need to obliterate every single ****ing outlander in this otherwise fair and splendid country.

After Sarron is gone, the woman turns to Concussed and his companions: "There are two rules in my tavern, strangers. Try not to be a trouble, and if you do insist on being one, be prepared to pay fully for the consequences. And," she adds with a mocking smile, "if I were you, I would get out of these ridiculous clothes as soon as possible. They do make you a fine target for pranks."

But Daria hears nothing of what the woman has just said: her glance is fixed on the small disk of silver which adorns the tavernkeeper's chest. The medallion's engraving shows two cedar branches curling around an image of a dragon - a symbol that belonged to the Great Siberian Dragon family since the beginning of a Dragon kind...

"My thanks for the advice," Paulon replies to the tavern keeper, as the others look around the room.

After the abrupt end of the brawl, everybody in the tavern appears relatively peaceful, seemingly quite used to this happening. Destrius walks over to the table where the tattooed Dracos sits, and waves at him.

"Dracos! Tis strange to see you here!"

The once-mage looks up and smiles, and Destrius sits down beside him, along with the rest of the group.

Paulon sees Destrius beckoning himself and the others over, so he excuses himself to the owner and head over towards the table. After a moment he realises that Daria is just standing in one spot.

He walks back and waves his hand in front of her face until she blinks. "Uh, Daria. I think the boss man over there wants to discuss stuff." Paulon is facing in the wrong direction to see the flickering expression cross the tavern keeper's face as she hears Daria's name spoken.

The two walk over to the table, joining the others.

"Ah, Destrius. Helgraf sort of mentioned that you would be appearing, and indeed here you are. Would you happen to know anything about why I am here? I recall it involving you, and those other friends with you, although I cannot remember how I even got to know of some of them."

"My memory is blank regarding this matter. We are in Balfas, are we? And what is this about Helgraf? Is he here?"

"Unless you botched your spell, that's where we are. It's certainly where we're supposed to be." interjects Paulon.

"He's upstairs, and will come down shortly, perhaps," Dracos replies.

Destrius turns to the rest of the group.

"In the meantime, then, I think we should try to figure out why we are here. Does anybody remember?"

Paulon looks a bit annoyed. "As far as I can tell, I remember everything except the reason why we are here. Your summoning of us, the interference dispelled by the Librarian, even that Dracos left separately to find his own means of transit so that he could avoid having his null-magic interfering with your spell to bypass the Divider. But not why it was important that we do so, just that it was important, if not essential, that we enter Balfas, and quickly. Sorry."

For a short period there is silence.

"Well?" Paulon asks. "Anyone have any idea?"

"Uh, perhaps these mystic symbols which have suddenly sprouted out of my body could tell us something." Saint George's Dragon pipes up. The others turn and see that SG'sD human form is marred by what look like strange black writing that seems ancient and arcane, almost like tattoos. "I am trying to remember why we are here but these things itch.... OWWW" he exclaims, clutching his head as the symbols begin glowing.

Taking a moment to catch his breath he says "It seems that due to my unique magical nature the spell that blocks are memory has taken on a physical analogue in me and is preventing me from accessing the memories rather than simply erasing the information or setting up some kind of complex post hypnotic suggestion or however it works on normal dragons. Perhaps we can use this to find a way to break the spell. Does anyone have some calimal lotion these things really itch. Pesky gods, can't they use a bit more talc in their spells?"

"If you think your treatment at the hands of the gods is uncomfortable now, you had best hope they didn't hear you say that," Goldenflame remarks with a slight smile. That said, he joins Destrius, Dracos, and the others in their close examination of the forms that the dragon is showing. "I can make neither heads nor tails of it. Daria, if you would - you are a dragon, can you decipher?

"And Saint George's Dragon- what are you? Are you truly a dragon, with modifications perhaps, or something else in essense?" The dragon pauses for a moment in his itching, but before he can begin to answer, the Librarian speaks. "You know, in some ways, you remind me of a Wisp." He waves his hand, continuing, "Oh, there are obvious differences. And yet..." He trails off. "Perhaps I'm just burbling. Don't mind me."

"Well, I was a dragon until the idiot poked me with a pointy stick. Anyway I am a bit sensitive about it if you don't mind. Also, the Wisps are unfocused dimensional and have no sense of self and they are glowing balls of light. I don't think I am a bit like them." Saint George's Dragon responds somewhat indigniantly. "Uhh, sorry Librarian it has been one of those days.".

Destrius walks over to St. George's Dragon, and examines the symbols.

"Yes, it does appear to be physical manifestation of magic of some sort. I may be able to decipher the spell and negate it, but I'd rather not do it here. Shall we relocate to somewhere more private?"

"Sure thing doc, where to?"

<< Balfas - The Gilded Granddad >>

A tiny silver bell rings in the room Helgraf has set aside for himself as Destrius crosses the threshold of the Granddad. While the inevitable brawl goes on downstairs, he works slowly to remove every trace of the beacon-trail he constructed to lead the group hither. About five minutes after he is sure the work has been done properly, he bandages his left thumb and then, girding his sabre, uses small magicks to make sure the windows cannot be breached without unnatural strength or magick, then closes and locks the door behind him, pocketing the key in an interior pocket. He then quietly proceeds down the staircase into the common room.

Spotting the group gathered, he approaches near - silently, though not out of any will to surprise these people, his once-allies, but out of caution. When within earshot of all of them, he makes his presence known by reciting a brief verse.

"From many worlds they arrive, heralds of the prime gate unknown
To the home of the strange, where mysteries deep intoned."
"Welcome to Balfas, armpit of armpits. I trust you've found your stay eventful thus far?"

A few nods of assent, grins from the less grim.

Destrius looks up, and the two lock gazes for a long moment, something silent passing between them. Helgraf nods once, though whether in acquiescence or affirmation, it is hard to tell.

"That passage is part of what has evinced itself," indicating the marked St. George's with a slight gesture of his left hand, "whence did you come across it?"

"There is much I am not yet permitted to say, lest my words change the outcome. However, I am not required to prevent you from learning what you will from other means. And there are things I can tell you. This is Belfas and if our goals are mutual, we seek Amsereth - or more precisely information about him, how he created the Ring of Xiesh, and what his plans had been regarding Britannia and the Black Moon."

There is a sudden, intense roiling of the ether in the vicinity of the inn, as several things happen at once.

Those who had forgotten their purpose here begin to remember. .

St. George's, being held together, in his own words, by the equivalent of magical duct tape, expands like a balloon as a funnel of the etheric disturbance channels through him, them blows out in a storm of random magical effects.

Helgraf throws up an arm as a thundering bolt of brown light slams into him, knocking him against the far wall, where he slumps to the floor, his last words before slipping into unconsciousness being, "Remind me how much I hate deity-level intervention..."

Daria jumps as grass begins to grow up from the floor beneath her feet. Daisies begin to appear, white petals slowly turning around as little faces peer about the room from within. Paulon bats at miniature winged pink elephants that dart around his head, holding mallets in their trunks with which they clumsily attempt to bash him.

Every bit of metal in the room is covered with vinelike traceries of multicoloured fire, lighting up Goldenflame and his armour like an earthly Christmas Tree. But throughout the entire storm of wild dissipating magic, Dracos stands untouched, watching as little magical lightnings arc towards him, then vanish into thin air...

As if an afterthought, the etheric disturbance dissipates...

As the magicks fade Dracos slumps to the floor. Paulon heads over to him and guides his prone body to a chair.

"Sorry; the sheer magical weight of that... occurence was too much to handle." The once-Mage straightens his clothing. "I somewhat afraid that we'll get an etheric echo on that casting, so it might be an idea for me to go out for a while so that I don't get another attack."

Helgraf nods. "Court?"

The others look first at Helgraf and then Dracos.

"Oh, when I arrived here I was arrested for public indecency. I was naked you see. Helgraf 'lifted' me from the scene of the crime, but I thought that this might provide us with something to go on. I'm not sure exactly what I hope to find out, but it feels like I should go. A bit like fate, really."

As Dracos says 'fate' he winces, as if half a memory is trying to resurrect itself in his mind. Some of the others feel a sense of knowing more, but it quickly fades away.

"So to court you go?" Helgraf says.

"Yes, to court..."

Dracos turns and leaves the room, while Helgraf lies down on the bed to recover from the magical blast.

In the meantime, the others remain at the Gilded Grandad. Not wishing to trust to everyone's ability to navigate this city, they decide to wait for Dracos to return, and also Helgraf's awakening.

Goldenflame looks at Destrius for a moment. "I might find it safe to assume that this man is known to you, save that here I would rather assume nothing. Is he friend?"

Destrius nods. "An enigma, perhaps, but he is on our side and did travel with some of us the last time."

"Ah. The last time. We have some breathing time, now. While I have pieced together much, perhaps now would be a good time for a summary of the 'last time' to be made?"

Paulon shrugs. "The tale's fairly simple if we avoid getting into details. What it boils down into was the mage named Amsereth announcing his presence in Britannia by releasing the Shadowlords from their imprisonment, to act as both servants and a distraction from his own plans. The magic used to extinguish the Flames of the Principles did some odd things to the local ether, jumpstarting the moongates. I tripped over one and wound up in Moonglow, which is how I got involved in the matter. Destrius, myself, a paladin from Trinsic named Sir Kenneth and a couple of others wound up trying to do something about the situation."

"In the course of tracking down information we met Amsereth, not that we knew his name then, and Destrius realized he was in possession of an artefact called the Ring of Haeth, which drew the ether to it, giving the wearer virtually unlimited power, and cutting off other mages abilities. Naturally Amsereth used that to disrupt things for us as much as possible. We were joined in the course of events by Concussed, Helgraf, Dracos and St George's, although whether Dracos was with us became debatable after he was possessed by the Shadowlord of Cowardice."

"We got some hints from the Codex, and tracked down the artefacts we needed to combat Amsereth. While we were preparing for the final combat though, the Shadowlord possessing Dracos got loose and set up some plans of it's own, restoring Mondain in Dracos' body. The wizard decided for reasons of his own to assist us. We eventually got into Stonegate where Amsereth was holed up, and confronted him there. Mondain left before the final confrontation, releasing Dracos from his control and transporting him elsewhere. Helgraf also left. I got the impression he was up to something with a limited time frame to do it in, but we probably wouldn't have succeeded without his help earlier. We managed to kill Amsereth, but to be honest, we didn't learn anything more than his name. Just what he was really doing remained a mystery, but hopefully that little mystery is what we're going to clear up here in Balfas. We know that someone ran off with his body, but don't know whether it was his ally, enemy, or something completely irrelevant to us. Another mystery."

<< Balfas, in The Court of Bones >>

"Dracos of Moonglow, you appear before this court for the count of public indecency. How do you plead?" The judge, clothed in purple ermine leant over her dais as she spoke.

"Guilty, sir." Dracos bowed his head.

"As you have entered a guilty plea you are entitled to voice a mitigating circumstance that will be considered when you are sentenced. Have you such a thing?"

"Yes. To account for my nakedness I offer this excuse; I had just been transported across the divider." Dracos raised his head and stared at the judge. "I wish this to be taken into account."

The judge leant back in her chair. "You crossed the divider..." She turned her head to the guard standing beside her dais. "Have the room cleared. I wish to speak to this man alone."

The guard moved swiftly, and soon the room was empty of all but the judge and the once-Mage.

"You come from Tideron?" she asked.

"Not exactly. I come from the world of Britannia, also known as Sosaria." Dracos took a seat. "How I came to Tideron I do not know; why I am here I have no idea."

"As it should be. The Divider blocks the memory of those who travel; your reasons for being here are lost to you while you live in our land. It is a useful tool; one side cannot invade the other if the armies cannot remember why they are at war, or who the real enemy is." The judge absent-mindedly stroked the skeletal bones of the dais.

"So my blocked memory indicates I'm not here on holiday..." Dracos did not smile as he spoke and the judge took some time to realise he spoke in jest.

"Yes... It is useless my asking why you are here, but can you remember nothing of your transportation?"

"No. All I know is that whoever sent me is strong indeed; I am mostly resistant to magicks."

"Balfas, and Tideron I suppose, is often visited by entities that are above our magical ranking. The Lich Collectors, the Wisps, even the Antageroens pass through our streets from time to time. Any of them could have sent you. There is not much contact between us and those of Tideron; scant messages sent by gods mostly."

"And the Divider?" Dracos looked into the judge's eyes. "I wish to know about this divider of yours."

"You wish to know of the barrier between Balfas and Tideron? I am not the most informed person in this regard; the priests are better in these matters. What I do know is simple history.

"Once upon a time, as all stories seem to start, this world, called Tideron and Balfas by those who live upon it, was created. It was split in twain by the Gods; Tideron and Balfas. On each races grew and matured without knowledge of the other. When they met for the first time scant diplomacy took place; eventually war broke out. Who attacked who we cannot say. For centuries, possibly millennia we fought, until the magicks became available. Then we killed. Our battles became so fraught with magic that the fabrics of life and nature became torn and entangled. New races appeared, new evils grew from old goods. Our land changed from a paradise to an hell. So our Gods stepped in. They laid waste to our armies and sent us all home. They sought to punish our insolence by letting us live with the aftermath of our destructions. We do not know who attacked who first; certainly no-one in Balfas or Tideron would ever admit to being the aggressor. Although we lived in an imperfect paradise, we were not easily dissuaded. I suppose someone, somewhere, told others that what had been wrought with magic could be undone by the very same spells. Soon the wars started anew. Balfas or Tideron invaded the other, and eventually an army came through the Divider and laid our land to waste. The magicks they used were so strong they distorted the very substance of the land. Vision became unreliable. The Gods had had enough and reset the Divider, making it stronger. It was the hope that war would never be waged again between our people." The judge gripped the dais. "So it has been for thousands of years. Our eyes may be distorted, but we suffer less."

"Your vision..." Dracos began.

"The magicks of the war distorted what we now called Balfas so drastically that you cannot guarantee that what you see is what it really is. Balfas has gained a reputation in evil doings, Dracos of Moonglow. It is said, apparently, in Tideron, that we are evil because we kill ourselves; we cause great harms upon our loved ones. The truth of the matter is far worse. These crimes do occur, but it is more the result of ignorance than desire. Men cutting wood in the forest find they have felled their friends in the village instead. Publicans hanging a sign discover they have hung their grandparent above the door. Mothers changing their child's diaper find themselves to have thrown the child out, never to be found again. But worse are those who hide their misdeeds within the visions of distortion. Those who commit the real crimes hide behind misapprehension. That is why my court sits. I must discern truth." The judge slumped forward slightly. "It is a hard task."

"Is Tideron similarly affected," Dracos asked.

"I do not know. If it were, their mages, greater in number than our own, may have cured the bane. Unity of vision must be a grand thing.

"We have little magic in Balfas compared to Tideron. The Priest-Kings have strictures against the mage-class. My lords, the Priests, rule by fear. It has been a regime that has done us great good for a long time. If you cannot guarantee that all see the same things then faith that there is something beyond this life that is unified gives the people hope. It stops the anarchy. But there are those amongst us that wish to give our people hope now. They seek some way to drain the magicks from Balfas. Some have even left this world to find suitable worlds that might act as a trap for our magicks; a drain that will take our cursed world view from us."

"Is that right? To sacrifice another world to make yours a better place?" Dracos stood and walked towards the dais.

"It is not a question I ask myself. My days are spent passing judgement on all those brought to me. I do not wish to make my own thoughts those of sentencing. Those who leave to do have never returned, anyway." The judge looked at Dracos. "Enough of this talk. You, if the priests where to hear of your origin, would be considered a danger. I would suggest you keep away from all acts that might bring you before me or another judge. You are a danger here. Many have great anger towards 'perfect' Tideron. If anymore of your kind should appear here it is best they hide safely away. Have you any way to return to your home?"

"None that I know of."

"Then I shall furnish you with an address. The lady who lives there was married to one of Balfas' greatest mages, one of the men who left this world to seek a balm for our troubled sight. Amongst his things there might be some artefact to help you return home."

The judge scrawled something on a piece of papyrus and handed it to the once-Mage. Dracos took it and bowed.

"Fare well, Dracos of Moonglow."

"Fare well, lord judge." Dracos left the courtroom and headed towards the inn where the others would be waiting. He looked at the piece of scroll, only to realise that whatever script Balfas had as its own, he could not read it.

<< Helgraf's Room, The Gilded Granddad >>

"Holy bloody Cedar," thinks Daria, looking at the scroll Dracos has brought in, "who in the name of virtues would even -think- of inventing a written language like that? And I thought that Britannian Runes were a pain to learn!"

The complaint seems justified: what the judge had scribbled on the paper looks more like a little child's drawing of a spider web than an address that was supposed to help them all out.

"...And when I came back, even -the building- where the trial was held has disappeared into thin air, let alone the judge!" says rather distraught Dracos, as he finishes telling his story to the entire company which has somehow managed to fit into the choking confines of the Helgraf's tiny room upstairs.

Paulon starts to say something, but suddenly he is interrupted by the soft knock on the door, followed by the sound of the familiar voice.

"Please open the door, I need to have a word with you. It's urgent."

After a moment of hesitation, the gaunt, intimidating, blue-haired owner of the inn is warily let inside. Her grey-eyed gaze briefly studies the company, and then stops on Daria, who immediately feels nervous and shaky. Unexpectedly, the woman smiles.

"Finally, I meet the person I was named after," she says. Seeing Daria's shocked expression, she rolls her eyes.

"Mighty Dragonlords, girl, from the way you kept staring at me and my medallion downstairs I thought you realised it too. I have no time for a little chit-chat between kinswomen, so all you need to know is that your cousin from the Dagger Isle was my father, and that my mother was a Balfas native. Don't ask me how a union like this could be possible, what matters is that theirs turned out to be an unhappy and hurtful marriage, and so she had returned to her homeworld after a few months in Britannia, taking her with me."

"Are you..."

"A dragon? No, I was spared that awful inconvenience you poor thing must suffer, thanks to my mother's blood being more ancient and therefore stronger than that of the Dragonkind. However, I was blessed with enough magic powers to see the little psychedelic show your suspicious friends had arranged." She turns to Paulon: "Little pink elephants were an especially nice touch, even if a bit unoriginal."

"But enough of that. I'll be honest with you, Daria, I have no love for your kin that mistreated my mother so badly, nor do I care for the fate of the gang you've chosen to hang out with. But despite of what you people might think of those who live in Balfas, kinship is not a meaningless words to us, and I wouldn't want to see you hurt or killed."

"You must know that you're all in terrible danger. The priests are looking for you, and those are quite efficient when it comes to finding people they want. The word is passed around the city in no time, and I wouldn't be surprised if they knew your physical descriptions as well. If I were you, I'd disappear out of this city as quickly as possible."

Having said that, she prepares to leave the room, when Dracos stops her. "You did us a great favour, my lady, would you be so kind as to do another, a small one? Could you translate what is written here?" he hands her the mysterious scroll.

Daria's namesake takes a look at the judge's scribblings, then utters an amused laugh. "You have actually tried to read this?" she laughs again. "All you need to do is to put your index finger in the centre of the spider web, and the scroll will pull you gently in the right direction until you reach the right address."

Dracos nods and places his finger in the web; nothing happens. Daria looks at the parchement in astonishment.

"The Judge fooled you," she said.

"No, I think my magical resistance is at fault." The once-Mage hands the piece of paper to Daria. "You try it."

Daria looks at the others before hesitantly placing her finger on the centre of the page. She begins to feel the need to move. She takes her finger off the paper.

"It works," she says.

A collective sigh of relief issues from the group.

"It might be a good idea to disguise ourselves. I've travelled a fair few lands in my time; it's a good idea to look like the natives when forces are chasing after you." Paulon eyes Helgraf and Dracos. "You two, fortunately, are already properly dressed, although, Helgraf, you look a bit too much like a mage. If the Judge is right, mages are far and few between, and probably not liked at all; it wouldn't be a good idea to even look slightly like one."

The others nod.

"Urgency is of the essence, my friends. I suggest to you that we get going, and we get going now." Destrius walks into the centre of the group. Whatever brings us here may well have brought us into great trouble."

Helgraf smiles faintly before speaking. "We are expected, it seems. Not that I am particularly surprised by this turn of events, mind. If I had a copy of some prophectic work about this where I lived, it is not surprising that the natives of this world might as well - or they might have a different, competing prophecy. Either way, the two will be similiar enough that up to the points of convergence, the enemy may well be able to predict our moves as much as I can theirs - which is to say well in a general fashion, but poorly to the specifics. As for a change in clothes, " he trails off as he reaches into a pocket of his robes, removing a small compact and a wooden box, "I prefer to change to face - a face is easier to mark than the shell of cloth about it."

Over the course of the next few minutes, Helgraf applies alternating layers of foundation and an ashy powder, darkening his skin several shades, and giving it a rough-weatherhewn appearance. He then applies a lighter mixture of the same substances to his hands and arms up to the shoulders, and from the chin down the neck.

"If any of the rest of you care to partake of mundane disguise aids, and can handle the application of the materials," he says, then leaves the compact and box nearby.

He then softly incants a spell, and his features shift and melt to match his original ones.

"That should take care of troublesome customers. Anyone seeing me leave will not associate me with the disguise under the magick - and if someone in this cancerous armpit of a city can dispell magick, I'll not look like myself after all. Oh, and by the way, you're right - mages aren't common in Balfas. However, unless I've misread the citizenry, black robes are fairly common among mid-ranking functionaries of the government. A slight modification," as he folds the silvered seams of his robes in, and pins them in place with small metal pins, "and these are really quite plain robes. However, I suspect I shan't be allowed to keep a weapon beyond a knife so . . . "

He withdraws his silver sabre and focuses his will upon it, cutting open a small gash on his left forearm for the blood neccesary to perform the ritual until he can learn the forms for magic use on this world. Once sufficient blood has pooled, he uses the Britannian forms, not out of need, but to give his companions a clue what to expect.

"Bet Arg-Ailem In, Quas AnOrt"

The blade dwindles down to the size of an ornate dagger, and the magic used to perform the trick is masked by an illusion of non-magic. He then slips the dagger into a fold of his robes near his left wrist.

"Well, I'm ready."

Daria takes a suspicious glance at the make-up materials and shudders in disgust. "Thanks for the offer," she mumbles, "but I think I'd prefer to change my appearance in a less messy way. I know that this is not a good time for the female vanity, but this foundation spells certain death for my skin."

She snaps her fingers, and once her figure emerges once again from the sparkling cloud of dust, she appears as a medium-tall woman in her early twenties, with a plain non-descript face, dark curly hair and grey eyes that seem to be most common among the people of Balfas. Her clothing is also nothing out of ordinary, and wouldn't attract any attention whatsoever.

"Don't worry, there's nothing magical about this transformation. For me, the change of appearance is as natural as it is for a lizard to shed its tail, or for a chameleon to change its colouring. Any look I choose to take is still my natural look."

"Well, I guess I'm ready too."

"Dracos," begins Goldenflame, "while you were out- did you notice anyone at all in armor? Bodyguards, perhaps? I am hesitant to remove it- if you think it is awkward to wear, try carrying it. What's more, I have no intention of relinquishing my sword, and I suspect that Cat feels the same way.

"I am open to suggestions."

"There were a few such, but..." Dracos' reply tapers off.

"What's the problem?" Concussed asks?

Dracos looks worried. "It was quality. Other than guards, those wearing armour had nothing resembling Goldenflame's equipment. What there was appeared shoddy and illmade, whereas your armour," he turns to Goldenflame, "is clearly of high quality and workmanship, perhaps even made especially for you. There is quite a contrast. Swords though were a little more common. Yours and Cat's should pass inspection if we can conceal that armour somehow."

Paulon looks Goldenflame and his armour over. "It may be possible to make it look less conspicuous by local standards. We can't conceal the quality, but we should be able to make this tin suit look a little less like a noble paladin's armour, and more like something scavenged from a battlefield. He catches the sour look that Goldenflame gives him. "Which is more important? Pride in appearance or the Honor of getting this little quest finished off without major mayhem?"

"Loosen some of the straps holding it together. And don't loosen each strap by a fixed amount, vary it some. It'll rub and you'll probably loose some skin, but it'll look like the armour doesn't fit, just like you've pinched it from somewhere." Paulon digs into a pocket, pulls out a flattened pouch, and unfolds it, and removes some coins, before replacing the wallet. "Stick these in your shoes too. They'll make you walk a little more carefully, and that should make the armour seem to jiggle a bit more. It's all in the appearances, not the reality."

"As for the appearance of the armour, as opposed to its fit, we need to dull the polish a little. Some of that makeup of Helgraf's should do the trick." A thought strikes Paulon. "And maybe something I've got will help too." Swinging his pack from his shoulder, Paulon opens it and fumbles around inside it for a little while, finally withdrawing a stubby black tube. "We can use this marker to put some simple patterns on your suit, then add the makeup to make it look a bit aged and dirty. It'll all polish off with a little elbow grease once this matter is done with."

"My clothes are going to be a little harder though. If Britannian styles are odd, casual gear from Earth is outright weird here. Still, there is a bit I can do to fit in better. My shoes and pants may be just passable, but not my top." He takes off his jacket, opening the seam down the front by pulling a tab along its length. "I don't think a zipper can pass even a quick glance around here. A light linen jacket, dyed a faded green, is removed from the depths of Paulon's pack, this one being fastened up the front with buttons. With a blade exuded from an orange device in Paulon's fingers, pockets are quickly removed and stored back in the bag. Paulon pulls some cord from his bag, then removes his belt, fastening it around his jacket, and replaces it with the cord. The resulting appearance of his garb is far less strange compared to its state prior to the adjustments.

Paulon swings his pack back onto his back, tightens the straps, and insets his umbrella vertically between his back and the pack, using the tightness of the straps to hold it in place.

"The funny thing about most people is that they remember the oddities of someone's appearance before the other details. I haven't seen anything like these here." Paulon taps the silvery spectacles he wears over his eyes, then removes them, carefully folding them and putting them into a case which vanishes into a pocket. "I bet most folks out on the street would remember and look for my glasses and odd clothing first, and forget almost everything else about my appearance. With my cloths somewhat more passable, and my glasses gone, I should get by without attention. So long as I don't trip over my own feet anyway."

Saint George's Dragon changes his outward appearance to that of a simple tradesman, a tinker. He does not bother to use clothes since he will radiate as magically disguised no matter what form he wears, since no one true form does he possess anymore.

In time the group changed their appearance; the only difficulty would be leaving the Gilded Grandad without being noticed. Disguises work nicely as long as there is no one to associate old garb with new...

"We have the address..." Daria begins.

"And we know how to use it, although I am not sure I trust it; it is a magick of somekind, and Balfas seems intolerant of that art." Helgraf picks up the piece of paper. "Dracos, should we trust this judge of yours?"

Dracos shakes his head. "I do not know; before Mondain I could have discerned the truth of her words with a simple cantrip, but today I find myself wishing I had paid attention to body-language in my youth. Magic makes you too reliant..."

"I understand." Destrius takes the paper from Helgraf. "Although the danger to me is probably greatest, it might be better that I use the 'address', since I am native to this world, and hopefully anyone watching our activities will think it is simply a Balfasian at work."

The group nods in unison.

"Should we go?" Dracos finally says.

"Yes." Paulon opens the door. "I think I can provide the necessary distraction; I have some experience in avoiding authorities on many different worlds." He disappears out the door. Soon the sound of a scuffle starts downstairs. Loud thumps, sometimes intermittentedly interspersed with the sound of things breaking, migrate through the floor to Helgraf's room.

"What is he doing, do you think?" Dracos asks.

"I have no idea." Helgraf smiles. "Whatever it is..."

Paulon appears at the door again. "I've sacrificed a can of a drink from my home; poured it into a mug at the bar. Apparently it's not quite what she was expecting..."

The others gather their things and move downstairs. The bar is a mess; the people even worse. Paulon shakes his head.

"It's not that bad..."

Dracos looks at him then shakes his head. Off-worlders seem to have strange ideas and manners. He glances at Helgraf, then at Destrius. Shaking his head again he leads the others outside.

Dusk has settled upon the city and the lanterns that light the street create too much contrast. Anything could be hidden in the darkness. Destrius pulls out the parchment and places his index finger in the centre of the web. He begins to walk down the streets, the others following quickly behind. Goldenflame 's hand rests gently on the pommel of his sword; Daria's eyes flicker from place to place. As the group moves from one avenue to another Destrius walks as if he knows the city well. Soon they are walking through what seems to be the outskirts of the city; the lighting is better and the buildings seem to be of better construction. Guards at each street corner nod at the group as they pass by; one even says hello in a jovial tone, and the group feels safe for the first time since arriving in Balfas.

Down one dead-end Destrius leads them, and within a few short seconds they face a door. It is plain but all the brass upon it is well polished. Destrius nods to Paulon who knocks gently on the surface. The group waits expectantly.

"Hello?" A wooden slider opens on the door and two eyes peer out into the darkness. "Can I help ye?"

"Ah, yes." Dracos moves closer to the door. "I, I mean we, were sent here?"

"Were ye? By who, dear?" The voice belongs to a woman.

"Ah, a judge." Dracos turns and looks at the group before turning back to the door. "She keeps court somewhere near..."

"Ah, that'll be Heloise. If she sent yer ye can come in. Mind the lintel; it's deceptively low." The door opens.

"Ah, thank you." Dracos leads the others inside.

The hallway is narrow and dark, but lighted rooms lead off it. A set of stairs head up towards a second storey. A woman, middle-aged, stands on the first step.

"'Tis a bad time of night to be travelling; a few turns later and the guards would be after yer for breaking curfew." She takes Dracos' hand. "I'm the Widow Asmereth; I'm supposing you aren't of Balfasian origin and seek some way home."

The group pauses for a few seconds.

A bit impatient after the long walk SG'sD butts in, "Well, yes as a matter of fact, but we need to complete our mission. It was something..."

The air around St. George's Dragon seems to flicker as Destrius realises just what is about to be said. As the sound of the dragon's voice passes the flicker, it suddenly seems to have come from a great distance, faded almost beyond hearing.

"...about some guy we didn't know who caused some trouble in our home lands of Britannia, who came from around these parts as near as I can remember." He reflexively scratches himself at this point and his skin seems to shimmer for a moment. "Anyway we defeated the foul mage, and when we found out he was from Balfas, we came here to find out just what the heck he was up to."

Saint George's Dragon adds as an afterthought "Hey, your husband was a mage from around here, who traveled to other worlds and is dead." Suddenly, SG'sD grows nervous. "Uhh I hope that is just a coincidence." He concludes and smiles weakly.

The other members of the party glare at the Dragon.

SG'sD mutters apologetically "Oh, Amsereth cripes me and names. Sorry guys." but is taken aback in that his voice is still subdued.

The Widow Amsereth looks at them briefly. "Sorry. I did not quite catch all of that. Me hearing is fading somewhat. It can wait for now." She then turns her back and walks up the stairs.

"I'll expect ye will be a-wanting something to drink. I hope yer all like baljuki; it's an acquired taste but I've got nought much else to give ye."

When the widow is out of hearing Destrius gathers the group around him and starts to whisper.

"Is it me, or do we all know why we're here?" he says.

The others nod.

"I suppose you must have known Amsereth to be a name native to this world, and you summoned us all to track down why a Balfasian might have been active in Sosaria," Dracos says. "However I would have thought his house might be a bit more foreboding."

The others nod; the meeting has shocked most of them into silence. The house is warm and pleasant; there is no chill, no feelingof inescapable evil.

"This is very awkward; what if she asks questions of us?" Goldenflame frowns as he speaks.

"I'd suggest you let Dracos or myself speak, then." Helgraf pats Goldenflame on the back. "I wouldn't want to taint your virtuous nature, my friend."

The rattling of cups and saucers interrupts the discussion.

"Why don't yer all come and sit down in the living room." The widow leads the way and the party follows behind. The room they enter into is covered in maps and, most importantly, a large portrait of the Mage Amsereth and his wife, smiling. The widow notices them staring at the picture.

"That's me husband; a good man, if a little determined." The widow starts pouring the baljuki.

"Your husband is not here, then?" Dracos lies convincingly.

"I'm a widow; he's dead." The widow smiles at Dracos. "I won't be of much help to yer getting home, I'm afraid."

"Dead?" Helgraf asks.

"Well, I think so. He left for his tower over a year back; he told me he was going to try another option, and he hasn't been seen since he arrived in Jasmer. I suspect he miscast the spell and scatter himself over a wide area." The widow starts passing the cups around.

SG'sD is slightly annoyed when the widow does not hand him a cup, but already feeling awkward about his intial faux paux he simply stares at the widow in a deliberate way.

"You don't sound very surprised," Dracos hesitantly asks.

"Oh, it's what you get when you marry a mage. The Church might frown upon it and we might not have been allowed to breed, but we were in love. I miss him, of course, but spell-casters can be a dangerous profession to take up, and his magicks where more dangerous than most." The widow sits. "But enough about me; tell me again what brings you here."

By this point SG'sD has grown impatient enough to attempt to speak again. He says "Uhh, excuse me..." his voice seems to have returned to normal but she seems not to notice.

"We don't know; we crossed the divider." Helgraf sips at the liquid. It is pleasant although a little tart.

"Ah. And yer come from where?" The widow looks at them all expectantly.

"Earth," says Paulon quickly.

"Yer all from the same place?" she asks.

"More or less," Daria says. "Most of us have lived our entire lives on the same world."

Destrius nods. "It's true..."

"But not entirely accurate in the telling," Goldenflame mutters. The widow does not hear him.

"You said your husband was trying another option... What did you mean by that?" Helgraf places the cup and saucer on the table.

"Oh, Amsereth was trying to find another world to use as a 'magical drain', as he called it. An empty world. One that could be used to drain the excess magicks from Balfas and hopefully turn our vision back to normal. He had tried a number of worlds, but they had all been unsuitable; either the Wisps had been wrong and there was an emergent species there or the magic levels were too high; that would have caused an influx back to here. But Amsereth had retrieved some information from some source he met up with and was hoping this new place might be the world for us," the widow said.

"Information?" Dracos asked.

"Something about a material that absorbs magical energies... He didn't tell me much more." The widow looked at Dracos. "You seem very intrigued by my husband; why?"

"Ah, well," Dracos looked around the ground desperately, well..."

At this point SG'sD has taken to waving his arms in front of the widow to try and get her attention, for a moment she seems to stare at him and then shrug it off as you might shrug off a trick of the light.

"What my friend is trying to say is this; your husband has obviously travelled to other worlds. We hope we can somehow do the same, perhaps in the same manner." Helgraf smiled.

"Oh, well, if it's information you seek you'll need to go to my husband's tower. The priests don't like powerful magicks to be cast in the city, so Amsereth had a tower near the town of Jasmer. The priests have little control there." The widow smiled at Helgraf. "You'll want to head there as soon as possible; Jasmer is a good three days ride away, and I suspect you don't have any horses. However I'd advise against leaving tonight; the guards won't let you out the gates before sunrise." The widow stands. "I'll get Marath to make up some bedding for you for tonight, and I'll see what foods I can give you for the trip. You'll need a map, and a key for the tower door; I suspect Amsereth will have guarded the place quite well. I'll try and make sure it's all ready in the morning."

The widow Asmereth does not prepare a bed for SG'sD although she does comment she thought there were more travellers among the group. Since SG'sD does not sleep it is not a major obstacle but he does appear more and more perturbed, especially as the rest of the group seems to take less and less notice of him. Also, of great worry is that the illusions Balfas brings forth seem to be far more easily ignored by the rest of the party than by him. At one point the party walks through a wall which has suddenly appeared in a doorway while SG'sD bounces off it as though it were as solid as a rock.

It is not long after dawn that the party leaves the city gates, food and water supplied by the kindness of the widow. The walk from the home of the Widow Amsereth was uneventful, with no notice taken of the party as the murky sky brightens with the light of the rising sun behind it. Indeed, some folk actually walk through SG'sD! Or at least it seems that they were unnoticed. In a dark alley near the gate lurks a dark figure. Once those he watches are gone, the bloated figure of Sarron exits the shadows.

"Doubly damned outlanders. Think they can get away from me? I'll show them..."

SG'sD is unaware of all this. At the moment he is preocupied with his own problems. He runs ahead of the group and says "Guys, stop for a minute. I have a problem that needs discussing!" The group seems barely aware of his presence. Rage explodes inside Saint George's Dragon, suddenly he grows 50ft tall, and around him giant red hexagonal signs appear. He yells with the force of a gale: "STOP!". The group immediately freeze in their tracks. He instantly returns to his previous human guise, the townspeople around all shaking their heads for a moment, assuming they have simply fallen prey to another distortion of their sight by the magic of the land.

"Sorry about that, I have just been having one of those days. Anyway, as you may have noticed I have been experiencing some grade A weirdness lately, that little display should have drained me but I feel fine and that is what worries me. I think I have become entangled with the magic that is overflowing in Balfas and that distorts people's sight. It seems I am becoming illusionary and the illusions of this world are becoming real, also it seems that I am becoming part or one of those illusions and can thus manipulate and create more (which in case you're wondering is what I just did). Since most people have a natural resistance to illusions, so I have to work to be noticed.

"I can see only two ultimate outcomes to this process, one I will diffuse into the magic field of Balfas and my self will be forever lost in the sea of magic or two and this is thankfully much more unlikely my self will impose itself over all the magic field of Balfas and I will become a being of unimaginable power. Some may find it odd but I have no wish to receive such power nor of course to cease to be. Anyway, I would appreciate if you would focus on me and try to keep viewing me in my current form, I suspect that the force of others wills can have some effects on these illusions. At least I would not have to worry about you walking through me. I see little else to be done except for me to avoid the use of magic which may accelerate the process and to get off this world as soon as can be accomplished. Still, I think there is good reason to hope we can make it to the Mage's tower before any permanent damage is done and little can be accomplished by worrying overmuch, the journey will not be shortened much then. So let us continue than with all haste!"

"I think I can be of help. Because I am magically resistant I don't seem to be experiencing any side-effects of Balfas' unique climate."

Dracos pats StGD on the back, and StGD is surprised to find that it doesn't pass through him, although it stings a little, as if a small part of his mana has shied away from Dracos' hand. "If I keep an eye on you you should be fine. Even so, the others are going to start suffering soon enough; I may not be magically inclined anymore but I know the theories of magic; Mondain's 'gift' to me has been very educational. The background magic of Balfas will slowly build up in you as you naturally use up your native powers, and when the Balfasian stuff becomes dominant you'll start to feel everything that comes with it. Which reminds me. When we get back to our homes I'd recommend you all cast the most powerful spells you can, otherwise you'll suffer effects there until the Balfasian stuff fades away. Normally I'd leave that to later, but something, maybe it's fate..." As Dracos says the word the group half-remembers something that then fades away again "...but I'm not sure that I'll be in any position to tell you about it later. I mean, after last time, with the possession and everything I didn't even get to see the endgame..." Dracos frowns. "And no-one invited me to the banquet Lord British hosted..."

With this grim news the band continues its journey through the strange land of Balfas. As if in response clouds begin to form over head and it is not long before the travellers feel the first cold droplets of rain on their noses.

After a downpour in the morning the sun appears from behind the withering clouds and slowly continues its ascent towards midday. The party decides, in reference to the good weather, to stop to eat. The food prepared by the Widow Asmereth is distributed and each of the party find themselves somewhere comfortable to sit. Daria, feeling unusually alert, finds herself wandering through the nearby fields, simply enjoying the feeling of being away from the city and the accompanying fresh air. After a time she notices, far away from the group, someone wandering along a fenceline. Reaching them without being noticed is easy; whoever it is seems engrossed in some text. Daria recognises the hunched figure; it is Dracos.

"Dracos..." she asks queriously.

He looks up from the book. "Daria. Hello."

"And what are you doing here so far away from the others?"

Daria stares at the book. "And what are you reading? I thought you couldn't read Balfasian..." The tiny script on the page is alien to her.

"I can't. But I hope that soon I shall be able to. This is a book the Widow Asmereth gave me. It's from yet another world, apparently. Some kind of primer for Balfasian Asmereth prepared for a visitor just before he 'disappeared'." Daria notices that Dracos winces as he speaks; she knows about Asmereth's true fate.

"Will it take long to learn?"

"I don't know; the book is designed to magically aid you as you read it; memory cantrips and the like, simple stuff. Doesn't work on me, though. Still, I'm a fast learner; Mondain's workshop is covered in Ancient Sosarian script which I had to learn quite quickly. I suspect I'll have passable reading ability by the time we get to Jasmer."

Helgraf considers recent events. Amsereth had come to Britannia - so he claimed to his apparent wife - to find a world which could drain off the magic powering the Barrier, if he understood it correctly. However, with the barrier gone, he had no doubts in his mind that the wars it had been built to prevent would erupt once more - and if the "good" did not realize the barrier was down right away, evil could make several surprise attacks and take much of strategic importance during the period of initial confusion and chaos.

He slowly drummed the fingers of his left hand upon his leg as he considered his options. Quietly, he mumbled to himself, "If only I had a copy of Lantham's Ineffible Recitations. I'm sure there was something about the rede of the skein there."

Quietly he stands, and stretches, arching his back. The rain, at least, was normal here, if of a particular fat and blotty kind he was disinclined to favour. Of course, as if things weren't quite knotted enough, there was the problem of St. George's Dragon - or more precisely, St. George's Dragon and the nature of Balfasian magic. He, himself, was well off in that regard - his own magical potential was restored as his own blood renewed itself, so he could avoid contamination with comparative ease.

He quietly strokes his chin as he considers, one finger idly brushing the silver discoloration which runs down his face. It had taken him long indeed to replace the silver amulet which had shattered during the time of the Stranger. He growls in irritation as his thoughts continue to skip from one subject to the next, without staying long on any one.

He turns to face the majority of the group, "We needs must do something. If even half of what the widow told us is correct and not whitewashed lies told to her by her husband, then what Amsereth was attempting could have caused the Barrier itself to collapse - which would cause many side effects, not the least of which would be allowing anyone prepared for such an eventuality to sweep into the lands of their unexpecting enemy and inflict much damage before they recovered from the shock and confusion."

"Actually, Helgraf," interrupts Dracos, "from what I was told by the judge about Balfas and what Asmereth's widow said, Asmereth was not seeking to drain the magicks of the barrier; he sought to drain the magicks that support the illusions of Balfas, the illusions that give Balfas it's bad name. I suspect that the barrier isn't magical at all; it's some gods created divider..." Dracos says.

Destrius nods. "'Tis true; I doubt you could drain the barrier..."

"I am supposing," Dracos says, "that Asmereth isn't quite the villain we think he was. He seemed to be acting in the best interests of Balfas. Remember, he was in cohorts with the Shadowlords; they are corrupters of the highest magnitude. Admittedly they appeared to serve him, yet they also had plans of their own, as evidence by what happened to me..." Dracos trails off slightly before continuing to speak. "What interests me is this 'information source' that Widow Asmereth told us about; someone who knew of Britannia and gave Asmereth some hope about magic-draining... I want to know who this 'lead' is..."

"I believe we need more information about the people in power here." Helgraf continues. "We need to find out who is who, and what they're up to in order to determine the best course of action. Oh, by the way, whatever did you people do with Amsereth's body?"

St. George's Dragon looks over to Helgraf. "Well, actually we never had a chance to do anything - some strange fellow showed up, took the body and left before anyone else woke up - and I was in no condition to stop him."

Helgraf considers this piece of unwelcome news. "That is quite discouraging. If they have the ability to bring him back to life, he could provide them with information about us that we may want to be kept secret. If they animate him as a liche,": his voice trails off, leaving the rest of them to gather their own conclusions before concluding with, "I'm not a leader. I'll advise, but between us we will need to decide where to go next."

<< Meanwhile, somewhere else in Balfas...>>

In a small, dark room, barely lit by the scant flames of the old fireplace, a very strange and sinister company has gathered around the battered oaken table, three men and two women, all dressed in similar deep-violet robes. The men look like they belong to one race, sharing the same jet-black hair, snow-white skin and pale green eyes under the thin black eyebrows which, curiously enough, are slightly split at the ends. One of the women is a young colourless ashen blonde with watery-blue eyes and a merciless look to her face, the other one looks older and has a common appearance of a Balfasian native. Had Dracos been present at the room, he would immediately recognize the older woman as the one who had peered at him from above the judge's dais back in the court.

"So far, everything has been going according to plan," the false Judge says, "They're two more days away from Jasmer." She grins, "Silly children, they don't suspect anything wrong."

"I still cannot grasp exactly why we need this manipulation," grumbles one of the men. "With each day that passes, they learn more and more about Asmereth. Their knowledge makes them dangerous."

"Their knowledge will give them more chances to elude the Priests and complete our mission for us," the Judge says wearily, as she would reply to a dim-witted child. "It cannot bring any danger to us, and I wish you ceased your paranoia."

"But should they read Asmereth's diaries..." begins the man.

"But they won't," interrupts the other woman, with a chilling smile playing on her pale lips. "Once they figure out how to unlock the Tower's doors, their lives will be forfeit, as their death shall await them inside in a shape so familiar yet alien..."

<< Upon the Road to Jasmer >>

After a gentle reminder to Helgraf that they were headed toward Amsereth's tower, the group set off again. Judging from what they had learned it would be about two more days.

Helgraf quietly thumbed through a book he had drawn seemingly from inside his robes, though there had been no noticable bulge to indicate the presence of the book before now. He speaks one passage under his breath as he reads it.

"Each point of a pentacle inverted to the centre
Guiding hands directing the exotic tools
To the ends destined by one locus
The other wringing its hands in silence.
In feeble verse its seeds planted
Beware the trine dangers
Assumption, Complacency, Familiarity."

Then, somewhat more loudly, "The most annoying thing about works of prophecy is they tend to be maddeningly vague . . . not to mention fairly generalistic."

The others look at him askance a long moment, then they continue their journey.

Night fell on the company quickly. Paulon, shivering slightly in the cold winds, helped Destrius find a sufficient amount of firewood, which was then ignited by arcane means. The group ate, and eventually they slept. Dracos offered to spend the first half of the night on watch; the firelight was sufficient to read by, and he sought to master Balfasian as quickly as possible.

Everyone slept easily, and soon Dracos was alone amongst the sleeping host. His eyes easily ran across the pages of the text; he could now master the informal parts of the language, but most of the formal, and most commonly used in writing, parts seemed incomprehensible. From time to time he would stroke his chest, as if he could feel something itching him, but no matter how hard he scratched the itch would not die. It grew slowly over the night, until it was a needless distraction. Dracos began to wonder if there was a balm being carried by one of the better prepared members of the party. He began to walk over to the backpacks.

The world turned bright blue for a few moments and then the dark of night returned. Dracos fell to the ground, waves of nausea hitting him. Every bone in his body cried out in agony, and soon he could not see for being sick. Voices murmured nearby.

"Dare I cast again?" one said.

"Nye. He won't be helped by a healing spell. Give him a few moments." The other voice was softer.

Dracos managed to raise his head. At first he thought he had been teleported somewhere, but the tree where the backpacks had been stacked under was still there, although the companions and goods had gone. Two figures stood in front of him. Dracos could not make out their features in the darkness.

"Fated, we mean you little harm." The first voice knelt down. "Your friends are well and safe; we teleported them away so we might speak with you and reason with you."

The other figure came and placed his hands upon the former's shoulders. "We knew you to be resistant to magic; we knew that to group teleport the other members of the party with so strong a spell would leave you here for us to talk to. I had not thought your reaction would be so strong, but what is done is done. Your companions lie some seven miles away, and I suspect they will still be sleeping."

"What, what do you want?" Dracos managed to spit the words out.

"A little of your time; you go to Asmereth's tower to seek the truth of what happened to Asmereth in Britannia." The standing figure nods. "Yes, we know much of what has happened of recent note. We know of Asmereth's turning in Britannia, we know of his death by your friends' hands. We do not begrudge you this; Asmereth was not the man that we knew a year ago."

The kneeling figure pats Dracos on the back. "Jasmer is a small place; a large party will be conspicuous there. The priests may have little power in that domain but it is sufficient. One man wandering the streets will not be easily noticed. Also, Asmereth's tower is well guarded by the traps magical. Your friends might not survive them; you will not be harmed, although, as tonight has shown us, you might get sick."

"We want to know what made Asmereth go to Britannia. You also wish to know." The standing figure kneels beside Dracos. "I understand if you do not trust us; I wouldn't trust two figure on a dark night that can teleport my friends away, yet need me for a mission to a mage's tower. Which is why my friend just poisoned you." The figure stands again. "'Tis a common method to gain someone's services. A slight poison that will kill you in three days time. There is an antidote; it's prepared from the blood of a Sporomore and the sap of a Redwood. The process takes eight days to brew. I can guarantee you won't find it on any shop counter. The Sporomore doesn't even exist in this world."

The kneeling figure stands. "There is a horse behind the tree; if you start travelling tonight you'll arrive in Jasmer by tomorrow noon. Asmereth's tower is an hours ride away."

"Try not to find your friends; they will just slow you down, and you might well end up being the death of them all." One of the figures starts to fade away.

"Fated One, we will not meet again; once you have found the information we seek another of our cabal will meet with you. Asmereth may not have been a friend of ours, but he was mage-born, and we are preciously few in this place." The second figure fades away, and Dracos is sure the figure is still speaking, but his words are lost.

It takes an hour for Dracos to gather the strength to stand. The horse is where they said it would be. The packs are filled with food, and the textbook is still there. Dracos mounts the horse and begins to ride, away from his friends, and towards the town of Jasmer.

  << At the 'new' campsite. >>

Helgraf awakes with a jolt, rising to a seated position. Quickly he sends his senses out, feeling the residual traces of magic. He looks over to see Destrius similiarly awakened.

"Someone has used powerful magic nearby . . . "

Destrius shakes his head slightly from side to side, "Not nearby. On us. We have been moved. And Dracos is gone."

"Wake the others. Dracos has been marked since the beginning and I fear someone has taken advantage of that. We must determine how far we have been moved. If it is far enough, we may have to shed our cover and, with their permission, use our companion's dragonforms to catch up.

<< The Towne of Jasmer >>

Dracos could hardly keep his eyes open when he rode into the town of Jasmer. The sweet night air had grown warm, and the humidity, as the sun rose into the sky, had shot up. The horse's canter had been a gentle rthymn that slowly had lulled Dracos into a sense of sleep. The obscure nature of the Balfasian formal writing had not been the most stimulating reading, either, so it was with drooping eyes that Dracos tried to see the main avenue of Jasmer.

Jasmer was a small town; the main street was constructed of dirt and the buildings where old and tattered wooden affairs. The sun beat harshly upon the citizens who looked at the once-Mage with some curiousity. One of the older men approached Dracos.

"What's a city dweller on a fine bred horse doing in a backhole like this?" the man said.

It took Dracos a few moments to reply. "I'm here trying to locate an acquaintance of mine."

"Really? Who would that be?" The man seemed sceptical. "You sure you aren't here to audit our taxes?"

"Very sure. Asmereth is his name." Dracos tried to focus his eyes on the speaker.

"The mage? Ain't seen him here for monthes, maybe more." The man scratched his head. "Maybe even a year... Why do you want to see him, anyway?"

"Research; he was working on some stuff that I'm interested in." It was the truth in the same way that claiming that he came from the other side of the divider was telling the truth.

"Oh well, you'll want to go to his tower, then." The man looked at Dracos. "You look like you need a rest." The man's comment seemed like genuine concern.

"Aye, I do, but I'd better get to the tower as soon as possible; time is of the essence." Dracos thought about the poison.

"Have you heard of Sporomore?"

"Where's that, then?" The man looked baffled.

"Sorry, just wondered if you knew." Dracos readjusted his grip on the reins of the horse. "So which way do I go to get to the tower?"

"Follow the main road and head towards the lake you'll see at the end of the road. The tower is the most visible feature from there."

"Thanks," Dracos said.

"Your welcome. If Asmereth happens to come by, should I leave a message?" the man said.

"No, no need." Dracos began to ride.

<< Miles away... >>

The magical teleportation that moved the party from Dracos, also wreaked havoc on Saint George's Dragon etheric energies. As a result he woke up first but was unable to do anything but gasp in pain and glow various bizarre colours. Fortunately he no longer ate otherwise the rest of the group would have been treated to a view of his last meal and other stomach contents. Finally he managed to get enough energy together to roll over a bit, but unfortunately, since the geography had shifted unbeknowenced to him, he ended up rolling down a rather steep hill.

When he regained his senses he found himself eyeing a well polished leather boot. The person in the boot wore a serious and grim expression, which was beautifully accented by his full length black robes (conservative in decoration yet obviously of superior material). SG'sD managed an intellegent and insightful "Gwreaaah?" before the strength left his limbs once again.

The robed man addressed himself to several soldiers in leathers and armed with crossbows and short swords, who stood a respectful distance behind him. "Take this one into custody, once I have questioned him, I believe he is one of the ones we have been following. We were far behind them though, it can only be the black arts." He placed his foot on SG'sD chest "You wouldn't know anything about that would you?"

"No...ahhh" SG'sD convulsed momentarily a yellow light shining from his every pore. "Umm, I mean what business.. ur.. of it is yours if I work the occasional Magic.. owww, by what authority do you waylay honest travellers? Aiiieee!!! Sorry I seem to have come down with a slight feviiiiver."

"What authority? Why the highest of course," the man smiled evilly "I am a priest of the gods. My informant warned me to be wary of you and your fellow 'honest travelers', although I do not see much threat. Still rest assured the poison that coats my men's quarrels is quite deadly to all beings of this world and otherwise."

"Is that so.... AMBUSH, ATTACK, POISON, Ewfffff." Saint George's Dragon is cut off as the priest's boot connects with his head with great force. At this point he loses conciousness.

At the top of the hill, Helgraf rubs his temples, and a pained expression crosses his face. "Why oh why does one of the destined ones always have to be clumsy," he inquires aloud.

He looks around the remainder of the group, his gaze settling on Destrius.

"How much trouble would we be in if we killed a priest and his guards?"

Before Destrius has a chance to reply, Daria coughs gently. An uneasy sensation descends upon her as she starts to speak. She feels that, somehow, the words and ideas that come out of her mouth are not born in her mind, but rather forced upon her by someone else.

"We cannot afford a fight. The priests will increase their witchunt by tenfold should we dispose of one of their order; besides, we must catch up to Dracos as quickly as possible. I think I know a quicker way to help our friend down there."

"Oh Gods, I cannot bloody believe I'm doing this!" she groans inwardly, her current greatest wish to be swallowed by the very earth beneath her feet.

Still feeling as if somebody else had guided her thoughts and actions, she snaps her fingers hastily, enveloping herself in the familiar cloud of golden dust. Once she re-emerges from the cloud, however, she's welcomed by the stunned, wide-eyed silence of her companions, who stare at her with their jaws easily reaching their toes. Their shock is understandable: where a short, non-descript woman had stood a second before, there is now an elderly man with a stern face and regal bearing, dressed in the black flowing robes of a priest.

"What??" Daria snaps in her new deep voice, as her... or rather his face acquires a lovely colour of a ripe tomato, "yes, I can take on the male shapes as well as female, even originally I'm a woman!! The only reason I'm willing to humiliate myself this way is because the sexist bastards don't accept women into their priest ranks! But should any of you mention this episode to anybody, or utter a single remark afterwards, I swear, I shall tear that person from limb to limb!"

With these words, she disappears from the top of the hill, and rematerialises right in front of the guards who are prepared to drag Saint George's Dragon away. The violence-loving, head-kicking priest spins around to see the newcomer, and Daria observes with great satisfaction that all the colour drains away from his smug face as he spots the medallion of High Priesthood on her chest. His hands shake as he makes a traditional greeting gesture of his order which leaves fiery traces in the air. Daria is astonished when her own hand returns the gesture as accurately as if she had practiced it her entire life.

"G-g-greetings, my Lord," the priest stammers. "How may I serve a High priest of Balfas?"

"Greetings, Cynntherion," Daria hears her own voice, and for a split second she wonders how on earth could she know the priest's name.

"I see you have found my crazy nephew." Again this feeling of somebody else speaking the lines for her.

"Your nephew?" says the priest incredulously, looking sideways at the still uncoscious SG'sD. "Forgive me my impudence, Lord, but this one doesn't look like he has a single drop of Balfasian blood in his veins." "Aye, this is my half-sister's child, born to an outworlder who cursed our family with a disgrace of a son. I would have strangled the brat myself had I not promised my sister to take care of him and protect him from his own accursed magical powers. He had managed to escape from his cell a week ago, and now, thanks to you, he will return to stay there for the rest of his wretched life."

"Outworlders be cursed indeed," Cynntherion nods.

"Speaking of outworlders, what are the news of the ones you we've been following for a few days now?"

"Alas, none, my Lord. Until now, we thought that your... nephew was one of them, but now I see that this was nothing but a false lead." Seeing the frowning disappointment in the older man's eyes, Cynntherion changes the subject hastily: "Shall I have one of my guards to help you to deliver your nephew home?"

"Your offer is greatly appreciated, but no help is needed. Farewell, Cynntherion of Alteara," Daria makes the mystical gesture again, and disappears together with SG'sD, who is still unconscious. Once again on the top of the hill, she resumes her previous female form, and immediately falls to the ground, gasping for breath.

"These teleportation spells are so damn draining," she mutters.

Helgraf nods once, his voice low but of an approving nature, "Well acted."

"Oh, by the way, threats are rarely a good way to ensure things. After all, as some of our friends here have cause to witness, some of us don't stay dead. Also, it's considered poor etiquette. But being a dragon, I'm sure you're well aware of such things. Onward then, shall we?"

Daria blushes. "I, um, sincerely apologise for my earlier outburst, it was most rude of me. You see, I'm the only one in my family who has that... freakish ability, and you just cannot believe what a major butt of jokes I was for everyone who knew me."

"I believe we had been trying to determine just how far away Dracos was, to determine if it would be more feasable to track him on foot or, with your kindest permissions, " looking to the dragons in the group, "on dragonback. Despite your little teleportation trick, magic is still not a wise thing to use here - it draws attention we don't need - and had the priest you bullied been a bit sharper on the ball, he would have realized the fraud when you used magic to leave."

"Oh, but there was no danger at all," Daria hears her own voice. "High Priesthood stands apart from the order that pursues us. They almost never leave their little island, and when they do, they usually use teleportation as the mean of travel. Even if the priest did detect a bit of otherworldly magic, he would probably have thought Saint George's Dragon responsible as being unable to control his 'fits of magical madness'."

"Oh, by the way, here," Helgraf offers the somewhat fatigued Great Siberian Dragon a cup of warm tea, "this should help wash away the fatigue. Provided of course, you trust me enough to drink it."

While Great Siberian Dragon ponders over the contents of the drink, Destrius continues to contemplate in silence, as he had for most of the time he had spent in Balfas.

Being semi-native yet extremely alien to the land, he could feel and touch the world around him in a way his companions would not be able to comprehend. The strange, eerie tingle of magic tinted all that was around him, as his mind danced from one illusion of reality to the next. With a bit of willpower, he could force his mind off the magic and view the surroundings as the rest of the party did, but any disruption like the teleport spell would render him totally disoriented for a few moments.

In fact, the effects of the spell had even permeated his dream, and it is what he saw in those few seconds of disillusion that keeps him so quiet now.

"Dust... Red dust... Where have I seen that before?"

Noticing Helgraf peering at him curiously, the mage shakes his head to clear his mind of the visions. He then looks at the rest of the party.

"Travelling by dragonback would most definitely aid us tremendously, and from what I know of Balfas, it isn't too uncommon a sight. But only a single dragon, though. A group would attract too much attention. Would any of you dragonkin wish to offer their services?"

Daria, who by now has finished her cup of tea and feels strong and refreshed again, takes an appraising look at the company and makes a quick mental calculation.

"Well, I'm a fairly large dragon, and would be able to carry everybody here... provided that you sit still and don't tickle me. Besides, it would be nice to see the skies again after the 200-year break..."

Helgraf coughs once, his expression unreadable as he inquires of Daria, "Only one question before we go. How did you learn all of this about the priesthood?"

For a second, a dark and troubled expression flickers across Daria's face, then she sighs in resignation.

"All right. Until now, I didn't want to burden anyone with my worries. But now that you've asked directly, I suppose that I should tell you about something that has been troubling me for a couple of days now, although what I have to say doesn't really shed any light on the mystery. You see, a night before the last one, I had the strangest dream that disturbed me to no end, for, while I was sure it was just a dream, it seemed to me more real than the reality itself."

A distant look comes to Daria's face, as she tries to recollect the experience that had been plaguing her since. "I dreamed that I lived on a small island, among the men dressed in black robes and wearing the symbol of the High Priesthood on their chests, that I was... one of them! I do not recall the details, I only know that I've lived there in seclusion for a very long period of time, participating in their rituals, learning their lore, my only link to the outer world being the priests of the Lower Order, such as that Cynntherion fellow down there."

"I woke up shaking and cold with terror, but after a few minutes of rational thinking I've convinced myself that that was only a dream that held no consequences whatsoever. But since then, some very strange occurences started to take place, the weirdest being that SG'sD episode. It felt like the small glimpses of the Priesthood lore were suddeny flickering in my mind, directing all of my thoughts and actions." Daria rubs her temples. "I was suddenly able to mimic the priests' greeting sign as if I've practiced it for years; I knew that bully priest's name, although I could swear that I've never met him before in my life; I -knew- that he wouldn't be surprised to watch me use a teleportation spell." She shakes her head, distraught. "I'm being honest when I say that I haven't got a clue about what that dream really had been, or why I'm suddenly able to recall these Priesthood bits."

Paulon looks interested at the description of the dreams and asks "Is it possible that someone's spying on us through you? If a watcher is using some sort of spell to look through your eyes, maybe he screwed up and got a two-way link."

Destrius narrows his eyes as he focusses his gaze upon Daria, peering past the magical obscurity of the local magics of Balfas. "I do not see any sign of such a spell upon her," he says after a careful study. "Nonetheless I think it best if we waste no time in reaching Jasmer."

"That's for certain," Paulon agrees. "I'm beginning to feel like everybody but us knows one heck of a lot more than we do, and we're stuck in the middle. I've got the impression that nobody's going to want us around after their plans are complete either. To steal a quote, I have a bad feeling..."

Daria nods, and walks clear of the group. A cloud of dust, sparkling with a golden luminescence surrounds her, rapidly becoming thicker until the young woman's shape is completely hidden. The cloud suddenly expands, then vanishes, leaving behind a huge silver scaled dragon. "Shall we continue then?" Daria asks.

She crouches down so that her companions can more easily climb up onto her back. Once they have done so, some clinging more tightly than others, Daria springs up into the air, circling as she climbs upwards, then turning to follow the road towards Jasmer.

<< The Tower of Amsereth, Jasmer >>

To call Asmereth's Jasmer abode a tower was as an inaccurate an account of architecture Dracos had heard since he discovered the labyrinthain 'cellar' of Mondain. The structure that stood before him was a small keep; tall stone walls surrounding a tall box-like structure at the back. It was impressive in a desolate kind of way. The place looked and felt empty.

The doorway, oddly small compared to the rest of the structure, was a luminescent purple haze that blocked Dracos' view of the interior. The waves of nausea that accompanied its fade hum made it pretty clear it was magic. Dracos stretched out his right arm and touched it.

The magic faded, revealing a stout wooden door. Asmereth had obviously been a security conscious man, Dracos thought.

He reached out to test the door, and as his finger touched the wood it disappeared. An illusion. Dracos shook his head. If this trend continued then the only thing that probably existed independently of magic was the corner stone.

The interior of the keep was pitch black and so the once-Mage lit a torch and ventured inside. Just as his feet were planted on the stone floor a flash of magical energy surrounded him, driving him to the floor with sickness. Whatever the spell was, it was strong. The room went pitch black.

Dracos relit the torch with difficulty since the sunlight no longer seemed to be pouring through the doorway. He soon found out why; one of the spell's side effects was resealing the door. It couldn't be just that, though; his memories of magic told him that the spell that had been directed at him was more than entrapment. As he clambered to his feet, he became aware that the sense of magic was growing. The spell was reinitialising itself. Holding the torch before him, Dracos began to search for another door.

The interior of the keep was entirely enclosed, and fortified as well. From the outside the keep walls looked to be at least two storeys high; inside the walls went some ten feet high and then the roof started, a curious mix of mortar, stone and thatch. Small shards of light managed to penetrate through the feet of stone and highlight the interior.

Whatever purpose the keep walls had served once upon a time was well gone by now. The place was empty of anything. The place also stunk of high-powered magicks; Dracos supposed that they were anti-teleportation spells and small traps. The entrance to the tower was noticeably absence; the stone seemed unmarred by a doorway no matter which side the once-Mage looked. Eventually he let his hand trail across the stones of the tower, hoping to find some depression that might open up the mage's abode. He nearly falls through the doorway when he finds it.

It was yet another illusion and Dracos had accidentally found it. As he removed his hand from the opening the illusion reappeared. Taking a deep breath, Dracos walked through the wall.

A slight puff of magic followed Dracos' entrance of the tower; nothing happened, but Dracos was pretty sure it was a torch lighting spell. Sometimes magical immunity could be problematic. The once-Mage felt about on the wall until he found the torch holder; once located he lit the torch and searched around for others. Soon the room was illuminated. Stairs lead up to the tower roof, while another set descended into the earth. The room's decor was minimal; an unmade, and very dusty, bed, a few pieces of crockery and sacks of what appeared to be very old and very stale foodstuffs.

Up was the direction Dracos chose; if only for the smell of fresh air. The climb took a while; the tower was hollow and there were no rooms between the ground floor and the roof; the stairway had no hand-railing, and Dracos hugged the wall as much as possible on the climb up, lighting the torches as he went.

The roof looked out on to the empty plains that comprised the region where Jasmer sat; the town was a dusty-brown blotch on the verdant green expanse. Somewhere in the distance Dracos saw a winged creature flying; it looked like a dragon, and Dracos thought wistfully of his companions, and Daria in particular.

The view seemed oddly distorted, Dracos realised, as if there was some barrier affecting what he saw. The once-Mage took the wasted torch and threw it out towards the town. Somewhere on its descent it hit an invisible wall and fell directly on to the keep's roof.

Dracos turned to walk down the stairs and noticed the thing. It was made of silver threads so thin as to be unnoticeable, and it stood in the middle of the roof. The threads described an open oval twice the height of the once-Mage. Gingerly he touched it; it did not bend or sway at all. Dracos stepped through the oval, wondering if there would be some reaction, but there wasn't. Shaking his head in wonderment, the once-Mage descended into the tower once more.

The ground floor felt ominous now; the mystery of the oval, its unnatural construction almost odious, made the once-Mage want to leave the darkness of the interior. But poison is poison, and poison is a great incentive to act. Taking a torch from the wall, Dracos walked down the stairs to the bowels of the earth.

The first thing that struck the once-Mage upon reaching the bottom of the stairs was the similarity the place held with Mondain's cellar. Ornate glasswork snaked around the walls, and unlit braziers sat beneath large glass containers. A bookshelf stood in one corner of the room, lined with heavy texts. Bottles of coloured potions were lined along one large desk, and herbs and other 'things' hung from racks attached to the ceiling. The place was clean but very dusty, and Dracos felt that no-one had set foot here for a very long time.

It was the books that Dracos looked at first. Most of them had obscure titles that Dracos' mastery of Balfasian could hardly understand, but a thinner tome with no inscribed title, placed alone on a bottom shelf, interested him most. It was a notebook of sorts; mainly incantations and formulas interspersed with notes. Page after page the complex diagrams flowed. Dracos flipped through most of them, until he noticed the silver oval drawn carefully over two pages. It required going back to an earlier section of the book to understand what it all meant.

"The First of Cavalox, Midest.

"The information from the Wisps continues to be untrustworthy; a Lich Collector by the name of Malech told me that some force is disrupting the traditional information sources, and the Wisps have yet to reorganise themselves. I have asked a Diviner by the name of Hamish to investigate other sources. He has told me that I should have a new contact by the end of the week."

"The Eight of Cavalox, Midest

"I met her today; she is known as (here Dracos had trouble deciphering the non-Balfasian name, since it was in formal tongue) Morsgotta. She is the servant of some entity, and has been on many worlds. She has given me an artifact; a piece of rock that she says I may find useful. She has asked that I meet her in Kilmar in three weeks time should I be interested in more of the substance."

"The Third of Horash, Midest

"The rock absorbs magical energy. It is jet black, and it has a huge absorbion ratio. I was able to neutralise an illusion spell the size of a man today with it. If the substance is stable in large quantities I could, quite possibly, drain enough of the magic from Balfas to rid us of the illusions forever. It is simply a matter of knowing whether it simply dulls the magic or truly negates it."

"The Ninth of Horash, Midest

"The magic does not return. For days the rock has held at bay Aganinter's Magical Vision; I removed the rock from the apparatus and there was no resurgence of magical energy. I will meet with Morsgotta. Balfas can be cured, and soon."

"The Second of Cavalox, Olieh

"I met with Morsgotta this afternoon. I told her that I was indeed very interesting in procuring more of the substance. She calls it blackrock; she says it is found on all worlds, but in such small amounts that it would take me a lifetime to accumulate even an half of what I will need. When I registered my disappointment she smiled in a most perplexing way, half-happy, half glee, and told me not to worry too much. There is a world, she told me, where not only is it common, it can be made...

"She called it both Sosaria and Britannia; the names seem interchangeable, although her thick accent is hard to understand at times, so I might well be missing some modifier in her speech. It is a split world like Balfas-Tideron; there are many aspects to this Sosaria, and most of the inhabitants are unaware of their existence.

"The blackrock is mined in a small town on the east coast of the world's main continent. A magical spring resides deep in the mountain ranges; seemingly no one is aware of it, and it converts the basalt rocks into blackrock. It is a unique reaction; Morsgotta's employer has seen it only twice before, and these worlds are, according to what I have been told, uninhabitable and dangerous. She has given me an incantation to centre my spell-casting upon one of the mines; with luck I should be able to transport myself there using the Lahesh (which seemed to Dracos to be the name of the silver oval). She offered to be my guide, but I would rather see this place alone. I travel to Jasmer tonight; I have told my wife, Kaledia, very little about this. She is a frightful gossip, and I do not want that damn judge to find out what I am doing. I suspect her motives."

"The First of Horash, Olieh

"Sosaria is indeed a strange place.

"There are no temples there whatsoever, and I could feel no divine powers at work. The people seem nice enough, if a little backward. Perhaps it is just that it is a mining town, but Vesper is a den of confusion and idiocy. It took me an entire afternoon to find out the name of the local mayor; no one seemed to know or care.

"The demons, or Gargoyles as they call themselves there, are unusual; perhaps it is the urbanity of being Balfasian, but the two races don't seem to mix well at all. The Gargoyles seem brighter than the rest of the natives, but didn't seem to want to talk to me much; I think there is bad blood between the two races here.

"After I finally met with the Mayor and got permission to inspect the mines I headed out towards the hills. The mining here is very primitive; no diviners looking for lodes, no mages flying products from place to place. At first I thought it might be a side-effect of the abundant blackrock, but it was only deep in the mine that I felt its presence, and it seem quite weak.

"When no one was looking I became insubstantial and walked through the mountain rock until I found the magical spring. It is a beautiful sight to behold; purple and green magicks springing up through the rocks and changing the nearby rock around it. 'Tis a pity that one day it will probably be mined away; the spring is in the rock itself- 'tis no open space. I took notes and observed the large-scale change that was occurring. With that done, I spoke the words of return, and found myself back in my laboratory."

"The Eight of Virtak, Olieh.

"I have worked on this for so long now that I must admit to defeat. There is no way that I can accumulate enough blackrock from Sosaria in my lifetime, even should I extend it. The spring is too small and my magicks too weak to effect the large scale change I would need. I am also worried how it would affect the magic of Sosaria; to create a mass of blackrock of the size I am thinking would cause havoc to the mages of that land. I will speak to Morsgotta and ask her if she knows anything more about the other two worlds that blackrock is abundant upon."

"The Ninth of Virtak, Olieh

"Her idea is good. Basically Morsgotta has suggested that I can create a large mass of blackrock using an age-old power of Sosaria. This mage she calls Moondane (Mondain, Dracos corrected himself) invested his powers in a gem. The gem was shattered and thought to have been recently destroyed, but it appears that the shards still exist as etheric elements held within three fires in three keeps in Sosaria. With a simple spell I could reform the shards. However, Morsgotta has told me that the shards are useless; they need to be linked to life, so I shall need to drop a speck of blood upon each part of the gem to reinvigorate the magicks within. This will need to be done during the blackrock creation.

"As for the mass I need, Morsgotta has suggested that with the excess power given off by the change I could easily shift the 'moon', as I now call it, away from Sosaria into the depths of the void, where it will do no harm. Then, the most difficult of all the proceedings, I will need to link Balfas to the moon for as long as it is necessary to drain the excess magicks of this world. It will probably be best to return here and create an open portal to the Sosarian moon, as trying to open it from the moon will be self-defeating; I can only hope that the suction effect of the magical drain will be sufficient to keep the link open for as long a time as necessary; 'twould be tragic if the link were to be negated.

"I prepare to leave this night."

There was only one more entry; a diagram of the spell Asmereth planned to cast, and it was cryptic at best. Still, it seemed obvious what had happened. Asmereth had gone to Britannia, retrieved the shards and put out the fires at the same time, not knowing what he was doing. Then, having set up the spell he had begun to cast it and reinvigorated the shards; from then on the Shadowlords would have reappeared. Asmereth would have been twisted by their presence; they would appear to serve him only because it was his life-force that kept them 'alive'. He would have no need to save his own world if he could try to rule this new one. The blackrock moon had hung against the Britannian sky as testimony to that. Once Dracos had been infected by the Shadowlords they were able to turn against their new master. History attested to what had happened to Asmereth after that. But who was Morsgotta and whom did she work for? Obviously Asmereth had been set up, and by someone or something that knew Britannia well. Dracos pulled another book from the shelf, hoping it might shed more light upon this problem.

<< The Skies above Balfas >>

Soaring through the air Daria quickly transports the strangers over the countryside. Fields of corn still green and alive flow beneath them. In the distance the dark shapes of buildings can be made out fast approaching. As they pass over Jasmer the townsfolk look up in wonder at the giant form whizzing past and then shake there heads as if trying to wake from a dream, and wearily return to their daily tasks, scolding themselves for believing such a bizarre vision could ever be real. A dragon being ridden by a group of men, who had ever heard of such a thing?

As Saint George's Dragon could not quite believe he was doing this either. He hung on for dear life as the wind whipped by at what seemed like gail force. He was greatly relieved when he saw the shape of the 'tower' coming on ahead and felt Daria slow her travel and prepare to land.

As they land a horse whinies. It is tied up to tree, and it snorts its eyes wide with fear staring at Daria's form.

"Daria, maybe you should take on a less threatening form before that horse dies of fright." SG'sD suggests. "The horse shows that someone is around here, since I do not see anyone around it seems likely that someone is in Amereth's Tower."

SG'sD approaches the horse attempting to sooth the horse. He grabs it by the head and mutters something sharp and strange under his breath. He smiles wryly. He explains "My magic can tell me nothing at all about the last rider, the horse's magical history is blank before he came to be tied up, I think it is safe to assume Dracos was the rider and that he is in there."

Slowly and deliberatly he points towards the door of the tower, which is once again obscured by a glowing purple light.

<< A Dark Place >>

Elsewhere in a dark room, a figure shrouded in darkness stares at the party in the heart of a swirling cauldron. Alone the figure says nothing, only the occassional muttered arcane phrase or profanity slips by his lips. However the figure's train of thought went roughly like this "Curse them. All my agents could not slow their progress by more than an hour. It does not matter though, if we could not penetrate the barriers that enclose the tower in these many months, what chance have they to penetrate them before my partner seizes control of the tower and these fools become insignificant? Ironic that by disrupting the magical defences long enough to allow us entry the Fated One has ensured his and his companion's and with any luck his world's destruction. Yes there is much to prepare for." At this point the figure ceases scrying on the group, turning to other tasks.

<< Outside the Tower of Amsereth >>

Helgraf is leafing through a large tome bound in (unfortunately for him) dragonhide, with an intent expression on his face. Finally his expression changes - as he stops turning pages and begins to read.

"Thence comes the Stranger to the Centre
Balanced upon the scales
Where stands the ward, stands the guard
Revealed the Fated of the Dying

By hand of the patchwork one prying

Dark Prophet's hand shown in shard
And plotters many watch in pale
On the edge of the knife, the words of the mentor"
Destrius comments, "Unusual reading, that. If we knew who the Dark Prophet was, it might make more sense."
"Purple skien tied in time, sleep of the ages
The loremaster of Tideron, finds the answer from his pages.
Broken seal brings woe and weal, To Balfas and Britannia
Quickly go where one man knows the location from incantor."
Helgraf looks up. "I take it that you are who they refer to as the loremaster of Tideron. Which means you are the one needed to breach the spell on the tower. If I read this right, the ward has a temporal portion - you of us all seem to understand temporal shifts best - at least on this world. However, if I read this right, we will need to move quite quickly once the seal is breached."

<< Within the Tower. >>

Dracos looked at the now empty shelf; there had been no more useful information in any of them, aside from a book of lore that had defied translation. The once-Mage had taken this tome; Destrius at least might find it useful, and the gold gilt upon it indicated that is was important in some way or another.

The torches were wearing down; Dracos supposed from the lack of spares that the magical lighting this place normally used did not actually burn the tinder. Taking one last look around the laboratory, Dracos began the climb to the entry level.

He had expected to find someone waiting for him; the events of the last few days felt almost pre-ordained, but the journey out of the keep was solitary and quiet. The place felt empty and lonely, and Dracos' steps hurried with every moment of silence. A flash of magic as he passed through the main entrance, and he was in the light of day once more.

How long had he spent in the tower? Dracos couldn't tell. It was still daylight, or was it daylight of the next day? Had he spent a mere hour there or an entire day? He could not answer.

"Good afternoon, Fated of the Dying."

The woman, robed in sky-blue, walked towards the once-Mage.

"Good afternoon," Dracos replied.

"I trust your visit was informative." She rummaged through a cloth bag that hung at her side.

"Very. It makes for an epic tragedy, does Asmereth's tale," he said.

"We thought it might." The woman took a flask out of her bag. "Ah ha, found it." She walked toward Dracos. "The antidote," she said as she handed him the bottle.

"You don't want to hear my story first?"

She shook her head. "Unlike my colleagues I believe that being polite and kind is preferable to obnoxious crypticism."

"As you wish." Dracos drank from the flask.

"Do you feel any better?" she asked.

Dracos wiped his mouth. "Not really."

"That's good. It means you, or I, arrived before the poison took full hold in your system.

"I won't waste your time. Your friends will arrive here shortly and it is bet that I am far away when they do; you cannot cast tracking spells upon us, while they might very well.

"I work for an enclave of magicians dedicated to, strangely enough, not reforming the theocracy but modifying it. We seek reform; the freedom to practice our art, but also the continued restrictions placed upon the kind of spells that spoil already tainted Balfas. To remove the Church would be folly; a new system would have to arise and we have no plans for that.

"Asmereth was not one of us; he operated alone since inter-world travel is banned, due to that kind of spell's inherent danger. The gods do not approve of our people finding some way that might circumvent the divider, even though it was not Asmereth's goal as far as we can tell.

"We want to know what Asmereth found out. We need to know if it can help our cause. Will you tell me?"

In what seemed like a previous life Dracos would have known the truth of her statement with a simple cantrip; now he only had a vague sense of trust to go upon.

"Yes, I will tell..." he began.

After the tale was told she frowned a little.

"Interesting; perhaps not immediately useful to us, but we are more willing to wait... Asmereth was one man and he acted alone. We are a group; our plans can be passed on to our successors." She wrapped herself up in her cloak. "I must go; I doubt we will meet again. Good luck, Fated of the Dying. I do hope you make it home one day."

"One thing, dear lady."

"Yes, Fated," she said.

"If you do not travel to other worlds, how do you come by Sporowood?" Dracos asked.

"The Lich Collectors. It's used in embalming."

She vanished; not even a slight flashy effect to mark her departure. Dracos yawned; he had been up for quite some time. Laying his things on the ground he quickly fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of when his friends might reappear.

<< Outside the Tower of Amsereth >>

The red-robed mage turns away from Helgraf to study the purple barrier blocking the entryway. He shuts his eyes and concentrates on the spell's structure, allowing the form it takes in the realm of spirit to enter his mind. The shape of a great book, it's pages covered in constantly shifting letters appears before Destrius' mind's eye. As he continues to observe, the letters slowly become more stable and settle into a form that he can read. Destrius peruses the text of the ghostly tome carefully, then turns and speaks.

"Tis clear that Magic is practiced differently in Balfas than in Tideron. The spell that blocks our path is potent indeed, but the very shape of it is clear for those with the eyes to see it. It is indeed a complex thing, those who are not recorded as a part of it are bound in time itself, halted until the spell's creator frees them. However the spell's nature is such that one with the correct skills can adjust it fairly simply."

Once again Destrius turns to the purple barrier. Allowing the shape of the sorcerous book to once more form in his mind, the Mad Mage whispers words strange to those watching, creating a spectral image of a great quill pen in the same realm of power and spirit. The mage makes tiny gestures with his hands, the quill following his motions, and writing new lines into the guardian book. The purple barrier flashes and flickers as the pen writes new lines into it's structure.

It is not long before the quill is banished by Destrius. Once more allowing his eyes to gaze upon a world of matter rather than mystic forces, the magesays "The parameters by which the spell defines those allowed passage have been adjusted. We can now pass through it."

Approaching the barrier, Paulon flips a black stone picked up from the ground into it. It vanishes as it strikes the warding spell. "The spell will allow us passage now, but not other items, save that we carry them," Destrius points out, before stepping through it. The remainder of the party follows him, safely entering the roofed courtyard surrounding the keep proper.

It is only a short time before the examination of the walls of Amsereth's home away from home reveals the illusion concealing the entrance. An examination by both Destrius and Helgraf reveals no traps, so the group enters the keep. "We should go up I think," Paulon says. "The affinities of mages for towers is so legendary that I'd be amazed if Amsereth had his lab anywhere but the highest place in this building."

Outside the keep, the purple barrier begins to flicker once more. First jolted by the entry of one impervious to it's magic, then rewritten in it's structure by one greater than it's creator, then finally disrupted by the passage of a tiny chunk of Blackrock, the spell begins to waver. Elsewhere, by means both magical and divinely granted, differing sets of eyes watch, waiting for the barriers against their intrusion to finally fall...

<< Inside the Tower >>

Helgraf looks quietly to the others, considering.

"Whatever we do, we must do it quickly. The prophecies are quite clear that the need for haste is paramount. I would suggest we split up to conduct our investigations in case Amsereth was not as predictable as so many other wizards in existance."

The group rapidly splits, Destrius, Paulon, Concussed and St. George's Dragon heading upwards, and the others heading downwards.

As he carefully climbs up the narrow stairs Saint George's Dragon can not shake a strange sensation. "Of course." he exclaimed; stopping in his tracks. The other members of the parity look at him in bewilderment and stop themselves.

"Sorry, I believe I have figured out what the purpose of this tower is. I have been feeling a bit strange since entering the keep, and I could not think why. It did not seem to me the powerful magics present, indeed the natural magic field of Balfas is nearly as strong. It was then I realized that was what strange the magics in here are far more subdued then is normal for Belfast. The tower is channeling and controlling them in some way. Now, if Asmereth wished to drain off Balfast's excess and chaotic magics to another world it would seem, given the difficulty to create and control doorways between worlds, ideal to only open one portal and then force the magic through the portal. I think this tower was supposed to act like a bellows, expanding its capacity to hold magic and thus drawing into itself more magic from the surrounding environment and then through the portal, just as a bellows when expanded draws in air. It occurs to me that such a contrivance could be used for much less humantarian purposes than those of Amsereth. I for one do not want to be in here if the bellows are opened."

As SG'sD finishes his explanation, a magical shudder echoes through the tower, as the magic of the purple barrier flickers again.

"I think we had better find Dracos and whatever mode of travel between worlds Amsereth may have possessed. Quickly!"

"It must be up then," Paulon replies. "Any sane mage constructing a focus like that would make sure he wasn't pointing it at the very place he was trying to remove magic from, like anywhere on this world." He points at a lit torch in a bracket on the wall. "Someone's been this way recently. Hopefully Dracos."

<< Meanwhile - in the basement levels >>

Exploration downward had revealed, although no laboratory, an extensive library. Most of the tomes are fairly basic and academic pieces - some are out of place for being basic and academic - but of another world. Unfortunately, despite Amsereth's apparently almost obsessive ordering of all his books, the one which might have proven most useful - a diary or log of his work - is not present. There is, however, a gap in the bookshelf where such a volume could have been sequentially placed.

Helgraf asks "You turn up anything of use yet, Great Siberian?"

"Depends - do you need a recipe for pickling human brains?" the shapeshifted Dragon responds.

Helgraf replies in a deadpan tone, "Not yet..."

Daria sighs. Bad jokes aside, this long, fruitless search through the dozens and dozens of the dullest books imaginable exasperates her to no end. Besides, the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the place really gets on her nerves, which were in no good condition to start with.

Placing yet another source of boring wisdom on it's right place on the shelf, she is ready to leave that corner of the library, when suddenly she steps on the edge of her long skirt as she gets up and collapses on the floor face down. Cursing silently at the Balfasian women's fashion trendsetters, she starts to get up when something suddenly catches her attention: a tiny leather-bound book lying just under the bookshelf. Excited at the prospect of having actually found something helpful, she grabs it for a closer inspection. Extreme hopefulness quickly changes to extreme disappointment, however, when the pages of the little book prove to be absolutely blank, and the cover doesn't seem to offer any clues either. Yet, obeying some sudden and rather persistant impulse, Daria hides the mysterious book in the folds of her garb, and continues to look through the shelves...

<< Above, in the Tower >>

The small group continues up the stairs, finally reaching the roof. The sky is darker now, the diffused light of Balfas dimmer as clouds gather on the horizon. The silver oval is barely noticeable to the eye in the dim light, but to the magical senses of those present it glows, the silver wires being a pale imitation of the interlaced varicoloured curves of light that form it's structure in the magical plane. Looking through the oval, what lies beyond is twisted and far away, as though the intervening space contains a powerful lens. Of Dracos there is no sign.

"This must be the focus, where the magic of the 'bellows' is discharged," Destrius comments. "The magic would be directed by the tower through this device, end ejected in whatever form the construct transformed it to."

"I'm not sure it'd be transformed, Destrius," Paulon replies. He waves his hand closer to the oval, and watches the lines of magical force brighten in proximity. "I think it's a gateway, which would make sense if Amsereth's original goal was indeed to get rid of the twisted magical illusions of Balfas. I wonder what the others have found."

<< Outside the Tower >>

The air begins to seem heavier. Clouds seem to be creeping across the sky from all directions at once as the Tower becomes the focus of mystic forces.The sleeping figure of Dracos, lying unnoticed at a distance from the tower entrance begins to writhe in nausea as the pressure of the magic forces take their toll upon it. The former mage awakens gasping for breath as the convulsions move through his body. Dracos stands shakily, and looks up into the blackening sky. He staggers back towards the entry, seeing the flickering of the barrier, the claw marks on the ground left by Daria's draconic form, andthe footprints of his other companions. There is only one place they can have gone - into the tower.

<< In the Basement Library >>

Helgraf's head snaps up from the book he was perusing. "This tower has become a locus point in more ways than Amsereth probably intended."

"Meaning?" asks Daria.

"Meaning it's time to get the others and get the hell out of here," Helgraf answers, "... if they haven't found what we need, then we're probably going to be seeing a lot of company of an unpleasant nature shortly."

As the small company goes hastily up the stairs, the small leather book in Daria's pocket begins to glow and change. Daria, who in the haste of their sudden departure has completely forgotten to mention her finding to the others, doesn't notice the transformation at all, and neither do her companions...

<< Meanwhile at the top of the tower >>

The magic energy inside the tower begins to shift becoming strangely less dense, yet the tower does not increase in terms of space. All the practioners of magic in the tower become aware of it.

While, the rest of the group merely experience a temporary discomfort, Saint George's Dragon feels like his body is being used as a rope in a tug of war. His body shimmers momentarily becoming insubstantial, and he collapses to the floor.

"Urrghh." he mumbles.

"It seems as though someone is activating the 'bellows'." Paulon says.

"Look!" Paulon points towards the oval. The magic of the silver oval is intensifying and a swirling blue mist appears inside it. Strange shapes and images can be seen within it.

At this point Helgraf, Daria and co. arrive at the top of the tower.

Outside as Dracos approaches the entrance the clouds seem to darken and the mist in the portal becomes less chaotic and begins to form.

In the oval can be seen the image of an enormous and imposing building. It is covered with reliefs and symbols.

"I believe that is the headquarters of the Belfasten Church." Daria remarks.

"Hell, if the tower discharges to that location the building will be annihilated or worse and who knows what will happen to the magic of Balfas if this tower discharges back to it at any strength." Paulon exclaims.

The build-up of magic is sickening Dracos to his very bones. It takes more than just his physical strength to lurch back inside the keep; his mind has to fight the urge to run away and cower. His vision is blurred and it is by fortunate accident that he finds himself crawling up the staircase of the tower.

Helgraf is the first to notice Dracos' trembling form and he helps pull the once-Mage up through the trapdoor. Dracos smiles weakly at his friends and promptly collapses. Destrius moves forward and touches the once-Mage on the temple, his brow furrowed.

"This is not good, this is not good at all," Destrius mutters. He pulls a vial from his clothing and forces Dracos' mouth open, pouring the pale blue liquid down his throat. Destrius turns to the others.

"I think he might be dying; the accumulation of energy is just too much for him. I've given him an herbal treatment; entirely non-magical and probably ineffective at this late stage, but it might give us time to get him away from here."


The group look down at the once-Mage who is trying to stand. Helgraf kneels beside Dracos.

"You shouldn't be trying to move," Helgraf says.

"I appreciate your concern, my friend, but I think I know what I'm doing here. Please, help me up." Dracos' face grows whiter with the effort of every word. "There is little hope otherwise."

Helgraf looks at the others and shrugs awkwardly before helping Dracos to his feet.

"Alright; lead me to the oval, and quickly please." Dracos can hardly stand.

Saint George's Dragon watches with distraction. As the magic has been building up he has had to fight to resist being caught up in its eddies or crushed by the increasing magical pressure as the tower begins to fill to its magical capacity.

Paulon moves over beside Helgraf and together they carry Dracos over to the oval. The once-mage reaches out and grabs the shimmering lines of silver. Immediately his body arcs and Dracos screams. His voice seems to change and for a brief moment the group can literally see his pain as a myriad of chaotic colours dancing in the sky. The oval dims slightly and the hazy image of the Balfasian Church fades away, leaving only a slight blue tinge surrounding the once-Mage and the silver lines of the oval.

SG'sD goes pale as Dracos action completes the set up of the device creating a point where the magic can go. Into his body. As a result the magic building up in the tower flows out but ever more flows in. Faster and faster. SG'sD tries to hold onto his essence, but the flow becomes faster, stronger, faster... Suddenly he realizes he can not resist he must let go. He allows the magic to flow out of his body, causing him to fade and become more and more insubstantial, focusing on maintaining a tiny core in order to keep himself alive.

"And now I would recommend leaving, and doing it soon." Dracos speaks to them in an even tone and the group is surprised to see him able to stand. He no longer looks sick.

"Are you alright?" Paulon asks.

"Not really; I've reached saturation point magically. The magical focus of the oval has overwhelmed my senses that I don't feel sick; I don't actually feel anything." Dracos smiles.

"Then we should get going..." Daria begins.

"No, you should all get going. I'm afraid that I shan't be going anywhere. If I let go of the oval now the reflux would be so strong as to kill us all and then it would build up again and destroy the Church, and I really don't want that. Anyway, even if I could come with you all I don't think it would be possible to heal me." Dracos' smile slips. "I'm effectively dead from here on in."

"So what will you do?" Destrius asks. "I feel somewhat responsible for this, since I did bring you here."

"Destrius, I was brought here due to prophecy; whose I don't know and I doubt I will find out. You are not to blame; Fate is. As for my short future? I suppose I'll do what Asmereth set out to do. This magical focus, this..."

"Bellows," St. George's says quickly.

"Bellows... thank you, my friend, is creating a magical vacuum, drawing Balfas's magicks towards it. Now why this thing is centred on the Church I don't know; Asmereth used it to go to Britannia, so I suspect someone else has been here in the interim. I'd be very happy if you would track down the bastard and wipe him or her off the face of the Balfasian map. I plan to stop it. My last act if you will. I've always wanted to be a martyr." Dracos slumps slightly.

"Are you sure?" Paulon says.

"Quite. I'm sorry; my timing is all wrong. Good bye everyone. Remember, track down the..." Dracos stops mid-sentence, his body turning pure white for a few moments. The oval starts to thrash and writhe under Dracos' grip but the once-Mage does not let go. The group can feel the very ether around them flow towards the oval. The landscape shift and stirs.

SG'sD is barely aware of the conversation, he wants to make a suggestion but there is no time. He is very weak, now barely visible, yet still the flow pulls him in. In a desperate effore he grabs onto the wall of the tower attempting to grip onto it. Somehow this works as he latches into the wall, the magical lattice of the tower giving him an anchor in this storm.

"Look," Destrius cries, pointing towards the distant town of Jasmer. The companions turn to where his arms points and watch with interest as the town changes from mud-huts and tinder-houses to a modest town of brick and mortar. "The illusions are lifting."

Dracos begins to scream again, his voice growing louder and louder until nothing can be heard. His body lifts off the ground and he slides through the oval. A bright flash of light arcs from his body into the sky and with it the scream stops. When everyones' sight returns the once-mage lies awkwardly on the ground, his body covered by the fallen silver lines of the oval.

The flow stops, SG'sD with great effort extricates himself from the etheric structure of the tower. Sighing with relief, before looking on the body of Dracos and realizing what has just occurred. His face is tinged by anguish and tears can be seen forming in his eyes.

Paulon kneels down beside the once-Mage and gingerly reaches out to touch the body.

"I would not be doing that, if I were you." The voice comes from behind the group. They all slowly turn to face its owner.

Three men are standing in front of them. One is Asmereth, another looks familiar while the third is unknown to them all. Destrius, upon noticing Asmereth, raises his hands and starts to cast. The familiar one shakes his head.

"That is pointless, Destrius of Tideron. Like the last time Dracos had his little bit of excitement the ether is simply not available for your use. He's drained the world of magic for a time, including all of Balfas' unnecessary enchantments which, luckily, won't be returning at all. However it does mean that all your magicks and your magical items are useless. It's only temporary; in half-an-hour or so you'll be able to use cantrips and the like, but until then you're powerless. Which should be a great relief to St. Georges' here as he will probably enjoy not being at the whim of magic albeit for a short time." The familiar one holds up his hand and from it springs an image of an hourglass. "As you can see I still have my magic; this is because I wasn't here when Dracos sacrificed his life. I am a recent arrival."

St. George's stares at the familiar one. "I know you. I've seen you before."

"Indeed. We met briefly on Britannia. I am the Lich Collector Kol-qu-han. I was the one who took Asmereth's body." Kol-qu-han turns to Asmereth. "Asmereth, bow to your friends."

Asmereth bows slowly.

"He is quite dead and quite under my control; nothing of his personality lives in his walking corpse. He wasn't quite the find we wanted; we had aimed to collect Mondain's body from Britannia but your greatest Arch-mage decided to allow Dracos to live. Most awkward for me; I couldn't return home empty-handed so I collected Asmereth instead. Now I get to fulfil my plan. Asmereth, Phezzub, fetch me Dracos' body." The liches move forward. "Oh, in case you wonder why you can't move it's because I've paralysed each and everyone of you until so you don't get in the way of my business." Kol-qu-han smiles. "I'm sorry; I'm not usually this awkward or obnoxious but you people are so attached to your dead and you might try and stop me."

The liches reach the body of Dracos and pick it up.

"Now if you don't mind I shall be sending the liches home."

Kol-qu-han nods and the liches disappear from view. "Good. Now I think we should talk. There is probably quite a lot that you all want to know."

Saint George's Dragon utters a mental snarl and sends a message to the Lich Collector tinted with disdain "First, Kol-key-do-key."

"Insolent dog, it is Kol-qu-han." The Lich Collector interupts.

SG'sD pointedly ignores him "you seem to have misunderstood my predicament, now that the magic field of Balfast has been purged of its chaotic influences I will be perfectly fine once the magic returns. For now I am little more than a phantom as I was the last time we met. Anyway, your kind of scum makes me sick. There are easier places to get a date then the cemetary, and if you choose not to let the dead stayed buried (cremated, ingested or as local customs dictate) you must be prepared to face their judgement! Since I can do little now I will be going on a little journey, I will be back and I will have some old friends of yours to say hello!" Saint George's Dragon's last 'words' have a palapable taste of menace to them. At this point he fades from view disappearing like a ghost.

"Run coward, leave your friends here for me." The Lich Collector arrogantly retorts to thin air. He returns his attention to the rest of the party. "Bah, he does not matter. Anyway I was about to have a talk with you."

Kol-qu-han frowns for a moment.

"I am sorry; that was very out of character for me. Obviously Balfas' current state is a drain upon my own personal powers. I should warn you that if you decide to stand against me I will be forced to restrain you; Destrius, the best of you in magicks, is only a class two in ranking. I am a class five. Technically I can destroy this world with a single thought.

"Now the intelligent among you will want to know why I need liches. 'Tis simple; my using my powers to full effect on any world that has a lower than a class four magical sphere, like Britannia, Balfas, Tideron, Summa and the like would cause pure chaos. It would disrupt your very beings. So we take on your dead mages and use them as our casting vessels when we visit your worlds. Grim and morbid to you I am sure but then again I do not eat flesh and I find that habit disturbing in your kind.

"I do not wish to fight you, though. Not because it would be difficult; like flies to schoolboys I could kill you for sport. Not because it is against my nature to kill sentients; I never kill my targets because it makes collection too easy. No, I do not want to fight you because the same prophecy that resulted in Dracos' death here on Balfas has you returning to Britannia and I do not want to see the best laid plans of the Wisps go awry. If you want to blame anyone for your friend's death then blame the creatures that set this all up. At least, blame the faction."

A low cough.

"Tell me then, Kol-qu-han, just what rating would a Void Sorcerer possess on your scale?"

"I don't much see as it matters - you've no mana to open a gateway - you're wasting what little internal magic you have trying to resist the paralysis."

Helgraf smiles. "Pity - in your arrogance, you presumed that none of us would have been prepared for the likes of a magical nullity."

His hand closes on the object he sought - the Vortex Cube.

"No money for you . . Nominae est you . . Nobody for you."

Kol-qu-han raises an eyebrow, suspicious, but still confident in his own powers.

"No body for you."

There is a single note, high and crisp, like the shattering of a mouse's heart.

Something fast and grey materializes, streaks toward Kol-qu-han, and vanishes just before striking him.

"Is that the best you could do," inquires Kol-qu-han with a smug expression.

"It is enough. The Fated of the Dying will be no exhibit for your halls."


"You're a," he pauses, then puts a sneering emphasis on the next phrase, "fifth rank sorceror. Find out for yourself."

"Easily enough done"

For a moment only - so it seems to Kol-qu-han - his eyes close and he checks the matrix of his magic about the homeward going liches.

During this moment, two things happen. One, the Vortex Cube begins to smoke and seeth, blisting Helgraf's hand still holding it. The other thing is a small black stone, streaked with silver drops to the ground . . .

The following moment - several things happen simultaneously :

A gate of blue streamed with silver starburst-like patterns opens when the stone hits the ground.

Kol-qu-han opens his eyes.

The binding enchantment, designed to resist the pull of the bellows, snaps under the additional strain of the gate's opening.

The door at the base of the tower is thrown open as a squad of the priesthood's mercenaries storm the now undefended tower.

Helgraf calmly wipes his robes with his unblistered hand, and comments. "This world will not stand destruction by your ilk. The Gods of this place preserve it. Oh, and by the way, don't presume to know our individual power levels. The universe has a way of compensating for imbalance like you would have us believe you can create."

Kol-qu-han merely looks at Helgraf and concentrates a moment. Helgraf disappears.

"That was for interfering in my work. Anyone else care to question my power?"

Helgraf's voice can be heard plainly, though where it is coming from is unclear, "Oh, this is rich, I'll say. Going to take me some time to find my way out of to. No, I'm not dead yet friends. Neither am I as well restrained as your host would like you to believe. Oooh - geomancy. Clever design Caulky Hands. Tell me, were you the valedictorian in your class of Fifth rank sorcerors?"

Helgraf's voice continues to taunt the sorceror, as he attempts to give his friends time to react in one fashion or another.

Kol-qu-han smiles and the world returns to normal. Helgraf finds himself standing beside the companions bereft of his clothing.

Despite this, a fractional second later, his robes shimmer into place around him.

"Void Sorcerers; a class two magical society, although quite advanced and far more cunning than the norm. Interesting; we have yet to catalogue your world and its magic. I can see that if you are any indication of your world's magic system then one of my friends will be collecting your corpse in eighty-six years time.

Helgraf yawns. "I'll add that to the book of years. That's the ... hmmm, seventh estimate on my approximate time of death."

"I am not here to fight you." A mercenary climbs up beside Kol-qu-han who simply touches the man causing him to disappear.

"Sorry; this won't take a moment." The world shifts for all concerned.

The group finds themselves in a well-lit hall. Liches standing dormant line the walls and various living forms flit between examining them.

"Welcome to my homeworld. You'll find your magicks and your items are entirely recharged now. You will also find that you can cast no spells here without a supervisors' permission which you won't get because I'm afraid you'll reactivate a lich by accident. The magic here is tenuous enough as it is."

The Lich Asmereth comes and bows before Kol-qu-han.

"Ah, Asmereth here was saying that Dracos' embalming is about to begin. Helgraf's little firework display was pretty but ineffective. Once I had ascertained your ranking I was able to reorganise your antecedent causes. Dracos never left this building, essentially." Kol-qu-han waves Asmereth away. "Well, I would stay and chat but your constant interruptions to my work can no longer be ignored. Don't try and see me; I'll find you when the time is right, and the time will be right when you find the individual that wanted the Balfasian Church destroyed. Don't trust the Wisps; they may well be fives in magic but they cannot be trusted alone. And Void Sorceror; do not insult my intelligence with your tricks. I am as much under the geas of Fate as Dracos was. I am playing my part. I have seen your mind. You know what you should be doing, and it is not misdirecting your anger. Asmereth escaped you last time; Mondain eluded you and turned out to be a safer bet than was thought; the person responsible for this atrocity is still out there. Find them. Do as Dracos asked."

Helgraf merely laughs in reply. "So despite all your vaunted magic, you still make the same mistakes of judgement as any mortal man. Very well. Believe, if it is more comforting, that that was my motivation and my inclination. Just remember what false data does to conclusions. Oh, and by the way - get better mind reading tools. A first has done a better job of plumbing my secrets."

Kol-qu-han and the hall fade from view and the group finds themselves on the tower once more.

Helgraf picks up the black rock streaked with silver and slips it into his robes. He then wraps a linen bandage about his blistered hand once extracting the Vortex Cube from its grip.

"Well, that was a lark. A supposedly all powerful wizard told us things we already know, and is going to make a host out of our companions. Have we actually gained anything out of this trip?"

He turns to face the door as the cleric and his mercenaries enter the room.

"Oh, we have. Potential Imprisonment. Remind me to thank Caulky Hands the next time we meet."

"Ahaa, face the wrath of the Dead foul death mage!!!! DAM! where the heck did he go?" Saint George's Dragon yells as he appears back inside the tower. Brandishing a strange jewel (or possibly a gem) in one hand. The jewel shines with strange light and flickers, looking closely an observer might see faces dancing inside them. SG'sD has begin to return to some semblance of solidity.

The group quickly fills him in on what has happened.

SG'sD looks off into the distance. "He is indeed a powerful mage. I can not find his home and if I could I doubt I would be able to find a way to get their. Also, for some reason I am inclined to trust that he has good intent despite his twisted means of attaining them, he seems far to powerful to bother playing games with us. I only hope Dracos can forgive us for allowing his body to be dispoiled by the likes of that!". Then strangely SG'sD refers himself to the gem in his hand.

"I hope you can forgive me, do not worry I will not rest until I have freed you also." He stares intently at the gem which then disappears, sinking into his hand.

Saint George's Dragon picks up some of his equipment which he dropped upon becoming insubstantial only a short while ago. He breathes in deeply and remarks "Well, at least one good thing has come out of this, Balfas' magic is now as pure as a mountain spring. No more chaotic elements to grab and cling to me. I haven't felt this good in days." He chews his lip a bit and comments "I still have to wonder who would want to destroy the Balfasten Church, probably a consortium of mages judging from the methods employed, the Church themselves might know but I doubt they are going to come through the door and invite us for tea."

Meanwhile outside the tower the Church's mercenaries have regrouped and are sending in a tentative scouting team made up of people the commander does not like.

As the scouting group comes up the stairs, Saint George's Dragon and Daria are dismayed to see that the man leading the team is no other than Cynntherion, the mean-spirited priest whose violent streak and a well-polished leather boot SG'sD is very much acquainted with. The same look of puzzled recognition comes to the priest's face as well, which is soon replaced by the expression of malevolent glee that sends shivers down Daria's spine. This obviously indicates that the sentiments of harmony, goodwill and friendship are not about to kick in any time soon.

"You!!!" cries the priest triumphantly, pointing his bony finger at SG'sD. "I knew this "crazy nephew" masquerade was nothing but a fraud! Well, I'm afraid your "uncle" is not around to protect you this time, you outlander scum! And when I find out which one of you vile fiends has dared to make mockery of High Priesthood, I'll..."

Thankfully, Daria never learns what kind of unpleasant plans Cynntherion had in store for her, because the very next second, a shimmering white flame suddenly envelopes the priest and his men, like a large brilliant-white bedsheet thrown over their heads. In a mere instance, the flame reduces flesh and bone, fabric and metal to the neat heap of ash, leaving it's victims no time even for a single tortured scream.

"Pesky creatures, those priests, don't you agree? Annoying as flies, always meddling, always prying... Why would you people want to keep them in this world?"

Startled, the whole company turns around to see the new arrival, who stands a few metres away at the far end of the tower. The stranger's figure and features are completely hidden by the great dark-violet cloak with a hood, and the soft, low voice doesn't help to answer the question of gender, or species, for that matter.

"You know, you really should be thanking your little Dragon here," the figure points at Daria. "I was ready to wipe you lot from the face of Balfas when your foolish martyr friend has wrecked half of our plan. But now, thanks to you, my dear, the other half has resolved itself just beautifully. Easy successes like this make me all soft-hearted and forgiving."

The next second, an unmistakable effect of the Fetch spell (or a similarly structured one) passes through Daria's body, as she realises that the tiny leather-bound book she had found earlier at the tower's library is no longer in her possession.

"Don't try to get it back by magic," sneers the stranger, hiding the book in the pocket of the violet robe, "it won't work. And I promise you this, my precious Dragon lady: if you survive long enough to realise what you really are, you shall want to kill yourself when you recall this day and moment. Judging by the way your Priesthood friends down there are stirring, though, you might just as well be spared that misfortune. Goodbye now, my friends: a lot of work to do, a lot of worlds to conquer... I promise I'll say hello to Britannians for you..."

With these words, the creature vanishes into the thin air, a second before another, much bigger party from down below comes through the door and stumbles onto the ashes of their unfortunate colleagues.

Helgraf looks at the much bigger party now entering the room.

"You know, if you leave now, we just might be able to go our seperate ways without any more ... unfortunate accidents. Of course, we're being scryed upon, so I doubt that would work. Here's a better notion. You promise to work for us, and we'll keep you alive. Your other option is to try and kill and - and lord knows how many of you will fall. Not my kind of odds, to be sure. Perhaps you've noticed I'm the only one here who has sustained an injury at all? Very astute of you. I'm sure you'll make the right decision."

Helgraf puts on a very smug smile and waits...

"GODS WHO WE WORSHIP PROTECT US!!!!!!" At the back a priest waves his arms looking upwards to the heavens.

Strange blue light pours from the sky onto the host of warriors in front of our heroes. The warriors who at first looked hesitant now appear filled with confidence.

"Ha, evil worker of the arts most foul, the gods have provided us with their protection this day from your dark powers. Cold steel alone will win or lose this day!" The priest exclaims triumphantly.

Helgraf, looks a lot less smug. The various members of the party draw their weapons. The merceneraries prepare to move in. Saint George's Dragon pulls forth his mighty axe. He raises it in the air and brings it down into to the floor, embedding it there.

"Enough!! I will not be party to more senseless violence! Look, we have a common enemy, someone has attempted to use this tower as a weapon to destroy the headquarters of your church, our friend died stopping it and we have sworn that we will avenge our comrade. This enemy has only just now destroyed some of your comrades. WE should be helping each other not fighting. I for one refuse to engage in a battle which will only be to the delight of our enemies. I would rather die!"

He slowly and deliberately stares at the assembled...

Helgraf yawns.

"Here I thought we already offered these fellows the chance not to kill us. By the way, your Eminence . . . don't take this the wrong way, but that whole kill the heretic thing is making it awfully hard for your society to make any meaningful advances. Oh . . by the way, have you noticed the lack of phantasms in the air?"

"However, I expect I shall be required to defend myself shortly, so," with that he pulls an antiquated silver sabre from a ratty scabbard on his belt. The blade looks just shy of sharp enough to cut butter. Looking at his opponents, then pointedly at the blade he announces, "I find myself suitable accoutried for this affair. By all means, do continue one way or the other".

Saint George's Dragon begins talking in a calm and even voice "Helgraf I have always thought their was a difference between an honest request for an informed alliance of equals and a demand of servitude filled with direct and implied threats with no explanation of the ends of the service. Just because that Lich Collector annoyed you is no need to act like him. Anyway while the reputation of the Church may be rather negative I think we have little recourse but to at least try to be reasonable and attempt to get their aid if we are to track down our common enemy. Also, it seems to me this will be much more open to reason now that the curse of chaotic magic has been purged from Balfast." His tone changes and his voice begins to build with anger. "I know in stories their are always a bunch of people who act like arrogant jerks treating everyone like very small children and it works out for the best, but this is not a story this is..."

At this point the Priest interrupts "Uh, if I might interrupt your discussion. I had noticed a change in the land but had not dared to hope that we might finally be free as promised. Are you saying that the dark magics have been purged from Balfas forever?"

"Yes, thanks to our late companion Dracos. Not exactly quick on the uptake are we, hmm." Helgraf replies.

His last sentence is drowned out as the Priest exclaims "DRACOS, you mean BRACHOUS the Fated One!"

"May he forever receive the blessings of the gods for his dedication to destiny." The entire force of Church mercenaries intone simultaneously.

"Hmm, no doubt a corruption due to shifts in Balfastean speech patterns over the many centuries the prophecy has been existent."Helgraf comments.

"If you speak the truth than you must the Strangers, they who accompany the fated one and give him aid in his times of need. It is said that the Strangers will be known because they will be the first to enter the Vault of the Ancients and come out again, bringing with them the key to defeating the one who is to slay the Fated One, the One Clouded in Darkness," The Priest continues.

"May he forever be cursed!"

"It would be an honor for us to escort you to the Capital and have you prove your claim. Or we can get back to trying to kill one another," the Priest says in an even voice.

Helgraf yawns again. "I'll discuss semantics when I'm on a world where good and evil aren't divided up like two sides of a coin, St.George's. Until then, I will expect the predomination of people to act in a matter in accordance with the general alignment of the region, to wit, evil.

"I thought our journey had established that the reputation of Balfas for evil was overrated, but I see your point. You will do as you think best Helgraf." Saint George's Dragon replies in a defeated tone.

Only then does the mage turn to face the priest.

"Would you be referring to him known as Fated of the Dying?" The Void Mage blows under his nails, sabre still held loosely in his other hand.

"Some texts call him that, but he is more commonly called the Fated One," the priest explains.

"I thought you said to me you would not discuss semantics Helgraf," Saint George's Dragon jokingly remarks.

"Anyway, the question is still unanswered. Are you willing to prove your claims?" The priest breaks in.

"I am." SG'sD volunteers.

"Then you must all come with us," the Priest says. "If you are indeed what you claim then you will be showered with honours. We will be your escort to the Grand Temple of Shadows, wherein lies the legendary Vault of Ages."

Helgraf seems inclined to dispute the priestly request, but Destrius takes him aside and speaks quietly: "I believe that we need to go along with this request for now, but keep alert. The priesthood may need us now, but likely they intend us to live no longer than the need lasts. For now however, we need them too."

As the party walk down the stairs, Paulon swerves and picks up a book from where the body Dracos had been lying. He stuffs it up into his jacket for safekeeping.

Once both the party and the Priests are outside the tower, horses are untied from their picket and brought to the travellers. The Priest addresses them. "We will need to move quickly. Fortunately due to the, shall we say, fatalities of unknown cause within the tower, we have horses enough to mount you all for the journey."

The group sets out, outworld questers surrounded protectively by the religious forces escorting them. The journey is interrupted on occasion by the need for Paulon, an inexperienced rider, to clamber back into the saddle.

The group makes camp for the evening, huddling near the campfires as the darkness closes in. The priests and Guards loosely surround the party of outworlders, whether protectively or to prevent escape being indeterminate...

Close to the fire Paulon withdraws the book dropped from Dracos, wincing as the movement stresses muscles unaccustomed to riding, and opens it. The incomprehensible squiggles of the Balfasian formal script greet his gaze. "This isn't going to work like this," the traveller mutters to himself. An irritated wave of his hand and a snapped word cause the script to blur in his sight, changing into impossibly regular and unvarying script. No mortal hands could have written the text as it now appears. Paulon settles down to read.

The gist of the text is clear. Amsereth had been informed of the existence and properties of Blackrock, and had been told that the powers of Mondain's Gem included the ability to create the substance. But the other properties of the Gem had been omitted, properties including the Shadowlords...

As Paulon finishes reading, he looks up to see Destrius and Helgraf watching him. "We felt your spell," Destrius states. "Did you learn anything of value?" "Something of what Amsereth was doing, and why. He was tricked into releasing the Shadowlords, and his log here even gives the name of his informant. It was Mors Gotha."

"Which means?" Helgraf asks.

"Mors Gotha was the personal champion of her master, the same way that the Avatar acts for Lord British in Britannia. The problem is that it couldn't possibly have been her. She's dead. The Avatar killed her months before any of the events caused by Amsereth in Britannia could have occurred. Even with the odd timeslips that transport between the worlds can create, she couldn't have been the one who set Amsereth up. Which just leaves the question of who was behind the whole thing."

Destrius looks curiously at Paulon. "And do you know who the master of Mors Gotha was?"

"Big, red, titan, and powerful enough that I don't want to risk naming him, just in case it gets his attention," Paulon replies, noting the nods of both Helgraf and Destrius as they recognise the entity. "And that's another reason I don't think it was Mors Gotha who was Amsereth's informant. That 'Muppet'," the inverted commas clearly audible to the listeners, "wants to get into or outright destroy Britannia. Amsereth's actions under the Shadowlord's influence wouldn't have helped him do either as far as I can tell. Too much work for no gain."

"Somebody with interdimensional access set this up, however. Someone who knows of Britannia and black rock. If Mors Gotha is dead, then his master will have been grooming a puppet to replace him so that his word and will can be carried through the dimensions directly." He sighs, and then removes a book of his own - one wrapped in blue dragonscale. With a shrug which might almost be apologetic, he opens it to a dogeared page and begins to read.

"Hmmm. This is about as helpful right now as," he trails off as an idea strikes.

"Xorinia. If there is anybody who would recognize and identify an entity capable of multi-dimensional travel, Xorinia would be it. The problem, of course, is coming up with sufficent information to satisfy their demand without compromising matters. And no, I am not offering them the prophecies. The last thing I need is for any entity with sufficent knowledge learning the webs of the future as well."

"Perhaps it could be the Wisps themselves, sure they may appear neutral in most corporal affairs, but I say never trust anyone who is neutral." Saint George's Dragon Interrupts the others. "Personally, I am a bit worried about this whole Vault of Ages, legendary places that no one has ever come out of tend not to be nice. Their could be deadly booby traps, horrible monsters, ancient enchantments, conniving demons who entrap by feeding ever carnal and base desire of those who come near a cage of ecstasy or something even worse. I think some further research might be wise, but our hosts are not exactly forthcoming."

The night passes without comment, and the group continues onward. As evening approaches they come upon a town. A bedraggled old man runs up in front of the group.

"Thank the gods! Excuse me good sir's but our humble town requires your presence for our celebration of the Strangers. In honor of the foretold deliverance we wish to celebrate, and how could we celebrate without honoring in spirit if not in body the Strangers who saved our world. Please you must come to our festivities." The old man explains.

The leading priest seems hesitant but weariness can be seen in his eyes and those of the guards. "Very well we would be honored to attend your festival." He turns to his guests and says "Ixnay on the Angerstay," looking at them meaningfully.

The part is lead through the streets of the town, the old many runs on ahead shouting joyously "They have COME!". The streets are soon filled with the men, woman and children chatting happily with one another, bearing bread, and other food stuffs. The procession comes to a large fire pit surrounded by huge tables. Goblets are pasted out filled with wine, pigs and game birds are spitted and the bonfire lit. Soon everyone is drinking and feasting in a happy revelry.

As the evening continues SG'sD takes the chance to talk to one of the villagers while he is relaxed. "I was wondering if you could tell me tales of the Vault of Ages?"

"Ahh, everyone knows about that. 'Tis said that the most ancient dark magics of the last great war are locked away there. For sure the key is the sign of office of the high priest said to give him protection from the dark arts. Of course I suppose we will know soon enough, now that the magical chaos has ended the strangers must surely soon go in and come out again and defeat the one who will be cursed forever. After that who knows perhaps the barrier will fall and war will come again or perhaps a new age of peace. For know we celebrate this end to our age long suffering. To the Strangers and the Fated of the Dying our deliverers." He raises his goblet.

"I'll drink to that." And SG'sD raises his cup as well.

Helgraf muses quietly. "Why do people presume that because one is cursed, one is perforce evil? Easier, perhaps, for a society to assume that those who are ill-off must be somehow deserving of their status. Still, this brings us nowhere." His eyes slowly scan the crowd, picking out his companions on this journey. It is the native son he seeks. But Destrius is nowhere to be seen - at least, not amidst the crowd, and so, politely turning some of the village persons to other more garrulous persons in the group, Helgraf extracts himself from the crowd, and goes looking for the "Mad Mage".

It is neither far away nor long of time before he finds that one, quietly leaning against a ancient tree, seeming to be watching the skies.

"There is not much left to tell, is there?"

"No. I suspect whatever is playing a hand in this is keeping concealed."

"A possibility has occurred to me."

"What makes this one stand out from the others?"

"Its sheer oddness - combined with the fact it accounts for the oddities. Still, it suggests some rather dangerous things about the nature of reality."

An eyebrow raises.

"Coming from you, that is a hefty statement."

A faint chuckle precedes a low whisper, and the other man's eyes light up with some surprise a moment while he considers it.

"Unlikely - especially here."

"Not as much as you might think - once the initial link was established. Xorinia could easily have provided the conduit. Provided that a conduit was even needed."

"Still, Vasult?"

"Just consider what it means. If the savior of Britannia is to return, he must have a land ready for him. Our source is uniquely qualified to have been able to recognize the danger and take the appropriate steps."

"Even you are a pawn to the design then, old man?"

Another faint chuckle. "I prefer to think of myself as a knight. Or a knave. Mostly though, I serve as the joker."

"And we all know the jokers are wild."

"Exactly. Now, how about we round up the others and see about this Vault business?"

The following day, the spokesman priest approached the group at mid-morn.

"Are you ready, then, to enter the Vault of the Ancients?"

The party members look at each other until Saint George's Dragon says, "Yeah, I guess we are."

"Lead the way," says Destrius to the priest.

With swords loose in their scabbards, the group is lead down a main city street. As they walk, a small crowd begins to follow- citizens, curious about this mysterious group which is about to enter a place from which none have returned since before the Great War.

The priest comes to a rest outside a large temple, and gestures towards it. "Behold," he says, "the Grand Temple of Shadow."

The building is made of dark marble with doors of dark but glossy wood. Torches flank the entranceway, lit even in daylight. They enter, the priest leading the way the entire time. Within, torches provide light but not enough to fill the vast room that is central to the building. Much of the room is graylit and shadowed. Looking up, the ceiling give the illusion of constellations of stars. In the center of the room, a black alter stands with two barely glowing candles resting upon it.

The room is empty of strangers.

Without pausing to allow the group to get a good look at the altar room, the priest enters are surprisingly brightly lit hallway, in the back of the cathedral, and stops in front of a door covered in many sigils and wards.

"This," says the priest, "is the door to the Vault of the Ancients. Behind this door is a flight of stairs into the darkness. Within lie relics of the Great War which have not seen daylight in hundreds of years. None who have entered since the war have returned. I alone, now, have a key." He withdraws a skeletal key from underneath his robe- it is tied on a cord around his neck. He pulls it over his head.

"I cannot and will not give you this key- it is a symbol of my authority, and also an item of power. I give you my word that it is not my intention to lock this door behind you. Can you trust me that far? Will you?"

Cat speaks up, for the first time in a long time. "Oh, we'll trust you, cleric. For you must know that even this door cannot hold us. You have not seen the least of our power." As he speaks, a keening humming sound begins to emanate from his sword, sheathed though it is. "And when we get out, we'll make you wish you were dead." The humming reaches a painful intensity, then stops.

The priest looks shaken, but tries valiantly to hide it, and eventually succeeds. "Yes, well." He puts the key in the lock, and turns.

The vault door slowly creaks open. The priest puts the key back around his neck, and tucks it under his shirt. "I will be waiting here for your return."

"Is it just me or did that almost sound like optimism?" St.G's mutters to no one in particular. Then, in a louder voice, he says, "I'll go first- not being particularly corporal sometimes may give me an advantage."

The group begins its descent. After all of them have passed through the threshold, the door behind them closes slightly, though there is no sound of a key turning. The closing door does, however, deprive them of most of their light- the stair is treacherously dark. Before any of the mages have a chance to try anything, Goldenflame draws his sword. It bursts into flames immediately, and almost immediately after that the flames dim, as though they find the vault depressing. Even so, they give off enough light that the descent is made without injury or accident, and the group reaches the inner vault.

The Vault was a single large room, rectangular in shape, with the stairs at one end. Along the walls, on the floor, on pedestals, and hanging on the wall were swords, shields, helms, things unidentifiable. To the sight of the mages, almost all of them carried some degree of enchantment- in most cases, the glow of this magic was not a bright one but as though a dark burn was upon the fabric of magic.

Skeletons lay on the floor, near some of the items. Many were in positions that implied their death was not pleasant. What's more, all in the room could feel an ominous sense of presence, though they could see no one.

St.George's comments, "They say we are fated to emerge from here with the key to defeating the one who slew Dracos. Or something like that. I wonder what we need?"

"Indeed," comments Destrius, "is it an item? The key to this room, perhaps, making it a literal key? Or will we perhaps find knowledge here?"

"I don't know," offers Concussed, "but I have no desire to touch any of these things to see what they might have to teach me!"

Suddenly, a booming voice echoes in the chamber, seeming to come from nowhere or everywhere.


"Excuse me?" says Paulon.

WHICH ONE WILL YOU TAKE? the voice repeats.

"Um... we're still looking," says Concussed hesitantly.


"What happened to these?" St George's asks, pointing to a skeleton.

The voices make no reply.

"Quite likely, they chose wrong," offers Helgraf.

As Helgraf spoke, the group slowly starts becoming aware of another source of light in the room. Looking around, it was hard to pinpoint its source- nothing seemed to be giving off light directly. Finally, Daria narrowed it down, and finds that there is a simple cloth covering one of the items on a pedestal. She removes the cloth, and the item beneath begins giving off a serene glow. Revealed was a sandalwood box, about 8 inches in length and 4 in width. Its glow intensified as the group stared at it.

"What do you think?" Destrius asks the group. "Is this what we want?"

"Why is it glowing?" Concussed asks.

Destrius looks at Helgraf, who shakes his head. "I have no idea,"

Destrius says. "Maybe because we're the Strangers?" He smiles.

Everyone continues to carefully not touch the box.

"I wonder what happens if we try to take it?" asks Daria.

"Intuition tells me," replies Helgraf, "that we end up like them." He points at the skeletons. "I think this one we'll have to play by the rules." He looks up and raises his voice. "We'll take this one."

In response, the box's glow intensifies.


The group looks at each other uncertainly. "You don't suppose we can just reach out and take it, do you?" ventures Paulon.

"My intuition still tells me no," says Helgraf. He draws his silver sabre, and makes a small cut on this hand. A bead of blood forms, then evaporates quickly. "In fact, it seems that no living being can touch the box while it sits on the pedestal."

"So how are we going to get it out of here?" wonders Daria.

"Can we choose something else?" StG's calls to the ceiling.


"Guess not," he mutters.

"Wait a minute!" exclaims Paulon. "Everyone- or at least, everyone who was with us when we first arrived in Balfas- remember what Goldenflame said when he first woke up?"

Goldenflame, hearing his name, looks up at Paulon from staring at the box. He blinks. "I had almost forgotten I said anything."

"Actually, it was what you said right before you woke up that is important."

"I remember," says Daria. "It didn't make any sense at the time, but now it seems to make at least some. He said, 'To find the light, you must give life to the Fated of the Dying.'"

Goldenflame blinks again, then smiles slowly. "No one living can touch the box..."

"Perhaps Dracos, somehow, has one last task?" suggests Daria.

And the glow from the box grows stronger still, until it seems that the source of the light is not the box but within it, and is pouring through the wood as though it were glass.

 << The Collection Room; Lich Catalogue 14f-900 >>

"The Dracos Lich is nearly ready for use. Apart from the bindings designed to keep his Level 2 Null-magick ability masked the lich performs adequately in all tasks. All semblance of self and memory are gone; the soul has risen to its afterlife without harm.

"It needs to be ready soon. The Balfas Prophecy comes to a close and with it the fate of the Determinist Circle will be decided. Freedom or Causal Closure. Dracos helps decide this, or at least his body does. Of course this conflict is of no concern to anything under a Level 4 but the Balfas Prophecy has more immediate and obvious effects that the Sosarians will find illuminating.

"I am enclosing new material for the Collector involved in attaining this lich. He may need to enlist certain help if what we think will follow does come about. Once he has finished work on Tideron he should proceed to Sosaria and await either the death of Nicodemus (a certainty) or the arrival of subjects AFG-98 and FYM-56f.

"Dracos is a useful tool; projections show that it will be used to close the access junction to Levels 0-3 if the (so-called) Level 6s are found to be a threat. We estimate that this will be known in 3,000 years. Retain the Dracos Lich. Remember the prophecy; Dracos cannot leave Tideron or Balfas alive; especially due to his strong resistance to dimensional travel.

Report ends. Copies sent to KKH, KSM and KAA."

<< The Vault of the Ancients >>

The strangers stand transfixed in front of the glowing box and so do not notice the eerie magical gate that opens behind them. From this steps forth a reanimated Dracos and the Lich Collector Kol-qu-han.

"If you will stand aside Dracos will get the box." Kol-qu-han says.

The party turns in shock and before anyone can respond the undead Dracos walks forward grasps the box and lifts it from the pedestal. The light intensifies even more and is almost blinding. Dracos turns around presenting the box to all assembled. The lid opens and a globe of pure radiance levitates from out of it.

The ball pulses and a voice echoes in the mind of all present. "Please designate your destination."

"Very impressive but how will this help us find the guy responsible for Dracos' death." Saint George's Dragon comments.

"I can transport you to anyone whether you know who or where they are. My power can breach the barrier between worlds, yes I can even circumvent the barrier between Tideron and Balfas." The ball radiates the message.

"If that will be all..." Kol-qu-han gestures towards Dracos and the lich releases the box.

"Wait." Helgraf grabs Dracos' arm and pulls the lich away from the Collector. "I'm not so sure this is all over for our friend here," Helgraf says, nodding towards Dracos.

Kol-qu-han nods. "You are right; the Balfas Prophecy is not yet complete; Dracos has one more task to complete. You must trust me, Helgraf; all of you must trust me. I came here so that Dracos could open the box; Dracos will be in the right place at the right time. But for the moment it and I must be elsewhere; we do not need the San-guell here to traverse the distance you are about to travel. I would offer to take you all there myself, but form must be obeyed. I mean none of you any harm and I will be there to help when the time comes. I simply have another agenda that is, unfortunately, more important than your individual lives."

Helgraf slowly releases his grip on Dracos. "We will meet again?"

"Be sure of it." The Collector crosses his arms. "If anything you would be an interesting item for the collection as your people are yet to be properly examined." Kol-qu-han smiles briefly. "Not that I am willing to speed the process up, but your magicks, Helgraf, will be very useful in the coming days. Do not be afraid to take great risk with your casting.

"Come, Dracos." Kol-qu-han raises his right arm. From it a green arc strikes outwards, highlighting the lich and removing it from view. Kol-qu-han nods, and then he is gone.

"You know, that guy seems like a real jerk," St. George's Dragon says.

"Where will you go?" the ball asks again.

Helgraf pulls a small prism out of his robes, and holds it at an angle that will cause the refracted light to splay along the back wall.

"Interesting. The analog of the orb is a coherent gateway vortex. A completely permeable matrix, unlike blackrock which is primarily an impermeable array. Caused, if I read the fractal analysis correctly, by the feedback which results from cycling the rift energy through the array continuously. Hmmm. And we're expected to make use of this. One might almost think Kol-qu-han was looking to collect early, despite his assurances."

"You need not fear, the transport I provide is safe." The 'voice' of the glowing orb intones.

At this point Saint George's Dragon speaks up "Uhh, I understand your concern Helgraf, at least everything up until the word interesting, but unless you have some other way to locate 'the one clouded in darkness', aka the guy you got Dracos killed, I really do not see what choice we have. Unless.." SG's turns to the orb and says "I don't suppose you could transport our quarry to us."

"No you must travel with me to your destination."

"And you can't tell us his current location only take us there right?"

"That is correct."

"Yesh, these ancients sure do not build very flexible device interfaces. Well, I guess we will have to decide, do we jump into the unknown danger of using a weird glowing ball to get us where we want to go with only the vague assurances of prophecy that we will succeed or do we wait around here and try to find an alternate solution? Personally, I say we use the ball, however if someone can come up with a better idea I am game." SG's begins checking his pack and pulls out a stone and his axe, which he begins to sharpen. He relaxes and regards the rest of the group with mild interest.

"Wait a moment," Goldenflame suddenly says. The others turn to face him, backlit by the glow of the Device.

"If we go through this, we aren't the Strangers."

"Would you mind running that by me again?" asks St. George's.

"The Strangers will be known because they come back out of the Vault. If we don't come out, they'll assume we weren't the Strangers. And if we aren't the Strangers, than a whole lot of prophecies may not apply to us... and may not guarantee our continued survival."

"Ah, but what if we returned to the city above sometime later? After completing our quest?"

Goldenflame blinks. "I suppose that might satisfy it..."

Helgraf laughs shortly. "Actually, that isn't even necessary. Interesting reasoning, paladin, but wrong. The Strangers need only emerge from the Vault with the key to defeating the enemy. Just because they don't see us emerge doesn't mean anything. The value is that we get out of here alive.

"I think everything points to us being the Strangers, as we're pretty damn sure that Dracos was the Fated One. So I think we can bet that we get out of here alive."

He pauses and adds, "This does not mean that I trust this glowing matrix, you'll note."

"Do we really have a choice?" Paulon asks the Void Mage. "It looks to me like we've got the choice of either trusting this thing, or walking up all those stairs to get out of here. I'm lazy at times, but I'm not sure just what kind of reception we'd get at the top either."

"You mean our true foe, the one who killed Cynntherion," Daria states quietly.

"You bet," Paulon says. "He thinks he's powerful enough to be safe leaving us alive. He may be overestimating himself, but if I were him I'd have set up some sort of trap outside the Vault. Our magic probably won't get us out, and the wards must stop him getting in here too. But once we step outside..." He leaves the rest of the statement to the imagination of the others. "I hate the idea of walking straight into an unknown trap even more than risking that thing." He gestures at the Device.

"The Prophecies do state that we, the Strangers, leave the Vault," Goldenflame contributes. "Would that not indicate that we could safely use this device for at least that one journey?"

"Perhaps yes, as the knowledge we have gained in this world indicates us to be the Strangers of local prophecy," the rounded figure of the Librarian states. "But if the device can only be guaranteed to be non-hazardous once, then where would we command it to take us, in order that we might succeed at our goal?"

Helgraf strokes his chin, while regarding the matrix. He looks over the rest of the group and the Librarian. He regards the matrix again.

"Only one way to find out, I guess," he mutters.

"Take us to the temporal-spatial location wherein the Strangers of Prophecy Four thousand seven hundred and eighty six of the Book of Alandaric the Mad; known as "Visions of the Divided Realm", which speaks of the Fated of the Dying in stanzas four hundred forty through four hundred sixty three inclusive; are required to be to perform Destiny's work!"

The matrix glows a brilliant, almost blinding white...

And suddenly everything shifts.

The group feels a moment of disorientation.

They find themselves in the center of a large hall, illuminated by the glow of the orb/matrix. Smooth grey stone walls spread up to the domed ceiling. The hard black marble floor is polished to a brilliant shine. Four archways offer egress from the hall. The hall is empty of all furnishing or decoration. They are all tense ready to spring into action at the slightest provocation.

"Look!" yells Saint George's Dragon, pointing to one corner of the room.

Everyone turns, to see a mind boggling sight. What appears to be a pure black cloud hovers about an area in the corner somewhat larger than the size of a man. Yet it casts no shadow, light apparently passes right through it, but it can still be seen, as though it was somehow emitting darkness.

The strange phenomenon shifts its form, compressing inward, taking on the appearance of a human figure.

"So you have come at last." A voice as cold and dry as an arctic wind, cuts through the air coming from the figure. "I did not want it to end like this. I did not want it to come to this. If only Amsereth had given me his tower as I wanted, I could have ended the chain of prophecy. I could have destroyed the priests and ruled this world and yes then all others. Most of all I would be free of that prophecy that has cursed me since that unfortunate accident clouded me in darkness. Forcing me to become the instrument of prophecy. Forcing me to risk the destruction of everything in my only hope for freedom, to be the ultimate power above prophecy. I am not the villain of this piece! You are!" The voice reaches a manic crescendo.

"Oh indeed. You just acted as any rational person would in that situation." Helgraf replies unimpressed.

The figure continues "Ah well, I must content myself with the power of the Chariot of the gods for now." He indicates the orb. "The power to go anywhere should have its uses, especially with the information found in this book."

He pulls out a small leather bound book. He looks at Daria "I must thank you for finding it. I believe you have already met my apprentice." He motions to the archway behind the group, a figure in a purple robes stands their, his features completely obscured. It is the same person they saw in Amsereth's tower who killed Cynntherion.

Saint George's Dragon stares resolutely at the one clouded in darkness and says "Could you surrender right now and save us all a great deal of trouble?"

"Funny, I was going to ask you the same question." He replies, menace as thick as his darkness in his voice.

Daria doesn't feel too well.

Ever since coming to this strange hall, some kind of transformation has taken place inside her mind that made her oblivious to everything and everyone around her. She senses something dark and troubled rising from the shadowed corners of her being. This nameless something is slowly overtaking her mind, erasing everything she knows about herself, filling her head with visions of frightening clarity...

The name...

What is her name?

Syclith, comes the illuminating thought. Syclith of the Angheart family. The only woman to join the ranks of High Priesthood in the known history of Balfas. The familiar feeling of pride at this achievement washes over her briefly and makes her smile. The smile disappears as the rest of the memories come...

<< The distant past >>

The dungeon feels cold and damp, and the little drops of water pound lightly at her black-silver helmet with annoying regularity. She who is used to wearing graceful, finely cut High Priesthood robes, feels somehow humiliated by donning the heavy armour of the commoners. At least it's been a good disguise, letting her flee Balfas unnoticed and uncaught.

What world among the millions of worlds the Gate has brought her to? Has she travelled to the past? To the future, maybe? What does it matter, as long she has escaped from Balfas and from -him-. Her lips twist into a bitter smile as she thinks of the One Clouded in Darkness and his plans. She knows that it is just a matter of time before his minions track her down, but she'll be damned if she won't give them a hard chase first. And then... be it a cup of poison or her own sword, she'll make sure they'll never learn the current location of the small leather-bound book from her...

Syclith is distracted from her frantic thoughts by the sounds of fierce fighting coming from behind the massive wooden doors that suddenly block her way. Reluctant as she is to walk straight into a scramble between the locals, this is her only way out of the dungeon. Noiselessly, she opens the doors and peeks inside.

The sight that opens before her makes her gasp. In the center of the huge living-room, a group of rough-looking men fight a silver-scaled dragon, while a family of eight people is lying dead on the floor around them, their throats slit from ear to ear. The dragon is bleeding from multiple wounds, and is seemingly on the verge of collapse. When the fatal blow finally comes, Syclith is terrified to see that the lifeless form that lies on the ground doesn't belong to a dragon anymore, but to a young male human. So the stories of the shape-changing Dragons are true after all!

Despite her own peril, Syclith feels sorry for the magnificent creatures, and is enraged at the merciless men who had destroyed such beauty without any pangs of conscience. She draws her sword and attacks the bandits, killing three of them before the rest surrenders to the panic and flees the scene, leaving her alone with the bodies. Before she can draw her breath and decide what to do next, she hears a young merry voice coming from one of the many tunnels leading to the hall, and the next minute, a tall dark-haired girl walks into the room, stumbling slightly as if drunk.

"Mother, promise not to kil..."

The girl's voice breaks off as she sees the lifeless bodies sprawled on the floor, and a tall figure in black-silver armour, holding a blood-stained sword. For a second or two, she stares at the blood and destruction, wide-eyed and numb with shock, then great sobs start to shake her whole body. With an anguished shriek, she is suddenly enveloped into a swirling cloud of golden dust, which rapidly grows in size until it almost reaches the ceiling. Syclith watches in horror as a huge silver-scaled dragon comes out of the cloud and charges straight at her, hissing and snarling.

Dear Gods, I do not want to kill her! the thought flashes in her head, but her fear-stricken mind is far too boggled with the events of the last few hours to come up with a quick rational solution; instinct of self-preservation is all she has left. With a mechanical precision that doesn't leave her even in this moment of panic, she raises her sword to drive it right through the dragon's heart. But the very moment cold steel pierces the scales, Syclith feels a strange pulling sensation engulfing her very being, as if her own soul is being ripped from her body by some unimaginable force. It is clearly a spell... but a spell of this power, from a mere Dragon? From some corner of her mind, a recollection comes that the rare dim-red metal, used to forge her sword, was also reputed to have been used during the ancient body-transfer rituals... but there is no time left to ponder this bit of long-forgotten knowledge, as darkness falls over her...

Sleep... deep slumber of nonexistence, interrupted by the brief but terrifying instants of consciousness. Bound to this body... how humiliating and uncomfortable it feels to be confined within such a limited being! Constant flashbacks of her past life... glimpses of the world... her own world! She is back on Balfas! The vision becomes clearer every day... until she finds herself standing among a group of complete strangers, face to face with the very reason she left Balfas in the first place...

<< The Place of Prophecy >>

Helgraf leans both hands on his gnarled wooden halfstaff before him, his attitude casual as he replies, "If all you want is freedom from prophecy, there is a far simpler way to go about that."

The voice from the darkness' reply is snide and cutting, "Oh, and what might that be, oh Wise One?"

"Use your chariot to step outside of time. Prophecies are intimately connected with the passages of time, if not the minutiae of it. Of course, if what you really want is to be free of prophecy and still capable of working your will on the multiverse, you're out of luck."

"Make not the mistake of mocking me, insolent one!"

Helgraf looks to the others, gaze lingering on Daria and Destrius each slightly longer than the others, then turns to face the swirling darkness. "You cannot escape prophecy. Even as we speak, new prophets speak and write and shape what may be. Hundreds of prophecies fail, and one succeeds, lauded afterwards as the true revelation. Cut one strand, two strands, a thousand strands, you cannot sever the net. The harder you struggle, the more entangled you become, your own actions causing the ripples which flow out and then back to you. You cannot escape because it is the act of trying to escape which triggers the snare."

"Wise words indeed," says the cold female voice.

The girl's companions are surprised at that sound, so unlike Daria's usual gentle speech, but their enemy utters a short laugh, as if recognizing the voice and its owner.

"Syclith dear. I'm delighted to see that you finally came to your senses."

" I see that you still haven't come to yours," comes the stinging reply.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," the figure chides mockingly. "This is no way to greet the one who's revived you, oh Ungrateful One." Seeing bewilderment on Daria/Syclith's face, the Clouded One proceeds to explain, accentuating each word with a sadistic kind of pleasure.

"My servant here," he points at the silent figure at his side, "has spent months tracking you down after you've disappeared from the face of Balfas. He found you on the world of Britannia, trapped inside the body of a dragon who had put herself into sleep. My first intent was to destroy the dragon, and you with her, but then I decided to give you a chance of performing me a service. I revived the girl in hope that, somehow, she'll be able to lead me to the book you'd hidden so carefully; a slim chance, granted, but the one that paid off." Watching the colour being drained from the girl's face, he adds:

"My other reason was that, secretly, I wanted to give you the kind of traitor's death you truly deserve: not simply destroy the shell that contains your sleeping spirit, but let me enjoy every bit of your agony."

"You can't escape the prophecy," Daria/Syclith says in a voice that trembles slightly. "And you shall be destroyed."

"Let me worry about my prophecy," the Clouded One replies calmly. "But I promise you that this time around, you shall not escape yours."

"I believe it is time to end this charade. For all the words of mad prophets, all you fools have done is brought me all I require to be able to crush all who dare stand in my way."

"First ye need to take the matrix from us," Helgraf replies calmly.

Wisps of blackness begin to rise from the marble of the floor, as if the blackness of the stone has taken on a life of its own.

"And why should that prove difficult?" retorts the clot of darkness, gesturing. "My apprentice alone has more than enough power to destroy you." The black tendrils of darkness converge around the party of challengers, wrapping around their feet and legs, then crawling slowly up their bodies. The Clouded one laughs, an ugly sound. "See how simple it is for me to defeat you?"

"I think I have something to say about this," Paulon says quietly to the deadly foe. He holds something in one hand, raised above the level of the rising blackness from the floor. "Say Cheese!"

The blinding flash from the object held in Paulon's hand banishes the black bonds instantly. The Clouded One cries out in pain as the light washes over him, then fades. "For that you will suffer!" he snarls, the inky blackness composing his body seeming to be twisting and writhing with his rage.

"Suffer this!" Saint George's Dragon yells in the imperative. And throws his axe into the bizarre black form.

The axe passes clean through the figure with no apparent effect and embedded itself in the wall.

"It was a worth a try." SG'sD mutters to himself.

"Insolent dog!" The apprentice cries. He proceeds to mutter an arcane phrase and a jet of flame shoots forth from his hands towards SG'sD.

However, SG'sD has anticipated this, muttering his own arcane phrase and the gout of flame licks harmlessly off an invisible sphere around the tinker. Meanwhile the axe embedded in the wall suddenly flies into the air and back into SG'sD waiting hand. Immediately he throws it at the apprentice. His aim is true and the axe looks ready to embed itself in the apprentice's head when it stops as though hitting some unseen wall and rebounds to its throwers arm.

The apprentice says "Ha, time to even the numbers, wouldn't want any of you getting bored," and in a swift motion pulls out a handful of crystal, clear with a strange moving cloud of blackness inside them, and casts them to the floor. The crystals smash and dark clouds shoot up out of the shards. From the clouds emerge demons, strange because they are jet black.

"Destroy them!" the apprentice orders. As the creatures shamble forward in response, the apprentice stands back as if watching his opponents to see how they respond, like some gothic chess master.

Four figures appear on the periphery of the battle. The Lich Amsereth is missing his right arm, which appears to have been tied on to his back for safe keeping, while the Lich Phezzub is moving awkwardly. The Collector Kol-qu-han is covered in cuts and is bleeding profusely. Only the Lich Dracos seems unscathed.

"Phezzub; morechek. Amsereth; morechek. Dracos; jelhap." Kol-qu-han's voice is raspy and as he speaks he coughs up a large amount of blood.

The two wounded liches begin to glow faintly with green light and Dracos moves forward. His body sweeps past the demons who, at the very touch of the once-Mage, melt away.

The Apprentice begins to cast spells in Dracos' direction. Nothing seems to touch the lich at all.

Helgraf watches the arrival of the the Collector and the Liches with an oddly satisfied smile, given his usual demeanor on confronting them. Paying no attention to them or to the efforts of the apprentice, he pulls forth a dagger with a jeweled hilt and gashes his upper left arm. As the blood flows, the darkness surrounding the Clouded One flows out to embrace his form, concealing his presence now.

The Clouded One's voice cuts through the room like a knife. "That one is immune to magery, fool!"

Then, something hard and grey comes sailing out of the mist, landing at Destrius' feet with a dull thud. Not half a second later, there is a hideous shriek, followed by triumphant laughter from the Clouded One.

"Fool! Did thou think I would not know thy coming? The chariot is mine to command, for I have slain the Warden of the Gate!"

Dracos' unliving hand picks up the Apprentice by the throat, and throws him over his shoulder, where he sails back, crashing into the opposite wall with a sickening crunch.

Destrius, meanwhile, picks up the grey cube which has landed near his feet. As he does so, he feels a thrumming vibration pass through his fingers and hand holding it. "Ahh, I understand, my friend. I wish it could have been different." He then moves with determination directly toward the matrix.

The smoke surrounding the Clouded One disperses, revealing the figure within . . and the prone form of Helgraf upon the floor, his jeweled dagger buried to the hilt through the robes above his chest.

Goldenflame sees the unmoving body of Helgraf on the floor. "No..." he whispers. He draws his longsword from its scabbard and it bursts into bright flame. His knuckles go white, gripping the weapon.

The dark figure gestures to the Collector, Phezzub and Amsereth "By all means stay. If you void your prophecy, I win by default," then points to Dracos-liche, "This is the only one of your creatures who has any bearing. Such a choice. Leave your puppet stringless or destroy the prophecy."

In the silence that follows, the matrix begins to drift toward the Clouded One, but slows, as if some competing force were at work...

Something comes together in Goldenflame's mind. "To find the light..."
He looks at the darkness that still lingers around the Clouded One.
" must give life..."
He looks at Helgraf, dagger in his chest.
" the Fated of the Dying."
He looks at the Dracos-liche.

What if the light wasn't the matrix? If it had been, who had given life to Dracos? The liche collector?
Perhaps... or perhaps not.

"Helgraf's magic was of the blood!" Goldenflame says, just loud enough (he hopes) for Destrius to hear. "Of life! I think Dracos needs that knife!"

Destrius looks back at Goldenflame for a moment, but Goldenflame is unable to translate the look on Destrius's face as agreement or something else entirely.

"What makes you think that?" asks the Librarian from just behind Goldenflame. Meanwhile, Goldenflame points his sword at the Clouded One, and a burst of flame issues forth from the blade at the foe. The Clouded One contemptuously waves a hand, and the ball of fire is deflected, striking a wall harmlessly.

"Because to fulfill that prophecy, if it is one," replies Goldenflame, "someone must give life to the Fated of the Dying!" The Clouded One gathers a ball of Darkness in his hand. "Helgraf's magic was of life! What if there is already magic worked in the blood on that knife?" The ball of darkness streaks towards Goldenflame, who catches it and casts it aside with his sword.

"That might be a bit of a stretch..." begins the Librarian, but Goldenflame is already moving forward towards the Clouded One and the body of Helgraf. He is not even halfway there, however, when he feels his feet no longer able to move. Looking down, he sees claws of improbable strength, gripping his legs.

Saint George's Dragon throws his might axe at the claws that grasp Goldenflame. The axe's deadly blade slashes threw them and they lose their grip on their former captive and ooze green ichor. The axe passes a hair's breath from Goldenflame's leg and then skitters along the floor before flying back into SG'sD hand.

"Be careful! We do not need to lose anyone else." SG'sD darkly remarks.

Goldenflame continues his dash towards Helgraf's prone form. Meanwhile SG'sD belts his axe. "Now for my next trick, some juggling!" As from no where he produces some bright sparkly stones and starts juggling. He watches as Goldenflame and Destrius proceed towards their respective goals and then yells an incoherent and guttural phrase. Launching one of the stones into the air, except that it is different not a stone so much as a glittering jewel or gem and their is something strange about it. As it reaches its zenith four beams of light shoot out from it striking the four liches.

The liches appeared stunned for a moment, before their eyes appear to open with a new inner light. They immediately survey the scene. All except Dracos look intently at the Lich Collector for a moment seem about to take some kind of violent action and then almost shrugging each mutters an arcane phrase and they vanish.

"What did you do?" Kol-qu-han exclaims.

"Oh, I just reconnected them with what you might call their souls. It makes their coats healthy and shiny and as a side effect gives them free will. Hard to dig up good help these days. Perhaps if you acquired them voluntarily you know a little corpse donor card to sign?" Saint George's Dragon snidely replies as he catches the gem/jewel.

"No! What did you do?" the Lich Collector demands. "My presence here is contingent on the prophecy; if the cause and effect chain is not righted by the end of this battle then all will cease to exist." Kol-qu-han moves forward towards the Clouded One, not moving easily at all. "I am serious, St. George's, if I don't fulfill my part of the prophecy then my enemies will..." The Collector is hit by several bolts of magical energy. "Sorry, if I don't at least return the Dracos Lich to the Eternal Palace then..." Kol-qu-han swats aside a fireball, "then we can say good-bye to the causal history of this universe."

"Well, sheesh if you feel that your need for action is so damn important, then don't just stand around do something! Sorry, if I feel the need to be proactive now and then. Also, maybe if you didn't go around enslaving people's physical vessels for your own purposes I would be more inclined to trust you or respect you." SG'sD replies indignantly.

Kol-qu-han gives St. George's a withering gaze. "Yes, I only got these wounds having a walk. There's more going on here than you and your friends are aware of, and I've been cleaning up the little messes..." Kol-qu-han continues walking and then pauses. "Not every victim is unwilling; Phezzub donated himself before he died, and Asmereth, due to the Shadowlords, is a known criminal..."

Dracos seems ready to take some kind of action against the Clouded One but he moves first sending a gout of flame at the Lich, just before striking him it turns downward licking the ground around him causing it to melt, leaving him on an island in a molten pond.

By this point Goldenflame has reached Helgraf and is considering how to take possession of the knife.

Destrius has addressed himself to the glowing orb gesturing towards it with the grey cube. Suddenly something begins to happen. The cube and orb begin a bizarre dance floating in the air.

"Talk about squaring the circle...." SG'sD mutter in amazement. The cube and orb seem to merge for a moment one's form flowing into the other. Strange light fills the chamber. The object seems to at once be both a sphere and a cube (and possibly a pyramid) and yet to shift between the various forms at the same time. All eyes are on it trying to guess what will happen next...

The Clouded One turns his eyes from Destrius' magic and watches the revived Dracos near him. With a single wave a fell bolt hits the once-Mage, sending him to the floor. Kol-qu-han rushes to his side and touches him on the head.

"Your once-Mage is no challenge to me now," the Clouded One says.

"Thank it, he's dead, again." Kol-qu-han stands and the Lich Dracos rises.

"You would think a lich collector could tell the difference between a living and undead creature!" Saint George's Dragon comments indignantly. "I never resurrected him in the first place, I just reestablished in his body the influence of what is commonly referred to as the soul or spirit. As a result he gained free will." SG'sD attempts an explanation.

"Why the heck did that bolt affect him anyway?" SG'sD wonders out loud. He gets a worried expression which changes to one of confusion as he surveys the battlefield.

The figure of the Clouded One laughs, blackness advancing inwards towards his opponents at his casual gesture.

"Enough. I have won. The spirit is fled from your dead mage, and the living Warden has joined him in the afterlife. Syclith was kind enough to retrieve the book for me, and the rest of you fools brought me the Chariot." The impression of a smile comes from within the darkness, directed at Destrius. "With your dead friend's aid your magic might have been a threat, but alone you cannot prevail."

The glowing shape of the Sphere/Cube floats gently towards the dark enemy.

The new tide of inky darkness seems to freeze the party in their tracks as their foe speaks. Fighting the paralysis in his muscles though, Goldenflame abandons his speculation on how to safely pick up the dagger which slew Helgraf, and with the last of his strength pulls it forth and throws it at Dracos.

Time itself seems to stop as the dagger flies through the air, spinning gently, until it buries itself point first into the liche's chest...

For a few seconds the Lich simply stands there. The air grows cold and dense and then it begins to rain, at first lightly, then heavily, finally turning to snow in quick order. The cloud around the foe diminishes, revealing a gaunt, hooded form.

"No..." The foe's voice has lost its power; it is raspy and sibilant. "No..." He reaches into his robe and draws a long curved blade. "This is not the way it was meant to be."

Kol-qu-han slowly stands and begins to cast; his body shifts through space and he is standing beside Dracos. The Collector gingerly reaches for the dagger, but the Lich grabs Kol-qu-han's hand and swats it away.

"The prophecy..." The foe lunges towards the Lich, the blade cleanly sweeping through Dracos' left arm. Kol-qu-han falls backwards as he is loosen from his servitor. The Dracos Lich reaches for the blade. He grabs it, twists it from the foe's grasp, breaking his wrist, and then plunges it into the foe's body. Dracos' grip does not shift as the foe sinks to the floor, causing the blade to rip through his body. A black ichor begins to spread from the wound, and the body writhes in a death agony. The Lich leans over and with one sweep cuts the foe's head off, causing it to roll across the floor, losing its hood in the process.

A wizened old face is revealed, though only for a moment as the body and head melts into a pool of blackness that seems to evaporate before the onlookers eyes.

"Uh, as much as I would like to celebrate I think we need to do something about that!" Saint George's Dragon points to the cube-orb which has begun to behave erratically, changing at a faster and faster pace and releasing bright light. The light intensifies becoming blinding, the temperature in the room begins to increase noticeably. SG'sD mutters an arcane phrase and a protective field enclosed the cube-orb.

SG'sD stares at the orb intently "I think the orb is releasing the energy that was cycling through it. I do not know about you guys but I doubt I can hold it back for long. Strange, it seems as though the energy is trying to travel through extradimensional space but something is blocking it."

"The barrier that blocks Balfas and Tideron." Destrius suggests.

"Hm well judging from the rate of energy release I am feeling," a look of strain passes across his face "I have to think that this phenomenon will punch through it before the world is destroyed. Of course by then this room and several hundred miles adjacent will probably be a scorched crater. We have to find a way to stop the release from causing massive destruction, unless of course we wanted to use the dimensional instability to leave this world behind." He looks at the determined looks no his companions faces. "Didn't think so. Hmm, we need to find a way to control the reaction.... Eureka!" Saint George's Dragon gets that look of inspiration in his eyes.

Suddenly he transforms into his natural ever-changing form, at the moment resembling a giant monitor lizard. He opens his jaws and swallows the cube-orb and its protective field. His entire body seems to explode for a moment and then slowly it begins to grow.

"Well, I think I can control this for a couple of minutes I could direct the energy at the barrier and brake it pretty quickly, or we can find another outlet." He stares meaningfully at the Lich Dracos. "I am open to suggestions.". Suddenly his (now long and serpentine) body begins to glow.

Kol-qu-han gingerly touches the Dracos Lich.

"Mesaki johna kiloc."

The Lich reaches down for his severed arm and thrusts it into the back of its clothing, before walking over to St. George's.

The dragon looks deep into the Lich's eyes as it approaches, seeking any glimmer of recognition in the corpse he once knew. The Lich's eyes are dark; if there was ever something in there it is gone.

The Lich walks up to and then through St. George's., and appears on the other side of the body, the shifting cube-orb held in its arms.

"Heh, ow!" St. George's says as he twists to watch the Dracos Lich.

"Now I know that didn't hurt," Kol-qu-han says.

"Not to me, but to my pride..." St. George's says. "What is he doing?"

"The Dracos Lich? Stripping the orb of its powers." Kol-qu-han appears beside his Lich. "Draconis Mesedith Mondanus precipti killoth."

The Lich drops the orb; it crashes to the ground, smashing into tiny pieces. Yet in the Lich's hands the cube still sits. Dracos then drops the cube, which also shatters. In his hands sits the shifting-cube, smaller now.

"Holath gema po jikil." The Collector reaches down and drags the foe's body over to his Lich.

Dracos bows and places the shifting orb over the foe's exposed neck. The foe's body begins to shudder and rock and vibrant colours start to flow up from the corpse into the shifting cube. The Lich drops the cube, which hovers over the foe.

The Matrix/Cube absorbs the remnants of misty cloud, and a steady, high pitch thrumming can be heard. The Matrix fully encapsulates the sphere, and there is a faint sound, a single pure note which seems to absorb the low thrumming noise. A series of multicolored rays pour from the union, touching each person, living or dead, in the chamber, except for the now hoodless man.

The rays vanish, then the boxed chariot sinks to the floor, and a clear gate, visible only by the rainbow refractive effect created along its edges rises before all present.

Kol-qu-han clicks his fingers, and beside him appear the Lich Phezzub and the Lich Amsereth St. George's looks suspiciously at the corpse mages.

"I thought..." St. George's begins to say.

"Phezzub had willing given himself up to us when he died; he did again. Amsereth returned to Britannia, somewhat confused. He was killed by a wild boar five minutes later." Kol-qu-han looks at Dracos, who walks over to join the other Liches. "I have to be going now; aside from my own personal wounds that need tending I have to repair my servitors. Enjoy your trip home."

"But what of this?" Destrius asks. "What happens next?"

"The world continues as it always does. Balfas has need to grow and change; it can now. The evil has gone; another will arise and another group of heroes will come and settle it. They will be natives this time. The Prophecy of the Strangers is settled. Dracos died as it was known he would. The Priesthood falls, only to replaced by a new religion, and in thirty years time people will deny that you ever came here. Amsereth will be hailed as a hero..." Kol-qu-han snorts. "Still, you have a reward most would kill for. The Wisps don't know what happened here. They'll owe you for a long time to come." Before Kol-qu-han a mist of green and blue arises. The Liches begin to walk through it, disappearing from view. "I'd say it was nice meeting you, but then you might have to lie to me and say it was a pleasure also, and my nerves aren't that good at the moment." Kol-qu-han walks through, waving at the foe's corpse as he goes. As the gate dissolves so does the remains of the Clouded One.

"Hang on, who was this Clouded One anyway," asks the Librarian. "There's a lot here left unanswered.

"I think that may be the point," Destrius muses. "I don't think the tale is entirely finished. "I think it's more a case that our part in it is over."

"It's not very satisfying," the Librarian says.

"You want to know about unsatisfying conclusions?" Paulon says. "Let me tell you about the ninth chapter of a story I experienced..." He looks at the others. "Perhaps I'll tell it to you later. For some, you could say, it's not quite over..."

"I think the Clouded One was just someone who tried to control forces he could not and so was controlled by them. A tale worthy of tragedy some would say. Name's are just things we put on things to try and confine them and understand them. One so clouded in darkness is forever a mystery even to himself." Saint George's Dragon remarks sagely. "Still I do not think that rainbow gate is going to hold out for long we had better collect our things and get going." SG'sD returns to his human form.

He picks up Helgraf's corpse and surveys the scene, looking at the Apprentice of the Clouded one's fallen form. "I think this will make a suitable tomb." He gestures and mutters incantations and releasing blasts of fire at the walls covering the mundane exits in rubble.

Having finished this he trudges towards the rainbow gate with his load. Pausing at the entrance, "Say does anyone know Helgraf's funerary preferences? Usually I can pick up some vibes from a body but this one's strange. It's as though he were still alive." No one seems able to answer this one. "Hmm, burial, cremation, cannibalism (ugh).... I know a nice stone tomb, it's been awhile since I tried my hands at stone masonry, it would be relaxing. I'm thinking a ziggurat with a pyramid on top, some nice columns (hmm doric, ionian or corinthian) and a lot of statuary or perhaps just a cube would be more appropriate. Despite our differences I think Helgraf deserves a little something to be remembered by. Such a heroic end the bards will be singing of it till the end of days at least once I have paid the commission.." Saint George's Dragon ends his musing with a sad sigh. "Well, another friend gone, you'd think you could get used to it." He steps forward into the gateway.

In the storm of the turbulent events that took place a few minutes ago, no one has noticed till now that Daria, or rather, the mysterious woman called Syclith, has disappeared from the scene straight after the demise of the Clouded One. The little red leather-bound book, which was left lying on the floor after the foe's remains had vanished into the thin air, is nowhere to be found either...

<< Elsewhere >>

A book opens in darkness. A candleflame flares to life, its beams picking out a small earthen chamber. Then, a single pure tone of a bell's report. Echoes and resonances, the ringing seeming to match with the flickering candle and the low rustle of the turning of the pages of the book.

Betwixt the three objects, a small grey cube falls with a small thud. From within it, something vaguely ameboid oozes out, a formless shape which catches the flickering candlelight upon itself, casting reflections all about the chamber.

A voice, kindly, seeming elderly echoes quietly through the chamber. "So, how did it go?"

The ameboid figure, if it replies at all, does so only with a faint jiggling of its mass.

"Now, you know I can't do that. You weren't supposed to directly intervene."

The agitation across the membranous mass of the ameboid seems to threaten to divide it in two.

"One of these days you'll appoint a follower, and you'll have to deal with all of this. You've lost a perfectly functional body, so you'll need to earn a new one. And don't talk to me about the necessities! It didn't help when I protested, nor when she who taught me did to her teacher. Just consider yourself lucky that the Vortex Cube cannot truly be destroyed, so long as the companion volume exists."

A single roughly formed psuedopoda wiggles noncommittally.

<< Britannia >>

The sun is high over Britannia the birds sing and the flowers are in bloom. A smile crosses SG'sD face as he looks around to get his bearings, before heading off for home (before the corpse on his back starts to smell).

Suddenly, SG'sD stops. "How impolite. I forget to say good-bye." Concentrating hard for a moment he sends out a message, carried on invisible ether by pixies wings, to his companions in the recent struggle. "Farewell my friends, although we were strangers in a strange land we were never strangers to each other. We will meet again soon I hope. Drop by any time."

<< Meanwhile, on a tiny island somewhere on Balfas >>

In a vast, darkened hall, illuminated only by a couple of large glowing orbs floating noiselessly in the air, a group of black-robed men surrounds a single female figure, standing listlessly in the middle of the room. One of the High Priests, an old man with a stern angular face, steps towards the woman.

"The book?" The High Priest asks simply, extending his hand towards Syclith and looking straight into the eyes of his former favorite apprentice and lover with a curious mixture of contempt and pity. The woman hands the book to him.

"You realize, of course, that your willing surrender won't save you from execution, Syclith. You have lost your chance on our mercy a long, long time ago..." the Priest starts, but the ex-Priestess cuts him short.

"Spare me your speeches, old man" she says wearily, her voice eerily lackluster, her expression unreadable, "And just put me to death already. I haven't come here to beg for your forgiveness. I'm sick and tired of being chained to this weakling. Release is all I'm asking for."

"Ah, but then, release you shall not get," the man says, with a sudden flicker of gleeful mirth in his eyes, as he watches Syclith shake off her apathy and stare at the Priest with a fearful look on her face. "You shall remain bound to this body you've entered by mistake, for all eternity, if needed."

"But is this wise, my Lord?" another High Priest raises his voice. "After all, she had served the Clouded One once, and betrayed both him and the High Priesthood she had sworn to serve. Is it wise to let a creature so devious be free again?"

"Do you believe me a fool, Fayhwen?" the man answers with exasperation. "Of course I won't let her have a will of her own! To the rightful occupant of this body, she will be nothing but a vague dream, something that lurks in the darkest corner of her mind but is never pulled under the light to analyze." He looks at Syclith again. "As long as the Dragon is alive, you shall remain a helpless prisoner of her mind. Just imagine it. Forever locked alone in the darkness; unable to scream, unable to act, agony of helplessness driving you mad. Yes, I believe it will be a perfect punishment for a traitor scum like you."

Before Syclith can utter a single protest or curse, blinding light envelops her... and the next minute, Daria finds herself lying on the stone floor of her cave back at the Serpent's Spine, wondering whether all that has happened to her was nothing but a dream...


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