The Drawing of Three

Chapter Four - Part 1
Giant Country

Jake stands in the eerie wake of the deafening gun battle, taking in the aftermath. The fire dog paces aimlessly on one side of the creek as Kelraji and the dark elf rein up on the opposite shore. Jake glances over his shoulder to see Linus extricating himself from the branches of a tree nearly sixty feet above him. The dwarven woodsman and the mercenary sniper back their lizard mounts warily away from the stand of trees behind them, which has developed into a roaring fire during the course of the battle. The noxious smoke from their assailants’ grenades has begun to thin in the late evening wind.

Jake turns back to look at Henry and Arthur. Neither man has moved from where they lay since the bikes crashed. His boots have completely filled with creek water.

Kelraji roars in rage, and then Hindi.

“तुम्हारी मौत से मिलने आते हैं!”

Seeing no more movement from that side, he steers his lizard to the bridge, dismounts, raises his shield, and charges under it, yelling in English as he does.

“Linus, put out fire before you kill my dead!”

The fire blazes in Linus’ eyes. There’s a pause, as he soaks in the beauty of a forest in flames. The flickering feeds some primal instinct, and for a moment he fights the desire to push the flames ever higher. Then, silently, silently begins his work. He uses his powers to, wherever possible, push the fire inwards, back into the charred remains of the tall trees. From there he channels the heat harmlessly up and away, Letting the fire put itself to sleep by burning through its food.

The mage takes his time with the shape fire spell, not wanting to exert himself any more than the day’s events already had. The concentrated body of flames lances into the mid-day sky like a white-hot speartip, a fitting tribute to his patron god.

Kelraji splashes through the shallow creek beneath the moss-specked bridge, his vajra poised to deal death, but finds little worth striking down. He feels the gray smoke leeching away his adept powers once more, though the effect is weakening as the smoke continues to clear. It takes him a moment to notice that there are two more of the unknown attacker’s monocycles parked in the shadowy recesses beneath the bridge, partially covered by an active camo tarp which has been thrown back.

Tis dismounts, collecting a length of rope from his saddlebag before striding to the edge of the road to pick over the dead. After inspecting a few corpses, he selects one man and drags him to the base of a tree, then begins to bind him to it with the coil of rope.

The dwarven woodsman wanders out into the underbrush, carefully picking through the ground cover and foliage as he stops occasionally to listen.

The mercenary shoulders her rifle and jogs through the creek towards Henry. The smell of the recently deceased forest fire fills the air with a heavy charcoal stench, tinged with the chemical aroma of the smoke grenades. The sun has passed its zenith, and already the air carries a mild chill to it.

Kelraji notes the bikes. He would surely prefer to ride one of those instead of the lizard. He wasn’t an expert at riding bikes, but it would surely beat being inept at riding a lizard. He checks under the tarp for anything else of value, and then returns to the main group, commanding the nerd once more.

“Linus, you link my mind with Tis, we must discuss private and quickly. One wheel bike under bridge. There may be more. Can you find? Can use, maybe can scrap?

Jake looks around hurriedly, making sure there are no enemies lingering in the woods to ambush them again. He hears nothing but the rustling of his companions and the chirrup of the occasional wood creature, so he holsters his revolver and splashes down the creek bed to where Henry lies, joining the mercenary at his side.

“How does he look? He’s not wounded, is he?” Jake examines Henry’s body for signs of wounding, worried for his companion.

The mercenary sniper shrugs as Jake approaches Henry’s supine form. “He’s alive at least. Fuck if I know how to help him though, I’m no medic.” Jake does his best to check Henry’s condition, his inspection aided somewhat by his rudimentary knowledge of first aid. The young man has a pulse and is breathing shallowly, though his heart rate feels fast, and his pupils are oddly dilated considering his eyes have been closed for at least a few minutes. Jake pats him down gingerly for broken bones and swelling, but finds no physical trauma save a gash on his forehead from the bike crash and a few bruises on his torso which have already begun to purple. If the dull ache in Jake’s arm was any indication, these last marks were probably caused by their late enemies. As far as the gunslinger can tell, he has simply been knocked unconscious, and should recover on his own with a little time.

Kelraji pulls the tarp back, causing its surface to ripple with striations of color as the adaptive material’s sophisticated processors work to match its surroundings. He sees the two monocycles propped up on kickstands, with three tire marks alongside them where the other bikes were parked. Though his knowledge of bikes is not vast, and these particular examples have been stripped of their manufacturer’s emblems, he recognizes the vehicles as Horizon-Doble Revolutions, the most common monowheels on the market. Though a bit fanciful for the average hog enthusiast, they enjoyed a good reputation for their stability and rugged construction. The mix of sand and pebbles where the bikes are parked is dry, but the smooth stones used to weigh down the corners of the tarp are dark with wetness. Besides a handful of shotgun shells and a mess of muddy footprints, he sees nothing else of note beneath the bridge.

The adept trudges back out into the daylight to rejoin his dark elf companion. Tis is in the process of extracting two darts from the base of the bound man’s neck, cruel barbs with hypodermic tips and feathered for stabilization. He carefully wipes the needles clean and pockets them. Next he produces a small glass vial of clear liquid and roughly tilts the man’s head back, holding his eyelids open to administer a few drops of clear liquid into each eye. Tis stands up straight and smiles at Kelraji as he approaches, resting his hand on the pommel of his saber. “A good fight, yes? Now we are needing the women. Nothing like a woman after a fight.”

Kelraji smiles broadly at Tis,

“Not so much fight as kill. I enjoy the act, but they have no chance, so no fun. We talk soon, yes?”

Kelraji waits to hear Tis’ answer, then goes to pick over the downed men in his melee, making the lieutenant his first stop. He checks carefully for any sort of power sources or tactical gear. Once he gathers any worthwhile gear, he lines the men up by the side of the road, severed parts realigned, and twists their hands and arms, beginning to stiffen, into poses with one hand open and pointing down, and the other open and pointing up, with the fingers slightly curled. The motions perhaps are not graceful, but he takes his time, making sure the alignment is at least correct.

The first sword nods. “As you say. I have given this one the antidote, he will be awake soon. Then Tis will see if it talks.”

Of the fifteen men who ambushed them, six of the bodies have been lost to the flames, their equipment rendered useless by the temporary forest fire. The remaining nine are all equipped identically. Each wears a suit of active camouflage armor, nearly identical to Kelraji’s own, including a removable battery pack which can be used to power his own suit. Each man also wears a pair of goggles with thermographic imaging capabilities. Oddly, they carry very little in the way of weaponry. Altogether, Kelraji collects seven unused smoke grenades, and four of the peculiar collars their leader had attempted to shackle him with.

Kelraji searches over the charred remains of their apparent leader, the man who had foolhardily attempted to collar him with one of their metallic bands. He finds two items of great interest. The first is a rugged, apparently flame-retardant package about the size of a postage envelope. He unzips it to find several copies of a two page document, each pair stapled together. These are the only things in the package, and are the only documentation or form of identification he has found on any of the corpses.

The second item of note is the dead man’s boots. They are made from a rich leather and armored with panels of an exotic metal, a near-black alloy which glimmers darkly in the sun’s light. The surface of the metal bears a unique texture, organic grooves like the contours of a topographical map. It’s edges have been picked out in gold, and a gold mark shaped like an umbrella adorns the heel of one boot.

Kelraji attempts to palm the documents as soon as he recognizes his own name, and hide them as well as he can. They will be destroyed, likely by fire, as soon as he is able. He stops halfway through tucking them in to his armor, and drops the documents on the ground, forgotten. He does not now, or in the future, remember to recover them.

Few men aside from Kelraji have changed footwear as fast, including the most fashionable of ThaiCorp lady-boys. He looks around after the fact, and nods to himself, secure that no one has seen the transition.

He returns, batteries in full hands, to speak with Tis and the prisoner. His eyes narrow dangerously as he regards the man. one hand, full of batteries, hovers near his belt.

Kelraji deftly palms the papers, letting them fall inconspicuously to the dirt. Though Linus is too distracted cleaning up the remnants of the fire to notice the act, Jake notices the other adept’s furtive movements out of the corner of his eye. His superlative vision informs him that Kelraji has hidden or discarded something, though even Jake cannot tell what it is or where it has gone from this distance.

Tis is squatting casually in the grass next to the bound man, using the point of his dagger to dig dirt out from beneath his fingernails with a look of decided boredom. The captive has begun to moan incoherently as he rolls his head from side to side.

Jake sighs and looks at the mercenary. “He’s just knocked out. Don’t worry, I know what’s wrong with him.” He lifts Henry’s unconscious body in a fireman’s carry and, boots sloshing with water, carries him out of the creek bed and lays him on the side of the path.

He eyes the papers that Kelraji discarded suspiciously, but turns his attention elsewhere for now. ‘One thing at a time.’ He returns to the creek to fetch Arthur Glass, picking him up gingerly and laying him next to Henry. He inspects both bodies to see if they have been collared, then turns to Henry’s lizard.

He opens the saddle bags and begins searching through his things. He might not know exactly what he’s looking for, but he thinks he’ll know it when he finds it.

Arthur fared worse than Henry in his own bike crash, but it looks like he has also been simply knocked out. Neither of them are wearing the distinctive metal collars around their necks, though Arthur’s neck has a ring of deep bruises around his neck from the simple iron shackle he wore as a symbol of his servitude to the elves.

It only takes Jake a few minutes rummaging through Henry’s bags to find what he is looking for, a leather glasses case stuffed into a sock and jammed into one corner of his rucksack. Inside he finds a plastic baggie containing a sizable rock of chalky white powder, a small mirror and razorblade, a few plastic straws, and a crumpled pack of cigarettes with a lighter inside.

Kelraji will gather the rest later. He has seen enough. He goes to talk to Tis for a hushed moment before the captive fully awakens.

“Tis, we talk. You are new king, right? Tell me how you will rule. I know that you win fight, these men die to you, and it is good. But what do you fight for? What do you protect? You have slave, but they almost take him from you. King is not all about battle. General is all about battle. But you want king. Why?”

Tis glances at Arthur’s unconscious form with practiced disinterest, as if Kelraji had just pointed out the presence of an ant in the grass. “Say you have a cattle, and someone is trying to kill you and the cattle at the same time, yes, outlander? Where does the dark-skinned one point his blade?”

The first sword stands up straight, slipping his dagger back into its sheath. “But your blade is unlike any Tis has been seeing, outlander. To fly like a spider’s silk, yet cut as a butcher’s axe, what sort of sword does this?” Tis smiles. “And you practice the witching arts. Your way is not the way when the smoke has you, yes?”

Russ Gault emerges from the undergrowth on the opposite side of the road, trudging over to join the rest of the party as Jake and the sniper finish laying out the unconscious bodies of their rearguard. Linus lowers himself to ground level, completing the unlikely expedition.

The dwarf pauses to pack and light a curved wooden pipe before speaking. “Sniffed out another stash of motorcycles half a click up the creek to the north. The tire tracks look to be cutting straight south, downstream. Wouldn’t be too difficult to make the trail, especially in the day.”

Tis cuts in. “Our road lies east, through the narrow pass and into the iron mountains. There is no time for the tracking of sides. We should resume the trail.”

Kelraji acknowledges the comments of the dark one, thinking on his words. Perhaps he could have phrased the whole thing better, made it make more sense. He is frustrated by his own lack of persuasiveness in the situation.

“You are maybe correct Tis, to save yourself before the things that you own. And yes, I am not the same when in smoke, though I have not seen smoke before. Is common here? Who else has? We talk more, I need learn of this place, of your people, your place in the Wheel.”

Kelraji then cocks his head, his gears churning full speed.

“Russ, you say more motorcycles? More people, more bikes, or just tracks? I do not want ambush again.”

Jake pockets the baggy with the white powder from Henry’s bag, then replaces everything as it was, stuffing the glasses case down and out of sight. He stands and speaks to the party aloud as he walks over to the crumpled papers strewn about by their attackers and Kelraji. “I agree with Tis, actually. We don’t have time to be chasing after these—slavers—if that’s what they are; we are here on a quest seeking a dangerous prize, and we dare not tarry over local trouble.”

He stoops to pick up one of the papers, turning it over and wiping some mud away before looking up again. “Slavers—or bounty hunters. Kelraji, there’s a price on our heads and your name on this paper! Wuxing put a hit out on you in this place? I think it’s high time we learned a little more about what you’re running from, friend. Who are they and what do they want? Other than your head on a stick.”

Kelraji turns quickly on the gunslinger, a wry smile on his face.

“Oh, a hit on just me? I had read it different. Did you know it had a second page, with more words on it? Words that mean that you are no less a target than I. Linus, look what gunslinger found. I did not know you wanted to be astronaut!”

The grin is quickly erased, replaced by a much more serious demeanor, and the Indian unconsciously cycles a few hand gestures with his left hand. His right is worryingly close to his vajra, though it too cycles through two distinct, slower motions.

“Like it or not, you are stuck out here as much. And I do not run from. I run to. I have told you my story to a point, but if you want me to skip the middle, I will do so. But for me, you give promise that you believe. That what I say is, as I present, truth. I do not question you, you do not question me. Do we, gunslinger, have a deal?”

Jake remembers his dream-self’s warning: ‘…my followers scattered, broken and turned traitor, my ka-tet divided and at the mouth of ruin. Trust no one Jake, not those you meet along the path, not your men, not the three, not even yourself.’ He did not believe it, he spoke out against this portent in the dream, but the tone in Kelraji’s voice… the look in his eye, the lingering of his sword hand, in them Jake can see the possibility of that future. His right arm twitches involuntarily.

“Very well, Kelraji, I will take you at your word. After all, what reason would we have to lie to each other?”

What reason, indeed?

Kelraji notes the reticence, filing away the minor betrayal for a later time before turning to the nerd.

“Linus, mind touch us all, so you will know true. Come now.”

Linus hesitates. He has recovered, somewhat, from the thick of battle, and has banished the flames that have now left several trees in cinders.

“I don’t know, Kelraji, that I want to share the visions from your mind. Violence is an anathema to me, but I often cannot avoid it. To you, it is like the tinder that feeds your flame. I fear entering such a mind.”

Kelraji laughs a few forced laughs.

“I do not know what anathema means, but I am guessing it is not true. You can avoid violence if it is that important to you. What you cannot avoid is the…” He thinks for a moment, not wishing to devolve into lecturing these men yet again. “Consequences? What you do here is seen, judged, and answered. You use violence just like rest of us. Maybe you use spirits, but you are the maker of the violence.”

Kelraji’s face wrinkles slightly in disgust at the man. He does not understand the man. No, the man does not understand. Kelraji’s belief is justified, the man is simply avoiding the truth.

“You value knowledge, science, but for what? What makes violence bad and what you do good? Think, tell me.”

Kelraji shrugs, and turns dismissively back to the gunslinger.

“What do you want to know from me?”

Linus caves, in part because, despite his fear of violence, his curiosity pulls him ever forward.

“Kelraji, let us not waste time” he says, as he holds out his two hands for the other two of the three to take."

Kelraji takes the man’s hand, drawing a deep breath before accepting, and holds out his other hand to the gunslinger, willing the man to acquiesce.

Linus looks at Kelraji in a final moment of hesitation before activating the net, waiting for Jake to take hold. He doesn’t want to enter Kelraji’s thoughts alone.

Jake hesitates, catching Linus’ eye for a moment. Then he joins hands with his ka-tet and completes the circle.

The hermetic mage sends an arcane signal through both of his hands, coding his spell to read the chemical discharges of his targets’ neural passageways. Something momentarily bars his access to the gunslinger’s mind, like a callous built up to ward away magical attacks, but he finally makes contact as Jake gives in to the spell’s effects. Like punching corn starch mixed with water, the scienter reflects in passing.

The deluge of pure sensory experience is overwhelming at first, nothing more than confusion and out-of-context memories as the hermetically created tri-processor engine becomes self-aware. There is a man cast in shadow kneeling above them, his arm outstretched, his features hidden beneath the lip of a wide-brimmed hat. A large revolver gleams sterling silver in his holster as the tall man on the bridge retreats up, into the light. They land in a cramped apartment, staring at a briefcase on the kitchen table in front of them. Black curtains block out the morning light. A teenage girl, raven-haired, accepts a business card from their outstretched hand. “If you can find no one else who will train you, contact me. My com is here.”

Linus is the first to find himself again, putting a bit of mental distance between himself and the net. He takes his hands away, the casting complete. He continues to sustain it as he watches the other two.

As the link forms, Kelraji shows in his mind his memories, starting from what he considers the beginning. Which, to the surprise of the other runners, does not take place within his own lifetime as they know it.

Kelraji is, or was, an emperor in a former life. He was a man known as Jahangir, a Mughal emperor. The man received a divine gift in the form of a magical comet that fell to Earth in his courtyard. Many of these events are replayed in vivid detail. He survived an assassination attempt, cutting down more than one assassin, on his way to retrieve the gift from Allah. The other runners, skeptical as they are, cannot help but not the spinning precision of the emperor, shoulders rolling and back twisting in the same manner as Kelraji does in combat. The stone itself is magical, it calls, it pleads, it begs, it commands. Not in words, but in compulsions. Kelraji lets a strong feeling of yearning seep from his mind, infecting for a moment those of his companions.

Then, flashing forwards, memories of stories being told as a child of what became of the gift. Meteoric iron, a rare, if mundane, material. Known artifacts included a sabre, a longsword, a curved dagger, and a knife. Pictures of the knife, gleaming gold and silver, fill their minds. Stronger emotions flood them as Kelraji reveals of the dagger, reluctantly. The men feel its weight, hear the beckoning. the dagger, about as large, has rubies inlaid in the handle instead of gold. The hilt itself is dull black, and the blade has waves with crimson crests, not unlike dried blood, despite many attempts to polish them out. They may wipe away for a day or more, but they always return within a week. The weapon itself seems to mandate the waves and their coloration.

Kelraji concludes his tour of the items, listing the four known, and moving on. But not, however, before a larger imprint of the distinct Damascus wave pattern is left upon their minds, not matching any of the revealed items.

Kelraji goes through the myths of the birth, life, and death of the cosmos, the cyclical nature of time, and many other things the other runners don’t care about.

They tune back in when he gets back on track. His organization, those he loves, those he grew up with, are tasked with sustaining Earth in its current form. They perform, yearly, a ritual of renewal. It takes 14 people to perform the ritual, and the sect has dwindled and waned over the years to the mid 40s. Kelraji, a member of the outer circle of the sect, is tasked with bringing the material that they require.

A short backtrack. The ritual itself, upon conclusion, opens an astral rift, through which Mana pours and flows for exactly one year before it begins to subside. The rift is nearly always flocked to and studied, and has been throughout time. The sect moves every year, opening a new rift in a new place to account for the closure of the old rift. The organization as a whole is incredibly clandestine, and many members are organized into cells, knowing perhaps one of the 14, maybe two, never three. It has survived since the last coming of magic, and, Kelrjai hopes, will do so once more.

For reasons unknown to him, his order requires the meteoric iron. The ritual can perhaps be strengthened, extended, furthered? He does not know. His place is not to question, but to procure. The dagger in question was stolen from his order just prior to a renewal ceremony. He must return the dagger to the 14, or he sincerely believes, perhaps rightly so, that part of the world will begin to crumble, and the Wheel will turn on the 6th age of man.

The thought does not make him sad, he does not fear it. That said, he does not welcome it. His role is the sustainer, and he wishes to do his best in praise to his deity, to all deities.

Wuxing stole the dagger, not knowing its importance, or perhaps because of it. He was not sorry to finish the tales of the men and women who stood against him. Perhaps they finished his in a previous life, or would in the next…

He has been out of contact from his organization for months, years maybe? He does not truly recall, his sense of time has become bent. He yearns to reunite but fears the worst. So he does what he can. He protects what he knows is important, and waits to be collected once more. For without the 14, India will perish, and the 6th age will come to a close. He must stay alive, stay hidden, and trust they will reach him, as he cannot reach them.

Kelraji breaks hands with the men, returning to his own mind. Thoughts of hunger, and cravings for chana masala cross the net before Kelraji realizes that the bond is still active, even without physical contact. He shrugs, stares directly at Linus, and does his best to imagine eating the most delicious chana masala he has ever had, chewing slowly and deliberately. He is, perhaps, finished with the meld.

Kelraji’s mental presence fades as his unwillingness to participate nullifies the voluntary spell. Linus’ stomach rumbles as an inexplicable need for Indian food arises within him.

Jake exits the mindnet trance in a cold sweat. Only a few seconds have passed, but he feels as if a million thoughts have passed through his mind at once, straining his capacity to comprehend them.

And yet, being linked so close has taught him something of his companion. He had no idea Kelraji was actually capable of concern for matters other than himself; then again, perhaps he had been seeing single-mindedness as callousness. He appreciates the man’s situation a little more now, but wonders how the quest for the true meaning of the book will help him recover the dagger. It must be woven together, somehow; else the winds of fate would not have blown him onto this path.

He crumples the ransom in his fist and throws it to the mud. “Very well, Kelraji. We were bound to come to this moment when we shed native blood on this soil. What say you for our next move?”

One thing sticks out in his mind prominently: the grim portent of the gunslinger, and the girl in the apartment with black drapes. He wonders what it could mean. ‘The face I have forgotten..?’

He watches as their captive is prepared to be questioned. He doesn’t envy the man his position; Tis seems like the sort that knows his way around pain.

Kelraji ponders the vision for a moment, but realizes that he need not linger on the problems of another man if that man was not himself lingering.

Moving to Tis, Kelraji begins to reason with the darkling.

“We need to move. on. Bring him. We go to other bikes, make sure not followed, then go to Myrmid. No other good choice. What will we learn from the man anyway?”

The first sword stands and shrugs. “Very well, we bring the new outlander. Though it makes Tis curious: what if you are the bad humans, and they are of the raegh sent to bring you to justice?” The elf smiles. “Come, Tis is equally curious to try the witchcraft carts.”

Russ grunts his consent. “I agree. We’ll cover more ground on those monowheels.” He sniffs disapprovingly at the air. “Smells wet. We’re going to need to find shelter before the night is out.”

The party splits up, half following Russ to the hidden bikes while the other group retrieves the cycles from beneath the bridge. They transfer their saddle bags to the new rides and secure Henry, Arthur, and the captive on the back ends of three bikes. They collect ten bikes total, three of them a bit banged up from the crashes, but serviceable as far as any of them can tell. Kelraji, the only one with any motorcycling experience, jumps in the saddle and starts one up.

A trideo screen blinks to life in front of him, filling his field of vision with a panoramic view of the terrain ahead which blends seamlessly into his peripheral. The system starts up without a problem, but the menu is all in Japanese. No. . . Kelraji stares at the screen for a moment, trying to get a sense of what the characters meant. They were kanji alright, but they didn’t make sense as Japanese menu options.

The characters are, of course, Chinese. His past lives had taken him throughout India and much of Japan, but not enough to become familiar with this particular language. Still, the characters share a common ancestry, and after deducing enter and back, he is able to fumble his way to the language option and set the system to Hindi. He spends a few minutes exploring the bike’s software, impressed with what he sees. These are premium road machines, with deluxe sensor packages and decent pilot systems. He finds a setting called “smartwheel,” but leaves it on default, unfamiliar with this new technology. Finally, he sees that the bikes are equipped with active camouflage chassis, though they’ve been left on passive mode to match the surrounding foliage.

With a bit of trial and error, Kelraji feels confident that he can program any of the unmanned bikes to follow them in a line using their superior sensors. This would give them a way to bring bikes for Henry and Arthur when they awake.

Russ sniffs the air once more, baring his teeth. “Spring rains are coming. If we’re going to move, we should do it soon. I don’t want to be out in the open when this storm passes.”

Kelraji checks the bike’s display for a battery indicator. How long will they last? Do they have a max range? The animals will make the journey eventually, and Kelraji would rather not walk the last hundred miles if he can avoid it. Plus, they may need to harvest batteries from the others.

First thing first, Kelraji thinks. He programs the bikes to follow him as a group, up to a set speed. If he should exceed the speed, the bikes should idle until he returns. Unsure how to do this, he calls over Linus, setting the language to English. Surely the man knew enough about computers and science to accomplish the task. As he delegates, his thoughts drift. A plan forms in his mind.

“Russ. You say others bike not far, yes? Short distance? Do we need all? Take few, move fast. Strike hard strike fast. No bikes means no follow. Russ and another who ride good follow us. Rest go along road, find safe camp, stay safe.”

Turning to Tis, he smiles widely, confidently.

“What means bad humans, what means Justice here? I see only living humans and dead humans. And…” Kelraji moves to Tis, whispering. “you who talk treason should too be wary of raegh, should know that Justice means one thing to one man and another to another.”

Leaning back, Kelraji continues the conversation, now solely between him and Tis, as the rest sort out Kelraji’s rambling plan.

“What means this raegh? Do I say it right? Can you teach me some ways, some words? I would learn your world, equal facet of mine.”

The monocycle’s readout estimates it has power for roughly 130 miles remaining, just enough power to take them the rest of the way to the Iron Mountains. The odometer reads 20 miles since it was last reset. Kelraji pulls the heavy battery packs from the three damaged bikes and cleaves them into useless hunks of high-tech alloy with his monowhip, leaving them to smolder and rust in the silty creekbed.

At the three’s direction, the party splits up in search of shelter for the night. A few of them find some clearings that would make decent campsites, but their mercenary sniper reports a spacious cave a half-mile to the north that will best shelter them from the storm.

They ride their newfound hogs to the cave and begin to set camp for the night, each man and woman setting about to prepare in their own way. Linus gets a cooking fire and some log seating arranged at the mouth of the cave with a bit of applied pyro- and psychokinesis. Jake and the mercenary tend to Arthur and Henry until both men finally come to after about an hour’s rest. Though they groan with the pain of a dozen bruises peppering their bodies, they don’t seem to have suffered any serious physical injuries. They will be sore, but trail ready by daybreak.

Kelraji and Tis bind their captive to a stalagmite at the back of the cave, roughly blindfolding him and muffling his ears to prevent him from learning anything more about their group.

Russ’ Garand cracks once in the distance, sending Jake’s fingers to the smooth grips of his revolvers, but he relaxes as he spots the outdoorsman trudging back to them through the pine cover with a deer slung over both shoulders. Together they drain the carcass and lay thick slabs of venison to sizzle on the smooth stones around the fire pit. Tis rubs the dark elves’ signature spices over the meats while Arthur puts on a pot of grains to simmer in the glowing coals.

The first sword leaps to his feet to address the assembled travelers as they finish their meal. “Kelraji gives great curiosity to the ways of my people, so Tis is thinking I will tell of our becoming.” Russ passes his curved wooden pipe around the fire as Tis begins to weave his tale, the bowl packed high with a sickly sweet green which sets their imaginations ablaze. The dwarf chuckles good-naturedly as Linus coughs laboriously from the stinging smoke. The elf’s English has been improving rapidly in the short amount of time he has been with them, and he is a gifted storyteller, holding everyone present enthralled by his tale.

“It is known that the world breathes in great cycles, as we do. When world breathes out, magic flows through the myriad things, witches take up their spellbooks, spirits roam the nether, and dragons fly and rule over all. When world breathes in, magic disappears, and the people forget, and think wizards and dragons are just stories. Two world-breaths ago, when magic was as it is again, three peoples lived here on the Misty Isle: the dwarves in their holds beneath the mountains, the orks in their barrows on the plains, and the elves in their towers deep in the Thrallstone woods.

“When magic began to fade, the peoples prepared to hide until the next cycle should come. The half-men sealed themselves in vaults covered in runes of power, to preserve their lives for the next coming. The orks also made ritual in their sacred lodges, and so preserved their spirits from the hands of time. My ancestors too saved themselves with wards, sealing themselves in their tower to wait for the next beginning.

“But they would be awoken before the next world of magic began. Here another story meets our own—a human, the Reader, came to our island. All powerful he was, for he had magic in a time when there was none. He had ruled over a mighty kingdom of the humans, it is said, and great was his rule. This Reader had armor and sword which made him the better of any foe in battle, and he carried always a book which contained the secrets of the universe.

“The Reader’s rule was ended by the betrayal of his queen. Took his wargear in the night, she did, and scattered it to the corners of the world. She took the tome as well, and with it banished him from his own throne. To our island was he sent. With the last of his strength he awoke the three races on the island, and set them to guard his place of banishment. The dwarves he set to guard the deep, the orks to tend and steward the land, and the elves to keep watch on the nether realm. He built a webway of portals across the isle, then set it to drift, lost to the world. The Reader, his energies spent, settled into his Grey Keep, where he sleeps, waiting for what was stolen to return to him.

“Now, the elves of which I speak are not my elves. These elves, trusted to watch over the webway, were fools, grown complacent and weak with the passage of time. Under their noses, an army of foreign invaders came, intent on the Sleeper’s death. On the eve of the great battle to defend our isle, the elf lord’s advisor mutinied, destroying the towers and taking command of the combined forces by right of conquest. Under his merciless command, the army of beastmen at our gates were driven back through the portals, and the island was safe once more.

“But the other races did not look kindly upon this treachery, and cast the remaining elves out. Having nowhere else to turn, my people lived in the webway, the space between the portals, venturing out onto the island or back into the world to raid and pillage, gathering just enough with each attack to sustain ourselves. After many generations, a great evil arose in the deep beneath the dwarf fortress, and the passage below was sealed in order to preserve us all. We took the upper battlements of the Iron Mountains as our home, at least until the Myrmid came and drove us out once more.”

The dark elf pauses, staring off into the distance. The dying light of the fire throws his pale, narrow features into gaunt relief. “Does this answer your question, Kelraji of the silken blade? raegh means lord in my tongue, but it is not the lord you humans understand. For my people, raegh must be the strongest and most cunning among us, or we would have perished many times over. If we had not betrayed the weak elves before us, all would have been lost. Had we not raided for our survival, my people would have died out in the lifeless void of the webway. Rule is not given, or inherited, it is taken, it is strength, it is guile, it is true power. This is our way.”

The adept listens carefully, taking careful mental notes of all Tis has said about his people.

The storm finally breaks, sending down torrential sheets of rain and crashing thunder. Save a few drips coming from cracks in the ceiling, the cave is dry and warm.

Kelraji nods, taking it all in. He plans to track down the rest of the bikes the following morning, but for now, stuck in the cave, he is prepared to simply let the night happen, and goes to the rear to sleep. But, before he does, Kelraji remembers the events of the day, and goes to Russ with his armor, making a request.

“Too heavy, need lighter. Can you fix? Can you show me to fix?”

The outdoorsman glances at the armor before handing it back. “I’m afraid I have no skill at that, lad. I can track a mouse through a snow storm, but I don’t know the first thing about crafting mail. I’d ask Behuniak about it if I were you.”

Kelraji frowns at the man, but his dissatisfaction fades. Trying his best to be polite, Kelraji asks a question as politely as he can given his situation.

“I will do so. What skills do you have that are of use besides tracking, cooking, and shooting? It is good to know our collective strengths and weaknesses.”

Hearing the answer, Kelraji gathers Tis, and goes to interrogate the poor man tied to the outcropping.

Russ frowns, tamping his pipe out into one leathery hand. “That’s about the lot of it for me—I’m a pathfinder and a soldier, and not much else. When th’ batteries run out of all your gadgets, and the supplies runs low, you’ll be glad to have me in your pack.”

Tis and Kelraji retreat to the back of the cave where their captive sits, bound to a protrusion of stone. Though the elf makes his way easily through the dark, Kelraji must ignite the minuscule LED on his comm to navigate the uneven floor. The prisoner’s face and ears are still covered by their makeshift blindfold.

Kelraji shrugs at Tis, and speaks simply.

“Make him talk. You know more ways than me, I am sure. Where are rest? How do they find us? No begging, just information.”

The elf takes on a grim expression as he stoops down to head level with the captive man. He pulls off the hood to reveal the man’s head, still covered by a black synthetic fabric and framed in infrared goggles. Beneath this, the man’s head is pale, his features decidedly Asian—Kelraji is fairly certain his face is Chinese. Close-cropped black hair rings his head, though it is shaved down to the flesh around one ear. His gaze is empty, expressionless.

Tis produces his dirk and begins to draw the well-honed blade across the man’s forehead, a half-inch from the hairline. The first sword speaks firmly and calmly to the bound man as blood begins to run freely down his face. “Do you understand outlander speak, human? Where are the rest? How do they find us?”

The martial artist keeps his resolve for perhaps a minute longer before giving in to the pain. His throat is dry, and his accent is heavy. “Yes. . . I speak English.” He yells out in pain, his cry piercing the night air as it echoes out of the cavern. “No more. . . all dead!” He cries out again as the dark elf’s knife turns the corner of his hairline, heading for his ear. “The stone! Stone points to stone! Please, spare me!”

Kelraji frowns at the man. He thinks of all the traditions that he knows, attempting to place the man’s martial style, his haircut, anything about him that would mark him religious, megacorp, or familiar in any way.

“English, good, us too. Fortunate. How many at start to find us? Not all dead, lies. Where did other two escape to? What is stone?”

Kelraji stays Tis’ arm gently, smiling a wicked grin at his companion.

“Magic can tell if he lies. Then pain starts again.”

Thinking on it a moment further, Kelraji puts it together finally, growling.

“Who has my stone?”

Tis stays his blade, but does not lift it from his subject’s scalp.

The captive stammers as he struggles to put together a sentence. “I don’t know where others go.” Blood flows freely over his face. He tilts his head back in a fruitless attempt to keep his eyes clear. “They escape, regroup at outpost.” At the mention of the stone, the frantic man glances down at Kelraji’s boots. “You. . . you have. You have your stone. Please, you must stop. I do not want die.”

Kelraji thinks back on the fighting style of these Wuxing ambushers, trying to place it in his years of travel and sparring. Their twisting deflections and pinpoint strikes were those of the Chinese tai qi chuan, though they had an athleticism Kelraji did not usually associate with the meandering technique of tai qi. In terms of his looks, the only thing that stands out about the man is his unremarkable appearance. The pallor of his flesh reminds Kelraji of the washed out chip-junkies that litter the parks of lower Manhattan.

Kelraji does not trust this man, and his suspicion only grows.

He checks the man’s neck, and the rest of his body, for slots, ports, anything out of place. He repeats the same check astrally. Once he is done, he tries to recall the faces of the other men whose bodies he positioned. DId they, too, have the same features? Kelraji knew all africans looked alike, but he hoped that he could tell his fellow asians apart a bit better.

He utterly ignores the comment of the stone, but files away the outpost knowledge. It would have to be dealt with, and soon. The others would have to be tricked, but that wasn’t a major concern. Plus, he figured that Tis would be easy enough to convince to go on a slaving mission of his own. It might be nice to have a place to call home…

He smiles to Tis, amused.

“Another slave for your kingdom, my friend?”

The only visible augmentation on the man is a chip slot at the base of his neck, behind one ear. There is a data chip of some kind currently in the slot. Kelraji does his best to assense the man’s aura, but the best he can make out is that there seems to be some kind of magical ward around him. Because all of their attackers wore masks and goggles, Kelraji did not see any of the other faces in the ambush by the stone bridge.

Tis wipes his dagger on the bound man’s sleeve. “Soldier make poor slave. If you are finished, slit his throat and leave the body. I grow tired of it already.”

Kelraji is no idiot, and knows when he’s been had. He curses himself for leaving anything of value behind.

“Tis, we must go back, we must go now. You can see in dark, yes? I need to know if he look same.”

Kelraji’s face hardens for a moment before turning to the captive.

“How does stone lead to stone? Tell or die.”

When the man has answered to Kelraji’s satisfaction, he frowns, and nods.

“Death is not to fear, but to embrace. Coward.”

He stands, twists his vajra in his hands, detaching the two balls into the garrote formation, moves behind the prisoner, and decapitates the man in one swift tug. He’ll need some way to check his fears against what is true. Draining the head, he deigns to inform the rest of the group.

“They are still after us. More come. We must go back to dead, must cut out rot. No escape. Me, Tis, Russ, we go now. Come back soon. Stay hide.”

Kelraji goes to the bikes, hoping that Tis and Russ will accept the offer, and more than willing to force the issue should it come to it. As he turns to gather the necessary supplies he frowns. He’d rather not have to murder an army of clones, but the very idea gave him shivers, seemed to violate the very purpose of the wheel, unnatural. Maybe they were just prisoners, the down and out. But still, he had to know, had to check. And he had to be sure that he left nothing of use if there were more coming…

The Chinaman struggles to convey the complex idea in his mind with his tenuous grasp of English. “Like magnet hand know north, stone know stone. Hang with string or put in water, stone points.” He looks up at Kelraji pleadingly, shaking his head in a feeble attempt to keep his own blood from running into his eyes. “No kill, good man, I tell all, you let live, good man, please. . .”

The man’s pleading turns to senseless gurgles as the adept’s garrote passes cleanly through his neck. Kelraji is forced to pick the gruesome trophy up by the ear, as the hair is buzzed short, and half-scalped, besides. No matter how many of them Kel took, the weight of a human’s head always managed to surprise him with its melon-like density.

The bloody-handed duo returns to the campfire, drawing looks of concern from the others, but less outright shock than would generally be warranted by the macabre display. Perhaps they were getting used to his tumultuous ways.

Tis declines Kelraji’s offer to return to the battlefield, his elven pride showing plainly through his displeasure at being ordered about. “Nothing is there now but wraiths of the fallen. A pointless task. Tis will be staying.”

Russ rejects his request as well. “No thank ye, lad. I’ll not head out into these woods at night for such a task, if it’s all the same. If we are being tracked, we’ll know soon enough when we get back on the road.”

The monk looks out in the night, past the modest ring of light created by the crackling fire. The gunslinger was still off in the distance, speaking with Henry in hushed tones. He could barely make out a dull silver object pass between their hands. Linus was blatantly avoiding his gaze, not wishing to even begin the contest of wills required to convince the scienter to stray from the campfire’s security. The night air is brisk but young. The adept is a little saddle-sore from the days riding and fighting, but he was feeling better than he had a few moons ago in New York city. He was certain he had a night prowl in him, if he so chose.

Kelraji is confused that the others do not see the wisdom of his plan. Frustration mounts, but he shakes it from his mind. He knows they should be as concerned as he, but perhaps it was not to be. He goes to his gear, quickly slips into the chameleon suit, bringing back memories. He grabs the dagger, tucking it inside the zipped suit, strapping it to his chest. He ponders the knowledge about floating or dangling, but knows he will need to explore the option later. He grabs his go bag, stuffing it with his binoculars, earbuds, and gecko gloves. The head he wraps in the dead man’s shirt and carries, hoping to avoid getting blood all over the rest of his gear. Sinching up his new boots, Kelraji waves to his companions, heading out through the mouth of the cave. He gauges the distance, ponders how much he’ll really be able to bring back. If it’s over a mile, he’ll take a bike, if it’s under, he’ll jog. He needs to get there, and quickly, but he needs to do it quietly.

Stopping every few hundred yards to check the upcoming terrain with his thermographic and low light binoculars, in addition to quick astral scans. Kelraji hopes to make good time, and hopes to remain unseen. He reassures himself that his chameleon suit, highly illegal thermographic damping adding to the active camo, is enough to keep those after him from spotting him first.

A clap of thunder strikes the air as Kelraji sets out into the night, relying on his monocycle’s pilot to guide him through the treacherous rain-slick woods. He emerges onto the primitive road and turns west, back to the scene of battle. Raindrops sting his face as he covers the half-mile back in one long burst of speed.

The adept dismounts as he draws close, taking one last look through his binoculars as he comes in range. Numbers whir around the periphery of his vision as the digital lens struggles to get a picture in the gloom of night. After a moment’s calibration, shapes come into focus on the thermal spectrum—small blobs of orange heat moving slowly across the cold bodies of the dead men. After watching for a few more minutes, the best Kelraji can make out is that they are some sort of weasel-like creature, perhaps twenty or more, roving over the battlefield in one unruly herd. They don’t seem to have noticed the adept or his bike. The rangefinder in his binoculars marks the closest one at 100 yards downrange.

Kelraji shrugs. His mission still clear to him, he decides to attempt to scatter the animals with his bike. He checks the area astrally, then kicks the bike into gear, putting on the high beams and attempting to roar through the pack. Being so small, he sees no danger, and his questions demand answers. Should he need to, he’s sure he can run over a fair number, and the rest would fall to his scything whip. Even if they were scavengers, disfiguring the dead beyond recognition, he could still gather the gear.

A thought pops into his head. He checks the logs of the machine, momentarily but overwhelmingly distracted, to see if it stores past locations, directions, or has a map he can locate himself on.

Kelraji flips to the bike’s GPS system, but there are no waypoints or locations programmed into its memory. There is not even basic satellite tracking data from its drive across the island—either the satellite receiver was turned off, or it wasn’t getting a signal out here. How this was possible in this day and age is beyond him. In 2072 even the north pole had decent signal strength.

The adept flashes his astral vision on the scene in front of him, an almost reflexive habit of the awakened, but is taken aback by what he sees. The ferret creatures have strong magical auras, exhibiting the vibrant penumbral glow of dual-natured critters. Moreover, They are surrounded by shimmering motes of astral light which flit about over the bodies of the fallen. It is difficult for Kelraji to make out any more from his distant position.

Kelraji, concerned by the vision, dismounts the bike. He remains in astral perception, and begins to advance. He takes the opportunity to test his boots, moving stealthily when he can, and jumping from cover to cover with the power of the boots, attempting to learn their ways, feel their power. Perhaps this had to do with the feywild that idiot spirit summoned by the scientist had blathered about. He did not know, but he would not be dissuaded. Closer. At the very least, he must ensure that they were not also some sort of Wuxing agent. Plus, he hadn’t come all this way for nothing. He would examine the dead once more, and return with all of the knowledge and gear that he could.

Kelraji slinks through the brush on the side of the road, drawing nearer to the dead bodies littering the clearing ahead. The rain subsides by some barely perceptible margin, but it is still constant and cold enough to send chills down the adept’s spine as he moves. The forest glows with astral light, pulsating with the subtle life-energy of plant matter. Mindful of his astral signature while he is dual-natured, Kelraji moves from tree to tree, obscuring the healthy glow of his own awakened body.

The adept employs his newfound boots as he gets within 20 meters. He picks out a piece of cover near to the roving herd of ferrets, the charred body of a tall pine which had been consumed in the fires of battle. It was now nothing more than a grey pillar on the astral plane, its life-force all but spent. For a split second, he feels as if he has been tossed into an ice-bath, floating exposed in the empty blackness of space, and then he is on earth again, his back pressed against the charcoal grit of the burned-out tree trunk.

He cranes around the tree to watch the critters once more, his vision now unimpeded by rain and distance. The floating motes of light are not fairies, but actually bugs, dual-natured denizens of the insect kingdom. They give off strobes of light on the astral plane as they flit about. They seem to be congregating on the faces and necks of the fallen men. In the distance beyond the stone bridge, he can see that even more of the insects are swarming over the hunks of motorcycle debris lying in the creek. All around, the ferret creatures chase after the insects, pouncing in the air to eat the bugs whole. They frolic and play as they go, apparently enjoying their free feast of awakened insect.

Kelraji glances down to see that a surprising number of the insects have already landed on him. Several moth-winged ones cling to the binoculars at his belt, and nearly a dozen motes like fruit flies buzz around the pocket where he has stuffed the battery packs of the fallen. More and more of the bugs gravitate toward him as he watches.

A high-pitched growling comes from behind him, and the adept looks up to see one of the dual-natured ferrets standing on its hindquarters and baring its fangs at him. The little varmit’s aura is shaded with the greens and reds of surprise and animal aggression. The other creatures in the pack take up the call, until the night is alive with the sharp barking challenges of the ferret pack.

Kelraji is far from amused at the turn of events. But he knows smart from suicidal. He needs the gear that he has, and he doesn’t understand what is happening. All of his life experiences have led him to believe that the only thing more deadly than a known danger is an unknown one. Not knowing how to prepare for the events at hand, Kelraji elects to discontinue his stealth tactics. He will do them no harm if they do not oppose him. The bugs seem drawn to the power in the batteries, or perhaps to outsider tech. That much was clear. The vermin were here to eat, and the man would not deprive them of their feast. But neither would he back down in the face of such a horde. Perhaps unarmed, unarmored, he would consider it. But not here, not now. If he had to crazy wild on a pack of five inch tall mammals, so be it.

The man stands, rolls his shoulders, and teleports in short leaps back to his bike. Once he reaches it, he revs the engine and guns it straight at the center of the back, high beams on. He has never been so outnumbered, yet so utterly unafraid, in his life.

The ferret critters scamper to either side of the road as Kelraji bears down on them, disappearing into the undergrowth with yowls of surprise. A moment later, however, the little beasts appear to regroup, slinking out from edge of the forest to stand on their hind legs and bark angrily at the adept. They appear to value something on the battlefield enough to hold their ground against this bright-eyed intruder.

More than a dozen of the ferrets form a rough circle around Kelraji and his bike, yipping aggressively and standing on their hind legs. He watches as the astral signature of one of the creatures fluctuates with the tell-tale manaspike of spellcasting, sending a nimbus of electricity arcing from its body into the air around it. The lightning bolt leaps to the ferret’s nearest neighbor, causing it to release a blast of electricity itself. Within seconds the entire circle of critters are releasing bolts of lightning from their bodies, illuminating the dreary night with brilliant flashes of white.

Kelraji curses at the small creatures. A dozen ferrets he was not afraid of. A dozen bolts of lighting were a different story. He briefly wondered if the bike would protect him before realizing that was simply not feasible. He could not figure out what the critters were after, and that frustrated him. He thought on it a moment. He weighed his options. He fought the urge to leap down from his bike and become a dervish once more, and knew he was in danger of doing so should it escalate further. He considered trying to trace Russ’ route to the other camp. His mind working in overdrive, he knows he must decide soon.

Realizing that he is trapped, he decides he’d be better off deciding somewhere not within the circle. And, if he’s to exit, he might as well make an impression.

He unhooks the vajra, holding it in his hand should he have to make a sudden movement. He dare not strike the animals unless he must, the vajra filament, made as it was of Panchaloham, was almost certainly conductive. He doesn’t know which metals are in, but he also doesn’t know enough chemistry that it would matter. He motors back the way he came. He’ll check in the morning, and he’ll bring that idiot gunslinger to play cap-a-mole if he has to. He had unfinished business, and wasn’t about to let his foe get the upper hand tracking him.

Jake listens intently to the dark elf’s story, watching the devil-grass pipe make its way round the circle to Henry. He marks carefully as the man takes a drag with practiced ease, holds it in and coughs it out. Jake makes a note in the back of his mind for later and loses himself in the elven creation myth.

After the story is completed and the others are occupied around the camp, Jake approaches Henry where is seated at the edge of the firelight. He grabs him roughly by the shoulder and says “Come with me, Henry. We need to talk”. Jake leads him away from the mouth of the cave, down a gravelly embankment and into a pool of shadow.

He withdraws the little baggie of white powder from his pocket and holds it up in the starlight. “Henry, I know what this is. I have seen it destroy one man’s life and spell doom for another. It has no place here.” He rips the bag in half in his gloved hands and scatters the powder in the dirt at his feet.

Jake’s hand grips Henry’s should tightly. “It was no stroke of misfortune that put you on this journey. I requested you personally. Your path, Henry, has been intertwined with this quest by the hand of fate; I have seen it in my dreams. But with your face came a dire warning: if I did not set you correctly on the Path you would lead to the destruction of everything we are working toward, perhaps the destruction of this world.”

“I am here to guide you, and lead you down the path, but I can only show you the door. You must open it.”

Henry’s eyes grow wide as the powder drifts to the ground. He leaps forward, trying to inhale the powder into his mouth with scoops of his arms. He wheels savagely on Jake. “You! You. . . Fuck! That was all I had! Are you fucking crazy?”

The junkie leaps headlong at the gunslinger, drunk with rage and fatigue.

Jake shrugs Henry’s uncoordinated attack aside with ease, and resumes his plea. “Henry, listen to me. Yours is not the only timeline at stake. You are one of us!”

A sharp cry of pain echoes from the cavern, cutting through the silence of the night-black forest. The dark elf was making the prisoner sing.

The young man balls his fists, ready to press the attack once more. “One of who, shitbag? Who died and made you the great sage and eminent junkie? I’m a career soldier, not some mystical warrior questing after grails and shit.”

“You are one whose life have been chosen by ka—by Fate—to have a hand in determining the ultimate fate of the universe. I am one, and each of my companions is one, and I have been lead to believe that you are one, too. Please, you must believe me! Let me show you the path which destiny has put you on, that you might tread it true!”

Henry crosses his arms, his face stuck in a frown of deep contemplation. “Alright, I’ll try it your way, but on two conditions: First, I ain’t your squire or anything gay like that, and second, you show me how to shoot. I never seen anybody handle a gun the way you did back there.”

Jake tries his best not to smile at this small victory, though he knows the minds of the drug-dependent are slippery, wily things. He does not doubt Henry is merely biding his time to seek an easier path, but he is encouraged nonetheless.

“Very well, Henry. We have hard days on the trail ahead, and you have an even harder trail than ours—” he glances down knowingly at the white powder in the dirt at their feet. “It will be a few days at least until you are feeling well again; I have seen it before. Then your training will begin in earnest.”

Jake reaches into his waistcoat to the small of his back, and produces the Ruger Super Warhawk from its hidden holster. He empties the shells into his brass bag and spins it expertly in one hand, letting it come to rest with its grip towards Henry. “This is the last weapon you will ever use. You will practice drawing and firing every day. Learn its weight, its action, its every minute detail. It will save your life many times, Henry, and one day it may save mine.” Or you will use it to destroy me. Have I sown the seeds of my own undoing?

“Tomorrow, I will teach you of ka, and the secret worlds which have been hidden from your eyes. I cannot show you the Path, for it has not been laid before me, but I know where it goes and what lies at its end. For now, we must rest.”

Henry Dean’s eyes grow wide as he takes hold of the Warhawk’s hilt. He holds it up, gazing wondrously at the unassuming 21st-century revolver. The distant light of the campfire casts a dim pallor on the cannon’s details. “But how. . . did you slip me a tab, man? When I hold it, I can feel a presence; hear a voice in my head.” He whirls, pointing the gun at an imaginary foe. His voice wavers. “It’s. . . you. It’s you the steel remembers—steadfast, grim, righteous. Is this normal? Am I going nuts? Is this what it means, what it means to be a gunslinger?”

“It is not me which you are hearing. I, too, have memories of a stoic hero, but his face is lost to me. Perhaps we can find him together.”

Jake glances up as thunder rumbles in the distance. “Let’s retire for now. Don’t tell the others about what has transpired here. I will let them know in due time.”

Jake turns to walk back up the hill toward the cave, to check on Kelraji and Tis’ progress with the captive.

Jake and his new apprentice reach the mouth of the cavern just as the rain begins in earnest. He takes stock of the unlikely band by the campfire, noting Tis but not Kelraji. He looks up to see a small trail of blood leading away from him, out to the small copse of trees where the motorbikes are parked. He hears one of the electric engines spark, then watches as a solitary rider drives out into the rain and dark, the fantastical vehicle somehow weaving through the trees without even a headlamp to guide it.

“Took off without a second thought. Something about clones and being followed,” Arthur offers.

The dwarf huffs reproachfully, pulling his fur pelt around his shoulders. “He’s loose a few, that one. Took the prisoner’s head with him on his little adventure.”

Jake is momentarily confused by this development, but decides it is best to let the Indian warrior take care of his own business. He waves his hat at the receding bike, “Let him go. There’s no talking that one out of something once his mind is made up.”

The lingering effects of the pipe cause him to yawn uncharacteristically. He sits crosslegged by the fire and pokes at the embers with a stick. “Hopefully he can find us after his task is complete. Tis, what did you learn from the prisoner?”

Jake and his new apprentice Henry reach the mouth of the cavern just as the rain begins in earnest. He takes stock of the unlikely band by the campfire, noting Tis but not Kelraji. He looks up to see a small trail of blood leading away from him, out to the small copse of trees where the motorbikes are parked. He hears one of the electric engines spark, then watches as a solitary rider drives out into the rain and dark, the fantastical vehicle somehow weaving through the trees without even a headlamp to guide it.

“Took off without a second thought. Something about clones and being followed,” Arthur offers.

The dwarf huffs reproachfully, pulling his fur pelt around his shoulders. “He’s loose a few, that one. Took the prisoner’s head with him on his little adventure.”

Jake is momentarily confused by this development, but decides it is best to let the Indian warrior take care of his own business. He waves his hat at the receding bike, “Let him go. There’s no talking that one out of something once his mind is made up.”

The lingering effects of the pipe cause him to yawn uncharacteristically. He sits crosslegged by the fire and pokes at the embers with a stick. “Hopefully he can find us after his task is complete. Tis, what did you learn from the prisoner?”

The dark elf shakes his head dispassionately. “The human talked nonsense, nothing-talk about stones leading to stones. It said that if any of them escaped, they would go back to their outpost. It barely spoke your outlander speak. A useless creature.”

The party lingers a while longer by the fire, turning in one by one to deploy bedrolls and heavy yawns inside the cave. Only Jake and Linus remain by the fire when Kelraji returns on his monocycle, his moppish hair drenched by the night’s deluge. The adept’s chameleon suit masks his form in the dark, his presence nothing more than a shadow until he draws near the crackling fire. In his hand he carries something the size of a basketball, hastily wrapped in a blood-stained t-shirt.

Linus’ eyes are transfixed by the flame. As Kelraji walks back into the camp, he is distracted for a moment, and there is a noticeable flare in the flame. He keeps his eye on what is almost certainly the head of the prisoner, wondering what madness to expect next from his companion.

Chapter Three - Stage Complete
The LZ

Congratulations, you have completed the third chapter. Your edge pools refresh.

Jake Chambers: 10 Karma
Finisher: Completed the chapter.
Morpheus: Won a game of the mind.
Item Drop: Gained a rare item.
Shot Caller: Assumed leadership of his party.
Samaritan: Saved an innocent’s life.
The Six-Chamber Path: Dealt a killing blow with the last round in a cylinder.
Enabler: Helped a slave escape his master.
Squad Command: Directed non-player characters in combat.
Worthy Friend: Fought to save those he chose to protect.
Worm of the Match: GM award for generally taking care of business.

Kelraji Sivahara: 10 Karma
Finisher: Completed the chapter.
Antagonist: Attracted the ire of an ally.
Duelist: Won a sparring match.
Pantheist: Gained the favor of a deity from another religion.
In Deep: Developing a complicated relationship with a non-player character.
Selfish: Chose his own safety over helping those in need.
Dress Up: Changed outfits twice in one chapter.
Hedge Knight: invented a compromise to half-solve two problems.
Bad Egg: Was kind of a jerk to his teammates.

Linus Rutherford Templeton: 9 Karma
Finisher: Completed the chapter.
Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!: Came to the table in costume.
My Mind To Your Mind: Used mindnet on a stranger.
Anthropologist: Developed a nuanced respect for a foreign culture.
Scientific Method: Used experiments to learn about the metaplanes.
False Idol: Coveted an artifact dedicated to another god.
Summoner Tactics: Used a spirit command to control the field of battle.
Boss Fight: Killed an enemy lieutenant.
Smart: Used a perception check to identify an enemy’s weak points.

Chapter Three - Part 4

[We pick up the action here after a live session. The party has been ambushed by a large band of black-clad assailants. They are halfway through the battle.]

Jake grips the reins of his mount between his teeth, keeping both hands free to work their deadly business. Now clear of the cloying smoke, the gunslinger takes a moment to orient himself on the field of battle.

A lazy blanket of thick grey smoke covers the ground ahead of him, obscuring his line of sight up the road. He can barely make out the two ambushers who were attacking him ghosting through the fog. The man that Jake knocked flat struggles to regain his feet, but is suddenly tackled by Linus’ spirit bursting from the stand of burning pines on the left flank. The remaining enemy retreats into the smoke as the fire dog tears his companion limb from limb its cruel fangs.

The summoner stands up the hill to his right, flinging gouts of flame downrange from his bare hands. Death screams can be heard up the road where Kelraji and his dark elf companion charged ahead, their swirling melee now engulfed in even more of the caustic smoke.

Two of his own hold their ground behind him, laying down controlled volleys from their semi-automatic rifles. He glances back to see that the rear of the convoy has been covered in smoke as well, where the sounds of another desperate hand-to-hand combat can be heard.

Jake’s arm is numb and unresponsive where one of the martial artists struck him as he was kiting away, and his head continues to reel from the magic-stifling effects of the cursed haze.

Jake wheels, trying to take in the chaos of combat around him. Too much is happening all at once, and his vision narrows; he must trust Linus and Kelraji to hold the right flank as he tries to rescue their vanguard. Henry and Arthur are his responsibility, and he must ensure their protection.

‘Hile! Hile! To me, gunslingers, to me!’, the warcry of his Order breaks loose from his lips and he turns in his saddle, slapping the Old Army back into its sheath. Oathkeeper rises in his left hand, the wooden handle warm in his palm, and he mentally recites the gun’s Oath, locking his eyes on the last soldier standing in the road. He raises the weapon and fires a single round.

A young man’s voice sounds in Jake’s ear as he pulls the Oathgun’s trigger. “As three we came, but one remains—a gunslinger’s life is frail. For Roland, hark my steel.”

The cannon bucks in his grip, lifting the black-clad foe from his feet and blowing his chest apart in a welter of gore. Incredibly, his body can still be seen writhing with life through the smoke. The revolver gravitates toward the downed man, dragged in Jake’s hand as if it were a compass-needle drawn by some great magnet.

Kelraji hears the round discharge, expecting two, and considers glancing back to check on his companion. He has his own problems. His mind feels slow, dull. His feet heavy, his eyes momentarily lose focus. He considers flight, attempting to escape the fog. Deciding against it, he struggles to adapt his usual spinning style to lizard-back. With Tis so close, he can hardly play cowboy and lasso a man, but he manages to adapt a wider and taller practice technique to the unique challenges posed by the scene. He settles on his choice, and attempts to pay homage to his chosen.

The whip lashes at the man between Tis and himself, Kelraji’s face tight in a mask of concentration. If all goes well, he should be able to leave the smoke momentarily, driving over the offered man.

Kelraji spurs his dragon mount into the enveloping cloud of unnatural smoke. He spots an opponent and begins to spin his vajra above his head, but the exotic weapon focus feels heavy and unresponsive in his grip. Even more troubling, the adept himself feels out of sync with his latent powers, as if they were being leeched away by the very air around him.

He pushes the negative effects from his mind and focuses on the man’s neck, lashing out with a horizontal sweep. The opponent squats low, easily avoiding the deadly monowire, then leaps forward with a flying kick. Kelraji twists in his saddle, barely avoiding the strike, and manages to fend the martial artist away with a few lashes of his whip.

Two more of the faceless warriors charge out of the smoke at the adept, poising to attack. Tis emerges behind one of them, riding the hapless man down from the back of his gilded steed. The third fighter gets through to Kelraji, but the monk meets him with shield raised. The enemy rains a flurry of blows on the face of his kite shield, but fails to penetrate the adept’s defenses.

Linus flinches as yet another smoke grenade detonates behind him, this one further obscuring the bridge at the rear of the procession. He can see little more back there than a thick wall of gray smoke. Up the road, Linus can just barely make out the back of his Indian companion through the fog, locked in combat with even more of the shadowy figures. The casing of the summoner’s lighter burns his fingers, and what feels like a trickle of blood begins to leak from his nose as he contemplates his next move.

Linus searches around him for targets. Jake and Kelraji have been so effective, and the battlefield now choked with so much smoke, that he doesn’t know where his nearest target might be.

The summoner raises his lighter and gathers another ball of flame into his open palm as he watches over Kelraji’s shoulder for a clean shot, but between the fighting and the smoke he quickly decides against risking the friendly fire.

Instead, Linus etches a levitation rune into the grass at his feet, holding the impossibly complex diagram in his mind and channeling a controlled stream of mana through it. The spell goes off without a hitch, distorting the frequency of his body’s own gravitational waves to effectively reverse his attraction to the earth. He pauses to consider the implications of astral space upon Einstein’s theory of general relativity as his feet lift from the soil. Gravity is no constant, old man.

The mage accelerates steadily into the air, the mid-level spell pushing him at something like a slow run. He shakes off his errant grad student thoughts and focuses on the war scene devolving beneath his feet. The man with the revolvers sits directly below him, the pace of his volleys dropping a beat as his targets thin. Linus’ fire spirit leaps forward into the smoke to finish Jake’s quarry, ending his life with a wet crunch. A moment later, the spirit begins to howl in pain, the tea-kettle whistle of its voice echoing in the summoner’s mind.

The dwarf and the volunteer merc hold their positions at the gunslinger’s back, their rifles silent. Although the clamor of battle continues to rage from the front of the convoy, the fight taking place on the bridge behind them has quieted to barely a scuffle.

Jake blasts the man in the road clear off his feet and the flaming hound is on him in a beat, tearing at flesh even as it cooks in its jaws. Jake slips one leg over his mount and sheathes Oathkeeper. He grabs his scattergun out of his saddlebags and racks the slide, approaching Russ and Arthur’s lizards carefully. He listens for movement in the smoke, peering into it and calling, “Henry?!”

The oathgun ceases to tug at Jake’s grip as the fire beast finishes his target, clearing the immediate field. The gunslinger listens as he readies his longarm, poised to shoot down anyone else that stands in his way.

The fire spirit retreats out of the smoke as rapidly as it leapt in, its howls slowing to a steady pant as it collects itself on the dirt road. The apparition gazes intently into the puffs of smoke strewn about the battlefield, clearly perceiving more enemies, but weighing the price of the anti-magic effect against delaying his master’s orders.

The fire spirit glances up at Linus, as if petitioning for new terms of service before continuing to attack into the substance.

Jake can hear noises coming from the denser smoke at the rear, but it isn’t much—heavy breathing, some muted grunts and expletives, and footsteps along with a possible dragging sound. He couldn’t be certain without taking a closer listen, but it felt at first pass like the sounds were growing quieter.

SHIT!” Jake realizes what’s going on. The man with the collar had sparked his suspicions, but he had assumed the three Chosen were their targets. ‘How foolish I’ve been! If we lose the ka-mai…

A cold fear breaks across his brow like a wave. ‘The dream. The dream warned me of this. I must not let what happened to that Jake come to pass.’

“Russ! To me!” He will need the dwarf’s trailcraft. The beard won’t hurt, either. He charges into the smoke without another thought.

The evil smoke closes once more around Jake, and the sickening feeling that he has lost touch with his source of strength washes over him once more. All of a sudden, his reflexes slow, his senses dull, and all of the subtler qualities that set apart gunslinger from man disappear like the face of the moon on a cloudy night.

Jake peers through the smoke, now able to make out the stone bridge they had crossed before the ambush. The creek running beneath it is old, cutting a deep gouge into the earth about two meters below the bridge and the lay of the land. Both banks are steep and covered with loose rocks. Though he does not see his companions or any of the attackers, he can hear more grunts and scuffling coming from the murky haze beneath the bridge.

Jake covers his mouth with one arm, coughing, and looks over the edge of the bridge to the water below. It’s a short drop. Gripping his shotgun in one hand, he vaults over the lip and hopes he is not too late.

Jake’s boots splash into the creek bed, and he stumbles forward a half-step to catch himself before looking up. He is suddenly face-to-face with three of the black-clad attackers, their goggled eyes glowing like red orbs in the murk of smoke and shade beneath the stone bridge.

All three are sitting astride monocycles in the shallow water, groundcraft built like a normal hog but with one massive wheel encircling the rider instead of the traditional two. Two of the riders have unconscious figures slung over their laps, and two more of the vehicles stand unused on one bank of the creek, half-covered by a shimmering tarp which has been hastily thrown back.

Jake raises the barrel of Remington 990 almost without thinking, but pauses. The instinctive killer’s heart in him rises, but he shoves it aside long enough to look at the bikers’ captives, trying to see which one is Henry.

Even without his adept powers, Jake’s keen eyes easily distinguish Henry’s camouflaged backside from the slave’s britches of tattered cloth.

The three demon-eyed riders power up their engines with an electric whir. Blue sparks arc from the rims of the nearest bike, lighting up the smoke with an eerie pallor.

Jake levels his shotgun at the rider carrying Henry across his lap, blasting a slug from the semi-automatic weapon straight at the man’s back.

The gunslinger does his best to take a firing stance on the moss-slick creek bed and catches his breath long enough to squeeze off a single round, but the slug goes wide, cracking off the stones of the bridge overhead with a flash of sparks.

The bikers peel out, throwing up sprays of water and pebbles as they rush past him. The last rider attempts to clothesline Jake as he charges by, but Jake ducks his head and leans into the blow, deflecting the man’s outstretched arm and avoiding any serious harm. He turns to watch the three motorcycles accelerate out of the smoke, leaving him alone beneath the bridge. His boots begin to fill with cold water.

Linus watches his quick-shooting companion charge into the smoke at the back of their line and waits anxiously for further results. He hears a splash, then the crash of a big gun amplified and distorted by the acoustic properties of the bridge followed by the sprang of a ricocheting bullet. Suddenly, the air is filled with the hornet’s nest whine of electromechanical engines as three monocycles burst from the smoke beneath the bridge and begin to ride along the creekbed, following it south. They are moving perhaps 15 miles-per-hour and accelerating steadily.

The summoner watches them with disbelief from his vantage point above the lower-level trees. The bodies of the vehicles are like motorcycles, but with a single large wheel circumscribing the rider and chassis. As the smoke dissipates from the bikes in clinging tendrils, he can see that all three are ridden by the black-clad, red-goggled assailants, and is surprised to note that two of them have unconscious bodies slung across their laps.

The antiquated rifle of their dwarven companion cracks once, sending its empty magazine into the air with a distinctive ping. He hits the trailing rider, the only one without a second passenger, tearing a wet gib of meat from the man’s shoulder. The bike teeters on its axis from the impact, but seems to right itself as if it were a giant spinning top.

Linus’ hound gallops after the bikers, eager to be able to carry out his directive once more. The loping spirit easily matches pace with the accelerating bikers, spewing a jet of flame from its mouth as it leaps over Russ and the mercenary. The beleaguered rearguard rider pitches sideways to avoid the attack, barely dodging the licking fire. The blast sends up a cloud of steam from the creek bed and sets a few tufts of grass alight.

At the front of the now-scattered convoy, Tis pushes in to reinforce Kelraji’s flank, chopping down at one of the attackers with his saber. The blade strikes true but fails to penetrate the man’s modern armor, cutting ineffectually over the plate-enforced camo suit.

Kelraji hears only the rattle of gunfire and the roar of flame, though the buzz of the monocycle’s engines draw his attention for a split second before his assailants charge in for another attack. He deflects a punishing kick from the man on his left with the flat of his shield while narrowly avoiding a jabbing fist from the other to his right. The adept lifts his foot from the stirrup and delivers a warding kick to the one on his right, catching his attacker in the chest and sending him somersaulting backwards to keep his feet. Even in his dulled state, Kelraji sees the opening in his opponent’s defenses as he tumbles away, exposing his back for a beat as he springs off the ground with outstretched hands.

Kelraji notices the distant fray, but quiets his mind, forcing out the outside thoughts. He tries to disregard the impudence of his attackers in order to chase down the fleeing men, but his anger and his fury do not allow the thought to catch.

He remembers the man who thought he could break through his shield, attempting to locate and flay the man before he can recover, hoping to finish the melee quickly enough to destroy all those who would oppose. Should they lose the two men, the enemy will lose just as many.

He lashes out at the poor man, speaking softly but audibly in Hindi as he does so.

“What is taken is returned as the wheel turns.”

Kelraji brings his monowhip around his head and slashes through his opponent’s torso as tries to backflip away, cleaving through armor and flesh with equal ease. The hapless man separates cleanly at the waist, his backward momentum carrying both halves of his body into the obfuscating smoke where they come to rest out of sight with two wet thuds.

The mercenary sniper shoulders her rifle and lays down two shots with deadly precision, leading her marks like a shooter at the range. The first round finally overwhelms the rear rider’s evasive tactics, punching through his gut before he has a chance to swerve. His dead weight pulls the gyroscopic bike off center, sending man and machine tumbling over the rocky creek bed. Her second shot finds another one of the riders, blowing a smoking hole in his back. Despite his second passenger and the gouge in his back, the wounded rider manages to keep his bike upright.

Linus watches the remaining two monocycles retreat down the creek, their over-sized tires throwing up fans of water as they continue to accelerate. His feet hang some 15 meters above the earth, and rising. The summoner can feel his spirit’s presence in his mind as it slavers to burn the last two bikes to cinders.

Linus continues to float upwards. The enemies may be mostly dead, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let the smoke or the slavers get him with his guard down.

The spirit’s fury and aggression is present in his mind, too. He attempts to quench it. “Follow, do not attack,” He implores. “Those men on their laps are ours… do not let them out of your sight”

Linus looks at the cycles, trying to identify their power source. He can’t simply blast the vehicles, now that the slavers have their quarry on board. Perhaps, though, he can take out the engine, bringing them to a halt. Kelraji will certainly finish them off, then.

Linus pushes his glasses up his nose and squints after the bikers as they ride past his position, trying to make sense of their layouts. He thinks back to his embarrassing days in undergrad riding his roomie’s electric Dodge Scoot to class—though it usually just ran juice from the public grid, it did have a removable battery pack in case of off-grid traveling. He spots a rectangular outline on the side of the bike’s chassis beneath the driver’s seat with a handle protruding outwards. If Linus was a betting man, he would wager a good tug on that handle would pull the battery out of the bike, hopefully incapacitating it.

His fire hound heeds his command with a woof of disappointment and continues after the bikes, easily keeping pace alongside them, nipping at their oversized tires but clearly unwillingly to run through the creek.

Jake gasps for breath in the smoke beneath the bridge as his socks become inundated with the silty creek water. He can just barely make out the monocycles driving away from him through the haze.

The gunslinger runs through the smoke heedlessly, pumping the rack of his shotgun and firing as fast as he can at the nearest biker. Saving Eddie doesn’t mean a thing if they all get away; the risk of hitting one of the captives is small enough.

A voice in the back of his head: ‘No, not Eddie. This is another…’ It doesn’t matter. He focuses on the line between his weapon and target.

Jake bursts from the smoke cloud, firing his Remington from the hip as he splashes through the creek after the fleeing bikers. The first blast clips the monocycle’s tire, causing the bike to skew sideways, but the rider quickly recovers. What’s left of Jake’s higher cognitive functions finds it odd that the tire does not deflate after being hit, but the mystery becomes moot as his volleying shot tears the rider’s arm from its socket, ending his life.

The bike wobbles like a top before toppling to one side, spilling its passengers onto the creek’s right-hand embankment before bouncing to a stop like an innertube rolled down a hill. Jake’s eyes, keen once more now that he is clear of the smoke, spot Henry’s unconscious form ragdolling to a graceless stop some fifteen meters ahead of him at the edge of the creek.

Kelraji and Tis close on their remaining enemy, though even in the face of certain death their opponent does not falter. The blademaster feints a low sweep, drawing their quarry’s attention and causing him to leap awkwardly into the air. Kelraji takes advantage of the distraction, lashing out to encircle his opponent’s neck with his monowire. A grin crosses his lips as he pulls the deadly strand free, lopping the last man’s head off with a spray of gore.

The adept pulls his lizard mount about and spurs it out of the smoke after the sounds of the retreating engines. As he clears the smoke, Kel too feels his awakened faculties returning, as well as the bloodthirsty presence of the weapon focus in his hand. He sees that their ambush defense has shifted to a pursuit while he was stuck in, as both the cursed fire hound and the gunslinger are charging after a fleeing monocycle, though for what reason he cannot tell. He hears the slapping gallop of Tis’ lizard steed falling in behind him.

High up in the trees, Linus pumps his fist in triumph as Jake downs the second to last biker. He recognizes Henry’s unconscious form on the bank of the creek, and quickly deduces that the other kidnapped man must be Arthur. The dwarf and sniper below him open fire on the last enemy, and one of their shots hits home with a puff of blood, though the rider keeps his saddle despite the injury. His spirit continues to pursue, but from his high vantage he can tell that neither the hound, nor Kelraji and Tis on their mounts, will be able to keep pace with the vehicle for long.

Their very last foe leans forward, gunning his bike for all its worth and accelerating with alarming speed. He veers right, leaving the trail of the creek to avoid meeting Kelraji and Tis as they ride to intercept him. Linus’ heart sinks as he realizes that they may have partially emancipated Arthur Glass only to get him abducted by some other unknown foe. This may be his last chance to save the poor slave before rider and captive disappear into the surrounding woodland.

Linus reaches out across space. Holding his hand out in front of him, he closes an astral projection of his physical limb around what he hopes is the handle of the cycle’s battery. With a projection of his other hand, he feels around the area for a catch or release mechanism. Hopeful that the battery’s connections will bring the cycle to a stop, he pulls back hard on the handle, throwing himself backward in space.

If they are tremendously lucky, they may even acquire some cycles for their efforts.

Linus creates a pair of psychokinetic hands with a simple exertion of his magical faculties, and reaches out to grasp the retreating monocycle’s battery pack. He feels his left hand close around the handle as he gropes around desperately for a latch or release mechanism, trusting his sense of touch as the bike is too far away to search for the release by sight.

His fingers come across an indentation next to the crease of the battery, and he pushes down on it before yanking back on the handle with all his might. To his dismay, the battery doesn’t budge, and Newton’s law sends him tumbling backwards through space as he loses his ethereal grip. He falls several feet through space as his break in concentration disrupts his levitation spell, but the wily summoner manages to catch himself on a nearby branch.

Jake watches the last bike accelerate away from them with mounting dismay, though he is visibly relieved to have saved Henry at the least.

Jake guesses that the biker is almost out of small-arms range. He lowers the shotgun, draws his father’s revolver carefully and deliberately, and squeezes off the round in the last chamber, hoping for Arthur’s sake that his magical skill with the weapon has fully returned.

Jake languishes in the adrenal crawl of the gunslinger’s battle haze, the return of his adept powers that much sweeter in light of their recent absence. Time stops as he pulls the trigger, the hard caliber revolver bucking in his grip as if it were some living thing. He does not even register surprise as he watches the last of the riders crumple over in pain and tumble from the saddle.

The monocycle wobbles madly before losing traction, throwing the unconscious Arthur free from its deadly tumble. The unarmored slave’s frail body balls up as it rolls before coming painfully to rest at the foot of a moss-covered stump.

Chapter Three - Part 3
Setting Out

Jake eases the wooden door of their small stone bedroom closed and turns around to find both Linus and Kelraji awake and sitting upright in bed. Both men are breathing heavily, and Linus’ face is stricken with fear, his skin coated in a thin sheen of sweat.

The first fingers of dawn poke in through the slit windows along their walls, adding the sun’s early light to the cozy glow of the fire dying in the hearth. Jake holds what looks to be a roll of leather in one hand, with drawings clearly visible on one surface.

Jake latches the heavy door and turns to his companions. “We’ve just had a visit from our friend, Arthur Glass. He took it upon himself to come to us in secret and ask for help escaping this place; he’ll find us after we’ve left this place for our next destination.”

The gunslinger kneels and places the patch of leather in his hands on the ground, smoothing it out to reveal that it is a hand-drawn map, crude but serviceable. Jake points to each feature as he talks about them, “Here is where we are, Splinterhold, near the western coastline. Our destination lies to the northeast, through the Narrow Pass and surrounded by the Iron Mountains. Arthur said there may be an underground shortcut located on the south coast, at Deeproad-by-the-Sea. But there will be danger. Giants roam the land, and the castle has been taken by the Myrmid, humans who ride giant insects into battle. We have our work cut out for us.”

Jake keeps silent about his ordeal during that restless night’s sleep. The look on Linus and Kelraji’s faces is enough to tell him they endured similar torments during their midnight travels. If this night were any indication, they have many and more disturbing trials ahead.

“It is dawn. I suggest we get our gear from the ship, assemble our escort and head out. I have some more questions to ask and preparations to make before we set off; we might not return for some time.”

Kelraji laughs to himself before speaking, wiping the sleep from his eyes, then rubbing his shoulder. He knows he slept, but he’d be a liar if he said he felt any better.

“Giants huh? How giant? Nevermind. I don’t want know. No giants seems like a good starting point to me. I say we go straight East. What’s at that cove?”

Linus wipes sweat from his brow. He is shaken, badly. He does not feel at home in his new skin, or… is it his old skin. “I once dreamt I was a butterfly…” he thinks to himself…

The jewel held power. It was a battery of its own kind, driving a device of tremendous power. The dwarves had fashioned it into a kind of mechanism, a channel for that power. But how. How could that be done.

But there is all of this commotion. Surely he should do something more productive. Stand, perhaps.

Linus shuffles to his feet. He looks over the shoulders of the other men to look at the map.

“Am I wrong in thinking we are committed to disposing of the Mermid? I don’t intend to be presumptuous, but it rather seems we are outmatched by these elves. Despicable as they are, surely they would be a good ally in this strange land?”

Thinking again, he lands on a different thought.

“Though… it seems the sort of thing they would have done… themselves… perhaps that is a sort of suicide mission.”

Kelraji nods absently as Linus talks, searching the room for food. A restless, sweaty night and a body full of aches tend to make a man crave protein and salt. His wits begin to return, and he offers his unrequested opinion.

“Perhaps it is. If the castle belongs to them they will take back. The taking is not our business. Perhaps they will return, perhaps not. We owe them nothing, no lives, no tasks. We should leave. Soon.”

Kelraji glances over the table, seeing what there is to eat. A few half-eaten rounds of flatbread remain on one plate, and a bit of meat remains on the skewers of lizard meat, though the dark red sauce has dried overnight into an unappetizing film. The spiced mead remains largely untouched, and a few gulps of water sloshes around in the bottom of the other pitcher. The three small dressers by their cots remain unopened, though it seems unlikely anyone has left any food in them. The adept notes with pleasant surprise that, though his muscles ache still, the burns on his skin from the previous night hardly hurt at all anymore.

Hunger begins to creep into Linus’ thoughts as well, though Jake remains stoically unencumbered by bodily needs.

A trill, avian noise sounds in the morning air, though the party suspects the culprit is more likely scaled than feathered. The sounds of the city waking up reaches them from beyond the walls, cartwheels rumbling and villagers calling out greetings in their strange and foreign tongue.

He’s almost certainly never heard of Maslow, but Kelraji would make the man proud with his insistence on first things first.

He eats the remaining flatbread and drinks the rest of the water, using the first splash to wash his hands in what appears to be far more ritual than hygiene.

Having eaten, the adept tunes back in to the discussion at hand.

“Time to go. What is your decision?”

Jake looks reproachfully at Kelraji, the empty plates, and then back at Linus. Jake is not hungry, but the scientist looks like he needs a large, black coffee and some breakfast. Unfortunately, it seems neither are forthcoming at present. “I think we should take this morning to finish our preparations and head out with our guide around noon. I suggest taking the proscribed route up the Narrow Pass, if for no other reason than it will allay suspicion in our guide. We can strike out eastward later.”

“As for the dark elves, they are almost certainly going to stab us in the back after we have outlived our usefulness. The Myrmid also seem less than hospitable. Linus, you are right that taking the castle seems like a suicide mission. However, if we are to get Mer’veloth’s aid with the tome, we need to at least go through the motions of helping him. Perhaps we can trick the elves. Or, perhaps the Myrmid know something about the tome they are willing to share. We also may be able to play our enemies against each other in this, then side with the winner. For now, that seems the most likely route to success.”

Jake stands and pockets the map. He sweeps his coat back dramatically, baring his revolvers. “Let’s waste no time on ceremony. There’s work to be done.”

Linus likewise has wolfed down his food, silently, lost in the theoretical concerns rather than the important decisions before them. He is slightly startled by Kelraji’s exclamation. Now that his bodily needs are met, he offers a reply.

“I am at you two gentlemen’s disposal. Jake your plan is sound, so far as I can tell. If you’ll forgive me for saying so I am completely beyond the bounds of my ken. I am worried, too, that I may not be of use to you both on this journey, though I will make every effort. My strength lies in calling the powers of flame, and as of yet I appear to be drawing forth only oddly mannered pixies. Let’s disembark to our ship, certainly, and gather our allies. Would you begrudge me some moments of privacy back at the … shall we say the “mothership”? I will study the astral signatures of this place, and see what powers remain at my disposal."

The three exit their room to find Behuniak and the mercenaries coming down the hall toward them. The Crusader is still in the process of buckling his armor on, and looks groggy indeed. “Good morning. I see you all slept about as well as I did. I think that spiced lizard may have given me nightmares.” The ork shrugs and adjusts a pauldron. “What we will do now? I can radio Shane to come pick us up in one of the APCs, or we can stay on if you have business in the city.”

Kelraji furrows his brow momentarily at the joke, but then relents and smiles.

“No business, radio now, we will go.”

Cocking his head like a slightly confused dog, Kelraji continues to boorishly talk over the others.

“Behuniak, when you fight, do you turn blows with your weapon, or your armor? When we return to the plane, we should fight.”

Linus rolls his eyes.

“Kelraji you do realize that medkits recently became a finite resource, do you not? Bravery is no vice, but perhaps we should save it for these Myrmid creatures”

Turning to the armored warrior.

“Behuniak I am curious… you had unusual dreams as well. What did you dream of. I …” He laughs. “I had the most bizarre dreams about being a dwarf! Can you believe that? I won’t bore you with it, but it was disturbing to say the least. Although it did give me an interesting idea about a sort of astral energy focus, perhaps a fixed form crystalline lattice. I’d always conceptualized an astral generator as a sort of bioreactive ‘soup’, but now that I think of it…”

He begins to ramble, though it seems he may be talking to himself more than the others.

Kelraji looks at Linus with fury in his eyes for a moment before settling.

“No more limited here than New York. I think they heal in this land too.”

Not waiting for Linus’ question to be answered, Kelraji begins tracing his steps back to the entrance of the massive building.

“Supplies then, I will show you.”

A few steps down the corridor, he stops, points a finger sternly at the nearest trooper.

“Find Arthur. Tell them we need him to translate for us. Go.”

The closest mercenary is a massive troll, his thick skull laden with curling ram’s horns and a vacant, shit-eating expression. He stares down at Kelraji with his oversized eyes, one organic, the other clearly cybernetic, watching him nervously for several prolonged minutes. The tattooed elven mercenary finally steps in to pull the troll along by one arm. “Come on Big K, I’ll help you run the poor bastard down. I speak a little of the local dialect myself.”

The rest of the entourage heads out of the castle, their way pointed by the occasional wordless gesture of a dutiful servant. The artificer dons his battlehelm and begins to speak into the integral comm as they stride through the torchlit stone corridors. “Shane, come in. We need you to pick us up inside the city with a Devil Rat, over. Do you read?”

Every comm, radio, and wifi-capable peripheral in the hallway crackles to life as one, projecting the technomancer’s voice without prompting. “Loud and clear, Tommy boy. I have our hub routing signal through the Striker, getting close to a mile radius on our personal network. I can triangulate your comms for vector and range, but I’m not getting any satellite data. And it’s freakin’ quiet out here. Too quiet. We’re the only ones on the grid right now in this whole zone. Freakin’ spooky.”

Behuniak sighs. “Only to you, Shane. Get on the road, and maintain radio silence. Please.”

They emerge into the glaring light of early morning, holding their hands up to give their eyes time to adjust to the sudden brightness. The air is cool and alpine, with wafts of salt from the nearby sea. There is a brisk chill to the weather, but not entirely uncomfortable, and promising to warm by afternoon. The inner courtyard of Mer’veloth’s castle greets them, bustling with folk just starting their day. In one corner lies a well-kept forge and smithy, in another corner what looks to be a storehouse, with men and women already going to a fro with sacks of food and supply. Behind them, built up against one wall of the inner castle, stands a modest stable, with what look to be a dozen or so separate stalls, most of them housing horse-sized bipedal lizards, already crowded into one corner of their enclosure to bask in the morning sun.

The three turn back to find the two mercenaries emerging from a side door, accompanied by Arthur Glass and the first sword Tis. Tis has replaced his court clothes from the previous day with a practical suit of dull steel scalemail along with riding boots and gloves. Around his neck is wrapped a cloak which shimmers and shifts in the light, seeming to capture and reflect the colors of his surroundings to provide an uncanny level of camouflage.

Arthur beams adoringly at the gunslinger before catching himself. “Ah. . . your men tell me you require supplies. Mer’veloth does not customarily permit outsiders to frequent his stores, but Tis has graciously offered to cover your expenses for anything you should need in the market.”

The dark elf bladesman smiles and sweeps his hand in the direction of the front gate, where a bustling market does indeed seem to be taking place beneath a forest of makeshift tents and stalls. “I make gift, for sharing of road,” Tis offers.

Jake nods in affirmation. “Very well. Thank you, Tis.” He begins to stride toward the market, gesturing for Tis and Behuniak to accompany him. “Tis, how many days’ travel is it to the castle in the Iron Mountains? Is it dangerous? What kinds of supplies do you suggest we purchase at market?”

“Behuniak, will the APC’s make such a journey over open terrain? Are they fueled or electric engines—and do we have the means to replenish them should we run dry? Also, weaponry. I assume we can pack what ammunition we have, but what about heavy artillery? We are potentially storming a castle—do we have explosives, gas, anything for use against such an intimidating foe?”

Almost as an afterthought, “And, when we get back to the ship, there is a soldier in your employ named Henry; don’t ask how I know his name. I will need to speak with him privately. And he is coming with us.”

The party sets out through the front gates of the castle to wade into a bustling market taking place in the heart of Splinterhold, the elven residents swarming through the stalls and cornershops in one homogeneous mass of dark hair and pale skin. Many of the higher-born denizens only glance at them with benign interest, but the common stock has already begun to form a circle around the conspicuous outlanders, gawking at their guns and their otherworldly human features, their rounded ears and earthen skin tones.

Tis waves his hand irritably at the gathering crowd, shouting in harsh-toned Sperethiel. The city folk certainly seem to both know and fear the first sword, for peasant, slave and noble alike part at his command. He strides alongside the gunslinger, hands clasped behind his back. “Two weeks by ride, double this by leg, if we stay the road. Is small danger in pass, big danger in iron mountains. We hold the southern lands, giants control the rockland in narrow pass, and Myrmid the woods and mountains of north.”

He stops at a vendor to examine an array of caged, hawk-like lizards, each bearing a long, snaking neck, brilliantly-feathered wings and savage claws. "The giants—danger small. Sneak by at night, or chase off at day. It needs only to scare them with boom or the numbers. Myrmid, these we must watch. If it will hold speak with them, or straight to war, this is the choice.

“For the buying, have food, mounts, steel for the warriors. As many crossbow bolts as one can carry, yes? But this should not concern. Here, the man will do it.” Tis waves dismissively at Arthur.

Behuniak hangs his helmet on his belt and does his best to answer Jake’s questions, his attention severely strained by the stalls hawking medieval arms and armor. “We’ve got two Devil Rat APCs and one Striker light tank, both based on the same chassis, but obviously serving different purposes. The APCs have remote turrets with MGs, and the Striker has a light cannon and a co-axial autocannon, like a proper tank.” The Crusader grins at the thought. “They run on multipurpose engines, preferably jet fuel, but anything from fossil fuels to vegetable oil should work. I believe they carry enough to operate for about two weeks of normal use.”

Thomas leans in conspiratorially, glancing at Sylvia and her mercenaries standing watch across the street. “As for what sorts of munitions we have, or who this Henry character is, you’ll have to talk to them. Renzo is the one footing their bill, and I’ve seen enough mercenaries in my day to know who they’re really going to be fighting for when drek hits fan.”

Kelraji listens to the talk of the ornately armored artificer with mild interest, but it quickly fades.

“Arthur, you know how far it is. Get us enough food for there back. Get me the good armor that doesn’t slow me down, for the arms and shoulders. And what this about mounts?”

“Tis, where is nearest shrine or temple? It would be wrong to journey with no offering.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows, apparently surprised that a man from the 28th century could so easily adapt to the concept of slavery. “Ah, yes. Of course. I will have the provisions brought to the front gate, and I will see to your armor. As for the mounts, the elves ride a variety of lizard beasts, as I’m sure you have seen. The flying ones are rare, and take a great deal of training and bonding to ride safely, but the more equestrian variety can be ridden with only a little practice, if they are well trained. There is also a heavier and much larger breed, though they are used as pack animals and for tilling fields more than riding. Shall I procure you one? Enough for the group, and anyone else you might meet on the road, perhaps?”

Behuniak frowns thoughtfully and rubs at an enlarged canine with a mailed thumb. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to find bracers or pauldrons around here that won’t slow you down, I hate to say it. Not with your build. The idea of riding instead of taking the tanks does make some kind of sense though. It will be much easier to go unnoticed through the countryside leaving footprints instead of giant tracks and blasting our giant turbine engines everywhere we go.”

As the artificer talks, Tis appears to be wrapping up a transaction. The merchant bows deeply to him, one hand held over his heart like a claw, as if he were trying to gouge his own flesh with his fingertips, then opens a cage and produces one of the feathered serpents. Tis takes the creature and places it on his shoulder, where it sits with a hiss and a rustle of feathers. The first sword regards Kelraji with bemusement. “Never has an outlander sought to worship in our halls. Two temple we are having, for Khaine, god of blood and war, and for Slaani, of lust and passion. If you wish to see, I will take. It should be good to be in favor before the leaving, yes?” The dark elf strokes the head of his new pet and feeds it a scrap of lizard meat from his belt.

Kelraji bows slightly to Tis, speaking politely and a bit deferentially.

“The favor is always good. What offering is appropriate to give Khaine? Accepts blood? Can I bring animal? Slaani I will not go, Khaine will be enough. Will you come with?”

Looking back to Arthur, brow slightly furrowed, Kelraji sounds a little annoyed.

“Enough to get there and back for all. Food yes, animals too. Go.”

Kelraji turns again to Behuniak,

“Good to know. Maybe we will find something on our way?”

His pieces said, he prepares to pay his respects wherever Tis leads him.

Arthur bows to Kelraji once more. “Very good, m’lord. I’ll see to it at once. Can I be of service to anyone else?” The slave glances at Linus, Jake and Behuniak, who shakes his head disapprovingly.

“I’m set for now, thank you Arthur,” the ork responds.

A wry smile crosses the first sword’s lips. “Khaine takes all blood. Best to give yours in temple, enemy in battle, yes? Come, I will take.” Tis and Kelraji make their way west toward the sea, leaving the others to finish their business in the market.

Kelraji follows the bladesman through the winding city streets, moving steadily towards the sounds and smells of the ocean. The common folk are torn between deferential salutes to the first sword and outright rubbernecking at the swarthy outlander, but in the end everyone clears the way as the man and elf pass.

After perhaps ten minutes of walking they reach the coast, a craggy bluff overlooking the sea. Kelraji looks over the edge of the cliff to see waves crashing on sharp rocks far below him. He spies a small cove where a series of jetties have been erected, housing a dozen elegantly crafted longships, their sails furled and oars stowed.

Tis points to a modest structure of stone and rough-cut timber built right up to the edge of the cliff. Streaming banners of blood red cloth fly from its pointed rooftops. “The house of Khaine. Follow.” They pass through the front door to find a single large room with circular walls. A statue dominates the far corner of the space, made of rough, hastily carved stone. It is an elven warrior, armored in full plate and a pointed helm which hides his face. He holds one hand out in front of him, which has been carved and painted to appear as if it is dripping with blood. In the other hand he grasps a large, double-edged sword.

Pews line the walls, all facing the center of the room, which is taken up by a simple ring outlined with stone blocks and filled with dirt. The whole thing feels more like an arena than a place of worship. As if to add to this effect, racks of weapons line one wall, displaying every type of armament imaginable—swords, rapiers, glaives, poleaxes and spears, flails and maces, and even a leathern cat o’ nine tails terminating in vicious metal barbs.

A red-robed elf emerges from the torchlit gloom, his head shaved bare to reveal a lattice of scars running across the surface of his body. He bows deeply to Tis in the typical claw-handed fashion, muttering his respects in Sperethiel. Tis turns to Kelraji. “Giving blood will do, but Khaine likes more his servants to dance Chal’han. This is dance of dominance for my people. To dance Chal’han for Khaine—no armor, any weapon, victory to first blood.” The first sword gestures to the dirt ring in the center of the room. “It is said, Khaine favors the bold. Are you bold, outlander?”

Kelraji smirks for a moment, impressed with the setup. He was aware of the martial yoga practiced by many sects. He was even aware of the ritual violence and killings that had taken hold in ages past and once again in India. He found himself drawn to this, this place, this idea, this action.

“To first blood, yes. Is proper to fight you, or another? But first, you must understand my way too. I do not fight with fear, not with anger, not even with courage. For me, movement, action, is desireless worship. I do not fight to kill, not even to win. I fight to give praise to She Whose Head is Severed, Prachanda Chandika. Win or lose, all fighting, all violence, if with the right mind, is my praise.”

A wry grin spreads across Kelraji’s face, and he attempts his signature stellar joke telling.

“Perhaps it was Khaine who did the severing, yes?”

Kelraji begins to stalk the walls, waiting for Tis to answer, hefting the weapons, and trying to make his choice. The whip would be the most obvious, but perhaps the flail’s motion is most similar to his chosen weapon. Surely, the monowhip would be a poor choice, not least because ‘first blood’ was not a realistic option with it.

Tis mutters something to the priest and moves to one corner of the ring to prepare. He speaks as he takes off his shimmering cloak, scale mail and other equipment. “You spar with me, of course. I also seek favor of blood-handed god. What you speak—battle without emotion, without fear, this is our ideal as well. Zathien, we name it. To fight with death in the heart.”

The now topless blademaster strides to the weapon rack and selects a simple saber, then moves to one end of the dirt circle. He takes two practices swings, then assumes a ready stance, his stance wide, muscles loose. Scars pattern his pale flesh as well, though they appear to be born from war, not ritual: puckered rings on his chest from an arrow or crossbow bolt, long gashes at his neck and shoulder from a nearly-fatal blade, and a deep set of gashes in his arm which look like they were made by the mandibles of some unreasonably large insect.

Kelraji peruses the weapon rack, finding two whips, the cat o’ nine tails with its multitude of barbed tips, and a more traditional whip bearing only one tail, though this one also terminates in a vicious bit of jagged steel. The cat o’ nine will cause more damage if it hits, but the regular whip will be much easier to control.

A handful of smallfolk have begun to filter into the arena, excited by the universally entertaining promise of bloodsport.

Excited shouts come from the direction where Kelraji and Tis went some twenty minutes ago, west toward the ocean. Townsfolk begin to rush down the street toward the excitement, as if there were some celebrity sighting or the promise of a good fight. Behuniak looks around for a translation, but Arthur has already went off on his duties, and the mercenary elf is on the other side of the market standing watch.

Removing his own armor, then his shirt, Kelraji matches the eldar. Loosening his shoulders, Kelraji ensures that his vajra remains clipped to his right hip. He does not know these people, and moreover, he does not trust Tis. Should the fight begin in earnest, he has no intention of losing.

removing the single tipped whip from the wall he attempts few moves, cracks the head a few times to get the weight, and moves to the priest. He presents the weapon, and bows slightly, waiting for his own blessing.

Receiving it, he steps to the edge of the ring, before asking Tis one final question.

“What rules? First blood wins, staying in the ring yes? When starting?”

He looks around the crowd, though he is not surprised to see them gathered.

Tis nods, his usually mischievous expressions replaced now by a look of placid calm. “Yes, staying in the ring, first blood wins.” He begins to pace slowly around the ring to Kelraji’s left.

As always, the adept’s preternatural reflexes allow him to make the opening gambit.

Kelraji advances, begins to circle left, then tries to sneak a lash under the guard of Tis, bringing the tail up through the thigh, hoping to contact the haunch or tender midsection.

Tis, perhaps overconfident in his status as first sword to the dark elf lord, charges forward to meet his attacker, choosing aggression over perfect defense. He spins his saber into the path of the whip as he moves, managing to catch the leather against the flat of his blade, but Kelraji expertly draws the whip backward, causing the barbed tip to gouge a deep gash into the swordsman’s thigh as it returns.

The elf growls under his breath, sounding more surprised than pained, frustrated at being so easily bested in front of his people. He lowers the tip of his sword and scowls at Kelraji. “Well struck, outlander. My blood brings you Khaine’s favor.”

Kelraji draws the barb back, and moves to hand the whip to the priest.

“First blood is not normal for my fights. To death, then maybe even. Maybe even you win, but I do not think that you can do so. Maybe we will have this again, but not to first blood, but last. Same result, I am sure, but then we will know.”

He smiles genuinely at Tis. His forward insults lost on himself, as he views them merely as confidence and opinion. Tis may not take kindly, but that’s not Kelraji’s fault.

“Now, please, I will pray at alter, then we return. Unless you want bite again…”

Kelraji bows to the priest, and to Tis, and looks for an alter to make his own offering at.

Jake stands by their only friend in this land, a little embarrassed that Kelraji would put him out so quickly. He tries to remind himself that castes are a very different thing in the Indian’s home, that social strata were very tangible and concrete, much like this new world. It still makes him uneasy.

“I will come with you, Arthur. I’d like to see what kinds of food are preferred by these people. Lead the way.”

Interrupted in their browsing of the bazaar, Jake looks up in the direction of the commotion. He casts a knowing glance at Linus. “Come on, Templeton. We both know how our friend can get sometimes. Let’s make sure he hasn’t offended the locals in any significant manner.”

‘We really need to keep an eye on him,’ Jake thinks to himself. ’He’s like to get us all killed just by being himself in this place. No tact or social graces on that one.’ The gunslinger’s pace quickens as the noises grow louder.

The priest bows solemnly in return, and shuffles off to begin sweeping the dirt ring smooth. Kelraji wanders over to the large statue of the bloody-handed god as the townsfolk begin to file out of the temple, muttering to each other in disappointed tones.

Though only the larger statue of Khaine is immediately visible from the main room, upon drawing nearer there are actually six smaller statues lining the walls of the altar’s alcove, each only a few feet tall. They all depict dark elf warriors in various poses, each accompanied by props and animalistic features which distinguish one from the other. Unlike the main statue, these ones are finely carved, though they are crudely and sometimes unevenly attached to their bases.

The adept inspects each in turn—the first statue depicts a crouched figure, holding up punch daggers on each fist like the pincers of a venomous insect. A set of spider’s legs extend from his back to reinforce the effect. The second is another insect-based warrior, wielding a sword and bow pistol, his helmet curved forward like the tail of a scorpion. Next to him is a female figure, also brandishing blade and hand bow, though the visage of her helmet is twisted into the face of a screaming woman. Fourth comes a male draped in the scales of a dragon, complete with helmet made to look like a dragon. He wields an arcane gun made of tubes and cylinders, its true purpose unclear. The last two statues are decidedly noble figures, distinct from the insect warriors on the other side of the room—a woman raised up on one leg, with feathered wings splayed out behind her, and a man wielding a full-sized crossbow, his helmet crested with a mohawk of hair like that of an ancient Greek warrior.

A handful of candles burn at the base of each smaller figure, with many more at the feet of the principal deity Khaine. There is also a wide basin at the foot of each altar, all coated with the coppery residue of dried blood. A small stack of new candles stands in the corner of the alcove, along with an oil lamp to light them by.

Jake, Linus, Arthur and Thomas wind through the streets, following the handful of commoners who are running in the direction of the commotion. They reach the western edge of the city, which ends abruptly where the earth meets the sea at a jagged cliff face. They glance over the edge to see waves crashing against the coast far below them. A small dock has been constructed, harboring a handful of elegant longboats. Out across the mist-veiled sea, the faint outlines of a distant shore can be seen on the horizon.

The attraction seems to be coming from a temple built right up to the lip of the cliff, a modest circular building constructed of rough-cut timbers and stone like the rest of the city. Whatever was happening within, it seems to have already run its course, as smallfolk wander out of the entrance with dejected looks on their faces.

Behuniak speaks up as he takes in the coastal view, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “Linus, I was going to tell you about my dream as well, before Kelraji cut us off. Mine was no farcical journey, but a nightmare born of the recent past. My father gave his life two weeks ago to secure the book from our enemies. We tried to save him, his apprentice and I, but there was nothing we could do. I watched him fall to his death from the roof of a skyscraper, just tumbling through the air like a little doll. I see it every night when I sleep. See him. I only hope. . .” The ork brushes a hand over his cheek. “No. The world is as God wills it, and my faith is my shield. The book will find its place, and us with it.”

As the crusader finishes, Tis the first sword steps out from the temple, his face a mask of barely-concealed anger and frustration. He is straightening his shirt and cloak as if he had just gotten dressed, and blood runs freely down his right leg from a gash in his thigh.

Jake warms internally at the sight of the maddened elf—their hosts they may be, but the gunslinger gets the feeling that it is a relationship of convenience for the elves, rather than true beneficence. It is good that Tis and Kelraji have become such fast friends.

Jake approaches the first sword at the entrance of the temple. “Is everything okay, Tis? We heard the noise and came to make sure. Do you need help with Kelraji?” Jake cocks an eyebrow at the wound in the elf’s leg.

The dark elf scowls. “No, outlander. It was only the sparring, to win Khaine’s favor. Next time we are having blows, it will be Kelraji needing your help. This is promise.”

The feathered serpent on Tis’ shoulder squawks as if to emphasize the point as he stalks off toward the center of town without another word.

Jake catches Arthur smiling quietly to himself as he stands submissively to one side, awaiting further instruction.

“Kelraji must have taken it easy on him.. that elf is lucky to still have all his limbs attached. Arthur, what can you show me about the elves’ ranged weaponry? I don’t suppose they have powder guns, but a large crossbow might be handy if ammunition starts running low.”

Kelraji takes a candle from the stack, moves to the alter of the scorpion hooded warrior, and sets it on the ground. He then moves to the oil lamp, bringing it to the candle, and lights the offering. Something about the weaponry made it seem a safe choice. And the helmet interested him. He muses that the scorpion’s strikes are much like his own.

The candle lit, Kelraji looks for Tis or the priest, to ask his question.

“Is blood the offering? Whose?”

Linus holds back during the exchange, and speaks with Behuniak.

“As God wills it. Perhaps. The clockwork ’verse rolls forward, and we with it. Whatever masters we serve, I suspect we will all give something of ourselves before this book finds its proper home.”

He looks to Jake:

“Yes, ranged weapons would be wise.”

Then to Arthur:

“I wonder… are there any practitioners of the magical arts within the city walls? Perhaps individuals I could talk to about the odd eddies in the astral currents that might cause my Watchers to have so much…. personality.?”

A chill runs down Kelraji’s spine as he lights the candle, a religious touch not unlike his experience with his own gods.

He looks about the temple, now nearly empty save a few lingering worshipers and the priest. Tis and his equipment are nowhere to be seen.

The priest listens respectfully to his question, but offers only a passive stare in response, the best he can do given the language barrier between them. Kelraji thinks he might hear the voices of his fateful companions coming from outside the temple.

Kelraji waves the priest away, then surreptitiously nicks the lower part of his right palm with the vajra cord, allowing a few drips to hit the basin before applying enough pressure to halt the flow.

He rapidly cycles through the mudras and few vedic prayers he believes would be appropriate. Gods all speak Hindi, right? Even if they don’t, perhaps the Zen practitioners were on to something. Maybe it’s just the actions that matter. Either way, he felt better, safer, protected.

Finishing the motions and quiet mutterings, he walks outside, to the gratingly polite tones of Jake, and the confused and confusing verbal ejaculate of the scientist.

Behuniak nods thoughtfully at Linus’ words, acknowledging their wisdom and truth.

Arthur steps up, eager to be as helpful as possible. "Yes, the elves are accomplished craftsmen, especially when it comes to their crossbows. I’m sure you’ve seen them around. They’ve devised an ingenious clockwork system, whereby they can store a half-dozen bolts in the drum built into the body of the weapon, each accompanied by a loaded spring which is powerful enough to cock the weapon every time the mechanism is advanced. This allows them to shoot without having to stop and re-draw the bow every time. Very impressive, really. They can also make it in pistol form, though this one obviously isn’t quite as powerful, and holds less bolts.

“We can certainly buy you each one. I need to stop by the smith’s quarter anyway for Kelraji’s armor. As for magic, I know that for whatever reason only their women are capable of awakening, and of them a scarce few. The sorceress Zan’esu will surely know the answers to your questions, but I’m not sure she’ll be willing to speak with you. They are a very xenophobic race, none more so than her. There are also the harlequins, those masked entertainers you saw last night in Mer’veloth’s throne room, but they are secretive in the extreme, and keep entirely to themselves, even among the elves. You’ll probably be better off seeking your answers elsewhere. There is no shortage of magic on this island, and I hear of a few traveling spellweavers whom you might be able to question. I know of one man, Nod, who often frequents the southern portion of the island.”

Just then, Kelraji wanders out of the temple, looking pleased with himself.

Kelraji steps out to find Linus and Jake conversing with Behuniak and the slave Arthur Glass.

Arthur gives the adept a look of thinly-veiled disapproval before continuing. “I have many things to buy—lizard mounts, crossbows and armor, and food. Will any of you join me? I have a feeling we should get started before Tis’ generosity runs dry and he closes his tab.”

The crusader nods. “Shane will be here soon. I will go to wait for him by the keep.”

Kelraji smiles at his companions.

“The aspects of the divine span all divides. You should all consider making offerings as well.”

Kelraji starts off after Behuniak.

“I do not need a crossbow. I will go with you for armor.”

The three follow Arthur back to the marketplace, where Behuniak already stands waiting, conversing with a few of the mercenaries.

They pass first through the bustling grocery hawkers, where farmers and cattle herds from the surrounding area have come to sell their daily take. Womenfolk and kitchen slaves swarm through the stalls, haggling and inspecting at every turn. Arthur presses through the crowds, given deference and express attention by the shopkeeps when he is recognized as a slave from the castle. He buys several great bushels of grain, a large stack of dense biscuits wrapped in leaves, an assortment of alien-looking fruit, and a big package of lizard meat, already salted and cured for the road ahead. He sends serfs laden with their goods back to the castle gate before moving on.

The four humans in a strange land pass out of the market proper to head south, where the residential buildings give way to large storehouses and stables. They go to the largest of the stable yards, where Arthur does brisk business with an elven man, his clothing clean yet somehow still imbued with the omnipresent scent of reptile leavings. A half-dozen of the lizard mounts are led out of the stables and toward the center of town, already saddled and bridled, and the three are relieved to see that they seem docile and well-trained.

They come last to what must be the armorer’s quarter on the east end of town, the air suddenly filled with the ringing of hammers and the whooshing of bellows. Along one street the craftsman’s goods are displayed in modest stalls, each wall hung with steel in every form imaginable.

Arthur directs them to two stalls in particular. The first is filled with crossbows of every make, from simple one-shot hunting models to ornately decorated handbows meant to be worn by nobles and highborn. Arthur speaks a few words to the merchant, who pulls several weapons from the walls, a full-sized repeating crossbow and a matched pair of pistol-sized repeaters, all of them appearing to be of solid construction, practically-minded yet artfully crafted. He leaves Jake here to ponder his options.

The slave brings Kelraji to a neighboring stall, where armor of all types are displayed, shirts and leggings of chainmail, scalemail and leather as well, the heavier of which have been studded with small circles of metal. Along another wall hang armor plate for every possible area of the body—full and half helms, gorgets, pauldrons, breastplates, cuirasses, bracers, gauntlets, greaves and boots. Shields line the back wall, including nimble bucklers, standard varieties in kite and teardrop shape, and even a massive tower shield.

Lastly, Arthur brings Linus to a curious little side-alley which takes them to a plain little shop. They pass inside to find a cluttered space filled with all sorts of strange trinkets: animals paws, teeth and claws, exotic flowers, herbs and roots, glass jars containing a plethora of disgusting and unidentifiable pickled remains, a handful of musty tomes, and almost anything else that might be considered magical to a non-magician. A wizened old woman sits in the back, presiding over a glass case with a few impressive looking items, an ivory horn, an unbelievably large scale, and a single feather colored with dazzling yellows and reds. Linus is surprised to see that there is actually a collection of legitimate lodge materials here as well, chalks made with the proper minerals for drawing runes and wards, candles in a variety of colors, and most importantly, fire-salts for consecrating the mana conduits of the interior hexagrams.

Kelraji takes note of all of the offerings in the armorer’s shop before moving on to the magician’s store. He’s never had to many options in his entire life. He thinks back on the legends he has heard, of how the best way to minimize damage was to not get hit. Hanuman, Arjuna, even Krishna himself certainly advocated nimbleness over hunkering down. He would have to, quite literally, weigh his options.

The store full of baubles and trinkets nearly blows the poor man’s mind. He’s seen, in his life, perhaps two dozen such trinkets. One he’s owned for nearly a decade, and still keeps with him at all times. Another two he found last week. On each rack, each shelf, are enough to boggle his earth-bound mind. Only by constantly reminding himself of the legends and vedas can he keep his cool. He tries act slyly, keep his cool. He wishes he’d been more of a pickpocket than a thug in his past. Too late now though.

“Arthur, ask woman what she has that would impress Tis.”

He then drifts out mentally, considering his options as he plays mental dress-up, trying to match the look of Bhima, or perhaps Nakula….

Arthur hesitates, almost too afraid of the adept to express his opinion. “Are. . . are you sure you want to buy him a gift? It is Tis who is paying for all of these things, after all. The best present might be your own frugality, especially considering goods you don’t even need for the trip.”

He pauses, thinking further before responding in a harsh whisper. “Unless. . . oh, it is very dangerous to steal from a talismonger, sir Kelraji. You must be either a very good thief or a very great fool to attempt such a thing.”

Kelraji shakes his head slightly, returning to his senses and the present.

“You do not get my question. Just ask. Tell me. No danger, I promise.”

Kelraji returns to pondering his options. Perhaps two sets would make sense. No, Arthur’s complaint made sense, even if it wasn’t strictly relevant. He would need a buckler to go with his suit. and then perhaps he would weigh the tower shield and see if the scale mail fit. He considered dropping the mail for a fancy helmet and boots. He smiles to himself as he ponders becoming the first Indian gladiator, then frowns when he realizes he would almost certainly not be.

Arthur nods, seemingly reassured to some degree that he is not dealing with an absolute madman, and heads over to converse with the wizened hag at the counter. He returns after a few minutes of conversation. “She says the first sword is not a terribly material man, in contrast to some of the other highborn. Nor is he entertained by magical baubles. The only thing the woman could think of was that he is a known poisoner. Rumors hold Tis helped Mer’veloth to overthrow the previous lord many years ago by poisoning his blade during a ritual duel. She offers to sell a few vials of her most potent toxins, if you have an interest.”

Kelraji nods as the man talks.

“That is good know. Thank you Arthur. Tell her I thank, but will not buy yet.”

Kelraji’s not a genius, but he knows well enough to not buy poison in the open, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that poison does not make a great gift.

Kelraji glances around the room once more, frowning at the now identified and, to his mind, useless trinkets. He shrugs, and meanders back to the armorer, intent on purchasing a set of scale mail, stained blood red or crimson if possible, and a buckler and a tower shield. He would have to see about modifying them to show his chosen deities, new and old, but having them would be enough for now.

He also hoped his companions would hurry with their preparations, he was eager to move on, to explore, and to seek what was lost.

Linus wanders, first fingering some scale mail. Laughing to himself at the comical absurdity, he tries some of it on, and trying to fit his lab coat over the ensemble. If the set fits, he will make his purchase, then explore some of the magical goods he’d hoped to acquire.

Back in the arming stall, Jake looks over the crossbows with an impracticed eye, appreciating the craftsmanship that goes into the weapons before him but not fully understanding their purpose. He selects the larger repeating crossbow and shoulders it, admiring the weight of the wooden weapon, looking down the quarrel the shopkeep hands him and finding the sight straight and true. He checks the internal workings—clockwork springs and gears surround a cylindrical, rotating magazine whose action both feeds and resets the main mechanism. It is truly a thing of precision and beauty: the lathes are decorated with silver filigree, and delicate ebony scrollwork runs along the stock. Jake turns the weapon in his hands and is disturbed to find that the front stirrup is decorated to resemble a laughing, evil face—a demon, or perhaps a god of the dark elves.

Despite this, he decides the crossbow will be a worthy addition to his arsenal and calls Arthur over to accept it for their journey. He reminds the slave he will need quarrels and quiver, then heads off to find Kelraji and Linus, eager to get their journey underway.

Once Arthur and Jake have finished, Kelraji relays his desire for a buckler, scale mail, and a kite shield. He gives specific instructions as to their look, to be completed as quickly as possible. Then he moves on with Jake to find the wayward sciencer.

The three congregate by the smithy’s market stalls, examining their wares like children in a hack n’ slash trideo game. The fletcher gladly sells Jake the repeating crossbow, stepping around the counter to demonstrate how the mechanism works, the fastest way to change out the oversized magazine, and how to bash the weapon with the flat of his palm if it jams. He then show Jake how to reload a spare magazine, a time-consuming task involving standing it on its end to draw back each of the six springs in turn before loading the quarrels. Finally, he shows the gunslinger how he can load and fire individual bolts like a traditional crossbow should the need strike him. He hands the weapon over, along with two spare magazines and an even forty bolts, eighteen loaded into the mags leaving twenty-two to be split between two sturdy leather quivers.

Next door the armorer attends to Linus and Kelraji’s needs. A bellow boy emerges from the soot and smoke of the workshop to help Linus try on a shirt of scalemail. The summoner tries to fit his armored lab coat over the bulky hauberk and nearly collapses under the weight, his arms sticking out like an over-bundled tot on a winter day. The apprentice lad topples over with laughter at the sight, clearly not used to fitting scholars for war. The head smith finds his way over to clout the boy in the head for his impudence, and offers to strip the armor plates from the lining of the lab coat so that Linus might retain his signature garb.

Kelraji stays on with the armorer as Linus heads off to talismonger’s, receiving his own scalemail shirt, a rounded bronze buckler with a vicious spike in the middle for improvised strikes, and a stout kite shield. The armorer explains that it will take him the rest of the day to stain the scale and work heraldry onto the shields, as well as make the modifications to Linus’ coat, but he could have it out to their campsite by the next morning.

Arthur accompanies Linus to the magic shop, perusing the overwhelming array of baubles and trinkets, most of them lifeless mundane junk meant to attract the superstitious and true believers. He does manage to locate plenty of serviceable materials for creating lodges: chalks, fire-salts, candles and geologic crystals with which to inscribe the complex hermetic diagrams necessary to channel his natural powers and ward away probing astral entities. There are also plenty of trinkets to be used as the base of an enchanted focus, though none of them are crafted from the precious awakened ore known as orichalcum. In the summoner’s experience, it was usually better to craft one’s own telesma than to use ones made by the hand of another magician.

Linus keeps the splint mail, but does not wear it. He imagines dire circumstances that may make it a necessity, but he hopes they will not come to pass. Exploring the magicians shop, Linus’ eyes go wide. He nearly grabs Arthur with excitement.

“These are good materials… Perhaps not the highest quality, but certainly usable. I’d like to purchase some, these fire salts especially, but I know neither the price nor your willingness to pay. I may need to build a lodge, at some point, though the thought that we will be in this country for that long pains me.”

Arthur nods knowingly, his expression darkening. “I’ve been on this cursed island for eight years, and slave to the elves for six. You cannot imagine how I long to see London once more.”

The poor man spends a few minutes negotiating with the hag, eventually coming to seemingly agreeable terms. She hurries around the shop, collecting a variety of the lodge materials into an old leather satchel before handing it off to Arthur, who gives her a few coppers in exchange. She clamps one of the crude coins between two of her crooked teeth, grins wickedly, and wanders off to scrub a bit of dried blood from the ceiling with a dirty mop.

Linus and Arthur return to the main drag of the smith’s quarter of town to find Kelraji and Jake checking over their new kit. The sun sits at high noon above them, throwing a pleasant warmth onto the adventurer’s shoulders to counter the brisk chill coming off the ocean.

Arthur Glass glances thoroughly about, ensuring they are free of eavesdroppers before speaking in a low whisper. “I believe we have concluded our shopping, my friends. Now I have a favor to ask of you—will you tell me when you plan on setting out? Jake has promised to free me from slavery, and I think it best that I sneak out on my own and meet you on the road. But I’ll need to know when you plan on leaving so I can time my escape. Will you be leaving today, or stay on for a day or two?”

Linus gives Jake with a wary and skeptical glance.

“Jake, I worry that you might have brought us fully over our heads. But I say we leave today. This city fills me with dread, and I want to be away from town before practicing my magics.”

Kelraji nods as the sciencer talks, for once content to let the man speak.

“He is not our slave. You steal from the elves who give freely to us? Was gift crossbow and armor not enough for you? Why is it ok for you to steal, but not for them?”

He looks back at the scientist, and nods.

“We can go back to plane, but I have armor to pick up tomorrow. We can set out in the morning. Besides, we already waste half today, maybe more.”

Linus bites his lip. His discretion fails,

“You pick odd times to show gratitude, sir. I suppose there is some reason in this. Arthur knows the lay of the land, and could be invaluable to us in our mission. Any I have never seen someone so worthy of our help, given his wretched treatment by these… well I don’t want to say it… these less than courteous folk.”

And… he thinks to himself, it will be nice to have at least someone around who would like to get back to civilization.

Kelraji seems a bit puzzled by this sudden display of spinal fortitude from the skinny one.

“Are you no thankful for the help we have received? They do not treat you like this slave, yet. You will provoke those who have help us most so far? You would risk your life, your freedom, for this man you do no know? No. Enough, you know nothing of their culture, nothing of their ways, and nothing of sense. It is suicide to steal this man. You think they will not follow, will not hunt us? Do they seem like they will just give up once leave town? No. They will chase. They will find. And for what? A man you do not know? Is he even help us? Too much risk. Not acceptable to me.”

“I’m not stealing anyTHING, Kelraji, he is a person and asked for my help, and we’re not taking him for our own, we’re setting him free. It was my decision to help him since he helped us, so I will take full responsibility for him.”

Jake is a little disappointed that his decision to help the slave isn’t being supported by the group; these are smart people from modern times, they should be well past this barbaric line of thinking. Anyway, he suspects that Arthur will be very useful down the road, if they can keep him safe from Tis. Jake hadn’t thought about hiding the slave from their dark elf guide until this point. He suspects that arrangement will go badly for the elf.

“Let’s head back to the ship for the rest of the day. I think the APC has arrived.”

Kelraji nods, assenting for now.

“Very well, we must make choice, but does not need to be now. We eat, rest, decide, sleep, and leave when armor and lizard rides are ready.”

Linus considers kelraji’s argument, and Jake’s.

“Indeed, this bears further discussion. But I absolutely must get to work testing my powers in this strange land, and the safety of the ship is the best place to do that. Lets be on our way.”

Arthur stands silently by as the three discuss his fate, staring sullenly at the earth. His breathing is rapid and labored beneath the thin scrap of cloth covering his shoulders.

The slave leads them back to the center of town to find the Devil Rat APC idling noisily at the edge of town. Shane Dieyette’s torso protrudes from the cupola at the head of the transport, taking in the sights of the elven city with the effected nonchalance of teenage youth. Behuniak stands by with the squad of Warpigs at the rear of the vehicle. Their six riding lizards are nearby, each laden with provisions, their leads tied off to the hitching post of an unused market stall.

Tis approaches as they arrive, wearing a fresh pair of riding pants. He exchanges a few words with Arthur before addressing them, glancing over their new armor and weapons. “Outlanders, glad it makes Tis to see you with things in order. Slave tells of tomorrow for the leaving. This is good. I will come to you with lizards on the morning.” The first sword dips at the waist, flashes a wry grin, and turns on his heel to stride through the castle gates.

Arthur smiles uneasily to them, unable or unwilling to meet Kelraji’s eye, and follows the highborn elf without another word.

The party files into the Devil Rat, the nine of them filling the interior of transport, and take the bumpy ride back to the landing zone in stony silence, each man and woman lost in their own thoughts.

Shane pulls the APC into position with the other two tracked vehicles and drops the rear hatch. They disembark to find the clearing around the plane has been worked into a serviceable staging ground in their absence. A half-dozen military tents have been erected, their flaps tied off to reveal their interiors. Some have been lined with cots and personal effects, while others contain stores of munitions, fuel and field rations. A modest kitchen space has been constructed as well, a few folding tables with various pots and pans, complete with a big pot suspended over a fire circle. Two of the Warpigs are busying themselves about the fire, dicing and stirring, their features swarthy and decidedly Indian.

A little way off, Vontarion Do’Urden sits cross-legged and motionless on an exposed bit of rock. The air around him shimmers with energies barely visible. A giant stone golem composed entirely of boulders and rocks of all sizes patrols in a slow circle around the seated elf. Its plodding stone feet have already worn a perfect circular rut in the dirt.

Beyond the campsite, fields of golden grain wave in the late afternoon breeze. Stooped figures move about the landscape, working the earth. Some are peasant elves, others clearly slaves from other races, orks and brown-skinned humans with shackles about their necks and feet.

Russ Gault, the outdoorsman dwarf, can be seen approaching down a narrow trail through the crops, having perhaps come from the stands of snow-dusted pine in the foothills to the north. Renzo Espallier, the elderly statesman and financier of the Cabal, can be glimpsed brooding within the cavernous interior of the cargo plane. A man who looks like he might be Shane’s father is tooling about on the roof of the Striker light tank, wielding a comically large spanner. The three mercenaries not cooking or emerging from the APC with them are gathered around the entrance of one tent, cleaning rifles and sharpening oversized bowie knives.

Kelraji wanders over to the two Indian men, if for no other reason than they might speak his own language, and it has been long enough that he could use some practice. With no other priorities, he bides his time, trying to formulate a convincing enough case to leave behind the slave. His misfortune need not become their own, at least not yet.

Property of: Russ Gault
Travel journal vol. 52

Day 1 on the island. We have somehow made it here without going through a portal, just like Mathus said we would. Have landed on the southern peninsula, a region unknown to me from my previous travels here. Still, it is strange to be back.

The three men drawn by the book’s unwavering power have already taken charge, leading a contingent in to meet with the civilization inhabiting this area. I have not been chosen to join them, which is for the best. Cities and dungeons are no place for an adept of the Beast.

Day 2. I went for a morning patrol of the land surrounding our camp. Nothing unusual to report. Standard pine forests, game trails and a few hunter’s snares. The smell of the earth and air remind me of the war. Vontarion returned sometime in the night.

The expedition has returned, bringing with them news and some new equipment. Lt. Dagonhart debriefed: Our three have promised the feudal elf king their help in his battle against an enemy civilization. The elves know of the book. A noble from the elven society has been assigned to accompany us on the road. I grow suspicious of their motives.

Finally had a chance to speak with some of the drawn this afternoon. I demonstrated to Jake Chambers the use of a crossbow, and answered a few other questions for them. They plan to ride at morning, and bring me with them, along with two of the mercenaries. It seems a sound enough plan.

A local farmer asked us to investigate the disappearance of her livestock. The trail was inconclusive, and the others did not choose to follow it. There was talk of ‘werewolves.’

Day 3. The noble came at dawn, making us seven. We rode at early morning on the elves’ reptilian steeds.

We met a bard on the road, who played an odd little game for the exchange of a few magical trinkets. The human Chambers won an old five-shooter off him.

We came upon a second man on the road, apparently a slave who is known to the three. The noble wanted the man’s head, but they talked him down, offering to aid in the elf’s plot to backstab the current ruler in exchange for the slave’s life. The slave has joined us on our journey north. I will write more when we stop for the night.

Chapter Three - Bonus Stage Complete
The LZ

Congratulations! You have completed the first bonus stage. Bonus stages provide an opportunity for the powers that be to commune with each player about their personal quest. Bonus stage rewards take the form of skill bumps rather than karma.

Kelraji Sivahara
Sword Dance: Used counterstrike to finish an enemy. +1 to Blades skill.
The Drawing of Aggro: Taunted a foe into attacking. +1 to Con skill.
Jahangirnama: Bore the mantle of emperor. +1 to Life of Jahangir Knowledge skill.

Linus Rutherford Templeton
Fell-Handed: Killed his enemies with a walking machine of doom. +1 to Pilot (Anthroforms) skill.
Dead Language: Studied the text of an ancient race. +1 to Khuzdul Language skill.
Power Stone: Bent the energy of an arcane device to his will. +1 to Arcana skill.

Jake Chambers
The Line of Eld: Held palaver to his own ends. +1 to Etiquette skill.
Cort’s Pedagogy: Took part in a gunslinger trial. +1 to Instruction (Combat) skill.

Chapter Three - Bonus Stage 1

Kelraji falls swiftly into a deep and powerful sleep, the fatigue of his journey and the unending ache of the serious burns across his skin rushing him into the twilight of his consciousness. Before he fades, the faces of the people he killed the night before begin to flash through his head—the ork in the convenience store, the foolhardy bodega owner, the pair of agents he tricked on the street, the voodoo hag as she fell from the sky, then onward, to the burning mess of flesh and steel brought on by his makeshift net, the faces of these dead not even known to him.

Finally, the biker lieutenant stands before him, his handsome young face calm despite the fire raging across his body. They stand across from one another in the black void of Kelraji’s mind, both ablaze from the waist up. The young man holds one hand out, palm open but upside down, and Kelraji is surprised to recognize the varada mudra. I forgive you, the man seems to say, then his red jacket splits open from shoulder to groin and he falls apart in a welter of blood. A photograph flutters between them, and Kel catches it deftly to inspect the image. The woman in the lavender sari smiles at him over one shoulder, but her image swiftly distorts and crumples as the flames eating Kelraji’s hand spreads to the photograph, consuming it entirely.

He is awoken by a man’s voice, shouting but seemingly a world away. When he opens his eyes, he finds he is no longer on his straw cot in the modest stone-walled bedroom he shares with his two traveling companions, but is instead lying in a massive four-poster bed draped in fine linens which shine through with morning light. The sheets are silken and luxurious against his bare skin. He rolls over to find a beautiful woman dozing beside him, naked save the covers which hide her coffee skin.

The man shouts again, his voice echoing as if they were inside a temple. At first Kel thinks it is Hindi, but revises his guess as he listens, recognizing the subtle tones of Urdu. Though he does not speak it, he finds that his mind somehow comprehends nonetheless. “Emperor! A star falls in the east. Come see, before it passes!”

The woman lying next to him groans in drunken half-sleep. “Salim, silence your man. I would sleep a while longer.”

“And sleep you may, but when the heavens come to earth, it is wise for those of the earth to heed their arrival.”

Kelraji gets out of his bed, and goes to the man calling him.

Kelraji stops as he pads across the room, looking around. He is aware of the various theories concerning ‘past’ and ‘future’ lives, and the turning of the wheel. He knows that dreams, even hallucinations are important parts of the realities of life and existence. What he had not heard of was living these lives concurrently in the present way. He knows that time is not a continuum in the Western sense, neither did he know it was not a spiral in the Eastern sense. Perhaps this was how enlightenment felt.

Either way, the man spends a moment looking himself over, and searching for the clothing that an emperor should wear, lest he be chided for his lack of such.

A massive bedchamber confronts him as he steps from the covered bed, a luxuriously large room with marble walls and tiled porcelain floors. A multitude of portraits hang on every wall, each work of art more magnificent than the last. The majority of the tapestries feature one particular man.

When Kel looks in the mirror he is not surprised to see the man from the portraits looking back at him. He is in his late fifties, his features pudgy and unexercised. His face is stern and business-like, with close-cropped hair which is not yet graying and a mustache still disorderly from the previous night.

He turns in the direction of the shouts to see a handsomely-dressed man standing at a balcony across the room in the harsh morning light, pointing skyward. Attendants hurry from the wings with clothes and grooming implements as Kelraji strides across the room to stand at the balcony. By the time he has arrived, his nakedness has been covered with fine golden robes, a belt of shining silver has been hung at his waist, and his hair has been groomed beneath a royal turban.

As his eyes adjust to the morning’s glare, Kelraji can make out a massive, bustling city sweeping out in all directions from the palace he apparently occupies, its walls only barely visible on the far horizon. A roiling cacophony of city sights, sounds and smells greet his senses as he gazes out. Agra, a voice from somewhere deep within his mind provides.

The attendant to his side points skyward, “There, emperor—to the east.” Kel can make out a bright point of light slashing through the sky at great speeds. It takes several minutes of watching to realize that the meteor is actually on a trajectory which will bring it crashing somewhere within the city limits.

As he watches, a sensation both painfully familiar and shockingly brazen washes over him, as gripping and primal an urge as any the mortal form could bear. It was the black stone’s call, he knew it well enough. The same insatiable, demanding voice which spoke when the dagger was close now spoke here, pleading and taunting in equal measure.

Shouts and cries go up from the city as the populace begins to notice the falling star, citizens stopping and staring in the middle of the streets. Roofs begin to crowd with onlookers as people rush to witness the excitement. The meteor will land in mere minutes.

Impulse often ruled Kelraji, and his recollection of Jahangir was not so far from the same. Affirmation of right to rule came in many forms, and a gift from the gods was not one to be turned away. Whatever, or whomever, sent this gift intended it for me. To do as I please, and to reward my actions. To give a gift so close to home was surely a sign, and one that Jahangir meant to interpret in favor of himself.

He turns to his attendant, and speaks.

“Bring me one hundred and seven guards, and we will claim what has been given by Allah.”

As the guards assemble below, Kelraji leaves the mirror, content to learn what he can about his immortal soul’s past histories. Jahangir may have been Muslim in name, but then, all religions are an expression of Brahman, after all. Kelraji doesn’t stop to ponder the thought.

He exits the royal bed chamber, and tells the attendant to take him to the courtyard, realizing he has no idea how to get there himself.

His servant bows low, gesturing to the door with a slightly confused expression. They pass through a dozen grand halls, each more decadent than the last, before exiting out onto an expansive inner courtyard, already baking hot with the sun’s first rays. Three rough groups of soldiers are assembling, all fully armored and wearing purple cloaks over one shoulder. A unit of forty swordsmen forms by the gate, taking up block formation. A golden chariot is wheeled up behind them, surrounded by a dozen ornately armored men with heavy shields and spears. Behind this comes three ranks of bowmen, and another twenty swords to serve as rearguard.

A single man from the elite spearmen guarding his chariot walks out to meet him as he approaches. He clasps his mailed fist to his chest. “Emperor, your loyal attendants await. Will you be armed this evening?” The soldier leans in conspiratorially, lowering his voice. “The whisperers report Persian Hassassin have infiltrated the city, my liege. No man will think less of their emperor for wearing plate and steel on his own streets.” The soldier glances nervously up over Kel’s shoulder, then diverts his gaze. Kelraji follows the man’s line of sight to see the woman from his bed standing at a balcony high above them, her features obscured by the glare of the sun above.

Kelraji smiles knowingly at the man.

“Am I not safe in my own city? The people would not tolerate such deviants, for their love for me is strong. If you and your men cannot protect me, surely Allah, who has given this gift to his favored lord, will. But, perhaps you are right. A lord should be seen as a protector. Bring me my sword and dress armor.”

The honor guard bows low and beckons to a handful of servants across the courtyard, who come rushing forward with a suit of ornate gold-plated scale mail and a matched set of ruby-encrusted saber and dagger. They swarm over him, pulling the mail over his head, then buckling matching plate to his chest, shoulders and legs before finally hanging his weapons on his belt. Finally, they replace his sultan’s turban with a golden half-helm tufted with peacock feathers.

The sergeant of the guard mounts the chariot and Kel steps in behind him. With a single barked command, the lumbering eastern gates grind open, and the ordered ranks of swordsmen begin to march out into the streets. A crowd forms immediately, threatening to choke the streets, but his troops are well-trained, parting the crowd with riot-breaker shoves from shield and scabbard. They make good progress down the winding main avenues, the citizens of Agra torn between the spectacle of their golden-clad emperor and the massive comet looming over their city.

The entire procession comes to a halt as the meteor’s final approach draws imminent, and Kelraji is able to see the site of impact from roughly a mile away. The impact is truly deafening, a bomb-blast of incredible volume. A terrible shockwave radiates outward over the city, flattening the blocks closest to ground zero and throwing up a choking wall of dust which hangs in the air for hours after the event. Kel finds himself clinging to the rim of his chariot to stay upright as the blast passes, even from their great distance.

Imperturbable in his confidence of his deity’s mandate, Kel pushes his men onward, traveling into the heart of the destruction as his people stream in the opposite direction, their mystical wonder replaced with the collective anguish of mass tragedy. Aimless fathers carry unmoving children through the rubble while mothers follow in their wake, wailing at fate’s injustice. The sheer quantity of corpses increases exponentially as they near the center of the blast, suddenly dropping off again as they reach ground zero, where everything not made of stone has simply been vaporized. Finally, they are able to lay eyes on the place of impact, a massive marble building of palatial dimensions. Though great swathes of the outer walls have been decimated by the impact, some sections still remain. Billowing smoke and fire pour from within the structure.

The sergeant leans in. “Sire, we have arrived. This is the workshop and residence of Nadir al-Zaman. What are your orders?”
Kelraji remembers the man well. A formidable artist, Kelraji had been his patron for years, decades even. Helping the man’s case, his most famous works were portraits of the royal family.

“It is the will of Allah. I mourn his loss, but acknowledge that he is with the prophet. His life of praise will be recognized on Earth and in His Heaven.

Have my men scour the area. Send a messenger to the palace, tell them to allow those injured into the outer courtyard, and have my wives’ servants tend the wounded. Tell them that what is taken by Allah on Earth is returned in Heaven.

And have my men bring water, enough to quench the flames of the gift."

The sergeant salutes and begins moving among the soldiers, barking orders. The majority of his men split off from the procession, many of the swordsmen running off to oversee the control of the fire while archers disperse throughout the civilian crowds, directing them back to the palace. The sergeant and his contingent of heavily-armored spearmen proceed directly into the burning palace, leaving only a handful of men to protect their emperor.

Kel watches for almost an hour as his orders are carried out. Human chains of water bearers are formed, passing jugs and buckets of water from nearby wells into the building. Slowly, the flames pouring from the building recede, shifting from a raging inferno to a relatively more manageable blaze.

The honor guard finally reappears, their fine purple cloaks and silver armor singed and marred with soot. The sergeant removes his full helm, wiping a thick film of sweat from his brow. “Your majesty, we have done our best to clear the building, though it is too expansive and too chaotic now to completely assure your safety. I believe the meteor has come down in the inner cloister, though the flames were too strong to know for sure.”

The officer lowers his voice. “One of my men attempted to approach the crater, against my direct orders. He moved as if in a trance, bewitched by some evil spell, and no man could restrain him. I fear Shivaji has burned to death, or worse. The smallfolk whisper that yawm ad-din has come, and I struggle to find a reason to disagree. My liege, I beg you, turn back to the palace. I cannot assure your safety here.”

Kelraji nods as his man talks. Perhaps the man was right. This was both a major and minor sign, according to the Hadith. He would keep an eye out for inanimate objects speaking to him.

“If these are the end times, we will be no safer from Allah’s light in the palace. And who should shy from the Day of Judgment but one who does not follow the pillars? No, I am safe in my own city. And I am safe in my own Faith. It is my fault that Shivaji has been lost, and I will not allow his loss to be for nothing. Any of your men who must rest may do so. Those willing or able are to come with me. If there is an evil, or if the False Messiah has made his appearance, we must, for the good of the people, alert them and protect them.”

Kelraji steps down from his lofty ride, and moves toward the building, preparing to enter.

Kelraji steps through the threshold of the grounds with his sergeant at arms and five royal spearmen in tow. They advance cautiously through the gutted artisan’s workshop, passing first through a large hall which must have served as the calligrapher’s workspace, for the walls were lined with shelves of books, all blasted and flame-kissed by the meteor’s impact. Burning tomes rain down intermittently on his men as they press onward, crossing rooms filled with half-completed marble busts and wall-spanning tapestries.

After what seems like miles of architecture, the Mughal emperor and his guard reach the inner cloister. They exit through a wide, pointed door into what was once a peaceful garden, perhaps 50 square yards of gently rolling lawn. Most of it is on fire, the small trees and bushes which once grew here now reduced to ash and skeletal figures. an elaborate latticework branches out above their heads, supporting an extensive network of vines and ivy. The ruins of a massive fountain dominates the center of the courtyard, its wide bowl cracked in half and spewing water in random, spastic arcs. The earth has been dug out by some massive force, creating a sizable crater centered on the blasted fountain. Water has begun to pool in the gently sloping sides of the indentation.

Two shapes move through the massive slabs of fountain strewn across the yard, each movement nothing more than a blur of shadow. Kelraji barely has time to process this information when his guardsmen sergeant calls out, pointing to the rafters above. The vines rustle with activity before disgorging four men, each one a lean, athletic figure swaddled in form-fitting black robes. Silver blades flash in their hands as they descend as one to among his men.

Kel barely has time to draw his saber and dagger before one of them is at his throat, brandishing a single-edged straightsword and dirk with practiced ease. As usual, the adept’s quicksilver reflexes take over, granting him the first strike.

The Emperor begins the deadly spin of his other self before realizing that the sword and dagger he wields are unlikely to behave in the same manner as a monofilament weapon invented in a different world. He takes stock of his situation, realizing he knows precious little about combat with stiff blades. Still, the adept knows that he has the advantage, and must press it, or risk losing the fight. Something he had not done in many years. Either way, the moves he knew for the whip would at least add some force to the sword strike. He executes a partial roll, designed to get his shoulder high and his arm higher, before bringing the blade down as hard as he can in a diagonal. He knows it will be blocked, but he hopes that the force of the blow, combined with the arcing angle of the strike, will be enough to knock his nearest opponent to the ground. Surely, his men with spears could end the man’s life before he could rise.

Kelraji’s saber connects solidly with the assassin’s straight sword but his opponent stands firm, locking their blades. Kel follows the momentum of his swing with the weight of his body, crashing his shoulder into the assassin like a lineman’s tackle, sending his off-balance opponent sprawling onto his back.

The adept takes one glance up to see his entire unit engulfed in bitter melee with an almost equal number of black-clad assailants. He sees two of his spearmen get knocked down by the deadly blade-work of their opponents, but their squadmates quickly step in to defend them. His sergeant of the guard is caught in desperate combat with a swordsman who fights with superior skill to the other assassins, but the capable spearman manages to catch the lead assassin’s strike on his shield before delivering a punishing jab with his spear that sends the attacker tumbling backwards.

A sharp Farsi warcry coming from below jogs Kel back to the present, and he just has time to bring his dagger up to parry a thrust from the assassin at his feet. One of his own men charges in to defend him, driving his spear deep into the assassin’s gut and pinning him to the cracked tile floor of the inner cloister. Kelraji’s ears are filled with the sounds of steel on steel, and even worse, the occasional butchershop crunch of blade cleaving flesh and the dying screams of men. Fire rages all around him, tinting his vision orange and choking his lungs with smoke. Through it all an inescapable voice vies for his attention from across the cloister, a siren’s call burrowing deeper into the recesses of his mind.

Kelraji thinks on his obligations. These men were here to protect him, not the other way around. Still, he had an obligation to value their lives and their commitments. And these men were in his city, in his way, trying to kill him, trying to take what was rightly his.

With his immediate opponent disabled, likely dying on the ground, Kelraji extricates himself enough to find the leader, and attempt to cut the head from the snake. His quick steps mimic his other self, as he begins to whip the sabre around. Perhaps it will serve as a defense, but more likely will be a distraction. In either case, he knows no other way to fight… When he reaches the leader, in a few quick steps, he hooks the blade high before bringing it down outside of his shoulder, attempting to bury the tip in the ground as he turns over it, though he doubts the upswing will work with the sword as it does with the whip.

But the voice in his head will not let him stay. He will help as he can, but then he must do what Allah wills.

The downed and skewered assassin takes another swing at Kelraji as he breaks away from their melee, but the adept casually bats the attack away, his attention already on his next opponent.

The assassin leader lets his backward momentum carry him into a skillful kip-up, regaining his feet before Kelraji can barrel into him with his heavy swing. The master twists and ducks, parrying the strike with a twist of his blade. The point of Kel’s saber bites into the earth, and he barely has time to jerk it free before the black-robed swordsman is on the offensive, raining blows down upon him. Kelraji’s blades flash about his body, channeling the fluid motions of his whipfighting talents and keeping his opponent at bay.

Both men are so enthralled in their swordplay that neither notices the sergeant of the guard bearing down upon them until it is too late to react. The officer barrels into the assassin with his shield, bearing him to the ground and pinning him with his bulk. The sergeant’s spear clatters to the ground as he draws a dagger at his hip and drives it clean through the assassin’s throat, his last words nothing more than a wet gurgle.

Another assassin falls upon the prone sergeant, slicing his sword across the guardsmen’s back and eliciting a moan of pain.

All around him the bitter melee continues, almost every participant bloodied or on the verge of death. Kelraji watches as an assassin finishes one of his downed men with a killing thrust, his parting marked by a primal scream. The black stone continues its irresistible call, and the monk realizes it is now mere meters away. He can see its round, glittering mass lying half-submerged in the cracked pool of the fountain, with smaller chunks and shards strewn nearby.

Jahangir’s old bones hadn’t seen this sort of action in decades, if ever. His knees ached. His shoulder was sore from the constant motions. The burn in his tricep told him the blocks were all too real, and all too frequent.

The death a guardsman was trivial for an emperor. But the death of a fellow warrior was the farthest thing from trivial for Kelraji. The devils would pay. They would pay with their lives. Kelraji steps toward the man who cut his sergeant, feinting and jabbing, but saving his strength. This man, the one who saved him, would not meet a similar fate.

Kelraji shouts at the impudent masked assassin.

“Allah damn you to the pit, forsaken one!”

The enemy takes the bait, springing over the sergeant to charge him with blade extended. Kel stands ready for him, parrying the clumsy jab and spinning inside the man’s defenses. The adept reverses his dagger and drives it backward at the man’s exposed gut, but the assassin predicts the move, turning with Kelraji to execute a diving roll which takes him out of harm’s way.

The sergeant picks himself up and kicks his spear into the air with one toe, catching the polearm deftly and squaring off to face the wily assassin alongside his emperor.

One more death cry rises from his left flank as another of his guard falls to the Persian’s steel.

Another of his men down, Kelraji’s attempt to keep his cool slips. He dips his shoulder to bring the whip in an upward slash before realizing that a scimitar is unlikely to behave in the same manner. He uses the attack as a feint to gather his thoughts. He must end this and take his stone. These foolish men believe they can stand against him. Him, Jahangir, who had succeeded Akbar the Great. Kelraji Sivahara, whose very name implies the death of his enemies.

Perhaps the feint had worked on the rolling assassin, perhaps he was off balance. Kelraji did not press. He focused. The man did not know what Kelraji knew. Jahangir may have been old and slow, but he was wise. Kelraji may be young and brash, but he was more than a match for every foe he had faced.

He relaxed his tired old bones, leaving a small, easily covered opening, hoping to draw in the misinformed assailant. They were after his life, and he did not respond well to threats.

The sergeant of Kelraji’s guard steps forward, lashing out with his spear at their evasive opponent, piercing clean through the hapless assassin’s thigh meat in a welter of gore.

The Persian cries out in pain, his eyes widening as his imminent death begins to dawn on him. Apparently deciding to carry out his profession to the end, the bladesman snaps the spear in his thigh with one elbow and charges around the sergeant to reach his mark.

Jahangir catches the man’s overextended attack easily with his saber, stepping once more into his enemy’s guard before delivering a swift kick to the back of the assassin’s wounded leg, forcing him to drop to his knees. Kelraji looks the man in the face as he crosses his sword and dagger at his throat, then draws them apart, taking another trophy for his patron goddess.

A fresh fount of blood sprays from the headless corpse as it topples sideways, spattering the emperor’s golden armor with flecks of red. He looks up to find that the tide of battle is turning in his favor—the soldier at his flank brings down another assassin, reducing their number to three against his six.

Kelraji’s kill seems to amplify the black stone’s voice, rattling in the back of his mind like an alcoholic who has had his first drink of the night and does not intend on stopping.

Kelraji well understood the tide of battle. Now outnumbering his opponents two to one, he knew the best tactic was to speed the flood. Find and kill the weakest. No more need for defense, with his side so heavily favored.

He feels the tug of the stone, knows its power grows, but knows too that it will be there when he finishes. Besides, the tug was soothing, in a sense. The draw, the connection, was clear. Why should he not show his power to the stone?

Strange thoughts, far too intellectual for Kelraji’s taste, poured into his mind.

Better to live simply, so that others can simply die. The nature of the stone would reveal itself, and Kelraji’s current task was clear enough. Pushing the call of the stone to the back, but not out, of his mind, Kelraji locates the most wounded of the assailants, and stalks the man, intent on finishing the fight.

The emperor charges across the cobblestone, delivering a vicious downward chop aimed at the crippled assassin. His opponent barely gets his own sword up in time to block, but the Mughal already in combat with him quickly seizes the opportunity, driving his speartip through the man’s chest.

Jahangir turns to see his men easily finish the remaining two Persian swords, the momentum of their victory both overwhelming and startlingly final. The remaining guardsmen stand about, panting with exertion, their senses numbed by pain and adrenaline. All around them, the elaborate gardens of the inner cloister continue to smolder and burn.

In the center of the courtyard the cracked fountain looms, still sending up water in stuttering bursts. He cannot tell if the voice in his head has suddenly gone silent, or simply become one with his own.

Jahangir sighs deeply as the battle ceases. He wishes he could say that he does not enjoy killing, but the truth is that he does. He smiles a wry grin as he thinks. It was a good thing he counted the beheaded goddess among his patrons, or his afternoon may have been for naught.

Kelraji quickly cleans his weapons and sheathes them, then moves corpse to corpse, placing the hands of the dead in a rough rendition of the mudra for knowledge, tuning out his own troops and the heat.

As he finishes, he blinks a few times, and goes to collect the rest of his belongings, laid by Allah in the fountain. Once he has collected himself, he will continue his quest, to gather…something. He could not recall what it was they were seeking, but surely once he had picked back up his gear, it would come to him.

The emperor approaches the broken fountain as sunset breaks over Agra. Kelraji shields his eyes from the harsh glare of the sun as he walks directly into its rays, nearly blind until he reaches the foot of the fountain’s wide cracked bowl where a large jutting fragment of the centerpiece blocks out the harsh sun.

Sitting in a pool of water, still throwing off steam from its superheated surface, lies the meteor. The bulk of it is still intact, a rough sphere of otherworldly ore, its pockmarked surface giving off a dim metallic sheen which seems to glower with some inner life. Smaller chunks and pieces lay strewn about the site of impact.

Directly at his feet a short, dagger-like shard bobs in a shallow pool of water, apparently floating despite the material’s seeming density. The point of the sliver points shakily at the largest chunk of meteor until a strong gust of wind blows through the courtyard, sending it spinning madly about its axis. Kelraji watches with bemused interest as the shard slows its rotation, then stops spinning completely, its point coming to rest directed once again at the main body of the meteor.

Suddenly, the adept feels as if he is floating upward, like he is being pulled into the open sky by some unseen rope. Now he is looking down at himself standing at the edge of the blasted fountain, surveying the landing site of the mysterious meteor. “Send word to my artificer,” he hears himself say, now nothing more than a speck in the center of the sprawling civilization below him. “Tell him to ready the forge.”

The words echo in his head as he jerks awake with a start and a sharp breath of air. This time he wakes to the dimly-lit interior of the stone room he shares with his two companions.

Chapter Three - Bonus Stage 2

Sleep takes Linus like a fuse takes to flame: swiftly, easily, and completely. In his dreams he is back on the pier of New York city, hanging by his belt from a rope as the water moves steadily away from him. Above him, he sees the others on their cords, Jake, Kelraji, Thomas and Shane, all dangling securely, but suddenly his own line snaps, and he is falling, tumbling, out of control. He grabs desperately with psychokinetic fingers for his lifeline, but it is hopeless, he is gone, done for. He twists in the air to face the murky waters as they rush to meet him.

He passes through the churning water without splash or impact, plummeting down into an endless void. Far below him, a distant spark shines, growing in size as he races toward it. The flame solidifies into a human face as he grows nearer, and Linus recognizes the tortured face of his totem, howling in agony, his features mammoth now, filling the darkness. Instinctually, Linus brings his hands up in front of his face as he falls directly through Prometheus’ gaping maw, feeling the overwhelming heat of the apparition as he passes through the ring of fire.

A rough hand jerks his arms down from in front of his face, and he looks up, bewildered, to see the soot-stained face of a dwarf above him, his forehead knit with worry. The man’s gigantic beard flaps up and down as he yells in his face, his breath thick with the stench of mead and damp. “Git up, ye ninny! It’s no time for layin’ about!” The dwarf hauls him to his feet, shoving something into his open hands. “Get this marak stone to the armory, while there’s still time! The Runeward are our only hope. I will hold the ratmen. Go!”

The summoner looks down at the object in his hands, fascinated by what he sees. It is a stone that glows with emerald light, covered in arcane inscriptions and partially enclosed in a casing made of bronze and iron, which is alive with a network of cogs, screws and tubing which clank slowly of their own volition. As his fingers brush the bare stone, the green light grows stronger, and the mechanical components increase the tempo of their turning. Even more surprisingly, his hands no longer appear to be his own—they are stout and thick-fingered, covered in dirt and matted with coarse black hair.

The dwarf in front of him gives him a shove, pointing down a long, uneven tunnel which stretches on into gloomy darkness. “Go, ye paunce! I will hold the passage, but I shan’t die in vain!” He delivers a swift kick to Linus’ ass, which feels strangely well-padded.

They are in a tunnel braced by rickety frames of wood every twenty or thirty meters, and guttering torches light the way. In the direction the dwarf is pointing, the passage stretches on into the gloom, its length impossible to gauge. From the opposite direction, a noise like a hundred scuttling vermin can be heard, accompanied by the frenetic squeaking of something too large to be a mere house rat.

More out of fear than purpose, Linus careens down the dark tunnel and into the gloom. He does not pause for even a moment to look over his shoulder. In his mind he tries to unravel why this might be unusual, but the thoughts make little progress as adrenaline begins to course assertively through his system.

The summoner runs down the narrow passageway as fast as he can, though his legs seem to take him a shorter distance with each step than he is accustomed to. The chattering of a hundred tiny vermin mouths sounds behind him, followed by a an agonized scream, then silence.

The tunnel quickly dumps him into a massive underground cavern, its roof supported by impossibly large pillars which stretch upwards into the gloom. He finds himself at the parapet of a sizable fortress built into the wall he just came from, and looks over it to see an all-out war raging below him. A host of dwarves clad in silver armor battle in organized blocks of footmen against an unending horde of what appear to be half-men, half-rats. The creatures range in all sizes, from swarms of human-shaped rat-creatures to elephant-sized mutants and larger, all armed and armored with crude iron implements. The dwarves seem to be losing badly, their ranks constantly retreating. Already their rearguard is pressed up against the walls of the castle, and their ranks begin to disintegrate before his eyes as they become unable to retreat against the oncoming masses.

A dwarven crossbowman comes bumbling into him as he stands gaping, nearly knocking the glowing contraption from his hands. “By Thorin’s beard, ye’ve got a stone! Git it to the armory lad, on the double. Are ye mad or daft?” The dwarf rushes him down a central passageway leading into the heart of the castle. He bursts through a set of large double doors to stumble upon another scene of carnage. He stands inside a large workshop, strewn all about with scores of dead, both ratman and dwarf, the stone floor slick with ichor.

In the center of the room, standing on top of a literal mound of corpses, a lone dwarf continues to battle against a half-dozen rat creatures. This last dwarf is covered from head to toe in ornate armor which is encrusted with glowing runes. He wields a wide circular shield in one hand and a gleaming hammer in the other. His weapon throws off an explosion of force and lightning as he strikes one of the lightly armored rat-things, exploding it into large chunks of meat.

None of the combatants seem to have noticed Linus come through the doors.

Linus looks around the room frantically for a home for the glowing stone. He feels like it should belong in a socket, perhaps like the glowing runes of the heroic dwarf making his last stand at the center of the room. Meanwhile, he reaches into his pocket to pull out his lighter, and begin a summoning spell for protection.

Linus makes a concerted effort to stop and look around the room, taking in the details of the space. The walls to either side of him are lined with alcoves large enough to fit a car standing on end. He counts five ports per side, each occupied by a giant anthropoid warmachine, all bearing thick slabs of armor and an array of exotic weapons and shields on each arm. He realizes with passing curiosity that they have been modeled after the dwarven form, round and stout with a stylized beard carved into the frontal armor.

He sweeps his gaze over the rest of the space, trying not to get lost in the details. Workbenches and massive lifts and harnesses litter the floor, strewn about with the wreckage of some awful combat. Ratmen and dwarven corpses carpet the floor where they lay in twisted pantomime of their dying throws. A lone heavy walker stands mere paces from his position by the door, its chest thrown open to admit a pilot. A constellation of tiny runes glow from within the cramped space. Deep at the heart of the contraption, he can make out a rectangular concavity in the jumble of pipes and cogs which might match the strange stone he was carrying.

A concussion fills the space as the last dwarf strikes down another scuttling creature, more gibs of flesh spraying obscenely from the mound of dead. The shockwave blasts another of the rat creatures into the air, sailing straight for him. The beast lands no more than ten feet away, forming a triangle between the summoner, the ratman, and the vacant dwarven walker.

Linus dives into his pocket for his lighter, but finds that he is not wearing his usual pants. He looks down to confirm that his body is indeed that of a dwarf’s, stout like a barrel, with a heavy mat of brown hair for a beard and thick, muscular fingers. He wears a leather tunic and jerkin with matching trousers, covered in a suit of simple iron scale mail. The emerald stone continues to glow in his hands, threatening to mesmerize him at any time. Weapons and bodies lay scattered at his feet, a round dwarven shield, a battered sword in the claws of a ratman, and a curious bronzed pistol-like weapon clutched in the fist of a dwarven officer, its business end terminating in two metal prongs like a tuning fork.

The summoner attempts to open a bridge to the spirit world, but finds it simply unresponsive. Whether this is because of his own inability or something about this world, he cannot say.

The nearby rat creature rolls over on its side, slightly dazed but apparently not seriously wounded. He makes eye contact with the creature, its eyes nothing more than gleaming black orbs radiating cruel semi-intelligence.

Linus makes a run for the walker by the door. The rats gaze has pierced him, somehow, and the feels the desperate need for protection. Scrambling towards the walker over the carrion, he hopes that he can reach the body in time and seal himself within. Figuring at how to operate it will be difficult, but it’s is only chance.

Linus’ short legs carry him to the mechanical contraption, and he clambers over one oversized knee joint to hoist himself into the central cavity. The emerald device in his hands begins to pulse with an ever increasing tempo. At this proximity he can tell that the rectangular opening above the walker’s bicycle-like saddle does indeed match the dimensions of the bronze casing housing the glowing stone.

From behind him, Linus can hear the continued battle of the other dwarf, and closer, the scuttling sounds of a giant rat moving across stone accompanied by a low, predatory hiss.
Linus fumbles with the stone for a second, trying to get a grip with his on his too-short arms and fingers. Getting a grip on the stone with both hands, he gently pushes it into the cavity.. hoping for a kind of locking click or other response. Ever so briefly, he is visited by the thought that this must be a dream, and he wonders what subconscious hole dredged up this odd experience. But the immediacy of the dreamworld almost immediately pulls him back in, and he continues with his task of getting this walker operational.

The device slides into place, the various tubes and gears studding its surface meshing perfectly with the clockwork of the larger machine. Linus twists in the saddle to face forward as a brilliant viridian light fills the walker’s cramped interior. The entire machine stirs into motion, enveloping him like a living suit of armor. Grips extend to meet his hands, and clamps close over his crude dwarven boots to hold his legs in place. The face-like chestplate begins to hinge closed with a pneumatic hiss.

A strange and novel sensation washes over him, somewhat like astral projection but with a markedly different flavor, not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather a different-body experience, as if the walker’s form and his own were suddenly one and the same. He could feel the cold, subterranean air against the steel exterior of the thing as if it were his own skin, could flex the walker’s joints as if they were his own arms and legs, could see the outside world as if his own eyes were attached to the outside of the massive construct. Runes both alien yet somehow familiar begin to scroll across his field of vision, relaying data he does not comprehend. A crosshair blinks into existence in front of him, tracking the movement of his eyes.

A skittering thump jogs the summoner back to reality, and he looks down to see the head and arm of a rat-creature lodged in the opening of the front canopy. Gears whine and protest as the machine tries in vain to close the door despite the monstrous obstruction. The foul thing manages to push the chestplate open another hair, giving itself enough room to reach one horrid claw into the compartment and wrap its humanoid fingers around his leg.

Linus shrieks. “Get out you ugly beast!” he yells as he kicks down savagely with his free foot. Reaching out through the not-quite-astral link, he attempts to determine if he can will the arm of the mechanical golem he now inhabits in such a way as to rip the offending creature out by its tail.

Linus’ boot connects solidly with the flailing rat, but it is wedged too tightly in the opening to dislodge it. The ratman wraps its claw once more around his leg and sinks its sharp, yellowing teeth deep into his calf.

The summoner cries out in pain and the walker responds, seemingly reflexively, grabbing the tail-end of the rat thing with one mechanized hand and pulling it bodily from its chest. The obstruction now clear, the faceplate seals with a hiss and Linus suddenly loses all touch with his meat body as the arcane circuit between his consciousness and the dwarven walker is completed. He is no longer a stocky dwarf, but a massive figure of steel and clanking death. His barrel-like arms terminate in fully articulated fingers, and exotic guns bristle from his forearms, one bearing a ridge of silver nodes which dance with electricity while the other houses a glowing orange cylinder terminating with three pincer claws.
Linus, startled to see this writhing mass of meat and machine moving towards him, raises his guns at the mass. Trying to pick out rats on the outside of the tumble, he takes a shot before careening in to try to pull them off with his newly discovered mechanical strength.

Linus can feel the creature in his steel fist squirming fruitlessly in his grasp. Directly in front of him, the rune-armored dwarf finally loses his feet as two of the remaining rat beasts tackle him from behind. The last three swiftly join in, and all six combatants begin to roll down the mound of corpses toward him in one jumbled clump.

The gun on his left gauntlet crackles with life, sending a fat bolt of electricity leaping from the spines along its barrel. The blast transfers incredible force into the first rat it strikes, annihilating it with a sharp crack and a puff of gore. The arc leaps to two more of the ratmen, blowing one apart in a shower of giblets and frying the other until he is nothing more than a blackened, smoking corpse. Some of the energy is transferred to the armored dwarf as well, causing the runes on his suit of full plate to flash and burn with arcane magics.

The dwarven walker rumbles forward and he levels his other gun, an orange tube with pincers on its end. As he discharges the weapon, an invisible force lifts one of the hapless creatures into the air and sucks it toward him, holding it suspended a few feet in front of his fist. He pulls the trigger again and the rat rockets away, striking the far wall with a wet crack before sliding lifelessly to the floor.

The remaining ratman and the dwarven artificer roll to his feet, and he stomps the beast dead beneath his mechanical heel. Finally, he closes his fist over the beast he holds in his hand, ending its pitiful life.

The rune-encrusted dwarf hauls himself to his feet and taps the head of his hammer against the walker’s chest. Linus’ link with the mech fades, and the chestplate hinges open, its body lifeless once more. Confusion and surprise spreads over the other dwarf’s face. “You? But ye dinnot have the rune touch—how could ye have operated one of the runeward?”

A terrible crash sounds in the deep somewhere far away, but not too far. Fear darkens the artificer’s features as the faint sounds of drums and marching feet reach them from the double doors at their back. “Ack, there’s nay time. They’ll be after the marak stone, but I’ll die before I let that happen.” He reaches behind Linus and extracts the strange contraption, the green rock at its center still glowing brightly. “Take the stone to the altar room and find the statue of Dugmaren. Tap three times upon the tome in his hands, and hide this in the opening. Go, before they return!”

The dwarf thrusts the green stone into his hands and shoves him in the opposite direction of the noise, a set of double doors leading to another torchlit room.

Linus stumbles, confused. Once again he is whisked along by the energy of the situation, carried forward to some inevitable end beyond his understanding. What his doing here, and what body his consciousness might be inhabiting, seems beyond the immediacy of the moment. The fear that pumps through his veins like a liquid metal.

He searches the room for exits, looking for the one that might be the alter room. He beseeches the mech-dwarf:

“Point the way! I don’t know where I am!”

The dwarf turns, frustration and disbelief plain on his face. “Never been to the altar room, boy? Bleedin’ atheist, are ye? Thorin’s beard!” He points to a set of doors at the back of the armory with his runic hammer, then turns his attention back to the front doors as the beat of the ratman wardrums looms ever closer.

Linus follows his directions dutifully, still unsure if he is living out another man’s life or just some terrible, curry-induced nightmare. Sure enough, he jogs down a short corridor to find himself in a room with a vaulted ceiling. Wooden pews fill the spacious room, and massive marble-hewn statues of dwarves in heroic poses line the walls. Linus counts 14 altars in all, each holding conspicuous and likely symbolic objects—a fierce warrior with axe and shield, a perplexingly-bearded she-dwarf holding a flower and interlocking rings, a figure hunched over an anvil bearing mallet and tongs, and so on.

Linus hunts for a figure holding a tomb of some kind. Running down the aisles, hearing the cacophony of the wardrums approach, he achieves a moment of clarity.

Is this the past? Astral resonance theory would suggest that the harmonics of two beings separated through spacetime might come into a kind of binding… though it would presume backward flow of information through the otherwise fully thermodynamically compliant theory. The thought catches his breath, breaking through the fear. In a moment of insight, he thinks, perhaps he should look for a statue holding a tomb looking an awful lot like the one his companions have been carrying, that apparently holds so much power.

The dwarf makes one and a half rounds of the altars before he is certain there is only one statue holding a book. He inspects it closer and sees the carved book bears little in common with their own—theirs has an ornate locking system along the side opposite the spine, and words on the cover which look like the scratches of some primitive race.

The statue is cut from granite, an artfully carved stone figure depicting an elderly dwarf dressed in simple clothes with a plain cloak around his shoulders. He clutches a heavy tome to his chest with one hand, and holds up a single candle in the other, as if lighting his way on some bold new venture.

Linus looks at the cover for a fraction of a second, reflecting on the script. But he is not a linguist, and this is sure to be a futile effort. Huridly, he raps three times on the book, then steps back. He keeps his eyes on the room’s entrance, hoping desperately that the horrific creatures will not breach the room. He fears in his heart that this nightmare is more real than imagined.

The characters on the front of the stone book are foreign yet strangely familiar. They look something like the ancient runes of lost Nordic races, though their form and execution suggest that they are more than just crude symbols. “The Xothor’s Grimoire” a voice from somewhere deep within his mind offers.

The statue begins to rumble with unseen movement as soon as he raps on the book’s surface. The carved hand clutching the tome vibrates, then begins to rotate up at the elbow like the bar of a door. As soon as it is clear, the cover of the tome hinges slowly open with a cascade of dust and grit, revealing a large concavity in the statue’s chest roughly three feet square. Two items occupy the space already, a heavy tome and what looks to be a mechanical head, its bronze casing covered in a fine layer of dust. The dim, lifeless orbs of its golden eyes stare lifelessly up at him.

A sharp “scree! scree!” sounds from the dark, startling the summoner and causing him to bobble the emerald stone in his hands. It falls into the opening on the statue’s chest, which immediately slams shut of its own accord, throwing up another cloud of powder. As the dust settles, He turns to see a dozen points of red light up the gloom of the entryway, a dozen pairs of beady eyes lurking in the darkness.

Linus jerks awake, suddenly finding himself once more in the dimly lit stone room which he shares with his two companions.

Chapter Three - Bonus Stage 3

Within minutes, Kelraji and Linus are snoring loudly into their straw-filled pillows, their eyelids twitching as they pass deep into the valley of sleep. Jake sits by his lonesome next to the fireplace, picking over the remains of their dinner and contemplating his next move.

Jake wraps his coat around himself and sits crosslegged, staring into the fire. After a while, he takes his guns apart and meticulously cleans them, shining the barrels and getting the discharged powder out of the rifling.

He stays awake through the night while his partners sleep, keeping vigilance over their strange new apartment and mulling over the day’s events. He comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t know enough about the locals or their new hosts to take much decisive action. Frustrated with waiting, he drifts off to sleep early in the morning, trying his best to keep one eye open, back to the wall and facing the door.

Jake’s uncanny fortitude keeps him up through most of the night, but in the end he allows himself a brief period of rest, drifting off to join his companions in the nether of his subconscious.

As usual, Jake’s dream is vivid, all-consuming and as real as any given moment of his life these days. He finds himself in a simple bunkhouse built of plain wooden slats. The floorboards are well worn, and three beds line one wall, each strewn with the trappings of young men—gunbelts, riding boots, serapes and wide-brimmed field hats. A handful of firecrackers poke out from a saddlebag thrown over one headboard. A cool breeze blows in through the door, where Jake can see fields of grass rippling in the distance.

A round mahogany endtable stands conspicuously in one corner of the room, and the gunslinger is drawn to it. Arrayed across the table are a handful of pistols, most of them revolvers, fanned out like the hour-marks on a clock’s face. Jake leans in to inspect them, counting eight in total, with an empty space for a ninth.

The weapon at the twelve o’clock mark is larger and grander than the rest by a fair margin, a huge revolver forged from gleaming steel, its handles finished with a fine-grained wood.

Moving clockwise, the next two pistols seem to go together, both revolvers of similar manufacture to the first, but of a more modest size, and crafted from more mundane metal. The first of the pair looks lightweight, yet unbalanced, and sports a rook’s skull carved into the grip. The other pistol is solid and sturdy looking in contrast, steadfast and reliable while its match seems loose and unpredictable.

After these comes another apparent paired set of revolvers, matching in shape but different in coloration. The first is stained a tough gunmetal black with delicate ivory grips, creating a sharp, almost befuddling contrast. The other is coated in bronze with carved wooden grips. Its foresight has an odd, S-shape design to it, like the teeth of a key rounded down with use.

The remaining three weapons depart entirely from the traditional revolver designs of the first five. The one following the bronze revolver at roughly six o’clock is also made of bronze, though its design is incredibly strange, seemingly alien. Instead of a barrel this one has two solid metal prongs which jut forth in parallel like the arms of a tuning fork, their purpose unclear. Behind this contraption is a mechanism which seems to rotate like a revolver’s cylinder, though it has only two chambers, each for impossibly large slugs, with nothing behind the chambers to serve as a base or firing pin.

The next gun Jake at least recognizes, an exotic design of modern revolver with the cylinder in line with the trigger rather than above it. A slide-like mechanism signals the revolver’s ability to fire semi-automatically. A silhouette of the statue of liberty is stamped in pink upon the weapon’s barrel.

The eighth and last piece is another strange one, a stolid semi-automatic model reminiscent of a brick in shape and stature. The handgun’s sighting rails and safety mechanisms, if there ever were any, have all been stripped down, adding to the weapon’s rectangular image. A raised metal nub sits at the center of the grip where the shooter’s palm might lay, though its purpose is unclear.

There is an empty space for a ninth pistol between this gun and the first, occupied only by a faded spot in the wooden surface of the table in the shape of a Ruger Old Army.

Jake, not one to stand on ceremony, runs his hands across each revolver in turn, feeling the cold metal. The dream, if it is one, is complete and consuming, and he finds himself regarding each firearm as an individual, like a person. They each have their own personality, power, and flaws. They are beautiful. His eyes linger on the alien, two-pronged revolver. The owner of this weapon was no gunslinger of this world.

He draws his father’s weapon, so plain next to these, but with all the memories and power of his family. ‘E.C.’, his father’s initials, grace the handle and his fingers trace their familiar lines as he lays it in its assigned spot with the other eight.

The table begins to turn as Jake completes the wheel. The pistols brush beneath his fingers one at a time, and now with each touch he hears voices in his head, a different voice for each gun. Some are rough and bitter, others jovial and laughing. With each new pistol, he feels as if he is crossing some bridge within his mind, reaching out across vast distances to hear the murmur of other voices. The slow revolution of the table mesmerizes him, dragging him into a deep revery where time seems to stop.

After what seems like ages the gunslinger looks up to find that he is no longer in the shabby bunkhouse. Now he stands with the table in the middle of a long, grassy rectangle lined with hedges on all sides. A thick white line of chalk bisects the field in two. In the distance, Jake can make out a castle of grand design built into a bluff. Gilead, a voice from somewhere within provides.

The table continues to turn in front of him, clicking with each rotation like a tumbling cylinder as the pistols pass beneath his open palm one by one.

‘Gilead.’ The word is alien to his tongue, but fits in the palm of his mind like an old friend. ‘Gilead.’ His memory is wracked by another name, but it slips from him before he can pin it to reality with a word.

The revolvers are mesmerizing, certainly, and each radiates a different power and voice, speaking to him out of place and time. He wonders if Gilead is a clue to his next step, and his curiosity gets the best of him; he places his hand back on his father’s gun and listens with his heart for what it has to say.

The table ceases its rotation as Jake’s hand comes to rest upon his gun. A dizzy thrill rolls over him, a seasick excitement which recalls his encounter with the interplanar knothole of yesterday night. A man materializes from absolute nothingness in the middle of the grass lawn some ten paces away, opposing him from the other side of the white stripe.

Jake is not completely surprised to find himself staring back at him, their deadshot-blue eyes locking with immediate tension. Well, some version of himself, at any rate. This Jake Chambers looks a sight older, his face more gaunt and creased, his form thinner and stringy. He wore an eye patch over his left eye, and his right arm was not his own but some alien appendage in its place, thick and bark-covered like the skin of a living tree. His jacket and hat were of his style, but done all in black. Two pistols hang low on his hips in the gunslinger way, the right his father’s Ruger, the left a strange bronzed handle, recalling the mysterious pronged shooter from the spinning table.

The double bows low, one leg straight out in front, tapping his left collarbone three times with that claw-like hand of living bark. “Hile, gunslinger.” He stands straight and looks around. “Feh, I remember this. Let’s see which way the wind blows this time. So, Jacob Chambers of New York city, what will you have? Palaver, or straight to business?”

’It’s only a dream,’ Jake assures himself. Only a dream. He is wary of these doppelgangers—something in him tells him that despite its obvious falsehood, there is something portentous in this vision. A warning of things to come, mayhap? He looks the thing over: if this is his future, he had best wrest what information he can from it. Dreams in this Outworld, like his dreams in New York, are far from the random mutterings of an unshackled mind.

He bows low, one foot out in imitation of his guest, and sweeps his hat across his body. He removes his father’s gun from the table and holsters it—the familiar weight comforts him, giving him confidence which he projects through his voice, “Palaver. Spirit or demon—what has brought you here to my dream-world? Since you have played this hand before, with what intentions of ka are we met?”

Jake’s doppleganger loops his thumbs into his gunbelt, his expression one of true contemplation. “The skin between worlds stretches thin when one walks the sleeper’s isle. Things bleed through, crossing over space and time. Even now you must know that you are set apart from the other two. We see ’cross worlds the way other men see ’cross a line of fence.”

The man in black smiles. "Your intuition serves you well, gunslinger. I had the same thought when I was in your when, and it is true now as it was true then. You ken three cards on the table, your hand full of could-be’s and what-if’s, while I ken all five, my fortune all but told. You have but the flop, freshly drawn, while I stand in the river, the brink of one last wager, my followers scattered, broken and turned traitor, my ka-tet divided and at the mouth of ruin. Trust no one Jake, not those you meet along the path, not your men, not the three, not even yourself.

“And that’s all you’ll get for free. Prove your meddle and you’ll earn another spin. Too slow and its last stop, everyone off.” The other Jake hovers one hand above his father’s gun, elbow cocked and fingers waggling.

Jake’s face remains stony, but he can’t help but cock an internal smile. ‘So simple, the rules of this place.’ He believes now that this is him from another when, but cannot digest yet the thought that his companions might betray him; though fresh-met they are, he feels as though Linus and Kelraji would not turn on their group without just cause.

His opponent readies himself and he follows suit. One last time, two gunslingers square off under the alabaster peak of gilded Gilead, opposing sides of an extinct race of natural-born warriors, the cursed guns of Fate. Jake’s keen eyes are locked and loaded, fingers flex slowly over his weapons, his pulse quickens and time seems to slow.

The first draw is like lightning.

Jake goes for his father’s gun like quicksilver, but he is dismayed to see his opponent clear his weapon first. The other Jake levels his own Ruger Old Army in that alien, tree-like hand of his and fires. Even in the face of death Jake does not flinch, choosing to go for his own guns rather than dodge or turn aside. A tongue of fire and smoke licks at him from across the grassy lawn, and a force like a sledgehammer strikes him in his chest, lifting him from his feet.

Jake narrows his eyes, battling through the pain as he finally clears leather with both of his revolvers, loosing two shots as he travels backward through the air in the exaggerated crawl of the ’slinger’s battle fever. The first round catches the black-clad Jake in the hip, sending him spinning sideways. Jake volleys with his left, but the second round flies wide, unable to connect with the man tumbling through his dreams.

Jake lands hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him and giving fresh life to the gaping wound in his chest. He hears the other man thud to earth before the world goes black. When he is able to open his eyes again, he gathers that mere seconds have passed, but already it is too late. The man in black stands over him, his father’s gun still clutched in his bark-covered fist and trained squarely at Jake’s head. His other hand is pressed firmly against his blood-soaked gut.

The other Jake grimaces as he speaks. “You dueled well enough, but you’ve lost, same as my when. I’ll give ye one last morsel before I send ye home: You must save Henry from himself. Show him our way, or his addiction will betray you all.” Without waiting for a response, the other man pulls the trigger. Jake watches the hammer fall with a crash of gunpowder, and suddenly the earth beneath him has turned to liquid, and he is sinking, cast into the depths by the revolver’s fiery report. The endtable above him tips sideways, sending the myriad of pistols cascading after him. Together, they fall through space, and Jake twists around to see a spot of green in a field of blue rising slowly to meet him. Sure enough, the spot widens to become an island wreathed in clouds. Trees cover its majority, though some of its coast has given way to beaches or cliffs. Mountains dominate the island’s northern shore, but he falls towards a peninsula on its southern tip. The pistols of his extended ka-tet pass by him, reaching the island ahead of him and disappearing across the hills, forests, beaches and caves.

Jake jerks awake with a start in his chair by the fire. He runs his hands over his forehead and chest, and though they ache with the memory of pain, he finds no wounds. The fire has died down to a handful of glowing embers, and the first fingers of dawn creep through the meurtriere dotting the stone walls of their bedroom. Kelraji and Linus are in their cots, still dozing fitfully in the depths of sleep.

Jake only has a few moments to himself before a hushed knock sounds in the murky gloom of dawn. It comes again after a beat, painstakingly quiet, but definitely coming from the other side of their stout wooden door. The slumber of the other two travelers is not disturbed in the slightest by the appearance of their guest.

The fog of sleep lifts from Jake’s mind quickly, as always, and he finds himself again in their tiny chamber, the embers of the coals dying at his feet. He decides to think on the message from his other self later; the message on the other side of the door may not wait for his introspections.

Lifting himself from his seated position quietly and carefully, he dares to draw one of his weapons as he makes his way across the chamber. He stops at the door and thinks for a moment whether to wake his companions, but the voice in his head tells him that this message is for him alone. Besides, what consequence might it bear to wake unexpectedly from a dream in this place? If his own nightmare were any indication, they are busy battling demons of their own.

Pistol raised, he knocks once on his side of the door, ever so softly.

a man’s voice with a British accent responds, his strained whisper barely audible. “It’s Arthur Glass! Please let me in. I’m not supposed to be out here.”

The bedraggled slave squeezes through the door, his features strained and breath short. “Thank God you’re awake! I can only imagine. . .” Glass looks over at Jake’s Indian companion. “And I am glad he is asleep as well.”

Arthur unrolls what looks to be a square of leather etched with some sort of drawing. He hands it to the gunslinger. “Please, sir, I beg of you. Help me get out of here. Help meescape.” His eyes grow large. “I know things about this place. Look, I made you a map based on some stuff I found in Mer’veloth’s library, along with my own observations. I’ve marked what I know of the land already. Death is better than the life I have here.”

Jake takes the leather scrap and glances at it quickly; it’s crude, but it would tell them enough to see whether they were being lead astray by their dark elf guide. He pockets it silently.

He places one hand on Arthur’s shoulder reassuringly. Whispering, “I will help you escape, Arthur. One way or the other. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a place you do not belong. For now, I need to know more about Mer’veloth and his motives. I am not wrong in assuming he knows more about the book than he is letting on, am I? And who was the sorceress at his side—might she be plied for more information, or is she as deadly and twisted as he?”

The man’s eyes begin to brim with tears of joy at the gunslinger’s words. “Oh thank you, thank you Jesus! Yes, I imagine Mer’veloth knows more about your book than he lets on. His people have lived on this island a long time, and no doubt have collected some knowledge of Telen’oeran and his mystic items. The sorceress Zan’esu likewise may know a great deal; from what I have seen she is as powerful as she is beautiful. You are right to distrust them—the elves’ society is depraved, valuing cruelty, deceit and backstabbing over all else. I have no doubt they will turn on you the second they believe you can no longer be manipulated. If I were you, I would run from them at first light, and never look back.”

The slave cocks his head nervously, listening for footsteps in the hall. The veins at his neck pulse with anxious fervor.

Jake senses the anxiety in Arthur’s mannerisms, and quickens his speech, sensing their time grows short. “I know these elves are not to be trusted—we have a saying in my world, ‘never trust an elf’. I will deal with them carefully. One more question, if you can. Who are the people that have captured Mer’veloth’s castle? Are they our friends, or our enemies?”

Arthur bobs his head nervously and wipes a bead of sweat from his upper lip. “Ah yes, the Myrmid, a strange people indeed, more alien than any even I have seen. They ride giant insects to war, ants the size of tanks and just as deadly. They use the bug’s chitinous plating for arms and armor, and even seem to worship them like some sort of terrible god. Mer’veloth had me captive when they came for us, swarming up from the deep beneath the castle and annihilating everything in their path.”

The slave’s eyes seem to light up as he mentions this last bit. “The deep. . . of course! There is an extensive system of caverns beneath the castle, with tunnels that seem to go for miles in every direction. I know of one entrance here,” he points to the map in Jake’s hands, indicating a crossed pick and hammer with ‘Deeproad by the Sea’ etched beneath it. “The tunnels go all the way to the base of the castle,” he continues, running his finger along the map to the marker labelled ‘The Iron Mountains.’

Arthur shrugs. “Anyway, it might be one way to avoid being caught by Myrmid patrols, or the giants. Giants hate going underground. As to whether the Myrmid are friend or foe, I cannot say. I know they are human, or look like it at least, and I know they speak English, though God knows why. What knowledge I have is the tidbits I’ve been able to observe of them as what was left of the elven host fled south to set up camp here.”

Jake rubs his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “Interesting, interesting. Giants, you say? Ant riding warriors? What place-out-of-time have we stumbled into?”

He motions Arthur to the door, sensing his partners are near waking. “Arthur, I would ask one last question before you leave. Can our guide be trusted to take us to the castle safely?”

Arthur scratches at the bedraggled hair on his head. “Tis. . . Tis is like all dark elves. He will do as you ask for as long as it is in his favor to do so, and not a minute longer. He may take you to the Myrmid, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stab you in the back when you’re through. When we’re through,” the slave adds hopefully.

“Aye,” Jake nods in assurance, “You need not worry on that count, Arthur. Count on me. Now please, I don’t want to delay you any further. Thank you for your help on our quest.”

The slave bobs his head once more, grasping the gunslinger’s hand graciously. “No, thank you, thank you my dear man. I will find you on the road once you set out from Splinterhold. You need not wait for me.” With that, Arthur Glass slips down the hallway, padding into the gloom with painstakingly care.

Chapter Three - Part 2

The three’s attention is drawn back to reality by the sudden, novel silence which pervades the armored personnel carrier. The plane’s engines have been cut. Jake and Linus follow Kelraji through the carrier’s door, finding the interior of the hold bustling with activity. The rear gangway lowers, revealing a majestic field of golden grass and gently rolling hills. In the distance, waves can be seen crashing up against a rocky bluff, a foaming white-green sea stretching out beyond it to the edge of the world. The pleasant smells of wet grass, healthy earth, and far-off seawater reach their noses.

A procession of elves rounds the bend in front of them, galloping in uniform double ranks. The vanguard consists of lightly armored knights riding vicious, raptor-like steeds, followed by a single wooden carriage yoked to four more of the bipedal lizards.

The mercenary Lieutenant stands waiting for them on one side of the ramp with four of her soldiers around her, patiently watching for further instruction. Behuniak and Vontarion are at the foot of the ramp already, their heavy helmets concealing their faces.

A single male elf emerges from the carriage as it rolls to a halt, stepping confidently out on light feet. His features are similar to the emissary’s—a sharp, pale face with dark eyes and straight black hair drawn back into a ponytail. He wears a simple leather vest over a woven purple shirt, with loose canvas pants cinched about his waist by a purple scarf. A slender rapier hangs at one hip, with a matching dirk on the other.

The dark elf begins to walk towards the plane at a decidedly nonthreatening pace.

Linus looks to Gurps and whispers:

“Sorry about the milk, but do you know who that guy is?” pointing at the elf approaching them.

Jake shakes the brass in his bag absentmindedly, like a handful of deadly coins. He looks out to the newly-arrived emissaries, their strange mounts and carriage-house, taking them in, sizing them up. He looks for evidence of modern weapons or technology, but sees nothing at the moment.

Turning back to his companions and their two new guides, “Let’s not wait on ceremony, I want to greet these people peacefully, and from there parlay with their leader. Gurps, Toot-Toot, you can tell us all about the Fay king after we’ve dealt with our new guests.”

He walks out the APC and down the ramp, drawing level with Vontarion and Behuniak. “Vontarion, please announce us. Try to be nice about it.”

Kelraji hisses as they approach the group.

“I’ll ride with the emissary. No safer place.”

The red-robed elf sighs, clearly still of the opinion that translation is a task far beneath him. He calls out a phrase of Sperethiel to the approaching swordsman, who answers in formal tones. He inclines his head and sweeps one arm in the direction of the carriage door.

Vontarion brushes his cape aside and starts toward the antiquated vehicle. “He’s inviting us to their little stone hut. Come, let’s get this over with, before the stench of dinosaur droppings overwhelms me.”

The fairies flutter around Linus’ head, tittering to themselves. Gurps whispers in Linus’ ear, “never seen the guy, but I don’t spend much time on this plane. By the looks of him, I’d say. . .” Gurps squints at him with audible concentration. “Definitely an elf. He’s big, too, that’s for sure, like you. But he’s no outlander, I can tell that. Sheesh, is this what passes for earthwalker fashion these days? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that vest.”

Kelraji shrugs, and walks toward the emissary.

“Translator, tell them I will ride with their emissary in the coach, as will you.”

Linus follows along, fairies in tow.

“Me three!” He marvels at the raptors, while doing his best to maintain maximum distance from them.

Hrrm." Jake just grumbles to himself thoughtfully, still trying to determine whether these newcomers are dangerous or mean them harm. Slipping on his shades, he follows his companions towards the raptor-drawn carriage.

The three follow Vontarion into the carriage. Jake’s practiced eyes sweep over the welcoming party, hunting for something amiss, a glimpse of technology or deception to clue him in that this is all some sort of elaborate plot. The lizard-riders, numbering roughly twenty in all, are equipped in a similar fashion to the first elf they encountered—simple plate armor over shirts of scale mail with matching pointed helms covering the face, belts hung with curved swords and pistol-gripped crossbows, and a lance gripped in one hand, flying a purple pennant which matches a sash wrapped about the waist. The lizards themselves bear saddles with high pommels and utilitarian barding, nothing more than a shaped plate to protect the head and another over the creature’s chest. One of the creatures snaps viciously at Linus as he passes, making him jump nervously.

The carriage, too, does not appear to be hiding any secrets. It is an elegant enough design, its body sweeping in a wide arch from front to back, giving it the appearance of a boat on wheels. The vehicle seems to be crafted from the pine which grows abundantly in the foothills beyond the grassy plain, constructed largely with all-wood techniques, using dowels and box joints to hold it together. The only metal appears to be on the undercarriage, where it has been used for suspension and to house the axles.

Upon close inspection, the soldiers’ equipment is in worse shape than one might expect, almost uniformly nicked and dinged in various places, with some plates of armor still bearing holes and small rends. The new emissary, by contrast, is clearly of a different class than the cavalry, as his clothing is of a decidedly finer cut, the steel of his rapier and matching dirk polished and immaculate.

The gunslinger checks the man’s person carefully as he passes him to board the coach, and catches something unusual about the shape of the heavy leather bracers he wears over each forearm. They are clearly a bit bulkier and thicker than one might expect from a simple piece of cured hide, and indeed, Jake marks two holes worked into the body of each, like the shafts of torpedo tubes on the bow of a submersible. As the swordsman sweeps his hand out to gesture them into the waiting carriage, Jake spots a loop of metal protruding from the bracer into the man’s palm, positioned so that the wearer might tug at it with a finger when he closes his fist. The gunslinger wagers it to be some sort of concealed claw, or even a dart-launcher, if the designer were especially pert.

The three men climb into the rear of the carriage, allowing Thomas, Vontarion, and the swordsman to sit in front. Sylvia and her mercenaries find space where they can on the outside of the coach, standing on steprails and clinging to the roof. Kelraji catches Vontarion shooting daggers at him from across the cabin, his expression full of venom at the slight of being called ‘translator.’ [Your relationship with Vontarion Do’Urden has decreased to -1.]

Their ride takes them through the grassland on a simple dirt track, providing a majestic view of the gently swaying grass stretching out before them, backed by pine-covered hills. Beyond this, the foothills rise into proper mountains, sprinkled with snow and wreathed in fog and cloud like a Transcendentalist’s oil painting. An exotic insect, looking something like a cross between a dragonfly and scorpion, lands on the windowsill, only to be chased away at spear-point by Toot-Toot.

Their journey brings them swiftly to the town’s entrance, their progress slowing as the vanguard works to shift the gathering crowd. Village folk pass by their windows, staring in at them with rapt curiosity. They are uniformly of the same ethnicity as the soldiers they have so far encountered: fair-skinned, with pointed elven ears and eyes and hair of a brown so dark it skirts true black. They wear simple clothes of roughspun fabric, stiff dresses in muted tones for the women, and for the men plain trousers and high-collared shirts with buttons running up the side of the body. Their homes and communal buildings all seem to have been built recently, and all at once, as they are built of hastily sawed slats with foundations of artlessly mortared stone and roofs of thatch or shingle. As they weave through the streets they do their best to size up the community, guessing that the population may be something in the range of one thousand elves.

At last, they draw up to the holdfast at the edge of the town, another quickly-built structure which stands overlooking the town on a small hill. The stones composing its walls are large and sloppily quarried, forming a modest wall around a central keep. They disembark and are ushered through the outer gate before being brought to the front entrance. Large purple banners displaying what looks to be an eye pierced through with a dagger decorate the walls. Stout wooden double-doors are swung open to admit them, but one of the guards holds out his hand as Vontarion approaches. They exchange a few words before the blonde-haired elf spits on the ground and turns away in disgust. “The mongrel tells me that highborn elves are not allowed in his lord’s castle. Clearly these people do not remember the age of legends, else they might realize they should all be dead by now.”

The procession carries on, absent their translator, passing through a modest dining hall to enter what must be the lord’s throne room. The walls form a large circle, and are hung with tapestries and lit by sconces bearing guttering torches. All along the walls sit men and women of noble stature, wearing fine garments and sipping from fluted cups. The center of the room is occupied by a large fire-pit piled high with smoldering embers, around which prances a troupe of gaily-clad dancers. At the opposite end of the room stands a throne atop a raised dais. An elven man sits there, his hair worked into a dozen heavy braids which fall over the luxurious purple robe draped over his shoulders. His features are fair, handsome yet brooding, and still bearing a touch of youth. The throne is flanked by two standing figures, one a beautiful woman, tall and full-figured and clutching a slim staff tipped with a massive red stone, the other a hunched, frowning old man who wrings his hands and casts anxiously about. At the lord’s feet is a large feline animal, with a leopard-spotted pelt and sabertoothed fangs.

Kneeling at the foot of the dais is another man, his presence somehow more curious than everything they have seen thus far. It is a human, his form gaunt and malnourished, displaying every rib clearly, his skin smeared with weeks of grime and soot and practically covered in vicious scars. His cheeks and eyes are sunken, his brown hair and beard crazed and matted with twigs. Heavy iron shackles bind his wrists and ankles, and he shivers uncontrollably despite the warmth of the chamber.

As the three enter, with Behuniak and the mercenaries behind them, a hush falls over the room. The dancers quickly stop their play and rush off to find seats. A guard gives the human’s chain a tug, and he speaks in a quavering British accent, not bothering to rise from his knees. “I am Arthur Glass, slave to this man, Mer’veloth, lord of these people. As his lordship will not sully his tongue with foreign words, I have been designated your interlocutor. He believes you are trespassing on his land, and demands payment for the privilege. Speak freely to me, as none here know the Queen’s English, save you and I. I suggest you appease him, if you want to live through the night.”

Linus’s eyes open wide to the man in chains. In a rare moment of care and prudence, he scans the room, and assenses the aura of the strange staff carrying woman.

Kelraji looks around the room. He’s not close enough to anyone to be dangerous, but they were allowed to bring their weapons, so they’re safe so far.

“Linus, it would be rude not to greet this man the way you met the last messenger, right?”

“Panchama, this man will touch your mind, allow him in. Tell your king that we respect his boundaries, and ask him how he performs the horse ceremony with no horses.”

Jake blanches, and says assertively, “Hello, Arthur Glass. I am Jake Chambers of New York and these are my companions, Kelraji Sivihara and Linus Templeton. These behind us would be who brought us here, Thomas Behuniak and Sylvia Dagonhart.”

The gunslinger clears his throat apologetically, “Please excuse Kelraji, he has a certain way with people. If you don’t mind, we have some questions for your king before we pay him homage. First, we believe we are brought here by fate, on a quest of importance for an item of great power. Should the call of destiny bring him to lend us aid, we would be most appreciative. Second, we would gladly leave his land, but the craft that brought us here can only be used to take us home again, and we mean on staying. We are glad to pay him homage, when we deem it fair and reasonable.”

Privately, Jake thinks to himself, ‘May as not come out with the whole of it. Fate lead us here, and will lead us out again.’

Kelraji frowns for a moment, unused to compromise. Then he launches into his companion, talking quickly, with more than a hint of his accent coming through.

“Before we know what, we need to know why. Do you also come from a land with castes as clear as those here? We deal with a Kshatriya, surrounded by the same, attended to by Brahmins. We were brought here past the Sudras in the town and the Vaishyas in the fields. The human is a fifth, untouchable, outside the system. Can’t you see the split? This lord’s kind are simple. They always want one thing. To stay on top. If we know why he’s in that seat instead of someone else, we know exactly how to appease him. I want to know how he got there, but if you feel your questions are important as well, they can be asked after he answers mine.”

Kelraji takes a deep breath, and visibly calms himself, looking back at the lord.

“How did this come to be your land? What ritual makes it yours, and yours alone?”

Linus merely looks around… clearly he is slow to absorb their new surroundings and is a bit off kilter.

Linus flips the switch in his brain which brings on his astral sight, nervously assensing the elven lord and his counsel. It is hard to make out much from across the spacious royal chambers, but the woman is clearly a powerful sorcerer. Confident strength radiates from her being, a crimson concoction of arrogance and spite. Even gazing upon the staff in her hands makes the summoner feel irritable and violent.

The sabertoothed leopard at the foot of the throne lifts its head curiously when Linus shifts onto the astral plane, sniffing in his direction with its triangular ears perked. The cat’s eyes glow like emeralds in Linus’ awakened sight.

Arthur Glass listens dutifully as they converse, the weight of the iron band around his neck seeming to drag him bodily to the stone floor. He responds when they finish, his British accent coming on stronger after hearing the post-colonial slant of Kelraji’s English. “If by that anthropology lesson you mean to say he owns slaves, then yes, it is true. They are in many ways a feudal people.” The guard holding his chain gives it a fierce yank, pulling the frail man onto his side. Glass rights himself wearily, shuffles to the edge of the dias, and mumbles to the dark elf lord.

Mer’veloth begins to speak in Sperethiel , his tone calm and deliberate. Though he does not yell, his voice fills the walls of his throne room. The assembled host of nobles and servants comes alive with excited murmurs as he finishes his sentence.

The enslaved man turns to address the three. “My lord says: I rule by right of birth, strength, and victory in chal’han se. I will tell you your task in due time, but first I must have answers. My scouts tell me the webway portal at the edge of my territory glows with fresh life, and cannot be closed. The next thing I know, you arrive in your skyship. Tell me, outlanders, what business have you with the rift network? Will you close them, or do you plan on stepping through?”

Kelraji nods as the slave speaks. Without turning to his companions, he begins cycling slowly through hand gestures with his left hand.

Muttering softly to himself, Kelraji’s brow furrows, and he works his own way through the situation

“The wheel certainly does turn. But to cross through realm so easily…Surely…”

Looking up, to the lord, Kelraji speaks louder, directly to the elf.

“The ritual, and the birthright, they are important. It is good that you are the real ruler in this land, free from imposters.

You shall have your tribute, as is your due. As we are tributaries here, are I granted the rights of the court? We three are hungry, tired, and in your debt. Surely one with such impressive surroundings has an outlying estate to house visitors that we can dwell in while we pay you your due."

Demurely, Kelraji keeps a straight face, filled with expectation, as he speaks, trying to convince the lord that this is custom where he, Kelraji, comes from.

Arthur Glass nods, and leans in once more to translate. The dark elf lord idly inspects his fingernails, flicking away some unseen speck of filth before responding. To their untrained hears, it sounds as if impatience is beginning to pervade his speech.

The slave shuffles forward to deliver the response. “My lord welcomes you to lodge in his keep, your right as honored guests. He does insist on hearing what you know of the portals, however. It has been. . .” Arthur trails off, lost in some unseen memory. “Ah, it has been many years since they were last active. Their opening is always a portentous thing in this land, so naturally the elves are eager to know how it is you’ve done it.”

Jake nudges Kelraji. “The book. Show them the book.”

Kelraji glances at the gunman, shrugs, turns to him, and whispers,

“You explain it then, all I know is it’s a book I can’t even open, much less read.”

Kelraji takes out the book, begins to unwrap it, and says, his eyes locked on the lord,

“We have come as representatives of a cabal of mystics. My esteemed companion will answer all of your questions to the best of his abilities. He knows everything I know and more.”

He holds the unwrapped book out to Jake, still facing the lord.

Jake takes the book gingerly, feeling the unnatural pulse of powerful magic beneath his fingers. He holds the book up so the assembled eyes can see it clearly. “This is the item which has brought us to your land, and we know as little about its operation as you do. We are not even able to open it, much less comprehend its purpose or power. Nor do we know of your webways; if they are the means by which we arrived in your land then they were opened for us, not by us. If you have sorcerers or diviners, perhaps the magics of this land will shed light on the book’s purpose, and what ties it may have to the opening of the portals.”

The gunslinger half-turns to look at his assembled entourage, scanning the faces for the dwarf who had traveled here before. He needs to know what the man knows about these people and their webway.

Jake looks behind him, passing his eyes over the faces of those who have come with him to the dark lord’s court. He sees the expressionless faceplate of Thomas Behuniak’s plumed battlehelm, the petite features of Sylvia Dagonhart framed by her short blonde locks, as well as her squad of mercenaries, the swarthy medic Rodriguez, Taengele, the elf bearing ice-blue tattoos across his bald head and neck, a hulking troll with a single bionic eye who clutches a Franchi SPAS-22 scattergun to his chest, and finally, an unassuming white male who stands to one side with a bored expression on his face, wiping his nose absentmindedly. Jake recognizes him as the soldier seated next to him on the plane, and once more the strange feeling that he is gazing upon an old friend or relative strikes the gunslinger’s mind. Nowhere to be seen, however, is the stocky, bearded man called Russ Gault. Absent instruction, it seems Behuniak decided not to invite any more of the Cabal than were specifically asked for.

Jake turns back to see an expression of pure awe spread slowly across Arthur Glass’ dirt-stained face. “It can’t be. . .” he mutters to himself, suddenly forgetting his place and station. His attending guard quickly jogs his memory with a backhanded strike, sending the poor man reeling once more. Dutifully, he picks himself up and kneels by his master’s throne, whispering to him in hushed tones.

The dark elf lord rises slowly to his feet, sweeping aside his heavy purple cloak with one gauntleted hand while gesturing to Glass and his attending sorceress with the other. He crosses the chamber with deliberate steps, his features underlit by the smoldering embers of the central firepit to give him a menacing, skeletal appearance. The sorceress strides after him, her long legs flashing through the V of her black satin dress. Glass trails them both, head and back bent in servitude.

Mer’veloth stops scant paces from the three men, so close his heavily perfumed scent fills their nostrils. His night-black eyes meet each of theirs in turn, sizing them up, his gaze undeniably pugilistic. As he shifts his attention to the book the dark elf’s expression shifts to one of greed and unfettered entitlement. He jerks his head at the sorceress, her beauty somehow even more striking up close, and she steps forward to pass her hand over the leather-bound tome in Jake’s hand.

The sorceress’ eyes widen, then narrow as she draws away. She brushes back a length of Mer’veloth’s hair to whisper in his ear. The dark lord listens, nods, then opens his mouth. The three are amazed to hear English come forth, his accent thick and strange as only the accent of a native Sperethiel-speaker could be. “This is book of Telen’oeran, man who sleeps in the gray castle. Long is his sleep, but now outlanders come, with his book, and the webway wakes again. Maybe Telen’oeran also wakes.” The dark elf lord pauses to consider briefly before continuing. “Book will be trade for outlanders in my realm. This is my price.” Mer’veloth holds out his hand to Jake, his mouth set in a hard frown.

With deliberate motion, Jake hands the book back to Kelraji, where he supposes it will be safest. The Indian man is a maniac when provoked, and after all, they are certainly not going to give up their only tie to their world in exchange for staying in this strange one.

“I apologize, Mer’veloth, we cannot part with this book. We are bound to it by fate, and for you even to attempt to take it from us would be futile; I’m not certain we could give up the book even if we wanted to. This quest is ours and ours alone. You will understand, of course.” His hands slide to the grips of his cannons; he concentrates inwardly and achieves the heightened senses of a gunslinger facing down a duelist under the Mid-World sun. The lord and his sorceress will have two new holes in their faces if they make a wrong move.

Kelraji shoots a scathing frown at Jake before attempting to diffuse the situation. Being out in the cold for so long in the last world has made Kelraji far less attached to returning and the concept of righteousness

“Gunslinger, the lord does not intend to take the book, he just wants access to its power. He knows that the book itself is useless in its current form. He wants to ensure that we stay safe while we help him unlock the book. Make sure that you understand what is being offered before you make your choice.”

Linus chips in before anyone can respond:

“Kelraji what you propose is absolute madness! This man of course warrants deference, but the book must remain in our possession. Surely it is obvious to him that we are as priests guarding a sepulcher, though we would be honored to… serve… his court.”

The last bit is said unconvincingly as Linus looks at Arthur Glass’s wretched condition.

Jake looks Kelraji in the eyes as he continues to hold the enchanted tome out to him, trying to gauge if he believes the words coming from his mouth. As usual, however, the Buddhist monk and any intentions he might be harboring are completely lost to Jake. Kel seems to be trying to incriminate some deeper meaning to him, but the gunslinger cannot decide whether the Indian man is ready to slice him in half or surrender the artifact himself. Despite his words, Kelraji neither offers the tome over, nor moves to put it away in his pack.

Mer’veloth waits patiently for each of them to speak, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. When Jake’s hands drop to the grips of his revolvers, the room fills with the rustling of holsters and the muted gasps of womenfolk. The gunslinger’s mind drops into a deathly chill as he lays hands upon his father’s gun, the battle fever of his creed gripping him like the winds of ka. [Jake’s reaction increases to 9 for 6 turns.]

Every man in the room is on his feet, a dozen silver-plated guards and nearly thirty nobles. The soldiers brandish elaborate heavy crossbows at their heads, each one cocked and loaded with an iron-tipped bolt. The bowguns appear to have some sort of drum magazine built into their elegantly crafted bodies.

The courtesans draw slender bow pistols from robes and belt-loops, miniaturized versions of the rifle-sized repeaters and gilded in self-conceited patterns of silver and gold. Even the dancing troupe draws knives and punch-daggers, their troubadour masks leering at them in an unsettling manner.

The lord casually raises one hand, causing the assembled throng of dark elves to lower their weapons as one. “You would kill me, outlander? Then what? Fight through two hundred armed men? No, outlander, no. Do you think I have never seen gun before? Have never felt the kiss of black powder?” Mer’veloth smiles a twisted smile and begins to pace, still addressing Jake Chambers. “You should listen to your friends, mon’keigh. I do not like threats.”

The dark elf takes a few strides, his expression one of deep thought. “But I am not robber, outlander. As this one says, there are always ways to serve. . .” He turns to face them, spreading his arms. "We have a saying, my people. Te semerathrsa, suasthra. It means, ‘Do not watch the first arrow, but fire again.’ If at first we do not succeed, we try again, yes? If you try to kill me, I will flay all flesh from your bones. But I do not think this stops you. No, I see zathien in your face.

“Here is second arrow: You will travel North along the narrow pass until you come to fortress built into the side of a mountain. This was home, before we were invaded, sacked and cut down as we ran. Now it is infested by humans like you. Myrmid.” The dark elf practically spits the name, so overwhelming is his spite. “Get me back my castle, and you and your skyship are welcome on my land.”

Kelraji, momentarily distracted by his utter failure at a language he thought he knew, snaps back to the situation at hand, and rewraps the book as he speaks.

“If your court alone could kill all us, how are supposed to win against those you can’t? You must have a plan for us, or you would not send us, and all that we possess, to danger.”

Jake holds a hand out to steady his dark-skinned companion, and looks around the circular room, at the suddenly raised weapons. I can’t dodge all of them. Jake removes his hands from the wooden grips at his waist but remains on high alert. If I were alone and free to move, I could make a dash for the door, but he is right: there are too many and I have a responsibility to my ka-tet. Linus would not stand a second of this barrage, and Kelraji is already wounded. We need to leave this evil place.

“Calm, Kelraji, calm. I do not think force of arms is what the Lord had in mind. Mer’veloth, if one of your number will show us this Northern pass, we are glad to serve in this matter.” Getting out of this chamber and out of your town is our foremost concern, though.

Jake thinks on what they have just learned. For one, they know the hand of fate is yet at work in this place; they got out of the Lord’s chamber alive, and with new direction. Their quest, it would seem, is right on track. Second, they know why the elven village looks so hastily-assembled and ramshackle. Third, they know there are humans in this land.

I will have to speak with Kelraji about the importance of the book. He does not seem to grasp its role in bringing us here, or why it may be that we must lay down our lives for it. It is as important as any of the three of us; indeed, it is almost the fourth member of our fellowship. We cannot leave it behind.’ He waits for the lord to give them their leave.

The dark elf grins maliciously. “A change of heart. Your species shows promise yet.” He beckons to the swordsman from their carriage ride. “Tis, my first sword, will accompany you on travel.” The fencer from before steps forth from the crowd of lordlings, his hair still pulled back in a simple ponytail. The man forms a claw across his chest and bows in salute. “Mis’aris, raegh.”

Mer’veloth turns his back on them once more and stalks back to his throne. “As for how, this does not concern. You have stood before me and kept your skin; already this distinguishes you.” Arthur Glass flinches.

The dark elf takes his throne. “Treat with Myrmid queen, put the hive to siege, burn them out from within, perhaps? Many are the paths, but you need only one.” He flicks a speck of dirt from the arm of his marbled throne. “And none begin here, I think.”

The dark elf first sword regards them expectantly, a passive curiosity on his face. He speaks a single, uncertain phrase of near-English. “Tis shows the rooms, outlanders. . . if wanting.”

Kelraji finishes wrapping the book, placing it once more in his supply pack.

“Tis, show us our rooms, I am tired. People, we can talk in our rooms, we have taken enough of the lord’s time.”

The blademaster inclines slightly at the waist, directing them to the large double doors leading out of the throne room. Excited chatter fills the chamber as the clutch of outlanders make their exit, fading out as the heavy doors swing shut behind them.

Tis shows Behuniak and the War Pigs to one wing of the stone keep, what looks to be a barrack hall prepared for their temporary stay. They continue on down the torch-lit corridor, coming to a plain wooden door where the hallway bends. Their dark elf guide opens the door to reveal a simple stone room occupied by three rough-hewn beds. The mattresses are stuffed with nothing more than wild straw from the grasslands, but it looks clean and fresh, at the least. The floor is likewise strewn with fresh rushes, and a modest fire crackles healthily in a small fireplace at the foot of the beds. A three drawer dresser stands beside each bed.

Tis waves over two more slaves, both male, one a deeply-tanned human, the other an exotic-looking ork, both wearing nothing more than loincloth and shackles. Though their skin is marred here and there by scars, they look to be in good physical shape, a far cry from the condition of Arthur Glass. “These are to serve,” Tis explains. “Man hears the manspeak, this one only Orzet.” The first blade delivers a backhanded strike to the ork, who does not even flinch at the blow. “This one not so useful.”

He turns to leave, adding only, “Instruct Tis at the leaving,” before closing the door.

Linus mutters under his breath, seeming to emerge from shock.

“This is a staggeringly violent place.”

“Sir,” he says, addressing the man. “Please, what is your name? We have much to learn of this place and its customs.”

Kelraji smiles an exasperated smile at Linus, and mutters.

“Yes, some of us do.”

“Slave, we need food.:

Turning once more to Linus, the monk speaks, instructing Linus.

“They’re not real people, they’re outcasts, untouchables. It is their life. Perhaps in rebirth, or another realm, they will be more. But here they are slaves. Treating them otherwise makes a mockery of the whole system. And you, one who knows so much about science, should know to respect systems.”

Linus replies, unsmiling and serious:

“The systems of science are immutable, sir. This system is like a prairie waiting to be reborn in fire.”

He breaks Kelraji’s gaze.

“But perhaps I am in over my head. We need food and rest. But there is much I can learn when we get the chance, by direct query of these people’s minds.”

“So, your religion of physics accounts for magic, for summoning, and for other realms, as mine does? I never said immutable, but you should know what it is you deal with before you attempt to change it, scientist. Althought…”

Confrontation fades from Kelraji’s brow and mouth.

“Yes, what do they know? Tell the slave who speaks no English to come here.”

The human slave stares at Linus with dull, lifeless eyes as the summoner asks his name. In response, the man simply opens his mouth, revealing a scarred lump where his tongue once lay. A raspy, desultory wheeze escapes his throat.

At the mention of food, the human turns to his orkish counterpart and brings his hand to his mouth, giving the universal sign for eating. Without acknowledgment, the ork steps out of the small sleeping quarters, returning in a few minutes with a tray of food, small lizards skewers barbecued in some spiced rub and a stack of flatbreads, still steaming from the oven. In his other hand he holds a pitcher of mead which fills the room with the scent of alcohol and barley. He sets food and drink on the small table by the fire and steps back, awaiting further instruction with a vacant expression on his face.

In Linus’ eyes smoulder with rage seeing the stubby tongue. He slowly approaches the man with a hand outstretched. Anger and fear mix in his mind and his adrenal glands surge forth with adrenaline as he realizes the sorts of experiences he may be about to see.

“In all men’s mind there burns, even in some shadowy corner, the fire of life. Take my hand, slave, and let my flame join yours. I am a servant of an inferno whose light can fill even the darkest alcoves.”

He holds his arms out expectantly, hopefully, fearfully.

Kelraji, aware of what’s about to happen, sits at the table, takes a giant bite of a flatbread, and cocks his head at the lizards, before hefting one, sniffing it closely, before setting it down and going to his pack to retrieve his combat knife, over which he pours mead and scrapes the blade clean before cutting one of the small creatures from the stick and attempting to eat the food.

Looking up for a moment, he calls over

“I’m also needing non alcohol drink.”

The monk eats quickly, watching the others for the outcome of the mindlink.

Jake sits down to eat with Kelraji, taking a smaller portion of bread and a lizard skewer. He sniffs it tentatively, then takes a bite of the roasted flesh around the ribs. “I would also like some water.”

For his part, the gunslinger is rested and ready to go, but he has noticed that hunger, fatigue and thirst do not seem to affect him like they do the others. He can use the time his companions are sleeping to clean his guns and take a security check of their quarters.

The slave backs away as Linus walks slowly toward him, arm outstretched. At the mention of fire, the slave’s eyes dart down to the numerous scorch marks covering Linus’ jacket, then to the Kelraji, the flesh of his neck and arms still raw and singed beneath thick bandages.

The slave mutters in fear, the sound of a dying toad or a fish out of water, then turns and bolts from the room, the jangling of his shackles rapidly retreating down the hallway.

The orkish slave continues to stand still, staring off into nothingness. Jake and Kel’s request for water goes unheeded or uncomprehended.

Kelraji tentatively sniffs the spiced lizard kebab, watching skeptically as Jake munches away. The meat is devoid of any smells of rot, decay or poison. In fact, it smells pretty delicious, full of some curry-like spice and something sweet and savory like onion. Having the food so close to his nose awakens a deep hunger within him as he suddenly realizes he hasn’t eaten for almost a full day.

Kelraji, so long removed from genuine curry that it twinges in his soul, ravishes the poor lizard, crunching through the tiny bones when needed, and hastily eats his fill, pausing for bites of flatbread when the spice creeps up.

Gasping for liquid, the man frowns at the slave, and attempts to communicate, as best he can with crude sign language, that the mead is unacceptable, and he requires something else.

Linus pulls his hand back, a look of utter befuddlement on his face.

“Huh, well… that didn’t go as I expected”

He looks at Kelraji and Jake.

“You know, the Germans used to have a saying about this kind of situation. I forget the beginning of it but the punch line is … Oh I remember: In beer there is wisdom, In wine there is… damn wait no that’s not right I think the wine had the wisdom. Well forget it, my point is that drinking water can give you Cholera in a place like this.”

He looks at the Orc.

“I don’t suppose you want to join the mindnet? Hmm?”

He holds his hand out loosely. It’s a half effort, really.

Jake, encouraged by the tasty food and fairly certain that their newfound overlords aren’t trying to kill, poison or ruin them, takes a sniff at the mead. Talking around a mouthful of curried lizard, he looks at Linus, “You know, I don’t think you’re going to get very far with that—look at their clothes, their faces. These ones have been slaves for a long time. What will we find out? They were captured and taken against their will by their cruel elven masters? No, I would be more interested in finding what the humans that took their castle have to say about the elves.”

He turns to Kelraji, “I get an uneasy feeling about these ones. Did you see the way Mer’veloth was looking at the book? He knows something about its power that he is not sharing. We should treat with these elves for as long as we have to, but don’t forget: anyone who would take the book from us is the enemy. It may be that we have no true friends in this land.”

Kelraji nods understanding and continues to eat.

“Your words are different from most. Yes, he will try to take book. For friends, if you had any in New New York, that was one more than me. We can’t stop him here anyway. I am hungry, hurt, and tired. Tomorrow, we should leave and never come back. But today, we’re in no spot to do anything. Except eat, sleep, and maybe die. I just hope we don’t have to do the third one.”

The man grins stupidly at Jake for a moment, proud of his pitiful joke, awash with grim humor.

Then he coughs, looks angrily at the mead, and frowns deeply.

“Still need water. Where do I get?”

The ork tenses slightly as Linus reaches out for him, the animalistic response of a creature with a heavy-handed master. The slave takes up an unusual stance, bending at the knees and hunching forward, letting his shackled arms dangle in front of him. Thick slabs of muscle ripple under olive skin as he sways gently back and forth, then relax as Linus backs away.

The slave acknowledges Kelraji’s pantomime for other drink and returns with an earthenware jug sloshing with cool, clear water, which he places on the table beside what’s left of the flatbreads.

Kelraji pours himself a nice glass of water, drinks it down in huge gulps, then pours another. With the second glass, he moves himself to the fire in the center of the room, and pours a small amount of water over each hand, washing it ritually. Then, removing his shoes and armored jacket, shoos the remaining slave from the room, intent on locking the door and getting some sleep.

The ork willingly steps out, resuming his ready position in the hallway, his expression vacant and lifeless. The solid wooden door closes with a satisfying click. Another wave of fatigue washes over Linus and Kelraji as the rigors of the past 24 hours settles into their bones.

Kelraji shuffles to the bed, intent on sleeping once more. Perhaps restfully for once. He piles his valuables next to his head, and hides a few under the makeshift pillow. The book he places against his stomach under his shirt, and he tries to sleep.

Linus sits at the table, exhausted. He stuffs some lizard into his mouth, then throws some water down after it. He chomps absent mindedly for a moment, pondering the absurdity of the state they’re in. For a moment, he ponders whether his com could possibly work in this place. Realizing that this idea, too, is probably absurd, he shuffles over to bed, wrapping himself in his thick coat before closing his eyes and going off to sleep.

Chapter Three - Part 1
The Flight

The gunslinger dares the truck’s hood first, shuffling on his hands and knees to reach the dangling ropes. He raises himself up on all fours, makes a half-leap for one of the leads, and deftly snatches one from the air. Jake rolls onto his back, his nimble fingers working quickly to secure the carbiner to his gunbelt.

Linus leans from the passenger door, making a couple fruitless swipes at the lifelines. He quickly abandons manual retrieval in favor of a surer bet, extending the reach of his hands with a psychokinetic manifestation. He plucks one line, then another, from thin air, drawing them in until he can grasp them safely with his actual fingers. The summoner clips one of the leads to the belt holding up his khakis before passing the other line to Kelraji.

Kel buckles himself in as well and clutches his precious items to his chest. The roar of the cargo plane’s engines increase in pitch as the lumbering aircraft begins to climb, putting tension on the ropes. The monk pushes Linus out of the door, setting them both dangling uncomfortably from the seats of their pants.

At that moment, the pier runs out, sending the truck arcing out into space. The three men pendulum wildly through the air, thudding into each other as they swing. They look back to see Shane and Thomas hanging safely behind them. Thomas has the biker’s laser looped over one shoulder.

Their ride continues to climb into the air as the Land Rover splashes down into the Hudson, bobbing once before beginning its slow plunge to the depths. Looking up, they can see the shapes of uniformed men drawing them in hand over hand. They watch the city retreat behind them as they dangle, the pier and its surroundings shrinking to a scene in miniature as they do their best not to look directly down.

Just as they reach the lip of the plane’s rear bay, Jake spots a massive shape above the skyline, like an airliner, but absent navigation lights. An anonymous voice calls out from the deck above. “Fuck, look at the size of that thing.” Another voice: “. . .Somewhere downtown, maybe Union or Washington Square Park.” The huge shape rapidly descends behind the buildings as gloved hands grasp them and pull them onto the cargo plane’s floor.

The five men stumble to their feet, unbuckling and taking in the plane’s interior. It is gargantuan, like the belly of some mythical monster, dimly lit and filled with equipment and people. Three large armored vehicles occupy the bulk of the space, their heavy treads ratcheted securely to the floor. The walls of the plane are lined with bucket seats, and above them various containers are strapped higher up on the ribcage-like structure. People mill about them, taking sidelong glances at the newcomers. The uniformed soldiers tidy up the fast ropes and buckle into the seats closest to the bay door. Behuniak takes a seat as well, striking up conversation with two of the troopers. Shane shakes hands with two other men, one an incredibly tall man in ornate blood red robes and golden armor complete with a baroque peaked helm, the other a huge fellow sporting a large grey beard, and wearing nothing more than simple leather clothing and a huge fur pelt. Shane and these two men disappear along one corridor, speaking in hushed tones.

The bay door closes inexorably on oversized pistons, but before it shuts completely the three get a glimpse of a massive plume of flame rising from where the flying shape went to ground, creating a mushroom cloud of black smoke and fire. The men barely have time to consider it before the blonde-haired woman snaps her heels in front of them and salutes smartly. She wears the same uniform as the other soldiers, though a saber and pistol hang at her waist, and officer’s chevrons decorate her sleeves. “Greetings. My name is Slyvia Dagonhart, Lieutenant of the 42nd War Pigs.” Her voice is cold, hard, emotionless and professional. “I don’t know how much you’ve been briefed on this mission, but I have been assigned to orient you and see to your needs. Information, equipment, training, introductions to my men or the rest of the Cabal, medical attention,” she raises an eyebrow at Kelraji, “anything you need. According to my employers, you three are to be acting commanders throughout the campaign. Our flight should take approximately four hours. Please avail yourselves of anything we have to offer, and prep for landfall.”

Jake Chambers hits the deck of the plane and stumbles; it takes all he’s got not to let the sudden rush of adrenaline take his legs out from under him. Trying to calm his beating heart, he shakes out his jacket and checks the guns; his revolvers are there at his hips, and his shotgun is gripped in one white-knuckled fist. He looks down to see that some of the shells have spilled from his brass bag; no matter, he probably wasn’t going to get a chance to reuse them anyway. Father, guide my hands and heart so that no part of the animal will be wasted. He wonders what Elmer Chambers would think to see him “fast-roping” into a moving plane alongside a knight in shining armor carrying a light-cannon. Being an advertising executive didn’t get him out of the office much.

He looks around the cabin, at the military austerity and precision of it, and notes the positions of the soldiers and their movements. He sniffs the air, and smells oils and fumes from the plane, gunpowder from the soldiers, grease and sweat on the vehicles bolted to the floor. He looks Slyvia Dagonhart up and down, and reaches out with his sixth sense—his ghost sense—to ascertain her true nature. “Hile and well met, dinh Dagonhart. I am Jake Chambers of New York. Before we begin our journey—what was that dark shape looming over the city? And if we are truly availed of your information, I think some true orientation is in order. Where are we going? What will we seek when we get there and what part does the Book play in all this?”

Linus, having been heaved aboard, appears to be doing his best to imitate a puddle. His arms are splayed out and he lies on his back, his chest heaving in and out. His eyes search the ceiling of the bay as he tries to process the intensity of the last few minutes.

He turns his head to look at Jake as he speaks to the Lieutenant, then returns his attention to the ceiling.

“Fuck fuck fuck,” he mutters to himself, and begins to haul himself to his feet. His first plan of action is to find that laser, the rest of the mess be damned.

Kelraji holds his items close to himself, and then moves to the side of the plane. Setting down his gear, he turns around and nods.

“Dagonhart, if we are commanding officers, whatever that mean, I need some things. A large backpack and three sets of clothes. I will need these repaired or replaced, and I will need my injuries tended to, preferably with magic and then bandages. I would also like some water to drink and to know where the bathroom and beds are.”

The man points out his damaged armored jacket and melted auto-picker, separated from the rest of his gear, then sits down to look over what remains, finally examining and attempting to divine the nature of the items he has received from the hags. His most precious item remains covered and rests on his lap, and the picture recovered from the biker sits on top of it.

The summoner gains his feet, steadying himself momentarily against the bulwark, seeing double in his hyperventilated state. Groggy images of the armored knight dangling beneath his feet above the open water with the laser rifle over one shoulder swim into his mind. He feels as if he can recall the Crusader adept going around the corner to his right while Linus was lying on the floor.

Lieutenant Dagonhart listens patiently to Kelraji’s demands before gesturing to a handful of the soldiers. A Hispanic human, an elf with electric blue tattoos on his neck and scalp, and a dwarf with a large brown beard snap to their feet and fall in beside the uniformed woman. “This is our medic, PFC Rodriguez; Specialist Taengele, our battlemage, and Gunnery Sergeant Thacco, munitions and wargear. They’ll see to your needs.”

The elven soldier steps up first, looking Kel over skeptically. “Drek, look at you. Wrong side of a flamethrower or something. Hold still, this is gonna tickle.” The battlemage holds his hands out and closes his eyes, breathing deeply as rippling waves of blue energy begins to radiate from his fingertips. He lays hands on the monk’s shoulders, his face becoming a mask of concentration, and Kel’s skin begins to prickle and sting. After a few minutes, the elf steps back, his face even paler than before. Rodriguez pats him on the back. “Okay there, compadre?” The elf shrugs him off. “Yea, I’m fine, just a little manaburn.” He trudges off to find his seat on the far side of the plane. [You have been healed for 3 boxes of damage.]

The medic kneels before him next, producing a white kit from his pack and disgorging its contents. An automated voice begins to speak in formal tones as he opens the plastic case of his medkit. “Please state the nature of your medical emergency. It appears your patient suffers from burns to his upper dermis along the torso and arm region. Begin by applying a disinfec—” The voice cuts short as the solider pulls the battery from the device. “Dios mio, shut the fuck up.” The man patiently applies disinfectant, aloe and moisturizer to Kel’s skin before wrapping him up in a clean set of bandages. “Okay, you’re good to go. Taengele’s spell cleared up the worst of it, give it a full day of rest and you should be good as new.” [You will heal the remaining 2 boxes of damage if you rest uninterrupted for an entire day. The length of the plane ride will not be enough.]

Rodriguez clears out, leaving Kelraji with the dwarf. He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “I ‘eard what you asked the Lieutenant for, unfortunately, I’ve been told to keep supplies pretty tight, as this is an extended vacation, if you will.” The stocky little man guffaws to himself. “The backpack we can do, some basic skivvies as well, no problem. Your jacket’s fucked though, proper-like, ain’t no repairing melted trauma-plates. This thing,” he takes the auto-picker in his thick fingers and deftly cracks open the melted case, “yup, see, ‘yer wiring’s all melted together in one big glob. Copper on the motor is slagged too. Sorry chummer, try not to get caught on fire next time.” He hands the useless junk back to him. The dwarf gestures toward the heart of the cargo plane. “Come on, I’ll get you what you need, and you can take a load off in one of the APCs.” They move off down the corridor to the right, passing a few more War Pigs and Behuniak, who has resumed his conversation with Taengele and Rodriguez. The Crusader nods to him as they pass. “You’re looking better already, brother.” The dwarf hands him a military bag which matches the mercenaries’ own, and three sets of shirts, boxer briefs, and socks, along with a canteen of water. “If you want to lie down, the bench seats inside the transports make half-decent beds. You can get in through the rear hatch there.” He indicates to a miniature door on the back of one of the vehicles. Further down this corridor, an elderly looking man sits by himself, dressed in an elaborate high-collared greatcoat. He muses somberly to himself, slowly turning a skull-tipped walking cane between his fingers.

Dagonhart addresses Jake’s questions last, tolerating his gaze with detached professionalism. The gunslinger’s ghost sense tells him little—she is mundane, just another sleeper. The only person who bears the Touch among her men is the elven battlemage. Behuniak, bedecked with enchanted items, threatens to drown out the other magical signatures with his presence. Deeper within the vessel, other awakened presences can be faintly felt. The military woman nods hesitantly at the gunslinger’s odd way of speech. “I will do my best to answer your questions, though it may be better put to the people in this strange group. Everything I know about this mission I learned from my briefing papers: We were contracted by one Renzo Espallier, on behalf of his organization, the Cabal of the One Book. He provided me with a set of documents written by a Professor Cain, which, to speak freely, reads like a complete fairy tale. But ‘yen is ’yen, and I’ve seen some strange enough things, so we signed on.”

Sylvia Dagonhart rests her hand on the pommel of her scabbarded saber before continuing. “According to the Professor’s papers, this Cabal is an ancient order of magicians which has been looking for this one specific book for generations. Supposedly the book carries unspeakable power. Now, they’ve actually managed to find the text, so their next move is to translate it. Apparently, only one man on earth can read the damn thing, and he lives on a magical piece of land which is, get this, an island that transcends space and time. The only way to get ourselves onto this island is to be sucked toward it, or something like that, and only three people on earth are so sucked, if you will. I imagine you three are the three, if any of this is real. My Pigs and I were hired to escort the three of you, with the book, to this mystical island, and then across it in search of the translator. Mr. Espallier said to leave the collection of the three and the book to the Cabal, as long as we could provide transportation. We subcontracted out this mammoth bird, as well as these three troop carriers, and low and behold, you guys actually arrived.” She leans in conspiratorially. “You look like you have half a head on your shoulders. Can I ask you, off the record—do you believe it? Do you think this book can do what they say it can?”

Kelraji smiles, and thanks the armorer for his time and expertise. He carefully packs his remaining items into the new bag, impressed with its quality of not being cheap synthetic crap, and wonders if it is flame retardant, and if he’ll forgive the mage a second time. He hopes for the first and prays for the strength to do the second. As he muses, he finds himself sifting his way through a litany of hand gestures. In no hurry, he mutters the appropriate phrases to accompany the gestures, and enjoys sitting for the few minutes that the process takes.

When he finishes, he realizes he still hasn’t gotten answers about his magical items, and looks around for Behuniak. Surely someone who wears as many magical items must know something about identifying them, or at the very least know someone who does.

Linus tries to steady himself. His vision is cloudy about the edges, and he is suffering from a righteous surge of adrenaline. He closes his eyes for a moment and reconnects with the fire spirit he has left behind, releasing him with a whispered thanks.

Continuing to hold himself up, he probes astral space for the remaining presence of his watcher, trying to observe what has happened to the city.

Kelraji looks up from his meditative state to locate the Crusader adept. He easily spots Behuniak inside the dimly lit cabin casually chatting with the battlemage and medic who recently tended to him, his plumed helmet resting on one armor-plated knee.

The summoner glazes over, undoubtedly exercising his unique talents.

Jake thinks for a second about Slyvia’s question, tapping his worn leather boots on the rumbling floor of the cargo plane. “I do not ken the true nature of the book, but I do believe that a force larger than ourselves directs us through this place. ‘There are other worlds than these’, words from another life that may yet ring true in this one. I would look on your papers from Professor Cain, if they are available. In the meantime, I believe I have some business with Gunnery Sergeant Thacco. I need to replace some of these.” He holds up some of his spent .45 Long Colt brass. “Some shot shells would be appreciated as well.” He drapes the shotgun over one shoulder like a transient’s poke.

Sylvia Dagonhart curtly tips her chin upward. “I believe I have hard copies in my mess bag. I will retrieve them for you, if you wish. If you’ll follow me, I’ll have Gunney Thacco see to your munitions.” The cold woman leads Jake around the right-hand side of the first tank, continuing to speak as they walk past a clump of mercenaries conversing with the armored knight. “As for that large flier in the city back there, well, I’ve only seen trideos of them, but it sure as hell looked like a dragon to me.” The gunslinger and Lieutenant Dagonhart pass the Indian man along the narrow defile without a word, coming to a burly dwarf counting socks. “Gunney, this man needs .45s and twelve-gauge. As much as he needs. Remember soldier, he’s your CO.” Dagonhart nods to them both and ducks through a hatch on one of the vehicles, disappearing into its shadowy depths.

Thacco digs into a long chest tucked beneath the seat and produces several boxes of heavy pistol rounds and shotgun shells, both buckshot and slugs. He holds them out to Jake. “Take what you need, sir. Most of my boys carry Predators, but I like a heavier round myself.” He draws an odd-looking pistol from his belt, a solid-bodied piece with a wooden foregrip and a large scope affixed to its ventilated rib. “Got my Thompson Arms chambered in .45, so you’re in luck. I’m sure a discerning fellow as yourself can appreciate its craftsmanship.” He holds the weapon out for Jake to inspect. As the gunslinger nonchalantly looks the weapon over, he catches a glimpse of the soldier sitting next to him on plane. He is a pale white man, unremarkable in his features, but there is something about his face which give Jake a sense of déjà vu, as if he were looking upon a long-lost family member. The man sniffs his nose loudly and crosses his arms, clearly dozing off in his seat. His kevlar vest reads H. DEAN.

Two seats down, Behuniak pauses his conversation to take Kelraji’s proffered items into his hands. He lays aside the laser rifle sitting in his lap and looks over the simple silver bangle and golden earring, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “You have a taste for expensive things, my friend. These are rare items indeed. I will try to learn their enchantments.” He slips off a lobstered gauntlet and slides the bangle over his wrist. He passes his other hand over it slowly, his eyes glazed and far off. After a moment, a smile crosses his lips. “Ah, a fine item, if a little useless these days. An elegant piece of armor for a more civilized age. This is a bracer of arrow snaring. Still carries the imprint of its previous owner, though—a rather unholy individual, if I’m not mistaken. Somehow, I doubt you bought if from her.” He hands the bracer back and takes the earring next, slipping it onto one of the many piercings along the edge of his pointed ear. He considers it for a minute before handing it back. “An earring of thorns. Another fancy trinket. You’ll have to tell me your source.”

The artificer takes the wand last, giving it a few practice swipes. “This, however, is a truly stunning specimen. Ancient, and steeped in history it is.” He passes the stick beneath his nose, smelling its length. “Cypress, I’d wager. Oh, it speaks.” He cocks his head to one side, holding the wand to his ear. “It has a patron. . . Damballah is his name. This is a powerful instrument, capable of capturing spirits and channeling their powers for the wielder. This one will need to be bound before use, and not by one such as us. Those other two are simple enchantments, though; you may exchange them at will.” Thomas hands the wand back as well before leaning forward to whisper something to Kelraji, only barely audible to him over the roar of the engines.

The summoner continues to stand unsteadily at the rear gate, staring numbly at the blank wall.

Linus waits for a long time, reaching out again and again to his watcher. He begins to think it has been lost when finally the spirit responds, reestablishing their faint link. From the being’s primitive consciousness he receives a stream of confused images, all tinged with emotions of fear and confusion.

The watcher had been faithfully combing the streets for the enemy rigger when the massive flying form came down from the clouds. He sees still images of its massive shape descending into the center of the city, its gargantuan lizard-like body supported by huge sweeping wings which claw at the air. On the astral plane, the monster practically gushes with magical strength, its aura and signature unlike anything the summoner has ever before witnessed. As it reaches a patch of green in the middle of the city, it opens its great maw to shoot a roiling stream of flaming liquid down into the park below, emitting a piercing scream as the entire four-block area is engulfed in billowing flames.

Kelraji nods to the man, ignoring the question, as if he had never heard it.

“And what do they do? Their names are of interest, I suppose, but no real value to me.”

He furrows his brow, and adds, “Tell me of this Damballah, and its workings, and perhaps you will find out more about my charge.”

Kelraji and Behuniak exchange a few words under their breath, then the Crusader leans back in his seat and returns to a normal volume again. “Yes, of course I can explain in more practical terms. The bracer of arrow snaring allows the wearer to catch missiles out of the air. A common enchantment when my order was young, these days it seems more decorative than practical. You never know when it could come in handy though.” [This item gives the wearer the missile parry adept power at level 1, or adds one to the wearer’s level if they already possess this power.]

Behuniak points to the earring. “A thorns enchantment makes anyone who hurts you in hand-to-hand combat suffer the same wound they just inflicted. In practice, though, the backlash isn’t as severe as the original damage. Still, it’s a useful item, and could give you an edge over a weaker opponent or if you’re outnumbered, especially for one who seems as prone to being hurt as you. I’ve actually made one of these myself, for my father. He had a penchant for getting into trouble as well.” [The earring of thorns inflicts damage to anyone who wounds the wearer in melee combat, equal to the number of boxes of damage actually inflicted on the wearer, either physical or stun. This damage is resisted normally, but armor does not apply.]

Thomas continues. “The wand of Damballah is able to trap a single spirit within itself, then allows the wielder to use its powers as if they were his own. A difficult item to use, but it could be very powerful in the right hands.” [The wand of Damballah is a force 5 magical focus which must be bonded with karma and time. It may only be wielded by a being with the conjuring skill. As a complex action, the wielder may trap a spirit up to force 5 within the wand. If the spirit is not in the wielder’s service, he must defeat it with a banishing test in order to capture it. Once captured, the wielder may use any of the spirit’s powers as if he knew them as spells, suffering drain normally. The force of the powers may not be greater than the force of the captured spirit. The spirit may be released with a free action, but if it is not in the wielder’s service, it will generally be hostile upon release. The spirit held within the wand does not count against the wielder’s maximum number of unbound spirits.]

The artificer scratches the stubble on his chin. “As for who or what Damballah actually is, I have less concrete information to give you. I have studied world religions, and I recognize the name from Voodoo—a particularly dark art practiced in Haiti and parts of the deep South. Shamans of this variety are strange indeed. I’ve read they sometimes allow spirits to posses their own bodies when summoned. Damballah is one of the Loa, a species of their false gods,” here Behuniak touches the heavy cross hanging at his neck and shakes his head. “He is their god of spirits, represented by twin snakes. When he takes a host, he speaks in hisses, as a snake might. Some say Damballah’s voice can be heard in the sounds of a roaring fire. An evil object, to be sure, though I suppose a thing is only as evil as the task to which its owner puts it.”

Kelraji thanks Behuniak, whispers to him once more, and then dons the bracelet, placing the earring back on his finger before asking,

“Wait, it works here still, yes?”

Then, he stands, wanders the airliner, taking in the sights, and finds Linus. When he comes across the mage, he hands over the wand, explains how he thinks it works, and adds a single caveat.

“It has to be water, and we should both pray you never have to use it on me.”

With that said, Kelraji heads to his makeshift bed, not noticeably worse than his old, also makeshift bed, but certainly more secure.

“Thank you James. It is an old weapon, and not of this world in more ways than one. Should you wish to see, to touch the weapon, I will require your help in finding my own way. Should you learn anything of my order, the sustainers of Agni, who must perform the yajna of rebirth, I would be eternally grateful. In addition, any information about any artifacts from the early 16th century Mughal era would be met with much appreciation.”

Jake hands the gunny’s weapon back and takes up a box of the .45’s. He begins to insert the heavy bullets into the bands around his waist until all 48 slots are full again. The hollow points, now numbering only 18, line the back of the gunbelts. He takes another box of the normal rounds and dumps all 24 live slugs into his emptied brass bags, unsure when he’ll be able to rearm again. He checks the last compartment in the belt, a small leather bag the size of a fist, hanging off the crossed bands in the back. 12 silver bullets and 11 exploders. He hopes to find the silver bullets a whimsical precaution—the sorts of beasts for which those rounds were made are the ones best read about in bad fantasy novels, not met in real life.

He racks the shotgun and fills its magazine. Putting a dozen more slugs in the heavy outer pockets of his armored jacket, he pats himself down and tests the weight of his new munitions. He nods to the gunnery sergeant and follows Kelraji into the belly of the APC. Glancing at the sleeping Indian, he finds himself wondering for the second time that day what drives the man, which specters from his past give him such bloodlust and how it has brought him here. He worries for himself, too; such a ka-tet as theirs is forged only in times of violence, where a strong arm can triumph over a sharp mind. Shivering in the high-altitude air, he does his best to dismiss the thought, but it chases him in his dreams even as he lowers his peaked hat over his eyes and drifts to sleep.

Linus emerges from is reverie with a start as Kelraji thrusts the wand at him. He looks down at the strange device with some skepticism.

“A thing like this… ill gained as it is… I wonder that I should use it. Perhaps I can bend it to my will, or perhaps make it useful in my experiments. Ah! I nearly forgot, I must have this man take a look at the locket I acquired. Many thanks.”

He walks a few paces towards Behuniak, then turns back to Kelraji.

“We should speak more of our plans, of what is to come. Forces much much greater than our own have brought us together, and perhaps we might find the common thread that has bound us in this venture. I’ll return as soon as I have identified this item.”

The summoner travels unsteadily down the narrow corridor to take a seat beside the heavily armored ork as Kelraji and Jake step into the claustrophobic interior of the APC.

Behuniak takes the silver pendant and casually loops the fine chain around his neck, breathing deeply. He opens his eyes after a moment and nods. “A banishing focus of moderate strength, useful against warp-spawn and the like, if you have the gift. It’s a true magician’s focus, so you’ll need to complete a binding ritual before putting it to use, like that wand of yours. As an artificer, I can aid you in the art of binding, as well as creating any new enchantments or items, given the right ingredients and a proper forge.” [This force (2) banishing foci adds 2 dice to any banishing tests made by the bearer. Must be bonded before use. In Behuniak’s presence you may add his Artificer dice (4) to any test made to bind new items.]

Thomas takes the pendant off and holds it up to the light to inspect its face. He throws the locket’s latch, revealing the miniature image within. “Oh,” he mutters to himself. “I believe I know this woman.” He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “This is Miriam Darkwater, an elven noble from Europe someplace. Sweden, perhaps. I met her at an auction there.” The ork shrugs and hands the pendant back. “I. . . won’t ask where you got it. Worth keeping, to be sure. Just let me know if you need help bonding them.”

Behuniak turns to resume his conversation with the mercenaries, then notices Linus’ laser rifle lying on the seat beside him. “Ah, I brought this thing up for you. Tsk, brings back bad memories, if you ask me. Never liked guns.” The armored Crusader hefts the cannon and drops it into Linus’ unsteady hands.

Sylvia Dagonhart emerges from the shadows of the cargo hold and marches to the APC where the other two lie. She ducks into the vehicle, a cramped, dimly-lit hollow lined with spartan benches and hand loops. The mercenary finds Kelraji sitting on one bench, with the gunslinger laid out across the other. She taps the brim of his hat twice with a roll of folded documents before laying them on his chest. “The papers you requested, sir. Keep them if you wish.” The Lieutenant turns on her heel and finds her way out of the transport.

Linus fingers the locket, as well as the want, testing their power against his. He ponders the implications of binding them to himself. The wand is a tempting focus, and is particularly well suited to his arts. But the darkness that inhabits it is corrupting, and unbecoming a follower of the Fire Bringer. His path lies elsewhere. Purity of thought, cleanness of logic, clarity of deduction. He must banish the darkness. The wand shows potential, and may yet be turned to his cause, but for now it must remain unbound. Days, perhaps weeks from now, when he can access his lab again, he may more carefully probe its depths and bind it to himself. For now, he will bind a focus that was offered him as a gift. Come to him with pure intentions, he senses that it will serve him well.

“No matter, I will bind this focus… the locket. It was given to me by a girl in trouble, with purity of heart and intention, and I would more soon have its forces bound to my own than this wand of questionable origin. Perhaps at a later time we can discuss the merits of its deconstruction or binding.”

“Behuniak, your knowledge is certainly impressive. Have you, be any chance, read any of my more recent manuscripts? Maybe it is too much to ask… they have been little publicized….”

Behuniak shakes his head. “I’m afraid I haven’t come across your work in my studies, though this speaks more to my ignorance than your renown. My expertise lies in the world of enchantments and rare items, and rarely strays beyond such subjects. I would welcome the chance to hear some of your theories, however. Knowledge is a weapon, as true as a gun or blade.”

He gestures forward with a large, calloused hand. “Come, let’s set that item to use.” The summoner slips the locket around his neck and turns his mind to the task of bonding, methodically dismantling the hermetic inscriptions wrought upon the focus by its previous owner. Linus looks up to see Thomas cupping both hands close to the locket, as if he were warming his hands by a fire. The scientist immediately senses the artificer’s formidable talent augmenting his own, unraveling the focus’ old bonds and preparing it for him to make his own impression. The process, which would have taken Linus several hours on his own, is completed in a mere twenty minutes or so.

Behuniak leans back and rubs at one of his protruding canines with his thumb. “A fine piece, indeed. The Darkwaters are a proud bunch, and quick to anger, but their taste in enchanted items is as refined as their blood.”

Linus thanks the artificer and turns away, already sensing the presence of the locket upon his chest, freshly invigorated and eager to protect its new owner from the spirits of the nether. He finds the blonde-haired military woman standing by the hatch leading into one of the armored vehicles, her hands clasped behind her back. “Your companions are resting inside. You’ll find space on the floor and a bedroll if you would like to do the same. I will rouse you all when, and if, we have reached our destination. Please let me or my men know if you need anything else.”

Linus drifts over to the APC, suddenly overtaken with fatigue as the adrenaline seeps out of his system and into his bladder. Which, as it turns out, is remarkably full. He hunts around for the head on this strange ship, takes care of business, and then shuffles to take what he hopes will be a restful slumber.

The three men pass into a fitful half-sleep, too exhausted to process the dizzying sequence of the night’s events. They manage a few hours of grey, dreamless fatigue before the hatch slams open, spilling yellow light into the cabin of the track. [Your stun damage recovers.]

The Lieutenant’s voice echoes throughout the metal box. “Wake up, boys. Land ho. Get to the cockpit once you’re on your feet.”

The three adjust their clothes and wipe the spit from their jaws before shambling out into the open cabin. They pass through the narrow corridor leading to the front of the plane and duck through a low hatch into the cockpit.

The relatively large space is packed with various characters both familiar and new, all gazing out through the windshield and murmuring to each other. The view is ocean and clouds as far as the eye can see, save one body of green on the horizon. Thomas Behuniak claps Kelraji on the shoulder as they enter, exclaiming loudly. “That’s it, we’ve made it! Just like he said.”

The island rapidly grows in their field of vision as the plane bears down on it, filling the breadth of the cockpit window with its terrain, a craggy coast of harsh cliffs and thick wild grass, with stands of pines scattered across it all. Rays of morning light break through the fast-moving clouds above, dappling the scenic landscape. To the left-hand side, the coastal hills even out, forming a flat, even plain of golden grassland.

Upon closer inspection, the prairie lands appear to be populated by a modest settlement of primitive structures. The pilot sitting in front of them rolls the massive plane gently to the left, bringing their nose steadily about. She yells to be heard by the huddle of people assembled in the forward cabin. “The bird is hitting the halfway mark on fuel. We need to bring her down soon if we want to have enough for the return journey, and she needs a fair bit of runway.” She points to the wide expanses of grass. “That field has our name on it.”

The village becomes more and more detailed as they draw closer. The majority of the structures are simple, single family affairs, with a few larger buildings scattered throughout, alongside some plots of agriculture and oddly-shaped livestock. In the center of it all a modest holdfast stands on a raised spit of earth, its walls carved from roughly-hewn stone.

As the assembled group looks on, two shapes emerge from a stable-like structure, slowly rising into the air on large wings. The flying creatures appear to have humanoid mounts, though it is difficult to with certainty at this distance.

Kelraji, unimpressed with the relatively small interlopers, merely nods.

“I’ll need another armored jacket, if the one I had is unrepairable. Otherwise, I will be meditating and resting. I think i’ll be able to feel us land. If we have, as I suspect, crossed the Wheel to another reality, we will all need our senses about us.”

Jake is a little more concerned with their new airborne company than the Indian, and squints down at the flying objects with his eagle’s eyes, trying to get a better handle on what they are.

Shortly after leaving, Kelraji returns, holding ash-smeared binoculars and with a small cloth-wrapped package tucked into his pants. He puts the binoculars to his eyes, trying to identify the newcomers.

“Just kidding. You people are so serious all the time. There’s nothing meditation can prepare us for that actions can’t. Plus, how often do you cross between worlds?”

The dwarven mercenary trundles into the rear of the plane at Kel’s request, mumbling good-naturedly, “Burr aye, I’ll rustle up a spare combat jacket for yer.” The monk’s joke elicits nothing more than a few raised eyebrows from the gathered people. Shane finally responds with a brief chuckle, though whether he is laughing at the joke or the utter silence which follows it is unclear.

The assembled men and women watch as the riders draw steadily nearer, flying in disciplined formation and heading straight for them. Some make out their details sooner than others, but in the end everyone assembled has a clear view of them as they swoop past the nose of the plane. The winged creatures are something out of a child’s fantasy novel, sinister-looking reptilian beasts nearly twice the size of a horse with tough, leathery skin and a wicked set of teeth and claws. Their forelimbs are broad, bat-like wings, while their hind legs are atrophied and tucked in for flight. An aerodynamic lizard’s head sits on a thin neck, matched by a long, snaking tail. A series of spines begins in a crest upon the creature’s head and runs the length of the beast’s back and tail.

The riders, too, appear mythical and Tolkienesque, clad in dull silver scale mail with plate across their chests. Their heads are topped with elongated conical helmets, and they clutch slender lances flying purple pennants matched to sashes tied about their waists. From their belts hang short-bladed swords in scabbards and an exotic weapon which looks like a hybrid of pistol and crossbow. Both riders are perched on saddles strapped to their flying reptile mounts, which are also lightly barded in plates of dull steel about the face and torso.

Both riders pass by the plane’s front window, seeming to inspect her occupants in equal measure. For a beat they are nowhere to be seen, then a startling thump sounds from above. The people inside look up to see the taloned foreclaws of one of the giant lizards clinging to the upper canopy, screeching loudly and cocking its head to regard those assembled with one cold, reptilian eye. The mounted man leans from his saddle and tamps the butt of his lance twice on the thick glass before bellowing at them in an incomprehensible tongue, striking their ears as harsh and overly sibilant.

Inside, the tall man clad in blood red robes and golden armor removes his own peaked helmet to reveal immaculate elven features, his face slender and impossibly handsome, framed in fine golden hair which is meticulously braided to the shoulder. He snorts indignantly. “The savage speaks a crude Sperethiel, though nothing like I have heard since the fifth dawn.” The elf’s eyes narrow. “The brute says he bears a message from his lord. Well, we’ll see about that. Get that thing off our plane, you backwater ape.” He raises a manicured hand and points a single finger at the rider, his forehead creasing with concentration.

Behuniak steps forward and pulls the elf’s arm down before he can act. “Come Vontarion, that’s no way to treat an ambassador. I thought you were supposed to be the cultured one. At any rate, the old man’s instructions were clear. The three must choose if the book is to be read.”

The red-robed man puts on a disdainful frown and looks down his perfect nose at the three men. He sighs. “Very well, choose away. I shall act as translator. It will amuse me to see these brutes put your heads on pikes.”

Linus is startled by the proceedings and is still wiping the sleep out of the corners of his eyes as events unfold. The excitement of first contact with a new culture, something he would normally revel in, is quenched by a thin trickle of adrenaline that is already leaking from his adrenal glands.

“So, I suppose the natives are restless then?” He laughs nervously. “Perhaps we should tell them that we come in peace?”

He looks over at his companions for confirmation.

Jake nods. “Seems like the wise thing to do; after all, we have them outgunned and outnumbered. Can we land this thing on that field down there? Would we be able to get back off the ground in a hurry?”

Kelraji nods absently, still looking over the emissaries.

“Do we come in peace? Why are we even here? And I don’t mean that metaphysically. What is our reason for coming here, and where are we planning to go? If they’re opposed to us, then we don’t come in peace. Do we need to land here, or can we just go on further? I’m sure they have parachutes or something. What we need to do is establish where is safe and where isn’t.

So, where is safe?"

Linus’ eyebrows twitch.

“Metaphysical or not, perhaps it is a good question either way… Certainly we must show these men respect, but let them know that we need to land the vehicle immediately. Vontarion, if you would, could you please communicate our need as travelers intending no harm, but in need of safe haven? It may be the case that these men and their lot have knowledge or resources that we will require. We must be appraised of this before open hostilities, certainly that is clear… brutish though they may be.”

After hearing those around him discuss, Kelraji speaks again, tired of the chattering.

“Enough. What do they want? Why are they here? We might as well hear them out. Ask them if they want to come inside. What is that saying you people have? Keep your enemies closest?”

The red-robed elf acknowledges the group’s decision and looks back up at the warrior on the exterior of the canopy, gesturing toward the rear of the plane and yelling a clipped phrase in Sperethiel. The rider delivers a swift jab to the sides of his mount and disappears once more from view.

The throng of soldiers and mystics migrates to the back of the plane, letting the three newcomers lead the way. They stand safely back from the breach as the massive rear gate slowly drops open, the mercenaries to one side, uneasily checking their rifles, and the Cabal on the other, muttering conspiratorially amongst themselves.

The ramp completes its descent, revealing a brilliant blue sky dotted with immaculate white clouds. Wind gutters crazily through the opening, buffeting all aboard and whistling in their ears. The two lizard riders cruise easily in the their wake, keeping pace with the cargo plane using steady sweeps of their wide wings. The leader spurs his mount forward, standing confidently in the saddle as his beast comes to an unsteady landing on the ramp with a clattering of claw on steel.

The lizard’s hunkered form fills the entryway, blotting out the bright morning sun. The envoy alights gracefully from his perch and takes a single step into the cabin, his mount hissing threateningly behind him as he inclines at the waist to execute a slight bow. Straightening again, he removes his pointed helm to reveal an elven face, pale of skin with hair of darkest raven pulled back in a tight ponytail, his expression stern and business-like. His jet-black eyes calmly scan the assembly before he speaks, addressing the three, as they stand farthest forward, and apart from the other two groups. “Se’seterin. Celese im cirolle faskit-ti raegh. Veresp’kra tesrae, a daron estial medaron’te.”

The elf called Vontarion frowns. “He says, ‘we have entered the territory of his lord. If we do not leave at once, we must pay homage at his court in exchange for our trespass, or they will tear our vessel from the sky.’” The haughty man scoffs derisively. “Push this one out of the plane. The rest we will deal with once we land. Honestly, these savages make demands of us?”

All eyes shift to the three men in the center of the crowded hold. The messenger from the island regards them with practiced detachment, his hand resting on the pommel of the sword at his waist.

Jake sees hands tighten on weapons, eyes looking to them for the word to open fire—“Hold! Hold your weapons, all of you.” The swordswoman has named him commander of these people; it was high time he made use of his rank. “Stay yourselves. This one is an ambassador, and we shall observe the proper respects.” He doffs his hat with one hand and sweeps it in front of him, bowing low with one foot outstretched. “Hile, aven kal. We come in peace.” He stands with open arms, palms up in a gesture of friendship. “We would like to treat with your lord, and will gladly pay homage at his court.” He glances sidelong at Vontarion for a translation.

Linus appears skeptical of the whole proceedings, but says quietly

“Indeed, perhaps these people know the lay of the land, so to speak.”

Then to the other Two of the Three, quietly: “I remain befuddled about our mission here… now that we have rested from that fight we would do well to discuss our plans… though we no longer have so much free time.”

Kelraji nods, and takes a step towards the emmisary, just enough to bring himself within whip range, but not close enough to cause alarm.

“We don’t need to whisper any more than they do. They don’t speak English. And plan what? We know now what we have to do, for the next few hours at least. When we know why they’re here, maybe it’ll help us figure out why we’re here. No need to plot and scheme pointlessly.

Dwarf, do you have parachutes with your armor and backpacks?"

Jake looks worried. “You don’t intend to… follow them out that door?” He looks warily out at the rushing air and clouds trailing off the plane’s tail section as they steadily lose altitude.

Kelraji smiles mischievously, then chuckles to himself.

“That would be quite the sight, wouldn’t it. No, That is not my intent. These men fly in the air on giant lizards in heavy armor. What happens if the lizard sneezes?

There is no quicker way to ease tensions than to make a genuine offering, out of concern for safety. I’m going to give these men parachutes, and have one of the War Pigs demonstrate."

Linus looks appalled. “If you think I am going to climb on the back of a half-dragon, or whatever those things are… My God if my life hadn’t been in danger I wouldn’t have even grabbed the skyhook… It’s just a lot to ask of…. I am a scientist for God’s sake, not an acrobat! I mean really!”

He looks at Jake for support. “I mean really!”

Back at Kelraji. “Really?”

Gunney Thacco pushes his way to the front of the mercenary squad, stroking his beard nervously. “Aye, the bird’s got ‘chutes alright, enough for the lot of us. Givin’ ’em away like presents though, seems a little dangerous, if fer example we were to need ’em. . .” He trails off, looking up at Sylvia Dagonhart nervously.

The woman’s expression remains stern and professional, as always. “You’ll outfit them as they see fit, Gunney. You know your orders.”

Shane calls out from the other side of the plane, thumping the flank of the box-like track closest to him. “This one has jump-jets if you’d rather do the drop in style. It’s a Striker—me and dad kitted it ourselves,” he says proudly. “Made space for four passengers in the back, plus the driver and gunner up front.”

Vontarion shakes his head slowly as the others carry on, finally addressing the foreign emissary dismissively. “Llay’asta, to-sarsa. Hang raegh resp.”

Something like malice flashes in the dark-haired elf’s gaze as he listens to Vontarion’s Sperethiel. He spits a single word, “llay’ar,” before bowing again, turning on his heel, and leaping astride his lizard in one practiced motion. He dons his helmet and sits expectantly in his saddle, waiting patiently for someone to dismiss him.

Linus watches Vontarion and the rider emissary, and thinks for a moment. Suddenly and idea enters his mind.

“Vontarion… your interpreting is… superb of course. Thanks, many thanks for that. But would you, before this rider leaves, ask him if he would grant me the gift of contact… a shaking of hands. Perhaps he would be willing?”

Linus walks slowly, respectfully, towards the emissary and lifts his hand, outstretched. It is an offering of welcome, though he strives not to be so assertive with the gesture as to be demanding.

“Tell him that I wish to communicate with his mind directly, though he has every right to refuse.”

Vontarion raises one flaxen-haired eyebrow. “Ah. . . as you wish.”

He addresses the silver-armored warrior. “Cele imiri’te, nage?”

The anachronistically-garbed elf looks down on the summoner for what feels like a century, seemingly weighing the odd request. At last, he leaps back down to the deck. He steps closer, removing his helmet and one finely-mailed glove. His eyes burn like black diamonds, and Linus can see intelligence and violence in equal measure behind the soldier’s stare as he extends his bared hand.

Jake’s hands creep imperceptibly towards the guns slung across his waist. His sixth sense picks up a jangling kind of lively aura from the summoner; maybe it’s just his imagination, or maybe some unseen hand guides him. To the gunslinger, an air of tension has wafted through the plane’s cargo area. He remains ready, just in case.

Linus in a moment of concern nearly steps back from the man, but then, realizing that this is more likely to stave off battle with these people than cause it, pulls in to the man’s stare and, boldly, grabs his hand.

“Be one with my thoughts, Rider.”

Kelraji, waiting on the parachutes, nods appreciatively and steps just within striking distance of the emissary.

Thacco trundles back to the center of the cargo hold, clutching three backpacks to his chest. “The parachutes, sir. Got as many as you need. I can show you how to use one, if’in you don’t know.”

Linus takes the elf by the hand, opening a mental link between them with a carefully formulated exertion of his magical energies.

Immediately, a great rush of sensation washes over him as the consciousness of this utterly foreign being interfacing with his own. Although it is clear the other man is thinking in his native elven tongue, Linus can clearly understand the thoughts running through his mind.

A cacophony of sensory data and emotion washes over the summoner all at once, giving him some brief glimpse into the other man’s existence as they first make contact—in the beginning, he is chasing his younger brother through the halls of his birthhome; then he is flying through the sky on the back of a cin’slazar for the first time; followed quickly by a still image of his wife on the night of their chal’han, their hands clasped together over the bloody grip of the ceremonial knife. Still more memories come, flashing past like quicksilver—the day of his knighting, the faces of his cin’estial as they gear up for patrol, the view of the great citadel sweeping out beneath him as he soars past, and then darker memories, laced with feelings of uncertainty, hatred and loss: the night the myrmid came, swarming over the citadel’s ramparts in one undifferentiable mass of black-armored soldiers, the screams of his men as the insect-riders tear them apart, the cry of the battle-horn as it sounds retreat.

Just as quickly, these distant memories are replaced by images of recent events—memories of this morning, breaking his fast in the barracks as a farm slave runs in from the countryside, babbling about glowing way-stones and an outlander who had stumbled through the gate. Then a call to action, and everyone is outside, pointing skyward at a shining metal beast breaking through the clouds above the Grey Sea.

Linus can see the elf’s eyes widen as he experiences the same phenomenon, but in reverse, seeing the life of Linus Templeton in the space of a heartbeat—opening his first chemistry set one early Christmas morning; the color of Catherine’s eyes the first time they meet; pulling the heavy acceptance envelope from Duke University out of his mailbox; the birth of his daughters; his first true fight on a shadowrun back in North Carolina; and finally, the image of Shane’s truck falling into the river beneath his dangling feet, a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire rising from the New York city skyline.

The elf’s inner voice sounds clearly in Linus’ mind. “How is this possible? You are male, yet you practice the witching arts. What strange place do you hail from, outlander? How come you to the Misty Isle?”

Kelraji nods to the sergeant, unwilling to take his eyes off the men, and waits for their business to complete before introducing his.

Linus, pleased that the elf’s emotions appear to be drifting into the realm of fascination and surprise rather than anger and suspicion, responds.

“I am on a mission I know little of, except that it has chosen me rather than I it. Your ways are likewise foreign to me, but I recognize in them the patterns of a great elf that has been forced to walk a difficult path. You have seen my memories, and know that I serve the Fire Bringer, and am also charged to carry a burden for enlightenment of the people. Let me show you the events that brought me here…”

With that Linus revisits and carefully replays his conversation with the old man, now almost certainly slain.

“Now you know as much, or as little, as I, and know that we mean you no offense and no harm. We have no association with the myrmid, and I suspect they may be mutual enemies on our mission. Will you offer us haven, and let us land our steel flyer? We welcome the chance to speak to your leader, but this machine flies off of a power source that is limited, and it must land soon.”

The elf pays careful attention as Linus recounts his tale. The summoner can tell the man is carefully considering his next act, mulling over this new knowledge within the guarded recesses of his inner consciousness. Appearing to have made up his mind, he speaks. “You seek Telen’oeran, the Scholar on the Hill. Our dancers sing of him when they recount the history of our people.” Images from the man’s imagination flash between them, first of a castle cut from grey stone and shrouded in mist, then of a solitary figure laying supine upon a solid stone block, arms crossed over his chest, his face shrouded in shadow. “He is the ruler of this land. The dancers say he formed the mountains and the sea at the dawn of time, and spread upon the earth grass, beast and raen.”

The elf’s dark eyes narrow. “So too do they sing of your book, and the power it wields. They say Telen’oeran and the tome are as one, like night and day—where one goes, the other must follow.”

“I believe your tale,” the emissary concludes. You may land your sky-whale upon our ground—I will see to your safety. Once you land, you will hold counsel with Mer’veloth, the lord of my people. He will want to hear your tale, and will demand recompense for the privilege of our haven." Another vision flashes across Linus’ mind, this time of a seated figure casually slumped upon a throne of iron and stone, his shoulders draped in a cape of purple velvet. He rests his head on one closed fist, brooding to himself as a leopard-spotted creature dozes at his feet.

The elven messenger withdraws his hand, bows slightly to Linus, then turns on his heel to leap once more astride his flying lizard. He digs his heels into the beast and draws on the reins, causing the creature to release its grip on the cargo ramp and fall backwards into space with a reptilian hiss.

The beast regains control with a few strokes of its leathery wings and joins formation with the other rider. They wheel away from the plane, picking up speed as they begin a lazy downward spiral towards the grassy plains which stretch out far below them.

The course of their flight has brought them directly above the settlement, revealing a bustling town built with materials and techniques reminiscent of medieval times. People can be seen flowing through the cobbled streets, appearing like ants from their high vantage point.

Jake turns to the nearest soldier, shouting over the roar of the wind, “Go to the cockpit and tell the pilots to land safely wherever they can!” Turning to Slyvia, “Dinh Dagonhart, I need two of your squads in these APC’s and ready to move out when we hit ground—one squad remains behind with the crew and equipment! We’ll show them homage, but I’m not marching into this place-out-of-time without back up.” He looks to the other Two, and nods silently. ‘Time to get ready. Ka-mai, I hope you can keep yourself under control, for all our sakes. The summoner will be needed to play his part too, I’m sure.’

inus, as if from a daze, jerks awake.

“Perhaps you would like to know what I have learned before making orders, Jake. I have seen into the emissary’s deepest intentions… and they reveal a severely cautious but benign intent. These people are in a way sorts of refugees, and they fear invasion from the outside. One bitten twice shy, I believe the saying goes?”

“So yes, we should land, but please let’s be cautious with mobilizing these vehicles. We may need them soon, but certainly not for our encounter with Mer’veloth. Though, I must say, I am hesitant about the nature of this lord of theirs. Though his emissary had a noble spirit, I always question the character of those who have had opportunity to be corrupted by the throne.”

“To be quick… these people know of the one we seek, whom they call Telen’oeran. I am not sure of his true nature, but he appears to be a sort of ‘man on the mountaintop’ of apparently considerable astral power. It is difficult to know from their descriptions, but he is hailed by the emissary as a sort of living God”

“We will certainly want their services in locating this man, and perhaps in overcoming obstacles that may appear. I wish I had been given more time to elucidate their legends and iconography surrounding this figure, but to be sure they know more than we do, and it seems that our arrival was foretold…”

Jake considers this for a second. “Hmmm. You may be right, Linus. That’s good information; let’s reconsider.”

He turns back to the lieutenant, “Dagonhart, forget the APC’s and halve the escort. One squad will come with the three of us into the village as bodyguards. We will also require the use of your glammer, wherever he may be, and Vontarion, to translate. Behuniak and yourself are free to attend us but I leave that decision to you.”

Kelraji shrugs, nods to the gunslinger, and gets himself a sly grin.

“What are we waiting for? Dagonhart, please make it clear to your men that when we land, they are to treat the three of us as emissaries. Better to meet as equals than invaders. Also, Sergeant, our escort will carry the parachute gifts. Take the opportunity of gift-giving to observe their soldiers and weapons. If things go wrong, I expect your men to be fully prepared.”

“Somebody get me a flying horse.”

Kelraji chuckles to himself and shakes his head as he returns to the APC to gather his things.

Linus, likewise gathers himself, tagging after Kelraji.

“Excellent, yes, excellent thinking about the gifts. Though I suspect such a gift should be presented as an offensive weapon… rather than a protective safeguard. These people are proud and may see any suggestion that a parachute would ever be needed as an affront.”

Then in a whisper:

“You don’t think that Vontarion was bothered too much by my circumventing his translation, do you? As you can tell, mindlink it gets the job done very quickly. Very quickly.”

Then suddenly switching subjects:

“Perhaps it would be prudent for me to summon an astral companion to go with us? Do you think that would be seen as agressive? I’m just thinking out loud, you know.”

Kelraji shakes his head.

“How about we land first? Even if they bring swords, we have these giant tanks. I don’t see how a spirit would help.

Why don’t you go ahead and tell me and the cowboy what you know in private while we land?"

Kelraji heads towards the APC, meandering, looking around the plane.

The cargo freighter rolls implacably to the right, banking in for descent as the rear hatch rumbles closed once more. The pilot’s voice blares through the plane’s speakers. “Hang on, we’re in for some chop.”

Lieutenant Dagonhart snaps Jake an easily salute. “My men will be ready. One question, sir—what is a glammer? I’m not familiar with about half the words that come out of your mouth, this one included, but I have a feeling it does not describe any of my troops.”

Behuniak thumps an armored fist against his breastplate. “You have my shield.”

“I do not serve this woman,” Vontarion scoffs, sweeping his silken cape across one shoulder. “Yet I deign to join you. For the common good,” he adds insincerely.

Thomas takes a step closer, gesturing to two men near the back of the crowd. “I would be remiss not to point out two members of the Cabal whom you have not met. They have talents you may find useful.” He gestures to an older man draped in a high-collared longcoat. Heavy armor spans his chest, and he wears some sort of mechanical brace on both legs. “Renzo Espallier,” Thomas informs them. “A Spanish aristocrat and something of a Jack-of-all-trades. I know little about him, other than that he financed the entirety of this expedition.”

Thomas introduces the second Cabalman, a stout, heavily muscled brute dressed in simple leather clothing. He is armed with nothing more than a standard-issue kevlar vest, a brutally long knife, and a wood-bodied old-era rifle. A heavy ashen pelt hangs over one arm. His face is creased and weathered, and framed by a crazed white beard. “And that is Russ Gault, an adept following the Way of the Beast. An excellent tracker and outdoorsman, as well as an expert on the local terrain. Apparently he’s been here before.”

The Crusader adept steps back. “We are at your call, my brothers. It is a great risk to walk directly into something so unknown. My heart tells me there will be death.”

Linus calls out to Jake from the edge of the APC:

“Listen Jake, we really should all get on the same page here, perhaps we can have a quick chat about our plans? Best that we not be giving contradicting orders when we are on the ground.”

Jake holds his hat down with one hand as he ducks inside the vehicle. “Apologies, comrades.” I think it best that we go on a short mission to meet their leadership. No displays of force, just as ambassadors. I’m sure we’ll be… safe." He rests his hand on the butt of his father’s gun.

Kelraji nods.

“Of course we’ll be safe. That’s why we’re bringing armed guards and a group of powerful and heavily armored attendants.

Look, one of two things is true. Either they’re dangerous, and we should bring everything we have, or they’re not, and we don’t need anything but the three of us, and maybe the translator. There is no middle path here. I know if someone is pointing a gun at me, the size doesn’t make me feel any more or less offended. So, do we bring our ‘guns’ or not?

And another thing, Linus, mind read the translator. Why is he so dismissive of these people, and why should we trust him?"

Linus looks at Kelraji with befuddlement and then chuckles.

“If I could mind read just anyone at any moment I would happily do so. But the link I use requires consent, and Vontarion is hardly a willing subject.”

“And I think the answer is, quite simply, that we’ll be safe. That the emissary even allowed me access to his mind is first evidence of this, moreover he will certainly be relaying to his command that we are the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy, whose details I was not quite able to elicit before our contact was broken. Frankly I think bringing armed escort would put us in greater danger than to going alone, given the signal it might send.”

The floor of the APC takes on a new strain of vibration, accompanied by a hydraulic whine as the landing gear descends. Muffled shouts and clanks can be heard from without as the expedition prepares for landfall.

Linus, not waiting for his companion’s response, turns to the side and whips his lighter out of his pocket, deftly flicking it alight a the same time. He closes his eyes for a brief second, and blows across the top of the flame, causing it to dance, while his free hand runs through the smoke.

Linus inscribes a diminutive summoning rune in the air, breaking the seal with a token offering of flame. He performs the simple incantation easily, as usual, yet what comes through the from the other side surprises him. The watcher materializes without permission, its ghostly image flitting about the interior of the armored transport. Instead of the usual minor elemental, a tiny human figure has emerged, wearing a simple light green tunic and sporting a set of fairy wings.

The little sprite checks its surroundings with a bored expression, completely unimpressed by what it sees. It flutters inches away from Linus’ nose, a judgmental expression on its tiny face. “It is men that call me so? Hmph. I do not know your tribe.” The little androgynous creature buzzes in circles around the summoner’s head. “What business have you with the fey, outlander? Oh! Do come to save the king? Say you’re here for the king!”

Linus jumps back away from the thing, his chin receeding into his neck as he leans backwards away from it.

“I’m here for the king?” he tries. “Let’s go with that… sure… fine. Look, uh, listen I am quite sorry but you’re not quite what I was expecting.” he looks quizzically at the newly summoned tinkerbell.

Kelraji frowns.

“Try again. That doesn’t look like the last one you summoned.”

Jake intervenes. “Wait! This little one might simply be the form of such spirits in this place. Let’s hear what it has to say to us.”

He addresses the little light ball, “What’s happened to the king, faerie?”

Kelraji frowns, and reaches for Linus’ lighter.

The sprite flits inches in front of Jake’s nose. “Our king! The fairy king has gone missing! The whole Feywild is in chaos! Some say he was captured by He who Sleeps! Others say he put on an evil piece of armor, and it turned his heart to stone, and now he wanders the Merkling Wood in the dark of night! Oooooo. . .” The fairy waves its hands about in front of Jake’s face for added effect.

Kelraji grabs Linus by the wrist and applies pressure to his tendons, easily dislodging the lighter from his pitiful grip. The tiny spirit emits a squeaky cry of indignation and begins zooming about the monk’s head, screaming and throwing punches at his face with immaterial little fists. “You stay away from him, ya creep! He may be a wuss, but he’s still my master for another four hours!” Firecracker-like bursts of light go off in distracting proximity to Kel’s face as the watcher exercises the full power of its fey magic.

Another high-pitched hydraulic whine reaches them as the cargo plane’s flaps extend, followed by the roar of propellers reversing thrust.

Linus’ quizzical expression remains on his face as he looks at Kelraji

“Wuss indeed, but give back my lighter you fanatic! Creature! Stop attacking him! This is our almost-undoubtably-lunatic friend of ours.”

“Creature what is your name and why do I not have access to the element of fire?”

The fairy somersaults gleefully through the air, all aggression towards Kelraji suddenly stricken from its simple mind. “My name is Gurp-Gurp! But most fey just call me Gurps.”

The sprite matches Linus’ confused expression. “What do you mean, you don’t have access to fire? You called for a watcher, not an elemental. That’s why you got me, Gurp-Gurp! The feychildren are the denizens of call for any minor summoning here. It’s our right as natives to have first heed to the offerings of the Otherverse. I took yours cause you seem interesting, although I prefer milk and honey over a bit of fire. It was nice though. Rustic! I heard in other lands there are watchers who aren’t fey! Is that true? Is it possible? Do you have one with you? Is it better than me? Can I meet it? Oh, no one would ever believe me if I did!” Gurps falls over backwards with an elated sigh, emitting a trail of sparkling dust behind it.

The deck beneath their feet rocks violently as the plane thunders into contact with the uneven earth. The three hold tight to handrails and straps to keep themselves on their feet as the cargo plane rumbles to an ungraceful halt.

Kelraji flicks the lighter on, blows through the flame, gestures for Linus to make another watcher. Disappointed by the distracted scientist, he shrugs and moves on.

Handing the lighter back to Linus, Kelraji stands, secures what he’s taking with him, and heads out the door of the APC.

Linus is ponders this, while accepting his lighter back without a thought.

“Gurps! Fascinating, fascinating! And you say that you populate this place? My goodness there’s something really interesting going on here. Of course there are all kinds of theories of locally induced heterogeneities in the astral realms, but I have never seen a demonstration of it that was so… so… conclusive!”

“Alright Gurps I’m going to try something… I don’t know that it will work but let’s just give it a shot and see what happens… usually my watchers aren’t so vocal as you, this is actually quite enjoyable”

With that Linus pulls out his lighter again and… concentrating deeply on the flame, pulls an image of another watcher form into his mind. Carefully, he attempts to pull it through the flame from the elemental planes, uncertain of what to expect.

The summoner deploys another rune of watcher summoning, once again passing his offering of fire through the center of the circle. He watches with rapt attention as a being bursts through the opening. This one is another fairy, a little bigger than the last, and equipped with a miniature set of buckler, half-helm and spear.

Gurps gasps. “Toot-Toot! Yeah, it’s a fairy party!”

The second sprite manifests as a ghostly half-image on the physical plane, brandishing his small fairy weapon at unseen enemies. Portions of his hair and tunic are singed a sooty black. “What was that all about? One minute I’m on my way to the Otherverse, the next I’m fighting some Underdark flaming-ass monkey!” He glances around. “And no milk? Is this guy serious?”


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