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Dante

Warlords 2 - Five Years Later

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This is a great land. Rolling fields and gentle valleys surround a central mountain range of towering peaks. To the west, a great marshland extends to the sea. To the east, a shining peninsula of silver and glass. The northern sun beats down upon a great desert, while the barren south sees no sun at all. The land's inhabitants know no other place; indeed, many are unaware even of the other regions upon their own forum.

Within this great forum are six regions, the boards of the land. The northernmost is the Duniverse, a vast expanse of sand and sky. Settlements here are difficult to spot, and those who dwell there tend toward introspection. They are a harsh people, shaped by the conditions in which they live.

South of the Duniverse is the temperate region of the forum. Occupants of the General board are soft and easygoing. They prosper from trade between their threads, and are perhaps the most populous board in the forum. They have been subject to raids from the other regions from time to time, but their plentiful resources and varied peoples ensure that they always bounce back.

To the south of General lies another harsh land, the mountain range of Fanfiction. Though only the highest peaks are covered with snow all year, the winds are fierce and the weather hostile to outsiders. Within its caves, valleys and upon the occasional plateau can be found the threads of Fanfiction, towns and villages of little commercial value but possessed of a strong heart. The highlanders have little to call their own, and have made it a habit in the past to take the property of others.

West of Fanfiction is found the marshlands of Gaming. The people of this board live on reclaimed land, or on great hills and mottes that have risen above the boggy terrain. Though a small board, it possesses great natural resources, both in the swamps that dot the terrain and washed up on the shores to the west.

East of Fanfiction is the great, glittering land of Technical Issues, or TI. The TI board is a seemingly neverending plane of shining supports and threads suspended in glass and silver. It is a technocratic kingdom in its own right, and its occupants have ever wished to keep it that way. They do not stray beyond their walled borders, nor do they invite outsiders in.

The southernmost board in the forum is the land of Politics, Religion and Philosophy, or PRP for short. This war-torn place is a wasteland, dotted with the shells of threads that burned from within. Those that survive are armoured and shielded like military bunkers, both against the firestorms that sweep the land and the ever-present threat of revolt from within. PRP has no living trees, no untainted bodies of water, no land that is not ash underfoot. Its inhabitants are hard people, in body and spirit.

So it is that in the land of Fed2k, leaders have arisen in the threads and boards. These feudal lords hold court from their home threads. Successful leaders become warlords of Fed2k.

As a rule, these individuals seek to protect their own interests and peoples from the expansion of others. Traditionally the warlords of Fanfiction have led the raids upon General, while the mayors and lords of General have attempted to prevent these losses and hold off encroachment from Duniverse. There have never been any General warlords.

Warlords of Gaming often duel with warlords of Fanfiction, these two lands being close together and jealous of each other. If there are warlords in TI, none know of them.

The warlords of PRP embody their profession, using any means necessary to push themselves into power, and then moulding their threads and holdings as they see fit. Easily the most violent and warlike of the warlords, those in PRP are locked in a neverending conflict with each other. Their wars have scarred the very land, while their paranoid and jealous natures have prevented any form of alliance as seen in the northern boards. Indeed, Fanfiction and Gaming look with worry upon PRP, for if a PRP warlord were ever to gain an advantage over his fellows, he would immediately turn his attention to softer targets in the north. It is the treacherous nature of PRP that prevents it from spreading, much to the relief of the other boards.

Throughout time, there have been several great conflicts in the land of Fed2k. One of the greatest spawned the PRP board, once a gentle region similar to General. Before and since, there have been wars in the land. The warlords have come and gone, claimed land and fought for it. Small conflicts are always erupting and disappearing, while the larger conflict in PRP never stops, it merely slows every so often.

The last great conflict saw warlords from Fanfiction, PRP and Gaming throw their forces against each other in several huge battles, of which bards still sing today. The living warlords expanded their territory as never before in an attempt to overpower each other. Alliances became necessary, while vassals and underlings were called from the sticks to fight in the name of their lords.

The warlords fought across Fanfiction, sometimes to a standstill and sometimes to destruction. Rumours ran riot even years after the conflict ended, of warlords who took their threads and their people beyond the reach of their foes, into the legendary other boards. The Strategy, the Landsraad, the Great Dungeon, said to be the pit of hell itself. Who could guess at these mythical lands? Whispers continued, hinting at the eventual return of these vanishing lords. They have not come.

Warlords 2 - Five years later

This is the sequel to one of Fanfiction's most successful threads, FED2K warlords. It took place in a land modelled on the primary boards of Fed2k, with the geographical position of each region roughly corresponding to the position of each board on the forum. Within each region are the population centres, or threads. These range from small, one-page settlements to vast cities of many pages. The last thread ended, as many of the greatest ones did, in flames and squabbling. But that was not the end of the story.

Dragoon Knight and I have started the continuation, but others are welcome to join. Unlike the first Warlords, the point of this thread is not to win, it is to tell a story. It is intended as a narrative rather than a competition. This has the benefit of removing all of the tedious number-crunching, with the cost of looser rules that depend more heavily on a sense of fair play.

Each participant takes control of their avatar on the board, a 'warlord.' They choose a thread as their base of operations, and proceed to play a part in the larger story. What is the larger story? Read on.

Fed2k2.png

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The Sun was setting in FED2k, and Dragoon Knight had one of the best views in all the boards.  As it set the horizon on fire, sinking slowly and dragging the night behind it, the Gaming Lord stood rapt in his office, staring from his balcony.  Arms crossed, he remembered fondly making a point of watching this spectacle as often as possible.

The air was calm; not so much as a breeze to ruffle his clothing.  Still, night arrived a second at a time.  The buildings below Freelancer Tower would slowly shrug off the last of the Sun's rays and the entire city would resemble a grand mosaic of multicoloured lights.  Dragoon Knight breathed in deeply, hoping to scent some of the brisk salt air which occasionally worked its way up along the updrafts.  No such luck this evening.

Over half a decade since the abrupt end to the fighting; Dragoon Knight could not believe that it had been so long.  He remembered vividly the rampant expansion throughout the lands of Gaming and beyond.  He recalled with acute clarity the sheer size of the armies involved, both Gaming and Fan Fiction full to bursting with units and tech.  At the pinnacle of the conflict, Dragoon Knight's forces had been the only realistic rival to those of the Fan Fiction Warlord, Dante.  While the latter certainly had the advantage in sheer numbers and offensive technology, Dragoon Knight's own defensive development and placement of units made the outcome of a hypothetical conflict uncertain.  Indeed, it was fortuitous for both parties that the warfare ended when it did; with neither side willing to accede control of FED2k to the other, Dante was placed in the difficult position of having to violate one or more agreements to avoid a stalemate.  In the end, choosing to send the deposed Warlord ExSPlug against Dragoon Knight became the least damaging of all the options.

When the conflict erupted, however, the conflagration of so many differing technologies and units in one place caused untold harm to FED2k.  Alternate, concurrent realities emerged; in some, Dragoon Knight himself was ousted by the attacking forces.  In others, ExSPlug was utterly decimated by advanced preparation and superior defensive tech.  In the end, when reality re-asserted itself, both sides suffered massive losses; Dragoon Knight emerged as the victor through home-ground advantage and the whimsy of space-time.

Witnessing this, both Dante and Dragoon Knight agreed to a truce.  A non-aggression treaty was established, with agreement on both sides to gradual disarmament.  In the two years it took to enact the terms of the treaty, both sides learned the value of becoming distant allies.  With all other Warlords quiescent or dead, the threat of conflict was long past.  To this end, Dragoon Knight and Dante agreed to the creation of a "Neutral Ground" thread, the co-owned Never Winter Nights, to facilitate trade and encourage communication.  A golden age.

Dragoon Knight moved back inside his office proper, closing the balcony doors.  It was a warm night - as he sat down at his desk, stifling a yawn, he noticed no change in temperature.

"...sh!" said a voice.  Dragoon Knight had been reaching for an electronic pad - probably another report from Ryu, the only aide who had stuck around all these years - when he heard the noise.  There was no doubt in his mind that it was a voice.  The ventilation was designed to be silent and his office was soundproofed.  A quick glance at the door status light confirmed that the balcony was sealed.

The only issue was that there was no possible place for someone to hide in his office.

"...een!" came the voice again.  Remaining calm, the ex-Warlord felt old instincts return; logically deconstruct the situation.  Hermetically sealed office.  Soundproofed.  Ventilation not large enough for anyone to move through, not even a child.  Blasted with EMP hourly, nothing mechanical could make it up the 97 floors in time.

"...cid!"

The voice was his own.

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It was a golden age.

For five years the Northern lands of Fed2k have been at peace. Former warlords have ruled with wisdom, strength and temperance. Trade between threads in the central belt led to prosperity and wellbeing. Only in the far South does conflict still burn, where the very land and sky are riven by the neverending strife between the warlords of PRP. They glare enviously North from their great bunker-cities, the avarice of each held in check by the ambition of his fellows.

The highlands of Fanfiction, under the uncontested rule of their great leader, have ceased their raids upon the General lowlands. Content to remain within his substantial borders, Dante has provided a safe and plentiful life for a people used to hardship.

In the time since the last great conflict, Fed2k has prospered. Soldiers have returned to their families, outposts and fortresses have been decommissioned. All is peaceful. All is golden.

Over the years, the spirit of cooperation and brotherhood in which the last conflict ended, has muted. The Battlegames no longer take place, the great arena fallen into disuse. Contact between warlords is rare, personal meetings unheard of. Some who rose to power from necessity chose to forsake the title of warlord itself, becoming simply lords, or leaving leadership altogether.

The lands have become quiet. Tranquil.

The archivist replaced his quill, bleary eyes blinking in soft candlelight. He looked up from his efforts, brow creasing in thought. He did not, he realised, recall the faces of his fellow warlords. Some of them he had met in person, many had been his friends... He blinked slowly. Reaching into the recesses of his memory, he tried to remember how to remember.

The image came slowly, as a corpse floating up from a well. A book, he thought. A specific book. He reached across his desk, slightly conscious of the gossamer webs that parted as he did so. A large book, bound in red leather. It was new and fresh, though obscured by a thick layer of dust. The archivist brushed his hand across it, sending a cloud out into the small room. He found the right page, and stared at it.

The face that gazed out at him was annotated with details of the man whose name titled the page. The name was familiar, and yet the archivist could hardly recall it. He tried another page. Another face started out at him. This face, as though riding upon the last, brought with it recollections of both. The archivist recalled that there had been a meeting, a word. As he turned the pages he remembered more faces and places, they flowed into his head until he looked up with a start.

He remembered his name. This in itself did not shock him as much as the realisation that he had forgotten it at all. He brushed a hand through his hair, looked in growing unease at the cobwebs that came away.

Getting to his feet, the archivist wobbled on atrophied limbs. Staggering at first, he made his way from his tower to the meeting room below. It was dark, dim starlight showing through the large windows. The form of a woman slumped over a large stone table in the centre. The archivist shook her shoulder. She made no sound, giving only a slight moan when he shook her harder. He tried to hiss her name, realised he had forgotten it.

"Hey. Hey." He shook her shoulder some more, jumped back when her elbow jabbed out at his stomach. The woman rubbed her eyes sleepily.

"Hey what?" She said muzzily, brushing dust from her sleeve.

"Something's wrong." The archivist told her, though he was not entirely sure that he spoke the truth. Half-memories and dim recollections passed just out of sight. "I think... I think we're in danger."

"Danger?" The woman frowned, puzzlement growing in her eyes as they began to focus on him. "I know you."

"And I you." The archivist nodded, "But I don't recall your name."

"I am..." The woman's eyes widened. "I do not know."

"The same for me." The archivist nodded. "I know that I am a person of power, but I do not recall... I do not recall much."

"Where are we?" The woman looked around. Her expression was unreadable, a fact that danced upon the archivist's senses as somehow important to identifying her.

"This is... a central chamber of sorts." He shrugged. "I believe that I own it. My name is... My name is Dante." He said it with certainty that he did not entirely feel, but the fact of the statement brought him some comfort. Haze started to clear from his mind's eye. He looked at the woman, waved a hand.

The chamber was bathed in a soft glow, illuminating her features. She was tall, sensual. Full lips rested above a sharp jaw, a shapely face with canny blue eyes. Her blonde hair was dull under layers of dust, but it was her clothing that stirred his memories. She wore a dress of deep red, elegant yet loose enough to allow for unrestricted movement. Her name returned to him.

"Lillian." She looked up at him sharply. "Your name is Lillian." Her eyes shifted.

"You are correct." She nodded. "I remember you now, Lord Dante." She cast her eyes around the chamber, thick with dust and cobwebs. "And I agree, something is wrong here." Fixing her eyes on a large web, she bit her lip in thought.

"There is another." She said at last. "There are more here. We should find them, see what has become of them. They may be able to shed some light on our status."

"More. Yes." Dante brushed dust from his clothes, followed Lillian's eye to the web. "She was... another lieutenant.

"Latrodectus." Lillian nodded.

Latrodectus was found outside the chamber, slumped upon the steps of the tower as though collapsed while ascending. Eight needle legs held her in place, blocking the passage completely. Her upper body, that of a woman with oil-slick black spider skin, rested upon the stone while her abdomen, the swollen black carapace of a spider, was held aloft by her legs. Thin clawed hands reached outward, giving her the impression of having fallen to unconsciousness while scrabbling at the door. Strangely, her monstrous form did not disturb either Dante or Lillian. While the latter attempted to wake Latrodectus, Dante slipped between the spider legs to find slumped the form of a man.

"Darius." He shook the man's shoulder as he had Lillian's. "Wake up Darius, we need you."

Latrodectus was twitching, one black eye half open. Her lips parted, black fangs dripping with venom as she yawned. Darius also was stirring, until all four stood in the chamber above.

Dante felt his memories returning to him. Ragged and hazy, they came in twos and threes. He remembered his council chamber, the great windows and balconies outside the central tower of his fortress. He remembered a banquet, a kitchen... But for all that, some areas remained fuzzy. His advisers were doing their best to fill in, but he did not recall his last actions before 'waking up' in the archival tower. He did not remember the names or faces of any of his citizens, had only the archives to remind him of his peers. He barely remembered who he was, what was represented by his name.

"Something sent us to sleep, that much is obvious." Latrodectus hissed through her teeth. "It is not hard to imagine that some other warlord attempted to take advantage of our complacency, cursing us somehow."

"Very Sleeping Beauty, but I don't find it likely." Darius tapped his chin, glancing at Lillian. "We would have detected a magical attack of that nature, or at least sensed the power involved before it could hit us."

"It was subtle enough to overwhelm all of us." Lillian pointed out. "We haven't been awoken until now, therefore we can only assume that the rest of the thread sleeps as well. Any number of supernatural creatures, artificial sentries, mentats and the like should have been able to resist the compulsion to rest. That none of them did suggests a power quite beyond our own."

"In that case, why not simply attack outright?" Darius shook his head. "No, I am not convinced that our foe is an enemy warlord."

"Regardless of the malady's source, we must counter it." Dante waved his hand, summoning a flickering schematic of TGED above the table. He frowned. "How can we best clear the thread?"

"Teams of two." Darius pointed to the tower where they stood. "We start here, and work our way down. We wake the residents of the fortress one by one, and send them in further teams of two to wake more. Once we have gathered a sufficient force, we make our way out into the city." He peered at the schematic. "This does not show the status of the city beyond the fortress' walls."

"I... I can't see it." Dante strained, holding his hands before the dancing image. "I can sense the interior of the fortress, just barely the walls... but I can't see outside. I can barely sense that there is a thread at all."

"We've been drained." Darius muttered. "Lillian should return here as soon as she wakes another; we need to contact our other threads in case there has been an outbreak elsewhere."

"Agreed." Dante strode for the door. "Come on, we should get started."

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Dragoon Knight was fairly certain he had not spoken.  But he was just as certain that the voice had been his own.  He listened intently to confirm his suspicions.

"...ing!"

It was as he thought.  Only snatches of a sentence, pre-empted by an almost inaudible chorus of whispers.  In his mind, the Lord pictured the voice as a calm ocean - silent but for the lapping of waves at the very end of the water's journey, before being snatched back into the depths of silence.

But the voice was repeating itself, staying close to the shore.  Straining to hear again, Dragoon Knight placed his hands on his desk and half-rose from his seat.  There!  The whispers, the faint sound of a voice trying to be heard, his voice...

"...DANGER!"

Shocked back into his seat, he tried to remain calm as the shout echoed around his skull.  Something was wrong.  But what?  He reached for the electronic pad on his desk - it was as he expected, a status report from Ryu.  He put it down again, stood up and walked towards his office door, before pausing in mid-stride.  He couldn't remember exactly what the report had said.  Something about... no, it was gone.

He yawned again.  He shouldn't be tired, not at sunset...

"...ign!"

It didn't make any sense.  There was no alarm sounding, no word of any trouble over the intercom or from Ryu directly.  He turned around to his desk again, legs feeling decidedly heavier than they had just a moment ago.  Gas?  Some sort of nerve toxin?  He managed to reach his chair and sit down.  So very tired...

No.  Dragoon Knight sat up straight with a force of will.  No gas, no nerve toxin; the ventilation system was proof against that sort of thing.  Something in the air outside?  Couldn't be, there wasn't even a breath of wind to carry-

His eyes widened suddenly.  No wind.  None at all.  No salt on the air, sure, but no wind on the 97th floor of Freelancer Tower?  He couldn't be...

Dragoon Knight grabbed the pad again, read it carefully.  A report detailing the de-commissioning of the original 'Freelancer'-model fighter craft.  He looked away, then looked back again.  Now it was a list of expenditures for the last financial quarter.  Shit.  He looked away one last time, as he heard the whispers mounting, then looked back.

Both the whispers and the pad said one thing.

"...DANGER!"

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A single window lit up, almost another star in the sky, far above the city below. For a long time it was alone, until another window flickered into dim life further down the castle walls. It was joined soon after by a third, and a fourth. Piece by piece, the castle came to life. Unwatched and unregarded, newly awoken residents scuttled through vast halls and narrow passages in search of slumbering fellows.

Yet as they approached the ground floor, the light's progress slowed.

"We can't exit the castle." Darius reported, having met Dante in the main hall. He stood with J'invy the mentat while Dante's search parter, Latrodectus, prowled along the walls.

"Is there something in the way?" She hissed, glaring out at the dark streets below.

"No, not that we can see." Darius shook his head, "But whenever anyone gets close, they become unbearably drowsy. I had to drag two men away from the doors and wake them up all over again. I could feel myself... forgetting who I am. The closer I stood to those doors." His eyes slipped to the great double doors at the other end of the hall. They stood ajar, starlight beyond. A sleeping guard lay propped against one door.

"Lillian, any progress?" Dante asked the air. Static crackled along the walls, but there was no reply. He frowned.

"Should that have worked?" Darius asked.

"I think so." Dante sighed. "Well there's nothing more we can do here. Lets see if Lillian has raised anyone from our outposts."

The council chamber was lit now, though poorly. The great lamps remained dark far above, so that only the occasional candle cast flickering light across the great stone table. A large frame loomed in the shadows of the far wall. It was ornately carved in the same black stone of the walls and was draped with curtains in deepest purple. It held a scratchless surface of black glass, ever so slightly reflective. Dante approached it, ran one hand across the front. Left no fingerprints.

"This is a mirror." He said over his shoulder.

"We used it as a portal." Latrodectus said, sitting herself awkwardly at the table. "It connected to a thread known as The List, which itself led to several other locations in Fanfiction."

"I remember." Dante nodded, peering into the glass. "It was the foundation of my empire. We used The List to appear instantaneously, transporting an army from one side of the board to another in the blink of an eye."

"It doesn't look operational." J'invy pointed out.

"It isn't." Lillian shrugged. "I've been trying to contact our other threads, or even open a portal. Nothing."

"What did we do before we had The List?" Rai'guy asked, slipping into a chair next to Latrodectus. The spider demoness sneered at the vampire, who grinned back.

"We ssssent messssengerssss." She hissed.

"But we're trapped." J'invy muttered. "If I could just get my hands on some sapho..."

"We've awoken the castle at least. The kitchens are already firing up." Lillian pointed to a glowing spot on the fading schematic. She looked across at the mirror, where Dante stood silently. "My Lord?"

Dante hardly heard her. He was watching the smooth, inky blackness of the portal. His reflection in shades of black stared back at him. It was this to which he paid the most attention, for in his reflection's eyes he saw desperation and frustration. Perhaps fear. He felt none of these things. And yet, he could see them. He drew closer to the glass.

Voices were muffled. His reflection drew closer, almost as though the surface was a window, rather than a mirror. He reached out, put his hand through the glass, which rippled gently. His reflection grasped his hand, allowed himself to be pulled through the surface and into the room. Only then did sound filter back, and Dante once again became aware of his surroundings.

His reflection was ethereal, hovering nearby with concern written all over his face. The other lieutenants stood or sat nearby, watching. Lillian was the first to move.

"I remember you." She levelled a penetrating gaze at the ghostly figure.

"And I you, Lillian." The figure bowed.

"I remember." Dante looked up from the mirror, now blank and black. His eyes were wide as he beheld himself. "You- you're my ghost."

"I am the ghost of Dust Scout." The figure bowed again. "Former lieutenant to the warlord Dust scout, currently known as Dante."

"But you are me." Dante said.

"I was you." The ghost of Dust Scout corrected him. "I died a long time ago, in another thread. I was murdered, in point of fact, but that is neither here nor there." He drifted forward, "I slept, but I have awoken. I remember. I remember watching life in the castle slow, watching with detachment as I grew sluggish. I faded, others slept. But I remember." He pressed forward, locking eyes with Dante. "Remember."

The trickle of memories opened up, became a flood. Names and faces poured through those eyes, awakened further places and events that had lain buried in the warlord's mind. Layers of dust were shaken off, revealing people and conversations that he had only dimly recalled before. Sights and smells, tastes and textures, all of it returned to him in a rush. He remembered the tiered city below, the great, sprawling nest of civilisation that was The God Emperor's Dune. He remembered his rulership of TGED, in good times and bad. He remembered his lieutenants, his enemies and his allies.

The eyes broke away, the flow ceased. Dante staggered under the weight of his own thoughts while the ghost of Dust Scout retreated to the table.

"I remember." Dante looked up. He flexed his fingers, electricity running along them. He flicked a gesture, high above his head the chandelier flared into life. He turned, snapped his fingers at the blank wall. Fractured tiles flew back into place, forming a great mosaic map of Fed2k. Fanfction still bore the scorch marks of past conflicts. The schematic of the fortress expanded above the table, filling the air with a scale model of TGED in its tiered entirety in blue and red light.

"Well thiss isssss encouraging." Latrodectus smiled. Dante rolled his shoulders, cracking joints back into place.

"Go out into the city." He ordered, flinging open the windows with a wave of his arms. "Wake the people. The sun will be rising soon; my power is spreading. I will keep us."

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He had to stay calm.  Dragoon Knight didn't find this difficult; he felt so very tired.  His movements were becoming more and more sluggish, as though he had weights attached to every limb.  But he knew what was happening - on a very basic level, he also knew what he had to do.  Just not how to do it.

Forcing himself to stand up, he checked the analogue clock on his wall.  Half past six.  He closed his eyes for a two-count.  Twenty to nine.  Double-shit.  Another two-count with eyes closed.  The clock was gone.

"...ime!"

Ime.  Probably time.  What about the others?  He ran them back through his mind, found it difficult to recall.  He would have to draw on his innate abilities to bolster them.  Reaching within himself, Dragoon Knight called upon the powers that were his namesake...

They did not respond.  Impossible - he had discovered his Dragoon powers here!  Exploring this place was what made it possible!  Forcing himself to think, he moved through possibilities.  He was sure he knew where he was.  If he wasn't here by choice, though...

Ign.  That was another one.  Sign, possibly.  Yes, it was sign.

Ing.  That could be anything.  No use.  The next one... the next one was...

Cid.  Lucid.  Then it was certain.

He was trapped inside a lucid dream.

Long ago, Dragoon Knight had perfected the ability to consistently achieve a state of lucid dreaming.  Combined with his gaming ability, it had allowed him to bridge the gap that other gamers couldn't - to make his powers real.  He had always theorised that the original cause of the abilities of gamers as a whole was a result of a residual energy of sorts, flowing down from the mountains of Fan Fiction over the centuries, settling in the fertile lands of Gaming, before making its way to the sea.  By tapping into that energy while in a natural, if altered, state of consciousness, it had given him untold power.

But he had always been here by his own will alone.  Lucid dreams were fragile things at the best of times - thoughts and actions always had to be kept in close check, as usually the realisation that one is dreaming is enough to wake the dreamer up.  But no, this was something different... something was keeping him asleep.

His powers were denied to him, too, meaning that whatever it was, it was cutting him off from essential parts of his mind.  That explained his voice!  He was trying to warn himself.  Meaning that some part of him was aware of the outside world.  Aware of what was happening.

Trying to tell him what to do.

Time was running out... movement was like swimming now.  He was so tired.  Clenching his teeth, Dragoon Knight forced himself to focus through vision that was becoming blurry.  There had been other scraps of his voice... what had they said?

Een.  Sh.  He wasn't paying enough attention.  He couldn't do this on his own.  His thoughts were too jumbled - he knew that he knew what to do, but the knowledge wasn't part of this consciousness.  But...

But surely if the other part of his mind could speak to him, he could speak to it?

With an effort like trying to speak through syrup, Dragoon Knight forced out one syllable; one word that would trigger every innate force and instinct that laid dormant.

"...help."

There were no voices, no whispers, but without question he knew that he had to move.  He had to stay awake in the dream as a priority; he couldn't let his last vestiges of awareness slip into oblivion.  Spinning around in circles was the recommended course of action when trying to prolong a lucid dream, but simply standing up felt like battling against hurricane force winds.

The knowledge came as a beacon of clarity amidst the fog of sleep; a lighthouse.  Symbolism... he had to look for something.

Of course!  A dream sign!  The final check to confirm that he was dreaming!  It would give him the key to getting out - he knew it with instant certainty.  The Sun shone through the window, almost totally below the horizon, when Dragoon Knight saw a flash of green.

Een.  Sh.  Green flash.  He only had a few seconds.  Forcing his limbs to move despite the unimaginable weight, Dragoon Knight vaulted his desk and tried to sprint for the balcony.  As he moved, the syrup turned back to water, the water to weights, the weights to nothing.  Time slowed, the flash still shining bright.  The clock on his wall was back; mid-tick, it sounded like a log being chopped in half.  Only a moment left.

Letting forth a visceral scream, his exit in sight, Dragoon Knight found his power again.  A blinding flash of blue light engulfed him as he burst through the balcony window and leapt from the ledge, flying with impossible speed in his Dragoon form directly towards the green flash.  Faster... almost there... he could still hear the clock; faster...

Dragoon Knight stood up from his desk with his heart pounding, his lungs gasping in air that they needed so badly it burned.  Collapsing backwards, he spent several seconds clutching his chest with shaking hands and breathing heavily before he noticed that it wasn't just the adrenaline causing him to shake; it felt like he hadn't moved for days, weeks, --

He looked around his office.  His balcony window was smashed, salt had rusted and eroded the steel.

-- ... years?

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The council sat around their table, looking at the mosaic map of Fanfiction upon one wall. TGED was marked with a bright purple spark. Other sparks elsewhere in the map were dark, and only a few of them still had labels.

"So then." Dante steepled his fingers. "We cannot contact our other threads. We have no way of knowing their status, as we have no... power. No magic, no energy. TGED is isolated."

"Our threads could be in enemy hands already." Darius glowered.

"And the lethargic effect persists outside the city walls." Lillian added. For a moment the council sat in silence.

"Ladies and gentlemen." Dante sighed, "What are we to do? We are under siege, and we do not even know who is attacking us."

"None of our instruments or magics can detect any influencing force." J'invy reminded him. "Though I am loath to use the term, until further data is acquired this... lethargy is unknowable."

"I can't push it any further than the city walls." Dante sighed, running his hands through his hair.

"We need more data." J'invy insisted, leaning forward. "We need to attempt an expedition beyond TGED. Perhaps the other warlords have been attacked as well, they may know a technique by which we may free ourselves."

"Leave?" Latrodectus raised a narrow eyebrow. "And who would go, mentat? None of us resissted the Lethargy when it came upon uss, how could we exsspect our troopsss to fare any better?"

"Perhaps, now that they are aware of the nature of the threat, they may be more able to resist it." Rai'guy suggested.

"No, the weakness at the doors almost claimed me last night." Darius shook his head.

"Then perhaps strength of numbers?" J'invy went on. "We must try these ideas, or we are stuck!"

"I agree." Lillian pursed her lips. "I don't like it, but without a way to contact outside forces we simply have to send out an expedition."

"An expedition? Where would they go?" Rai'guy snorted. "Into the jaws of whatever set the trap, I suspect."

"They would first visit our closest outposts in Espionage and Matrix Rising." Lillian pointed at two lightless marks. "If they can find out why we can't contact them, perhaps they can fix the problem. Maybe they will have word from outside. Whatever they find, it will give us more data."

"We should ssend them to ssspy on other warlordss." Latrodectus hissed. "We cannot afford to trusst anyone, even old alliess. If we vissit them in friendliness they may kill our troopss. We musst find out what they know, and take that knowledge from them."

"She has a point." J'invy nodded, "The other warlords, if any remain and assuming they are not responsible for the Lethargy, may be too paranoid to freely share information with us. They may suspect us, as we suspect them."

"Where are the closest warlords?" Dante raised his eyes to the map.

"We have found no trace of your vassals, ExSPlug, Necroticon and Dunenewt." Darius reported. "Given that their own territory was located within our own, the closest independent warlord would be EWS of Gaming."

"Gaming?" Dante's heart sunk. "A whole different board in the forum!"

"None of the Fanfiction warlords survived the previous conflict." Lillian said awkwardly. "Lord J disappeared without trace, leaving only smoking craters where his garrisons had been. The... other one allowed you to claim KYA Setara when he left. Fanfiction was your empire, Lord, and none remained within it who were not vassals to your banner."

"Gaming is the closest board to Fanfiction, sir." Darius nodded. "If we find no help there though, the expedition should return."

"Should we send another in the direction of PRP?" Rai'guy sighed, rolling back in his chair. "That might be fun."

"Capital notion. You can lead it." Dante snapped. The vampire gaped at him, shock and anger playing across his face. "I've decided. We'll find a way to get an expedition under the radar, so to speak. Two, if possible. The ghost will lead a mission to Espionage. From there he will attempt to establish contact with us here. If he can't, he uses his own judgement on whether to return or press on to Gaming.

"Rai'guy will lead the second expedition to PRP, in search of information regarding the Lethargy." Dante quelled the vampire's protests with a glare. "I will stay here, to protect TGED. J'invy, you are in charge of finding a counteragent to the Lethargy, whatever it may turn out to be. Will anyone advise against this course of action?" His eyes swept the table. "Good."

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Dragoon Knight tried to speak through a throat as dry as tinder, managed nothing but a feeble croak.  Twice more he attempted to elicit more than a whispering rasp, massaging his throat and swallowing in an effort to force the words out.  Nothing - his mouth was dry.  Water.  He needed water.

The ex-Warlord tried to stand and almost fell to his knees.

And food.  He was vastly dehydrated and malnourished to the point of almost crippling weakness.  Looking himself over, however, he saw no signs of emaciation - his physical condition belied this disabling malaise.  Perhaps whatever caused this, he had been able to use his powers to sustain himself?  Been able to keep some part of his mind awake to fight it...

What was it, though?  He couldn't remember clearly... he certainly couldn't remember there being any trouble, any warning.  Stumbling on unsteady feet towards a wall-mounted replicator, he keyed in the ingredients for a heavily diluted, nutrient-rich paste, closing his eyes and hoping that the panel's electronics still worked.  To his relief, the replicator stuttered into life.  There was the distinct smell of ozone as the accumulated salt and detritus was disintegrated, recycled by the device.  Seconds later, a glass filled with a greenish-brown pulp materialised.  Dragoon Knight grabbed it, forced the contents past his cracked lips and swollen tongue and down his throat.

He could take solace in the fact that, while it would have tasted awful, he couldn't taste a thing at the moment.  As soon as the paste hit his stomach, he was instantly struck with excruciating cramps.  Alright, so perhaps there were some physical signs of his extended sleep.  But that concoction had also contained a subtle blend of stimulants, steroids and anaesthetics - enough to get him walking and talking again within a few minutes.  It certainly wouldn't last, but it would have to suffice.

Sure enough, movement soon became easier.  He was also able to shrug off the last vestiges of his lethargy; the desire to fall back asleep was put to the back of his mind.  His mind clearing, he began to prioritise.

He had to assume that others were affected by this.  A disease?  Perhaps something that caused amnesia in its victims, or was so fast-acting that there could be no advance warning?  No, he couldn't let his mind drift or dwell on possibilities.  He moved with a more confident stride back towards his desk, reached underneath for a first aid kit.  He emptied out the contents and pocketed a couple of shots of adrenaline.  Replicating large vials of the nutrient paste, he filled the first aid kit with them and moved to the door.

Emergency power still seemed to be active, but salt and rust had long since ruined the automated systems.  It had done a pretty decent job of fusing the door shut, too.  Prising open the manual release handle, Dragoon Knight heaved backwards once, twice, a third time before the door gave way.  The air in the corridor beyond smelled much more familiar - it had apparently remained sealed against the elements.  Very little dust was deposited this high above sea level, but there was still enough to cause footprints as the Gaming Lord moved through the hallway.

His first port of call needed to be Ryu.  Both the closest potential survivor and the most likely to know more about this affliction, Ryu would be a valuable sounding board for ideas about how to best resolve the crisis.  He would also provide a sense of normality amidst an entirely alien situation.  Freelancer City had never been the victim of an attack; no enemy had been able to breach the meticulous defenses.  Had he really been so lax in his duties as protector as to allow the entire city to fall victim to an attack that killed people in their sleep?  If he, the most powerful known denizen of Gaming, was only barely able to scrape through, what realistic chance did anyone else have?  Just how far had this-

No.  No drifting, not yet.  He reached Ryu's office, was only slightly surprised as the door slid open smoothly.  His aide de camp was slumped over his desk, in much the same position that Dragoon Knight himself must have been.  Rushing to his side, Dragoon Knight placed two fingers against Ryu's neck, focusing hard over the rampant drumming of his own pulse... yes!  Slow, much weaker than it should be, but steady!  He began to shake the shoulders of the sleeping man.

"Ry-" Dragoon Knight croaked, finally finding his voice.  He coughed, cleared his throat.  "Ryu, " he said more forcefully.  "Ryu!"

Still no response.  Dragoon Knight felt for the pulse again - still there, thready to the point of being almost undetectable.  But he was breathing.

Dragoon Knight didn't have time for the ABC's.

"Shit, " cursed the Lord, reaching into his pocket for one of the adrenaline shots.  "Hope you'll understand."

Lifting him backwards to recline in his chair, Dragoon Knight angled himself over the limp body of Ryu, then thrust the needle directly into his aide's weakened heart.  Jumping backwards, expecting an immediate violent response from his aide, Dragoon Knight was distraught to see that there was no visible change.  If adrenaline to the heart didn't work, then-

"Gaaaaahhh-" came the half gasp, half scream from the throat of Ryu.  One hand grasped his neck in agony, the other moved reflexively to withdraw the ampoule from his chest.

"Ryu, glad to see you're still with us, " Dragoon Knight smiled, causing his lips to blossom with blood as the cracks split.  The pain was incindental - rushing to his aide's side, he quickly opened the first aid kit and unstopped a vial of nutrient paste.  Ryu flailed about in instinctive self-defence, his mind unable to process the overwhelming amount of chemical coursing through his blood, overriding higher cognitive functions.  It was all fight or flight right now.

Using one hand to grasp one of Ryu's, Dragoon Knight gripped firmly and spoke in kind.  "Ryu, listenLook at me, Ryu.  Down here, " he said directly, trying to attract the focus of the distraught man's rolling eyes.  "Here, Ryu.  It's Dragoon Knight, your Lord Protector."

"Hhh- aaah- uhhh-" rasped the aide, still not fully in control of his own thoughts.

"Don't try to speak.  It's OK, you're safe.  You know me,"

"Hhgh..." he grunted, grimacing as his throat screamed pain at him.

"Take some of this, " Dragoon Knight said as soothingly as his own fractured nerves would allow.  "It'll help with the pain and weakness, and you'll be speaking before long."

Eyes wide, Ryu's unblinking gaze darted back and forth between Dragoon Knight and the vial of nutrients.  Waiting patiently for sensibility to re-assert itself, Dragoon Knight kept his grip until a short, sharp nod from Ryu indicated that he understood.  Lifting the vial to his aide's lips, he helped ensure as much nourishment as possible made it down Ryu's gullet.

"Take your time, " Dragoon Knight said, letting go of Ryu's arm and standing up.  "When you're ready, we definitely need to talk."

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Sluggishly, the great city of The God Emperor's Dune had pulled itself back from the brink of oblivion. With movement came life, and with life came an ability to resist the effects of the Lethargy. As the thread awoke, as more people became aware of themselves once more, minds cleared more quickly and the effects were easier to dispel. Beyond the gates, however, a sad pile of slumbering citizens testified to the continuing power that lurked beyond the city walls.

On the third day since the great awakening, Dante appeared before his people to bid farewell to the two expeditions that marched from the fortress to the gates.

The first was led by Latrodectus, the great she-demon standing twice the height of a man. The people cowered as she walked past, her eight legs barely making a sound upon the cobbles. She ignored them, save for the occasional hungry glare.

The second expedition's leader remained hidden in the folds of a thick cloak and hood, itself covered by a thin gauze that obscured the wearer's face completely. Behind his protective clothing Rai'guy the vampire scowled at the shadows of people whom he preferred to see as milling food.

Upon reaching the gates the two expeditions were treated to a brief but rousing speech from their warlord, to which neither of the leaders paid attention. The council was entirely aware that the speech was for the benefit of the populace, not the expeditions themselves. With the closing of that formality, the gates opened and the leaders stepped out.

The compulsion to lie down was subtle, but immediately apparent. Rai'guy felt his shoulders droop, pinned them back with a frown. The air was heavier out here, and unusually still. The entire group slowed for a moment as each of the highland militia felt the temptation to rest, just for a moment.

The air shimmered as Latrodectus asserted her will, projecting Dante's borrowed power. The effort was greater than anticipated, but she could sustain it. To her right, Rai'guy did the same.

Each party consisted of twenty toughened highlanders, as well as five sorcerers and black angels. With the latter crowding around their leader, their power was shared and the effort lessened. Rallying their strength, the expeditions set out, one east, one west.

Time passes

"It's dark." The angel commented, wings furled and dirty.

"Of courssse it'sss dark." Latrodectus hissed, resisting the temptation to cuff the creature around the back of its head. She squinted, her black eyes rotating in their sockets as she focused on the distant estate.

It was a country house, well maintained save for an overgrown lawn. It rested atop a broad hill, nestled in the middle of a thick copse of pine. Looking down from a neighbouring peak, Latrodectus examined the thread for signs of life, or danger. In hindsight, she reflected, choosing a hidden thread as the group's first point of call had not been the wisest notion. Even so, she could not detect any signs of damage. Or a trap.

"Procsseed sslowly." She muttered, shifting her eyes back to normal. "No ssinging in the approach to the housse."

The expedition picked its way down the mountainside, the usual spirits-rousing chorus absent. Latrodectus had found, much to her chagrin, that her efforts to counter the effects of the Lethargy had worn down her power far faster than expected. With that in mind, her troops had found their own solution: singing. A marching song had kept them awake for many days of marching, allowing her to conserve her strength for the nights, when they rested. Expanding minimal effort during the day allowed her to remain awake all night, awaking the expedition at dawn. For fear of alerting enemies, however, she had chosen to keep the highlanders silent. Fortunately, now that they could see their goal their focus was much restored, and she did not have to expand her awareness too much to keep them awake.

As the moon rose and the trees swayed in the slightest breeze, the expedition crept towards their target. Not a sound masked their presence, not a night creature stirred. Initial examinations had confirmed Dante's hypothesis: the animals and plants of Fanfiction slept too. Birds rested in their nests, worms stilled in the earth. As they approached the thread, the expedition slowed to take stock of their surroundings.

The house was large, a mansion of indeterminate style and age. Large windows dark, revealed nothing of the interior. Latrodectus was aware, of course, that there was no interior to speak of. The house was little more than a shell atop a massive series of tunnels and subterranean bunkers. With that in mind, there should have been lamps burning in the windows. Appearance was everything to the people of this thread.

She could no more afford to send out scouts than she could allow the entire expedition to fall asleep at once. Latrodectus' options were limited, so she settled for a brief scouting party a few scant metres ahead of her advance, checking the ground for traps or signs of life. Reaching the walls of the house, she was convinced that the machines of the thread slept as much as the organic occupants.

Reaching beneath a windowsill, she pressed a hidden button. A brick slid aside, revealing a sophisticated keypad. Clawed fingers stabbed a passcode onto the keys, which flashed weakly. The brick slid back into place as a section of wall pulled back and aside, opening the way to a narrow staircase in stainless steel. Latrodectus spat in disgust. Drawing her legs together, she shimmered for a moment as her carapace faded into black fabric. Wearing a fully human form, she led the way down the stairs.

Another keypad presented itself. This one was unresponsive to her entry, destroyed by an acidic gobbet of saliva. Drawing back her arm, Latrodectus aimed a punch square into the wall ahead. The metal dented, but did not break.

Calling forward one of the black angels, Latrodectus snapped an order and pointed at the wall. With a contemptuous sneer, the creature lowered its scythe and drew it across the wall, steel parting with a shriek. Beyond the wall opened an elevator shaft, cables hanging lifeless. With a muttered curse, Latrodectus led the way down.

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"I remember... dreaming about you, " Ryu spoke quietly after several minutes of self-calming.  "For what seems like forever."

Dragoon Knight was occupied, staring out of Ryu's office window - turned away from the ocean, it had been spared the ravages of the driving saline wind.  It offered a view to the east, towards the verdant marshland that lay between Freelancer City and Fan Fiction.  Night was falling, but Dragoon Knight was still disturbed by what appeared to be a blurred, foggy miasma, preventing him from seeing much beyond the city boundaries.  More worrying was the state of the city itself - grey and lifeless.  Not even the last vestiges of sunlight seemed to colour the cold, silver towers and domes of his domain.

"You were just standing there, " continued the aide, head hung and eyes looking left and right, trying to recall details.  "There was a light behind you - no, you had an aura - and I was being surrounded... swallowed by a, a..." he faltered.  He shook his head.

"I can't describe it, " Ryu rasped as his gaze rose, his throat still giving him trouble.  "Like being accosted by promises... soundless and invisible, but with a pull like nothing I've ever felt."

Dragoon Knight didn't respond.  Despite being eager to discuss the situation, he found himself unwilling to interrupt Ryu's tentative recall.

"It wasn't darkness... but as it drew around me, your light would dim, only to flare brighter again... pushing the feeling back.  I remember you looking so weak towards the end; it took longer and longer for your light to force back the embrace."

Ceasing his reverie, Dragoon Knight turned to face Ryu.  "Perhaps some part of my consciousness was aware of what happened, " he postulated, "or at least acted instinctively to defend you."

"This happened to you, too?" Ryu asked, his eyes widening.

"From what I can tell, it's happened to the entire city!" responded the Lord, gesturing backwards with a sweeping arc of his arm.

Ryu nodded - it seemed as good an explanation as any at this point.  "Is it possible that others have survived?"

"Doubtful, " Dragoon Knight sighed, shaking his head.  "I was severely crippled by the attack - if there even was an attack - and you nearly died."

"Well, did you see me in a dream?"

"No; my experience was much different."

"Then it wasn't a direct subconscious link that sustained me, " Ryu extrapolated.  "At least, not at my end."

"What are you getting at?"

Ryu stood up as quickly as his weakened legs would allow.  Moving towards his aide to support him, Dragoon Knight ducked under one of Ryu's arms.

"Is emergency power operational?" panted Ryu, moving slowly towards a wall panel.

"Seems to be - probably been kept running via the solar arrays.  Why?"

"Did you-" a wince of pain as a knee failed to take his weight, Ryu continued, "-notice anyone else in your dream?"

"It was just me."

"Images?  Sounds?"

"I heard my own voice, telling me what to do."

"Nothing else?"

Dragoon Knight paused, trying to recall every detail.  "Whispers."

Ryu hobbled faster.  "What did they say?"

"I couldn't make them out; there were too many..." Dragoon Knight paused mid-sentence as he hitched a ride on Ryu's train of thought.  "The solar arrays won't be able to power a scan of the whole city..."

"But it'll certainly be able to detect life signs within the tower, however faint."

The two reached the wall panel.  Dragoon Knight unslung Ryu's arm and ensured that he was able to balance himself, then moved to an adjacent panel.

He noticed the date.

The sharp inhalation to his left indicated that his aide also recognised how long they had been unconscious.

"Sire... " Ryu exclaimed quietly.  According to the panel, it was the first time he had formally addressed Dragoon Knight in at least two years.

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Waking the thread of Espionage was easier than The God Emperor's Dune. Far smaller and more centralised, it was more of an intelligence complex than the subterranean town she had expected. Within hour Latrodectus was sat in the thread's control room, glaring at stubbornly blank displays while the thread's spokesman looked on.

"Thisss isss... disssappointing." She muttered, claws clicking impatiently.

"We've lost connectivity, but I cannot explain how." Leonid answered, waving away an aide with a cup of coffee. "We recently developed a series of AI protocols, but it seems that they too went into a kind of... hibernation."

"They were shut down?"

"No, they slept. As we all did. Eventually the generators gave out and they went offline." Leonid shrugged. "They are attempting to reconnect to the hub as we speak, but-"

"If they had sssuccssseeded, I would know." Latrodectus sniffed. She eyed a holographic emitter by the keyboard, blank and lifeless. A monitor on the far side of the room flickered. A woman in a lab coat blinked muzzily, adjusting her glasses.

"We have full power, all we needed was a restart." She reported, stifling a yawn. "Diagnostics aren't being clear. Most of our tests report a broken hardware connection outside Espionage's borders, but we're getting weak signals from TGED."

"Could it just be that our outgoing signals are being intercepted or jammed?" Leonid frowned.

"If so, it's remarkably clean." The woman shrugged. "It looks like we're just firing messages that... fade into nothing."

"I see." Leonid's frown tipped the balance and became a scowl. "What are the signals from the hub?"

"Pings." The woman replied. "We don't know if they're getting anything back from us, though of course we are pinging."

"Your technology is getting in the way." Latrodectus snapped. Pushing out the chair, she turned and made for the door. "Thisss thread holdss no ansswerssss. We will move on. You should have no difficulty resisssting the Lethargy, now that you are aware of it."

Leaving Espionage behind, Latrodectus weighed her options. Her mission objective remained the same: she had to investigate the effects of the Lethargy and discover what other warlords might know about it. However, she was aware of the pressing urgency of time.

Espionage had provided few answers, but it had revealed one important fact. All signs indicated that the thread had gone to sleep some time before TGED. While she left the thread's residents to their desperate attempts to reconnect with their hub, Latrodectus puzzled over how nobody in TGED had noticed that one of their closest outposts had shut down. It suggested that the Lethargy, insidious as it was, was not advancing as a physical front but blooming in particular locations at the same time.

But with each theory came further questions. The residents of Espionage had not been difficult to awake, but unlike the sleepers of TGED they had appeared thin and undernourished. Though some of TGED's residents had clearly slept for months, none of them appeared to have suffered any long-term damage. Espionage's forces, on the other hand, appeared to be in the early stages of starvation. Were they more succeptable to the Lethargy, or was it simply that they had been under the effect for longer?

As much as she wished to analyse these problems, Latrodectus could not afford to distract herself. Back in the field, the bulk of her energy was devoted to keeping her forces awake. Behind her the highlanders bellowed their marching song, the activity keeping them moving as much as the noise. She followed the rhythm, letting her plans and theories fade as lower brain function took over and sent waves of vitality out to her troops. For miles around her, thousands of spiders roused themselves from slumber and peered around, their tiny animal thoughts beamed back to the demon as a thousand individual points of view. They slept again as she passed, their task fulfilled. In this way she stalked forward, eyes bright, mind diffuse.

She had selected a Southwestern route, heading in the direction of Gaming. The threads along Fanfiction's border had traditionally found themselves occupied in times of trouble; their resources and positioning made them invaluable. More importantly, there were no other warlords in Fanfiction. If there was any counter-intelligence to be had, it would be in Gaming. With that in mind, the expedition set a course for Never Winter Nights, the somewhat clumsily named middle ground between Dante's empire and that of Dragoon Knight. Previously a fief shared between the two warlords, the thread promised answers to several of the Council's most pressing questions, such as whether the Lethargy was specific to Fanfiction, and if it wasn't then why the thread had not sent a message of warning. The expedition would be on the lookout for signs of foul play.

On the other side of the mountain, Rai'Guy glared up at the moon. It was yellow and lifeless, another part of the all-consuming monotony that had irritated the vampire ever since he left TGED. Pulling his cowl back over his head, he stalked on.

His party was heading Southeast, skirting the border of Gaming to head deeper into the wastelands of PRP. It was not a task that Rai'Guy relished, and his enthusiasm had been further reduced by his scouting mission through Fed2k RPG earlier in the day.

The thread was a ghost town. Corpses lay where they had sat down to rest, never to get up again. The entire thread, from the topmost commander to the lowest privy-cleaner, had simply lain down and slept until they died. There but for their leader would have gone TGED, of that the vampire was certain.

Staying in the thread had almost been worse than venturing into the wilderness. The atmosphere within the walls had been stifling, thick with dust and dead air. Rai'Guy could have imagined a giant hand, softly but firmly pressing him to the floor. Unable to rouse the thread's defences or send a message back to TGED, he had ordered a hasty evacuation. His troops had been yawning sleepily even as they filed out of the gate.

Now back between the trees, he had an easier job of it. The air was warm and still, highly unusual, but at least it was fresh. He had elected to continue South, in the hope that another thread might have survived. Privately, the vampire suspected that TGED might be the last bastion of life in a dead board. Perhaps an entire dead forum. If so, his path was foolish indeed. For a vampire to walk away from the only life he could find - laughable!

Still he slogged on.

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"This can't be right..." Dragoon Knight commented, as he finished scanning the bottom twenty floors of Freelancer Tower.  "I'm not detecting anything.  No life at all; not even microbial."

"The scanners seem to be working correctly, " Ryu assured, still scanning the 97th floor.  "We're showing up bright and clear.  But..."

"You're getting something?"

"Ye-es, but the readings make no sense."

"When anything about this situation starts making sense, I'll be glad.  For now, just try your best to explain."

"I started with our floor, as you instructed.  I centered on us, and began working outwards, " Ryu detailed, his brow creasing as he focused on not yawning.  "That's when the normal background life-signs - bacteria and whatnot - started to dwindle towards zero."

"The same readings I'm getting, " Dragoon Knight interjected.

"Not quite - there's a gradient of sorts in effect, " Ryu clarified.  "But I can't tell if it's due to there being no life, or if the scanners are ineffective."

"Why would proximity to us affect the bio scan?"

"I'm no mentat, " Ryu grinned without humour, "but on a hunch, I scanned the floor below us.  Take a look."

Dragoon Knight moved from his wall panel to Ryu's, where a graphical depiction of the detected life signs was on display.  Rotating through all three dimensions, it was clear that the bio scan was only picking up life from within a slightly distended, thirty-foot diameter sphere surrounding the duo's current location.

"Look at the shape, Ryu, " Dragoon Knight said, pointing to the misshapen areas of the sphere.  "There's a fade pattern around this area."

"That's the corridor leading to your office, " Ryu pointed out.

"I think I'm beginning to understand, " said the Lord, moving across the office, away from Ryu.  "Tell me how the readings change."

"No change so far, sire, " Ryu reported, waiting another twenty seconds or so.  "Nothing... wait, there's movement..."

The scene displayed on Ryu's wall panel was akin to two cells dividing; Dragoon Knight's larger sphere detaching from a smaller one surrounding Ryu.  All life signs began to fade in the area between the two.

"Sire, I... " Ryu faltered, yawning, "The compulsion to sleep is growing stronger..."

"It's as I thought, " Dragoon Knight nodded, moving back towards Ryu, whose condition seemed to rapidly improve.  "The bio scan isn't going to work."

"Sire?"

"It's a victim, just like you were.  The entire building is drained of energy.  It's proximity to us that's allowing these wall panels to function."

"But what's powering it?  Surely the solar arrays wouldn't be immune-"

"Remember our trade with the inhabitants of Elite Force 2?" Dragoon Knight interrupted.

"The bio-neural gel packs?"

"They're responding to the same aura of... well, let's call it 'life energy'.  We seem to emit it, myself more than you."

"But there are no documented incidents of such a phenomenon, " Ryu objected.

"On the contrary, " said Dragoon Knight, moving back to his own wall panel and cancelling the scans of the lower floors, "each and every one of us emits a very faint electromagnetic field.  Iron in our blood rushing through arteries and veins; nerve impulses moving each and every muscle in our body, voluntary or involuntary.  To say nothing of the brain itself."

"But those forces are impossibly weak."

"Only in comparison to other life, Ryu.  Of which there seems to be none except that which we encounter."

"So what does this mean for the others in the building?" Ryu asked.  "Those in the city, and perhaps beyond?"

"I don't know yet, " Dragoon Knight said, finishing his work on the wall panel and turning to face his aide.  "But I have to hope that your observation regarding those whispers meant something."

"Our next move?" asked Ryu, steeling himself for action.

"We systematically move through the building and search for survivors.  Time may be of the essence, so we need to be quick."

Ryu began to follow his master's thread of thinking.  "You theorise that numbers will have a cumulative effect?"

"In the aura's strength, if not its effective range, " nodded Dragoon Knight.  "I'm hoping for both.  Let's make our way to the Medical Station on Level 95 - they'll have more adrenaline."

"You believe we'll need it?"

Dragoon Knight closed his eyes briefly, remembering the necessary act of stabbing his most trusted aide in the chest.  "Unfortunately, yes."

In the following five hours, the two moved methodically downwards through Freelancer Tower.  As night fell outside, they were bemused to find the building's illumination following them as they strode down corridors.  They did not risk elevators, unwilling to push the abilities of the aura of "life energy".  Finding their first survivors on the 96th floor - a group of researchers and one Dragoon - they set about reviving their unconscious companions.

It was considerably easier to rouse the Dragoon - a Lightning affinity Lieutenant of Freelancer's remaining armed forces - than it was to rouse Ryu.  It took only a vigourous shaking of her shoulders before Dragoon Knight recoiled from a static shock.  Awaking with a start, she was also much quicker to recover.  Without any devices to confirm his ideas, Dragoon Knight could not be certain, but he postulated that an individual's ability or inherent power seemed directly related to their ability to withstand and/or recover from the Lethargy.

Devoid of any more adrenaline, the female Dragoon obliged by focusing her slowly-returning energies towards defibrillating the group of researchers.  Seven of the eight present were revived with little incident, but the eighth - a young, graduate student named Yvonne Dalton - slipped away despite the best attempts to revive her.  Dragoon Knight resolved to remember her name as the first of the fallen in this attack.

Putting grief aside, the team split into two, the female Dragoon escorting the strongest members of the research team, after each had taken a portion of the nutrient paste.  Arriving at the Medical Station on Level 95 soon after, Dragoon Knight and Ryu set about reviving others, and providing themselves and the newly awakened with various stimulants and emergency resusciation supplies.  In this fashion, Freelancer Tower was restored to more or less full - albeit basic - operation in only eight hours.

In the central lobby of the 48th Floor, Dragoon Knight received confirmation that the search was complete.

"A percentage, Ryu, " he said morosely.  "I'm not ready for the actual numbers yet."

"83% survival rate, sire, " came the hesitant response.  "A further 9% appear to be comatose - nothing we do seems to have any effect."

The Lord inhaled deeply: it wasn't nearly as bad as he had feared.  But he knew that he couldn't expect the same ratio in the city as a whole.  Yet the responses of every survivor gave him hope.  Each and every one, when informally debriefed, confirmed that they had seen Dragoon Knight in a dream.  While the level of detail and exact situation differed from person to person, the ex-Warlord was always present.  It was possible - he had to believe it was possible - that there were more survivors out there.

"Ryu, have we been able to confirm the exact duration of our sleep?" asked Dragoon Knight, phrasing the situation mildly to allay panic.

"Nothing firm, " replied the aide, leafing through papers and electronic pads.  "But our best guess puts it at somewhere between 2 and 3 years."

"We can't be any more specific than that?" Dragoon Knight exclaimed.

"Sorry, sire, but it would seem that the phenomenon spread slowly and insidiously.  People became lax in their duties without ever realising it, " Ryu explained, slamming the pads and papers down in frustration.  "Half of these reports don't even make sense, and the other half don't exist at all."

"It's alright, " soothed the troubled leader.  "We'll worry about the details afterwards.  Right now, we need to mount a series of rescue parties to re-take the city.  Have all Dragoons report to me, and be sure to reorganise groups accordingly.  We can't have anyone falling back asleep."

"Sire!" came a voice from the north stairwell.  A middle-aged, seasoned looking man strode confidently towards the makeshift command centre, his stocky frame showing no sign of fatigue.  Jet black, waist-length hair streaming behind him as he moved, he stopped a few feet away from Dragoon Knight and saluted.

"Commander Mideel, reporting for duty, sire, " he smiled grimly, his green eyes alert and ready.

Mideel was the first truly uplifting figure the Lord had encountered since finding Ryu.  His presence allowed a semblance of cheer to make itself known.  Dragoon Knight checked the nearest panel for the time.

"Good morning, Commander, " he said, returning the newcomer's smile.  "We have a busy day ahead of us."

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Night turned to day, turned to night again. Occasionally Latrodectus' scouts observed Rai'Guy's passing, but the two expeditions never crossed paths. Heading South on different sides of a mountain range, they grew further apart as they approached the border of Gaming, until the two finally moved beyond each others' senses. While Rai'Guy headed deeper into Fanfiction, Latrodectus crossed the border into Gaming.

This was a different terrain altogether. The mountains sloped into a flatter, warmer environment, almost swampy in places. Pines and cliffs gave way to scrub and broadleaves, even the occasional mangrove. The going was slower, with the highlanders finding themselves bogged down in hidden mires, Latrodectus forced to rouse herself in order to compensate.

Never Winter Nights was a small thread, an outpost that seemed to have gone to ruin. Sunlight shone through crumbling battlements, themselves apparently held together by vines.

"Vines?" A sorcerer raised an eyebrow. "There hasn't been enough time for vines to overgrow the thread, even at the pace things grow here."

"Have things grown here at all?" One of his compatriots questioned. "Fanfiction was overgrown in places, but never to such a degree. It was almost as thought the plants themselves slept."

"You're sssaying that Never Winter Nightsss may not ssleep?" Latrodectus muttered.

"I'm saying that Gaming may not sleep." The sorcerer corrected with a respectful nod. "If that is the case, the fact that the thread appears ruined may point to signs of foul play. We should be wary."

Latrodectus pursed her lips, her eyes dulling even as she reached a decision. "We make camp here." She ordered. "Do not light a fire, but you are to play games. Poker, dice, anything to keep awake. I will scout ahead."

"Understood." The first sorcerer left to relay the orders. His companion stayed, watching as Latrodectus eased herself into a resting position, eight legs folding delicately. She flexed her fingers, rolled her head around on her neck. She blinked, opened eight eyes, blinked again and returned with two.

"If I do not awake by sunset, rouse me." She ordered, bowing her head.

"Aye, Lady." The sorcerer nodded, but Latrodectus was already gone.

The sensation was impossible to describe to mortals. She had long ago despaired of their ability to comprehend. Not just seeing many things, but being many minds. Becoming diffuse, being many instead of one. Or one mind in many places. All around her, in sheltered nooks or upon the ground where they had fallen from their webs, spiders roused themselves at her bidding.

Except it was not her bidding. She could no more order them than she could order herself. It was not that Latrodectus possessed spiders, she was spiders, and they her. Once each individual was awake, aware and ready, the hive mind slid in the direction of Never Winter Nights.

It would not have been obvious to an observer. There was no carpet of tiny bodies, no crawling mass to blot the landscape. The spiders made no effort to group together, they moved as individuals along branches and across lead litter. Some were forced to climb trees in order to cross small streams, or wait for their fellows in order to construct a bridge across a particularly difficult obstruction. Determined, each only vaguely aware of its fellows, the spiders scuttled unerringly toward their target.

They passed unnoticed beneath the doors and over the walls of the thread. Unobserved, they ran rampant through guardrooms and kitchens, courtyards and gardens. Unable to see much, they scouted with all of their senses. The feet of ten spiders covered the shape of a man. He lay on the floor, but the spiders felt him move beneath them. He breathed. Their threads draped across open doorways and covered passages. No feet disturbed them, no hand swatted them. The thread's residents, however many of them remained, were still. No defenders manned the walls, no traps lay in wait. Their task completed, the spiders withdrew from each other, becoming individual once more. Each would follow a trail of silk back to their starting point, there to sleep once more.

Latrodectus' eye slid open. Three more eyes opened before she put them away again, returning to single consciousness with a faint pang of relief that she had not slumbered on into death. Pleased with her work, she cast her eyes upward to the sky. A few faint stars showed, but the fiery yellows and pinks near the horizon indicated that the sun had not yet set. She picked herself up and made her way through the trees to the camp, where the highlanders were singing a new song with only a touch of desperation. They would need a rest soon, she told herself.

She broke camp, began the march across the valley to the thread. As the sun vanished beneath the horizon, they beheld Never Winter Nights for the first time. The gates parted easily, almost falling off their hinges.

The first man they found had been dead for some weeks. Partially rotted, he was cold and rotten, but still not as decomposed as he should have been. Pushing further into the keep, more corpses revealed themselves. Just like Espionage and TGED, they seemed to have simply fallen asleep. It was only as the highlanders reached the inner chambers of the keep that they discovered living people.

Starved and weak, barely alive, they nevertheless could be roused and fed. In total, eighteen survivors were picked up from the floors of the keep. Three of them died soon afterward, the effort of movement finally exhausting their strength. In all, fifteen of the thread's two hundred and forty residents lived to see the following day.

"What do you remember?" Latrodectus asked, not gently but at least without open hostility. The figure in front of her, propped up on pillows, barely possessed the strength to frown.

"I remember... being tired." She whispered hoarsely. "I was tired for days. I don't remember anything else."

"There wassss no attack, no sssign of treachery from the otherss?"

"None that I can recall." Worry creased the woman's features, the effort clearly exhausting her. "Y-you think... you think..." Her eyes rolled up in her head and she slipped backwards, snoring gently even as her head hit the pillows. Latrodectus sat in silence for a moment.

"Thiss thread iss filthy with Lethargic air." She hissed through her teeth. Getting up, she turned to the sorcerer at her side. "You feel it, don't you? The cloying, creeping desssire to ssleep, the resst." She screwed up her eyes. "I thought I could ressst here, but it's worsse than it wass outsside! I can barely hear mysself think!" She lashed out, taking a chunk out of the stone masonry. Crushing the rock between her fingers, she glared at the sorcerer, who had calmly backed up against the door. Turning back, Latrodectus cast her eye over the seven beds that held the surviving members of Dante's garrison.

"How do the interrogations progresss?" She sighed, dropping the fragmented shards.

"The black angels report no success." The sorcerer relayed. "They're hesitant to push too hard of course, the prisoners are very close to death."

"Hm." Latrodectus frowned. "Ssseperate three of them from the resst. Tell the othersss that their companionsss have died. We will pressss harder once they have recovered."

"As you say."

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"This is Mideel to HQ, " the Commander spoke into his headset from the ground floor of Freelancer Tower.  "We've approached the main entrance."

"We're reading you loud and clear, Commander, " Ryu's voice replied.  "Be careful; we've had reports of the Lethargy being concentrated somehow beyond the boundaries of the tower."

As Mideel approached the doors, a wave of exhaustion ebbed and flowed over and around him.  Scanning the ground in front of him, his gaze fell upon the bodies of several tower occupants slumped against walls or simply collapsed in the middle of the foyer.  A few of them looked like they had been attempting to rescue others.

"HQ - confirm that we're still pumping stimulants through the ventilation, " Mideel requsted with a note of caution.

"That's confirmed, Commander, " Dragoon Knight responded, "we're upping the dose now that search parties are being sent out."

"You might want to send a Dragoon down here - we've got approximately eleven sleepers."

"Acknowledged.  Proceed with caution."

"Masks on, " Mideel instructed his party, which consisted mainly of a retinue of Gamers.  Along for the trip was a single Jedi Knight, a Paladin, a Dwarven Defender and a Soul Reaver.

The Gamers obeyed immediately, but the four "Elites" discussed their own arrangements.  Each of them were remnants of the vast force that Dragoon Knight once commanded; specialists of their class, kept on after the end of the last conflict.

"The Force will protect me, " the Jedi announced stolidly, hand falling to the pommel of her lightsaber.

"The Force this, the Force that, " mimicked the Dwarven Defender mockingly.  "Bollocks to yer Force, I'm gonna stay awake wi' willpower."

"Keep it civil, Shinsbane, " Mideel said, adjusting his mask for a perfect fit.  It would provide a mix of oxygenated air and stimulant to bolster his ability to stay awake outside of the building.

"Where do you recommend I place said mask?" asked the Soul Reaver.

"And you, Jimmy No-Face, wi' yer phantom blade..." Shinsbane added.

"Yes?" replied Jimmy No-Face, whose real name was Phaeton.

"...'s no natural."

"Very little about me is, dear Shinsbane, " Phaeton replied, his tone suggesting the smile he would have shown, if he had posessed a lower jaw.

"Aye, well... what about the women-folk?" Shinsbane continued, determined to be right about something.

"Both Lumiel and I will be fine, I assure you, " the Jedi soothed.

"Not to contradict, " interjected the Paladin, "but I'd rather save my energy, in case any of you need healing.  My connection to The Light is tenuous at best right now," Lumiel continued, donning a mask handed to her by a Gamer.  "I'll take all the help I can get."

"Perhaps she is right, Lydia, " Phaeton said with what appeared to be genuine concern.  "Shinsbane and I are hardier than most, but both of you are human."

Pausing for a moment, Lydia conceded the point with a nod.  "I'll put it on, if only to allay concern, " the Jedi replied, "but I assure you that the Force would-"

"Again with the bloody Force..." Shinsbane exclaimed, barging between the Jedi and the Paladin and standing at the fore of the group.  "Can we just get going already?!"

Commander Mideel did a check of his force, ensuring that they were all prepared to move forward.  "Mideel to HQ - we're heading out."

Moving outside through the revolving doors, Shinsbane swore loudly several times.  As the rest of the party followed him, they understood why; the Lethargy was much more concentrated.  The urge to sleep was so compelling that a few Gamers fell to their knees.  The dwarf headbutted the side of the tower, which caused him to start slurring his curse words.  Apparently unsatisfied with this outcome, he headbutted his stone hammer instead.  This seemed to clear his head.

"See?!" he exclaimed, "Willpower!"

"Base obstinance, I would say..." commented Phaeton under what would have been his breath, if his speech had anything to do with lungs and a larynx.

"But he has a point, " Lidya added, closing her eyes and concentrating.  As she did, others around her seemed to recover slightly.

Mideel, who wasn't suffering nearly as badly as his Gamers, tried in vain to contact the others in the tower.  It was no use - without the aura of 'life energy' to act as a channel, the signal was simply negated in the lifeless Lethargic field that permeated Freelancer City.  Even just a few feet outside of the tower was enough to sever communication.

"Yes, concentration seems to have a beneficial effect, " Lumiel agreed, casting a Concentration Aura spell that enveloped the entire group.  Instantly, there was a lessening of the Lethargy.  To Mideel's senses, it was no greater than it had been inside the foyer.

"On your feet, Gamers!" growled Mideel, who began to draw on his own inherent abilities as a Gamer.  He had specialised in the group warfare genre, meaning his speciality lay in leadership; rallying others to his banner.  A faint, crimson tinge began to shimmer in the air around him.  "We are heading out!"

In the time it had taken to awaken Freelancer Tower, Ryu had been hard at work, locating and collating reports.  It wasn't his fort�, but he had made the best of a bad situation.  He had managed to pin down the location of several dozen Dragoons, who had proven themselves more resilient to the Lethargy.  Mideel's orders were to systematically move through the city, re-awakening Dragoons as his team found them.  Dragoon Knight had made it very clear that at least one of each element needed to be found.  Without communications, Ryu was unsure how Dragoon Knight would know if and when the team were successful.  His question was answered when a flare of green light erupted from the streets below, and a grin spread across the Lord's face.  The streets returned to their grey inanimate state almost immediately, but Dragoon Knight seemed satisfied, and spent the best part of the next few hours in a meditative state.

More Dragoons were found erratically; one every twenty minutes for an hour, then nothing for two.  Then one again, dispelling fears that the group had fallen, followed by three in quick succession.  It was several hours, however, before a flash of white-silver from the south indicated that one of each element had been revived.

"Sire, a total of fourteen Dragoons have been located and awakened, " Ryu reported.  Dragoon Knight didn't seem to acknowledge him for several seconds.  Ryu was about to repeat himself, when his leader stirred.

"I'm aware of them, " he murmured, his eyes opening wide.  "The last will need time to get into position.  I must get to the roof."

"Understood, " Ryu nodded, even though he had no idea what was being planned.  "I'll re-arrange personnel accordingly."

"Hopefully, soon there will be no need for such measures, " Dragoon Knight commented, standing and stretching his limbs, before making his way to the stairwell.

Atop Freelancer Tower, Dragoon Knight was in awe of the complete lack of wind.  Under normal circumstances, he shouldn't have been able to stand up straight without an exertion of power.  Alas, these were no normal circumstances.  Kneeling down, he placed his palms flat against the frigid steel roof of his command building, listening with his innate senses.  It was difficult.  Such a projection of power was draining, especially without others around him to bolster his resolve.  His senses pushed down along the building, helped by the network of bio-neural gel packs that ran through the tower like a nervous system.  Sweating now, he strove to move further out, along the ground...

It was no good.  He pulled back, let out a gasp of breath held for too long.  He would just have to trust that the others were in position.  He rose to his feet and began to channel his power.

A visible aura of golden and silver light began to emanate from the solitary figure.  Glistening armour of the same colour formed across his torso and legs, and ethereal wings erupted in a flash of light from his shoulder blades.  Flapping gently, they lifted the ex-Warlord several feet into the air.  The light intensified, grew brighter as the seconds passed, then reached a peak.

"Now..." he whispered.  Almost instantly, a flicker of sea-blue light from the streets to the south-east burst forth as a lance of energy and struck Dragoon Knight full in the chest.  It took an effort of will for the Lord to withstand the impact, recovering as quickly as possible in preparation for the next.  He didn't have to wait very long, as within moments another ray of light - bright green, this time - shone forth from the lifeless metropolis below.

Five more coloured beams of light struck Dragoon Knight, each of them visibly harming him - power was not meant to be shared in this manner.  Dragoon Knight's purpose necessitated a measure of self-harm.  He could live with that.  But the next step would be less than pleasant for the Dragoons on the streets below.

Another flash of golden-silver light from his body, and Dragoon Knight's aura began to grow stronger once more.  The rays of light began to swirl and mix, becoming a spectrum of colour.  Siphoning as much energy as he dared, he closed his eyes.

From inside Freelancer Tower, it appeared as though the sky were momentarily set ablaze.  To Mideel's company, still moving through the streets, it looked like a bolt of lightning had struck the top of the building.  Releasing a burst of power from atop the city's tallest structure, Dragoon Knight forced life into every crevice of his immediate domain.  From the coast to the city walls, the Lethargy was slowly being pushed back.  Screaming in agony as too much power coursed through his body, Dragoon Knight forced out another pulse, pushing the miasma back still further.  A quarter mile... now a half mile boundary outside of the city.  But his tortured body could take no more - weakened by over two years of sleep, Dragoon Knight could not maintain such efforts.  With an implosion of light, his armour and wings disappeared, and Freelancer's saviour fell eight feet to the steel roof below.

"Sire!" exclaimed Ryu over the newly restored communications system.  "We've got full control again!  Mideel has reported that the East Wing of the city is awakening, and we're getting haphazard news from other sectors-"

"Ryu, " Dragoon Knight croaked, feeling almost as weak as when he had awoken himself only hours ago.  "Instruct any and all Dragoons to form a perimeter around the city walls... the seven who aided me get first shot at the beach... then, send a medic to the roof."

"Are you alright, sire?" the aide asked, concern evident in his voice.

The wind began to blow through Dragoon Knight's hair.  He smiled, revealing bloodied teeth.  "I'll be fine."

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Days passed. As she grew more familiar with Never Winter Nights, Latrodectus was forced to find new ways to keep her men busy. She set them to any task available, from cleaning the rooms to burying the corpses of the thread's former residents. Cutting vines, pulling weeds, setting fires, anything to keep the highlanders awake. Without their march, and the associated purpose that came with it, they were lapsing into the Lethargy. Her instincts told her to leave, to head out into the wilderness away from the cursed town, but she stayed. She would become mistress of this place, or destroy it herself.

She discovered that the keep itself, unlike the surrounding village, was split into two halves. Connected by several passages and bridges, the two had obviously been designed as separable should the need arise. Each possessed a control room and a suite of resources, though the council chambers were located on neutral ground between the two halves.

According to the thread's survivors, 'Nights, as it was known to the locals, was administrated by a council of representatives from both Dante and Dragoon Knight. Though the halved fortress was a security precaution, the two factions had worked together in a very close manner, wandering in and out of each other's control rooms without any regard for passwords or protection. There had been a high level of trust between the councillors, various underlings and military commanders.

Of these leading figures there were three survivors, one of Dante's and two of Dragoon Knight's. All three insisted that there had been no treachery, that 'Nights had fallen as a whole. Barely able to rise from their beds, they insisted that they would investigate their records as soon as they were able to access them.

They were not permitted to see each other. Cautiously, Latrodectus kept the factions separate All seven of those who professed loyalty to Dante were confined to their bedrooms. The five survivors from Dragoon Knight's garrison were kept together in their hospital wing. They were tended by sorcerers, and over time their strength began to return.

"Tell me." The black angel smiled seductively, black lips framing perfect white teeth. Her greenish skin seemed soiled in the grubby darkness, but the prisoner had learned already that this was the truth of her people. Beautiful yet rotten inside. He raised his head to spit at her, felt his effort dribble down his chin.

"Pathetic." The woman sneered, black wings shimmering. She was dressed in a seductive black shift, wrapped almost casually to reveal just enough that imagination could fill in the gaps. She was smooth, thin, pouty without being obnoxious. Her bare feet were each perfectly shaped, delicate yet strong. Green skin and black hair, black wings and green eyes. She had kissed the prisoner when she introduced herself, and he had spent every waking moment since then desperately longing for her to do so again.

But then she had started asking questions. What was the cause of the Lethargy? Who had betrayed 'Nights? Why hadn't the garrison warned The God Emperor's Dune? Was it because Dragoon Knight's forces had prevented them? Was the Gaming warlord responsible for the attack? The questioning was relentless, and when he had been unable to provide answers the angel had broken his fingers.

One by one she snapped them, and when he still didn't answer she snapped the rest of the bones. His hands, now crushed beyond repair, hung lifeless from manacles that were bolted to the wall.

The next day she had been joined by a male of her kind. They gave their names, but the prisoner no longer remembered them. They asked him questions. This time he lied, tried to tell them what they wanted to hear. They laughed, and bit him until his blood flowed. They stripped him naked, asked him questions, and each time he failed to answer they pressed close, gently and seductively, pressing until they broke a single rib. Their laughter echoed as they left him that night.

For days the pattern was repeated. Sometimes they would come alone, sometimes together. The questioning was relentless, no answers satisfactory. They forced food down his throat to keep him alive, they slapped him with their clawed hands to keep him awake. His oscillating levels of defiance seemed to amuse them. Today the woman whispered seductively. She had bitten off his lower lip the previous night.

"Tell me how it was." She whispered, lips brushing the edges of his ear. "Tell me what you did." He remained silent. She drew back, laughter dancing in her eyes. "You think you can hold out forever?" She swung around, so that she whispered in his other ear. "I've been told that if you don't tell us what we want to know today, we're going to kill you." She grinned, as though she anticipated a marvellous game. "My brother and I, we've been playing for this long. Just think what we could do without restraints..." The prisoner glowered at the dank wall in front of him. In truth, part of him welcomed the revelation. The torture of the previous days had been worse than any he had endured. He had cracked more than once, but even then his desperate ravings had not satisfied his interrogators.

A new figure entered the room. She had to duck, her massive form barely fitting in the cramped chamber. Shining black skin glittered in the light of the brazier in the corner. Black eyes shone, much like the coals that the angels had laughingly pressed into the prisoner's flesh. He gasped, for this woman he recognised.

"You!" He immediately doubled over in pain. Looking up only confirmed his horror. The spider demon glared down at him with barely-concealed disgust. "You're supposed to be our ally!" He spat at her, leaning forward in his chains. "What do you think you're doing?!"

"I am running out of time." Latrodectus stated bluntly, moving forward with awkward steps to squat in front of the prisoner. "Your fellowss are recovering their ssstrength. Ssoon they will be dashing about the placse like fliess, and like fliess they will get into everything. They will reactivate their sssecurity equipment, try to contact their leader." She levelled a black gaze at him, six additional eyes opening on her face. "They will not disscover what happened here. They have been told that you died of sstarvation. Your grave iss already filled." She reached up, needle-thin fingers passing around the prisoner's neck. "Your choicse is thisss: tell me what happened here, what Dragoon Knight did to thiss thread, and I will kill you quickly and mercifully. Or remain defiant, and find yourssself at the mercsy of the angelss." Here she indicated the gleeful woman.

"But I've already told you, I don't know anything!" The prisoner insisted. "We died as well, you... you idiot! More than a hundred men and women of the blue armour lie dead, and you think we were part of it?" He gaped incredulously. "No. No, I'll tell you nothing. Do your worst."

Latrodectus' expression did not change. She withdrew her hand, seemed to think for a moment. "Very well." She shrugged, backing out of the room. "Have it your way." As her shadow withdrew, the male angel slipped into the room beside his sister.

"We're so glad you saw things this way." He smiled, approaching the prisoner with a swagger.

"We haven't had so much fun in ages." The woman agreed, advancing with a burning coal in her fingers. Almost delicately she forced the prisoner's jaw open, popped the coal in and slammed it shut again. The stench of burning flesh filled his nostrils, he tried to spit it out but it was already fused to his tongue. Laughing, the angels bared their teeth. Biting into his skin, they started to eat him alive.

Outside, Latrodectus listened to the muffled screams and sighed. "They musst never know what happened in there." She ordered. The sorcerer at her side nodded gravely.

"I'll have the area scoured clean, magically and physically." He agreed. "There won't be a spot of blood, not even the faintest psychic resonance of what occurred"

"Sssee that you do." Latrodectus warned. She sighed again, rubbed her human eyes. "Three prisonersss, one of them a councsilor, and not one of them could tell uss anything."

"Do you want us to interrogate the others...?" The sorcerer asked doubtfully.

"No, that would be susspiciousss." Latrodectus muttered. "Bessides, I believe that they were telling the truth. If there was treachery from the Gaming warlord, the garisssson here wass not aware of it."

"I see." The sorcerer nodded. Latrodectus snorted.

"Once the evidencsse is desstroyed, we will allow the ssurvivorss to reclaim their thread." She looked up at the keep, where the two surviving leaders of 'Nights were rapidly recovering. One from Dante's garrison, one from Dragoon's, the third having perished in a small dark room that same day. "It wasss a necesssary sstep. We had to be sure." She murmured. Turning to the sorcerer, she glared down at him. "If there isss a hint, even the ssslightest rumour of what happened in thessse roomsss, I will ssssslaughter you and every sssingle living thing in thissss thread. Do I make myself clear?"

"C-crystal." The sorcerer swallowed, backing away a step. Beneath Latrodectus' face, he saw the movement of mandibles.

"Ssssee that you inform the otherssss." She turned, dismissing him as she stalked away.

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It had been several hours since Dragoon Knight had pushed back the Lethargy from Freelancer City.  By forcing it back so far beyond the city walls, he had hoped to secure enough time to erect a defence against a probable return.  His suspicions were validated in short order.  Despite scouts being despatched immediately from Freelancer Tower, the news they relayed did not bode well.  Almost all of Freelancer City's technology had been restored to working order, so the advance forces were quick to report that the Lethargy was swiftly returning.  It approached the city walls with all the inevitablity of a rising tide.

Teams of Gamers - consisting of medics, nurses and runners - were quickly established and despatched from the Tower in an effort to revive as much of the population as possible.  Meanwhile, Mideel's team were now focused on ensuring that Dragoon Knight's orders were followed, continuing their mission of awakening as many Dragoons as possible and directing them towards the city limits.  The seven Dragoons who had aided in pushing back the Lethargy were escorted to the coast, along with a team of healers - their strength was severely depleted as a result of their energy being siphoned.  Ryu had noted quickly that Scouts reported little to no increase in the strength of the Lethargy, even in hovercraft as far out as three miles.  This, coupled with the presence of waves, seemed to indicate that the Lethargy was weaker along the beachfront.  There, the weakened Dragoons would still be able to help without being overwhelmed.

Inside Freelancer Tower, Dragoon Knight had been tended to briefly on the roof, before being stretchered back to the medical station on Level 95.  He had suffered several broken ribs and extensive bruising along the torso, but was otherwise unharmed.  The greatest immediate threat was that of exhaustion.  Medics treated his physical injuries as a priority.  With the Tower's systems back online, they made short work of healing his wounds.  However, despite their protestations that he rest, Dragoon Knight was on his feet again within the hour.

"Ryu, " he called, exiting the elevator on Level 48, which had become as good a command center as any.  "Are the Dragoons in position?"

Turning from a group of technicians he was in discussion with, Ryu motioned towards the holographic display at the western end of the lobby.  Activating it with a few keypresses, Ryu called up a three dimensional image of Freelancer City.  Reaching into the image and bunching his fists, he dragged the image towards him, zooming in to the southern walls.  Pulling outwards slightly, he formed a palm with his right hand and made a slow swiping motion to his left, sending the display spinning clockwise.

"As you can see, sire, we've spaced the Dragoons equidistantly along the perimiter, as per your specifications."

As the image reached the northern walls, Dragoon Knight reached in with an open palm and stopped the rotation.  "There are too few..."

"Sire?"

"If it were to slip past..." Dragoon Knight thought aloud, hanging his head, before looking up at Ryu again.  "Have a group of five Gamers arrange themselves between each of the Dragoons, in a line oriented away from the city."

"Like spokes on a cart wheel?"

"No, they will need to be slightly further out than the Dragoons themselves, " Dragoon Knight corrected.  "More like handles of a ship's helm."

"To what end, sire?" queried Ryu, who was not afraid of questioning orders that put people in danger.

"They will be an advance warning system, " Dragoon Knight explained, putting his right hand into the display again.  Making a pinching motion with his thumb and forefinger, he picked up a Gamer unit from a palette and began to demonstrate the layout he wanted, placing each unit with a light flicking motion.

"Look here, " he continued, using his left hand to make a pinching motion with all of his digits over one of the Dragoons, then expanding them upwards and outwards; an area selection sphere, which doubled as a passable depiction of the aura of 'life energy' a Dragoon emitted.

"A Dragoon's aura extends, more or less, about this far, from what we can tell by previous bio-scan readings, " Dragoon Knight said, before selecting the area around an adjactent Dragoon.  "As you can see, there's a gap between the two auras.  With Gamers placed between them, they will be alerted to a Lethargic incursion and be able to exert a degree of power to counter it, hopefully allowing the Gamers to escape unharmed."

Ryu shook his head.  "Sire, Gamers have proven themselves extremely vulnerable to this Lethargy..."

Dragoon Knight reached into the image with bunched fists, pushed the hologram away in frustration, zooming it out to a topographic overview of Gaming.  Turning to face his aide, his voice was hard as he confronted the objections.  "I know that Ryu.  But I have to consider everyone.  Just look at that!"

Dragoon Knight had indicated the display, which was mostly static.  "Our satellites are offline, or destroyed.  We can't contact any of our other threads, and I can't justify sending any Dragoons out to attempt rescue!  Freelancer City has just about enough power to support the population at last estimates - it cannot withstand a swathe of refugees..."

"Sire..." Ryu tried to interrupt, but failed, as Dragoon Knight continued to list their various perils.

"We are under siege by an enemy that cannot be fought, except with a force of will which few individuals possess!" Dragoon Knight exclaimed wearily, his lack of proper rest beginning to show through.  He faced his aide with a mix of consternation and pleading.  "Ryu, I need to use every resource I have.  A group of five Gamers will be strong enough to withstand the Lethargy for a minute, maybe more - enough time to alert the two Dragoons at either side, perhaps even retreat to safety."

If Ryu had been an angry or narrow minded man, he would have accused Dragoon Knight of using his own men as cannon fodder.  Of needlessly risking lives.  But he had always been intelligent enough to follow the ex-Warlord's train of thought with a calmness of mind and body, which arose in no small part from the constant assurance that his master was perhaps the greatest force for good in FED2k.

He did not need for Dragoon Knight to explain that Gamers were the weakest of all their forces - their uses were limited, but they had to be used, and there was no more important task than keeping the Lethargy at bay.

He did not need to ask why technology could not be used in their place, since even Freelancer City's vast repertoire of automated defenses had apparently fallen without so much as a single alarm in the first place.

But mostly, he did not need more than two seconds to determine that Dragoon Knight needed his support.  Tough decisions like these would likely become commonplace over the coming days.

"I understand, sire, " Ryu nodded.  "What are your plans for the rest of Gaming?"

Dragoon Knight allowed a long blink and split-second smile to show his appreciation.  "Now that Mideel and his Lieutenants have finished rounding up the Dragoons, I intend to send him towards Never Winter Nights."

"You intend to contact Dante?"

"He was our closest ally in the last conflict, " Dragoon Knight nodded, "and he may be in the same situation.  If he hasn't been able to fight this off, he'll need help."

"If I might interject..." said Commander Inon, who had joined the group during troop placement simulation.  "We must consider the possibility that Dante himself is responsible for this."

"Dante was never the most altruistic of Emperors, Inon, but he wasn't genocidal, " Dragoon Knight objected fiercely.

"Still, sire, there is evidence - circumstantial, yes, but evidence nonetheless - that implicates him.  The Lethargy is, as best we can determine, magical in nature.  It is also weaker towards the coast, which could mean that it originates from Fan Fiction."

"Or PRP.  Or General.  Hell, even TI, Inon!" Dragoon Knight exclaimed.  "I'll not have baseless conjecture creating distrust at a time like this.  Return to your post."

"As you wish, sire, " responded Inon, abashed but unswayed.

"You need to rest, sire, " Ryu said after a moment's pause.

"What I need, Ryu, is to get out there with as many Dragoons as it takes and do an encore of my rooftop performance across every square mile of this board, " Dragoon Knight retorted, dragging his palms down his face.

"But you certainly don't need me to tell you that's not feasible, " came Ryu's riposte.  "You'd end up killing yourself, or falling to the Lethargy again."

"Yes.  Which is why Mideel Company will make a beeline for 'Nights and attempt to contact the closest thing we have to a friend right now.  Maybe he has some ideas about what to do."

"Shall I contact Commander Mideel now, sire?"

"Tell them to rest for the night, " replied Dragoon Knight.  "I'm going to follow doctor's orders and get some sleep."

"Very well.  Pleasant dreams, sire."

"Heh, " the Lord chuckled, "I should hope not."

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Lillian allowed herself a small sigh, massaging her brow. She had been sat at the council table for the better part of thirty hours, now her fingers twitched and her eyes were starting to blur. Her longest session yet in front of the intractable communications relay had yielded no more results than the previous four. Her legs ached. She lacked the impetus to stand and walk out the cramp. Her Bene Gesserit training had gotten her this far, but it was relying on reserves that had been depleted during her long sleep. Soon she would have to rest, another day of failure behind her.

Her eyes slid sideways to the door to the council chamber, opened by J'invy. The mentat looked almost as tired as she was, heavy brows drooping over his face. His expression sagged more than usual, prompting Lillian to offer a carefully posed smile of sympathy. J'invy rolled his eyes, smiled knowingly back. Lillian felt herself blush as the older man sat down a few seats away.

"I thought perhaps you might have enjoyed some success." He said, not judging.

"I would be more comfortable if we were using entirely technological means." Lillian admitted, leaning back in her chair. She closed her eyes. "But even they fail to penetrate the Lethargic barrier. It's almost as though the Lethargy acts as a capacitor for energy: whether electrical, magical or otherwise our signals just dissipate once outside the city. The strongest make it about a mile before they fizzle out and disappear into the aether."

"Weather observations indicate that there have been no high winds here for nearly three years." J'invy stated. "Possibly connected: those who have been outside the city gates report a sense of warmth, as well as observing that the world appears dim and 'fuzzy.'" He paused to allow her to digest the information.

"You're suggesting that the Lethargy, whatever it is, is draining all forms of energy? Including light?"

"It's a possibility." J'invy shrugged. "I have only the results from a very small area. Freak weather patterns and the accounts of several volunteers who were in the process of falling asleep as they gathered data do not make compelling evidence. And yet." He pursed his lips.

"You're thinking that the feeling of warmth does not fit." Lillian noted.

"I am. A phenomenon that absorbs chemical, kinetic, light and electrical energy should not be emitting heat." The mentat frowned hard, raised his eyebrows, allowed his face to relax into a neutral expression. Lillian watched with interest, though she had watched J'invy compute many times before.

"I lack data." The mentat sighed, pushing his shoulders back. "But the current evidence suggests that the unseasonal warmth around TGED is the result of some energetic reaction. Heat is being given off by the Lethargy, possibly as a byproduct from wherever the absorbed energy is going."

"If it's going anywhere at all." Lillian pointed out. "At the moment it's not showing any signs of activity beyond giving out far less energy than it takes in. Perhaps it's an active process rather than a passive one, with excess energy given off as heat."

"Also a possibility; one that I plan to test tomorrow." J'invy nodded, turning slightly to observe the stars through one of the great windows which rose up from the floor.

"They look ordinary." Lillian said.

"We've been asleep for so long. How would we know if they looked different?" J'invy stood with a sigh and paced over to the smaller door on the far side of the chamber. Lillian watched him leave, for lack of anything better to do.

After sitting in silence for a minute she pushed back her chair, stood up with a snort of disgust. Marching over to a window, she stood with her hands clasped behind her back and glared up at the stars. They twinkled obliviously. She turned on her heel, pacing around the table until the ache faded from her legs. Resting on hand on the back of her chair, she performed a series of stretches in order to loosen her muscles.

Ten minutes into her routine, J'invy entered the room again. His face shone with new enthusiasm, he beamed as he crossed the room.

"He's given me some valuable new data!" The mentat was practically shivering with glee. "He's been attempting to stretch his influence beyond the walls of TGED, exercise his metaphysical muscles so to speak." Lillian nodded. "He's discovered is that his power is greatly reduced! Not only in the sense of lessened potency, but he has completely lost some abilities."

"Which ones?"

"He's still experimenting, but initially it seems that he's lost the ability to manifest in multiple locations, as well as the ability to fly." J'invy beamed.

"That would suggest that the power we gained from other threads is no longer available to us..." Lillian frowned.

"But think conversely, Lillian!" J'invy exclaimed. "While the loss of some powers indicates that we have lost the threads from which they originate, the presence of others is an equal indication that our hold on other threads is unbroken." He turned as Dante dropped through a hole in the air.

"I dislike not being aware of everything in this thread anymore." The warlord muttered, brushing imaginary dust from his shoulders.

"We postulate that we have lost at least two threads during the effects of the Lethargy." J'invy told Lillian as Dante leaned over the council table and brought up the glowing schematic of TGED. "The number could be more of course, but it is unlikely to be less. We have even identified the threads that we have lost with what I believe to be a 5.4% margin of error."

"Unsurprisingly, the lands in PRP are lost to us." Dante indicated a dull area on the great map, where his sole thread in PRP should have glowed. "J'invy also believes that one of the Gaming threads may have fallen."

"Almost certainly." J'invy agreed.

"The good news is that this probably means that most of our lands in Fanfiction remain unmolested." Dante smirked, crossing over to regard the mosaic map. Fanfiction started to glow slightly. "The rebuilding effort may not be as difficult as we feared. Any breakthrough with communications?"

"None so far." Lillian answered ruefully.

"Go take a rest. I'll put someone else on it." Dante did not take his eyes from the map. He traced a finger down the beeline to PRP, the route that Rai'Guy was to have taken.

"Concerned, sir?" J'invy drew alongside the warlord.

"We wouldn't know if they failed." Dante muttered, glaring at the dull spots where his territory should have glowed.

"I would advise against sending another expedition until we have a better handle on the situation." J'invy cautioned. "Today's discovery is the best indication yet that we are making progress."

"Even if we remain isolated." Lillian added, retaking her seat. She brought up a holographic console, started running numbers. Dante and J'invy exchanged a look.

"I'll report back in two hours." J'invy bowed, heading for the exit.

"Very good." Dante spent a moment longer peering at the map. He shrugged, sloughed off his shape and disappeared. Lillian sat alone, face aglow with flickering digits.

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"Wake up, " Mideel said gruffly.  He was addressing his platoon of Gamers, who were slowly rising from their fitful rest.  The Sun was rising in the east, but what little light that filtered through gave a distinct impression of being diluted or second-hand.

The order had come from Freelancer Tower - Mideel Company was officially re-instated and their first orders were to move east and awaken Never Winter Nights.  Efforts to restore contact with the thread had failed; nothing outside the walls of Freelancer City was responding.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to tell if this was due to threads not responding, the technology at the other end being offline, the message simply not travelling through the Lethargy, or a combination of all three.  Dragoon Knight's orders had been clear - reach 'Nights as a priority, then make tentative steps towards Fan Fiction to discern their needs.

Mideel didn't like it.  Something about the Lethargy struck him as familiar, but he couldn't even come close to identifying the source of the feeling.  Regardless, he scented the air warily as the last of his company made themselves ready for travel.

A short half-hour later, the troops were fed and ready to move out.  From their makeshift base in one of Freelancer City's old barracks, they would make their way to the Eastern Gates.  The plan was to follow the coast for as long as possible, before breaking off east-south-east through the wetlands.  Normally, a trip of this distance would only take a couple of days, perhaps three at the outside.  At this time of year, the marshes were their driest.  While very few roads existed outside of populated areas, the dirt tracks would normally see regular use.  Coupled with Gaming's naturally flat, loamy terrain, even a forced march towards 'Nights would normally only be mildly unpleasant.

"This will not be easy, " Phaeton spoke, as if reading Mideel's mind.  "And no, I just read expressions.  Humans give so very much away through their faces."

Mideel thought better of making a face joke.  "Have you briefed the troops?"

"I left that to Lieutenant Shinsbane, Commander, " Phaeton replied, his eyes glowing brightly.  He had just fed on the souls of a few lingering occupants of Freelancer City.  They had died much earlier than most, and though no soul could speak, their twisted visages and frantic movement indicated that they had long since lost all vestiges of sanity.  Phaeton devoured them, possibly for their own good.  He didn't really care.

The Commander's palm made solid contact with his face.  "Shinsbane's briefing them?  Well, at least they'll be motivated, " he finished with a sigh.

"-personally smash the kneecaps of every blasted... oh.  Good morning, Commander."

"Good morning, Shinsbane, " replied Mideel, who had made his way out of the barracks to where Shinsbane had arrayed the small platoon.  They weren't all the same men and women who had accompanied him out of Freelancer Tower.  When the city had been fully revived, Dragoon Knight had made a point of assigning a complement of seasoned Gamers and skilled volunteers to his regiment.  Without a Dragoon or two to accompany them, Mideel was grateful for this small blessing.

"Commander, " came Lydia's voice from across the crowd of units.  She was motioning him over, continuing to speak as he approached.  "Commander, we've got an idea."

"Let's hear it, Lieutenant, " Mideel replied.

"Lumiel and I have had time to consider the implications of the Lethargy, and may have devised further ways to deflect it, " the Jedi explained.

"We've already established that my Concentration Aura has beneficial effects, " Lumiel added, before looking at the Commander directly.  "Similarly, your leadership abilities seem to inspire activity."

"The Jedi possess similar powers, though we are loathe to use them unless necessary, " Lydia continued, looking mildly abashed.  "Though we always exert a certain influence on those around us, it is a passive thing, usually shrugged off as awe or somesuch.  At command, I can increase that influence."

"Mind control?" Mideel asked directly.

"No, nothing so forceful, " Lydia responded quickly, shaking her hands.  "At best, it could be described as a mild hypnosis.  In this case, it would amplify the person's will to shake off the effects of the Lethargy, allowing them to override their desire to sleep."

Mideel appeared to consider this.  "Proceed.  With you ladies working in concert, we might just have a smoother time of this."

Without much further ado, the group as a whole moved out in formation.  Lydia opted to take point, along with Shinsbane, who demanded first shot at anyone or anything who stood in their way.  At the rear, Phaeton took a looser interpretation of 'formation' and preferred to maintain some distance between himself and the majority of the platoon; an objection regarding his ability to see the astral plane was accepted by Mideel, unwilling to press the issue.  The Commander and Lumiel marched more or less in the centre of the formation.  Though neither was happy about giving up the ability to see where they were headed, both of their abilities were most effective at close range, whereas Lydia was ideally placed to 'lead' the force.

Approaching the city walls, the group was witness to the extraordinary efforts of the Dragoons and small retinues of Gamers between them.  Flourishes of elemental energy were visible across the entire perimeter, driving back the Lethargy as it tried to approach, a noose that was not being allowed to tighten.  Moving outside of the city itself was an experience similar to that of leaving the Tower the night before.  The new troops were not as prepared as those who had been there from the start, but a few choice words from Shinsbane were enough to rouse them back into formation in short order.

Mideel had fully expected the Lethargy to become stronger as he ventured further into the wilds of Gaming, but was surprised to find that the pressing sensation was no more forceful, even several miles out.  As Freelancer City became little more than a glint on the horizon, however, the constant effort was beginning to get to everyone.

"It's like walking against a driving wind, " Lydia commented, addressing no-one and everyone.  Their low-level communication tech seemed to be holding out, however, so she spoke to all of the command officers.

"We'll rest soon, " Mideel responded, feeling the effects as well, "but for now we keep moving."

"Should we perhaps seek shelter in a nearby thread?" Lumiel asked, a cold sweat establishing itself on her brow.

"Unwise, " said Phaeton, who was suddenly behind the two.  "I have scouted out two small threads since leaving Freelancer.  The closer I get, the more overpowering the Lethargy seems to become."

"You're saying that it's focused around threads?" Mideel asked, deciding to belay disciplining the Soul Reaver for breaking formation, in light of this new information.

"I cannot be sure, but there is a certain logic to that assumption, " Phaeton contemplated.  "If living and conscious things drive back the Lethargy, perhaps sleeping and dead entities attract it."

The Commander didn't like the thought of that, but put his feelings aside.  He had his orders.

"We'll make camp in the wetlands, on the highest ground we can find; it'll keep us dry and give us a good vantage point, " Mideel instructed.  "We will not be investigating any more threads.  That is not our task.  We are heading to 'Nights, no side-tracking.  Is that clear, Lieutenant?" he finished with a pointed look at the Soul Reaver.

"As clear as hindsight, Commander, " Phaeton said in tones of silk and glass, the latter quite possibly smashed and hastily concealed by the former.

For four days and three nights, little changed.  Phaeton was more discreet about his divergent course, but he had to feed, and reasoned that the Commander would be less understanding if one of his retinue were suddenly minus one soul.  Camping offered little rest, with the Lieutenants having to take shifts to ensure that the Lethargy stayed at bay overnight.  Despite the hardships, the group made good progress across the quiet landscape.  On the evening of the fifth day, the group finally sighted 'Nights.

"By me Great-Granddaddy's beard, I knew it!" Shinsbane announced loudly.

Still a mile distant, but clear as a lighthouse amid the fog, were the lights of Never Winter Nights.  Someone was awake.

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"Try again."

"But it-"

"Again." Latrodectus folded her arms and glared menacingly.

"I'll thank you not to talk to my people in that manner." The speaker glared back at Latrodectus from her chair at the central control panel. She was a short woman, drawn yet defiant, rapping a walking stick against her knees in muted irritation. Latrodectus imagined the sound that the woman might make as her lifeblood poured from a gaping wound in her side.

"Feel free to encourage them yoursssself then, Doctor Wrexssham." She hissed unpleasantly. Wrexham's lips pursed, but she held her peace. Turning back to her console, she keyed in a rapid sequence of instructions. Taking up her stick, she limped over to the communications panel.

"Try again son." She leaned over to watch as the communications officer attempted to drum up a signal. His display remained stubbornly blank. "Ah well, keep trying, eh? You had a suggestion, Latrodectus?" She fixed the demon with a gaze of daggers, interrupting her in mid-sigh. She shifted casually.

"You know your machinesss besst, I am ssure." She commented. "You led me to believe that you could contact your massster. I musst ssay, your effortss have not sshown promissse."

"It's early days yet." Wrexham answered with forced cheer. "If I had more people, I'm sure I could accomplish our work more expediently."

"You are welcome to the assisstancse of the ssorcerersss, of coursse." Latrodectus indicated one of the magical practitioners who had been recruited from 'Nights long ago.

"Young man, do you know how to ping a server?" Wrexham asked the sorcerer bluntly.

"No ma'am. I mostly just destroy things, ma'am." The sorcerer looked as if he was about to salute, caught himself just in time.

"Bright enough to know that 'ping' doesn't mean 'detonate' at least." Wrexham rolled her eyes. "Very well, sit next to Werner here and watch what he does."

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"Anything yet?" enquired Dr. Wrexham, as she made another pass of the communications station.

"No ma'am, " a technician replied groggily.  They had been working almost non-stop for seven hours, running diagnostics and attempting repairs.

"Keep at it, then, " she instructed, before limping convincingly towards her own workstation several feet away.  It was purposely located slightly out of line of sight from the section entrance.  Sitting down at her desk, Dr. Wrexham allowed herself the indulgence of a yawn.  She weighed the benefits of having the likes of Latrodectus around to lessen the effects of the Lethargy, and decided that she preferred to be tired.  The whole thing stank of betrayal.

Still, it couldn't be denied that Dante's forces appeared to be suffering as much as her own.  As effective leader of Dragoon Knight's people here in 'Nights, Wrexham was faced with the unenviable task of having to liase with the spider demoness.  She became more and more impatient with each passing hour; this had allowed two things to be discerned with relative certainty.  The first was that the Fan Fiction forces were as clueless to the origins, coverage and full effects of the Lethargy as she was.  The second was that the entire Gaming retinue were being kept alive only for their skill in operating Dragoon Knight's proprietary technology.  The loaned Sorceror was being delayed surreptitiously, though he did now have a firm grasp of Two's Complement.

Footsteps.  Wrexham busied herself.

"Dr. Wrexssham, " hissed Latrodectus, rounding the corner in human form.  The door into this section was rather narrow.  "Though I hessitate to assk, have your team dissscovered any new avenuesss of communication?"

"Didn't I say that I'd let you know as soon as we contacted anyone?" Wrexham replied sternly.

"Ssspare me your tiressome objectionss, Doctor, " Latrodectus retorted with a grimace.  "Ssimply anssswer the quesstion."

"I thought that the answer would be clear, " Wrexham continued in the same tone, now used to these exchanges.  "We're continuing to try everything we can, but the equipment simply isn't working."

"You try my patiencsse, Dr. Wrexssham, " said the demoness with an icy stare, before stalking off purposely towards the Sorceror.  Presumably, he had also been instructed to spy on Wrexham and her staff.

She didn't particularly care.  As it stood, the situation was stagnant; Dante's forces certainly had the advantage, for all the good it did them.  Wrexham had always found the forces of Fan Fiction to be a hostile and thoroughly paranoid bunch, but things had approached an almost friendly level in 'Nights for a good while.  Before the Lethargy hit, there was a mutual respect between the two sides; one that Wrexham herself had no small part in fostering.  And now here were the brass, straight from The God Emperor's Dune, destroying everything she had worked for.  Damn them all.

"You have three more hourss, Wrexssham!" Latrodectus bellowed from across the room.  "Three hoursss to sshow progresss, and then I ssshall have to begin conssidering other measuresss."

The focused glare that Wrexham bared should have burned a hole through the dividing wall, but a brief flash of light from outside caught her attention after only a few seconds.

Light?  From outside 'Nights?  It was from the wetland hills to the north-west of the thread.  Had anyone else seen it?  Surely her scouts-

"Re-inforcements!" came the call from the watchtower.  It pierced through the relative silence like a foghorn, stirring people into alertness and action.  Wrexham was instantly out of her chair, around the corner and out of the section door.  Making her way up two flights of stairs, she reached a balcony overlooking the Gaming Entrance to 'Nights.

There, slightly closer this time!  Definitely a light.  To the naked eye, it appeared still at least half a mile away.  No details were discernable through the fading evening light, but the scouts' viewfinders must have spotted Dragoon Knight's colours.

"You forgot your walking ssstick, Dr. Wrexssham, " hissed Latrodectus, a few feet to Wrexham's right.  She had simply appeared there, though a faint white ribbon of material drifting to the ground presented a possible explanation for this.

"I'm suddenly feeling a lot less crippled, " replied the doctor, with a satisfied grin.

"You appear to have sssummoned a sssmall army."

"Me?" Wrexham chuckled.  "I didn't summon anything.  Our communications-"

"-are down, " Latrodectus completed, still focused on the light in the distance, moving ever closer.  "Or ssso you sssay."

"I've had enough of this.  Believe me or don't, you condescending bitch, but I've been nothing but truthful to you since you annexed this thread."

"Ssstrong wordsss, now that your alliess are here..." Latrodectus smiled horribly.

"Now I wish I'd remembered my stick, " Doctor Wrexham muttered as she turned back towards the stairs, descending towards the courtyard, there to await the arrival of friendly faces.  Latrodectus remained a moment longer, her smile losing all traces of amusement.

Ten minutes later, Mideel's forces arrived at the gates of Never Winter Nights.

"Welcome to 'Nights, Commander..." Wrexham greeted, noticing Mideel's insignia.

"Mideel, Freelancer City Armed Forces, " the Commander replied with a smile.  "We didn't expect anyone to be up and about."

"It's a fairly lengthy tale, " Wrexham sighed, "but suffice it to say that you're not the first ones to arrive."

Mideel's expression returned to its disciplined neutrality, as the rest of the platoon filed in to either side of them.  Shinsbane could be heard ushering stray Gamers, while Lydia and Lumiel leaned against eachother, relaxing their individual benisons.

"Dante, " Mideel stated, in no doubt that it was the Fan Fiction Emperor being referred to.

"Not in person, " Wrexham jested, "but a small expeditionary force.  We were corralled into our side of the building.  Several personnel didn't survive the re-awakening, but condsidering their attitude and veiled threats..."

Mideel nodded.  Dante's tactics were well known for their ruthlessness; a trait that had served him well over the years as he rose to power.  While the Commander respected it, he despised its implementation against his own people.

Dragoon Knight's forces were quick to move into the Gaming-controlled half of 'Nights, deploying in key areas.  The Fan Fiction forces had quickly withdrawn to their own half, apparently aware that their control over the thread was lost.  With superior numbers and several, powerful lieutenants, Latrodectus had taken the precaution of removing and re-positioning her forces more defensively.

After ensuring the well-being of all remaining Gamers in 'Nights, Mideel strode confidently towards the Fan Fiction control center.  He had left Wrexham in charge of conducting the Gamers - several of them tech specialists - as she saw fit.  Lydia and Lumiel were resting, while Shinsbane was ensuring high levels of morale.  Phaeton had been instructed to survey the thread, vanishing into the Spectral Realm.  It wasn't long before Mideel was confronted by Latrodectus, now in full, intimidating spider form.

"Latrodectus, I presume, " he said, stopping a scant few feet away from the demoness' front legs.  "You and I need to have a talk."

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A gibbous moon hung in the sky, casting yellow light upon the thread below. Torches flickered and guttered, though there was no wind. Guards glanced nervously at each other, timed their patrols around the walls. One stifled a yawn.

"None of that, Ranith." The guard's partner tapped her on the helmet. Ranith waved her away. The two women stood at the top of a watchtower flanking the main gates of TGED. Powerful spotlights were trained in an aura around the walls, a far cry from the days when light patrols would circle outside the city itself. The night watch was wearing on the guards, especially those on the outer reaches of the thread, so it was that the guards monitored each other as much as they did the outside world.

"As if it would matter if I dozed off anyway." Ranith grumbled, stretching. She leaned on the merlon and pouted at the moon. "Nothing's out there 'cept poor nobodies sleeping."

"Don't speak too soon." Her partner peered into the darkness. "I think I see something..." She leaned over the parapet, squinting. Ranith followed the other woman's eyes just in time to see a shadow cross the perimeter of light.

"My lord." Ranith's eyes opened in wonder as she beheld a tall man striding purposefully for the gates of TGED. "Is he human?"

"I doubt it." The other woman replied, noting the man's hidden face and the conspicuous bulk of something concealed beneath his ragged cloak. He was already within hailing distance of the doors, but no shout had gone up.

"Do you suppose they're asleep?" The woman whispered. She tugged nervously at her hair while Ranith fumbled for her communicator.

"East gate, East gate this is West gate do you read us, over?" She spoke without taking her eyes from the man outside. No reply was forthcoming. "Guardhouse this is West gate, we have a suspicious character outside, East gate is not responding over."

"Acknowledged West gate, take normal precautions."

"You heard the man." Ranith looked up, but her partner was already heading for the door. The two women hurried down the tower steps, emerging above the murder holes. Ranith keyed a sequence of numbers into the wall panel, causing a section of stone above the door to fade. Her partner leaned into the new opening, peering down at the man below, who drew to a halt outside the doors.

"Who goes there?!" The woman called down.

"I am Roman of Tenebria!" The man shouted back.

"What is your business here?"

"I seek refuge!" Again his voice was strong, though rasping. He turned his head to face the guards, revealing a gaunt face with sunken eyes and tangled black hair. He looked exhausted. Ranith glanced to one side, where the shadows were pulling together. Before she could warn her partner the shadows had solidified and stepped into the room. Dante gently pushed his guards aside to regard the figure standing below.

"What are you carrying?" He asked suspiciously. The man paused, his expression unreadable at such a distance. Slowly he knelt down, placing his burdens on the ground. In one arm he carried a man, apparently unconscious. In the other he held a corpse, long ago decomposed to little more than a skeleton with traces of dried flesh. Ranith recoiled.

"Doesn't look dangerous, at least." Dante muttered to himself. "Why do you carry a corpse, Roman of Tenebria?"

"Can we save the questions until I am within your walls?" The man shot back angrily. "My companion has slept for months, I can no longer awake him! He needs medical treatment!"

"Scanners report only one life sign, sire." The other guard noted. "Probably the sleeping one, signs are low."

"I see." Dante frowned. "What are you, Roman?"

"Vampire!" The man shouted back. "Are you going to let me in before sunrise?"

"Hmm." Dante mused. "Open the postern gate."

"Ayesir." Ranith saluted. A small section of the large steel doors faded into grey mist.

"Enter, Roman of Tenebria!" Dante shouted down. He turned to the guards, "Meet me beneath the murder holes." With that order, he melted into the floor.

"Does nobody else find that creepy?" Ranith sighed, but her partner was already heading for the door. Again the women clattered down spiral steps to the floor below, where Dante stood waiting at the postern gate. The man outside was struggling to lift his baggage, apparently unable to rise from one knee.

Without waiting for instructions, the other guard slipped out of the door and onto the sand. She staggered a moment, walked on. She reached the vampire, cautiously exchanged a few muted words. The man grudgingly allowed her to take the comatose other from him. Cradling the rigid corpse in both arms, he stood and followed her to the door. Ranith stepped aside to allow them entry, closed the door behind them. With the warlord close by, she felt more awake than she had done for days.

"Escort Roman to a hotel, see that a doctor visits his friend." Dante instructed before turning to the newcomer. "My guards will escort you at all times. If you disobey their instructions, they will call me. Behave yourself."

"I am too tired to do otherwise." The vampire shrugged a touch too casually.

"I will have food delivered to your room as well." Dante added. "We're familiar with vampires in this city, but you do not have carte blanche. Do not kill the food." He paused, seemed to think for a moment. "I want all three of you at the castle doors tomorrow evening. In the meantime, I hope your companion recovers." He bowed politely and was gone.

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It had been a scant few minutes since Mideel had left Latrodectus with his veiled demand for conversation.  Now, he awaited the Fan Fiction denizen from the neutral ground assembly hall, positioned between the two halves of the command building at the centre of 'Nights.  Though heavily used in the thread's infancy, when diplomatic relations between Dragoon Knight and Dante were relatively cold, it had become less necessary as each side developed a mutual respect for one another.  Now, years later, it seemed like all that effort had been for nothing.

Mideel sat alone.  He had updated Dr. Wrexham, who had relayed the situation to his lieutenants.  The Commander had instructed Latrodectus to arrive by herself, but was unsurprised when she entered from the Fan Fiction side, still in spider form, accompanied by a groggy looking sorcerer

"This is your idea of coming alone?" Mideel asked, keeping up appearances.

"A precautionary meassure, Commander, " came the hissed reply, "nothing more."

Mideel stood up and moved down the aisles of chairs and desks towards the two.  "Surely such precautions are un-necessary among allies?"

"Precautionsss are alwayss necssesssary.  Essspecially when dealing with alliesss who bring armiess to neutral territory."

"Dragoon Knight was insistent that we attempt contact with your master as a priority, " Mideel explained.

"For what purposse?  Sssurely you have other threadsss to attend to in thiss crississ?"

"Not that you'll believe me, " Mideel grinned, rubbing his chin while resting his elbow in the palm of his other hand, "but we came to see if you needed help.  To see if you were suffering from this Lethargy as well."

The accompanying sorcerer looked unattentive.  Latrodectus seemed to sense him drifting and kicked a leg out to hit him in the back, waking him with a start.

"Your protesstsss of innocssencsse notwithsstanding, your actionsss do not sspeak of peacsseful intentionsss."

"Paranoia will only get you so far, Latrodectus, " the Commander said sternly, pacing in a small circle.  "This is an expeditionary force designed to be large enough to provide aid and withstand the Lethargy for long periods.  Hell, Dragoon Knight even had the notion that we could work together, using 'Nights as a shared outpost."

Latrodectus was unimpressed and unconvinced.  "Do not take uss for foolsss, Mideel, " she retorted with a sharp tone.  "We are well aware that your communication devicesss have conveniently begun to work."

"Alright, " Mideel sighed, keeping his calm, "I'll bite.  The reason for their timely activation is due to the arrival of myself and my lieutenants.  The 'life aura' we project seems to nullify the Lethargy."

"Liesss.  I have been in and out-"

"The technology we use here isn't nearly as state-of-the-art as what's being used in Freelancer, " he interrupted, hoping that the demoness read between the lines.  "It requires several of those with the power to resist, spaced in key areas, to bring systems online."

Latrodectus remained silent, a part of her accepting the logical possibility of this.  She showed no outward sign of relenting, however, and pressed on with her questions.

"Sso you have working technology and sssuperior numberss.  What do you intend to do?"

"First of all, " Mideel answered, halting his pacing and facing Latrodectus, "I'd like to know what you did to my people when you first arrived."

Latrodectus didn't so much as blink.  "We sssaved their livess.  Gave them medical attention."

"Questioned them?"

"You would have done the sssame."

"Perhaps.  But I wouldn't have had to dig any graves as a result."

"Accussationsss now?" Latrodectus said indignantly.  "We merely buried thosse who had already died, or who didn't sssurvive awakening."

"So you would have no objections to a post mortem investigation?"

The spider grinned widely.  "Now who'ss paranoid, Commander?"

A brief pause ensued, both staring each other down.  Latrodectus won on account of having more eyes.

"Conduct your invesstigationss; your veiled allegationss will not be looked upon kindly when we are abssolved."

"I'll begin preliminary scans immediately, " Mideel asserted, watching for any reaction.  It was like trying to read a book written in a foreign language.  Latrodectus had no doubt chosen her demon form to serve the double-boon of subconscious intimidation and negating his ability to gauge her reactions and responses.

"Bah, " she said, grimacing.  "We have more important thingss to dissscusss."

"Such as?"

"How your sscity iss able to withsstand the Lethargy.  What you plan to report to your ssuperior.  Your intentionsss for thiss thread."

"No, " Mideel replied simply.  "I've explained enough for now.  It's your turn to start talking.  What do you know of the Lethargy?"

"No more than you, " she replied, almost automatically.  Mideel wondered if it might have been her first slip.

"Which is what, exactly?" he asked, and when his only reply was narrowed eyes, "Indulge me."

"My Lord Dante isss in the procssess of re-awakening Fan Fiction, " the demoness explained.  "Hiss effortsss alone have already reclaimed the entirety of TGED."

"Go on."

"I have been ssent to disscover the sssource of the Lethargy.  We did not expect to be intercssepted-"

"I told you, we came to help, " Mideel interjected.  "Though I can see that you're not about to accept it."

"Your forcssess will remain on their ssside of the command building, " Latrodectus stated.

"You're not in a position to dictate orders, Latrodectus."

"Enough of thiss, " she said loudly, turning around and walking back towards the Fan Fiction section.  "You will not enter our premessiss, Commander.  Any attempt to do sso would be unwisse."

With that, the conversation was over.  Mideel cursed under his breath, ascended the stairs towards the Gaming section.  Nothing had been gained.  In this instance, his instincts had been correct - the very nature of Dante's forces prevented open negotiation.  Honesty, equality, respect; they meant nothing to a demon.

But his suspicions were still present.  Wrexham's comment regarding the treatment of the staff, in particular.  He fully intended to follow up on those scans.

For now, however, his main effort had to be establishing communication with Freelancer City.  With the neighbours being so unfriendly, his mission was at a standstill.  Dragoon Knight would also need to be informed about Dante's forces, and the apparent wellbeing of the Fan Fiction Lord himself.  Mideel began to climb another set of stairs, heading towards the communication centre.  He wished his instincts had been wrong.

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"All I'm saying is that you should have made further enquiries about the corpse." Darius said. "There could be a bomb in there, or it could have an infectious disease."

"Scanners didn't pick anything up." Dante shrugged, opening the door to the council chamber. As usual, Lillian sat hunched over her communications array. "Didn't I tell you to get some rest?"

"This problem isn't going to solve itself." Lillian shot back. "It appears to be eating the signal, I can't even get signal strength readings once they enter the List. But there's nothing at all to indicate that the List might have been damaged in some way."

"Go take a rest. That's an ord-" Dante stopped abruptly. He sighed. "Goddammit, he's eaten the food." The warlord vanished.

He materialised in a comfortable room, well decorated yet marred by an unsightly bloodstain across one wall. The two guards from the gate stood backed against the door with weapons drawn.

"He hasn't tried anything sir, just killed the food and started- well, you can see." The taller of the two reported. She had white hair, pale skin and delicate lilac eyes. Dante turned to regard the vampire, who stood at the other end of the room, leaning over a bed. As Dante watched he tore a small piece of flesh from a headless corpse which he held in one hand. Carefully, he inserted the morsel between the teeth of the rotten corpse that he had brought.

"My apologies for the deception." The vampire paused. "And the murder. I did not believe that you would be willing to provide me with fresh meat."

"You have betrayed my hospitality, Roman." Dante glared, though the vampire seemed not to notice. "The men and women who volunteer to feed the vampires of TGED do not deserve to have their selflessness so thoughtlessly abused."

"It was unavoidable." The vampire shrugged, pressing another sliver of meat between the yellow teeth of the corpse. "This cadaver is a person, and she requires fresh human meat in order to awake and live." Dante's gaze wandered to the other bed, where the young man whom the vampire had carried was sleeping peacefully.

"If the corpse requires meat, why not feed it your other burden?" He asked, indicating the bed.

"Neil is my lover." The vampire answered bluntly. "I swore to protect these two with my life. They are the reason that I left Tenebria in search of safety, the reason that brought me to your gate. I could hardly carry them so far only to watch them wither and crumble here. See." He stepped back, allowing Dante to look closely at the corpse. The leathery jaw was moving, ever so slightly, in a chewing motion. "She lives."

"So she does." Dante raised his eyebrows in surprise while one of the two guards vomited. He frowned in concentration. "How often does she need to feed?"

"Every day, at least a pound of flesh." Roman answered.

"And it has to be human?"

"Yes."

"Hrm." Dante's frown deepened. "A problem for another time. I want to see you in the citadel in twenty minutes." He turned to the pale guard, the one who hadn't vomited. "You too. Ensure that he doesn't kill anyone else. And have this mess cleaned up. Freeze the body. The fresh one." He blurred into nothing.

Twenty minutes later Roman stood before the throne of TGED. His escort waited a few steps behind him, weapon hand at the ready. The warlord lounged on his throne, an ornate affair of sharp black stone and green padding.

"If I cast you out of TGED, where will you go?" Dante asked.

"North, probably." Roman answered after some consideration. "My friends may do better if I can find a thread in General."

"Take over a thread in General." Dante corrected. The vampire shrugged. Dante regarded him thoughtfully.

"You have some power about you, to walk through the Lethargy carrying two bodies." He mused. "Did you not sleep at all?"

"I... rested, for a time. As is the nature of my kind." Roman answered. "Neil, Felicty and I were able to keep each other awake for a time. When I became unable to wake them, I resolved to remain awake myself."

"And how long ago was that?" The mentat J'invy asked.

"Sixteen months." Roman seemed to sway as he acknowledged the time. Darius whistled. Dante seemed to mull this information over.

"You put me in a difficult position, Roman." He sighed, shifting one leg onto the arm of his throne. "This is a time of crisis and you want to feed my citizens to corpses. Any sensible leader would have you killed." He sighed. "But on the other hand, you demonstrate a considerable degree of power. A prudent leader would find a way to use that power." He paused. Roman said nothing. "I have consulted my mentat, he tells me that the death rate in TGED is such that at least one person is expected to die per day. If not several more." He leaned forward. "I offer you sanctuary, Roman, if you dedicate your power to me. In exchange, I will provide the resources you require to keep your friend alive."

"Agreed." The vampire answered without hesitation. "I will do what you ask of me for as long as my companions remain safe."

"Excellent." Dante grinned. "I will have a representative from the vampire community visit you in the hotel. They will explain how life will work for you here. You do not hunt people. For now though, feel free to get some rest." He waved a hand in dismissal. With an awkward bow, the vampire retreated from the room.

"Which brings me to you." Dante smiled, getting up and walking down the steps to the throne. "What is your name?"

"Captain Vierna Wayku, m'lord." The guard saluted.

"Wayku. You returned from the colonies then."

"That's right sir."

"Interesting. Tell me Vierna, how is it that you were able to walk outside the gates of TGED without collapsing?"

Vierna's face showed confusion, dawning understanding followed by amazement. "I... I don't know sir, it must have been you-"

"I can barely protect the gates themselves, let alone anything outside them." Dante admitted, shocking the guard into silence. "No, you were out there on your own and you not only failed to fall asleep, you picked up a body and carried it." His stare was beginning to unnerve Vierna, she felt herself beginning to sweat.

"I always make sure to stay properly rested so that I-"

"Ha! If only my councillors were as responsible." Dante interrupted. "There's something special about you, Viera Wayku. I'm transferring you out of the watch."

"Sire?"

"You're in the castle staff now. J'invy will show you around. You'll be sparring tomorrow, so I suggest that you rest early." Dante dismissed her. As she exited the room he sat down upon the throne again.

"There's something different about her..." He mused, tapping his chin.

"Will you want a background check?" Darius asked.

"I'm sure J'invy will have taken the hint." Dante shrugged, stretching. "I sense great things in store for Roman and Vierna. Great things."

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"What did I tell you about speculation, Inon?" asked Dragoon Knight, his frustration evident.  He was back at his desk on the 97th Floor, after a possible Lethargy breach scare forced him to seek higher ground.  Up on the roof, he could maintain line of sight with every one of the 'Sentry Dragoons' stationed along the city's perimeter.  It had turned out to be a false alarm; nothing more than a communications glitch that was mistaken for a complete loss.  Dragoon Knight had returned to his office for the first time in days to find it exactly as he remembered upon waking from his long sleep.  It was not doing anything for his mood.

"Sire, we have heard nothing from the Commander or his team for several days, " Inon continued, unruffled.  "It's reasonable to assume that they've encountered resistance."

"If you have any reasonable justification for that assumption, I'm listening."

"Commander Mideel is aware of standard procedure in these matters.  He would have sent a runner back to report on what they encountered."

"What part of this situation strikes you as standard?" Dragoon Knight asked, rubbing his brow and stifling a yawn.  "What if the Lethargy is stronger towards Fan Fiction?  What if Mideel thought that even a lieutenant wouldn't endure the trip back alone?"

"Speculation...  sire, " Inon said severely, earning him a hard stare from his Lord Protector.

"You've made your point, Commander.  But my orders remain the same.  We will await contact from Commander Mideel for a while yet.  I'm not willing to dismiss the expedition as a failure this early."

"And if they've encountered resistance?"

"Then I trust them to deal with the situation accordingly."

Inon took this as his cue to leave.  Exiting the office, he gave an amiable nod in the general direction of his escort group.  Inon had never been the tenacious one, or the strong-willed one.  Under the old command structure, though, he was almost always out in the field.  Commanding armies in person had been a challenge that Inon did not particularly enjoy.

No; Ulysses Inon was a man who excelled behind the scenes.  Orchestrating battle tactics and troop movements were his fort�.  When presented with the grim realities of those decisions from the front line, he found himself ineffective.  Distracted by his own sense of self-preservation.  Unwilling to make the hard decisions that victory often demanded.  When the cessation of hostilities came about, it was a great relief to him.  The new command structure was probably the best news of his life.

So why was he doing his damndest to ruin it?  Questioning everything Dragoon Knight said, making scathing remarks.  Actions bordering on insubordination were unlike him, and he didn't enjoy the feeling of not understanding.

The escort group reached the elevator, waited for it to reach his floor.  There was another thing: escort groups.  Why were they still needed?  Freelancer had been rid of the Lethargy for days now.  If Flinn were around, he'd be going mad at the lack of efficient use of resources.

Perhaps that was part of the larger issue.  Dragoon Knight was never a master of solitary command, as evidenced by the almost constant presence of multiple aides.  Up until the arrival of Ryu, it wasn't uncommon to see half a dozen orbiting him at any given time.  Always wanting the full picture.  It was only due to Ryu's extraordinary talent at identifying useful information from screeds of reports that had earned him the position.  Dragoon Knight was in the habit of employing specialists, as opposed to generalists.

The elevator slid silently downwards through the building, back towards the Command Center.  The trouble with specialists, Inon reasoned, was that if you lost one, then you were missing a vital part of your command structure.  And for someone who relied heavily on consensus and the assurance that he was doing the right thing, this would compromise your command itself.

Could it be that he was subconsciously striking out at this weakness?  Inon loathed weakness in general, but was always tolerant; understanding that there were those who just weren't cut out for the realities of warfare in any of its forms.  Perhaps due to his own inadequacy, which remained a source of self-loathing, he was projecting his feelings of disenchantment onto his leader.

The last person he would expect to show any weakness.  Especially now.

"Stop the lift, " Inon commanded, breaking the silence.  The Gamer closest to the control panel complied after only a moment's hesitation.  They had reached the 63rd Floor: close enough.

"I'm getting out here, " he continued, as he stepped out and turned to face the group.  "You will continue down to Level 47 and only report my absence to your superiors, and then only if asked directly.  Is this clear?"

A chorus of assentment assured Inon he would have at least 10, maybe 15 minutes before his absence was noted.  Enough time to put his plan into motion.  As soon as the elevator doors had closed, he marched purposefully towards the Eastern stairwell.  He needed to be five floors up, in his office.

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"Eureka!" The shout practically knocked Dante's door down. Hardly needing to consult his trackers, he vanished from his room to appear in the council chamber below.

"Progress, Lillian?" He enquired.

"I don't really know how it works, but it works!" Lillian grinned fiercely. "I'm already getting pings from Espionage, and there's a thread in Gaming that's sending the return signal from one of the expeditions."

"Put them on."

"One moment... there." She turned to face him. "We only have audio. I'll explain later."

"-ights calling The God Emperor's Dune, please respond." A slightly distorted voice crackled around the room.

"This is TGED, please verify your identity and position." Said Lillian. The transmission faded for a moment. The next voice was markedly different and immediately familiar.

"TGED, thiss iss Antigone. We are ressident in Never Winter Nightsss."

"Report." Dante ordered.

"The Lethargy iss jusst ass ssstrong here ass it iss in all of Fanfiction." Latrodectus' voice echoed around the chamber. "It iss esspecsially sstrong in the threadss, but I believe that my presssence here is driving it back. I occupied the thread Never Winter Nightsss. Recsently a ssortie from Freelancsser Cssity arrived and hass taken up resssidence in the other half of the thread."

"Freelancer? Have you been able to get any data from them?" Asked Dante.

"According to thessse forcess, Dragoon Knight awoke not too long ago. He ssseekss other warlordss in the hope that they can sstop the Lethargy."

Lillian and Dante shared a look. The warlord frowned. "Have you been able to interrogate anyone?"

"Ssome occuptantsss of the thread that were presssent when we arrived." Latrodectus answered. "No useful infomation wasss gained, ssave that Gaming alssso ssufferss from the Lethargy. They were in a poor condition, unlike thosse in TGED or Esspionage, which I passsed on my way Sssouth. Evidencsse ssuggestss that thessse threadss were sssleeping long before TGED."

"What kind of poor condition?" Dante's frown deeped.

Sssstarvation."

Again Dante paused. "Is this line secure?"

"Sssecure ass it can be." Latrodectus' voice carried heavy apathy. "We're usssing the new sscramblerss, and I have introdeucsed new ssecurity protocolss to prevent foreign agentss from entering our fortressss. There iss more. The ssize of the forcsse from Freelancsseer Ssuggesstss to me that Dragoon Knight iss planning further exsspanssion beyond 'Nightss."

"Do you think that he may be planning to take advantage of the Lethargy to invade?" Dante asked.

"To sssoon to ssay." Latrodectus answered. "But it sseemss convenient that thisss army should turn up jusst here."

"That's true." Dante sighed. "Do you have anything further to report, Antigone?"

"There are rumoursss from Dragoon Knight'sss army that the warlord wass able to immunisse Freelancsser from the Lethargy." Dante's eyes popped open. I do not have the forcsse of armsss to enact a coup, and conditionsss are ssuch that kidnapping a ssingle individual would aroussse great ssusspicsion, sso no further information iss available at thiss time."

"If that's true..." J'invy's voice came across the channel.

"Continue to monitor the situation, Antigone. TGED out." Dante nodded to Lillian, who closed the connection. "Anything from Espionage?"

"I've been trying to raise them, but all I'm getting is pings." She sounded frustrated. "It's as if they all went back to sleep again."

"Without Latrodectus, they might well have done." J'invy commented, pushing open the door to the council chamber. "If so, it would suggest that threads are not refuges from the Lethargy."

"And what do you think about Freelancer, J'invy?" Dante turned to the mentat.

"Rumour is hardly the best foundation for a computation, sir." J'invy reminded the warlord, "It may be unfounded, or like yourself Dragoon Knight may have found a way to keep the Lethargy at bay. Even so, we should be mindful that there is rarely smoke without fire. If he has truly found a way to protect threads against the Lethargy-"

"Now would be the perfect time to conquer a new empire." Lillian finished.

"We still need more data." J'invy insisted.

"The threat of invasion is enough." The ghost of Dust Scout faded through a wall. "Regardless of his intentions, we must prepare for the possibility of hostility from Gaming."

"True. But I will need to have a word with him first." Dante muttered, sitting at the council table. "He's not going to tell me that he's about to invade, but he may think twice when he sees that TGED is up and running."

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