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Warlords 2 - Five Years Later


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There was no reasonable explanation that Mideel could envisage.  He was certain that communications were being transmitted from 'Nights, and equally certain that they weren't coming from the Gaming section.

"You can't decipher anything?" he asked, frustrated.  Doctor Wrexham was nearby, looking at various displays, darting from station to station.

"It's encoded, " she replied tersely.  "Their communication system is vastly different from ours.  I can't make heads or tails of it."

"You're telling me that you worked here for a sizeable part of the last decade, and you can't tell me what they're saying?"

"That's what I'm telling you, Commander, " she growled, staring at him sidelong, before moving onto another station.  "What I can tell you should be obvious anyway: the transmission is being directed towards Fan Fiction."

"Can you be more specific?"

"By the looks of it?  The God Emperor's Dune."

Mideel crossed his arms and circled a patch of carpet for a few seconds.  "How are our efforts to contact Freelancer City coming along?"

"We're ready to try another burst, " Wrexham replied with a sigh.  "We're increasing the frequency to frankly unsafe levels.  It'll be less able to cope with changes in terrain, but we're hoping it'll be able to punch through the Lethargy."

The Commander moved to a nearby window.  "You hear that, Shinsbane?!  We're almost ready!"

His shout carried upwards to a communications dish situated on the roof of the complex, where the Dwarven Defender was stationed.  He was manning the base of the dish, acting as a conduit between the machinery below and the dish itself.

"Ayesir!" came the response.

"Tell Lumiel to be careful; this burst could be hazardous!"

"Oi, Paladin!" Shinsbane relayed to his colleague above, who was perched on the scaffolding near the dish's focal point.  "Shields up!"

"Acknowledged!" Lumiel blared, steadying herself with her right arm and casting a Divine Shield with her left.

In the offices below, Wrexham began to count down.  "Firing communications burst in 3... 2... 1... firing."

The dish seemed to shimmer as it received its high-frequency payload, discharging it towards the horizon and Freelancer City.

"We should receive a response within a few seconds if it made it through, " she continued, finding a nearby chair to recline in.  Her reprieve was short-lived, however.  Fourteen seconds later, a heavily garbled response could be heard.

"Let me see if I can clear it up, " Wrexham said, trying to remain calm.  She adjusted her equipment to compensate for the higher frequencies and increased amplitude of the carrier wave being used.

"I'm telling you, I received a transmission from 'Nights!" a voice assured.

"This is Doctor Valerie Wrexham of Joint Operations, stationed in Never Winter Nights, to anyone receiving this message.  Please respond."

"There it is again!  Get Commander Inon on the comm, now!  Er, this is Operator Dunning, Freelancer City... please confirm: you're not transmitting from within the city?"

"Confirmed, Freelancer, " Wrexham smiled, relieved that her work had paid off.  "We've managed to get 'Nights back up and running, for the most part."

"That's good to hear, Doc-... what do you mean you can't get a hold of him?" Dunning said, seemingly speaking to someone else.  "Then get Dragoon Knight himself, I don't care what protocol says!"

"Freelancer, are you still receiving us?"

"Yes, Doctor Wrexham, we are.  I'm just trying to put you in contact with someone in authority.  How are you managing to communicate through the Lethargy?"

"We're using what could be loosely termed as a human chain, " she explained.  "How is the city holding up?"

"As well as can be expected, " Dunning replied.  "We're still effectively under siege, but we've found and treated almost everyone now."

A scream from outside broke the relaxed atmosphere in the communications office.

"Buggrit!" came another shout.  Mideel moved to the window again, angling his neck to try and see what was happening above.  He ducked back inside just in time to avoid Lumiel and Shinsbane as they fell from the dish.

"Lydia!" the Commander shouted, but the Jedi had heard the scream as well, and had already moved from her assigned location beside the communications equipment.  Leaning out of the window, she made a clasping gesture with her hand.  Below, the two lieutenants stopped falling with a jolt, hanging in mid-air.

"Not going to be able... to hold this for long..." Lydia said through gritted teeth.

"Shinsbane?!" Mideel shouted, the unspoken question evident in his tone.

"Aye, I'll make it!"

"You'd better, " Lydia winced, letting the Force Pull go.  Shinsbane oriented himself with surprising grace, righting himself just in time to land upright with Lumiel in his arms.  The force of the impact made small fractures in the surrounding concrete.

"FFFFFFFFFFFFF-" exhaled Shinsbane, stifling his curses and the pain.  "The lass needs a medic!"

Mideel turned from the window, gestured to a Gamer standing guard at the door, who ran off to arrange the appropriate attention.

"'Nights, please respond.  Doctor Wrexham, are you still there?" Dunning's voice asked with increasing agitation.  In the flurry of activity, no-one had noticed that the communications link was still active.

"Y-yes, we're here, " Wrexham replied, still shaken.

"We registered a surge at our end, and we heard shouting."

"We're alright... the communications link must be acting as a conduit..." she trailed off, considering possibilities.

"Doctor Wrexham, we've managed to reach Dragoon Knight.  He wants to speak to Commander Mideel."

"Of course, " she said, moving aside and allowing the Commander access to the communications equipment.  "I'll go see if there's anything I can do to help your lieutenants."

"This is Mideel."

"Commander - it's good to hear that you're alive, " came the voice of Dragoon Knight over the comms.  "You had us all worried."

"We're fine, sire, " Mideel replied hesitantly, still worried about his lieutenants, but understanding the need for communication.

"I need a situation report.  Tell me what you've learned."

"Understood, " the Commander said, finding a chair and relaying the events of the past couple of days.

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Two lonely stars pierced a thick fog. Crenellations that had seen better times revealed none of their treacherous gaps in the meagre light of a shrouded moon. Nervous patrols squinted out at the black trees, unaware of a sight far greater than their own peering down from the rookery behind.

"She waxes." A hoarse voice noted. The sound carried no further than the rookery walls, was followed by the scratching of a quill on parchment. "Damned fog."

"Should I increase the guard, lord?" This voice was high, clear, carried from a tall shadow that stood to one side of the balcony. The second shadow did not reply, continuing to watch clouds pass across the face of the moon.

"She will not help us tonight." The shadow sighed at last, lowering his head and turning from the balcony. The rooks shuffled nervously on their perches. "Send out some owls. Human eyes will not help us this night."

"Understood, Lord." The tall shadow bowed. Placing his parchment on a stool, he retreated to the further perches. After a moment two barn owls soared through a casement on the other wall. Returning to the stool, the shadow was surprised to find his lord had not departed. He sat upright at the balcony, watching the patrols with the same intensity that he turned upon the trees beyond.

"It is too quiet, Lucian." The warlord sniffed. "The breeze is too weak. The sounds of life are absent."

"It has been that way ever since we awoke, lord." Lucien reminded.

"Indeed." The warlord padded out onto the balcony, claws clicking on crumbling mortar. Lucien hovered behind, unwilling to trust the fragile masonry. He watched pointed ears swivel, yellow eyes widen and pale as the warlord's sight departed. Lucien knew from experience that even now his lord was seeing the world through the eyes of the owls, watching from above as they soared on soundless wings. He had not been dismissed, and so he waited patiently. He counted the merlons on the rampart below, and then did so again. He was about to embark on a third adventure with basic mathematics when his lord stirred, blinked away the sight of the owls.

"Nothing." The word was delivered with a heavy sigh, almost a growl. "The beast has circled our walls for weeks, yet even the sharpest eyes cannot detect it." Lucien read between the words.

"You think it will attack us tonight?" He asked carefully.

"I can smell it." The warlord snapped, losing his cool for a moment. Reigning himself in, he inhaled deeply through his nose. "I smell the land, and the land smells wrong." He whispered with lupine hoarseness. "More wrong than ever before. The beast is close." He looked up suddenly as a barn owl soared over his head, landing on a peg with a muffled cheep. Yellow eyes met Lucian's pale blue and narrowed suspiciously. "Too early."

"The bird is tired, lord." Lucien noted, the owl putting up no resistance as he hooded it.

"Too soon. Less than a minute ago it was freshly woken." Wolf glared out at the trees. "It is close. ...Too close." He decided. "Rouse the town. Better a false alarm than a disaster."

Lucien hurried through the rookery, out the door and along a thin walkway to the opposite tower on the other side of the inner gates. There were no guards here, only the ruins of several collapsed floors and, far above, a great bell. Though it was still known as the King's rookery, it was past living memory since the tower had been converted into a warning system. Lucien snatched the frayed cord, unwrapped it from its post. Taking a moment to plug his ears, he gave the cord a mighty pull.

The noise was deafening. A great reverberating *clang* sounded across the rooftops of FED2K Chess Tournament, shaking loose slates from the older buildings. All over the town civilians stirred to wakefulness, their confusion quickly confirmed as the shout went up from the night watch. "Sound the alarm, all hands to the walls!"

It was hardly a well rehearsed plan of defence. FED2K Chess had awoken from years of slumber less than a month ago. Though the citizens were proud of their protector, nobody knew just what kind of a foe they fought. Those who left the town to investigate never returned. Now men and women streamed from their houses, some in the direction of the citadel, most heading for the walls. They carried torches, prepared and stacked by the door in case of just such an emergency. While the young, old and infirm hurried to the safety of the King's chamber, the reserve members of the guard rushed to arm themselves from the armoury in the Queen's tower. FED2K Chess remembered its history, even though it was decades since a king or queen had set foot within its walls.

Wolf did not watch the people who dashed hither and thither beneath him. He bounded from rooftop to rooftop, thankful with every breath he took that he had left behind the poisonous atmosphere of PRP. Even if it was stale and hostile, at least the air here was clear. He dashed across the roof of the blacksmith, listened for a moment to the old man berate his apprentice before he launched himself onto another roof.

The warlord was not yet on familiar terms with all of the people of FED2K Chess, but the blacksmith he knew well. It had been one of his earliest orders, when the townsfolk had begged that he stay to protect them, to see that the blacksmith took on several apprentices and saw to the proper arming of the town.

The state of affairs in the General board had been laughable. In PRP, children were trained to fight as soon as they could walk. Mothers gave lessons in knifeplay as much as letters. It was only once he had left his old home behind that Wolf had realised just how soft the rest of the world was. After he had awoken the town he had stayed to protect the simple folk of FED2K Chess, for it was obvious that they needed protection. What lurked beyond their flimsy walls, Wolf could not say. He had seen nothing but moving shadows, a large form that appeared to move rapidly and conceal itself with ease. He had come to the conclusion that it followed him, for few others ever caught a glimpse of the thing. It seemed drawn to torchlight, yet repelled by roving eyes. Tonight, Wolf was certain, it would make its move. He glared up at the moon, swelling yet coyly hiding her face behind thick clouds.

"Pregnant sow." He muttered, leaping from a rooftop to land upon the western wall.

It was quiet here, with only the guards looking out into the darkness. Clearly the reserves had not arrived yet. One of the man saluted smartly, the other after a moment's hesitation. Such a moment would have cost the man dearly in PRP, but things were different here.

"Has a foe been sighted?" The hesitant guard asked. He did not add the honourific. Wolf considered that perhaps he would have to have a word with the commander of the watch regarding respect. He opted not to discipline the guard in front of his colleage.

"No sighting, but it is close." He growled, sniffing the air suspiciously. It was no more stale here than it had been at the gates. "Carry on." He did not wait to see if the guards saluted as he left, bounding down the nearby steps and settling into a long lope that brought him around the walls to the south. Here the defenders were beginning to set themselves up, bright torches and braziers lighting up the area. Any subtle shift in the air was lost beneath coal dust and woodsmoke.

The bell fell silent as Wolf headed east, Lucien's arms having presumably grown tired. The town historian had made a capable aide de camp during Wolf's brief reign, but like most of his folk he lacked physical training. This was not a fault in itself, but he also lacked any other combat training. How FED2K Chess had remained overlooked for so long was a mystery to its newest warlord. He ran along the ramparts, putting the thought to the back of his mind. Despite himself, he could feel unease shifting in his mind. To his right, he caught a movement beyond the walls.

Sliding to a halt, Wolf leaned over the crenel to snarl at the darkness. Shadows shifted, something was no longer there. Growling in frustration, Wolf pushed on.

He found the eastern wall well prepared. Looking across the town, the whole of the wall was now lined with torches and anxious guards. As satisfied as he could be, wolf loped in the direction of the belltower. Lucien waited for him at the base, blue robes slightly stained.

"No sign, lord?" He asked nervously.

"There was a sign." Wolf paced to and fro. "I couldn't follow it." He made to continue, was brought up short by a shout from the walls. Pricking up his ears, he heard cries of panic from the north. He took off, sprinting in the direction of the rookery. Up the steps that he had taken with Lucien just a few minutes ago, onto the adjoining ramparts that flanked the gates of FED2K Chess.

A guard was screaming, his voice somehow muffled. He was pointing at something beyond the walls, his sword lying forgotten on the floor. Two of his companions stood leaning over the parapet, swaying slightly. Wolf pushed through the others to reach the wall. Peering over, he saw the creature that had lain siege to his thread.

He recognised it at once, despite never having seen it clearly before. It wore an alien, insectoid shape, dark and hollow, almost translucent in places. It was impossible to count the number of legs or stumpy antennae the creature possessed, for its limbs seemed to blend into each other as might those of a shadow. It was tall, twice the height of a man, yet appeared insubstantial. Parts of it gave the appearence of drifting away, while others appeared to drag rags of shadow into itself. It made no sound, gave no signal, merely stood upon what might have been four legs, might have been six. Wolf had never encountered anything like it.

The moment passed quickly, the creature pressing forward to flatten itself against the wall, jointed limbs snapping out to push into the stonework. The creature began to climb, ratlike up the wall.

"Throw your torch at it." Wolf snapped at the nearest guard. The woman did so, with impressive accuracy. The flaming brand struck what Wolf presumed was the creature's head. For a moment it seemed as though it might ignite, but in a fraction of a second the torch winked out as though it has been doused in water. Another guard further on hurled his torch. This one merely caught a trailing edge of shadow, but it too went out immediately.

"Hold!" Wolf shouted, never taking his eyes from the creature. It continued to advance, was halfway up the wall. "Prise a stone from the wall. Now!" He barked. In moments a large rock was sent over the wall, catching the creature a glancing blow on its shoulder. It paused, two limbs momentarily becoming one. Two voids that might have been eyes turned upwards to regard the defenders. Wolf snarled, kicked a merlon squarely with his hind paws. The mortar parted, sending the merlon tumbling over. Peering after it, Wolf hissed in displeasure as the creature skittered to the side. The hiss almost turned into a yawn.

Startled, Wolf looked up to find that the defenders were drooping where they stood. The woman who had so excellently thrown her torch now leaned heavily on her spear. One or two were actually snoring.

"Wake up!" Wolf snarled, allowing some lupine howl to enter his voice. He barked once for good measure. Looking down the wall, he saw the creature was still climbing. With a deep growl, Wolf clawed a sigil into the stone of the rampart. Placing his paw on the sigil, he muttered briefly and bit his tongue, tasting blood.

In front of him the wall began to soften, to lighten. He hopped backwards as the battlements started to glow a dull, angry red. As they brightened the rocks slumped, melting slowly at first and then flowing freely as a section of the wall turned to magma. Wolf hurried back to the drowsy guards, looking over the battlements just in time to see the creature caught in the flow. He caught himself before he let out an excited yip.

The creature was struggling, but it was very clearly not panicking. The lava that hit it cooled at once, solidifying around the monster even as it was carried, dripping to the ground, there to be covered in the remains of the wall. As the stone started to cool, it was half buried. But it was not dead.

To Wolf's mounting horror, a crack appeared in the stone shell. With a mighty shrug, the creature shattered the rock and pulled itself from the trap, sending shards of masonry flying. Still as silent as the grave, it turned to the smoothed wall and slammed two of its limbs into the stone. With a groan, the stone parted. The wall shook as the creature tore a chunk from the buttress. Slamming its arms in once more, it pulled another slab of rock out.

Wolf hurriedly traced another symbol into the dust, dripped some blood onto it from his mouth. This time as he palced his paw upon it he felt electricity crackle across his spine. His fur stood on end as he directed the sigil's power at the defenders, all of whom were now asleep. He shocked them once to no effect. Twice and the wall shook again, now tilting dangerously as its foundations were pulled from beneath it.

There was no time for a third attempt. With a snarl of frustration Wolf dashed for the defenders, siezed the collar of the woman with the spear. He hurled her from the walls just as the walls crumbled. With luck she would suffer no more than a broken arm. Her colleages tumbled with the wall as Wolf jumped free, landing on the roof of the town fletcher. He paused, saw the defenders around the town waver. He howled, long and low and painful. They needed to come. He didn't even know how to fight this monster, but they needed to come.

Leaping to the ground, Wolf was surrounded by the broken and bleeding forms of his defenders. He did not see the woman, thought that perhaps she had landed behind the fletcher's. Others lay pinned beneath chunks of stone, many were dead. Some were still asleep. He glared at the creature as it advanced through the hole in the wall. The drowsiness that had afflicted the town had never acted so fast. He felt himself begin to sink, his limbs tiring as the shadow insect crawled forward. He retreated further into the town, the first running footsteps reaching his ears from behind.

As the creature advanced it passed the fallen defenders, each of whom expired as it drew near. One by one the men and women, even those screaming in pain, slipped into silence and lay still. Their breathing slowed, stopped, they died before Wolf's eyes. The creature did not stop to acknowledge the effect it brought, continuing on into the town.

Wolf traced another sigil into the packed dirt, was preparing to let loose when Lucien hurried up to him. The man's eyes were wide in panic, though he stumbled as he grew close to Wolf. "What..." he seemed to avoid yawning, with an effort. "What is it, lord?"

"I do not know. Stand b-" Wolf was cut off as the creature snapped out a limb, stretching forward to sieze Lucien's throat. The man gasped, his eyes bulged even as the light left them forever. The body crumpled to the ground, the limb vanishing into smoke as another one reared out of the creature's abdomen to stab at Wolf.

He skipped back, feeling a brush of freezing wind as the jointed appendage passed by. By now the street was packed with armed defenders, all of whom had witnessed the death of their spokesman. One fool spoke up.

"Charge!" Wolf looked up in horror. It was the woman with the spear, now holding a sword. One arm dangled lifelessly by her side, but she stood at the wall of the fletcher and waved it above her head.

With a roar, the crowd surged forward. Wolf wasn't jostled, was never touched, but his shout of frustration was lost in the battlecries. Shouts of anger soon turned to fear, however, as the charge faltered.

Directly in front of him, Wolf watched the defenders fold over as they encountered the creature. The few that landed a hit on it collapsed, dead before they hit the dirt. Most simply fell asleep on their feet before they reached the monster, collapsing on the ground to die as it passed over them.

It did not stop. It shifted when hit, but the blows were so light that they could hardly have been damaging. It was no predator: it did not eat the bodies, nor even acknowledge them. It continued forward with its otherworldly insect gait. As the charge petered out, the spear woman dead at the creature's feet, the remaining defenders stumbled, fell all around Wolf. He listened, could hear their breathing grow laboured. They slept into death in a matter of seconds. He felt his eyes drooping, jumped back again. The monster was now well within the town.

Wolf followed the creature as it made its way down the main street. He warned people to stay back. Most did. Few took more than a few steps before they collapsed into a coma anyway. The creature shrugged off his attacks, though it staggered when he steeled himself and swiped a paw at it. If it was injured, the wound didn't show beneath the shadows. Wolf's entire leg went numb and limp, forcing him to hobble away as quickly as he could while the creature carried on. The thought of biting the creature made his teeth ache.

It was heading for the King's chamber, that much was clear. When it became known that the town was breached, the majority of the guards had rallied there. Wolf had planned to join them, but his limp leg slowed him considerably. He was only just beginning to flex it once more when the monster waded into the defenders.

Wolf did not stay to watch. Limping at first but picking up speed, he trotted to the northern gate. Turning back, he saw that the chambers were ablaze. Some fool had knocked over a brazier, probably. As the fire spread to nearby dwellings he turned his back on the thread, loping out to the waiting trees. FED2K Chess was a haven to none now. His only hope was to put some distance between himself and the shadow monster before it came looking for him. Muttering a curse at the moon, he started to run.

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"Make thisss quick, Commander, " Latrodectus hissed, clearly unhappy that she was summoned to another meeting.

"As you wish, " Mideel replied, addressing Latrodectus from almost exactly the same spot as he had the last time they had conversed.  She was accompanied by the same sorceror as last time, too, but he seemed to be on stimulants this time around.  "Dragoon Knight wishes to talk to Dante directly."

"You've esstablisshed contact with him, then?" she asked, guardedly.

"Yes, and we know that you've managed the same with The God Emperor's Dune, " Mideel replied, a guess that was fairly certain beforehand, but now established fact due to the expression on Latrodectus' face.

"I warn you now, ssspying will not be tolerated..." she breathed menacingly, drawing herself higher on her rear eight legs.  It was almost as though she was looking for a reason to impale him.

"If there was ever a better example of do as I say, not as I do, I'd like to hear it, " he retorted, damned if he was going to be intimidated by his opponent and supposed ally.  Latrodectus simply stared back.

"Posturing aside, " Mideel said after long moments of silence, "do you agree?"

"It jusst sso happensss that Emperor Dante alssso wisshesss to sspeak to your esssteemed leader, " Latrodectus responded with exaggerated emphasis.

"Good.  Then we can go about getting a relay set up here?  And let's dispense with all the threats about attempting to access eachothers' systems, hm?"

"Your pressumptiousss nature will be the end of you, Commander."

"Only when my presumptions stop being right."

Latrodectus grinned knowingly, then lowered her head to whisper something to her minion, who promptly ran back into the Fan Fiction complex.  Facing Mideel again, her many eyes looked him up and down, before she followed the sorceror.

Within a couple of hours, units from both sides began to bring equipment, cabling and a healthy dose of caution to the central meeting chamber.  Though neither side would care to admit it, despite their vast differences, their communication technologies both relied on several basic principles.  Integrating the two was simple enough, given co-operation on both sides and a suitable interchange node.  Luckily, most of the legwork had been done years ago when 'Nights had been connected to The List.  With this apparently non-functional, much of the equipment used to link to it was being repurposed.

Aside from a few heated debates between Dragoon Knight's engineers and Dante's techies, the setup was relatively straightforward.  The sun was only just beginning to set when the work was completed.

Lydia had been overseeing the operation for Gaming, and turned immediately to Mideel as he entered.

"How's Lumiel?" she asked, having heard no news of the Paladin's state all day.

"She'll be fine, " he replied.  "Shinsbane, too.  They're both conscious and recovering in the medical bay."

"Any idea what happened?"

"From what Shinsbane describes, the entire dish luminesced with energy.  The communications link itself seems to be a conduit."

"For life energy?"

"For lack of a better term, yes.  Now that it's connected to Freelancer, the data transfer is acting like a siphon, except in both directions.  Upstream and downstream."

"I'm just glad they're alright, " Lydia sighed, turning her attention to the interchange node in the centre of the hall.  "We're ready here."

"Good," Mideel nodded.  "I'll give the signal to initiate transmission.  You hear that, Latrodectus?!" he finished with a shout, knowing that she would be listening, though she wasn't physically present.

"This is Dragoon Knight, " said the Gaming leader remotely, his voice being broadcast to the interchange node in 'Nights.

"So it is, so it is..." Dante replied, his voice streaming from Fan Fiction.

"Dante - it's been a long time."

"Forgive me for not sending a card, " Dante replied flatly.

"I'll be direct, " Dragoon Knight continued, ignoring the remark.  "We need to put aside our differences right here, right now, and focus on combating the Lethargy."

"You'll beg my pardon, but we don't need to do anything."

"Oh you know damn fine what I meant, " Dragoon Knight said with notes of frustration and remembered tenacity.

"I know very little about you, Dragoon Knight; words, actions or intentions, " Dante said coolly.

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"You send an army towards Fan Fiction.  My domain.  That speaks of treachery."

"Deceit was never my weapon of choice, " Dragoon Knight retorted pointedly.  "I was sending my troops to aid you."

"So you admit that you intended to enter my lands?"

"Again, to see if you needed help!"

"With all those medical supplies you brought, no doubt, " Dante said quickly and sharply.

"You- " Dragoon Knight started, exhaled through his nose in frustration, then continued.  "We were barely managing to tend to our own needs-"

"Were?  So the rumours of you staving off the Lethargy are true, then?" Dante interrupted.

"I couldn't predict what was going to be out there.  I wasn't going to send people to their deaths."

"Always the philanthropist, hm?  You'll forgive me if your story strikes me as a shade unconvincing."

"Believe what you will, but your own actions hardly speak of peaceful intent, " Dragoon Knight countered.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, " Dante replied, a little too soon.

"Really?  Because I have it on good authority from one of my lieutenants that there has been some suspicious ethereal activity of late."

"Keep that Soul Reaver away from my complex, or I'll have him permanently banished to the ethereal plane, " Dante threatened with enough frigid venom to make Latrodectus jealous.

"Sounds like you've got something to hide.  Perhaps it's what happened to one of my researchers, whose grave is conspicuously empty?"

Dante was silent for a moment, before replying with renewed calm.  "Baseless accusations.  Do you have any evidence?"

"That you're even asking that question is grounds enough to warrant continued suspicion, " Dragoon Knight replied.

"And you claim to want to work together?" asked Dante, his voice full of disdain.

"Yes!  But your paranoia won't allow you to see past your own sense of self-preservation!"

"Self-preservation has always served me well, " Dante said dismissively.  "Perhaps if you revealed your method of combating the Lethargy, I'd be more convinced that your intentions were genuine."

"Why would that make any difference?" Dragoon Knight asked with undertones of bitter laughter.  "Every other well-intentioned action I've made, you've dismissed as subterfuge and aggression."

"Whereas your refusal to divulge potentially helpful information makes a much better case."

"Save your sarcasm for someone who appreciates it, Dante."

"Oho!  Where are your overtures of friendship now, comrade?"

"Wasted on the ground before you, friend, " Dragoon Knight replied sourly.

"This was a pointless endeavour, I see, " Dante surmised with a patronising sigh.

"I should have known better than to expect your co-operation, " Dragoon Knight said accusingly.

"Keep your nose out of my business, and your troops away from my borders, Warlord."

"So we're Warlords again, now?"

"This conversation is over, " Dante said, terminating the link at his end.  The interchange node went dark.

"Do you think it went well?" Lydia asked Mideel.  Both had remained in the centre hall, unable to hear the conversation.  Barked orders from across the chamber, followed by Fan Fiction units scrambling back into their side of the complex, caused the Commander to frown.

"Somehow, I think not, " Mideel replied, as the doors were sealed at Dante's end.  "Come on, we'd better get our orders."

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"How much do they know?" Dante's voice sounded slightly tinny through less than ideal reception.

"Absencsse of evidencsse iss not evidencsse. That'ss all they have." Latrodectus hissed. Her fingers drummed upon the desk, a staccato beat of irritation. "What is an empty grave? Perhaps another grave hass two corpsesss."

"Regardless, he is on his guard." Dante muttered. "I want you to keep an eye on their activities. Monitor communications if you can. If we get an idea of how their anti-Lethargy device works, we may be able to duplicate it."

"Undersstood." The clicking of Latrodectus' fingers grew noticably sharper.

"I don't blame you Antigone, you couldn't have forseen this." Dante went on, his tone of voice indicating that he wasn't being entirely truthful. "Don't give them anything if you can help it. Be friendly if you can, but deny all requests for data or access to our equipment. I need time to think."

"Undersstood." Latrodectus repeated.

"No blame attaches, Antigone. We'll be in touch. TGED out." The connection went dead. One of Latrodectus' nails punched a hole in the desk, causing her sorcerer assistant to jump in alarm.

"Er. That could have gone worse." He said, avoiding eye contact. Latrodectus sighed, reached across with her other hand and snapped his frail human neck. It hardly made her feel better at all. And now she had another body to deal with. And she couldn't feed it to the black angels, nor eat it herself, lest Mideel somehow get to know of it and put two and two together. She spat in frustration, hating the politics which she had somehow found herself embroiled in.

"I never liked that guy." The speaker was another sorcerer, an even more fragile looking specimen with blue skin and a bat on his head. He sat nearby, face carefully neutral. Latrodectus pulled her finger from the desk, watched as the newcomer shut down the communicator.

"Disspossse of the body." She sighed, turning away. The biped was hauling his deceased colleage onto his shoulder as she left the room.

Latrodectus returned to the rooms that she had commandeered as her chambers. They had formerly belonged to Alexis Evrilo, Sorcerer and, with Wrexham, joint leader of 'Nights. The man had died soon after Latrodectus' own arrival, which was had been a pity as she had rather wanted to turf the slovenly biped out of his quarters. His sloppy leadership had given Wrexham a false impression of her influence and the woman's irritating sense of entitlement had tainted everything that Latrodectus tried to establish.

She stormed into her appropriated quarters, slamming the door and shifting into a fully comfortable form. Spiders all over the room trembled as their webs shook. They crawled a little closer to her, their primitive minds aware that their queen had returned. One or two dropped on threads of silk to be closer to her. She touched them gently, let them know that their concern was appreciated. They sensed her dark mood, landed on her skin and communicated their sympathy.

She smiled, letting the tension slip away. The spiders in this room monitored everything, from vibrations in the air to sights from the window. Their webs stretched down the corridor and into the walls, shaking at the slightest movement. Here, among her sisters and daughters, she could relax. The days stretched ahead with no end in sight, and her commander had her bandying words with shadows. She growled in frustration, felt the thousands of spiders ease her tension as they crawled over her skin. Tomorrow would come, but for the first night since she had departed from TGED, Latrodectus rested.

Rai'guy pursed his lips thoughtfully, a gesture that he had picked up from J'invy. The mentat had presumably adopted the expression as a means to maximise his use of sappho. The vampire now found it helpful when thinking in much the same way, though he would have been at a loss to explain how.

In front of him stretched a field of corpses. They littered the area as though some cosmic force had simply expelled them over the walls of the nearby thread to rain down upon the countryside. That was manifestly not the case: the vast majority of the bodies possessed no injuries at all, beyond the obvious signs of starvation. Even more interestingly, those that were injured had not starved, but had bled out through even the smallest cuts or grazes. They appeared to have died months before their emaciated companions.

"What do you make of it?" He asked, more to occupy his mouth than through real curiosity.

"The injured ones, of which there are about twelve, are universally held down by other corpses." The black angel at his side reported. It was an individual of ambiguous gender and age, wearing nothing more than a simple black shift to cover its greenish skin. "I would guess that those twelve resisted whatever occured here, and were injured while struggling with those who held them."

"Which implies that this happened suddenly." Rai'guy finished.

"Yes." The angel agreed. The unspoken words passed between them, 'But starvation is not a sudden death.'

"The majority of the town seems to have fallen to the Lethargy." Rai'guy stated, "But why were they outside the town walls? If they slept, it should have been inside." He nudged a corpse in a thick leather apron, "This man is clearly a blacksmith, what's he doing dressed for work without a forge in sight? Here's a woman with a young baby, a man who clearly has a broken leg, what are they doing out in the fields?" He pointed at each of the bodies in turn, each of which lay like a discarded ragdoll where it had fallen. He sighed. He had already scoured the town, had found no bodies save a single man beneath a bed in what had presumably been his house. "What possessed all of these people to leave their town, only to fall asleep here? They can't have been unaware, seeing everyone else out here sleeping..." The angel glanced at the sunset. It was spectacular, leaving Rai'guy no option but to turn away from it and hide beneath his thick hood. For a moment the angel considered tearing the hood from the vampire's head, just to listen to him scream.

"It doesn't make sense." Rai'guy muttered.

"It's like the whole town just walked out and fell asleep." The angel agreed. In her head, the vampire's skin was melting from his bones.

"And the ones that were injured had struggled, had to be held down..." Rai'guy shook his head. "It still doesn't make any sense. All we've learned from this is that the Lethargy stops blood from clotting. And that it will, eventually, kill people."

"And that it is active in Gaming as well as Fanfiction." The angel reminded him.

"Perhaps the Lethargy can draw people out of threads?" A second angel suggested from nearby. He was rooting through the pockets of a dead woman.

"A frightening thought." Rai'guy nodded. He risked a peek at the sunset through the veil on his hood.

"What do we do, sir?" The first angel asked. Rai'guy heard tremours of excitement in her voice and wondered if he would have to kill her tonight.

"Tell your comrades that they can loot the bodies. And eat them and whatever else you people do." He waved a hand dismissively. "But they have to take careful note of anything unusual that they find. Anything from a weird bruising pattern to a message scrawled in the dirt, if it's out of place then I want to know about it." He turned away from the sun, no more comfortable with the stars than he had ever been, even before he died. "As soon as you're done we'll turn back. I think this warrants our return to TGED."

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It had been a night and a day since Inon had re-appeared and been subjected to disciplinary action for his transgression.  Now, making his way across the verdant grass of Gaming, navigating between pools of still water, he reflected on how he had been forced back into a role he disliked with a passion.

"At this point, I wouldn't even care if you had a good explanation for what you just did, " Dragoon Knight had said, equal parts surprised and exasperated.  He had crunched his eyes closed and rubbed the point above the ridge of his nose.  Inon remembered it with exquisite clarity.

"Sire, it's important- " Inon had said, his veins still buzzing from residual adrenaline.

"-but I'll hear it anyway.  From the beginning, so I can at least understand what sort of warped logic you used."

"Yes, sire.  I'll do my best."

Inon remembered reciting his actions, almost step-by-step in their detail, while Dragoon Knight sat in silent judgement.  Standing in front of the most important desk on the 97th Floor had never felt so daunting.  Diving back into memory, he ran through it in his mind; reliving the moment.

After reaching the 68th Floor via the stairwell, Inon moved quickly west and south through the corridors, arriving at his office in short order.  The door was ajar, and as he stepped in, dim recollections of his first waking moments in at least two years began to trickle back.  Aside from his desk, which was in disarray, his office was meticulously tidy.  Everything had its place, filed and sorted, tucked away on shelves or in cabinets.  A sense of familiar calm seemed to flow over him as he moved into the room.

He knew what he was looking for; just not where, or even when to start looking.  He knew that electronic logs were almost universally destroyed.  Not even magnetism had escaped the Lethargy's effects, so traditional hard drives had been either heavily corrupted or completely wiped.  Inon was surprised that gravity hadn't given up the ghost as well.  But since Freelancer City was the epitome of the paperless office, he would have to try and piece together something.

He carried his thoughts forward, something in the back of his mind compelling him; whispering "yes, and?..." and urging him to consider the implications.  Implications of what, though?

Replicators.  They had worked due to their circuitry being bio-neural.  What about other systems, though?  Integrated circuits.  Solid state memory.  They weren't prone to the same magnetic restrictions as hard drives.  Quantum tunneling - such a fascinating subject to Inon.  That was the uncertainty principle for you.

This struck a note in Inon's mind, which resonated all the way to his legs and his arms, which moved through the various pads and electronic-ink displays that littered his desk, until he came across the item his muscle-memory seemed to acknowledge as his goal.  A simple flash drive.

Yes!  A relatively antiquated form of storage by Freelancer's standards.  He didn't recall ever having this manufactured...

He turned the device over in his hand.  A single line of text greeted him, but it stood out like it was burned to his retinae; an ownership label.  Cmdr. Flinn, T.

This was it.  This had to be what his gut was telling him; what his instincts had been driving him towards.  He had no doubt about it.  His mind racing, he immediately began the process of interfacing the device with the terminal in his office.  Though the practice of storing data on portable devices without interfaces of their own was more or less unheard of nowadays, it was immediately evident that the flash drive was of modern design.  Placing it on the interface surface, Inon powered up his terminal and initiated access to the drive.

Within moments, he was in - the system seemed to take a little longer than expected to access the data.  Inon attributed this to file conversion lag, but changed his mind when he saw the amount of data degradation present.  The drive seemed to contain files spanning several months of activity, but the most recent of them were damaged beyond any hope of repair.  As a result, the time index used throughout the entire device was corrupted - it would be impossible to tell how recent this data was.

Abandoning attempts to salvage the newest - and perhaps most useful information - Inon tried to access the oldest of the files.  After a few tentative seconds, it opened.  What had once been a content-rich report had been reduced to the most basic of text files, but it was legible in places.  Inon ran a series of pattern and language recognition filters, trying to sift through the junk data.

Only a few minutes passed before the filtration was complete, and Inon was presented with a fragmented and mostly incomprehensible file.  To his eye, it seemed to be a log entry or communication.  Ignoring other status messages that were trying to make themselves noticed, he concentrated on skimming the message for anything that might give a clue as to Flinn's location, or why the drive would be in his office as opposed to the absent Commanders'.

Key words were appearing here and there; research, South, Mass Effect.  It was difficult to make any sense of the disjointed mess, but that last term seemed to ring another bell.  If only he had something to cross reference with...

It was at that point Inon took notice of the alerts that had been trying in vain to garner his attention.  His face froze in a rictus of panic and disbelief, and he moved his head closer to the display.  All colour drained from his stricken visage, and he started mouthing silent protests, but the situation refused to change, no matter how much he willed it to.  Another relic of past times had made its presence felt.

A Trojan Horse.  A virus.  An attack.

Little more than a spasm, his hand struck out at the interface surface, knocking the infected drive across the room and terminating the interface.  Of course, it was far too late for that - the infection was complete and it would be spreading quickly.  If it was potent enough to get past Freelancer Tower's protection systems, it certainly wouldn't stop at compromising Inon's terminal.  His station was linked into the rest of the building - everything could communicate with everything else, meaning that nothing was safe.  If the replicators were to be damaged, the tower would be devoid of their only source of food.  If he couldn't stop it here and now, it might even spread into the city-wide intranet...

Inon stopped postulating and tried to let his mind fall into a practised neutrality; the same mental state that allowed him to perform strategic miracles from his command console.  Breaking into a cold sweat, he began to implement every quarantine procedure he could fathom, but for every instance of the virus he was able to eliminate, four or five more took its place.  It was propagating across the network, into every terminal and system that Inon had access to, which was just about all of them.  More and more system resources fell victim to the ever-duplicating malware, meaning that Inon's efforts were becoming less effective over time.  It was rapidly becoming evident that he couldn't stop the virus on his own; certainly not from here.  It had changed too many times for the original code - that which was driving the plague - to be identified.

Inon's display suddenly froze, went black, then was replaced by nothing but static.  From the speakers came what sounded like white noise, but to Inon's trained ear, it was something much more dangerous.  Delta rhythm - noise designed to encourage sleep.  Inon's neutral state cracked back into panic.  Standing up and knocking his chair over, a moment of lucidity allowed him to run across the room, retrieve the flash drive, then sprint from his office.

Throughout the corridors, every wall terminal had the same static and delta rhythm.  Trying to access the elevators failed - he would have to use the stairs again.  He needed to get down to the Command Center, to tell them what had happened.  Bursting into the stairwell, he rebounded off the wall and deflected the motion to his right, down the first of twenty flights that would lead him to the 48th Floor.

His mind began to wander again, in an attempt to distract him from the fatigue.  Why would Flinn's drive have a virus on it?  It couldn't have been created within Freelancer City - the draconian security measures in place on the intranet would ensure that.  Yet whoever designed it would have to be intimately familiar with Freelancer's systems.

Sixteen more flights.

Mass Effect... Mass Effect... Inon couldn't put his finger on it, but he had definitely heard that name mentioned before.  The use of South in the report suggested that it might be a place as opposed to a technology; another thread, perhaps?


But could he trust anything that came from the drive?  How could he be sure that it wasn't planted by whoever designed it?  How could he be sure that it wasn't false, or even worse, a trap?  More importantly, who among the Freelancer City Armed Forces was a traitor?


None of that would matter if this virus couldn't be stopped.  He cursed himself for being so stupid, ignoring every security protocol in his haste to-


"-tain the damage to non-critical systems!  Start pulling network cables if you have to!" Dragoon Knight's voice bellowed as Inon came crashing through the door, gasping for breath and tripping over his own feet.  It was a tainted mockery of the entrance Mideel had made through the same door only a few days hence.

"Sire!" Inon managed between heaving breaths, still staggering towards the central stations.  Teams of Gamers and technicians were rushing to and fro, while specialists were frantically typing or gesturing at displays in futile attempts to halt the virus' progress.

"Inon, where the hell have you been?!" the Warlord roared, only the slightest hint of concern managing to show through the mixture of determination and grim terror on his face.  He reached down from his slightly elevated position to accept the flash drive that Inon proferred.  "What's this?"

"The... source..."

"Of this?" Dragoon Knight asked, pointing to the nearest terminal, which was spewing static.  His only reply was a nod, to which the leader grimaced and turned aside.

"I don't remember anything after that, " Inon had said timidly.  He recalled the embarrassment and shame he felt then.

"You blacked out, " Dragoon Knight had answered.  "We managed to identify the source code and erase it from machines that we'd hastily 'localised', " he continued, the last term clearly implying the mess of severed networking cable that sprouted from just about every workstation in sight.

"I- I don't know how to begin apologising..."

"Save it.  We have more important issues to discuss right now."  Dragoon Knight's tone brooked no argument.

"Regarding Flinn?"

"Regarding a number of things."

Inon marched onwards, a small group of Gamers at his back.  Amongst them, keeping everyone awake and on their feet, was a single Dragoon.  One of the weakened group that had participated in the inital Lethargic Purge, she was nevertheless more than capable of staving off the urge to sleep for several meters.

Dragoon Knight had grilled him relentlessly for details.  After being told to get checked by a medical team and report to the 97th Floor once the elevators were back online, Inon had been accused of breach of protocol, breach of security, reckless endangerment and - worst of all - treachery.  He had pleaded his case for hours, making it clear that he had nothing to do with the virus, despite all evidence to the contrary.  The drive had been found in his office, and he had ditched an escort team only minutes before the outbreak.

Only once the Warlord was satisfied of his innocence did the topic switch to the content of the drive.  There was much discussion as to the legitimacy of the information found within, but at the mention of the term Mass Effect, Dragoon Knight's expression had changed.  It was clear that something important was attached to that term, and the leader confirmed it by revealing what he remembered.  Mass Effect was a thread, new at the time when the first conflict was old and past.  It had shown a great deal of potential, and several trading agreements had been in the early stages of negotiation.  The last that he could remember, Dragoon Knight had heard tell of a border settlement being established, but nothing more.  The detail was lost to the Lethargy.

It was eventually decided that the information could not be ignored, but neither could Inon's behaviour.  Knowing that active, frontline duty was the one thing that Inon abhorred above all else, it seemed a fitting punishment.  Dragoon Knight had said that Inon needed to experience the consequences of his actions, and that it would be a long time before he could regain the trust he once had.

So Inon had been sent South, towards Mass Effect; to determine the meaning of the fragmented information present on Flinn's flash drive, and if possible, to locate Flinn.  By Inon's calculations, they were less than half a day away.

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He told himself that he would run only until he came up with a plan to take down the monster. After the first day, however, he simply ran. In moments of lucidity he would admit his failure, but these moments were soon overridden by the pressing need to run further.

Days turned into nights turned back into days. Wolf kept up a steady lope, neither sprinting nor stopping while the moon waxed and waned above him. He rested once, as the creature had not made itself seen or felt for days. He had awoken to find it bearing down on him, its shadowy tendrils almost touching his flank. Sluggish limbs and cramped muscles had stretched painfully and immediately into life, bolting from the clearing before Wolf had fully registered what had happened. After he recovered he had returned to the glade to find the creature squatting in the hollow tree in which he had rested. It made no effort to attack him, did not even appear to be aware of him. Its eyes and legs were swallowed up in shadowy rags. It might have appeared as simply a deep patch of shadow, were it not the only part of the clearing that moved.

Wolf had learned a lot from that encounter. After he had fled once more, the long run gave him time to think. Wherever the creature was, everything became still. Not just animals and plants, though they had fallen dormant long ago, but the very wind ceased to move leaves in the trees. Secondly, while the creature's blurred appearence could be concealing anything, it did not appear to be breathing. No rhythm accompanied its movements, no shaking or swelling that would indicate air being forced around its body. Indeed, the closer it drew the more stale and lifeless the air became. This suggested to Wolf, who remembered all kinds of monsters from his time as a PRP warlord, that the monster was either undead or had never been alive in the first place. An automaton perhaps? That would explain the creature's great strength. But it was impossible for an automaton to run completely silently, as the monster did. There was always some giveaway: the hissing of pneumatics, the clanking of pistons, the whir of clockwork, the hum of silicon fans.

Yet the creature was silent. Even its footfalls made not a sound, whether it walked on grass or stone. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Wolf ran on.

He first considered his direction when he saw the spires beyond the trees. He had been running for four nights, aware that he was heading northward but without a specific goal. The spires were to the east, shining both in daylight and at night. He turned to make a beeline in their direction. With neither maps nor specific knowledge of the terrain he knew that he was lost, but that was no concern.

The spires grew steadily over the next two nights, revealing themselves slowly, seductively, as the moon had done in the days when she was still young and pretty. Mysterious grey lines became wire-thin bridges and supports between needle-like towers. It was sunset on the sixth day when the trees finally parted to reveal the spires in all their glory.

Silver turrets and weblike structures glowed golden and ruby, distant structures flashed and sparkled in the dying light. As beautiful as they were, however, the sight that drew Wolf's attention the most was the wall in front of them.

It too was silvery, shimmering and almost reflective. As he approached he could see that it was smooth, like ice. It loomed over him, easily as tall as the belltower in FED2K Chess. At either side of the door, itself half as tall as the wall, stood two sleek towers with no windows.

Wolf stopped before the gates, taking in the splendour of the place. It was without doubt the most beautiful work of art that he had ever seen.

"Hail, strangers!" He shouted, taking care not to show his teeth. "I am Lord Wolf of FED2K Chess! I seek shelter and succour!" He had reasoned that this was the best approach. Best not to reveal himself as a PRP native; he recalled how the revelation had caused more conservative occupants of the General board to turn hostile.

He waited. There was no answering shout from above. Quiet dread already spreading, he shouted again.

The sun dipped lower as he waited, pacing and calling at the oblivious towers. Not a face showed itself, not a signal was given. As it grew dark the towers started to glow from within, almost organically. The wall shimmered and danced in shades of green and silver, northern lights made solid.

At midnight he turned away, aware that the creature followed him still. The silver spires mocked him silently as he ran back into the trees.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There was no light coming from the various buildings and vehicles that made up Mass Effect.  In the failing light of dusk, Inon could see only the faintest of outlines, limned by a dirty orange halo.  They differed from Freelancer's buildings, but only slightly.  According to Dragoon Knight, the two cultures had been remarkably similar; in a board that was home to an almost infinite diversity of technologies and ideals, it had apparently been instrumental in establishing initial diplomatic relations.

But there the Warlord's knowledge of the situation ended.  With nearly all of the city's databases destroyed by either the Lethargy or the recent virus, it fell to Inon and his group to discover - or re-discover - what had happened in the days and weeks before the Lethargy attacked.  Why had Flinn been sent here, when a diplomatic envoy would be standard practice?  Of what import was this vague recollection of a border settlement?

Inon had these questions and more of his own.  As his team moved through a shallow valley that marked the final approach to the thread, he tried to put his anxiety and doubts to the back of his mind.  He had lead teams before, on much more dangerous missions.  But perhaps none as critical.

Almost without warning, the first buildings of Mass Effect came into view.  Little more than prefabricated metallic cabins, they showed signs of disuse - the window slats and doors were variously ajar, partly rusted or completely broken.  As the party drew closer, it became clear that the thread had been host to a battle which it hadn't recovered from.  The first thought that crossed Inon's mind was that they probably didn't have the chance.

The second thought was that the bodies within the structures hadn't all died from the battle.  While some had clearly left this life via liberal application of sword to flesh, there were those who showed signs of a much quieter fate.  People curled up in foetal positions, or resting their heads on desks.  Most of the buildings seemed to be devoted to light research, with inactive data pads scattered everywhere.  It didn't make any sense.

"If there was a battle here, why did only some die from the Lethargy?" the Dragoon asked, the first to voice the question.

Inon turned his head to reply, but paused.  "What was your name again?"

"Melinda, sir, " she replied patiently.  It was the third time she had told him.  The Lethargy was definitely affecting Inon's normally excellent memory, and she could see it was bothering him.

"Melinda, yes.  I don't know.  But the ones without injuries appear to have fallen without even the slightest resistance.  As if they were working one moment, and asleep the next."

"The Lethargy isn't that quick.  Back on the beach, I got to know it a little."

Inon cocked his head slightly.  "You speak of it like it's alive."

"Not alive, sir, " Melinda explained, "certainly not alive.  But I think it possesses a will.  A slow, determined will."

"Oh?" Inon prompted, turning his attention forwards again as he moved amid the damaged structures.

"We watched the waves, all of us.  Back on the beach, I mean.  It was while I was watching them lap against the cliffs to the north that I came up with the comparison."

"The Lethargy doesn't come and go, " he replied, checking yet another cabin.  This one was completely empty, its contents strewn haphazardly, like it had been looted.

"But it feels like it does.  No matter how much we try to stand against it, it erodes us.  Slowly weathers us away, until we simply drift into it and succumb."

Melinda's words were almost hypnotic.  Inon heard a staggered chorus of yawns from behind him.  He would have fallen prey to their infectious nature if it hadn't been for the corpse that he almost fell over.  In the split second he took to look down at his feet, he spotted a Freelancer Armed Forces insigia.

"Hold!" he exclaimed, stumbling to a stop and dropping to one knee.  This one had died in combat.  Inon checked for any identification.

"That's Draper!" came a cry from behind both Inon and Melinda.  One of the Gamers was pressing his way forward.  "Private John Draper!  He... he was missing, back in the city, and... ah shit..." he trailed off, pacing back and forth.

Inon looked up from the corpse, checked the ground around it.  Anything resembling footprints had long since faded, and with all the discarded or destroyed equipment dotting the landscape, it was impossible to tell if the man had dropped his weapon while fleeing, or if he had fought to his dying breath.

"Melinda, see to the troops, " Inon instructed, standing up and wiping his hands on his jacket.  "We're moving into the thread."

There weren't nearly enough people to perform a proper search.  Inon cursed his lack of clarity, unable to decide on the best course of action.  In the end, he opted to break the group up into three-man teams and have them move East through the thread.

The silence was a grim reminder of the situation they had left only a week or so before - dim streets of perpetual, oppressive quiet.  Aside from corpses, they saw nothing but more prefabricated buildings; larger than the ones on the outskirts, but the same basic shape and layout.  As the moon began to rise, everything was the colour of dust - grey and lifeless.

"What are we looking for, sir?" asked one of the Gamers.

"I briefed you on this, " Inon replied tersely.  "We're searching for signs of Commander Flinn's presence."

"You'll pardon my saying, sir, but how are we meant to find him?  I mean, among all of this."

Inon stopped, hung his head into both palms and sighed through his nose.  He caught himself grinding his teeth, a habit which he thought he had given up.  Bad memories...

"Just... keep moving.  Keep looking, " he commanded sharply.

He let his men file past him, four groups in all.  The rest were to the North or South, sweeping methodically but inefficiently through the graveyard that Mass Effect had become.  Only half the corpses had fallen out of their tombs.

The tombs, Inon thought to himself, achieving a flicker of inspiration amid the chaotic swirl of nothing and everything which had been twisting through his mind for the past few days.  A border settlement.  A new border settlement.

"Melinda, gather the men and have them start moving towards the perimeter.  Search for any new buildings, even if they're just new prefabs.  Search for signs of less weathering, more advanced technology..."

"Understood, " she said while Inon was mid-sentence, seeming to follow his method of thinking and appreciating the direction.  It wasn't long before this new search pattern yielded results.

"Team 14 report architectural differences to the far East of the thread - almost beyond sight of the thread limits, " Melinda relayed, clearly exhausted.  With the teams splitting up, her already taxed abilities were being strained.

"It's the best lead we have.  Instruct all teams to move in that direction and rendezvous outside of Mass Effect."

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Alone in the night, The God Emperor's Dune blazed. A beacon of light and activity, it shone all the brighter in a mountain range now devoid of hamlets and villages that might have glowed in reply. By order of its ruler, the city radiated light and warmth. Great pyres burned, people danced and music blared even now. Rumour had it that the chaotic, vibrant excess was a carefully executed stratagem on the part of the city's rulers; designed to drive back the insidious Lethargy and preserve the power of the ruling warlord for other targets. The dancers didn't care one way or the other. Normal life was suspended for the duration of the crisis, they drank, danced and screwed the night into irrelevance

The light from the fires flickered even on the highest towers of the central fortress, carved into the very side of the mountain. Crystal windows shone, some dark within, others lit with their own gentle glow. An outside observer might have seen lights pass to and fro behind the windows as castle staff patrolled and worked long into the night. Lillian sat at the great council table, still trying to raise a response from TGED's colonies. Farther along, Darius Ghobey sat on his bed, fists clenched. J'invy the mentat stood at the door to TGED's central archive, listening carefully. The windows beyond shone only dimly, before bursting outward in an explosion of flame. Smouldering debris and charred glass hurtled down onto the plaza below, scattering revellers.

Dante looked up sharply from his desk. The floor shook once more, stirring the pages of his grimoire. His window glowed orange. He let his mind wander, felt the stone of his keep. Part of it was seared, the pain difficult to pin down. An insistent nudging at his temples brought him back, a mental summons from one of his lieutenants. It was immediately joined by another, more curious than the first. Dante sighed, pulled a shadow around him and stepped out of it into the council chamber.

"Explosion in the archives." Lillian reported tersely, still at her seat. "Fires spreading throughout outer ring, inner ring compromised in sections III, IV, X and CXX through CXXVI. Status of sections DI through XC unreported."

"Monitor." Dante snapped, dispersing at once. It was a popular myth that the warlord was omnipresent in TGED: in fact, Dante reflected, he was simply aware of most events and capable of travelling extremely fast. He lanced through the walls like electricity, appearing outside the archives a fraction of a second after leaving the council chamber.

He had been unconsciously expecting the familiar cool dryness of the archives, was forced to take a step back as flames billowed from between ruined wooden doors. A smoking body lay on the floor, J'invy. Over him stood a familiar figure in silver armour with purple trimming.

"Sir?" Vierna Wayku had drawn her sword, was soot-stained and hesitant. Paranoid.

"What happened here?" Dante strode forward, sending a mental note to Lillian to trace the soldier's movements prior to the blast.

"I was passing by when I heard an explosion. There was another just as I entered the room." Vierna pointed to an open door on the other side of the room, which Dante closed with a thought. "I found the mentat near the doors, I think he was hit by one of the explosions." She shrugged. "He's alive, I was about to enter the archive to see who set the bomb."

"Bomb?" Dante raised an eyebrow. "Is that what you think?"

"I don't see what else it could be." Vierna seemed to avoid rolling her eyes. "What could possibly explode in an archive, even in a really serious accident? I mean, they're kind of build to prevent that kind of thing."

"Indeed." Dante replied neutrally, subtly checking J'invy for signs of injury. The mentat was breathing, but the extent of his burns was unknown. He teleported him to a healing house and turned back to the fire. Beyond the doors, the precious archives burned on. The scent of spice paper burning was almost intoxicating, he could see Vierna inhaling deeply at his side.

"Someone's interfering with our systems, sir." Lillian's voice sounded in the room. "There's something blocking the automatic systems from gaining entry. I suspect a combined EMP and annulment sigil."

"Acknowledged, Lillian." Dante frowned, felt a headache beginning to grow behind his eyes. That one would smart by the end of the night, he knew, and he was only going to get angrier.

"Stay behind me." He instructed, pulling power from the walls of the fortress. He noted that Vierna, about to say something, bit her lip and looked embarrassed Keeping his expression hidden from her, he smirked. It would be a shame if he had to have Vierna killed, he was beginning to like her.

Protected by a rippling sphere of power, Dante stepped into the archives, Vierna close behind.

The heat was still strong despite the shield, the smell of burning spice almost overpowering. Dante, who had almost become addicted to the substance some years ago, grimaced while Vierna's eyes widened at the sensation. She followed him dutifully through blazing shelves, waited as he extinguished the worst of the fires or conjured a safe path across fractured wooden floors. The devastation seemed to slow as they passed, the fires burning not quite so brightly. There were patches of calm where the archive was visible as it should have been: carefully sealed shelves and soft chairs with ornately carved wooden reading desks. The haphazard distribution of the fires suggested to Vierna that multiple explosives had been set. When she said as much to Dante he merely grunted.

On a floor below the main entrance they found a space where shelves had been cleared. The fire here had almost burned itself out, but the temperature was still painfully high inside the shield. Vierna was sweating profusely in her armour, had long ago discarded her helmet. On the floor lay the charred remains of a person, charcoal arms wrapped around a plasteel-plated box. The remains appeared to be in the centre of a blast zone, with multiple shelves thrown away from the area and scorch marks radiating from the centre. Beneath them, painted onto blackened floorboards, was a complicated circle of runes and geomagical designs. They were mystifying to Vierna, but Dante's scowl deepened. He strode forward, forcing Vierna to skip to stay inside the shield, and ground his foot down onto the box. It hissed and his boot caught fire, but he pressed down, crushing it. As the plasteel parted and the inner workings collapsed, a steady hum that Vierna hadn't even noticed vanished. Suddenly the sprinklers came on.

Dante's next step was to step outside the circle, taking Vierna with him. Gesturing at the floor, he pulled the entire circle away and powdered the wood with a flick of his fingers. The body in the centre, having slid off onto the floor, was ignored.

Catching a movement to one side, Vierna spun on the spot with her sword at the ready. She was greeted by the sight of a trio of pale blue creatures with rippling skin and evil fanged grins. They flapped lazily to and fro, belching water onto the fires. Turning once more, she saw a single white creature spread diminutive arms and freeze four shelves in ice.

"Systems are back online sir, the mephits are at work already." Lillian's voice crackled slightly in the flames.

"You were correct, Lillian, it was a combined high-tech and magical blockage." Dante replied icily, lifting the burned body and suspending it in front of him. "I found the remains of a person next to the blockage. This appears to have been deliberate sabotage." Vierna detected a waver in the warlord's voice as it shook with rage. "The remains are unidentifiable, but I will question them in a matter of hours. We will meet at 2am."

"Understood sir. I have a retrieval squad ready to enter the archive on your word."

Vierna watched as Dante was about to speak, paused. He did not take his eyes from the corpse as he considered.

"No." He said at last. "I'm going to seal the archives at once. They'll be sent in once we get to the bottom of this." He finished with a glare at the corpse, as though it could see him.

"Understood." Lillian faded. Still ignoring Vierna, Dante began to make a series of gestures in the air before him. Blue and violet trails hung in the air as he traced a series of glyphs and patterns in a complicated sphere. Bringing his hands together, he muttered a word and pulled them apart suddenly, expanding the circle until it grew past the shelves and disappeared. Immediately the flames froze in place. The mephits hung motionless in the air, some of them in mid-belch. Vierna noticed some of her hair that had been caught outside the shield, fried to a crisp and stuck in place. Everything had stopped moving. Even the coals did not so much as flicker in their glow.

"There, that will stop things from getting any worse for the time being." Dante sighed, rubbed his head. "Pick up the box will you, and I'll take us out of here." Vierna did as instructed, stooping to pull the shattered box into the shield and holding it carefully at a distance. Dante closed his eyes, and all around her Vierna saw the world darken. For a moment she was cold, and then she stood outside the archive once more.

The doors still lay broken, hanging from their wrought hinges like drunken pensioners. The fires beyond were spattering before a team of mephits, all of which in perfect tableaux stillness. A hazy glow of runes and glyphs outlined what might have been the edge of a giant magical sphere.

"Well done, Vierna." Dante held his hand out for the box and she handed it over gratefully. She was disturbed to note that the corpse still hung in the air before them, like some distressingly funereal pi�.

"What now, sir?" She asked unhappily.

"You're relieved of duty for the rest of the night." Dante said immediately, telling her that he had planned to say that whatever the situation. "I would take it as a favour if you would remain in your quarters, however. I may want to have a word with you in the morning."

"Understood, sir." Vierna bowed. A sudden thought occurred to her as the warlord began to fade. "Sir!" Dante paused before becoming fully solid again.


"I didn't have anything to do with this, sir." There, she had said it. The warlord raised an eyebrow. His eyes muttered darkly, if you have to protest...

"You performed admirably, Vierna, you have nothing to worry about." A tense smile appeared briefly as Dante faded, this time for good. Vierna turned to regard the time-stopped fire, aware that she was feeling a bit chilly now. Adrenalin still quickened her heart, but she knew it would do no good to run off to her friends in the watch. She was already under suspicion, that much was clear. The last thing she wanted to do was disappear when the ruling council was looking for her. She sighed, and exited the room the way she had first entered.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This had to be the expansion that Dragoon Knight had referred to, Inon reasoned.  The buildings here showed signs of recent construction; very little wear and an almost imperceptible newness.  Like walking into a freshly decorated room.

"ME2, " Melinda said from her position slightly ahead of Inon, who was himself slightly ahead of the bulk of the troops.  He had sent others to scout ahead, but wasn't intent on splitting them up again.  This place was much smaller than the main settlement.

"What?" he asked, his mind breaking free from the fugue of calculations and predictions.

"The streets in the first thread were numbered, just like these, " she motioned in several directions, "but with the prefix ME.  These say ME2."

"So we can deduce that this is Mass Effect 2.  A sequel thread.  Not entirely unexpected, " he replied, with what confidence he could muster.  Inon was beginning to doubt every action he took out here.  Despite being surrounded by some of Freelancer's finest men and women, he felt terribly isolated.

"I'm not overly familiar with them, " Melinda said levelly.  Inon couldn't tell if she was being polite, but he relished the opportunity to explain something he was familiar with.

"Some threads are so successful, profitable, popular - or all three - that they decide to expand beyond their original boundaries.  It's not uncommon, sometimes even in threads that have been stable for years.  Sometimes, this takes place in the form of a simple expansion; built using more or less the same as the existing thread.  This option has become more popular of late, but the notion of a sequel thread has been around since time immemorial.  They've become so ingrained into our lifestyle that we rarely notice the numbers that identify them as such."

"So all sequels use numbers?" Melinda asked, now obviously deliberately making conversation.

"No, " Inon continued, humouring her for humouring him.  "Some name themselves differently, some might simply make their title a play on the original.  Rarely, a sequel thread will instead become a successor; trying to take what the original was and make it better.  But for the most part, sequels use numbers."

"I don't believe I've ever come across one, sir.  I've lived a very sheltered life as a Dragoon."

"Well, you'd be surprised, " Inon smiled, a genuine expression that surprised him as he continued to move towards the centre of the thread.  "Lieutenant Shinsbane comes from Warcraft 3, himself."

"Sir!" came a call from far in the distance.  One of the members of the scouting team, returning without his partner.  Inon was immediately alert.

"Report, Private, " he ordered as soon as the Gamer was within speaking range.  The lone soldier staggered to a halt and caught his breath before speaking.

"I'm half of Team 4... Elly was... the centre, near the centre there's a building, a large... different than the others, it's..."

"Organise your thoughts, man, and speak clearly and quickly, " Inon interrupted.

"The Lethargy... it's stronger towards the centre of the thread.  Elly - my team-mate - she got too close.  I couldn't reach her.  We need to-"

"Melinda, " Inon said with a nod, which Melinda reciprocated, signalling the troops to regroup at her position.

"Five minutes, maybe six, " she announced.

"Leave a small group here to direct the rest, " Inon replied.  "We're moving in now."

Though smaller in size, Mass Effect 2 was certainly much more densely populated.  Corpses littered the streets, and none of them showed any signs of life.  There was the same mix of wounded and unwounded, but the Lethargy was apparently less merciful to the denizens of this thread.  Inon couldn't fathom why everyone here would be dead, while Never Winter Nights had retained survivors.  Neither did he want to consider the implications for Flinn's fate, though it was becoming increasingly unlikely that he would be found alive.

Almost running now, the reborn Inon Company thrust forward into the heart of the thread.  Dodging bodies and vaulting obstacles, it wasn't long before the group espied their target.  It was as the Private had described - this building was much different than the others.  This was no prefabricated structure.  It was dome shaped, and much larger than anything that had been reported in either thread up until now.  It also bore the signs of being unfinished, with scaffolding along several sections of the building's exterior, and solar roofing in the process of being installed.  The sight impelled Inon to move faster.

Then the first of the scouts hit the wall of Lethargic energy.  The Private who had warned Inon was still some way behind, exhausted from his encounter and the effort of running back.  The four who passed its invisible perimeter simply fell asleep as they moved, crumpling to the floor mid-stride.

"Hold!" came the call.  This time, it was Melinda.  Inon turned to look at the Dragoon, saw that her eyes were closed and her breathing deep.

"You, you and you!" Inon pointed to the three Gamers who looked most alert, poised to run in.  Friends of the fallen, no doubt.  That would be enough.  "Get ready to retrieve those men.  Focus all your efforts on saving their lives, because we get one shot at this."

The three variously nodded or shouted their acknowledgement.  The adrenaline would need to be high enough to sustain them.  While Melinda drew on her power, Inon began to draw on his.  For the first time in a long, long while.

His entire body began to shine a deep, forest green - an aura of energy that started as an outline, but began to swirl around him like an ethereal wind.  It gathered around his forehead, and seemed to enter his body in a rush via a point directly between his eyes.

"Total.  Focus." he said, his voice echoing within itself.  Inon blinked, and in that split second, his mind went blank.

He did not remember shouting the order to move at the three soldiers.  He did not remember the arc of lightning that struck the invisible wall of the Lethargy, pushing it backwards, foot by foot.  He did not remember the scream of tortured effort from Melinda, as she strove to bend the unnatural barrier quickly and far enough to allow him and his chosen three to rescue the others.  He did not remember these things, because his mind and his body was wholly dedicated to a single task - rescue that soldier.

Inon's face was passive, his body barely remembering to breathe as his muscles received precise and calculated instructions; commands that moved his body in the most efficient possible way, at speeds and with strength that he couldn't hope to muster under normal circumstances.  He bolted towards one of the fallen Gamers, his eyes fixed on his target.  He stooped downwards, grabbed the arm of the unconscious woman, and used the momentum of his approach to drag her body up and over his shoulder.  Pivoting expertly on one foot, Inon was already on his way back towards Melinda by the time the other three were arriving.  Inon blinked again.

"Guuuuh, " he gasped, inhaling deeply and blinking again rapidly.  Inon's heart was beating so fast he put his hand to his chest in a vain attempt to stablise himself.  "Did I save her?"

"Yes, sir, " one Gamer responded.  "Melinda was able to revive the four who fell, plus one of the other three who lagged behind too long."

Inon nodded, then noticed that he was lying down.  He extended an arm towards the soldier, who was wearing an expression that Inon hadn't seen in some time.  It was the particular brand of awe that came with witnessing the change that came over him when he exerted his abilities.  The soldier grabbed Inon's arm and helped him to his feet.

"How long was I out?" Inon asked.

"No more than a few minutes, sir, " the Gamer replied, turning his head down the street.  "Melinda ordered the rest of the troops further back, and she's waiting for you up ahead."

Inon followed his gaze, saw the Dragoon standing just outside what he presumed Melinda had determined as the boundary of the Lethargic wall.

"Return to the others and await further orders, " Inon instructed, moving on slightly shaky legs towards the solitary figure ahead of him.

"There's activity beyond this wall, " she said as he approached.

"What?  You mean life?" Inon asked, his voice betraying excitement at the prospect.

"I can't tell, but it's energy of a sort."

"How... thick is this wall?"

"No more than a couple of yards, " Melinda replied, shaking her head.

"Can you get me through?"

Melinda sighed and allowed her eyes to close.  "I need rest, sir."

"Then rest after this.  I can maintain myself once I'm through to the other side."

"How do you know that?" she snapped, turning to face him.  Inon wondered if that was genuine concern he saw.

"I have emergency stimulants that will keep me awake for hours, " he replied.  "And that's not even mentioning my own... abilities."

Melinda gave him a pointed look.  They both knew that Inon would have to rest for some time before he was able to put on a show like that again.

"I can't cut through it, " she relented, "and bending it won't work.  But I can disrupt it.  Make it weaker."

"It'll do."

"Take one of those stimulants."

Inon obeyed; this wasn't the time for rank or protocol.  His mind raced and his limbs tingled as newfound energy rushed through his veins.

"Take a run up, " she continued.  "You're going to need it."

Inon moved several feet backwards, jogged on the spot for a second or two to ensure his legs were sturdy enough to carry him at speed again so soon.  They weren't, but he wasn't willing to wait.  His gut told him that whatever was behind that wall was vastly important.  He nodded to Melinda.

The Dragoon let forth a primal scream, lightning streaming from her hands in innumerable bolts and sparks.  Where it hit the boundary, it fizzled out to nothingness, but left an almost mirage-like impression on the air around it.  Still screaming, Melinda re-doubled her efforts, and the shimmering in the air became more and more aggressive.

Melinda's voice lowered to a grunt, through which she managed to growl the word "Go!", which prompted Inon to rush forwards once more.  It was not until the very last second before he hit the wall that Melinda finally stopped her barrage.

It was like hitting a body of water from a height, without a dive to break the surface tension.  The initial slap of force was merely a skin, however, and Inon ran directly through it.  He hadn't expected pain, but pain there was, and a great deal of it, as every cell in his body screamed at him to stop.  It was like the pain experienced after prolonged periods of exercise.  Like that "wall", Inon was determined to move past it.

To say it felt like an eternity would be incorrect; Inon knew exactly how long it took.  He merely experienced every second in exquisite detail, and by the time he broke through to the other side, he had only spent 6 seconds in the wall.

The release was like ecstasy, but it was fleeting, as the background Lethargy was still present within the wall.  Turning around, panting and grimacing, he saw Melinda doing more or less the same.  She was almost completely spent, and several Gamers were rushing to her aid.  Inon didn't hear their footsteps.  He tried shouting to them, and seeing his mouth open and close, Melinda tried to do the same to him.  Not even sound could penetrate the wall, it would seem.

Inon was exhausted, but he wasn't about to let that stop him.  He made the universal hand gesture for "OK", then turned towards the domed building.  Seeing an entrance a few yards to his right, he moved towards it and entered.

The entire building appeared to be hollow.  Walls of a semi-reflective metal melded seamlessly with the roof.  In the centre, situated equidistantly from the floor and the ceiling, was a sphere of what appeared to be the same material, suspended from below by various conduits and cables.  It emitted a soft, blue glow, and Inon was certain that he could discern a low humming.

Looking around the circumference of the building, he spotted a small, windowed edifice jutting out at ground level.  Inon's legs were locking up, but he shook them into action again, trotting awkwardly towards the building within a building.  As he approached, he noticed that there were bodies here, too, though none appeared to be injured from combat.  Four or five of them, he counted, entering the office.

One of them was Flinn.

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The entire council - those members still in TGED - were gathered around the great circular table. Lillian and Darius, with J'invy to one side. The mentat had been confined to bed for the foreseeable future, so was represented by a hologram. He wore bandages about his head, but his face was not badly scarred. The Ghost of Dust Scout pretended to sit out of courtesy, while Rai'Guy and Latrodectus' seats remained empty. The rest of them had never been filled, though Dante was contemplating candidates. A matter for another time.

"Whoever this person was, they managed to bypass security and wreak untold damage on the central dogma." Dante hissed, gesturing contemptuously to the burned remains that lay in the centre of the table. "Now more than ever before it's vital that we have all of our resources close to hand, and this was allowed to happen!" He snarled, thumping the table. "We failed, all of us, but more importantly, this was one of us. Nobody has entered TGED since we awoke, we haven't detected a single spy."

"That could just mean that they're very good spies." Lillian mused.

"Granted, but I have a hunch that won't prove to be the case." Dante smiled grimly at the corpse. "Come on, we'll go somewhere where the blood won't stain." The shadows lengthened, withdrawing to leave the council stood on top of TGED's many libraries. The stone roof was smooth and gently curved, lit from below by a bonfire in front of the steps. Someone was roasting a whole cow down below. Delicious aromas wafted over the roof with woodsmoke.

Along with the group, Dante had teleported a goat. It lay unconscious while Dante lifted it up and slit its throat. He pulled the blood from its body, wrapping it around the corpse like a sheet, inflating skin and tissue with borrowed life. Lillian shivered. Necromancy always gave her the creeps.

The body grew, blood taking on the appearance of skin, black as night. Dante's eyebrows rose as spheres of blood replaced eyes, did not solidify. The bloody creation hung in the air, a grotesque mannequin. Dante gestured and it twitched backwards, a spray of blood flying from its face to splatter across the stonework. With a disgusting gurgling noise, the monster breathed. And then it screamed.

The sound was long, high and piercing. Dust Scout's ghost wavered in psychic pain, while Darius and Lillian spared glances for the highlanders below. Devoid of working lungs, the scream soon cut off in a revolting crunching noise.

"What is your name?" Dante's voice filled the silence. The creature looked up, red eyes wide. Having no eyelids, it bore a permanent expression of surprise. It whined pitifully, brow creasing and flaking off. "Tell me your name and perhaps I will let you go sooner."

"glrk." The creature coughed, spat out a hunk of unidentifiable flesh. "Ungolus."

"Ungolus. You are a dark elf." Dante continued. The creature nodded, mouth twisted in pain.

"Why did you plant a bomb in my archive?" Dante asked. Ungolus squirmed in place, unable to twist away, held as he was in the air.

"I'm dead. Let me die." He pleaded, near-skeletal hands opening and closing. Dante sneered, thrust a hand into the creature's abdomen and rooted around. Ungolus screamed again, this time cut off when Dante squeezed hard on his lung.

"I'm not above torturing the dead, Ungolus." Dante hissed, withdrawing a gore-sodden hand. "Tell me why you tried to destroy the archive."

"J-just for giggles." Ungolus' defiant grin was clear, his teeth surprisingly white against the charcoal of his flesh. He screamed again as a bolt of lightning fried him from above. Now smoking, much of the blood boiled from within, he turned gently on his axis, alternately hissing and chuckling.

"I can keep bringing you back, you know." Dante said casually, snapping off one of the creature's fingers. "You think it's just a matter of time until you can jet off to the hereafter and stay there forever, but I assure you that even that isn't safe. I will bring you back as a ghost if I have to, without a body to contain you. I'll keep you in a plasteel bottle, in a furnace, and take you out once a month to get answers. Would you like that?"

"F-fuh, fuhuhuhuh." Ungolus choked a laugh.

"Careful, you don't want to drive him mad." J'invy's hologram warned. Darius was looking away, grimly facing in the direction of the bonfire.

"I'll ask you again, why did you attempt to destroy the archive?" Dante asked. Ungolus said nothing, until a sharp twist of his arm forced him to yelp in pain.

"He told me!" The monster cried, flinging a shaking hand in J'invy's direction. "He told me to do it!" The mentat, taken aback, rocked slightly in surprise.

"Interesting." Dante snapped off the creature's foot. Ungolus hardly seemed to feel it. "Did you have any other accomplices?"

"More than you think." Ungolus replied with a sly grin. On his ruined features the expression was near devilish.

"I see. And what did you hope to destroy?"


"Really." Dante watched as the creature's blood eyeballs started to dribble down its face. "We'll be in touch, Ungolus."

"Shee, you... shooon..." The creature grinned, skin stretching as it dried, thinned. The blood was used up, the goat's life expired.

"That was productive." Dante commented, with an appraising glance in J'invy's direction.

"Sir, my innocence will be established the moment you decide to investigate it." The mentat stated bluntly.

"I won't have his loyalty questioned." Darius turned from the edge, expression firm. "J'invy has served TGED loyally for over a hundred years, he's been here for longer than I have, longer than any of us. What kind of repayment for his service is this suspicion?" He spat.

"A sensible one." J'invy replied. "Have no fear Darius. Any investigation, should one be held, will exonerate me. Were I to give my advice, I would advise such an investigation take place regardless of who was implicated. That is what it means to be thorough. I haven't kept my position here for so long by being sloppy." He added with what might have been a smirk.

The shadows lengthened, the shadows withdrew. The council sat at the table again. Both corpses were gone.

"I will interrogate Ungolus some more once we have interviewed his friends in the dark elven district." Dante nodded to Lillian, who made a note. "J'invy is not the only party to be implicated, however. There is also the matter of Vierna Wayku."

"All records indicate that she hurried to the scene when she heard the explosion." Lillian spoke, summoning a hologram above the table. It showed Vierna in full armour, walking down a corridor. A red line marked her path from the sparring chambers, a blue line the route that would have led to her room. "Both biometric and aura scanners show that this is the right woman." Lillian continued as a series of statistics listed themselves alongside.

"Vierna Wayku is confirmed to have been in attendance at a sparring session with sharpened blades, there are several witnesses, among them Dust Scout." The ghost nodded. "She left just after midnight and walked the balcony for ten minutes before presumably returning to her room." The hologram froze, was replaced by another image of Vierna leaning on a stone railing. "Body language suggests exhaustion and worry, but not fear or apprehension." Lillian continued. "She did not look at the archive windows while outside, indeed she spent most of her time stargazing." The hologram switched back to the corridor. "Upon hearing the explosion she draws her sword and dashes in what she believes is the direction of the noise. Interestingly," here a green line appeared on the hologram, "she does not take the fastest route to the archive. One would think that a saboteur so subtle would want to get there quickly and without fuss, but in fact she made two wrong turnings before she found the correct door." The hologram disappeared as Vierna entered the archival antechamber.

"Meaning what?" Darius frowned.

"Meaning that Vierna Wayku has not made the effort to memorise a plan of the floor as a saboteur would be expected to do." Lillian explained. "Furthermore, her actions can be traced back all the way since she first entered the fortress. She hasn't so much as read a message with her hand covering the screen. I don't think she can be considered a threat." She looked up at Dante, who was tapping his chin thoughtfully.

"Good. Good." He said. "I'll have a word with her myself tomorrow. If I don't see anything suspicious, she's off the hook."

"And as for me?" J'invy asked.

"Lillian is going through all of your messages, activity and whereabouts during the last week." Dante replied. "The ghost will check her work."

"Which just leaves the question of what to do with the archive itself." Lillian finished, leaning back and folding her arms. "You can't leave it frozen in time forever. People will talk."

Dante sighed, seemed to deflate as his shoulders slumped. He sat down, leaning forward to rest his chin on the stone table.

"Letting it go means losing more things." He muttered.

"We've lost enough that it probably won't make a difference." Lillian sighed. "Though having said that, it should be possible to extinguish the flames without restarting time. If we pump enough non-flammable gas in there, argon for example, we should be able to kill the flames as soon as the barrier goes down. The mephits won't like it, but I imagine they're none too happy anyway." She added. Dante brightened up a bit.

"Good thinking, Lillian, I'll see what I can do in the morning." He yawned. "Right now, I'm going to bed. As are all of you. Make sure you can be easily found, please. I have a feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better. Oh, and double security." He vanished from the room.

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Inon gasped, not from shock, but because he'd forgotten to breathe.  He'd been frozen in place for a good half-minute, unable to move forward.  He couldn't bring himself to make the few steps necessary to close the distance between him and the motionless body of Commander Flinn.  As the stale air provided what little relief it could to his lungs, he blinked and shook his head, then exhaled.  What had begun as a selfish, moping and disconnected march towards Mass Effect had transformed into a determined and selfless endeavour to reach this moment.  He had spared no effort, and had asked too much of his troops - especially Melinda - to stop here and now.  Inon remembered now why he had kept serving under Dragoon Knight, even in the face of constant field duty, and the knowledge liberated him from his reverie.

"Flinn, " he said, loudly enough so that he wouldn't remember it as a whisper.  Inon moved forward as rapidly as his stiff legs would allow, kneeled despite their protests, then checked the Commander's pulse.  It took longer than it should have for him to confirm its presence, due to his own accelerating heart rate, but it was there.  Relief washed through Inon, like a dam in his chest breaking.  He reached around to the pouch he carried, which contained the last of the emergency stimulants - he had five remaining.  Taking two, he pressed the injector plate of each vial against Flinn's neck, one after another.  It would be enough to wake him up, and keep him that way for a good while.

But Flinn didn't move.  His pulse didn't increase, and his breathing remained as shallow as a summer puddle.  Inon's expression became more severe, and he took another two stimulant vials.  He injected his fallen comrade with one, but hesitated a moment before using what would be the fourth in quick succession.  By all rights, this should be enough to keep a small village awake for several hours under this level of Lethargy.  Inon could not understand why they weren't working.  His hesitation passed as he discerned no reaction from the third injection, and quickly administered the fourth.

Nothing.  But he was alive, Inon was sure of it.  And he needed the last vial to get himself out of here.  Unable to think of a better alternative, Inon shook Flinn vigorously.

"Wake up!" he shouted, the authority in his voice surprising him.  He noted absently that despite the cavernous interior of the building, his voice didn't echo.  "Commander Trent Flinn, wake up!"

Inon's hand brushed across something unfamiliar while trying to rouse Flinn; a bunching of some sort beneath his jacket, with smaller, trailing protrusions leading from it.  Modesty wasn't a consideration at this point, so Inon quickly set about unbuttoning Flinn's jacket.  The source of the jutting was immediately evident - a series of wires, spider-webbing their way across his torso, originating from a bundle of advanced microtechnology fused to the base of his neck, seemingly attached to his spine.  An experimental tug confirmed that it wasn't just skin-deep, either - the device would require surgical removal.  Yet there was something familiar about it.  It took Inon a moment or two, but a quick look out of the office window confirmed his theory.  The device on Flinn's neck was a miniaturised version of the sphere that dominated the centre of the building.  Only his wasn't glowing.

It was only then that Inon considered the implications of this: the large sphere was glowing.  In the midst of the Lethargy, and surrounded by a massively powerful Lethargic wall, this sphere was somehow capable of drawing enough energy to glow.  Perhaps that was why Flinn wouldn't wake up - the sphere must have been drawing energy from him, too.  Grasping a nearby desk for support, Inon shakily got to his feet and stumbled out into the main area of the building, heading towards the sphere.

He circled it several times, looking for an interface of some sort.  On his fifth orbit, Inon spotted a biometric datapad fitted to the underside of the metallic device.  It was about the right size for a palm to be pressed against it.  Inon looked over his shoulder, back towards the office.  He didn't relish the prospect of dragging Flinn this far; neither of them were in any condition for it.  Almost on a whim, he placed his own hand on the sensor plate, and was shocked to see it flash green.  The hiss of hydraulics made him stagger backwards a couple of steps, as an entire segment of the sphere unfolded into a series of control panels.

Stepping forward again, Inon cautiously examined the interfaces before him.  All of them bore striking similarities to those used in Freelancer City, but they were augmented somehow.  Like a mesh of two differing technologies.  His curiosity got the better of him, and he began to examine the data held within.

Everything seemed to be intact, with no damage or corruption from the Lethargy.  Inon immediately checked for any sort of logs; anything that could explain what happened here.  He found nothing of the sort.  Whatever this machine was, he was foolish to expect it to be a glorified diary.

But he did find several hardware design schematics, all labelled with terms he'd never seen before.  "Element Zero", "Quantum Entanglement"... then, a term he had seen before.  "Lethargy".  He tried to access the files, but was met with a denial prompt.  Apparently, it was restricted to Flinn alone.

Flinn!  He'd been so caught up with the machine... Inon navigated back to the design schematics, looked for the blueprints for this sphere.  He found them in short order, under the heading "E0 Core Alpha-Build".  Not willing to let curiousity or speculation distract him again, he opened the design documents and tried to make sense of them.

Inon pored through the documents, using his expert mind to try and apply what he knew of advanced technology to the prototype before him.  The situation was too similar to the one in his office for his liking, and despite the chill of the lethargic air, he broke into a sweat.  From what he could discern, the "core" contained a quantity of "Element Zero", which was apparently designed to manipulate gravity when exposed to an electric current.  But there was no artificial gravity plating present anywhere in the building, or on the schematic; no apparent power source in sight.  It was all wired backwards, as far as Inon could tell.  It didn't make any sense.

But the Element Zero was the key - it was what was glowing.  The design documents noted "brilliant luminescence" as a side effect of the core's operation.  The light being emitted certainly wasn't brilliant, Inon thought to himself, as he accessed the core's inner workings.

More hydralics sounded their hissing acceptance as they parted to show the centre of the device; the core of the core.  The majority of the area was taken up by what appeared to be electromagnetic coils, and wires feeding from them into the outer areas of the device.  But in the very centre, a tiny ball of purple-black material, glowing a soft blue, hung suspended in mid-air.  This was the "Element Zero", then.  It was clearly degraded somehow - the schematics demanded that it be much larger.  Inon reasoned that it was likely through overuse.  The machine was only a prototype, and had presumably been in operation since before the Lethargy.  A span of several years without even routine maintenance would take its toll on even the most expertly designed and technically advanced machinery.

Inon pulled up what files he could on Element Zero.  Most were restricted in the same manner as the Lethargy files - access to Flinn alone.  But he knew enough from the basic description that it could safely be handled, if the machine was disconnected.

He still had no idea where the machine was drawing its power from, or why it would be affecting Flinn in this way.  For that matter, he couldn't fathom why Flinn would have a miniaturised version of this Element Zero core embedded in his spine, but he saw this as his only option.  There was no way that Flinn would survive moving through the Lethargic wall if he was already unconscious, so he needed to be awake.

Inon sighed again, his resolve set firm, and entered the shutdown sequence for the Element Zero, carefully leaving other systems online.  He wanted Flinn to be able to access the files contained therein when... if he woke up.  They would be invaluable to Dragoon Knight and the other researchers back in Freelancer.

As the final shutdown command was entered, Inon's face became a rictus of fear and incomprehension.  The consoles immediately went dark.  A clunk from within the core signified that the Element Zero had lost its suspension.  The telltale sound of power loss slowly flowed away into silence; fans spinning down, capacitors draining...

"Inon?!" came a cry from the office behind the stricken Commander.  Relief and joy momentarily replaced fear - it was the voice of Commander Flinn.

"Flinn, you're alive!  I knew it had to-"

"Inon, what have you done?" he asked, the blue glow of the Element Zero fading to darkness.  "What have you done?"

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The night rolled on. Dawn lurked beneath the horizon, yet the city below still swayed to the beat of midnight revelry. Vierna Wayku watched from her window, remembering a time when she might have observed from the city walls. Fires flickered before and behind her eyes, causing them to glitter enigmatically.

She turned away, perturbed by her reflection in the glass. Her room was small, basic without being austere. She sat on the bed, felt her heart sink as she caught sight of her scorched armour. It was undamaged but badly marked, would take hours to clean properly. Her helmet was still missing, abandoned in the time-locked archive. She lay back, staring at the ceiling. Flames and blue imps danced before her eyes. A mysterious machine, runes daubed in blood.

She sat up again, annoyed by her own restlessness. She should have been asleep hours ago, she expected to be awoken early, yet sleep remained firmly set against her. She sighed, stood and paced back to the window. The fires burned on, the dancers threw their shadows wantonly against the castle walls.

A faint sound from behind drew her attention. A muffled noise, suspicious in that there was nothing soft in the corridor outside her room, the floor being bare stone.

Unhesitating, Vierna stole over to the door to press her ear against the keyhole. A footfall, gentle as a spider's, sounded from outside. She waited, mind blank, for a full minute before she opened the door. Snatching up her scabbard, she drew her sword and hurried from her room.

She was no sneakthief, had been trained to fight noisily in order to draw the attention of her fellow guards, and so relied on distance to remain unobserved. She saw not a whisker of her target as she tailed him first out of the servant's quarters then down a long staircase into the kitchens.

Dante's fortress in fact held several kitchens, each serving a different wing. The servant's kitchen was small and the only one without a single window. It was still, lit by a single candle when Vierna passed through. She extinguished it, lest her shadow give her away.

Her target - almost certainly a dark elf, though Vierna berated herself for the racist assumption - was moving more slowly than expected, suggesting a thief in possession of noisy loot that he was obliged to smother. Vierna followed, pausing at regular intervals in order to give him time to draw ahead.

Eventually the pause between footfalls stretched long enough that her target must have stopped. Vierna crept forward, thankful that stone floors wouldn't creak as wood might.

She dared not draw too close for fear that she would give herself away. More than one city guardsman had betrayed themself by peering around a corner only to receive a boot in the face. Instead she waited, counting heartbeats, until she could no longer detect even the slightest trace of the invader. She crept forward, a brush of air on her lips telling her that something had moved ahead. She quickened her pace. As she approached the corner she drew away from the wall - if her target was expecting her, he would expect her to look around the corner carefully. By standing in the middle of the corridor she would be seen earlier, but would see her opponent before he was able to attack her. Holding her sword at the ready, she turned the corner.

The door lay ajar, prevented from closing by a thin strip of metal. The door itself was large and metallic, heavy and studded with locking mechanisms. All of them had been disabled or broken. Vierna knelt down to examine the metal, having first checked that there was nobody waiting to spring an ambush behind her. It had been placed so that removing it would cause the door to swing shut, probably with a loud clang. If the door itself was pushed open, the metal would fall with a similar noise. So someone suspected that they were being followed, but was in too much of a hurry to turn back. Vierna took the weight of the door, pulled the metal strip away and pushed the door open.

She was at her most vulnerable, crouched with a metal strip in one hand and the other opening the door. No attack came, however, and she slipped into the room without incident, replacing the metal strip as she moved inward.

The sliver of light from the corridor was barely enough to see by, but enough to show a shadow stood against it. She moved away, deeper into darkness, following shelves of hidden goods.

She was now certain that she was following a dark elf: only they and the vampires were capable of seeing in complete darkness, and the latter would have behaved very differently. For a start, had Vierna been tailing a vampire she would have been detected by smell a long time ago. Possibly killed, though the bloodsuckers were viciously self-policing in that regard. Any individual who made unlife difficult for their peers by murdering their victims was likely to be quietly yet firmly removed and "dealt with" by the rest of the community.

Coming back to herself, Vierna paused as a muted hiss sounded in front of her. Maybe twenty feet away, behind a shelf. A bright glow emanated from the area. Unusual: a dark elf would not need light to see what they were doing. In the city she would have called for backup by now, but in the upper floors of the fortress there were no guards at all, let alone companions who would know the shrill whistle of a comrade in distress. She had only one option, and was not even sure it would work. Nevertheless, she steeled herself for the coming confrontation. Standing upright, she held her sword ready.

"Lights!" Vierna shattered the silence of the room, flooding it with light as chemical relays snapped shut, bathing the room in blue-green luminescence. She dashed forward, glimpsing her quarry through a gap in the shelf before rounding the corner. He lay hunched on the floor, hands covering his eyes. Black skin and white hair confirmed his species, much to Vierna's irritation. She advanced cautiously, taking in the scene.

The first thing she saw was the hole, five feet wide, through which shone the light of motionless flames. On the floor below she saw exactly the same kind of box that Dante has destroyed in the archive. A fallen knife and a half-finished circle of runes completed the picture, chilling her blood as she realised just what she had stumbled upon.

She had no time to consider her options as the elf sprang silently from the ground, aiming a swipe at her face. She ducked, parrying a second strike from the other hand. The elf did not retreat but slashed again, two blows that she narrowly deflected. He was dazed, she could see, blinded by the sudden light. She pressed forward, was driven back by a flurry of slashes and stabs. Though his left hand was bleeding profusely, presumably providing the blood for the circle, the sneak fought with wordless ferocity. Vierna was thankful that she had sparred in practice so often, for most of her comrades in the watch would have been lost without the protection of their heavy armour. She parried, thrust, dodged, ducked as her assailant threw something from the shelves at her.

His dagger slipped in his bloody grip, unbalancing him for a split second. It was enough, so that Vierna leaned forward to stab him neatly in the shoulder. He cursed in his native language, dropping the blade as his arm went limp. His other arm drew back, whiplike, and let fly the other knife. It grazed Vierna's cheek as she threw herself to one side.

Knowing better than to assume the man was now weaponless, she paused before advancing. He was growing accustomed to the light, blinking less often. She was about to press her advantage while it lasted when a second man stepped out of the air.

This one was tall, broad-shouldered and armoured in leather and mail. He aimed a swipe at the elf's midsection, missed, punched at the face and scored a glancing blow. Knocked to one side, the elf stumbled. The man moved forward to finish the fight, but Vierna recognised the stumble as a feint, a common trick in the back alleys of TGED to lure an opponent into letting their guard down. Already the elf was reaching for something hidden in his belt.

Shouting a warning, Vierna launched herself forward. The elf's expression changed to one of surprise as she stabbed him through the throat, her sword scraping against his neck bones before puncturing through the other side. He gurgled once, slid off her blade to the floor. Seconds later he was dead.

The newcomer did not look surprised so much as disappointed.

"Well done, Vierna." He nodded in her direction, not taking his eyes from the corpse.

"Sir." She saluted out of habit.

"At ease." The man muttered automatically. Vierna recognised him as Marshal Ghobey, the commander of TGED's combined armies. Outranked only by the warlord himself, the man who had intervened on her behalf was examining the humming plasteel box. After a minute's careful observation he slid open a panel and keyed in a sequence of digits. The humming ceased as something within the box went twang.

"Is everything alright?" A voice spoke from the air. Vierna recognised this as Lillian, the blonde woman who oversaw the day-to-day running of TGED and was said by rumour to be carefully planning a second breeding program.

"There was a second saboteur. He's been dealt with." The Marshal replied, sounding tired. "Send a forensics team down here, they'll want to take samples." He paused. "Will you wake Dante?"

Lillian was silent for a time. Eventually her voice returned, "Yes, he'll want to oversee a tightening of security."

The Marshal sagged. "I was afraid you'd say that."

"I see that Vierna is with you." Lillian continued. "Vierna, I'm going to send an escort to take you back to your room. We'll have some que-"

"I'll take her." Marshal Ghobey interrupted. Lillian paused.

"Very well. Forensics are at the door, let them know when they can come in."

The Marshal set his jaw, stared into the middle distance for a moment. He turned to face Vierna with something approaching a smile. "Leave your sword here, the forensics crew will want to have a look at it." He gestured in the direction of the door, "After you."

They walked in silence to the door, where a group of thin men and women waited outside. They were a disturbing crew, largely composed of vampires and androids. The latter were a rare sight in TGED, having proven unpopular when they arrived from Matrix Rising. Like the vampires they largely kept to their own district of the city, and were by and large left alone.

Marshal Ghobey held the door as the crew entered, their expressions varying from disinterest through eagerness to irritation. Two of them stayed behind to examine the broken locks. The Marshal left them to it, leading Vierna down the corridor that she had crept along just minutes before.

"Why didn't you call for help? Everything in the castle is monitored, save for personal chambers." The Marshal commented. He appeared to have difficulty softening his voice, Vierna noticed. She remembered him shouting orders in public training exercises, considered the awe that she had held him in then.

"I didn't want to alert him, or give him time to escape me." She answered, adding "Sir."

"It's Darius in private." The Marshal corrected her awkwardly. Vierna was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Marshal had difficulty being personal. He continued, "But you attacked him when you saw what he was doing?"

"No, I initiated contact without knowing what he was doing, but with reasonable suspicion that it was dangerous." Vierna answered.

"Spoken like a guardsman." Darius smiled slightly. "Do you know who he was?"

"No... Darius. I've never seen him before." Vierna felt a hot flush spread across her face. She did not want to make herself a fool in front of a councillor, was aware that part of her mind was whispering that he was very handsome. Even if he was old enough to be her father. She stepped onto a narrow staircase, took the lead as they ascended.

"Why were you following him in the first place?" Darius asked. So this was an interrogation then.

"I heard a noise. It was... suspicious." The hot flush grew. Vierna was thankful that the back of her neck was hidden by her hair. "I felt it in my gut." She added defiantly.

"Dante puts a lot of stock in instinct." Darius replied neutrally. He didn't give her time to consider the implications. "Why didn't you apprehend him at once, if it sounded suspicious?"

"He was very good. I didn't want him to escape. And I wanted to catch him in the act."

"I see."

Again he was being enigmatic. Probably not deliberately, but it was frustrating all the same. "Am I under suspicion?"

"Probably." He sounded unconcerned. "You were nearby during both attempts, both of which were initiated after your arrival. You were seen crouching over J'invy, then killed the second attacker, possibly to stop him from talking." This last was said with a noticeable grimace. Reaching the correct floor, Vierna turned back to regard him. He forestalled her before she could speak. "I know you can explain your actions. What I want you to tell me is, would any of the guards out on the walls would have done the same as you?" He stood like a soldier, shoulders back, arms apparently loose but ever ready to move. Vierna considered her answer carefully.

"No." She said at last. "Protocol would require that pursuit be carried out with company, or that superior officers were alerted."

"You can alert the council to a security problem simply by calling." Darius informed her. "Observe: Lillian!" He barked, his voice naturally slipping into a more comfortable register. After a moment the woman's voice sounded again, sounding strained.


"Are you listening to us?" Darius asked, with what Vierna could have sworn was the slightest trace of mirth.

"I have better things to do than second-guess you, Darius." Lillian sighed. "It turns out that elf had enough explosives rigged to him to obliterate everything in a thirty metre radius. Even accounting for the floors, it could have destroyed the central archive."

"Understood, Lillian. Thank you." The marshal's reply was gentler this time. Lillian did not respond.

"As I was saying." Darius continued as he started to walk again, "the fortress, the council and Dante are closely intertwined with each other, and to a lesser extent with the thread as a whole. We imported powerful magic from other threads, to such an extent that it largely overshadows physical technology." Again the slight grimace, as though the marshal disapproved but could not bring himself to admit it. "Among the many effects is a detection of intent. If I mention Lillian to you she will not pick up on it unless she is already listening, it is only when I wish to speak to her that I do so. The same is true of anyone inside the keep."

"So I could have called for help?" Vierna shook her head. "I suspected he was an elf, and I know elves have good hearing. I couldn't afford to give myself away like that."

"Oh no? What if he had ambushed you?"

"I would have seen it coming. And you saw that I can defend myself." Vierna said, already mortified at how petulant she must have sounded. Darius merely nodded without looking at her.

They walked the remaining distance to her room in silence. Darius opened the door for her. Flustered, she thanked him and went inside. He noticed an extended pause between the door closing and the lock clicking shut.

Making his way down the corridor back in the direction of the upper floors, Darius Ghobey attempted to clear his head. He disliked teleportation, saw it as one of the worst effects of the new magic, but it had been necessary earlier. Now he was damned well going to use his own two legs. He strode, taking an unconscious pleasure in the sound of his footsteps.

Vierna Wayku had twice been in the wrong place at the wrong time, of that he was convinced. He was not concerned for her. If he was any judge - and he was - she had a bright future ahead of her indeed. No, the thought that he turned over in his mind as he marched the apprehension away was simply why? Why would it be her, and why else would she have twice been in the same area if not deliberately? It was a question that he felt needed an answer, which was all the more frustrating in that he already knew that none would be forthcoming. Dante put a lot of stock in instinct, and Darius maintained a healthy respect for his own. Lillian would find nothing at all out of the ordinary about Vierna, of that he was sure.

Again, Darius felt the uncomfortable pressure of uncertainty gnaw at his mind. It was unfamiliar, and all the more unwelcome for it. Since he awoke from the Lethargy Darius held felt... detached in a way that he never had before. He was noticing things that made him question his motives as well as those of his comrades. His determination, strength, was drained in a way that he did not yet understand. It galled him. He thought again of the corpse, pierced through the neck with a sharpened blade. He wondered how that would sound if it were to start talking again.

Grim thoughts. Uncomfortable thoughts. Darius found himself outside his own chamber.

He would, he considered, request that Lillian join him tomorrow night. She always knew the right thing to say, had soothed his concerns without patronising them every time he shared them with her. Her recent preoccupation with the Lethargy had drained her, however, of time and enthusiasm. Like him, she was not the same person that she had been before.

It occurred to him suddenly that perhaps Lillian too had problems. She never spoke of them, but then since the Lethargy they had spent only one night together. Yes, Darius reflected, it was high time that he asked Lillian about her troubles. Making a mental note - he never forgot such things - Darius started to make his bed. At his window, the sun peeked over the horizon.

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Inon had only been gone for around fifteen minutes, but it had been enough time for Melinda to rest somewhat.  She had ordered each of the Gamers under her temporary command to take a dose of stimulant and to gather together; eat rations, try to make a fire.  Anything to allow her to cease projecting a field of energy for a while, and focus her energies inwards.

Being a Dragoon, Melinda was enormously resilient.  Her abilities should have offered her almost limitless energy, and she cursed her circumstances for denying her that level of power.  First and foremost was the Lethargy; there was no atmospheric excitation anymore, so any natural source of lightning was out of the question.  Then there was the incident at Freelancer - the Lethargic Purge, where Dragoon Knight had used the combined power of several Dragoons (including her) to push back the Lethargy beyond the boundaries of the city.  It was necessary, she reminisced, but it was not him who bore the cost.

Her powers were weakened.  Part of her... essence had been used in that purge.  Burned away as the only source of energy potent enough for Dragoon Knight to harness.  She felt like half a person now, but it only made her more determined to push herself.  There was no way that Dragoon Knight would have sent her on this mission if he didn't think she could handle it.

Her meditation hadn't been as restorative as she had hoped.  Surreptitiously taking a stimulant herself, she relaxed as her Dragoon physiology accepted and metabolised it.  It wasn't until her entire body felt the renewing effects, that Melinda realised just how fatigued she had been.  It would explain why even the ranks of Lieutenants and Dragoons had fallen victim to the Lethargy in the first place; never realising that you were growing tired, until you placed your head in your hands and closed your eyes for just a second too long.

Melinda stood up, as rested as she could reasonably expect to be.  Turning back towards the domed building that Inon had entered, she grimaced.  It would be some time before she was able to summon forth enough energy to permeate that barrier again, rested or not.  She cast her vision to her left and right, her frown lifting slightly into a quizzical expression.

She walked casually to the side, keeping her eyes on the area that had been marked as the wall's boundary.  She sighted along a straight line from her previous position, parallel to the boundaries of the wall that she had previously ascertained.  She flicked a small bolt of lightning from her thumb and forefinger towards where she expected the wall to be, and was pleased to see her suspicions confirmed.  The wall surrounded the domed building.

Melinda looked around again.  The troops were finishing their meal, but the meagre fire they had managed to construct was still burning.  She closed her eyes and focused for a moment - a burst of bright purple light erupted from her back as she summoned her Dragoon wings.

The majority of the Gamers turned to see what was happening.  "I need to check something, " Melinda answered their gazes, lifting from the ground a few feet.  "Remain here."

She ascended vertically for a few moments, before flicking another bolt of electricity towards the wall.  Again, it went slightly further than a flat plane would allow for.

"A hemisphere, " she said to herself, and began to cautiously fly around the building, double checking her findings before landing next to the assembled troops once again.

"Alright, that's enough rest for now, " she announced, her wings disappearing in an inward flash of light.  "We're not going to wait around doing nothing while the Commander is inside."

She pointed to a small group of Gamers who were tending to those who had encountered the wall.  "You will remain here and provide aid to anyone else who begins to suffer from exposure.  The rest of you, begin a methodical search of the buildings immediately surrounding this one.  I want to know more about what happened here."

A round of muted acknowledgments answered her, and the Gamers began to organise themselves into groups.  Melinda turned back towards the dome itself.  Whatever was causing this barrier was inside that building - it was the only logical assumption to make, given the shape of the Lethargic field.  But Inon wouldn't want her risking her life - not to mention the lives of the troops - in some ill-advised attempt at disrupting the barrier.  The most she could do is try to learn more of its origins.

For the next hour, Melinda moved among the groups of Gamers, garnering information from each of the search teams and ensuring that none of them went without the effects of her aura for too long.  With everyone spread out, it was difficult for her to stay in any one place for too long.  The dome of Lethargy prevented her presence from extending as far as it normally would, and the last thing she needed was to start losing more people.

The situation was similar to that in Freelancer - data storage had long since replaced the classic methods of pen and paper, so there was no documentation to be found.  Attempts to power up the various devices present in the buildings Melinda encountered resulted in failure every time.  Either her aura wasn't powerful enough, or the equipment had been damaged beforehand.

It was only when she came across a group who appeared to be doing nothing that Melinda began to make any headway.

"What's the problem here?" she asked as she approached.  The last group she had left had begun to show signs of weariness, so she had instructed them to use a dose of stimulants.  She hoped that this group weren't deteriorating as well.  She was considering the prospect of calling the search off - it had yielded no results thus far - and gathering the troops again, when one of the Gamers responded.

"This building is locked, ma'am, " the soldier explained.

"Locked?  There's no electricity.  The magnetic locks should be offline."

"Everywhere else, sure, " agreed the soldier, proceeding to walk over to the door and giving it a forceful tug.  It moved a fraction, before sticking with a loud clunk.

"A deadbolt?" Melinda said incredulously.  In a thread full of technology, something this simple was out of the ordinary to say the least.

"We don't have the tools to break through, " another Gamer chimed in, "and, to be honest, not one of us is feeling up to shouldering it."

Melinda nodded towards the new voice.  "You're all ordered to take a dose of stimulant, " she said to the group as a whole, then to the second soldier, "and you're to go inform the rest of the groups to do the same.  Do it in relay - I don't want you running the entire perimeter yourself."

"Acknowledged, " the second soldier said, moving off at a jog, reaching for a vial as she ran.

While the rest of the group followed suit, Melinda motioned for those nearest the door to move back.

"Flurry of Styx should do it..." she said to herself.  A ball of purple energy began to form around each of her hands; as she closed them to fists, the light intensified.  She approached the door and dropped to a fighting stance.

Her left fist shot out to strike the door at the spot between the two hinges, followed immediately by her right, which was directed at the door's handle.  Both of these areas crumpled as though they had been hit by sledgehammers, with the handle falling to the ground.  But Melinda wasn't finished.

She drew both of her hands backwards and to her right, positioning them near her waist and tensing her arms, before thrusting them both forwards with a crack of thunder towards the centre of the door.  This last punch connected with such force that the door was blasted inwards; what was now evident as several inches of steel careened into the building, hitting the opposite wall with a metallic thud.

Dust and metal shavings formed a thin cloud around the entrance, blocking her view for a few moments.  It slowly cleared, and Melinda motioned for half of the group to follow her inside.  Whatever was contained, secured or - she thought tentatively - imprisoned in this building had to be important.

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Wolf padded through the town gates, sparing the fallen sentries a glance. They slumbered on as he passed, pikes rusting in their hands. The buildings were simple wooden structures, whitewashed where they met the main street to give a pleasent impression of cleanliness. Cobbles lined with straw led in a straight line from the gate toward some large building in the centre of town, probably the town hall or place of worship.

The sun shone brightly today, and Wolf had run hard the previous night. With luck the creature would not catch up with him until dusk, when he would run on. In the meantime he resolved to explore this new town.

His curiosity had already been piqued by the sentries, and now he confirmed his thoughts as he stooped over to sniff a fallen woman. Both she and the guards were almost entirely healthy, with no signs of muscular atrophy and only the faintest whiff of the onset of starvation. The woman had been carrying a basket, inside of which there was a pheasent - dry, but edible - and a block of cheese. Wolf pondered the mystery as he chewed.

In every town he had visited he had found death. Every man, woman and child had fallen to sleep and died where they fell, apparently several months later. That their food did not spoil and their bodies remained free of disease suggested that the natural processes of rot and infection were also arrested, which also explained the near-perfect preservation of their bodies. That few appeared to have died from exposure Wolf attributed to the unseasonably warm weather.

He passed men slumped in doorways, women draped across stalls of aged food. Long-dried horse dung lay just behind a collapsed carriage, sleeping horse still harnessed to the front.

And that was the thing. Wolf stopped, pressed a paw deliberately onto the horse's face. It snorted, leaned away. It should have been dead, the whole town should have been dead, yet here they were, sleeping.

Had the creature, or something like it, already passed through the town? Wolf dismissed the option immediately, the creature killed whatever it touched. Could the town have had a protector, like Wolf himself, who had departed and left them to their fate? Possible, but without further evidence he was reluctant to jump to conclusions.

A grubby child stirred as he passed. Wolf paused, drew closer. Almost imperceptably, the child's breathing changed. To Wolf's sensitive ears it sounded as though he was starting to wake up. He drew away, watched the child's breathing slow, become regular once more. 'Yet another datum to consider.' He thought as he wandered on.

He entered a large, open space that could have been the town square. In front of him loomed the building that was probably the town hall, boasting a clockwork that was still functioning. Perhaps it had a power supply that resisted the energy-draining. Or perhaps someone was still awake inside. Resolved to investigate, Wolf crossed the square without a sideways glance, taking the steps in a single bound.

The doors were open, the antechamber littered with dust and windblown debris. He left footprints on tiled floors as he passed through a simple hall, past sleeping clerks and petitioners.

Finding some steps, he started to climb. No signs of life yet, but whatever mechanism was keeping that clock active, albeit not accurately, was sure to be somewhere in the belltower. As luck would have it, the tower rose right out of the central staircase. Wolf climbed quickly, the sound of the creaking, clacking mechanism echoing down the narrow passage.

The discovery proved to be a disappointment. Far from indicating a new and useful power source, the clockwork was simply self-winding. It was running down too, would probably cease to function in a matter of days. Disheartened, Wolf made his way back to the square outside.

Upon leaving the building his eye was caught by a large stone carving in the centre of the square, a statue on a sizable plinth.

He approached it, noting the cluster of people around the statue's base. They were not in ritual garb, nor did they appear to be in possession of any sacrifices. They might have been engaging in a ritual when they fell, but Wolf suspected that had not been the case. The townsfolk appeared to simply have been sitting on the stone benches that surrounded the base of the statue. Stone, Wolf noted, that was notably absent elsewhere. Of all the structures in the town, only the town hall and this statue were of stone. Everything else that he could see was wood.

"What's so special about you then?" He asked the statue, aware that he had been talking to himself more often of late. The statue did not answer, but stared out at the town gates with an expression of cheerful satisfaction.

It was slightly above life size, emphasised even more by the plinth - itself as tall as a man. The statue was of a short male with a full beard and a stocky build. He held his hands on his hips above a belt which held a gun and a small hatchet. The man's expression, his entire composure, suggested a patient readiness.

There was an inscription on the base, but it had long ago faded to illegibility. Strange that the statue should be so well preserved, yet the name allowed to fade. There was something important about this statue, of that Wolf was now sure. The feeling he had felt about the clockwork had been misdirected; it was the statue that was important, he had just been distracted by the noise.

It faced outward, away from the town hall. It faced the gates, welcoming? No, the smile was too confident, the pose too guarded. It was as though the statue stood to welcome friends and threaten enemies, almost as if it was a guard. Wolf's eyes widened. Was that it? He looked more closely at the statue. There was, now that he cared to notice it, a faint reassurance in its very presence. Merely looking upon it suggested feelings of wellbeing and safety.

Wolf stepped back, acknowledging the statues soverignity over its town and its people. He had considered the possibility of staying, waking the people as he had in FED2K Chess. Instead he turned to leave, hoping to make a decent run before nightfall. The people of this unknown town in General already had a guardian.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There was no light inside the freshly unsealed building.  The only illumination came from the rising sun, shooting lances of dust-filled incandescence across the floor.  As Melinda and a small retinue of Gamers moved inside, their bodies cast ominous shadows.  The Dragoon steeled her mind, chasing away fleeting feelings of trepidation and a sense of foreboding.  This was not the time to start letting fear dictate matters.

She motioned to her left and right, silently instructing individual Gamers to fan out in those directions, while Melinda and two others moved deeper into the heart of the structure.  There was a ground floor, plus one above it, but nothing more.  The entire building seemed to be a warehouse of some description.  Judging from the scattered remnants of equipment that could be seen in the silhouetted silence, it had once been a fairly large technical hub.  Everything remained inactive; much of it wasn't even connected to power outlets.  Whatever had been in here had been removed in a hurry.

It was only a matter of time before someone encountered what Melinda had expected to find from the outset.  Two aspects differed from the scenario she had envisioned, however.  Firstly, she did not expect to find the first motionless body herself, sitting on its haunches, collapsing to the ground as she brushed against it with her knee.  Despite her self-calming techniques, a gasp of shock escaped from between Melinda's lips, while the muffled crumpling of limbs was enough to stop everyone else in their tracks.

Melinda regained her composure.  This thread was beginning to grate on her nerves, though she suspected the stimulants were playing no small role in her increased anxiety.  She kneeled down, allowing a ball of violet light to form around her right hand, while she rolled the body onto its back with her left.

"Hells below, " Melinda exclaimed in a whisper, the second unexpected outcome presenting itself.  "This one's still alive!"

"Done?  I... I don't-" Inon stuttered, unable to grasp the fullness of the situation.  Flinn was conscious, mobile and apparently livid.

"You've... the reactor.  You disabled.  You..." Flinn stumbled on his words, visibly exerting effort in trying to get his point across.  "The memories..."

"Flinn, what did I do?  What is this place?" Inon asked, trying to get his thoughts in order.  He had only shut down the element zero!  There was no reason he could fathom for the entire apparatus to be disabled.

"I don't remember, I don't remember!" he shouted, equal parts frustration and anger.  The apparatus on the back of his neck, along with the various cabling webbed across his torso, flickered an almost imperceptible blue.

"Flinn, calm down.  Try to recall.  What is that you have attached to your body?"

Flinn looked down at his chest, grabbed a bundle of fibrous cables with a look of surprise and confusion.  "I knew the answers!"

"What's the last thing you remember clearly?"

Inon had barely finished asking the question when the sound of tortured metal all around him derailed his train of thought.  The metal dome of the roof had just buckled inwards a foot or so in several places, and continued to creak dangerously.

"The wall?  It's above us, too?" he asked himself.  Flinn took it as directed towards him.

"What wall?  What's going on?  Why can't I remember what's happened to me?!"

"Flinn, this building isn't safe, we need to leave," Inon said with granite certainty, as the roof above them caved in another foot.  A section of wall plating near the door through which Inon had entered exploded inwards, then shot towards the reactor.  Inon dived towards the ground, the plate missing him by a narrow margin.  Still at the entrance to the office, Flinn reflexively dropped into a poised battle stance.

Inon coughed once, then pushed himself upwards onto his knees.  He had winded himself, but was otherwise uninjured.  A look at the door, however, hit him as hard as any blow.  It was completely mangled, and becoming moreso with every passing second.  The sound of footsteps to his side and a vague blur indicated that Flinn had just run by him.

"We need to take this, " Flinn announced.  He had taken the last of the element zero from the disabled reactor.  He held it almost reverently, as if some part of him understood its importance.

"Is there another way out of here?" Inon asked, getting to his feet as another section of plating flew from the walls, mercifully distant from the two.  Flinn's arm shot out to his left; the newly awakened Commander looked at it quizzically.

There was no light remaining now; the door was no longer in any shape to admit the Sun's rays, and bar the faint glow from Flinn, the entire dome had turned into a rapidly shrinking metal deathtrap.

Inon stared at Flinn's outstretched arm until he began to lower it.  Then, trusting in Flinn's innate answer, he grabbed it and dragged him out of his reverie.  Together, the two rushed headlong towards the dome's eastern wall, as the world around them collapsed.

"We've got another one!" shouted a Gamer from the first floor.  A series of metal walkways connected platforms above Melinda's head, but the entire building was open plan.

"Again with the suit, " said another one, just loud enough for Melinda to hear.  That meant another survivor wearing an all-over environment suit.  Slender humanoids, with a partially opaque face mask; Melinda couldn't see inside properly, but she guessed that whatever species was in that suit, it wasn't human.

However, humans certainly did constitute the majority of the score or so of survivors that had been located so far.  They wore no such suits; no sort of protection whatsoever, for that matter.

"So why do you live, while the rest of the thread is dead?" she asked their unconscious forms, as they were moved from their various locations around the building.  She had sent a runner to gather the rest of the troops using the same relay tactic as before.  It wasn't long before Gamers started to arrive in increasing numbers.

"Determine among yourselves those showing the least signs of exhaustion, " Melinda ordered once the full retinue had reported in.  "No heroics."

Without further prompting, the troops organised themselves, with those identified as being more resilient giving up a dose of stimulant each.  While there was more than enough willing volunteers, the Dragoon was beginning to worry about their remaining stock.  They would need to head back to Freelancer soon, or risk running out.  She wasn't sure she could bear the burden of keeping everyone awake by herself.

The stimulant was distributed among the survivors, the hiss of injector plates echoing shrilly throughout the silence of the building.  Stifled groans and croaks, alongside pleas for food or water; they were alive.  Melinda allowed her shoulders to slump in a sigh of relaxation.  She paused, standing amid the bustle of Gamers as they set about reviving the last remnants of a thread.  The moment passed, and she moved towards the nearest alien survivor.

It was a woman; however different their physiology, these aliens shared several physical characteristics with humans.  In this case, breasts and wide hips were enough to form a fairly certain analysis.

"What's your name?" Melinda asked, kneeling down to address the female, who was reclining against the wall.  Two Gamers attended to her with the minimum of fuss.

"Jul'lessa nar Hylan, " the alien replied in a voice bearing a slightly modulated tone.

"Jul'lessa, my name is Melinda.  I'm a Dragoon from Freelancer City, representing Dragoon Knight."

"I know.  I recognised your insignia," Jul'lessa replied, pointing to Melinda's armour.  It bore the telltale brand of Freelancer City's coat of arms.

"Our Commander is elsewhere at the moment, " Melinda said with a reassuring smile, worry starting to creep into her mind once more.  It had been a long time since she had sent Inon into that domed building.  "Can you tell us anything about what happened here?"

"My head hurts..." replied the woman, resting her face mask in the palm of her hand.  It only had three digits, Melinda noted.

"It's alright, " the Dragoon soothed, opting to ask a more basic question.  "Might I ask, what species are you?"

Jul'lessa tilted her head in a way that suggested confusion.  "I'm a Quarian, " she said in the same tone one would use to educate a child.

Melinda nodded her thanks, but couldn't recall any mention of the species.  She couldn't rule out the possibility of them being somehow behind all of this.  But if that were the case, why would they fall to the Lethargy as well?  A failed experiment?

"I'm sorry, I can't say I've hea-" Melinda began, but trailed off into silence as she strained her ears.  She was sure she had just heard something.

"Ma'am?" asked one of the nearby Gamers, alert enough to pick up on the change in behaviour.  Melinda quieted him with a gesture, which the Gamer passed on through a series of hand signals to the rest of the group.

There - a grinding, creaking noise.  It was coming from outside.

Melinda got to her feet again and walked swiftly towards the door.  Once outside, she had to squint against the glare of the rising Sun, but once her sight returned, so did her feeling of fear.

The domed building's roof was dented badly, with more appearing with disturbing regularity.  But more worrying than that was the previously invisible wall of Lethargy.  It was roiling.

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Vierna rose early. Unable to sleep and missing her sword, she busied herself by rubbing the soot from her armour. As expected, her breakfast was delivered to her room. A note beneath her toast informed her that the fortress was in lockdown, the corridors sealed. Nobody was to leave their rooms until further notice. She ate slowly, chewing until there was no more to chew. When breakfast was finished she returned to her armour. She had managed to clean most of the grime from her gauntlets by the time a knock sounded on her door.

"Enter." She called, standing quickly.

Unexpectedly, her visitor stepped out of the door without opening it. He was human, sort of. She could see the door through the back of his head, indeed he was mostly translucent.

"Lord?" The question escaped before she knew it.

"No. Simply a... facet. My name is Dust Scout." The ghost smiled patiently. The spitting image of the warlord himself, he bowed politely and held out his hand. "Dante has requested that you join the council as an observer to this morning's interrogation."

"Who's being interrogated?" Vierna asked, thankful that she had showered and dressed appropriately.

"Leaders in the dark elven community." The ghost answered, prompting her to breathe a small sigh of relief. "Last night's attacks were both carried out by elven agents, it suggests a common root which we are determined to pull up."

"I see." Vierna hesitated just as she was about to take his hand. "Um, will my hand go through you?" The ghost smiled and raised his hand to meet hers.

"Normally, it would." He said as the shadows lengthened.

They parted to reveal a great chamber, lit by late morning sunlight from huge windows which stretched almost to the ceiling. Despite the size of the windows the room still seemed shadowy, cornices and dark stonework hidden beneath unlit candles. The centre of the hall was taken up by a massive round table, around which were spaced seven chairs. Four of them were occupied. As the ghost slipped into one chair, another rolled out of the stone table. The other seven shifted to make room for the new entry, spacing each of them equidistantly from each other. At a nod from Dante, Vierna took the new seat, glancing around apprehensively as she did so.

Here were the most powerful people in TGED, their public faces discarded. Any one of them could ensure that she was never heard from again. Now that she was sat at the table with the council, all of whom seemed decidedly uninterested in her, the possibility that she might find herself under observation was becoming very real.

"Progress." Dante's voice cut through her worries like a cold knife. "Tell me you have something, Lillian, I am not in a mood to give the vampires their wish."

"No further developments as yet." Lillian reported, her statuesque face carefully neutral. Rumours surrounded this woman like flies, of all the councillors she was the most secretive. She was said to be the lover of almost every other figure of power, or even the true power behind the throne of TGED. She was an object of fear and respect, whispered to be immortal and forever beautiful. She was blonde, pale, and wore a red dress. Vierna thought that she looked tired.

"None?" One of the figures was represented by a hologram of a man in bed, hovering above his chair. "We found several possible venues, has nothing occured there?"

"These people appear to have had access to the armoury." Lillian continued, prompting the speaker to hiss through his teeth. "Everywhere we look we find concealing runes and electromagnetic scramblers. It's going to take time to investigate them all on foot. In the meantime," here she looked directly at Vierna, pinning her to her seat, "we have picked up two living associates of the two deceased saboteurs." From the centre of the table shone a green glow, outlining two figures in holographic form. Both sat on a bench of some sort, attached by loose manacles. They looked up, apparently able to see the council. Both were dark elves, male, and wore expressions of surly resentment.

"Names?" Queried Darius.

"Vargus and Iwill, street names both." Lillian gestured, causing the hologram to rotate to face Dante.

"Good morning." Dante addressed the elves, one of whom lazily saluted while the other awkwardly looked away. "I suppose you know why you were arrested?"

"'On suspicion of conspiracy.'" One of them replied sardonically.

"And you are...?"

"Iwill, sir." The elf smirked, nudging his companion. "Not my given name, as the lovely councillor said, but ask anyone on the street and they'll know me."


"Famous!" Iwill grinned, rattling his chains. "Why everyone knows me, excepting yourselves what has better things to know." To Vierna's surprise, Dante looked directly at her.

"Vierna, do you know either of these two?" He asked. The answer was forming before she knew it.

"Yes, sir, I recognise them both. Vargus is a labourer with convictions for petty thievery, Iwill is an associate, shop owner and information broker. Unconfirmed rumours suggest that he buys and sells stolen goods."

"Slander!" Iwill protested, though his smile did not diminish. "My criminal record is so clean as to be invisible! It does not exist!"

"Thank you Vierna." Something in Dante's voice hinted that she had just passed a test, though she was at a loss to explain how. "Iwill, you may be aware that the fortress was attacked last night. Two dark elves were involved. What do you know about that?"

"That the fortress was attacked last night and that two dark elves were involved." Iwill replied. "I assure you, lord, I am not responsible for the actions of every elf in the thread."

"But you know about them."

"Not in this case."

"Really? You have a reputation for knowing things, did nobody tell you about the explosives being moved about in the elven district?"

"They must have wanted to keep it secret."

"Who would know, if not you?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say."

"Try." Dante's voice went hard. Iwill paused, seemed to mull the question over.

"The only person who knows everything about what we do is Rai'guy." Vargus offered, his voice nasal as though he had a cold.

"That's true, that's very true!" Iwill agreed. "Shame he's not here at the moment." The sound of his chains went abruptly silent as the hologram froze.

"This is pointless." Lillian sighed. "We can't pin anything on them until we have evidence, and they're just going to deny everything until then."

"He made a good point though." Darius spoke up. "The sophistication and planning of the attacks suggests a long period of preparation. I find it difficult to believe that Rai'guy would not have been aware of an undercurrent of violence in his community."

"Even if it arose since he left, he must have known they had the wherewithall to obtain those supplies." J'invy agreed. There was silence.

"Are you saying that Rai'guy could have had a hand in this?" The ghost uttered in a rare contribution.

"...It's worth considering." Lillian nodded. The hologram shifted at Dante's gesture, blinking as the image reformed around the two men.

"You will be held in custody pending further investigation." The warlord told them. "Any questions?"

"Do I get a phone call?" Iwill asked hopefully.

"Certainly." Dante nodded. "I will see you gentlemen soon, I hope." The hologram vanished before either could reply. He continued, "Next item. Prevention of further attacks. Interior security clearly isn't up to the task and I would rather not resort to beefing up the intent array so that it actually reads minds. Suggestions?" He looked around the table.

"The intent array is our best option, sir." The man in the bed, J'invy, spoke up. "Even if only temporarily, it would allow any hostile thought to be detected and stopped."

"Thought police is a step too far." Darius shook his head, much to Vierna's relief. "Surely there's a way to monitor the whereabouts of castle staff without intruding on their privacy like that. Checkpoints perhaps, or passes that could be carried."

"Anything than can be made can be copied." Lillian disagreed.

"Checkpoints then."

"Where? And how would we know whom to trust?" J'invy sighed. "Thought detection is the only way to be sure."

"Um, excuse me." Vierna was shocked to find that the words were hers. All eyes turned to face her. Nobody said anything. She soldiered on. "Well, I just thought that- you remember Roman, the vampire who arrived a while back? He brought with him a human and a body. The body is alive though, it's called Felicity."

"The mummy." Dante nodded, apparently familiar with the news that had been all the rage amongst the city gossips. "Are you suggesting..." He tailed off, settling for an expectant expression.

"Roman has said that she's a very powerful psychic. If he's to be believed, she would have the ability to detect hostile thoughts within the fortress." Vierna said.

"That's as bad as the intent array." The ghost commented.

"Not really." Vierna continued. The intent array is a construction, magical perhaps but a machine nonetheless. It can be altered, opened, read. If a living brain monitors thoughts rather than a spell then the only way to get infomation from that brain, assuming that she is even able to truly read minds, is to ask it or attack it. In either case the evidence left behind would be far more useful than fingerprints on the array. The only weak point that I can see is that it requires us to put a newcomer in a position of trust and power." She fell silent. Each of the councillors looked thoughtful, though Darius wore a frown.

"Very good, Vierna." Lillian offered a rare smile. "As it happens I've had a team watching the trio in order to avoid a repeat of that unfortunate first contact. None of them has consented to be seperated from the other two and nobody has yet asked the pertinant questions, but Felicity does appear to be a powerful psychic. She communicates telepathically and has demonstrated the ability to read minds at a distance of at least forty metres. Worryingly, she is said to also possess a degree of mind controlling ability."

"Wait now, mind control?" Darius leaned forward. "This could be very important! What if Iwill was telling the truth, and the dark elves know nothing of the attacks on the archive? What if they were carried out by innocents enslaved by this psychic zombie? The attacks started soon after she arrived, after all."

"Possible." Dante nodded. "However, Ungolus seemed less than repentent when we talked with him. Any influence she had would have been lost when he died."

"Reprogramming?" The ghost raised spectral eyebrows.

"If she's powerful enough to do that then she's being needlessly subtle about her attack." Dante shook his head. "Anyone capable of a reprogramming that permanent would have no trouble assaulting the fortress with our own army."

"In either case, I think we should take her in for questioning." Lillian said decisively, cutting off further debate. "If she knows anything about the attack, or if she can somehow prevent further examples, we need to speak with her."

"Agreed." Dante nodded. "It's a shame we don't have anything close to a psychic department in the city."

"I'll find the best protection we have. Perhaps send machines." Lillian made a node on a panel in front of her. Vierna noted that the stone of the table seemed to shift around whatever the councillors needed from it.

"Very good. Excuse me now, I must get back to the archive." Dante vanished even as his voice reached Vierna's ears. The ghost faded, while J'invy's hologram winked out. Lillian bent to work at her console, while Darius stood with a sigh and arched his back.

Unclear on what she was supposed to do, Vierna awkwardly got up from her seat.

"Do you know the way back?" Darius asked her, gesturing to the large wooden door behind him.

"I'm sure I can find it." She replied weakly. The marshal looked hesitant for a moment.

"Don't worry, I'll take you." He made up his mind, walked her to the door.

"Don't take the scenic route, Darius, I'm only lifting restrictions for you." Lillian called without looking up. The marshall winced slightly, but held the door for Vierna as she exited.

"You did well in there." He said conversationally as they descended a narrow spiral staircase. Unsure of what to say, Vierna held her tongue. "You know he's considering putting you on the council." That brought her up short.


"Oh yes, it's true." Darius seemed amused by her shock. "One way or another a councillor will be stepping down soon. We think you'd be a good candidate to replace him. Them." He corrected, but it was too late.

"Rai'guy?" Vierna asked.

"See, that's what we like about you. You're sharp." Darius nodded. "If it turns out that he had a hand in the attacks or through oversight allowed them to happen... Well, best not dwell on that. You've got a good head on your shoulders and a good grasp of combat. At the moment I'm the only military tactician on the council and that's just not good enough."

"But I'm-"

"A policewoman, yes. But for how long?" Darius smiled enigmatically. "Your work in defeating the attacks on the archive has impressed us."

"I was in the right place at the right time."

"Yes." At this the marshal hesitated slightly. "Still, cometh the time cometh the man, eh? Or the woman in this case."

"Yes... maybe." Vierna agreed, following him down while her stomach churned.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Melinda approached the now clearly visible boundary of the lethargic wall.  Its entire form was shifting, distorting the air around it, and apparently having detrimental effects to the building within.  In the time it had taken her to reach the spot where Inon had originally entered, more dents had appeared in the roof.  The structure seemed to be collapsing in on itself.

Resisting the impulse to rush in and attempt a rescue, Melinda looked closer.  She noticed that the debris from the scaffolding around the building was still airborne, slowly arcing its way outwards.

"Gravity distortion?" she asked herself with mounting panic.  If the gravitational forces inside were strong enough to bend steel and shatter scaffolds, it didn't bode well for Inon's chances.  Her heart sank when her gaze fell on the door through which Inon had entered - it was a crumpled mass of metal and concrete.

"Shit, " she exclaimed in a whisper, summoning her Dragoon wings almost without thinking and taking flight.

Melinda began to circle the perimeter, careful to avoid any contact with the shifting field of lethargic force.  The creaking was becoming more persistent; louder and increasingly rapid in the subsequent formation of deformities.  What had Inon done?

Her mind raced as she continued to orbit the building.  After one circuit, she noted only one other exit; facing east, directly opposite the first.  It was undamaged, but the accelerating damage would soon change that.  Her instincts told her to gather the Gamers, to try and get them inside somehow and mount a rescue.  But even as the thoughts formed in her mind, she knew them to be folly.  Only those who possessed advanced powers could possibly survive the transition.

Something was nagging at her; something in the corner of her eye.  She couldn't quite place it, but continued to circle the building, all the while enduring the tremendous creaking and grinding of metal being ripped inwards.  It took another couple of minutes, but she finally spotted the anomaly.  The first time she had seen the second door, it had been firmly shut.  Now, it was slightly ajar.

Landing, Melinda got as close to the turbid wall as she dared, trying to obtain the best angle for seeing what was inside.  It was impossible to tell from this distance, especially through the distorion of the lethargic barrier.  All she could discern was a line of darkness.  She continued to observe it, as a small retinue of Gamers arrived at her position.  Among them were the ones who had been most involved throughout the ordeal; the few who had saved the initial casualties of the barrier, the relay runners.  Even leaders of the original reconnaisance teams in Mass Effect had shown initiative and opted to follow.

Melinda turned to face them.  "There's nothing that any of us can do, " she said with grim determination.  If she appeared to accept that fact, then perhaps it would be easier on the troops when Inon didn't make it back.

"Ma'am?" one of the men asked, looking at her with an expression of disbelief.

"He's been in there too long, " she continued, her tone taking on a placating edge.  "If Commander Inon, or Commander Flinn, were still alive, they'd have gotten out by now."

"Do we know if Flinn was even inside?" another asked.

"What if he was injured, and the Commander is trying to get him out?" added another.

"The Lethargy must have been too much, " a female suggested.

"Enough, " Melinda said as softly as she could while still being heard.  The Gamers fell into silence, their attention focused on the Dragoon.  Each of them hid their expressions of fear, sorrow, or even blame.  But their eyes betrayed them, and Melinda knew that each of them were feeling an acute sense of loss.

That was the strange thing about Inon, she reflected as she turned away from their accusing gazes.  He wasn't overly friendly, or even that agreeable.  But he evoked a certain sense of affection nonetheless.

Resigning herself to returning to Freelancer City at the earliest opportunity, Melinda took one last look at the building.

The door was open a good six inches more than it had been.

Why?  Why, if everything else was being drawn inwards or exploding outwards...

Moving closer, her face almost brushing against the outer edges of the miasma, she strained her eyes through the blur, waiting for it to shift enough to allow her a clear view.

A boot.  Attached to a foot, attached to a leg.  Presumably still attached to Commander Inon.  He, or someone inside, was kicking open the door impossibly slowly.

"Relativity!" Melinda exclaimed, stepping backwards from the wall and placing both hands on her head.  She ran them through her hair as her eyes darted left and right in rapid thought.  "Gravity distortion isn't the only thing going on here... it's time as well!"

She turned to the group of Gamers who had amassed near her, a desperate and hopeless plan already forming in her mind.  "I need all the stimulants that can be spared, here, now."

"Ma'am, we have barely enough to see us back to Freelancer as it is." protested one Gamer.

"One dose per person.  No more," Melinda stated firmly.  She would need every drop.

"What about the Quarians?"

A difficult decision.  Melinda made it.

"No, " she ordered.  "The stimulant is to be kept for Freelancer forces only.  These Quarians haven't proven themselves trustworthy yet, and they seem to be resilient enough to the Lethargy as it is.  Food and water only."

"Yes ma'am, " came the reply, and several of the group sprinted back around the large building to collect what remained of their dwindling stock.

Melinda reached down into the medicinal pouch she carried around her waist.  Inside were three vials of stimulant.  Clear labeling instructed on their dosage, and the risks of injecting too much or too little.

Injecting all three simultaneously, she took little solace in the assurance that she wouldn't have to worry about the latter.  As soon as the vials were empty, she tossed them to the ground and stepped forwards purposely.

Lightning began to arc and strike forth from her body, bright violet against the muted grey of the surrounding buildings and the blue-white of the morning sky.  Her eyes became unfocused, then shone with their own internal light; the bright lilac reflected the agitated lethargic wall.  If anyone had dared venture close enough to look at them, they would have seen a thunderous storm staring back.

Turning sideways as she approached, Melinda thrust out her right arm and let rip a searing barrage of lightning bolts.  The air around her hand burned, filling her nostrils with the smell of copper and ozone.  Where her assault struck the lethargic wall, the electrical energy faltered and dissipated into the agitated barrier.  But she did not relent.

Eerily silent compared to her previous attempts, the only signs of strain Melinda betrayed were the gritted teeth and beads of sweat forming on her brow and neck.  Her entire body spoke of focused energy; using every reserve she had at her disposal, regardless of the apparent futility.

"More stimulant, " she commanded, her voice echoing the strain and weariness that her posture hid.  As one Gamer approached with the combined supply of the small group currently assembled - four vials - she spoke again.

"Just throw them, " Melinda instructed, not wanting to risk the safety of her troops.  She wasn't entirely certain she could control this much power after Freelancer City.  The Gamer obliged, tossing the vials into the air, aiming as best as he could for Melinda's left hand, which was outstretched and waiting.  He needn't have made the effort - a flash of lightning from Melinda's hand, and the metal casing of the vials shot unerringly towards it.

Taking a second to arrange them in her hand, Melinda began to inject herself in the neck with them, one by one.  Discarding the empty containers, she redoubled her efforts.  Inside the lethargic barrier, the door continued to open with all the alacrity of glacial shift.

She had expected as much.  Melinda began to step forward, her palm still outstretched in firm denial of the insurmountable power of the wall in front of her.  How could anyone hope to combat this?, she thought, still advancing despite her doubts.  Even Dragoon Knight had needed the combined power of seven other Dragoons - herself included - to push back the lethargy.  And it hadn't been nearly as concentrated as this.

As she approached the very edge of the wall, she was relieved to observe it behaving as it had before - bending slightly under her assault, and visibly shimmering, even through the boiling undulations that rippled across the entire surface of the barrier.  It would only move so far, however, and didn't resolve the problem she faced.  She had to puncture this turbulent wall - attempt to bridge the gap between the two differing regions of time.

She had no idea how, or even if, this was possible, but Melinda moved steadily forwards using the only power she could wield.

Her hand finally came into contact with the Lethargy.  In the same manner as one dipping their hand into extremely cold water can't instantly tell if it's freezing or boiling - just that it's one or the other - Melinda couldn't properly define the sensation of touching the wall.  She only knew that it hurt like nothing she had felt before, and it was all she could do to keep blasting lightning from her palm.  She bit almost fully through her upper lip, and let forth a muted scream, beckoning wildly with her free hand.  Risking a glance backwards, the pain lessened for a moment as she saw the other Gamers returning.  Once again, a vial was thrown towards her and snared by a magnetic grasp.  Injecting it as swiftly as she was able, Melinda felt a slight lessening of the burden imposed by the Lethargy.  Forcing herself forwards again, she slipped in up to the elbow, feeling the pain blossom along her arm.  It seemed to balance out along the limb, rather than increase exponentially - a small mercy, considering what she intended to do next.

For the next couple of minutes, the scene repeated itself.  Melinda would beckon for more stimulant, inject herself, then sidle slightly further into the wall.  She couldn't risk running through like Inon had - if their interference or his presence had caused the space-time distortions, forcing her way through would only amplify the problem.  Likewise, she was not nearly as strong as Inon.  Her first analysis of the wall had been correct; there was no way for her to break through this wall.  But if she could disrupt it enough, perhaps she could create a corridor through which Inon could escape.  Without it, he would have to move through the barrier on his own.  From his time frame inside the bubble, that could mean spending anything from minutes to hours inside it as relativity normalised.  Not even the strongest of Warlords could endure that.

The last of the stimulants were spent.  Melinda's neck bore the marks of several injection sites, and the weakened blood vessels around the area were beginning to bleed from the stress.  Her mind was a chaos of static and noise, the chemicals in her body rushing around her like an accelerant.  The pain was the flame that lit it all ablaze, and her lightning crackled ever stronger as her head and torso moved into the field.  The wall swallowed her, but could not absorb the energy faster than Melinda was producing it.

A candle that shines twice as bright... - a single thought pierced through the hallucinogenic fever that threatened her sanity as well as her consciousness.  Moving into the centre of the remaining mass of the wall, she attempted to span the width of it, her left arm still grasping at the air outside of the barrier.  Her efforts had dispersed, compressed and weakened the bubble, but she was unable to bridge the gap entirely.  A few feet remained between her and the interior, where Inon was still within the domed building.

Looking towards the door, the sides of her mouth flickered upwards for a split second.  The door was completely ajar, and Inon was there - alive - with a look of recognition forming on his face at something resembling normal speed.

Inon burst through the door with all the force and speed he could muster, Flinn following close behind.  His eyes darted left and right, noticing the roiling, angry bubble of lethargic energy.  His gaze was drawn immediately in front of him, however.

"Melinda!" he shouted, running forwards, stopping short of the barrier by a foot or so.

"Inon, wait!" Flinn shouted from behind, making his way towards Inon as quickly as he could.  "Something's wrong."

"Everything's wrong!" Inon replied, the sound of imploding metal punctuating his exclamation.  "This whole place is acting like a singularity, and we're standing at the event horizon!"

"Carry the metaphor, man!  Look outside the bubble!"

Inon obliged, and was alarmed to see the outlines of clouds moving at impossible speeds.  His focus shifted to the Sun, which was visibly moving across the sky.

"Oh shit, " he said, moving back a half-step.  "But Melinda- "

"Whoever she is, she's in trouble.  She's being torn between the different areas of time."

"How long has she been like that?  How long can she stay alive?"

"Inon, she could already be dead, " Flinn said with emotionless certainty.  "We could be seeing an after-image, days old."

Inon turned around to face Flinn with a look of pure venom.  "You of all people should know not to say such things to me, " he said with an immediate, fiery anger.

"Inon, this is no time- "

"One second, you're clutching your head, claiming you can't remember anything.  Now, you're describing complex space-time interactions, and the sight of this, " Inon gestured to the bubble surrounding them, "doesn't seem to faze you in the slightest!"

"What are you talking about?" Flinn protested, before seeming to take notice of his surroundings for the first time since exiting the building.  He grasped at the cables around his body, as he had inside the dome.  "No, no, it's slipping away again!  I had the answers, it all made sense!"

"I've had enough of this!" Inon raged, interrupting Flinn's strained reverie.  "Don't think, just act on instinct - how do we get out of here?  How do we save Melinda?"

"I don't know, my memories are like water... I can't get a hold of them..."

Inon turned back towards Melinda with a frustrated sigh.  She seemed perfectly preserved; still, while the world rushed by behind her.  He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw people - blurs of motion, moving around outside of the wall.  Only a few dozen feet away, yet impossible to reach.

He had to try.

Inon closed his eyes again, trying to enter the same state of Total Focus that had allowed him to save a downed Gamer hours - or perhaps days - before.  But he hadn't the energy.  The exertion would kill him before the Lethargy did.  Even if he could, combined with the last vial of stimulant, there was no telling how the time difference would effect the two of them.

But he had to try.

The building behind them was now only so much twisted metal and crumbling concrete.  There was nothing inside that could be causing this that Inon could fathom.  They had removed the Element Zero; perhaps whatever was powering the reactor was causing such an attraction to the Lethargy now that the bubble could no longer contain itself.

Whatever the cause, it wasn't stopping with the building.  Around the two Commanders' feet, fractures and splits in the earth began to etch their way outwards.  The entire area was being decimated.

"Flinn, " Inon said, his voice equal parts caution, pleading and urgency.

"Move, " Flinn replied, angling his arm backwards, then throwing the ball of Element Zero towards Melinda's outstretched hand.

The eezo passed through the Lethargic barrier with a sound like ripping fabric.  It found its way to Melinda's hand uncannily, and upon contact, caused the Dragoon to fly backwards and out of the bubble with inestimable force.  The resulting hole tore a gap in the wall, the edges of which flapped and flailed with spastic fury.

This time, it was Flinn who dragged Inon forwards, sprinting with all the energy he could muster.  Inon followed suit, trying not to look at the jagged remnants of the wall as it seethed backwards, widening the gap.  The bubble had been burst, and it was doing horrible things to causality as it receded, being drawn towards the wreckage of the domed building.

Instead, Inon focused on the limp body of Melinda and the group of Gamers clustering around her.  He was sure he could hear voices over the roaring cacophany of warping space-time.

The bubble coalesced, its two weakest points - west and east - meeting at the tip of the ruined dome.  It shimmered wildly, the wreckage below it being tossed and flung in all directions, and continued to do so for several seconds.  It gave Inon and Flinn enough time to get clear, before the bubble and the building exploded.

Shooting directly North and South, it tore shockwaves into the ground and maimed buildings where it passed through them.  A solid wall of Lethargic energy, at least as strong as the bubble, dispersed along a polar vector.  The rubble observed no such decencies, however; boulders, girders and metal plating sped past Inon and Flinn, hitting several gamers who happened to be in the way.  One landed perilously close to Melinda, who still wasn't moving.

Inon shouted her name.  A second later, he was hit by falling debris and everything went dark.

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Tension hung on the air of the Undervillage, metallic and sharp on the tongue. An observer in the sky might see lone figures scurrying between clouded doorways, electric messengers along the nerves of the district. Such an observer might, if they were aware of the shifting politics of the Undervillage, be interested to note that customary territorial alliegences were overlooked, the news passed between competing factions and families reluctantly but quickly overground.

The observer descended, invisible, to the height of the rooftops. The buildings were squat, the newer ones only one floor high but stretching deep underground in a network of interconnecting passages and halls. More conservative residents lived entirely below ground, their windowless houses no less grand for being carved into the rock. Taller buildings were often rented out to outsiders, the natives of the Undervillage prefering to avoid the sun's painful rays wherever possible. Even though the entire district was built in the shadow of the towering fortress, thus explaining its occupation by the dark elves when they arrived in the thread, the ashen light that filtered through remained too bright for their sensitive eyes.

The observer drifted on, through the flagstones of the street and into the street below, which was a great deal busier. Merchants shouted their wares, though less exuberently than usual, while shoppers and messengers hurried to and fro between the great houses. There was no visible light here, save the occasional dim lamp held aloft by a visitor to the district. In this stygian atmosphere the observer could see almost nothing. He ascended into the light once more, and wondered where his partner had gotten to.

Elsewhere, a door swung forlornly from its remaining hinge. Uniformed officers passed back and forth through the ruined doorway as though they owned it, much to the chagrin of the neighbours, who had hated the residents only slightly less than they hated the town guard.

"Well, 'hate' isn't the right word." The elf smiled unpleasently. "They don't hate the law so much as they deeply resent that it applies to them. They believe that they are a law unto themselves and find any suggestion to the contrary to be an affront to the natural order." Vierna already knew this, having been stuck with patrol duty in Undervillage before. She well remembered the grins that were sneers and the deliberate prevarication from everyone. The widow of a murdered man wouldn't tell the guard if she knew the killer's identity simply because she didn't think that it was their business. Even more than the vampires, the dark elves were an insular community.

"You're no different." She replied bluntly. Watching her men break into houses on her order was giving her a headache, and her smug companion was enjoying himself far too much at the expense of his colleagues.

"This is true," his smile did not waver, "but we are on the same side, are we not? I am more than happy to bring my peers to your justice. Their misdeeds reflect badly on my people, assisting in their removal allows us to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the thread."

"You don't believe that."

"Ever the cynic." The elf tutted. Vierna was ashamed to admit that her prejudices were being completely justified; the man was obsiquious and toadying, telling half-truths as it suited him and outright lies otherwise. Her instincts rebelled against working with him, snarled at every sugary word he tossed in her direction. But it had to be said, he was helping her. He had given her a list of names and so far all four of the raids she had overseen had turned up incriminating evidence of some kind.

Naturally the first thing that she had done was have his own premises searched. He would have anticipated that of course, as expected her team had found nothing, but she had to keep up appearences. It wouldn't do to let this snake think that he was completely safe. She could tell that he already did.

"Will you be conducting all of the raids today?" He asked, pretending to glance up at the sky. "There's only so much daylight left, you know."

"We'll be taking lights underground." Vierna informed him tersely. "I plan to see this through today." 'And you will never be out of my sight.' She added to herself.

"Rai'guy will be so displeased." The elf smirked.

"What do you care?" Vierna asked sharply. Hours in his company stretched ahead of her, hopeless and patronising.

"You read my statement, didn't you?" The elf feigned surprise. "He was a powerful figure here. The only elven councillor. He won't be pleased that the power base he constructed has been torn down in his absence."

'And you aren't at all displeased by that.' Vierna mused, putting her irritation aside for the moment. Aloud she said "He must have left someone in charge while he was away."

"That he did not." The elf feigned regret. Everything about him was feigned, even his name. He had taken a human moniker, Lliam, as many of the younger generation did. He real name was a mess of gutteral choking noises anyway, as far as Vierna was concerned. "Remember that the gathering was not intended to be active in his absence. You might call it a sleeper cell. What has happened is simply that some of my peers took the initiative earlier than Rai'guy might have planned."

"And you had nothing to do with it."

"I was part of the cabal. I turned on my colleagues when it became clear that their purpose was the destruction of the thread."

"And here you are."

"Here I am." Lliam smiled disarmingly, making Vierna want to punch him. A slight chill passed over her, one shoulder momentarily freezing before the feeling passed. She must have winced, as Lliam's smile widened a fraction. The ghost of Dust Scout faded into visibility. Lliam's smile vanished.

"There is a warehouse two streets to the south that has seen an unusual level of activity in the tunnels." He informed her in a voice that seemed to be arriving as though from a great distance. Lliam recoiled slightly, though he did his best to hide it. Vierna signalled to one of her officers, who trotted up with an informal salute.

"Warehouse, two streets south. Check it out, light search. If you find anything send a runner back for support."

"Aye Ma'am." The man saluted again, this time with deference. The ghost was already gone.

He could feel the living, warm blots on the ether. They didn't realise how much they warped the space around them, how a room could still echo with their passing long after they had departed. Death had given Dust Scout a new perspective on life, though he admitted that most of what he had been was someone else now anyway. That which remained drifted along lightless streets, listened to whispers, felt panic and anger run along the stone. It seemed unimportant.

Dust Scout remembered, barely, great quests of yore. He had hunted... enemies. The memories were fuzzy, muffled by deep water. He had travelled before returning to the city that he had founded so long ago. He had been murdered, come back as someone else. Someone who had decided to be a ruler instead of a mercenary, someone who had adopted responsibilty over wanderlust, gained power at the cost of freedom. What remained of Dust Scout found it hard to care. He served, loyally and meticulously but without enthusiasm.

He passed through a door, heard a woman chastise her daughter for some slight. They were ordinary people, under the radar of the movers and shakers in the Undervillage, let alone TGED at large. He moved on.

There would be another interrogation tonight. The living and the dead pressured to answer questions in front of a truthsayer. The ghost of Dust Scout did not relish the notion of watching spirits being tortured, for obvious if uncomfortable reasons, but he would be there. A genderless blotch of heat and worry passed through him, shivering as it did so. He caught the echo of a thought: a warning that was to be delivered. Turning, the ghost followed the heatsign along what he presumed was a circuitous route to shake off pursuit. Such a trail of nerves was a beacon, a path not unlike following a comet's tail.

When he was done here, the ghost considered, he would make contact with the mummy, Felicity. Perhaps, being closer to death than anyone save the truly dead, she would have an insightful opinion on the matter. Or perhaps, like the vampires who clung oh-so-tightly to their shade of life, she would prove a vapid conversation partner. He would feel little one way or the other.

The trail had stopped in what the closeness of the rock told the ghost was a small room. It was occupied by a calmer blotch. Their minds flashed, but no words were spoken. Muted movements of electic muscles suggested animated movement, but not a word was said.

'Sign language.' They were catching on. Or had the elven cabal always used such measures? It would partially explain their success at remaining hidden. Unable to do any more, the ghost floated upwards.

He did not squint as he passed into the sunlight. He had emerged into a narrow alley, mostly filled with crates of dubious ownership. He would report first to Vierna, then continue his search until she was ready to take her men underground. The list that Lliam and his fellow turncoats had provided was extensive, some of those named had even been tipped off in time to make themselves scarce. This was no matter to the ghost. Everything turned out acceptably in the end. He did not think that perhaps, being dead, he might not be in the best position to judge.

"As far as my calculations estimate, we are near to overshooting the 10% margin of error." J'invy reported. Though still represented by a hologram, he appeared noticably healthier. He sat up straight in bed, pensive once more instead of painfully expressionless. His eyes followed Dante around the room.

"How many times did you run the numbers?" The warlord asked for the second time.

"Fifteen times, sir." J'invy replied patiently. "We passed the acceptable margin of error a long time ago, now it is simply a matter of overkill."

"Overkill!" Dante snorted. "This place is worth any amount of killing."

"...As you say, sir." J'invy nodded diplomatically. "However, in terms of the noble gases, there is no way that they cannot have forced out the air in the archives." He waited while Dante circled the antechamber twice more.

"You're sure." He said.

"99.99%." J'invy fudged. Dante sighed, rolled up his sleeves.

"Fine. On our heads be it." He approached the flames of the archive, frozen in time yet no less threatening. They looked like thorns growing on blackened soil. He started to trace sigils in the air, trailing lines of white and lilac outlining a web of interconnected symbols. Silvery filaments stretched between his fingers, weaving the sigils around and through each other. The resulting shape was that of an hourglass, which hung in the air as Dante took his hands away. It was made of light and, J'invy considered, beautiful. Dante sighed, swiped a hand through it, shattering the image.

The flames in the archive immediately went out with a noise akin to whoooomf. The air smelled of argon and helium, washed over Dante in a wave of heat as it escaped the room beyond. Several loud thuds sounded as mephits and debris fell to the floor. Not a smouldering cinder remained in view, though the temperature remained scorching.

"Keep the room sealed." Dante said to Lillian, who nodded briefly. "Have people we trust start looking over it. I'll have a look myself once the temperature goes down a bit." He sighed again, gazed forlornly into the wreckage of the archive. A moment later all three figures faded into the shadows.

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The pain came first: a dull, throbbing ache that slowly became a piercing agony.  Inon pushed it to the side as best as his semi-conscious mind was able.  Next came his sense of smell; dry, lifeless earth.  His nostrils were coated with it.  As his sense of position came back into focus, he realised he was face down on the ground.

His sight finally returned, quickly followed by his hearing.  He could feel a warm patch on the back of his head, with cold rivulets trailing their way down his neck.  The agony was centred there, too.  A head injury, Inon thought, was less than ideal right now.  Placing his arms to his sides, he pushed himself upwards, bringing his legs under him.  His head swam with a painful dizziness, his forehead broadcasting pain and breaking out in a cold sweat.

Slowly, Inon wavered his way upright, slightly hunched to minimise movement of his head.  He began to look around, his memories slowly returning.

Bodies were strewn some distance in front of him, haphazardly arranged into something that might resemble order under these circumstances.  There were no covers to drape over them, and Inon saw that they had all been killed by the explosion; hit by falling debris.  Perhaps fifteen people that hadn't been as lucky as him.  Inon turned away, his stomach doing slow rolls, but managed to keep what remained of his composure.

Now he faced the ruined dome, or what remained of it.  Nothing but scattered ruins, it looked exactly like a building which had just exploded.  To the left and right - South and North - extended a familiar sight.  The wall of Lethargy which had surrounded the area, now calmer, shimmered a false horizon across Inon's vision.  It was at least fifty feet high, and seemed to extend in each direction for at least several miles.  Inon wagered it would be further, and wondered how long it would take to fully disperse.

Another turn, and Inon was facing the assembled survivors, still milling around and attending to the injured.  He looked down, and noticed for the first time that he was among others.  Some merely hurt, some dying, but all alive.  He glanced downwards at where he had been lying - a soldier's jacket, bundled up to act as a pillow, had propped his head up from the ground to allow him to breathe.  A bloodied scrap of makeshift gauze nearby that must have fallen from him as he got up.

Inon took it all in, filed it for future deliberation.  Things weren't nearly as bad as they had first appeared.

He looked around wearily and identified a Gamer who had minor injuries; a broken arm, from what he could tell.

"Report, " Inon said, trying to sound stoic.

"Sir, you're awake, " the soldier replied, getting to his feet awkwardly.  "I'll tell Commander Flinn."

A thought struck Inon.  "Where is Melinda?  Is she alright?"

"The Commander is with her now, " answered the Gamer, his tone suggesting that she was less than alright.

"Take me to them."

A short distance away, Flinn could be seen directing soldiers.  Some he sent to various nearby buildings to scavenge for any medical supplies or materials to build stretchers.  Others were occupied tending to the wounded, keeping themselves busy in order to avoid thinking about what was happening in any great detail.  It wasn't long before Flinn - who appeared unharmed - noticed Inon's approach.

"What are you doing up and about?" Flinn asked with concern, lightly pushing aside some Gamers in his way.

"I'll be fine, " Inon growled.  He had anticipated the question.  "Where's Melinda?"

"She's being taken care of.  Look, you need rest-"

"Flinn, " the injured Commander cut him off severely.

"I'm sorry, " Flinn said after a pause, gesturing to his left.  He seemed to be apologising for more than just being patronising.  When Inon saw Melinda, he knew why.

She lay on the same spot as Inon had last seen her, knocked backwards by the combined forces of the Element Zero, the Lethargic wall and her own Dragoon powers.  Another jacket propped her head up from the cracked earth below, titled slightly to the right, a single trickle of drying blood escaping from her mouth.

Her armour had protected her, for the most part.  It still crackled with residual energy, an aura of dull lavender light surrounding it.

"We can't touch her, " Flinn explained as Inon scanned her for any signs of further injury.  "She's unconscious, but breathing.  We're waiting for the armour to discharge."

Inon's gaze fell on her right arm.  "Oh hell, " he sighed.  Everything from slightly above the elbow was horribly malformed; twisted in un-natural directions, discoloured and bleeding.  It was no ordinary injury.

"I'm sorry, " Flinn said again, in the same tone as before.

"Save the apologies until after we've helped her, " Inon responded.

"We're searching for insulating materials as we speak, but the electricity can still jump.  She's not in control at the moment."

"What about the others?"

"We lost eleven Gamers and four of these Quarians in all.  We've got another eight injured Freelancer units and seven of the newcomers."

The knowledge struck Inon like a cold jet of water down his spine.  "We can't get back to Freelancer City."

Flinn shook his head.  "That damned wall... Freelancer is to the north and west.  There's no way we're getting through it in our condition, especially with casualties."

"We can't stay here.  These people need help.  Melinda needs help."

"I've spoken to a few of the uninjured.  They say that we still have 'Nights."

"It's to the east... and it's no further away than Freelancer.  Given the terrain..."

"We could be there within a few days, perhaps four with casualties."

"Then we need to move now.  We don't have enough stimulant to last that long."

"It's worse than you think, " Flinn said morosely.  "The Quarians can't eat our rations.  Plus, Melinda needed to use extortionate amounts of the stimulant to withstand the bubble.  We'll run out within a day."

Inon looked aghast.  "Are you strong enough to last the journey?"

"I'm going to have to be."

The next hour or so was filled with mute tension.  The Gaming troops knew the outlook wasn't good.  The Quarians spoke among themselves, responding to questions with polite yet unhelpful statements.  They were researchers.  They had nothing to do with the bubble, but they couldn't remember what happened.

Those two statements didn't gel for Inon, but he accepted that there would be time for questions later.  Melinda became safe to handle after a group of Gamers - extremely tired for their efforts - located some thick rubber matting.  Some field tailoring quickly saw the material made into rudimentary mitts, and Melinda was carefully lifted onto a stretcher.

The dead were moved to a nearby building; one that hadn't been hit by the Lethargic blast.  The door was closed and marked, and Flinn assured the troops and the Quarians that they would return to arrange for a proper burial at the earliest convenience.  The Lethargy, ironically, would see that they were preserved.

Once preparations were complete, the battered and exhausted group began to move eastwards, preparing themselves for the forced march.  Flinn's innate ability - partly magical in nature - was that of energy creation.  In the past, he had always insisted that he did nothing so impossible as create energy; simply transfer it from one medium to another.  This was neither the time nor the place for semantics, however, and his focus was taxed for the entire journey, projecting a field similar to Melinda's in order to keep the group moving.

The first day after leaving the boundaries of ME2 was both the best and the worst.  The troops were still fairly rested, having done nothing more taxing than light scouting and retrieval for the majority of the mission.  The injured remained stable, and the terrain was mostly grassland and dales.  Yet the distance in front of them was at its most immense.  The memories of their fallen friends were still fresh in their minds.  The weight of the stretchers and the lack of any decent rest made the journey a sombre and draining one, more akin to a funeral procession than a dash for safety.

The second day heralded the first victim of the Lethargy since leaving Mass Effect 2.  A gamer carrying the front of a stretcher simply collapsed as he walked.  Despite efforts to rouse him, there was no stimulant remaining, and the aura projected by Flinn was no longer adequate.

It wasn't until the third day that he died.  It went un-noticed at first, since the Lethargy had not been known to kill anyone outright.  But when an hourly check returned no pulse, not even a weak one, it became clear that he was gone.  Flinn refused to accept this, and dropped his aura to concentrate his powers on the fallen soldier.  It had no effect, and the resulting loss of protection caused another two Gamers to fall unconscious.  Cursing himself and his surroundings, Flinn restored his previous efforts.  He had not slept since leaving the thread, and was rapidly approaching exhaustion.

"You need rest, " Inon said weakly, his eyes twitching as he tried to focus.  His head injury had not healed well; it was swollen, possibly infected.  His head ached constantly and he was denied sleep.  Part of him almost wished the Lethargy would take him, only for a few hours.

"You need medical attention, " said Flinn in what he meant to be a humourous tone.  It came out flat and sullen.  He was past all forms of normal fatigue and found he resented the interruption.  His focus had been on the horizon for the past four hours.

"Flinn, we're still at least a day away, " Inon began.

"Shut up and walk, " replied Flinn, his gaze distant and foggy.  And so Inon did.

It took fully four days of travel, fitful sleep and malnutrition to reach the gates of Never Winter Nights.  By the time they were within hailing distance of the gates, Inon and Flinn were at the limits of their endurance.  Both Commanders would normally have been incensed at the reception they received, but ironically, only Flinn seemed to possess the energy.

The gates of 'Nights remained closed.  Flinn paused for a moment as they reached the towering steel, looking up at the sky with delirium.

"We have injured!" he shouted, drunk with fatigue and almost giddy with exhaustion.  After several minutes, and no reply, he turned around and looked at what remained of the team he had brought across the fields of Gaming.  Five more afflicted by the Lethargy, and the injured were beginning to die.  No food, no water - they were entirely spent.

"By order of the Freelancer Armed Forces, open these damned gates!"

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"They are our people." Wrexham slapped her palm on the stonework. "What possible reason could you have for keeping them out?"

"You are not in command of your sssenssibilitiess, Doctor." Latrodectus snapped, drawing herself to an intimidating ten feet high. "Anyone approaching thesse gatess must be thoroughly sssearched-"

"For weapons?" Wrexham interrupted. She was forced to crane her neck to maintain eye contact, glared defiantly up at the demon.

"For anything ssuspiciousss." Latrodectus sneered. "Or would you open the gates wide for any hidden enemy to passss through?"

"Protocol is less important than basic humanity!" Wrexham shouted, aware that the argument was drawing attention from the guards on the wall.

"Humanity?" Latrodectus' face split in a wide, thin smile. She leaned down, bringing her face level with Wrexham's, to whisper. "Humanity gave me form, doctor. Humanity posssessesss shadows that, given a sssliver of opportunity, will break out and tear themsselvess apart. You are quite wrong about 'basic humanity.' You need only be wrong about one man in the company below to bring dissasster upon our headsss." Wrexham took a breath. Latrodectus did not smell bad exactly, but the sheer disgust that she felt towards the demon was enough to make her gag.

"I will not abandon my principles in the name of paranoia." She replied through pursed lips. Latrodectus withdrew, looming over her once more.

"I cannot allow you to endanger the thread." She hissed.

"You will not allow me anything!" Wrexham snapped, bringing her hand down upon the town wall again. "I will open this thread to my men and if you value our treaty then you will respect that and back off!" A shadow at her side announced the arrival of Commander Mideel, stonefaced as he regarded Latrodectus.

"The doctor has the right of it." He spoke calmly, each word weighted. "The gates will open. Build barricades around your door if it will comfort you. I take full responsibility for the conduct of those men."

"That iss not good enough." Latrodectus snarled. "You exsspect me to believe that these 'refugeess' are all that they seem? How convenient that mosst of them wear your uniform!"

"There is no foul play here-"

"Mere nightsss ago the sky lit up and sssssuddenly an army arrivess at our gatesss." Latrodectus' mouth twisted into an ugly expression. "They should ssstay out there until they inform uss of exactly what they were doing and what unpleassentnessss they bring with them!" Mideel turned from her.

"Open the gates!" He called to the watchmen stationed below. They hesitated, but his own men were already moving to unbar the portal. "Give me one good reason to stop them."

Latrodectus seethed, her eyes boring two dark holes into Mideel's skull. Her hands, black needles for fingers, clenched and unclenched. She growled deep in her throat, turned on her heel and stalked away. Far below, the first exhausted troops began to trickle into 'Nights.

Latrodectus marched back to the tower, a small retinue of highlanders trailing in her wake. She allowed two extra eyes to emerge on one side of her face, surrepticiously examining her tower's twin as she entered. Wrexham's abode was bustling with staff streaming from the entrance, presumably to greet the newfound arrivals. Latrodectus pursed her lips, entered her own half of the fortress.

"Closse the portcullisss and maintain a watch on all entrancesss." A highlander loped off in the direction of the armoury.

Following at a slower pace, Latrodectus considered her options. Dragoon Knight's complement had just doubled, further outnumbering her own forces. Mideel held the balance of power, if his intentions proved hostile then there would be little that Latrodectus could do to prevent him holding her captive and using 'Nights as a staging ground to invade Fanfiction. As a worst case scenario. If he attacked, she would be overwhelmed. She could attack first. But then Dragoon Knight could claim to be defending himself and invade anyway. If he ever heard about it... If she could kill everyone in 'Nights and then leave, there would be no evidence that she was ever there... But no, too suspicious. Reluctantly she came to the conclusion that she would have to wait a while longer before acting. Reinforcements would take over a week to arrive from TGED, no point in calling for them now. Her hands were tied. She fumed. Passing a window, she looked down through thick layers of dirt and dust onto the streets below.

Men and women, stretchers and lean-to shelters. Wrexham was making her way back to her half of the fortress, surrounded by troops who peeled off as she gave orders.

What was this? A failed offence? Casualties of the explosion that 'Nights had witnessed days before? She turned away. Time would tell.

Hours later a lone messenger knocked repeatedly on the postern door of Latrodectus' tower. He hammered for twenty minutes before the door opened a crack.

"Your business?" Someone asked.

"Doctor Wrexham requests any medical supplies or assistance that you may be able to provide." The messenger relayed faithfully. "Anything that can be spared; this is an emergency."

"Wait here." The door closed. The messenger waited as instructed, admiring the golden evening light on the rooftops of the town. Five minutes later the door opened again, this time to reveal a group of men and women in red robes, each of whom was laden with thin wooden boxes.

"Ready for deployment. Wherever you need us." The leader spoke with unexpected civility, even nodding slightly in greeting. The messenger bowed slightly, led them through the gates into the thread proper. Behind them the door slammed shut.

"What are we dealing with here?" The lead sorcerer asked. A casual enough question.

"Mostly exhaution." The messenger reported what he could remember. "Apparently they were out in the Lethargy almost unprotected and in addition picked up some refugees from another thread."

"Another thread?" The sorcerer looked curious.

"They were asleep for a long time. Some of them might be too far gone." The messenger grimaced. "Most of them are suffering from exhaustion, the refugees are undernourished and I think the leaders may have been injured in some kind of accident." He paused, remembered Wrexham's words. 'Answer any questions truthfully. The more they know, the more likely they are to open up.' "One of the dragoons may need to lose her arm." He added.

"Something serious happened?" The sorcerer asked neutrally.

"Details are fuzzy." The messenger replied truthfully. "Commanders Inon and Flinn have both given their reports to Commander Mideel, but nothing's been released yet."

"I see." The sorcerer nodded as the group entered Wrexham's courtyard. The doctor herself stood by the doors to her tower, dictating the measurement and application of supplies. She looked up as the messenger approached, appeared to stifle a sharp remark.

"Thomas, good to see you've returned with help." She regarded the sorcerers. "Seven? Well, you'll-" She paused, eyes wide. She seemed about to say something when, out of the corner of the messenger's eye, he caught the very slightest of movements. By the time he looked it was gone, but for a moment he could have sworn that one of the sorcerers at the back had moved his head just a fraction of a degree. When he looked back, Wrexham showed no sign of her previous reaction. He might as well have imagined it.

"What kind of supplies have you brought?" Wrexham asked, her voice flat.

"Various poultices for stimulating life, as well as a variety of herbal remedies." The leader sorcerer set down his box for Wrexham to root through. "Bandages of course, a few scrolls of healing, some tubers that we use as emergency rations-"

"In short, nothing remotely technological." Wrexham's voice strained with frustration. "Who does that... ugh." She sighed. "And you, will you be staying?" There seemed to be an extra inflection in her voice, but any significance was lost on the messenger.

"We have been instructed to provide as much assistance as you want, doctor." The lead sorcerer replied with what might have been a smile.

"Right then, you, you and you." She pointed to individual sorcerers. "I want you to spread out here in the courtyard and keep people awake until they can manage some sort of nutrient pulp. You and you," two more were singled out, "inside and first right, there's an emergency medical bay with a few who were injured by falling debris. You two," the last of the group, "I've commandeered an empty house two streets away, ask for medstation 5. Go see if you can help there." She turned her attention to a runner, dismissing the group.

Thus given their orders, the sorcerers hurried to fulfil them. With surprising speed they took their cargo to hubs of supplies that Wrexham had dotted about the town, where they could be easily reached in an emergency.

To the surprise of some, they worked quickly if inexpertly. With only a handful of medically trained staff in the thread, many of whom had only just arrived and were suffering themselves, volunteers from all over were left to their own best judgement. The poultices that the sorcerers provided were steeped in boiling water, the resulting concoction dubbed "firewater" by those who awoke, spluttering from its effects. Steaming bags of herbs were used to awake those who needed to eat more than they needed to sleep. Those who needed to sleep were left to do so.

"This can't be right..." The sorceress' name was Katya, and she was frowning deeply. A scrawled symbol at the foot of the patient's bedroll told her that the woman was supposed to be left to sleep, but her shallow, laboured breathing was setting off alarm bells in Katya's head. She looked aside, found no white-coated doctor in sight. Townsfolk passed to and fro, most avoiding her eyes. She turned back to the patient, unsure of what to do. She could pull fire out of the air and send it flying, but she was at a loss to explain this woman's symptoms. What if she was sick as well as fatigued? What if she was infectious? Katya opened one of the woman's eyes with her thumb, noted that it had rolled back in its socket. She let the eyelid close and bit her lip in thought. It was at that moment that the woman stopped breathing.

It took her a moment to notice. There had only been the slightest hitch in the rhythm of her chest, rising and falling. Before Katya knew it, she lay still. For a moment, she dithered.

What to do, what to do? Ah yes, blood. She grabbed the woman's wrist, searching for a pulse. Frantic seconds passed by. She couldn't tell if there was a pulse or not, her own heartbeat hammered so loud.  What came next, shouting? No, shouting was for waking people up. A poultice? No, not yet. Um, um, um... Katya bit her fingernail. One thing she did remember was that brains needed blood, and the more time they spent without the more likely they would never recover. How much time did she have, seconds, minutes? She might even have run out already. What was the last resort? There was always a last resort. Suddenly it came to her, and she brought her fist down hard on the woman's chest.

She might as well have hit a tree. The blow was feeble, barely moving a breast. Katya looked at her fist, realised it was shaking too much to be useful. How was that possible? She had marched from TGED, back in training she had faced a troll without a shiver. She looked down at her patient and pictured a clock running down the seconds. It seemed like hours she sat there, watching the woman turn into a corpse. A fleck of dust took a week to float by. Then she remembered, the one part of her training that could ever have been useful here.

Hardly realising what she was doing, she bent her fingers into a cruel shape and muttered the words that would bring power. From somewhere inside and outside her soul the power flashed forth, arcing from her fingers as a bolt of electricity straight into the woman's chest. A small thought wondered whether Katya had correctly remembered which side of the chest the heart was, quickly banished when her own crashing heartbeat reminded her. She prepared for another shock, let the power fizzle away as the woman gasped, then took a great, heaving breath.

She choked, retched, but continued to breathe. Katya could almost have hugged her.

The flash had attracted attention. Volunteers were approaching, some of them with unfriendly expressions. Katya sat back, smiled in mute relief as they examined the patient.

"You burned her." Someone said accusingly, peeling back the woman's clothing to reveal seared skin.

"I saved her." Katya replied with certainty. "An electric shock to restart the heart. That's the way of it."

"We have tools-"

"I can't use them!" Katya snapped, power flashing in her eyes. "I couldn't recognise such a thing, let alone operate it! I did the best I could."

"Have you done anything like that before?" Another voice asked. People were cradling the woman now, holding machines to her body.

"Actually... no." Katya admitted. "But it worked!"

"It was untried, you-"

"Saved her life." The speaker was tall, a blue-skinned man with a bat on one shoulder. He wore sorcerer's red, Katya recognised him as one of the sorcerers who had been found sleeping in 'Nights when she arrived with Latrodectus. "Katya acted with the best judgement and the best tools she had to hand. Who's to say that this woman would breathe now if not for that shock? A burn is a minor price to pay."

"Readings are acceptable. She needs fluids." Someone reported, laying the woman back down. Having briefly awoken, she now slipped back into fitful slumber. Katya nodded thanks to the sorcerer, who nodded and turned away.

Back in the courtyard a second sorcerer observed from the corner of his eye as Doctor Wrexham tied an apron around herself, fixed her hair back. She had gathered the worst injured around her so that she could be on hand should they deteriorate, but now that most were stable she was leaving. Why? He watched her check once more on the most critical patients before departing inside. Remembering that two of his fellows worked inside, he opted not to follow her.

Instead he turned his attention to the masked creature on the bedroll before him. It was vaguely humanoid, if clearly not human, and wore a strange, oft-patched body suit with full faceplate. He could not see its face, which was not so unnerving as listening to it speak without seeing its mouth.

"I'm telling you, I can't help you unless I can reach your skin." He repeated.

"And I am tellink yu, yu cannot open my suit!" The creature muttered back. "This environment is not controlled."

"What does that even mean?" The sorcerer sighed. The creature muttered something in a foreign language. "Look, just tell me what you need."

"I need food! And not that poison eaten by humans!" The creature snapped.

"How do you eat if you don't remove your suit?"

"Tch." The creature turned away. "Nevermind. I will wait until someone else sees me."

"Fine, have it your way." The sorcerer got up, caught the eye of another volunteer. He jerked a thumb in the direction of the creature and shrugged. It was going to be a long night.

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Wrexham had a tired, haunted look about her as she entered the conference room in the Gaming section of 'Nights.  It was the second of two daily meetings that had been organised every day since the arrival of the refugees from ME2.  That had been four days ago, and while the Doctor was grateful for the summarised and collated results that each meeting offered, she was less than enthused as she sat down at the table.

She sat at the head, with Mideel and Flinn flanking her.  After them sat Lydia, Lumiel and Shinsbane.  Phaeton was not present, having been assigned to surreptitious observation of the Fan Fiction forces still operating as emergency medical relief.  Some of the sorcerors were becoming quite adept at treating the wounded, though their dislike of technology remained an obstacle.

"How are they?" Mideel asked after a moment.  Wrexham hung her head backwards over the rim of the chair, eyes closed.

"Inon's still recovering, " she began, slowly and deliberately.  "The edema was pretty severe, but most of the swelling has reduced.  I don't predict any lasting damage."

The shoulders of both Commanders present visibly slackened, the news a welcome relief.

"What about Melinda?" asked Lumiel, who had spent almost every waking hour tending to the wounded.  Even now, she showed signs of restlessness, eager to return to her healing tasks.

Wrexham sighed and opened her eyes, staring at the featureless grey ceiling for a moment.  "I couldn't save her arm."

"Amputation?" Lumiel asked, trying to delicately extract more information.

"Everything below the elbow, and a good few centimetres above it, " she continued.  "Never seen an injury like that before."

Flinn's expression remained blank; he felt responsible, but understood the necessity of what he had done.  Would make the same decision again, if necessary.  But it still troubled him.

"I'll need to speak to her, " he said softly, breaking his statuesque mien.

Wrexham nodded almost dismissively.  She saw the loss of Melinda's arm as a personal failure, and having worked for half a week on it, a waste of valuable resources.

"Do we have a comprehensive casualty list?" Lydia asked, aware that this was probably not the best time, but that the information was a requirement.

Wrexham was almost instantaneous in her reply, which she listed with robotic exactitude.  "Eleven Gamers and four Quarians dead at blast site, three Gamers and one Quarian lost to the Lethargy, two Gamers and three Quarians died from their injuries while being treated here."

"Considering the circumstances, we're lucky to have that many survivors, " Mideel said with a shake of his head.  "You and your teams have done well, Doctor Wrexham."

"Yes, " she said, entirely without conviction.  "Moving on."

"Permission requested to lead a group to that cursed bloody thread and bury our dead, sir, " asked Shinsbane, looking towards Mideel.  Looking sideways at Wrexham, the Commander didn't note any visible response.

"Granted, " Mideel replied, adding "but take a few of the Quarians with you.  If they have their own practices or rituals regarding the deceased, they should be allowed to enforce them."

"If I were in better shape, I'd go with them, " Flinn commented.  He had recently undergone surgery to remove the lattice of wiring from his body, along with the small device implanted at the base of his skull, once it had been deemed safe to do so.  The apparatus was currently the subject of fierce analysis, which had been brought up at every meeting thus far.  The procedure had left him inexplicably fatigued, even after several days of almost solid rest.

"We're not about to go picking through the wreckage, " Mideel advised pointedly.

"I'm more concerned about what that wall is doing, " Flinn said, turning towards his compatriot.  "It's effectively blocking us off from Freelancer."

"One would expect it to simply dissipate naturally, now that it doesn't have the Element Zero to focus around, " Lydia suggested.  "It's a wonder that our communications link is still active."

"I don't think it's safe to rely on expectations, " replied Flinn, folding his arms in front of him.  "I'd recommend sending another Lieutenant with Shinsbane, as a precaution, along with extra doses of stimulant."

Shinsbane looked as though he was about to protest, but a look from Mideel and the dwarf backed down.

"Use that concoction sparingly, " Wrexham added, recovering from her gloom somewhat.  "I've still not determined the extent of the damage Melinda's overdose has done to her nervous system."

"I'm sure Shinsbane will exercise his own form of stimulation, " Flinn said, looking towards the dwarf, who was pre-occupied with removing an errant strand of cobweb from his beard.

"Lydia, do you feel up to accompanying Shinsbane?" Mideel asked.

"Yes sir, " nodded the Jedi.

"You'll leave tomorrow morning, then, " the Commander explained.  "After we're done here, select a small group of Gamers from my original contingent and ready all necessary supplies."

Lydia nodded again, prefacing the momentary silence that fell across the room.

"On to the matter of the Element Zero research, then, " Wrexham announced.  She stood and moved towards the door, opening it and stepping outside.  Mumbled discussion from somewhere nearby was followed by the Doctor's re-appearance, accompanied by two Quarians.  From the movements of their heads, they appeared to survey the room and those seated in it, but their visors prevented any certainty.

"This is Jul'lessa nar Hylan and Darnun nar Umseb, " Wrexham explained, sitting down once again.  "They are Quarian scientists, and they collectively possess the greatest amount of knowledge regarding Element Zero and the Mass Effect it produces."

"Let me extend our thanks for rescuing us from that doomed thread, " Darnun spoke as both he and Jul'lessa sat down, his manner much lighter than those surrounding him.

"We're eager to hear your findings regarding the Element Zero research being conducted in Mass Effect 2, " Mideel prompted, his tone carefully neutral.

"As I'm sure you're aware, Commander, the Lethargy has taken the recent memories of those who fell to its influence, " Jul'lessa said, placing her hands on the desk in front of her.  "We Quarians were not spared this amnesia, but we do retain a working knowledge of Element Zero's... normal usage."

"Go on, " Flinn urged, his eyes narrowing slightly with anticipation.

"To put it simply, Element Zero is a rare, but naturally occuring element that, when exposed to an electric current, creates a field of Dark Energy that can raise or lower the mass of objects exposed to it."

"I don't understand, " Mideel said, giving everyone a few moments to digest the information.  "How does this explain the effect it had on the Lethargy?"

"It doesn't, " Darnun stated bluntly.  "Though there is no doubt that we created the dome, and the device that was recently attached to Commander Flinn, we do not yet understand how it influenced the Lethargy so."

"How was the device powered?" Flinn asked impatiently.  "Inon said that the Element Zero core was glowing, and that he was able to access several of the files stored in the databanks."

"I cannot explain this, Commander, " Darnun replied, beginning to sound flustered.  "The Lethargy was present inside the dome as well, from what you describe.  There shouldn't have been any power."

"Confrontational attitudes won't get us to the answers any quicker, gentlemen, " Lumiel interjected, her calm tones quelling any potential outbursts.  "We must both accept that neither party - Freelancer or Quarian - knows precisely what was going on."

A contemplatory silence fell once again in the room, accompanied by a nod from Jul'lessa.

"Similarly, we must accept that both sides were in co-operation, " Flinn added.  "The integration of technologies, not to mention my own augmentation, seems to indicate that we were working closely together."

"What we learned once, we can learn again, " Darnun said with an emphatic slap of the table.  "We must be sure to not make the same mistakes twice."

"What's to say that it was our mistakes, eh?" Shinsbane exclaimed, slamming his fist on the table in an effort to outdo Darnun; it left a visible dent in the metal.  "Inon's report said that there were people killed - aye, by the sword and the flame - belonging to Freelancer and Mass Effect!"

"I don't like where this is going, " Wrexham said quietly, glaring at Shinsbane.

"Dante's forces are the only ones, aside from our Quarian friends, who we've encountered since we awoke, " Lydia weighed in.  "While this doesn't make them immediately suspect, there's nothing and nobody else that we've encountered that could have done something like this."

"People, keep the speculation to a minimum, " the Doctor said again, this time in a firm and clear statement.

"There's no doubt that we're being watched by those sorcerors, however helpful they appear to be, " Mideel admitted, "but that's no different from what we're doing.  Both sides are watching eachother, both are paranoid; it just seems like we're the only ones making an effort to dispel the suspicions laid against us."

"But that spider-bint with her head full o' eyes tried to stop our injured from getting in!" Shinsbane exclaimed, standing up, effectively lowering his height by an inch.

"That's enough for tonight, " said Doctor Valerie Wrexham, herself standing and making her position as leader of the Gaming forces in 'Nights evident in wordless superiority.  Mideel and Flinn acknowledged her dismissal, and stood as well.

"You will all have your specific assignments by the morning, " she added, walking around to the back of her chair and placing both hands atop it.  "Dismissed."

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Commander Zachary Mideel climbed the steps toward the observation floor. He found it an odd contrast to Freelancer, where elevators were the norm and even plastic steps were considered an emergency route only. The helical stone staircases of 'Nights weren't just old fashioned, they were off the scale of acceptable architecture. Nevertheless, they provided him with space to think. The exercise was useful as well. Reaching the top of the stairs it was just a short walk along a plain, windowless corridor to the wooden (wooden!) door.

Mideel paused, hand on the iron handle. Instinct and a shifting shadow told him that he was not alone. He turned around slowly, one hand glowing softly.

Latrodectus filled the corridor, barely two feet from him. Her eight legs were drawn tight against her abdomen in the confined space, her shoulders pressed against the ceiling. Her head hung forward on a too-thin neck, eight unblinking black eyes stared in his direction.

"Commander." She hissed, a subtle movement beneath her face suggesting mandibles at work.

"Latrodectus." Mideel replied stiffly, keeping his hand red. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"What are you up to, Commander?" Latrodectus asked with a smile, revealing a hint of shining black fangs.

"Nothing that need concern you." Mideel answered.

"Concsssern me?" The two largest eyes widened while the other six narrowed. "I don't think that'sss your decssision, Commander."

"Would you approve if I so brazenly entered your citadel as you have broken into mine?" Mideel asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Try it ssssometime and sssee." Three eyes winked. Mideel surpressed a grimace.

"Look, you have no business being here-"

"I have every busssinessss being here." Latrodectus interrupted softly. "You are not being honessst with me, Commander, I begin to ssussspect that you are hiding sssomething."

"Rich talk from you." Mideel snorted. "If you want to be kept informed then might I suggest you start by being a better neighbour?" He gestured with his hand, still glowing liquid red. Latrodectus regarded it with a bored expression. Her expression did not change as the walls started to glow.

"Threatssss, iss it?" She sneered.

"You've given me no reason to act otherwise." Mideel replied stonily.

"I sssaved your men when I arrived." Latrodectus was no longer smiling. Though they were jet black all over, Mideel got the impression that her eyes were not all looking in the same direction. The two largest, in her human eye sockets, bored into his soul.

"Don't play that line, nobody believes it." He scoffed, moving the walls inward a fraction of an inch. "I suggest you leave, Latrodectus, you aren't welcome here."

The demon regarded him with a cool stare. He held his ground, noticed that two smaller eyes were looking upwards. A moving spec caught his eye just as a tiny spider landed on his cheek. With phenominal force of will, he did not swat it.

"You push your luck." He spoke through gritted teeth. Latrodectus lunged forward, bringing her face almost close enough to touch him. She stayed there, eight black eyes reflecting Mideel's face back at him.

"Fine then." She whispered, as the tiny spider stretched out its legs and crossed the divide onto her face. "Nexssst time we ssspeak, Commander, the outcome will be different. I promisse." She withdrew, slowly, walked back along the corridor in complete silence. Mideel noted the fact that despite the bulk of her spider abdomen, her feet made not a sound as she passed out of sight onto the stairs.

He should have had her escorted out. But if she could find her way in, she could elude whatever guard he sent with her. With a sigh, Mideel let the power leave his hand. The walls returned to immobile stone.

Opening the door, Mideel was gratified to look upon the security array that he had constructed. He would watch Latrodectus, to ensure she had left. And then... then he would find out just how she got in.

"It iss incorrigible!" The words echoed, flickered candles in the corridor beyond. A sorcerer deftly pulled the door closed.

"Sssomething iss rotten here, I can ssmell it." Latrodectus continued in a calmer tone, pouting at the windows. "Thesse machiness do nothing that we can obsserve, nobody that I quessstion even sseems to know what function they are intended to perform! Thisss explossion, the injured ssscientisstss, their machinessss. Ssssomething is rotten here, I can sssmell it."

"Do we know that the explosion was caused by the new arrivals?" The voice was J'invy's. Latrodectus rolled her eyes.

"Yesss, we have essstablished that much. Apparently there wasss ssome kind of buildup with an experimental technology. I believe that ssuch dessstructive potential iss being harnesssed right here, in 'Nightsss." She waited while the council conferred in muted rhubarb, tapping one finger against black fangs.

"There is no way you can find out more?" Darius asked tinnily.

"They operate clandessintely and ssspeak in code." Latrodectus muttered, tired of repeating herself. "My ssissstersss may watch them, but how am I to know what they are disssscussing? Elementsss and fluxsesss, lawsss and wallsss, I do not know thessse termsss."

"Should we send a tech crew?" J'invy asked. Muted, his question was addressed to the rest of the council.

"You mussst ssend ssomeone." Latrodectus pressed, heavy-lidded, chewing on a claw. "Lessst I fall, and TGED find itssself unprepared for an asssault from a new technology."

"Antigone... We'll get back to you." Dante's voice. The link went quiet. Latrodectus grunted, adjusted her legs to fit more comfortably beneath the table. She wore a human shape, it being easier to move around in these confined spaces. She started to pick her teeth, prepared to wait as long as it took.

"Latrodectus is guarded to the point of paranoia." Dante mused, tapping his chin. "Since she arrived in the waking world she has claimed two sanctuaries and lost them both. If she is quick to see threats, she has good reason." He sat back. "Having said that, I can't commit our forces to a hostile venture without solid evidence of wrongdoing. The Lethargy is still our greatest threat."

"Latrodectus is being watched, and if her estimates are accurate she can't possibly act out of turn without putting herself under more scrutiny than we are comfortable with." J'invy nodded. He was sitting in person for the first time since the fires, bruised but unbandaged. "We must send another group south if we wish to investigate the activity in 'Nights."

"I agree." Darius spoke up. "If there is a threat there then Latrodectus is poorly equipped to deal with it. We would need to send an army anyway, and if her concerns are unfounded then it will strengthen our position in the region and allow expansion into nearby threads."

"I have to say, though I would prefer Fanfiction to take priority, we can't ignore this." Lillian nodded.

"Well. It's so rare to have such united agreement." Dante raised an eyebrow, looked askance at the ghost, who shrugged. "Vierna, do you have any thoughts on the matter?"

"You want to send me." Vierna replied, still raising her voice a little even though sound carried easily across the vast table. "I strayed outside the town gates and you want to test my limits. With all due respect, sir, I don't think that's a good idea. I can't abandon my investigation now, or hope to delegate it to someone else. Besides which, I have a better idea." She paused, waiting for some comment. The council looked at her expectantly. "Roman, sir. He travelled through the Lethargy for months, and I know he's getting antsy with nothing to do."

"Can we trust him?" J'invy looked sceptical.

"It's a good time to find out." Vierna shot back.

"But a bad place." Darius shook his head. "We can't leave this in the hands of a stranger. Is he even trained to understand technology like that?"

"Who else are we going to send?" Vierna asked. "All of us have vital business in TGED and we can't scour the population for others who might be able to resist the Lethargy. Roman's loyalties, as far as we know, are to his friend and his lover. If they stay here, we can guarantee that he will return."

"He's a vampire, he should have no trouble extracting the information we need." Lillian half smiled.

"He will still need to be watched." Darius disagreed. "I volunteer for the mission."

"No, you know quite well that we need you here." Dante shook his head. Darius seemed about to retort, bit his tongue and fell silent.

"Then I will go." The ghost spoke up, words as mist. "I do little here save advise and watch. I will watch Roman instead. If he betrays us he will not be able to stop me from returning." The usual awkward pause followed his words.

"Good idea." Vierna nodded.

"I was planning to have a word with Roman and Felicity soon anyway." Dante smirked. "Have the two of them summoned as soon as possible. If he can leave tomorrow we can be watching 'Nights in a week."

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Hours later, Roman stood before the throne of TGED. The great hall was larger than the council chamber, supported by massive pillars that ran in weblike curves along the walls. He felt quite dwarfed. Felicity sat motionless beside him, her silent presence a comfort.

Dante lounged on the throne, which was needlessly tall yet carefully padded. He wanted something, that much was clear. Felicity was without advice, suggesting that she could not or would not read the warlord's mind. Roman adjusted his posture, waited to be spoken to.

"Roman." Dante swung his head sideways, the crackle of vertebrae settling echoed through the barren hall. "Oh, that's better. Roman. How are you finding life in The God Emperor's Dune?"

"A great relief from the 'Lethargy,' lord." Roman answered carefully, keeping his face neutral. "Neil, Felicity and I all appreciate your... generous hospitality."

'That's a laugh.' Felicity chuckled telepathically. Roman kept his poker face, aware that nobody else had heard her.

"Glad to hear it. And you are all recovering from your ordeal?" Dante was making small talk and it clearly bored him. It bored Roman as well.

"Neil is able to eat solid foods again, and Felicity tells me that she is entirely recovered, lord." Roman answered.

"Good, good." Dante paused a fraction of a second. "Roman, I want to offer you a job."

'There is someone invisible nearby.' Felicity hissed.

"What kind of job?" Roman asked, scanning the few people present. Dante, Darius, J'invy, the guard Vierna. All of them stood near the throne with various expressions of passive interest.

"A situation has arisen in Gaming, the region to the southwest." Dante explained. "My agent there believes that a rival warlord is planning to launch an invasion of Fanfiction. She's being watched too closely to examine the situation. I need someone with proven Lethargy resistance to lead a mission south to gather data on foreign technology."

Roman bristled. "I only recently arrived here, barely regained the company of my only friends in the world. You wish me to abandon them now?" He scowled at Vierna. "She withstood the Lethargy, why not send her?"

'I wonder if they're using us as cannon fodder.' Felicity mused.

"Bluntly, I think you're the best man for the job." Dante shrugged, folding into nothing to appear stood in front of Roman. "You'd be well rewarded of course."

"And if I refuse?" Roman replied archly. He was a good head or two taller than the warlord, who was himself tall for a human.

'He won't kick us out.' Felicity whispered.

"I won't exile you, if that's what you're asking." Dante unknowingly echoed. "You're very strong, Roman, but if you won't turn your strength to the good of TGED then I won't force you." He shrugged, "You could get a job, move to the Warrens. Despite the... stress of the current situation, TGED is very peaceful right now.

"Think about it though." He continued. "An invasion would spell trouble for all of us, yourself included. Help me nip it in the bud now and the danger may never reach TGED."

'Or Neil.' Felicity supplied. 'He has a point, emotional blackmail aside.'

"I understand that you don't want to leave your friends now." Dante was still talking. "But you will return to them. This isn't a search and destroy operation, it's a reconnaissance mission. Once you've determined the nature of the enemy's technology, you would return here. If they never know you're there, so much the better."

Roman glanced sideways. "Are you saying that I should take Felicity?" The mummy chuckled at the back of his brain.

"No, Felicity is here because I have a separate job offer for her." Dante signalled to J'invy, who nodded and pressed a button on his wrist console. "You would lead a team of specialist infiltrators with a bodyguard to escort them. Your target is approximately ten day's travel to the South-west, assuming good weather conditions and factoring in the effects of the Lethargy."

"Do you know what the Lethargy is?"

"No, we don't." Dante answered. "We know a few things about it, but what it is and where it came from remain unknown. Having said that," he frowned, "my agent in the south believes that another warlord has found a way to manipulate the Lethargy. Perhaps bend it into an attack on us. They might even have created it in the first place." Roman waited, but Felicity said nothing.

"And you're suspicious enough to investigate." He said.

"A claim that big would be grounds enough to send an army, and I would do exactly that were it not for the Lethargy itself." Dante replied flatly. "I am suspicious, but not certain. I need to be certain before we can launch an attack."

"The Lethargy is too dangerous to act without 95% confidence or greater." J'invy nodded. Dante pulled a face, but did not disagree.

"...Can I think about it?" Roman asked.

"I need a day to pull together a team and drill them on the mission." Dante nodded. "Return tomorrow with your decision." A hidden door opened behind him to reveal a blonde woman in red. "Ah, Lillian, welcome back to the ground floor. It's been a while, do let us know if you get lost."

"You are a wit, sir." Lillian rolled her eyes. Nodding a greeting to Roman, she strode past the two of them to stand before Felicity. She offered a slight bow.

"Felicity. I've heard a lot about you."

'You must be Lillian.' Felicity broadcast her words to the entire room. 'I'd wager that I've heard even more about you. Forgive me for not getting up.' Her immobile rictus grin gave the joke a twisted humour.

"We should leave them to it." Dante indicated the door. Roman ignored him. With a shrug, the warlord sank into the floor. J'invy and Darius had already left, though Vierna lingered behind.

"We have an offer for you." Lillian lowered her voice, though Roman easily picked it up.

'I am intrigued.' Felicity replied. 'What use could you possibly have for someone who cannot move, teach or screw?'

"You're the most powerful telepath that we've ever seen." Lillian smiled, curling her legs around to sit before the motionless corpse. "Just how far does your mind stretch?"

'If these walls were glass, I could read the surface thoughts of everyone you could see.' Felicity replied slyly. 'The closer they come, the deeper I can look. Your mind remains closed to me, however. As does that of your man, and the mentat. The guard-woman I can read easily, you'll want to watch her.' Lillian raised an eyebrow.

'Is Vierna a traitor?' She opened a crack in the armour of her mind. A dry, sexless chuckle crackled through.

'No, she's as loyal as they come. To her warlord, at any rate.' Felicity replied privately. 'Strong wills resist my reading, but I can still glean some things. The mentat is anxious, the soldier is hiding something. Dante is...' Felicity paused, her dead brow crinkling ever so slightly. 'Confusing. I've never seen a mind that's so chaotic.'

'Interesting insight.' Lillian kept her disquiet well hidden behind impassive curiosity. 'Do you ever sleep?'

'I no longer have the need.'

'Can you hear the whole castle?'

'Yes.' Felicity's reply was immediate and confident. 'I cannot read thoughts, but I can sense emotions, general moods. Intent.' Her exposed teeth seemed to grin knowingly. 'You wish me to root out undesirables?'

'Our automatic security has twice failed to detect spies in our midst.' Lillian admitted. 'Vierna is in the process of rooting out the cause, but it was only by chance that we were not seriously harmed.'

'And you aren't afraid that I'll abuse your trust?'

'There will be safeguards against that.'

'Such as?'

'Do you really think I'd tell you?'

'Aha! Fair point.' Felicity conceded. 'It has been some time since I had a task to occupy myself. A purpose...'

'We have prepared a room for you.' Lillian performed a momentary check to ensure that her mind was still her own. Satisfied, she continued. 'It is essentially a giant desiccator, locked at all times. You would be entirely safe.'

'And entirely trapped.'

'You can barely move anyway.'

'It's the principle of the thing.' For a moment Felicity's voice sounded petulant. 'And what if you start performing horrible experiments on me? How would Roman rescue me?'

'You're afraid that he won't be here?'

'He is a friend in the truest sense of the word, witch. Roman and Neil are not just people that I keep around to amuse me.'

Lillian drew back. 'I apologise, that was uncalled for.'

'I am not comfortable sitting inside your prison here.' Felicity muttered darkly. 'I am not comfortable with being apart from Roman.' Lillian looked up to regard the vampire, patiently watching the silent conversation.

'How can we guarantee that you will not be harmed?' Lillian asked, though she already knew the answer.

'Let me read your mind.' Felicity replied. 'I know who you are, Lillian. Second most powerful person in TGED and easily the most influential member of the council after Dante. You have the ear of the Marshal, the trust of the mentat, the respect of everyone, the fear and awe of the populace, and yet you are hardly seen, barely thought of outside these walls. Believe me I know. You don't lead TGED but there is nothing that Dante knows that he does not tell you. So let me read your mind. All of it.'

Lillian hesitated. This was the moment of truth and it had arrived earlier than she had expected. Nevertheless, she had prepared for this eventuality and Dante had agreed that it was the wisest, if not the safest choice.

'Very well.' She said it slowly, recognising a deep unwillingness to let down her mental shields. One by one she let her defence mechanisms drop, the walls of understanding and thought that she used to get through the day were pushed aside. Bene Gesserit will was iron. It was an effort to allow the probing mind of the mummy through. Slowly, though, Felicity started to take over. Once Lillian had opened the door, all she had to do was sit back and allow Felicity to roam inside her head.

It was an unsettling process, to say the least. Memories opened unbidden, some instructive, others painful. Voices, sounds and smells came in quick succession, followed by emotions long controlled and harnessed. Anger, fear, hate, passion came and went. Recent memories bubbled up. Council meetings, objections and agreements. Dislike, discomfort, knowledge and planning.

'Oh, how I miss that. Felicity's voice intruded as she touched upon a memory of Darius. Lillian quelled her irritation, aware that the mummy would clearly see it become careful patience. A mental smirk told her that she was right.

Felicity continued to trawl through motivations and plans, 'Nights and Latrodectus' words. Suspicions and plans within plans emerged, the room below the council chamber, the completely dry environment that was being constructed even now.

'Hmm.' Felicity's words were like dirty fingernails in a wound. 'Either you've been so completely deceived that you don't know it, or your mental barriers are strong enough that I can't detect them, let alone penetrate them.'

'Or I could just be telling the truth inside my own head.'

'For all intents and purposes, the same thing.' Lillian felt the foreign presence withdraw, started rebuilding her barricades. Felicity remained silent for a moment, perhaps giving her time to recover, perhaps just contemplating what she had seen. At last her voice echoed once more. 'It has been a long time since I pushed so deeply into a brain. I found nothing.' Lillian waited. 'Very well. I agree to your proposal.'

'Roman.' This message was louder, yet less distinct. Broadcast to multiple minds again. 'I am staying in the fortress. Call if you need me.'

"I... what?" For a moment the vampire looked almost hurt.

'I have been offered a job and have decided to accept. You and Neil can visit me whenever you like.' It was a moment before Roman replied. The pause suggested that Felicity was whispering in private, but Lillian was prepared to wait. Roman's expression quickly returned to one of casual superiority. He turned without a word and strode for the door.

"Shall I show you to your room?" Lillian asked.

'Find someone to carry me and I'm all yours.'

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mideel waited until Shinsbane and Lydia's compliment of Gamers, plus a select few Quarians, had disappeared from view.  He shared his vantage point near the roof of the Gaming section of 'Nights with Doctor Wrexham.  Turning around and leaning against the ledge, he reflected on how much he missed the wind.

The team was well-provisioned, and prepared for the worst.  Shinsbane was under strict instructions to turn around at the first sign of trouble, and Lydia would enforce that command with the devotion of a Jedi.  Mideel couldn't be certain that the wall would behave as expected, but even amidst the overpowering stranglehold of the Lethargy and the rapidly deteriorating diplomatic environment, there were standards to be maintained.  Freelancer City Armed Forces did not abandon their dead.

His new security grid was the next thing to pass through Mideel's mind as he let his eyes close, imagining a breeze suitable for this time of day.  Something cool and filled with the scent of freshly fallen rain, perhaps.  That was another thing he missed - the rain.

The grid hadn't been effective against Latrodectus, but he questioned whether he had ever expected it to be.  The demoness was a master of stealth, for all her posturing and overbearing attitude.  He would have Inon analyse it when he was fit to do so - the injured Commander had always been better with technology than Mideel.

"I'm going back downstairs to check on Flinn's progress, " Wrexham said after a few minutes, plunging her hands in her pockets.  She glanced at Mideel long enough to catch his eye.

"Oh, no, " Mideel replied to the unspoken question with light dismissal.  "I think I'll stay up here a while longer."

Wrexham nodded, turning away with a sweep of her hair and moving lightly down the concrete stairway.

"Thought she'd never leave..." a distorted whisper echoed, like the rustling of dead leaves.  Mideel's only visble reaction was a raised eyebrow, but his heart always jumped whenever Phaeton pulled that stunt.

"What is so clandestinely important that you couldn't speak to me while Valerie was here?"

"First name basis now, hm?" Phaeton's voice filtered past again, this time accompanied by an ethereal gust of air.  This was not the wind that Mideel had hoped for.  He watched the spot where Doctor Wrexham had been only moments before, as specks of matter coalesced from thin air.  Drawing together, they began to form feet, fingers, hands, arms, legs... an entire body being forced into being through will alone.  As Phaeton completed his transition into the Material Realm, Mideel had the good graces to wince.

"We're effectively the same rank, " the Commander continued as if he hadn't just witnessed the laws of reality being metaphorically bent over a table.

"Yes, smashing, " Phaeton said with a widening of his glowing eyes, feigning interest in his own unique way.

"Get on with it then, " Mideel said, suppressing a grin.

"While Latrodectus was paying you a visit last night, I decided to return the favour, " Phaeton revealed, mimicking the Commander's posture and leaning against the balcony.

Mideel nodded slowly, letting the information sink in.  He pursed his lips, then drew them back across his teeth.

"You didn't think that, perhaps, informing me of her trespass would have been a better use of your time?"

"No, " Phaeton replied with calm confidence.  "Not considering what I found."

"You're certain?" Dragoon Knight asked, speaking through the communications relay in his office.  Mideel had specifically requested that the conversation be private.

"As certain as we can be, sire, " Mideel answered, his voice level.  "We had suspected as much from the first, but this confirms it."

"Damn that Soul Reaver, " Dragoon Knight cursed, pacing back and forth.  He hadn't been resting properly since the reports of the explosion from Mass Effect 2.  For a few tentative days, there had been no news at all.  He had considered sending out another team to investigate, but had opted not to once he had evaluated the circumstances at home.  Freelancer City was in a tentative state of balance, and upsetting it could have dire consequences.

"I almost wish he hadn't found out, " Mideel said regretfully, "but he was very clear.  Councillor Du Flegna was tortured and killed by Dante's forces, before we arrived."

"The empty grave."

"Yes, sire."

"Do we know how, or why?"

"Phaeton said that what remained of his soul was half-mad with pain and barely coherent, " Mideel explained.  "The Lieutenant put him out of his misery."

"You mean he ate him."

"Phaeton assures me- "

"I'm sure he does.  But did he get anything else, anything at all?"

"The way Phaeton told it, the Lieutenant got the idea of devouring him from the Councillor himself."

"But how does this implicate Dante?"

"Du Flegna was screaming two words, over and over, when Phaeton found him.  LatrodectusTraitor."

Out on the balcony again, Mideel gritted his teeth while his eyes scanned the hills to the west.  The Lethargy was everywhere, pressing close and changing everything.  In days gone by, this sort of evil would not have gone unpunished.  Dragoon Knight's decision angered him immensely, but he understood its necessity.

"We do nothing, " the Warlord had said in response to Mideel's request for orders.

"Nothing, sire?"

"We cannot afford to start a war with our only friend in this vast, Lethargy-blighted land."

"Friends do not kill each other!"

"Dante is paranoid, and quick to anger when accused.  Think of how many more would die - on both sides - if this matter were pressed, " Dragoon Knight explained, his voice betraying the deep regret with which he made his apologetic decision.

The Commander had continued to make the case for justice and truth, but a growing part of him had understood its futility.  The choice would have been exponentially harder for Dragoon Knight, who prided himself on being a force for good.  If it hadn't been for this Lethargy, the time of peace and prosperity that the land had once enjoyed would still have existed today.

"Still out here?" Wrexham asked, appearing from the stairwell, hands in her pockets.  Though hours had passed, she looked untroubled by the trials of the day.

"Doctor, " Mideel stated, leaving his reverie and looking at the newcomer.

"I told you.  Valerie."

"Valerie, " Mideel corrected himself.  "I've not been up here all day, if that's what you mean."

"No, my technicians say you spoke to Dragoon Knight not long ago, " she related conversationally.  "Anything important?"

"Routine, " Mideel replied automatically, hating himself.  "Just letting him know about Shinsbane and Lydia.  We can't spare the forces back in Freelancer."

"I can imagine, " Valerie nodded.  Mideel was relieved that her tone didn't betray any suspicion, then angry that he was relieved.

"How are Melinda and Inon?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Inon is conscious again.  He'll be ready for discharge within a day or so, but light duty only."

"That's a relief.  He can spend his time behind a desk, tinkering with that security grid."

"Melinda is still... drifting.  It's like a series of comas.  Each time she comes back, she has no idea where she is.  We explain, she calms down..." Valerie made some hand gestures to express the sense of repetition and futility, "then she falls back asleep.  Rinse and repeat."

"She'll recover, " Mideel assured her, breathing deeply.  "She's strong."

A comfortable silence laid over the balcony, each happy to contemplate on their own for a time.  It was Wrexham who eventually dispelled it, but Mideel found he didn't mind.

"Staying up here again?" she asked.  Mideel simply nodded, and waited until he couldn't hear her footsteps before he let his expression drop.

He missed the wind.

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The evening was cool when Roman set out from TGED. Fanfiction's weather habitually moulded itself to the mood of a vicinity, though the effect had been notably muted since the Awakening. When this might otherwise have been a dark, forboding dusk, it managed to be only a grey, chilly start to the night.

Roman's company was the largest to leave TGED yet, consisting of forty highlanders, twenty dark elven archers and ten giant spiders. The spiders were each the size of a rhinoceros, lumbering creatures that could build up a frightening turn of speed very quickly. They moved deceptively quietly, huge legs padding down as quietly as a kitten.

A single sorcerer walked at Roman's side, a thin woman in a turquoise robe. Selected as his next in command, she relayed the muffled orders that he gave from beneath his thick hood. Her name was Misa, Roman had learned at the debriefing, and her duty was to act as his assistant and daylight bodyguard. The other sorcerer's duty was to watch Roman himself. To keep him in line. The Ghost had appeared only once during the debriefing, disappeared soon after. The ethereal sorcerer completed the sortie, acting as TGED's eyes, keeping Roman under observation. He had expected as much, been warned by Felicity the night before.

Leaving Felicity and Neil behind had been uncomfortably easy. Though part of him felt their loss acutely, even though the city was still in sight, Roman recognised that he was relieved to part from them for a while. Once he had accepted that TGED was a safe place, that he would be too far away to watch over and protect them, he had leaped at the chance to let someone else shoulder the burden. If only for a little while.

Felicity had known his thoughts, of course. She did not pry these days, but he had been unable to keep his relief quiet. She had understood, if with touchy stiffness, that he was tired. Tired of being the sole barrier between his friends and oblivion, tired of the constant fear that he wouldn't prove strong enough. And she had understood that what he wanted was not to escape, but to share the responsibility. She had understood that he bore too much weight, that his excursion to 'Nights was a way of making Dante responsible for the wellbeing of Felicity and Neil. She understood not to tell Neil this.

And she understood that he still cared about both of them. Enough that if TGED failed, he would tear the arms off every man, woman and child in the city.

One of Latrodectus' earlier communications had reported that Dragoon Knight's forces partially relied upon chemical stimulants to withstand the draining effects of the Lethargy. The council had examined the merits of the idea but had ultimately rejected it. Being heavily rooted in Bene Gesserit philosophy, they prefered to depend on mental fortitude rather than chemical crutches. This put a greater strain on Roman, but produced fewer side effects on the troops.

He fell into a familiar daze as the day wore on. The Lethargy was not new to him, he had learned to conserve strength, to exert himself regularly but not constantly. The pace could not be so slow as to flag, nor so fast as to exhaust. The spiders, huge monstrosities that they were, ambled at a suitable pace to keep the rest of the troops engaged.

Each group had developed a different method by which to stave off exhaustion. The highlanders sang, their rousing - and often bawdy - battlesong echoing through the mountains. The elves cut themselves. Upon their ornate and beautiful traceries they poured stinging juices, disinfecting the wound and granting them pain to keep them awake. A favoured few also plucked irritant hairs from the giant spiders, wearing tufts of them as a discomfortingly itchy badge of status.

Roman depended on his own reserves, but was gratified to discover that his burden was not so heavy as it had been in the months carrying his friends alone. The presence of others around him seemed to boost his own reserves, and behind them he could feel the influence of the ghost.

Not that the going was easy. The Lethargy weighed heavy upon the group, and more than once the highlanders' song faltered. Misa fell asleep without realising it, only awaking with a start when she pitched forward onto her face. The highlanders had laughed, and the going for the next hour had been easier.

They marched into the night. Roman removed his hood in order that the soldiers he commanded should see his face. Most were quite used to taking orders from non-humans, but it was not a good thing for a commander to be mysterious. Openness bred loyalty, or so Roman guessed. It had been a very long time since he had led anyone.

They camped just before dawn. The highlanders rested, slept deeply. Too deeply, but that was to be expected. Roman was aware, more than once, of being the only creature awake to keep watch.

Raising his troops from their slumber proved difficult. It took him an hour to wake the company, more than enough time for many to lapse back into dreaming. One of the spiders could not be raised at all, even when its fellows viciously bit it. Enough time wasted, Roman opted to move forward without it. The dark elves were unhappy with his decision, but the other nine spiders did not appear to care.

It was not comforting, but the familiarity of the Lethargy was not entirely unpleasent either. In the days that followed, Roman fell back into an easy half-trance. Communication fell by the wayside in favour of the almost mindless singing of the highlanders. Words were lost in the rhythm, became shouts to time the march. Unlike the old days, there were no forward scouts or baggage trains. The group moved as close to itself as possible, tightly compact to better draw strength from each other. No ambushes were sprung, no advance warning needed. Even the terrain was uneventful, rising and falling with none of Fanfiction's normal unpredictability. No sudden landslides or avalanches. The forests were easily passable, where before the very trees had seemed to move when nobody watched them, concealing paths and leading the unwary in circles.

It was difficult to avoid complacency. Fractious at the best of times, the elves would have reacted badly to what they regarded as superfluous drilling. Their steps were loose, their attitudes habitually looser. Their devotion to the giant spiders served as a double-edged sword. It was the calmness, the lack of agitation from the spiders that kept the elves in check. However, any slight or perceived threat to the arachnids sent the more zealous elves into jealous rages. It was fortunate that their energy needed to be conserved elsewhere; Roman was not inclined to treat animals with much respect, regardless of how huge or supposedly intelligent they were.

On the fifth night the company spotted a light moving through the trees. Drawn by curiosity, Roman ordered a cautious advance. He could ill afford to lose scouts, so the entire group moved as stealthily as they could towards the source.

The creature was humanoid, its features diffuse in their own gentle glow. It floated between the trees perhaps half a mile distant, emitting a calm white light. Occasionally it would pause for no discernable reason, or change direction of its own accord. Misa sidled up to Roman, who squinted at the creature in mute confusion.

"It's a Guest." She whispered.

"I know that." Roman snapped back. "What's it doing here?"

The question was rhetorical, Misa did not answer it. Guests had been recorded in Fed2k for as long as anyone could remember, appearing and disappearing according to their own arcane motivations. They were so rare as to be almost mythical, their origins and purpose unexplained even after years of research into occasional sightings.

"Duniverse legend has it that they're prophets of doom." One of the elves whispered nervously. Though the Guest was far away and high among the trees, he still squnited in its light.

"And the dogma of PRP has it that they're agents of a higher being, interfering with the lives of mortals." Misa snorted. "Gaming believes that they're from the future, here to examine the past and bring news of coming times."

"That sounds about right." Another elf replied. Fanfictioners held the similar belief that Guests were bringers of wisdom, prepared to share great stories and developments if only they could be understood. Misa was already attempting to analyse the creature's movements, but it seemed completely oblivious to the company far below. It floated up, then down, its expression inscrutable.

"Have you ever seen one before?" Misa directed her whisper at Roman.

"Once." He grunted. "It looked like this one. Floated through the sky above Tenebria, disappeared a few minutes later." He paused. "Do they ever say anything?"

"Never." Misa shook her head. "Nobody's ever managed to get one to speak, move, or even react to their presence. As soon as anyone lays a hand on them, they vanish."

"Leaving no trace that they were ever there."

"The only evidence they leave behind is the memory of them." Misa agreed. She paused. "It doesn't seem to be affected by the Lethargy, at least."

"How would we know?" Roman scoffed. "It's just looking around. It might not even know what it's doing here."

"It's out alone. It's either immune or has found a way to resist." Misa glanced sideways at Roman, the strongest barrier between herself and eternal sleep. He was imposing, but she found that she was not overly comforted. Above them the Guest turned on the spot, passed around a tree and into a clear space between the branches. To Misa's right, the Ghost of Dust Scout faded into view.

"Curious things." He stated blankly. The company watched it for several minutes until it abruptly vanished, leaving only a momentary glow in the air. In seconds nothing remained to show it had ever been there. Roman glanced down at Misa.

"Learn anything?" He asked. The Ghost faded, unnoticed.

"Nothing. I'll try to take some notes before I forget." Misa sighed. "Normally I'd be ecstatic just to have seen one. Most people only ever hear about them."

"You can add it to our report later." Roman turned to look at the soldiers. Most were leaning on the trees, one or two had already started to doze on the ground. He rolled his eyes.

"On your feet! Double speed for the next hour, chop chop people!" He bellowed, shaking the branches. He watched with a cruel smile as the highlanders formed their loose marching order, started to jog.

"We'll be at the border with Gaming in a day or two." Misa reminded him as the two of them set off. "We'll want to be more subtle then."

"I'm sure by that time we'll be in no condition to make such a noise." Roman joked darkly. "Come on, lets get moving before the sun rises."

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