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Dante

Warlords 2 - Five Years Later

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After being held up in Never Winter Nights for so long, doing little but patrolling and reporting, Shinsbane was glad to be out in the field again.  The Lethargy was just another obstacle for him, and like most obstacles, he plowed right through it.  As a Dwarven Defender, he was intimately familiar with the rigours of extended duty.  The tiredness it brought and the temptation to let ones defenses slip, if only for a moment's respite.  These failings had been trained out of him during his youth, and it was his training that allowed him to progress with grim pleasure.

"You've been smiling for the past hour, " Lydia said, walking alongside her fellow Lieutenant.  They had both agreed to position themselves in the centre of the group, to maximise the effectiveness of their Lethargy resistance.

"Aye, " Shinsbane replied, with the hint of a chuckle, "there's nothing like a challenge."

They had been making good time for the past couple of days.  Their reserves and spirits remained high, and they were familiar with the terrain, having traversed a good deal of it only recently.  Lydia projected an arrival on the outskirts of Mass Effect 2 during the early afternoon of the next day.  Scouts were regularly despatched a moderate distance ahead, replete with stimulants should their willpower fail them.  None reported anything out of the ordinary.

"There's a difference between a challenge and stubborn refusal, " Lydia explained.  Shinsbane's grin widened.

"Quine, I've been doing nothing but sleeping and sitting since Lumiel took her tumble, " he said, beating his chest with his fists a few times.  "You'll forgive me if I don't pay much heed to yer motherin'."

"You've barely slept since we left 'Nights, " Lydia continued.  Shinsbane didn't respond, so she opted to leave him to it.  As obstinate as he was, the dwarf knew his limits.  As for her own, she was unwilling to probe too deeply into her reserves, in case she found them shallower than she envisaged.  Every instructor, commnding officer, friend and companion she had known had always been full of praise for her and her abilities.  But Lydia was more critical of herself than anything or anyone else.  As a Jedi, she had no trouble avoiding pride or arrogance... but doubt was another thing entirely.

She tried to put such thoughts to the back of her mind, and focused on the path ahead.  They approached a natural crossroads, created by a wide stream.  Following it North for a few miles would lead to a series of wetlands, which themselves spread westward, almost all the way to Freelancer City.  Following the stream South would result in it turning south-west and eventually offering an easy fording.  From there, it was only a half-day's journey to Mass Effect 2, by Flinn's estimates.  After convincing Shinsbane of the benefits, Lydia ordered the troops to halt and make camp for the night.  The stars were beginning to appear in the darkening sky, and Lydia examined them without really knowing what she was looking for.

"Ye might've been right, " Shinsbane admitted loudly, interrupting the Jedi's concentration.

"About what?"

"Knackered."

Lydia smiled knowingly.  "I've prepared myself for just such an eventuality.  Go, sleep.  The Force will aid me, keep me vigilant.  I'll take both watches."

"Again with the bloody Force..." Shinsbane mumbled, though Lydia could sense his appreciation.  As soon as campfires were stoked and burning, the company took only minutes to drift into a sleep which would offer only a fraction of the rest they needed.  Reaching out with her mind, she felt the flow of the Force through each of them.  She could accelerate that flow with an exertion of will; bring them back to full alertness if need be.  Otherwise, it would have taken a small explosion to rouse the sleeping soldiers.

With this in mind, Lydia drew her lightsaber - green, the colour of the Consular - and began to spar with the night sky, weaving intricate patterns among the stars that called her senses to question.

Morning came slowly, the stars disappearing one by one, replaced by what dull, grey light the sun could provide.  It took Lydia a while to realise that she had been in something resembling a trance all night.  She couldn't remember anything specific.  Cursing herself for her lack of attention, she de-activated her lightsaber and set about checking and awakening the troops.  Shinsbane was the first and easiest to rouse; the dwarf treated everything as an attack, even fighting off drowsiness with unwarranted vigour.  Whether or not he sensed the Jedi's discomfort wasn't clear, but he did manage to make her smile by donning his helmet and giving it a sound bash with his hammer.

"Doesn't that hurt?" she asked.

"'s the point!" Shinsbane exclaimed, before walking off and shouting at people for having the affront to not stand to attention.  Lydia's smile lingered a while as she watched him move through the camp, kicking the remains of a fire across the prone forms of several Gamers.  She wondered just how much of what people observed of the dwarf was the real Shinsbane.

Towards the South of the camp, the Quarians had slept in their own group.  While not unsocial, they preferred their own company.  Several of them were looking directly at Lydia - how long had they been awake?

In an attempt to translate the staring match into something meaningful, Lydia approached the group.  "I've been meaning to check in on you for a while now, " she explained as she approached.  "We'll be at Mass Effect 2 by around mid-day.  How are you holding up?"

"We're fine.  Tired, but fine, " responded one of the Quarians; a male, with what appeared to be a mended crack along the bottom of his visor.  An old wound.

"Pleased to hear it, " Lydia smiled, noting for the first time that if one looked carefully, they could see the eyes of a Quarian through their almost opaque mask.

"Our food supplies should last for another week at most, " another Quarian added.  "How long do you expect we'll be staying?"

"Only as long as we need to.  We've come to tend to our fallen and examine the state of this wall of Lethargy.  No more than two days."

"If you don't mind, Lieutenant, " the first Quarian interjected, "we'd like to salvage some of our equipment, if possible."

Lydia hadn't heard any mention of this in 'Nights.  "Did you get clearance from one of the Commanders or Doctor Wrexham for this?"

"Not as such, no, " he acceded.  "But all of our researchers - Freelancer forces and Quarian alike - lament the lack of data or proper tools to work with."

"We've been making such good progress, " added the second, "it seems like an excellent opportunity.  One we'd be negligent to overlook and hesitant to pass up on."

The Jedi considered her options.  Knowing that Shinsbane would be in agreement with whichever choice she made helped a lot.  Despite his forthright attitude, he was intelligent enough to recognise where his strengths were, leaving most of the strategic thinking to Lydia.

"We'll discuss this in detail when we arrive, " she decided, making sure the Quarians understood that she wasn't denying their request.  "For now, it looks like we're almost ready to move out."

The final leg of the trek was uneventful.  Time passed, minute after minute, the pace of the march steady but not rushed.  Almost without warning, the group were faced with the carnage of what remained of Mass Effect 2.

The scouts were the first to see it, reporting back with muted, expressionless clarity.  Shinsbane and Lydia were quick to move ahead, cresting a hill to see the situation for themselves.

It was much as Flinn had described.  In the distance, the wreckage of the dome was at the centre of a massive explosion.  The twisted, crumpled remains of what Lydia reasoned must have been a large building, surrounded by debris and scorched, cracked earth.  It was if the ground had choked on something; as if FED2k itself rejected efforts to repel the Lethargy.  A vague sense of hopelessness washed over Lydia - they planned to re-create this technology in 'Nights?  Shooting a glance towards the group of Quarians, she wondered just how wise her decision to entertain their request had been.

"Alright, enough gawking, " Shinsbane announced, though with slightly less enthusiasm than the past few days.  "It was never gonna be flowers and meadows, men.  Get moving."

The assembled Gamers and Quarians began the shallow descent into the shattered thread.  Blood stains, shards of metal and strengthened concrete, great welts and rent sections in the ground; solemn silence reigned, as the troops moved through the carnage.

"This is the building, " the scarred Quarian announced after a few moments, indicating a structure left undamaged by the explosion.  "Our departed are within."

"I'll take this, " Shinsbane said levelly, gesturing for all but one team of Gamers to follow him.  The Quarian looked towards Lydia for a moment, then lead his people after him.  Lydia remained motionless; amidst so much death and destruction, it was difficult for her to maintain her composure.

"Such an injury to the Force..." she whispered to herself, head hung and shaking slightly from side to side.  "I could not have withstood its potency."

It was several minutes before she could raise her head again, unshed tears betraying the level of control she maintained.  The pain was stronger than the Lethargy, but the drag of insistent apathy was all the more poignent for it.  It had caused this simply by being here.  Not for the first time, Lydia had to strain to keep her emotions in check, vowing to root out the cause of the draining miasma.

"Go aid Lieutenant Shinsbane with the burial efforts, " she ordered, addressing the group of Gamers who had been waiting for her instructions.  "I'll examine this wall on my own."

She moved off, leaving the troops to follow her orders and approached the wreckage of the dome.  Straining her eyes, and using her connection to the Force, she could perceive a certain distortion of the air surrounding the mangled pile of rubble.  It was nothing like the boiling madness that Flinn had described back in 'Nights, but Lydia reasoned that this was nothing less than predicted.

The Jedi stopped short of an invisible perimeter.  She could feel the Lethargy increasing in strength and decided that this was close enough.  Looking to her left and right, she followed the path of destruction along the North-South axis.  The same shimmering, almost mirage-like effect ran along that path, following the natural magnetism that still prevailed alongside gravity.  To Lydia's eyes, it resembled a slowly melting barrier of impossibly pure ice, whose chill had been replaced with a subtle yet all-surpassing urge to sleep.  Hypothermia as a metaphor for the Lethargy... Lydia thought it fit well.

She chose to move South, closer to the rest of the group.  She moved steadily, examining the wall up and down.  It was still impossible to scale or span in any realistic way, since it was still much too high and wide for any small scale effort.  But in contrast, it probably wasn't worth the effort of a large scale operation, since it seemed to be seeping away into normal background levels at a steady rate.  If it kept up this level of disspiation, Lydia projected that it would likely be passable within a couple of weeks with strong stimulants, and entirely gone within a month or so.  The only issue that caused her to worry was that she couldn't discern where the wall ended.  Logic demanded that it would have struck out a certain distance in both directions, then fizzled out somewhere along the way, but logic seemed to have only a tenuous grip on the Lethargy at the best of times.

Lydia spent the next few hours moving Southwards through Mass Effect 2, then out into the marshes of Gaming.  She made sure to alert Shinsbane of her actions, and kept a stock of stimulants with her in case they were needed.  Work was progressing steadily - graves were being dug, and bodies moved from their temporary resting places under plastic covers.  The Jedi paid them little heed, becoming increasingly disturbed at just how far the wall seemed to stretch.  It was nightfall before she returned to the rest of the group.

"The hell have you been all day then?" Shinsbane asked bluntly, noting the mixed expressions of confusion and worry on Lydia's face.

"I walked a good five miles to the South and saw no weakening of that cursed wall, " she explained, running her hands through her hair; normally flowing in shades of walnut, it was dishevelled and dark.

"But it's weakening, you said so yerself, " he consoled, trying to see the bright side, despite being unable to understand what peril Lydia saw.

"I don't like it, " she continued.  "You've seen what that blast did to anything that was in its path."

"There's nothin' but marsh and wetland in either direction, lass, " the dwarf said calmly, his tone suggesting that she was over-reacting.  Nevertheless, Lydia couldn't shake the feeling of unease throughout that night.  What little sleep she got was troubled by vague dreams, dark and full of a baseless fear.  The dawning of the new day found her in much the same state as before.

Work progressed without her.  While she fretted among the Gamers in ME2, Shinsbane led a group towards the main thread of Mass Effect, transporting what bodies he could find bearing the Freelancer insignia.  There were fewer than reports had suggested; Shinsbane put it down to initial shock and exaggeration by the troops.  Since neither Inon nor Melinda were in any state to provide an accurate summary of the events prior to rescuing Flinn, details were haphazard at best.  Only a few Quarians were found in the original thread; most seemed to have congregated in the sequel thread where the disaster took place.  Due to the wall, only certain sections of both threads were accessible.  Similarly, there were far too many bodies to be buried by this team alone, some of which might still be saved if the Lethargy could be removed.  As it stood, Shinsbane and the Quarians agreed that dealing with those killed by the blast - or otherwise assuredly dead - would have to suffice.

Evening approached on their second day in the disaster-stricken thread.  The sunset was unusually beautiful for this area of Gaming, especially given the Lethargy's dimming.  In a twist of irony, Lydia saw its splendour was enhanced by the slight shimmering of the wall.

"The Quarians want to talk about their gear, " Shinsbane said plainly, still covered with the dirt and dust that came from hours of long digging.

"I've been thinking, " she replied.  "About whether or not having this additional equipment would be a good idea.  On the one hand..." she gestured around her, indicating the horrors that the work had originally wrought.

"But on the other, it could prevent it from happening again, " Shinsbane finished in a moment of synchronicity.  "Aye, I see the dilemma."

"What guarantees do we have that it won't all blow up in our faces?" Lydia asked, seemingly genuine in her need for an answer.

"None, " the dwarf replied honestly.  "But if there's a chance that we can use these bloody machines to beat back the Lethargy?  I'm more than willing to risk it."

This time, Lydia was relieved to let Shinsbane lead.  "Alright.  We'll begin gathering what we can now, and we'll leave as early as possible tomorrow.  I want to be rid of this place."

"Yer telling me, " Shinsbane agreed, moving off towards an expectant group of Quarians.  After a moment or two, Lydia set about making preparations to camp in the forsaken thread one last time.

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Felicity could not remember feeling so utterly relaxed before. Though her muscles were dessicated to the point of rigidity, and would snap if she so much as lifted a finger, she felt so entirely at ease that it was difficult to believe that she wasn't alive again.

She sat hunched over on a bed of white sand. The light was powerful and hot, the sand a chemical that drew water into itself. Felicity could almost feel the moisture being leeched from her skin, her flesh, her bones. The few bacteria that had been able to live inside her were dying. Soon she would be completely without water, a situation that appealed to her as a small slice of heaven.

Ever since she had died, water had been the bane of Felicity's existence. It softened her body, allowed the parasites and saprophytes to live inside and digest her. She had painted herself with preservatives, forced the water out with formaldehyde and xylene, wrapped herself with natron-packed linen, still the atmosphere had damped her body. Her eyes had been the first to go, rotted away in less than a year. She had packed her nose and mouth with water-repulling chemicals, fearful that she would lose herself if the rot ever reached her brain. In the event she had been unable to stop even that, but by that time her mind was almost free of the confines of her body anyway.

Felicity was now a creature of thought, she recognised that. She could move only her jaw, and that solely because she required human meat to maintain her illusion of life. Her body was otherwise a husk, dry and brittle, almost immovable. But her mind, ah, her mind. She had lived through countless years of imprisonment in her own corpse. She had used the time well, developing a side of her mind that she had never realised she had. Had she been unable to reach out like that, she would most likely have gone mad. Now she stretched out from her double prisons, her thoughts brushing the minds of everyone in the castle-keep of TGED.

Nervousness. Irritation borne of frustration. Fear. Subdued pleasure. A brief flare of ecstacy, prompting further investigation. Thoughts of a girl. Some kitchen servent engaging in a secret tryst. Felicity moved on. A hole where emotions should be caused her to stop and pause. A true sociopath was present in the castle. Unable to glean emotional cues, Felicity probed deeper. Concerns regarding the Lethargy, curiosity about what to eat for dinner, a vague memory of confusion when the subject had been stared at by a cat earlier. No thoughts of violence, no suggestion of sabotage. Felicity left the mind behind.

On some level, she was aware, part of her was having a conversation. Outside the thick steel door - with a window, for the benefit of outside observers with eyes - stood Neil, her only visitor. He was smart, articulate, but he missed Roman and his lachrymosity was getting on Felicity's deadened nerves. Her responses were automatic, almost unthinking. He must have realised, because he left at some point and she hardly noticed. She would apologise next time he visited, she thought, but for now she was glad to be rid of him.

For a moment she was afraid that maybe he wouldn't come back. Had she driven him away? She dismissed the notion. Neil was a nice person. It made his friendship with her all the more puzzling.

A new mind grew close to her. That was unusual enough to warrent investigation. The closer a person grew to Felicity, the more clearly she could perceive their thoughts. This mind was greyish-blue, all cogs and levers. It was machine-like, flexible yet constructed from parts that were unmoving, uncompromising. Little leaked from a mind like that. It was rigidly self-contained. Dangerous. Felicity reminded herself that the great door had been welded shut, at her own insistance.

The mind stopped in front of her door, a single thought broadcast from behind tightly-controlled barriers.

'Felicity. Good afternoon.'

'Ah, mentat.' Felicity's relief did not tinge her reply. J'invy was a familiar mind which she should have recognised. 'To what do I owe the pleasure?'

'Two reasons.' J'invy replied, his mental voice sounding much like his speaking voice, as it did with most humans. 'I wished to enquire in person about your quarters. I trust they are comfortable?'

'Heavenly.' Felicity imagined how she would roll around in the salt if she could. 'I have never been drier.'

'How do you think you would find being soaked in a preservative? Formulin or even wax?' J'invy asked.

'An interesting suggestion, if not very cost effective.' Felicity mused. 'Now, what is it that you want?' J'invy paused.

'You may be aware that I am being investigated regarding the attacks on the archive.' He sent. Tiny slivers of thought betrayed secret feelings: injured pride, acceptance, frustration. 'I wish you to exonerate me.' It was only Felicity's iron self control that prevented her letting slip a mental snort of incredulity.

'Me? I read minds, and yours is like a steel trap. Even if you let me in, you could have depths that even I am unable to plumb.'

'That has happened?'

'Not yet.' Felicity was smug. 'But what good is my word? I only point out areas for investigation. My own investigative techniques are intended as a guide, not evidence. Don't think I'm not aware of that.' J'invy's mind tick tocked, turned this new data over.

'You have already been asked about this.' He surmised.

'Indeed I have.' Felicity nodded mentally. 'I told them that you are unreadable. Brain like a computer, all predictable pathways and logical conclusions. That kind of thinking, if it doesn't come naturally, requires strong mental conditioning. Your training has made you powerful, if rigid, and that willpower prevents me from seeing inside without your permission, which rather defies the point.' Again the mentat's mind was silent for a moment as he digested this.

'I see. Thank you for your time, Felicity. I shall enquire about other preservation methods.'

'Take your time, take your time.' Felicity rolled back, let her mind spread around her motionless body. 'I'll see you later.'

Far above the dessication chamber, the council room was occupied once again. Dante, Darius, Lillian and Vierna sat around the stone table. Vierna thought that each of them looked rather lonely, spaced around such a huge piece of furniture.

"What have you found?" Dante asked, though something in his voice indicated that he already knew the answer.

"No evidence of wrongdoing. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time." Lillian reported, clearly happy to be the bringer of good news for once. "Ungolus' words appear to have been the result of panic, perhaps with some inside knowledge. In any case, my full report is available to all of you and its conclusion is that J'invy had no prior knowledge of the attacks. Not even subconsciously." She added.

"Excellent!" Dante clapped his hands, leaned back in his chair. "Ah, this is a weight of my mind."

"And J'invy's I imagine." Darius said woodenly.

"...Quite." Dante agreed. "I will question Ungolus again tonight, I think. In the meantime, Vierna?" He extended an arm to the newest member of the council, who was relieved to find that her nerves were beginning to leave her in moments such as this.

"We have some progress." She started, checking the data on the screen in front of her. "I've arrested several movers and shakers in Undervillage, all but one of them dark elves. There doesn't appear to be any connection between them, but I believe that there is some kind of secret society at work here. There's evidence of secret meetings, communicated by hand signals in complete darkness."

"Silent and unobserved unless one can see infra-red." Dante nodded.

"Exactly. That's suspicious, even for Undervillage." Vierna nodded. "Further, we've uncovered stolen supplies that implicate several important social groups. I'm still working out which ones might have been in on the secret and which ones might have been set up by their fellows."

"What have you done with the supplies?" Darius asked. "And what were they?"

"Explosives, mostly. Mechanisms and tools from the Hub, some glyphs that could be used to block magic, that kind of thing. They've all been confiscated and are being held in the upper vaults of the keep." Vierna switched datasheets. "There is another thing. Though many of the suspects aren't connected with each other save by species, I thought to do a bit of research. Many of them are connected to Rai'guy. Too many to be coincidence." She paused. "I've arrested thirty seven people, of whom twenty four have concrete affiliations with the councillor. All but two of the remainder can be connected to one or more of the others, though they covered their tracks well."

"Are you saying that Rai'guy could have known about this?" Lillian raised an eyebrow.

"That's what my informant says." Vierna sighed. "All his intel checks out so far. He's a slimy bastard, but he seems to be telling the truth. As far as I can tell."

"Hmm." Dante frowned. "This would be much easier if I hadn't sent Rai'guy off to the other end of the land."

"And it's not like we've heard from him since." Darius pointed out. "Could he have planned for this, have allies waiting outside TGED? We were asleep for a long time..."

"So was he." Lillan replied, though she did not sound convinced.

"He's had enough time to reach PRP. He should have something to report by now." Dante muttered, frustrated. He bit a nail, chewed thoughtfully.

"Or he could be asleep." Vierna suggested. "Just because Latrodectus survived the shorter journey to 'Nights doesn't mean that Rai'guy even made it to PRP."

"And Roman?" Dante asked.

"He should be just over the Gaming border." Lillian indicated the mosaic map, where a thin red line glowed to mark expected progress. "If all goes well he should be back in under a month."

"Good. Meeting adjourned." Dante said abruptly. "Take some time to study the reports from Lillian and Vierna. I'll see you all later." He vanished just as J'invy opened the door to the chamber.

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The song had stopped.

Roman's group had moved cautiously since leaving the mountains, descending through temperate uplands into the murky hillocks of Gaming. Night afforded them cover, flitting silently between trees and ruins. The highlanders, unused to stealth exercises, had ruefully wrapped their weapons in furs and now formed the rearguard.

The company had approached Never Winter Nights, stopping short of allowing it to appear on the horizon. Following the Ghost's navigation, they had passed east and approached the thread from the south - an unexpected angle. The manoeuvre had added two days to the journey, but if Dragoon's eyes were turned toward Fanfiction then their discretion would serve them well. No traps or scouts had been sighted, though the night sky rippled strangely in the distance. No fires were lit, the company ate their rations raw and thanked providence that Gaming experienced a warmer climate than Fanfiction. The hardened troops experienced little discomfort.

On the fifth day since leaving Fanfiction Misa spotted lights through the trees. Distant, grey and dull, but unmistakably artificial. Then and there she made an attempt to contact the sorcerers in the thread, to no avail. Her spells functioned, yet did not reach their intended targets. The company was forced to move closer in the hope of picking up transmissions or sending in spies.

Their greatest enemy was the soul reaver. The creature's full strength was unknown, but it seemed to possess some ability to fade between the physical and spectral realms. It could be anywhere and see anything, sending in a dark elven spy would have been foolish. The plan then was to "call" one of Dragoon's own defenders out of the thread. The thread's personnel would be watching the outside, they wouldn't expect one of their own to be breaking out. By the time the individual returned they would be Roman's thrall. Such a spy would be perfectly placed to observe and report back via subtle signals that could be observed from a great distance by the keen-eyed elves. The reaver would be monitored by the Ghost, the only member of the company who could slip into the spectral realm.

Of course the company first had to be close enough to call the suceptable.

"I think I should try again here." Misa whispered, tugging on Roman's shoulder. The vampire wore a ragged cloak over his clothes, but Misa had quickly learned that he disliked her pulling on the fabric to get his attention. He paused, lifted his head. She signalled for a stop, waited while he turned his head slowly, inhaling. The elves and spiders came to a halt, as silent as water stopping at the edge of a glass.

"We're still downwind." Roman replied hoarsely, nodding to her. "Take cover behind that tree." He indicated a large, rotten swamp tree that Misa didn't recognise. The low glow from her divinations would be concealed behind its bulk, should any zealous guards with telescopic night vision look in the company's direction.

As she started to cast, Misa frowned.

"Something's wrong." She muttered, aborting the spell. She yawned deeply. "I'm... ah, I'm tired. We've only been awake for two hours, what time is it?"

"As you say, barely two hours past sundown." Roman peered upwards at the stars. He glanced sideways, saw one of the elves yawn. He checked his efforts, redoubled the aura of power that he was projecting. He felt the energy leech out of him, watched the troops for signs of readiness. One of the highlanders sat down abruptly.

"Roman." Misa pulled herself together with visible effort. "Is something wrong?"

She thought that he was weakening. Roman checked again, confirmed that the power he radiated was stronger than ever. A movement caught his attention, a shadow within a shadow on the far side of a stream. He glared, saw a nebulous shape slide forward from behind a tree. It moved silently, even to Roman's enhanced hearing. When the creature stepped into the stream, made not a sound, he saw that the running water stilled around its legs.

"Back, everyone. Form ranks!" He hissed, pointing in the direction of the thing. Whatever it was, it was slowly advancing. "Misa, what is that?"

"What?" Misa asked, squinting into the darkness. "Roman, I can't see anything."

"Humans." Roman spat, grabbed a nearby elf by the collar. "You! What is that thing?" The elf peered blearily at the shadow.

"Um. I don't know." He shrugged. Roman weighed up his options.

"Archers, fire!" He shouted, breaking the night silence but hopefully not disturbing distant 'Nights. The elves readied their shortbows with impressive rapidity, seconds later they fired a volley into the thing's vicinity. It wobbled, but advanced out of the stream and into the clearing. Several soldiers collapsed.

"Misa!" Roman growled.

"I can't see, Roman!" The sorcererss snapped back.

"It doesn't show up in infra-red." The elf reported. "It's air temperature."

"Undead!" Another breathed.

"Fine. Light us up." Roman grimaced. Immediately Misa clapped her hands together, shouted a syllable. When she brought her hands apart an aura of flames radiated out from her. It ringed the clearing in seconds, surrounding the company and the thing as well.

Framed against the light, it stood out clearly. It was shaped like a human, though almost made from shadow. Its edges blurred, it was unclear where its body ended and darkness began. Wisps of shadow curled around the creature, parted and reformed like smoke.

"I... I've never seen anything like it." Misa whispered. The only clear thing about the creature was the single arrow embedded in its chest. It was still advancing slowly, unidentifiable limbs dragging and stumbling forward, apparently unbothered by the wound.

"Misa." Roman muttered. The sorceress nodded, though with a nervous glance at her spellbook. She was not a battlecaster by any means, but kept a spell or two handy for situations like this. She formed a fireball around her fist, hurled it at the creature.

The roiling ball of flame surged forward, dazzling the company before it winked out on contact with the creature's wispy aura. Misa stood dumbstruck.

"I..." She scrabbled for her book, hurriedly made a series of gestures. Nothing happened. "I don't understand!" She wailed. Roman narrowed his eyes.

"Spiders." He ordered. The nine remaining arachnids scuttled forward from their positions in trees or around the group. The largest female, known to the elves as "Big She," led the charge. As she reached the creature she slowed, stumbled, reached out to sieze it in her jaws. As her palps closed around its body, however, Big She slumped to the ground. Like a trap springing shut, her legs curled up under her, the movement rocking the spider back to roll away into the stream. It was clear to all that she was dead. The second spider, another female, attempted to slam into the creature, succeeded only in momentarily unbalancing it before she too fell dead to the ground.

'Those creatures weigh more than a ton. They can stop a tank. What is this thing?' The reflection was not particularly useful, was banished as Roman scrambled for alternative attack plans. The ring of fire was starting to burn out, it was only a matter of time before the creature could hide in darkness again. Two more spiders fell.

The elves, furious at seeing their idols fall, were launching volleys of arrows. The creature was already stuck like a pincushion, to no noticable effect.

"Cease fire!" The elves ignored him. Roman stepped forward, hesitated as the creature advanced once more. It seemed to pause, gather itself.

When it moved, it was a blur.

A shadow trailing shadows, the thing leapt forward, punched into the elven ranks. There were no screams. No shouts of pain. All around it the elves fell. Some were dead. Some might not have been.

"Kill it!" Roman bellowed at the highlanders behind. "Kill it!"

The men and women of TGED raised their weapons, sluggishly charged forward. It was a vicious melee, but clearly one-sided. The highlanders, like the elves, fell the moment their blades touched the monster. Without a sound, save the breath escaping from their lips, they fell lifeless to the earth.

The creature moved like a bolt of lightning, jumping from space to space, sending out tendrils of darkness that killed if they so much as brushed a target. Misa crumpled to the ground, a trail of smoke slipping past her arm.

Roman sighed, drew his power back to himself. Lost, confused, his remaining troops fell asleep almost immediately as the Lethargy reasserted itself. The adrenalin-fuelled survivors soon fell to the monster's rapid jabbing attacks.

As he launched himself forward, Roman just caught a glimpse of the Ghost, materialising on the other side of the clearing. He appeared to be midway through casting a spell, a powerful one. As Roman watched, the creature reversed on the spot and was suddenly standing in front of the spectre. It punched a limb forward, puncturing the Ghost. Barely able to register an expression of surprise, the spirit burst apart and faded.

He was committed now. Nobody stood save Roman and the monster. Roman knew that he was fast. He could kill people before they could blink. He was strong too, could leap skyscrapers and tear trucks apart with his bare hands. He was the most powerful creature in the company, and it was all up to him now. Around him, everyone else lay dead or sleeping. The sleepers breathed shallow, they could be dead in minutes. Roman advanced.

His exchange with the creature was brief. He feinted, it darted, he rolled to one side and immediately there it was, stood in front of him. It lashed out, caught him on the neck with a single finger. After that, Roman knew no more.

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Dragoon Knight was overseeing the last of the repairs to Freelancer Tower's integrated systems.  Inon's accidental release of the virus had been more damaging that initial reports had estimated.  Now that the Lethargy was less of a threat, held in check beyond the borders of the city, the necessary maintenance could be performed without much risk.  It was not until several days after despatching Inon to search for Mass Effect 2 that the warlord had realised just how close he had come to losing contact with 'Nights.  He didn't like the idea of that.  No matter what defenses he raised, he was acutely aware that Freelancer City was trapped by the Lethargy, and that they were no closer to understanding it than they had been moments after waking up.

He had assigned his best research teams to the task of trying to sample or quantify the phenomenon; identify its source or its purpose.  All attempts had been in vain - the Lethargy defied every attempt to corrall or control.  Only vague reports from Commander Flinn - whose location and survival had given the warlord a brief period of joy amid the chaos - gave any hope towards creating some sort of effective barrier against the formless enemy outwith.

But Flinn's report had brought with it much less pleasant tidings.  Despite having located and revived several more Dragoons since Inon's departure, Freelancer could ill afford to lose one like Melinda.  With so many more casualties reported from the incident in that thread, Dragoon Knight was wary of putting all of his eggs in one basket.  As tenuous as their current situation was, it was more or less stable.  Barring any further setbacks, there was no reason to rush things.  Research on the Lethargy - and the Mass Effect technology - could proceed at its own pace.

For almost an hour, Dragoon Knight's mind was blissfully occupied with menial tasks; directing repair crews to network conduits and damaged bio-neural interfaces, organising the latest shift rotation of Dragoons posted along the city walls.  But his focus was drawn back to the dilemmas facing him when his attention was requested by Ryu.

"Latest intelligence and research reports from 'Nights, sir, " his aide stated, approaching him from the side as opposed to behind.

"What?  Oh, hm, " replied Dragoon Knight, still somewhat distracted.

"Doctor Wrexham reports that Lieutenants Shinsbane and Solheim are expected back within the day, " Ryu summarised, knowing that his leader would have no inclination to read the entire document right now.  "She also mentions that research is progressing steadily, but slowly."

"What about Commander Inon, and our injured Dragoon?"

"Inon has fully recovered from his injuries.  You'll find his full report - slightly more coherent than the first - attached as an appendix."

"Still no word on Melinda, then, " Dragoon Knight sighed, shaking his head.

"She's in good hands, sir."

"She should be here, Ryu.  Being tended to by a team of surgeons and her spiritual wounds healed by her fellow Dragoons."

"You anticipate that her powers will be affected by this?"

"Gods, man, " Dragoon Knight rounded on the advisor, "by all accounts, she was torn between time and space - who knows how long or far - and then her own energy was reflected back at her by an element that defies description."

"Her injuries, though severe, seem purely physical, sir."

"She was already weakened from my initial efforts to repel the Lethargy, Ryu, " the warlord continued.  "Trust me, she'll be almost human by the time she wakes up."

Ryu paused to consider the implications of this.  He had never heard of an instance of a Dragoon becoming human; once a spirit paired with a person, the pairing was meant to be for life.  At death, the spirit would find a new master... but what Dragoon Knight was saying seemed to indicate another fate awaited Melinda.

"What would that mean for her?  For the Dragoon Spirit she holds?" Ryu asked, unable to contain his mix of curiousity and concern.  Dragoon Knight gave him a stern look, as if Ryu has just asked a very private, personal question.

"It will be like amnesia, except not so kind.  She will remember that she has forgotten.  She will feel it as an acute sense of loss, like mourning for a loved one, except it will not go away with time.  This is all simply from the loss of the majority of her powers.  How she will take the added physical disablement, I cannot fathom."

"Sir, I'm sorry, I didn't know, " Ryu almost stammered.

"In the history of the Dragoons, there have been many who have died - in battle or otherwise - and passed on their spirits.  I could count the number of people who have shared Melinda's fate on one hand."

Ryu looked solemn, aware he had touched a nerve and wishing he had not pried.

"That's why she needs to be here, " Dragoon Knight continued, throwing the report down onto a nearby desk.  "If it weren't for that damned Lethargic wall... no, what am I saying?  What could I do?  Send Dragoons from the city walls to tend to her?  Transport her across the fields of Gaming in her weakened state?"

"Melinda is being cared for as best as we can manage, sir, " Ryu tried, knowing that it would prove ineffective, "and your Lieutenants will be back by tonight with more details about the event in Mass Effect 2."

"Our best isn't good enough, Ryu, " he replied, his voice strict and self-critical.  "We're not doing enough to battle this new foe of ours.  While Dante might be happy to rely on pure magic to fuel his efforts, I'm not about to risk the lives of every inhabitant of this thread on the unknown.  Hell, it was probably magic that got us into this mess."

"There are no indications that Dante is having an easy time of this, sir, " Ryu interjected.  "In fact, there seems to be the unspoken feeling that we're somehow immune to the Lethargy's effects."

"A shrewd one, that Wrexham, " Dragoon Knight acknowledged.  "I'm not about to correct that rumour.  Not with Dante's behaviour of late.  He needs to learn to trust us; to admit that he can't do this alone."

"Do you honestly believe he'll be the one to make the first concessions?"

"That's a bold question, Ryu, " Dragoon Knight said, his statement a mix of surprise and admiration.  "No, I don't believe he'll be anywhere near as co-operative as that.  But at this point, any offers of working together will be seen as attempts to spy on him, or something equally ridiculous.  We'll simply need to bide our time."

Dragoon Knight seemed to find those last few words distasteful.  Looking around him, he felt a profound sense of helplessness.  All of his Commanders were in 'Nights, most of his Dragoons were tied up with defending the city.  What good was he doing, waiting things out in this tower?  Dismissing Ryu, he turned back to the lesser tasks before him, letting his mind sort through the chaos of conflicting opinions and emotions.  Things could not stay as they were indefinitely.


The journey back from Mass Effect 2 had been quick, despite the extra encumbrance of the Quarian equipment.  Shinsbane had been relieved that most of it was small; terminals and drive bays, diagnostic tools and scanners.  The only exceptions were two sheets of metal, identical in shape and size.  Seven feet by two, and about as thick as the average Gamer's arm, it weighed surprisingly little.  Two Gamers were able to carry a sheet between them with little more than occasional hand cramp from lack of decent grip.  The Quarians explained that the metal was the same as that used within the dome, and that it was a special alloy forged to amplify the output the Element Zero.  It would be much easier to replicate the metal with samples to base the work on.  Two sheets seemed excessive for this purpose, Shinsbane reasoned, but the group weren't overburdened when they left the thread.  He had agreed, and was pleased that he had not regretted the decision.

Lydia had been mostly quiet since their departure.  Though she projected her aura of inspiration without pause, it was clear that she herself did not feel nearly as enthused.  Her expression was carefully blank, but her eyes gave away the deep thought taking place within.  One moment flitting left and right, as though considering different options; the next, glazed over for ten minutes or more.  Each night was but a punctuation of her quiet contemplation, alternately sleeping and maintaining a token watch.  Shinsbane wasn't overly troubled by her lack of concentration, but slept lightly regardless.  Over the years, he had been grouped with Lydia several times.  The entire group of Lieutenants had risen through the ranks of the Freelancer Armed Forces more or less simultaneously, meaning that shared assignments were common.  While Shinsbane opted for a friendly hostility towards everyone, Lydia and Lumiel had quickly become close friends.  Phaeton was the black sheep of the bunch, but earned respect and grudging friendship after being instrumental to success in mission after mission, even as far as saving the entire group from defeat on one occasion.

Though much closer now than during the relatively halcyon days of early service, Shinsbane had still not managed to pierce the veil of Jedi stoicism that surrounded Lydia.  Though it was clear that her mind was full of doubt, neither he nor the other two Lieutenants had ever openly mentioned it to her.

Shinsbane found himself paying altogether too much attention to her, and not enough to what was ahead.  It was on the fourth day of their return journey - perhaps six hours through the south-western hilly terrain until reaching 'Nights - that he noticed Lydia's expression change from one of contemplation to alarm.  Her hand fell to the pommel of her lightsaber, prompting Shinsbane to snap to attention.  He regarded the scene ahead with combined fear and incomprehension.

Dead bodies were strewn everywhere.  The eastern bank of a nearby stream was littered with corpses of many races; giant spiders, elves, humans.  A circle of charred earth slightly further east gave the impression that battle was met here, although with devastating consequences.

"Stand alert, people, " he shouted backwards along the ranks, scanning the area around him.  All of the dead seemed to be focused towards a single point - the river.  Unless the spiders themselves were the enemy these elves and humans fought against?  Perhaps some sort of venom...

"Shinsbane, " Lydia said, a note of warning in her voice.  "I can still smell burning.  This battle is hours old at the most."

The dwarf crept forward, motioning for Gamers to split into smaller teams and spread out as they advanced.  He reached for his hammer, felt the solid weight of it reassure him.  Lydia hadn't activated her lightsaber, but was moving forward with the grip in her hands.

"Fan Fiction forces, " Lydia spoke again, this time with grim certainty.  Shinsbane gritted his teeth, moved forward towards the middle of the clearing provided by the river's winding path through the hills.

"Worse, " he said, approaching the body of a female, spotting the telltale markings of a sorceress.  "They're Dante's troops."

"A scouting party from 'Nights?" Lydia asked hopefully.

Shinsbane shook his head.  "Not this lot.  No bloody spiders and very few elves in 'Nights when we left."

"What are they doing this far inland?"

"Spying, I'll warrant, " Shinsbane deduced, moving onwards.  He eyed the corpse of a larger man, while the rest of his forces moved among the fallen troops.  Highlanders comprised most of the contingent - Fan Fiction's counterparts to Gamers.  Basic troops, but hardy - they did not seem like the type to go down without a fight.

"This one smells like he's been dead longer than the others, " Shinsbane commented, turning the body over with his boot.  His appearance was unremarkable, but his position in the middle of the clearing gave Shinsbane pause.

Lydia approached, closed her eyes briefly.  "Something... wrong happened here.  No ordinary battle."

"They've all been bested by the Lethargy, if that's what you mean, " Shinsbane commented, still scanning his surroundings.

"This was no un-prepared group that run out of rations, " Lydia corrected, taking a closer look at the fallen man before Shinsbane.  "This one in particular... he was a being of great power.  Some of it remains, like a residue."

"Power or no, this lad and his entire platoon are dead.  What could've caused this?"

"I don't rightly know..." Lydia said quietly, nervously.  "We should leave this place, report back to Commander Mideel in Never Winter Nights."

Satisfied that there was no imminent danger, Shinsbane put away his hammer and gave the all-clear to the troops.

"Aye, that sounds like the best plan, " he agreed.  "But we can't just leave this lot here."

"Why not?" Lydia railed, appalled at the implication that they would need to move the bodies.

"We'll need some sort of evidence that this group was here, no doubt intent on spying on us."

"Shinsbane, we don't know that.  And taking the dead bodies of our only ally's forces back to 'Nights doesn't strike me as tactically sound."

"What's to stop them denying it?  What's to say there ain't more of these platoons, circling 'Nights like vultures, while that demoness Latrodectus lulls us into a false sense of security?!"

"I... well-"

"Lass, I know what my gut tells me, " Shinsbane emphasised, slapping his chest.  "There's deception afoot here, and I don't like it.  We'll take a few of these buggers back with us - him, her, a few of the Highlanders - and we'll make Dante explain just what the hell he was doing out here."

Lydia was about to protest further, but kept her silence.  Shinsbane took this as agreement and began to arrange for several corpses to be moved onto makeshift litters, while the man and sorceress were placed atop the metal sheets.  Still uncomfortable, but unwilling to say anything, Lydia could only move with the troops as they continued their way towards 'Nights, a deepening sense of unease following her with every step.

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"It's been disturbed." Rai'guy frowned, pulling at his chin. It was another gesture adopted from J'invy, made all the more pointless by Rai'guy's inability to grow facial hair. He looked out across the corpse-littered clearing. There should have been flies. There should have been the smell of rot, even this soon after the death. The air was clear.

More pressingly, Rai'guy recognised the smell of fur and weapon oil. The smell of TGED's armouries, carried on the arms and armour of the fallen. Dante's men had been slaughtered with barely a drop of blood spilt, and not a single enemy casualty to be seen.

"Some bodies have been moved." A sorcerer agreed, frowning in concentration as he examined a bare patch of earth. "Perhaps the enemy took their fallen away?"

"I don't like this." Rai'guy muttered. He floated upward to examine the battlefield from the air. "Barely an injury, not a single killing blow. Either they were killed with magic or we're dealing with some powerful new weapon. Something powerful enough to withstand the Lethargy..." He drifted downward again. "There's a trail leading north. Fresh." He looked up, squinted at the rough light of the dawn. Even through the trees, it would soon be too light to move without his hood.

"We could camp here." A black angel suggested with a lewd grin. Rai'guy had long ago become inured to the creatures' lascivious brutality, could barely raise a sneer as the angel cast a hungry look in the direction of the nearest body. He didn't know the creature's name, hadn't made the effort to learn any of them. The angels were practically feral anyway, their bloodlust held in check only by the thinnest masquerade of humanity.

"No, we need to scout out the enemy." He decided, feeling a little thrill of excitement for the first time in weeks. "The trail goes north. You and you, follow it and report what you see. Do not engage." The angels that he had pointed at took off with knowing smiles. "The rest of us will follow the trail to see what we're up against. It might be better to simply... observe the enemy before reporting back to TGED."

The company hurried around the battlefield, following the fresh trail north. The angels grinned fiercely, anticipating bloody violence. And who would say they were wrong? Rai'guy had no more idea of the foe than they did, conflict was certainly on the cards.

Only a few minutes after they left the stream behind they found one of the scouts, crashed and sleeping in a mess of broken branches. His companion had used the last of her effort to scrawl a large D in the dirt. They were quickly roused, slapped back into awareness, and gave their report on the move.

"A large group of humanoids, some wounded on stretchers." The female reported smugly. "Also some dead. They-" she paused as Rai'guy winced in the light of the dawning sun, drew his hood over his head. "They're moving quickly, but there's a valley ahead. It should slow them down enough for us to catch up."

"Armed?" Rai'guy's voice was muffled, but the light was just too high now.

"Gaming troops." The angel sniffed. "Weak, flimsy weapons." It suddenly occured to Rai'guy that the fallen company had been easily twice the strength of his own. Well no matter, he was warned, could flee if he had to.

The sun had hardly moved when he caught the first flash of reflected light from distant armour. Minutes later the army was visible through the trees, moving sluggishly up the other side of a small dip in the landscape. Rai'guy ordered the angels to remain concealed, hid the sorcerers in the ranks of the highlanders. His target was just reaching the lip of the valley when he spotted a familiar crest on the creature's armour.

That changed things.

"Halt!" Rai'guy had pulled the mask to one side for a moment, his voice rang clear and sharp in the morning air. The opposite company turned in surprise, evidently they had not been looking behind them. Rai'guy leapt onto a boulder, ensured that his hood and gloves were secure. Surrounded by highlanders and sorcerers, he hoped to strike an imposing figure. Through the mesh on his mask he could see the bodies that the angels had described: some of them clearly denizens of Fanfiction. He was still choosing his words when a shout went up from the opposing ranks.

"And who are you, then?" It took Rai'guy a moment to discern the speaker: a short, squat man in blue armour pushing his way to the back of the company. Finally shoving aside the last of his troops, he stood at the edge of the valley with a grim expression. "You'd do well to answer me, yeh gimpmasked folly." Rai'guy bristled at that.

"Has Dragoon Knight taken to low banditry now?" He snapped, holding his mask up, keeping his mouth in shadow. "I see some of my number in your hands. Trophies?" The dwarf frowned.

"Whatever happened in that clearing, we weren't responsible." He replied.

"Oh, so you just stumbled across a mountain of corpses and decided to take some as souvenirs."

"Yer concern for their lives is makin' me well up, all teary like." The dwarf wiped an imaginary tear from his eye.

"Was that an accusation?" Rai'guy allowed a hint of feigned offense to enter his voice. "You would do well to choose your words more carefully, friend."

"Was that a threat?!" The dwarf exclaimed, unhooking a hammer from his belt. A woman stepped forward, put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He shook her off. Rai'guy watched the exchange closely, noting that one of the corpses behind the dwarf was starting to smoke.

"I'd cover that up if I were you." He said, indicating the smouldering body. While infantry hurried to obey a barked order from the dwarf, Rai'guy and the woman watched each other. He had the uncanny feeling that she could see through his hood, which he supposed was entirely possible.

"Are you from The God Emperor's Dune?" The woman asked softly, her voice carrying across the valley easily.

"Yes. And so were they." Rai'guy replied sharply, indicating the now-covered corpse.

"Your compatriot, the spider woman." The woman gestured northwards with one hand. "Did she send for you?"

"Weesht, Lydia." The dwarf harumphed. "We'll have plenty o' questions for that demoness when we get back."

Spider. Rai'guy mouthed the word. So she had passed this way, may have met this group. "What is your connection with Latrodectus?"

"Like you don't know." The dwarf growled, hefting his hammer. "What all this boils down tae is that you're spying on us, moving forces around a shared thread. Clandestine-like. Espionage. I'll give yeh no answers." He spat, turned, began to stride back through his men. The woman lingered a moment longer before turning to follow him.

Rai'guy watched them leave, considering his options. The angels were in the trees above his head, he had but to give the order for them to swoop down, biting, rending... He leaned down to the sorcerers. "Fire a warning shot over their heads. Something flashy."

"Ayesir." The sorcerer nodded, his companions already waving their hands in vaguely mystical ways. Seconds later they launched a volley of fireballs across the valley. The missiles exploded in the trees, showering burning twigs and pine needles upon blue-clad troops below. Rai'guy smiled in satisfaction.

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Flaming debris rained down amid the Gaming forces.  Shinsbane pivoted around, hammer in his white-knuckled grasp, with the fiery downpour glinting in his eyes.  An attack, a provocation.  The straw that broke the camel's back.  Enough.

"Graah!" the dwarf exclaimed, a low guttural noise that escalated into a warcry.  He dashed forward a couple of steps, bent his knees and then leapt upwards.  Rai'guy's gaze tracked him as he flew through the air in an impossible arc, hammer high above his head.  With lightning-quick reflexes, Rai'guy backflipped off his boulder perch.  A fraction of a second later, Shinsbane's hammer struck it with inestimable force, reducing it to stones and rubble, which exploded in all directions.

"Dragoon Knight has betrayed us!" Rai'guy cried, accompanied by more aerobatics to avoid the incoming rock.  "Engage the enemy!"

Still down in the clearing, Lydia heard the call to arms, grabbing and activating her lightsaber.  "Gamers, defend yourselves!"

Forces from both sides, already alerted and poised to strike, surged forwards.  Battle was joined.

Atop the crest of the hill, the sorcerors moved back into position as best as they could, thankful that Shinsbane's attention was focused solely on Rai'guy.  As the dwarf stood up, he shrugged and cricked his neck, then stalked purposely towards their leader.  Unimpeded, the sorcerors waved their hands once more, tracing arcane patterns in the air.  Liquid fire formed around their fingertips, pooling into spheres, which the casters launched downwards into the midst of the assembled Gamers.  But Lydia was prepared.  Using a blast wave of Force energy, she deflected several of the projectiles.  While lacking in accuracy, the reflected fireballs managed to scatter the majority of the sorcerors.  It would be a while before they could douse the flames and ready another volley.  Behind her and slightly to her right laid the sheets of metal, atop which rested the two corpses which had drawn the bulk of the Fan Fictioner's attention.  Lydia grimaced, gesturing to the assembled Quarians to move with her.

"You're a fool, dwarf.  Do you hear me?!" Rai'guy shouted at the approaching figure.  The dwarf didn't know his enemy's name, but Shinsbane saw no fear in his opponent's stance.

"Better a fool than a coward!" Shinsbane retorted.  "Attacking from behind, eh?  Let me show ye how it's done!"

Shinsbane rushed forwards, accelerating steadily.  Rai'guy allowed himself a flicker of a grin; this lumbering oaf would pose no threat now that he was prepared.  A split-second before the swinging arc of Shinsbane's hammer connected, Rai'guy twisted out of the way and delivered a spinning kick to the back of the dwarf's head.  His heel broke, the steel of Shinsbane's armour posing no match for bone, but the vampire blocked out the pain.  Shinsbane was catapulted face-first into the loamy earth, pushing turf and scattered rock as he scarred the ground.  But he was on his feet again before coming to a halt, and used the accumulated earth to launch back towards Rai'guy.

The wound to his foot was too new and Shinsbane's response too quick; Rai'guy placed his weight on his damaged heel and lost his balance momentarily, but it was enough.  Instead of pirouetting gracefully out of harm's way, the dwarven hammer landed a solid blow to Rai'guy's midsection.  A lesser being would have had his organs liquidised by the force.

"I grow tired of this, turncoat, " Rai'guy growled, dodging another two hammer swings and flicking a blade almost casually towards the underarm of his enemy.  Shinsbane brought his spaulder down to deflect the blow.

"I don't tire!" the Gaming lieutenant exclaimed, sweat dripping from his brow.  Rai'guy gave the dwarf a calculating look and decided that he probably wasn't bluffing.  The sun was rising.

"Angels!  Make them suffer."

Horrible shrieking pierced the dawn air as half a dozen green and black winged creatures burst from the nearby trees.  They surrounded the Gaming forces, and wasted no time in diving into the fray.

"Shinsbane!" Lydia exclaimed, as the black angels tore into the vulnerable Freelancer units, swooping in from above and grabbing their prey, lifting the victim into the air before rending and tearing, spilling gory death across the valley floor.

Hearing Lydia's call, Shinsbane was momentarily distracted.  With astounding alacrity, Rai'guy rushed forward, leapt feet-first into a drill kick to the dwarf's chest, sending him flying through the flames and down the hill.  He crashed through Highlanders and Gamers alike, somehow retaining a grip on his hammer.  Coming to a halt, he was nowhere near as quick to rise to his feet as before.  Rai'guy watched from the burning hillcrest.

"Beg for surrender, " he proclaimed.

"Shinsbane, we're being slaughtered here!  We have to retreat!"

"I'm not being beaten by a pansy in bondage gear!" roared the injured Dwarf, spitting blood before raising his hammer to the sky.

A small but powerful light began to shine forth from the cracks of the hammer, giving it the impression of a geode about to explode with diamonds.

"Rrraargh, ha-ha!" Shinsbane laughed without humour, smashing his hammer into the ground.  Where it hit the earth, cracks emerged, creeping their way towards the hill face.  Violent tremors shook the valley, the cracks widening to fissures and the earth becoming splintered and uneven.  The hill itself began to come apart, and Rai'guy was forced to leap from his perch, down into the battle proper to avoid being caught in the landslide.  Similarly, Highlanders still pressing the attack were caught in the rumbling decimation.

"Lydia, blast 'em!" Shinsbane ordered.  Obeying, Lydia levelled a Force blast towards Rai'guy and the last, staggered lines of Highlanders, knocking them back into the deep cracks and crumbling landscape.

"Now!  Gamers, retreat!  Retreat to 'Nights!" Lydia exlaimed, gesturing with her arm for everyone to follow.  There was no time to collect equipment, or the dead and wounded.  The black angels were unaffected - staying any longer would result in almost certain doom.

Driven by their bloodlust, the Angels moved to pursue.  But without Shinsbane's presence, the earth began to shift once again, fissures and cracks closing.  Some were deep enough to contain an entire person, while others caused trapped limbs or prevented passage.

"Back!  Get them out of there!" Rai'guy blared, directing the angels to return.  The few remaining Quarians fired rifle shots back towards the Fan Fiction remnants, but were quickly out of range.  The vampire cursed all dwarves everywhere - pursuit was out of the question without all of his forces.  No ground troops to distract the Jedi and that damned armoured clod and his angels were as good as clay pigeons.

Within a few minutes, most of the trapped were freed.  Rai'guy managed to locate several of the Fan Fiction corpses, including the two strapped to the strange metal sheets.  He considered sending the angels ahead to harry their retreat, but realised it would be no use.  He would have to accept being second to arrive at 'Nights, and could only speculate as to how they would be received.

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Lydia attempted to impose what order she could as the remnants of her platoon retreated to 'Nights, but with little success.  Dante's forces had never engaged theirs in battle before, and they had been unprepared for the viciousness of the attack.  She had expected diplomacy, harsh words... nothing like this.  Before the explosion that triggered the conflict, she had been far too worried to entertain anger, or even the notion of it.  Even if she had allowed herself the luxury, her Jedi training would have halted any such feelings before they blossomed.  No such restrictions existed within her for the deep-seated anxiety that now crept through her mind, reaching tendrils of doubt and borderline paranoia down through her timid frame.  They were meant to be allies... but Dante's subordinate had shown no mercy.  Those angels would trouble her dreams for many nights to come.

They had been running for almost half an hour, trying to set a pace that would allow them to ignore the fate of those they had left behind.  There would be no treating these wounded, no burying of the dead.  The face of every soldier was beset with fatigue, their collective gaze torn between the turf before them and the special part of everyone's mind where we replay the past, willing it to change and cringing at the consequences.  The masked leader of Dante's forces... he had attacked first.  Hadn't he?  The fireball, exploding above their heads; a show of hostility.  The first shot of an opening volley, or an arrogant show of force?

They wrestled too with the knowledge of what was to come when they reached the uncertain safety of 'Nights.  There would be a diplomatic ice age, with neither side willing to relent; old pride and strict morality would prevent either Warlord from acceding.  But while Dante would labour under the misaprehension that they were somehow responsible, it was left to Lydia, Shinsbane and the scant few survivors of the horrific in-fighting to tell the truth.  That the Lethargy was more deadly than anticipated.  That perhaps something was set in motion by that explosion in Mass Effect 2.

Taking up the rear of the staggered formation, checking back over his shoulder periodically, Shinsbane was livid.  In the moments before the explosion, he had been simply angry, at himself as much as the Fan Fiction troops and their masked leader.  Their initial argument had been nothing but so much posturing, with no real information gained.  At least, not on his part.  What was this person's name?  His intentions?  Were there more troops, entire platoons laying in wait, circling 'Nights like vultures waiting for the twitching to cease?

But then the battle had come, and there were no more questions, only combat.  The release of days and days of pent-up aggression, tolerating the slights and paranoia and arrogance and death.  This figure, clad all in leather, compounding the misery of recent weeks with more accusations, more hostility.  The fire above Shinsbane's head had ignited his rage, and he had leapt.  But he had failed.  And it gnawed at him.

A Dwarven Defender, bested by a textbook ambush.  His troops dead or dying, eviscerated by demons with wings and claws.  Had the Fan Fiction assailants suffered even one loss?  Such betrayal... even in his most paranoid imagingings, he hadn't expected this.  The resounding outrage echoed around Shinsbane's mind, keeping him from thinking of those he had let die.

"I can see the gates!" shouted one of the forward Gamers, her voice startling many out of their tormented reverie.

"Pick up the pace, people!" Shinsbane ordered from behind, willing this mission to be over.  To let the burden of what happened next be someone else's.

Those stationed on guard duty had seen the group approaching, but were startled at their speed and apparent condition.  By the time that Lydia was close enough to see details, it was apparent that several Fan Fiction guards were moving off towards their own section of the thread.  Did they already know, or were they just trained to report suspicious activity?  She had no time to speculate; as the gates began to open, she gestured in front of her, forcing them apart with a concentrated wave of Force energy.

"Injured to the infirmary, everyone else to the barracks and await debriefing, " she announced as the troops filtered past.  "Say nothing."

"That pricked those bastard's ears, " Shinsbane panted, sprinting to Lydia's position and angling his head towards two of the Fan Fiction guards who had remained by the gate.

"We need to talk to Commander Mideel right away, " she said, moving past the dwarf's statement.

"Bloody right we do."


Latrodectus sat in her room, stewing.  Beaten back again and again, by the council as much as the Freelancer forces, she had retreated to do what spiders did best: wait.  Wrapped in webs, almost motionless, she felt the ebb and flow of the keep through delicate gossamer threads.  The tiniest pull or slack on the strands of her web told her much about the activities of the fortress.  Someone hurried to her rooms, heavy feet on shrouded stone.  They slowed outside her door, opened it carefully.

"Thisss had better be good, " she managed something between a hiss and a sigh, yet still impressed a sense of impending danger.  She did not enjoy being disturbed at the best of times, least of all while she was resting.

"You need to come to the gate, " said a male voice, his body silhouetted in the doorway, casting a long shadow into the darkened room.

"I very rarely need to do anything, sssorcsseror, " she replied, in the middle of spinning herself a new silk shift to wear.  Only a vague outline of her humanoid form was visible in the shadows.

"Dragoon Knight's expedition to Mass Effect 2 has returned, " the sorceror continued, seemingly unabashed.  "It appears as though they have seen combat."

"Combat with whom?"

"It's all a bit hush-hush."

"You are ssure it'ss not sssimply another exssperiment gone awry?"

"They are bloodied and few in number.  Walking wounded for the most part, they have none of the equipment we understand they left for, no casualties on litters..."

"Ssso combat it wass, then, " Latrodectus accepted, moving forward into the light. The garment she had been spinning was taken up by hundreds of tiny spiders.

"They're probably all inside by now, but I believe that some of the guards may have overheard scraps of conversation between their lieutenants."

"I sshall ssspeak to them mysself, " she replied, stalking past the blue-skinned man as she left the room and made her way towards the nearest exit.

As she prowled through the Fan Fiction compound, she considered the possibilities.  Another Warlord?  But it would need to be one that was hostile to Dragoon Knight.  In Gaming, that would need to be ExSPlug... but there had been neither sight nor sound of him since awakening.

Latrodectus sprouted from the building, legs curling around the lip of the door as she moved through it.  It was more likely the Quarians showing their true colours; Dragoon Knight had been too trusting, they were the real orchestrators of the Lethargy.  Her theory was quickly dismissed as she passed the Gaming barracks, seeing Quarian soldiers buzzing around as normal, obnoxious and secretive in their environment suits.

What, then?  What foe would cause the armies of Freelancer to retreat?  Latrodectus tried to remember another instance of Dragoon Knight's forces fleeing from combat and found she couldn't.

Finally approaching the gates, Latrodectus found her answer.


"Say that again?" came Mideel's incredulous request.  He had been roughly awoken by a general aide and brought to the conference room - he was still somewhat groggy.  Also assembled were Doctor Wrexham, fellow Commanders Inon and Flinn, while Phaeton slouched in the corner of the room, looking distracted.  Seated nearest the door were Lydia and Shinsbane, their faces pale and their breathing haggard.  They had come straight from the gates, still covered in dirt and blood.

"Dante has attacked us, " Lydia repeated, enunciating each word for clarity.  "We came across what appears to have been a secret patrol, heavily armed, on our return from ME2.  They were all dead, sir."

"What killed them?" Valerie asked.

"Near as we can tell, the Lethargy, " Shinsbane answered.  "I know, it sounds impossible, but they were all dead.  Not a mark on 'em."

"The Lethargy doesn't kill like that, " Wrexham countered, despite Shinsbane's qualification.  "It takes time, and lots of it."

"It was the Lethargy, I'm sure, " Lydia said, shaking her head.  "I couldn't detect even the faintest remnant of energy within them.  It was if they had been drained, their lives snuffed out like candles in a vacuum."

"So you took some of their corpses?" Mideel prompted, wanting to arrive at the crux of the matter.

"Aye, to prove that they were there.  To hold Latrowhatsit to account!" Shinsbane growled, still recovering from his morning of rage.

"A scant few hours later, on our way back... that's when Dante's forces crept up from behind, " Lydia remembered, her eyes glazing over as she remembered the scene.

"They had us surrounded from the beginning, " Shinsbane continued.  "Bloody idiot that I am, I didnae see it..."

"He - the leader of the group, a masked man - he accused us of murdering their men, " the Jedi smiled grimly.  "We denied it, but he wouldn't listen."

"Arrogant bastard, couldn't see past his own paranoid delusions, " Shinsbane frothed.

"They're all paranoid, " Phaeton spoke up, his voice drifting across the table.  "The Fan Fiction lot, I mean.  They already think we're somehow responsible for the Lethargy, and almost in the same breath as they see an entire platoon lying dead, they see us carting their dearly departed across the wetlands."

"That's when he attacked you?" Flinn asked, not to be derailed by the Soul Reaver.

"He ordered his sorcerors to open fire, " Lydia nodded, her eyes refocusing.

"Literally, " Shinsbane added.  "Whether it were a warning shot or just an opening blast, it made no difference.  They intended to take us prisoner, possibly kill us once disarmed and at their mercy."

"That man has no mercy, " Lydia said coldly, silencing the table for a several moments.

"We fought back, " Shinsbane went on, after it became clear that Lydia wasn't saying anything more.  "We defended ourselves as best as we could, but then that bastard sprung his trap."

The dwarf slammed his fist into the table, blinked rapidly and turned his head.  "They came from the trees.  Black angels; winged demons with their claws and teeth.  They ripped right through us.  We didn't stand a chance."

"Why didn't you say?!" Wrexham exclaimed, standing up.  "Those sort of wounds are evil... Lumiel won't be able to handle them on her own."

"Doctor, get down there and do what you can, " Mideel said, his face expressionless.  Watching as she left, he began to consider his options.


"Thosse are troopss from The God Emperor'sss Dune, " Latrodectus emphasised, her intimidating form looming over the Gaming guards still stationed at the gate.

"Lieutenant Shinsbane was very clear, " one guard replied, the others busying themselves with the task of closing the gate.  Outside, moving quickly towards the thread, were Rai'guy's contingent.  Latrodectus had known it was him from the first glimpse she caught of the group.

"What isss your name, little man?" she asked softly.

"Private Ermine, ma'am, " the guard replied, trying to maintain the appropriate level of respect while still refusing to relent.

"I'll make it sssimple for you, " Latrodectus grinned.  "If you closse the gatess, I'll tear out your innardsss, here and now, then open them mysself."

Ermine's expression dropped, all colour draining from his face.

"Or you can keep the gatess open, " Latrodectus continued.  "Either way, I get what I want.  But if you want to live to ssee ssunssset, you'll do asss I ssay.  Do I make myssself clear?" she smiled sweetly, the effect somewhat spoiled by her shining black fangs.

At a gesture from the bullied guard, the gates stopped moving, then began to open once again.

Leaning down to bring her face mere fractions of an inch from Ermine's ear as she passed, Latrodectus whispered "There'ss a good boy."

The masked man stood before the open gates, arms tightly folded.  Latrodectus sauntered out to meet him, a smile playing across her lips.

"Rai'guy, " she nodded in greeting.  "It'ss good to sssee you.  More or lesss."

The masked man's reply was muffled by his hood, but Latrodectus seemed to hear him well enough.  She laughed, lilting and warm.  "Oh, I didn't know how much I misssed company.  Come on in, you look tired."

She turned her head to watch him stride through the gates, only following when his men started to pass her.  As the last highlander passed through the gates, she nodded to Ermine with a cold smile.  Shivering slightly, he gave the order to winch the gates shut again.


Mideel was about to speak when word reached him of the gates being commandeered.

"That scheming bitch!" Shinsbane blared.  "She let her murderous friends into 'Nights!"

"You think we should have tried to keep them out?" Phaeton asked.  "Would have been a bit of a double-standard, no?"

"Phaeton, enough, " Mideel curtailed the bickering.  "We need to decide our response quickly."

"We take this thread from under their feet!" the dwarf exclaimed.

"And start a war?" Flinn asked rhetorically.  "No, we can't afford to anger Dante any more than we already have."

"You sound like you're afraid of him, " Inon commented.  "We shouldn't be pandering to his various mood swings or paranoid delusions."

"I'm not suggesting that, " Flinn rounded on his companion.  "I'm merely saying that if we lose our ally-"

"Hah!" laughed Shinsbane.

"-we lose a lot more than 'Nights.  We lose our chance to pool our resources, to share our knowledge."

"Dante has hardly been forthcoming with any of the above, " Lydia spoke again.

"We can't lose sight of the bigger picture here!" Flinn argued.

"He murdered our troops!  Don't forget that!" the dwarf put in.

"We're getting nowhere, " Mideel intervened.  "Inon, head to the infirmary and advise Doctor Wrexham to be on alert.  Flinn, get the troops back to our section of the building.  Lydia, Shinsbane... to the barracks with the both of you.  Speak to the men and women, make sure they're holding up.  Phaeton... keep your eyes peeled."

"I miss my eyes, " the Soul Reaver said wistfully, his material form dissolving into dust as he passed into the Spectral Realm.

"I'm going to contact Dragoon Knight.  He needs to be told about this."

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"TGED. Thisss iss Antigone." Latrodectus opened the communication. Her heart fluttered with excitement and apprehension.

"Antigone, we read you." The reply was faint, but audible. Latrodectus recognised Lillian's voice.

"There hasss been an incsssident." She reported. "Thisss iss important, TGED, everyone mussst hear it."

"Understood." There was a pause as the transmission shifted. The next reply was from Dante.

"Antigone. Report." More curt than usual.

"Ajaxss arrived in the thread thiss morning." Latrodectus muttered, watching a fly bash itself repeatedly against a window. "He wishesss to give hiss report himsself."

"Agent Ajax reporting." Rai'guy took over, ignoring Latrodectus' glare of disapproval. "My group was returning north when we came across the remains of a patrol from TGED. Everyone was dead, sir, every archer and every spider. We followed a trail and found a group from 'Nights wearing the livery of Dragoon Knight. They had in their possession several more corpses from the TGED patrol, including a vampire who was unfamiliar to me. They refused to turn over the bodies or answer my questions, then proceeded to attack us. We defeated them and followed the survivors back to 'Nights in order to investigate further. Antigone gained us entry. I should add that in-"

"Did Dragoon Knight's forces kill my men?" Dante's voice tore through the speakers.

"They were found at the scene of the battle, and few of the corpses were uninjured." Rai'guy replied with rare uncertainty. "They reacted to my challenge with hostility, and what else could have killed them anyway? I travelled almost as far as PRP and I saw not a thing that was not asleep or dead."

Days to the north, the council of TGED sat aghast.

"Roman's entire patrol, slaughtered?" Vierna felt a chill inside. "How is that possible?"

"Some of the bodies bore no marks, much like those who fell to the Lethargy." Rai'guy's disembodied voice continued. J'invy frowned.

"The vampire, how is he?" Vierna asked.

"Vampire?" Rai'guy's voice faded for a moment. Unintelligible muttering followed for a few seconds before he returned. "He seems dead as well, but of course with us you never can tell. He hasn't been staked at least. A little singed, that's the extent of the physical damage at least."

"Nevermind that." Dante snapped. "Antigone, have Dragoon Knight's forces been acting any differently?"

"They have sstepped up their technology conssstruction and their patrolsss outsside the thread have become larger." Latrodectus replied with tinny contempt. "I have already recssseived a demand to allow Mideel to assk quesstionsss of Ajax."

"Refuse it. Refuse everything until further notice."

"Undersstood. Do you have any further ordersss, ssir?"

The entire council turned to look at Dante, shoulders hunched as he glared at nothing.

"Fetch me a Truthsayer." He muttered, words clipped from the corner of his mouth. The royal Truthsayer, a middle-aged Reverend Mother, was quickly located and sat in front of the hologram, protestations about body language and nuance pushed to one side. She listened to Rai'Guy's report with careful concentration, blinking only when one of the councillors asked a question.

"As near as I can determine, he is not lying." She muttered at the end of it, flexing her shoulders. "He may be witholding some details or he may simply have concealed his untruth in body language, I cannot say for sure."

"Understood. Thank you, Myria." Dante nodded as the woman bowed. He turned once more to the hologram. "There is something else, Ajax. While you were gone, two of your people attempted to destroy TGED's archives. What do you know about that?"

"This is where we find out if Freelancer is listening in..." Vierna muttered. On the other side of the hologram, Rai'guy stuttered.

"I... what? Destroy- I don't know anything about that!"

"Truth, but concealing something." Myria frowned.

"Is that Truthsayer still there?" Rai'guy asked suspiciously.

"Is that a problem?" Dante asked quickly.

Rai'guy did not immediately reply. "...No. No, it's not. I've never been anything but loyal to TGED."

"Half-truth." Myria raised an eyebrow, apparently surprised at her own abilities.

"I... What were their names?" Rai'guy asked.

"Is that important?" Lillian asked.

"Is this an interrogation?"

"You bet your life it is." Dante growled. "Antigone, if he makes any suspicious moves you're to restrain him."

"Now hang on a moment-"

"With pleassure, sssir."

"Now, Ajax." Dante smiled humourlessly. "Perhaps you'd care to tell me why Lliam insists that you're behind a secret cabal that has been stealing weapons and supplies from the armouries."

"Lliam? Why that conniving little-"

"Ajax."

"I... I ordered the thefts." Rai'guy admitted. "I mean, we elves live for centuries. Times could change in TGED. We're all happy with the way things are, but what if it should change? I thought it would be prudent to set up a... a backup. A Plan B, should one ever become necessary."

"You engineered a nascant coup, ready to spring at any moment, lacking only your say so." Lillian summarised, looking slightly shocked.

"I... yes. I never intended it to go ahead, especially in my absence!"

"You lost control of your subordinates." Dante frowned.

"...I suppose so." Rai'guy agreed. "How much damage was there?"

"I'm not discussing that over this channel." Dante shook his head. "Suffice to say that, while we will have lost some of the archives, there has been no material damage. TGED's ability to function has not been compromised and most members of your cabal have been rounded up. The problem you caused has been dealt with."

"I apologise unreservedly. I never thought that this could happen."

"You trusted your subordinates!" Dante mocked. "Have you completely forgotten what it means to be a dark elf, Ajax? Are you so completely a vampire now that you mistook them for slaves, bound by blood?" He let the sting of his words sink in before continuing. "Answer me one last question. Did you at any time plan harm towards me, or any of my councillors when you conceived this plot?"

"Never." Rai'guy answered immediately. "When I return to TGED I will expose everything, you have my word."

"His word." Darius scoffed quietly. Dante looked askance at Myria, who shook her head.

"Very well, Ajax. You're off the hook for now, but don't think this is forgotten." The warlord sighed, eased out a crick in his spine. "Now, back to the matter of 'Nights. Thank you Myria, you're dismissed." The Truthsayer bowed as she exited the room.

"Consider this." J'invy spoke decisively. "Dragoon Knight's forces have been steadily increasing and fortifying. Latrodectus' observations suggest that he is experimenting with Lethargic technology. The group that we sent to investigate his activities has been slaughtered. Rai'guy has travelled almost to the border of PRP and seen nothing awake, not even wild trolls. Freelancer is rumoured to have been immunised against the Lethargy, but may simply have been immune all along." Each fact was punctuated by a clenched fist hitting the table. "Without more data I cannot be sure but as a working hypothesis I believe with 62% confidence that Dragoon Knight is responsible for attacking our men, and therefore hiding something dangerous."

"That's still 38% short of certainty." Dante muttered.

"Agreed, but-" J'invy was interrupted by a burst of static from 'Nights.

"Sssir, a messssenger from Mideel hass informed me that the Gaming Warlord wishessss to sspeak with you." Latrodectus spoke.

"Offering an excuse?" Lillian questioned.

"Or setting a trap." Darius replied. "Be careful."

"Tell him that I will listen to what he has to say." Dante snapped. "He had better have a good excuse."

Minutes later, Dante stood on the stone table, facing the holographic display of plain green light. "And what do you have to say for yourself?" He asked archly.

"Me?" Dragoon's voice filtered through, sounding affronted. "I had hoped you would explain your actions, Dante. Two covert patrols around our thread, one of which attacked a recon group. This is not the way an ally should behave."

"Ally?!" Dante rounded on the hologram. "You've got some gall to claim the moral high ground here!"

"You killed my men." Dragoon accused, causing the green light to pulse with each word.

"An entire patrol was slaughtered, your men were carrying bodies away, and I'm supposed to believe that you had no hand in their demise?" Dante sneered. "You murdered my men and when your duplicity was discovered you attacked me again. What I want to know is why? What secret are you hiding that's worth betraying our... understanding?"

"Secrets, plots!" Dragoon spat. "Have you spent too long in that tower? Your men attacked me!"

"You attacked first." Dante snapped. "You know I employ Truthsayers, they confirmed every word of my agent's report. That dwarf launched an attack on my troops and an entire patrol was killed without leaving a mark on the bodies. Are you so sure that toying with the Lethargy was such a good idea now?"

"The Leth- You don't honestly suspect I used the Lethargy against them?"

"I've seen the reports from your men too. A wall of force, a Lethargic bubble, sounds like your experiments have been going on for some time. Just how long, I wonder?"

"You're paranoid."

"And you're not answering the question." Dante started to pace around the unseeing hologram. "I accused you of deliberately attacking me and you're doing nothing to allay my suspicions, let alone deny your attempts to make a weapon out of the Lethargy, which I see are far more developed than I anticipated."

"I have done nothing to deserve this-"

"You murdered my troops!" Dante shouted, rounding on the hologram. "Or can you provide an alternative explanation, any at all, when we both know that the land around 'Nights is suspended in sleep?"

"I do not know. Perhaps some other force has the power to resist the Lethargy, as we do-"

"One that has remained completely unseen and unsensed until now, that just happened to kill an entire patrol of mine and leave yours untouched."

"I-"

"That is a little. Too. Convenient."

"I don't know! I can't explain it, but you have my word that I will do everything in my power to discover what happened and how it can be prev-"

"I find myself putting very little faith in your word since you attacked me."

"Oh for the love of Gob!" The hologram wavered. "My men defended themselves from provocation. If you weren't so bloody trigger happy-"

"Defended themselves with corpses in their possession?"

"And stop interrupting me!"

"You have a lot to answer for, ally." Dante hissed. "This is your opportunity. Explain yourself now, you may not get another chance."

The hologram flickered silently. Eventually Dragoon Knight's voice returned, carefully composed. "There is some evidence that a group of researchers under my command were able to manipulate the Lethargy some time ago, but the experiment went wrong and destroyed their facility. I sent two expeditions to the facility in an attempt to recover their research, as all records of it were wiped from Freelancer's servers."

"So you knew about this experiment and refused to reveal it to me."

"No, I knew nothing."

"Bullsh-"

"My forces in 'Nights are attempting to reconstruct the theory of the project in order to find how the research group was able to manipulate the Lethargy. Expeditions outside the thread were to collect data."

"And you didn't inform me."

"You haven't exactly been free with intel yourself."

"You were constructing a weapon that could destroy a city and you play the injured party with me?"

"How dare you? Good men died today on the claws of those winged animals that you unleashed!" The hologram shook.

"They should have known better than to attack my men." Dante replied flippantly.

"You were not attacked! I gave no order of the kind. Those bodies were being brought back to 'Nights in order that they be handed over to your agent. Think about it, why would my men take corpses from the battlefield to 'Nights? Your demoness would know about it in moments."

"And just how close are you to building a weapon in 'Nights?" Dante pounced.

"You still haven't explained just what your men were doing out there."

"Don't change the subject!" Dante roared, momentarily filling the channel with static. "I want my men to be allowed full access to your research and records in 'Nights. Immediately. I want to know just what you did to my troops." From the corner of his eye he glimpsed Vierna Wayku smoothing a worried look off her face. The girl had grown attached to Roman and his friends, Dante recalled. The vampire's fate was sure to cause problems now.

"You are in no position to make demands, Dante." Dragoon replied stonily. "You murdered my men, something that previously I would have thought unthinkable. I will consider your request if you will offer an apology and full compensation to the families."

"You must be joking."

"That is my final offer."

"And I reject it!" Dante snapped. The hologram was silent for a moment.

"Very well." Dragoon replied. "I hope that you will see reason soon." Dante said nothing, allowing the silence to stretch for nearly a minute until the channel buzzed slightly and the hologram turned red.

"Massterfully done, ssir." Latrodectus' voice slithered from the speakers. Dante remained silent, stalking across the table to throw himself into his chair.

"Has anything changed, Antigone?" Lillian asked smoothly.

"Not that I can sssee." The demoness replied nonchalantly. "The central chamber isss rapidly emptying." She paused. "Do I have... ordersss?"

"Are we sure that TGED is under threat?" Darius leaned forward, addressing the whole council. "I admit that the situation looks grim, but we haven't seen any overt danger yet."

"The most dangerouss threatsss are thosse you cannot sssee." Latrodectus countered.

"And do you see anything, Antigone, Ajax?" Darius asked.

"No. There are roomsss from which even my ssssisssterss are denied entry. That ssaayss much, don't you think?"

"She has a point." Vierna nodded. "Why the secrecy unless we weren't supposed to know? And why wouldn't we be allowed to know unless the information was somehow harmful to us? 'Nights could be facing iminent threat."

"I can't say with any confidence-" J'invy started.

"Two thirds confidence is better than no confidence at all." Lillian replied. The council regarded its leader. Dante sat in silence, drumming his fingers upon the arm of his throne. At last he spoke.

"The potential risk to TGED outweighs all other considerations." He sat forward to address the relay. "Antigone, you are to disable the enemy, tonight if possible. Kill if you must, but I would prefer as many prisoners as possible, especially the leaders. Once we've examined those oh-so-carefully guarded research chambers, perhaps we'll have a better handle on just what's being planned for us."

"Finally!" Latrodectus crowed.

"You are to report back as soon as the thread is secured." Dante went on. "If you uncover solid evidence of hostile intent then I will send reinforcements from TGED."

"And if not?" That was Rai'guy, sounding sulky.

"Then this will show the foolishness of underestimating me." Dante replied darkly.

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"I assume you have a plan?" Rai'guy said, looking over his shoulder at Latrodectus.

"I have had time to prepare, yesss." She gave him a superior look, a deliberate reminder of his monumental screwup in TGED. He shifted uncomfortably. "There are ssseveral powerful agentss in the thread, but they lack ressolve. They can be controlled."

"Controlled?" Rai'guy rose an eyebrow. "You expect me to make thralls of them?"

"No, I didn't plan for you." Latrodectus shook her head. "Freelancsser ssuffered cassualtiesss in its excusssionss. They're sstill recovering, if we hold them hosstage we will have leverage over the othersss."

"They must be well guarded."

"They are not. Sssecurity iss tight, but thin." Latrodectus unrolled a paper schematic of the fortress. "If we ssend in a sstrike team through thisss window and dissable the guardsss, it iss a short disstancse to the doorss to the sscentral chamber. We can attack from the insside, dissabling communicationsss ass ssoon ass posssible before pushing the humansss down to the ground floor and into the courtyard, where we can trap them."

"And when are you planning to do this?"

"Tonight. Ass sssoon as it getss dark."

Rai'guy pursed his lips. He recognised his own part in this course of action, still considered it too hasty. A glance at the inactive communication circle told him that it was too late to request a rethink. Would the Council have reached a decision so quickly if they had not felt besieged by the violence of his incompetence?

He sighed, remembering the exchange in the woods. At least that dwarf would be made to pay for his part in all this. If he had been more accomodating, more respectful, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. The bodies in his possession... Rai'guy smirked halfheartedly. Perhaps he'd make the dwarf watch.

The day passed slowly over Never Winter Nights, warm, windless and stagnant. By the time the moon rose not a soul remained outside, fearful of the volatile situation. The guards on the walls patrolled their routes with careful precision, never coming into contact with their opposites on the other side of the town. Fanfictioner and Gamer alike cast apprehensive looks toward the great twin-towered fortress at the north end of the thread, where lights burned on both sides of the central bridge, though no messages passed between them. Relations between the two factions had deteriorated from frosty to entirely glacial, putting the entire town on edge.

Rai'guy turned from the window, taking quiet satisfaction in the absence of the sun. He had dispensed with his hood and gloves, black skin and red eyes uncovered at last, though even the moonlight was a mild irritant. Before him stood the strike team: all ten of the black angels, two sorcerers and Latrodectus. The angels were withdrawn and twitchy, as they sometimes became in anticipation of a battle. Latrodectus held a web suspended between her fingers. With rapt attention she watched a large egg case in the centre split, spreading hundreds of tiny spiderlings along the strands, onto her hands and into the webs that shrouded her, tangled indistinguishable from her hair. She looked up suddenly, eyes fixed on him.

"Well?" She asked.

"Yes." He answered with a nod. One of the sorcerers made a gesture, causing the window behind him to explode outwards in complete silence. Rai'guy stepped onto the sill, out into the air. He floated upwards out of sight.

The angels flocked to the shattered window, bursting forth one by one. Ordered to forgo their habitual battlecries, the heavy beat of their wings was the only sound they made. The sorcerers followed, one levitating, the other sprouting a pair of leathery wings from his shoulders. Latrodectus went last, slipping out of the window to stand upright on the outside wall.

She hurried east, keeping to the shadows between windows as much as possible. The angels were already flying high above the fortress, the building itself blocking them from sight. She reached the divide between the towers, leapt, changing shape as she fell. The sorcerers caught her between them, ferrying her lighter human form across to the other side.

They did not touch down, aware of the possible security precautions which could have been activated. Instead the sorcerers progressed downward and across, slipping between lights to reach a series of large windows. Now tiring, they moved slowly beneath the sills to the end of the row, where Latrodectus took to the wall again. At her signal, one of the sorcerers started a whispered incantation. Something moved behind the glass.

Sweating, the man hurried his spell. At the moment that someone inside peered forward to examine the window, he finished. Just as before, the window exploded silently, peppering the inside observer with shards of glass. His cry of pain and alarm was silenced as Latrodectus darted through the window.

High above, Rai'guy observed the series of cables, metal boxes and pulsing devices that littered the roof of Freelancer's tower. Stars momentarily blocked out told him that the angels were on the move, flying down to the broken window. He frowned, trying to find some central unit which would cripple commuication if destroyed. There was no switch, no relay hub here. The system was a ramshackle affair, held together with twine in places and welded in a haphazard way with whatever was to hand. All of the mess, however, directed itself towards one thing: the central broadcasting dish. Rai'guy shrugged, strode through the detritus and calmly snapped it off its perch. For good measure, he tossed it off the roof, over the wall and out of the thread.

The rest could wait. With a parting kick to a bundle of wires, Rai'guy stepped off the roof and floated down to the broken window.

Entering the room, he found three men dead on the floor in front of him. One was being gnawed unenthusiastically by a black angel. Latrodectus stood by the door, restraining a guard. Holding him suspended by his hands, she held his own weapon beneath his chin.

"Nicssssse of you to join usss." She nodded to Rai'guy. "I had an idea that you could persssuade thiss one to open the doorss for uss."

"Too risky." Rai'guy shook his head. "He's aware of the situation, his defences are up. It's generally best to hypnotise people who don't know they're being hypnotised. Not that I couldn't do it anyway." He added defensively. Latrodectus rolled her eyes, threw the man clear across the room. Rai'guy winced in anticipating of the landing, but the flailing victim was snatched from the air by a pair of angels, who took care to bite out his throat first as they descended to the floor to feed.

"Mmph." Rai'guy grunted. Looking up from the spectacle, he scanned the room.

This was Freelancer's infirmary, or the most important one at any rate. Makeshift beds lined the walls, each occupied by a patient. Two women stood by one of the beds. They met Rai'guy's eyes unflinchingly. He ignored them for now.

Some of the patients were very clearly not human. The quarians still wore their strange suits, despite the discomfort. On the floor by one of their beds was slumped a large figure: Commander Inon. Rai'guy raised an eyebrow at the sorcerer.

"We overcame him easily." The man shrugged. "He's unconscious, or we wouldn't have left him there."

"I'll find him a bed in a moment." The older woman said firmly. Rai'guy turned to face her. She showed no fear of his uncanny appearence, unusual but not in itself a cause for alarm.

"And you are...?" He asked.

"Doctor Valerie Wrexham." The woman replied. "And your name is?"

"Rai'guy." Rai'guy approached her, holding eye contact. "I never approved of the modern custom of taking human names."

"What are you?" The younger woman asked impulsively. Rai'guy ignored her.

"You're brave, Valerie Wrexham." He smiled, deliberately showing his fangs. Still he held her eyes, watched the tiny tics and shifts in expression that played across her face. "I didn't expect that."

"I've butted heads with your arachnoid friend for weeks now." Wrexham scoffed. "Her very presence is frightening. What did you expect, that your red eyes would cause me to cower in a corner?" She snorted derisively. Rai'guy bridled, fumed silently as she broke eye contact to examine the man in the bed. "I see worse than you under a microscope every day. Now what do you want? To murder my men as some sort of sick punishment?" She pointed accusingly at the chewed corpses.

"She'ssss been like thisss ssincsse I arrived." Latrodectus said, shutting the door on something. She approached, looming over Rai'guy. "I have allowed her to enjoy her ssensse of sssuperiority, asss it will be that much more sssatissfying to crush it." She looked smugly down at Wrexham. "She'll be a model hossstage."

"And just what do you hope to achieve?" Wrexham looked up, placed her hands on her hips. "What do you want from us? Clearly not to kill us, or you'd have done it already."

"Or tried to, at least." The younger woman said quietly. Wrexham gently hushed her.

"For a ssstart, we'll want accsssesss to your resssearch chambersss." Latrodectus mused. "Then recordsss. Then the machinessss. You shouldn't have kept your ssecretss, doctor."

"You're delusional." Wrexham snapped. She pointed at the corpses on the floor. "We never had anything to hide! Those men died and you will find nothing incriminating, nothing at all!"

"Well then, perhaps this will be a lesson to take our demands more seriously in future." Rai'guy rejoined. Wrexham sighed.

"You won't stop me treating my patients." She stated, moving past the bed to stand directly in front of Rai'guy, who blocked her path. She stood firm, waiting.

"She's got quite a mouth on her, hasn't she?" Rai'guy commented, never taking his eyes from Wrexham.

"I have often consssidered correcting that sssssituation." Latrodectus stepped back to spare a glance at the angels. "You. Take the commander and ressstrain him. Do not injure him yet."

"Leave my patients alone!" Wrexham ordered, starting forward. Rai'guy slapped her, casually, but the blow was hard. She staggered back a pace, onto the other woman's hands.

"You will make as little fuss as possible or it will go hard on you." Rai'guy said with a smirk. The younger woman was already moving, stepping around Wrexham. She had a weapon drawn. Rai'guy fell back into a fighting crouch, hands raised.

"Lumiel." Wrexham held out a hand, causing the woman to pause.

"I could do it." She said.

"But you won't." All eyes turned to Latrodectus, who had moved to stand at the other side of the bed. She held the patient's throat in one hand, long fingers wrapped around already turning him purple.

"Get away from him!" Wrexham moved forward, was pushed back by Latrodectus' other hand.

"You will caussse usss no trouble." The demon hissed, tightening her grip. "Am I quite clear?" She looked at Lumiel, who turned to Wrexham.

"Stand down, girl!" Wrexham ordered, rushing forward when Latrodectus removed her hand. "I swear, if you've killed him..."

"You'll do nothing, lessst I kill another." Latrodectus smiled, her face splitting open to reveal sharp black fangs. She swaggered over to where the angels had tied Inon down, ran a clawed finger down his face.

"Point taken." Wrexham muttered through ground teeth.

"Isss it, Wrexssham?" Latrodectus turned an evil expression toward the doctor. "I think the messsage needss to be reinforcsssed." She drew her arm back to send a disembowling swipe at Inon's midsection. A loud slap brought her up short, claws mere inches from the man's belly. Rai'guy gripped her arm, eyes locked with hers for a long moment before he released her.

"Not now." He cautioned. "He may be our most important hostage." Latrodectus' gaze was hard. He recognised it as a look of appraisal, the demon weighing her options. She reached a conclusion, nodded as a narrow smile spread across her face.

"Of courssse, you are right." She patted the shivering Inon gently on the head. "Good thingsss come to thosse who wait. And wait." She laid a hand on Rai'guy's chest. His skin crawled at a touch like a hundred spiders. "I'll wait for you, dear." And then she passed him by, leaving only the smell of venom on the air. Rai'guy grimaced. Her threat did not bother him so much as the knowledge that weeks of fruitless scrubbing awaited him as he tried to rid himself of the memory of her touch.

"How much longer?" He asked.

"Any time now." Latrodectus closed her eyes, appeared to listen. "She'ss almosst there."

On the floor above, Katya dashed along a corridor. She wore the form of a rat, allowing fast movement and easy concealment. She had already wasted nearly five minutes hiding from a passerby, a huge pair of thudding pillars which only narrowly avoided her hole between the stones. She was in the final stretch now, the door to the bridge lying just ahead. It was guarded, obviously, and the guard would spot her at any moment. She prepared herself, recited the words of the spell in her head. Then she started to grow.

In moments she stood before a very surprised looking man in thin blue kevlar. She shot out a hand, sending a bolt of electricity straight through his face, instantly frying his brain.

With a twinge of guilt, Katya caught the body as it fell, laying it gently on the floor. The philosopher in her contemplated just how quickly she had turned a 'him' into an 'it,' but she had no more time to think. She opened the door, revealing a horde of ready Highlanders.

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No sooner had the doors to the Gaming section opened than they were closed again with staggering force.  The troops outside had just began to move inwards, and were knocked back like dominoes as the sturdy metal forbade them entry.  Katya drew a sharp intake of breath, turning around with eyes wide in shock.  Before her stood Commander Mideel, his entire body glowing with an angry, red aura.

"Do you remember the woman you saved in the courtyard a few days ago?"

Kayta stuttered, but remembered herself enough to begin incanting her transformation spell again.  Mideel raised his hand in front of him, palm open, then closed it into a fist.  Katya's mouth was forced shut.  Mideel began to move forwards.

"That was her brother you just killed.  To think that we trusted you."

Behind her back, Katya had been working her fingers through the patterns of a spell with no somatic component, releasing the compulsion on her lips.  Freed, she gasped a reprieve, then started chanting again.  Mideel was less graceful this time, his palm opening once again.  He pulled his elbow back and then forced his hand forwards, sending Katya shooting backwards into the metal doors and pinning her against them.  A cry of pain was all the sorceress could manage, her lungs barely able to take in air.

"Now you intend to invade our base of operations, based on the deluded imaginings of your agoraphobic leader?"

The metal of the doors began to bend and twist, forming shackles around Katya's outstretched arms and legs.

"Well, they'll have to get through you, first, " the Commander finished, stopping just short of the woman and pinching a set of nerves between her neck and shoulder, rendering her unconscious.

Upstairs, the communications room was dark, unmanned.  Had anyone been present, they would have noted several terminals beeping incessently about contact being lost with the broadcast dish.  Under normal circumstances, a technician would have been alerted to rectify the error, but there were two critical differences from normality preventing such action.  The first was that the dish was a quarter of a mile away, partially embedded in the soft loam of the Gaming wetlands.

The second, perhaps most pressing, was the sorceror lobbing a series of fireballs across the room.  Where they landed, they spread liquid fire across keyboards and displays.  The occasional tinkle of broken glass and pop of a broken vacuum signaled the end of several stations.

"You're being very loud, " Phaeton said, appearing from literally nowhere to stand behind the sorceror.

"Wha-" was all the unfortunate man could manage before the Soul Reaver broke his neck.  The body fell to the ground; Phaeton stared at it for a moment before looking up and around the room.  It was thick with the acrid smoke of burning electronics and ignited phosphorous.

"Help.  Fire, " he said unenthusiastically.  He waited a few seconds, shrugged, then elbowed the fire alarm break-glass pane.  The alarm failed to sound, but the sprinkler system was still active.

"Ready or not, here I come!" was the last thing Phaeton said before disappearing into the spectral realm, the communications room sizzling and sparking as the water doused the flames.  He had a soul to catch.

Out in the barracks, Shinsbane had been wide awake.  Lydia, along with most of the Freelancer forces, were asleep.  The guards stationed outside had heard nothing, hadn't noticed the red-orange glow from the window of the communications room.  Shinsbane had heard something.  Shinsbane had seen the glow.

He instructed the guards to wake the troops, ready them for battle.  This was met with looks of incredulousity, but hastily acknowledged when the dwarf reached for his hammer.  Stalking out into the night as silently as he could, Shinsbane edged around the darkened buildings until he could see the enclosed bridges leading from the neutral section into the Gaming tower.

Through the windows, it was clear to his dwarven eyes that there were several rows of troops, positioned outside the entrance.  He squinted through the darkness; it looked as though they were beseiged, but closer inspection revealed that they were having difficulty getting the doors to open.  Shinsbane looked around, gauging his surroundings.  He couldn't afford to use his earth-shattering abilities here; not so close to the Gaming complex and all the civilian houses.

"Shinsbane, what's happening?" Lydia said, her voice still slurred with sleep, as she crept clumsily towards him.

"Keep yer voice down, " the dwarf whispered in reply.  "The bastards have proven us right, " he continued, nodding around the corner.  Lydia risked a peek, then quickly retracted her head.

"Oh gods, " she said, voice rapt with horror.

"They've probably got someone watching us; probably know that we know already."

Lydia looked around at the rooftops, but saw nothing to confirm this.  "We need to move quickly, before they're warned."

"Aye.  You take care of that, " Shinsbane replied, moving back along the building.  "I've got somewhere else to be."

"What?  Where are you going?!" Lydia whispered intensely.

"They're doubtless already inside.  I saw what looked like fire, heard thumps and smashes.  I'm going to repay the favour."

"Sshe ssshould have been in by now, " Latrodectus hissed, her eyes scanning the roof of the infirmary, trying to see through the walls and floors above.

"Something's gone wrong, " Rai'guy said, moving past Latrodectus and out into the hallway.  "I'm going to check i- aaargh!"

Rai'guy's cry of pain was accompanied by a glaring purple-white light from ahead of him.  Latrodectus reached for him, his flesh bubbling and searing, and pulled him back into the room.

"I knew what you were the instant I saw you, vampire, " Flinn's voice carried from outside.  "Ultraviolet light, somewhat deadly to your kind, I hear."

"Graaah..." Rai'guy growled, teeth bared in agony.

"Ssshow yourssself!" Latrodectus seethed, a cold fury gripping her.

"Oh I don't think so.  You already have enough hostages."

"Sssoon to be one lessss!"

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you.  I've taken your friend out of the equation.  Your army is stuck at the doors."

"Your point?"

"I'm here to negotiate your surrender."

"Our sssurrender?!" Latrodectus exclaimed, dashing forward and bursting through the wall of the infirmary, taking Flinn completely by surprise.  She held him aloft, pinning him against the roof by both arms.

"You have ssseverely underesstimated me, and woefully missstaken your possition!"

Flinn tried fruitlessly to summon forth his powers, but his head had taken a blow and he couldn't concentrate.  Latrodectus turned and flung him bodily through another section of wall, into a neighbouring briefing room.  Flinn crashed through tables, felt his broken ribs pierce his skin as he clattered to a limp halt against the opposite wall.

"It is YOU who ssshall be sssurrending to usss!"

"Let go of me, ye murderous winged bitches!" Shinsbane yelled from his position between the grasp of two black angels.  They held him suspended by his ankles, upside down, several tens of feet in the air.  They flew slowly over the barracks, allowing him to see the failed uprising there; Highlanders surrounded the building, and troops were being systematically disarmed and brought out with their hands upraised.

The flight took the dwarf closer to the Gaming section, where he could see that the doors had eventually been opened, their hinges melted to slag.  Dropped from a relatively safe height to a balcony several floors up, Shinsbane landed awkwardly, but was ready for battle within seconds.

"Shinsbane, stand down, " Mideel said from inside.

"Commander?!" the dwarf replied, peering inside.  Mideel was flanked by two sorcerors, accompanied by several Highlanders.

"They've got Inon, Flinn, Wrexham and everyone in the infirmary held hostage, " the Commander explained calmly, seemingly unconcerned by his escort.  Shinsbane recognised that it wasn't his own safety he was concerned about.

"Damn it tae hell, " he exclaimed, dropping his hammer and allowing himself to be escorted.

"To the courtyard, " a tattooed sorceror commanded.  The Commander and the dwarf obeyed.

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While darkness reigned outside, Never Winter Nights lay in uncomfortable half light, balanced between the night outside and blazing light within the town walls. The castle shone, figures moving rapidly to and fro behind bright windows. From one shattered casement came an angry howl low and groaning with pain.

"That bastard!" Rai'guy snarled, hands clutched to his smoking face. They came away carrying pieces of smouldering skin. "That light-throwing, self-righteous, cheating bastard!" He kicked the wall, smashing a hole in the stonework. A group of black angels watched him impassively as he pulled his foot free, turned with a curse and sniffed the air. He strode in the direction of the nearest bed, where a bandaged soldier lay watching.

"Uh, no, hey no!" The man's protests were ignored as the vampire scrabbled at the bed, grabbed his arm. Growling in frustration, Rai'guy grasped for the soldier, grabbing his arm, then his neck. To his credit, the man only grunted in pain as his throat was torn open.

"No!" Wrexham started forward, was stopped by a restraining hand from the other woman. She dashed forward, weapon drawn, only to be tackled by a screeching angel. She butted the creature with the pommel of her sword, received a gash on her forehead in return. Swiping wildly, she sent the angel reeling backwards to avoid the blade. Getting up, however, the woman found herself facing nine more of the creatures. They grinned evilly, seemed disappointed when she stepped back at Wrexham's urging.

"Unghhuh." Rai'guy's face ran like wax, solidifying even as he drew his fangs from the soldier's neck. His eyes blinked brightly, his skin its natural glossy black once more. He caught sight of Wrexham watching, glanced down at his victim.

"He's still alive, you know." He smirked, patting the open wound, gushing blood now reduced to a weak trickle. "I'd say maybe three, three and a half pints in him?"

"He'll be dead in less than two minutes without a transfusion." Wrexham shook her head abruptly. "Lumiel, stabilise him while I get the packets."

"Rai'guy." The vampire turned to see Latrodectus standing in the hole in the wall which she had only recently made. "I'm having mossst of the persssonell transssferred to the dungeonss. If you're quite finished, we need to ssstart sscouring the building." She did not wait for a reply.

Rai'guy turned a lazy eye towards Lumiel, who was frantically pressing closed the wound in the patient's neck. She automatically met his gaze, blew a frustrated sigh of disgust. A light yellowy glow suffused her fingers. Before his eyes, Rai'guy watched the ragged flesh twitch in an attempt to heal itself. It wasn't enough.

He drew a palm across one fang, held his bloody hand above the wound. Leering at a shocked Lumiel, he squeezed out a handful of blood.

The effect was immediate. Lumiel leapt back as though stung, watched horrified as her light turned red as it faded. With incredulous disgust, she saw the wound sealed at once. She looked askance at Rai'guy, who rose an eyebrow.

"You saved him?" She whispered.

"I think not." He replied. "He still needs blood. But at least he won't lose any more." Following his gaze, Lumiel saw Wrexham returning with armfuls of blood packets. Rai'guy shrugged, turned away. As the doctor turned to Lumiel for an explanation, he stepped out of the window and into the night.

* * *

Far to the north, sand stretched beneath an orange sky, the distinction between blurred by a cinnamon haze across the horizon. It was a land without end, unbroken sand in all directions. No trees or settlements marred the rolling landscape. Nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. Golden shapes hovered in the foreground, aimlessly drifting to and fro.

The observer grunted in distaste, turning away to creep back into comforting darkness. He made his way down a skewed slope, one hand on the uneven surface that had once been steps, now a wall.

He passed the first airlock, broken, sealed the second behind him. A collapsed bulkhead partially blocked his path, forcing him to squeeze past it sideways. He followed the slanting corridor to the mess hall, where unsteady tables rested on carefully stacked rubble.

The room was filled, air stale and stinking. Soldiers and citizens alike fanned themselves in a futile attempt to remain cool. Many had taken to 'sweat scraping,' paring the moisture from their bodies with sharp tools in order to lick it back. Others prefered to lick the sweat from each other. To each their own, the observer turned away in distaste.

The inhabitants of the mess hall moved aside to let him pass. Present circumstances notwithstanding, he still commanded, or rather demanded respect. He moved deeper into the ship, where the heat was more oppressive and the light less abundant. Few occupied these levels for longer than they had to, but it wasn't long before he felt the air change, become a fraction cooler as he slipped beneath ground level. Groaning metal and hissing pipes told him that someone was tampering with the ship's systems again.

Passing medical bays, semi-private quarters and well-guarded storage chambers, the observer finally arrived at an ornate doorway, smashed into three pieces. He clamboured through it into a room filled with sand.

He strode in, dug his feet into the ground. Scuffing and scooping, he dug himself a trench and lay down in it, piling the sand back on top of him when he was done. In the end only his head lay above the surface, while the rest of his body lay in blissfully cool sand.

"No change, then." The speaker's voice was high pitched and nasal, an irritation no matter what it said. The observer grunted, closed his eyes against the intrusion.

"No, there was no change, Ambthys." He replied, every syllable a warning against further intrusion.

"Hardly surprising." The disembodied voice continued gratingly. "I mean we haven't moved, and the desert is hardly going to move, so-" he stopped, cut off by a low rumbling of warning from the back of the observer's throat.

His point made, the observer sank back into silence. His visits to the recuperative coolness of the underground sands were becoming more frequent, but if the damned gnome was waiting for him every time, he'd as soon brave the mess hall.

Time passed. The observer had no way of knowing how much. He dozed intermitantly, awaking only when a shuffling sound alerted him to the arrival of another.

"How cosy you both look." The speaker was female, gently mocking yet with a note of impatience.

"Always space for one more, Jennifer." Ambthys voice winked. The woman did not answer, but busied herself digging a pit of her own.

"You want to ask me how he is." She said when she had finished, and lay still. The observer did not answer. "He is much the same. Pores over our few surviving charts of the region in search of the nearest settlement. He instructed me to examine the stars again tonight."

"Will they have changed by then?" The observer snorted.

"They changed before." The woman replied softly. The observer was forced to agree.

The three figures lay in the sand, each immediately aware of the others' presence. The air quickly grew empty and dry. They had long grown accustomed to each others' habits and mannerisms, though "trust" was not a word that any would use to describe their feelings toward the other two. They relaxed, each secure in the knowledge that they intimately knew the weaknesses of the other two. All three, as it happened, were wrong.

"We will not survive here." Ambthys' wheedling tones broke the near silence.

"You doubt providence?" The observer growled dangerously. You doubt our leader?

"We may survive, we may not." Ambthys continued with a vocal shrug. "But if we do, it will not be here."

"I have been thinking much the same thing." Jennifer forestalled any protest. "Our resources are not infinite, nor our supplies sufficient to repair the ship. We wait here because he has not yet picked a direction. That is the only reason."

"But a direction must be chosen, or we will die here." Ambthys agreed.

"He will not be hurried." The observer spoke sullenly.

"He is not a child, Moogie!" Jennifer reprimanded him. General Moogie shifted in the sand, finding a cool patch. "We must advise him, he is... not accustomed to leadership." Moogie did not reply.

Again the silence stretched, the air growing hotter while the sand became uncomfortably cloying. Finally Moogie arose, brushing himself off.

"I will ask him for orders." He said brusquely.

"Ask him to repair the ship while you're at it!" Ambthys called after him. Moogie ground his teeth, but said nothing.

* * *

Dawn slunk beneath the horizon, sulkily refusing to break. Heavy clouds hung ominously over Never Winter Nights, reflecting the mood of its inhabitants. It was almost like being home, Latrodectus reflected.

She stood on a balcony, watching as Dragoon Knight's people were herded into their own dungeons. Watched by a somewhat smaller force of claymore-wielding highlanders, tensions were running high on the ground. Each individual was searched prior to entering the dungeon, their weapons deposited in a heap near the entrance. It was only the word of their commander that kept them from rioting, but Mideel had been the first to be incarcerated. He was in solitary confinement in another part of the keep. Latrodectus had sent the sorcerers and what highlanders she could spare to ransack his laboratories. They had turned up whole rooms of suspicious equipment already, it would be weeks before it could all be analysed.

She was quite looking forward to the interrogations.

Far below, the last group of gamers were submitting to a weapons search. Latorodectus looked up, her attention caught by something out of the ordinary.

Several hundred metres distant, the gates of the thread were opening. No, not opening. They were open. Smashed.

"What...?" Latrodectus questioned, peering closer. A shadow moved, but she saw nothing substantial. Closing her eyes, she sought contact with her daughters in the area. To her shock, she could not find them. Her eyes opened suddenly, this time all eight of them. She looked closer, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Once again a shadow shifted.

"You!" Latrodectus snapped at an angel. "Find out what's happening at the gate!" The creature snarled, took off in a flurry of black feathers. She watched its progress, passing over the large houses of the town's upper class, then the huts of the serfs. It reached the gate, circled once, started to fly back. Slowly, it started to lose height. Then without warning it plunged from the sky, landed flat on a thatched roof, bounced off out of sight. Latrodectus hissed in frustration.

"Something wrong?" Wrexham asked curiously. Latrodectus ignored her, stepping onto the wall of the castle and striding up to the roof. There she peered over the various buildings to the main street that led from the gate. She realised that the shadows were deeper than they should have been. Something was putting the torches out.

"Something wrong?" The same question delivered with less smugness, yet more smarm. Rai'guy squatted on the remains of Mideel's communications array, expression bored.

"Ssomething broke down the gatesss." Latrodectus replied, indicating with one hand. "Yet we have heard nothing from the guardsss. No alarm, no bell. No shoutss, no warning firess. And now the torchess are going out, yet nobody appearss to ssee what'ss wrong."

"And you lost an angel over there." Rai'guy nodded with understanding. "Well, let me take a look." He hopped down from the machinery, stood beside her at the edge of the roof. He squinted into the half-light.

"Something's definitely moving over there..." He paused, turned his head. "It's difficult to see what. It's all kind of blurry." He lifted, drifted a metre away from the roof. "Wait... it's a man. Man-shaped, anyway. Lots of smoke or something." He paused. "It's not showing up in infra-red."

"Undead?" Latrodectus queried.

"Or a golem." Rai'guy shrugged.

"Ssend ssome highlanderss out to meet it." Latrodectus ordered. Rai'guy sank out of sight without a word. By the time he returned, five armed figures were already striding down the main street.

The intruder was almost visible now, a man-sized thing, dark against paling dawn. The highlanders slowed as they approached it. As Latrodectus watched, one of them collapsed. Another swiftly followed, but the remaining three drew their weapons. One fell at once, but each of the other two moved to attack. It was unclear what happened next, but both fell to the floor and the intruder moved on. From this distance it hardly looked dangerous. Wan and pathetic in the dawning light.

Latrodectus swore a demonic curse which caused Rai'guy's ears to sting. The intruder had encountered a group of civilians. Men and women alike fell to the ground, crumpling in ragdoll contortions. The creature was approaching the fortress. It travelled slowly, one leg dragging behind the other.

"Whatever it iss, it'ss hosstile." Latrodectus said firmly. She leaned over the roof to bellow. "Two angels up here, now!" When the creatures arrived she directed them with a point. "Kill that. Now." With savage screeches, the angels soared to obey.

The first went into a dive, scythe drawn and glinting. As she approached the intruder her wings dipped, went slack and suddenly fell loose, sending her careering into the ground, arms and wings snapping with impact. Her crash threw up a large cloud of dust, but she lay still and silent beneath it. The intruder, which had paused momentarily, resumed its approach. The remaining angel circled warily, one eye on his fallen comrade.

Rai'guy was smiling faintly, but Latrodectus ignored him. She summoned a group of sorcerers, lined them up before the gates of the courtyard.

Magic crackled in the air as a variety of attacks were prepared, everything from fireballs and lightning bolts to life-draining and deadly gas spells. Each let loose with a flourish of magical energy, sending a cloud of death directly at the intruder.

Rather than being engulfed in a series of explosions, the creature seemed to suck the spells into itself, leaving not even a scorch mark on the ground. With barely a pause it continued, heedless of the magical barrage.

"Well, you've thrown everything you've got at this... thing." Valarie Wrexham turned her gaze to the ceiling. "What's your next move?"

Far above, Latrodectus seethed. "What iss thiss thing?!"

"Could be a ploy from Mideel's lot." Rai'guy mused, peering down at the creature, now only a few streets from the gates of the fortress. "It's heading for us, they might have ordered it to free them. And it would explain why they surrendered so easily." He added.

"No." Latrodectus shook her head. "Thiss issn't their sstyle. It'sss killed ssscivilians." She sighed, appeared almost human for a moment. "Try to delay it while I attempt to think of sssomething."

Rai'guy rolled his eyes, unslung a a coiled device from its holster on his back. It snapped into shape, a single string flapping free. He snatched it and in one rapid motion strung the longbow. Arrows were produced from sheathes around his shins. He nocked the first arrow and took aim.

The arrow flew true, slamming into the creature's stomach. It staggered back a step, rocked, started forward again. The second arrow thudded into its chest, the third might have torn something as it passed the neck.

"I'm going to get a closer look." Rai'guy muttered, stepping off the roof. He floated out over the courtyard, the creature plodding on before him. He launched two more arrows, mostly out of curiosity. The creature made no attempt to avoid them, received one in the head while the other went wide.

It was difficult to make out, even with Rai'guy's excellent night vision. All shadowy half-appendages and might-be-limbs. As he grew closer he discerned the remains of previous conflicts: arrows other than his own embedded in the creature's flesh. No attempt had been made to remove them.

'Undead then.' Arrows would slow it down, but not kill it. This one had already been seriously injured - one of its legs was barely there at all - suggesting that the condition of its body was not important to it. 'Or that it's completely unaware of what's happening to it.' At the very least, it appeared to be blind.

Fire was the next possibility, but the sorcerers' failed efforts put paid to that idea. Rai'guy grew closer, aware of the floating gossamer shadows which wrapped the creature. Feeling his eyes begin to droop, he noticed with a jolt that he was a great deal lower than he had thought, his feet almost touching the outer edges of the intruder's shadowy corona.

With a spike of awareness he jumped upward, rising to almost half the height of the fortress. He found himself unable to resist a yawn. So the creature could weaken resistance to the Lethargy. He drew back, firing another volley as the creature reached the gates to the courtyard. He landed heavily on the roof just as the first crash echoed from below.

"It weakened me." He was shocked to find himself panting. "Being close to it is exhausting, like the Lethargy all over again." Latrodectus was staring at the creature, lips pursed tightly.

"It can't be burned, it can't be drowned, it can't be poisssoned, it can't be beheaded..." Her voice trailed off. Recognising her expression, Rai'guy stood cautiously.

"What do you want?" He asked, momentarily forgetting about rank.

"Go ssspeak with Mideel." Latrodectus sighed heavily. "We need hiss help, or 'Nightsss fallsss."

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It was dark in the dungeons beneath the Gaming section of 'Nights.  At the time of their construction, they had been considered a necessity.  Prisoners of war were common in the conflict that had once raged across the boards, Warlord against Warlord.  But Dragoon Knight had never been one for mistreating prisoners.  While Dante's methods brought to mind torture chambers and cold, cramped, damp and filthy conditions, the cells in which the bulk of Dragoon Knight's forces were being held were simply dark.  Guards were stationed, but they raised no objections when several Mages conjured some enchanted light, allowing it to float into the corridor between the cells.  The phantom flickering revealed austere bunks, a single sink and toilet facilities hidden behind a niche in the wall of each cell.  The troops were frustrated and restless, but otherwise comfortable.  Mideel had made sure of that.

The Commander was being held in a room on the ground floor of the Gaming complex, on the opposite side to the infirmary, where Inon and Flinn lay abed, with Doctor Wrexham and Lumiel tending to them and the rest of the wounded.  Or at least, they had been when Mideel had last seen them.  Lydia and Shinsbane had been instructed to aid in disarming the troops; Mideel had been told they would be kept separately in other areas of the building.  He had tried to insist on seeing the damage that had been caused to their equipment, but Latrodectus had been in no mood for negotiation.  Faced with an impossible situation, Mideel had relented.  Every conflict had its casualties, but hostages were another matter.  He could not condemn everyone in that infirmary to certain death based on the merits of this deluded attack.  Once the curiousity of the misguided aggressors had been sated, their suspicions assuaged, then they could begin the process of diplomacy once again.

But Mideel was having a trying time of convincing himself of such a rosy outcome.  He had heard the Fan Fiction rabble crashing about in research laboratories on the floors above, no doubt destroying weeks of work.  He was thankful that the last of the Element Zero had been sealed away several days beforehand; it would take the intruders a day, perhaps longer to locate it, and even longer to get access to it.  The Quarian scientists were still weeks away from creating anything remotely resembling the obscure material.  Mideel had ordered them to divulge everything they knew when asked, but he feared that nothing would suffice.  He feared that the paranoia of their neighbours would prove impossible to dispel.  In his darkest thoughts, he prepared for the possibility that the entire Gaming contingent would be murdered, one by one, in the search for information that didn't exist.  If that happened...

Mideel physically shook his head at the thought.  He had no doubts about his own ability to escape, if worst came to worst.  Perhaps Shinsbane and Lydia, too.  Certainly Phaeton, who had made himself scarce so expertly thus far.  But the scores of men and women in the dungeons, Lumiel, Wrexham, Inon, Flinn, Melinda...

Mideel was about to shake his head again, silently urging sanity to prevail, when the door to his room opened.  The corridor outside was darker than the room itself, but the figure standing outwith somehow managed to appear darker still.

"Rai'guy, isn't it?" Mideel asked in amicable tones.

"In the flesh, " the vampire replied, moving noiselessly inside.  The room where Mideel was being held was a disused storage area.  In the past, it had held weapons, armour, stocks of rations - the fuel for the fires of war.  Empty now aside from a few racks and pallets, Rai'guy opted to lurk in a corner.  He leaned back, but the set of his shoulders betrayed his relaxed fa�ade.

"I can see that something's troubling you, " Mideel observed.  "Perhaps you've come to tell me that you hit Doctor Wrexham a little too hard this time, or that Latrodectus has gutted another of our helpless injured."

"Commander, under normal circumstances, I would be more than happy to entertain this little game of back an-"

"This is no game, vampire, " Mideel interrupted, his lips tight against his teeth.  "The depths that you sink to in order to hold us hostage... did Dante order this?"

"We have no time for your pathetic misgivings regarding the morality of the situation, " Rai'guy responded severely, his eyes shining despite the gloom.  "'Nights is under attack."

"What?" the Commander asked, taken aback and temporarily forgetting his anger.  "By whom?"

Rai'guy stepped forward.  "We don't know.  It might have been human once, but whatever it is now..." he paused.  "We've been able to slow its advance some small amount, but we can't stop it.  Not alone."

"It?  We are under attack by a single enemy?"

"It's taken out every single unit we've sent against it, and it made short work of more civilians than you'd care to count."

"What the hell could do that?"

"I told you, we don't know, " Rai'guy growled.  "It's making its way through the thread, approaching the fortress."

"This threatens all of us, " Mideel nodded.  "You need our help."

Rai'guy accepted this with a sullen nod.

"My terms are as follows.  All of our forces are to be released, re-armed and returned to my command.  If we should succeed in repelling this invader, your troops are to return to their section and remain there.  All of our stolen equipment and research will be returned immediately.  We will, in turn, aid you against this aggressor and remain within the confines of our own section at battle's end.  As soon as we regain contact with Freelancer City - if that's even possible - you will make Dante available for what I imagine will be a somewhat heated discussion with our leader."

"I'm not exactly in a position to deny you, am I?" Rai'guy snapped.

"No trickery will be tolerated, vampire, " Mideel finished.  "Am I to understand that I'm free to go?"

"Assemble your troops, " Rai'guy said with a nod, turning his back on the Commander.  He stopped with a strangled gurgle, felt his throat constrict with almost crushing force.

"One last thing, " Mideel said, walking around to Rai'guy's right, his hands glowing a vibrant red.  Rai'guy bared his teeth in a sneer, began exerting his own will to break free.  Mideel kept his hold, though it clearly taxed him greatly.

"If even one more Gamer... is killed or injured by you or yours, " the Commander said through clenched teeth, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow, "If you so much as... lay a hand on Wrexham... I will see that justice is served.  Do not mistake... morality for... weakness..."

Mideel released his grasp and Rai'guy fell to one bended knee, turned his gaze upwards to the Commander.

"Assemble your troops, " the vampire growled, his voice croaking slightly, his eyes full of murder.


The shambling figure shuffled ever closer to the fortress gates, leaving the bodies of civilians too slow to move, or too weak to endure the increased susceptiblity to the Lethargy, in its wake.  Latrodectus had seen the effectiveness of Rai'guy's arrows and had ordered archers to level volley after volley towards the oncoming menace.  They thudded into the corpse-like being when they hit at all, each shaft causing a backwards step at best, but often simply a stumble.  Nothing seemed to stop it.

Behind the gates, from the main entrance to the Gaming section, Mideel rushed out.  He made a beeline for the armoury building; behind him, Gamers emerged in scores and began to rifle through the piled equipment, arming themselves once again.  Once equipped, they formed organised ranks in front of the fortress gates.  Latrodectus peered down from her position atop the roof; she heard Wrexham telling Lumiel to join the others.  The spider looked back towards the advancing enemy.  It was getting too close to the gates for her to see, its body disappearing from her view.  She hissed, scutterred across the building's face and leapt down with feline grace to land in the courtyard, a scant few metres in front of the first row of Gamers.  She didn't spare them even a glance, but quickly set to work spinning a web to encase the gates.

Mideel emerged from the armoury, Lydia and Shinsbane in tow, rushing towards the assembled forces.  He squinted towards the gate, where Latrodectus had become a blur of motion, weaving intricate strands across the face of the gates.  Lumiel approached at speed.

"Sir, Commanders Inon and Flinn... they're just not... I can only do so much, " she stammered.

"We'll have to make do with who we have, " he cut in, cursing Fan Fiction again for allowing them to be caught unawares and unprepared with this petty conflict.

"Hisssssss," came Latrodectus' alarmed cry from the gates as she leapt backwards suddenly.  Breathing heavily, she managed "By all the hellssss... it approachesss..."

The courtyard was silent for almost an entire minute.  The forces of Gaming were poised before the gate, while to their left and behind stood the Highlanders and sorcerors of Fan Fiction.  In the skies above, black angels circled the courtyard, abnormally silent.

Then the gates began to groan and creak; the sound of stone being put under massive strain.  A bulge appeared between the two hinged doors, the sound turning into a rumbling, grinding noise.  Then, in an anti-climactic flourish, the figure passed slowly through crumbling pebbles and ground dust.  It made no sound; even the clatter of the rubble and the sloughing of the dust seemed muted.  Above it, the rest of the gate began to come apart, clattering to the ground as if aged by thousands of years.  Moving with inexorable slowness, it stumbled into the heart of Latrodectus' web.

"No, " Mideel breathed, squinting through his troops.  "No no."

He pushed his way through the assembled Gamers, vying for the front of the formation.  "Gods above no."

The creature rolled its head in sightless incomprehension, its limbs caught in the silken strands of the web.  Stronger than any steel, it could restrain entire armies, hold structures together, suspend enormous weights... yet the creature began to pull, and the tendrils stretched taut, then snapped, one by one.

Latrodectus hissed again, louder, launching streamers of web towards the encroaching monster, while Mideel finally managed to push his way to the front.  He could feel the insistent tug of the Lethargy all the more poignently here, blinked through suddenly blurry eyes for a better look.  "No, " he gasped, almost a whisper, pleading.

As the figure cleared his way through the last of the strands, each milky white rope falling to the ground like tissue paper, Mideel's face became a rictus of fear.

"Oh Gods... are you blind?!" he screamed towards Latrodectus, who looked back at him with anger, tempered slightly when she saw his expression.

"That's a Warlord!" Mideel exclaimed.  "That's EWS!"

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Latrodectus' head snapped forwards, her eyes widened.  She instantly leapt backwards once again, distancing herself from EWS' shambling advance.

"Fall back fifty paces!" Mideel gestured behind him.  The troops obeyed, but the Commander could sense their unease.  Some of them had once served under EWS... the White Army, they had styled themselves.  Their leader had come under Dragoon Knight's banner during the last great conflict, but EWS had been missing when they awoke.  Despite rigorous searches of Freelancer City, only scant trace could be found.

"General EWS!" Mideel shouted at the advancing form.  A twitch of the head could have been acknowledgement.  "General EWS, this is Commander Mideel.  Freelancer Armed Forces, under Dragoon Knight!"

EWS paid no heed, if he was even capable of hearing Mideel's calls.  His face was torn and sunken, eyes like white glass, but there was no mistaking his identity, even through the shadowy blur that surrounded him.

"Ssso it wasss a Gaming ploy after all!" Latrodectus crowed from behind, poised to attack.  At the rear of the formation, Shinsbane and Lumiel turned to face her.

"No!  Listen, he's been missing!"

"Liesss!  Nothing but liess!"

Mideel turned back to EWS, who was now no more than a stone's throw away.  He could sense the strength in him; the same strength that resided within all Warlords.  Beings of immense power, abilities unmatched across FED2k.  But his power had been changed somehow.  Corrupted.

"General, can you hear me?!"

"Commander!" Lydia cried, moving past the front row of troops to stand a few feet behind Mideel.  "Whatever that thing is, it's not EWS anymore!"

"Is he still alive?" Mideel shouted back, unable to tear his gaze away from EWS.  His eyes seemed to be looking right at him.

"I... I can't tell for sure, " Lydia admitted.  "But if there's any spark of life within that shell, it's been driven mad.  I can feel its pain... its exhaustion... how could any mind endure..."

"Lydia?" Mideel said, turning his head now.  The Jedi was on her knees, eyes clamped shut, caught in an empathic link.

"No rest... can't rest... its will is bent, unwavering..." Lydia slurred.

"BACK!" exclaimed Mideel, directing his word of command towards EWS, his entire form outlined in a shimmering red aura.  The air rippled in obedience, a sonic boom of force.  It reached EWS, but passed straight through him, barely ruffling his ragged attire.

Mideel swallowed with grim understanding.  There was nothing left of the General; no mind remained to compel.  He turned around, grabbed Lydia's shoulders and began to drag her stumbling backwards.

"Melee, fall back!" Mideel ordered.  "Ranged to the fore!  Archers, gunners, magi; ready arms!"

Like a well oiled machine, the ranks of Gamers shifted, the swords, spears, shields and axes of the front line being replaced by notched arrows, loaded rifles and glowing staves.

As the distance between her and EWS increased, Lydia began to come to her senses.  Mideel unhooked her arm from around his neck, nodded to her, then waited for a nod in return before shouting once again.

"Take aim... fire!"

Bolts of energy as well as bullets tore from the barrels of loaded rifles, while arrows flew from their bows and orbs of lightning and fire shot from the staves of their casters.  The shadowy aura surrounding the Restless Lord absorbed them all with mindless hunger.  The arrows and bullets lost most of their momentum, with only a few managing to embed themself in the oncoming foe.  One lucky bullet tore straight through EWS's left shoulder, but he barely flinched.

Larger now, the aura swayed and shifted, brushing the left of the front row as it devoured everything thrown at it.  Eight men and women fell to the ground instantly.

"Move back!" Mideel roared, crouching and running forwards.  He grabbed the arm of one of the fallen, dragged him backwards unceremoniusly and felt for a pulse.  He knew instinctively that he would not find one, however weak.  The grey pallor of the man's skin, which had already grown cold, told the Commander he was dead.

EWS' aura shifted again, coming within metres of Mideel's crouched form.  The wave of exhuastion that swept through him was nearly overwhelming, and Mideel felt himself slump.  A form from above descended at speed, landed with a thump.  At first, Mideel thought it was one of the black angels, but he looked up into the eyes of Rai'guy.

"Be very thankful that I pay heed to my better judgement, " the black-skinned one said, grasping Mideel under both arms and vaulting away from EWS.  Letting go of the Commander as they arced a few feet over the main bulk of troops, the men and women below caught him awkwardly.  Rai'guy landed with exaggerated care next to Latrodectus.

"I think we can trust them, " he said.  "In this, at least.  They're not responsible for the attack."

"On your head be it, " Latrodectus replied, stalking forwards.  She let forth a screeching hiss, then began to move across the courtyard, launching more web towards EWS but keeping a safe distance.

"Webs don't work, " Lumiel said, moving up from Latrodectus' right flank.

"You have a better idea, Paladin?  Perhapsss you want to hit it with your ssword."

"The undead fear the Light, " replied Lumiel, her form glistening with a golden glow.  She stepped forward, planting herself firmly in the Restless Lord's path.  Swirling paths of light began to dance between her fingers, surrounding her hands like ribbons, a circle of light appearing beneath her feet.  Her arms tense, mirroring her expression, she thrust her right arm forwards.  A burst of holy fire erupted from her palm; an exorcism spell, deadly to the unliving.  It struck the chest of EWS, but only managed to singe what remained of his tattered doublet.

"Oh well done, " Latrodectus said, her words dripping sarcasm.

"Let me take a crack at the bastard, " said Shinsbane, his voice low and menacing.

"Get too close, dwarf, and you'll never swill another pint of ale, " Rai'guy called from a nearby rooftop.  He notched another arrow, let it fly with pinpoint accuracy.  It travelled so quickly, it made a sound like tearing paper as it flew above Lumiel's head.  It struck EWS, causing him to stagger back.  For a moment, it looked as though he might fall, but he regained his balance in the space of a heartbeat.

"Changed my mind, let me take a crack at this bastard instead, " corrected Shinsbane, shaking his hammer in Rai'guy's direction.

"Bloody garden ornament, " the vampire said under his breath, leaping to another rooftop for a better shot.

"Who said anything about getting close?" Shinsbane shouted after the leaping black form, turning back towards EWS when it was clear that Rai'guy wasn't paying attention.  "Stand aside, lass."

Lumiel obliged, looking dejected and a little panicked.  EWS was still advancing, and they were running out of courtyard.  Buildings enclosed on both sides, with the Gaming and Fan Fiction complexes behind them.  They would soon be forced to get close, whether they liked it or not.

"Have some of this, ye undead git!" cried Shinsbane, angling his arm backwards and throwing his hammer towards the enemy.  It tumbled through the air, impossibly straight in defiance of gravity, striking the gut of EWS.  The Restless Lord bent double, the force of the blow finally causing him to fall.

"Ha HA!" the dwarf cheered.  Latrodectus looked on with trepidation, taking a few steps forward.  It wasn't long before she recoiled, as EWS sat up and began to clamber to his feet.  From his stomach, now horribly indented, dust and splinters showered to the ground.  Shinsbane gaped in disbelief at the remains of his hammer.

"Bloody thing was enchanted..." he spluttered.  "Gods below..."

"We're not getting anywhere like this, " Mideel said, moving to the fore of the Gaming troops, who were inching backwards with weapons at the ready.  "We need to hit it with everything we've got, all at once."

"Everything, Commander?  Are you sssure?" Latrodectus queried.  "There will be cassualtiesss..."

"My men and women are ready to die to protect their lands and conquer this evil, " Mideel answered.  "Are yours?"

Latrodectus laughed.  "Whenever you're ready, Commander."

"Gamers!  Stimulants!" Mideel commanded.  The colour gone from all but a few of their faces, Mideel's troops obeyed.  "Melee, to the fore... charge!"

The steel of Freelancer surged forward, arranging themselves into a pincer formation in an attempt to surround EWS.  The unliving Warlord made no attempt to defend himself, his shifting, shadowy aura licking the air around him like a demon tongue.  Several fighters fell before getting close, but for every Gamer that couldn't make the charge, a Fan Fiction Highlander rushed to take his place, as Latrodectus' forces joined the melee.  Spears and swords alike brushed against EWS' tortured form, all force lost from their swings and thrusts.  The only thing that impeded the advance of the oncoming horror was the press of fallen bodies.

"There's no stopping this thing..." Mideel sighed, resignation creeping into his voice.  "Archers, magi!  Open fire!"

The Fan Fiction sorcerers added their magics to the onslaught of elemental bombardment.  Just as before, the various energies of any magic cast against the Restless Lord dissipated into nothingness, the obfuscating cloak of darkness blurring and shifting around him.  One or two arrows found their target; accompanied by three shot by Rai'guy in quick succession, EWS stumbled to a halt.  Alarmingly, he surged forwards, shuffling faster.

"Commander, " an ethereal voice echoed around Mideel.  A partially formed skeleton was in the process of materialising to his right; the voice was Phaeton's.  "Been... since the gates... I can't hold it for much longer, " the Soul Reaver continued, his normal smarm discarded and replaced by a grim and almost desperate tone.

"It's in the, the-" Mideel began, fumbling for the correct term.

"The Spectral Realm... yes, it's there, too, " Phaeton finished for the Commander, his material form dissolving as fast as he could form it.  "I can't stay here... probably won't be able to come back for days.  If we make it at all.  Send more troops... the souls of the fallen... I can use th..."

"Phaeton?" Mideel asked of the air, but the skeletal form had disappeared.  Moments later, EWS slowed again.

"Fire at will!" Mideel cried.  The melee were beating a retreat; even the Highlanders were backing off.  He could ask no more of them, certainly not to climb over the bodies of their fallen comrades.  EWS had no such reservations, and padded awkwardly on all fours over the lifeless forms before him.

"Commander, I have an idea, " Latrodectus announced suddenly.  "I must return to the fortresss and take the sssorsscerorss with me, asss well asss your magi."

Mideel glanced appraisingly at the spider woman, but couldn't judge her sincerity.  "Will this idea of yours work?"

"It had better, " she replied.  "For all our sssakesss."

"Then take them."

"Thisss might take a while... keep it busssy for asss long asss you can, " Latrodectus said, the derision in her voice at an all time low.  She scrambled across the courtyard, barking orders at the casters among the remaining Gaming forces.

"Lumiel!" Mideel called; the Paladin was about to cast a Blessing of Protection on herself and attempt a melee attack.  "We need to buy Latrodectus some time.  Inon, Flinn..."

"Commander, no..."

"Yes.  Fetch Lydia, get them out here... you can both heal, I need their abilities."

"I told you, I can only do so much, sir!  Their wounds need time to heal naturally, or they won't set."

"Lumiel, if we don't stop this thing here and now, they won't have time to heal, naturally or otherwise.  Now go, that's an order."

Lumiel blinked, words forming on her lips, but turned aside and ran towards Lydia.  Together, the two of them re-entered the Gaming complex.

"Shinsbane!"

"Ayesir?!" the dwarf answered; he had been throwing fallen spears at EWS with some minor success.  Two shafts of wood a metre long now weighed the Restless Lord down, but they did little but unbalance his stride.

"Do you need your hammer to shatter the earth?"

"Er, no, but... the walls, the buildings... I'd likely take a good chunk of the thread with me."

"Collateral damage - we need to stop him."

"No arguments there, " Shinsbane nodded, clenching his fists.  "Alright, Lordie... see how ye handle this!"

Shinsbane leapt into the air, borne impossibly high by his innate abilities, his fists clenched into a double-handed downward swing.  Landing heavily, the blow sent shockwaves forward through the ground, tearing it asunder.  The entire thread shook with the pummelling; behind Mideel, one of the connecting bridges between the Gaming and Neutral sections collapsed, smashing into the bridge below, while one of the balconies of the Fan Fiction section fell to the ground with a thundering crash.  Around EWS, the earth splintered, swallowing the corpses of several of the fallen.  The Restless Lord stumbled, fell to all fours once again, unable to keep his balance amid the turmoil.  The ground below him tipped awkwardly, casting EWS into a newly formed sinkhole.  The trembling stopped and he quickly regained his footing.

"Rai'guy!" Mideel cried out, his fists glowing bright red.  The vampire archer knew his task, firing a rapid series of arrows into the Restless Lord, ensuring he didn't exit the pit.  He reached to one boot, then another.  He checked a quiver on his back.

"I need arrows!" he called out.  Mideel creased his brow with effort, reaching towards an upturned shard of earth.  It began to glow red, then sheared at the tip.  Mideel sent it toppling in towards EWS, where it struck him on the shoulder, tearing his arm off with the sheer force.  Still he climbed.

"TOTAL.  FOCUS." Inon's voice came from behind Mideel.  Nearby, Lumiel was channelling a healing chant.  Mideel turned to see Lydia and Flinn moving slowly to the right, while Inon took off in a green blur of motion.

Before Mideel could even ask what was happening, he saw the setup before him and his part in it.

Lydia leapt forwards, lightsaber drawn and activated, and sliced cleanly through the thicker section of the shard of earth, before falling limp in mid-air.  Before she could strike the ground, Inon dashed in from the left, grabbed her as she fell, carried on past the pit and turned towards Mideel and Lumiel.

But Mideel was not focused on them; he needed to be ready.  To the right, Flinn stood with his eyes closed, his hair billowing out behind him, suffused in sapphire light.  The large shard of earth wobbled upwards, lifted by telekinesis, shifting over the sinkhole.  EWS had almost made it out.

Now.

Mideel exerted his force over the boulder, adding his will to Flinn's.  The opposing forces entangled; Flinn willed upwards, Mideel downwards, building potential energy.  The boulder shone a bright indigo, tearing asunder into several smaller shards.

"FALL, " Mideel commanded, prompting Flinn to withdraw.  The boulders fell to earth with the force of cannonballs, thunderously loud, knocking EWS backwards into the sinkhole and raising a cloud of dust and debris.

Mideel fell to his knees, saw Flinn do the same.  Behind him, Lumiel stopped chanting.

"How many was that?" Mideel asked, breathless.

"Three, " the Paladin replied.

"Three people at the same time?" Inon said in disbelief, lying propped up on both shoulders on the dusty ground.

"Just don't ask me to cast a Blessing of Protection again any time soon."

"Finally got the bast-" Shinsbane started, but was interrupted by the sound of shifting rubble.  From the sinkhole, a shadowy hand emerged, grasping at the rim of the pit.  To the horror of even Rai'guy, EWS pulled himself up and out of the detritus.  Both legs were crushed beyond recognition, but he was still somehow able to balance atop them.  Shattered bones jutted from several points along the ravaged limbs, but neither they nor his severed arm shed any blood.  He simply resumed his slow advance.

Flinn hobbled over, fearful of being too close to the Restless Lord in his weakened condition.  "We can't do anything more here... the archers are out of ammo, we're all exhausted.  We need to retreat."

"Where to?" Mideel asked, a mixture of anger and incredulousity.  "We have no supplies, we'd never make it more than a day's journey.  Not to mention that we'd be leaving civilians to die."

"And what makes you think that we could lose that thing anyway?" Inon asked.  "If you have a plan, it had better be a good one."

... "Will this idea of yours work?"

"It had better.  For all our sssakesss." ...

"Latrodectus, " Mideel said, looking up.

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Latrodectus remembered the days when EWS had been a warlord. She had known him as an enemy of TGED, a rival for territory and a threat to Fanfiction's interests in Gaming.

He had never been one for strategy or planning: his great personal charisma had not been enough to save him from a thorough military defeat. He had been obliged to become a mercenary in the service of Dragoon Knight. Even so he had been a warlord, possessed of all the powers that the title implied. Now, though evidently a shell of a creature, those powers were as potent as they had ever been.

All over the fortress her sisters shivered in their webs, sensing her disquiet. Many thousands of them, her watchers from all over the thread, were already dead. The remainder could not help her now, their little minds filled with confusion and reflected distress. She shut their clamour out, leaving her own mind clear and crystal-sharp.

Massed sorcerers and magi voiced their concerns. Lead through the ransacked halls of Dragoon Knight's half of the fort, they followed her into a long corridor lined with great windows.

"The creature iss sstrong, but it sseemss to lack a mind." Latrodectus hissed, cutting off complaints. "Notissce it'sss relentlesss approach, yet it makess no attempt to usse anything besssides brute strength. It can be sstopped: it hass no mind to esscape a trap." She staggered as a massive explosion shook the building, shattering every window in the room. Aftershocks rumbled on as the foundations rocked, tilting the entire building forward. As the dust cleared and the rocking ceased, the sorcerers stood. They clustered around the windows, peering out to the courtyard below.

Latrodectus found her own window, watched as a shattered EWS crawled from beneath a barrage of boulders.

"It ressissts magic, but can be sslowed by sstone." She went on quickly. "If it can be sslowed, it can be ssstopped. You musst conjure a physsical trap for it, and hold it fasst."

"But if it can resist something like that-" Someone protested.

"Stone takes too long, we'll have to use ice." One of the sorcerers interrupted.

"Isce meltsss."

"A temproary solution is still a solution." The sorcerer met Latrodectus' gaze. She paused only a second before nodding assent. Too little time to argue. The man immediately took charge, issuing orders to his brethren. He positioned six of them in a hexagon with himself in the centre. Each of the others took up position in a line from one of the six, forming a shape not unlike a snowflake. They made their own preparations, some chanting, others drawing complex symbols on their hands and arms. A few desperately searched their pockets for reagents while the blue-skinned man in the centre muttered something under his breath.

The temperature in the room was already dropping dramatically, causing some of the sorcerers to gasp plumes of short-breathed vapour. Latrodectus stood before a nearby window, watched as EWS staggered closer to the walls. Mideel's forces were in full retreat, pouring into the building as fast as they could. Only a few figures, Rai'guy and Shinsbane among them, stood before the creature's advance.

"Fassster!" She snapped at the magicians. They were working in concert now, individual preparations finished. Hoarfrost spread across their faces, running down sleeves and out from the circle across the floor. Latrodectus almost felt she could feel the blood grow gelid and sluggish in her veins.

The air above the courtyard was growing hazy, solidifying before her eyes. Tinged with blue, it coalesced into a roiling cloud, bright and shining. A snapping sound drew Latrodectus' attention as a crack opened along the arm of one of the mages. Frozen blood showed inside the fissure, red and motionless. The mage's expression was hidden beneath layers of ice; he probably wouldn't survive. She turned back, checked the cloud one more time. "Drop it."

The magicians who weren't frozen in place finished their spells with exhausted pants, sending the cloud spiralling down to wrap around the creature. Everything the mist touched turned to ice, spreading across the ground and billowing around EWS in frigid plumes which instantly solidified. Cracks and squeaks echoed as the growing shard of ice was consumed by searing fog.

Two of the magicians were already dead, a third unlikely to recover. Latrodectus felt the chill even from halfway up the fortress, watched frost radiate from the blast zone like fire across a pool of oil. It spread up the fortress steps, onto the walls, filled the courtyard with mist. She could hear nothing beyond the groans and creaks of ice and stone.

"Did it work?" Mideel panted from the door, his breath thick and foggy. Latrodectus watched his approach with one eye, kept the others trained on the courtyard, now completely shrouded in mist.

"It hass not reached the doorss, at leassst." She noted. They watched the mist coil and roll for several minutes.

"It's starting to clear." Shinsbane pointed out gruffly. "We should... go down there." Indeed, the clouds were already beginning to fade. The frost had stopped spreading, though it showed no signs of melting either. Several of the soldiers were shivering. The whole thread felt biting cold.

The company made its way back to the ground floor, where the doors had to be blasted apart, shattering a foot-thick layer of ice on the outside.

Misty clouds of debris swirled apart at Latrodectus' approach, jointed legs creaking in the cold. A large, misshapen lump loomed out of the fog. She ran a clawed hand down the ice face, scraping aside opaque crystals to reveal a blue-tinged form buried inside. Though indistinct, she recognised the shattered remains of a human male. Residual shadows clung to the body like cobwebs, at once wispy and impenetrable within the ice. They moved, but did not penetrate the ice block.

"Is it dead?" Rai'guy asked apprehensively. Mideel made a noise at the back of his throat, somewhere between a cough and a musing hum.

"...Possibly." Was his eventual reply. "It takes a lot to kill a warlord. There are stories of recovery even after years of confinement without food or water." He leaned close, frowned at the flickering shadows. "I still feel the pull of this creature."

"It feels like the Lethargy." Rai'guy agreed.

Mideel said nothing more, and after a moment turned away. Latrodectus followed him back to a cluster of soldiers, Fanfiction and Gaming both. The dwarf, Shinsbane, stood nearby, glowering. He looked back, but Latrodectus had already disappeared, taking the majority of her forces with her. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed shut.

"Not so much as a thank you." Shinsbane grunted, shielding his eyes as the first ray of sunlight beamed over distant parapets. The dawn cast a broken silhouette over the courtyard and EWS' icy tomb, wan light filtering through the dust. He looked towards the remains of the towers' walkway for a moment, then struck off towards the barracks. "Buggered if I'm fixing that."

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"We have waited too long." Ambthys whined, his childlike smile as irritating as it was obsequious. "Even if we were to leave now, we do not have the supplies for a journey of more than three days. If these supplies are to last, sacrifices will have to be made."

"By sacrifices, you mean people will have to be abandoned." Moogie growled. Ambthys nodded greasily.

"Unthinkable." Jennifer shook her head. "These people have suffered incalculable loss already. To cast them off now would be-"

"Practical?" Ambthys raised an eyebrow. Jennifer remembered her breathing exercises, found that her discipline had eroded more than she knew. Her hand was practically itching to slap the smug Tleilaxu.

"What good is survival unless they survive with us?" She asked. "These people are all that remains of an empire, without them there is no empire."

"The emperor is the empire." Ambthys replied.

"I am no emperor." The leader of the group corrected. The others waited for him to go on, but he did not look up from the text he was reading.

"Even so, Lord, you lead us." Ambthys addressed the hidden figure.

"The common people will starve to death here rather than abandon you." Jennifer nodded. "As much as I dislike agreeing with Ambthys, the hour for a decision has come. We simply cannot delay any longer."

"To remain here is to die." Moogie grunted. "To leave, perhaps, to die. But at least perhaps is better than surrender." He spat the word. The leader paused in his reading, set down the paper.

"I am almost ready." He said, expression pained. "With another day, perhaps, I can-"

"We do not have a day." Moogie shook his head. Disagreement clearly came unwelcome to the old orc, but he soldiered on. "Food, we run out. Water, we run out. Enough to travel a day or two, more if we stretch it. More if we leave weak behind." He added despite Jennifers sigh of resignation. "But stay a day kills us."

The council sat in silence while their leader pondered. They had warned him before, time and again. This was the last opportunity they would get. The worst part, Jennifer considered, was that if he refused them, they wouldn't leave without him. Even Ambthys had invested far too much to abandon him now.

"I... have a plan." Their lord said at last. "I was working on it for some time, I had hoped to get it ready tomorrow or a day later-"

"Tell us." Moogie interrupted. He never used to interrupt.

"We'll call the worms." It was said without fanfare. "Despite differences from the star charts, I am certain that this is Duniverse. We're not quite home, but it's close. The worms are the only method of transport which we could possibly use now, so I've been trying to study how it might be done."

"And you didn't tell us?!" Jennifer exclaimed. "We could have helped, sir! Any number of the people would have been glad to lend their expertise, you can't just go making up plans on your own!"

"It's my duty to save these people-"

"But not alone." Jennifer sighed. "Ok, fine, harm's already done. Lets just get on with it and get out of here."

"We don't have anything so sophisticated as a thumper, but any loud noise should do."

"And the worm hooks?"

"Repurposed scrap metal shouldn't be hard to come by-"

"Shouldn't be- ugh!" Jennifer threw up her hands. "I- ok, ok, I'm sorry." She calmed herself down with visible effort. "If this plan is going to work we need to move quickly. We'll need hooks, palanquins for supplies and civilians, protection from the sun... stillsuits would be a fine thing."

"Won't happen." Moogie stated.

"I know. Perhaps cloths to hold moisture. And something to call the worms."

"If they can be called." Ambthys pointed out. "We haven't seen so much as a flea since we arrived, the ruckus caused by the landing surely would have summoned a worm."

"There is no alternative but to try." Moogie glared. "I will start packing supplies. Everything that can be carried."

"I'll... see what I can do for worm hooks and thumpers." Jennifer sighed. "If you had only let us know sooner, Jeyl."

"I know!" Jeyl snapped, silver eyes flashing. More calmly, he continued. "I know. I'm sorry, Jennifer. Moogie. You are dismissed." Both stood and bowed before exiting the chamber. Jeyl sighed and pressed a hand to his forehead. "You too, Ambthys."

"Even if we can call a worm, nobody here knows how to ride one." Ambthys pointed out. Jeyl did not respond. "By your leave." The Tleilaxu stood, bowed and waddled from the room. Jeyl sat alone.

"What if it's only a small worm?" Jennifer muttered, hefting a large meathook. "Can we fit everyone onto a small worm? Minimal packing, essential supplies only, if we survive we can always come back..." She reached a decision, nodded to the orc at her side. He took the hook and handed her a fused piston from somewhere in the engines. "But how small is a small worm? Could we call more than one? Maybe do it in shifts. This is no good." She gave the piston back, received a buckled sword twisted to resemble a worm hook. "Transport in shifts... we'd need to leave extra supplies behind, but then it's not like we can serve tea on a worm's back. No good." She handed back the sword, was given a roll of cloth. "Oof! Far too heavy, this will never do."

The day wore on.

"What is this?" Moogie muttered, glaring at the package before him.

"Er, our clothes, General." The man replied.

"Clothes?" Moogie spat. "We ride a worm today! We leave behind invaluable technology and weapons, every pound of extra weight will slow us!" He shoved the package aside with his foot, leaned close to the trembling civilian. "Wear only what you need, carry only what is necessary to survive. That goes for all of you!" He stood back, raised his voice to carry across the mess hall. "If we survive, we will return! If not, you won't need jewelery or heirlooms! Label whatever you leave, carry only food, water and essential supplies! YOU!" He bellowed, pointing at a soldier in tattered uniform. "What is that?"

"Engineering supplies, sir." The woman dropped the crate she was carrying.

"That's right. Drop it!" Moogie ordered. "This is not a camping trip, ladies and gents, it is an evacuation. Survival first, comfort second! Chop chop!" He turned as the ranks of men and women returned to work. Most of the packing had been done weeks ago, thankfully, now it was just a matter of unpacking the essentials and stringing them together. Little food and less water.

Moogie would have cut deadweight by leaving the fatter, lazier civilians behind, though he recognised this as unworkable. And privately, he had to admit that those who remained were no quivering mice. Even the weak had managed to survive, through determination or coersion. What became of them in Duniverse would be interesting to observe, if he survived to observe it.

The ship heaved with activity for the first time in weeks. Temperatures soared and tempers frayed. The sun crawled across an orange sky.

Ambthys stood upon what had once been a heat vent. Though the cursed sun was finally dipping beow the horizon, the atmosphere remained sweltering. It would be long hours before the air cooled, even longer before the metal beneath him lost its burning touch.

Far below, a sortie stumbled a thin path from the bowels of the ship. Between them they carried all the materials that the ship's archive suggested could be used to summon a sandworm.

Archives. He had tittered to himself when he was alone, but sober reality had rather spoiled the joke. Lord Jeyl intended to summon the worm himself, and not a word from Ambthys would persuade him otherwise.

It was a disaster, a disaster in the making. Ambthys was more than happy to watch countless peons throw themselves into the waiting maw of a sandworm, in fact he had rather anticipated several hours of amusement, but Lord Jeyl was, in a word, indispensable. The man was vital to Ambthys' survival, the survival of his people, and quite possibly Fed2k itself. Not that he knew it. Ambthys watched billions of solaris and decades of diplomatic effort walk hesitantly to the peak of the nearest dune. Though his face remained stony, inwardly he cringed.

"What good is a leader who will not lead?" Jeyl had asked, and Ambthys had been forced to agree. If Jeyl's position were compromised, all of that effort would have been in vain anyway. A living failure was as useless to him as a dead one. So he watched, and prayed for success.

A guest trailed down, almost alighted on the vent, hung in the air for a moment before drifting away. Ambthys hardly noticed it. There were so many of the creatures now, ever intangible and aloof. They reacted to nothing, appeared completely unaware of all attempts to attract their attention. A curiosity at first, they were largely ignored now.

A muffled boom sounded from the sand. The thumper at work. Ambthys did not know exactly what had been cobbled together to make it, but at least it seemed to be functional. A second boom followed. This was going to get repetitive. Ambthys heaved a sigh, tried not to think about the powindah foolishness, and made his way back into the ship.

He clamboured along a collapsed generator, onto a buckled wall which led into a maintenance corridor. Though the ship was large, more than enough time had passed for him to memorise its layout. He walked, crawled on occasion, past shattered panels and dead elevators. The crash had almost destroyed the ship, probably would have done if it hadn't landed on sand. It lay on its side, though some parts had almost completely detached, rolled, and come to rest at different angles. Walls became floors, elevator shafts became corridors. If they had arrived somewhere colder, Ambthys was quite certain that the entire population would have succumbed to death from exposure.

He passed families still packing. Engineers arguing which parts of their equipment should be considered "vital." Ambthys carried all of his own effects in a small satchel which bumped gently against his leg. He was ready to leave at a moment's notice, would slip in between the civilians and soldiers, ignored or overlooked. He would ride the worm, if the worm could be ridden, surrounded by fodder to distract from him should anything go wrong. The Lady Jennifer and General Moogie would, of course, be at their lord's side, as Ambthys should have been too. But practicality outweighed political concerns this time.

Evening turned to night with characteristic swiftness. The thumper thumped on. How long was it supposed to take? The archives were ambiguous on this issue. Spotters crouched on the hull reported nothing. The moon rose with its ghostly twin.

"Should we stop?" Jeyl asked nervously.

"And do what, sleep?" Jennifer shook her head. "Better to keep on. For all we know the creatures are more active at night."

Another hour dragged past. The thumper wavered, was rapidly repaired. The moon was nearing its zenith when the beat resumed.

A shout went up from the ship, but the group on the dunes could already hear it - the hissing, roaring approach. Wormsign. Jeyl stood at the distance specified in the archive's reports, Moogie and Jennifer by his side. He hefted the makeshift wormhooks.

'And not a trained worm rider among us.' Jennifer quelled her fear. She recited the litany under her breath, the words drowned out by crashing sand.

The worm rose almost on top of the thumper, engulfed it at once. Surprised, Jeyl hesitated a vital moment before dashing forward. The worm turned as he approached, forcing him to slip to one side. He reached with the hooks, missed, was propelled backwards. The creature was sinking.

It was Moogie who caught Jeyl as he stumbled, took the wormhook and forced it between the creature's plates. It was Moogie who leapt as the worm rotated, subtly slipping the hook back into Jeyl's hand so that, when the creature righted itself, it was the man, not the orc, who stood tall upon its back.

The people cheered. Some were already making their way out of the hull, carefully shepherded by soldiers. Cautiously at first, Jeyl steered the worm around in a large circle. Only two more managed to mount the worm on his first pass, but by the second Jennifer was helping groups onto its flank. It soon became clear, however, that there would not be enough room for everyone. The worm was not large, yet several hundred people remained on the sand.

"It's no good, sir, we have to move on." Ambthys had sidled to the front to lurk behind Jeyl and Moogie. "Their best hope of survival is through us: if we find water, we can return to supply them."

Jeyl said nothing. Looking back at his people, he was struck by how patiently they waited. It must have been clear by now that he was simply unable to take them all, but they waited all the same.

"They are loyal." Ambthys followed his gaze. "They will wait for you, have no worries. If we succeed, so will they. If we fail, their fate is immaterial." Moogie made a growling noise at the back of his throat. "You can't fault my logic, General."

"Shut up." Moogie grunted. "Sire, the filth is correct. We must leave and hope to return soon."

"I... very well." Jeyl nodded, turned the worm away from the column of people. As the last riders fell or made their way up to the top of the worm, he looked back one more time. He couldn't see Jennifer anywhere. She would be alright though. Under starlight, the worm turned west.

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