Author Topic: The Wrath of Gaia  (Read 1650 times)

Leebot

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The Wrath of Gaia
« on: November 18, 2004, 12:29:39 pm »
[Alright, here's the prologue of my new fanfic. It's also available in the Open Book.]

The Wrath of Gaia – Prologue

I had a dream last night. Although, dream probably isn’t the best word to describe it. Maybe, “Vision in the Guise of a Dream.” Well, whatever I call it, the fact remains that it’s directly responsible for me making this entry. Let me explain.

I can’t remember any visual details, which is just as well, as they were far from the important parts. What I do remember, is one man, his message, and this book, the “Codex.”

The man seemed unlike anyone I had ever known. He was calm and controlled, but gave off a sense of power. He seemed to possess a soul deeper than any human’s, and felt completely trustworthy, as if he’d never even consider lying. Although, since he was in control of my “dream,” he may have been able to force this impression on me, but somehow I doubt it.

His message didn’t make complete sense to me, but here it is:

“I don’t have much time here. I couldn’t reach the origin world at all, but this one is close enough that I can project myself here for a short time and give you this book. It’s called a “Codex.” Once it’s been “aligned” with a world, it will record its history automatically from that point on. I’m here now because your world is about to face a crisis. Even more important than the events that will occur is that they be recorded. I’m entrusting this Codex to you so that you may fulfill that purpose. All you have to do is make one entry, describe yourself and your world, and then keep it in your possession. It is vastly important that you not let it fall into the hands of others, and that you resist the temptation to read it yourself. For, it not only records the past, but the present and a glimpse of the future as well. If one were to know the future from it, disaster could ensue. If in dire need of a miracle, you might be able to alter reality by writing what you need into it, but this power isn’t to be taken lightly; one mistake could spell disaster.

“I’ve chosen you for two reasons. One is that I can tell you are trustworthy and won’t abuse the power of the Codex. The other is your role in the coming events, and your connection to the hero aspect. You’ll meet him soon enough. He’ll seem powerful, and he is, but he needs support. You must be that support; he can’t fight if he doesn’t know for what he’s fighting. You must be his constant reminder of the good in the world.”

Even though I don’t completely believe everything he said, I guess I have nothing to lose by making this one entry and then carrying this book around with me for a while. If what he says turns out to be true, I’ll figure out what to do from there.


My name is Rianna, but most of my friends just call me “Ria.” I was born here, in the town of Larin nearly 20 years ago. At the age of 14, I joined to the town militia. I’ve always been good with a bow, and this seemed the best way to use my talent. I’m currently engaged to the boy-next-door, Torin, who’s in the militia with me. We’ve been friends since we were born, it just seemed natural to get together. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I really love him, or if this is just a mixture of friendship and convenience. No one seems to be able to help me. They just tell me that you can’t explain love to someone else, you have to feel it for yourself to know it.

The town of Larin is on the outskirts of Choras territory. Choras is one of the three large nation-states in the world. The others are the militaristic Porre and the mysterious Mystic League. Porre has been expanding its reach since around 1003 AD, so the Mystic League and Choras have formed a weak alliance, in hopes of maintaining the balance of power. I wouldn’t exactly call this situation a war, it’s more a series of random, minor battles over territory. It’s been going on for 19 years, now, and there’s no end in sight.

I wonder whether this situation is about to break out into the “crisis” my vision mentioned? Maybe, maybe it will be something else. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. Apparently, I’ll be at the forefront of it, so I’ll know soon enough.

Symmetry

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #1 on: November 18, 2004, 11:21:24 pm »
Interesting.

I remember years ago, after playing Myst & its sequels, how interesting I thought the idea of a book having the power to alter some sort of reality was. I don't know if that's where you plan on going with this, but that's the impression I get about this "Codex".

I also assume this is your fic with Backer, of whom it is always a pleasure to read. I'll be waiting to see where you take this.

Leebot

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2004, 10:25:33 pm »
[Alright, here's chapter 1. Still no Backer; I'm planning to introduce him in chapter 3.]

The Wrath of Gaia – Chapter 1

Time: +1-2

The day started off like any other Thursday, with the minor exception that Rianna now carried the Codex along with her supplies in the pack on her back. From nine to ten she practiced her accuracy. A firing range was set up near the guard house, with painted stacks of hay as targets. Marks were lain out on the ground at ten, twenty, and thirty meters.

Rianna was experienced enough that she never bothered with the ten meter mark anymore. She started out at the twenty meter mark, and switched between firing out her quiver as rapidly as possible and striving for pinpoint accuracy with slow, measured shots. After half an hour, she moved back to the thirty meter mark and repeated this routine.

Her daily practice served two purposes. One, it kept her skills intact, even if she didn’t need them throughout the rest of the day. This was the case for most days; Porrean attacks were exceedingly rare. As she could recall, there had only been two actual conflicts throughout her entire career in the militia. Thursdays were a different matter, however. Every Thursday it was her duty to go out to the nearby forest and hunt game for common consumption, so she always found use of her skills then.

The other reason for her practice was so that she could keep an eye on the state of her bow. No good bow could be made primarily from anything other than wood, it was the only material that could suitably flex and recover its shape. Some stronger archers would imbed a strip of steel in their bows to allow them to put more energy into the arrow, but Rianna was far from strong enough for this to benefit her. The problem with a wooden bow was that it always wore down given time. If an archer wasn’t mindful and didn’t catch small imperfections, her bow could snap at an inopportune moment.

Satisfied with her own and her bow’s performance, Rianna left for the south gate. Her ultimate destination was to the north, but Torin was stationed at the south gate, so she always left that way. After their familiar greetings and a brief kiss, Rianna left and circled around to the forest. She still hadn’t told Torin about the Codex; she feared that he’d think she was being silly. Nothing new had happened in the day since she’d gotten it, but she figured she’d hang on to it for at least a week before she considered ditching it. She even toyed with the notion of keeping it to use as a diary if her vision didn’t pan out.

Game was scarce this day, so much so that Rianna had to resort to following what appeared to be the freshest tracks: those of a deer, heading further north. Aside from the tracks, Rianna hadn’t seen any sign of life, and she was starting to feel unsettled. As she progressed, she started to notice a faint, white glow from ahead, along with faint, pulsing vibrations in the ground. Curiosity overwhelming her, Rianna ran forward until she could see what was progressing.

A fountain of white energy appeared to be sprouting out of the ground ahead. Surrounding it was what appeared to be every animal that resided in the forest, seeming to drink the energy. She would have described the sight as heavenly had the animals not been morphing into grotesque beasts as they drank. As she watched in horror, a hornet grew to the size of a deer, a rabbit’s front teeth grew to a length that would have been humorous had its body not grown to match, and a hawk shed its corporeal body and turned into what appeared to be a creature of pure light.

Rianna stumbled back. I have to raise the alarm at Larin, she resolved. Before she turned, she caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a magnificent, if fearsome, dragon rising from the center of the fountain. This sight caused her to pause a moment too long, as the overgrown hornet caught sight of her. She dove into the cover of the woods and ran for her life.

It was little use; the hornet easily outpaced her and was unhindered by the rough terrain of the forest floor. As she heard it nearing, Rianna drew her bow and cocked an arrow. She leapt and spun around, loosing her arrow in mid-air. Her intuition was good enough that the arrow shot through the hornet’s left wing, causing it to fall out of the air. She breathed a sigh of relief as she readied another arrow to deliver the coup de grace.

The arrow thudded into the ground where the hornet had been. Somehow, its wing had healed, and it had risen back into the air. Not sparing a moment to ponder this turn of events, Rianna readied another arrow, aimed straight at the hornet’s head. The hornet was once more shot out of the air, but still it writhed on the ground as the arrow was expelled and its wound started to heal. Rianna drew her sidearm, a short sword, and rushed the hornet. She severed both of its wings and its head, and then crushed its head beneath her boots.

* * *

Rianna didn’t waste a moment in returning to Larin. “Sound the alarm!” she yelled as she approached the north gate. “Monsters to attack the village!” She rushed past the gate and to the guardhouse.

“Ria, what is it?” asked Marton, the captain of Larin’s militia.

“Monsters…” Rianna panted, “from the forest… animals being transformed.”

“Alright, man the northeast watchtower,” he replied. “I’ll rally the troops.”

Rianna reached the tower before the monsters came within view, so she had a few moments to catch her breath as she watched the troops assemble below. Larin’s militia consisted of twenty-seven fighters in addition to Marton. Twenty-two of these were melee fighters (one of whom was Torin), four were archers, and one was a wizard. All of them assembled for the coming battle. The other archers climbed to the other three northern towers, and the melee fighters amassed just outside the northern gate, while Marton and Ziro, the wizard, stayed just behind the gate.

The monsters came into view. Rianna estimated that there were at least fifty approaching. It was a significant number, but not as much as there could have been. Apparently, not every animal had been mutated. Marton signaled the archers to fire as soon as they had clear shots. Rianna readied an arrow and aimed it in the direction of the mass of beasts. As they approached, it became clear that the flying monsters—the overgrown insects and a few mutated birds—were pulling ahead.

Rianna held off until she could get a clear shot at the head of a giant bee. By the time her arrow had landed, she had already shot three more arrows at different insects. The other archers had started firing earlier, but their shots had scored only glancing blows, and the insects were quickly recovering. Damnit! Rianna realized. I forgot to warn Captain Marton about the healing I saw!

“Captain!” she shouted. “They’re recovering from our shots!”

“Keep firing!” he shouted back. “Knock ‘em out of the air! Ziro, roast ‘em!”

As Rianna and the other archers worked to shoot them down, Ziro manifested a wave of fire which he launched at the approaching bugs. Few survived the dual onslaught, but the second wave of monsters—primarily mutated rabbits, deer, and boars—was coming within range.

“First and second lines, engage the enemy!” Marton ordered. “Third line, clean up the bugs! Back line, hold your ground!”

The front twelve troops rushed out to meet the enemy head-on. These beasts proved to significantly tougher to kill than the insects; they could take more damage before dying and healed back whatever didn’t kill them. Only Ziro’s magic seemed to have any lasting effect. Rianna’s arrows seemed to deal no appreciable damage, and the troops had managed to kill only a handful of the monsters while their own injuries were mounting.

When one of the soldiers—a man named Jaro—fell to the assault, Marton ordered, “Fall back to the gate! Archers, Ziro, cover them!” Two more soldiers fell in the retreat, but Rianna managed to take out a mutated rabbit with an arrow to its eye. She paused to affirm that Torin was in good shape, but was shocked by a scream from the watchtower to her left.

The archer in that tower was struggling futilely against a hawk made of light. His short sword passed through it harmlessly, while the ravaged him with its talons. “Ziro, get the bird!” Rianna called out. Before he could act, the bird managed to knock the archer off his tower and dove straight through the chest of the archer in the easternmost tower.

As Ziro managed to blast the bird with shadow energy, Rianna turned her focus to the battle raging at the gate. It was going badly, fewer than a dozen were still standing and they were vastly outnumbered by the beasts. A roar in the distance alerted her that it was about to get even worse.

“Dragon approaching!” shouted the only other remaining archer as the dragon came into view. It had a body over a meter wide and three times as long, with a spiked tail matching its length. It was flying in at a fearsome speed, with a wingspan of over six meters. Its body was mostly white, with red highlights on its limbs and wings.

As the dragon approached, Rianna and her fellow archer loosed a salvo of arrows which bounced harmlessly off the dragon’s thick scales, accomplishing nothing other than catching its attention. It reached the wall, hovered, opened its mouth and shot out a spray of what appeared to be solid light. The blast was unfocused, but it knocked Rianna back into the rail and ignited her tower on fire.

Rianna scrambled back down the ladder, jumping off halfway. She ran to the gate in time to see the dragon touch down. Most of the beasts had scattered, themselves frightened off by the dragon’s assault. Of the soldiers, only Marton, Ziro, and Torin were still standing. Marton had drawn his claymore, and was facing off against the dragon alongside Torin, while Ziro was taking care of the few remaining beasts.

Marton swung his blade at the dragon, his blow powerful enough to penetrate the dragon’s hide. It was not enough, however, to stop the dragon from striking back, its claw swiping out and knocking Marton to the ground. Torin gritted his teeth and charged, his longsword set to drive into the dragon’s wound. The dragon turned its head at his approached, and nailed him with the full force of its breath attack.

“NO!” Rianna screamed. “Torin!” She ran to his side, but was knocked back by an explosion of light from his body.

The afterimage of the flash blurred her vision and she started to lose consciousness, but she could make out what appeared to be another dragon taking shape at the source of the explosion. Both dragons seemed to freeze, staring each other down, until the original was hit by a fierce blast of shadow energy.

Ziro! The dragon writhed in agony as Ziro hit it with blast after blast of magic. The second let a roar of fury and took wing. As her consciousness left her, Rianna turned to where Torin’s body had been. It had disappeared, most likely disintegrated from the blast that marked the arrival of the second dragon. He’s gone… she realized as she passed into oblivion.

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2004, 12:08:10 am »
The Wrath of Gaia – Chapter 2

Time: +3-7

“Lora!” Tana, the local cleric, exclaimed. “He’s coming around!”

Lora rushed in to see her husband, Marton, still lying in his bed, but finally awake. “Marton! Thank Gaia you’re alright!” Tana excused herself to leave the couple alone.

“Lora…” he croaked out. “It’s so good to see you…”

“Don’t worry,” she consoled him. “I’ve been here for you the whole time. Did you have nightmares? You were thrashing about a lot.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I was on trial for some crime—I don’t know what—and I was declared guilty and condemned to death. Gaia herself was the judge and executioner. It was all so real. I thought I was going to die.” He looked into her eyes, tears welling up in his. “I love you, Lora.”

“I love you, too,” she said, tears of relief finally breaking free as she embraced him.

“How long has it been?” Marton asked after minutes of a content embrace.

“Two days,” Lora replied. “Two terrible days…”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken on the dragon like that.”

“No, you had to. I’m just being selfish. If you hadn’t done so, we could all be dead,” she consoled him. “You’re a hero.”

“What happened after I was knocked out?”

“Well, as Ria tells the story, Torin charged the dragon, but was killed by its breath attack. Somehow, another dragon appeared—Ria said it looked the same as the appearance of the first dragon, in the forest, a fountain of light came out of the ground and the dragon rose out. For some reason, both dragons just stared at each other until Ziro came back and blasted the first one. The second dragon flew away, while Ziro hit the first one with spell after spell until it died.”

“So, Ria’s alive?” He and Lora had a special connection with Rianna. After her parents had died defending the town over eight years earlier, they had taken her in. They’d since come to think of her as their own daughter, and had even put off their own plans for a family until recently.

“Yeah, but she’s lost Torin. She was quite upset.”

“Poor girl… Is she here?”

“Well…” Lora hesitated. “That’s the second part of the story. Everyone else recovered yesterday, more or less—well, those who were still alive. Ziro led them off to hunt down the other dragon.”

“What!?” Marton exclaimed, trying to sit up. With a groan, he lay back down. “What was he thinking?”

“Well, he said they had to take it out before it came back to finish it off.”

“That impetuous fool! When did they leave? Where are they headed?”

“They left to the Boran Hills, where Ziro claimed the dragon was headed. It’s a good day-and-half walk, and they left at about this time yesterday,” Lora explained to him. “I’m afraid it’s too late for anyone to chase them down.”

“What about Balino?” Marton asked, referring to Rianna’s hunting falcon. “He might be able to make it in time.”

“That’s right!” Lora said. “I’ll fetch him immediately.”

* * *

Torin… Rianna vowed to herself. I will avenge you.

They had reached the Boran Hills, an expanse of granite and limestone cliffs covering an extensive cave system. Ziro had been following the magical signature that marked the path of the dragon, and it had led them to this cave. The inner cavern was a rough half-sphere with a diameter of about twenty meters. At the far side rested the dragon, who, for some reason, hadn’t made a move to attack, but was just staring at them. Rianna raised her bow and readied an arrow. She aimed for the dragon’s right eye, and let her arrow fly.

In a blur of motion, the dragon somehow managed to catch her arrow in midair. It held it up to its face, examined it, and let out a roar of what almost seemed to be despair. This roar snapped the hunting party out of their shock, and Ziro ordered them to charge.

The four swordsmen in their party rushed forward, while Rianna and Ziro held back. Rianna loosed a volley of arrows, while Ziro manifested a ball of shadow energy. The dragon leapt out of the path of her arrows, over the swordsmen, and to the center of the cavern.

The dragon spread its wings and spun, knocking back the swordsmen and deflecting Rianna’s arrows; the shots bouncing harmlessly off of its wings. It turned back to face Ziro as he shot a ball of shadow at it. A quick flap of its right wing reflected the ball back, forcing Ziro and Rianna to dive off to the sides as the ball collided with the ceiling above where they had been standing, causing a shower of rocks to rain down.

As Rianna struggled to stand back up, the sounds of screams and crashes alerted her that the dragon had dispatched the swordsmen one by one. She reached her feet, and saw Ziro already preparing another spell, aimed right at her. No, behind her. She spun around to see the dragon looming over her. I’m sorry, Torin, she lamented. But, it looks like I’ll be seeing you soon.

She tried to back up, but tripped and fell back to the ground. As she struggled back, the dragon opened its mouth, a ball of light appearing within. This is it…

It released the energy, shooting out rays out light. They missed her completely, instead hitting and incinerating Ziro. The dragon had ignored her in favor of the larger threat, but now turned its attention back to her.

Its eyes locked on hers, and she could see that intelligence lay within as a flash of understanding passed between them. Its eyes contained not the fury of an enraged beast, but a deep sadness. She saw the pain of a creature who had had to kill to save itself, and was only now realizing what it had done. It seemed to plead for understanding, and Rianna could have sworn a tear formed in its eye. With a dejected moan, it turned and flew out of the cave, leaving Rianna the sole survivor of the carnage.

The pent-up emotion finally overwhelming her, Rianna finally allowed herself to release a cry a despair. She mourned the deaths of her companions. She mourned for Torin. She even mourned for the dragon, who she now realized had never tried to harm anyone until it had been forced to defend itself.

A falcon’s cry prompted her to exit the cave. The form of Balino swooped down and perched on her shoulder. A note was tied to his leg, which she removed and read.

Rianna! Ziro! Do NOT engage the dragon! Return to Larin immediately. This is an order.
-Marton

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #4 on: November 30, 2004, 12:26:25 am »
[Here it is, Backer's debut in this fic.]

The Wrath of Gaia – Chapter 3

Time: 3-9

Despite Marton’s message, Rianna couldn’t bring herself to return to Larin quite yet—she needed time before she could face the village. As she wondered what she could do, she recalled her vision from three nights earlier. The man had mentioned an impending crisis, and that the Codex would be recording it. On an impulse, she drew the Codex from her pack, hoping it would contain some clue as to what she was supposed to do.

She opened to the middle of the book, but as she tried to read it, the text rewrote itself at a rapid pace, making it impossible to read. The future, she realized. I can’t know it without changing it.

She flipped back until she found a page with stable text, and started to read.

/Linguistic protocols restored.

Stabilization: 87.2/


As the man approached the gate, he noticed a handful of people entering and exiting freely. Good, that would mean he shouldn’t have any trouble getting in. A sign above the gate read, “Choras,” most likely the name of the city. A couple of guards were standing watch on each side of the gate, but they paid him no attention as he passed through. They were most likely watching for monsters rather than humanoids.

The gate led to a large street which appeared to cut through the center of the city. The time appeared to be early afternoon, and a fair amount of people were wandering about. Feeling fatigue from his travels, he found a nearby alley to rest in, out of sight.

/Hypercognitive abilities restored.

Stabilization: 92.4/


It wasn’t long before he was prevented with the drawback to being out of sight. A couple of shoddily clad men turned the corner and approached him, weapons drawn. One carried a dagger, the other, a short sword. “Well, well, looky here,” one of them said tauntingly. “An ‘alf-asleep man in an alleyway, with no weapons and some snazzy armor.”

This prompted the man to assess the state of his equipment, a matter he’d given little thought. He appeared to be wearing a brown cloak over a suit of light scale mail, which appeared to be made of actual white dragon scales. The scales seemed to give off a light of their own; it was no wonder the ruffians were attracted by them. Unfortunately, his armor didn’t seem to come with any weapons, so he’d have to make do.

“Looks like we hit da jackpot,” the other said. “You’s in trouble.”

/Combat highly probable.

Stabilization suspended.

Unarmed combat protocols initiated./


“I don’t want any trouble,” the man replied.

“We didn’t ask if ya wanted trouble,” the second ruffian said. “We told ya dere’s gonna be trouble.”

“I would advise strongly against that.”

“Wouldja, now?” the first said. “Well, dat’s too bad. You don’t ‘ave much choice in da matter.” He jumped at the man, thrusting his dagger towards his throat.

The man jumped up in a blur of motion and struck the ruffian’s wrist, forcing him to drop the dagger. He shoved the ruffian back past him and followed up with a stab at a pressure point on the ruffian’s neck, knocking him unconscious.

The second ruffian growled at him and said, “Ya monster! Ye’ll pay for dat!” He swung his sword for the man’s neck.

The man’s body reacted even faster than his mind, and, before either had realized it, he had caught the sword in his bare hand. Glancing at his hand, he noticed that it appeared to have reverted to the form of a dragon’s claw, its scales protecting it from the edge of the blade.

/New abilities detected.

Preparing protocols for draconic abilities.

Edited stabilization: 63.9/


His left hand, now in the form of a claw, tightened on the sword, breaking it in half. The ruffian, stunned, let go and backed up. “Who are… What are ya?”

“As for ‘who,’ call me Backer,” the man replied. “As for ‘what,’ I’m not sure myself. I’ll leave that part to your imagination.”

The ruffian’s eyes widened in fear as he spat out, “Demon!” He turned and ran, abandoning his partner.

/Stabilization resumed./

The man calling himself “Backer” turned to the prone form of the other ruffian and searched his body. He appropriated his dagger and sheathe and strapped it to his waist, recalling that a fair number of people he’d seen in the streets had carried visible weapons. He also found a small number of silver coins, which he pocketed on the assumption that they passed for currency in this area.

He left the alley, not wanting to have to explain the unconscious thief, and returned to the central street. Night was falling, so he decided to search for lodging. His search was interrupted, however, by the sound of a scream from the direction of the gate. He rushed to the gate to see a hoard of zombies closing on the village.

“…‘Looks like we hit da jackpot,’ the other said. ‘You’s in trouble.’

/Combat highly probable.

Stabilization suspended.

Unarmed combat protocols initiated./


Rianna slammed the Codex shut. She realized guiltily that it had allowed her to peer into the thoughts of this man, odd as they seemed. The Codex had seen fit to record these events, so she figured the man must be of some importance, possibly even the “hero” of which her vision had spoken. She resolved to go to Choras city and seek him out. I just hope he’ll forgive my intrusion, she thought.

A cry from Balino reminded her of her obligations to Larin. Devising a means of justifying her actions, past and impending, she drew her quill and wrote a reply on the opposite side of Marton’s note. She sent Balino back towards Larin, and prayed once more for forgiveness.

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2004, 06:52:24 pm »
The Wrath of Gaia – Chapter 4[/size]

Time: +3-13

“To arms! To arms!” one of the guards was yelling, while another guard in a nearby tower was ringing an alarm bell. Most of the people still in the streets were running for shelter, and the rest were running towards a building near the gate.

On an impulse, Backer joined the crowd heading into the nearby building. As he had expected, a guard inside was directing people to weapons and armor stored within. As he passed, the guard stopped him and said, “You! You weren’t here yesterday, were you? I’d remember armor like that.”

“I arrived today,” Backer replied. “I’m here to help, but I don’t have any weapons with me suitable for fighting zombies.”

The guard eyed him suspiciously and said, “You don’t see many adventurers with armor like that but in need of a weapon. Whatever, we need the help. Weapons are to the left, I’d recommend a sword or a mace for zombies.”

Backer hurried on, grabbed a longsword, and headed out the back exit. In the moments before the attack, he analyzed the condition of his sword. It was a typical steel longsword, well-maintained, but nothing special. He felt used to working with swords of significantly higher quality, even though he couldn’t remember doing so.

/Psychosomatic abilities restored.
Stabilization: 69.2%
Stabilization suspended.
Armed (sword) combat protocols initiated./


Backer scanned the area. The zombies seemed to be approaching from his left—east—in a vast horde. There were over 500 that he could see, and likely more outside his range of vision. He counted a total of 76 soldiers entering formation at the gate before the general gave the order to attack.

/Analysis:

Disadvantages:
-Outnumbered ~7:1

Advantages:
-Higher dexterity and agility than enemy forces
-Need only to hold ground; enemy must advance
-Self/


Hoping his built-in confidence wasn’t unfounded, Backer rushed the mass of zombies. A series of lateral cuts shredded all zombies in his path, totaling 15 kills by the time he reached the clearing on the opposite side of the mass.

From his new vantage point, he reexamined the battle conditions. The troops at the gate were barely holding their own, with every soldier fallen rising to join the enemy. The mass of zombies seemed to be spreading out from a point to the east and attack both the south and east gates. On the horizon stood towered one zombie easily five times the size of any other, lumbering inexorably towards the east gate.

Backer took a steadying breath and ran once more into the mass of zombies, slashing his way through towards the east gate. It seemed that his confidence was indeed well-founded; he shredded zombie after zombie with none managing to strike him even once.

* * *

Choras City was only a few hours’ hike north of the Boran Hills, but it was enough to push the day into night by the time Rianna arrived. This resulted in her approaching the city to see the zombies preparing to attack.

I have to help, Rianna decided. I have to do something to atone. Besides, it’s the right thing to do. But, my bow would be no good against zombies… For an instant, the moonlight reflected off of the roof of the Chapel Angelus, a church in the eastern quarter of Choras City, providing Rianna with the inspiration she needed. Her mace! Of course!

The southern and eastern gates were out of the question, Rianna knew she would never be able to make it past the zombies. The western gate was her best chance. She ran towards it at a full sprint, her lithe frame and powerful leg muscles propelling her at a speed that few could hope to match.

* * *

Backer reached the east gate to scene of disaster. The troops who were supposed to be guarding it had been completely wiped out, and zombies were storming the city. His mind analyzed the possibilities and settled on only one viable solution to save the endangered populace: He had to attract the attention of the zombies.

But, how? Zombies were notoriously dimwitted, possessing just enough intelligence to obey whatever orders they were given. They had virtually no skill in combat, relying on brute force and numbers. Numbers—that was it. Present them with a large enough threat and they’d swarm towards him.

How to be a threat? Start killing zombies, and attract the attention of others. Backer ran to the center of the street and started bisecting every zombie within range. For good measure, he let out a war cry as he did so. Zombies wouldn’t understand any language, so taunting them would have been pointless. A battle cry, on the other hand, should let them know of a competitor.

Sure enough, more and more zombies started abandoning their pursuits and coming after him. He was able to hold them off for quite a while, but the laws of probability eventually won out, with one zombie landing a punch to his shoulder from behind. Backer absorbed the impact and whirled around, noticing offhand a brief flash of light. As he was about to strike down the zombie that had hit him, however, he noticed that its arm appeared to have crumbled dust.

On instinct, he rammed the chest of another nearby zombie with his armored shoulder. As he had suspected, a flash of light emanated from the point of impact and the zombie crumbled to dust.

/Analysis:

Armor is enchanted.
Most likely form of enchantment: imbuement of light energy
Given appearance of armor and type of energy, enchantment likely tied to draconic abilities./


Clearing out the nearby zombies, Backer glanced back towards the gate to see that the giant zombie was getting close. He likely wouldn’t be able to take it out with swordplay alone, so his only chance, albeit significantly more dangerous, was to try to harness the power of the dragon resting within him.

* * *

Rianna reached the eastern quarter of Choras only to witness the last of the guards at the gate fall. As she watched in horror, he rose again and joined the zombie hoard in assaulting the populace. She shook off the sight and rushed boldly forward, dodging zombies until she reached the Chapel Angelus.

The heavy bronze doors swung outward, glorious light spilling out. A combination of design factors and enchantments ensured that the interior of the Chapel Angelus was always illuminated as if by sunlight. Despite the urgency, Rianna couldn’t help but be awed by the sight.

Along both side walls hung varied paintings of Maria Angelus, the woman in whose honor the chapel had been built. She was shown in simple portraits, feeding the poor, receiving a blessing from Gaia, advising the government, and eradicating demons with her blessed mace. This mace was displayed in this chapel, on a pedestal at the back beneath a golden statue of Maria. It was stored in a glass case to discourage people from doing what Rianna was about to attempt.

The glass case wasn’t locked; it was a mere deterrent. The true security measure was the mace itself. It had been blessed by Gaia to be an instrument of pure good, to be usable only by Maria Angelus, the epitome of good. If anyone else tried to even pick it up, any personal failings they had would overwhelm them, holding them back.

Rianna hoped she would be different. She unlatched and removed the case, took a deep breath, and reached out towards the mace.

“Rianna!” A vision of Marton appeared to Rianna.

“Captain Marton!”

“Why have you disobeyed me? I told you to return to Larin.”

“I don’t know…” Rianna hesitated. “I couldn’t face you. But, it turns out I’m needed here now. I’ll try to justify my actions later; I can’t spare any time now…”


Rianna snapped out of the vision, and her hand made a few centimeters of progress towards the mace, now glowing faintly.

“Ria!” It was Torin.

“No, Torin, please… I can’t face this now…”

“Don’t try to run from your demons! You never loved me did you?”

“I don’t know… I guess not.”

“You led me on! Then, you couldn’t even avenge me properly!”

“I didn’t know any better! I didn’t know—and still don’t—know what love is! I’m sorry… And, no, I didn’t avenge you. I shouldn’t have even tried, that dragon wasn’t at fault; it was the other one that killed you, and Ziro killed it. Please, forgive me! Let me take the mace so I can prevent more deaths! Let me atone!”


Once more, Rianna returned to reality. She was just a few centimeters from the mace, and it was now glowing brightly.

“Ria!” It was the person she feared confronting most, and as such knew she would have to face. The visage of Maria Angelus appeared before her.

“Maria Angelus!” Rianna said with a gasp.

“Don’t call me that!” For a brief moment, Maria’s beautiful face showed a hint of anger as she snapped at Rianna. “Why do you deny me?”

“You’re too perfect,” Rianna said. “There’s no way I can match you!”

“You don’t have to match me. Just do the best you can, and I’ll be proud.”

“I’m trying to do that, but you have to let me use your mace if I’m to do so. It’s the only way I can face the zombies.”

“Alright, Ria. There’s just one thing you have to do?”

“What?”

“Admit it to me, and to yourself. Acknowledge our bond. You don’t have to accept it yet, just admit it.”

“Alright… Mother.”

Her mother’s face split in a wide smile, tears forming in her eyes. “Thank you, my beloved daughter. Take my mace. You won’t be able to use its full power, yet, but I’ll see you again later, and we can work on it.”

“Wait! Mother! You mean you’re not just an illusion?”

“No, it’s really me. I’ve been using the power of my mace to speak with you, but my energy is spent. Please, come to me soon…”

“But, where are you?” Rianna asked in desperation, but her mother’s form was fading.


Rianna grabbed the mace as its glow intensified into a flash and vanished. As she gripped it, she could feel her mother’s presence and knew she wasn’t far. She turned around to face the door of the chapel. In the time it had taken her to confront her visions, zombies had poured in. Now, over a dozen were present and closing on her.

Rianna charged at a nearby zombie and swung the mace at its chest. As it connected, it emitted a flash of light. The light ate away at the zombie as it crumbled to dust in a matter of seconds. Her mother had been right, it was at nowhere near its full power. Maria had been known to take down archdemons with it, a zombie should have disintegrated in an instant. Nevertheless, it was enough for her current purpose, and Rianna proceeded to exorcize the rest of the zombies who had invaded the chapel.

It was at this point that another figure leapt through the door. He wore a hooded cloak which prevented Rianna from seeing his face, but she caught glimpses of glowing, white armor beneath it. The figure eyed the dust piles that remained of the zombies Rianna had vanquished and said, “Cover me.”

“What?” Rianna exclaimed. “What are you doing?”

“There’s a big one coming. If we’re to have any chance against it, I’ll need to concentrate,” the figure replied, now looking at Rianna. “If you could take out those zombies, you should be more than capable.” Without waiting for a reply, he ran to the back of the chapel, took a deep breath, and spread his arms, alternately clenching and flexing his fists.

More zombies came in after him, and Rianna had no choice but to fight them off. She didn’t know if she could trust this man, but she decided to take a chance. If he needed protection from the zombies, he couldn’t be working with them. When the initial wave of zombies cleared, she turned back to check on the man.

A white aura had surrounded his body, and his cloak was flapping wildly from a wind that appeared to have been generated around his body. After a few more seconds, she started to see flashes of something else superimposed over his body. It took her a few minutes and more zombie bashing before she could piece together the whole picture: a white dragon.

“You’re… Was it… you?” She gasped with a touch of fear.

“Yes,” he replied simply, but he showed no malice towards her.

Rianna turned back to the door. The streets were now full with zombies, and she was getting fatigued. Then, she saw what the man—dragon—whatever—had warned her about. A gigantic zombie, over fifteen meters tall was lumbering down the street. She backed away from the doors and said, looking back over her shoulder, “If you’re going to do something, now would be a good time.”

Apparently, he agreed. With flash of light and a sound of a thunder crash, his form stabilized. He was mostly human, but his hands were replaced by the claws of a dragon, and broad wings had grown out of his back. She thought she saw a grin spread across his face as he said, “Let’s see action.”

He flapped his wings, took to the air, and flew out past her into the street. Rianna watched in amazement as he battled the zombies. His fighting style was precise and measured. Each blow with his fists—claws—had a similar effect to that of her mace in addition to his superior strength behind it. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought the fight had been choreographed.

Within minutes, the dragon-man had cleared the street of all zombies save the giant. He faced off against it, but even the blows from his fists failed to slow it down. Snapping out of her awe, Rianna ran out to assist.

The zombie threw a heavy punch at the dragon-man which he swiftly dodged. As the punch followed through, it drove into the street, temporarily stunning the zombie. Rianna took this chance to rush at its leg, driving her mace into it. The zombie stumbled as its foot crumbled beneath it. As Rianna jumped out of the way, she witnessed the dragon-man (she still hadn’t decided how to describe him) dive into the zombie’s back, driving both of his claws into it. The zombie let out a hideous gurgle as a hole formed in its torso, then crashed to the ground and stopped moving.

The dragon-man descended to the street, returning to humanoid form. He said a weak, “Thanks,” and collapsed to the ground. Rianna rushed to him and felt for a pulse. It was present and strong. She figured he’d just collapsed from exhaustion.

At this point, Rianna noticed that his hood had come off, and she got her first good look at his face. It was more worn with age, and his clothes were different, but there was no doubt. It was Torin.

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #6 on: December 06, 2004, 11:44:19 pm »
The Wrath of Gaia – Chapter 5

Time: +4-2

Rianna woke to a soft, feminine voice saying, “How are you doing, my child?”

Rianna opened her eyes to see a regal, white-haired woman kneeling over her makeshift bed. “I’m alright; the zombies didn’t manage to hurt me.” As her mind cleared, she remembered that she was in the basement of the Chapel Angelus, having taken shelter there after the zombie attack. She sat up and said, “Oh, uh, I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t be here…”

“Don’t worry, my child,” the woman assured her. “I’m always glad to provide shelter for those in need. And don’t worry about the mace either, it seems your mother meant for you to have it.”

Rianna blushed slightly, “Thanks, I guess.” She then realized the implication of the woman saying “your mother,” and said, “Wait, you know who I am?”

“Yes, Rianna,” the woman replied. “I’m Steena Adeptus, the attendant of this chapel, but you can just call me Steena—I don’t care much for formality. I knew your mother, and even met you once when you were but a baby. You take after her a lot, you know. Your soul is the most beautiful I’ve felt since your mother’s…”

“What do you mean?” Rianna cut in. “You say you can feel my soul?”

“It’s a talent of mine,” Steena replied. “I can sense the soul of anyone I come in contact with, and get insight into them. I’m sorry if it seems I’ve intruded, but, well…” She gave Rianna a heartfelt smile. “Your soul is so powerful that I could feel you from a distance, and I couldn’t help myself.”

“That’s alright,” Rianna replied. “So, if you’re the attendant, here, where were you last night?”

“During the attack last night, I left to the hospital to help with the injured. I returned this morning to find you and your companion resting here. The villagers tell me of your heroism; it would seem we’re all in your debt.”

“My companion…?” Rianna said. She then noticed the prone form of Torin resting on another makeshift bed beside her. That’s right! I carried him down here after he collapsed last night. I can’t believe I forgot about him. “That’s Torin, my fiancée… or at least, I think he is…”

Steena sat cross-legged beside Rianna and asked with a smile, “You’re not sure if he’s your fiancée? Shouldn’t you know that?”

“Well, he looks exactly like my fiancée, Torin,” Rianna started to explain, almost frantically, “but Torin died three days ago—or, at least, I think he did—and this man didn’t act like Torin and turned into a dragon…”

“Relax, my child,” Steena consoled her. “Why don’t you just tell me your story from the beginning, and we can try to answer this question from there.

Rianna took a deep breath, and told Steena what had happened starting with the attack on Larin and leading up to the zombie attack. She then resumed her frantic analysis, “Now, if he is Torin, why did he turn into a dragon and fly away? And then, why did he kill the rest of my companions? But, if he isn’t Torin, why does he look so much like him? But if he is, why wouldn’t he say anything to me…?”

Overstressed, Rianna broke down in tears. Steena caught and consoled her, “It’s alright, we’ll figure it out. We just have to ask him a few questions when he wakes up, right?”

“Yeah,” Rianna sobbed. “I guess. But, where to start? There’s so much I want to ask him…”

“Why don’t you leave that to me?” Steena suggested. “He might be just as confused as you are, and you’re definitely in no shape to talk to him calmly.”

“But, I have to know…” Rianna started to say as she looked up.

“Of course,” Steena said, cutting her off. “I’ll let you know as soon as we’ve pieced everything together. For now, how about you head to a bar and get something to drink to help you relax? There’s a good one just down the street.”

“Fine,” Rianna said, submitting to Steena’s wisdom. Something about the older woman made Rianna want to trust her. Perhaps Torin—or whoever he was—would feel the same way. As she thought about Steena’s suggestion, it started to strike her as a bit odd. “Are priestesses supposed to condone the consumption of alcohol?”

Steena chuckled at this. “Well, I’m not exactly a typical priestess, and I, for one, see no problem with a little drinking now and again. Besides, you really sound like you need it.”

“Well, if you say so…” Rianna said with a smirk. “Thanks, Steena. Let me know as soon as you’ve talked with him, okay?”

“I will,” Steena replied. “Don’t worry.”

* * *

Steena looked over Rianna’s companion as she waited. He was sturdily built, with dusty blonde hair and youthful, handsome features. It wasn’t long before he woke up. He did it in an abnormally abrupt manner; one moment, he was sound asleep, the next, his eyes had shot open and he was scanning the room.

“Sleep well?” Steena asked him once she caught his eyes.

The man looked over her, and, apparently deciding she meant him no harm, replied as he sat up, “I suppose so. I don’t have much against which to compare it, though.”

“So, you have amnesia, then?” Steena queried. It could explain some of Rianna’s observations.

“It would seem so,” the man replied. “Might I ask who you are, and where I am?”

“This is the Chapel Angelus,” Steena replied. “I’m its attendant, Steena Adeptus. Do you remember your name?”

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s Backer.”

Not “Torin,” Steena noted. Could the “Torin” Rianna knew have been a pseudonym? Maybe, or maybe this is truly someone else. “Well, how about you tell me what you do remember. Maybe I can help you.”

Backer stared into her eyes for a moment and gave a slight nod, deciding to trust her at least this far. “My earlier memories are pretty hazy; I don’t believe I was in a completely stable mental state. I can’t be sure of much. The first thing that I remember feels almost as if it were a dream—maybe it was.

“I was in a place that can’t be described physically, facing a phenomenon known as a ‘Dimensional Maelstrom.’ These were characterized by connecting to multiple dimensions, and it was theorized that someone who fell into one would be cast off into a random dimension. No one could confirm this as dimensional travel is otherwise next to impossible, however. Oh, and don’t bother asking me how I know this—I can’t trace the origin of any of my knowledge, and I’m not even sure if this is accurate.

“At the time, I was despondent. As long as I’d lived—I can’t say how long—I’d never been accepted by others. I never had any real friends, just people who found it beneficial to have me around. I did some great deed—again, I don’t know what—and I couldn’t even feel a sense of satisfaction. Facing this dimensional maelstrom, I decided to take a chance with it. I threw myself into it. I’d either get a fresh start somewhere else, or I’d die. I was prepared to accept either outcome.

“Assuming that actually happened, it would look like I got the former. Some start, though. My mind was scattered, I lost my memories, my sanity, and even my body—somehow, I got stuck in someone else’s. I don’t know whose it was, what happened to him, or what connection this has to my ability to turn into a dragon—I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that before.”

Steena took a deep breath and told him, “In my time as a priestess, I’ve counseled a lot of people who were suicidal. Sometimes, I tell them to face their problems, helping them when it’s appropriate. Other times—usually with social problems—I advise them to move away and make a fresh start. In either case, living on is what takes the most courage. I have to convince them they have something to live for. It would seem you were able to decide this for yourself, which is why you took a chance on life rather than simply giving up.”

She put her hand on his knee. For some reason, she couldn’t sense his soul at all. It was like touching an inanimate object. She decided to put off that mystery for later—there were more pressing questions.  “Can you tell me—do you remember—why you decided to live on?”

“What I did—whatever it was—helped a lot of people. Even if I couldn’t feel satisfied with it, I couldn’t let myself die knowing I could go on to help others. That’s why I fought the zombies: I couldn’t abandon people in danger, particularly when it’s what I came here to do.”

“That’s a noble goal,” Steena assured him. “But, you still don’t seem happy. You should be proud of what you’ve done; you helped a lot of people. There’s something else bothering you, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” Backer admitted.

“Does it have anything to do with how you mentioned that you lost your sanity when you came here?”

“Mostly, I guess.”

“Please, go on,” Steena pressed him. “Don’t worry, I won’t judge you. If you weren’t in a stable state of mind, I can’t blame you for whatever you did.”

“Alright,” he said. “I can’t tell you very well what thoughts were going through my head, but I can tell you what happened. When I first awoke here, I was in the form of a dragon—I probably thought I was a dragon. There was a battle going on around me. In front of me was another dragon, staring at me in surprise. Then, it was hit with a blast of magic and started writhing in pain.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I took wing and flew away. I was trying to avoid the carnage, I think, until I got a better grip on what was going on. I flew to a cave in a nearby hilly area. I rested as my mind healed itself.

“But, then, they came. A group of survivors from the battle at the village: four swordsmen, a wizard, and her. As soon as they saw me, she shot me—well, tried to, at least. Here I was, new to this world, having done nothing, and she was trying to kill me. I snapped; I lost control. The beast inside me took over. I ended up killing the rest of her companions as they attacked me—maybe you could call it self-defense, I don’t know. She was prone on the ground, and I was standing over her. Seeing the fear in her eyes made me stop. I started to regain coherence, and I started to regret what I’d done.

“Once more, I ran. I ended up here, in Choras, finally having figured out how to assume a human form. When the zombies attacked, I had to help. In defending the city, I ran into her again. I was sane again by this time, so I put the past aside and worked with her to fight off the zombies. I exhausted myself in doing so, passed out, and here I am.”

“Thank you for telling me this,” Steena said. “Don’t worry about what you did. I can understand why you acted the way you did. There’s just one thing I have to ask you…”

“What is it?”

“Whenever you mention this girl,” Steena elaborated, “there’s a certain tone to your voice. As if you knew her, or she means something to you.”

Backer sat and thought for a moment before replying. “You’re right. There is something there. An echo of a memory; she reminds me of someone I knew in the past, but I can’t say more than that. And besides that, I can feel remnants of someone else’s mind within me—most likely the former owner of this body. I think he loved her, and the impression was so strong it stayed with him and on to me.”

“So, does this mean you love her, too?”

“I can’t,” he replied. “I don’t know her well enough. But, the feeling’s there, and I’m not ruling out any possibility.”

“Thank you for telling me this,” Steena said. “I guess I should probably tell you a few things, too. First of, that girl. Her name’s Rianna. She brought you down here after you collapsed last night. She woke up earlier than you, and it would seem she’s quite stressed about this situation.”

“I can see how she would be. Where did she go?”

“I advised her to go get a drink to help her relax,” Steena explained. “I didn’t want her to do anything rash, and I wanted to be able to converse with you calmly—which fortunately seems to worked.”

“True, but are you sure it’s alright to leave her in confusion for so long?” Backer asked.

“Well, if she were questioning you, it would probably have ended up taking even longer for her to get the whole story—assuming you even decided to tell her.” Steena stood up and motioned for Backer to do so as well. “Come with me, there’s something I want to show you.”

Backer followed her to the main hall of the Chapel, where she motioned for him to look at the paintings lining the walls. They depicted the visage of Maria Angelus in a variety of scenes. Maria was a beautiful, mature woman. She had short, black hair which framed a statuesque face, with brown eyes that seemed to express a love for all. Steena had never met a more beautiful woman—with the possible exception of Rianna—and she felt sure that Backer had never either.

“She resembles Rianna,” he noted. “Except, Rianna is younger and wears her hair longer.”

“That’s Maria Angelus. Rianna is her daughter,” Steena explained. “She was the most benevolent person to ever grace this world. Her goodwill was contagious, and everywhere she went, she improved. Ten years ago, she was granted the surtitle ‘Angelus,’ as she was believed to be an angel sent by Gaia herself to improve the world.”

“What do you mean by ‘surtitle’?” Backer asked.

“Oh, sorry,” Steena said. “It’s unique to the Choras culture: a title the follows the name. It’s generally only used for positions of some honor. For example, as a priestess, I was granted the surtitle ‘Adeptus.’”

“Ah,” Backer said. “Carry on.”

“She worked to bring peace to the world, but there were those who had spent their lives in the name of war, and couldn’t imagine another way. Eight years ago, a legion of troops from Porre attacked her home village of Larin—this is the same town that you awoke in. They gave an ultimatum: Maria would surrender herself to them, or they would raze the village and Porre would declare total war on Choras. Maria, of course, surrendered to them. She hoped that she would be able to persuade them to abandon the pursuit of war.

“She was bound and led into an enclosed carriage. As soon as she was out of sight, the legion’s captain killed her husband out of spite, then led them away. A few days later, our government announced that Porre had killed her.” Steena bowed her head, weeping softly. “A few years later, I received approval from the government to convert this chapel into her honor. I was her protégée for a time, and this seemed the only appropriate course of action.”

“I see,” Backer said solemnly. “What about Rianna? How does she feel about her mother?”

“I don’t know this firsthand; I’m going mostly off of what I’ve heard from her adopted parents. For a while, she felt inadequate. She felt hopeless in living up to her mother’s legacy. For a while, she denied their bond. Last night, however, she showed promise. She took her mother’s mace, and used it to fight off the zombies. Her mother’s mace was far from ordinary; it possessed a powerful enchantment. Only those of pure hearts could so much as lift it. Rianna would never have been able to do so if she hadn’t accepted Maria as her mother.”

“Thank you,” Backer said. “But, don’t you think we should be getting back to her, by now? It wouldn’t be right to keep her in the dark much longer.”

“I guess you’re right,” Steena replied. “I’ll go ahead and explain your story to her, then you can follow in a few minutes. She’ll definitely want to talk with you herself. Come.” She motioned him towards the door. “She’s in the bar down just down the street. You wait outside, and I’ll get you when I’m ready.”

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The Wrath of Gaia
« Reply #7 on: January 21, 2005, 09:57:22 pm »
Note: I just moved this here from the Submissions forum; hope no one minds. Sorry it's been a while since I updated here. Expect a bunch of updates in the next few days.

Chapter 6 – Sinners and Saints

Time: +4-3

Chaine Admiros scrutinized the men he had called for the emergency war council. To his immediate right was Goran Menos, the captain of Choras City’s militia. Goran was an imposing figure, over two meters tall and weighing over 120 kilograms, necessary for keeping noncommissioned soldiers in line. To Chaine’s left was Niran Menos, the commander of Choras’ standing army and head of intelligence. Unlike Goran, Niran cut a short, unthreatening figure, relying instead on his shrewd tactical skills to inspire trust in Choras’ legions of commissioned soldiers.

The table at which they were sitting had two more chairs opposite Chaine. One of which was never filled; it was reserved for the ambassador from the Mystic League, Slash VII, a man who insisted on always standing, ready for battle at a moment’s notice. Slash looked like an old, but fit, human soldier decked out in light, silver armor, but, as a mystic, his appearance told nothing of his actual age or abilities. He was, in actuality, less than twenty years old, and already the best swordsman in the Mystic League—not a major accomplishment given the mystics’ preference for magic over martial arts.

The other chair was never filled at the time a meeting was scheduled to start. Its occupant, Dakris Encephos, was the head of Choras’ Department of Magical and Scientific Research. He made a point of never stopping in the middle of an experiment, and this, combined with his claims to always be doing one experiment or another, gave him his tendency to be irritatingly late to any official meeting. His exploits in new technology kept him just on the good side of Chaine, so this fault was often overlooked.

As soon as Dakris walked through the door, Chaine went ahead with the agenda. “Alright, men. The situation is getting dire; this is the second consecutive night we’ve been assaulted by zombies. Goran, status of your troops?”

“None,” Goran growled.

“What do you mean, ‘None’?” Chaine snapped.

“There are no troops!” Goran shot back. “They all died defending the city last night.”

“If all the troops are dead, how the hell did we win?” Chaine demanded.

“I took out the last zombie at the south gate personally,” Goran said. “I have no idea how the east gate was held.”

“I can field that one, sir,” Niran cut in. “Witnesses report something of a… uh… ‘miracle,’ sir. Apparently, Maria Angelus returned and did battle with a demon by the east gate. In the wake of the battle, the zombies were wiped out.”

“What!?” Dakris interjected. “That’s impossible! There’s no way Maria Angelus could return!”

“That’s why they’re calling it a ‘miracle,’” Niran said in a patronizing tone. “They’re saying she descended from heaven to save us in our time of need—as the story goes at least, I have doubts myself.”

“No, no!” Dakris volleyed. “You’re missing the point. She can’t return from heaven be-”

“Dakris!” Chaine snapped, cutting him off with a furious glare. “Niran, what happened to the demon?”

“No one stayed around long enough to find out, sir,” Niran said. “I have received reports, however, that a recently captured mugger claims to have seen a demon matching these reports a few hours before the attack. He said that the demon had taken human form and provided us with a description of it.”

“Alright then,” Chaine said. “Alert your men to the possibility of a demon loose in the city and give them the description.”

“Already done, sir,” Niran replied.

“Good,” Chaine said. “But, this still leaves us with the problem of the zombies. We have no reason to believe they won’t be coming back tonight.” He turned to Slash. “Slash, can we expect any help from the Mystic League?”

“The Mystic League has our own problems,” Slash replied haughtily. “We’re facing natural disasters and a wave of disappearances. We’d be asking you for help if you weren’t even worse off.”

Chaine sighed. “It would seem we have no choice but use the Soul Cannon. Niran, have you determined the zombies’ point of origin?”

“Yes,” Niran answered. Chaine noted Niran’s disapproving gaze. Niran had made no effort to hide his disdain for the Soul Cannon. “As suspected, it’s the Northern Ruins.”

“Good. Dakris, what’s the status on the Soul Cannon?”

“It’s only at 25% power,” Dakris replied. “Which, I must point out, is significantly better than we expected. After our shot at Truce Base last week, we’d expected it would take another year to charge it up fully, but we’ve been rather fortunate.”

“Fortunate!?” Niran challenged. “That’s thirteen extractions in one week!”

“So?” Dakris retorted. “They were all judged unredeemable.”

“Aren’t you getting suspicious, though, that every criminal that came in during the last week was unredeemable?”

“That just means your troops are doing the job right! You should be proud!”

“Enough!” Chaine cut in. “Dakris, what will it take to charge it by tonight?”

“We could empty the prisons,” Dakris said with a shrug.

“But, they’ve all either been judged redeemable or are in for petty crimes,” Niran pointed out.

“So?” Dakris said. “We judge ‘em again. People have been known to change. Besides, if our track record keeps up, we’ll have no problem.”

“No,” Chaine said before the shocked Niran could reply. “Our policy is clear: We judge them once, and go by that result unless they commit a second offense after release. What else can we do?”

“If Niran’s troops can manage to capture it,” Dakris said, “the demon could provide us with a tremendous amount of soul energy.”

“And what if it isn’t around anymore?” said Chaine.

The room was quiet until Slash cleared his throat, “If you’ll allow me…”

“Yes, go ahead,”

“The Mystic League has long used an alternative source of soul energy. It’s not quite as potent as human, but it’s much more abundant. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t try this first.”

* * *

Rianna took a deep breath, steeling herself. She’d calmed down since her first talk with Steena, but the situation was still wearing on her. Even if, as Steena had just explained to her, this man wasn’t really Torin, he still looked exactly like him, and Rianna was still unsettled by the reminder.

As soon as she caught a glimpse of him through the doorway, she lost her nerve. She turned back to the bartender—a voluptuous woman who made every effort to advertise the fact in hopes of drawing in male customers—and ordered another beer. You’re just making excuses not to look at him, Rianna admonished herself. You’ll have to eventually.

She heard someone sitting down beside her as she took her beer. Neither said anything as she took a gulp. This is getting ridiculous! At least say something to him. She strained to come up with a joke to cover her discomfort, but all she managed was a weak “Hi.”

As she turned even further away to hide her blush, she heard the man—Steena had called him “Backer”—say to her, “Hello, Rianna. Is there any way I can make this easier for you?”

Rianna dropped her head to the bar and said with a sigh, “No, I have to face this myself. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to look at you, even if you do look like my dead fiancé. I’m just being childish. I want to get over this stupid hang-up.”

“Well, if you want to get over it, just do it. You won’t end up regretting it. Stop obsessing over it.” His voice was like Torin’s, but the inflections were different. His enunciation was more precise, and his voice had a soothing quality that Torin’s had lacked.

Before she could convince herself otherwise, Rianna twirled around to confront the man’s visage. The structure of his face was identical to Torin’s, but his expression was entirely different from any she had ever seen Torin wear. His eyes lacked the twinkle that had characterized Torin and appeared deeper, with wisdom and gentle understanding for her plight. Torin had always worn a boyish or impish grin, while this man—Backer. His name’s Backer. He’s not Torin—wore a solemn expression, as if silently mourning for something.

He gave a slight smile as she turned to him—Torin would have grinned wildly—and said, “Good. That feels better, now, doesn’t it?”

 “Yeah,” Rianna said with relief. “Thank you. I just had to face it. You’ve got Torin’s body, but you’re not him; I can tell.” He gave a small nod at this. “I know Steena told us about each other, but I still feel we should introduce ourselves.” She held out her hand to him. “My name’s Rianna.”

He took her hand and said, “You can call me Backer. I don’t know if that’s my real name, but it somehow seems like the right thing to call myself.” He took a deep breath and said, “I should apologize for what happened in the cave. I wasn’t in a sane state of mind; I acted like a cornered beast.”

“No,” Rianna replied. “I can’t blame you for that. You were just defending yourself. Perhaps a bit too viciously, but we should have expected that from a dragon. Well, even though you weren’t… er, aren’t really a dragon, but we didn’t know that. I guess I should apologize to you in turn. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Let’s just put that behind us, alright?”

“That sounds good,” Rianna said. “Here, have a beer, on me. To show there are no hard feelings.”

She snapped her fingers to get the attention of the bartender, who promptly delivered a beer to Backer.

“Besides, you didn’t kill me.” She paused for a moment. “What stopped you, if I may ask?”

His eyes caught hers for a moment, and he quickly looked away.

“What?” Rianna said, chuckling. “Now you can’t look at me?”

“It’s not that,” Backer replied. “It’s just… well, first, could you tell me what happened to Torin? Before I came, I mean.”

“The other dragon hit him with its breath attack. It probably should have killed him, if it weren’t for… whatever happened with you.”

“Alright, then. Rianna, I have to tell you this. Try not to take it the wrong way. Torin’s not completely gone. When I inherited his body, one aspect of him stayed: His love for you.”

Rianna’s eyes widened at this. “You mean…?”

“Yes, I have those feelings, too. When I flinched there, it was because… I just realized how beautiful you are.”

“Thank you,” Rianna said, blushing, but holding his gaze. “But…”

“I know,” he said, cutting her off. “It’s not exactly appropriate. I hardly know you, and vice-versa. I’ll just put those feelings aside for now.”

Rianna turned back towards the bar at this, trying to decipher the situation and her own feelings towards it. “I… I…”

“I’m sorry,” Backer said. “I understand how this can be confusing for you.”

“It’s alright,” she replied. “I’m still recovering from losing Torin, and… well, I’m not even sure if I ever loved him. I need time to sort out my feelings.”

“And I just made it even more confusing for you,” Backer said with a touch of irony. “I’m sorry. I guess we should both take some time to decide how we feel.”

“You’re right,” Rianna replied, turning back to him. She noticed that he’d barely touched his beer, probably no more than a sip or two. “So, what should we do, now?”

“‘We’?” Backer said. “You mean you want to continue a relationship with me?”

“Well, not a romantic relationship,” Rianna said. “At least, not yet. I mean, there are always possibilities. Not that I’m committing to anything.” She cut herself off, took a breath, and continued. “But, there’s something going wrong in the world, and something tells me that you’re here to help, and I’m not going to let you save the world yourself.”

He gave her a questioning look at this, then suddenly winced in pain. “What did you say this drink was?”

“It’s just beer,” Rianna told him. “You’ve never had any before?”

“Not that I can remember,” he said. “What’s in it?”

“Well, alcohol,” Rianna said. Backer had started swaying as if drunk. “It acts as a depressant, but only in high doses. It should have no effect from a few sips.”

The doors to the bar slammed open as a pair of soldiers rushed in with a civilian in tow. The civilian pointed to Backer and said, “That’s him! That’s the demon!” The soldiers started making their way over to where Rianna and Backer were sitting.

“What!? No!” Rianna shouted. By this point, Backer had slumped forward onto the bar. Rianna wondered what could have happened; the timing was too coincidental. Has he been poisoned? “Backer! Backer! Get up! Damnit!”

One of the soldiers shoved her away from Backer and said, “Don’t interfere with us, miss. This man has been identified as being a demon in disguise. We’ll be taking him into custody, now.”

Rianna protested, “Wait, no! You don’t understand!” but the soldiers paid her no attention as they hauled away Backer’s limp form. Rianna briefly considered stopping them by force, but that would have been suicide. Even if she’d succeeded, the rest of Choras’ police force would have gone after her.

She watched silently as they carried him out the door. There was only one place they’d take him: the Great Court, the headquarters of Choras’ military and also where criminals were taken for “Judgment.” As a member of Larin’s militia, she might be able to get in, and then break him out. Unless he’s extracted first… No! He’ll have to be redeemable. There’s no way he’s evil.

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« Reply #8 on: January 26, 2005, 09:25:07 am »
Chapter 7 – The Greater Good

Time: +4-4

“Excuse me! Sir! Niran Menos!”

Niran was in the middle of going through Choras’ records on the Soul Cannon when he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Dakris’s comments at the meeting had prompted him to take a closer look at the files. Chaine and Dakris had been trying to cover up the truth about the Soul Cannon, but Niran’s information network extended further than even they knew.

It was learning this secret that caused Niran to be in a foul mood as he snapped back, “What is it!?”

“Sir,” the voice said, slightly cowed. “A woman from Larin’s militia is here. She claims that a disaster has hit Larin as well, and is here to report it. She stressed that she needs to speak with you urgently.”

“Fine,” Niran grumbled as he exited the small room the contained the records his agents had compiled for him. The voice turned out to have come from a recruit who appeared to still be in his early teens. Niran closed and locked the door behind him and said, “Where is she?”

“She’s in the eastern lobby, sir,” the recruit said as he started to walk. “This way.”

“I know where it is. Return to your duties,” Niran said, waving the recruit away.

As he entered the eastern lobby, Niran was stunned speechless. The woman sitting on the couch looked exactly like his memory of Maria Angelus from a decade earlier. Could she be the one who fought off the zombies? Her resemblance to Maria is uncanny…

“Niran Menos?” the woman asked, standing up and approaching him. When he nodded silently, she added, “My name is Rianna. I’m here on behalf of Larin’s Militia.” She eyed his expression warily. “Is everything alright?”

Her name had triggered something in Niran’s memory. Two decades past, his brother had sent him a letter saying that his wife had borne a baby. His wife had been Maria Angelus, and they’d named the baby “Rianna.”

“Yes, it’s just…” Niran started, then rephrased his thoughts. “Was your father Nakir of Choras?”

“Yes. How’d you know?”

Niran smiled. “He was my brother. We lost touch after he and Maria moved to Larin, but he once told me he’d had a daughter.”

Rianna’s eyes lit up and she ran forward to embrace him. “My father never told me he had a brother. I thought I had no more relatives after my parents died!”

Niran cringed at her reference to her parents’ deaths. “Uh, yes, well… I was told you were here on a matter of some urgency…?”

Rianna’s eyes widened, and she started to tell Niran her story. “Three days ago, Larin was attacked by mutated animals, led by a white dragon…”

“A white dragon?” Niran cut in. “We’ve been tracking down a demon here who showed features of a white dragon! Could it be the one who attacked your village?”

“No!” Rianna snapped with force that took Niran aback. “The dragon who attacked our village was killed, but another appeared. I followed him here to Choras City.”

“So, then, that’s the demon?”

“Yes! Well, no! He’s not a demon, he saved the city from the zombies. I can’t explain his powers, but he’s not evil; that’s for sure.”

“Damnit!” Niran cursed. Will the atrocities never stop, Dakris? He said with a sigh, “I’m sorry Rianna, but the situation is looking bad for him. He was captured less than half an hour ago, and he’s due to be judged.”

“I know,” Rianna said with a slight nod. “I was there when they captured him. But, there shouldn’t be much problem, should there? He’s not evil, so he should turn white, right?”

Niran sighed again. “I fear that may not be the case. Recently, the orb has turned nothing but black, even for the pettiest of criminals. I fear something’s wrong with it, and he may be its next victim.”

“What!?” Rianna exclaimed. “We have to stop them! He’s a hero; he saved Choras from the zombies! You can’t extract him!”

Niran weighed his options. It was still possible the “demon” would be judged redeemable, but he couldn’t even be sure that would stop Dakris. Either way, he had to do something about the Soul Cannon before they used it again.

“Alright,” Niran said hurriedly. “Can you fight if you have to?”

“Yes,” Rianna replied. “I didn’t just sit and watch while the zombies attacked.”

“Good,” Niran said. He handed Rianna one of his keys. “This should open almost any door in the building. Head down that hallway and take the first staircase you see down. Turn left from there and you’ll reach the Judgment Hall. If they’re not there, head down the north passage—that’s right from your perspective as you enter—which leads to the Soul Fire.”

“Wait!” Rianna said. “You’re not coming with me?”

“No, I’ve got business to settle. When you’re done—successful or not—meet me in the basement. There’s a staircase near the gateway to the Soul Fire.”

“What are you going to do there?”

“Some prices are too high,” Niran said cryptically. “We have to take out the Soul Cannon.”

* * *

“Hey, Lowe!” Dakris shouted as he entered the Judgment Hall. “What’s the status on the ‘demon’?”

Lowe looked up from his desk and said, “We’re just about to judge him. For once, you’re right on time… sir.”

“Wouldn’t miss this,” Dakris said, taking up a position near the Judgment Orb. “I’m dying to see just how dark this orb’ll turn. By the way, how’d they ever manage to bring him in?”

“The soldiers who brought him in say that a bartender spiked his drink with Rofello’s Poison after recognizing him from his description. This allowed the soldiers to take him in without any problems.”

“Hmm, good,” Dakris said. “See that he’s properly rewarded.”

She will be, sir,” Lowe said.

Dakris ignored this slight and started pacing. “What’s taking so long? I thought you said you were just about to judge him.”

“I thought so, the guards just took him back to confiscate his weapons and armor,” Lowe said. “Hold on while I check what’s taking them so long.”

Lowe got up from his desk and disappeared to a back room for what seemed to Dakris to be an exceedingly long time, but which the room’s clock ticked out as under a minute. Dakris was about to take the clock off the wall to see what was wrong with it when Lowe finally returned. He had two guards in tow, carrying the demon.

“It seems they were having some trouble removing his armor,” Lowe explained as they reentered the room. “It looks to me as if its somehow attached to his skin, and no, there’s nothing wrong with the clock.”

Dakris grumbled at this and said, “Not that surprising, actually. Our reports say he grew the wings and claws of a white dragon. That armor looks like it’s from a white dragon as well, so he probably just grew it. Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Dakris took a seat in Lowe’s desk as the guards took the demon to the Judgment Orb. The Judgment Orb normally appeared as a pale sphere filled with gray wisps of smoke. When someone put their hand on the orb, it would fill with either a black or white color. If black, the person was unredeemable and sentenced to extraction. If white, the person was good at heart but had made some bad choices to land them on the wrong side of the law, so they were sent to prison for rehabilitation.

While one of the guards supported the bulk of the demon, the other took his hand and placed it on the orb. Dakris leaned forward, expecting the orb to be overwhelmed with darkness. Nothing happened. The orb appeared exactly the same as when no one was touching it.

“This ever happen before?” Dakris questioned Lowe.

“No, sir. Every other time, the orb filled up within seconds.”

“Could it be because he’s unconscious?”

“We’ve done it with unconscious criminals before, it never made any difference.”

“Ever done it with a demon before?” Dakris asked.

“You know we haven’t,” Lowe said with a frustrated tone to his voice.

“Maybe it doesn’t work with demons,” Dakris suggested as he stood up. “Ah, well. No matter, let’s take him for extraction.”

“What?” Lowe said, turning from the demon to look at Dakris. “Sir, the law’s clear. We extract only if the orb turns black.”

“We have no time for legal technicalities,” Dakris said. “We’re at war, here, and we have to extract this demon’s soul if we’re to survive.”

“But, sir,” Lowe said. “What if this means he isn’t evil? Can we extract an innocent?”

“We’ll worry about moral implications later! For now, we need his soul if we’re to take out the source of the zombies.”

This sentence was met by a string of slurred words from the slumped demon, who Dakris had assumed to still be unconscious; Rofello’s poison generally kept one out for four to five hours.

“What was that?” Dakris said, looking at Lowe expectantly. “What did he say?”

“I’m not quite sure,” Lowe replied. “I couldn’t make most of it out, but the last few words sounded like ‘Sea lent leg hiss.’ Don’t ask me what it means.”

“‘Sea lent leg hiss’?” Dakris repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lowe just stared at him at this, but the demon spoke up again. His words were still slurred, but Dakris could make them out this time: “Wrong language.”

Dakris grunted. “Just say it in English!”

The guards had taken the demon away from the orb and turned him to face Dakris. He stared at Dakris with not an expression of anger, but one of pity. “It means, ‘In time of war, the law falls silent.’”

Dakris chuckled at this. “He understands! The demon understands what we’re doing! This is priceless!”

“Do you?” the demon shot back.

Growling, Dakris said, “Enough! I have no time to play games. Come on,” he gestured to Lowe and the guards. “We’re taking him to the Soul Fire before he recovers enough to pose a threat.”

The guards hefted up the demon once more and carried him, following Dakris towards the Soul Fire, where souls were extracted. Lowe took up a position behind the guards.

The demon did nothing to resist, but spoke up once more on the way. “So, what’s my crime?”

“Being a demon,” Dakris said.

The demon snorted at this. “This is what your justice system punishes: Being, not Doing?”

The demon was infuriating him, but they’d reached the gateway to the Soul Fire, and the problem would soon be solved.

“We’re about to stop you from ‘Being,’” Dakris told him. “You won’t be ‘Doing’ anything, anymore.” He motioned to the guards, and they tossed the demon into a small chamber in the wall made out of denadorite. Dakris slammed a switch on the wall, and a door slammed down, enclosing the demon in the chamber.

The last expression Dakris saw on the demon’s face was one of disappointment.

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« Reply #9 on: January 30, 2005, 09:57:06 pm »
Chapter 8 – Atrocities

Time: +4-4

A solid door slammed down in front of Backer. The floor then tilted downwards as the wall behind him tilted away, causing him to tumble down a short chute. He landed hard on a stone floor. He hadn’t yet regained the ability to move, but he was definitely able to feel pain.

A fierce, white light assaulted his eyes. Through the glare, he saw what seemed to be ripples in the light. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to make out that the light appeared to be coming from white flames that filled his vision. Oddly, he could feel no heat from the flames, so he took a moment to relax as he recovered.

/Recovery: 67.8%
Input restored to normal parameters.

Working…

Recovery status: 84.2%
Gross motor control reestablished./


Backer managed to prop himself up on one elbow and used this opportunity to get a full view of the room. It was roughly cylindrical, with white flames growing out of the floor, some of which appeared to shoot straight through his body. Towards the top, the flames dissipated and the room narrowed. At the very top appeared to be a sphere of pulsating energy whose color rotated through the entire visible spectrum at a steady rate.

A tumbling sound from the direction of the chute caught Backer’s attention. Another creature appeared to be falling in. A glimpse of four long, slender legs outlined against the flames told him that the creature was most likely a deer.

A glimpse was all he got, as within moments of entering the fire, the corporeal body of the deer was vaporized. Left in its place was a green phantom, taking on roughly the shape of the deer. The phantom turned its head and looked plaintively at Backer as it slowly ascended. Eventually, it reached the sphere of energy at the top and was absorbed into it.

/Recovery: 100.0%
Fine motor control reestablished.

Preparing elemental input: 26.1%/


Backer stretched his muscles and stood up, taking a further moment to ponder the situation. The flames had incinerated the deer, but had left him untouched. Given what the men who’d thrown him there had said, this was most likely intended to be an execution. For some reason, however, it had failed. Instead, his mind seemed to be opening to a new sense…

/Preparing elemental input: 100.0%
Constructing elemental buffer: 17.4%/


… and rapidly, at that. If anything, the energy from the flames was empowering him.

This knowledge in hand, he resolved to initiate his escape. The chute through which he’d entered appeared to be the only viable exit, but it presented two notable obstacles. The first obstacle was its slope, which appeared to be 76°. The coefficient of friction he’d felt in his tumble would have allowed an ascent of a slope of at most 50°. The second obstacle was the door mechanism. It appeared to be designed to only open one way at a time, so even if he could reach the top, he would have to maintain that position until someone opened it to send in another victim.

It was at this point in his analysis that Backer realized he had neglected to consider his newfound draconic abilities. The chute was far to narrow for him to be able to fly up, but he could put wings to another use. If he were to use them to brace against the sides of the chute, he might be able to exert sufficient vertical force to elevate him to the top of the chute.

/Constructing elemental buffer: 65.0%/

This still left the problem of the door mechanism. His view of the chute’s material from outside had allowed him to narrow down the possibilities greatly. Of those possibilities, the only viable choice for construction purposes was Silicon Dioxide. Silicon Dioxide was one of the sturdiest natural minerals known, but most of the time it was only found in small granules, commonly referred to as “sand.” If this world possessed, naturally or artificially, larger pieces, they just might be used for such purposes as this. This unfortunately meant that it would next to impossible for him to break through it, but he still might be able to force the door back into its socket on the assumption that it was held by weaker materials.

/Constructing elemental buffer: 100.0%
Transferring elemental input to elemental buffer./


Backer’s newest sense came alive. He had somehow become aware of the magical energies that permeated this world, normally kept out of the way in a “Mana Layer.” Magical abilities drew this energy out of the Mana Layer and into the Material Layer. The flames surrounding him, which he now could tell were pure light energy, felt as if they were caught in a flux state between the two layers—a highly unnatural configuration.

The energy seemed chaotic at first analysis, but a pattern started to emerge as Backer analyzed it further. As he opened his mind further to this sense, he was sure of it: there was an intelligence behind this energy. It seemed oddly familiar, but Backer chose not to delve more into that; he had most likely encountered something similar in his past life. He tried to commune with it, but got only a sense of urgency. Whatever or whoever this was was urging him to make his escape without wasting any more time.

* * *

Rianna took in the Judgment Hall in a second as she entered. Along the wall to her right was the Orb of Judgment, resting on an altar at chest height. Rows of chairs stretched to her left, left over from the days when the hall was used as a courtroom. Across from her was a desk at which sat the room’s sole occupant, who was at the moment taking a nap.

Damnit! He’s not here!

Paying him no heed, Rianna cut across the room and through its northern doorway. An empty, white hallway stretched ahead of her. At the end, she could make out two figures, one of which was carrying something towards the wall while the other watched.

“Hey, you!” Rianna yelled at them as she ran forward. “Let him go!”

“What the…?” the observer said as she approached. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m here to rescue him!”

As Rianna got close enough to make out the body that was being carried, she realized her mistake.

“You got some sorta connection to this deer?” the man asked her.

“What the…? What are you…?” Rianna sputtered as brain tried to simultaneously come to grips with the facts that she was too late and that they had started to extract deer.

“No one to save today,” he told her. “Just wild animals and one demon.” He turned to the guard grappling with the deer. “Yavar, put it in. I’ll escort this lovely lady to the interrogation chamber.”

Realizing her predicament, Rianna drew her shortsword in preparation for fending off this man. He in turn pulled a gun from a holster on his belt and gave Rianna a look that seemed to say, “Now, do you really me to shoot you?”

Their fight was interrupted, however, as the guard hit a switch on the wall. This resulted in a section of the wall retracting upwards. Rianna’s vantage point didn’t allow her to see what was inside, but she could hear a familiar, lilting voice say, “Miss me?”

A winged figure that could only be Backer shot from the opening and incapacitated both men with two quick punches.

“Why else would I have come?” Rianna said, alerting him to her presence.

Backer turned to her as his wings shrunk into his back. He gave her a small smile and said, “Thank you for coming.” Until this moment Rianna hadn’t realized how fearful she’d been of his demise—it would have been like losing Torin again—but her fear evaporated at his tone. He hadn’t needed her, but he still seemed touched that she’d come to save him.

“What happened to you?” Rianna asked. “How could you survive the Soul Fire?”

Backer sighed. “I can’t say exactly what happened. I think I was poisoned somehow, so I wasn’t able to resist. As I regained coherence, the guards made me place my hand on some orb.”

“That would be the Orb of Judgment,” Rianna explained. “Choras has used that to judge criminals.”

Backer nodded and continued. “Nothing happened with it, and they were surprised by this. Nevertheless, they dragged me down here and threw me into that chamber.”

“That leads to the Soul Cannon,” Rianna said. She motioned to one of the unconscious men. “That man—Dakris Encephos—invented it about a year ago. The Soul Fire inside burns away the body and the soul is absorbed. When enough souls are absorbed, it can be used to launch some sort of attack—I’m not sure exactly what happens, though. But, somehow, you survived and escaped.”

“Yes,” Backer said. “The flames didn’t harm. In fact, they even seemed to be trying to tell me something.”

“More mysteries…” Rianna said, shaking her head. “I don’t know what to make of this, except as further proof that you’re special somehow.” She caught his gaze for a moment and quickly looked away. “Right, well… Do you have any idea what the flames were trying to tell you?”

Backer shrugged slightly. “All I got was the impression that there was something I was supposed to do. You know, it may just be because of my experience there, but this ‘Soul Cannon’ seems wrong to me, as if it’s a crime against nature.”

“Niran seemed to feel the same way…” Rianna said. Backer raised an eyebrow and she elaborated, “Niran Menos is the commander of Choras’ army and also its head of intelligence, and it seems he’s my uncle as well. Anyway, he helped me get in here and mentioned something along the lines of destroying the Soul Cannon.” Rianna remembered his instructions to her and motioned Backer to the door on the other side of the hallway. “He told me to meet him in the room below here when I was done. Come on.”

Rianna unlocked the door and led Backer down the flight of stairs behind it. As she was unlocking the door at the base, she heard a muffled, “Damnit! Damn, damn, damn!” from the room beyond.

The room’s most prominent feature was a large crystal on the other side which appeared to be made of Rainbow Shell, glowing with a full spectrum of colors. Its top was embedded in the ceiling, most likely connected to the Soul Cannon. The walls were lined with open steel cabinets, containing miscellaneous devices that Rianna couldn’t identify. Rummaging through one was the sources of the profanities: Niran.

“Uncle Niran!” Rianna said. “What are you doing?”

Niran gave up his search and turned to her. “Looking for a few things that will help us out.” He noticed Backer and said, “I take it this is the man you came to save?”

“Yes, this is Backer,” Rianna said.

“Anything I can do to prove I’m not a demon?” Backer added.

“Well, there is one thing,” Niran said. “Rianna, is he a demon?”

“Uh, no?” Rianna replied.

“That’s good enough for me,” Niran said. At Rianna’s confused look, he continued. “I knew Maria well, and you take after her a lot. I trust your judgment—I wouldn’t have let you in if I didn’t.”

“Right,” Backer said. “So, could you elaborate on what you’re doing?”

“I’m trying to destroy the Soul Cannon,” Niran said. “That crystal over there is the heart of the device. It’s the only part that can’t be replaced, so it’s what we have to take out. The problem, of course, is that it’s made of Rainbow Shell, which is indestructible by all human means.”

“So, what do you hope to do?” Backer said as he approached the crystal, sizing it up.

“Rainbow Shell can be forged with the aid of certain ‘shiny elements.’ If we had those, we could rip this abomination open. I was hoping Dakris would have kept some here, but no luck.” Niran slammed his fist into the wall in frustration, causing a series of cracks to form.

“Is there something more going on here, Uncle?” Rianna said, intentionally slipping in the “Uncle” to remind him of their bond.

Niran took a few deep breaths and said as leaned against the wall, “I did some research on the Soul Cannon today. It turns out the fuel for the Soul Fire is…” He trailed off as he turned to Rianna with a far-off look in his eyes.

“What?” Rianna asked. “What is it?”

Tears welled in her uncle’s eyes as he looked down. “Maria…”

“Wha… What do you mean?”

“Your mother wasn’t killed by Porre,” Niran said slowly. “Chaine just made it look that way. He’d built his power-base in war. He wouldn’t have been able to stay in power if she brought peace to the world. So, that bastard took her out of the picture.” Niran hit the wall again, causing the room to shudder.

“But, that wasn’t enough for him,” Niran continued. “Dakris had drawn up plans for the ultimate weapon: the Soul Cannon. They tortured Maria over the course of months, eventually imprisoning her soul in that crystal to fuel the Soul Fire.”

Stunned, Rianna stammered out, “You mean… she’s…?”

“Yes,” Niran said flatly. “She’s dead, but denied heaven. The best human to ever live, trapped, serving as a weapon of war. Argh! It makes me want to rip out Chaine’s throat with my bare hands, if not worse! That is why we have to destroy the Soul Cannon!”

“I… I think I…” Rianna said as dropped to the floor, overcome with emotion. She rested her head in her hands and started to cry. After a few seconds she felt arms embracing her and looked up to see that Niran had come to comfort her.

“It’s alright, Rianna,” he said. “We won’t let them get away with this. We’ll free your mother, and make them pay.”

“But… how…?”

“Maybe that’s why I’m here.” Rianna looked past Niran to see that Backer was still standing by the crystal. As she watched, he tilted his head back slightly and held his arms out as his body transformed into its draconic form.

Niran stared at him in wide-eyed shock. “The Dragon of Light… Tenryu…”

“What?” Rianna asked.

“One of Gaia’s dragons, the embodiments of her powers over each of the elements,” Niran explained. “But, how…?”

Backer struck the crystal with two fierce punches, causing vibrations throughout the room. The crystal showed some signs of wear; small indentations had appeared where he struck it. With a growl, he launched an even more fearsome punch which caused vibrations strong enough to knock a cabinet off the wall, but still failed to seriously damage the crystal.

His failure only seemed to enrage him more. “How dare they!” he said, his voice deeper, as if he were speaking in the midst of a growl. He let loose a furious roar while bracing his body in a similar stance to the one he had held while morphing into a dragon. As he bellowed, his body started to radiate a bright, white light. This display caused Rianna to cringe in fear; he appeared about to lose control.

As the light reached a blinding intensity, it appeared to flow to Backer’s mouth and coalesced into a sphere of energy. He leaned forward and the sphere turned into a beam which struck the crystal. As Rianna watched in awe, cracks started to form at the point of impact, until the crystal exploded from within.

White flames leapt from the crystal, flooding the room with energy. Rianna lost sight of Backer and Niran as the fire filled her vision. The energy seemed to plunge into her head, causing her to black out.

* * *

Rianna found herself in space. Stars surrounded her, and she could see a planet far below her feet. She gazed in awe at its vast, blue oceans and green landmasses. She’d never imagined she’d see a planet from this perspective; it was beautiful.

As she looked closer, Rianna saw that its surface appeared to be covered in a web of gold and silver. She could think of no explanation for it, but this line of thought prompted her to ponder the improbability of her existing at this point in space.

“What’s going on here…?” she said to no one in particular.

“I’m not sure myself,” a voice answered her.

Rianna recognized it immediately. “Mother? Is that you?” She looked up from the planet to see her mother, Maria Angelus, standing in front of her.

“Yes,” she said in her soft, soothing voice. “Thank you, my daughter. I’m finally free.”

“So, is this heaven?” Rianna asked.

“No, this simply a dream. I believe this image was pulled from the mind of the man you know as ‘Backer.’ You’ll have to thank him for me when you awaken.”

“Alright,” Rianna said. “But, why haven’t you gone to heaven?”

“I’ve decided to stick around with you a while longer. You could use my help in the coming ordeal.”

Rianna chuckled. “Now you’re sounding like a mother.” Maria smiled slightly at this. “What do you know about this ‘ordeal’?”

“Humanity is facing extinction. Disasters are occurring worldwide. It would seem that you and your friend, Backer, are in a position to stop it.”

“What about Backer? Can you tell me anything about him?”

“Not much you don’t know. He’s not of our world, and it would appear he has some connection to this place. I came into contact with him when he was in the Soul Fire. He’s strong of will and noble, and he seems to already have some connection to you.”

“Hey! Are you trying to set us up?” Rianna accused.

“Don’t worry, Rianna,” Maria replied with a grin. “I know you still need time to get over Torin. Even if you now realize that what you felt for him wasn’t true love, he was still a very dear friend, and it’s alright to mourn for him. But, when you are ready…”

“Mother! Let me make my own decisions about romance!”

“Fine! But I’ll be here for advice a while longer. For now, it looks like you’d best wake up…”