Chapter Eleven


When Worlds Collide


Two full days later, Ran’Atao finally collected Don-Shin and Chuchurin and informed them that they would be returning to the Lizardman village and telling the elder that his people no longer had to worry about the wickedness of the interloping townsfolk of Tarenloll.  “They deserve to know, and they are our only contacts in this world.  We shall return to them, and see if they can point us in the direction to continue our holy works,” said the mighty Rukon.


He had not been plagued further by doubts or that strange sense of guilt once the bodies in Tarenloll had been seen to.  The trio had managed to scavenge enough food to get by for a couple of days, and Ran’Atao had packaged up several bottles of liquor to offer the Lizardmen as a gift package.  Now, at midmorning, they were on the road south once more, heading into the sandy stretches of the lands known as the Desperation.


Don-Shin, unusually quiet for the last two days and nights, kept his own silent council for the time being, but he experienced great difficulty keeping his observations of the last couple of days to himself.  He hadn’t even told Chuchurin, in whom he confided most things, that something vastly powerful approached from the north and slightly west.  The day after the burning of the bodies and burial of the guard o’ the watch, Don-Shin had used his power vision from a great height up in the clouds, and there identified three blazing points of power, moving with strange speed toward them.


His reasons for keeping the information to himself were twofold.  Firstly, he didn’t want to worry the captain and his comrade unnecessarily.  They had won a clear and decisive battle in the town of Tarenloll, and he wanted to let his companions bask in the lasting glow of victory.  But the second reason he held back was far more compelling.


He’d never seen such extremely high power signatures, not even when the captain fought all-out.


Don-Shin had been in the service of his military forces for nearly ten years, serving with the captain for the last four of those years.  In all that time, his power vision had never once detected something as potent as the largest of those power signatures he’d seen yesterday morning.  Certainly, he’d spotted demons just as powerful as the captain in the past, and they had been in a few close scrapes.  But nothing compared to what was streaking toward them.


The two lesser energy signatures had been distressingly powerful as well, though the auras around those two signatures had appeared somewhat muddled and dark to his all-seeing eyes.  That meant, to Don-Shin at least, that the creatures all possessed powers the likes of which the Rukon had never encountered.  He didn’t truly want to be the first.  The real problem for him now was simple.  He wanted to get back to his home world, and in the worst possible way, but he could not disobey his captain.  If Ran’Atao wanted to stay on and sweep this world clean of the wicked and unjust, he would have to follow his lead.


As he followed closely behind the broad back of Ran’Atao, he silently prayed they didn’t stick around long enough to encounter the owners of those power signatures.


Stockholm brought the company to a halt around noon, and took stock of his companions.  Whatever strange affliction had gripped Bradley Ashford, he appeared to be coming slowly on the mend from it, and the Red Tribesman took that as a good sign.  Ashford’s voice had changed its quality slightly, and he seemed to have lost some of the militant manner in it.  He still carried himself like a long-time Marine, but some habits died harder than others, Stockholm supposed.


Timothy and Hina seemed all aglow this noon, and Stockholm didn’t doubt for a second the reasons they’d had for putting up her travel tent the night before.  He’d heard the subtle sounds of their coupling in the night darkness the previous evening, and he’d taken up a much wider perimeter around the camp to allow them some semblance of privacy.  His thoughts on the matter?  Good for them.


Stockholm himself grew more and more concerned about the status of the southernmost rift in reality, wondering if it had solidified beyond the point of being sealed away.  He didn’t like to think about that possibility, but he knew that he might arrive too late to do anything about that particular portal.  He also didn’t want to think too much about the creatures that he’d been warned about by the gods.  If he had to destroy them, then so be it.  He would use his considerable skills in combat and the Fist of the Breaker to deal with them, and have done with the whole situation.  But if the creatures were truly hostile, and there were more of them in the world they’d come from, what could he do then if the portal became permanent?


He supposed he could contact the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Ja-Wen to the north (presently directly east of them about a day and a half by horse) and tell them the situation.  They might scoff at him, until they sent a research representative to see the rift, and even if they were impressed and believed him, what could they do?  The city-state of Ja-Wen was pretty powerful, sure, but did they have the manpower required to keep a constant guard around the rift? Would the native Lizardman and Minotaur tribes of the Desperation tolerate their constant presence in what they deemed their ‘holy land’?


Trees would sooner sprout mouths and start singing.


These thoughts tumbled around in his mind for a while until Timothy caught his attention.  “Stocky?  You all right?  You’re kind of zoning out,” the Void Mage said, waving a hand in front of Stockholm’s snout.   He shook his head free of the cobwebs of thought, and gave Timothy a smile.


“Yeah, I’m fine.  Just thinking ahead to the rift,” he said.  “And to the possible situations we may be forced to deal with.  Help me clean up,” he said, packing away their noon meal supplies.  Shortly after, they were mounted up and on their way once again, Stockholm leading the charge in his animus form.  The air took on a vaguely dry quality as the continued south, proof positive that they were indeed approaching the vast desert and its environs.


Stockholm tried to remember what the name of the border town was nearest the Desperation, and after a while, it finally clicked into place.  The company would stop there in a couple of days for a good night’s rest and plenty of diner-quality food.  How long had it been since he’d been out this way?  Surely at least five or six years, he thought.  Yes, he’d stopped into the township of Tarenloll with Flint and a handful of Hoods operatives several years back, on their way to plunder a recently uncovered ruins in the desert, discovered by the Gnome Unified Scientific Front.  The people of that town had been friendly enough.


He hoped that quaint little diner was still open.


Tromping through the desert brought back faint memories for Ran’Atao. He’d crossed a much similar wasteland nine years prior, in search of a demon that went by the name of Varnum Tulasi.  The demon had used his black magic to possess the hearts and minds of a thousand humans, and had dragged them back to his desert domain to serve as his slaves in a great, black stone castle.  Ran’Atao had stormed the castle with his unit, destroying dozens of lesser demons and incapacitating the possessed humans on his way to the throne room on the top floor.


Varnum Tulasi had been waiting for him, in fact.  Ran’Atao tried to remember their brief exchange before he had engaged the demon in combat, but at the moment, the scorching heat of the dunes kept the memory temporarily at bay.  He could vaguely remember saying something to the demon first, and after some palaver, the scum had said something about mankind and the Rukon’s religions, something that had driven Ran’Atao beyond the point of restraint.  What was it?


On their way back toward the Lizardman village, Don-Shin stopped during the late afternoon, his gaze suddenly pulled to the east.  Perhaps three or four miles in that direction he felt a strange sort of power, rippling and pulsing in all directions.  “Captain,” he called ahead, bringing the huge Rukon and Chuchurin to a halt.  Don-Shin pointed east with a faint smile on his lips.  “I can sense the portal now!  It is directly that way, sir!  We can get back home whenever we need to!”


Ran’Atao followed the smaller Rukon’s outstretched finger, and he too sensed the portal after a minute.  He nodded and grunted, but on the subject said nothing more.  They had work to do still in this world, of that he had become frighteningly certain.  And as he faced south again, he remembered the exchange he’d had those nine long years ago.  You steal the minds of men, he’d said to the demon, and make them your slaves!  The demon’s reply had been immediate and sharp, filled with malice and sarcasm.  Perhaps the same could be said of your precious religions, little man, the demon had mocked.  Deeply offended, Ran’Atao had thrown his caution aside and struck out against the demon, ultimately felling him.


It did his heart good to remember that righteous fury.


Timothy ran down the darkened corridor in his mind, once more trying to elude the phantom presence of his father’s ghost.  Something felt different about the dream this time, however.  This time he felt more lucid, more there, as it were.  For the first time in many weeks, he had control of himself in this nocturnal adventure.


“You can’t run away forever, Timmy,” Richard Vandross’s voice called out from somewhere far behind him.  That’s what you think, Timothy thought, though he didn’t feel inclined to keep running.  All he needed right now, he felt, was to find a large, open chamber that he could turn into a battlefield.  The underground tunnel system he darted through finally did come to a chamber with a dome ceiling several hundred feet high, and half a dozen tunnels opened off of this mostly empty room.


Timothy crossed to the middle of the chamber, and then stopped abruptly, spinning on his heel with little surprise, finding that his father’s spirit had followed not too far behind after all.  Richard Vandross stood in the entryway that Timothy had just dashed through, and he grinned at Tim with his huge, sharp teeth, glaring at him with his one baleful eye.  “What’s this, son?  Finally decide to grow a set and stand up to me?  You know you will lose!”


“None of this is real,” Tim said, thinking all the while that it all felt too real to him.  He could feel the pounding of his heart in his chest, hear the easy wheeze of breath in and out of his mouth.  He could smell the faint aroma of sage as he brought his mana to bear, prepared to engage the specter of his father in a battle to the death.  And if he should die in this dream, would his body cease to function in the real world?  Who knew, and at this juncture, who cared?  It would be worth it, if just to finally refute his heritage once and for all.  “It doesn’t matter if I lose,” he shouted at the apparition, which seemed to waver slightly.  The smile dropped off of Richard Vandross’s face, and was replaced by an expression of curious caution. “Not that I intend to do that, father.”


“Give it up, Timmy,” the specter called, drawing his own weapon, a wickedly curved scimitar.  Hellfire flames shrouded the length of the blade as it came free of its sheath, and in the light thrown by the fire, Timothy could see that the walls of this chamber had been carved into with hundreds of arcane symbols of magic and power.  “You cannot escape your destiny!  It is greater than you, boy!”


“Will you try talking me to death, old man,” Timothy mocked, mentally cycling through his available Cleric and Paladin spells, for he felt certain they would have the greatest effect on the evil that was Richard Vandross.  When he located one that felt as good as it would get for him, he channeled his mana into the spell’s casting.  “Why not just come at me, and have done with it?”  For a moment, the specter hesitated, and then it charged him without further preamble or conversation.


Timothy balled his left hand into a fist, cocking it all the way back to his shoulder.  Faint, yellowish light wrapped around his arm, and he punched forward into the empty air between his father’s specter and himself.  “Righteous Fist of Vengeance,” he cried out, launching a saffron beam of energy at the specter like a long missile.  The blast struck home, the concussion force of the blast rocking the chamber, shards of rocky ceiling showering down on the chamber’s floor.  Smoke plumed up from the specter, and Timothy saw through the light and smoke that the specter had brought up its hellfire sword just in time to block the spell. However, it was forced back dozens of yards, almost all the way back to the tunnel entrance Timothy had come through.


“Is that all you’ve got,” the specter howled, leaping through the air toward Timothy with incredible agility and speed.  Timothy dive rolled to his right, and the specter crashed its hellfire scimitar down into the stone floor, breaking apart several feet of stone in a circle around its feet as it landed.  The apparition deftly swung the sword one-handed to its left, barely missing Timothy’s chest.  The heat from that weapon blazed furiously, and Timothy could smell the hairs on his head singing.


The Void staff on Tim’s hip flared with a queer red light, and Timothy knew it had absorbed the shape and function of the specter’s hellfire scimitar, but he refused to draw the short staff and change it to that form.  That would only be making a concession to the apparition’s unceasing demands that he take over the heritage of the Vandross family title.  Instead, Timothy backed away hurriedly, and prepared another spell.  He pressed his hands toward Richard Vandross, and cried out, “Holy Cannon!”  The familiar circling beam of white light erupted from his palms, crashing into the specter.  This spell, like the first one, had been blocked, but only barely.  The specter of Richard Vandross skidded back, tripping finally over a small stone and tumbling backward into a crouched defensive position.


“I can feel your anger, Timmy!  That’s good!  Feed your hatred, Timothy Vandross!  Let it grow, let it fester, and become the scab that you will wear as your gauntlet!”


“Silence, foul beast,” Timothy shouted, bringing more of his mana to bear. “Ice Storm,” he shouted, waving his arms in wide, sweeping horizontal circles around his body.  Dozens of spears of ice formed in the air, flying up above Timothy’s body.  He then pointed his finger at the specter, and the lances flew through the air, splitting off into dozens more thinner, finer pointed magical weapons.  The hellfire scimitar flashed back and forth, deflecting most of the spell, but three of the spears still struck home, piercing through the thick black armor and into the specter’s body.  It grunted in pain and surprise, clearly unprepared to actually take damage from Timothy.  “I will still your lying tongue!”


Timothy drew his Void staff, and cracked his wrist.  The staff glowed and took on the form of an enchanted rapier that Timothy’s uncle had once used to train with him.  The rapier had the ability to perform two dozen rapid thrusts in the span of a few seconds, and Timothy had always felt most comfortable with this weapon in his hand.  He took a duelist’s stance, the tip of the foil pointed slightly down, his left hand up behind him.  He started performing the light, bouncing back and forth steps that he had once chided his uncle for looking like dancing, but which was in truth a defensive measure to throw off the opponent’s pace and movements.


“Have you not given a good look to the size of my blade, Timmy,” the specter growled.  “I’ll crush that little toy in your hand and cleave you in twain!”


“I don’t think so,” Timothy countered, his voice calm and level.  “The real question here is, I think, have you got the guts?”  The specter let out a primal roar and charged, the scimitar held over its head, the crazed eye locked onto young Timothy Vandross.  As the heavy hellfire sword came down, Timothy easily side-stepped, and performed the enchanted thrusts, poking nearly two dozen tiny holes in Richard Vandross’s armor.


That’s strange, Timothy thought, bouncing away as the last strike landed. No blood escaped the holes in the armor, though he’d surely felt the soft give of flesh, muscle and organs.  And the specter’s armor had changed slightly in hue over the course of this little skirmish, hadn’t it?  Yes, Timothy thought, there’s definitely a reddish cast to it now.  What sorcery is this?  Or is this merely a sign of my genetic madness?


The specter then did something Timothy would not have expected after so many horrible nights tossing and turning, moaning in his sleep, running from this apparition.  Richard Vandross stood fully erect, and sheathed his scimitar.  He turned to face Timothy head-on, and gave him a gentle, almost compassionate smile.  “It is well, for now, young Timothy.  Until we meet again,” it said, and then gave Tim a formal bow, the left hand crossed to the right shoulder.  Smoke exploded from the various holes in the specter’s armor, and the thick gray stuff caused Tim to gag and cough.


When the smoke cleared, there was nobody in the chamber with him. Shortly after, he was nudged awake by Ignatious Stockholm, who didn’t seem to have noticed any appreciable change in Timothy Vandross.


“Well, they are nomads after all,” Ran’Atao said as he looked around at the abandoned area that had only the day before held the entire Lizardman encampment.  “They won’t have gone far.  Don-Shin, do you think you can find the energy signature of their shaman?”


“I’ll try,” said the smaller Rukon, focusing on his power of energy vision.  It didn’t take long to locate the Lizardmen this way.  “They are three or four miles farther south now.  Half an hour’s walk, sir.”


“Good,” said Ran’Atao.  “Let’s get moving then.  It’s already far past dark, and I’d like to lie down for a while.”  The Rukon marched further along, and when they finally arrived at the Lizardman encampment, they were hailed as long time friends might be after a period of absence.  The warriors greeted them, and led the group directly to the elder’s tent, where he was entertaining a relative from another tribe.


The Rukon followed the spear wielding warriors toward the largest tent in the village, where Ran’Atao could hear the dry laughter of old men deep in conversation, probably of the olden days of their long-passed youth.  The warriors stopped a few yards from the open flap, and gave Ran’Atao and his companions a deep bow.  Ran’Atao returned the gesture, and ducked down to enter the main chamber of the multi-room tent.


Inside the main chamber, the various animal pelts and hides had been laid down precisely as they had been before, and all of the elder’s belongings had been likewise situated.  All this they did in only a handful of days, Ran’Atao thought, admiring the hard work of the tribe.  Seated on a comfortable couch made of lashed together bones and furs, the tribe elder and his relative faced each other from opposing corners and spoke in the harsh, raspy tongue native to their people for a moment before looking up at their visitors.


“Ah, mighty Ran’Atao,” said the elder, moving to stand up.  Ran’Atao put a hand up to stay him.


“Please, remain seated wise one,” Ran’Atao said, offering him a deep bow. “We return to ask for a place to rest before we move on again, and perhaps for some directions, if you can offer any,” he said.  The elder smiled toothily at him, and then turned to his relative, most likely a brother or cousin, Ran’Atao thought.


“These are the warriors I told you of, cousin,” the elder said.  “Well, what have you been doing these last few days, Ran’Atao?”  Ran’Atao proceeded to tell the elderly Lizardmen of their great battle with the wicked inhabitants of the town of Tarenloll, and he was pleased by the silent admiration and respect the elders showed in their eyes and faces.  When Ran’Atao finished the telling, the elder walked briskly past him without a word, and grabbed the nearest warrior.  “Wine, my good man!  Bring an entire cask of wine, and the sweetest meats we have on offer!  A feast for our good friends, and get it readied now!”  The elder turned to the Rukon, and placed his arms over his chest and bowed to them.  “You honor us with this action, mighty Ran’Atao!  Come, and be honored by the entire tribe!”


There commenced shortly after the greatest celebration the tribe had held in many years, and Ran’Atao, Chuchurin, and Don-Shin rather enjoyed it.  What none of them knew, however, was that the wine they got fairly soused on held a small concentration of Human blood in it.  Had they known, they might not have been so quick to imbibe.  But such details often go unknown to warriors like the Rukon, along with the small but important detail that this tribe of Lizardmen had used them like puppets.


At midmorning the next day, Stockholm skidded to a halt about twenty yards out in front of the horses.  He immediately took his bestial form, staring off to the south with wide eyes, his nostrils flaring violently.  Blood, he thought, and by the brimming gallons!  He could still smell the metallic tang of spilled blood, and he could also make out the mingled perfumes of charred wood and burnt flesh and bones.  His company was perhaps two hours north of the source of that scent, but he’d smelled it enough times to know what it usually indicated- slaughter.


“What is it?  What’s wrong,” Hina asked nervously.  She had sensed the portal earlier that morning, farther still to the south, and she didn’t like the idea that where she could barely see the first portal, this one was giving off waves of energy so powerful she could detect them.  It certainly didn’t bode well for Stockholm, considering his already heavy burden.


“Blood,” the Red Tribesman said.  “I can smell blood, and far too much of it. Come on, we have to double-time it!  There may be survivors!”  He shifted into his animus form without further explanation, and sprinted forth so suddenly that Hina, Tim and Ashford were momentarily flummoxed.  They put their heels to their mounts then, and chased after.


We took too much godsdamned time, Stockholm thought as he streaked along, furious with himself for not having set a more demanding pace from the get-go.  Yet he could not have done that.  Surely Bradley Ashford’s improving condition required that they not jump into anything too hastily, and Timothy seemed to him somehow different this morning, more sure of himself in a subtle way that had brightened Stockholm’s mood earlier in the morning.  Perhaps that newfound confidence would keep the young man alive, where otherwise he might be felled by whatever lay ahead of them in waiting.


An hour and a half later, Stockholm could see the township proper of Tarenloll, and what his eyes beheld almost stopped him in his tracks for the second time in the day.  But he pressed onward, not slowing or stopping until they’d passed the first of the cottages.  There, standing in the main street, he finally came to a stop and took his bestial form.  He stood silently, staring at the devastation all around him, feeling sick to his stomach.


The air held the faint aura of death, and all four members of the party could feel its ghastly caress.  Hina dismounted only a second or two before Timothy and Ashford, though Ashford did not take time to look around with the same level of despair as the mages.  His first instinct in this situation, as often it had been, was to move away from the group in a hustled crouch, getting himself pressed next to the nearest solid structure, his adrenaline up, his rifle in hand and set to three-round burst.  Stockholm admired the man’s reaction, almost envied them for a moment, because was that not the way a true warrior should react?  Had he not been an aggressive god?


Yes, he was, but this had not been war of any kind.  This, from what he could tell, had been a blitz assault on unsuspecting, largely unarmed innocents. Lying in a drying pool of blood up the street, Hina had come upon a small rag doll, the kind that only a child can love.  It was covered with tacky, dried blood, and slightly singed from some great source of heat.  Tears welled up in her eyes, and Timothy crouched down next to her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder.


“What the fuck are you doing,” Ashford called to them.  “Whoever did this could still be here!”


“They’re not,” Stockholm said, his tone flat and final.  “Relax, Bradley, though not too much so.  Caution is the better part of valor,” he said.  There, he thought, looking farther up the street at what appeared to be a large heap of blackened material.  That’s a pile of bodies, and they were torched all right.  The state of most of the residences appeared to be much the same, many of them knocked down by the strong winds that blew through the last few days.  Their frames had been badly damaged by mystic fire, and some had been rocked apart by deflected spells that Don-Shin had been able to redirect.


“Stockholm, this is awful,” sobbed Hina, standing up next to Timothy, now clutching the little doll to her chest.  “Who could do this?  What could make someone attack a little girl?”


“Madness,” said Timothy quietly, looking back over his shoulder at what he also had identified as a pile of charred corpses.  “Madness or stupidity, and those two often go hand in hand down the road.  We should take a look around,” Timothy said, looking Stockholm in the eyes.  “There’s nobody left, I’m pretty sure of that, but whoever did this may have left us some idea of what they’re capable of besides the fire.”


“And cowardice,” spat Ashford.  “I don’t think these folks were able to put up much of a struggle from the look of things.”


“Agreed,” said Stockholm.  “Timothy, you’re with me.  Hina, go with Brad. We’ll see what we can see and meet back here in one hour.  It’s pretty shitty of me to say so, but we may need to stay here to rest up, and there’s bound to be resources we can put to use.”  Stockholm approached the Elven Q Mage then, and gently put his hand on the doll she held tightly to her.  He spoke gently to her, more gently than he spoken to anyone in a long time.  “You know you can’t keep this, Hina.  I know why you picked it up, but you cannot keep it.  It will only haunt you,” he said, taking it from her unresisting hands.


Ashford and Hina then headed with Stockholm and Timothy to the intersection, and from there they split up, the Marine and Q Mage headed east, while Timothy and the exiled god headed west.  East of the main intersection, Ashford found a patch of earth that had been recently disturbed, and a spade shovel near at hand.  He looked silently at Hina, and she nodded, bringing her mana to bear.  There might be someone left here after all, their shared glance had said, and if it was one of those responsible for this destruction, both intended to take their pound of flesh.


Ashford moved toward the nearest building, a hardware store, in a practiced crouch, his weapon up to firing position.  The door stood swaying open slightly in the light breeze blowing down out of the north, and he held up a fist to Hina as he mounted the small porch fronting the store.  She stopped immediately, for she recognized this gesture from her father’s training.  There seemed to be a lot of similarities between Mr. Ashford and her father, she reflected.  In Human terms, her father was probably of an equivalent age to Brad Ashford, and they both seemed to take the position of defender quite seriously.


Brad then made two more hand gestures, and she recognized them both. I’m right, you’re left, those hand signs meant.  She nodded, and then copied his crouching approach up the steps.  He put up three fingers, and she could see the fine sheet of sweat standing out on his forehead.  He really expected trouble right around the corner, and she wondered if his instincts were somehow sharper than hers.  Probably, she thought.  He’s a veteran at this sort of thing, and I’m a rookie.


He ticked off one finger, then the last one, and made a fist pumping gesture.  They stormed inside then, still both in a crouch, she sweeping the store with her eyes and hands at the ready, he with the barrel sight of his rifle.  But the store, as she’d suspected, was empty, devoid of any survivors or trouble.  He stood up then, and said “All clear.  Damn!”


“You were expecting a trap,” she said.


“Hoping for one, actually,” he said, spitting on the floor.  “Whatever came through this place killed kids for God’s sake!  I’ve done some pretty nasty stuff under orders, but I’ve never killed a kid knowingly and in cold blood.  Never.”  He looked around the shop at the various aisles of strange tools and gear.  “Come on, let’s check across the street.”  They exited the building, and headed across the street.


On the west side of town, Stockholm and Timothy scanned the street for those buildings in the best shape, entering them without too high a degree of caution, because neither man expected much of anything.  Low expectations, Stockholm believed, low disappointment.  Tim’s philosophy was slightly different, borrowed from his mother; hope for the best, but expect he worst.  In that regard he was not disappointed, either.


“They got everybody, didn’t they,” he asked Stockholm as the two of them entered a tavern.  Stockholm caught a whiff of something out of place, however, and didn’t reply.  Something was different here, some foreign odor he’d never smelled before.  Inside, out of the wind and weather and away from the corpse pile, the scent was more readily caught by his nose.  A rather unique aroma, he thought, and one he’d be willing to bet belonged to the murderers of this town. “Stocky?  Sir?”


“I heard you,” he said curtly.  “I’ve caught the scent of one of them, Tim.  He was in here.”  Timothy approached the Werewolf, and looked around the tavern.


“Where,” he asked.


“There, behind the bar,” Stockholm said, pointing to the serving area. Timothy headed to the bar, hopping over and landing in a squat.  “What are you doing?”


“If he left a scent, then he left a trace of himself as well,” said the Void Mage.  “Give me a moment.”  Timothy brought up a small amount of mana, and touched the floorboards behind the bar.  He came to a stop at the spot where, a few days before, Ran’Atao had sat behind the bar and drank stiff shots of warm scotch.  “Memorana,” Timothy whispered, pressing his hands to the wooden floor. In his mind, the precise image of Ran’Atao showed up before his mind’s eye.  Tim vaguely recognized the style of dress, and identified it as very similar to unarmored Samurai of the Fiefdom of Lemago.  He also got the impression that the man in his mind’s eye stood much taller than even Stockholm, who towered at around seven feet.


Timothy proceeded to give Stockholm a physical description of the man he saw via the Memorana spell.  Stockholm conjured to his own mental vision an idea of what this fellow looked like, and it was a close match to Timothy’s description. However, in his mind, he placed two demon’s horns on the forehead of Ran’Atao, since the man was clearly either a demon or a madman.


“It’s well enough,” he said as he opened his eyes.  “Let’s head back to the kitchen and see if there’s anything to eat.”  Timothy silently followed behind, thinking once again about his father, the late tyrant Richard Vandross.  Surely he would have approved of such destruction and bloodshed.  Of course, Richard had commanded an army of men and women more than willing to carry out such tasks as this, and Tim had the feeling that it hadn’t taken an army of men to do to Tarenloll what had been done.  He was fairly certain it had only taken a small handful, maybe three or four men.


He also felt certain that Stockholm’s rage would be unfathomable when the company met up with the killers.  He certainly wouldn’t blame the Red Tribesman. They’d be competing for who would deliver the killer blow, he thought.


Don-Shin came awake in a cold sweat, his armpits and the back of his neck drenched.  His dreams hadn’t been bad, but he had a blaring sense of urgency rising in his heart like bile from his stomach.  They’re coming, he thought.  Those three energy signatures, they’re coming this way.  They’ve stopped for now, but they won’t be long in getting here!


Another certainty cropped up in his mind, and he almost felt ashamed to have to admit to it, but this was not his home world, and shame could take a flying fuck right this second.  He knew for a fact that if he was still around when those power signatures arrived, he would be killed, and so would Chuchurin.  Captain Ran’Atao might survive, but even that didn’t feel like a sure thing right now.  He had to warn the captain, and convince him that they needed to leave this place, get back to their world through the portal.


He shuffled over the skins on the ground to the expansive cot that served as Ran’Atao’s temporary bed, and shook the captain hard by the shoulder.  Ran’Atao came awake slowly, moaning and rubbing his eyes.  “Don-Shin, what is it?”


“Sir, we should leave,” Don-Shin said, and in that moment thought of a good excuse to give his captain as to why he felt that way.  “We’ve been away for long enough that I think High Command is going to start getting worried.  They may send an investigations squadron through the portal after us, and I hate dealing with those guys.”  Ran’Atao sat up then, swinging his thick legs over the side of the creaking cot.  He rubbed his head and yawned.


“True enough, Don-Shin,” he said, his voice muffled by sleepiness.  Don-Shin’s heart eased, and then sank back into new depths at his captain’s next statement.  “However, it usually takes a week for High Command to send them. Besides, there’s the matter of this Ja-Wen that the elder spoke to us about last night, though I must admit that the details are a bit blurry right this second.  Too much wine, I assume,” he said, chuckling deeply.


“What shall we do then, today,” Don-Shin asked.


“Today, we shall rest some, and get our details straightened out from the elder,” said Ran’Atao, rising from the cot and cracking his back.  “If Ja-Wen requires cleansing, then we shall head there and do so.  I believe he said it is several days north of here, and slightly east.  Don’t worry, Don-Shin,” the big Rukon said, clapping him on the shoulder.  “We’re doing good work in this world, and never doubt it my friend.”


Except he did doubt it, doubted it very much this morning.  He might have served the captain longer than Chuchurin, but the lithe healer had Ran’Atao’s ear every time he spoke.  Perhaps, Don-Shin thought as Ran’Atao headed outside, if I can convince him to back me up, we can convince the captain to lead us back through the portal, and get back home!


Don-Shin moved over to Chuchurin’s bunk, and found that the healer was already awake, reading one of the books he kept in his packsack.  “Good morning, Chuchurin,” Don-Shin said amiably, sitting on the edge of the bunk.


“Good morning, Don-Shin.  How’s your head today,” Chuchurin asked with an impish grin.


“I didn’t drink quite as much as you and the captain, if you’ll recall.  I’m doing just fine,” he said.  “And you know you shouldn’t drink so much, Chuchurin. It’s bad for you in particular.”


“I can use my powers, Don-Shin, do not worry about me,” Chuchurin said, turning his eyes back to his book.  “Did you need something, friend?”


“Chuchurin, don’t you think we should be getting back to our world,” Don-Shin asked conversationally.  “Before High Command sends an investigation squad?”


“I heard your talk with the captain, and I happen to agree with you, Don-Shin,” said Chuchurin in the same sort of passing-the-time-of-day way.  “I’ve never talked to the guys in the investigation squads, but I’m not in any rush to experience it.  Especially not in a world I’m not familiar with.”  Don-Shin breathed a sigh of relief.  Perhaps things would turn out okay after all.  All he had to do now was wait for Chuchurin to voice his concern to Ran’Atao.  Surely the captain would listen if the both of them brought it up to him.  Surely.


After checking out the hardware store, the post office across the street, and two cottages, Bradley Ashford finally relaxed a little, walking along upright with his weapon in hand.  The creatures who’d done this to Tarenloll were long gone, most likely never to return and cause more trouble.  The problem now, he thought, would be one of what would happen to the town when a postmaster rode into town (Bradley Ashford still didn’t know anything about the magical or Alchemical methods of teleportation, and assumed they were Pony Express types), or any other traveler for that matter.  What would they think?  Would there be a report made to that big city Stockholm had mentioned, Ja-Wen?


Tarenloll was an outer boundary protectorate of the big city, and it may well become a military outpost if they suspected a hint of hostility from the Desperation.  Hina mentioned to Ashford that though the tribes of the desert generally got along as well as water and oil, they could unite when they needed to.  “And I suspect that would include the Lizardmen joining with the Minotaurs, though their Races tend to have bad blood between them.”


“Come on, our time’s almost up,” Ashford said.  They’d performed a thorough search through the buildings they’d entered, and found that for the most part they had been left intact.  However, Hina had noticed and mentioned that the grills in the diner’s kitchen had been used after the slaughter of the townspeople, if her perceptions held true.  “So they holed up somewhere in town and fetched a meal before leaving this coffin of a town.  Makes me a little sick to think we’re about to do the same,” he said.


“The big difference Brad is that we didn’t kill anybody.  Yet,” she added for good measure, and in such an icy tone that Bradley Ashford was once again glad that she was on his side.  The Marine and Q Mage headed outside, and back toward the town’s main intersection.  Stockholm and Timothy sat on a bench off to one side of the hotel’s entrance, both of them stone faced and silent.  “What did you guys find,” she asked as they met up.


“Tim’s got a good idea what they look like,” Stockholm said.  “He used a spell to trace their energies, first from a big fellow in the tavern, and then he found the other two’s traces inside here,” he said, hooking his thumb toward the hotel. “But that’s it.”


“So we’re dealing with three people,” Ashford said, nodding.  Timothy proceeded to give Hina and Ashford a physical description of the three Rukon, and even the Marine associated the uniforms he described with the samurai movies he’d seen in his world.


“For three men to do all of this, they must be pretty powerful,” Hina offered.


“Not necessarily,” said Ashford.  “This was an ambush, and like you all said, nobody here looks like they were much ready for something like them.  We found a diner that’s modest and a workable kitchen.  There’s even some food there, and Hina’s pretty sure they had a meal there before pushing on to wherever the hell they are.”  He spit in the dirt road once again, and took some water from his canteen.


“Good enough,” said Stockholm.  He folded his arms over his sizable chest, and mused for a minute.  “We’ll head to the diner and grab something to eat. After we eat, Tim, Hina, you two head into the hotel and get some rest.  Brad, you and I have an errand to run after we eat and before we take any sleep.  We’ll head out at dusk,” he said.


“Why at night,” asked Tim and Hina in unison.


“Because, the tribal folk of the Desperation are typically daylight creatures, especially the Lizardmen that worship the sun god Surya,” Stockholm replied. “They’re less likely to be looking for people in their lands after dark.  Let’s go fetch us some grub for now,” he said, letting Ashford lead the way.  He let Hina and Tim go next, acting as a rear guard in case things were not what they appeared. However, on their way to the diner, he did see one thing that mystified him. Though all of the citizens of this township had been slain, there was a single survivor after all.  Somebody’s orange tabby cat, an animal that had probably sensed trouble a mile away.


He wished he could talk to cats, though the only animals he’d ever been able to cobble together a conversation with had been dogs, wolves and coyotes. He’d even had an interesting discussion once with an aged fox, and he only dubbed it interesting because as a species, the creatures were clearly quite crafty. They had riddled each other back and forth, and when the fox bested the Red Tribesman, it had only demanded some food for a prize.  Stockholm had given the starving animal an entire pound of salted venison, which the creature had tucked into quite greedily.


“Wait,” he said, bringing the others to a halt.  He was staring at the tabby, because it hadn’t flinched when he looked at it sitting up on a porch railing along the front of a small cottage.  “Hina?”


“What is it Stocky?  Oh hey!  Look at that,” she said, finally noticing the animal.  It meowed loudly at her, his little motor running as he purred while Hina approached slowly, one arm out with the hand hanging limply.


“How did it survive all of this,” Timothy asked aloud.


“He was probably out in the northern fields, chasing miceys, wasn’t you little one,” Hina said, babble-talking to the tabby cat.  Tim thought her tone awfully reminiscent of how his mother used to talk to him when he was wearing training pants, and he winced at the memory of his mother.  He wondered briefly if she worried about him late at night, and wouldn’t have been surprised to know that yes, she worried constantly, not just when the sun went down in flight of the moon.  Hina’s parents worried about her as well, though her father less so than her mother.


“Hina, I know it’s bad to make assumptions, but you’re an Elf, and Elves have ever been known for talking with the animals and plants,” said Stockholm cautiously, not wanting to get his hopes up too much.  “Is there any chance you can talk to this animal?”


“I’m afraid not,” said she, and Stockholm nodded.  “I’d have to spend some time with him to get to that point, time we don’t have.  I can talk to canines easily enough on the fly, but not felines.  Never really got the knack for them,” she said. She stroked the cat’s furry little head, enjoying briefly the thrum in its throat. After she gave the animal a few minutes of attention, the company turned and headed for the diner.  They had a fifth for dinner, as it turned out.


After a brief meal consisting largely of hamburgers and what few vegetables they found in the larder, Timothy, Hina and their new pet headed to the hotel while Stockholm searched the town with Ashford for a smithy or weapons shop. They found what they needed after twenty minutes, and Stockholm wasn’t surprised to find that the building was fairly scorched.  “All right, we’ll talk out here first, and then I’ll go in and grab what you’ll need,” Stockholm said decisively.  “If the roof gives in, I can handle the damage.”


“What are we here for, anyway,” Ashford asked, feeling mildly uncomfortable now that he was alone with the big red menace.


“Brad, how many bullets would you say you have left in that magazine,” Stockholm asked, pointing at the banana-shaped clip on the M-16.


“Probably nine, maybe twelve,” the Marine replied quietly.  “Plus I’ve got a couple extra one hundred and twenty round extended mags in my pack.  Why?”


“My point here, Brad, is that you’re going to run out eventually,” Stockholm said bluntly, looking down into Ashford’s face.  “That speed shooter of yours fires on single shot, three-round and automatic bursts.  I assume you mostly trained with the three-round and automatic settings, right?”


“Well yes,” Ashford said, puffing out his chest a little.  “I’m no marksman, boss.  My job title didn’t generally come with a lot of long range fighting responsibilities.”


“Okay.  Now, your sidearm,” Stockholm said, pointing to the pistol on Ashford’s hip.  “Did you bring spare clips for that?”  Ashford thought about it, and then shook his head.  No, he had not, in fact, thought to arm himself very heavily before his unit had gone back to his version of Earth.  “Okay, so that’ll run out of bullets in an even bigger hurry when it comes right down to it.  So what you need, colonel, is a reserve weapon.  Now, what’s your preference?”


Ashford tried to think about all of the fantasy novels he’d ever read back in his world.  In most of those yarns, the weapon of choice for both good and evil had been the sword.  The good guys generally used enchanted weapons endowed with benign magic, while the bad guys used huge cleavers and scimitars (Timothy would have laughed a little awkwardly at this observation) full of evil and malicious curses.


What sort of weapon did he want to use, then?  Because hey, he didn’t want to be unoriginal, though that was hardly possible anymore, was it?  After all, they had firearms in this world apparently, and big, red and vicious had known enough about them to know that Brad’s ammunition was limited.  If he chose a sword, he’d feel a bit foolish, because he’d never used one in his life outside of a video game.


Then he thought about the weapons he’d seen the mages and Stockholm himself using.  Hina wore a short sword, though he’d yet to see her use it extensively.  The weapon was wide in the blade, but short from hilt to tip, well balanced for a young Elven woman.  Timothy’s short staff had the ability to morph its shape, and Brad had seen him demonstrate the weapon’s abilities.  His preferred weapons of choice were an enchanted axe and rapier.  And Stockholm himself carried a double headed axe like the Dwarves in Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth.  That made two swords and two axes, and he wanted to go against the norm.


“Get me a mace,” he said to Stockholm, who showed a toothy smile of approval.


“Short handled or long,” Stockholm asked.


“Make it long handled for now, until I get used to it,” Ashford said.


“Smooth head, studded head, or rimmed,” was the Werewolf’s next question, and to this Ashford merely blinked.  “Never mind, I’ll exercise my own judgement on that one.  Okay, wait here a minute,” he said, dashing inside of the weapons shop before Ashford could protest.  After twenty minutes, he returned through the door, and when he pulled the door shut behind him out of habit, there issued from the building a horribly brittle creaking sound.  The roof of the shop gave way, and the force of the boards and shingles crashing into the main shop blew out the shop’s only window.  A large cloud of dust and ashes flowed out of the shattered window, almost fast enough to be a large sneeze.


Stockholm merely stood on the porch with his whole body tensed, straight as a nail with a long handled iron mace in hand, garish iron spikes studding the round head of the weapon.  He broke his own paralysis after Ashford started laughing like a loon at him, the whole image making him think of Looney Tunes cartoons from his childhood.  Stockholm handed him the weapon, and together, they headed to the hotel to rest up and mull things over.


An hour before dusk came to their part of the world, Chuchurin and Don-Shin approached the captain on the northern boundary of the Lizardman encampment.  Chuchurin saluted his captain smartly, and then cleared his throat. “Captain, I heard your conversation with Don-Shin this morning.  I must say, sir, that I happen to agree with Don-Shin.  I think we should get back to our world, and on the hurry.”  Ran’Atao grumbled a little, and looked away to the north.  “Sir, I know how you feel about this city of Ja-Wen, but our primary duties lay back home, in our world, dealing with our own world’s demons.”


Ran’Atao felt a little torn about the whole situation, and when he opened his mouth to speak, a small, acid-flavored burp came out.  Whether the sudden result of nervousness or the excessive amounts of wine consumed the night before he wasn’t sure, but neither seemed a grand possibility.  Still, he remained composed when he spoke to his men.  “You are both aware, aren’t you, that we have done nothing wrong here, right?”


“Of course, sir,” Chuchurin said.


“You have never lead us astray, sir,” Don-Shin added.


“Excellent.  And you are both willing to obey my orders when I give them, even if you don’t agree with them, yes,” Ran’Atao asked, feeling a little more sure of himself.


“Yes captain,” both smaller Rukon replied in harmony.


“Also excellent.  Since that is the case, listen to me well.  We are going to leave this village and head back in the direction of this portal we came through. We shall make camp not too far from it, so Don-Shin, you’ll be leading us there. Though I must admit that even I can sense its resonance now,” said Ran’Atao, a significant observation since, for the most part, he’d rarely been able to detect any form of mystic power other than demonic magic.  “We shall make camp one mile from its location, so you’ll have to tell us where to park it, Don-Shin.  We will wait there for two days.  If the investigation unit comes looking for us, we shall return with them to our home world.  If they do not show up in that time, we shall proceed north, after coming back here to ask for supplies.  Understood?”


Both of Ran’Atao’s remaining men nodded and saluted, Don-Shin confident that the investigation unit would arrive by then, Chuchurin afraid that they might even send an Inquisitor.  Those humans born with innate mystic powers often rose to such positions in the military, and Chuchurin once stood in the presence of such an Inquisitor.  The man’s sheer level of mystic power far rivaled even his own, trumping him by several times.  This Chuchurin had known by simply brushing against the fellow.


The decision made, the Rukon checked their supplies, assuring themselves that two days in the desert alone would not be too much.  Satisfied that this condition was met, the three purple fleshed humanoids struck out east, Don-Shin leading the way toward the portal.  When the Rukon with the mirrored shades lead them past the first mile, he sent out his power vision once more, and nearly screamed.  The three power signatures from before were on the move once again. The two groups appeared to be on a collision course, and he could do nothing to stop it.


“Well, I’ve managed to hear his name a few times,” said Hina just before they struck out from Tarenloll.  “His name is Nostrum.”


“Nostrum,” Timothy asked, reaching around and patting the cat on Hina’s lap as they sat astride the horse.  “Like, as in medicine?”  The cat answered this time, meowing loudly.  “Hey, whatever works,” Timothy said.  Stockholm had little to say at this point, as what he had in mind was well known now.  He had decided that the killers of Tarenloll could wait for punishment.  The rift in reality was giving off massive waves of energy, and though he could sense that it still wasn’t permanent, it was approaching a very near thing.  He had to get to the rift and seal it up.


Sealing the rift would take a tremendous amount of his willpower and strength at this point in its development, and he wasn’t one for kidding himself. He’d be left nearly powerless after this last rift closed forever.  If the creatures from that other world happened to be nearby when the task was done, he would have little or nothing to offer the others in the way of aid.  As such, there was one minor task he wanted to complete before sealing the rift, and that task would involve Timothy Vandross, for good or ill.  The gods wouldn’t be pleased with his idea, but he cared little or nothing for what they approved of these days.


He took his bestial form and sprinted off, hurtling forward on his four thick, powerful legs.  Half an hour later, they were in the desert proper, and he could smell the faint odor off the creatures they bound themselves to slaying when their business with the portal was over.  They were still quite far off, and from what he could tell, they were heading in the same direction as Stockholm, Hina, Timothy and Ashford.  But they would be on foot, while the Red Tribesman and his crew held a huge speed advantage, especially over desert terrain.


He marked them as having almost half a day between their arrival at the portal, and the arrival of the killers of Tarenloll.  It would certainly be a narrow thing when viewed from the overall position of where things had started on this little adventure, but he found that narrow window of time getting smaller as he pressed closer to the portal.  It would take him several hours to seal this final rift.


Afterwards, he wouldn’t just be incapacitated, he thought.  He’d be half-dead.  If the creatures came upon the company with him in that state, he’d be worse than that.  He’d become a target for open attack, and the others would be hard pressed to defend his unconscious body.  His plans for Timothy Vandross would indeed be necessary.  There simply was no other way.


Eight hours later, in the small, dark hours of true morning, Stockholm’s company came upon a set of hills that looked so craggy and solid that the mages wondered if perhaps they had once been towering mountains, whittled down by the ages into mere foothills.  Hina thought back on her history texts, and though that yes, these had once been mountains, until the first years of the Fourth Age, the Age of Mecha.  The city-state of Ja-Wen had brought huge armored vehicles out here to the Desperation to test their destructive capabilities, and the mountains had been their targets.  A shame really, she mused.  They had probably been beautiful.


Ashford and Stockholm’s attention lay directed at a large hole near the base of one of these hills, a sloping cavern entrance from which the entire company could hear a low, brain-grinding whine flow out like the slow and incessant cry of a harpy.  The cave stood perhaps seven hundred yards away, and at this proximity Stockholm changed his body’s structure, taking on his bestial form once again.


“Yon cave is where our business lies,” Stockholm said, pointing with one clawed finger at the cave’s mouth.  “Timothy, dismount,” he said, using his well practiced tone of command, and the Void Mage obeyed immediately, almost as if drilled in the military.  “Hina, Bradley, go on ahead.  Young Tim and I have something to discuss before we proceed.”  Hina looked down into Tim’s eyes, and he gave her the gentle smile of the youthful and in love.  She nodded, and gigged her mount ahead, Ashford following behind dutifully.  He’d heard the commanding tones of superiors for most of his life, and he recognized the tone that Stockholm had used.  It said by way of tone alone that the Red Tribesman would brook no argument on this decision.


When the Elven Q Mage and the Human Marine (who would later take the label of Soldier Class) entered the mouth of the cave in the distance, leaving the horses outside, Stockholm turned with his arms over his barrel chest to young master Timothy Vandross.  What Stockholm had in mind relied almost entirely on the fact that Timothy was a Void Mage, and had the use of a hand-made Void rod. The real problem with this part of Stockholm’s plan lay in the fact that what he intended to do came with the very real and grave risk of harming, maybe even killing, this talented young half-Elf.


“What’s on your mind, boss man,” Timothy asked amiably enough, though his eyes glimmered with heated intensity.  Yes, Stockholm thought, this young man knows that I’m about to propose something insane.  Only Maragshet would consider what I’m about to do reasonable and worthwhile.  What does that say about me?


“Timothy, you are filled with a deep, deep steel,” Stockholm began.  “I first noticed it when I tested you and Hina in my kitchen and living room.  That buried steel has become more apparent over the course of our trek, especially during the fight at the second rift.  And a few days ago, early in the morning this was, you awoke with what I took as a second wind.  I want you to tell me about it.”


And so Timothy stood there in the pounding desert sun and told Stockholm all about the dreams that had been plaguing him for the last few years, including the most recent one, wherein he’d actually stood his ground and done battle with the phantom Richard Vandross.  Stockholm took this all in stride, and when Timothy told him the conclusion of that encounter, he felt greatly encouraged about this phase of his plan.  If anyone is worthy, Stockholm thought, it is this young man.  Some day in the future, he will become the very antithesis of Richard Vandross.


“It bodes well for us all that you were victorious, Tim.  Very well indeed,” he said, activating the sigil on the back of his right hand.  Hazy smoke streamed from his clenched fist, and Stockholm could feel the Fist of the Breaker demanding his use.  It called to him in the booming voice of the entire Heavenly Court, and in the voice he once used as the God of Adventure.  “Timothy, you are a grand Void Mage, and you made that rod of yours by hand, yes?”  Timothy nodded, and something inside of his mind and heart clicked.  He took a defensive stance, and immediately began pouring his mana into producing magic shielding spells.


“Must I do this,” Timothy asked in a caged whisper, half excited by the prospect of Stockholm’s plan.  The Red Tribesman hadn’t said aloud yet what he intended, but Timothy knew all the same.


“Yes!  When I seal the rift, I will be left almost powerless, surely no more helpful than a newborn babe upon his mother’s breast!  Hear me well, Timothy Vandross, you who intend to rise above the fate of your bloodline,” Stockholm cried, welcoming in his heart the watchful eyes of the gods above.  Let them see this, he thought.  Let them tremble at the prospect of a mortal with Heavenly power.  “When the murderous beasts that destroyed Tarenloll arrive, they will find their way back home gone.  They will have no way of escaping justice at our hands.  And if they are as powerful as you have guessed, you will need this power of mine!  Prepare yourself and your Void rod, Timothy Vandross!  Prepare to take for yourself the supreme power of the Fist of the Breaker!”


Stockholm felt a sudden flash of bitter, icy power surge toward him from the multiple shields that Timothy had conjured, six layers of translucent magical power.  Yes, he was prepared all right, Stockholm thought, ye gods above he was ready for this.  In time, he also thought, Timothy Vandross would become more powerful and potent than he himself, a banished god.


The Red Tribe Werewolf could smell his own sweat, and the slightly more briny, stinging aroma of Timothy’s own glands hard at work.  Thick gray smoke poured out of his clenched right hand in chuffing clouds, streaming up and away in the winds from the northwest.  Connecting with this haze was Timothy’s now plainly visible stream of mana, swirling up around him in a bluish cyclone of magical force and potential.  Any outside observer would only see those two clear indications of gathering power, and they would surely tremble down to their souls.


The whooshing crackle of the winds and opposing forces rose to such a din that even the three Rukon, still eleven hours away from this point, could faintly make it out with their ears and minds.  Ran’Atao’s blood rose as if in heated battle, Chuchurin trembled in his plain wooden sandals, and Don-Shin’s heart skipped several beats.  To Stockholm and Timothy both, the noise had reached nearly deafening volume, turning their eyes into streaming valves left half-open. Shadows cast by the light of Timothy’s mana stretched impossibly long to the southeast, and those few animals in the vicinity started vacating the area in a hurry.  Something big was going on here, and none of them wanted anything to do with it.


A trembling quake started up in Stockholm’s shoulder, and he felt fit to burst if he did not release the Fist of the Breaker soon.  But he had to hold it in a few more moments, make certain that Timothy would live through this little ordeal.  He could still make out the Void Mage through the smoke and the whirling mana, and a surge of fear, irrational when he considered it later, crept through him like a house burglar.  Timothy appeared somehow larger, more there than Stockholm somehow, more vital.  Stockholm had a moment wherein he honestly feared that his own power would come hurtling back at him if he struck, killing him instantly.


But if he was fated to die this day, then so be it, he spat at himself.  With one final roar, he burst forth, screaming, “FOR VICTORY!”  As he came crashing through the air at Timothy, he saw the Void Mage clearly, standing tall and triumphant, a regal air of confidence wrapped around him inside of his mana cyclone.  He turned his head and looked up at Stockholm with the most piercing blue eyes the Red Tribesman had ever seen.


“For Tamalaria,” Timothy said in a flat, even voice, bringing his arms up in an X in front of the strike zone, his upper chest.  Stockholm’s fist landed on the Void Mage’s right forearm, and he was stopped dead in the air.  The power of the Fist of the Breaker and Timothy Vandross’s Void magic exploded in a ringing wave, sweeping out for dozens of miles in all directions at nearly impossible speeds. Bright white lightning sparked and crackled between Stockholm’s knuckles and Timothy’s forearm, bringing with it the stale odor of burning ozone.


Timothy started pressing his crossed arms forward, directly into that clashing middle zone of force.  “I will fear no man, no power, and no phantom,” Timothy said, once again in the flat, cold tone of one who commands nations.  “I will fear NO ONE!”  The young Void Mage drew his arms apart and let them hang out at his sides in a perfect line.  The white lightning tore into his body, wracking him back and forth with its energy, yet he smiled angelically in the grip of that power.


Stockholm had expected his Fist of the Breaker to be absorbed by Timothy and then channeled into the Void rod on his hip, but suddenly, that seemed quite foolish.  He landed in a three-point crouch, the force that had been holding him in the air no long connected to him.  The rod would have been torn apart.  But Timothy himself?  No, Stockholm thought, a smile creasing his lupine snout.  He would take this power into himself, and all to the good.


The lightning ceased pressing through Timothy’s body, and though he’d felt not a moment of pain, he did now feel something like lava pouring through his right arm.  The flesh on the back of his right hand split open in an arcane symbol pattern, and he found he recognized it instantly through the blood.  The same brand marked the back of Stockholm’s right hand.


Timothy Vandross had absorbed the Fist of the Breaker.


Tim and Stockholm entered the mouth of the cave sweating profusely, but neither man felt any worse for wear.  Ashford and Hina stood inside the antechamber of the cavern, and Stockholm wondered if either of them had actually gone across this chamber to the ramp that opened up on the other side. “No, Stocky,” Hina said briefly, her own racing heart only now finally slowing down.  She’d felt the rift when she and Ashford entered, but its power had been quickly blotted out by what she felt coming from the two gentlemen before her, her leader and her lover.  “We wanted to wait for you two to get here before we went down there.  But that’s where the rift is, that’s for sure.”


The portal had only about a week and a half, two weeks ago tossed five life forms from its mouth so violently that they’d been ejected right from the mouth of the cave, flying miles away.  One had been unfortunately light, and his forehead had connected with the upper arch of the cave entrance, snapping his head back and breaking his neck.  Another had landed all those miles away face first into an up-thrust rock in the sands, and his neck too had been broken.  Though none of this company knew that, the three survivors of the incident were on the way toward the portal, and Stockholm definitely knew that much.


“All right, here’s how it’s going to happen,” Stockholm said, looking around the sizable chamber.  Limestone, he thought.  The echoes are really very pretty. “I’m going to go down that ramp to the portal, and start sealing it.  It’s going to take a few hours, I believe,” he said, heaving a sigh of relief.  The portal didn’t feel permanent, not yet, and he supposed he’d been fortunate in that regard. “Afterward, I’m going to be powerless, I’ll admit that again right now.  Regardless of what you hear down there, you are to remain in this chamber.”


“What if those people come,” Ashford asked, the mace hanging in a rawhide sling Stockholm had fashioned to his belt for him, the M-16 in hand.  “The purple freaks, I mean.”


“Take care of them,” Stockholm said bluntly.  “Disarm them if you can and beat them into submission.  We can tie them up and turn them over to the authorities in Ja-Wen at that point.”


“They won’t be taken prisoner,” Hina said, remembering once again the rag doll.  Nostrum meowed as if to agree with this, rubbing against her leg.


“Then kill them,” Stockholm said.  He cracked his neck, swinging it in a stiff circle on his shoulders.  “They’re a ways away yet, so do what you can to prepare for their arrival.  Let’s get this thing done,” he said, and moved off toward the ramp leading to the portal below.  Ashford, Hina and Timothy looked from one to the other, even sparing a glance down at Nostrum for a moment.


“Well, you heard the man,” said Ashford after a moment.  “Let’s roll out the red carpet!”


Ashford began the preparations, rigging a long, thin cord across the mouth of the cave to one of his remaining grenades.  He had four of them, and now the count stood at three.  Timothy had asked if the explosion Ashford expected might cause a cave-in, and Ashford had responded quickly.  “As much magic as y’all are gonna be lettin’ out, that don’t matter much does it, son?  Sure, we’ll be blocked in for a while, but when it’s all said and done, I’m sure we’ve got a way out.”


Timothy and Hina quickly agreed, and quickly set about locking a few spells around the area their guests would be running to after the grenade exploded.  The two of them worked well together, Ashford thought, and seemed to have a knack for setting up magic trap combinations.  Hina had placed a few Holding spells along the area, and Timothy had set an Aeromancy spell in the spots between her spells, the spell Upthrust.  This, he explained, would unleash a powerful gust of air magic that would throw the enemies up toward the ceiling of the chamber.


Timothy then used a Levitation spell, and rose toward the ceiling, locking more spells into the ceiling, mainly the Gaiamancy spell Gravity Fist.  This spell, when cast on an airborne target, created a vacuum of gravity that would press down on the target, sending back toward the earth at high velocity.  Ashford found this setup quite ingenious, if a little nasty.  Then again, he mused, look at what we’re dealing with.


Because of the size of the chamber as a whole, Timothy and Hina finished these traps and then stopped.  They had too much area to cover, and neither wanted to use their entire reserve of mana before the battle itself.  “Do you have anymore of those bagged rations,” Timothy asked, and Ashford nodded.  He set his rucksack on the floor of the cavern and pulled out his remaining eight pouches.


“You can have them all, if you want.  You need to eat or sleep to restore your magic energy, right?”


“Correct,” said Hina.  “It’s called mana.”


“Right, mana.  Guess I’m still getting used to the language here,” Ashford said, scratching his stubble riddled cheek.  From below, at the portal, they all heard a horrific growling from Stockholm, and Hina took an immediate step in that direction, but was stopped by Timothy.  He stood directly in her way, his arms spread out.


“No.  Remember what he said,” Timothy whispered.  Hina instead took his right hand, and looked at the blood soaked bandaging there.  Tim let her hold his hand, but he looked away awkwardly.  He’d applied the bandage himself right after absorbing the Fist of the Breaker, and he didn’t want her to see the marking there yet.


“You should heal this, or let me rewrap it,” she said, looking gravely at his hand and the dark crimson spot on the white cloth strips.  She thought of another odd thing she’d noticed about Timothy.  His eyes had changed, she thought, if not the general color, then at least the hue.


“Don’t worry about this,” Timothy said, using his hands to hold hers and thus hide the bandaging.  Now another fierce growl came from below, and Timothy himself almost ran to Stockholm’s side, but he’d given them very solid orders.  They were to remain here, in this cavern chamber.  But, Tim thought, that didn’t mean they could do nothing to help.  “Before we eat, Hina, let’s choke that ramp’s entryway,” he said.  She agreed, and they both went over to the arched hole, locking a few spells there as Ashford started heating water over a small fire for the rations.


Despite their dangerous circumstances at present, Bradley Ashford found that he wasn’t too concerned, really.  If he died, well, every man owed a death, right?  In the meantime, he was going to enjoy as much of this world as he could. And when this confrontation was over, and the company headed back to wherever they were bound, he himself would ask them to escort him to Ja-Wen.  It sounded like a nice enough town from what Hina and Stockholm had said.


Who knows?  He might even become a cop and get himself a nice little place in town, someplace to call home.  It would sure as hell beat living on a military complex his whole life.  Maybe he’d even do some gardening like he’d always meant to.  A man was never so old he couldn’t follow up on such hobby interests.


“How much further, Don-Shin,” Ran’Atao asked, a touch impatiently.  What Don-Shin had sensed days earlier he know detected faintly, and he worried about that shock wave that had knocked them down several hours ago.  That power had momentarily blotted out even the pulsing of the portal, and now the waves the portal had been giving off were starting to fade away, receding back toward the portal itself.  He wondered if perhaps the portal might be closing somehow, and he found that prospect uncomfortable.  He didn’t want to be stuck in this world forever, after all.


“Two or three hours, more likely two and a half,” Don-Shin reported, his guts squirming, bile rising and falling in his throat, threatening to come out of his mouth as vomit.  “Captain, something’s wrong with the portal.”


“I know,” the huge Rukon said, arming sweat from his forehead.  Even in the darkness of the predawn hours this desert was unimaginably hot, and he suddenly longed for the air conditioned unit he lived in most of the time.  “I also know now that I should have taken us back sooner than this, and for that I am dreadfully sorry, brothers.”


“Don’t worry too much about it, sir,” Chuchurin said, trying to aim for levity, though he himself had been terrified by that shock wave earlier, more so even than Don-Shin or Ran’Atao.  “We’re going home, and that’s what matters.  Do you want me to handle the report when we get back?”


“That would certainly be a load off my shoulders,” Ran’Atao said with a wry smile, patting Chuchurin lightly between the shoulder blades.  “I’m not sure I’d know where to begin!”  Don-Shin felt a hot flush of blood in his cheeks, and though he knew he shouldn’t be, he found himself jealous of the captain’s obvious affection for the younger, smaller Rukon.  He’d been serving with captain Ran’Atao longer than Chuchurin, and he held higher ranking!  Why should the captain so dote on him?


No, he thought vehemently, I must not get distracted by such petty thoughts.  I must prepare myself for battle, even if the battle is weighed against us.  Don-Shin took a deep, steadying breath, and began psyching himself up for the oncoming fight.


Stockholm couldn’t believe how much resistance the portal put up to his healing hands, and at first felt certain this task would kill him instead of just rendering him senseless.  But after the first half an hour, he got a better handle on the portal.  Occasional bursts of energy ripped out of it into him, making him growl and cry out in agony, but he would handle this.  If the boy could take in the tremendous power of the Fist of the Breaker, then surely he could seal one rift in reality!


He heard Timothy and Hina locking spells at the top of the ramp, and was glad that they couldn’t see into the small circular chamber he stood in.  He’d had to change his appearance somewhat, with the permission of Lenos and Oun, and the mages would surely have dozens of questions if they saw him as he was now, half-awakened to his godly status.  Bulky fire-red armor covered his torso and legs, and he’d gained about half a foot of size and about a hundred pounds of sheer muscle volume.  His claws had become longer and dagger-like, as if he were in a full blown lycanthrope rage.  His ears laid flat across the top of his head, huge gold bangles pierced around the lobes and jingling against his skull.


The armor did not cover his arms, and the runes glowing, shining out on their surface would lead to more questions if the mages had but seen them for a moment.  His right hand had become wholly metallic, white gold with a tracing of the sigil on the back.  Titanite claws hooked out of the fingertips, capable of cutting through anything they struck.


Yet with even this power, he was having difficulty sealing the portal.  It had been a closer thing than he’d thought.  As soon as he’d descended to the portal, Lenos had spoken up in his mind, telling him that the gods had all consulted with one another, and agreed to let him awaken half of his godly power.  He’d need it, Lenos had informed him, or he would surely be destroyed in the sealing of the portal.


Standing there, sealing the portal slowly but surely, Stockholm agreed wholeheartedly.


Often, when warriors of any kind know that a fatal encounter is getting closer and closer, time ceases to have much meaning.  Seconds become minutes, minutes turn into hours, and hours into eternity.  The senses play tricks on them, and sharpen in the pre-combat period when they should be plotting some sort of strategy.  One Marine, one Q Mage, and one Void Mage felt this phenomenon fall fully upon them as they sat around a small fire, eating and drinking.  To the south, three Rukon also experienced it.


Between these six individuals, separated by only an hour in true time, not a word passed.  For the three in the cavern, the air took on a stale, dead quality.  For the three still marching toward that cavern, the air stung in their eyes as winds drove sand in their faces.  Even Don-Shin’s wrap-around shades didn’t protect him.  Each Rukon could smell his own sweat, and for two of them, the encroaching fear wafting into their nostrils like the smoke of burning bodies.


Did the gods above watch this march, or the waiting mages and Marine?  A few did, but most of them had their eyes firmly fixed on the exiled member of their ranks, Ignatious Stockholm.  One of those many subtly streamed his own Heavenly power down to the Red Tribesman, still patiently awaiting his return to his rightful place.  This one Great God was the presiding God of War, under whose jurisdiction Stockholm fell.


Oun stood in his office, peering down through the floor to the Mortal Realm below, his champion standing beside him.  “This is going to be quite the show, isn’t it my Lord,” Byron Aixler asked Oun.


“It shall be as nothing compared to what’s coming, and you and I both know it,” Oun said.  “They may not be fighting for the fate of the realm of Tamalaria, but they shouldn’t go unremembered for this, Byron.  I may not care much for Ignatious Stockholm, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t trying to do the right thing, even by my standards.”


“If he were any other mortal, you would try to lay claim to him, would you not,” Byron asked softly.


“You’re damned right I would,” said Oun.  “And you would not be standing by my side right now, but resting peacefully in my Paradise.”


“I don’t think I’d mind that much,” said Byron with a chuckle.  “It’s going to be a very close thing, isn’t it?”


“Too close.”


The waves kept pounding out of the portal and up into the cavern with Ashford, Timothy and Hina, but they were weakening faster and faster all the time.  He’s going to be done soon, Hina thought.  But ye gods, not soon enough! She hated to think that the diminishing power might be Stockholm’s life force, ripped away from him like the peel of a banana and tossed aside.  Yet she felt certain that if Stockholm perished, they’d all feel it.  The four of them shared some deeper connection than mere friendship, and she suspected that even when they parted ways (she taking Timothy with her, of course), the four of them would be meeting up again, and not too far in the future.


As the minutes had rolled by, she’d stared long and hard at the bandaging on Timothy’s hand, wondering about it, worrying that he’d been hurt by the man who was presently working very hard at sealing the rift in reality below them.  As if cued by this thought in her mind, Timothy started to unwrap his hand, going about the task painfully slow.  She looked into his face, and saw there the stony resolve he’d worn when facing the Fist of the Breaker outside.  That look frightened her a little, but not enough to affect her love for him.


When he took away the last of the cloth wrapping, she saw that his hand was covered dried blood.  The blood had likely come from the wound which was already starting to turn into a permanent scar on the back of his hand.  She recognized the sigil at once as the same brand on Stockholm’s hand, the brand that Bradley Ashford had not been witness to for even a scant second.  “Tim,” she whispered into his ear.  He felt her hot breath on his neck, and it broke his concentration for a moment, but not enough to cast off the look on his face.


“It’s fine,” he said.  “It had to be done.”  And that was the moment when Hina noticed that Nostrum was nowhere to be found.  As before, the cat had sensed danger, and gotten out of Dodge.


Don-Shin stopped about a hundred yards in front of the mouth of the cave. Shadows still lay pooled together at the mouth of the cave, but all three Rukon could see a small spark of fire inside, perhaps another fifty yards beyond the entrance tunnel of the cave.  Ran’Atao drew his blade from its sheath, and dropped his packsack from his shoulders.  “Leave them behind,” he said in his commanding tone of voice.  “There’s nothing too important in them anyway.”


“Yes sir,” both smaller Rukon said, dropping their bags to the sand.  Dawn raced toward them, sprinting with uncanny grace and speed as ever she did.  Don-Shin spoke then, finally giving voice to his fears.  His words came out watery and laced with the venom known as terror.  “It has been an honor serving with you, captain.”


“None of that, Don-Shin,” Ran’Atao almost shouted.  “We are righteous, the holy protectors of our world!  We will kneel only before the High Commander and God!  None other stands greater than they, and these creatures are no different, who or whatever they may be!”  Ran’Atao lowered his head for a moment, and raised his sword high over his head, channeling his power into it.  “Now come, men!  We leave this place behind, and return to our world, righteous soldiers, the Rukon, the wrathful hand of God!”


With a battle-cry that chilled Don-Shin and Chuchurin’s blood, Ran’Atao swept his blade down, commanding them to charge the cavern.


When the roar of Ran’Atao echoed into the cavern, all three travelers shot to their feet, Ashford with his M-16 set to full automatic fire.  His finger had reacted with a mind of its own, and he wasted a spray of twelve rounds into the walls of the cavern near the entrance.  All of them were on edge, because at the same moment Ran’Atao had screamed, a dreadfully final shriek of agony had escaped from the bottom of the ramp at the back of the cavern, from Stockholm. Yet they remained in the cavern, still adhering to his admonition to leave him lie. Once again, a good thing for Stockholm.


He had finally finished closing the rift, and the powers the gods had given him, even those for this quest, had been torn away, back to the Heavenly Plane. He loosed a shriek of agony from the pit of his soul as he felt the powers leaving him.  Stockholm’s body had gone limp, a fleshy noodle incapable of standing upright.  He vomited a great gout of blood onto the chamber floor, and then passed out.


Above the prone Red Tribesman, the sun to his back, Chuchurin sprinted ahead of Don-Shin and Ran’Atao, but the other two men quickly caught up and they ran three abreast into the mouth of the cavern.  Because of his generally more sensitive nerves, Chuchurin alone felt the trip wire snap against his lower shin, and the Rukon all barely avoided being blown apart by the fragmentation grenade Bradley Ashford had set for them.  They ran with more urgency into the cave itself, their eyes locked ahead on the three humanoid figures standing in a battle formation, and thus avoided the cave in.


Chuchurin and Ran’Atao, however, could not avoid the magical traps that had been laying in wait for them.  Ran’Atao stepped right onto one of the trigger spots of Hina’s Holding spell, and stopped dead in his tracks, able to move his upper body, but nothing from the waist down.  The spell normally held a target completely still, but the Rukon came from a world that did not work the same as this one.  Hina, Tim and Ashford saw that quite clearly.


Chuchurin, however, proved to be the first fatality of the battle.  He stepped on one of Timothy’s trigger traps, and was thrown, thrashing and screaming, up toward the vaulted ceiling of the cave.  As Don-Shin buried his blade in the ground to counteract the magic trying to work on him, he looked up through the tinted shades at the small Rukon healer.  Chuchurin struck the ceiling with a hard thud, and there the second part of Tim’s trap activated.  Chuchurin turned his head in time to give Don-Shin a horrible look, horrible because it held a sort of defeated acceptance.  The Gaiamancy spell unlocked, and sent Chuchurin hurtling into the cavern floor.  The force from the spell caused a sickening crunch of breaking bones and rupturing organs, and Chuchurin’s stomach burst open on the sides, spilling dark blood and stomach acid onto the cavern floor.


Don-Shin, shades as Tim had mentally dubbed him immediately, moved in front of the enormous purple warrior, his katana held before him in a traditional ready stance.  The magic hadn’t worked at all on him, and Timothy and Hina both brought their mana to bear.  Perhaps striking him simultaneously would do the trick, Hina thought.  She released a beam of light from one finger, her Great Raybolt spell, and it crashed into the sword at the same time as Timothy’s Volcannon Strike.  Both spells fizzled to nothing in the air a foot in front of shades’ katana.


Ran’Atao broke free of his binding spell then, and dashed out around Don-Shin, sweeping his blade with blinking speed at the woman, Hina.  She rolled back away from the attack, and drew her own short sword.  The man before her easily stood at least three feet taller than her, but she knew this to be an advantage when using a short sword.  Get in close, she thought, and I can do some damage. He came at her again, and when she blocked with her short sword, she saw that his katana was actually cutting through her weapon.  She struggled against his weapon, but did not make the fatal mistake of assuming she could back him off.


Timothy hurled the Thousand Needle spell at Don-Shin, but this too evaporated a foot before the purple Rukon.  Don-Shin was starting to regain some of his previous confidence, seeing that his blade could counter the various powers of these creatures.  Yes, he thought, this battle can be won!  Chuchurin may have fallen, but we can still claim victory, just the captain and I!


A pleasant thought, sure, but Don-Shin did not possess the thick, iron-like hide that the captain did.  So when Bradley Ashford finally decided to contribute to the battle, dozens of small, hot objects punched holes in Don-Shin’s side, one right into his hip.  The Rukon cried out in pain and shock.  What sort of weapon is that, he wondered, turning as he started to stumble backward and looking at Brad’s M-16.  It shoots fire, yet my blade could not stop it!


Timothy turned to see how Hina was holding up, and didn’t like what he saw.  She put up a couple of magic barriers, but Ran’Atao, the big guy Tim thought, was slowly but surely hacking them apart.  Hina’s Great Raybolt, even without Don-Shin’s protection, didn’t seem to much phase Ran’Atao, and in truth, it didn’t. It hurt him a little, surely, but not enough to slow him down much.  He quickly became infuriated with the task of cutting down her mystic barriers, but he knew that with patience and a lack of interruption, he could do it.  Don-Shin had been able to counteract these people’s powers, so he had plenty of time while the two men dealt with him.  Right?


Except when Ran’Atao turned his head for a second to check on Don-Shin, he saw that the black skinned humanoid was using some sort of throwing weapon on Don-Shin, and his second-in-command was jerking and twitching violently with the matching reports of the weapon’s usage.  Bradley Ashford dumped an entire banana clip into the Rukon, and every remaining combatant watched as Don-Shin, shades to Tim, fell back with dozens of bleeding holes pierced into his body.


“Don-Shin,” Ran’Atao screamed, and lunged away from Hina toward the Marine.  Ran’Atao’s blade swept down through the body of the M-16, not slowing for a second, and Ashford dropped what he had left and sprinted away, toward the cavern wall.  He took out his mace, but he didn’t want any part of the big guy, no sir.  In his left hand he held the mace, and with his right he pulled his pistol, leveling two shots at the Rukon.  Not surprisingly, the bullets didn’t make a dent. “Foul beasts!  I will destroy you all!”


Ran’Atao started to charge toward Bradley Ashford, but only made it halfway when Hina hit him from behind with a Blinding Light spell.  Ran’Atao howled like a dying coyote, his left hand shooting up to his face.  When he pulled his hand away, everything was snowy white, and he could see none of his opponents.  Ashford took advantage of this, and scurried away, toward the caved in entrance.  This was no longer his battle, and he knew that well.


But the Blinding Light spell started to fade away, also disrupted by Ran’Atao’s otherworldly body.  He spun on his heel, and faced the woman.  Yes, he thought, this bitch has got to go.  He set himself, readying his arms and his blade for one killer blow.  The blade made a ringing, metallic scraping sound, and he knew he had the edge he needed.  Ran’Atao dashed forward.


Timothy hadn’t rehearsed the next spell much with Hina, but he knew what she had in mind when she looked at him with a hesitant nod of the head.  Timothy geared himself up, and looked at the back of his right hand as the sigil there started to glow a sick crimson hue.  His timing on this would have to be good, or he would suffer for it.


As Ran’Atao closed the gap, he knew the woman was planning some new trickery, but he would cut through her magic and her body at the same time.  No more games, no more tricks, he was going home damn it!  Yet something about the woman seemed to shiver and waver when he was within ten feet of her. Ran’Atao blinked as he started to bring his blade down, and the woman wasn’t there.  It was the boy with the long ears and shimmering blue eyes.  Light, pure blood red, glowed on his fist, which was itself also wrapped in a white core of heat as it came thrusting up toward his sword.  He had already committed himself wholly to this attack, and suspected something in that split second before impact that he’d never expected.


His blade was going to be broken.


And it was.  The blade shattered all the way down to the hilt, and that terrible fist continued through on its course, connecting with the side of Ran’Atao’s face.  Stockholm’s use of this power would have broken the blade only in half, but the power now had the soul of Timothy Vandross to amplify it. Ran’Atao’s cheek broke apart, and a piece of his skull plate tore through the front of his brain, shutting off all of the lights inside as it passed by.  When the body knows its going to stop, it has an odd way of doing this sometimes.


Ran’Atao, Holy Protector and captain of the men who’d come into this world, fell dead to the floor of the cavern.  The whole conflict had taken less than five minutes despite all of the preparation.  Ashford certainly understood that this happened nine times out of ten, and he returned to the cavern just in time to see Ran’Atao topple heavily to the ground.


Timothy Vandross followed Ran’Atao to the floor and into darkness, though he was only unconscious when he hit the floor.