Cybersaur and Iron Rat faced one another from across the rooftops. The two closed in on one another, darting across rooftops, so only one street width kept them apart. Each held onto the hilt of their main weapon and sized the other up. Then they looked around the city, at the still citizens that had been walking the streets, frozen exactly in the action they were taking whenever the stillness settled upon Argreon.

“You did this, didn’t you?” accused Iron Rat, as he placed his hand on the pommel of his parrying dagger as well.

“How could I? I am a singer, no mage!”

“Every wizard says they’re not a wizard! That means you’re a wizard!”

Cybersaur snorted gruffly, “Facetious logic. You’ve the stench of magic about you!”

Iron Rat growled, “Well you stink also!”

Cybersaur pulled his very long and heavy sword out and swung it quickly about him. It was a testament to his strength that he could wield it with such ease. The sword was perhaps as large as Iron Rat himself. He pointed the tip towards the only other being with mobility in this city, “Either take that back or back it up with your steel, vermin!”

Iron Rat snorted, “I’m not doing either, fangs!”

“Fangs? How dare you! I’ve….” Cybersaur looked into the mirror sheen of his sword and noticed that he did in fact have fangs in his mouth. His face was still recognizable as his own, but it had taken on some of the features of a cybersaur raptor as well. He gave a dark growl, “Damn wizard.”

“Hah! So you admit your wizardry!”

“I admit I met one, vermin, not that I am one!”

Iron Rat took a slight step back, asking, “You met one? When?”

Cybersaur’s sword pointed downwards, in a relaxed position, “Just before I entered this town. In fact, said wizard put me in this town.”

“In an attic?”

“Yes,” growled Cybersaur, “Why?”

“Because I met a wizard just before I entered town. And they gifted me with the Esoteric Art of Shape Shifting, then they put me in an attic with their magic as well.”

“Interesting,” growled Cybersaur, as he sheathed his sword, “Were they named Faceless One?”

Iron Rat moved his hands off of the handles of his weapons and crossed them over his chest, “No, it was Many Eyes.”

Cybersaur’s sword lifted up again, “Then how do I know you’re still not my enemy!”

Iron Rat studied Cybersaur some. Fighting him would be difficult. The northern barbarian had size and strength on his side, in spades. And he was fast enough that Iron Rat’s agility would not save him for very long. He waved his hands about, “Hey, wait, I’m not an enemy. I don’t even know who you are.” Then he considered a bit. Many Eyes told him that he would know who he was to kill. He would know. He sized Cybersaur up some more.

“What, vermin? Your looks leering at my body offend me!”

“Yo, it ain’t like that, fangs!” Iron Rat took a slight step back on his roof then sat down upon it, “I’m thinking. My wizard told me I’d know who I was to kill in this city.”

“Mine, as well,” growled Cybersaur, as he also moved to sit at his own rooftop, the duo talking across the gap of the street splitting the buildings apart, “What of it?”

“Well, I was thinking. I feel no actual compulsion to kill you.”

“Nor I you, loathe am I to admit it.”

Iron Rat gave a nod, “Well, that’s good for me. Thank you.”

“Welcome. Now prattle forth.”

Iron Rat gave a short snort, “It’s not a prattle so much as a thinking out loud within your earshot. Look, we’re supposed to kill someone here in this city, and we’re supposed to know who, but neither of us have much of a feeling it’s the other. Right?”

“I am not disputing that, no.”

“You could have just said right. Anyway.” Iron Rat looked upwards to the sky, “Your wizard…Faceless One was it? Did they say they were an enemy of mine, Many Eyes?”

“They mentioned not the name of Many Eyes at all, nor of you,” Cybersaur stated.

“Good. So I do not think we are supposed to kill one another. I do not think our wizards are antagonistic to one another. Rivals, perhaps, but they’re not at war with one another and we’re not their pawns in a battle. I don’t think. Leastwise, not in a way that we need to fight amongst ourselves. With me so far?”

“I am agreeing with your premise, but I do not think I am very much ‘with you’, exactly.”

“Why’s that?”

Cybersaur gave a snort, “Because I’m downwind of you, vermin!”

Iron Rat gave a short laugh, “Alright, maybe I deserve that. Living in a swamp could do that to someone. How about instead of just a truce, we form an alliance?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Let’s form a partnership.” Cybersaur pointed to a bathhouse he could see from his rooftop that lay a few blocks behind Iron Rat’s location, “But first, let us wipe the stench off of ourselves so as not to offend the other’s oversensitive nostrils. Then, we find some spirits to down.”

“I thought you said you weren’t a wizard.”

“Alcohol, vermin fool! Liquor!”

Iron Rat hopped off of his roof to the street, landing in a gentle crouch, “Fine, let’s be off. Yo, what’s your name anyway, big guy? I can’t keep calling you fangs. Least, not when I’m not trying to be polite.”

“I am Cybersaur.”

“Like the beasties? Seems fitting. I’m Iron Rat.”

“Haha!” Cybersaur hopped down and gave a loud laugh that echoed down the alleys, “If you impress me, you can be Steel Vermin then!”

“Hey! Watch it, bub! This could be a quickly ended friendship if you keep pressing that V word on me.”

Cybersaur rested a powerful hand on Iron Rat’s head and started to lead him down the street, “An old nickname from when you were younger, yes? It still chafes you?”

“It still does.”

“Mayhaps when this adventure in Argreon is complete, I can help you gain revenge on the bullies you had from this times.”

Iron Rat gave a sidelong glance to his new companion and a soft shrug, “Nah. Don’t worry about it. I mean, kind of you to offer and all. But what good would that do me now?”

“Wisdom in those words, small one.”

Iron Rat slapped Cybersaur’s forearm, “Now that’s even worse!”

Cybersaur growled down at his new companion and gave him a dark look. Then the two burst out laughing as they entered the bathhouse. Each went to a bath of their own, Cybersaur taking what is normally the men’s bath and Iron Rat the female’s bath, their weapons placed at the edge of the baths and within quick reach. It was not just an issue of trusting the other, but it was also due to the strangeness of everyone in Argreon being completely still. Iron Rat cursed that none of the city’s females had been using the bath when the stillness set in.

Afterwards, the duo went to the bar across the street. They found fermented positronium of various flavors and began to pour themselves several drinks. They set them across the bar, Iron Rat taking one end and Cybersaur the other, meeting up in the center of the bar with the strongest of said drinks.

Cybersaur and Iron Rat each started the drinking farthest away from one another. They’d drink their first drink, then move closer to one another, drink the second one, and repeat. Eventually they’d be drunk and next to one another.

Hefting his first mug, Cybersaur gave, “From the frozen north I come, I who am Cybersaur.”

Iron Rat hefted his own mug, “Iron Rat is my name, most recently of the northern swamps.”

After the drinks were drunk, which took some time for these mugs were filled high, they moved closer and took their second drinks. Cybersaur started, “Enslaved when I was gone are a number of my people, and I am here to rescue them.”

Iron Rat took his own drink and stated his intent as, “A mentor who taught me nothing and used me as his one house’s caretaker was kidnapped by a small group. I would rescue him.”

When they got to their third drink, Cybersaur said, “This I offer to you then, that a rescue of your friend be attempted.”

“Agreed,” Iron Rat said with his third drink, “And thank you. But first we rescue your people.”

“Why?”

Iron Rat gave a laugh, “Because if any are half as powerful as you, that’s several good allies we have on our side!”

Cybersaur snorted and asked, “And if they’re immobilized like the rest of this city?”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“So.”

“Maybe.”

“Whatever.”

The two kept drinking and kept moving closer to one another with each drink. But their statements were less and less unintelligible with the emptying of the mugs, and their alcohold muddled minds had to fill in the blanks of the other’s intent.

When they finished the last drinks, they pledged eternal brotherhood in a way that only drunken camaraderie could exhibit, then passed out against the bar.

When they awoke late the next day, they found that their weapons were not with them, They further found, to their chagrin, that they were no longer in the bar.

They were in a cell.

Which means someone else in this city was able to move around, and they or their minions dragged the two into this cell.

The one they had to kill, perhaps?

Cybersaur tracked the slaver’s caravan, but with the need to descend The Sisters, the caravan had a large head start on him, and he always a day behind. They had left a trail of forlorn families who lost one or more of their kin to their brutal rampage. The stares of the despondent left Cybersaur’s heart chilled, and after the first three towns he passed in this manner, he went around and bypassed the rest after. After a few such treks around towns he noticed that the caravan stayed only upon the main roadways and that they were traveling south, likely to the large city of Argreon. It was a place of wonders he heard about in stories in the past. But it was a place that trafficked in everything, even slaves, and their destination was all but assured. Knowing this, he was able to take to the foothills and sidepaths and catch up to them. Eventually, a half day’s journey outside Argreon, he surpassed the ones he was pursuing and had time to set up an ambush. He worked boulders and branches in such a way as to fall upon the caravan and knock most of the guards off the hill road, if the timing was right.

Iron Rat, for his part, had been following his own quarry. Unlike Cybersaur, he had no desire to catch up or even overtake his prey. He only intended to follow them, wait for the moment when the armed group made a mistake or split apart, then rescue the mentor he never obtained a lesson from. He simply stayed out of their sight as he kept moving after them. The group, however, had kept a guard on watch always, at night, and during the day kept one riding outwards from the group to scout. So he had no chance to rush in for the rescue then flee, and in fact, had struggled to keep up at times.

When the slaver’s caravan had come upon Cybersaur’s ambush spot, Iron Rat was about to try to play a trick to distract the group and throw them off guard. And just as the duo, in their own spots, were about to burst into movement….they were frozen in place.

Their quarry continued onwards, the duo just able to watch them move on. Cybersaur saw his move into the western gate of Argreon, and Iron Rat, the northern one. The duo were completely still, their bodies locked in place, just as they were moving to make their ambuscade.

Cybersaur growled in rage as his targets vanished out of sight, then growled again darkly as before him came the vision of something grotesque and alien! It was a strange life form that floated on tentacles, of a gigantic bulbous shape, whose size easily matched his own. The being had soft metallic flesh of dead, wet grey and a voice that could tarnish copper. But the strange being had a multitude amount of heads, all twisting about one another!  The strange being had a strange way of speaking, one sentence per head, each with a face unique to that head. “A foolish mistake you were about to make, yet save you I did. In exchange, a favor to be done for me, the Faceless One!”

Cybersaur stared and only replied with a quiet, “…”

“Come come now, I returned your power of speech, ye strong skald! Show me some of that quick wit and hold a conversation with I!”

“That’s a stupid name.”

The alien being gave a cacaphonous roar of laughter from its many mouths then snorted, “Never have I heard that. Pray pray, why is my moniker not approved by you, do tell!”

“You have six faces.”

“Oh ho ho! Yes, six faces but seven heads! See now, my name is fitting!”

“Fitting but stupid. But enough nonsense. Why did you stop me?”

The alien being stood upright, its heads still corkscrewing about one another, “You would not have survived, though you would have made quite an accounting of yourself. No no, I can not have that. Of you, there is much use, much potential. Allies, yet not friends, we shall be.”

Cybersaur snorted, “Why should I ally with you?”

“Because I can give you gifts! Knowledge! And I know in your future you’ll need me to heal you at least once. In fact, such a gift is to be made now.”

“I do not want to accept it.”

The alien being just tapped Cybersaur on the forehead with a tentacle and stated, “It is done.”

Cybersaur gave a blank look and a simple, “…”

“Come come now, you have a silver tongue!” The alien entity stuck one head forward and peered into Cybersaur’s mouth, adding, “Literally.” It made an odd and grotesque shrugging motion of its body, “Regardless, one gift has been given you.”

“What of it?”

“That platrinaraptor you slew on your last hunt, its form you can now assume. A welcome you are.”

Cybersaur frowned a bit, lips curling to bare his teeth, “I had no intention of studying the Esoteric Art of Shape Changing!”

“Good thing you did not learn it then, you were gifted it. Need it you will. Now, a mission to be given you are.”

“I refuse.”

“Do it you will, no matter what, for destiny writ that yours it is. So bad. In Argreon, one you shall kill. Know them by sight will you, o wise raptor bard.”

“Then I shall throw away my sword!”

The alien laughed, “A new one you shall find.”

“I will turn around from Argreon and return to my home.”

The alien’s many visages paused a bit before continuing to twist about themselves, “Without your precious lady? Your mother? The women of words you like to challenge yourself against?” One ugly face looked at Cybersaur and the alien mused, “True that may be. So be it.” The alien known as Faceless One tapped Cybersaur again, and the discussion was over.

Cybersaur had been teleported into an attic inside of the town of Argreon.

While Cybersaur was having his conversation with his alien and mysterious benefactor, Iron Rat had likewise such a conversation. His started with him shouting, “Rust me red, what the smelt is going on?”

An alien being, different from Cybersaur’s, had appeared in a vision before him. It was a being coated in robes that had no eyes whatsoever. Even with a cloak upon its head hiding its features, Iron Rat knew that this being had no eyes, yet felt strangely stared at. It said in a rusted whisper, “An exchange we are to make. A gift to you, a gift to me. Agreeable?”

“I can’t agree with anyone whose name I do not know.”

“You are Iron Rat, and I am Many Eyes.”

Iron Rat snorted, “You got no eyes!”

The alien being waved an arm about, the robe swaying some, “Many eyes I have, all scattered around. Some are here, some are there, but all are somewhere. Because none I have on me does not mean none I have at all.”

Iron Rat snorted some, “Fine, I’ll give you that. I suppose. Go on, what’s your deal?”

“Instant knowledge of an Esoteric Art you do not know. Then, in Argreon, you will kill someone for me.”

“I’ve no real problem with killing, exactly,” stated Iron Rat, “but I’m not an assassin, either. What’s my cause to do so?”

“You shall see. Now…” with a tap of their hand against Iron Rat, he was granted the same Esoteric Art that Cybersaur was given, only, as Many Eyes stated, “Now your namesake you can become.”

“By the Cataclysm, what a raw deal I got! Iron Rat is not my name, it was a derogatory moniker people called me that stuck!”

“Then make of it what you will. To your mission you now go.”

“I refuse, I hate rats. You gave me a bad-” and before he could finish, Iron Rat’s view had changed. He was instantly teleported into Argreon, also into an empty attic.

The two it seems were not teleported instantly, for when they were able to explore the attics they were each respectively teleported to, they found that it was evening light that was coming through the windows. Each found some secondary weaponry, thief tools, ropes and grapnel hooks, climbing spikes, and a small number of other tools useful for one to climb up heights and run along rooftops.

Each had tested their confines in their own way. The larger and stronger Cybersaur tried to shove open the door leading from the attic to the rest of the building, then ran into the same door several times, but without it budging. Iron Rat had tried using his keen intellect to pry open the door, but its lock stayed tight, almost preternaturally so. It became clear to each that their mysterious benefactors had planned to allow each to explore their own domicile as a reward for their mission.

To kill someone.

Both eventually grudgingly accepted their predicament, and opened the windows. They each careened up to the roof of the building they just occupied. They each gave a short, quick look around, then each felt compelled to run northwards, towards a large tower dominating the nearby cityscape.

Cybersaur’s footfalls were sure and firm, though he ran silently across the rooftops. Iron Rat’s were fast, agile, quieter than a wind’s whisper and almost as quick. The duo moved as if dancing across rooftops.

When they came near the tower, there was a central square where many city blocks met one another. A lovely fountain with a statue of an old hero took the center of it. Many people were around it. A few stores had their doors open with customers inside the doorways.

Both Cybersaur and Iron Rat studied this scene for a time, trying to figure out how to get to the tower without being seen by the group. But the more they studied the seen, the more unsettled they became.

For all was stillness. Not a single citizen, nor the fountain, had moved a bit.

The duo looked around and ran from one building to another, looking into houses and down streets. Nothing, not even the urban wildlife, was moving.

All was still.

All, sans the other one scrambling upon their own rooftop.

Skirting the edges of the territories of the Tribal Armies, south of Cybersaur’s homelands, lies the corrosive swamps of Dgahboa. It is here that a natural, ancient, primordial type of magic is said to be practices, possibly older than the Esoteric Arts. Some even say it may be the formation of the Arts themselves. And it is here that many a lonely hermit arrived, attempting to study the power of this land while being slowly devoured by the acids of the very swamps.

Enter here, Iron Rat. While he gained his life in the Turbochargers tribe, it was not in the roguish arts that his young heart lain. He, being quite literate, quickly found the pleasure of books and archives, and oft would be found squirreled away inside of a dark nook, reading away his time. And it was because of this that he got punished often.

One punishment too far had Iron Rat evading patrols as he deserted his tribal army, fleeing north to the Dgahboan Swamps. He knew there that the Turbochargers would not send search parties for him, excepting maybe perhaps some reluctant fools being punished themselves.

It was eight years ago that he came upon the house of a wizened old scholar, who gave him permission to live in his house if he but take care of it. He also promised to teach Iron Rat the tricks of pure wizardry.

In those eight years, he saw his mentor but once.

But Iron Rat learned nevertheless. The house was full of books on the subject, and was all but inherited by the young rogue. He had been given enough free time not just to study but to practice the fundamentals of the arcane arts. While he never learned what he truly wanted, for he was seeking powerful battle magic that would change the world at his utterance.

What he learned was how to grow hedges tall, even in an acidic swampland. He learned how to manipulate ropes with your mind. He learned to make his voice sound like it came from up to fifty meters elsewhere.

And the parlor tricks were it.

And this peaceful letdown of a life was disturbed around the same time that Cybersaur, further to the north, started to scale the Three Sisters.

Having fallen asleep while reading a book that all but promised his every desire, Iron Rat heared the telltale sounds of Pferds all too late. Pferds are the equivalent of the equine species in the Land of Living Metal. Horses.

Pferds meant Vescaxians, for no pferd would arrive in these dank swamps of their own free will. It was the loud slapping of one pferd hoof against a tree that shook Iron Rat awake. His mind quickly raced from its dreaming state to that of full wakefulness, then raced to take in the sounds he was perceiving.

There was at least six people who had arrivved. They were not Turbochargers, for they made no attempt to mask their sound, they were as loud here as if they had been at a party in their own homes. Their heavy metal feet stomped heavily against the ground and they casually and carelessly swung their blades through the high, thick hedges Iron Rat had grown in his years here. And he heard them souting across the swamp to one another. From the location of their voices shouting and responding, he knew that the six had surrounded the house and were hacking their way in through the thick hedges.

Due to the hacking, he knew, without any doubt, they were not here by invitation, for the hedges would have parted to allow entry if that were so. He knew they were hostile to himself. This was further cemented when one shouted, “Did you see our quarry?”

Iron Rat quickly scurried about the house. He grabbed a backpack and filled it with a few bare essentials and some important books. Now, to be fair, in the Land of Living Metal books are not the same as they are here, for their is no organic plantlife. In the Land of Living Metal, books were recorded on disks full of data, so it would be more appropos to call them data disks, but books more properly convey the information and use they embody.

Iron Rat slung his pack around his shoulders and grabbed his weapons. He took a main gauche, which is a parrying dagger with large guards used to parry enemy weapons. He also took his prized sword, a long rapier like blade he called Scalpel, for it struck with surgical precision.

Geared up, Iron Rat absconed from the house via the basement. When he was about to leave the house proper to run to the hedges, he heard one hunter shout from nearby, “You two, guard the hedges, let’s not let him escape. The two of you, patrol the house.” Then to someone closer, the same hunter said, “You and I, we’ll go inside.”

Iron Rat stuck close to the basement door, head tilted so he could press one of his sensitive ears up closer to the hunters, for every little detail may help. He heard the heavy metal footfalls of the two entering the house, one going up the stairs to start looking on the second floor, the other taking the first. He heard two pairs of feet patrolling the front and back of the house, but they did not fully encircle the place. From the distance, he heard one pair of footfalls as they walked up and down one side of the hedges.

His opponents were good, but he detected several points at which he could escape. It was just about timing. He waited while the person near the hedges walked away from his destination. He creaked open tthe basement door a bit, only to hear the sounds of one of the ones patrolling the house coming closer. He had to wait until both house guards were moving in the direction opposite him, as well as the one near the hedge he wanted to leave by.

Twice more he nearly left the basement, only to hear the footfalls of one or more guards stalk in the wrong direction. He waited a few more minutes, then he heard that same voice, obviously the group’s leader, ask the other one searching the house, “Anything upstairs?”

“Nay, there’s no one here.”

“Well, there was,” said the gruffer voice of the leader, “The data disks are unsettled, the dust is disturbed, and there are writing utensils that had been used recently. Someone’s been using the house.”

“Maybe they’ve gone out hunting boss?”

“In the swamps?”

The other voice, younger and somewhat unsure of himself, replied, “Why not? Lots of minerals out there. Lots of medicinal-”

“Wait!”

Iron Rat darted his head backwards to look over towards the stairs leading down from the house to the basement. He narrowed his eyes and gripped harder at the handle of the basement exit. If all else failed, he would rush across the yard and steal a pferd, then run away in the swamps, taking his chances that way. As a Turbocharger, he was confident in his speed. He bided his time and listened.

“Thought I found a secret room. Nevermind, continue.”

A secret room? Not even Iron Rat discovered one of those, and he’s been exploring the house and its local grounds all these eight years he lived here. While he was considering what was going on, he heard heavy footfalls snap him from his reverie. One of them found the basement, at least.

He took another moment or two, waiting for the patrolling guards upon the grounds to travel paths more favorable to him, then he quickly yet quietly slid the door open, crept out, and soundlessly place it back. Then he quietly bolted the door, preventing the leader from leaving how he just did.

Iron Rat then ran with incredible speed across the yard. He did not run into the hedges, for the gate would open for him and make his location known. When he got near it, he slid and then rolled on his sides, tumbling into the undergrowth of the hedges. He was clear!

“I saw something!”

Maybe he wasn’t quite clear.

He heard the sounds of footfalls clomping across the land as the hunters started to congregate about the one who saw something. He knew he didn’t have a lot of time, so in the boggy, acrid undergrowth he began to crawl away. It was not safe where he was.

As attested by the fact that a blast of energy just destroyed the hedge where he was!

Iron Rat diverted on a diagonal path, keeping low, crawling on hands and knees, towards the exterior end of the hedges and the location of a pferd he heard stomping at the ground, apparently bored. He’d give it some excitement soon when he abducted the animal.

Another blast hit the hedge just before him, giving Iron Rat pause. He then just scampered directly away. Once he did so, he ran right to the pferd, which meant he was visible for the entire length of time it took him to run from one side of the blasted hedge to the other.

“There! Get him!”

As more energy blasts seared the hedges, he knew that ‘get him’ meant, ‘dead or alive’ and he preferred one vastly over the other. As they did not seem to be a group for talking, he knew that these were hunters, pure and simple. Bounty hunters most like, but beings who would not leave without his body, one way or another.

He charged off on his pferd at full speed, trying to get as far away from his hunters as he could before they mounted up and pursued. He heared the leader behind him shout, “You, stay guard in case he returns! The rest, mount up and chase!”

Well, that answered the question about whether one of the remaining pferd would get two riders or one hunter would be left behind. He knew the house would not be safe. He knew that his puruers would easily follow him with the deep grooves in the fetid swamplands. And he knew his pferd would eventually tire. He also knew it was typical yet silly to shout your orders when your opponent can hear them.

As soon he was far enough away and around a bend, he took a moment to stand up on the back of the pferd, then jump and catch a tree limb. The pferd would continue running off, his running footfalls making an obvious trail for his pursuers to follow. He climbed up from one branch of the tree to another, gaining height and becoming further out of sight.

After a few moments, the five remaining pferd, with their riders, strode on by at high speed, their hooves making the tree itself shake and quiver. He slipped a bit but caught himself, with nary a leaf shaken to betray his presence.

Iron Rat had been moving from branch to branch, slowly, carefully, after his hunters left him. His journey stopped, however, when the steeds came back, his empty pferd in tow. Their heavy footfalls made him rattle again.

And his pack also rattled. Just enough for a data disk to slip from it and hit the last hunter in the head with a metallic plink.

Iron Rat cursed under his breath as that one called a halt and looked upwards. He had been found. Two of the hunters were skilled in the Esoteric Art of Energy Blasts and had pointed their arms at the branch he was on and fired, making him come crashing down to the ground. Even though he hit nearly every branch on the way down and was bruised, he still landed in a graceful crouch.

He sneered as he whipped his rapier and main gauche out reflexively, “One at a time or all at once!”

The one who got plinked by the data disk held his hand up and dismuonted. He slid his broadsword from his sheath and charged towards Iron Rat with a yell. There was a powerful arcing swing of the broadsword followed by a clang of metal on metal. Then, there was a loud snap followed by a clattering of the blade on a tree trunk before it fell to the ground.

Iron Rat had intercepted the broadsword with his main gauche, then expertly twisted his wrist to let the powerful tines of the parrying dagger to snap the enemy’s blade, effortlessly. Then, in the same fluid motion, he thrust forward with Scalpel, percing his assailant’s neck with the rapier.

The hunter fell to his knees, making oil drenched sounds, clenching at his wound. Iron Rat knew that the exposed internals would quickly react to the acidic and corrosive air of the swamp and fester and rot. The broadsword swinger had but painful moments to live.

The group’s leader waved his hand forward and said coldly, “All at once, then.”

As the group dismounted and stepped forward, there was a powerful clap of thunder and a flash of light. A wizened elderly gentleman stepped forward, laughing, “What are you doing assaulting my housekeeper?”

Before he could act, the old one was assailed by the hunters, who fired capture nets at him. They quickly pummeled him unconscious with the flat of one of their blades, then tossed him up on the back of the empty pferd.

As this was happening, Iron Rat fled. He ran off into the heavy brush of the dank swamp, into the watery portion of the land. He heard a short discussion behind him.

“What of that one we were chasing?”

“Leave him, he’s just a housekeep. Let him live forever as a swamp rat.”

Another said, pointing to the wounded one, “And him?”

“He’s as good as dead. And his share now can be split amongst us.”

Iron Rat gave a dark frown. Housekeeper! After all these years of loyal service, without really any lessons at all, the old one not even knowing his name, he had always been just a housekeeper, a servant, to him!

He fumed a bit, but not for long. After all, he had a rescue to plan.

STILL ALL MET IN ARGREON

Far in the northern parts of the Northlands lies a land where the cold dominates everything. Even the steel hearted Vescaxians native to the area find life often difficult and their limbs sapped of strength and languid from the frozen atmosphere of the place. Only the heartiest survive here.

It is of such a deadly cold in this land that only one in ten Vescaxians survive their first few years of life. Only the very strongest can survive here, this frozen wasteland inhospitable to even the concept of life.

And out of all these great survivors, one stands, very literally, head and shoulders above the rest.

In his first year, his parents took him further south into warmer climes as guards of a trade caravan. Two years later, only he returned to his homeland, draped in the hide and using the parts of a cybersaur, a cyberaptor to be precise, that his people dubbed him Cybersaur.

Perhaps fate-entwined, it would be thirty years from now before he heard of Cavalier’s own raptor slaying exploits and he sought out the other. However, he had a long life of adventure until that great clash.

A teacher, draped heavily in warming metallic furs of lesser beasts, one of the traveling teachers that wander about the lands earning their living by instructing others in one of the many Esoteric Arts. This teacher came to teach the Esoteric Art of the Invincible Robot, and came to the very furthest point of the Northlands to test his own prowess. He kept pushing his limits, and was working on being able to defeat the feeling of the cold with his art.

He wasn’t having very much luck in that regard. He hated, no abhorred, the cold. It was biting into his heart, even under his invincible armor, and he had to hide himself in furs just to stay slightly uncomfortable.

He also was not having much luck in his teaching up in these barbaric lands. The only one who was interested in learning his training was the young giant named Cybersaur, and did learn some of the very basics, but then became distracted.

He found girls.

In these barbaric lands, females seemed to fare better than males. Many males who did survive their first few years would often become mercenaries of one sort or another in the much more comfortable environs of the Northlands. A lot of the females, however, have taken to staying in the land of their birth. While fully capable of traveling south across the Northlands like the rest of their people, most females did not. They seemed to have a preference to staying and raising offspring here.

Perhaps, instinctively, these metallic maidens knew that those that did survive the very harsh climate here forged a stronger generation than the last, and they had an instinctive desire to make an ultimate generation of super powerful Vescaxians.

They’ll tell you, however, they just have a fondness for the bleak, snow driven wilderness. It had a pristine beauty that was almost poetic.

Cybersaur, though built like a hulking brute, had a mind like a steel trap, and a heart that pumped kindness. He would engage the older females of the group in poetic challenges, quickly learning the nuances of a clevverly twisted phrase and the imagery of a properly laid out sentence. And in short order, not only was he winning these challenges, he was winning the hearts of most of his challengers.

But a certain shy lady had found his optics and caused his servos to pump just a bit faster. Her exterior was clad in gold and silver, with eyes that sparkled like blue diamonds held up to soft starlight. And her voice was melodic and oozed its way into Cybersaur’s auditory sense like sizzling honey.

Something about her made it almost impossible for him to concentrate. He started to ignore the traveling teacher he originally studied hard under. He started to get tongue tied in the regular poetry contests. He even started to feel his strength enervated and his movements lacking grace and power.

He was either in love, or lust so deep he could not see he was wallowing at the bottom of a pit.

But she would have naught to do with him.

Cybersaur’s heart felt leaden and dead, His poetry became morose and it took far longer to scribble out a few lines than it ever did for him to write entire stanzas before. And the only thing he desired to armor was the sinking feeling deep in his chest.

The only pleasure he could feel nowadays was in climbing all the tall mountains in his native land. Today he wished to conquer the Three Sisters, a set of mountains that abutted right against one another and the next taller than the prior. They looked almost like three gigantic stairs leading to the stars.

Cybersaur just crested the peak of Little Sister, looking towards Middle Sister, who towered over his current position at almost half again the height. Beyond her he could see Eldest Sister, a mountain that dwarfed even Middle Sister.

It is said that no one reached its peak and ever returned. The practical ones will say that such is due to the difficulty and challenges of the extreme height. That no one can survive such a tall mountain, for the atmosphere becomes so thin that even the hardy ones struggled to draw breath.

The more poetic minded said no one returned because, being so close to the stars, it was just one great leap away from becoming a constellation yourself, and the heroes who do survive the trek up never return to the worldly realm, for they have touched the roof of heaven.

He then turned and looked down at his village, which seemed somewhat small in the distance. He could still see the dwellings of his people, and barely see his people walking about the village, but both were vague and indistinct. Cybersaur adjusted his hide cloak and did a moving meditation by jumping side to side to keep himself warm while trying to let his mind unfocus and wander.

It kept on wandering back to the lady of his affection.

He barely registered a merchant caravan moving up from the south with his village as their destination. He barely registered that they were many moons too early for the annual trek. His people would typically have a yearly fair setup for the arrival of the merchants, but this was quite earlier than normal.

He did not really pay attention to what his mind was telling him with this, and just turned to face Middle Sister. Cybersaur craned his neck back to look up the mountain, flexed his arms and rolled his shoulders, then leapt the gap splitting the two mountains to begin climbing up the steep face of this towering behemoth.

Cybersaur’s fingers, like claws, slammed themselves like jackhammers deep into the iron mountain. The hard metal cracked under his repeated strikes, and he tattooed the mountainside in his journey, leaving behind visible scars of his path. The bitter cold and chilling winds would eventually erode away the evidence of his passage, but for now it gave him a pleasant feeling that he was, very literally, making his mark across such a geologic monument.

It was almost like he was made to climb. He was certainly sure about it, surer than he was of his footwork when dancing. He was an exalted mountaineer, an exemplar of the craft. Even birds capable of flight could be jealous of the speed at which he journeyed every upwards and further skywards.

He was panting deeply by the time he was able to see the peak. Fatigued but not undaunted, he pressed ever onwards. It was mid afternoon when he grasped the edge of the summit and pulled himself up to the flat table of the top.

He stared for some time at Elder Sister, which seemed to make Middle Sister pale in comparison so that he thought about ironically renaming this mountain Child Sister and the one he crested prior Baby Sister. It was positively huge, the top invisible with clouds hovering about it, giving an ambient haze that was unpiercable to the optic.

Instead, he turned to gaze down at his home village. Now, it was impossible to see anyone walking about the area, and the abodes themselves were vague and indistinct, hard to see.even when focusing deeply on them.

At first, he thought it was just trick of the impending twilight on the fog below, but upon further study, he began to see that the vapor dancing skywards was the tell tale smoke of fire. Upon further examination, he saw several of the dwellings of his village were set aflame.

Cybersaur began to travel back down Middle Sister at breakneck speed. His claws dug deep into the mountainside to arrest his momentum, but he never let up too much on the pace. He had to get down to his village and quickly. His people were in danger. The lady who stole his heart was menaced.

They were not merchants in the caravan that arrived, they were slavers!

Foxfire quickly shifted into her silver metal vulpine form and ran off at quick speed, her five tails streaming behind her. She ran at speed and with determination in the direction of the tree she felt pulled to earlier.

A different kind of Lost.

She disturbed the nests of some of the forest dwellers that were just starting an early day before sunlight, but paid them no mind. The silver metal vulpine jumped across ravines gracefully and launched herself up a short hill, not once lowering her momentum. She wanted to get there soon as she could.

Foxfire arrived at the tree that seemed to have pulled at her just before the sunlight came up. She sniffed around the tree itself, one of her tails sticking upwards and pointing to the tree. After some more sniffing about, she stopped, her tail arched gently as it pointed right to the tree.

She turned back quickly to her natural form, her chain coin sword gripped in her left hand instantly. She looked the tree over some more, studying it. Her right hand rested against it softly, then she tapped it a few times. During a few taps she said, “Hello? Can you speak?”

Of course, there was no answer from the tree.

Foxfire tapped the tree a bit more, frowning softly, “Of course it can’t be done the easy way. What ever could? But I know this is one.” She gave the tree a hug, asking, “You’re a Lost, right? I’m going to help you.” She looked around some, “First, I’m going to figure out how to help you.”

Foxfire gave a bit of a sigh as she circled the tree once more, studying it. She arrived back at that one spot she left prior, knowing instinctively, deep down, that this was where the face of the Lost was, behind their alternate form’s exterior.

A tree though, that’s unique. She expected animals or vehicles. Sometimes objects like light posts, lanterns, and writing desks. But a tree, she never knew anyone who could turn into one.Now she’d have to be aware of bushes and maybe even the grass made of copper that was shaped like great stalks of bamboo.

Foxfire stared at the spot where the face of the Lost lies. She rested a hand against that spot and tried talking to it some more. Nothing of importance, just small words of encouragement and asking the Lost to step forth. When nothing happened, she gave it one last shot before sitting down on the ground.

With nothing better to do, Foxfire sat in her lotus position again and focused once more on the coin sword, starting to meditate again. Her eyes soon unfocused, and she began to feel her mind relax and her spirit drift. Soon enough, she was untethered once more from her body and able to float about. She looked quickly to the tree.

Only it was not a tree in the spirit realm, but a large Dangaizan male in heavy armor. With a look like the heroic ghost she met the night before, Foxfire felt she knew this being. She began to speak, asking for the name of the Lost and how he came to be here.

He said nothing. Instead, he made the motion of a sword stabbing into himself. When Foxfire did not understand, he pointed to her sword, then made the same stabbing motion again.

Foxfire found out what he wanted, and lifted the sword up. She jabbed it right at the spirit of the Lost, but nothing happened. It dinged off of his spirit form as it did her real form when she experimented with it earlier. So Foxfire stared at the spirit form of her coin sword some more, concentrating on it. Her right hand she waved arcane sigils over the coins and she began to mutter esoteric phrases of ancient languages. She knew not how she knew them, but assumed it was due to training she had from before she became a Lost. Someone taught it to her once and she knew it deep in her mind.

With the spell done, the coin sword glowed bright and took the form of a proper sword, though all of energy. The coins comprising the actual sword remained, they were just sheathed in this light. Then, she stabbed the sword forward, into the spirit of the Lost before her.

There was a great howl as the Lost contorted, turning from his heroicly armored self to a tree and back, this happening several times. Then it stopped in his nature, humanoid form and he spoke with a ragged gasp, “My thanks.”

“Did I hurt you?”

“No, young fox. You snapped my mind awake again, and it and my spirit came together once again.”

“However,” said Foxfire, “you are talking raggedly, like you are hurt.”

The heroic looking Lost, his armor mostly blue and red with highlights of gold, shook his head, “Not a wound you gave. I obtained it before I turned into my tree form and then became Lost.”

“Is it serious?”

“I shall die of it, now.”

Foxfire looked sad and tilted her head downwards, “I’m sorry.”

“Nay, fox sorceress. It is not your fault. The barbaric invaders that took our country from us and oppress our people did this to us. But I gave a fine accounting of myself. I took enough away from this world before I was wounded and forced to run.”

Foxfire gave the Lost a soft smile, “I’m sure your family would be proud.”

“I hope my father would be, at least. Could you tell him of my fate, mayhaps?”

Foxfire studied the hero who was a tree for a time, studying his aura, then shook her head, “I’m sorry, but no. Your father was buried last night. I talked to him briefly, but conjuring a ghost is a lot of work, and he was content to pass on into the next world.”

“I understand. I suppose I can talk to him myself when I, too, pass.”

“Does it hurt?”

The hero shrugged slightly, “I’ve had the wound since before I turned into a tree. The entire time I was in my tree form, I felt the wound. The pain has long become a part of me and I have become numb to it. Regardless, the wound will still take me.”

“Did I kill you?”

“How could you do that?” asked the large male robot, “You did not wound me. In fact, you save me.”

“But I stopped you from being a Lost! Because of me, you’re no longer stuck in the form of a tree, and if you turn back, your wound could kill you.”

“No could, if I turn back, my wound will kill me, almost instantly. But I said you saved me, and you did.”

“How, though?”

“I am no longer Lost.”

Foxfire gave a sigh, looking at the other Dangaizan in spirit form, “I suppose that is true. I’d rather you no longer be Lost and be alive as well.”

“As would I, but fate’s plans state otherwise. Fret not, know you have saved me.”

“What can I do for you, now, though?”

The spirit form of the red and blue hero sat down with a little grunt, “Listen, know this. I was one of many people who followed a great and heroic leader in a failed revolt. We were betrayed from within. Many of us died, more of us became Lost to escape. We hoped to one day fight again, somehow. I would ask you to find who betrayed us and gain revenge if you could, and rescue as many of us who are Lost. Know, however, rescuing us is of more import than gaining our vengeance. There will be no lack of volunteers for that task once they regain their senses.”

“I can try. How many of your fellows became Lost, do you know?”

“Yes, hundreds.”

Foxfire frowned a bit, “Hundreds. All scattered about the entire Emprie I wager?”

“Most like.”

“And how am I to find them all?”

The hero pointed to where her fox tails hung in Foxfire’s robot form then explained to her, “That one moved when you got near me earlier. It is likely able to detect the Lost. If you can train yourself to detect others with it, I’m sure you’ll get better and better at detecting Lost, and perhaps from greater ranges.” He waved to the other tails, “I’m sure that they, too, have other magical use, and you should learn their capabilities as well.”

“Sound advice.”

“I try. Look you, now. I have a last request for you.”

Foxfire nodded, “Of course, anything you want.”

“Do not bury me.”

“What?”

The Lost that was stuck in tree form gave a wan smile, “Do not bury me. Let me be. If you awaken me on the physical world, I’ll turn back into my natural form, then die in your arms. I do not want that, to die in the arms of she who saved me. I do not wish you to grieve.”

“You want me to just…leave you? But you’ll die alone!”

“My choice.” There was a soft coughing deep in his chest, “I’d rather not pass on in front of you. Leave, leave and travel far away. Do not stab my tree form with your coin sworrd on the physical plane like you did just now to my spirit form.”

“Why’s that?”

“It would force me to become fully aware and turn into my natural form. I imagine it would do the same to any Lost you ran into. Let me remain a tree, my branches to the heavens, providing shadow to sojourners and home to animals.”

Foxfire gave a short nod. She wrapped her chain coin sword around her waist again, then bowed slightly, “I will never forget you, your requests, or your integrity. I am sorry I could not save you.”

The dying one smiled softly, shaking his head as Foxfire began to fade out, “Oh, but you did. You did.”

She snapped her eyes open in the prosaic world again, inhaling the scents of the Southlands. She stood up and gave the tree a hug, then bowed and gave a short prayer to it to speed his way to the afterlife. She studied her surroundings then started off on her journey once again.

Someday, she’ll return, with the rebels who fought alongside this hero. And then they’ll give this hero, this tree, a proper funeral. This was not a divination. This was a promise to a friend known all too briefly, and a vow to herself to atone for not being able to properly save him.

Foxfire scampered out of the graveyard with nary a look backwards. She ran on all fours to a hill overlooking the area, gazing down into the village some distance away. The mourners have by now arrived and have been heading back to their own homes. It seems once the burial was complete, the funeral was done. Likely the day itself was used to memorialize the deceased, which is why they left to bury him relatively late in the day when evening was approaching.

To avoid the risk of becoming Lost again, Foxfire only stayed in her silver vixen form fo long enough to survey the town and look for trouble. She then twisted and contorted her shape, shifting from her bestial form to her humanoid one with grace. She used the motion and momentum of her form shift to glide gently down into a lotus position upon the hilltop. Her coin chain sword hung limply about her waist like a belt. She gave a soft touch to the hilt, contemplating it and other matters.

“Make your own spell,” said the ghost. She mused quietly to herself. It’s easy to say that, but hard to do. For all the good it did, the advice may as well have been, “Conquer the world,” or “Live forever”. It’s like saying the key to living long is to not die. Simple to say, but how to do?

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and glanced again about. At this time of night, there was nothing interesting going on, nor people moving about. Without such a distraction to keep her mind off of things, she once again tried to contemplate things. Foxfire fell on her back on the hill and gazed upwards. The night sky was dark but pretty, the various stars shining quietly.

Foxfire remembered some of her constellations from before her time as the Lost. She also recalled the theory that the stars were powerful life engines of giant and powerful heroes of old. That, together, a number of them was the actual body of the being, thus making the constellation. And she heard a theory that some of those bodies that travel so high up in the heavens are still alive and still fighting against one another. To be amongst those beings!

There was the Emperor and the God of Destruction. The Will of Evolution and the Chaos Bringer. Steel Dragon and White Knight. The Sword and Shield. The Energy Matrix and Great Creator. The Dark Emperor looked to be fighting her personal favorite, Wise Sage.

There were others of course, but Foxfire was focused on those, for they were the ones that were immediately above her head and easy to view from where she lay. She imagined the various constellations fighting a slow but terrible battle across the great void of space, shifting her eyes side to side as if watching them battle one against the other. Then she narrowed her eyes, using her greatly enhanced perception to try to see into space clearer, to see if she could see the actual beings. But even with her sight, she could not see anything like a physical body.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and chastised herself some. Enough procrastinating. If she really venerated the Wise Sage and thought herself anywhere close to his capabilities, she’d have to live up to those standards! Besides, she has a calling, a purpose, and others are relying on her! With a short benediction of, “Please light my path, Wise Sage,” she sat up again, back into the lotus position.

She grabbed the hilt of her coin chain sword and unwound it from her waist, flicking her wrist to make the coins clink quickly into the sword shaped position. She gave it a few swings, studying it in motion, but once again thought of how useless it would be as a sword. It’s still not likely to cut a branch off a tree, as the edges of the coins have not been sharpened or modified in any way.

She held it in front of her, straight, chin level, her eyes focused on the tip. This she did with her left hand, while her right hand she raised upwards and twisted her fingers slightly. Her first two she held raised, the hand in a mystical position, this next to the sword’s hilt, her two upward pointing fingers just inches from her mouth. She took three deep breaths then held herself fully and completely still for a time.

Only her mind moved. At first it raced about, thinking about the ghost, and the constellations, and wondering if the ghost she just met may, perhaps, become a constellation, if only a minor one. She thought of Wise Sage descending from the heavens to point her in the right direction. She thought of funerals and living an utterly bestial life. Then she understood that the Wise Sage walked their own path and she would have to walk her own. While she’d enjoy the aid, she knew in her heart that true understanding of yourself meant being your own guide. So she focused on the tip of the sword more, trying to lose herself in it to slide into a deep state of meditation.

It took some time before she felt herself begin to fade a bit. She felt herself starting to lose her mindful consciousness and resisted the urge to pull back. She had to meditate deeply and look in on herself. It was with effortless effort that her ancient teacher told her to do that she finally let slip of herself and her surroundings and slid deep into pure meditation.

She felt herself without a body, weightless and emepheral, incorporeal but at the same time impermeable. She felt her true, inner self unshackle from the body and weight of the world. Foxfire flew with speed towards the graveyard she just left, but stopped quite some distance away. On a spiritual plane, there was a sense of wrong despair here, a forboding essence that scared her. She flew away quickly.

Instead she went to the village nearby, thinking that may be a better place to be. But people were asleep, and the chaos world of the dreamscape had its pall fallen about the place, and she felt a wrongness after coming close to it. Something about the ever shifting nature of dreams prevented her from willingly entering the village proper.

She flickered back and forth, noticing the differences between the two locations. In one, the dead ruled in their stillness. In the other, the sleeping living ruled in their fervent commotion. The contrast was somewhat unsettling, so she floated above her own meditating body. Foxfire stayed there a bit, looking at herself. She knew that if she went in meditating on a particular question, she’d have focus now, that her meditative, spiritual self would have something to do. But she did not, for ‘how to make a spell’ was too general of a thought that she may be lost meditating upon just that. If she knew what spell she wanted to make, she may have a chance meditating on ‘how to make my spell’, but she had not thought out yet what she wanted her spell to do.

So, she floated. And while floating, she looked at the constellations on the spiritual realm. Here, they were different. Not just twinkling stars, she could see here the auras and bodies of the heroes and villians that the constellations are. She flew upwards a good bit, before she felt the invisible cord that tied her spirit to her body gently tug on herself, keeping her only halfway to heaven. Perhaps, once she was done with her body, one day she may travel the rest of the way. But that day was not this day.

Instead, at the utmost height she could achieve, she looked to the constellation of Wise Sage, and asked, “Are you there?” She paused for some time, as if waiting for an answer, then conceded, “No, of course not.” She pointed upwards at the constellation, “And if you were, you’d be too busy for those of us still living upon this world of rust and unconcerned with worldly affairs, I wager! Just because you think yourself so high and wonderful, being some of the stars in the heavens!” She waited a bit more, watching to see if her chastisement worked at all, but only saw the twinkling of the stars making the constellation she was vocalizing to. Then a shrug was given, “I don’t know what to talk to you about anyway. If I ask you how to make magic, you’d likely misinterpret me and teach me the very basics. I know how to cast spells, that’s not the question. If I ask how to make a specific spell, you’d likely give me the grand theory of magic, inundating me with information overload, giving me everything I need for ten lifetimes but hiding what I need now in too much data.” A sigh and a tap of her chin, “And I wouldn’t ask you how I am to make my spell, for my spell is mine. It is for me alone to make, and perhaps to use.” A grin is given coyly to the stars, “I’m sure you’d be jealous of it, however! It would be such a grand spell that even the stars would twinkle in the joy of it!” foxfire looked around a bit, shrugged, and headed back towards her body.

Halfway down, she heard from the heavens, “I’m sure it will, and look forward to it.”

Foxfire did not turn around to speak to Wise Sage. She just smirked and used a minor spell to make dancing balls of fire in the shape of the Wise Sage’s constellation, then rearranged them to make a shape of a five tailed silver vixen.

There was a laugh before the voice again said, “The pathway to the stars is open to all. But not to the ones who listen to their own words.”

Foxfire darted her head back to the stars a moment while hovering near her meditating body. Her spirit felt a tug to her body, like a magnet attracting a ferrous metal, but she resisted a bit. She quirked a brow, hmming softly to herself, “My own words…huh?”

Foxfire thought of all she said to the Wise Sage when she thought they weren’t hearing her. Unconcerned about worldly affairs? No, that was not it. Helping others is her goal, that requires some interest in the workings of the world. It is, after all, where life happens, Lost or not. She then thought about the making of magic.

Flashes of images crossed over her mind and her spirit jerked some from the information overload. She was seeing a past life,  her own past life, from before she became Lost. Days, years, and decades worth of teaching came flooding back to her in mere seconds. She saw one teacher blend into another as their lessons came back to her in a flood. The dam was not only broken, she made it vanish completely as if it were not there, and she was attempting to drink all the water flooding from an evaporated damn at once. It was intense, and she saw her physical body shaking as her physical mind was assaulted by the data in the same way her spiritual mind was. But she knew that, somewhere, those few drops of water she needed now was in that great lake of knowledge she just dove into.

Foxfire’s spirit form dropped to her knees and she recoiled a bit from the sensation. She instinctively wanted to turn into her silver vixen form and hide in her bestial mind, but fought the urge while fighting losing herself within all this information. With sheer determination and patience, she finally calmed down and held the information securely and safely within her mind.

She knew what she needed. Somewhere. It was there within her mind, she just had to find exactly where it was. She was just glad that she did not become a different kind of Lost, whose spiritual mind was inundated to the point of catatonia, her body resting forever in that meditative pose.

And as she merged her spiritual form and physical again, her eyes snapped wide and she blurted aloud, “A different kind of Lost!”

Upon awakening, Foxfire found that she had a weapon. It seemed not a very effective one, but apparently important enough for her to take with her when she was Lost. It was a bundle of coins strung together with strong chain in the shape of an ancient sword. She swung it around effortlessly, the sword almost weightless. But when she swung it against her own arm, it did not do much besides ding off of her metal flesh. Obviously its designed for some purpose other than being used as an actual sword.

Foxfire sat down to examine it a bit more. It was in the shape of an officer’s long sword from the ancient days. The chain was flexible and strong but she did not recognize the metal. The coins, circular in shape with square holes punched into the center of each, were not from any dynasty she recognized. They had very faded symbols across the face of them, but she did not recognize those, either.

The only real clue she had about it was one of the coins in the center of the hilt. It was silver instead of copper, and looked decidedly out of place. It looked like it replaced an older coin, for the chain there seemed repaired. She could see that this silver coin came from early in the second dynasty, which means if this was the newest coin in the sword, the sword was extremely old. The second dynasty was sixteen dynasties ago!

Foxfire swung it a few more times, then gave a shrug. It couldn’t even cut a branch. It obviously had some other use to it. What it was, she could not guess.

She held it out then concentrated on it a bit. The only effect it had on her was that it seemed to give her some clarity when focusing on it. Maybe she could use it as a focus during meditation, but she did not feel like meditating then. She felt like action.

Of course, she was not at all eager to turn again into her fox form, having been in that form as a Lost for so long, even though traveling in that form would have been faster. So she just walked on two legs in her humanoid form.

The sky was clear and the breeze was soft, making for a rather pleasant day to amble. She noticed that she was heading in the general direction of the Imperial City, so turned to the right and walked off in that direction. She didn’t know what city lay there, but she did know that a few lay along the coast, so she could travel along that if she found nothing else before.

The better part of the day was spent journeying through a small wood, then along a trodden path that was a country road. This lead to another set of woods, and Foxfire felt a strange pull to one tree there.

Coming upon it, she studied it carefully. It looked just like any other tree in these woods, firm and metallic with a dull silver grey color. Its branches spread out proudly, but lay bare. She saw nothing unique about it, but still felt compelled to stand near it.

Foxfire walked about it in one direction thrice, then in the other direction thrice again. As she did, she roamed her optics up and down the tree, finding nothing of note about it. Finally, she decided to just sit under it, her back against it.

Looking around, she glanced across the other trees nearby. They all looked pretty typical as well, nothing with them seemed out of the ordinary. Many had dull grey rodents scampering across the branches and stirring their leaves.

Foxfire looked up at the tree she sat against, and noticed that it had no leaves. Its branches were bare, and the rodents avoided it. And when she studied a nearby rodent, she noticed that it pointedly ignored this particular tree.

Foxfire stood up again and examined the tree some more. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary, still, except the lack of leaves and rodents in it. There should at least be leaves on its branches, it was the height of the growing season. But the tree itself did not look sick, its branches looked healthy and not withered.

The mystery would have to keep, she wanted to continue onwards. Still, moving away from this tree seemed to cause her a bit of stress, her steps slow and heavy. She routinely looked back towards the tree and twice almost went back towards it. But she kept on going and left the forest.

Down the small hill she saw that she was on was another small country road at the bottom of the hill’s slope. She then saw a funeral procession traveling alongside this roadway, so she waited against a tree at the forest’s end and watched with respect.

Seeing that it was nearing early evening, and the procession still had not passed, Foxfire decided she would not be able to make it to a city before night fell, and still she wanted to respect the procession and just watch it go on.

Why she did so was to study how it went. Things were different now than the last funeral procession she recalled, before she became a Lost. This procession had wailers keening for the dead, with the deceased inside a palanquin. It looked like more than just the deceased’s family lined up behind the dead, and she trained her eyes to where the procession came from. There was a village off in the distance that had the appearance of being abandoned. Obviously the entire village, or almost every one of the villagers, left for the procession.

In the last procession she saw, the deceased was wheeled away by their next of kin. There was no wailing people, and no villagers joined the processions that she knew, just the family. The deceased was taken to its final resting spot by family, friends and close acquaintances, people who may know the personal name and not courtesy name of the deceased.

If they were important to a village or city, such as an elder, or governor or mayor, then some of the citizens may line the pathway outside of the settlement to see the corpse off, but they did not join in the procession.

This piqued Foxfire’s curiosity. She ate her dinner from fruits she gathered from the forest she stayed in, and waited. The procession returned shortly after nightfall, torches lit to light their way. Once they returned to their village, she moved.

Foxfire turned once again into her silver vixen form, the chain coin sword wrapping itself around her waist as she shifted her shape. She wagged her five tails about behind her, giving a glance to the woods again, looking to the mysterious tree she still felt compelled to return to.

But, for now, she had to satiate her curiosity. She bounded off in the dark, seeing perfectly with her enhanced vulpine senses, heading right where the procession went earlier. Her nose flared at times to take the scent of the procession, following the trail, arriving quickly at the graveyard.

Finding the recently buried grave was easy, and she remained in fox form as she paced around it. Foxfire studied the headstone a time, and sniffed the air. She used senses atypical to a typical Dangaizan to learn that this person used to be good. A hero. No wonder the entire village paid their respects.

She hesitated to do so, but sat atop of the grave and drew mystical symbols with her paws onto the ground. Then she chanted in an ancient tongue before calling the dead hero’s name seven times. Then she sat and waited, but not for long.

The fog formed and coalesced into the spiritual form of the hero she just called upon, a tall, well armored mechanoid with deep, glowing eyes. His head looked more like a helmet than anything, and his body was itself armor. The spirit asked, “Who summons me?”

“No one you know, hero. And until recently, no one I knew, even.”

“I do not understand.”

Foxfire then explained what it was like being a Lost. That she had turned into her silver vixen form to evade the barbaric invaders long ago and had forgotten who she was, becoming the fox she only wanted to look like. She then told the spirit her dream.

The hero listened then gave a nod, “So that may be what happened to my eldest son.”

“You have not seen him?”

“Not in ages, no. Not since the northern barbarians flew like death upon wings into our lands. I had thought he dead. Perhaps he may still live.”

“If so, I may be able to find him for you, great sir. I desire to help the Lost to recover themselves. If I find your son, I can pass on a message.”

“It is well your intention, fox,” said the ghost, “But I have nothing to say to him beyond to live a life without regrets. Pass that message not to just my son, but all you help to reclaim themselves, and I will be well content.”

“It must be an important ideal for you,” Foxfire said with some admiration, her multiple tails flicking behind her some, “And one I like myself. I readily agree to this.”

“Young fox,” started the hero.

“Foxfire,” interjected the vixen.

“Foxfire, then, and a pleasure to meet you. I must ask, how would you recover the Lost?”

Foxfire gave a tilt of her head and her tails drooped a good bit, “I have not thought of such as yet.”

“How did you summon my ghost, then?”

“I’ve studied the Esoteric Art of Ancient Magics long before I became Lost. I guess I just remember certain spells, like an instinct.”

The ghost started to drift a bit, a strong wind blowing some of the fog that comprised its spiritual body away, “Do you know of a spell to talk to the Lost?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Then make one.”

Foxfire tilted her head, her ears flopping some. She gave it some thought, then asked, “Do you know where to start making a spell?”

“Sadly, no, I never learned the art. I’ve had one friend who was a master of it, but he died many years ago, and buried in his home far away.” The ghost continued to fade as the fog that was his form continued to evaporate in the wind.

“Nevertheless, if others can make a spell, then so can I!”

“That is the proper spirit, young fox.” The ghost gave a soft, short chuckle at his own pun, before continuing, “I hear there were swords in days gone by that enhanced one’s mystical-” but whatever else the ghost wanted to say was blown away by the wind and fog, his spirit could no longer stay manifested.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and bowed her head to the gravestone, giving an old prayer of peace to the deceased. She prowled about the graveyard a bit, seeing if she found anyone of interest or any she had known before, but no gravestone marked a name she recognized on any level.

The vixen hopped about the graveyard hill, then slid a bit on loose scree. She sprawled across the ground, her nose bumping into what was once a gravestone but had been weathered in the many long centuries since it was placed. It had cracked, crumbled and fallen apart, markings on it long weathered away. The only way that she recognized it was a grave marker was due to the unnatural shape of it, it was obviously worked.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh, bowed her head, and issued a prayer of peace to it as well, before starting off, saying, “I guess you’re a kind of Lost yourself.”

LOST NO MORE

NAME: Foxfire
SPECIES: Dangaizan
ARMY/CLAN: None
BODY STYLE: Fighter
PREF WEAPON: Coin Sword
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED: Perception
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: Shape Shifting, Ancient Magics
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC: Energy Blasts, Mentalism

The Southlands. Eighty four percent of the land is part of The Empire. While different dynasties have existed since ancient, mythical times, it is always simply known as The Empire. Neither good nor evil, it has a long history of good emperors and bad, good courtiers and evil, kind governors and ruthless, righteousness and blasphemy all in one. Far from perfect, it is by far the cultural epicenter of the Southlands, and all Dangaizans are proud to be part of it, should they be blessed as being one of its citizens, or covetous and envious of it if they are one of the barbaric tribes on its periphery.

There’s three great barbarian tribes, one on the plains to the north, another in the mountains to the west, and the last within the jungles to the south. A long and powerful wall trails from the northeast corner of The Empire along its northern border until it vanishes within the foothills of the mountains to the west. It would be adequate protection against the northern barbarians if those who guard it did not at times open the gates to let raiders within the borders. The traitors often do so for they feel, rightly or wrongly, slighted in one way or another, that The Empire betrayed them or the ideals they fight for.

It is only recently that a dynasty led by the northern barbarians, one whose last several emperors were ruthless and cruel to all, had recently fallen. Originaly let in by the general in charge of guarding the wall centuries back, they were overthrown by a bunch of bandits loyal to the concept of the ancient glorious dynasties of The Empire.

Know, o reader, this about Dangaizan life; that they enter it physically nearly mature but without much of a mind. Almost universally identical to one another in body shape, they spend an amount of time with their mental capabilities trapped within their bodies. And know that this stage of Dangaizan life forms the bulks of the armies, the mass of soldiery comef rom this almost larval stage of the lifespan.

Know, o reader, that should they physically survive long enough to develop such a mind that they obtain a personality, they will instantly awaken to their actual life, full of emotions and experience and intellect, capable of understanding and feeling. And that when this happens, their body physically changes to that which is their birthright long denied. And when they awaken, they know what their name is, for it is marked upon their very soul.

And know, alas, not all Dangaizans achieve this state of clarity. That only one in ten of them truly awaken to understanding, that the rest simply exist and obey the commands of their betters.

All Dangaizans who do awaken, however, have a penchant for one of two Esoteric Arts. They are awakened, or what is called the Second Birth, with knowledge of either the Art of Shape Shifting or that of Mode Change. Only one in ten of those who achieved Second Birth do not instinctively know either one of theo Esoteric Arts at least at an Expert level, all the rest are able to change their forms as part of their awakening. Those who know the Art of Shape Shifting may take the form of an animal their are spiritually linked to. Those who understand the Art of Mode Change can turn into a vehicle or object which tends to reflect their personality and dedication to their duty.

This knowledge, reader, is important, for there is some other thing thou must know, and that would be that, should a Dangaizan be in the form granted by one of the two Esoteric Arts for too long a time, they run the risk of losing the higher functions of their mind. They run the risk of losing their experience, their knowledge, their personal history, their own sense of self. They go from being a fully intelligent being to something that s in all physical and mental respects, what they are morphed into. Should a Shape Shifter  be in the form of an ironbull too long, they run the risk of becoming, for all intents and purposes, an ironbull. Should a Mode Changer stay within the form of a chariot or a lantern for too long, they regress their mental capabilities to that which a chariot or lantern naturally has. They lose their name. They lose their life.

They become Lost.

When the northern barbarians ran through the gates of the wall, thanks to the actions of the Great Betrayer, citizens of The Empire fled all over in panic and fear. Many who could not run far enough away, for one reason or another, used their gifts to become the form of a beast, vehicle or object to hide in plain sight. They existed as that which they hid as, and as the brutal dynasty kept perpetuating their reign, more and more became Lost.

The cruelty of fate was twofold, for not only did many lose their physical life in the initial invasion, many others lost their mental life over the course of the dynasty by succumbing to and becoming Lost. It was a tragedy that, once Imperial Dangaizans could write their history once again, would remark upon again and again as the darkest days The Empire ever faced.

Foxfire was one who hid by using her gift but becoming Lost due to it. Aptly named, she became a five tailed silver fox. She tried to keep her mind by reciting poetry from the Book of Ancient Poets and the Annalects of Classic Verse, she kept on making arguments on the theories found in the Volumes of the Thousand Philosophies, she fought to keep her mind active and acute. But even she fell and her mental acumen dwindled to a bare spark then blew itself out.

She became Lost.

Foxfire spent years hunting in the woods near the former Imperial City. Whenever a party of hunters threatened her, she would evade them with skill and cunning. She instinctively remembered the Esoteric Art of Ancient Magics she had known during her intellectual days and would employ illusions the thwart larger hunting parties. She fought, she mated, she hunted. She lived, but it was a life of no value, for she had no understanding of whom she was.

Then, one night, she had a dream.

Foxfire jumped from one cloud to another and in this way made it to the top of the highest mountain in the Empire. Feeling satisfied at this, she sat and looked out across the lands of the Empire, seeing flashing lights of various hues flicker across the land. Within her dreaming mind, she could see a map of the entire Empire with the lights planted upon them. Foxfire gave her five tails a flick and in her dream, spoke, “I think I understand.”

Then from behind her a monkey laughed, “Little Lost, do you really? Where do you think we are?”

“We are, stupid monkey, at the highest mountain peak in the Southlands!”

“Oh? I may be stupid, but I can see a taller mountain behind us!”

Foxfire then noticed to the west that there was, indeed, a much taller mountain than the tallest mountain in all the Southlands, and that it had been cloaked in foggy mist and diaphonous clouds. She ran off to that mountain, bounding from one cloud to another to achieve those heights. And felt proud that she did so. And there she said, “I understand, I think.”

A snake laughed beneath her, “What is it you understand?”

“That we are now upon the tallest mountain peak in all the Southlands, of course!”

The snake slithered upon the ground beneath her paws and asked, “Is that where we were? I thought we were within the deepest valley of that continent.”

And Foxfire looked all around, only to see fog pulling its silky netting away to reveal powerful walls of mountains of such a stature as to dwarf both the prior mountains Foxfire thought she attained. And Foxfire ran circles in a panic, shouting, “I do not understand!”

The snake chortled, “Yes, now you’re on the right path.”

Foxfire, being with a fox’s instincts, hated the snake, and so batted it hard away, and it flew across the horizon to splatter upon the mountain top she saw in the distance. And though she could not  see the snake any longer, she heard it say clearly, “And now, I am dead.”

Foxfire whimpered and disliked this, nothing made sense to her. Unable to understand what a dream was, for the Lost do not typically have them, Foxfire was confused at her very core. She knew that if you jump into a tree you’re higher than the ground you left. She knew that something you bat or bite does not talk after it dies. She understand what Nature governs. But she didn’t understand what was happening to her.

Foxfire reacted by digging a deep burrow, then trying to hide in it. When she hid within the metallic ground, she found a flock of birds flying through the solid ground. A pure white crane greeted her cordially with a, “May you not be hungry this day.”

“And to you as well, good crane,” Foxfire reactively said.

The crane perched on top of Foxfire by resting under her belly, which she was confused by. The crane picked at her fur a bit, scraping out burrs and small spots of rust from it before continuing on, “You do not get it, do you?”

“I thought I understood. Then I understood, I thought. And then I did not understand at all.”

“And now, what do you think?” the crane inquired.

“I think that I think,” was Foxfire’s reply.

The crane gave a nod, “A good answer, as good as any. You are still on the right path.”

“The right path to what, though, Mr. Crane?” asked Foxfire with a tilt of her head and a curious quirk of one ear.

“TThat is what we all wish to know, is it not? The path to what, yes?”

Foxfire shook her head, and shrugged, and sat confused for a bit. The crane kept perching on top of her under her belly, which kept confusing the fox, and kept nipping his beak at her fur. Finally, she snapped and bit deep into the crane’s neck, only to have it vanish in a puff of smoke and become a cloud. She could hear it then say, “I have lived.”

The other birds that flew through the solid ground also turned into clouds, in the form of a stairway of clouds, that went downwards. With nowhere else to go, Foxfire descended those clouds and found that she walked up into an ocean. Confused again, she decided not to even bother trying to understand. Here a school of fish swam by her, then came by again, and began to swim around her. They all said in unison, “May you not be hungry this day, Madame Teacher!”

Foxfire plopped her front paws over her ears and curled her five tails about her body, trying to hide. The school of fish kept swimming before her and would not let her go, so finally she asked, “What did you call me?”

And the fish replied in unison, “Madame Teacher, of course.”

“Of course, dear children, of course.” She sighed and gave a shrug of sorts in her vulpine form, “And why do you call me Madame Teacher, dear children?”

“Because you are not bothering to try to understand.”

“I see.”

“Do you?” asked the school in unison, “Not bothering to understand, is that a path to understand?”

“I know not, dear children, unless I walk the path, yes?”

“Truth there is in those words, Madame Teacher.”

Foxfire chuffed, “And just what am I supposed to teach you, dear children?’

“That you understand, you think.”

“But I don’t, do I?

“Teach us then,” said the fish in unison, “What you think you understand.”

“I think that I think, but I do not think I do understand.”

“Do you not, Madame Teacher?”

Foxfire started to get upset again, “Understanding is not something I am currently doing, and I do not know if I can understand! Now stop bothering me, please!”

“Are we bothering you, Madame Teacher? Do you think we are bothering you, or do you understand that we are bothering you?”

“Blasted fish,” Foxfire growled, “I wish you begone!”

With that, a giant shark came by and swallowed the entire school of fish up in one gulp, then greeted Foxfire with, “Done.”

Foxfire growled even more, her five tails standing on end, her hackles raised, “How dare you do that to my dear children, you brute!”

“I dare because I can, stupid fox!”

“Who dares call me stupid?”

The shark grinned a toothy grin, “I dare because I can. Yet you do not understand that.”

Foxfire’s eyes flashed darkly and she sneered, “I think I can dare as well.”

“Can you or not? Dare you risk trying?”

Foxfire jumped high and pounced upon the shark, shouting, “I dare and do!” and with that, she bit into its gills and killed him.

The shark floated away, dead, its voice coming to Foxfire, “I’ve killed.”

“We’ve been killed,” said the dead school of fish.

Foxfire swam to the middle of the ocean and gripped on the floor of it with her four paws. Then she hiked her hips upwards and began to spin her five tails around rapidly, forming a whirlpool within the liquid positronium. All sorts of marine life fell into the whirlpool and died, or fell into the whirlpool and got flung into the sky, only to die there, or fell into the whirlpool only to be devoured by predators who thanked Foxfire for the effort.

Then a dragon swam by and ordered, “Be still.”

Foxfire demanded who dare say that to her, “Just who do you think you are to command me? I who can churn the oceans!”

“Little fox, do you call that churning the oceans? With but a flick of my smallest whiskers I can make land into sea and sea into land! Can you do that small feat with all the power in your body?’

Foxfire stared at the dragon for a bit, then jerked her head up, a grin upon her vulpine lips, “I understand!”

“What is it you understand, little fox?”

Foxfire walked past the dragon underwater, laughing, “Watch my life from now on, if you wish to understand what I understand. Mayhaps when we meet again, I can call you Little Dragon!” And with that, Foxfire was gone and the dream ended.

The dragon, however, did not vanish with the dream, nor did the dreamscape with the mountains and seas and clouds. The dragon just watched Foxfire vanish with a smirk, “Yes, now you understand the path to walk, and know that you may dare, and think that you may think. I wonder if you know when to do which and how, though.”

Foxfire returned to the waking world in her humanoid form, a coin sword in her grip. She recalled not having such a thing before she became Lost, but she did understand who she was once more. She thought again. And she knew that she’d dare to do the impossible.

She’d find the Lost, and recover them. She’d right this tragedy for a brighter future of The Empire.

She’s guide tomorrow.

“My former teacher has guest rights within our tribe for a year and a day. Treat him as one of our own for that duration.”

Archaic gave a short, stiff, slight bow to the Warlord of Rage at that. It was more like a slightly exagerrated nod of his head, he was so stiff to do much else. Archaic and Cavalier were taken right to the Warlord of Rage’s court upon entering the Obliterator city, and their audience was brief but useful. Cavalier did his best to be polite, even if he nearly gave insult a few times.

“Furthermore,” the Warlord nodded to Cavalier then, “This young one who makes no excuses for his behavior, this youth who says with his eyes that he will terminate my existence…” The Warlord and Cavalier each glared darkly at one another across the short court before the Warlord continued on, “He…his fate….” He gave a short pause and looked at the young warrior some more, before nodding, “His fate is to be a guest of our tribe forevermore, until such a time as he decides to leave us.”

Archaic gave a cough of surprise. Cavalier looked incredulous and stupefied. Then both asked basically simultaneously, “What?”

The Warlord gave a short chuckle, “It’s true he desires my death, and with good cause. Fine. He can challenge me anytime, and here, he’ll never need to worry about finding me. As my guest, his safety is my concern, neither I nor my subjects will bring harm to him until the time comes when he himself desires our duel or to leave us. That’s part of our code of honor. As a guest, he’s under no obligation to go to war for us, nor even raise weaponry in defense of our kind. It is, however, our duty to protect him from invaders. With the exception of private areas, unless he’s invited into them, he has access to the lands of the tribe, he is no prisoner. He can keep what he brings into this tribe, which is all he is carrying now, and leave with them whenever it is his desire to leave. Or, should we duel and he loses it, be buried with them. His property and his liberty are both vouchsafed and remain his the entire duration he spends with us as a guest.”

Archaic nodded his head, asking, “But why?”

“My First Teacher, that was merely to allow the young one to understand what, exactly, it means to be a guest of the Obliterators. He has a justified grudge with me. Fine. We can settle that honorably when the time comes. But I wish to show him I’m no butcher. Furthermore…”

“What else is there? You ARE a butcher!” cried out young Cavalier.

“Furthermore, our tribe,” continued the Warlord, unabated, “has a respect for sole survivors of a battlefield. You, young one, are the only Vanguard to have survived the battle. Well. The only one that did not betray your kind to join with my own. As such, we believe you bear extreme luck and are fated for greatness. We welcome destined ones like you. Your luck brings us luck.”

“Why would I want you to be lucky, you murderers?”

“Now now, young one. Your status as a guest means we will not raise arms against you. That does not say we will strike you down in defense. And unlike the ‘civilized’ peoples of the Lands, we do find one spouting antagonistic speech to be a reason to lop of one’s head, as a matter of fact. You do not need to treat me with respect, nor kindness, but it is wise if you do not treat me to your insults.”

“He’s got a point, lad. They’re extending you a great kindness. A great honor, in fact. Don’t bring a fight you can’t win.”

Cavalier growled a bit, glancing at Archaic, “Yeah, fine. I get it.” Then he looked to the Warlord on his throne, “I apolo-”

“Don’t. No need. You did not know before. Now you do. One should never feel they need to apologize for simple ignorance born of never hearing the information before. However, willful ignorance, being taught, having information, and still diregarding it, is rather a sin. Now, as to me being a murderer….” The Warlord rose up and moved to the eastern portion of the court. He ascended a few short stairs onto a platform and looked out a window there, “I never intended to kill my old friend. I never intended to fight him. The information I was given had him posted elsewhere. Ironically, one of the ones who betrayed him, also betrayed me. Regardless…” He waves the two guests up to the platform with him, and waited until they arrived and looked out the window, “In the distance, there. You see that hill? There’s a valley just beyond that hill, where we bury our dead champions and best heroes. It’s sacred, all the clans of Oblierators view it as such. None of us will ever fight there, will ever defile it. Not long ago now, a Vanguard raiding party stole artifacts from some of our buried dead, then set fire to the tombs.”

Archaic gasped. That was a sacrilige almost beyond comprehension, and a tactic that no sane commander would assign a group. This group was either on their own, or had a commander willing to instigate a complete war between Obliterators and Vanguard until one side or the other was fully wiped out. And for merely some weapons from an unknown time ago?

“The other Obliterators, if they heard the news before us, would have amassed their hordes and struck ever onwards. There’d be no end to the carnage. By invading for revenge, and razing the Vanguard’s Hall of Heroes, we’ve avenged the insult and made things equal once more. In destroying the fort that stood in our way, in killing all those Vanguard, in a rather ironic way, we may have saved the lives of all the other Vanguard.”

“But, why? Are you not the Warlord of Rage?” Cavalier was dubious and somewhat dumbfounded.

“Hah, yes. At that I am. But I’ve no taste for mere butchery and slaughter. I grew up in a dying era of heroes, and in my mind I still hold on to a code of honor. It may not be as yours is, young one, but it is one never the less. Fighting those that are my match is the epitome of honor. Fighting those that are in no way a match for me is dishonorable and distasteful.”

“But-”

“Enough, young one!”

“Stop calling me young one!”

“Then earn your name amongst our tribe!” The Warlord looked Cavalier over, noticing his wounds, “There are three Vanguard that betrayed your fort. Within the next several years, spread out so as not to draw suspicion to their conspiracy, they will arrive here. You are to kill them all to take your revenge. Die to any, and we bury you on Vanguard grounds with a Vanguard rite. Upon slaying your enemy, you are to rip out their heart and devour their inner positronium as it still pumps. Then, you tear their head off and crush it between your hands. Such are the ancient ways of my peoples.”

“Gross.”

“Lad!”

“It’s OK, most of the Obliterators find it gross nowadays. But,” he pointed to Cavalier’s prizes gained from the slaying of the cybersaur raptor, “I take it you are okay with certain ancient rites, therefore, you shall gain vengeance using our ancient rites. Now, you slay one of the traitors, you earn your name amongst us.” The Warlord looked Cavalier over again and pointed to his fire scarred chest, “The Flame of Fate should do it. You will have earned that name for the first kill.”

“I kind of like that name. And upon killing the other two?”

“You slay the second one, and I will teach you all the Esoteric Arts and fighting styles I am aware of, young one. I shall be your First Teacher. Perhaps, then, with that knowledge, you can slay me.”

“Hah!” The youth shook his head some, glancing to the Warlord, “Got a death wish? Fine. But I’ve no taste of dishonoring myself by slaying my First Teacher. That is one gift I may need to consider declining.”

The Warlord gave a simple shrug, “Think on it, the time has not yet arrived to fight any of those traitors. Accept or decline the gift only when it is offered to you.”

“Wise words, former student,” Archaic stated.

“Yes, well. I myself may have had a good teacher. The third gift, should you kill all three…” The Warlord moved back to his dias and sat upon the throne ensconced there, “The third gift…I have no heir. You slay your three enemies, and I shall adopt you as my son and heir.”

“What?” Both the guests were of course, astonished. As was every Obliterator in the court who heard this pronouncement.

“You would, young one, become my heir. Upon my death or my removal as this particular clan’s ruler, you would ascend in my place. This tribe would be yours.”

“I have no idea what to say! I came here seeking to end your existence, for revenge!”

“Say nothing now, young one. Say what you mean when the time comes to say it, nothing else until then. But I have my reasons. Besides being chosen by fate, you’d prevent this tribe splitting in two. Without an heir, my two subcommanders would fight over the position. My tribe would be torn asunder and split into two warring factions. The survivors, however many there were, would be in a far weaker state than they’ve been in for awhile. In such a position, any of our enemies would likely come in and decimate my people. My death would very likely mean the death of all my tribe, should I not have an heir. You’d be saving lives.”

Cavalier did not know what to say. He had been told for years that the Obliterators were just a mindless, uncivilized horde reaping despair across the Lands. And here, within hours of saying he intended to behead the Warlord, was the Warlord offering him honors, thinking about saving future lives, talking about ancient traditions of peace, having a valid reason for recent slaughter. Cavalier’s head tilted downwards and his eyes clouded in thought.

“Young one,” the Warlord stated again, “Like I said before, reply when the time to reply arrives and not before. You have time to think, to live life, to see if my people are worth saving or not. I have no intention of dying for a long time, there is no rush to reply to this yet. However…” The Warlord looked past the two guests to his chief shaman, “Our young guest is still injured. See to his injuries, and assign your students to prepare for a guest feast on the morrow.”

The elder shaman took Cavalier off and prepared for the treatment. While he was treating the young guest, he explained that the Warlord heard of days of long ago when the various armies would exchange guests with each other, forming alliances and ensuring peace. Or, at the very least, giving hostages on the bet that peace would follow. That the last golden age was brought in partially by this web of alliances, and that the Warlord would like to see that day return.

Cavalier’s repairs incorporated the damage into him. The ‘wings’ affixed to his back were not removed, but buffed and polished smooth, then inked in a pure gold. The flames burnt into his chest were also inked in gold and yellow, the ink having a soothing effect upon the warrior and healing him of the ambient pain. The melted slag lump on his lower chest was gently removed and his chest was sanded and buffed back into sleek, angular lines.

Archaic spent his year and a day with his former student and his clan peacably, watching the animosity Cavalier displayed originally slowly ebb and abate. A half a year later, Cavalier earned his tribal name of Flame of Fate amongst the Obliterators. Two years later, he slew his second nemesis and earned a First Teacher. Three years after that, the last traitor of the Vanguards, had fallen to his spine-tooth blade and he earned his spot as the Warlord’s heir. He found that the traitors, people he never knew could exist prior to that one fateful day, had ever been his true enemies. At least an enemy from a different army would fight upon a field of battle, there was honor in that. But a betrayal was starkly dishonorable and fully disagreeable to his sense of honor, duty and integrity. Cavalier voluntarily weeded the tribe of their own traitors, finding Obliterators that sold allegiance to another army to betray at a future date and for a future battle. There were always more, ever more, for the weak and disenfranchised will always seek methods to gain somehow, no matter the cost. Cavalier envisioned that all across the Northlands one Vescaxian or another was plotting to betray their army at a crucial time, and the thought disgusted him.

In all, ten years passed. Cavalier never saw Archaic return to the tribe, but he did gain friends, followers, and even a loved one, amongst his one time enemies. When the woman he loved died, he spent the year in mourning for her, she who he planned to be his lifemate, and upon the day after the mourning passed, he walked out of the gates and once more into the wide world.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Good job, lad’.”

“For what?”

“You killed a cybersaur raptor all by yourself, without using any Esoteric Art. And you further performed ancient rites that few people still recall, offering the spirit of the dead a resting place. That’s commendable, both feats. So, good job, lad.”

Cavalier looked over the old one sitting on top of the ore boulders cautiously, appraisingly. He did not know how long the old one’s been here or for that matter, in the general region, and had not heard his footfalls or his mounting of the boulders. Someone as old as the person he’s conversing with appears should have given off some sounds of effort or heavy footfalls to warn Cavalier of the new presence long before now. But this one, he just suddenly seemed to have appeared from nowhere. And Cavalier was a bit unsettled about that. After a few moments pause, Cavalier asked, “Just who are you, old one?”

“Hah!” came a laughter and a cough mingled together, “That’s a good question alright. It’s been awhile since I conversed with someone else, so I haven’t needed a name in a long time. Let’s see, I go by nowadays as….Archaic. Yeah, that’s the name. Almost forgot that!”

“You have other names?”

“Who doesn’t, lad? Creation name. Adventuring name. Down in the Southlands they have a Courtesy Name. Some of us go by their title. Others, by their aspiration. Still others have names placed upon them by others. We can go through names like we can go through weaponry. But I’ve been going by Archaic for a few millenia now, come to think of it, and I’m not like to be changing it anytime soon.”

Cavalier glanced over the old one a bit more. He still had his suspicions, though the old one made no hostile move at all. In fact, he made no move at all, except with his mouth. The only motions the old one made were the ones needed to vocalize and no more. Cavalier asked a curious question, “Do I know you from another name, from history?”

Now there was motion. The old one threw his head back and cough-laughed again, a hand raising to cover his mouth. His other hand unslung a long and ancient musket from his back to lay across the boulder behind him, and he shifted his legs to be more comfortable. After the laughing and coughing fit both ended, the old one shrugged, “I don’t know. Certainly not in your lifetime, lad. You’re too young to have seen me in my prime, by far. If you know certain histories, maybe. But even then I wasn’t nothing very special, my ancient name isn’t likely to be gracing any history books, sad to say. Archaic works, lad. At my age, it’s easier to remember just one name at a time. So don’t be giving me any strange nicknames, might muddle me up some.”

Cavalier studied Archaic a bit longer, his eyes scanning over the old one and his gear. He first blurted out, “Wait, that’s an ancient magic wand!”

Archaic gave a snort of derision and shook his head, “Magic wand my aft. It’s just a musket. Back in the old days, they were the epitome of weapons technology. Then the Esoteric Art of Energy Blasts developed and firearms technology was largely forgotten. You still see a few firearms users and engineers around, but largely, what’s being carried by a few old ones like me are it. We used it in…”

“Peacekeeper!”

“Eh? Oh, yeah.” Archaic looked down at his left shoulder, which had a very faded and deformed sigil baring the mark of the ancient and now long defunct Peacekeeper faction. Before this current Great War, the Peacekeepers were a multi-army and inter-tribal force for good. The elite warriors went into their ranks, and they patrolled the Northlands, resolving conflicts and insuring the peace for all. This worked for a long time, until strife ripped even that elite and noble group apart. Betrayed by within, many were assassinated in one night, few ever saw a survivor since. “I guess I lost my cloak somewhere. Look, you didn’t see that. I’m just an old man with an ancient weapon who thinks you got potential, lad.”

“But what you did in those days were amazing, Archaic! You Peacekeepers prevented the end of the world. You helped resolve the Great Cataclysm! The ancient and miraculous crystalline cities of-”

“We may have done some of that, lad,” Archaic cut him off, “But a lot of that’s myth. Look, truth be told, we did some good things, we did some bad things. Sometimes the peace we kept was held at the end of our weaponry. Forced peace is never true peace. Don’t forget that. I’m not saying I’m not happy having served, or that we were villains or nothing. But I am saying that, without anyone alive to counter them, legends spring up about near anything. We haven’t done most of what we’ve been given credit to doing. Sorry, lad.”

Cavalier shook his head, “Disregarding all that, ignoring the tall tales, fine, I can accept that.” Cavalier had stooped and withdrew one of his short blades and began to carve up the cybersaur raptor’s hide, knowing what to use some of it for, now, “I still think what you did was amazing. You took all the various armies and bound them together. Soldiers of all the armies worked together for along time. For someone like me, whose life started long into this Great War, such a thing is almost inconceivable. That’s almost mythical in itself.”

“Eh, I suppose so. Thanks, lad. But the Convoys….”

“The Convoys don’t do the same thing, Archaic! Almost none of them ever work together with their rivals. You won’t see a Vanguard and an Obliterator working together in a Convoy because our armies are at war with each other. Besides, they’re just mercenaries. Most are glorified caravan guards. There’s nothing honorable in that. What you did…”

“What Peacekeepers did was done in a different age. A different world. It was an easier group to form back then. Given the wartorn state of the Northlands now, a Convoy corps isn’t so dishonorable a vocation.” Archaic looked at Cavalier, asking with a curious glint in his eyes, “What’re you doing now, lad?’

“You lost your cloak,” Cavalier stated matter of fact as he kept on working at the raptor’s hide. He paused in talking for a bit as he soon enough finished the job at hand, offering a makeshift cloak of cyebrsaur raptor hide to Archaic, “It’s not perfect and may be a bit stiff, but it is yours, now.”

Archaic’s face look startled. He paused for a time, in shock, before giving a loud burst of laughter, without a cough this time. With trembling hands he reached out to take hold of the gift, a bright smile on his face, “Lad…you know what you’re doing?”

Cavalier nodded, “I’m giving a gift to a friend. You have need of a cloak, and now you have it.” The statement was so matter of fact and direct, it startled Archaic.

“Lad…oh, Lad. Honestly, I can’t thank you enough.”

“My name is Cavalier, Archaic. And please, no thanks needed. Though I am curious why you are so sentimental about such a gift.”

Archaic gave a wry smirk and shook his head, “Back in my day, lad…Cavalier, sorry….back when I was your age, my people had a rite of passage. We’d go out hunting down something with just melee weaponry. No Esoteric Arts….though back then, there wasn’t as many as there are now, and different ones to boot, and no firearms. Knives, swords, spears, that sort of thing. We’d hunt down a beast and perform rites for its soul’s passage much the same way you did. And we’d bring a gift back…”

“Yeah? So what I’m doing…”

“Let me finish, lad. We’d bring a gift back to the one we want as….as our lifemate. I know that’s not your intent, but it made me recollect the one lady I wanted as my own lifemate. The only one I ever met in my life that I ever wanted to give a hunter’s gift to.” Archaic flung the cloak about him, covering his Peacekeeper sigil and his musket’s harness, then gave a grin, “Such a gift will remind me of my younger and better days. Thank you.”

“Archaic…I…you’re welcome…?”

The old one stiffly got up off the boulder, grabbed his musket, and came over to Cavalier. He rested a hand on the young one’s shoulders and gave a short smile, “Honestly, thank you. I hope to be able to repay you for this gi-”

“Tell me stories of your Peacekeeper days. Where are you headed, anyway? We can talk as we travel.”

Archaic gave a short nod, “I’m visiting two who were once my students. Separately, however, they’d never come together in peace anymore. You may know one, young Vanguard. He’s the fortress commander of a fort….”

“He’s deceased.”

Archaic gave a pause and a sigh, shaking his head, “A shame. For some reason, I’m thinking you were under his command.”

Cavalier nodded, solemnly, “I was there when the Warlord of Rage and his Obliterators stormed through. As far as I know, I’m the only survivor of the Vanguards. How, I’m not sure. But now…”

“You’re headed to the Warlord’s camp in order to gain revenge. But what you’re really doing is suicide by external force. You’re throwing your life away, lad.”

“I know that, old timer! Don’t think me for a fool! I saw my hero die in one slash right before my eyes, I know the Warlord could terminate me with barely a thought! I know that even his soldiers, his lowliest, could overcome me without much effort. I know, but I swore I’d have vengeance!”

“And the attempt must still be made huh? Admirable, in its own way, but foolish.” Archaic held up a pair of fingers when Cavalier glared at him and was about to yell in response, “Foolish, I say, for now, for how you mean to do it. You struggled with one cybersaur raptor. Your nemesis can defeat fifty with ease. I know your emotions are raging now, but control them. Turn them into a simmer. Don’t forget what happened at that fort, but don’t throw your life away for it. Live on, and some day, in some way, you’ll gain your revenge.”

“How? By killing him when he’s as old as you? When he has one foot on his own funeral pyre?”

“It’s not a bad thought, but no,” Archaic mused. Cavalier had not noticed it, but Archaic was taking the duo right where Cavalier wanted to go anyway, the home camp of the Obliterators lead by the Warlord of Rage. Archaic gave a sidelong glance, “There are other pathways to vengeance. Killing a body is just killing a body. But you can destroy also their relationships. No one is an island, after all, and loneliness causes a despair all its own. You can destroy their dreams; everyone has something they seek to accomplish in life, and being unable to achieve their goal can shatter their spirit. You can destroy their name, by ruining their reputation. This particular enemy of yours has his power magnified by his army, yet what if he no longer had such? What would the Warlord of Rage be if, for example…you showed pity on him?”

“Pity? Why would I show pi-” Cavalier looked around some and noticed their path, “The second one you intend to visit, is the same one I intend to behead, isn’t it?”

Archaic gave a soft nod, “They both were my students, yes. Both your hero and your vengeance fueld nemesis. At one time, they were friends and fought together. They were the young heroes of their generation, before. But the world ever changes, and oft we ever change within it. Only the stubborn like I will remain as they were, a relic of the long gone past.”

Cavalier looked sullen for a time, frowning. His new friend taught his now worst enemy. He also taught his personal hero. But the one slew the other. A conflict of emotions crossed over Cavalier’s face, the youth looking confused, “Archaic, you….”

“Tell me how you survived.”

“Huh? The battle? I, I don’t know, really.”

“You do, tell me. Talk me through that entire day.”

Cavalier took some time to collect his thoughts, both on Archaic and the relationship with both his former students, and the day of the battle. After a few false starts, he told the story of the fight from the way he saw things. He offered a few guesses as to what happened from outside his vantage point, based on what he saw occur at the fort. He ended the story by recalling waking up, wounded, in the burnt shell of the commander’s office, almost the entire way across from the fort’s entrance where he was.

Archaic nodded slightly, “Two things, then, lad. The first is, and you may not understand it, but you obviously escaped using the Esoteric Art of Celerity.”

“I haven’t been trained in enough lessons to have done that! I’m only able to see experts using it, I’m not able to move with the speed of an expert!”

“You’re no expert, lad. Teleporting is the work of a master of that art. Whether or not you know how to do it intellectually, you’ve mastered the art instinctively. You willed yourself to escape, and you did, by teleporting across the fort. It’s true you’ll likely need lessons on the art to be able to use it actively, but you got potential, lad.”

“I suppose so, old timer. Are you able to teach me the art?”

Archaic laughed. The pair walked at a slower pace, Archaic’s gait was slow with age, his knees corroded by the degradation of ancient suns. He shook his head, “Maybe once, long ago. I’m too old to be able to teach you in the art anymore. Oh, I can give you the philosophy behind it, the mental exercises, the lessons in how to track the motion. But you know all that already, if you could see the Warlord’s swing. You’re probably doing the mental exercises now, aren’t you?”

“Ever since I reawakened in the fort, actually, even during the fight against the raptor. But…”

“You’re hit a plateau and can not advance on those alone, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Archaic snorted, “No sir, we’re friends, lad. If you want to beat the Warlord of Rage, you need at least all the Esoteric Arts he knows, of at least the skill levels he knows them at. You need a teacher.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to travel the world, I suppose, learning from various masters.”

“Yes, that’s one path. Or…” Archaic nodded to the camp that was their destination, the fortress city of the Obliterators, “Or you can learn from one teacher. The Warlord of Rage knows all of the Esoteric Arts at the exact skill level as your target, the Warlord of Rage, after all. Get him to teach you all he knows, and you stand on equal ground in that respect.”

“How? Why? That’s dishonorable! And what of the oath one takes between master and student? I’d forever be an oathbreaker if I killed my own teacher!”

“Honor’s not everything, lad. Cavalier, sorry. If you want your revenge, you need to know what you’re willing to give up. If it’s not your life, what else could it be? Your honor? One of your limbs? Your ability to fight again? What? You never come away from a vengeance duel unscathed.”

Cavalier mused over this for a bit and finally nodded, “I suppose that is true. It will be something I need to consider.”

“Good, now, young friend, two things,” Archaic pointed to the city gates, “Keep silent, allow me to do all the talking. Challenge no one you see, no matter what. Just watch, listen, and learn. Observe. Can you do that?”

“I can attempt to do that, at least.”

Archaic gave a shrug, “Attempt as hard as you can. Step out of line and both of our lives are forfeit. My life is in your hands just as much as it is any Obliterator, now. Do you understand?”

“Not really, but I suppose I will, sooner or later. I’ll do my best to follow those orders.”

Archaic nodded and yelled to the gate guards for entrance. They shouted back and forth for a time, challenging Archaic’s right for admittance, asking why he seeks entry, who Cavalier is, and several other questions. After it was done, the pair waited as the large, strong gates slowly swiveled open.

“You said there were two things, but only mentioned one. What’s the other?”

“Ah, yes, my lad. Thank you. Your story about the battle. There’s several anomalies. Relive it inside your mind, repeat the fight again and again until you see for yourself.” Archaic started to walk into the Obliterator city.

“What am I to see, Archaic?”

“Why, who betrayed the Vanguard, of course. All the traitors.”