HAPPY FUN BUCKET
Crossover
by
Lewis Smith

Story & Characters © 2018 Lewis Smith. All Rights Reserved.

Crossover

He stood in the place where it would begin and end, even though it hadn’t done either, yet. The helmet lay at his feet, broken, singed, and covered with streaks of dust. It had lay in this barren place for some time--years perhaps, even though time in this place didn’t behave as it did in the physical universe.

Because this was Tempus Finis--the end of time, the center of infinity, where the Mobius loop crossed itself over itself. From here one could travel to any point in time, any reality that could, did, or might exist.

He’d been here many times before, and yet this was his also his first journey here. Such was the nature of this timeless place. As he’d trudged his way through the barren rocky wasteland he wondered if people knew their ideal place--a timeless Heaven where people didn’t age and could live forever at the center of all things was such a barren craggy wasteland where the sky was always dark and the sun or stars never shone and the whole land was a dry expanse of rocks and dirt.

It’s somehow appropriate, the being known as Nemesis pondered, that Heaven is a wasteland and God is dead.

He stared at the helmet. It was his, and yet, at the same time it wasn’t. That he could be here, looking at his own burned remains was at one and the same time the nature of Tempus Finis and his own unusual nature.

In every case, every alternate reality, every timeline, every Nemesis came here at least once. He was the first and last at one and the same time. Alpha and Omega. He turned the battered helmet in his hands and mused about how he’d gotten here.

Nemesis was a time traveler--the first and only, that he knew of. The obsidian armor he wore was the prototype version of a rig that would allow people to travel backwards and forwards in time, phasing in and out of the time stream as he went.

It seems strange, he pondered, turning the helmet in his hands, that our intentions were so mundane, once. The team of scientists he’d led had initially intended the machine as an observational tool, nothing more.

"Wouldn’t it be incredible," one of them had said at the time. "To be able to see the end of the dinosaurs, or the end of wars, or the creation of the Pyramids?"

"It would be even more amazing to physically experience that time," he remembered himself replying. "To be able to hunt a dinosaur, or win a war single-handedly. What good is observing things passively? If we’re studying cause and effect we should actually affect things, shouldn’t we?"

That hadn’t not gone over well, he remembered. The usual theoretical nonsense about altering the timeline and affecting their present was trotted out and he had, so far as they knew, backed down in the face of their theories about time travel he’d always suspected were gleaned more from well-thumbed paperbacks than scientific inquiry.

No, he’d seemed to back down and return to work, expanding the potential of their time machine, the Quantum Cross. Now, instead of travelling through time as an insubstantial phantom, the wearer could move through space and time in an unlimited fashion. Distance became a mere abstract concept.

He remembered testing the Cross’ spatial distortion field in the lab on his own one night, throwing a flask form one end of the lab and crossing the room in a microsecond with plenty of time to catch it.

The possibilities went far beyond affecting history, now. Now, with vistas of existence never dreamt of being opened there was more knowledge out there than he found

Finally, he’d resolved to steal the Quantum Cross for himself, altering it slightly so it and the chrononaut suit one of the others had designed would be a sealed system, protecting him from any danger he might encounter. It was upgradable, and adaptable.

It wasn’t, however, properly shielded when he first activated it. On that day, the wave generated by the Quantum Cross ramping up to full power had sent a pulse through the entire building. In a second, every person in the building spontaneously aged at a factor of one year per millisecond. The lucky ones were dead in an instant--one minute healthy and alive, the next, less than dust.

But what did it matter? He was free, wasn’t he?

And he’d made the most of his freedom--hunting dinosaurs, winning wars, and within a day’s time was bored off his ass. Space travel did little to soothe his restlessness--every other culture seemed to have the same stupid cycle of war, near-extinction, resurrection, war . . .the sheer stupidity of people, none of whom could see what he could see appalled him.

And then he’d come here. And he’d learned two things.

One--every possibility is played out. On some physical model of the universe, every decision and possibility had been played out. There was an Earth where the dinosaurs were still the primary life form, an earth where the Nazis had won, et cetera, et cetera.

The second, and more disturbing fact was that in crossing time and space and creating more alternate realities, he’d been inadvertently creating other Nemeses, other versions of himself. Something about forcing his way through the barriers of reality splintered them in a way not intended and he left behind a part of himself.

It’s a bit like the old legend about having your shadow torn off by the branches of a tree, he thought. Only truer, and very dangerous for me.

In addition to having dangerous side effects on reality, his own physicality suffered too--these alternates were drawn from his own physical form, held outside time and reality in his armored shell.

I become a little less "real" every time another Nemesis is born, he thought. My own uniqueness suffers. And there’s no way to stop it --it perpetuates itself through all time constantly. Every movie, every decision I make creates a shadow of myself.

Only here, where time doesn’t exist, am I safe.

"You found that out earlier than I did, didn’t you?" Nemesis asked of the empty helmet before him. "Decided you weren’t going to doom yourself to living as an empty suit? And went after those you blamed for your condition, or those you thought more fortunate than yourself . . .than us . . .than myself.

"For all the good it did you."

He tossed the helmet away, no longer wishing to look at his past and possible future. Nemesis didn’t want to live the rest of his life as an empty suit either--he’d already worn this shell so long he’d forgotten what he looked like underneath.

At some point, and some point soon--he would cease to exist. At least as he existed now. Whether he faded into nothingness alone, perished as the other Nemesis had in a futile showdown with people who were strangers to him, or chose some other way was up to him.

He thought of his fallen predecessor, remembering his destruction at the hands of three warriors he’d plucked from time for the final battle here at this place.

No, he thought. I won’t go out like that.

But perhaps in his failure there’s a way to succeed, to break the loop that I and all the alternate Nemeses are trapped in. A way I could yet endure.

Yes, Nemesis thought, smiling within his armor.

Where he failed, I could yet succeed.

I just need to alter his plan a little.

There was a soft blue glow as he activated the Quantum Cross, and in an instant he was gone.

But he would yet return.

2: The Winter Night Phantom

The man lay in the small room, lying on the floor, making the most of the short respite he’d gained from his troubles. His arms were wrapped tight around himself, his white-gloved hands trucked into the sleeves of his blue and black jacket to preserve what warmth he could. His hair, massive and blue-black cascaded behind him on the matted floor, his chest rising and falling with the regular sigh of a deep sleep.

Outside, snows fell on the mountains of northern Japan. The priests of the hidden temple that was his home-from-home had taken him in and offered him shelter from the winter night, a place to sleep and something to eat, and what little they could give him, he was grateful for--he wouldn’t ask more of them than they were willing to provide him.

To those few friends he had who knew his real name he was Ichiro--"the first son." To everyone else, he was merely a samurai without a master, a man out of a time, a wanderer. A lone warrior on a lonely mission with the odds stacked high against him, constantly on the move wherever his quest and his battles would take him.

In his native tongue, the word was "ronin." Over time, that word had become his other name.

His eyes opened, his eyes adjusting to the dark moonlit blue of the cold night. He lay there on the mat, still breathing, the frigid air and the gentle sign of snow accumulating on the eaves outside the only sound for a few seconds. His mind was calm and undisturbed, like the surface of a still pond.

But there was something out there, something that shouldn’t be. Something that disturbed the stillness of his mind. He concentrated, slowly slipping his hands from his sleeves as he began to push away the familiar and isolate the sound outside.

The crunch of feet in deep snow, he thought. Whoever it was, they were wearing boots--heavier than the priests’ leggings. His hand reached for the long curved sword that lay beside him, fingers delicately lifting the sword into his hands, gripping it just below where the sword slid into the scabbard.

He moved up onto his feet, crawling towards the door of his small cabin, moving closer to the sound. Outside, on the decks and bridges that connected the various buildings and lodgings of the temple, something was lurking, quietly but lacking any real purpose.

Whoever it was outside seemed to be moving in circles.

He’s either uncertain of why he’s here or hasn’t found what he’s looking for, Ronin thought. He moved closer to the door, sliding it open a crack as he raised the mask pulled down around his neck up and over his face. This was partly a precaution against the winter night, but he also knew it could be a potent psychological tool, should it come to battle.

He squinted out the door. He could see the footprints of his quarry in the snow, but the figure was only half-visible, silhouetted against the white moonlight. His body language indicated confusion, as if he’d wandered onto the temple grounds by mistake.

An unlikely mistake, Ronin thought, but what concerned him even more was the long shadow that fell over the snow right next to the figure’ own. Whatever the intruder’s intentions, he was armed.

Ronin flicked his thumb against the handguard of his sword, slipping it an inch out of the scabbard. His other hand came to rest on the hilt of the sword, resting it against the edge of the door, nudging it open a little more.

He reached out with his other senses, abilities than ran deeper than his superior physical skills. Unfortunately, the most they could tell him was that whoever it was wasn’t an agent of his enemy, Orochi--their chi, their spirit, stood out like a black hole in his awareness, unmistakable in their evil intent.

This man . . .doesn’t register at all, Ronin thought. How is that possible? It’s as if he doesn’t belong here--not only in the temple, but in this world. He’s a complete blank.

He rested the butt of the sword-hilt against the door. Whatever this strange being’s story, he wouldn’t find it out by staying here in the doorway. Better to learn his intentions in the truest way Ronin knew how.

Confrontation.

He thumped the butt of the sword against the door sliding it the rest of the way open and launched himself in the air, moving like a shadow silhouetted against the moonlight as he slid his sword free of the scabbard, landing in front of the intruder.

In the pale moonlight the man who stand before him was revealed in some detail. His clothes were fitted close and form-fitting, but his armor was unlike anything Ronin had ever seen, even on the agents of the Orochi. Whatever it’s composition, it allowed him to virtually ignore the cold--nothing in the way he stood indicated he even recognized the large white snowflakes which clung to his black hair. Strange ideograms Ronin didn’t recognize were emblazoned across the front of the chest of the armor and they seemed to glow and pulse with their own inner light.

Like Ronin he wore a mask--a pale white mask with the only visible sign of emotion his glowing green eyes. They seemed to burn through the falling snow as he glared at him.

He could be forgiven for not recognizing him. The being known as Sabre was after all from another place and time entirely, hence his disruptive influence on Ronin’s senses.

In one hand he held the sword Ronin had caught the shadow of earlier--a large weapon with a black blade, edged in green. From its size, it should have been as heavy as a broadsword, but the intruder seemed to wielding as he would a light rapier.

"Stand where you are," he commanded the intruder, rising to his feet, his stance still guarded. He wouldn’t provoke the intruder, but neither would he allow him to harm anyone in the temple.

The intruder’s eyes narrowed and he raised his sword.

Obviously he’s not interested in talking, Ronin thought. He got into that ready stance very fast indeed.

The point of the Sabre’s blade was pointed at Ronin. Sabre’s feet shifted slightly in the snow and he charged at him. Ronin turned into the path of the charge, blocking him and pinning him as he attempted to get a better look at his opponent.

Sabre headbutted Ronin, pushing him away and trying for an overhead slash. Ronin rolled away, reaching into the folds of his jacket. He rolled to his feet, a few feet away from Sabre, whipping the throwing knives he’d pulled from his jacket at Sabre.

Sabre turned to the side, striking two of the knives out of the air, spinning his blade in a circle to deal with the third. Ronin eyed him carefully, sword pointed at his opponent.

If talking wouldn’t divine his intentions, Ronin had other ways of learning what he needed to know. A century and a half of experience had given him the ability to read the body language of his opponents, to recognize their skills, strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, he thought, springing forward and parrying two strikes by Sabre, it helps a little if I’ve actually seen the style in question. He ducked a swipe of the blade that Sabre intended to cleave his head from his shoulders, then sheathed his sword and produced a small cylindrical object from his back.

He gave the small wooden handle a quick twist, and it suddenly extended to several times its length, a small but very strong blade extending from one end of the weapon. He grasped the weapon and tried a low strike to catch Sabre’s legs and trip him up, but Sabre was ready for him and sprang high in the air, kicking Ronin the face with such force Ronin thought it would take his head off.

Sabre landed, pivoted on his heel and tried to kick him again. Ronin grabbed his leg and brought his fist up into Sabre’s stomach, just under his armor. His opponent gasped, then was sent facefirst into the snow as Ronin drove the point of his elbow into the back of his head.

Ronin stood over him for a moment, then blocked a strike from Sabre’s blade with his spear. Before his very eyes, Sabre’s weapon began to alter its shape--the black blade was now extending out of both ends of the sword. Sabre changed his grip on the weapon, as if altering his style to imitate Ronin’s.

Ronin struck at him once again, but the intruder seemed to be as skilled with the spear as he was with the sword. He’d been trying to read this man’s fighting style, but was totally at a loss.

His style’s more adaptive, he thought. It doesn’t rely on traditional forms, routines or sets of moves, just intuitive counters of my attacks. That gives him an advantage--most of the traditional styles I could predict. This is more random and unpredicatble.

He drew his sword, holding his spear in a defensive stance and his sword in a more aggressive stance. Sabre shifted his stance from aggressive to defensive back and forth trying to determine Ronin’s intention.

Ronin rushed him, lunging forward with his sword, but actually attacking with his spear. Sabre tried to block both, but his altered weapon was too cumbersome to parry both and Ronin caught him across the chest with the spear’s blade.

Sabre backpedaled, as if he were surprised that Ronin had been able to cut him. His weapon shifted back to its previous configuration and he lunged again at Ronin, who this time collapsed his spear and met Sabre with a blocking stance, bracing Sabre with a two-handed grip on his sword.

His style suggests a sword built for striking rapidly and repeatedly, Ronin thought, pinning his opponent’s sword from attacking with leverage. My blade isn’t, but if I can hold him, just a few seconds . . .

Ronin let go of his sword with one hand, his sword tilting against Sabre’s strength. He reached for his spear again and, activating the release on it, drove the spear into Sabre’s chest, where he’d already managed to strike him.

Sabre backpedaled immediately, his weapon falling from his grasp as he staggered backwards, staring at the spear now embedded in his chest, the now double injury beginning to spark and surge with energy. Too late his eyes darted back to Ronin, charging forward and swinging his sword high in the air.

He didn’t seem to be in pain from Ronin’s spear but in a matter of seconds, it wouldn’t matter.

Ronin had yet to see any combatant who could survive decapitation.

At the very instant Ronin’s blade hit Sabre’s neck, something strange happened. The energy from Sabre’s chest-wound erupted out, lighting the dark night in light so brilliant it seemed as though Ronin was staring into the sun. The world he knew shuddered and seemed to fold in on itself, and there was a sudden flash and the loudest clap of thunder he’d ever heard.

And then nothing. No Sabre, no Ronin, and once the snow had time to erase the evidence they’d battled, no evidence they’d ever been here at all.

3: Between the Wheels

Kienan Ademetria stepped out of the shadows, looking down through the shattered glass at the commotion on the street below. In his time as an assassin, he’d killed plenty of men, but none quite like Keldon Murray.

Usually his quarry, upon learning that Admertia--often referred to as "the most dangerous man in the universe," much to his chagrin--would either retain a rival assassin to protect themselves from him or retain an entire private army simply to keep him away. Inevitably, this escalation meant Kienan would send his target to hell with plenty of company.

Murray had done things a little different. After Kienan broke into his office to confront him, Murray had flung his chair through the window, and then thrown himself out after it.

Apparently, if he were going to die either way, he’d rather choose suicide to assassination, Kienan thought, the breeze from outside billowing through his hair, rustling through his red vest and long braided hair. Attempt to deny me the satisfaction of killing him.

Kienan could see the glazed, frightened expression of terror in his face even now as Murray shattered the glass behind his expensive desk in his expensive office, remembering that he looked at Kienan, who calmly watched as he did this, didn’t try to stop him as he leapt to his death.

Unfortunately, Murray hadn’t known two things; Kienan mused, reaching for a cigarette. One--if you leap from a tall building, a human’s more than likely going to be conscious all the way down. Two, I always fulfill the letter of my contract.

Kienan’s contract had called upon him to kill Murray with a gunshot to the head. And that’s just what he had done. It didn’t matter that once Murray hit the pavement it wouldn’t matter whether he had or not.

He’d know.

He turned and walked out of the office, cigarette dangling from his lips as he made his way up the fire stairs. More than likely the colonial police were on there way and since they much preferred taking the lift to the steps, he was more likely to get a headstart going up this way.

He bounded up the stairs, taking two and three steps at a time, chestnut braid whipping after him as he skipped up the stairs. At the top of the building was the executive landing pad, and escape.

He found the maintenance hatch at the end of the last flight of stairs and pried the hatch open, exposing the locking mechanism and sliding a small disc-shaped device in between the lock and the door. Once this was done, he released the door and crouched against the wall.

A small concentrated bang echoed through the stairwell, smoke pouring out of the now dented door. Kienan kicked the door a few more times, trying to break through the rest of the lock and finally the door groaned and gave way.

The roof was deserted, except for one person, who stood in the center of the landing pad, her blonde hair hiding her face as the night breezes whipped it around her face at these higher altitudes.

It was almost perfect, and the woman definitely was--she’d been designed to be, after all.

Kienan allowed himself a thin smile and tossed his cigarette away. The company was more than welcome, she was expected. He ran to her, his boots squeaking on the smoothly-polished tarmac.

"Vain," he said quietly. "Where’s our ride?"

"ETA, one minute," the statuesque woman replied. Her irisless eyes focused on a shadow in the reddening twilight sky. "I believe that might be her now."

Kienan grimaced, tossing his cigarette aside. "I don’t think so, Vain. For one thing, that shadow’s coming in awful fast for a pickup."

"And the other thing?"

"I don’t remember adding bat-wings to our ride recently."

The shadow swooped in fast, the rush of air whipping through Vain’s blonde hair as it rocked past her towards Kienan. Whatever this huge flying shadow was, it seized Kienan in it’s grip, its features temporarily illuminated by the landing lights circling the pad.

It definitely wasn’t their ride, Vain knew that now. It was a man--sort of. It stood slightly taller than either of them, was clad in purple armor far more elaborate than anything she’d ever seen. Curiously, the armor seemed not to gleam in the light as highly polished, rather it seemed to dully draw in all light to itself.

Kienan thrashed in its grip, attempting to swing his legs around and kick himself loose. Vain attempted to get close, but was shoved aside by two of the creature’s wings. The closer she got to it, she could make out two sets of wings--one, the bat-wings they’d seen earlier, the other huge, broad, black-feathered wings.

She’d never seen anything like it before, and she’d seen plenty of aliens. She had no way of knowing of course, nor did Kienan, that the creature had been pulled from another place and time, and was actually no alien of any kind, but known to those native to his world as Dirge.

Vain rolled aside, ducking the sharp clawed tips of the bat-wings as Dirge began to take flight, holding Kienan by the throat. Kienan drew one of his pistols and fired at Dirge, but the bullets simply ricocheted off his armor as they took wing.

Vain grimaced, her eyes narrowing as she judged the growing distance of the strange flying creature’s ascent. She flexed her knees gently and leapt into the air. Propelled by powerful hydraulics in her legs, she hurdled slightly over Dirge, snaking her arms around and under his shoulders, locking her fingers behind his helmet, trying to limit his movement.

All the same, Dirge didn’t seem to be all that concerned, continuing to focus his attention on Kienan despite her trying to persuade him by cinching in her grip tighter as he flew higher and higher.

"Excuse me," Vain said, almost shouting into Dirge’s ear. "That man you presently have by the throat is under my protection. It would be in everyone’s best interest--especially yours--to put him down."

"Er, Vain, I appreciate it . . .but maybe now isn’t the . . . best time to ask him to do that," Kienan managed to get out. The creature’s grip was like an iron vise, and with every breath Kienan managed to gasp out, he gripped him tighter. Kienan holstered his pistol. It wasn’t going to get him out of this situation.

And he didn’t have much time left to be creative.

He reached behind him, seizing on the handle of his knife. Through his vision, which was even now edged with the approaching blackness that came with strangulation, he noted that the creature was ignoring Vain completely.

That meant one of two things, Kienan pondered, sliding his knife free of the scabbard. Either he’s strong enough to ignore Vain completely . . .or I’m the person he’s after and he won’t be deterred.

And if he’s so focused on killing me . . .maybe I can use that.

Kienan’s eyes fell shut; his body went limp and his head lolled to one side. He made a grinding, cracking noise in the back of his throat.

And waited, as Dirge pulled him closer, curious as to his handiwork.

Once he was close, Kienan’s eyes snapped open, and summoning a reserve of desperate, adrenaline-fueled strength, he slashed quickly at Dirge. Occasionally he tore at an unarmored part of his body or his blade sparked against a plate of armor, but it seemed to have no effect, except to induce his opponent.

It wasn’t until the blade dug through the feathered thickness of one of his wings, slicing into one of the muscles beneath that Dirge screamed and threw Kienan off him in shock. Kienan fell from his grasp, gasping for breath as he confronted the other problem before him--he was forty feet above the landing pad and that was a problem he couldn’t exactly cut with a knife,

Kienan spread his arms and legs out, hoping to glide past the landing pad, down the same building his quarry had fallen down earlier in the day and hopefully find something to slow or break his fall.

It’s not likely, he thought, but I need a miracle and I doubt I’ve got one of those coming my way.

Fortunately, his injury to Dirge had sent the creature into such a panic that he’d thrown Vain off him. Vain had tucked into a ball, using her momentum to launch herself like a cannonball at Kienan.

Once she was close enough, she spread out, grabbing Kienan around the waist and tucking herself into a ball again. She angled herself down to the landing pad, cradling Kienan close enough to where the impact they were about to experience would be blunted.

Kienan, despite his skill and fearless determination was, after all, just a man.

Vain was a Marionette--cast in the image of a human woman, but six times stronger, faster and more intelligent than a normal human. Of all her attributes, of course, the one she counted on the most at this moment, was her durability.

He feet hit the tarmac, breaking through the springy outer layer and sinking a few inches into the lower layers. Kienan slipped out of her arms, rolling to a ready position and sheathing his knife as he got his bearings.

"How do you feel?"

Vain looked herself over, doing an internal diagnostic of all systems. "I am undamaged," she said. "But I don’t wish to make a habit of this sort of thing. Are you undamaged, Kienan?"

"I could never ask for a better bodyguard than you, Vain," Kienan nodded, a thin smile creeping across his face.

Vain stepped out of the holes she’d made in the tarmac, and nodded to him.

Dirge, meanwhile, still favoring his wounded wing, banked high in the air, preparing for a power dive. Kienan, his eyes on the shape soaring above them, began to move a few feet to the left, then a few steps forward, then a few steps back.

He is tracking me, then, Kienan said. He watched as Dirge drew a bead on his position, his wings folding close to his body as he entered the power dive.

Now that he’s committed himself, it’s time for me to come up with something brilliant, otherwise I’ve a feeling I’ll be taking another flight . . .

"Vain . . ." Kienan said, their eyes meeting. Dirge moved closer and Kienan beckoned him further, daring him to come and get him.

Dirge moved faster and faster, picking up speed. If he struck Kienan full on at the apex of his speed, Dirge would tear through him like a bullet. Dirge pulled in tighter, trying to increase his speed, ignoring the howling wind and the friction of the air against his wounded wing.

Dirge rocketed towards Kienan. There was no turning back and no way Kienan would survive a collision.

Which was exactly what he was counting on.

Kienan leapt to the side at the last moment, and where he’d stood, Vain took his place, planting her feet and, lacing her fingers together, smashing her fists into the back of Dirge’s skull with enough force to bring him to the ground and send her flying backwards.

She rolled to her feet in time to see Dirge stagger to his feet and lunge for Kienan. Vain’s eyes narrowed and she leapt for the ground, tucking and rolling until she landed behind Dirge in a half-crouch.

Vain seized his ankles, and with a clean jerk, pulled his legs out from under him. Dirge fell to the ground with the clattering, scraping noise of his armor against tarmac.

Holding onto his ankles, she snapped his prone form high into the air until for a split second she was holding him over her head. Then she threw his body forward, kicking her legs out and slamming Dirge into the landing pad with such force that he cracked the tarmac and pieces of his armor flew off him.

Vain rolled up to her feet in an instant, so nimbly it belied the phenomenal strength she’d demonstrated a second ago. Dirge didn’t move at all.

"You knew, didn’t you?" Vain said, brushing the accumulated grime and bits of broken asphalt off of herself. "You knew he was so focused on you he’d ignore me until it was too late."

"I . . .hoped he would," Kienan said. "I didn’t know he would, because I’ve never seen anyone or anything like him before, and I remember my enemies."

"Then who--? An alien? Some race we’ve never seen before?"

Kienan shook his head. "I don’t think so. But just in case I’m wrong, let’s turn him over so I can get a good look at him."

Vain reached out to Dirge’s fallen form, only to snatch her hand back as his body began to spark and ripple with an energy she’d never seen before.

"What the--?" Kienan said, taking a step closer to Dirge’s body as it began to spark. A strange effect seemed to be surrounding the fallen creature, something that seemed to warp things around him, as though Kienan were looking through a murky piece of glass.

"Get clear!" Kienan cried out. "I think he’s going to--"

Thunder split the clear twilight sky and the brightest, whitest light passed over Kienan and Vain’s eyes, seeming to swallow them as they and the mysterious winged creature vanished.

4: Strange Bloodlines

Kaneda Taro couldn’t sleep again, and rather than toss and turn fitfully and futilely on his bed, he’d elected to take the night air. From where he stood he could see the stone garden on the level just below him and the bamboo forest on the outskirts of the castle. The strong green stalks seeming like columns holding up a starless night sky and the bright pale moon that shone over them all.

Yes, the view’s lovely from here, he thought.

Too bad it’s not my house.

For the past two weeks he’d been having trouble sleeping. No matter how exhausted he’d been whenever he put head to pillow his mind was going a mile a minute, far too fast to close his eyes, never mind sleep. Every night he’d given it as game a try as he’d been able and every night he ended up back on this balcony.

In this house where he’d spent the last two weeks not sleeping.

The house was old; an ancient castle that had been painstakingly restored at great cost but which still housed many modern comforts. It wasn’t a physical fault that drove him from its rooms and out into the open air.

No, Kaneda thought. It’s my host.

The Komori, my would-be "brother."

Life was so much easier when we were still punching each other, he thought. Back then I didn’t know who Sanshrio was. He was just an evil man doing evil things; no different than dozens of men my father and I had fought for years and years.

And of course, back then I wasn’t Ronin yet.

The Komori had been there when the previous Ronin, Ichiro, finally fell in battle to his eternal enemy, Orochi--the 8 headed dragon that the gods had defeated when Japan was a young land. The Komori had been part of a group determined to resurrect the ancient god he’d been charged and blessed with the gift of eternal life to battle.

Kaneda would never forget that day. How could he? It was the day he’d lost his father, gained a brother, and gained his father’s name, title, and mission. The father’s end had come nobly and with honor, and the sadness in his heart and the ache of missing him was salved somewhat by the knowledge he’d lived long enough to see his enemy thrown down and his mantle passed to someone he knew and trusted. The mission he’d embraced, as much for his father as for his own desire for justice in the world.

Suddenly gaining a brother . . .was problematic. The Komori, unlike Kaneda, was actually related to Ichiro by blood. Like Kaneda he’d been groomed to follow his father’s path, only to be abducted by the Orochi cult. Hidden away, kept young for centuries, a secret weapon to be used against Ronin when time and opportunity presented itself.

The others, the ones who’d engineered Orochi’s resurrection, had paid for it with their lives, dying by his father’s sword or receiving the rewards all who served the beast well were given--annihilation and oblivion.

Komori, deciding he had somewhat more to lose, and apparently not as committed to Orochi’s dark goal as he was to other things, escaped the final reckoning, and in the time that Kaneda had been away, training himself, had accumulated a power base here--the castle was only the most obvious symbol of his prominence.

And so their paths had crossed again, Kaneda now the new Ronin, possessing his father’s heritage, Komori and his wife the last loose ends from the last battle with Orochi. Once he’d learned they were alive, Kaneda had known it was only a matter of time until their paths crossed.

Komori hadn’t waited. He’d made his presence known by saving Kaneda’s life, preventing Orochi’s resurrection. Kaneda had then brought before him, and Komori, now renouncing any desire to aid Orochi, offered him a proposition, or to be more blatant, an alliance.

The very name "Ronin" means to walk alone, with no master or companion, he thought, staring at the forest beyond. But my father had allies--he still does.

But were there ever any he feared to turn his back on? I can’t trust him--even if he’s not aiding Orochi anymore, he’s got his own agenda I don’t know, and I should be close enough to stop it when it becomes apparent.

But more that that, it doesn’t seem right to leave him be, he pondered. As much as I hate to admit it . . .he is, in a way, my brother, and he’s the last bit of the legacy of our father. And what will I do if it comes to--

"If the bed was uncomfortable, brother, all you had to do was say so," a voice said from behind him. Kaneda looked over his shoulder, leaning on the rail of the balcony as his right hand reached into his robe. He felt the hilt of the knife he kept close and closed his fingers around it.

"I’m fine," Kaneda said, his voice clipped and neutral. "Just couldn’t sleep."

"Brother, you’re a terrible liar," Komori said, walking beside him. Like his father, his wore his black hair long, down his waist, his hard but gentle features yet another uncomfortable reminder for Kaneda how close they were to their physical and spiritual fathers, respectively. Befitting his regal standing (in his own mind if not in reality) the Komori wore flowing black and blue robes, his chest and arms protected by gold armor. His face was hidden by a white mask that obscured his features, completely, save for two red eyes.

To those who recognized it, the mask he wore could have been a more aggressive version of their father’s, the mask of the Ronin.

Those who didn’t knew the mask as the face of the Komori.

"Lovely night," he continued, looking up at the moon.

"Yes," Kaneda said, his hand still on his knife. "This is lovely country."

"I think so," The Komori said. "One day, I expect to fill all those rooms in the castle with my children. Raija has suggested, and not very obliquely, that we consider starting a family soon."

"You’re going to be busy, then," Kaneda said. "You can have my room, then--sounds like you’ll be needing it."

The Komori frowned. "I’d hoped to consider you part of my family."

Kaneda’s expression hardened. "If this is about your proposal, I’m not going to talk about it right now. I need time to think it over."

"Then it’s a good thing it’s not," the Komori said. "Otherwise, this would be a long monologue."

"I doubt that would bother you too much," Kaneda said. "I’ve never met anyone who loves to talk as much as you do."

"Oh it’s not the love of talk," the Komori said, a smirk crossing his lips. "It’s the sound of my own voice. I never tire of it."

"I had a feeling."

"To answer your question--no, I’m not worried about what I asked."

"Then what, brother?"

Kaneda renewed his efforts not to look at him.

"It bothers you when I call you that, doesn’t it?"

Kaneda sighed. "I’m not sure I’m all that comfortable with the idea we’re related."

"Well, technically we’re not, I suppose," the Komori said. "Nevertheless, there is some connection between us."

Kaneda didn’t say a word.

"You can way what’s bothering you," the Komori said. "I promise I won’t take offense."

"I really don’t think you want me to speak my mind on that subject."

"Actually, I insist you do," Komori said, the smirk still on his face. He knew exactly what Kaneda was about to say, because it wasn’t anything he hadn’t already said to himself.

Kaneda sighed, gathering his strength and centering himself. Odd how naked I feel attacking without a weapon, he pondered.

"You say we’re brothers. How can I trust you? How can we be brothers without trust?"

Stung by his words, the Komori looked down at the deck. "I suppose it’s impossible. Nevertheless, I’m committed to try."

"Why?" Kaneda asked. "I may never be able to. We might always be like this--always looking our shoulder at each other, always suspicious. And I have a hell of a lot more time to work on it than you, that "life-assuring wish" of yours or not."

"It’s what happened twenty years ago," Komori finished.

"You have to ask?" Kaneda countered incredulously. "You tried to kill your own father and end all life on Earth."

"Capricious youth?"

"That’s not funny. Technically you’re 200 years old."

"I didn’t know what was at stake, Kaneda," he said. "I was taken from my father when I was very young. I barely remembered him by the time we met again and once we knew each other’s true identities, it was too late."

"Is that the reason you left?"

"It’s one reason."

"But knowing all that . . .why try to contact me? Why this elaborate effort to bring me into the fold?"

"Because when I saw my father again, I didn’t want to see him die, and I didn’t want to be responsible for his death any more than I already was," the Komori said. The superciliousness was still in his voice, but muted slightly. "And when he was gone, that was it. I would never know him, and could never be a part of his life. And the only person who remained, who knew about him . . .was you."

Kaneda looked away, trying to hold on to his suspicion of his "brother," something that was very difficult right now, as he was giving voice to his own ambivalence.

"I could never trust you," Kaneda said. "You’d be calling me brother to my face and behind my back reaching for more and more power."

"That’s what I was taught," the Komori replied. "I make no apologies for it, and I had no control over it. When I could, I made an effort to change my ways."

Kaneda sighed. "It’s going to take time, and I frankly don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible that we can be brothers. We might have plenty of time . . .but there’s a lot of history between us, little of it good."

"Nevertheless, I’m committed."

Kaneda grew irritable. "You’re committed to doing something which might be futile."

"That would make two of us, then. You fight an eternal war against a dark god you can never destroy. And in fighting it, hasten it’s return," the Komori said, letting a sanguine smile creep across his face. "We’re all pledged to hopeless struggles, apparently."

Kaneda was about to say something when his grip tightened over his knife. His eyes narrowed and he began to look around the balcony as he slowly drew the ornate blade from its sheath.

"Trouble?" The Komori asked.

"Maybe," Kaneda said. "We’re not alone up here."

The Komori closed his fists, marshalling his energies for a possible attack. He’d sensed nothing, and that alarmed him. Given his renegade status among his former companions in the Orochi cult and their feelings toward apostates like himself, he’d honed his senses for the inevitable day when they’d come looking for vengeance.

Despite his preparations, the enormous shadow on the roof had crept up on them with surprising stealth. Blanketed by the shadow of the balcony above it, it was difficult to determine it’s size, only a stray detail here was revealed from pulsing lights from within its body.

It moved closer, slithering into clearer view as moonlight fell across it. It was in the general shape of a man, but seemed larger, and moved in a way more animal-like than human. It was mostly white and purple, with a hateful face whose sharp teeth seemed to be permanently grit in rage. Where it’s right eye should have been there was a strange circular device, like a camera’s eye, that zoomed in and out as it regarded the two men.

It landed quietly on the balcony, drawing itself up to its seven feet height.

"One of Orochi’s creatures?" The Komori asked.

"It doesn’t feel like one," Kaneda said. As a Ronin, he’d cultivated his awareness to be able to detect the peculiar aura of the dark god’s servants, to better aid his mission. He felt none of that from the creature.

But his immense power and evil came through loud and clear.

Was this another one of Komori’s tests? Kaneda wondered, sparing a quick look over at his "brother." Was he pretending to be helpless just to see what I’d do?

No way to tell for sure. I’ll have to play along for a time, then.

"Darken Blackangel," the creature said, its voice shouted through gritted teeth with a mechanical rasp behind it. "Now."

"What did he say?"

"An American name, I think," Kaneda said. He turned back to the creature, hoping his English wasn’t rusty from disuse.

"I don’t know who you are talking about," he said, grimacing at how unnatural and stilted it sounded, coming from him.

"Do not toy with me, humans, your very lives depend on your cooperation . . .and my mood," the creature said, pointing a clawed finger at Kaneda. "Now, once more . . .Where is Darken Blackangel?"

"I have told you I don’t know," Kaneda said. "I’ve never heard that name."

"Hmm," the creature grunted. The lens on his right eye suddenly sprang to life, a red pencil-thin beam shining from it to the center of Kaneda’s chest. A high-pitched whine came from inside the creature and a pulse of light traveled a long the red beam, striking Kaneda in the chest and hurling him back along the rail of the balcony.

"Now," the creature growled, turning to the Komori. "You will--"

"That was my houseguest you just shot," Komori said, walking towards him. His English, unlike Kaneda’s was flawless, only slightly accented, and more assured. "And my brother, though I hardly imagine that matters much to you."

"It does not," the creature said, the red beam surging out and targeting the Komori’s chest.

"I imagined not," Komori said. "Do you have a name?"

"Lanicrus," the creature snarled. The high-pitched whine began to build in intensity.

"Ah. Well . . .hello, Lanicrus," Komori said, taking a step back and sweeping his arms around. Energy began to coalesce into a spherical shape and Komori took a step forward, blasting it forth at Lanicrus in a column of red-orange energy. Lanicrus was blasted with such force he was blown off the balcony and out into the night.

Komori held his stance for a few minutes, flicking his head to get the hair from his eyes. From beneath his mask, he smiled.

"Goodbye, Lanicrus."

He eased out of his stance and turned to attend to his brother. Despite his braggadocio, he had no illusion that his attack had probably surprised Lanicrus and definitely enraged him, and he had scant time to see to him.

Fortunately, Kaneda, blessed as he was with the eternal life that came with his power, had already recovered from the blast and was getting to his feet, still a little unsteady.

"What did he hit you with?"

"Some kind of . . .static plasma, I think," Kaneda said, clutching his knife. "My nervous system feels like someone fried it."

"I’m afraid there may be more of that to come," Komori said. "While you were out Lanicrus and I had some words, and I think he’s taken them personally."

"Lanicrus," Kaneda repeated. "Hm. Doesn’t ring a bell for me."

"Nor for me."

There was a roaring noise that split the calm night air, as if someone were parking a jet overhead. Lanicrus was soaring through the air, propelled by some sort of strange purple flame emanating from beneath his wings. Though he was virtually expressionless, Kaneda and his brother could both feel the hate and rage within him.

"Brother," the Komori began. "Perhaps you’d best change into something more appropriate for entertaining our guest?"

Kaneda nodded, raising his knife to the sky, calling his full power to him. In a flash of fire, he was clad in his red and black robes, his face masked with the red sun of the country of his birth, and where a young man had stood before, there now stood Ronin.

He wasted no time announcing himself to Lanicrus, deciding instead to draw his swords and leap high into the air at him. Lanicrus started firing bolts of energy from his eye down on the two brothers as Ronin rose towards him. Lanicrus waited until Ronin was at the apex of his leap and swatted the young warrior aside with his tail.

Ronin went crashing back to the deck of the balcony, followed by another rain of energy bolts from Lanicrus. Komori’s form seemed to melt into a three-dimensional black silhouette, walking through the curtain of fire as bolt after bolt stabbed through him, harming the wood beneath his feet, more than his now-intangible form.

"Might we actually formulate a strategy here, or would you like him to do that to you several more times?" Komori asked.

"I’m open to suggestions," Ronin said, rolling to his feet and grabbing his swords and Lanicrus came to rest on the rail of the balcony.

"Keep him busy," Komori said. "Whatever’s powering him is a kind of magic, but I’ve never encountered anything like it, before. It’s not natural to this plane of existence, so he’s unbalanced enough you should be able to hold your own for a while I isolate it."

"Great, but--" Ronin began, dodging a burst from Lanicrus’ eye-laser. "Have you noticed he has a few advantages I don’t? For one thing, he can fly away and for another . . ." the end of his sentence was choked off by another blast.

Komori solidified again, stepping in front of Ronin. "You can’t fly?" He asked, marshalling his energies. "You never told me."

"I was going to surprise you."

Komori laughed under his breath. "Be ready," he said. "I’m about to take away that advantage."

"But how--"

Komori ignored him, blasting Lanicrus off the balcony again with a stronger burst of energy, this time forcing him out into the bamboo forest below. He gestured behind him and Ronin broke into a run, leaping up onto the rail of the balcony, gently lighting on several rooftops, the castle walls, and finally to the floor of the bamboo forest.

The Komori vanished into the shadows, reappearing a few feet behind Ronin as he charged into the forest. Komori walked slowly into the forest, eyes closed, concentrating on the strange creature his brother now intended to battle. He knew Ronin had little chance of even hurting Lanicrus, but all he required of his brother was to buy him the time he needed.

Lanicrus was thrashing wildly, trying to disentangle himself from the bamboo stalks he’d crashed into as he fell. Ronin raised his swords, understanding what Komori meant he was going to take away his advantage.

His wings are too tangled in the bamboo to fly away, Ronin thought, charging forward. While that handicap lasts, I’d best press the advantage.

He pressed closer to Lanicrus, darting to and fro around the trees so that the strange beast couldn’t lock his weapon onto him. He raised his twin swords up and brought them down on the mechanical monster’s upraised arm.

His blades didn’t cut into Lanicrus’ arms. Whatever he was, he was already tougher than Ronin’s usual opponents were. He leapt aside from Lanicrus’ retaliatory strike, his tail just missing him and splintering a tree mere feet from him.

Ronin leapt towards Lanicrus, trying to get in closer, to catch a vital system in his hands and tear it loose. He wrapped his arms around the creature’s waist, only to have Lanicrus seize him by the hair and fling him through the forest, his body shattering bamboo stalks that ripped deep into his clothes and his flesh until he came to rest at Komori’s feet.

"He’s . . .tough," Ronin said, feeling the magical energies within closing his wounds as he got to his feet. "I don’t suppose you’ve been able to conjure up some way to stop him yet?"

The Komori shook his head. "I need more time."

Ronin sighed. "Of course," he said. "It’s not like we’re in a hurry or anything."

A searing red light surged from Lanicrus’ eye, shearing through a stand of bamboo stalks as Ronin charged back into the fight, drawing his swords again and imbuing them with a fraction of his power and striking Lanicrus with them. They sparked off Lancirus’ armored form leaving only superficial cuts.

Before he could pull his blades free, Lanicrus seized one in his hands, snapping it in half as he clenched his fist around it. The other, he blasted to smithereens with a quick blast from his eye.

"Are you insane?" Lanicrus sneered, swatting him aside with his tail. "You have no hope of matching my power, yet you still fight."

"I’ll never stop fighting," Ronin said, tossing his broken swords aside and clenching his fists.

"Really?" Lanicrus sneered. His eye began to glow and he sent a burst of energy towards Ronin, the impact churning the ground beneath him, shattering the trees behind him and throwing his burning body back through the shattered forest, back to where Komori stood, calmly watching the battle.

"Perhaps death will change your mind," the mechanical creature sneered.

Despite the amount of punishment Ronin had absorbed, he wouldn’t die--besides his own hand, only Orochi itself could kill him. Any damage he’d incur, he could heal from, given time.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, he thought, biting back the pain as he waited for his bones and flesh to knit back together before rising to his feet.

"Something wrong?" The Komori asked.

"He’s way out of my league," Ronin said, weakly, his breath halting & ragged as his scorched lungs began to heal.

"Nonsense," Komori replied. "You’re doing fine. Now go back and finish him off."

Ronin groaned. Were he and Komori watching the same fight?

"How long--"

"A few more minutes. I’ve almost got him."

"Oh. Good."

Ronin steadied himself on his feet. Lanicrus had laughed off his basic weapons, and even an immortal didn’t have the patience to strike someone that well-armored over and over again hoping something might break eventually.

Luckily, his father had taught him there were always alternatives.

He reached down for the ornate weapon holstered on his right thigh, the same weapon he’d used to change minutes before. While compared to the swords it was a small and somewhat unassuming weapon, it was, in fact the center of Ronin’s power.

Kusanagi. The sword that had slain Orochi centuries ago. Even now, broken and re-forged in the intervening centuries it crackled with ancient power, power that Ronin was all too willing to use.

He slashed at Lanicrus with the blade, and this time it tore through the monster’s armored hide, causing him to leap back with surprise and fear. Ronin struck at him again and again, driving him back into the thicker parts of the forest, pressing his advantage and hoping to keep him tied down until he could strike a vital area.

His chance came as Lanicrus tried to backhand him, his claws hissing through the air mere inches from Ronin’s head. Ronin turned to avoid the attack and slashed him hard against the chest. Vital circuits sparked as he sheared through them, shattering the armor of his chest.

"So . . .you do know something of power, human," Lanicrus said. To Ronin’s dismay he seemed to have no fear at all of the damage he’d incurred.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. A glow shone from inside him snaked out, surrounding the damaged parts of his body with strange auroras of energy. Ronin watched as the damage began to close up, healing itself as flesh would if cut.

Ronin slashed at him again and again, cutting him over and over again. They were deep, but from Lanicrus’ demeanor, they didn’t seem to be serious enough to hurt him. And he only had the narrowest advantage in speed that kept him out of Lanicrus’ clutches. One mistake, and Lanicrus would have him.

Or so it seemed, until Lanicrus stuck his face mere inches in front of Ronin’s in an effort taunt him. Ronin gouged the point of the Kusanagi blade into Lanicrus’ face. The beast cried out, a strange shriek that made his blood run cold. Lanicrus, shouting with rage, seized Ronin by the throat and slammed him into the dirt, extending his wings and shearing through more of the bamboo. The engines on his back roared to life, scorching the earth beneath him as he grabbed Ronin’s prone form by the hair, taking to the skies with his grim trophy.

Lanicrus paused just above the treeline, lifting Ronin up to face him. He lifted him a little higher and then threw Ronin to the ground with all his strength, rocketing down and driving his feet into Ronin’s spine, his razor-sharp teeth splitting his face into a malicious grin as he ground his clawed feet into the broken body of his opponent. He stepped off Ronin’s body and looked down at his handiwork.

"If you’re quite finished?" A voice called from behind Lanicrus. "I believe you and I have something to settle, Lanicrus."

Ronin looked up weakly, his battered body healing itself with agonizing slowness. Through his beaten-shut eyes he could see Komori striding through the shattered stalks of bamboo. He came to a stop in front of Lanicrus, raising his arms and narrowing his eyes in focus.

"The sorcerer?" Lanicrus sneered. "You surprised me at first attack, but if you think I will tolerate another assault from you . . ."

"What you will and will not tolerate is now irrelevant to me, Lanicrus," Komori said. "Power is an easy enough thing to accrue and even master, creature. Control, on the other hand, takes time and discipline. I intend to give you a lesson in control right now."

The Komori’s power was centered in his ability to summon and control elemental forces--seven of them. That grounding gave him the ability to detect various mystical energies at work.

The energy that powered Lanicrus’ was slightly different. Like no force he’d ever experienced. It had taken time to isolate it; time Ronin had bought him by engaging the creature in battle.

Summoning his power, Komori pulled the same energy Ronin had just seen repairing the creature from the beast’s eyes and mouth, gathering it between his hands. Bolts of energy arced around them, singing the bamboo and burning the very earth between them. Through it all, Komori kept his concentration, compressing the sphere of energy tighter and tighter.

Ronin slowly rose to his feet, keeping his distance from Lanicrus until his strength fully returned. The sphere of energy folded in on itself and popped like a bubble. A blast of hot hair echoed through the forest, rusting Komori’s hair and robes with a burst of hurricane force.

In a minute it was all over and Lanicrus stood there, frozen. For another two minutes, neither Ronin nor Komori said anything.

"Well?" Komori said, eyes narrowing impatiently "Strike him!"

Ronin did as he was asked, raising the Kusanagi blade high and bringing it down straight through Lanicrus’ chest. Ronin sheathed his blade and with a grinding sound, the creature, now sheared in half, crashed to the ground.

"Thank you," Komori said. "I apologize for taking so long. Lanicrus’ power source was . . .unique. Hard to isolate. I didn’t want to take the chance of it regenerating once I’d pulled it from him."

Ronin drew his swords, inspecting where they’d struck Lanicrus for damage. "When you say ‘unique,’ exactly what do you mean?"

"I mean it shouldn’t exist at all," Komori said, pulling his mask off. "In fact . . ."

Ronin looked at his "brother." "What?"

"Something’s . . .wrong."

"Wrong? What now? What do . . ."

His voice trailed off, because he could feel it too. Something wasn’t right. Something in the air, or deeper than the air seemed to be stirring close to them.

Or rather, close to Lanicrus.

"You feel it too?"

Ronin nodded. His eyes chanced to look down at the broken remains of Lanicrus, noticing the sparks striking off it and the strange way they seemed to warp the air. He pointed the tip of his sword at the remains.

"Komori . . .are you sure he’s not regenerating right now?"

Komori looked at Lanicrus’ wreckage, noticing the odd distortion and how it seemed to be gently tearing a hole in reality. His senses, attuned as they were to the various elemental forces he could control, saw the tearing effect repeated on several planes of existence.

He shook his head. No, it felt different from Lanicrus’ strange power signature.

Ronin sheathed his swords, taking a step back. "A self-destruct?"

Komori shook his head. "Worse than that. We’ve got to get out of here. Now."

Ronin and Komori started to run, but before they could, Lanicrus’ remains erupted into white lightning, freezing them in time, and as reality wavered like water, caused them to vanish altogether.

4: Spaces In Between

Vertiga Scylla grimaced with every clink and clang her armor made as she made the way through the darkened halls of the temple. She ran a gloved hand over the rough grey-black stones, feeling her way in the spare light of the corridors. Despite the somewhat tomblike nature of the temple that had been her refuge for the past three days, she’d found it comfortable enough despite herself.

She turned a corner and passed by a room, the breathing of the sleeping person inside echoing off the walls like a gentle breeze. She peeked inside, looking at the sleeping figure in the strange U-shaped bed. He was draped in a blanket, his arm and his face somewhat visible beneath it. On either side of the bed his large red and black wings were draped to either side. Every few seconds he shifted a little, pulling the blanket around him a little tighter.

Sound asleep, Vertiga thought, watching him as if sizing up an enemy. Good. Anything to keep him from saying this is a stupid idea. Don’t need him making this more difficult than it already is.

She slipped down the hallways, following the shafts of sunlight that funneled in from the windows or was refracted with prisms down into the bowels of the temple. Finally, the corridors opened up to a balcony, midway up the temple’s ziggurat slope. She looked out at the scene before her--lush green forests back by a range of mountains for as far as the eye could see. Everything was so green and blue and alive here, so unlike the desert wasteland she’d grown up in.

I never knew anywhere could be like this, she thought, sitting and looking out at the skyline. I feel more alive than I ever have just being here.

Her brow furrowed at the thought.

That’s why I have to leave.

She got up, chiding herself for being enticed enough to sit down and potentially ruin her quiet escape from the temple. She hadn’t been a prisoner here, of course--more like a guest, or more specifically an ally-by-circumstance. Doublecrossed by her earlier associates, she’d gone to the other side.

His side.

Darken Blackangel.

Depending on when you asked her, Vertiga’s assessment of Darken Blackangel was that he was good-intentioned, idealistic, and almost completely naïve to the way things really worked, or an annoying goody two-shoes whose optimism grated on her like grains of sand in her armor rubbing against her skin. Either opinion, it seemed, made sneaking out seem like a good idea.

She shuffled quickly down the steps, hoping that concentrating on being as fast and as quiet as possible would squeeze out the thoughts in her heads and the temptation to stay with them, to stay here, in this lush green place where everything seemed so far away and it was all so free.

No one to control me, or tell me what to do, she thought. I could get to like it here. Or be bored out of my damn mind. Staying here with Darken and his hero club with me being who I am . . .

She sighed. No, she thought.

Forget it, Vertiga--it’d only lead to disaster.

Darken had never questioned her decision to turn on their mutual enemies, never made her feel like an untrustworthy turncoat that had to be watch carefully in case she stabbed them in back, literally or figuratively. He’d never made her feel like a prisoner, or anything except a guest in his home.

And that made things so much worse, she thought, clambering down stairs. Because I’m not sure he was right or wrong in that.

She’d known for some time, the group she’d worked with initially had murdered her family and nearly done the same to her. Her whole purpose in allying herself with them initially had been to wait for her moment to strike, to wipe the whole sorry lot of them out when they least expected it.

Unfortunately, while she’d been biding her time, her enemies had been gathering more and more power, until when the moment finally did come she was too weak to exact her revenge, just as she’d been when they’d slaughtered her family.

The shame of her failure gnawed at her even now. How she’d wished she’d been killed when they doublecrossed her, so she wouldn’t have to live with it. How she wished that Darken and his crew hadn’t been so nice welcoming and been so close to convincing her there might be another way.

She sighed with relief as the end of the long stairway came into view and her purple and white boots hit the long green grass at the base of the temple. A balmy breeze blew through the land at that moment, blowing her silvery-white hair into her eyes and causing her to turn her head to get it out.

She frowned. She was looking back at the temple.

Come on, she scolded herself. Even if he let you stay, what about everyone else? Darken may think you’re a good person deep down, but all they see is a traitor--someone who’s on their side today, but tomorrow might be right back trying to kill them.

No. Eventually they’d decide you were too dangerous and kick you out. Because you are too dangerous and you might end up hurting them.

The smartest thing is to leave before either one happens.

She sighed and walked through the grass to the edge of the forest, eyes on the road before her, hands clenched into fists to keep her from walking back where she’d come from.

She trudged along the forest path, the large branches above dappling the sunlight and casting shadows over her. Instead of sticking to the beaten trail, she moved through the trees, yet another trick to avoid being followed, in case anyone had seen her leave the temple and tried to track her. With any luck, she’d have a good head start before she was missed.

Suddenly, there was a rustling above the trees, a larger black shadow passing over her. There was rustling in the branches above her, something larger than a forest creature was quickly leaping from branch to branch.

But what and where?

There was a light thump behind her. Vertiga’s hand closed over her sword and spun on her heel. Whatever it was, it would have until the count of one before she unleashed her fury upon it.

She finished the turn, blade cocked over her shoulder, eyes set in a fierce, determined glare. A glare that almost immediately softened once she’d gotten a look at the mysterious creature in the forest--a creature that was in point of fact all too familiar to her.

So much for my head start, she thought.

Except for the wings and the chalk-white skin, he looked very much like a boy her age. Except the closer one looked, the more differences there were between them, not least that he wore his compassion on his face, contrasting sharply with Vertiga’s severe expression.

"Oh," she said, her bitterness undisguised. "It’s you."

"Where are you going?" Darken Blackangel asked, brushing the leaves off of his clothes. He shook his great black wings, likewise shedding a few leaves on the forest floor.

"I . . . .hey, how did you know I’d left?" Vertiga demanded. "I saw you. You were asleep."

"I was faking," Darken said. "I had a feeling you might try to leave, so I kept a watch."

Vertiga grimaced. "I thought you said I wasn’t your prisoner."

"Well, no, but . . .I didn’t want you to go."

"Maybe it’s better I did, Darken."

"Why?"

"Because until yesterday I was your enemy, and every other time we met I was trying to kill you?" Vertiga asked. "Most people take that kind of thing personally."

"Yes, but, you’re not trying to kill me now."

"Don’t get too excited," Vertiga said, putting her sword away. "You saved my life, so I owed you one. Next time, things might be different."

"Vertiga . . ."

"Darken . . .don’t push it, OK? I like you a lot, but there’s no way I can be around you and your little happy time crew. I can’t understand any of you and you don’t understand me. We just . . .don’t get along, OK?"

Darken furrowed his brow, brushing his jet-black hair from his eyes.

"I think we get along OK."

Vertiga sighed. "You are impossible, you know that?"

"I don’t understand?"

Vertiga groaned, clenching her hands into fists. "Urrrrrrggggh! No you don’t, do you? And I swear, all that keeps me from killing you is the fact that you’re not being dense . . .you really don’t get it."

"What’s there to get?" Darken asked. "You have no place to go . . .you could stay with us and then you’d have a place to go. What’s the problem?"

Vertiga turned away. "I can’t be there, Darken. I can’t be anywhere. I’ve burned my bridges pretty much everywhere, now, and I don’t have any family to go back to anymore, so . . .I mean, can you understand that?"

Darken nodded. "But you can come back with me . . .with us, I mean."

Vertiga let the slip pass. It was more important to persuade him to stop trying to convince her to stay right now.

"Back to the clubhouse, with your friends?" Vertiga shot back. "No. I can’t remember how to be happy . . .and that’s all you people ever are, and it gets on my nerves. So . . ."

"So . . .what?"

Vertiga looked at him, distracted.

"Vertiga, what is it?"

"Darken, that thing you wear on your neck . . ."

Darken looked down, cupping the golden eagle’s head fastened to his scarf. The red crystal it held in its beak was glowing slowly and insistently.

"This? It’s an Eagle--"

"I know what it is, I’m just wondering why it’s glowing?"

Darken frowned. "It usually glows when . . .Uh-oh."

He took a step back, gesturing with his hand and summoning his weapon, the Blackfang spear.

Vertiga reached for her sword. "When there’s trouble, right?"

Darken nodded.

There was rustling all around them, in the trees and in the branches above them. Vertiga raised her sword, trying to center herself to where the sounds were coming from, but they seemed to be all around them.

"Where are they?" Vertiga demanded, hands tightening around the hilt of her sword. "Show yourselves!"

As if in answer, a masked figure walked from the bushes, stepping towards her. He was dressed in black and purple robes, cutting an almost garish figure against the lush greens of the forest. In his right hand he held a large sword--not as heavy as Vertiga’s, but very lethal-looking all the same. More than that, Vertiga could feel the power in the sword--much like hers, it had been augmented with enchantments.

"You!" The strange man declared, pointing the sword at the pair of them. "Who are you?"

"Did you catch any of that?" Vertiga asked Darken.

He shook his head. "It didn’t translate for me, and I thought my Eagle Clasp knew all the languages."

The man grew more annoyed, raising his sword into a ready position. Vertiga returned the favor immediately, that particular gesture needing no translation.

"Declare yourself or die!’ The man demanded.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Vertiga said, raising her weapon. "But if you want a fight you’ve got one, whatever it is you’re jabbering about."

"You have to forgive Tora," a voice called above them. "He doesn’t speak your language. Considers it lowering himself."

"On the other hand . . .I completely understand you."

Vertiga looked up, following the voice. From above her a long slender chain whipped down from the branches, shredding leaves and twigs as it went. It whipped around her arms and neck, cinching tightly and preventing her from freeing herself with her sword.

A figure leapt down from the high branches, her white boots landing with a heavy thud on a larger branch. She pulled the chain taut, lifting Vertiga a few inches off the ground. Darken looked up, seeing with surprise that the hidden assassin was a girl, maybe a little younger than Vertiga. Like the other man, she wore black and purple, but a more functional and less extravagant version of his outfit. Her face was painted white; her mad eyes streaked with red tears of what Darken suspected were blood. Unlike her companion’s sword, she was holding a small sickle, which was connected to the chain.

"You can call me Mercy," she said, leaping down, draping the chain over the branch and swinging down, bringing her feet against the small of Vertiga’s back.

"How do you like me so far?"

Darken attempted to free Vertiga from the chain but the other man, Tora, leapt to the attack. Darken blocked his sword, trying to push him off. Tora relentlessly hammered his defenses with his sword, pushing Darken further away from Vertiga.

Mercy gestured, and the chain snaked free from Vertiga, who fell to the ground, her sword slipping from her grasp as she gasped for breath. Mercy stepped over her, raising the sickle above her, ready to bring it down and cleave her head from her shoulders.

Vertiga drove one of her feet back into Mercy, kicking her off her feet as she rolled away, grabbing her sword and flipping back up to her feet. Mercy lunged at her again, slashing at Vertiga with her scythe. Vertiga ducked the first strike, then blocked the second, cracking Mercy across the chin with the butt of her sword.

She overextends herself and constantly leaves herself open to being struck by me, she thought. Like a berserker, she doesn’t care what happens to her, provided she gets hurts me, even a little.

Now, who does that remind me of?

Mercy extended the chain, wrapping it around her hand and hurling the scythe in a wide arc at Vertiga. Vertiga ducked at the last minutes as the blade sliced overhead. A second later several branches fell around them as Mercy caught her scythe, and it was Vertiga’s turn to press the attack.

Vertiga slashed at Mercy with her sword, the crazed assassin swatting her first strike aside and catching the second in her scythe and throwing her off-balance. Vertiga went sprawling towards a large tree, only just ducking as Mercy flung her scythe at her. It sliced just above her head, crashing into the trunk of the tree.

Vertiga saw her chance and grabbed the scythe in her hand, wrapping the chain around her arm as Mercy tried to yank it out of her grasp. The razor-edged links cut through Vertiga’s clothes, tearing into her skin as she willed herself to hold on.

She spared a quick look over her shoulder. Darken was holding his own, keeping on the defensive against Tora’s relentless assault. Every now and again Darken had managed to throw the crazed warrior off him, only for Tora to leap back at him with renewed ferocity. Darken fought defensively while he worked to discover what was going on and who these strange assassins were.

All this "Tora," person wants is to kill him, Vertiga said. Darken won’t go that far unless he has to.

That means its time to mix things up.

Vertiga planted her feet and turned, throwing Mercy into Tora.

"Let’s switch partners," Vertiga said, eyes Tora as he rose to his feet, propping himself against his sword. She took a step towards him and Darken moved between her and Mercy, who was even now reading her sickle for another throw at Vertiga.

Darken waited for her to throw it, then lunged forward, catching the sickle on his spear, turning and spinning the weapon around and further tangling it in the chain. Before Mercy could react, he spread his wings and took to the skies, climbing through the trees and dragging her into the sky with her.

Meanwhile, Tora and Vertiga met each other head-on; their swords striking each other with such force the impacts struck sparks. Their styles were different enough--Tora seemed to go for more precise and lethal strikes, while Vertiga simply hammered her enemies with overwhelming force. Nevertheless, they seemed to be able to hold the other in check.

He’s treating this like some kind of ritual combat, she thought. I’ve always fought for my own survival.

We’re playing a little too much by the other’s rules. Time to change that. Play dirty.

"You fight well, for a woman," Tora said, in words incomprehensible to Vertiga. "But it’s written that anyone who does not serve our god will perish!"

"Will you please SHUT UP?" Vertiga shouted, tripping him up and shoving him to the ground. She managed to catch him in the side with a glancing blow from her sword, just as his caught her in the forearm. A cruel red line of blood began to seep from the cut and Vertiga suddenly had to struggle to keep a grip on her sword.

She reached for her sword, adopting a two-handed grip to steady herself, when Tora caught her in the thigh with another cut. Vertiga nearly sank to one knee, but not before she brought her sword up, slicing through Tora’s purple robes and cutting into his arms. Instead of backpedaling, he tried to turn his sword in his hands, intending to stab it down into her body, but Vertiga was ready for him.

She brought her sword up against it, not to counterattack, but to block him for a few seconds as she rose to her feet. She took one of her hands off her sword, reaching for a jewel on her armor’s chest plate. She pressed down on the jewel, a spring ejected a small rectangle into her hand.

She shoved Tora off balance, pressing a catch on the small metal device. A small sharp blade spring forth and, in one quick motion, she stabbed it into Tora’s throat.

Tora’s blade slipped from his hands and he fell to the ground face-first, the blade making a hideous noise as it was driven deeper into him.

Vertiga sighed, rising to her feet and steadying herself on her sword.

I thought this place was so happy and peaceful, she thought. Now I run into people in the woods trying to kill me.

Not so different after all, is it?

Meanwhile, high above the trees, Darken struggled with Mercy, their weapons tied together. He’d hoped her sense of self-preservation would prevent her from struggling too much while he tried to get answers, but it seemed that particular bit of logic escaped her.

"Listen to me," Darken shouted, the wind rustling through his hair and clothes. "Stop struggling or you’ll fall! Is that what you want?"

Mercy said nothing. She quietly pressed a catch on her sickle, cutting the chain free as her hand tightened around the shaft of Darken’s spear. She pulled closer, looking up at him with her crazed eyes streaked with bloody tears.

She started to relax.

"Okay," Darken said. "That’s better. Now, tell me . . .what are you and--YEEEEAARRGH!"

With a sanguine smile, Mercy slashed at Darken’s wing, his blood silhouetted for a moment against the blue sky. Reflexively, his wing stopped flapping and they began to fall. Darken spread his wings out, willing against the pain and the tearing her could feel as his wounded wing trying to function.

"Why did you do that?" Darken demanded. "Now we’ll both fall!"

"I couldn’t help it," Mercy said, letting go of her scythe and Darken’s spear. The cruelly serene smile was still on her face as she fell away from him. "It’s my nature."

She fell, faster than Darken, who without the weight of her, found her could gently spiral to the ground and spare his wing some pain. Mercy gathered speed as she plummeted towards the trees below, eventually swallowed up by them as the sound of cracking and tearing of branches and bones echoed up to him.

"NO!" he shouted, closing his wings and diving for the trees. He sighed as he glided mere feet above them. She was gone, dead by her own hand, rather than speak.

But why? Darken thought. He carefully descended through the branches and made his way back to where he’d found Vertiga. Seeing her standing over the fallen warrior, he gestured again, sending his Blackfang away and walking over to her.

"You OK?" he asked.

Vertiga nodded, trying to hide the deep cuts Tora had made from Darken’s view. "Had a little surprise he didn’t expect, I guess you could say."

Darken looked down at the matted red patch of dirt around Tora’s body.

"What about the other one, Mercy?"

Darken frowned, gesturing to his wing. "She cut me then fell to the ground."

"Killed herself?"

Darken nodded.

"She doesn’t seem the type."

Darken ignored her, walking over to her.

"You’re hurt," he said. "I can help with that."

Vertiga sighed. "She got you just as bad as me," she said. "Maybe you should look after yourself first."

"Maybe the two of you should finish what you started," a familiar voice echoed through the forest. Mercy, now covered from head to toe in blood and dragging Tora’s sword along with her, stepped into view.

"Did you really think I’d kill myself rather than be taken prisoner?" Mercy asked, smiling, the blood pouring from various wounds giving her grin an extra touch of horror. "You don’t know me at all do you?

"I’d never kill myself . . .not when I could go with company."

Mercy raised the sword above her head, chanting the same unfamiliar language Tora had spoken in. She turned the point of the sword downwards and Darken tried to push Vertiga behind him as she brought the point of the blade down into the ground, laughing maniacally.

There was just enough time for Darken to wrap his wings around Vertiga before a fireball exploded where Mercy had plunged the blade, her shadow consumed, as Darken and Vertiga soon were, by white light.

5: Déjà Vu

Kienan had learned, a very long time ago, that the best way to learn what was going on, especially when he had been knocked unconscious, was to carefully conceal the fact that he had come to and lay there, waiting and listening, to get a handle on the situation. In the best case, he’d have plenty of time to get his bearings, and if it came to blows, he’d have the element of surprise on his side.

"Kienan."

Kienan ignored the familiar but insistent voice above him, taking a deep breath. He savored the breath as it filled his lungs, revealing that despite the ferocious battle with Dirge, he’d suffered no injury immediately apparent.

"Kienan, wake up."

He let his fingers and feet twitch slightly, just to be sure. No, everything seemed all right. Well, everything except the fact that the air seemed stale, somehow. Not exactly bad, but . . .flat.

That in and of itself wasn’t that unusual--air quality varied from planet to planet, colony to colony, and spaceship to spaceship. It was all in the mix of oxygen and other elements, but this went a little deeper.

The very life in the air seemed to be arrested.

"Kienan, I really think you need to wake up, now. I can feel your pulse through my fingertips . . .I know you’re not hurt."

Kienan’s eyes opened slowly. Vain was above him; looking down on him and covering any sign of his movement or lack thereof. Around her he could hear feet scraping in the dust and gravel, words being spoken in words he could understand and languages unfamiliar.

"How long was I out?" Kienan asked quietly, his voice sounding unfamiliar as he looked up at the neutral sky. In the back of his mind, something stirred. Whether it was a thought or a memory, it was hard to be certain.

Like a blurry picture, he struggled to bring it into some kind of focus.

Vain’s eyes narrowed on him. "I wish I could tell you," she replied quietly. "Something’s happened to my internal chronometer and I can’t re-establish a reading of the time."

Kienan eased up to his feet, grimacing as he did and brushing some of the grit from his hair. That was somewhat distressing--Vain and her sisters’ internal clocks were some of their most protected systems. To damage that would be to risk knocking her completely offline.

"Were you damaged in the battle?" Kienan asked quietly, rising to a crouching position, keeping one hand close to his pistols holstered at his hip.

Vain shook her head.

"Hm," Kienan said. He wanted to explore the matter further, but the nagging feeling of déjà vu that had begun with his first sight of the sky was growing stronger and the nagging insistence that he should know this place, and the meaning of being here wouldn’t leave him alone.

He cocked his head in the direction of the voices. "Company?"

Vain nodded.

"Hostile?"

Vain shook her head.

Kienan nodded, his hand sliding down to push himself up off the ground, but never straying far from his pistol. He took a deep breath, and with one hand on the grip of his pistol took a look around him at the sounds he heard around him.

Almost immediately, and with suddenness Kienan found disturbing, everything fell into place. Perhaps it was his first good look at the sudden barrenness of the landscape of Tempus Finis. More likely it was the flash of recognition at the sight of the masked man clad and black and red and the strange winged creature he’d met before.

But how could I have met them before? Kienan wondered. I didn’t remember them until I saw them just now . . .

. . .No, wait. I remember, he thought, more of the puzzle falling into place. It seemed to come easier now. Someone else took us out of time, the three of us. Destroying him, we went back, and because it was here . . .where time stands still . . .when we went back, we forgot.

He blinked.

That sounds completely ridiculous, he thought.

And yet, ridiculous or not, I know it’s true.

I hate temporal mechanics.

He gestured for Vain to follow him as he slowly walked towards the gathering. There were others among the two he recognized--those he didn’t know, but given how at ease they seemed around the familiar ones, they obviously weren’t a threat.

To them, anyway.

"Well, the place is familiar," he began, keeping his voice neutral despite the tension he felt. "Some of the faces, too."

One of the group, a woman who seemed to be about Kienan’s age stirred, her hand resting on the hilt of her weapon.

"Don’t," Darken said, putting a hand over hers. "He’s . . .I think he’s one of the good guys."

"Well, let’s not say anything we can’t take back," Kienan replied, smirking slightly. He pointed a red-gloved hand at the two men he remembered.

"Ronin and Darken Blackangel, if I’m remembering right."

Darken nodded. With the names came memories, impressions of their previous meeting. Ronin, he remembered, was all duty and honor and fair play and plenty of other luxuries Kienan had never indulged in to any great degree. Darken was all power and youth, passion and idealism.

Do-gooders, Kienan thought. It was an archaic term, but it fit them all too well.

"Kienan . . .Ademetria, right?" Ronin asked. Kienan noted the heavy accent of his speech and the slowness of which he spoke. He’d been speaking in another language to his companion a few moments before Kienan had walked up. He wondered what that was about, but not enough to pursue it just yet.

Instead Kienan nodded, looking past him at the two people he couldn’t recall. He gestured to Vain, who stood behind him, watching the group in front with suspicion.

"This is my bodyguard, Vain."

"You need a bodyguard?" Darken asked incredulously. Clearly, he recalled as much as Kienan did. "What kind of world do you come from, anyway?

Kienan let it pass. He’d given them a little, now he wanted to learn what they were about.

"So did we all bring a friend, or--?"

"Vertiga was with me when we were taken," Darken said, looking at Vertiga, who looked at Kienan with more than just cursory interest. "We were attacked, there was an explosion and then--"

"--we woke up here," Ronin finished. "Komori and I had the same thing happen to us."

"That’s exactly what happened with the two of us," Kienan said. "I didn’t recognize our attacker though." He looked at Darken for a moment.

"He looked a little like you, actually," he said.

Darken blinked. "Me?"

"In that he had wings," the woman behind Kienan said. "Two sets . . .one feathered, the other like a bat’s wings."

Vertiga blinked. "Dirge."

"Who?"

"Dirge," Vertiga said. "His name is Dirge he’s . . .from where we are."

"Well how did we end up where we were?" Kienan asked.

"I think a better question," Komori interjected. "Is how did we end up here? Further, how did the three of you end up back here?"

"The last time it happened, it was due to someone pulling us here," Ronin said.

"Yes, I noticed he hasn’t shown up," Kienan said. "Yet."

"Who?" Vertiga asked.

"Nemesis," Darken said. "He called himself Nemesis. He said he was a time traveler."

"Time travel is theoretically impossible," Vain volunteered. "He must have been in error."

"No, he wasn’t," Kienan said. "I remember. He toyed with us for awhile, then challenged us straight up. We killed him."

"Then he’s the most likely candidate to explain our return," Komori said. "Despite the notable handicap of being dead, of course."

Vertiga stood up and looked away. "Listen to yourselves," she said. "Time travel? Men who were dead returning to life? It sounds completely ridiculous. If you kill someone, they obviously can’t return to life and plague you anymore. In my experience, it’s a pretty definite way to stop someone from bothering you."

"You know," Ronin said. "It does sound pretty silly when you try to work it out logically."

"But it fits with everything we knew about Nemesis, and everything we’ve worked out about how we got here this time," Darken said. "If it’s not Nemesis, who else could it be?"

"Who’s to say it couldn’t?" Komori said. Kienan’s eyes narrowed on him. Like Ronin, he was masked, but something about it, or maybe about his body language indicated he was holding something back, keeping something secret. Whether it was from Ronin or from all of them he didn’t know, but all the same, Kienan made a mental note to keep an eye on him.

Only fair, he thought. My erstwhile companions have probably thought the same about me already.

"What do you mean?" Kienan asked.

"If this Nemesis is a time traveler, what’s to stop him from travelling to points beyond his birth or his death?" Komori continued. "We’re used to seeing time as a line, only moving forward. The gods only know what shape Nemesis would comprehend his life’s line as. His perspective would be very different than our own."

"So we could be meeting before we killed Nemesis the first time?" Darken asked.

"To Nemesis’ point of view, yes."

"My head hurts just trying to get it around that," Vertiga said. "It’s got to be an illusion, or something else. And how is it all of you suddenly remembered each other and remember this place the minute you see each other?"

"I think I know," Ronin said. "When we were brought here--the first time--Nemesis said something about how this place was outside time."

"Meaning what?"

"That things happen here that don’t, or can’t happen in normal time," Ronin continued, slowly working it out. "When we were back where we belonged, we forgot. When we were back here, everything fell back into place."

"That sounds like damned nonsense," Vertiga said, turning her back on them.

"Lady, I completely agree," Kienan sighed.

Vertiga looked over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow cocked in surprise.

"Unfortunately, impossible or not, it’s probably true," he added.

She sighed and rolled her eyes, looking away.

"So we’re here, then," Darken said. "What should we do?"

"What you should have done already," a voice from behind them called out. Kienan turned around at the sound of the voice. It was heavily accented and spoke very slowly.

Exactly how Ronin’s diction had sounded.

He turned around, quickly, drawing one of his pistols from its holster as he got a good look at the owner of the mysterious voice. He stood a bit taller than Ronin, but something in how he stood made him seem taller, somehow.

He looks a little like Ronin, Kienan mused. And he dressed like Ronin’s friend . . ."Komori," I think he said he was called. But he definitely doesn’t resemble Nemesis in any way I can recall.

Komori stirred, saying something quietly under his breath, Ronin put a hand in front of him, growling something in their native language that Kienan couldn’t quite work out. The man walked forward slowly, and from the openness of his stance, he didn’t seem to consider them a threat.

"Did it occur to any of you to survey this strange land before anything else?" The man asked. "Wasting time on the "why" of things, before you know "what" and "where" is a sure way to get yourselves killed."

"Sound advice," Kienan said. "Nice to have two of us here with their heads on straight."

"You never bothered to wake up until later than the rest," the man said, his red eyes glowing at Kienan.

"I know where I am," Kienan responded coolly, his hand still holding the pistol by his side. "And in my own way, I was doing exactly the same thing you were. Getting an idea of the land, the situation, and the people."

"Indeed."

Kienan’s eyes narrowed on the newcomer.

"Ademetria," Ronin said, switching back to English. "Don’t. He’s on our side."

"It’s funny--I don’t remember him."

"Trust me . . .he’s with us."

"Have you forgotten? I don’t trust easy."

Kienan kept his eyes on the masked man, and the masked man on him. Vain moved to a half-step behind Kienan, ready to intervene, and if necessary, cripple the mysterious newcomer.

For a moment, the tension stilled the stale air even more, and everyone around them felt as though a thunderstorm was going to break. While Kienan had no real allegiance to Darken or Ronin (and certainly none to the newcomers) he was more than willing to work with them if it meant getting back where he belonged.

But working with them didn’t mean backing down, if challenged.

"Ronin, stand down," Ronin said to the masked man in their native tongue. "Please. We’re all in this together."

Almost immediately, the masked man backed down. Kienan took that opportunity to raise his pistol and point it right between the stranger’s red eyes.

Then he lowered, and holstered his pistol, deciding he’d made his point.

"All right," Kienan said, jerking his head in Ronin’s direction. "Then who is he?"

Ronin’s awkwardness was barely hidden by his mask.

"He is Ronin."

Vain pointed to Ronin. "But I thought you were called Ronin?"

"It’s a name and a title."

"Uh-huh," Darken said. "That’s bound to become confusing."

"You don’t know the half of it," Komori said quietly.

Ronin turned to him. "What?"

"Nothing . . .Ronin," Komori said, bemused.

Kienan was about to pursue the matter further when the wind around them suddenly picked up speed. There was a peculiar whiff of ozone in the air, as if lightning had just struck. Kienan and the rest moved away from the center of the disturbance. The grey daylight that had been above them darkened and light flashed, then forked around the center of the disturbance, and, lit in silhouette, then in brilliant white light stood a black-armored figure that three of them knew all too well.

"I believe I’ve given you more than enough time to work out what’s really going on," the tight, controlled modulated voice said from behind its fearsome white mask. His glowing blue eyes narrowed on the group in front of him.

Vertiga drew her sword. "Let me guess," she said to Kienan. "That’s . . ."

"Uh-huh," he said. He turned to the black-armored figure. "Been waiting for you to show up, Nemesis."

"I’ve been here the whole time, Ademetria," he said. "And hasn’t it been the most boring hour of my existence, watching you silently, waiting for your pitiful intellects to work out where you were, and who had brought you here."

"Something told me you didn’t bring us here to compare notes," Kienan said, drawing his pistols.

"No."

"This is about what happened before, isn’t it?" Darken asked, summoning his Blackfang to his hand. "When we destroyed you?"

"Yes," Nemesis said. "Though you do yourself far too much credit to assume you can, did, or are capable of destroying me. One of the benefits of time travel, as you said, Komori--you can travel to before your birth, or centuries after your death. And if you’re very clever--which I am--you can even create a contingency to perpetually re-create yourself at any time or any place you choose."

"It’s nice to have astute judgment appreciated," Komori said, taking a step behind Ronin. "However, I’ve found those with true power, and true confidence in their power, need not brag about it."

"Who’s bragging?" Nemesis said. "It’s a fact. I am as immutable as time itself."

"Oh, no," Ronin said, his hand reaching for his sword. "That doesn’t sound like bragging at all."

His eyes went to the other Ronin, who had already drawn his sword and who stood beside Kienan, their previous tensions forgotten in the face of a common and mutually recognized enemy.

"So it begins again," Nemesis said, summoning his own weapon in a flash of blue light. He pointed the long javelin-like weapon at his opposition. "But this time, there will be a different outcome."

"How?" Kienan said, drawing a bead on Nemesis with his pistols. "The odds are even more against you now than they were the first time."

Nemesis laughed. Through the mechanical filters of his armor it sounded like the grinding of stone against stone. He raised his javelin to the sky, and in a flash, four more shapes appeared behind him, and as each came into view Kienan could see they were like Nemesis, but at one and the same time, completely unlike him.

"While I have every confidence I am more than capable of conquering all of you, I want there to be no doubt, and no hope on your part, of another outcome," Nemesis said. "Last time, we fought a duel of honor, and you were given a fair chance, and you won.

"This time, there will be no honorable combat. This is no duel. This will be a rout, a massacre, and it will be my final victory over all of you!"

6: Together Again for the Very First Time

"Five of them," Komori said. "And yet . . .all of them Nemesis."

"Suddenly, having two people named Ronin doesn’t seem all that confusing, does it?" Darken replied.

The Ronins looked at each other for a moment.

"All right," Ronin said, looking over at his predecessor. "If it’s that important . . .he’s Ronin-1, I’m Ronin-2. Everyone happy now?"

"Why are you Ronin-2?" Darken asked.

"I’ve no problem following his lead," Ronin-2 said.

After all, it’s how all of this started, isn’t it, he thought.

Vertiga shoved past them, sword pointed toward the group of Nemeses.

"Well, now that that’s out of the way," she said. "Whatever the back story is, from what I understand, our one way out and back where we came from . . .is through them, right?"

"That’s how it went down last time," Kienan said, pistols drawn.

"Then I say, less talking, more fighting," she replied.

"What she said," Kienan replied, taking aim at one of the Nemeses. The shot bounced off its obsidian armor, but it had the desired effect--The Nemeses surged forward and with a clash of weapons, met their opponents in combat.

The two Ronins moved toward the one Nemesis who carried no armament, drawing their swords as they leapt towards the black and magenta armored woman. She stepped back from them, dodging their overhead strike and lunging forward, fingers outstretched. Ronin-1 sidestepped her attack, only for Nemesis to try again, this time grabbing at Ronin-2’s robes.

Ronin-2 slashed against her hand, but her grip was like iron. She yanked him forward, shredding his robe as she brushed her other hand over his bare chest, then dropped him.

As he hit the ground, he felt himself overcome by sickness the lines of which he’d never felt before. His breathing was choked off as fluid entered his lungs and his very bone marrow seemed to be on fire. This, combined with the pain and nausea, was unlike anything he’d felt before.

"What have you done to him?" Ronin-1 demanded.

"Your masked friend is suffering from the nastier effects of about 15 extremely deadly plagues," Nemesis hissed in reply. "Any fool might have guessed I was the most dangerous of the Nemeses. Just because I don’t carry a weapon doesn’t mean I don’t have one."

"So, you fight with deadly diseases?" Ronin-1 slashed at her with his swords.

"Hardly," Nemesis replied, blocking his sword strike, her yellow eyes glaring holes through him. "I am a deadly disease."

She swatted his sword aside and grabbed him around the throat. Almost instantaneously, Ronin-1 felt himself overcome by multiple symptoms, his strength leaving his body quickly as she held him in an iron grip around his throat. His bones seemed to be growing ever more brittle, as if some cancer was shredding them from the inside out.

"Let me tell you something," Nemesis said, willing her pestilent force to intensify its effects. "Each of the infinite number of Nemeses have unlocked the secret of immortality, each in their own way. My solution was quite unique. Would you like to hear it?

"Viruses. They can never truly be eliminated--destroy them once, they mutate and become resistant to what eliminated them once before. Eventually they become invincible, unable to be destroyed. I made myself into a living virus, and because of that, I am immortal."

"Immortality?" Ronin-2 said from behind her. Nemesis’ head swiveled, looking over her shoulder. The second Ronin stood tall, twin swords at the ready, the debilitating effects she’d willed into him completely cured.

"I think I know a thing or two about that myself."

He slashed at her back, his swords sparking as they struck the black metal of her armor, and sinking deep into the softer sections. Nemesis shrieked in pain as she dropped Ronin-1 to the ground, lunging for Ronin-2.

Ronin-2 goaded her forward, taunting her forward as Ronin-1 gathered his strength again, and the same energies that had healed him completely moments before were now at work, repairing the damage Nemesis had done to him. Nemesis would take a step forward, swiping at him as if her fingers had sharp claws at the end of them.

"Come on," Ronin-2 said. "If you were all that formidable, you could release your super-virus into the air and kill us all, couldn’t you? What’s holding you back?"

"Nothing is holding me back," Nemesis growled. "That would be too easy. I want you to write in agony in my grasp, and when I tire of that, I want the satisfaction of killing the two of you with my own two hands!"

"Then you’re zero for two, Nemesis," Ronin-2 said. "And you might want to look behind you."

Nemesis hissed, reaching for him. Ronin-2 backpedaled, just as Ronin-1 struck, striking Nemesis in the back with a hurricane of strikes with his spear. Nemesis writhed in anger as she kicked backwards, knocking Ronin-1 off balance as Ronin-2 struck again, slashing at the weaker, flexible sections of her armor.

Nemesis seized Ronin-2 by the hair, just as Ronin-1 drove the blade of his spear into Nemesis’ back, the edge of the blade piercing the sections of her armor that Ronin-2’s strikes had weakened once before.

Nemesis felt agony the likes of which she hadn’t experienced in ages. As the spear sank into her body, she seized the other Ronin by his clothing, reflexively releasing into the air the most virulent collection of disease she could imagine into both of them. Blood poured from their ears and their noses, soaking into the fabric of their masks and their whole bodies shuddered with coughing as Nemesis tried to rise to her feet, the pain of her wounds and the deadening weight of both of the Ronins making her slow and unsteady as she rose to her feet.

"Zero . . .for two . . .was I?" Nemesis said, trying to reach behind her for the spear between her shoulder blades. "You should have listened when I told you that viruses always win. We always survive. And you tried to kill me . . .with swords? How foolish."

Ronin-1 slid off his spear, falling to the dirt. Nemesis rolled him over onto his back, looking into the red eyes of his mask as she brought her boot to his throat, leaning on him with all the weight she could bring to bear in an effort to choke him to death.

"You should have stayed out of my grasp," Nemesis said, looking at Ronin-2. "BOTH of you should have. My very touch means death, so anything you could do to me, would put you in my clutches."

Ronin-2 tried to say something, but the mucous filling his lungs choked off any sound except a drowning, raspy noise.

"You managed to recover swiftly from my first touch," she said. "And you claim to be immortal yourselves. Intriguing. I’ve never tried to kill something immortal. Testing your limits should be educational."

"NEMESIS!"

Her head snapped up, following the shouted sound of her name. As she turned in the direction of the sound, she was struck full-on by gunshots, her armor, already weakened by the Ronins sword-strikes shattering as the bullets sank into flesh. Her grasp on the two Ronins slipped as the surprise at being shot and the force of bullets themselves knocked her off-balance.

Standing on a rock nearly ten feet away, Kienan crouched, his pistols raised and trained on Nemesis. Smoke poured from the bullet holes in her body as she glared at this new attacker.

"There is one thing that can kill viruses, Nemesis," Kienan said. "Something very simple, too. You might even have heard of it."

Nemesis began to gather her energies, preparing to will her airborne virus at Kienan. Whatever his foolish braggadocio, let him try to survive a super-virus that liquefies the tissue off his very bones, she thought.

Before she could do this, however, she began to notice something peculiar. The bullet wounds were still smoking. In fact, they were smoking even more than they had before now, so much so it was a little hard to see Kienan clearly.

"What are saying? Wait . . .something’s . . .wrong . . ."

"That something is "fire," Nemesis," Kienan said, rising to his feet. "Viruses are consumed pretty quickly and permanently by it, I understand. And I just shot you twenty times with napalm-tipped bullets. The more oxygen they get, the hotter they burn."

"NO!"

Kienan offered a thin smile. "Oh yes," he said, seemingly nodding to her. "I think you know what to do, don’t you?"

Nemesis clawed at her flesh, trying to desperately dig the bullets out of her body as the heat began to surge through her. With her evolution to a sentient virus, most of her original biological functions were simulated by viral elements, similar in structure to her original lungs and circulatory system, but operating with greater efficiency than the originals.

Primarily due to their ability to refine oxygen to a greater degree.

She began to scream, or to scream as loudly as the smoke filling what passed for her lungs would allow. As she wrapped her arms around herself, the smoke that had been pouring from the bullet wounds now beginning to leak fire, she felt herself being kicked forward.

She stumbled two steps forward, turning to see which of the Ronins had struck while her back was turned. Ronin-2 stood before her, his Kusanagi sword at the ready. The air around the blade seemed to crackle with energy, then glow with an aura of fire as he raised it over his head.

He brought it down, slashing through Nemesis with all his might. The fiery edge of the blade sheared through her armor, and then her flesh, and as the wound tore open, the fire within her flared even hotter, consuming her in a flash so hot it seemed to scorch the air around the two Ronins.

When the fire subsided and all was quiet, all that remained of Nemesis was a black circle of ash and a thinning plume of smoke. Ronin-2 stared at Kienan through the smoke as he holstered his pistols and turned and walked away.

"It would appear I misjudged him," Ronin-1 said, steadying himself on his feet, the last of the ill effects of Nemesis super-virus consumed in the flames.

"Only if you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t us he was really aiming for," Ronin-2 replied.

Ronin-1’s brow furrowed under his mask.

"Forget it," Ronin-2 said. "Right now, these Nemeses are the bigger problem. Come on . . .the others need our help."

7: Armor and Sword

Before the two Ronins could move to help the others, a terrific geyser of force that erupted just before them blew them back. They were thrown into the dirt, unable to see through the thick cloud of dust that had bloomed in the wake of the explosion.

One minute later, Ronin-2 rolled to his feet and squinted, trying to make out the shadow advancing towards them. Whatever it was, it moves slowly, arrogantly striding through the cloud of dust.

Gradually, the dust settled and Ronin-2 could make out who it was. It was Nemesis. One of them, anyway. Unlike the sleek black and blue armor of the original, this one’s armor was black, red and gold, festooned with spikes and jagged edges which seemed less like armor and more like something alive. Clutched in his left hand was an enormous battleaxe, and it was pointed right at Ronin-2.

"The two of you defeated one of my counterparts," Nemesis said. "The least of what I . . .we . . .are. I suppose anyone can get lucky, but yours, I’m afraid . . .has just run out."

Nemesis whipped the enormous axe above his head, ready to charge forward and deliver the killing blow. The sky began to crackle with fiery energy as he held it above his head.

"Prepare for oblivion!" Nemesis shouted.

Before Nemesis could bring his weapon down upon them, a bolt of blazing violet fire struck him. Then another. This pushed him back, but did not cause him to fall. Planting his feet, he slammed his axe to the ground, unleashing a fiery trail from the edge of it that snaked its way along the ground, heading for the Ronins.

Faster than either Ronin could see, another violet flash passed by them, striking the ground just before Nemesis’ flame trail and dispersing it. The flames parted suddenly, and, standing between Nemesis and the Ronins was Vertiga, sword drawn and eyes blazing with fury.

"This one’s mine," she said, sparing the Ronins a glance. "Find your own."

Vertiga turned to Nemesis, sword raised at her eye level. The runes carved into the sword were blazing in time with her own heartbeat. She started down the armored being, who raised his own weapon in a low ready stance.

"You’ve only spared them for a little while longer, and at the expense of your own life" Nemesis said. "Only a fool or a madman would come between me and my intended prey."

"Good thing I’m neither, then," Vertiga said.

Nemesis chuckled. It was a sound that seemed to come from a dark place deep within him. He raised his axe and leapt towards her, high into the sky, swinging his axe in a high overhead arc and activating the magics within the weapon. For a moment, the sky above Vertiga blazed with such light that Nemesis was a black shape against it.

It was a simple enough trick meant to blind and disorient an attacker, to frighten them into offering some pitiful defense that couldn’t hope to block the force of the attack. A lesser warrior might have surrendered to their fear.

But Vertiga was never one to surrender to her fear. Drawing on all the power her sword contained, her weapon and Nemesis’ axe clashed inches from her head. The meeting of their magics was so powerful that all sound around them until a split second later, when the explosive forces they’d unleashed blew both of them backwards.

Nemesis steadied himself first, slashing his axe into the rock to anchor himself. Vertiga fell backwards into the dirt, but rolled back to her feet, raising her sword and pointing to Nemesis again. Her eyes blazed with mad fury and her silver hair was matted against her forehead as she smiled.

The power from her sword had taken hold of her again. The strength, the speed, the raw power it suffused her with crackled through her. Coupled with the adrenaline of the fight, she was almost giddy.

She raced forward, the power of the sword allowing her to move like the wind. She attacked Nemesis at full speed, landing hundreds of blows in seconds, only a few of which Nemesis found himself able to block with his axe. The blows that got through his defense began to nick his armor, then rend pieces of it off his body.

He blasted her away with a quick pulse of energy, then hurled another wave of fire from his axe. He willed this one to hold itself in place as he spun in a complete circle, willing more magic into his axe as he completed the circle. As he touched the axe to the pillar of fire before him, an even larger plume of fire grew and surged forward like a tidal wave.

But Vertiga had seen this trick before and was ready. She drove the point of her sword down in the ground with both hands at the very instant the wave threatened to engulf her. A circle of fire burst forth in a ring around her, blunting Nemesis’ wave, which broke harmlessly on either side of her.

"Impressive," Nemesis said. "Your skills are crude, but your power is undeniable. Drawn wholly from that sword, I suspect."

Vertiga glared at him, snatching the sword from the ground and pointing it at him. Nemesis relaxed his posture for a moment, holding his axe horizontally in front of him.

"My power, however, is eternal," he said. "Everywhere, everywhen, every magic object or source of power I could find, I bent to my will and made part of me. And while this battle may provide me some small amusement, as you’re the most capable foe I’ve faced in some time . . .make no mistake little girl, it ends only one way . . .your sword, your power, your life . . .will be mine."

"Better than you have tried," Vertiga shot back.

"I doubt that," Nemesis said. "My power and skill have no equal."

Vertiga summoned even more of the sword’s power into her. Her eyes, now burning with the violet fire that was her sword’s power, glared holes through Nemesis.

"Prove it."

Vertiga leapt forward, striking at Nemesis, who blocked her attack with his axe and followed that parry by slamming the butt of his axe into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Vertiga crumpled to the ground, hunched over. Nemesis raised his axe, intending to drive the point at the end of it through her skull. Before he could, Vertiga’s hand shot out and grabbed the shaft of the axe, holding it fast as she rose up, driving her sword upward into his face.

Nemesis stepped backward, trying to get some space between them to be able to bring his axe into play, but Vertiga held tight to it, using it to bring herself to her feet as she battered Nemesis with the butt of her sword, bashing even more cracks and holes into her armor.

"ENOUGH!" Nemesis said, seizing her wrist and immobilizing her sword-arm. He turned his body, twisting the arm that was holding the axe to positing the blade to where it was resting on her throat. If Vertiga’s grip slipped, even a little, Nemesis’ axe would take her head off, and if Nemesis’ grip slipped, he risked Vertiga damaging him further. Neither could move, nor afford to let their grip slip, even for a minute.

A stalemate.

Vertiga had never conceived of a stalemate. No, ever since she’d found the sword, and taken its power into herself, she’d committed herself that she would do anything to win, anything to survive, anything to prevail.

No matter the cost.

She summoned the sword’s power again, willing her weary, burning muscles to hold on as she waited for the right moment. Nemesis glared at her with blazing red eyes, waiting for the least little drop of her guard to end the fight and take her power for himself, as he’d promised.

Ironically, though Nemesis couldn’t know this, Vertiga was about to give him that very thing. She released the power she’d been charging between them at point-blank range, blasting them out of each other’s grip and a few feet apart. Vertiga fell flat on her back in the dirt. Her head spun as she tried to get her bearings and her breath.

That . . .might not have been the best idea, now that I think of it, she thought, her muscles tensing as she rose from the ground again. But at least . . .I’ve still got my . . .

No.

Oh. No.

Her sword was gone. It must have been blown out of her grip when she’d blasted Nemesis and herself apart. But where? They’d exchanged so many powerful attacks and churned the earth, there was every possibility it could be buried or thrown too far away to quickly retrieve.

She pulled herself up to her feet, trying to focus through her confusing and reach out through her link to it to find it again. Immediately, it sang to her. It was nearby, and close enough for her to grab.

If she could get it away from Nemesis, who now held it in his hands, pointing the blade at her as she’d done to him. The blast hadn’t incapacitated him as much as it had her, but it had done some damage--the front of his formerly elegant armor was blackened and warped. The man within seemed fatigued, but if her attack had managed to wound him, it wasn’t easily apparent. He walked towards her, steady and resolute, as if her annihilation were only a matter of time.

He had an edge. He had her sword, and she didn’t.

That means I only have whatever power I drew from the blade before I lost it, she thought. A few minutes, maybe less. And without a weapon, I . . .

In a minute, things clicked into focus. Nemesis wasn’t walking towards her to kill her; he wanted to retrieve his axe, which had also been blasted from his grip.

She pounced on it in an instant, snatching it out of the dirt and raising it in a ready stance. Without the strength she’d borrowed from her sword she’d never have been able to lift it at all, but hopefully it would do long enough to get her sword back.

She charged at Nemesis, who parried her slow slash with a sidestep parry with the sword. Vertiga tried again, but Nemesis blocked her again. Though he hadn’t unleashed the sword’s power against her, his fundamental skill with the sword, balanced against Vertiga’s inexperience with a battleaxe, kept things in something of a stalemate.

"I can feel the power in your sword," Nemesis said, his red eyes narrowing. "It’s resisting me now, but it’s only a matter of time until it’s mine."

Vertiga ignored him as she kept the pressure on, pushing Nemesis backward with the axe, but never able to break his block or knock her sword out of his hands. She was starting to hate the axe--it was too slow, too clumsy and too damned big for her to use effectively as a cutting weapon. Worse, the effort of holding it was causing her to burn through her energy reserves and when that happened, she’d be defenseless without the sword.

She blocked Nemesis’ sword arm with the shaft of the Axe, the brought it up to his face, striking him hard enough to send him backpedaling as Vertiga planted her feet for another strike. Nemesis growled, his hand tightening on the sword. His eyes blazed for a moment and suddenly the runes etched into the blade puled to life in his hands.

"NO!"

"Yes," Nemesis said, his voice infuriatingly calm. "I told you it was only a matter of time, didn’t I?"

Vertiga rushed towards him. She hadn’t clearly thought through what she was going to do, but she knew that whatever it was, it had to be done now. If he’d accessed the sword’s power, he surely could work out how to use it against her.

And she wouldn’t have that.

She drove the point of the axe down in the ground, several feet from him as Nemesis brought the sword before him. A brilliant bolt of violet energy struck the ground where Vertiga had struck with his axe, but she was gone.

Nemesis looked up just in time to see Vertiga falling towards him, bringing her full weight and the last reserves of her strength down on him. He toppled under the weight, holding tight to the sword even as the shock caused his grip to slip a little.

But Vertiga knew from experience that whatever he did, the power within the sword was too much to ever willingly let go of. The more one took, the more one wanted, and the more one needed.

It was just a question of who wanted it more.

Vertiga snaked her arms around Nemesis’ sword arm, floating over and throwing her weight backward. Nemesis’ sword-arm caught between hers, snapped backwards, and the strain was enough to where his fingers opened, the sword beginning to tumbled from his grip.

Vertiga grit her teeth, pushing back harder. She didn’t know if Nemesis’s arm could or would break, but she had to make him let go somehow. She felt the weight behind her locked arms shift as she kicked her legs out, the sword dropping from his grasp.

Vertiga rolled to the side, snatching the sword from Nemesis as she did so. The power was back within her in an instant, and like a runner’s second wind, everything snapped back into sharp focus. She turned to face Nemesis, who, now favoring his injured arm, groped for his axe.

She struck at him, and only the merest luck allowed Nemesis to block her strike with the shaft of his axe.

WHAM!

Again she struck, again he blocked as he tried to get his knees under him. Whereas before Vertiga had favored quicker strikes, she’d now simply decided to use the sword’s full powers to hammer him down.

WHAM!

Again, Nemesis blocked, trying desperately to summon his magics to protect himself, to push her away, to escape into time, anything. But his magic seemed slow and difficult, now. Every time he blocked one of her attacks, Vertiga willed more power into her sword and struck at him again.

WHAM!

Vertiga’s sword, charged up to the point where even the sword’s runes were indistinct against the white-hot blade finally sheared through Nemesis’ axe, the blade of which tumbled out of his hands and rolled into the dirt just beside her foot. The arc of her strike, in addition to breaking his weapon, also sheared through his helmet, terminating in a large gouge through the chest.

Vertiga watched as Nemesis’ red eyes faded to black, then his body fell backwards into the dirt. There was no great explosion or disintegration, only a strange stillness that seemed to settle over everything. She sighed deeply as she began to slowly power down her sword. The energy within her that she’d borrowed was already healing her, but there was no cure for the utter exhaustion she felt right now.

She eyed Nemesis’ corpse warily as she began to back away from it. Then, once she was certain he was dead, she turned her back to it. She noticed, with some surprise, that she’d forgotten about Darken and the others. Somehow, the battle had carried her far away, both physically and in her thoughts.

She started to walk faster, willing the exhaustion out of her. She’d managed to destroy this Nemesis single-handedly, but something told her that what still lay ahead would require all of them standing together.

8: Countdown

Vain parried the rapid-fire strikes of one of the Nemeses with ease. His oddly-shaped edged weapons gave him an advantage in that he could strike quickly--slashing once, then flipping the blades forward and striking her again faster than the human eye could see. A normal human would have been cut to ribbons under the onslaught by now.

But Vain was no normal human. She wasn’t a human at all. And her mind, tuned as it was to be six times as fast as a human’s worked with clarity and perception, able to parry every single strike and every blow as if Nemesis moved in slow motion.

Unfortunately, parrying was all she could do. However she and Kienan had been brought here, she hadn’t been carrying weapons at the time. That hadn’t been a problem fighting with Dirge--her own strength had been all she needed, there. But against Nemesis, she could only stalemate him. He couldn’t find an opportunity to critically damage her, and she couldn’t go on the offensive and keep his weapons at bay.

Moreover, Nemesis seemed in no hurry to bring his other powers to bear in their battle. The other Nemeses seemed to have no compunction about unleashing their power in overkill gestures intended to end their battles swiftly, but this one seemed positively restrained by comparison.

What was he waiting for?

Whatever it was, it was well past time to alter the parameters of this stalemate, she thought, pressing forward, past Nemesis’ blades.

She drove her knee into his midsection, feeling armor crack as she did so, then quickly extended her leg into a full kick, balancing his chin on her foot for a moment, then shifting her weight and throwing him aside.

Nemesis crashed to the ground, one of his blades slipping out of his hands. Vain leapt forward, grabbed the blade and rolled forward, engaging him as he rose back to his feet.

Vain attacked with rapid strikes, utilizing the data she’d gathered during their battle to strike him where he statistically never guarded himself. But Nemesis seemed to anticipate this and kept blocking her strikes. Curiously, rather than the fast parries Vain had used against him, he leaned into her attacks, thwarting her strength advantage and pushing her back.

Trying to slow the fight down, Vain thought quickly. But why--?

She struck again, using her leverage to knock his blocking blade aside and leave himself open. Before she could press the advantage, however, he seized her by the throat and held her fast. His green eyes pulsed, then flashed from green to white.

And he was gone.

Where? Vain wondered.

Right here, a voice responded. You did exactly as I’d anticipated.

Nemesis, Vain thought. You have invaded my mental circuitry.

Quite impressive work, too, I might add, Nemesis responded. One of the advantages of being an entirely digital life form--In addition to being virtually ineradicable, I can infiltrate and overwrite computer systems of any kind.

Just like you, my dear. It was foolish of you to challenge me, machine.

Then the fight was a distraction?

Misdirection. I needed time to scan your operating system. Once I had it, you were mine. I’m already working on compromising your core program . . .it shouldn’t be long now. Your defenses are pitiful, Vain . . .I expected better.

Vain straightened up, tossing Nemesis’ blade aside.

Then you underestimate your opposition, Nemesis, Vain countered. By compromising my systems, you have ensured we will both be destroyed. Upon breach of my core program, my self-destruct protocol automatically engages. You have fifteen seconds, Nemesis.

An empty threat, Vain--I can easily disable your self-destruct protocols.

Not in time. Ten seconds.

You would destroy us both?

I lack the ego necessary to insist upon victory in every encounter, Vain responded. It was inevitable I would lose an engagement someday, but you too will lose, unless you leave me immediately. Five seconds . . .

This cannot be!

Four . . .

In as much as it was possible to feel, she felt Nemesis’ essence roiling with her systems in a fury. Apparently he wasn’t used to his enemies frustrating him.

Too bad for him.

Three . . .

In an instant, she felt Nemesis leave her, rematerializing before her. In an instant he summoned his blades and stood at the ready.

"It appears that this will be a physical contest after all," Nemesis said, lunging forward.

Vain stepped to the side. "I think not. The contest is over, Nemesis."

Nemesis stopped short, as much struck by the definitiveness of her statement as the strange feeling that was beginning to come over him.

"You should have paid closer attention to my defenses against system intrusion," Vain said.

"I know how your systems work," Nemesis sneered. "You threatened to destroy yourself before I could disable them. Crude, but effective. But I can still destroy you the old fashioned way."

Vain stared him down.

"I don’t think you will," Vain replied coolly. "Because my countermeasures also target any intrusive programs . . .and delete them."

Nemesis tried to surge forward but nearly tripped over his own feet. Something felt . . .wrong. He didn’t feel as heavy as he should. What’s more, his grip on his blades seemed to slacken. Almost as if he were growing weaker, losing substance.

He looked at his hand for a moment and saw he was fading. The totality of his being was digital code--it had been his method of surviving the ages and unlocking the secret of time travel. Provided he took nominal precautions to protect his code, he could not be destroyed nor contained, and as universal digital code he could go anywhere, do anything.

It had been so long that he’d encountered a system able to repel his intrusion that he’s neglected to do a thorough check of her security measures. He’d been too confident that he could burrow into her core commands and shut anything dangerous down that he hadn’t bothered to check.

And that arrogance had cost him everything.

Silent as a shadow, Nemesis faded into nothingness--in a matter of seconds he was gone. Vain studied the spot where he’d been for a moment, as if he’d reappear at any moment. She did a quick self-diagnostic--no sign. Inside and out, Nemesis was gone.

The greater danger, however, still existed.

"Quite a subtle and effective solution, my lady," a voice called from behind her. She turned to face Komori, who stared at her for a moment, then turned to blast the Nemesis he was battling. "Might I ask if you’d bring your talents to bear on this Nemesis as well?"

9: Queen Bee

Vain studied the scene before her. This Nemesis, clad in black and yellow armor, seemed to be holding off everyone--Vertiga, both Ronins, and Kienan at once. But it was how she was doing it that seemed peculiar. Whenever she was attacked, she seemed to dissolve in the air, recombining on the other side of whoever was attacking her.

"She’s a teleporter?" Vain asked.

"No, not exactly," Komori replied. "I think she’s a swarm."

"A swarm?"

"Yes," Komori said. "As in like ‘bees.’ Somehow she can exist as either an integrated whole or several hundred--"

"Thousands," Vain corrected, doing a fast count.

"--Thousands of smaller beings," Komori finished. "Separated, it’s impossible to do any damage severe enough to remove her from the battle. If you attack her while she’s whole, it seems she can disperse the damage through her swarm."

"Logical," Vain said. "I assume you have a plan?"

"Of course," Komori said. "I need you to strike her the moment she reintegrates, then fall back as soon as she changes back into a swarm."

"And that will accomplish . . .what?"

"Hopefully? Between you and Vertiga attacking her when she’s coherent and the rest trying to damaging the swarm, it will destroy her."

"You sound somewhat less than confident."

"It’s a work in progress," Komori responded. A few feet away, the swarm tore through Ronin-2 and began to gather in the shape of Nemesis.

"ATTACK NOW!"

At Komori’s urging, Vain surged forward, smashing into Nemesis the second she completed her integration, smashing into her back and sending her to the ground. Nemesis whirled around, immediately beginning to dissolve back into the swarm.

Vain stepped aside just in time for Komori to blast the swarm with a burst of flame. As he blasted Nemesis, he cursed himself for his inability to being his full power to bear on her. Perhaps if he could, he wouldn’t have to rely on the others.

Unfortunately, my powers are at their strongest on Earth, and obviously, we’re not on Earth, he thought with some bitterness as he watched Nemesis reintegrate and try to swarm him again.

The swarm surged at him like a missile. The Komori stood, unperturbed by the oncoming onslaught. In an instant, his physical form seemed to darken and fade, becoming a living shadow. Thus insubstantial, the swarm passed through him as the Komori coalesced behind her, fists clenches and breathing heavily.

The ‘tools’ that I have to work with here are limited--even simple spells like this requires incredible effort.

Fortunately, raw power isn’t the only option I have at hand.

In his own element, of course, the Komori was quite a powerful sorcerer and could, if necessary, hold his own against even highly skilled fighters like his father and his brother. But greater than his physical attributes was his skill at analyzing his foes and determining their weaknesses.

This Nemesis had a very effective method to minimize damage to herself, Komori thought. Unfortunately, as impressive a defense as it is, it’s limited her in how she can attack. She’s too lazy to vary her assault much beyond swarm attacks.

Nemesis attempted to swarm attack again, only to be met by the Ronins, attacking the swarm with blinding fast strikes of their swords. As their blades struck the insects in the swarm, they sparked as they cleaved them in two.

For a moment Komori found himself taken back to an earlier time. He’d seen the first Ronin--his father--do tricks not unlike this before during his childhood. They’d travel from village to village and occasionally demonstrate Ronin-1’s skill, he’d disturb a beehive, then kill every bee in the hive with rapid-fire strikes of his sword.

At the time, I remember, I thought his skill amazing, even godlike, he mused. Though now I find myself wondering how the bees must have felt.

He pushed the memory out of his head as shots rang out. Bullets ripped through Nemesis’ body, the surface of which shimmered as the insects that comprised her form shifted to repair the damage. Once that was complete, she lashed out at Kienan, the swarm surging forward at the gunman. But this time it was slower, smaller, and Kienan was able to escape in time.

This was what the Komori had been waiting for. Nemesis’ ability to swarm and reintegrate made her hard to destroy, for certain, since, being a colony creature, if even one survived they could reintegrate the larger whole, given time.

But Nemesis hadn’t had time to reintegrate, and the strain of swarming, reintegrating, and swarming again in addition to repairing the damage they’d inflicted on her without giving her time to regenerate back to full strength, she was weakening.

The Komori hurled another burst of fire at her, predictably causing her to swarm again. He willed his power through him, hurling flame burst after flame burst at her. Nemesis didn’t try to retaliate, or couldn’t anymore.

Finally, Nemesis reintegrated, standing before the Ronins, ready to strike again. While outwardly she seemed much as she always had, the Komori could tell she was a bit unsteady on her feet. For one thing, confronted by the Ronin’s, she didn’t swarm on them immediately, nor did she try to escape when Vertiga converged on her. Kienan and Vain advanced from the sides, closing the circle on Nemesis.

Nemesis looked at the people surrounding her with baleful rage. It was inconceivable to her that these stupid, limited beings could best her. If only she’d had time to escape, time to reconstitute to full strength, she might have beaten them all.

Finally the Komori strode up to her, his manner calm and quiet as he stood before Nemesis. He nodded to Vertiga, who raised her sword as he clenched his fists, gathering his power.

"The rest of you may want to step back," he said, sparing a glance over his shoulder at his erstwhile allies. Then immediately he turned to Nemesis, who, sensing what was going on, tried to move into a ready stance, discovering, to her horror that her armor cracked and split with the slightest movement.

She looked at her disintegrating armor and knew she was finished. Unable to swarm, she couldn’t disperse and lie in wait to reconstruct herself. Not before they finished her off.

She stared at the Komori, her pale yellow eyes meeting his.

"Aren’t you . . .going to let me have a last word?"

The Komori nodded to Vertiga, who pointed her sword at the back of Nemesis’ head. He willed all the power he could grab into himself, and even through it took tremendous effort, had himself at full power within seconds.

He raised his hands in front of him, pointed at Nemesis.

"Actually," the Komori said. " . . .No."

Brilliant fire surged from his hands as Veritga unleashed her energies as well. Caught between their two energies, Nemesis was first pulverized down to her surviving components, then even those were ground to nothing between the two energies.

In less than a minute, it was over. Vertiga and the Komori stopped their attack, and stood facing each other around a circle of black sand.

"It is done," the Komori said.

"Is that all you have to say?" Ronin-2 said.

The Komori turned to his brother, perplexed. "What do you mean?"

"You as much as executed her. She was helpless."

"No less than she deserved," Vertiga sneered. "I don’t know if you realized it or not, Ronin, but if the situations were reversed, they would have murdered any of us without a second thought."

"That’s not the point," Ronin-2 shot back.

"What is the point?" The Komori asked.

"We should have found another way."

"There’s no other way," Kienan said, taking a few steps forward and admiring their handiwork. "It’s them or us. Kill or be killed."

"Well, at least some of us have our heads on straight," Vertiga said, sheathing her sword as she favored Kienan with a smile. She pointed at Ronin. "You heard Nemesis--either we go through him or we don’t go home. This is about survival, not about being a hero."

"I--" Ronin-2 began. Before he could finish his thought, a hand resting on his shoulder stopped him.

"She’s right," Ronin-1 said, staring at his successor. "We may want to find another way, but Nemesis made the rules, and the rules of his game don’t allow us the luxury of another way forward, I’m afraid."

Ronin-2 relaxed a bit. Their arguments all made sense, of course. None of the Nemeses they’d fought even seemed to understand the concepts of mercy or fair play, and Nemesis--the first one--had explicitly said he wouldn’t play fair. To ignore that would be suicidal.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

"All right," Ronin-2 said, relaxing a bit. "How many are left?"

"Just the one," Kienan said. "The one we fought. The original."

"Where did he go?" Ronin-2 asked.

"Perhaps he teleported away when the other Nemeses arrived?" The Komori asked.

"No," Vertiga said. "We all got separated in the fight, but I remember seeing him after the others showed up."

"He’s fighting with Darken," Vain said calmly.

"How do you know?"

"There were seven of us and five Nemeses, and both sides are short one combatant," she responded. "It’s reasonable to assume they’re fighting elsewhere."

"Then we’d best find them," Ronin-1 said.

"Unnecessary," Vain said.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I have just found them," Vain said, pointing overhead.

10: United Against the Enemy

They were at least twenty feet above them, battling in the skies. Vertiga squinted as she tried to make out who was winning.

Darken’s smart to keep him in his element, she thought. But I wouldn’t count on that advantage lasting, especially if the original Nemesis is anything like the one I fought.

Darken doesn’t have the killer instinct to finish off Nemesis, she mused. And firing up towards them . . .I’d have as good a shot hitting Darken as I would hitting Nemesis.

I’m strong, but not precise. God, if there was just some way I could get UP there . . .

She blinked, then turned to Vain.

"Hey," she said to the android. "You’re pretty strong, aren’t you?"

"I have approximately six times the strength of--"

"Can you throw me at Nemesis?"

If she were able, Vain would have looked surprised.

"Throw you?"

Vertiga nodded. "With all the other Nemeses gone, if we attack him all at once, we should be able to finish him off, but to do that we’ve got to get him back down here."

Vain seemed to think it over for half a second, then reached for Vertiga, securing one arm around her sash and aiming her human javelin with the other. Hoisting Vertiga aloft with no effort at all, she waited for the opportune moment, and with even less effort than it took to lift her overhead, threw Vertiga towards the figures fighting in the skies.

Darken didn’t see Vertiga being thrown. Nemesis was keeping him far too busy to notice. While he still hadn’t recalled everything from the previous battle with Nemesis, he had remembered that Nemesis, despite his advanced technology, didn’t seem to have a flying apparatus for his armor, and so decided to take him to the skies, where Darken would have the advantage.

As it turned out, Darken thought, parrying Nemesis’ weapon with his Blackfang, it’s not much of an advantage. Nemesis can’t fly, but he’s not hindered by it all that much.

Darken tried to push Nemesis back and strike him with the Blackfang, but Nemesis fell backwards, dropping his spear and grabbing hold of the Blackfang to keep himself from falling. Before Darken could kick him loose, Nemesis reached behind him and activated his shield, rocking Darken with a blow from the weapon.

Stunned by the force Nemesis’ attack, Darken felt his hands slip loose of the Blackfang. He tumbled backwards as he wings lost their flight rhythm. He felt gravity taking hold of him, but he couldn’t do anything to stop his fall.

As his mind reeled, he saw Nemesis out of the corner of his eye. As his vision began to blur, he saw Nemesis being blasted upwards by . . .something.

That’s . . .impossible, he thought. Nemesis can’t fly . . .and he can’t be flying up . . .

His velocity began to increase as he began tumbling towards the ground. As he reached his terminal velocity, the Eagle Clasp at his neck began to glow and pulse, sensing the imminent danger.

Darken.

He heard the voice inside his mind. A voice he’d never heard before, and one that was somehow . . .familiar.

Darken!

It cut through the muzziness in his head, and he found that if he focused on the voice, things seemed to come into some kind of clarity. Chief among the things that seemed to come into clarity was the fact that if he didn’t stop himself, he was going to hit the ground in a matter of seconds.

He spread his wings wide, the muscles within straining with such force, he feared they might rip free from his shoulders from the strain. He angled his body to slipstream into the air currents as he wings tilted slightly.

It took an incredible effort, but Darken pulled himself out of the dive, banking up with only a handful of seconds to spare. Darken struggled to get a breath as every muscle in his body screamed in agony.

He climbed higher, searching the skies for signs of Nemesis. It was a lucky thing he sensed them a second before they crashed into him, as he was able to jet backwards just before Nemesis and Vertiga dragged him down with them.

Vertiga had Nemesis by the throat and was raining blows against his armor as they plummeted to Earth, the purple flames of her blasts silhouetted against the shining black of his armor. Nemesis tried to batter her with his shield, but couldn’t reach behind him with enough force to knock her loose.

Darken dashed towards them, fighting the pain that ripped through his wings. Like a hawk snatching prey from the ground, Darken caught Vertiga the collar of her armor as she grasped his arm and released Nemesis.

With his other hand, Darkened called on the energy within him and blasted Nemesis with a beam of brilliant blue light. It caught Nemesis full-on, knocking his shield-arm away and, pushed by the force of Darken’s attack, shoved him to the ground with such force that he left a crater.

Darken’s face was a mask of concentration as he continued to channel the beam while simultaneously descending and holding Vertiga close.

"Did you get him?" Vertiga asked.

"Got him pinned," Darken said. "I can’t stop him alone."

"You don’t have to." She’d wrapped both arms around him and was holding him very tightly as they slowly descended to earth. Had he not been focused on the fight, Darken might well have enjoyed this bit of accidental intimacy.

Before he could enjoy it too much, they reached the ground, and just in time to see Nemesis rising from the crater. He was still pinned by Darken’s attack, but had now plated his feet and was bracing his shield against its crushing force.

Darken landed and planted his feet, raising his other fist and unleashing another beam of force from it. Slowly, he brought his hands together, merging the two beams into one.

With the amount of power Darken was generating, Nemesis should have been blasted off his feet and thrown several miles at such speed he could have punched Nemesis through a mountain.

But not only was Nemesis blocking the beam with his shield, he was actually beginning to push back against it. He’d managed to brace against it, but now he was beginning to climb out of the crater, the brilliant light of Darken’s beam breaking against his shield making it seem like he was pushing a sun before him.

Darken tried to will himself to increase the power, but that was wishful thinking. Already he could feel his arms getting heavy and the power within him weakening. Any second now, he’d have to stop firing, and he’d be left so exhausted, if Nemesis wanted to counterattack, he’d be in no shape to stop him.

He kept it up for a few minutes more as Nemesis got closer and closer. Finally, he sank to his knees and fell forward, completely spent. The last thing he saw was Nemesis walking towards him.

"NEMESIS!" A voice shouted. Nemesis spun around, but not fast enough to stop Vertiga from slashing him in the back. He fell forward, then swatted her follow-up attack away with his shield. She answered by using the power of her sword to blast him away from Darken, sending the armored warrior skidding along the dirt and rolling back to his feet a few yards away.

He raised his shield-arm at Vertiga. Suddenly the shield on his arm began to spin as he rose to his feet. He turned quickly, and adding his own centrifugal force, launched the spinning shield at her.

Vertiga caught sight of it in time to block the buzzsaw-like attack of the shield, but it continued to buzz around her, battering her sword and keeping her on the defensive. She tried to blast it out of the sky, but her power couldn’t destroy it.

Having found a means to keep her busy, Nemesis turned his attentions back to Darken, summoning one of his javelins. The chronal energy within would erase Darken, as if he had never been.

Before he could finish off Darken, however, a blast of fire enveloped him. Nemesis blew out the fire with a release of pressure from his armor and looked for the attacker.

Komori, he thought, raising his javelin. This was meant for Darken . . .but it should deal with you just as well, if not as permanently.

His hands tensed as he prepared to hurl it. Before he could, there was a flash of metal near his arm and a harsh sound of metal on metal. As his javelin fell from his grip, now cleaved in two, the two Ronins stepped into view, swords drawn.

Nemesis summoned another javelin, spinning it and standing ready to meet their attack.

He wasn’t kept waiting long. Ronin-1 feinted forward, drawing Nemesis’ attention away from Ronin-2, who rolled under Nemesis’ javelin and slashed at Nemesis’ armor, severing some linkages. He swatted aside the second Ronin with the butt of the javelin, only to be caught by the first Ronin, who left a jagged gouge in his chest armor.

He ducked and swung the blade of his javelin at the first Ronin, kicking at the second Ronin as he attempted to take advantage of Nemesis’ inattention. Understanding their strategy, Nemesis sent a recall signal for his shield as he ducked, turning and spinning his javelin in a wide arc. The two Ronins leapt backwards, barely avoiding the deadly blade.

Nemesis jammed the point of the Javelin into the ground and vaulted high into the air, reaching out with his left arm as his shield returned to him. He landed in a ready crouch and, extending his spear, leapt forward to meet the Ronin’s again.

Ronin-2 attacked first, only to find his swords blocked by Nemesis’ spinning javelin. He followed it up by kicking Ronin-2 away into the sands. Ronin-1 drew his spear and tried to tangle Nemesis up, only to be nearly sliced in two by the edge of Nemesis’ shield. Ronin-1 leapt backwards, spinning his spear into a ready position.

He shrugged off the second Ronin, aiming his shield at the first Ronin. He fired it at the first Ronin. At this close range and at this close speed, it would slice the warrior to bits.

The spinning disc flew at Ronin-1 with such speed it was almost impossible to track with the naked eye. It closed the distance between Nemesis and Ronin-1 in the blink of an eye.

No one should have been able to deflect it, especially not someone whose sole gifts were extraordinary martial skill and immortality. All the same, the first Ronin not only deflected the shield he actually caught it. It spun in his hands, cutting through his gloves and deep into his palms, burning as well as cutting.

But Ronin held fast, ignoring his pain and tightening his grip as the shield slowed and finally stopped in his grasp.

Nemesis stared at the unbelievable sight before him.

"Impressive," he said, hefting his javelin. "I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. Most of my opponents just try to run or deflect it . . .I’ve never seen anyone actually catch it."

He sent a signal to his javelin, suffusing it with chronal energy from the Quantum Cross, targeting Ronin-1.

He took aim and hurled the javelin through the air. Before it could strike him, Ronin-2 leapt in the way of the javelin, catching it in the air and rolling to the side. The chronal energy exploded through his body, and he screamed in pain.

It didn’t delete Ronin-2, since their time signatures were different. But because the two Ronins were from the same timestream, it caused every cell in his body to burn as the energy blazed through him.

Ronin-2 fell to the ground, shuddering as the aftershocks went through him. Nemesis knew the odds were against him--with the elimination of his alternate selves, his opponents would gang up on him, and while he was powerful, he wasn’t powerful enough to battle them all simultaneously.

Time to start evening the odds then, Nemesis thought, summoning another javelin, keyed towards the second Ronin.

Before he could hurl it, someone grasped his wrist, moving impossibly fast and halting the momentum of his attack. Before he could counter it, his helmet cracked and threatened to shatter under the force of a powerful uppercut.

Vain stood over Nemesis, fists still clenched. Nemesis tried to rise to his feet, but was stuck from behind by a hammering blow that blazed with purple fire. Nemesis felt his grip loosen on his javelin as he hit the dirt again, twice as hard.

Vertiga stood over him, sword drawn, her body surrounded by a corona of purple fire. She jammed her sword down into the ground. While Nemesis avoided the actual sword-strike, the explosion of energy she’d added to the strike sent him rolling to the side.

Nemesis rolled to his feet. The javelin was gone, and he assumed that they’d attack again if they saw him try to generate another one, so he decided to try a different tactic.

He sent a recall signal for his shield, which was still being held by Ronin-1. Ronin-1 kept his grip on the shield, but he was being dragged along in the dirt, slowly, but perceptibly, by Nemesis’ recall signal.

Either I’ll have my shield again or a hostage to tie their hands, Nemesis thought, concentrating on the shield. It’ll should certainly buy my some time.

Unfortunately, one of his opponents had much the same idea.

Vain reached out, halting Ronin-1’s slide through the dirt.

"Excuse me," she said curtly. "May I have that, please?"

Vain put her hands on the edge of the shield, both of them holding it for a few seconds. Ronin released his grip on the shield and it began to spin again before Vain’s grip cinched down on it, the pressure so intense her fingers sank in and deformed the metal.

Bringing all her strength to bear on it, Vain squeezed the shield in her hands, crumpling it in her hands. The circuitry within burst and sparked as she crumpled it like she might ball up a sheet of paper.

Nemesis clenched his fists. He’d had his shields destroyed before, had been damaged before, but he’d always prevailed, and always lived to rebuild and upgrade himself.

But always before, I’d tried to control the fight, to hunt my enemies, rather than fight them toe to toe.

This . . .this has apparently turned into a war.

He summoned another javelin, hurling it towards Vain and Ronin-1. Vain leapt forward, rolled a few feet away and, finding the javelin he’d dropped. She planted her feet and threw it at the one he’d thrown, striking it out of the sky and causing them both to explode in brilliant blue ball lightning.

No one’s ever done that before, he thought. Despite myself I’m . . .impressed.

"Nemesis," the Komori said from behind him. "Turn and face me."

Nemesis turned, summoning another javelin as he did so.

"The magician," he sneered. "I notice you haven’t really joined in the assault. Could it be you’re nowhere near strong enough to stand against me?"

The Komori’s eyes narrowed on Nemesis. "We’re giving you one chance," he said. "Surrender, and send us back to our own individual times."

"Or what?"

"Or we’ll destroy you."

"You can’t risk destroying me," Nemesis sneered. "It could trap you here forever. Besides . . .your more altruistic compatriots wouldn’t allow you to murder a defeated opponent in cold blood. Your father wouldn’t, certainly."

"You’d be surprised what I’m willing to risk," the Komori said. "As to killing you . . .well, in the heat of battle, anything can happen, and should you accidentally be killed, that would be too bad. Nevertheless, I’d risk it."

"You can’t intimidate me, Komori," Nemesis said. "You don’t have the skill or power to back up your threat. Your magics are near-useless here."

"Perhaps you’re right, Nemesis," the Komori responded. "But it’s just as likely you misunderstand one of the cornerstones of magic."

Nemesis snorted. "Which is what?"

"Misdirection."

The Komori shifted into the shadows again, fading into a black silhouette, then fading into a grey mist. Nemesis activated the image filters in his armor to resolve the image, as there seemed to be something behind

The image juddered and scrambled intermittently--Vain’s punch must have damaged some of his sensory equipment. But gradually the shape behind the mist that had once been the Komori resolved into a crisp, clear image.

It was Kienan, crouched low and at the ready, pistols drawn.

Nemesis’ raised his Javelin, but not fast enough to stop Kienan pulling the trigger. Round after round struck Nemesis, striking him with such force that he dropped the javelin, tumbling backwards as they struck him with forces equivalent to the blows Vain and Vertiga had landed against him.

Ordinarily, Nemesis would have little to fear from Kienan’s conventional weapons, as standard bullets would have been deflected by Nemesis’ passive shielding with no trouble. But Kienan had swapped out his standard bullets for his Nagra bullets, which he’d designed to be used against cyborgs and stronger aliens.

The Nagra bullets, in addition to hitting with incredible force, had another edge. The miniature gravity disruptions were actually tearing holes in Nemesis’ armor, exploiting the minor cracks that Vain and the others had been able to inflict had now been rent wide open.

Finally, the fusillade stopped, and Nemesis lay there, his armor shattered and smoking, the man within biting back pain. What few systems in his armor still functioned registered massive disruption.

And from the sound of things, his enemies were closing in.

Fighting back was utter impossible now--if he tried to, he ran the risk of damaging the Quantum Cross, and while that would doubtlessly eradicate his opponents, it might eradicate everything, himself included.

One chance, then, he thought. If my quarry wants a war, then . . .I’ll give them one. Victory’s still inevitable, just . . .delayed somewhat.

Emergency . . .Chronal . . .Shift.

There was a burst of white light so bright it seemed to tear through colour, through space, through reality. It enveloped Nemesis, and in a fraction of a second, Nemesis was gone.

11: Distant Early Warning

"Damn it all," Kienan said. He saw the indentation where Nemesis had been standing seconds before and could smell the ozone in the stale air.

"Did you get him?" The Komori asked, walking up behind Kienan.

"No," Kienan said, ejecting the spent clip in his pistol and reloading. "One more shot, maybe. He got away."

"Teleported?"

"Don’t know," Kienan said, reloading his other pistol. He hadn’t planned on fighting anyone like Nemesis, so he’d only packed four clips of Nagra bullets, and he’d emptied two of those already.

"It was like his teleporting but . . .different," Kienan said. "There was light, energy . . .there’s a trace of it still in the air."

"I can see it," Komori replied, though "sense it" was probably more accurate to describe his detection of it. His facility with elemental magic gave the Komori a sensitivity to their behavior, and while Tempus Finis operated on different rules than his native Earth, there were still small eddies and currents within its biosphere that he could pick out.

"We must have nearly killed him," the Komori said. "This teleport signature’s different."

"Emergency escape?" Kienan ventured.

The Komori nodded. "Usually, when Nemesis teleports or moves through time, it’s like you or I walking through a door and closing it behind us--it’s a closed system. In this case I’d say he kicked the door down."

Vain crept up behind them, hovering watchfully behind Kienan. "Does this mean we’re trapped here?"

"If we were lucky, that’s what it would mean," Kienan said, rising to his feet. He holstered his pistols and fumbled around in his belt for his cigarettes.

"You think he’s coming back?" The Komori asked.

"I’m sure of it," Kienan said. "For whatever reason, there’s something personal between Nemesis and all of us. That’s why he dragged us here instead of eliminating us some time when we couldn’t possibly fight back.

"He needs to kill--no, he wants more than that," Kienan said, thoughtfully lighting his cigarette. "He wants to wipe us out completely. No memory, nothing."

"Is he capable of that?" Vain asked.

"Hell, I don’t know," Kienan said, a thin trail of smoke streaming from his lips. "This stuff is way beyond me. I can tell you how he thinks . . .but what he might do? Can do? No idea."

"So did we kill that bastard or what?" Vertiga said. She was late in coming up on the three of them, as she had Darken leaning on her as the two of them slowly trudged through the sands.

Vain turned and shook her head. Vertiga’s shoulders fell and Darken slipped off, standing unsteadily.

"Where is he?"

"Escaped," Kienan said. "But he’ll be back."

Darken slid off Vertiga’s shoulder, using his Blackfang to prop himself up. The fight with Nemesis had taken a lot out of him, and he was recovering, but slowly.

Given time, he could recover fully, but how much time did he really have?

Those four alternate Nemesis were bad enough, he thought. What if he brought back a hundred? A hundred thousand? We’re pretty powerful as a group, but we’ve got our limits--I hit mine just fighting one of them.

The two Ronins were the last to join them, having made a search for any sign that Nemesis had returned or that any other Nemeses were waiting to ambush them.

"Anything?" Kienan asked.

"It’s strange," Ronin-2 replied. "We can’t even find a piece of any of them out there. Apart from the tracks and blast craters, it’s like we were the only people who were ever here."

"Don’t count on that lasting," Kienan said. "He’ll be back soon enough. Mad as hell, and loaded for bear."

"More alternates?" Ronin-1 asked.

"No," Kienan said. "It’s not about that anymore. We cornered him, we hurt him, and like any cornered animal, you can expect him to fight that much harder. If you had any pretense of this being a straight fight anymore, forget it."

"How do you know?" Ronin-2 asked.

"Educated guess," Kienan said. "Nemesis tried it our way and it didn’t get him what he wants. Next time, he’ll use whatever means necessary to make sure we’re dead."

"From your tone, it sounds like the odds are against us," Ronin-1 offered.

"If you play the odds," Kienan replied. "Raw power won’t beat him--he can just come back again and again, until he has enough power to kill us all."

"Perhaps there’s another way," the Komori said, staring into the distance. "Let’s focus on what we know for sure. Whatever power he has or is in the process of acquiring, Nemesis is a man, and a very prideful one. His ego insists on fighting us like this, in a kind of duel, but under his rules, with things weighed in his favor."

"So?" Ronin-2 asked. He was nervous enough as it was and Komori speaking around the problem in his usual inscrutable style wasn’t helping any.

"We have to bring him down to our level," he replied, turning to face them. "One of you three could be the one who makes the difference."

Kienan stared at the two Ronins. "Why us?"

"Nemesis wouldn’t consider a man with a gun or a man with a sword much of a threat, would he?" Komori explained. "Not when his mastery of time allows him to outrace bullets, or walk backward and stop you from ever drawing your sword. If his powers are focused on a large-scale attack, a smaller one might slip though."

"Right," Ronin-2 said. "And do you have a miracle up your sleeve to make this possible?"

"Miracles aren’t necessary," the Komori replied. "Only a plan."

"And do you have one of those?"

"I will," he replied. "In the meantime, I think everyone should muster their full powers."

Kienan and the two Ronins left to spread the word and ready the others. The Komori returned his focus on the disturbance Nemesis’ escape has caused, searching the disturbance for a warning Nemesis would return.

Vain, of course, would stand behind Kienan whatever happened, so she had no fear or doubts about the fight with Nemesis. Either Nemesis would be destroyed, he would destroy her, or she would destroy herself and take him with her. There were no other options, and with no panic or terror to cloud her mind, the way forward seemed fairly simple.

So long as she fulfilled her primary directive--to protect Kienan--the prospect of being destroyed held no fear to her.

Vertiga took the news a little less well. She jammed the point of her sword into the sand and left it there, walking over to where Darken lay on his back, wings limply spread out beneath him. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, he was relaxed enough to be on the verge of sleep.

She looked down at him.

I almost don’t want to disturb him, she thought. Especially not with news like this. Kienan made it seem like . . .there was nothing we could do--Nemesis is going to return, and there’s a good chance he might be strong enough to kill all of us.

She sighed, sinking to her knees next to him.

Not so very long ago, I was ready to die, she thought. I didn’t care about anything--everything of value I had in my life was gone, but I’d survived. And since I had nothing, I felt . . .empty. And nothing in my life filled me up, so I tried everything I could to join those I’d lost . . .find peace on the other side.

Her eyes narrowed on Darken.

And then . . .there’s you, she thought, taking a deep breath as thought’s she’d never even dared to think. You’ve given me a reason to want to stay . . .maybe someone to stay for.

Not that I could ever tell you that.

She put a gloved hand on his chest, and this caused his eyes to flutter open.

"What’d I miss?"

"Not much," Vertiga said, cursing herself for not being able to just come out and tell him. "Can you stand?"

Darken nodded, rising to his feet. "I’m a bit steadier now," he said. "Not at full power yet, though. Has be come back?"

Vertiga shook her head. "But Kienan seems to think he’s on the way, and more powerful than ever. He told me I . . .we . . .should get ready. Muster whatever power we could."

Darken looked at Vertiga carefully.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Vertiga said, rising to her feet. "I’m fine. Really."

"No, you’re not," Darken replied. "Talk to me."

Vertiga shook her head, and turned to stare at her sword.

"Kienan makes it sound completely hopeless," she said. "According to him . . .we’re as good as dead."

"I have a feeling Kienan thinks that way all the time, regardless of the situation," Darken said.

"What if he’s right this time?" Vertiga said.

"It doesn’t make a difference if he’s right or not," Darken said. "I won’t stop trying, and I won’t stop fighting. There’s too much waiting for me beyond this, too many people I care about. I refuse to give it up without doing all I can."

Vertiga swallowed hard.

That’s exactly why I’m so afraid.

Because I have something to lose, now.

Darken reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Vertiga, I . . ."

Vertiga stiffened under his touch, but didn’t pull away. Darken moved closer, putting both of his hands on her arms and gently turning her around. He wrapped his arms around her and gently kissed her lips, gently, almost teasingly brushing his against hers.

Darken would have left it at that, but Vertiga had other plans. She gripped him tight and kissed him, deeply, fiercely and passionately. If this was the only way she could tell him how she felt, she wanted to make sure he understood her.

They parted the kiss, each staring at the other.

"We’ll make it through this," Darken said, smiling and blushing a little. "Together. I promise."

Vertiga felt very vulnerable just then, and for a moment, she didn’t want to leave his arms. But she knew if she didn’t right now, she never would.

She slipped from his grasp and turned towards her sword. As she walked, she pushed it all away--the hope, how she felt about Darken--out of her mind. She focused on finding her anger, that anger that had brought her back from the brink of death long ago, the rage that allowed her to tame the incredible power in that sword, and the recklessness that allowed her to wield the full measure of its power.

She gripped the hilt of the sword and snatched it out of the ground. Her body blazed with violet fire as she raised the sword high above her head, screaming in defiance at the sky.

Ronin-2 watched this as he walked towards the Komori. Beside him Ronin-1 strode, quiet yet confident, sword at the ready. In a few seconds, everyone would gather at this place and wait for Nemesis to arrive.

What happened after that was a little less clear. Though he seemed confident that things would go according to plan, the Komori hadn’t informed anyone of what "the plan" actually was.

"Everything will become clear once Nemesis returns," according to him, Ronin-2 thought. What does that even mean?

"Everyone’s getting ready," Ronin-2 said. "I wonder if we shouldn’t have sent Kienan to tell them . . .some of them look a little scared."

"Scared or not, they’ll do their part," Ronin-1 said. "We all will. We have no choice."

"I guess we don’t," Ronin-2 replied, stopping a few feet from the Komori. "Still, I can’t blame them for being a little afraid. We really don’t know what’s waiting for us."

"Whatever happens, we must face it," Ronin-1 replied. "And I face it with no regrets."

Ronin-2 looked at his counterpart, then looked down at his feet.

"It won’t stop me from giving it everything I have, but . . .I do have one regret."

Ronin-1 looked at him.

"I . . .I only wish my father could see me now," Ronin-2 said, the words like a lump in his throat. He pushed it away as he drew his Kusanagi sword from its scabbard.

"And I hope . . .I know . . .he’d be proud of me."

Ronin-1 nodded, reaching for his stomach. There was a burst of green energy and a shape began to form around his hands. His hands clasped around the shape and pulled it free from himself, the brilliant light resolving into the shape of a sword. His Kusanagi sword.

This is probably the first time this has happened, Ronin-2 thought. Two Kusanagi swords at the same time.

Two Ronins, together.

Again.

The Komori rose to his feet as the others gathered behind the two Ronins.

"Is he coming?" Kienan asked.

There was a flat explosion of air and a burst of flame before them that shifted its color over and over again--green, to purple, to blue, then to white. Within the fire, a black silhouette could be seen, a silhouette that seemed to claw its way into three dimensions, gaining mass and detail as it moved closer to them.

It looked like Nemesis had before, but twisted slightly, as if the incalculable power within him had mutated his physical form somehow, changing his gleaming obsidian armor into something that looked suspiciously organic.

As expected, Nemesis has powered himself up, the Komori thought. Considerably. In fact . . .he’s appropriated a very familiar power indeed.

We were right to assume the worst.

"Get back!" the Komori shouted to the two Ronins. "Orochi . . .somehow he’s taken Orochi’s power . . .he could kill the two of you in an instant."

"Among others," Nemesis replied, his voice seemingly causing the air to burn. "Here . . .feel the smallest fraction of my new power!"

He gestured at the Komori with his hand, tightening it into a fist. His eyes narrowed on the young magician as brilliant green fire blazed around his hand and surged forward.

"LOOK OUT!" The Komori said, leaping towards Kienan.

Ronin-2 turned to look, finding it strange that the Komori would try to save Kienan, who Nemesis hadn’t even targeted. Such an action was uncharacteristic of either man and was highly reckless besides, since the Komori was the one with the plan (allegedly) and Kienan was one of the three, along with his father and himself, who might be able to stop Nemesis.

Before Ronin-2 could work it out any further, Nemesis’ blast struck the two of them, and in a brilliant burst of white light, they were gone. Only a cruel black scar in the ground marked where they’d stood.

Nemesis turned to the others. "That’s two dealt with," he said, not even bothering to conceal the sanguine pleasure he’d taken in annihilating the two of them. "Somewhat empty triumph for me, however--they were, after all, the least of your pathetic rabble. If you have any dignity, I advise you to put up more of a fight than they did.

"It won’t help, but it couldn’t hurt."

12: Reckoning Day

It was ridiculously simple, or at least it seemed so in retrospect.

It came to him in a blinding moment, only minutes ago (or was it centuries?) lying in the dirt of Tempus Finis, his armor, and the Quantum Cross within seconds away from breaching.

He’d been going about it the wrong way. Trying to eliminate these annoyances by fighting on their level hadn’t worked before, and trying it again was the height of foolishness.

I had to look at the problem from another angle, he thought. And I looked, and realized that my adversaries were so extraordinary because they had superior opposition, opposition they rose to the challenge of defeating.

Kill their opposition and take their power into my own, and I have exactly what I need to crush them.

Unfortunately, what I need will destroy me too. But I’ll go knowing I’ve achieved my victory over them all.

My final victory.

"Why aren’t you attacking him? He’s just standing there." Vain demanded of the two Ronin’s as she pointed to Nemesis.

"Somehow he’s taken on Orochi’s power," Ronin-2 said.

"He’s taken on more than that," Ronin-1 said. "Orochi’s in there, but . . .it shifts. One moment it’s there, then it’s gone."

Vain pointed to the two Kusanagi swords. "Those," she said. "Will they kill this Orochi power?"

Ronin-1 nodded. "That’s what they’re made to--"

"Give them to me."

"What?"

"NOW!"

The Ronins handed over their blades to Vain, who raised them into a ready position as she looked over her shoulder. "Vertiga, Darken, with me. If Nemesis wants a fight, we’ll give him one."

Darken nodded, taking to the skies and raising his weapon. Vain and Vertiga charged forward at Nemesis, who was distracted by Darken’s flight. As Darken draw their fire Vain struck hard, slashing the Kusanagi swords deep into Nemesis’ armor. Before Nemesis could control the shriek of pain that blazed through the Orochi aspect of his power, Vertiga slashed at him and blasted him up into the air, where he was struck back down to earth by Darken, who channeled his energies through the Blackfang in an arc of brilliant blue fire that sent Nemesis crashing down to the ground with incredible force.

Vertiga rushed forward, the power and her own natural recklessness urging her to press the attack. They’d hit him harder than he’d anticipated--a well-timed attack would finish him before he could bring his power to bear.

She planted her feet, bringing her sword down in an arc of flame that would have cut Nemesis neatly in two. Before the blow could be struck, however, Nemesis caught the blade in his hands and blasted her backwards, jolting the sword loose from her grip and shattering her armor as she flew backwards.

Satisfied, Nemesis tossed the sword away. They’d caught him by surprise with their initial attack. Any one of the powers he’d stolen would have warned him of what they were planning, but all three proved a bit overwhelming, and filtering the noise in his mind down was proving difficult.

All the more reason to finish the job on Vertiga right now then, he thought, summoning a small fraction of his power into his hands.

Vain tried to attack while he was focused on Vertiga, but Nemesis sensed it this time, dodging the initial sweep of her swords. He caught her by the arm, pulling her off her feet and punched her with such force his hand went through her abdomen. While Vain didn’t feel pain as such, the shock to her system was more intense than anything she’d ever experienced.

Until Nemesis, still holding her by the arm, tore it from her body. Her body went limp as she shut down from the system shock. The swords then clattered to the ground, followed soon after by Vain herself.

Nemesis casually stepped over her body as he came face to face with Darken who landed in front of him, hands glowing with power.

"I don’t care how much power you have," he said. "You’re not getting by me."

"I took the full measure of your powers even before I augmented my own," Nemesis replied. "What makes you think I have anything to fear from you?"

"That wasn’t my full power, Nemesis," he replied, the calm eye at the heart of a storm of energy.

"It’s not even close to my full power."

Darken unleashed his full power in a blue-white beam of burning energy, striking Nemesis full on. Nemesis walked forward, the black shadow in the heart of the maelstrom of Darkens attack.

Finally, Nemesis planted his feet and blasted Darken off his feet, turning his own energy back on him. Nemesis watched him fall backwards, crumpling to the ground.

He risked everything he had on that attack, Nemesis thought. What a pity it’s left him unable to defend himself.

Bad for him, good for me.

Before he could do anything to take advantage of this, one of the Kusanagi swords pierced his armor. There wasn’t much strength behind the strike, but it was enough to cause the Orochi power to scream in his mind.

Nemesis turned to see Ronin-1, still holding the Kusanagi sword in his hands. Since Vain had taken his sword, he’d been studying the cycles of Nemesis power. Given time and concentration, he would try to strike when the lethal Orochi power wasn’t ascendant.

Nemesis grasped Ronin-1 by the face, sending the Orochi power surging into his body. The Orochi power, addled by its agonies and more than happy to kill and old enemy, stole his life in seconds.

The Ronin fell to the ground as Nemesis tore the sword free from his body. He stared at the gouge the sword had left in his armor. Despite the incredible power within him, which should have repaired damage like this almost as soon as it was inflicted.

"FATHER!" Ronin-2 shouted.

Nemesis turned to face the first Ronin’s successor, who stood trembling with rage with his Kusanagi sword in his hand.

"Ah, the good son," he sneered. "I’d already slain the prodigal, so why not make it a matched set?"

Ronin-2 didn’t say a word. His father had waited for the right moment to strike, studied every second of Vain, Darken, and Vertiga’s assault, waiting for the right moment to strike.

His son had other ideas. He leapt for Nemesis, ignoring the first touch of Orochi’s lethal power stiffening his muscles and slowing his heart. Nemesis, bemused by this suicidal act, made no effort to stop him, misreading his opponent’s intentions.

Ronin-2’s blade stabbed deep into Nemesis’ chest. Dying, Ronin-2 used the last ounce of strength he had to bring his fist down on the flat of the blade, using that and his own dead weight to snap the tip off the blade off. The silver tip of the blade gleamed among the flat black of Nemesis’ armor.

It was the last thing the second Ronin saw. He fell to the ground, a foot away from where his father and predecessor had fallen.

Nemesis ignored it. At the moment, he had other problems. The sliver of the Kusanagi blade within his armor was causing him unbelievable agony. The three powers didn’t mix well as it was. Too much power rubbing shoulders with forces that should repel one another being forced to work in grudging harmony. Now, with one of them in catastrophic pain, his ability to balance them was compromised.

That meant the inevitable meltdown was closer now. It could be avoided altogether, of course, but that would mean purging the powers he’d stolen, and right now, standing among the bodies and remains of those hated few who had given him so much trouble by their stubborn refusal to be destroyed so many times . . .

And now they lay at his feet, dead or destroyed.

It felt good, he thought. The power, the feeling of triumph . . .I won’t let it go. Not until I have to.

Not until they’re all dead.

"VERTIGA!" Nemesis said, walking over the bodies of the Ronins towards Darken, who struggled to get to his feet. "Stop hiding and face me! "

He turned to Darken, who drew himself up to face him.

"Do it now, or I’ll kill him."

"I thought you were going to kill everyone," Darken said.

"I am," Nemesis said. "But killing you isn’t enough for me. Not when I can break you all . . .and then kill you."

"You haven’t broken anyone, Nemesis," Darken said, his voice tightening. "Not her . . .and not me."

Darken raised his Blackfang and brought it down on the dirt, channeling his energy through it and blasting Nemesis off his feet. Nemesis rolled with the impact and was on his feet again in an instant, chagrined, but unharmed.

Damn it . . .I should have guessed he was playing possum, he thought, willing his power into his hands. They’re still fighting me, clouding my senses . . .

Enough braggadocio, it’s time to annihilate them once and for all.

As he prepared to fire at Darken, a slash of violet fire lashed across his back, blasting him forward a few steps.

"There you are," he said, turning to face Vertiga. "I really didn’t want to have to come looking for you. I’m on a timetable."

"To hell with your timetable," Vertiga said, raising her sword. "And to hell with YOU!"

She screamed as she struck him again and again, her sword glowing white-hot as she blasted him again and again. It would have been more impressive has Nemesis actually been staggered. As it was, he calmly stood there, the immovable object or her irresistible force.

If anything, that seemed to make her angrier. Her violet flames blazed brighter as she struck him harder and harder, hoping, expecting, praying for so much as a flinch from Nemesis.

"Enough," Nemesis growled, swatting her sword out of her hands and blasting her away with such ease he didn’t even bother to turn in her direction. She fell backwards, but rolled with the fall and immediately sprang off her feet so she could grab her sword.

Nemesis snatched it out of her hands with a gesture, and it flew into his hand in a fraction of a second. Vertiga charged towards him, her body blazing with power, ready to strike him.

Nemesis slashed her through the abdomen with her own sword, then smashed her to the ground with the butt of the blade. Darken flew towards Nemesis, blasting him away as he stood between Vetriga and the man who’d injured her.

"Get AWAY from her!"

"Or what?" Nemesis said? "You can’t save her from me, anymore than you can save yourself from me."

To punctuate his declaration, he snapped Vertiga’s sword in his hands with all the ease of which he might snap a twig. He tossed the broken blade aside and marshaled his power again, ready to eradicate Vertiga and Darken in one final assault.

Darken readied himself, steeling himself for what was to come. There was no way he could withstand Nemesis’ power beyond a certain point. Away from the Spheres, his power didn’t seem to regenerate fast enough, and the highest levels he could muster just weren’t enough.

But if he had to die, his last act would be protecting Vertiga.

He felt something grasp his ankle, and in a moment, incredible power burned through him. Every cell felt like it was on fire, and Darken felt himself changing.

Even within the Spheres this was almost impossible, but Vertiga’s final act was to make it possible. All the power she had left, she willed into Darken, pushing him past the limits of his own power.

Darken screamed as the power finished transforming him, his black wings catching fire and blazing brightly in the dim light of Tempus Finis. In an instant, he took to the skies, driven by the unbelievable power and rage as he rocketed towards Nemesis.

He crashed into him with the force of a cannonball, actually knocking Nemesis off his feet. Nemesis continued to reel under the rain of blows from Darken. Gone was the timid and uncertain young warrior who’d stood before him moments ago.

In his place stood the one person left who might be able to defeat Nemesis.

13: The Sign of the Fire

Nemesis met Darken’s initial attack, their twin powers clashing and lighting the dim skies of Tempus Finis like a new star had been born. Again and again they clashed, hurling bolts of energy at one another, then hurling beams of energy meant to burn the other to cinders, and when that failed, they flew at each other and struck each other, using their respective powers to add strength to their blows.

Nemesis took Darken’s measure, holding his own just barely. In assembling his power triad, Nemesis believed he had little to fear from his assembled enemies. Even the most powerful of them lacked the skill or the full knowledge of their abilities to match his vast newly won powers.

I knew Darken could manifest this ability, but he’d soon reach his limit. Whatever power he could summon, he’s still flesh and blood and he has limits.

Nemesis thought, generating a black hole of energy and blasting at Darken. The swirling black sphere struck Darken, who blazed brightly for a moment and tore the miniature gravity well apart, surging forward and seizing Nemesis, his fiery grip sinking into his armor.

I see my error, Nemesis thought, unleashing the Orochi power within him. Eight serpent heads composed of violet fire snaked out from within him and sank their burning fangs into Darken’s body. Darken roared with pain and hurled Nemesis to the ground. At the moment of Impact darken fell upon him, driving his feet into Nemesis with such force that Nemesis left a crater in the ground.

Darken is only flesh and blood, and the power he’s summoning will consume him, Nemesis thought, sending a wave of green energy from his hands that seemed to home in on Darken. His opponent banked away, covering himself in his fiery wings as the beams struck him.

But he doesn’t care about his limits anymore, Nemesis realized. He’ll kill himself to destroy me, if that’s what it takes.

Nemesis blasted him again, firing a trio of blasts, that swirled together into one maelstrom of energy that struck Darken full-force, and actually knocked him backward for a moment.

Seizing an opportunity, Nemesis fired again and again, tracking Darken as he tried to evade his assault. Time and again he seemed to strike Darken, obliterating him in a plume of flame. But Darken would appear again, no matter how many times Nemesis appeared to destroy him.

Somehow, he’s decoying me, Nemesis thought, firing out another wave of blasts. Does he think he can tire me out? Get me to waste my powers?

Or does he know how unstable the power triad is within me? Despite myself I’ve allowed these fools to do significant damage to me--not enough to stop me or break the triad, but . . .enough.

I should have finished them off at the start, but I reveled too much in my powers. I wanted them to test themselves against me and then smash them once they’d learned they had no chance.

Well . . .never let it be said I don’t learn from my mistakes.

He willed all the power he could from the triad within him, straining the balance within him as he channeled his power into one final blast that would annihilate Darken and perhaps most of Tempus Finis in one shot.

But the seconds he needed to focus it were all the time Darken needed to swoop down and attack him. His initial blow, suffused with the energy of a supernova, broke the attack Nemesis had been charging, sending a wave of energy churning along the ground, causing the whole of Tempus Finis to quake.

Darken held Nemesis by the throat, holding him fast as he slammed his fist into Nemesis’ chestplate. The initial blow hit with tremendous force, force that was multiplied by Darken immediately firing a beam of fire point-blank into Nemesis armor.

Nemesis’ chestplate cracked, then exploded. Instantaneously, several things happened. The sliver of the Kusanagi sword that had been embedded in his armor slipped free, which allowed the Orochi power he’d stolen to return to it’s full strength. Unfortunately, this drastically unbalanced Nemesis power triad, making his inevitable consumption by his own power inevitable in matter of seconds.

Darken began to glow bright as he held Nemesis fast. In a moment, Nemesis understood his plan--Darken intended to expend his power (and presumably himself) in one final supernova, and at this range, phenomenal power or not, there was little chance Nemesis would survive it.

Even if Nemesis survived that, the imbalance within his triad would destroy him anyway.

Perhaps both my problems are the other’s solution, he thought.

Nemesis grabbed Darken as he exploded. He willed the power triad to split, using an entire third of his power to summon a tightly concentrated gravity well, As Darken exploded, the black hole enveloped Darken, containing the explosion in an implosion of equal magnitude. There was a hollow noise, like thunder, and Darken was gone.

Nemesis dragged himself to his feet, the shattered remnants of his armor sparking as he rose from the ash and dirt. For the first time in ages, he was struck by the silence of Tempus Finis.

Things seem so . . .calm, he thought. Quiet without and within.

Breaking the triad had stopped his self-destruction, at the cost of his power. Darken had pushed him to the absolute limit, but he’d survived.

Just like always.

He strode through the burnt shattered corpses strewn along the battlefield, pausing at the remains of Vain, broken and burned at his feat.

"I’ve won," he said to no one in particular. "I’ve beaten them all."

The stillness of Tempus Finis was the only answer to the fact of his victory.

He turned away from the heap of bodies and shouted at the sky.

"I’VE WON!"

His own voice answered in a hollow echo.

Nemesis felt a bit annoyed. Despite the good sense of disposing of his enemies before they could cause any more problems, the lack of anyone to witness his victory rankled a bit.

His reverie had blinded him to something else, as well. One of the bodies behind him began to stir, moving slowly and carefully, her gloved hands sinking into the sand as she hauled herself towards Nemesis. She made headway very slowly, but easily, owing to her lack of legs.

She pulled herself into a tight ball and pushed off with her hands, launching herself into the air. Her gloved hands snaked around Nemesis’ back, jarring him out of his thoughts immediately.

"What? VAIN?" Nemesis shouted, lunging behind him.

"You . . .won . . .nothing," Vain said, her voice a quiet, hollow whisper. With last of her energy, she keyed in her self-destruct, erupting in a ball of nuclear fire, consuming Nemesis and most of Tempus Finis in the conflagration.

14: Final Stand

The explosion should have finished him, coming as it had when Nemesis had exhausted a third of his power triad and incurred heavy damage from Darken’s assault.

But Nemesis had two thirds of his power triad still to call upon, and both of them were the powers of a god.

Resurrection was a simple matter, in theory. In actuality it took Nemesis several minutes of carefully recreating himself from his component atoms up, working carefully and meticulously to restore himself. It wouldn’t do, after all, to forget something important.

Upon returning to Tempus Finis, he very quickly surveyed his handiwork. For his first effort, he’d done a masterful job of rebuilding himself. Nothing was out of place or mislaid or forgotten.

I could have done this without the powers I’ve stolen, he mused. But it would have taken too long for my rescue protocols to restore me. And if I had, I very likely would have had to start the whole process over again.

He checked his power levels. His power triad was now two thirds gone--one sacrificed to save himself from Darken’s final attack, and between protecting himself from Vain’s self-destruction and restoring himself, he’d burned through the other.

Sadly, this means I’m now merely very powerful rather than phenomenally powerful, he thought, walking through the blackened sands of Tempus Finis.

Still, they did their job. And I still have the Orochi power to play with. That should make for some diverting hunts later on.

The toe of his boot hit against something in the sand and he bent down to see what it was. He traced the shape of it in the sand to get an idea of its shape. If he were able, he would have smiled as he rose back to his feet, lifting the object from the sand as he did so.

Darken’s Blackfang, he thought. Amazing that it outlived its master.

He cradled the weapon in his hands like a grim trophy, trudging through the sands, searching for any other sign of his opponents. Except for the sand that mixed with the ashes at his feet, Nemesis and the Blackfang were the only sign of life around.

"Victory at last," he said. Given what happened the last time he thundered in triumph, it was almost cautious, as if he expected someone else to leap out and attack him.

He waited a minute, then five.

Nothing.

"There’s no question of it, then. Vain was the last, and she failed. Victory is mine!"

He raised his fist and the Blackfang high above his head in triumph, listening to his declaration echo through the stale winds of the timeless land in which he stood.

Perhaps I should have left one alive, he mused. Alive, but crippled. Humbled. My absolute victory lacks something when there’s no one around to appreciate it.

Then again, perhaps I can find someone else. All of time is open before me, after all.

He did a quick systems check. His armor was on line, but the Quantum Cross needed a few minutes to recharge. Most of its energy had been taken up in balancing the power triad, but with that gone, it would take some time to re-route its power to the chronal shift system.

And then what? Nemesis mused. Earth pre-history? No--hunting dinosaurs had gotten old centuries ago. The far future? Perhaps, assuming he could find a decent war somewhere.

It was hard to know what to do with all the time, sometimes.

Perhaps it’s time I set my goals higher than these contests at Tempus Finis, he thought. Perhaps I could set up a base in the past or the future . . .shape time and history to my liking. Settle down and achieve some real goals.

The possibility appealed to him. After all, there was no reason to skulk around like a ghost through time now--who was left to stop him? Why not use his power and change the face of the past present and future?

"Yes," he said to no one in particular. "Conquest does appeal, I think. At the center of the stage of history."

Nemesis stared at the Blackfang, making plans.

"Before you do that," a voice called from behind him. "Perhaps you’d best finish what you started here, Nemesis."

Nemesis turned, raising the Blackfang as he did. Standing a few feet away were Kienan and the Komori, none of whom looked the worse for wear.

"Komori," he said. "You and Kienan survived, I see."

"I’m surprised you didn’t notice my little illusion at the time. You were certainly powerful enough to see through it. If you knew how."

"I didn’t at the time," Nemesis said. "I was busy killing your friends."

"I had a feeling your little power-grab had occluded your perceptions," the Komori replied with a sneer. "That’s the trouble with people who think accruing more and more power solves their problems--It’s blinding."

Nemesis snorted. "Your insults might mean a bit more to me had you stood your ground with the rest. You’d still have died, of course, but you wouldn’t have died a coward."

"I wanted to pick my moment," the Komori said. "Besides . . .I’ve always believed that deception is the better part of valor."

"This is your moment, then?" Nemesis said, taking a step forward. "You and Ademetria--the least powerful of those I took out of time--against me."

"That’s right," Kienan said, drawing his pistols.

Nemesis ignored him, returning his focus to the Komori. "You know the power I still hold," he said. "And save for your father and brother, you’re the most vulnerable to it."

"Orochi," the Komori replied. "Yes, I was just getting to that."

The Komori gestured with his right hands, then crossed him arms, waiting. Nemesis’ armor blazed in a bright burning purple fire. In the heart of this firestorm, Nemesis began to convulse in pain.

"What . . .have . . .you . . .done?!"

"Orochi and I are well-acquainted," Komori said, calmly watching Nemesis writhe in agony. "I could offer it something it wanted . . .and that’s more than you could do keeping it trapped within you."

Kienan sidled up to the Komori. "What have you done?" he asked quietly.

"Just what I said--I’ve given it something it wants. And given you the chance to fight him on equal footing."

"You . . .What did you give it?"

The flames that had engulfed Nemesis were forming into a shape, an eight-headed, writhing serpent. Kienan watched as the shape tore free from Nemesis, and rose into the sky.

"I gave it the person that betrayed it."

"Betrayed? Who--"

"Me."

He’d been so distracted by this he missed Komori shoving him aside as the fiery snake tore through the skies.

Kienan wheeled on him, pistols drawn.

The Komori turned to face him.

"A lot of people sacrificed everything to give you your moment, Kienan Ademetria," he said.

"Don’t let us down."

The serpent crashed into the Komori and in a flash of fire, both vanished. Kienan nodded, answering the Komori’s last words a little late.

Then he turned to face Nemesis, who was balancing himself on the Blackfang as he rose to his feet.

"Now it’s just you and me," Kienan said, unloading his guns on Nemesis.

Nemesis rose to his feet. He seemed to be mostly ignoring the bullets, but the effort of having Orochi torn from had weakened him a bit.

Kienan ejected the spent clips from his pistols and quickly reloaded both guns, flipping the guns forward and backward as he did. He slapped in the last clip just as Nemesis lunged for him, the blackened blade of the Blackfang narrowly missing him.

Kienan fired a few rounds at Nemesis, who, despite being struck with the fusillade at near point-blank range, continued to press his attack. Kienan continued his hit and run tactics, evading Nemesis’ attacks and firing whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Nemesis tried to slash at Kienan, but Kienan blocked it with the edge of his gun, shoving the blade aside and smashing the butt of his other pistol into Nemesis’ faceplate. Nemesis reeled and Kienan fired another three rounds where he’d shattered his faceplate.

His bullets wouldn’t penetrate Nemesis armor--he’d used up his anti-armor bullets in the earlier battle with Nemesis. But finishing the battle with one shot had never been the plan.

He drove his knee into Nemesis’ stomach, shifting his weight and rolling him off his back and tossing him to the ground, firing at the armored warrior’s chestplate once again. Nemesis tried to bring the Blackfang to bear against Kienan and buy himself some time to rise to his feet, but it was no good--Kienan continued to hit and run.

Nemesis tried to press the attack, but Kienan was demonstrating skills other than marksmanship with his pistols. He used them to block his attacks one moment, as short clubs to strike his armor the next.

Nemesis stabbed the Blackfang in the dirt, throwing a cloud of dirt into Kienan’s eyes and blinding him for a moment. Nemesis charged forward, raising the Blackfang over his head and preparing to slice Kienan in two.

The blade cleaved the air silently, stopping with a hard clang, as Kienan blocked it by crossing his pistols in front of himself. Before Nemesis could respond, Kienan dropped his pistols and grabbed the Blackfang, trying to wrest it from Nemesis’ grip.

Nemesis tried to yank Kienan up off the ground, but Kienan was ready. He braced his feet against Nemesis and kicked hard into his stomach, sending him sprawling backwards and causing him to loose his grip on the Blackfang.

Kienan whirled the staff around him, building momentum. He brought the Blackfang down on Nemesis’s with so much force that it not only cracked Nemesis’ helmet, but the Blackfang’s own blade.

Kienan didn’t worry overmuch about the damage to the weapon, as he was already spinning again, bringing the other end of the spear against Nemesis’ damaged helmet.

Nemesis caught the spear just before it shattered his helmet, gripping it tightly as he rose to his feet. One of the blue eyes of his helmet flickered on and off, split vertically by the crack in his helmet. Before, the Quantum Cross could have repaired it in an instant, or "reset" his armor to an earlier, undamaged time-state.

But with the loss of his power triad, his ability to manipulate time was lost, and with it, his greatest advantage over Kienan and the rest.

And obviously, Kienan knew it.

Kienan snatched the spear, yanking Nemesis closer as he drove his elbow into the crack in Nemesis’s helmet. It wasn’t a particularly hard blow, but Kienan had expertly placed the point of impact along the crack in his helmet. The helmet splintered, then finally fell away, and Nemesis’ true face was revealed.

Nemesis backpedaled from Kienan, releasing the spear and covering his face. Something wet and warm was trickling into his eye, and whatever was causing the trickle, was unbelievably painful. He took his hand away for a moment and looked at his red-strained gauntlet, blinking painfully as he did so.

Kienan watched him coldly, still holding the remains of the Blackfang.

"Been a long time since you got hurt, I see."

"You just . . .got lucky, Ademetria," Nemesis spat. He brushed his long white hair, now matted with blood, from his injured eye. "And even hurt, you’ll need more than a broken stick to finish me off."

Kienan seemed to consider that, then tossed the Blackfang aside. Fixing Nemesis with a steely stare, he reached behind him, drawing his Midare-Giri knife from it scabbard, turning the blade to a backhand grip and easing into a ready stance.

"A knife? What about your guns?"

"I don’t need them anymore," Kienan said as the two of them circled each other.

"Besides, the great thing about blades is that they don’t need to be reloaded."

He slashed at Nemesis, who blocked the blade with his gauntlet. Nemesis tried to follow up by throwing a punch, but the blood in his eye hurt his depth perception.

Kienan slipped under his punch and drove the blade under his arm. Nemesis’s armor crumpled but stopped the blade from piercing his flesh. Nemesis retaliated again, this time catching Kienan with and elbow to the throat. As Kienan fell back, unable to breathe, Nemesis kicked him down to the ground, then, powered by his own desperate will, seized Kienan by his braid and threw him facefirst into the sand.

He was running purely on instinct now. He slammed his knee into Kienan’s back, shoving his face deeper into the dirt, and finally pressing his face into it, as if to smother him in the sand.

Kienan flailed wildly in the sand, trying to turn, trying to get some leverage somehow before he suffocated. Finally, after flapping his arms back and forth in the sand, he was still. Nemesis relaxed for a moment, still on Kienan’s back. He’d been surprised by one too many of these fools playing possum already, and he wasn’t going to take that chance again.

He flipped over Kienan’s limp form, searching him over for any signs of life. Without the sensors in his helmet, and with one of his eyes more or less blinded it was difficult to be sure.

So Nemesis decided to take no chances and snap his neck. He wrapped his arms around Kienan’s throat. Even with his damaged systems, he had more than enough strength to break Kienan’s neck and even if he was faking.

He tightened his grip slightly, and Kienan’s eyes opened wide. Before Nemesis could kill him, Kienan kicked loose from him, ducked down and grabbed his knife from where he’d buried it in the sand while pretending to be in his death throes and drove it back into the same place where he’d nearly pierced Nemesis’ armor.

As he felt the blade’s tines sink into the armored warrior’s soft flesh, Kienan activated the Midare-Giri. The mysterious blade sent a strange energy surging through Nemesis’ body, not only electrifying his blood, but sending a very damaging energy through his armor, blowing and fusing circuits, interrupting functions, and generally ruining his armor.

Worse still--Kienan had breached the energy fields that kept the Quantum Cross balanced, and that was more of a worry than the pain Kienan had caused him. Pain that Kienan was about to worsen quite a bit.

As Nemesis thrashed in agony, Kienan drove his forehead into Nemesis’ eye wound, causing his foe’s head to snap backward in pain and Kienan to fall back into the dirt.

"You . . .IMBECILE!" Nemesis shouted, holding his eye again. "You’ve . . .damaged my systems! I can’t escape now . . .and you? You’ll never return to you proper time. Do you realize what you’ve done?"

"I do," Kienan said, rising to his feet. "And escape was never part of the plan."

"Your . . .plan," Nemesis growled, yanking the knife free of the wound. "You fools didn’t have a plan. It was luck, that’s all!"

"Keep telling yourself that," Kienan said. "We had a plan--get you to waste or expend your power and leave what’s left for me. The only one who could take apart someone wearing combat armor with my bare hands. And the only one who wouldn’t hesitate to kill you when he got the chance."

"But you . . .haven’t," Nemesis said, gasping for breath as he gripped Kienan’s knife in his hand. "You hesitated, Ademetria. And because of that . . .you’ll join me in death."

Nemesis summoned the last of his desperate strength and flung Kienan’s knife at its owner. Even though the strength his armor gave him was gone, he was actually able to manage a very powerful throw.

The blade tumbled through the air as Nemesis began to glow.

Kienan acted without conscious thought, focusing on the spinning blade in the air. Stepping forward and turning into the blade, he felt it spin a little as he caught it between his red-gloved fingers, then spin back the way it came as he planted his feet and turned, throwing the blade back the way it came.

It spun back through the air and caught Nemesis the face--specifically his other eye. The point of the blade punched through his eye, his skull, and finally into his brain, killing him instantly.

Nemesis fell forward into the sand as Kienan walked toward him. Despite Nemesis’ death, the pulsing glow and crackling of the air was getting worse, as if a storm was breaking around him. Kienan pulled Nemesis’ up by the hair, pulling his blade loose.

On Nemesis’ back, an oval section, previously covered by a series of armored folds opened up, revealing a burning core, brighter than any star or sun Kienan had ever seen.

This must be that time-jump system he was so proud of, he thought. He looked over at Nemesis’ head, face down and surrounded by blood-soaked sand.

Didn’t really save him in the end, though.

Kienan weighed his options, silently. There was no way out and no way back home. Even if the time-jump system had usable, he had no idea how to use it, and . . .well, no one left to help him figure it out.

The sole survivor, Kienan thought. Again.

He’d been faced with a decision like this before--in fact, it could be said it was the decision that made him. Escape, but make sure the threat that left him where he was would never hurt anyone again.

A perfect circle, Back where I started.

Except this time . . .no escape for me.

But that doesn’t matter.

I won’t let this happen again. I’ll make sure it won’t.

He activated his Midare-Giri and slammed it into the heart of the Quantum Cross, the energies of his blade interacting with and tearing apart the energies of time itself.

Then, everything exploded.

15: Unintended Consequences

Nemesis had built the Quantum Cross to shape time and space to his own design. Its very existence held the timestream in a strange kind of check, one that had created the limbo-like pocket of reality called Tempus Finis at the exact crossing of eternity.

Destroying it there, and sundering its energy with the Midare-Giri, caused all of time and space to go elastic for a millionth of a second. For that millionth of a second, things were different, for everyone who ever lived or ever would. Different people, different lives--everything, for a moment, went a very different way.

And then reality snapped back.

Things returned to normal, more or less.

This time, Ronin slept through the night. There were no footfalls in the snow to wake up, because there would be no intruder from another time and place to interrupt his sleep. For this night, at least, he slept in peace.

This time, Darken would woke up too late. He would find Vertiga long gone and the trail too cold to seek her out. They would meet again, of course, but not soon enough and too late to say the things he should have said before.

This time Kaneda, the second Ronin, and Komori would still meet at midnight, their shared past and uncertain future only increasing the shared tension between them. Though when Orochi returned for vengeance them both, they would stand together, neither could guess how their story would end.

This time, Kienan’s ride wasn’t late. But he found himself distracted and preoccupied by the strange thoughts in his head. Vague memories, like a waking dream stirred in his thoughts. Things he’d never done. People he never knew. Roads not taken.

He furrowed his brow and tried to push the thoughts away and focus on piloting the ship. In a few more hours, they’d be far from the planet and on their way to the next planet, and the next job.

Whatever the roads not taken that occupied his thoughts at the moment, the road he walked now stretched out before him, wide as the whole galaxy.

Yes, everything had returned to normal and everything had started again.

Except this time, there would be no Tempus Finis and no Nemesis to return to. As he’d been slain before the Quantum Cross had been destroyed, the snap-back of reality had no place for a Nemesis. This time, there were no return protocols, no last-minute escape, because there had never been a Nemesis to initiate these actions in the first place.

Nemesis, who had been the Alpha and Omega, who had considered himself an intrinsic element of time and space, was gone forever. Even the memory of who he was had been lost. There had never been anyone to remember after all.

The immortal had been killed. The timeless taken out of time, and the indestructible finally destroy. He had completely ceased to exist, and his shadow would never fall over time and space again.

Nemesis was finally, irrevocably, gone.

THE END

Ouroboros
The End Of The Road
Lakeside Park
Crossover
Every Picture Tells A Story

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