User:Jetfire/Kernel Hacking

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Info icon.pngKernel Hacking
This story is a work in progress.
Author's Comments

This story was inspired by a few books I've been reading recently. Not sure where I'll go with it, or how complete it will ever be. Aspects were borrowed from Stirling's Ember series, and Duane's Wizardry series. (Along with characters from Metamor Keep and others

IDIC: Kernel Processing

[[Character List: From the Tangle:

  • Joseph "Snapshot" Amadio: From a Heroes world. Powers of Teleportation (self only short range), Phasing (all but fools gold), Linguistics
  • Richard McMaster. Wizard from a Magi-tech world. Kernel and Inanimates specialist wizardries. Keeps manual as a Smartphone. From Ontario
  • Surah: Feline wizard, just past kittenhood. Also kernel and gate expert. Lives with Richard.
  • Saroth: Draconic weather wizard, telepathic speech only. Can shift from humanoid dragon to large scale dragon
  • Sean: Eagle-morph Magic amplifier. Can 'see' magics of his natural world, and strengthen/weaken them at will
  • Holly: Horse morph fighter (female), no magic but skilled with the blade.


  • Brian Daigle: Leader of the group traveling to the east, following Misty's visions and his own destiny prophecy
  • Ryan and Angela Armstrong: From Silverwood. Expert trackers and scouts. Fraternal twins.
  • Michelle 'Misty' O'Brian: Cousin to Brian, the Seer of the group. Occasionally has Visions that are usually prophetic.
  • Bruno Walton: Best friend of Brian, skilled archer. Has a war-mutt named 'Boots' that he travels with.


The human stretched, his back popping as the slide walk carried him past a variety of tourist shop fronts, interspersed with open areas centered on platforms. Overhead, the ceiling had gone transparent, revealing an arm of the Milky Way stretched overhead, brighter than anything seen from Earth. This wing of the Crossing was quiet this time of night, but that didn't mean deserted. In one open area, a group of what looked like mobile Christmas trees were waiting, or maybe sleeping. In another area, a big humanoid lizard stepped onto the platform and disappeared. A blue skinned humanoid with a tube of water around his neck was being escorted out of an eatery.

"The Crossing will never cease to amaze me," Richard McMaster said, turning around to watch the water breather be thrown out even as the slide walk carried him past. He was a young man, in his twenties, dressed in jeans and a light wind breaker.

"[It is an incredible place. But I'll be glad to get home,]" a voice at his feet said. It spoke in the Speech, the basic language that all creatures understood to some extent, at least in their universes. He smiled and looked down at the cat carrier at his feet. The carrier and a well worn back pack were the only things he carried with him.

"I know, Surah. I know. I'm a bit homesick too. At least we're almost home, if you'd count a few thousand light years as almost." He chuckled and adjusted his backpack. "A quick port to Grand Central, and we can beam home."

The cat didn't answer, curled up in the carrier, pretending to sleep. Richard saw the end of the slide walk approaching, and picked up the carrier. The walkway slowed and brought the pair to a stop in a central atrium, other wings of the complex extending for miles and miles in other directions. In the middle of the atrium, a steel kiosk stood, serving as the main control center for the complex. Richard moved over to the wall to get out of the traffic, and pulled out his phone. The screen lit up with the symbols indicating their Earth bound gate and a map showing where he was and which concourse to head down.

"It's this wa-" he stopped in mid sentence, the phone vibrating in his hand and the display clearing. The words of a text message scrolled onto the screen.

Travelers Richard McMaster, Wizard and Surah, Wizard, are requested to visit the central information booth before progressing onward. Updated travel directions have been provided

"[What was that?]" Surah asked, lifting her head and peering through the door of the cage. She could open the door from inside if needed, but preferred the comforts of the cage to walking.

"They want to see us at the Central Kiosk. I wonder why?" Richard put the phone away and looked across the atrium's floor to the metal kiosk. It was crowded with various alien species, none of which seemed interested in them. He shrugged and started weaving through the crowd.

The pair came up on the kiosk from behind, and started walking around it. They saw the open window front of it, inside which a centipede-like creature was draped on a contraption, pushing buttons and pulling levers with all of its limbs while its foremost segment chatted with a bird-like alien. To one side, a humanoid was scanning the crowd slowly, his back to Richard and Surah. Something about the humanoid seemed familiar to Richard.

Richard moved up beside the bird, waiting for it to finish its discussion with the Grandmaster. He watched the humanoid, trying to remember where he saw it before. The human was dressed in pants and a jacket made of a dull black fabric that was divided into armored panels. He wore gloves and boots both covered in the same fabric. His wrist was thicker, a panel opened showing a computer. The dull covering continued up over his head in a cowl, covering it completely, though his mouth seemed clear. The straps of goggles reached around the creature's head. A pair of swords were sheathed on his back.

The humanoid reached up and lifted his goggles and pulled down his head covering, revealing a head of short blond hair. Richard grinned, finally remembering who it was.

"Shutterbug! What are you doing here man?" he shouted out, waving.

The man turned and his face broke into a grin. He flickered from view and suddenly was standing a couple of feet in front of Richard. The bird let out a squawk of surprise, and the centipede somehow managed to look annoyed at the man.

"Hey Richard, good to see you again. How have you two been?" he asked, holding his hand out to the wizard and nodding to the carrier.

"We've been good. Just finished some errands on Clovis 4 and on our way home."

"Good, good, well... oh yeah hold on a second." Shutterbug turned towards the centipede and started clicking and chittering in a way that should have been impossible for a human to sound like. The station master answered similarly, and Richard's phone buzzed again. He glanced down at it, seeing the alert had disappeared, but the map to the Earth gate had not reappeared.

Shutterbug clicked again, and turned back to Richard. He coughed and ughed. "I know the language, but it's just in my range to speak. Damn near dislocated my tongue and jaw at once speaking it, but it's the fastest way to get action here. Come on, lets go get a drink."

Richard frowned. "This is business related, isn't it?" he asked suspiciously.

"Drink first. I'm parched. Then I'll explain everything."

The wizard shook his head and sighed. He fell into step behind the hero, glancing at his phone's address book and paging through to his entry. When they'd left Clovis 4, the entry for them had listed them as 'In Transit back to Earth, Off Duty'. Now, his and Surah's entries were changed. Now it listed them as 'On Duty, Assigned to Tangle Authority for Unknown Multiversal Threat.'.

"So what's with the new duds, Joey?" he asked, lowering the phone so Surah could see the change in status as well. He heard the feline hiss in annoyance. 'Unknown Multiversal Threat' meant it was something beyond the Powers usual domain, which was usually the case when the Tangle was involved.

Shutterbug looked over at him and grinned. "That dragon nabbed me just as I was coming off duty, so I was still in uniform. Not much to look at I know, but it's great in the field." he slid a finger on the computer on his wrist, and his body disappeared, leaving just the top of his head down to the top of his nose, visible.

"Wow, cool. How invisible are you?"

"IR through UV. Stepford did a great job with the suit. And completely invisible with the hood up of course." His voice came from the empty space below his nose. As they walked an automated suitcase walked through the apparently empty space without pausing. Shutterbug reappeared, hand on the control on his wrist.

Richard pointed to a door ahead. "That place has human edible stuff, tasty too."

They found a booth and reconfigured it to be somewhat comfortable, and placed an order. Richard set Surah's carrier down and opened the door. The cat walked out and jumped up onto the table where a bowl of a liquid was left, along with the men's drinks.

"So, we saw we're back on duty, assigned to the Tangle again. What are we doing this time?"

Joseph sipped the drink, then stopped and looked at it closer. He shook his head. "Strong stuff. But good. And yeah, Jetfire requested the two of you. We haven't figured out what the problem is exactly, but signs are pointing to a hacked Kernel.

"The sheaf of worlds involved is Earth based, and mostly technological. We first noticed something amiss when Field advancing technologies started failing. Large Hadron Collider, ion pulse engines, a neutrino detector, a new search algorithm that is a strong precursor to true AI, those sorts of things. There were in universe reasons for all of the failures, but the Tangle detected sheaf ripples as the real reasons. Instead of causing a technological frame shift, the ripple blocked it from happening, setting progress back months, years even decades.

"We tracked down the ripples to this source," he brought out a device and set it on the table. It light up with a holographic view of an Earth.

"The world is ten to twenty years ahead of most of the rest of the worlds on the sheaf. We've sent probes to it, to see if they messed into something they shouldn't be, and it's weird. We discovered a world that isn't broadcasting any man made signals at all. The space industry is rotting, untouched for decades, no survivors left, and any probes to the surface failed soon after entering the atmosphere."

Richard frowned and nodded. "That does sound bad. So I take it since automation has failed, it's time to send the meat agents in?"

"Exactly. You two are the first of the team. The dragon has picked a couple of newbies for us, in a heavy mystic world. Since tech is failing us, he's stacking us heavy on the mystic side."

"Newbies? Oh boy. Does their world have the multiverse concept at least?"

Joseph nodded. "I think so, but not as fully expanded as we're used to. I haven't researched much into the world yet."

Richard ughed again and finished his drink. "So going into an unknown world with a group of multiversal newbs. Doesn't bode well."

"We all have to start somewhere. And Jetfire's sources haven't failed him yet. Remember your first mission?"

"That was different. And Wizardry is full of multiversal theory so I was already comfortable with that notion before my first Tangle trip."

Joey finished his own drink and stood up. "Well, like it or lump it, we've got them on the team. You still in?"

"Sure, as you said, Jetfire hasn't failed yet. Surah? You want to come or you want to head home?"

The cat looked up and licked her lips. "[I'll come. Someone has to keep you out of trouble.]"

Joey laughed and stood up. "Great. Welcome to the team guys. We can take a local port to the shuttle pad. Our shuttle is out there."

"A local shuttle? So we aren't going to the Tangle first?"

"Nah, they mapped a wormhole locally that we can take advantage of to go to that world."

Separator f.png

The shuttle hovered over a clearing on a plateau among the mountains for a long moment. Finally it eased the last few meters to the ground and flickered out of view. A hatch appeared in empty air and two men stepped out.

"We're here now. Now what?" Richard asked, stretching and sniffing the air.

Joey walked along the invisible shuttle, his goggles down. He reached a spot and pressed a button, revealing a small compartment. "Now, we send the signal for Jetfire's agent here, so we can get the rest of our team and get out of here."

He pulled out a rack of vials, a Bunsen burner and a manual. He moved to the center of the clearing and set up the burner. He began reading the instructions carefully. "You know, you're the magic type, you should be doing this," he muttered, triple checking the ingredient list.

Richard held up his hands and laughed. "Maybe. But it's not usually smart to mix magics, even if this is just magic in a bottle. Looks interesting what you're doing but you're probably as good at it as I would be."

Joseph shook his head and began adding the ingredients together. They bubbled and smoked over the burner until finally the liquid turned bright yellow.

"There, according to the instructions, the signal was sent. Now we just wait. When it goes green, it means they're on their way. When it goes red, it means something's up and we'll figure out what to do then."

"How long before we get a signal back?"

"Up to a day or two to get the signal, and another day or two after that. So do you want to sleep in the shuttle or out under these stars? Either way, we're gonna be here a few days."

"It looks like it'll get chilly at night up here, but I'm not one to miss a new world's night sky. I'll sleep out here."

The two men set up camp near the shuttle and settled down to wait. There was no snow on the ground, but the obviously high altitude made the night as chilly as Richard anticipated. The three spent the first evening catching up around the campfire.

Joey woke up first the next morning. He stoked the fire back up and checked the vial. It was still yellow. Sighing softly, he ducked into the shuttle to prepare breakfast. He debated replicating it ready made, but decided he was in the mood to cook by hand instead. A few more trips to the replicator to make a Coleman stove and the other supplies he needed, and he was good to go.

He heard Richard stirring as the coffee scent filled the air, mingling with the toast and bacon smells. "What time is it?" the wizard asked, sitting up slowly.

"An hour or so after sunrise, give or take a little. The world does seem close to the 24 hour rotation but I haven't double checked it yet. How do you want your eggs? Fried or scrambled?"

"Scrambled is fine. Any word yet?"

"Nope, no-" he was interrupted by an urgent beeping from the shuttled, echoed on his wrist comp. Joey silenced the wrist comp and flickered to the shuttle, pressing the button to seal the hatch and completely hide the ship.

Richard had just gotten disentangled from his sleeping bag when the jumper returned to the stove. Joey loosened his blades and shifted his gaze from the wrist computer to the forest.

"What is it?" Richard asked.

"We've got movement nearby, and coming our way. Looks like one person. Can't get a clear read yet."

Surah lifted her head and stared intently at the forest, ears twitching occasionally. She didn't appear tense, but Richard could feel the wizardry power building around her. He watched where she watched and crouched down to his pack, pulling out a laser pointer. He flicked it on and watched the green dot appear on a rock right at the forest edge. He mentally ran through the words to two familiar spells, one an air thickener that, depending on how thick he talked the air into being, could stop fists, sword strikes, arrows and even bullets. The other would turn the innocent beam of light from the pointer into a laser pulse capable of punching through steel.

"Forest is too thick. Can't see clear enough to get a jump spot closer to him," Joey mumbled, lowering his goggles and drawing his own blades. "Got them on IR. They're good whoever they are."

Richard squinted where Joey and Surah were looking, and finally spotted the figure. He was hidden well, staying in the shadows, pressed against trees, without a shiny spot to give them away.

"Halt! Who goes there?" Joey shouted out. The figure twitched and held rock still.

"Do you think he can understand you?" Richard mumbled, not taking his eyes off the figure he could barely make out.

Joseph shook his head. "I have no idea. Until I hear their language, I can't sync up and speak it back to them. I'd jump closer but I don't want to startle them too much; they've been harmless so far. You ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

"Okay, lower your laser but hold it in your hands. I'm putting my blades down. She has a bow, but it isn't readied." Joey mumbled. He glanced at Richard long enough to see the wizard palm the laser and lower his hand before he put his own blades down. He started slowly walking towards the figure.

"We know you are there. We mean no harm," he called out as he walked, repeating it in other languages as he walked. A translator ear bud in Richard's ear translated those words where the Speech wasn't enough.

The figure finally seemed to realize she was truly found out and stepped into view when Joseph was a few meters away. Out of the early morning shadows, Richard saw it was a morphic horse, a bay Arabian mare as far as he could guess, dressed in leather armor died to blend in with the spring time forest. She held a large sheathed sword in her thick fingered hands, tense and ready to draw it at the first hostile motion. Her other hand held a long bow at the ready, an arrow on the string but not pulled, and not aimed at Joey.

She called out something that the translator couldn't handle. The ear bud gave an annoyed chirp in his ear and a mechanical voice warned him it was coordinating with the shuttle computers to find a linguistic match. Joey, having no need of the translator ear buds, responded in her native tongue.

"... up here? This is Lutin territory, very dangerous for travelers, especially as small a group as you are. I've been tracking signs of a large group of Lutin's in the area for the past week." the horse was saying as the ear bud kicked in.

"We were just breaking fast, and figuring out what to do next. We are more than capable of handling any Lutin attack that may come our way," Joey motioned to their camp stove and shoved his goggles up. He glanced at Richard who nodded to him.

"My name is Joseph, of Alpha City. My companions here are Richard and Surah of Windsor," Joey introduced them now that Richard could understand.

"And I am Holly of Metamor Keep," the horse introduced herself. "Are you continuing on to the Keep? I could escort you and make sure you reach it safely." She looked around their camp and seemed uneasy with the strange gear they had.

"That shouldn't be necessary, we are waiting for someone, though I'm afraid we weren't told who they were. But thank you for the offer. Would you care to join us for breakfast?"

The horse considered the offer carefully, and finally nodded. "I think I will, if you have enough to spare. At the very least I would like to hear more of where you are from. I have never heard of this Alpha City or Windsor. Are they to the south?"

"Not exactly. But we do have food to spare. Do you drink coffee?" Joey motioned her closer to the camp and went back to the stove to turn the burner back up. He glanced at the Bunsen burner and barely twitched when he realized the liquid had gone green.

The group had a leisurely breakfast, asking and answering questions. Joey explained how the stove worked in simple terms, while at the same time questioning the horse scout about the Lutin threat and where she was from. When she described the curses, Richard took closer interest, having Joey translate various questions for him while surreptitiously scanning her with his smart phone. They both described their homes in general terms, trying not to get into where they really were from, and just left it that they were from far away. She didn't even bat an eye over Surah being included in the conversations, even though the cat mostly dozed the morning away. Technology they mostly described as magic and left it at that.

Richard was packing up the cooking stove when Joseph's wrist comp started beeping again. The wizard looked up in time to see him go pale.

"Incoming, we've got five... ten... twenty... even more life signs coming in fast. They're coming through the mountain!" he shouted, pulling his goggles down and grabbing for his own blades.

"Lutins!" Holly called out, turning to face the hill, her eyes spotting the movement of the figures as fast as Joey saw them. She drew her long sword and held it easily in one hand while the other raised a small shield she'd had on her back.

Surah hissed and stood up to face the attack. Her hiss turned into a growl that steadily deepened as she swelled larger, dark stripes appearing on her gold fur coat, fangs reaching lengths last seen on smilodons in the ice age. The pony-sized feline growled and crouched down for a pounce once a target got in range.

Richard finished the spell he had held on mental standby for most of the morning, and mumbled a few words to adjust it. Centered on him and tilted towards the mountain, the air glowed and solidified slightly, just fast enough to catch a wave of arrows shot from higher up the hills. The arrows struck the dome and stuck fast, hanging in mid air over their heads. The creatures let out a roar, and started rushing down the hill while another wave of arrows launched into the shield. Richard drew his laser pointer and started looking for the archers, highlighting them in the green beam before mumbling the power word to turn the laser beam into a cutter.

The Lutins poured down off the hill, coming out of caves and over the ridge. Some bumped into the invisible shuttle and milled about in confusion, but most charged right towards the defenders.

"Guard Richard!" Joey shouted, starting to swing and flickering to appear next to a Lutin to finish the swing through the green skinned creature's neck. The surprised head just hit the ground when Joey reappeared next to Richard.

The first wave of Lutins crashed against the defenders, each defender fighting in their own style. Surah, a skilled wizard in herself, used her magically amplified form to slash through leather armor like paper, and to throw creatures across the clearing. Holly stayed close to Richard's side and blocked the attacks from the flank Surah wasn't covering. Joseph flickered randomly through the mob of Lutins, creating chaos by taking them down when they least expected it. Over there heads, the dome darkened as more waves of arrows got stuck in the air. Richard sent steady blasts of green light up the mountain, unable to hear the scream from the archers he hoped he was hitting.

"Surah! Give me a hand with the shield!" he shouted out, mentally setting up a spell to do what he had in mind. He felt the feline's presence in his mind, reviewing the work and approving it. She gave a magically enhanced roar towards the Lutin's closest to her, forcing them to back up, and joined Richard in the spell.

Overhead, the air thickened further, pushing the arrows out and letting them drop to the ground. An extra twist of magic grabbed each arrow, making sure it was pointed downward and gave it an extra push towards the ground. Some clinked and clanged against the invisible shuttle before sliding down to the ground. Most speared into the rocky ground. But enough found Lutin targets for the creatures to pull back and regroup, giving both sides a breather.

"Sorry about the shuttle," Richard mumbled, panting for breath but keeping the shield up. Another wave of arrows hit it and stuck hard.

Joseph wiped his forehead and looked across the clearing. "No biggy, a few metal arrow heads won't hurt it. Even most gun fire would barely chip the paint." He flickered and stabbed at a group that looked like it was getting too comfortable, slashing open a green arm before he flicked back. He disappeared again, and returned a few seconds later with four plastic water bottles. He passed one to Richard, opened a second and handed it to Holly, and poured a third out into a bowl for Surah. The last, he kept for himself.

Holly shook her head in amazement and tentatively sipped the water from the clear bottle, looking curiously at the bottle. "You weren't kidding when you said you could handle a Lutin attack."

Joey nodded and eyed the enemy. "We can handle it, but it's not gonna be easy. There are more coming."

"What about the shuttle? Could it attack them, scare them off?"

"The shuttle's unarmed. It's even got a reactionless drive, so we can't even use the engines."

Richard cursed and darkened the shield as a fireball roared off the mountain and splashed on the shield, some of the heat leaking through, most of the arrows flaring to ash. "They've got a wizard or something up there. Things just got more interesting."

Holly looked curiously at her comrades in arms as they spoke their strange language, then glanced up. The sun was dimming with a thickening cloud cover. The clouds themselves seemed to be moving unnaturally fast. "Would reinforcements help?"

"Greatly. Got any nearby?" Joey asked, finishing his drink and tossing the bottle to the ground. He flicked out again and a fresh scream came from the back of the Lutin forces before he reappeared. "Richard got any idea where the mage is? I'll try to find him and take him out."

Richard frowned and looked up, puzzled. "There are more magic users near by. I can't tell what they're doing, but they're doing something."

"Are they friend or foe?" Joey asked.

"I have no idea, one's definitely hostile, the other three are unknowns... Look out!"

The Lutins let out a scream and charged the group with renewed ferocity. The defenders went back to work, even as the first thick drops of rain started to fall. A trio of fire balls launched off the mountain top and splashed along the shield, raising the temperature under it even higher. Holly grinned widely and chopped through a forearm and a neck at the same time. "Reinforcements are here!" she shouted.

"Where?!" Joey shouted, phasing and letting a pair of blades stab through him. He stepped out of the blades and solidified, bringing his blades down to slash the throats of the stunned Lutins.

"In the clouds!"

A bolt of lightning struck the ground among the largest group of Lutins, scattering them. The clouds lit up with a redder glow briefly illuminating two large flying figures. A new fireball launched from within, this one hitting a nest of archers from above. Another lightning bolt struck the Lutin horde, and the winds sped up, driving the rain hard against anything it hit, and cutting visibility down almost to nothing. Strangely, the wind seemed centered around the defenders, leaving them unharmed in the eye of the hurricane.

An answering fireball launched from the mountains, but it seemed to freeze in mid air, spinning aroun a flying figure and burning brighter before it rebounded back to its caster. The mountain lit up with the explosion.

As the light faded, a horn blared from above. The Lutin's paused in their attack, then started a retreat. Another fireball lit up the hillside from the clouds, along with a few more lightning bolts to urge them along. A figure dived out of the clouds, and the horn went silent with an interrupted BLAT.

The clouds began to dissipate, showing the muddy, bloody ground of the battle field. Once it was clear the Lutins were gone, Richard adjusted the air shield and let the arrows, ashes and melted arrowheads slide into a pile on the ground, before cancel ing the spell completely. Joseph began flicking among the bodies, mercifully ending any that were too injured to leave on their own. He almost sliced his own foot off when a foreign voice boomed in his head.

{ Hail Holly and friends! Are you all right?}

Joey looked around, but couldn't find the source of the voice. He finally looked up, and noticed two flying creatures gliding out from the thickest remaining cloud. One was the largest golden eagle he'd ever seen. The other was even bigger, a bronze skinned dragon that cast the entire meadow in shade as he circled over them. He used his goggles to get a closer look at the creature, and saw straps holding various bags and a small child.

Holly waved up at them and shouted. "We're fine guys! Thanks for the save!"

{Is anyone hurt?} the voice called out again, the fliers slowly circling down to land.

Joey looked worriedly over to the shuttle, but the wind and rain storm had kicked up enough debris that even while invisible, the shuttle was obvious. He flicked over to Richard and started checking for injuries.

"Did you hear that?" he asked the wizard, while slipping out of his own jacket. Close calls had all but shredded the jacket, but the underlying body armor had held. He lifted his goggles and looked closer at Richard.

"Yeah, and I understood it too.... I'm fine. Nothing got through to me, but I've got a pounding headache. How's Surah?"

The still-big cat was laying down nearby, licking her paws. She was covered in blood, but it was quickly clear most of it wasn't hers, other than a few scratches and a cut on her shoulder. "[I'm fine. May need a few stitches to be safe though.]" she said.

"We're all fine, Holly. How about you?" Joseph shouted.

The horse was favoring one arm, but otherwise seemed fine. She waved again and shouted so all could hear. "We're fine, a few scratches and nicks but we'll live."

The eagle landed first, but to Joseph's surprise, in landing, his body seemed to swell, wings shrinking back, until instead of a normal bird, a humanoid bird was walking towards them, shedding the last of his landing momentum. The bird-man nodded to the fighters, and turned back as the dragon landed. Unlike the bird, he stayed full sized, though he did tilt slightly so the small figure could jump out of the saddle, into the bird's feathery arms.

The passenger was a girl about ten years old, dressed in slacks and a blouse with a cloak over her shoulders. The bird man put her down and she approached the group. Only then did the dragon start shrinking, wiggling free from the cargo harness in the process until he was a tall humanoid with wings and a tail.

"You are all OK?" the girl asked, taking the lead with her companions falling into step behind her. "We came as fast as we could once Sean noticed the fighting." Despite her youthful appearance, she sounded and walked like someone many years older.

Holly wiped her blade cleaned and sheathed it. "We're fine Electra. Thank you for the save. I didn't expect to see you guys out this far, but I'm glad for it."

Electra grinned impishly, stepping around a dismembered arm. "We have business out here. And we didn't expect you out here either. This complicates things a bit."

"Complicates?" the horse scout looked worried as she began to fit pieces together and realize she was involved in something deeper than just a chance encounter with strangers from afar.

"We'll get to that in a minute. But first," the girl approached Joseph, Richard and Surah. "Greetings, agents of the Tangle. Welcome to Metamor Keep, or her world at least. My name is Electra, Senior Mage, Councilwoman and Tangle contact. With me, are Sean and Saroth, also both from the Keep."

Joseph took his goggles off and bowed to her. "Greetings, Councilwoman. I am Joseph of Alpha City, and with me are Wizards Richard and Surah, both of Windsor, all here on business of the Tangle."

She nodded and looked towards Richard and the cat. "Dai'stiho, welcome wizards."

Richard's eyes widened and even Surah looked up in surprise. "[Dai'stiho to you as well. You know the Speech?]" Richard asked.

Electra nodded and grinned. "My very first mission into the Tangle oh so very long ago, they paired me up with a young wizard from your world, or a similar one at least. I recognized the magic feel of your Manual. We did have those... what do you call them? Translators?, but by the end of the mission we'd taught each other our languages. We still exchange correspondence fairly regularly, though I admit much of the world she lives in is a mystery to me, even with what I've seen." She shifted her gaze to Joseph. "I take it old scaly didn't tell you who the contact was here... again."

Joey shook his head. "Uhm, no, he didn't. Just gave us the contact chemicals and stuff."

"Figures. Age-ist bastard. Figures no one would believe someone who barely looks out of diapers could be the Tangle contact, so he doesn't say a thing. Oh well. Let's get out of this mud. A little help please Sean?"

The eagle stepped up beside her while she started waving her hands in the air. He began to move his own hands in a similar pattern, focusing on a spot in the middle of the muddy clearing. A tension filled the air, followed by a loud woomph of displaced air. A large wooden platform appeared, complete with an oaken table and suitable seating for the Keepers.

"Thank you Sean," she stepped up onto the platform and kicked some mud off of her boots. "I could easily have pulled this here myself, but I'm old enough to not begrudge getting a strong young back to do the work when I can," she called back with a laugh.

Settling down for business wasn't as easy as she hinted at. Joseph refused to settle down until Surah's wound was cared for, and the other fighters had a chance to clean up as much as they wanted. He retrieved more translators for the Keepers and showed them how to use them, and finally loaded up the table with snacks and drinks. Electra watched on from the table with amused indifference.

"Are you ready now?" she asked, swinging her legs under the seat of her chair. Surah, still super sized with a bandage on her shoulder, was gnawing on a replicated meaty thighbone. A gentle breeze wafted down from above and blew outwards, keeping any lingering scents of the battle away from the platform thanks to the dragon. Joey looked around one final time, then nodded.

"Good, then maybe you can brief us about what's going on. A few weeks back I got a signal from another Tangle rep, telling me to prepare Saroth and Sean for a trip, but uhm... but whatever it was didn't have any more details."

"Right. A lot of this will seem like gibberish, since it deals with a technology base your world doesn't have, and can't even have due to the Reference Frames. Still, I'll cover what we know and what we think we need to do as best I can. Feel free to ask questions as I go," Joey started. He then launched into a briefing similar to what he had told Richard, delving deeper into the multiversal explanation for Holly and the other Keeper's benefits, and glossing over some of the more technical aspects.

The briefing lasted well into the evening. They all had questions, many of which Joseph didn't have answers for. He noted some of them to ask back at the Tangle before they left, and answered the rest as best he could. Finally, he called for a dinner break and flicked to the shuttle to start replicating supplies for them to eat.

Richard, sensing the Keepers wanted a semiprivate discussion, turned his back to the table and fiddled with his smart phone, following up on a few of his own questions about the mission using the phone's mystical functions. He was annoyed that the usually very responsive device was acting sluggish, despite the strong connection to his world it maintained, but he let it slide. At the far end of the table, Surah dozed with the gnawed on bone held between her big paws.

{You know, you're going to have to go back to normal before we leave,} he spoke to his partner quietly, using their mental link. Though multi-species wizard teams were common on his world, they rarely developed a mental link like Richard and Surah had.

{[I'll switch back before we go. I so rarely get to bring out my primal form, let me enjoy it while it lasts,]} she sent back, pointedly yawning in his direction.

He chuckled softly and shook his head, diving back into his research.

Electra glanced over at the chuckling wizard, then looked back at her own pupils. "Saroth, Sean, you've heard the details now. It's now completely up to you. You can still turn down the mission if you want to. No one is going to force you into it."

She held up a hand to keep them silent. "Just remember, if you guys DO take the mission, you're going to see Things. Fantastical Things, Amazing Things, Scary Things, and Things That Shouldn't Be. And most of those will be in the same place, and accepted as normally as we accept the Curses, or the Keep's fluid geometry."

{Do you regret going, back when you had the chance?} Saroth asked. The telepathic dragon had caught Joseph and the wizards by surprise, but they were all used to dealing with other mind speakers.

Electra smiled wistfully and shook her head. "Not even a little. I won't lie to you, the missions that you get sent on are NOT easy ones. You're skills will often be pushed to the limits and beyond depending on the mission itself. But the opportunity to see other worlds, to see what happens when a fateful decision went another way, to see places where technology is dominant instead of magic, and places where both work together, and even places where neither work well... those are not to be missed."

"Then it's settled, we're going," Sean said quickly, the dragon nodding his head next to him.

The mage smiled at both of them. "Good, good. I know you won't regret it." She twisted in her seat to look at Holly. "I hope you won't mind. But since my ride is going to the stars now, could I trouble you for a ride back to the Keep? I'll answer any other questions you might have along the way."

The horse took a long moment to respond, building up her courage. She swallowed nervously and shook her head. "No."

Electra looked surprised. "No?"

"No." Holly took another breath and spoke quickly. "You described all those wonderful things, and scary things they'll be seeing, and I want to see them too. I want to go with them. I know it isn't proper, but my duties here are done for now. After today, that band of Lutins will be months recovering, if it ever does. So I've got nothing tying me here." She gulped down another breath and looked pleadingly at Electra. "If they say I can't go, then fine, I won't go. I'll take you home and I promise I won't tell anyone else about this either. But please, at least give me the chance to ask to go with them."

She frowned at the horse and tapped the top of the table slowly. Richard had gone still at the far end of the table, but he was staying silent and out of the discussion going on. "It's up to Joseph and Jetfire. They're the ones in charge in the end here," she said cautiously.

"What's up to me?" Joseph asked, appearing behind Electra.

The mage jumped and cursed in surprise, turning to look back. "Don't DO that. Wear a bell or something!" she shouted, taking a moment to recompose herself. Joey grinned and waited silently.

"As I was saying, it's up to you if you want or even can, take Holly with you. She has volunteered herself to help on your mission, if you'll take her."

He walked around the table and sat back down, studying the horse morph carefully. "You were listening to the briefing right? You know this is a dangerous mission. No time to really acclimatize any of you to the setting; we'll be stopping at the Tangle for supplies and heading right to the world that's virtually unknown to even the Tangle itself. We don't know what happened down on that world, but there will probably be some fighting there too."

She nodded slowly. "I understand fully. And you saw I'm more than capable of handling myself in a fight."

"A fight with bows and arrows and swords and shields. But how will you handle yourself when the bullets and laser beams start flying?"

"I don't know what those things are, but if they're anything like magic, I'll do what any good warrior does. Try to avoid them and eventually knock out the source, one way or another."

The teleporter stared at her longer, then nodded briefly. "Well that would explain the message I got from the Tangle just now. It was a reminder that, as team lead, I can expand and contract the team within reason as the situation demands." He held out his hand to Holly and grinned. "Welcome to the team, Holly."

The horse seemed embarrassed as she took his hand and shook it. Electra crossed her arms and pouted. "Now who'll take me back to the Keep?"

The group went quiet for a moment. "I'd take you back, but the Keep is a strict No-Fly zone. Its magic messes too much with the guidance computers to fly near there. Maybe we can circle around and drop you off to the south, where it's safer?"

{I could fly you back, it wouldn't take that long to go there and back,} Saroth offered.

The girl suddenly grinned and looked up. "Well, actually, since you mentioned the south, there is another option. I was going to leave for the islands next week anyway, but since I've got the opportunity now, I think I'll drop in and see my brother earlier than he expected. Don't worry, I can guide you to it from the air, and it's no where near the Keep. Plus it gives me another chance to fly in your flying machines."

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TODO: Tangle visit

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The red planet spun slowly about its orbit, carrying with it its pair of rocky moons, uncountably more smaller rocks, and a half dozen metallic objects that did not come from it. Above the north pole of the planet, the blackness of space began to pucker, to pull inwards, then finally tore, unleashing a maelstrom of energy. Through the storm, a bubble floated out, lit by the energies reflecting off of its skin tight shielding. Once clear, the tear closed back up, but the ship continued to flicker, dissipating the energies of its transition.

"We're through. Initial readings confirm we're in the right universe," Joseph announced through the cabin of the ship.

"We're here, but the readings are off," Richard corrected him. A window opened up on the screen at the front of the ship. "This is Mars, or what I know of as Mars. Much like my world too, complete with probes from Earth. But the probes are barely active. They're only sending out 'standby' signals." He said, as the screen circled and lit up points where it detected signals.

Joseph nodded. "I see it. We've got other signals too, from Venus, Jupiter, and the rest of the outer planets. And a mess of signals around Earth and the Moon. But none from Earth itself."

On the storage compartment between them, a furry orange lump expanded and leisurely stretched. The cat turned around slowly, then sat down on her haunches and pawed at the air. Richard cast a glance down to her while Joseph continued examining the readings. The cat flicked her paws as if shaking water off of them and laid back down, hissing and meowing softly.

"Surah says there's a problem with the frame in this system. That Earth had been expanding it's frame of control out over the rest of the system, but a short while ago, the frame suddenly contracted. Everything out of Earth's atmosphere is currently unFramed."

"Good senses, my dear," Joseph replied, nodding to the cat who was apparently dozing again. "The sensors are confirming the rest of it. A low mystic, moderate tech Field had reached out to just beyond Pluto's orbit, but abruptly collapsed. The probes out here match the tech levels we expected, chemical rocketry, nanoscale electronics, primitive atomic control, primitive automation. Earth itself is a black hole as far as the sensors can tell. We need to go in closer, we can't tell enough from out here.

"I'm going to move us over to the Moon, and see what that tells us. Unless someone can think of a reason to stay out here?" Joseph looked at Richard, then behind, to the rest of the ship where the three Keepers relaxed. "This frame, even before whatever happened to it, is a lot more primitive than the Tangle's Frame. But it's closer to Richard and my worlds than to yours. Still, if you guys sense something especially strange or just have any questions, speak up."

The golden eagle morph shook his head after checking with his companions. "We're fine. Overwhelmed but fine. And no, I don't think any of us have seen anything to draw attention to."

Joseph swung back around and started tapping on the controls. Richard took out an earpiece and clipped it over his ear, listening carefully. "They're sad you know? And scared."

"Who are?"

"The machines down there, on Mars, and around Venus and Jupiter and Saturn.... They were sent out with a purpose, to learn all they could, and they have been, learning more than their creators thought they ever could. But for years now, they've had to sit on all they learned, no signals from home, no one to tell all they learned. No one to tell them where to look next."

Joseph shook his head. "You could pick up all that from their radio signals? Never mind, we're off."

Pods on the sides of the ship glowed brighter, pulling at the fabric of space around it, and releasing it before it tore. The red planet disappeared behind it, and the blue light ahead quickly grew into a disk, and then a sphere. A quarter of an hour later, the glow faded, and the ship orbited the Moon near the blue planet.

"A lot more around here, but the same dismay at the silence from home. At least some of them have been able to talk among themselves but they still want home to call in. Looks like this Universe's Earth had a larger scale space program than my world," Richard said, listening again, and looking at the screens in front of him. "No settlements on Luna, but a lot more probes and landing sites, not all soft landings. Some of the GPS satellites are there, they say the local date is April 25, 2031. But by the looks of it, nothing new has been up here in years."

"It's more clues... which is more than I can get from scans of Earth. Nothing is being emitted from it on the normal bands. No unnatural EM at all. But the ship's sensors can't get a closer view of what's down there.

The orange feline rolled onto her back and began to bat playfully in the air, though the expression on her face was anything but playful. She hissed suddenly and rolled away back onto her feet, quick stepping from foot to foot. [There is a discontinuity, right at the edge of the atmosphere. I can't sense through it, but it definitely feels like a corrupted kernel,] she hissed out in annoyance. Richard quickly translated her speech for the Keepers.

"A discontinuity. That would explain a lot, but it's annoying. It limits our ability to tell what's going on down there."

"But it does tell us what to do. Jetfire's information was right; we do have a bad kernel down there that needs to be fixed. We just need to figure out where it is. And only the entire Earth to search to find it in." Richard sighed and looked at the display of the planet now on the screen. "Let's move in closer, see if Surah and I can get a better sense of where it is. Maybe we can narrow it down to the right continent at least."

"In a moment, I'm looking for something. Given the tech level, there should have been something..." Joseph trailed away as he tapped on the controls, scanning the space around the planet. "I want to see if we can get a glimpse of what the locals saw when this happened."

"What the locals saw? It's been years since anything came up from the surface. And most of the satellites don't have any memory, or have long overwritten it. I could try talking to some, but I doubt it would work. Any space craft would have long lost its supplies... Oh, I see what you're looking for."

The view of the planet tilted, and zoomed in on a large item in space. It looked like a series of cylinders joined together, with occasional spars with black solar panels on them. Some of the panels were cracked, bent or otherwise stuck in non-sun facing positions, but there didn't seem to be any damage to the cylinders.

"The ISS. It's bigger than in my world, but that doesn't mean much. Looks like there was more cooperation in the space race here than in my home. That's a Chinese module there, and an Indian module there," Richard said, pointing to the screen.

"Nothing docked to it though. No Soyuz, shuttles or any other craft that could reach the ground. And no compatible docking rings for us. We'll have to be makeshift."

Richard took out a smart phone and pushed a button to light up the screen. He glanced at the display in a corner of the screen. "Three bars here. Pretty standard for universe's outside the normal wizardry worlds. Surah and I can make a docking tunnel that should last. And suits for anyone who wants to go in."

The feline cast him a dirty look and sighed. [If I must,] she said, twitching her tail. [You could have asked me first.]

"My apologies Surah. If you do not want to help, I can handle it myself."

[No, I will help. Start preparing the spell, and I'll fill in my parts]

Joseph chuckled and focused on the controls. "I'll bring us in closer to the empty docking ports. How close do you want? Ten metres?"

Richard got up and walked back into the main compartment of the shuttle with Surah padding along behind him. He nodded to the three Keepers sitting there. "Ten metres will be fine," he called out, reaching the cleared spot at the rear of the shuttle. He held his phone in one hand and began cycling the pages on the screen, occasionally flicking his fingers on the screen and pulling the icon off of the phone and into the air in front of him. Sean got up from his seat and stood against the wall, wings twitching as he watched Richard pull out the parts of the spell he needed. On the floor, Surah paced slow, steady circles, leaving a glowing trail of her own. She stopped after three circles, sat down and dug her claws into the glowing strands, slowly weaving them together.

The golden eagle shook his head and clicked his beak. "It's so different from what I am used to. I can feel that it is magic, but it's in a language I barely understand."

"If you study it more, you will understand it I'm sure. The Speech, what we use for the wizardry, is the basis of all languages in my sheaf of universes, so everyone understands it at some level. Just don't interfere or touch any of it. We are building an opaque bridge between two structures in an area with almost nothing to build it from. It has to be air tight and almost pure energy, but if we don't control it just right, you could space us all."

Sean lifted his hands and took a careful step back. "I won't touch a thing, I promise."

Richard nodded and tapped his phone a couple more times, then pulled out one final icon, with his own face on it. He glanced down at the woven rings near his feet, and the array of icons floating in front of him. "You ready Surah?"

The cat tugged in the air one final time then dropped back down to all fours. [All done. You can hook your parts to it now.]

"Good good." Richard went silent, focusing on combining the icons together and lowering them down to attach them to the woven circles where they melted and formed glowing strings of words too tiny to see clearly. Surah watched him carefully, occasionally reaching out with a claw to adjust the spell as it formed. "Do any of you want to come along?" he asked.

The dragonmorph seemed lost in thought but his telepathic response was quick. {No, I'm fine here. That looks even smaller than this shuttle. I wouldn't want to hit something by mistake.}

Holly, the equine morph was dozing in her seat, the sheathed broadsword on the seat next to her. She snorted and woke long enough to decline.

"I'll come," Sean said after a glance at the small station looming next to the shuttle.

"I expected as much." Richard held up the phone and pressed a button. The eagle's face appeared on the phone before it shrunk down into an icon. Richard pulled it into the air, away from the main spell laying on the floor, and paged through until he found a wardrobe icon. He pulled it out as well, and linked the two together, creating a shining necklace. "When we're ready, put this on, and I'll activate it. Do NOT do any of your own magic within it, I'm not sure how it will react. But it will keep you warm and breathing over there."

"Good to hear, Richard. We're in position now. I'll go over first and check things out. If there aren't any surprises, you can activate your spell and come over as well." Joseph said, coming out of the cockpit and clipping rings around his neck and wrists. On his head, he wore a set of goggles that shielded his eyes. He pushed a button and was surrounded by a field that lifted him a few centimeters above the ground. "Where can't I go?" he asked, his voice echoed by the radio signal.

"Stay close to the wall anywhere past me, and you should be fine."

Joseph looked at the clear space and shook his head. "I'll just walk outside then. Mask camera on." On the screen at the front, a new window opened up, showing the cabin from Joseph's point of view. It steadied automatically as he turned his head. "Wait for my signal. I'll be right back." With that, he took a few steps, walking through Sean's empty chair like it wasn't there, and then through the wall of the ship. The camera view blacked out a moment, then reappeared, showing the white covered hull of the space station and the blackness of space around it.

"Still no damage that I can see," Joseph reported over the radio, his view turning to take in the station. He was clinging to a hand hold of their own shuttle while he studied the station. "Making my jump over Now."

The camera view went staticy for a second, and the docking door of the station was suddenly front and center. A hand reached out and grabbed the handle to steady himself, and then the camera moved in closer to look through the porthole window. "Dark inside, no sign of any bodies. I'm going in."

The camera moved closer and closer to the porthole until it looked like it would bump into it. But it didn't; instead the view went fuzzy for a long moment, and then cleared up, no sign of the port hole. A darkened chamber was visible, panels opened in all directions, some garbage floating in the space. A bright light lit up above the camera and followed Joey's head movements. "Still no bodies... Very cold but not completely cold, seems like the heaters are still somewhat active, but they're probably on their last legs. Atmosphere is very thin, unbreathable, which probably isn't helping the heaters any." The view continued shifting as Joey moved in deeper. "Seems safe enough, if you think your spells are stable. Do your casting Richard, Surah, and come on over."

Richard double checked the spell and carefully lifted it up, stretching it around the shuttle's airlock under Surah's watchful eye. Once it was in place, he began speaking the spell, feeling the world go silent as it took effect, and hearing the underlying purring as Surah added her part to the spell. On the far side of the airlock, the side of the shuttle glowed and extended out touching and sticking to the station's airlock tentatively at first, but quickly feeling out the edges and adhering to it. The glow swelled and hardened, linking the shuttle and the station in a solid tube of glowing light.

The wizards went silent as the spell finished and waited, as if daring it to fail. The tube held strong, the only indicator of it a glowing arch of text around the inside airlock door. The cat walked over to it and studied the writing. [It's solid. It'll hold till we release it.] she announced.

"Good good, The inside of the field will keep the air inside the shuttle. Airlock's already been overridden, so it's just a matter of walking over now." Richard said, pulling an icon off his phone and stretching it out into a sheet which he wrapped around himself. He mumbled quickly to himself and the sheet glowed briefly before fading, leaving him shielded as well.

"You ready to come Sean?"

The eagle looked startled, tilting his head from side to side as he studied the wizardry. He shook his head and nodded. "Incredible. Yes, let's go."

[I'll stay at this end and keep an eye on things, just in case.] Surah said, hoping up onto Holly's furry lap and turning around. The horse looked down, startled, but she scratched the feline who purred wordlessly in pleasure.

The human wizard touched some controls and the airlock hissed open, revealing a glowing field. "Just step through and follow me. Watch your wings and where you touch, there's no gravity over there so we'll be floating which should be fine for you," Richard explained, giving the suit wizardries and the bridge spell one final examination before stepping through. He felt the spell harden a little as it encountered vacuum, but it was still easy to move. He pushed himself down along the glowing corridor he had created, to the hatch at the far end, on the other side of another force field. Behind him the eagle-morph followed, his wings twitching a bit as they left the shuttle's gravity field. Richard cast a quick look back to make sure Sean was doing fine, then focused on the air lock. He put his hand on the controls and listened, feeling the station dozing in a depressed slumber.

"[I know you guard against the airless void, but we have put a second guard up. Could you wake up and let us through?]" he said in the Speech, willing it as much as saying it. Under his hand, he felt the hatch 'wake up' and listen. "[The air will not escape, but we seek entry. Please let us through,]" he added, willing a bit of power from him to the door to help it out. The hatch hissed and finally let him push through. He and Sean crowded into the compartment inside the station, closed the outer hatch and opened the inner one. They found Joseph waiting for them.

"I found the logs they left. And it looks like the stations computers were mostly put in standby, turned down to the bare essentials to try and keep the orbit stable. I think we'll need your touch to wake them up and see if they have any more to tell us, Richard," he explained, holding up a notebook.

"I'll see what I can do. Anything useful in the logs?"

"Not sure yet, still trying to find the event, if there's any mention of it...."

The pair pushed off to head deeper into the station. Sean watched them uncertainly then pushed with his own talon, feeling his body float nearly effortlessly after them. It wasn't quite like flying, it was easier in someways, harder in others, but his aerial instincts held true enough to help him get used to it. He caught up with the pair in a central module, seeing Richard facing a faintly glowing panel, talking to it.

"So how do you like null gravity?" Joseph asked, floating upside down with respect to Richard, alternating between flipping through the notebook and looking out the window.

"It is strange. I could get used to it, if this station wasn't so cramped."

Joey nodded. "It's a limitation of the chemical rockets they used. It severely limits how much you can easily get off the surface, and what shapes they have to be. Though had this world gone like normal, they probably would have had many more options available to them. Instead, we've got an empty station and a silent world. Anyway, if you want before we drop you back off at the Keep I'll take you to some of the Null-G zones in the Tangle. Lots of fun out there."

"Hey Joey, do the logs have any information about what happened? The computers are sluggish but slowly waking up. Last dates seem to be back in 2007," Richard interrupted them.

"Yeah, that jibes with the logs. Just a sec, I'll try to summarize a bit." Joey pushed himself away from the window to let Sean look out at the planet. He hooked a leg around a bracket and flipped through the book.

"The first entry is June 14th, 2007. It's the Station commander's personal logs, and he's been here a year already. Supposed to cycle back down to Earth at the end of the month. Let's see.... Not much happening the first few days. Reading between the lines, it seems the Challenger left at the end of May, and the Columbia was already in orbit on its way to the station."

Richard hm'ed to himself. "Fast turn around. This world's NASA must have been less risk adverse than mine. Then again if Challenger and Columbia were still flying, they may not have had the hard lessons yet."

Joseph skipped ahead a few pages. "Could be. Looks like the first strange things happened when Columbia was docking. All eyes were on it to watch out for any trouble, when Jagar, he's a mission specialist, saw something happen on Earth. A flash of light that spread across the entire planet in a couple of minutes. It spread from the Earth too, and engulfed the station a few seconds later. He wasn't sure what happened, but all systems died just after Columbia docked. It took a few hours for them to come back, the first hour or so especially confusing since things that should have worked did not."

"I'd say they witnessed the Kernel corruption from above. Could come in handy, does it say where it was centered? Whatever happened down there probably affected here until the Field collapsed back down to the atmospheric level."

"He didn't write down exactly what they witnessed, but it seems like they were over Asia during the docking, and the flash seemed to come from the north pole and around the edges. So the centre was probably in North America somewhere.

"They managed to get the systems restarted and stabilized after a few hours, and got the crew in from the Columbia. But they were still having trouble. They couldn't contact Earth. None of the Control centres responded, nor were there any other signals coming from Earth. They could contact some of the other satellites around, but nothing on Earth."

Joey skimmed over the next few pages. "Survivor stuff here, attempts to reach Earth or to see what's going on down there. Hmm, are we on the night side?"

"You mean is it dark down there? Yes it is," Sean called out, looking at the world below the station, still amazed by it.

Joseph flickered and disappeared for a moment, and reappeared just outside the window Sean was viewing through. "Wow, we should have noticed that before. Looks like it's evening over North America down there. And there's not a light on down there."

"Not a light?" Richard patted the monitor a moment and pushed off to the window next to Sean. He found the terminator and saw it sweeping across the North American plains. "I see what you mean. The north east coast of that land mass below us, Sean. On most Earth's it is a heavily populated megalopolis, stretching from the peninsula to the south all the way up to the big river there. Millions upon millions of people living along that stretch of land. And with that many people, it should be lit up bright enough to be seen from up here. But there's nothing... Nothing down there at all." He looked down at his phone and flipped through a few screens before stretching the screen out to show a night view of the planet, similar to the one below them, but with bright points of lights along the coasts and major rivers.

"This is my world, a composite image taken of the dark side. Here's where the east coast is, what you can see down there. They should be as brightly lit as this, if all was right. But they aren't."

"Richard, the logs say they saved some pictures from the satellites. See if you can draw them up." Joseph radioed in, still outside, perched next to the window. "Sean, you've probably got the best eyes out there until we go back to the shuttle. Let us know if you see any lights down there."

"Sure, sure. I'll keep an eye on the world."

The three continued working in silence for a while longer, each absorbed in their own tasks. Finally, Joseph phased through the side, back into the compartment. "I found it. What happened up here," he announced, holding up the book.

"There were thirteen people stuck up here after the communications black out. They stayed up here for a few weeks, but they knew they couldn't stay up here forever. The station's only designed for six semi-permanent residents at once, and even then they need regular resupply from Earth. With Columbia's crew, they knew they'd have to go back down eventually.

"So they studied the Earth with everything they had available. The logs note a few curiosities. Like the number of large scale fires all around, the lack of aircraft in the skies and the lack of movement on the ground. The satellites they could tap into couldn't resolve close enough to detect people, but they could pick up vehicles, and for the most part, they weren't moving. Not under their own power.

"They were somewhat reassured by what they did NOT see though. No mushroom clouds, or any other signs of large scale war. So they were reasonably certain that whatever happened down there, the planet was still alive, one way or another. It was a small consolation prize.

"Finally, they knew the day had come. They had to prepare to abandon the station. The last week of notes is full of details about how they split up the records and experiments between the two Soyuz modules and the shuttle, and a copy of the records to leave up here, as best they could. They had no idea what was waiting for them, but they couldn't stay up here. The Columbia left first and took another day or so to reach the atmosphere. The crews stayed in touch as long as they could, but the radio link died soon after Columbia hit the atmosphere. They don't know what happened to that crew.

"A day or so after the Columbia went silent, it was time to leave themselves. The first Soyuz left July 21st, 2007, and all contact was lost once they hit the atmosphere, never recovered. The last entry is on the 24th. They've finished shutting everything down but the minimum to do basic station keeping. They programmed the computers it to lift the station to a higher orbit as well, to try and make it endure longer, just in case. And then they left."

Joseph closed the log and looked around the station. "Twenty five years, floating here in space...," he shuddered a moment. "You guys have anything?"

"My manual's downloaded the images in the computer. I'll look at them closer when we're back in the shuttle," Richard said, unplugging the device from the panel. "There's been some losses, some of the solid state memory failed and stuff, but I managed to coax most of it out."

The eagle pushed away from the window and shook his head, stretching his wings out and bumping the sides of the room. "The world is dark down there. I saw a few lights that may be fires, but with the distances you say we're at, they can't be campfires or anything like that. They'd be too big."

"Probably just forest fires sparked by lightning. Lets go back to the shuttle and figure out what we've got. You think any of the spy sats are still up and awake enough to look down for us?" Joseph asked, floating along behind the other two as the trio started back towards the airlock.

Richard shook his head. "Most of them would be low orbits. Twenty five years is long enough that they probably came down long ago, and what's left probably doesn't have any power left. I'll have the shuttle scan around, see if anything's awake enough to answer us, but it'll just be the stuff a quarter century out of date and what we can pick up on our own."

Joseph teleported himself back into the shuttle, while the other two floated through the magic bridge. "Well we have some clues at least. We know when the event happened, and some clues as to where. We'll go through the images and data you salvaged, but my gut feel is we're going to North America."

The wizard double checked the air locks were fully closed, then tugged on a strand of power over the airlock door. The barest hint of a shudder went through the shuttle as it detached from the station and the wizardry collapsed down to a hula hoop sized ring of weakly glowing words. "This might come in handy. You want to keep it or shall I?" he asked, looking at the sleeping cat. Surah opened one eye and twitched her tail dismissively, not even answering him. "Fine, I'll keep it." he said, grinning and folding the spell up and pushing it onto his phone where it disappeared. He pulled the space suit wizardry's off of himself and Sean as well and stored them on his phone as well.

Over the following days, the group studied the data from the station and the planet below them. The results were unnerving. Pictures recovered from the station showed cities in flames, no vehicles running, and general chaos. More current pictures both from the shuttle and from a couple of satellites Richard managed to wake up enough to look down, showed cities slowly being reclaimed by nature, and smaller towns and villages scattered far away from the old cities, most of them walled.

"Any luck finding the Kernel?" Joseph asked, studying three pictures of Detroit. One taken soon after the fall, one from Richard's world which was similar to this one at the time of the fall, and one gotten recently. He shook his head in wonder at the amount of death and destruction implied by the pictures,

"No. I'm fairly confident it's in the Northern Hemisphere, and probably somewhere in North America, but more precise than that...," he shook his head and sighed. "The same interference that's blocking our more advanced sensors is also disrupting any mystical attempts to search too. We're going to have to go down, on the other side of the discontinuity."

"Then let's get ready. We're hitting the ground guys."

It didn't take long to prepare the shuttle for landing. Loose gear was packed away, and Richard double checked the Keepers were strapped in properly, and Surah was in her own locked down cage. He joined Joseph at the front and took his own seat, strapping in. "We're all set."

"Good. We'll loop around the planet a few times, loosing altitude. We'll hit the atmosphere over the Urals roughly and glide eastward. The shuttle's big enough that we should be able to get a good week or so of flying time out of it, even with the no-tech frame that seems to be down there."

"It shouldn't take that long. Once we're lower, I should be able to get a fix," Richard replied, taking out his phone and pulling off a few icons, draping them over his lap before putting his phone back. "I'll scan on the way down in any case. No point in wasting an opportunity."

The engines in the little shuttle pulsed with power and the station fell away from them. Joseph kept a close eye on the controls and the readings on the planet below as he sent the shuttle slowly spiraling down. Beside him, Richard expanded an icon into a wave of magic, letting it swell into a holographic view of the world below them, a line marking their progress. They circled the planet three times, losing altitude each time, before the shields began to glow with the heat of reentry. The white covered mass of Greenland reflected light up to them as they passed over the Atlantic. England went by in a blur, a green covered island with no lights or any other obvious signs of civilization.

"We don't have exact timing, but best guesses say that we are about to pass into the transition zone," Joseph announced as the Alps passed beneath them.

Everyone tensed and looked around expectantly, but nothing happened other than the steadily increasing hissing sound of air rushing past the shields. A few minutes later, Richard began to relax, "Maybe-" he started to say, but was drowned out by a blaring alarm.

Both he and Joseph leaned forward and checked the controls, silencing the alarm and trying to figure out what was going on.

{What was that?} the dragon's telepathic voice called from the back.

"Trouble! That's what. We're getting cascading failures across the board. It's the Frame. It's damn near hostile to technology. The shuttle's loosing its own frame faster than I expected. How's your magic?" Joseph called back, tapping controls and trying to keep the shuttle flying even as it began to shake.

"One bar. Enough to do stuff with, but new stuff will be tricky. What do you need?"

"A heat shield. The force field already flickered out once before backups kicked in. If that goes down, we'll burn out before we get to the ground. Then we need something to keep us in the air."

Richard unbuckled his restraints and got up, his phone still glowing steadily. "Surah, a little help please?" he called out, bracing himself against the back of his seat and pulling out glowing strings of characters.

The feline wizard pawed at the catch inside the door of her cage and leaped out, landing briefly on the back of Holly's chair before leaping to the front, barely phased by the increasing turbulence. She began to grab the character strings and weave them together.

[It's a lot of mass and velocity. We're going to need a lot of energy for this.] she commented.

"I know, I know, Joey, couldn't you jump us down to the ground or something?" he shouted, sweating as the cabin warmed up.

"Too much speed, too many people and too damn far. We gotta get this slowed down and landed- DAMN IT!" As he spoke, the screens and controls went dark. The roar of the engines sputtered out, replaced by the roar of wind blowing along the shuttle's skin. The only light left in the shuttle was the glowing holographic sphere, and the glow from the wizardries Surah and Richard were weaving.

"Where'd the windows go?" Holly shouted from the back.

"Gone with the rest of the technology. They weren't real windows, just holographic projections from cameras on the skin." Joseph looked around and disappeared from his seat, reappearing next to a storage panel at the back of the shuttle. He gripped the handle of the airlock for support and yanked the door open. After a quick search, he pulled out a package of plastic tubes filled with liquid. He snapped and shook them one at a time, adding a green glow to the wizard light.

Up front, Richard and Surah carried out a silent argument while they weaved their emergency spell. Finally, Richard threw up his hands in frustration and caught a strand from the weave they were making. "Sean! Can you still understand me?" he called out.

The eagle looked up, his claws gripping the arm rests of his chair tightly, his wings half extended. He recognized his name, but the rest of the words were a jumble of unrecognizable sounds.

"Damn it! Joe! The Translator's down. Translate for me! Tell him to focus on this strand I have in my hand. When I give the signal, tell him to dump as much power into this as he can. And lets prey to the One that it'll work. Mixing magics is dangerous enough as is."

Joseph flickered and reappeared back in the cockpit, dropping a couple more glowsticks on the blank table that used to be the controls. He thought for the moment, wiping his forehead and translated for Richard.

"I can't just dump power into it. My magic doesn't work that way. I can only amplify what exists," Sean, through Joseph, answered.

"Then do that. This is the main power line for the entire spell. Amp it's power and it should flow to the rest. Now wait for my signal," Richard barely gave Joseph time to start the translation before he and Surah started speaking the spell. As they spoke, the woven words glowed brighter and the noise of the wind quieted down. The spell itself began to expand, stretching through the cabin and then beyond the walls, out of sight, but not out of mind. Richard finished the last word of the spell and slumped down against the back of his seat, looking more drained than the hot cabin would natural cause. "Now," he croaked out.

Outside the wind noise died a bit, but not completely. The spell power sentence Richard held onto glowed and twitched as the spell tried to handle what was needed. Sean focused on it, and expanded his own vision, seeing the lines of power that fed into the spell, not just the words, but the underlying strings tying the spell to Richard and Surah and spreading over the shuttle, reinforcing it. His eyes darted around, taking in the magical streams and sorting them out before he reached out with his own abilities, tapping into the power phrase and expanding it while being careful not to draw any more from the two wizards. Gradually, the turbulence died down, and then the cabin temperature began to lower. The stuffiness of stale air also began to fade out.

Joseph sniffed the air curiously and looked down at the groggy wizard. Richard smiled up at him. "I tied in some life support elements too into the spell. We're gliding, still on the track we were on, but I don't know how long the three of us can keep this up. We've gotta get down."

"Right, down." Joseph looked at the empty table where the controls used to be. "Any tips?"

Richard pulled himself back up and into his seat, glancing back at Surah. The cat was resting, tense but alert and showing no sign of fatigue. He turned back and motioned for Joseph to sit down, while he lifted the map sphere up.

"Looks like we're over the Pacific, rapidly approaching the West coast," he said, squishing down the Atlantic and European and African portions of the map, flattening it out so it showed their arc approaching land. He looked at the spell lines, and looked up at the eagle who was helping to power it. "Don't have time to search for the kernel, but we know it's down here somewhere. Once we're down, we aren't getting up again, so we should pick somewhere near the middle."

"Can you get any population readings? I wouldn't want to drop down in the middle of a village. We want to keep this as low key as possible."

"Not really, we're flying blind literally. I didn't have time to weave in any sort of sensors into the spell shield. When we get close to landing, I'll see if we can get something in. In the mean time, my world's maps seem pretty close." Richard waved his hand over the flattened map, and the ghost of words and lines, showing the road network of his world appeared on the land. Another mumbled command and a tear shaped glow appeared around the point representing the shuttle and stretching out until it covered the eastern seaboard. "That's the limit of where we can reach with this spell. But it's only a very rough estimate. We have no idea what Sean's magics are doing to the wizardry yet. We might go longer, or it may collapse completely on us without warning."

Joseph leaned over the map now laying on the table. "Pleasant thought." He shifted mental gears and called out to Sean in the Keeper's language. "We're trying to find a safe space to land. Let us know if it becomes too much for you so we can take over and find a closer area to land."

Sean twitched a bit, but his eyes never left the spot where the wizardry's power line was. "I can hold it. Just try to be quick."

"Will do...." he studied the map again and pointed. "Kansas, how about there? Flat, low populations, and fairly central overall. Though if it's on either coast we'll either bump into the Mississippi or the Rockies to get it."

"Sounds good to me. Setting the directions," Richard said, picking up the control strands and tying in a few more commands. The shuttle tilted under their feet as it adjusted its heading and continued gliding down, only the barest hint of wind to be heard.

For half an hour they glided through the air in their sealed, windowless box. Richard managed to tweak the map spell to show their current speed and altitude, but actual outside views were impossible. When Joseph stuck his head through to look out himself, the view wasn't any better; the active wizardry surrounding the shuttle glowed with the reentry heat too hot to see through. As they passed over the Rockies, both Richard and Joseph kept an eye on the guessed altitude, and the height of the ground around them, but the shuttle managed to avoid any collisions.

As soon as they were over Colorado, Richard called for everyone to brace themselves, and strapped himself back in. He'd recovered a little during the long blind glide, but the spells he pulled out and prepared for their landing still looked weak. Sean and Surah similarly looked uneasy.

"One hundred meters," Joseph called out, reading it off the map. He forced himself to try and relax as the altitude counter steadily decreased. In Richard's world, this area wasn't very populated, but they had no idea what they were landing into. "Fifty meters."

"Twenty five met-" The spell flared brightly, and Sean screeched in pain, only to be drowned out by the horrible screech of metal on metal. The shuttle bucked hard as it crashed into something, seemed to find an open space, then landed hard, sliding forward. Richard tried to recover and get the spells replaced, but there was another horrible rending metal sound and something caught the shuttle, spinning it sideways before letting go. They slid for another few heart stopping seconds, before the shuttle finally came to a stop, rocking slightly, the cabin tilted so the cockpit looked up towards the sky.

Joseph groaned and tried to regain his senses. The cabin was dusty and the scent of hot metal filled the air, but no smoke that he could sense. The green glows were scattered randomly, most at the back of the cabin, where the glow was enhanced by a whiter light. "Everyone okay? Sound off," he coughed out.

Beside him, a figure groaned and stirred. "Anyone get the number of that truck?" he groaned before making a quick gesture. The phone lifted itself out from under a fallen panel, and glowed brighter as it approached. "I'm okay. Nothing feels broken, " Richard said at last.

[I'm fine, no thanks to you,] an annoyed voice called from the back. Surah hopped out of her cage and perched there, beginning to wash herself.

"I think I over extended my wing, but I am fine. This glowing stuff isn't dangerous, is it?"

Richard looked back and saw the bronze dragon wincing and holding one wing very still, one joint set at an odd angle even for dragon physiology, and a puncture in the wing membrane that was bleeding a little. The dragon didn't seem as concerned with that as he was with his chest. Somehow one of the glow sticks had cracked open and splashed on the dragonmorph's chest.

"Yeah, it's non toxic. We'll find some water to rinse you off and get you bandaged up once we get out. Sean, Holly, you two all right?"

"I'm fine, just shaken up," Holly called out, unbuckling her straps and carefully stretching.

Sean groaned and flickered, shifting down to full eagle form and stumbling to his feet. Saroth carefully reached down and let his friend climb up his arm.

"Sean's fine, but weak. Says the feedback knocked him for a loop and he needs a few minutes to settle down." Saroth reported after a moment.

"Good. You guys, take care of Saroth's wing and make sure you all really aren't hurt, then start seeing what you can salvage. There's a first aid kit under Holly's seat. It's the white box with the red cross on it. Richard, see if you can talk the airlock into opening. We've got a breach but I can't tell how big it is yet. If we can take the air lock it'll be easier for everyone. I'm going to check the situation outside."

He waited another few moments to make doubly sure no one was injured worst than the dislocated joint and punctured wing membrane Saroth reported, then he picked a direction and walked out of the shuttle, phasing through the walls.

It took him a few minutes to orient himself once he was on solid ground again. In front of him stretched a grassy plain, green with the new spring grass. The grass was growing up among rusted hulks lined up in even rows. At the far end of the plain, the metal frame of a ruined building still stood. He turned around and saw the trench the shuttle had plowed in its landing, knocking more rusted hulks out of the way, and leading to the shattered wall in a mostly intact building. The paint had long flaked off, as had the plastic lighted sign coverings, but enough letters remained for him to figure out it was a Wal*Mart. He shook his head as the scene clicked into place. They had landed in the middle of a big box store complex. The parking lot and roads were almost completely overgrown now, but the number of cars made it obvious that not much had happened here since the collapse. He looked at the shuttle, and shook his head again at the scratches along the side, and the torn off engine pod left somewhere in the building. At least the air lock hatch was above the ground. As he watched it creaked and protested before a bronze claw got through and yanked it open further. The claw disappeared and Richard appeared with Surah's cage.

"Thank's Saroth," the wizard called out, stepping down carefully and putting down Surah's cage before looking around. The Keepers climbed out after him, Holly with her sword ready.

"Any problems with the hatch?" Joseph called out, not moving from his own vantage point.

"Tonnes. I've never seen anything like it. Most worlds are indifferent to out of context stuff. You can use foreign tech or magics or whatever as long as you have the power to use it, and they won't stop you. This world though... This world is downright hostile to any sort of advanced tech beyond maybe the waterwheel or something."


"Yeah, hostile. It reached out and disabled the shuttle and everything else on it within minutes. I managed to wake up the airlock, but even with Surah's and Sean's help, we only just managed to get enough power in its system to crack the seals. All the rest was just siphoned away into the ether."

Joseph frowned and looked around again. "That's not good. The real ether or just a figure of speech?"

"You're guess is as good as mine." Richard climbed up the edge of the trench the shuttle had carved and looked around. "So where are we?"

"Somewhere outside Wichita I'd guess. In a suburb that isn't in either of our worlds. Looks like we crashed through what's left of its Wal*Mart."

Holly climbed up next to Richard and followed the trench. "What's a Wal*Mart?" she asked.

Richard caught Joseph's inquisitive look and smiled. "We did the Universal Translator spell before we left the shuttle. It's an easy spell to do, and may come in handy with the natives." He looked back at the equine warrior. "As for what a Wal*Mart is, it's a large market, where you can get clothes, food, gadgets, and other things at, all under one roof, all owned by one group."

She studied the building and looked around. "All owned by one person? How could they make so much to fill that place?"

Richard chuckled. "They didn't. They would buy things others make and resell them here. Looks like a small store too. There are... or rather were bigger ones out there."

"Come on guys, lets see what useful stuff we can get off the shuttle while we have light," Joey interrupted them, flickering over to the airlock, then jumping down inside. "We can explore the ruins later," he shouted.

Richard and Joseph did most of the searching in the shuttle, passing out the equipment they figured would be useful out to Holly and Saroth. As the day wore on, the pile grew until both humans agreed there was little more of use in the shuttle.

"I can keep most of this in my pup tent," Richard said, surveying the pile they had created on the ground. "But we'll have to carry some of it, just in case we're separated, or we need something right away. Maybe a few bags of the gold coin blanks, a few days of food and the basic armor and weapons and stuff? What do you guys think? Your world is probably closer to what it's like down here than our experiences."

Holly nodded and started to sort the pile. "Yeah, you've got way too much to carry here. But what good would filling a tent with the extra stuff be?" she asked, grunting and shoving a case of unmarked gold bars out of the way.

"It's not a normal tent," Richard explained, shaking his phone to light up its screen, the only artificial light around them in the increasing dusk. He paged through it quickly and pulled out a glowing stick. He pressed it against the side of the shuttle and pulled downward, creating a doorway in mid air. "Don't mind the mess, you guys recruited me when I was coming home from a long mission, so I barely had time to get fresh supplies, let alone clean it up. In any case, I can get to here almost anywhere. So put what we don't need but want to keep here, and we'll carry the rest."

From the side, the pup tent entrance was all but invisible, a thin line barely visible. From the front, it showed a cubical space, about ten feet in each dimension. A futon was against the 'wall' opposite the entrance, and a small desk with a laptop on it against a second wall. The third wall had a pile of clothes, filled water bottles and boxes of travel foods stacked haphazardly. The walls themselves were translucent but dark at the moment, whatever was on the other side was invisible. A portable closet at the foot of the futon was open, with cold and wet weather gear hanging in it. Richard climbed in, followed by Surah. Surah hopped up onto the futon and turned around once before dozing off.

"Start passing me stuff and I'll find room for it. Be careful of the edges of the door," he called out, kicking a pile of clothes under the futon.

Joseph pulled out the dragon harness from the pile and passed it in. They had decided to give Saroth a day or two to rest his injured wing before asking him to carry much, so the harness was dead weight for now. "What is this?"

"It's a pinched off pocket of space time basically. My space time at that, though the entrance can be made anywhere that my wizardry works," Richard started to explain, tossing the harness in one corner and returning for a crate of gold bricks Holly carried over. "It's *ugh* It's completely separate from the universe we're in, including any local fields. Good news is, it means that anything my world would allow should work in here, the no tech field in effect here won't do anything inside the tent. Bad news is, nothing inside the tent can affect anything outside, unless it can get through the door. Theoretically I guess I could fire a gun from in here and the bullet's momentum would carry through the door. But practically, lets rely on our own skills."

"Good idea. Sean, how are you feeling? Could you take to the skies and do a quick look around, make sure no groups of locals are approaching? Should've done that sooner I guess but now's as good a time as any."

The eagle shook himself a bit on Saroth's shoulder, then spread his wings and took off, spiraling up into the sky.

{You want me to go up as well?} the dragon asked hopefully.

Joseph shook his head and helped with a box of blank gold coins. "Not yet. Dragons are not native to this world, at least not real dragons. If there are any natives close you'd draw too much attention. If there are any natives REALLY close, you'll probably need to hide quickly. Though I don't know how we'll explain the shuttle...."

"Surah and I can cook something up once we're ready and rested a bit. An illusion should suffice, make it look like a couple transports crashed during the crash and got grown over or something."

"How long would that last?"

"Depends on the weather. If it stays clear, probably a week or two. If it rains, a few days."

Joseph nodded. "That should do. Just long enough for us to get away and not be associated with it when its found."

{I'm still getting used to the feel of the air around here. I'll be able to tell more when I fly, but I'm not sensing any clouds in the area that will wash away the magic.}

"Thanks Saroth."

Sean returned after the group had finished sorting the gear and started a campfire. The eagle swelled larger as he glided down towards the fire, legs growing longer, chest and hips becoming more distinct, stubby claws growing from under the wings and swelling into full sized arms. He landed at a light jog and joined the group.

"I don't think anyone noticed us. Or at least noticed us enough to come our way." He pointed to the overgrown highway embankment past the stores. "There are signs of a recent camp over there, but I'd say the left at least a week ago. And there was a lot of movement in the...." He paused a moment and looked towards the darkened skyline of the city, trying to come up with the right word for it.

"City?" Richard provided helpfully.

"Is that what that is? In the city then. It's strange, it looks like it used to be well maintained long ago, but now, nothing. Just the signs of a few bands of people who can't be surviving well from what I saw. I didn't go near the towers just in case."

Joseph shook his head sadly and shuddered, looking at the city as well. "In my world, that city has almost half a million people in it, and a few hundred Heroes to protect it. And now, you can't even tell it is inhabited. Let alone who is inhabiting it."

The Keepers seemed to have a hard time grasping the concept of that many people in one place, but Richard understood it well. "I know what you mean, Joey. I think we should avoid the cities as much as possible while we're here. Just think of what happened to this world. Without warning, everything stopped working. Worldwide chaos barely describes what it must have been like. Even here, in the heart of the breadbasket, the trucks didn't work to bring in the food."

He paused and tossed another piece of wood on the fire. "I heard a saying once somewhere... that civilization is three square meals away from anarchy. Well, once everything stopped working, that three square meal countdown started. And with no one able to bring food into the cities, the thousands, even millions of people in them would strip the cities bare in no time. Then Darwin takes over, and those that stayed...."

Joseph gulped again and nodded. "Who's Darwin?" Holly asked.

"Not a who exactly, more of a what. He's a scientist from worlds like mine and Joey's. Came up with theories about animal behavior and such. Most famously, he's known for a theory describing 'Survival of the fittest'; those best adapted to the situation at hand will survive to have children. Those less adapted will be killed off. In the case of the cities, with no other food around, I think you can imagine that a hundred pounds of fresh killed meat, regardless of what, or who, it was before, would be looking mighty tasty when you're starving and just put a lot of effort in killing it."

Holly grimaced and looked away. Saroth and Sean also looked a little sickened at the thought.

"Right, I'm sure the entire world hasn't gone cannibal. If it had gone zombie, I'm sure they would have warned us in the Tangle. For now, lets just avoid the cities and approach any natives cautiously. In the mean time, we have a lot of planning to do. Richard, can you and Surah find the kernel?" Joseph said, trying to raise the mood and get them refocused.

Richard nodded. "I'm getting a twitch of a direction. East and a bit north. Now that we're here, I think we can make a spell tomorrow to guide us more directly."

"Sounds good. In the mean time, we need to figure out how you Keepers are going to travel among the natives."

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"So we're in agreement? We'll head out next week?" Brian Daigle asked, relaxing on a bench on the porch outside the Circle Square ranch house. The sun had just set, bringing in a late spring chill.

Bruno nodded, looking out at the barn. "I'd love to stay and help with the spring planting, but if we did that with everyone who shows us hospitality, we'll never make it to the coast," he said, ruffling the ears of the big warhound Boots laying next to him.

"I'll talk with Mathew tomorrow then, start arranging for the supplies... What is it Misty?" Brian interrupted himself and stared at his cousin. She was looking at the horizon, still bright from the setting sun, but the brighter stars were already out.

"The stars are moving," she said, not looking away.

"Moving? Sure it's not a meteor? Or maybe one of those old satellites?" Angela sat up and moved to stand beside their group mate, trying to see what she was seeing.

"No... Yes.. It's one of the satellites. But it's moving in ways it hasn't before." She pointed and everyone else followed her eyes, studying the darkening sky.

Ryan was the first to spot it. "I see it. It is moving the wrong way, and it seems brighter. I think that's the one dad said was the old station? The one that had people living on it. Those poor souls. Think it's finally coming down?"

Brian ducked into the house and returned with a pair of binoculars. The casing was post-Change, but their real worth was in the lenses, taken from an expensive pair of pre-Change binoculars and ground to a quality glass workers were only now getting near. He lifted them to his eyes and adjusted the focusing wheel until the 'star' resolved into a slightly larger oblate blob.

"I still can't see much. I swear it looks bigger, but it's been a long time since I last looked at it," Brian said, frustrated. He passed the glasses to Angela who took a look as well.

She fiddled with them for a moment or two, and then got it into focus. "I see what you mean, it does look bigger some- wait... I think something just broke off from it. A bright spark just detached from it."

The others squinted and shielded their eyes ineffectively, but could only just see another faster moving spot leaving the brighter star of the station. Angela followed it for a few moments until she lost track of it. "Damn it, I lost it," she cursed, handing the glasses back to Brian. She looked back at the skies. "You don't suppose?..." she started to say.

Ryan shook his head. "Impossible sis. You read the stories, there's no way anyone could have lived twenty years up there. Probably something banged something else up there and knocked things around."

"I suppose so. So you want to leave next week?"

Brian nodded. "Yeah, we'll help Mathew check the fences before we leave, and once that's done we'll head out."

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Angela reigned her horse to a stop on top of an old overpass and looked around. Other than the hazy towers of the Witch on the edge of the horizon, grasslands flush with new growth surrounded her, broken only by a simple fence. "This land is beautiful," she called out to her companions.

"It is, isn't it?" Paul rode up and stopped next to her. "In a few years, once I find enough like minded people, I'm going to set up my own homestead, right down there, on the hill overlooking the river. Dad's got it all arranged and everything." He smiled at her, leaving his offer mostly unsaid. Since the group had wintered over in Paul's father's homestead, Paul had been smitten with Angela and had playfully tried to convince her to stay.

Down below them, Ryan stopped his own horse and looked up at the pair on the bridge. "You're such a tease, sis," he called out in the lyrical elf language that was the second tongue of Silverwood, where they grew up.

"He's only got a few more days to try and convince me. I don't know, compared to looking at you the rest of the way across the continent, I may just decide to stay here. The view would be better for both of us," she called back, teasing.

Paul shook his head and chuckled, not understanding a word they said, but he was used to it. Before anyone could say anything else, they heard a rumble, like far away thunder that would not stop.

"Thunder? There's not a cloud in the sky?" Paul said, beginning to turn around. He froze in his saddle, looking at the western sky and slowly raised a hand. "What the hell is that?!?" he shouted.

The siblings turned where he was facing and tensed as well. A fireball was coming out of the sky towards them, the roar clearly coming from it. Their horses skittered nervously, but the skilled riders held them still, having no where to even try running. The fireball passed far over their heads and continued on eastward, the roar beginning to diminish the further it got from them. Finally it disappeared near the ruins of the city.

After calming the horses, the three gathered closer together. "What the hell was that? Did you see something in the flames?" Ryan asked.

"Something? What sort of thing? I couldn't see anything but my life flashing before my eyes," Paul answered.

Angela nodded and hopped out of her saddle. She handed the reigns to Paul and grabbed a stick, beginning to sketch in a muddy spot. "I saw something, sort've like this I think," she said, sketching out a triangle with two long curved sides. "Definitely NOT a meteor in any case."

Ryan looked at the simple sketch and nodded. "Yeah I saw the same thing. We should go check it out. Who knows? It might be one of the old satellites come down and there might be something usable in it."

"Probably not, but we'll never know until we go check it out. Paul, you want to come with us, or go back to get your family?"

The young man looked uncertain, glancing in the direction of his home, then towards the ruined city. Both were a good days ride away. "I want to go with you guys.... but duty calls. I'll ride back and let Dad know what we saw. I'm sure he'll send out a team to look at it though, we'll meet you out there."

"Fair enough. We get first pick of anything we find, you guys can keep the rest." Angela grinned and climbed back in her saddle. "Come on, young'un. Time's a wasting. See you in a few days Paul."

"Five minutes! You came out ahead of me by five minutes!" Ryan rolled his eyes and shook his head, waving to Paul and chased after his sister.

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Joseph, still half asleep, sniffed the air once, then again, inhaling the scent of sweetened oatmeal cooking. He yawned and opened his eyes, blinking against the dawn light until his eyes adjusted. Reflexively, he glanced at his wrist to check the time, only to see the blank screen of the non-functioning wristcomp. "Ugh, what time is it?" he called out, concentrating a moment and sitting up through his sleeping bag.

"Just after six I'd guess," Holly called from the fire, tending the oatmeal pot with an expert hand. Behind her, Sean was helping Saroth stretch his wings. The dragon morph visibly winced when his wing extended past a point, but he managed to hold it still while the eagle checked the bandage on the wing wound.

"How yah doing, Saroth?" Joseph called out. He shrugged into the jacket of his uniform, the electronic cloaking field woven in it useless in this frame, and adjusted the lay of his blades that thankfully were not useless.

{I'm fine. Just slept on it wrong. Give me a bit to stretch and I'll be fine,} the dragon sent, an undercurrent of pain clear in his mental voice.

Sean lightly punched the dragon between the wings. "Don't think you're fooling us, Sar. You banged that wing up more than you let on, and now you're paying for it. And with that membrane tear, you'll be lucky to get a good glide, let alone any actual flying. Just take it easy and no flying for a day or two at least, until you can get a full extension without wincing."

The dragon growled wordlessly and tried to stretch the wing again, only to gasp and pull it back in.

"Don't worry about it, big guy. We weren't counting on you to fly us to the kernel or anything like that. Sean can be our aerial scout until you can join him." Joseph looked around and frowned. "Speaking of which, where are our wizards?"

Holly sampled the oatmeal, and ladled spoonfuls out into plastic bowls. She pointed to the wrecked Wal*Mart with her spoon. "They said they were going shopping and wouldn't be long. That was maybe ten minutes ago."

"They left before breakfast?"

"Richard had a few of those bars he has and said that was all he wanted. Surah said she'd already eaten her fill."

"I suppose she would. OK, eat up guys. If they aren't back by the time we're done, we'll head in to look for them. Probably wouldn't be a bad idea for you guys to get used to what the wrecks around here are like."

The four ate up and cleaned up without the wizards returning. Holly carefully put out the fire and stacked their gear up next to the crashed shuttle.

"I'm going to stretch my hooves a bit. Don't worry, I'll stay close by," Holly announced shifting to her full Arabian form.

"Watch your step out there. Any glass should be well ground to dust by now, but the manhole covers and sewer grates are probably just starting to fail," Joseph warned her.

The bay horse tilted her head inquisitively. Joseph looked around the overgrown parking lot and walked closer to the curb, leading the Keepers. He pulled at a brush growing on the old curb, revealing a metal grate. "To help with drainage, when it rained or when the snows melted, there'd be grates like these scattered around parking lots and along roads, leading to tunnels that lead to the rivers. So the ground may not be as stable as it looks if any of those grates failed or the tunnels collapsed."

Holly nodded her head and took off towards a faded Staples building, quickly reaching a gallop. Joseph motioned towards the Wal*Mart. "Shall we go find our wizards?" he asked of the remaining Keepers.

They walked towards the building, paralleling the trench their landing had carved. Joseph realized that the number of cars in the lot indicated the Crash here had to have happened during the day, or early evening. Most of the cars were in parking slots, tires rotted away, windows long smashed, all showing signs of having been looted long ago. Only a few cars were in between rows, or crashed into parked cars, showing vehicles that had been in motion when the Crash happened.

At one car, Joseph paused, noticing a flash of something under the rusting car body. He crouched down and reached through the car body and felt carefully before pulling it out. He barely stopped himself from dropping it once it became clearly visible.

Sean stepped closer and looked at it, nodding his head. "A bone, definitely human. Long dead," he said after a moment, taking it from Joseph and turning it over.

Joseph shuddered and tried to resettle himself. "Not unexpected I guess. The death toll after the Crash was probably staggering. And survival trumped proper burial. Let's keep going."

The shuttle's crash had cut a trench through the old big box store to the left of the old entrances, through the pharmacy section. Joseph ignored it and lead the way carefully through the twisted doors and into the darkened store. The only light came from the shuttle's holes and the entrance, showing knocked over shelves, an empty cart coral, and knocked over registers, all of the drawers pried open and emptied. The store had been stripped by scavengers, with very little left. The clothing department's racks were bare, where there were racks left. The jewelry department similarly was down to empty rusty cases. What little hadn't been scavenged was mostly on the floor and trampled or lost in the layer of dirt blown in over the decades since it was abandoned.

"This way," Sean said, pointing towards the back of the store. "I can sense their magic."

Joseph lead the way deeper into the old building, following the original corridors, stepping around abandoned racks, shelves and islands. As they reached the old Electronics department, obvious only by the sign barely readable on the wall, he debated cracking another chemical light to see better with. He canceled that thought when he spied a spark of bright light through the doorway leading to the back.

Saroth helped pull the door open further, the sound of screeching metal filling the air as it dragged across the concrete. Inside, they saw a wide alley, mostly clear, leading to the still closed loading bay doors. A forklift that looked like it could still drive if internal combustion was allowed, was parked against one wall. Most of the light came from Richard's smart phone, that was propped up on the forklift seat. Random items were scattered on the floor, with scuffed lines linking them together. On a pallet nearby, the orange cat was focused on cleaning herself. Slumped on the floor beside the forklift, Richard was eating his way through a box of energy bars, looking like he had run a marathon. Beside him, three plastic halloween masks, an old GPS receiver and a can of paint rested.

Sean paused just inside the doorway and blinked. "Whoa. Lots of magic happening in here," he commented, squinting and looking around.

"It's safe guys. The spells are all cast now and unknotted," Richard called, waving a half eaten bar towards them.

Joseph lead the way in, stepping cautiously around the scuffed markings on the floor despite Richard's assurances. "What have you two been up to? You look exhausted."

"I am. Five major wizardries at once takes a lot out of you, even with Surah's help," he held up a hand to silence the eagle before Sean could speak up. "And I wanted to do it with my magics. You were a huge help in landing the shuttle Sean, but until we can study more how our magics interact, I want to keep them as separate as possible."

He pulled himself to his feet and gripped the forklift for a long moment to make sure he was steady. "Anyway, Surah and I got up early, and decided to go scavenging ourselves for components to make our spells easier. We didn't know how picked over this spot was, but we hoped what we needed would have been left, and it was. The hardest thing to find was a can of paint that wasn't dried up."

Joseph nodded and looked around. "So what did you accomplish?"

"Three disguise masks for the Keepers, an illusion paint for the shuttle, and a kernel detector. Be careful back there guys!"

While he had been talking, Saroth and Sean had curiously moved to the rows of racks and started looking down the darkened aisles. The dragon was holding a ball of fire in his claws to light their way.

{There's something down here.... Some people had kept a fire down here or something,} the dragon called out.

"Yeah, I was going to get to that," Richard said, crouching to pick up the supplies, making sure the paint can was covered. He grabbed the phone and used its light as a flashlight to guide them to the Keepers.

{Looks like it was a cooking fire... still some bones around here, well chewed but... are these human bones?} Saroth's mental voice sounded disgusted as he and Sean inspected the campsite.

The humans joined them, looking down the aisle. Richard nodded. "Human bones, and human teeth marks. I couldn't question the bones directly... I don't think I'd want to, and the shelves are not very talkative. I've got an inanimate affinity, but it runs more towards electronics than the real inanimate like some wizards. What I did get from them wasn't nice. But what you think happened is what happened. Let's get out of here."

Richard backed away and lead the way back out of the building. "Your costumes are basically very simple illusions. Anyone looking at you will see humans. But if they touch you beyond the barest contact, they'll probably feel something different. To activate it, just put it on over your face and it'll take effect. To deactivate it, pull it off. To be safe, make sure you take it off before you shift your forms," he explained once they were back in the light.

"Saroth, there's nothing I can do about your voice, so if we're among other people, please try to stay quiet or at worst, whisper to us. We don't want others noticing you're any different than you are. Where's Holly?"

"She went for a run. She'll be back soon I'm sure," Sean explained, taking the mask Richard offered him.

"Put these on and we'll tune your human appearances. Don't worry about snapping the cord or anything; it's all magically reinforced."

Joseph eyed the masks as the eagle and dragon tried to put them on, and smirked. He leaned closer to Richard and whispered. "Power Ranger masks?"

Richard shrugged and grinned back. "It was the only thing I could find that was still usable.... Okay, I admit it, it was VERY tempting to attach an 'It's Morphing Time' activation key to them. But I couldn't figure out how to tie it in with Saroth's mental voice."

The teleporter snorted and walked through a couple of cars to put some distance between himself and the rest of the group before he lost it. Richard grinned and approached the Keepers, the masks beginning to activate as they got them in place. A few moments later, instead of the eagle and dragon morphs, two middle aged men stood there, dressed in hand made clothes. "Hold still guys, just need to make a few tweaks so you aren't twins."

Joseph wandered back to the group's camp and looked around, debating whether they should try to leave now, or to wait another day. He ported to the top of the shuttle and turned around slowly. In one direction, the dead city hunkered, silent and threateningly. He shuddered and put his back to it, eyes following the embankment of an old Interstate highway where it curved around the city and came towards them. Just visible on the other side, would have been suburbia, but over the decades since the city died, fires and weather had ravaged the suburbs, leaving a plain of grassland with the rare wreckage of a building still standing, a mound of bricks here, a basement's or pool's depression there. In the distance he noticed a plume of dust.

"Man, she can really run when she wants to," Joseph mused to himself, shading his eyes and trying to verify it was Holly raising the dust. Out of habit, he reached to pull down his goggles to zoom in on her, before he remembered he wasn't even wearing them. He jumped down to the supply packs and dug out the goggles, and checked to make sure the manual wheel worked. He focused on the dust plume, adjusting the view until the Arabian mare came into view. She was galloping at full speed down an overgrown street in the old suburbs, returning to the shuttle. Behind her, he spotted a second dust plume, which resolved into two mounted cowboys. "Ah shit!" Joey cursed, porting directly back to Richard and the Keepers.

He barely recognized the two Keepers in their illusions. Both were still human, but Sean had darkened his hair a bit, while Saroth had lightened his. "Guys, we gotta move. Holly's hot hoofing it back and she's got company."

"What? Which way?" Sean shouted, already crouching to take off.

"Mask!" Richard shouted, reminding the bird. He pulled at his nose and the stretched out mask reappeared on the eagle's beak. Sean tossed the mask to Richard and shrunk down to his eagle form in mid leap.

"How do we hide the shuttle? We don't have much time. They were on the other side of the highway." Joseph explained quickly, pointing where he saw the horse and riders.

Richard grabbed the can of paint and shoved it in Joey's hands. "Splash this over the shuttle, and Surah can do the rest. We'll be there ASAP. Now go!"

The teleporter balanced the can, and the bundle of fur that leaped into his arms. He flickered out, reappearing back at the shuttle. Following the instructions, he pried the top of the paint can off, jumped to the top of the shuttle and started pouring it out. The paint glowed as it flowed out and spread further than he thought would have been possible. Surah jumped away and landed literally on thin air, watching the paint begin to spread. When the last drops left the can, she hissed and began to claw at the air. Joseph jumped away as the glow flared brighter, too bright to watch directly. After a few heart beats the flare disappeared, leaving spots in his eyes. When he could see again, a torn up crater was visible, but no sign of the shuttle. The cat walked down invisible air steps, circling around where the shuttle was and giving off an air of pleasure about how it turned out.

"[That should do. It should keep as long as no one shoots at it, until we're well away.]" she said, walking over to the embers of the fire and sitting down to wash her paws.

"Wasn't there supposed to be an illusion of crashed trucks or something?"

"[No time to be fancy. It was all I could do to hide the exact depression of the shuttle and to round the crater out.]"

"Thanks Surah." Joseph turned to face Saroth and Richard as they ran up. "What about Holly's disguise? Can we give it to her in time?"

Richard shook his head and gasped for breath. "No I can't.... Need to personalize it.... or else it'll fail," he gasped out.

"Fine, warn Holly to not change then, we'll bluff them a bit. Let me do the talking. I wish we had a bow and arrows... we're looking out of place enough as it is," Joseph ordered, mumbling the last half. "Richard, you armed?"

The wizard shook his head. "My laser's dead. I tried it earlier. The Field ate it like it ate the shuttle."

"But it's magic isn't it? Like your phone-manual?"

"Yes and no. My phone is just a shell over the magic based manual. It's proofed against this world's Field. But my laser at its heart is a real pointer, the magic just boosts the power. No laser, nothing to boost, no burn. I've got a few other tricks ready, but I'm gonna need some time to cook up a new general weapon."

"Great, just great," Joey mumbled and returned his attention to the coming group.

An avian shriek split the air, drawing their attention upwards. Sean dove from the sky towards the embankment, just as Holly crested the hill. He expertly landed on her back, talons tugging at her mane for balance, wings fluttering for balance. Her step faltered a moment at the sudden weight, but she recovered and continued sprinting towards the group. A few lengths behind her, the two riders crested and reared back suddenly, quickly taking in the appearance of the three humans ahead of them. One dropped the lasso they were carrying and scrambled for their bow and an arrow.

Joseph raised his hands and faced the two cowboys. He realized the archer was a cowgirl. "Saroth, tell Holly and Sean not to change back. Then keep quiet. We'll play it with just the three of us for now. May be easier to explain than five with no horses."

Saroth nodded, and Joseph got the feeling of barely hearing a conversation as the dragon warned the Keepers. Holly tossed her head and slowed down, trotting up to the group and nuzzling Saroth's hand. The riders approached slowly, stopping just in bow range, and in shouting range.

"Ahoy there! We are peaceful," Joseph shouted, holding his hands up. He took a few steps to the side to make sure any shots that might go through him wouldn't hit anyone behind him.

The riders studied him, and the rest of the group carefully. The woman kept them covered with the bow while the man approached closer. "Good day, folks. Who are you and what brings you around here?"

Joseph waited a moment, thinking over the language snippet a moment before deciding it really was just an English dialect. "My name is Joseph. That's Sean and Saroth. We're scavengers who fell upon hard times." He thought quickly and mentally crossed his fingers. "We were exploring around here for salvage when bandits surprised us. Scared off most of our horses and took a lot of our gear. Don't mind Saroth, I'm afraid he's mute."

"Bandits? We haven't seen any sign of bandits lately," the man said cautiously, eyes looking around the camp.

"Yeah, they got us on the other side of the city. We took what we could and moved on to here, following the tracks of Holly here, hoping we could catch up to her at least. Thanks for chasing her back."

Holly snorted and looked away. The riders looked at her then refocused on Joseph, relaxing slightly but hands still near his weapons. "She's a fine mare. Fast like the wind too. No wonder you had so much trouble catching her. Name's Ryan, and that's my sister Angela. From Silverwood, by way of the Circle Square homestead." The man dropped off his mount and handed the reigns to his sister. He held out a gloved hand to Joseph.

"Good to meet you. Good to meet anyone frankly. This area's dangerous to be in without your transportation." Joseph sighed. "A shame we couldn't find the rest of our mounts. Holly was the pride of the pack, but the rest weren't slouches either."

"A shame. We'll keep an eye out for them if you want. But if bandits scared them off, they probably got the rest of them. Where did you say you were from? Or where you were attacked?" Angela asked, still in her saddle. She had unhooked the arrow from the bow string but both were still in her hand, ready to be fired.

Joseph took a moment to gather his thoughts, studying the craftsmanship of the bow from afar. "I didn't say where we're from. Really we aren't from anywhere. We're a wandering band of scavengers, going into the ruins to find what's been lost and stuff. We've been working through the south east, and cut north to here. The bandits caught us by surprise south of the city, just after we were going through an old store," he explained, trying to be general enough to not be caught in any lies. He was suddenly very self conscious about his own and Richard's dress compared to the riders and Saroth's illusion. "So what brings you out this way?" he asked, trying to fish for more information from them.

"We were helping one of the homesteaders do their spring check of the fences, when we saw a meteor come down this way. Looked like it came down this way," Ryan said, looking at the trench and the crater that hid the shuttle. "You guys notice it?"

"Aye we did. Big bloomin' fireball. But no meat to it. Landed down there and disappeared sort of. We've been down in there but couldn't find anything." Richard spoke up. Joseph cast him a quick dirty look but didn't take his eyes off the natives for too long.

"A shame. That usually happens with those old satellites when they come in, though they don't usually leave quite that much destruction. Would've loved to see what we could've salvaged from them."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. So this is Circle Square territory?" Joseph asked, trying to fish for information.

"Twisting Snake territory actually, but Circle Square is the closest home owner. They control everything around here starting at the old interstate there and points west and north of it. The Witch and most stuff east of it is unclaimed territory. Still too Eater infested to safely settle." Ryan pointed out as a guide to them, then turned back and looked at Joey. "So what do you folk plan to do now?"

Joseph pondered the question a bit, partly for show. He wanted to know what the other areas around were called, but couldn't think of a realistic way to ask that. "Not sure, we should probably look at getting fresh rides. Holly won't be able to carry all of us after all. Beyond that, we'll just go where the winds take us,"

"Best place to get some new horses is probably Grand Bend. But it's a good 4 days ride from here by itself. We're currently based in the Circle Square, a day away by horse. They don't have any horses to sell, but they were getting ready to take a load in to the town for market. You guys want a guide and some help?"

Joseph hesitated and glanced at Sean and Saroth. Saroth had a hand on Holly's back and Sean was perched on his shoulder. "Give us just a minute," he called back to Ryan, and took a few steps closer to the others, motioning for them to get in close.

"What do you guys think? On the one hand, we could use the guides, and we're going to need transportation.... On the other hand, it means Sean and Holly are going to need to stay in animal forms for a few days, and... well I've never ridden a horse in my life and that's going to be blatantly obvious once we get more horses."

Richard frowned and thought it over. "A tough call definitely. But we can't avoid that forever. I haven't tried to triangulate the location yet, but it looks like it's to the north east, and quite a ways away."

{Sean and Holly both say they don't mind staying hidden for a few days. And if you're worried about riding, Holly says you can ride her, it'd probably be easier than riding a wild horse,} Saroth said, his mental voice hushed. Joseph cast a quick glance towards the strangers, but they didn't seem to have picked up on his speech method. He refocused on the horse.

"You sure about that Holly? We'll have to keep you with their horses at night, at least until Richard can finish your disguise and we can get into a bigger group of people."

Saroth nodded after a moment. {She says she's done it before, and sometimes it's more pleasant to sleep this way than in bed rolls.} He tilted his head, listening again, then patted Holly's flank. {She also said she can often hear more when they think she's just a simple beast and not a real person. Especially in places like this.}

"Fine, fine. It's as good a plan as any I guess." He turned away from the group and approached Ryan and his sister again. "Okay, we talked it over, and it does seem like a good idea. We'll gladly take your guidance to the ranch, and on to the town if you want."

Ryan grinned and nodded, then looked up to judge the sun's position. "Great, though it looks like you haven't broken camp yet. By the time you're done, we'll barely have time to get anywhere. Plus Moonlight and Starbright here could use a rest after the chase your Holly gave them. Why don't we stay here for the night and push on fresh in the morning?"

Joseph's eyes flicked to the crater illusion that was hiding their shuttle, then back to the riders. He hesitated for a moment once again, but decided the risk was worth trying to maintain what little cover they had. "Sure, you're welcome to join us at our fire. It's the least we can offer in return for your guidance."

The group reformed the camp quickly, Ryan and Angela showing they were well used to setting up under the stars. They inspected the area around some old signs before they hobbled their horses to the posts and made sure the animals had enough to eat and drink. Saroth settled Holly near them. While the two scouts were busy, Joseph pulled Richard to one side.

"We need to put our sleeping bags in your pup tent. Can you open it up without them noticing?" he asked the wizard quietly.

"I can, just a sec. Why do you want to do that?"

"Our sleeping bags are too modern. They'll never believe we discovered something so clean, not after a quarter century. We'll have to borrow Sean and Holly's sleep rolls for now. I checked with Saroth and they're fine with it."

The wizard glanced around and pulled out his phone, hiding it with his body. He stretched an icon out into a strand of glowing magical energy and pressed it against the side of the invisible shuttle and pulled it open a couple of feet. Joseph tossed their two sleeping bags in, and lifted their backpacks. "There anything urgent you'll need in here?" he asked.

Richard rummaged in the pack and pulled out a few items then handed it back. "That's it. The rest I can get when I need it."

"Good good." Joseph tossed the packs into the tent and looked at his wrist. His jacket had covered his wrist comp, but he knew he couldn't hide it forever. Reluctantly, he tossed it in as well. He would've tossed the jacket as well, but he had nothing to replace it with. "That should be it. Be careful with the rations, I asked Saroth and Sean to go hunting once we're settled.

"You think this will work?"

"I hope so. I don't want to have to explain everything right away. They seem like nice enough people so far, but we don't know enough about the world to know for certain." Joseph glanced over at the horses, seeing the siblings brushing the horses and talking with each other. Saroth had wandered away, out of earshot of them, but Holly was nibbling the grass close enough to hear.

"So how are we going to play this? I'm not defenseless, but if we're in a fight, I'll have to use magic. I don't know the first thing about swinging a sword or shooting an arrow," Richard said, following Joseph's gaze. "Or riding a horse for that matter."

"Yeah, I've never ridden either. Hopefully we can cross that bridge when we get to it. As for fighting, stay back. We don't have any weapons beyond my blades and Holly's broadsword, and her bow and arrows if I can get into the shuttle. We'll play you as the non-fighting expert. The member of the team who knows the old technology. Saroth will use Holly's sword, or pretend to at least, and we'll bluff that her plate armor is his. As long as he doesn't put it on, it should be fine."

Richard sighed and nodded. "Okay, sounds like an idea. I wouldn't call it a plan, but it's a start. I'll need about 5 uninterrupted minutes with Holly to finish her disguise too, if you can arrange it."

"We'll see later tonight, when we arrange watches. I'll stagger watches, alternating between us and them, but ask Sean and Holly to watch during their watch. Saroth's already asked for the middle watch. You want the start or the end shift?"

"End for me. I'm an early bird, and so's Holly. It'll give me a chance to do her mask. They're coming back."

Separator f.png

Ryan and Angela separated as they moved around the small camp that had been set up, helping out, but noting all the irregularities they could find. The list they were forming was staggering. Both tried to get closer to the crater, but all three Scavengers seemed to be ready to block them off before they got too close. Finally, the siblings gathered at their own horses and made a show of tending to their rides. Ryan kept an eye on Saroth and waited until the silent one moved out of ear shot before speaking.

"These guys are hiding something. I don't know what to make of them," he said, slipping into their lyrical language as an added precaution from eavesdroppers.

"I know one thing, they aren't scavengers. They don't have the right gear for it, even if it was stolen by bandits, which I doubt. They don't even look like fighters, no bows, only three blades between them and the small one doesn't look like he could swing any of them. And their dress, what are they wearing? I've never seen a style like the small one had, and the leader, I don't know what that is."

"Looked like some of those old fabrics you could scavenge, the man made stuff, but it's in excellent condition. What about the silent one?"

"He's got a well trained bird, but he moves strangely, like there's more of him than we can see. And the horses get extra nervous around him. Have you been hearing voices in your head near him?"

Ryan shook his head. "No not really. What about the tracks? Did you see the large animal tracks? Looked like a giant bird or something and something else, maybe lizard like. But I couldn't see anything that could make them. And there were hoof marks here too, fresh today, like they had their horse, or other horses around. There was something off about even them though...."

"And that crater. They're keeping us from it for some reason, but I can't figure out why. I talked to Joseph about the watches tonight. We're taking the second and fourth watches. They overlap, but there should be a small window on each watch when everyone else is asleep. Lets try to check the crater then."

Angela sighed. "If we don't find anything, well, maybe they'll slip up when we're guiding them. We'll take them on a roundabout route to give the others time to reach here and check without them around. In the mean time, lets see about dinner. I wonder what food they have."

"Good idea, let's go." Ryan glanced at Holly who was nibbling at the fresh shoots near an old sedan, but otherwise seemed uninterested in what was going on. The pair turned and saw Saroth approaching the other two.

"Hey Saroth, why don't you take Sean and go scare up some grub. I think I saw some rabbit signs over that way," Joseph called out.

The quiet man nodded and waved, the golden eagle taking off from a nearby wreck and gliding closer to the city where Joseph pointed.

Sean and Saroth returned with a couple of rabbits for the group to add to the rest of the supplies available. Ryan set up a spit while the dragon and Angela cleaned the animals. Richard looked away, setting up a pot of coffee.

"Is that coffee? Where the hell did you get coffee from?" Angela asked, sniffing the air.

Richard uhohed and glanced at Joseph. He shrugged and thought fast. "From down south, traders on the Gulf managed to get some of the coffee plantations going again in the Caribbean," Joey fibbed.

Angela mmed. "That's good to hear. The traders on the Pacific only recently brought it back to our neck of the woods."

"Your neck of the woods? Where is... Silverwood was it?"

Ryan pulled the rabbits off the fire and started slicing them up. "On the west coast, though inland a bit. If you know the old maps, I guess it would be northern California or southern Oregon."

"Wow, that's quite a trip, especially now. What brings you so far east?"

"Believe it or not, a vision," Ryan laughed and chewed on a piece of meat. "One of our friends back at Circle Square, she had a vision of something on the east coast we needed to go to, and Brian believed in it, so off we went." Angela frowned, not wanting to have told so much, but realizing what was done was done.

"A vision eh? Does she have many visions?" Richard asked curiously, not disbelieving them.

"Not that many, but Misty's been pretty much right on the few she has had. Usually can't figure out what they were until they've passed though."

Richard laughed, "Most are like that. Heisenberg applies for future viewing as much as he applies for subatomic viewing." The scouts looked at him strangely, and Richard pushed on quickly. "So how long have you been on the road? The Rockies must have been a pain to cross in the winter."

"Luckily we didn't have to cross them then. We left home a year ago, last spring. But we ran into some Gedonists last fall, helped protect the Circle Square farm from them, hunted down those idiots to make sure they'd never be a threat again, and wintered with Meredith and Matthew. They run the farm."

"What are Gedonists?" Joey asked, curious about a potential threat.

Angela sipped the coffee from Richard's stash. "They're a strange bunch. Not really a single group, but the mindset seems to be spreading. They're basically determined to destroy anything man made. They see the Change as the end of man kind, and they're determined to finish the job. We thought they peeked a few years after the Change, but there's been a resurgence in recent years, and they're more organized now and more deadly then ever. There's a leader somewhere directing them, but we aren't sure where."

"The fact that they have a Leader out there is the biggest concern. They went from being a mere annoyance to destroying entire towns, mass killings and slavery in a matter of years. The cell down here is gone, but it'll only get worst as we go east. It's believed they're mostly based in the eastern dead lands, but no one's confirmed yet," Ryan added.

"Yeah, if you guys are from out east, I'm surprised you haven't encountered them," Angela studied the trio carefully across the fire.

"We've been more south than east lately, in the old Gulf regions, even out to Cuba once. Strong Spanish influence in the communities down there, which gave them a different name," Joseph lied quickly.

Angela continued watching him suspiciously. "The south? What's it like down there? It's so rare to hear anything beyond the local news."

Joey bit off an overlarge chunk of cooked rabbit and spent his time chewing it carefully while he mentally scrambled for a description. He washed it down with a gulp of water and finally dared to look at the natives. "The south, well, let's see. It's rough down there, even now. A lot of dead lands from the old cities, wreckage from hurricanes, and chemical dead zones. But its recovering. Some of the old city ports were recovered to continue the Gulf trade, and the chemicals are slowly washing out of the land." he said, beginning to carefully spin the tale.

The rest of the evening and the night watches passed by uneventfully, but similarly proved frustrating for the siblings. The brother and sister found on each of their watches, when they thought the rest of the camp was asleep, the animals were not. Ryan walked around the edge of the camp, but when he got near the crater, he found the eagle perched on a minivan, staring directly at him, wide awake. The gaze was unnerving enough to make him turn away.

Angela, on her patrol, found Holly awake. When she tried to get near the crater, the horse trotted up to her, free from her ties, and nuzzled Angela's hand.

"How'd you get loose?" Angela mumbled, rubbing the horse's head and looking around. Holly snorted and seemed to smile, but made no move to leave the scout. Angela sighed and picked up the strap dragging from Holly's neck. "Fine, let me go tie you back so we aren't chasing you again tomorrow."

She lead the Arabian away from the crater and back to where the other two horses were and started tying the horse up.

"She's quite the escape artist, isn't she?" a voice suddenly said, startling Angela. The scout hid her reaction and turned to face the speaker. She'd heard Richard approaching, but hadn't expected him to speak with her back turned. At the man's feet, his cat, Surah, stood, eyes glittering in the darkness.

"That she is," Angela answered, calming herself and stroking Holly's side. "Arabians in general are very intelligent, so it's not that surprising. Can I help you with something?"

"I saw you come over here, and it's almost my watch anyway, so I figured I'd see what you were up to."

"Not much, just getting her settled again. You want me to keep watch a bit longer? I'll be up anyway."

Richard frowned a moment, but then shrugged. "If you want. I need to use the little wiz- need to wake up a bit more. I'll be back at camp in a few minutes."

Angela looked at him curiously at his misspeak, but he refused to clarify. She shrugged and made her way back to the camp, glancing longingly at the crater that the others had kept her from checking out.

Richard watched her leave, then untied Holly and lead her behind an old truck that shielded both of them from view of the campfire. "Thanks for your patience, my dear. And for watching them. Ready to get your disguise? We can't use it until we get to Grand Bend, but it'll be ready."

Holly's form shimmered and she shrunk down a bit, hooves splitting into fingers, her chest shrinking down to a more human appearance. "I'm ready, and I know," she whispered, staying crouched down to stay out of sight. "Both tried to check the crater over night. Sean stared Ryan off."

Richard handed her the mask and looked through the broken windows towards the camp. "Put it on over your face, it'll morph around you and give you a human form we can adjust the appearance of," he explained quickly.

She slipped the mask over her muzzle, and the plastic crinkled and spread out, flattening her muzzle and giving her a human face. It spread over her body, fur fading away, a leather jacket matching her fur colour appearing in its place, her hooves appearing to melt down into boots. Once the changes settled, Richard and Surah surrounded her and reached in the air around her body. With her guidance and the help of a cracked rearview mirror, she helped them adjust her appearance to a human form.

"Man, I never thought I'd see this face again," she said in wonderment, touching her bare cheek. "I can still feel fur," she added.

"It's just an illusion. If people bump you, they'll feel through it." Richard told her.

"The boots are illusions too, aren't they?"

"Yeah they are. Why?"

She stamped a boot into the ground and lifted it, showing a hoof print. "The scouts, they mentioned it earlier. I think they noticed Saroth's tracks, though they haven't connected it to him. He'll have to be careful. I've warned him, but you should know too."

Richard slapped his forehead and sighed. "I should've thought of that. I'm sorry. I'll try to fix it later but I'm not sure if I can. You over hear anything else?"

"A little, but most of it was in a language I couldn't really make out. It sounded familiar, but not enough to fully understand everything. I did get the impression they won't lead us directly back though so others can have time to check this place out."

"I'm not sure if we can do anything about that. We'll just play it by ear. And I'm sorry about the language too. The UT spell is usually good, but sometimes it needs to learn on the go, and they seem to know one such language. I'll mention it to Joey, if his linguistic skill can make sense of it, we can teach your translator spells."

"Sounds like an idea." She reached up and pulled the mask off, quickly reverting to her morphic form. "We should get back before she comes back."

The last of the night passed without incident. Angela and Richard coaxed the fire back to life and had some porridge and bacon cooking up before everyone else woke up and went about their morning business. As Ryan returned to camp, he caught his sisters eye and flashed a question signal. She shook her head sadly and pointed back to him. He shook his head as well and tried to hide the frustration he felt.

After breakfast, Angela and Ryan volunteered to clean up the dishes while the others finished packing up. They carried the metal plates and pans to a ditch turned stream, crouched near the water and glanced around. Sean was gliding in the early morning thermals over head, circling lazily, but no one, not even Holly, was near by.

"Those animals give me the willies," Ryan said, slipping into their private language and glancing up at the eagle high overhead. As if the bird heard him, the air was split by a screech as Sean dived down. At the last minute he pulled up and climbed up again.

"I know what you mean. Their horse stopped me from getting near the crater last night. And then Ryan woke up and I couldn't go near it again. He did spend a lot of time away from the camp though, with the horse and that cat of his. All three went behind a truck, and I could have sworn I heard two voices, one male, one female."

"Two voices? Could you hear what they said?"

Angela shook her head. "No, I couldn't risk getting that close. But I checked that spot after you all woke up, and there was only three tracks there, human, horse and cat. The horse ones looked a bit weird in places, but definitely only one human."

Ryan shook out a pan and set it on a cloth they had brought. "I don't know what to make of these guys. I didn't get to the crater last night, but I did look at their equipment pile a bit. It is definitely smaller than when we got here, but there's no sign of the extra packs anywhere. And there's a lot of strange stuff in it. Looks machine made, like city salvage, but brand new, barely used. Just another mystery I guess. So what do you think we should do?"

"Take them back to the Circle Square, and figure out what to do from there. We'll be safer when we outnumber them. But en route, one of us should leave and try to find Brian and the others."

"That would leave the other alone with them. You sure that's safe?"

Angela smiled and stacked the plates. "I'll be fine. They don't seem to want to hurt anyone, and they may open up more if I'm alone. You can track down Brian and back track to here."

Ryan frowned and looked back at the camp. "We should've Roshambo'ed it."

Angela giggled and picked up the dishes. "You haven't beat me at that in years. I just cut the middle man out."

There was a whoosh of air behind a bush near them. Both turned suddenly, shifting their loads and drawing short swords single handedly to face the noise. The bush rustled in an unseen breeze, then went still.

Angela and Ryan exchanged looks, set their loads down, and approached the bush slowly. Angela walked around it, peering through the young leaves to see what could have made the noise. She reached the rear of the bush, and looked puzzled, lowering her sword.

"What is it?" Ryan asked, moving closer once she signaled the threat was gone.

She pointed to the ground with the tip of her blade. "That. Those are Joseph's boot prints right?" she asked, pointing to a pair of deep footprints in the mud. The tread markings were clear.

Ryan nodded. "That they are." He looked around and frowned in confusion. "But there are only a few markings. They end as soon as they begin right behind the bush. The ground is way too muddy to hide anyone walking up to it."

"Not to mention there's open ground between here and the camp. So how did he get from the camp, to here, and back to the camp, and only leave four footprints on a muddy bank?"

The two looked back towards the camp, and saw the other three busy packing up gear. Joseph was talking to them with his back to the scouts in a voice too quiet to carry.

"We're using Elvish. Even if he did overhear us, he couldn't understand us right? Especially not our dialect," Ryan said, trying to reassure himself.

Angela nodded. "There is that. But I don't know...." She watched the trio at the camp. "Wish I could figure out how Saroth talks to them. He doesn't use Sign, he doesn't signal anything, but he seems able to tell them stuff somehow. They're a strange bunch."

"That they are. You sure you want to be alone with them?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. We need to tell Brian and them to check this area out while they can."

Separator f.png

Joseph popped back near the camp, hidden by the same truck Richard had used earlier that evening. He walked back in and motioned Richard and Saroth in closer. "Tell Sean thanks for the distraction. The timing was perfect," he said, grabbing a pack and opening it up to rummage inside.

{I will.}

"So did you figure out what they're saying?" Richard asked.

Joseph nodded. "It's a variant of Tolkien Elf. I've heard it a few times, the Fae in my world use it as a joke language, like human geeks use Klingon, but I never really expected it in a non magical world. Not difficult in any case. What they were saying was more unnerving. They suspect something, which is to be expected. We aren't exactly set up for fitting in. They are mainly confused about us though and don't seem to be a threat." He glanced back at the ditch, and saw the scouts inspecting the bush he had hid behind. "They're intending to split up en route, leave one with us and take us on a more roundabout route, while the other finds the rest of their group and leads them here."

"That's not good. We'll have to leave before they get back. There's nothing we can do with the shuttle."

"I know. We can't even destroy it.... Well, we'll let them do their plan. Angela will ride with us back to that farm. From then maybe we can buy an extra horse or two direct from the farmer and get away before their companions get back with news of the shuttle."

Richard frowned and looked at the scouts who were walking back to the group. "I don't like it, but it's probably the only option."

"The only palatable option at least," Joey put on a neutral expression and waved to the scouts. "We're just about ready to load up the horses. You guys good?"

They looked at him strangely, and Ryan nodded. "Yeah we're good. Lets get going."

Loading the horses didn't take very long. Richard stashed some more of the extra gear in his pup tent to lighten the load while the scouts were distracted. What was left was split over the scout's two horses and Holly. Joseph climbed up behind Angela at her insistence, while Holly took Saroth and Richard and Surah.

Ryan took the lead as they set out, guiding them out of the old parking lot, up a ramp and onto the old interstate, heading west. As they trotted up the bend in the ramp, all of the travelers from the Tangle looked back at the crash site one final time.

"And now we're truly on our own," Richard mumbled softly.

Saroth grunted wordlessly, and tightened his grip around the wizard to keep him balanced on Holly's back. Overhead, Sean circled and kept watch as the group left the city behind them.

Separator f.png

Sean let out a screech and dropped out of the sky. He backwinged and landed on Saroth's shoulder. The group was stopped at a stream so the horses could get a drink and rest.

{Sean spotted something. East of us and south. Just a dust trail,} Saroth sent quietly.

"Thanks Sar. And Sean." Richard mumbled and spoke louder. "Sean sa- spotted something, south east of here. They your friends?"

Ryan and Angela both looked in the distance, squinting. "Very likely. We crossed into Circle Square territory hours ago, so it shouldn't be anyone else."

The scouts exchanged looks, and seemed to have a brief unspoken argument. Angela seemed to win it. "Look guys, it's the planting season and it looks like they've got a big group heading that way. No point in sending them on a wild goose chase when there's so much work to be done at home. I'll lead you back to the house, while Ryan catches up with them and sends them back."

"Sure, you guys know this area better than we do. As long as you trust we're not up to any funny business," Joseph answered, sipping water from a canteen and trying to look innocent.

Ryan gave his sister an imploring look, but she shook her head. "You've given us no reason not to trust you. Besides, I'm sure I can handle three guys."

Ryan sighed and climbed back on his horse. "Fine, I'll go catch up with them. I can move faster alone instead of keeping slow for you slouches. I'll meet you at the farm in a day or two." He nudged his mount into motion and leaped the ditch beside the road they were following, cutting across the fields to the south east.

"Will he be OK?" Richard asked.

Angela smiled and headed back to her mount. "He'll be fine. He hates to leave me alone is all. Come on, if you don't mind riding in the dark a bit, we can still make it in time. I'd swear, none of you guys ever rode a horse before."

"Something like that," Richard mumbled, painfully pulling himself back up onto Holly's back. She snorted sympathetically and held still.

By nightfall, they were able to see the lights of the farm buildings, a flickering glow of gas lights and candles. The visitors studied the layout curiously as they approached.

"This is all new, isn't it?" Joseph said, studying the layout of the barns and the main two story farm house.

"More or less. Deep in the farm house is an old bungalow, but it's as good as new construction all around. Mathew brought his family out to set up this homestead about ten years ago. It's actually where he lived before the Change, but they had to abandon it during the Change to stay ahead of the hungry masses coming out of the Witch."

Richard tried to tell how well the farm was doing, but had a hard time doing so. The buildings seemed to be well maintained, but the equipment was straight out of a western and he couldn't tell how good it really was. "He seems to be doing well for himself."

"Yeah, he's got 18 people who work and live here, counting his three sons, John, Paul and George. You'll probably meet them when Ryan gets back."

Richard chuckled. "So is he planning to have a fourth son named Ringo?"

Angela looked at him, confused, while behind her, Joseph chocked back a laugh. "Is that some sort of preChange joke?" she asked, twisting to look back at Joseph as well.

"Something like that. Ask your parents about the Beatles if you ever think of it," Richard answered.

Barking dogs raised the alarm at the house as they got close. A light moved through the house and appeared at the front door they were trotting up to.

"Hey Meredith, it's me. I've got some bandit survivors from near the Witch. They're scavengers, and they're friendly."

The woman at the door studied the riders then waved her hand. "Welcome back, Angela. Everyone else is still out."

"Yeah, I sent Ryan to intercept them. Didn't want to disrupt your spring prep too much chasing a wild goose. And to warn them there may be bandits about. When we got to the crater there wasn't anything there but these guys."

As they spoke, Joseph noticed movement in a darkened corner of the porch. A figure stepped out, unarmored but holding a bow aimed in their general direction. He was a young man, in his early teens, but the way he held the bow made it clear he knew how to use it.

"Guys, this is Meredith Anderson, the matriarch of the household. The young man with the bow is her youngest, George. And that is her husband, Mathew coming around the house now. And these scavengers are Joseph, Richard and Saroth."

Introductions were exchanged, and suspicions eased. George and Saroth lead the horses to the barn, while the others were lead into the house. Sean landed on the roof of the barn and kept watch.

"We've already eaten, but it won't take long to whip something up for you guys. You can get cleaned up and gather at the table and tell us all about what's happened," Meredith said, passing along directions where they could get washed up.

Richard and Joseph washed up in one room, giving them a few moments of privacy. "So what's the plan now?" Richard whispered over the splashing of water pumped from a cistern somewhere.

"Same as before. Soon as we can slip away, we'll leave. Try to find a map of the area if you can, and where Grand Bend is. You and Saroth ride Holly, I'll jump along side you guys," Joseph looked out the window. "I'm going to feign fatigue soon after we're done eating, and jump back to the shuttle, see if they found anything. Who knows? Maybe they won't find it and we can stick around. They seem nice enough, and it'd be nice to find out the lay of the land before we're in too deep."

"Can you jump that far?"

"Not in one go, but I can retrace our steps a lot faster than it took to ride here. Just watch what you say, you're the only one they can talk to after all."

Richard sniffed the air, smelling the food warming up. "I thought they said they'd already eaten? That smells delicious."

"I know. Lets go back into the lions den."

Separator f.png

The sun had set, but the six riders pushed on, lead by someone who had been there before. They followed the interstate as it curved around the dark mass of the old big box stores, the Witch looming in the darkness south of them. The lead rider raised his hand and pointed to an exit, before guiding his own horse down the ramp. One of the riders gasped in surprise, making out the torn parking lot in the moonlight.

"I've seen catapult results, in soft ground, but I've never seen anything like that before.... How heavy and how fast did it have to be moving to do all that?" Bruno mused, looking at the building down to the crater at the end.

"I have no idea. But whatever it was should've left more behind than the nothing it looks like," Ryan said, leading the group to the old camp.

It didn't take long for the six to set up their own camp and get a cheery fire burning in the ashes of the old one. Michelle stared at the crater while Brian and Paul prepared dinner.

"It's dark, but shall we look around the crater now?" Brian called out, while the stew warmed up.

"After dinner. They kept me away from it last night, I'm not staying away any longer," Ryan answered.

Michelle nodded as well. "There is something there. It can't be seen, but it is there," she mused, picking up a stone.

"That's impossible," Paul said, stirring the dinner. "Whatever made the trench is probably buried in the rubble down there."

"No, it's right in front of us, but unseen. I don't know how it works but there is something big there right in front of us," Michelle retorted, her eyes looking along the crater edge. Paul began to object again, but she threw the stone as hard as she could. His objections died in his throat, the stone clinking against something in midair and bouncing back. Where it hit, a dark smudge appearing in the air.

Dinner was forgotten as everyone approached the crater, probing carefully with sticks and blades. They quickly found the edges of the shuttle, still invisible, except where they scraped the tiles clean. It was only by luck that John's probing sword found the open airlock, the blade half disappearing in midair. His shouts brought the others over quickly with torches and a gas light from the farm.

"This is impossible. How can something be invisible? That wasn't even possible before the Change right?" Paul repeated, shaking his head despite seeing the blade disappear inside.

"I don't know. But it looks like a big opening, at least door sized. And it seems like it's open. Someone want to stick their head in?" John asked, clanging the half visible sword against the sides of the invisible opening.

"I'll do it," Michelle said,pushing John to one side before anyone else could volunteer. Before anyone could stop her, she stuck her head in the opening, her upper body disappearing from view.

"Michelle! Get out of there! Your mom would kill me for letting you do that!" Brian shouted grabbing his cousin and pulling her back. She didn't resist.

"Wow, there's a room in there, with another door at the far side, also open. Big enough for three people maybe. The light came in but doesn't come out. It was pretty dark in there but I think I might have seen a bit of a green glow in there," she reported. "Air seemed fine and I didn't feel anything strange."

"That doesn't matter, you shouldn't have risked yourself like that," Brian chastised her.

Ryan slipped up beside them and looked in, his own head disappearing. "Can you hear me?" he called out, his voice echoing faintly.

"Sure can," Bruno called back.

"Good good. I'm going all the way in. Someone hand me the lamp please," he said, holding his hand up for the handle. John handed it over and it disappeared, dimming the area around the doorway as it entered the invisibility zone. Ryan went all the way in, then stuck a hand out experimentally.

"We can see it. You OK in there?" Bruno asked, crouching next to the invisible door.

"I am. Going in deeper. I think it's safe... whoa, looks like a cabin in here, like the old planes, but there aren't any windows. Looks like the place has been stripped though. Leave the torches outside, the lantern lights it up fine. There are a few tubes scattered around, filled with a green substance that's still glowing a bit. Not enough to see by, but didn't Grandpa Goldstein used to talk about leading a group out of a train tunnel with chemical lights that glowed green, back in the Change?"

"I remember those stories. Those wore out ages ago right?"

"They should've. But these look like they were just made. The plastic's soft, and unstained. Weird. Come on in guys."

Paul stayed outside to keep watch for anything else strange, while the others made their way into the invisibility field. Inside, they found, as Ryan described, a cabin with wide spaced seats. Storage cabinets had been thrown open and emptied out, though the only things they could find were numerous devices that didn't work.

"This is strange. It looks like something that would be preChange... but if that door was open for 20 years, where's all the dirt?" Brian asked, tapping at the black screen of a notepad sized block of plastic. "And what the hell is this writing? Doesn't look like anything I've seen before."

Bruno shook his head and moved to the front, looking over the chairs and the platform in front of them. "No idea, but I don't think this is preChange. There aren't any controls or anything here. Just this glass table. I almost think someone is pulling a prank or something, made a dummy object that looks preChange but isn't."

"But how did they make it invisible? Pre or Post change, that's just plain impossible," John said.

"Someone was hurt. There's blood here. Not much but there's some," Misty called out, crouched by one seat.

"Did any of them seem like they were hurt, Ryan?"

Ryan shook his head. "No, not that I could tell. Though the quiet one winced occasionally. He didn't have and bandages that I could see."

"So as it stands we don't really have any evidence they were even in here?... Beyond them trying to keep you and Angela from coming this way?" Brian asked, standing up.

"Not exactly. You said they had an eagle with them right? Well their eagle must have been in here and lost some feathers. These are fresh," John held up a pair of large feathers.

Brian looked around once more and shook his head. "Guys, it's getting late. We know it's here now and how to get into it. Lets go finish eating and get some rest and look at it again in the morning. Then we'll head back and question them. They've got an awful lot of explaining to do."

He shooed the others out of the shuttle. As Ryan exited, he happened to look up to the roof of the old Staples building and saw movement, a shadowed figure moving in the moonlight. Before he could raise an alarm, the figure disappeared. He was sure it hadn't ducked away, but just disappeared, there one moment and gone the next.

In the morning sun, the shuttle was easier to see. The bulk of it was still invisible, but their explorations had scraped off enough of the invisible paint to reveal the basic shape. They split up their efforts, a couple people exploring the shuttle, the rest exploring the area to see what the Strangers had been up to.

The shuttle crew found little of use in there; just more unidentifiable blocks and devices that didn't work. Paul collected a sampling of them to bring back, but there was nothing else they found.

Ryan lead Michelle along one set of tracks, into the Wal*Mart and to the back room. The pair of clawed footprints confused all of them, as did the markings on the floor in the back room. But the empty box was the strangest thing.

"This shouldn't be here," Ryan mumbled, picking up the empty box. It was simple cardboard, but it showed no sign of wear and tear. The foil wrappers were equally confusing. "There's a 2009 date on it, but there's no way in hell this thing is 25 years old. And why is it written in English when everything else is in that strange language?"

"No idea... but something big happened in here. Can't you feel it? Like an itch in my mind," Michelle said, studying the scratched markings on the floor.

Ryan shook his head. "Not a thing. I don't think there's anything else here though. Lets go back. I want to see if I can get to the roof of the red building over there. I think I saw something last night and I want to double check it."

They found a rusted ladder that gave them noisy access to the roof. The roof itself had numerous holes, where the sheeting had rusted through, but no other access points. He made sure to verify no one else had climbed up there in years via the ladder they found. Balancing on one of the roof beams and the least rusted sections of roof sheeting, he walked to the front of the building. He found the spot that gave a good view of the camp, and saw the signs he was half expecting.

"What is it?" Michelle asked, looking down at the boot prints clear on the sheet behind the roof edge.

"Joseph's boot prints. With no tracks leading to or from this point. Just suddenly appearing, and suddenly disappearing again. He was back here last night, watching us somehow."

"He was? But that's impossible.... You think Angela is safe?"

"I don't know. We better go find out."

The sun was high in the sky as the group regathered at the camp and shared what little they had learned. Brian looked up at the sky, judging the time, and his friend's impatience. "It's clear now that any answers that are going to come, are riding with Angela, or back at the Circle Square. Anyone disagree?" He looked around but no one spoke up. "So, if we leave now, we can be back at the house by noonish tomorrow. And we can confront them there. Can anyone think of any reason to stay?"

"Angela may be in danger. Let's get going," Ryan said impatiently, all but back on his horse already.

"I want to see these strangers myself now." Bruno said. The others gave similar assents. Within the hour, they were riding back, leaving the invisible shuttle and its mysteries behind.

Separator f.png

Joseph reappeared on a hill overlooking the farmstead and studied the building, worried. He had expected the shuttle to be found. What he hadn't expected was to arrive at the crash site and see them walking out of the hatch. He looked down at the farmstead, expecting to see it brightly lit, with Richard and Saroth being interrogated in the warm dining room, as they tried to find out what they had to do with an invisible plane.

Instead, the house was mostly dark, lit by the glow of the banked fires in the fire places. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "No technology... no instant communications," he mumbled to himself, realizing that news about the shuttle was at least a day away, and probably further. He mentally resolved to check the site again the next day, and jumped down to the house. He appeared on the roof of the patio next to his room's window and peeked in through a wall near a corner. The room was deserted. He debated finding the others to warn them, but decided it could wait until the morning.

Frying bacon woke him up the next morning. He yawned and stretched out, reaching through the sheets out of habit.

"Mornin' Sleepy head," a female voice said from the door.

He gasped and pulled his arms back under the covers. When he opened his eyes, he saw Angela leaning against the door frame, looking in on him not indicating what she may have seen.

"Mornin'" he replied cautiously.

"We missed you after dinner last night. You sleep well?" she said, not giving any hints.

Joseph yawned again and pushed the heavy blanket down. "Slept like a log. I guess you know how nice a soft bed is after sleeping in sleeping bags for so long."

She smiled and nodded. "Yeah you got that right. Breakfast is ready downstairs, whenever you're ready. Glad you're feeling better."

"Thanks, and ditto."

He waited until she left before he stood up and stretched normally. He pulled on his shirt and walked downstairs, to see everyone else in the household, already up and eating. He caught Richard and Saroth's eyes and nodded to them, darting his eyes towards the window, indicating outside. Surah was lost among a mass of fur as the rest of the farm's cats ate their breakfasts.

"So Richard mentioned you guys are going to Grand Bend," Meredith said, setting a plate of bacon, eggs and toast down in front of Joseph.

"Aye ma'am. It's as good a place as any to go to get replacement gear and horses and stuff," Joseph said, sipping a cup of tea and admiring the plate. "This smells delicious. Thank you."

"You're welcome. As I told your friend last night, the boys will be heading there as soon as they get back. We can't sell you any horses, but you're welcome to travel with them."

"You're very kind. We appreciate it. We can pay for our room and board before we leave, and we can help with any chores until they get back," Joey offered.

She smiled and buttered a piece of toast. "Save your money. You'll need it in the town. They'll rob you blind if you aren't careful." She grinned and put the knife down. "The offer for work though, we'll gladly accept. Can never have enough workers on a farm."

True to her word, she had a long list waiting for them once breakfast was done. She split them up, giving each a task with one of the normal workers, or in Joseph's case, with Angela. The rest of the morning proved to be a lesson in frustration. Angela talked constantly with him, fishing for more information about the group without trying to seem that way. At the same time, she kept him away from both Richard and Saroth, so he couldn't share what he had seen back at the shuttle. He did manage to get word to them via Holly and Surah, but he couldn't get a response.

Even at lunch, he didn't find any relief. Saroth and Richard were around him, and Saroth did manage to send a few tight messages to him, but Angela stuck to him like glue.

"You know, not that I'm trying to shirk farm duties or anything, but Holly is used to a long run daily. She's probably getting antsy in the barn all day. Would you mind if she was taken out for a couple hours to give her a good run?"

Before Meredith could respond, Angela jumped in. "Moonlight's similar. We could go for a ride together, and I could show you the rest of the grounds and the road to Grand Bend."

Joseph grinned. "Great, but I wasn't volunteering myself. Holly is more Richard's horse than mine. He should be the one to take her out."

Richard looked surprised but saw what Joey was doing quickly. Angela's mouth opened and closed as she realized she'd been had. She glared at Joey a moment while Richard smirked.

"Sure Angela, I'd love a tour of the lands by you," he said, playing along and nodding to Joseph.

"In the mean time, Saroth and I can help shovel out that hayloft and do that barn cleanup you wanted."

Feeling a little guilty for passing Angela off onto Richard, he and Saroth waved as they rode off from the barn. He and the illusioned dragon then spent a quarter hour shoving hay closer to the edge of the hayloft before Joey decided it was safe to go. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. I just want to make sure they're still on site. If they aren't, we'll have to leave tonight."

{I understand. I'll make sure the others are ready,} Saroth said.

"In the mean time, if anyone asks where I am, uhm.... well just stay quiet," Joseph grinned and saw the dragon reflect his grin. He then jumped and the hayloft was replaced by the cracked concrete of the old highway. He took his time, not straining his ability, while hopping from the mental waypoints he had set up on the original trip. Rusted mile marker signs were the usual image he focused on. The closer he got to the crash site, the tenser he got, ready to jump again if he spotted anyone else near him. His precautions were unneeded.

He appeared on top of the Staples building and pulled his goggles down, looking down at the camp site. To his surprise, it was deserted, as was the crater. He jumped around a bit more, looking for any signs of movement, but the entire site was deserted. Finally he jumped directly to the camp and checked the fire. The ashes were still warm, almost too hot to touch to his relief. "They just left. We've got time," he mumbled to himself, looking around. He was tempted to try and see just how far they were from the crash site, but he knew he had to get back and prepare to leave.

An almost dizzyingly fast number of jumps later, he was beside the barn again and listening. He peeked in and saw Saroth on the edge of the loft still working. Joseph almost jumped up beside the dragon, but heard someone else moving in there. He tried to think of how he could see who was up there without being visible to anyone walking around the barn when Saroth noticed him.

{Come on up, it's clear. It's just Sean,} the dragon's voice echoed in his head.

Joey frowned and jumped up. Far back, lost in the shadows, Sean in morphic form was helping with the cleaning. "Hey Joey. Saroth called me in soon after you left, to make it seem like two people were still at work up here. Good thing too, there were more than a couple close calls," Sean whispered.

He looked out over the barn below them. "Well just as well you're here. We need to go tonight. I can jump each of you to a spot fairly far from the house and then we'll ride from there. Well Saroth and Richard will ride, you will fly and I will jump."

{I can fly too,} Saroth pouted.

"No you can't. Come back here and take off your mask and let me check."

The dragon grudgingly backed up into the shadows and pulled the mask off. The 'skin' stretched and then snapped free, revealing the dragon underneath. As soon as the wings were visible, Sean was on him, pulling the injured wing out carefully and checking the membrane tear. He clicked his beak and shook his head. "Close, but I wouldn't yet big guy. Not if you want this to heal right."

Saroth grunted and sighed. Outside, they heard voices and horses near the barn. "Hide guys, back in your disguises." Joseph hissed, looking back long enough to make sure Saroth put the mask back on. "Be ready, as soon as everyone's asleep tonight, we're going. I'll have Richard set up his pup tent and we'll put everything in there that we can so I won't have to jump as much. Get your stuff into his room when you can."

{Will do. I'll be ready.}

Joseph finally managed to talk to Richard alone after dinner, both of them in the Wizard's room, the door closed and magically baffled, and the puptent set up just behind the door.

"I don't like leaving without saying goodbye. They really are nice people," Richard was saying.

Joseph nodded and stepped carefully out of the puptent doorway, carrying something heavy. "I know they are. Which is part of the reason we can't stay. We've got our mission, and if they found out about it, they'd probably insist on helping. Angela at least would. But this has to be just us. Don't worry, they'll be rewarded well for helping us at least." He unwrapped the object, revealing a pair of gold bars. "They gave us a country's treasury worth of gold, we might as well use it for some good."

Richard nodded in agreement. "There's that at least. Good idea. You get all of Saroth's gear?"

"His and Holly's gear yeah. I'll jump her out first, then you and Surah, and finally Saroth, and repeat it. Then we'll ride on for a few hours to get more distance, and take a nap, and push on in the morning. That should give us enough distance to keep them from catching up."

"That's a lot of jumping, you up for that?"

Joseph shook his head. "I hope so. I'm not used to jumping encumbered like that for so far. But we need to do it."

"Give me a bit, and I can put some charms on the doors that may buy us more time. Make it seem like we're still sleeping in here."

"I'd hoped you could-" he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Joseph stashed the bars under the bed's sheets, while Richard rolled up the pup tent door like a blind. He pocketed the spell and pulled off the other spell from the door frame. He looked around and saw Joey nod before opening the door.

"Hey guys, just wanted to check to see if you were all right," Angela said, peeking into the room.

"Yeah, we're fine. Been a long time since we did that much work in one day. I think we're gonna call it an early night," Joey said to her.

She smiled sympathetically, her eyes going around the room. She seemed to sense something was amiss, but didn't acknowledge it. "Yeah, farm life is different from scavenger life. Only another day or two for Brian and the others to return, and we can get back on the road."

"Sounds like a plan. Have a good night, Angela. We're going to hit the sack. Say good night to Meredith and the others for us," Joseph said, yawning and standing up to forcefully guide Angela out.

"Yeah, night guys. Sleep well," Richard said, partly closing the door behind Joey and Angela.

Joey walked with her to the next door down and entered his room. "Have a good night, Angela," he said to her, starting to close the door.

She looked like she wanted to stop him, but decided not to. "Good night, Joseph, see you in the morning."

Joseph didn't answer her, letting the door close completely.

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The eagle perched on a tree branch, looking at the sign, hoping it was the right one. He couldn't read the writing on it, but it looked like the one Joseph described, and the time was right. He was about to take off and circle the area once more, when there was a woomph of air, and the human and horse morph appeared next to the sign. The human stumbled a bit, and held the horse morph for a moment for balance, but before anyone could say anything, he disappeared.

"Something wrong with Joey?" Sean asked, morphing as well and gliding down to Holly.

The horse nodded. "He's exhausted, but he won't stop. It's no wonder. Jumping the three of us twice each, going back to the crash site. He doesn't think it uses energy but it does."

There was another woomph and two humans and a cat appeared. Richard reached out for Joey, but the teleporter disappeared without a word. "Damn it! Take a rest Joey! You're gonna kill yourself," he shouted out to the empty air.

The wizard shook his head and sighed. He looked around and walked to the old road sign, stringing the pup tent between them. "You guys need anything out of here?" he called out.

"Just my saddle, and the saddle bags. Joey said it was near the front," Holly said, looking around the moonlit area. Joey had jumped them to what he called a secondary road that wasn't being used much any more. There was an old gas station rusting away along an otherwise empty stretch of broken asphalt.

Richard pulled it out, and his own pack as well, then opened a can of food for Surah. He unwrapped an energy bar for himself and yawned, looking around. "He should be back with Saroth by now right?" he asked around a bite of the bar.

"Yeah, the first round didn't take this long. Sean, you know the first waypoint we were at?" Holly asked.

The eagle nodded. "I passed it along the way. Want me to..." He was interrupted by another woomph of air, and the illusioned dragon and the teleporter appeared. Joseph immediately slumped down and fell into Saroth's arms.

"Joe! What happened!" Richard shouted, rushing to the pair.

The teleporter looked weak, sweating hard and barely conscious. Saroth seemed to have a hard time keeping him up. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just need a rest," he mumbled even as his shoulder slipped through Saroth's hands.

"Get ahold of yourself man. Control your phasing and eat this," Richard ordered, thrusting the bar at Joey before running back for a bottle of water.

Fifteen minutes later, Joseph had himself under control, but he still looked exhausted. He was on his fifth bar and third bottle of water. "You guys need to get going," he ordered wearily. "Follow the plan. This road joins with the interstate ten miles west of here, the interstate goes right to Grand Bend."

"We're not leaving you bud. Not like this. We'll load you on Holly and walk with her," Richard insisted.

"NO! I'll be fine. Just need to nap is all." Joseph forced himself to sit up. "Look, I can move faster than you guys, I can catch up. But you guys need to get going, at least for a few hours to get more distance from the Circle Square."

"A few hours now, or a few hours before dawn won't make much difference. We'll rest a couple hours here and move on before dawn. Now go to sleep bud. You've done enough for us today."

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"Home sweet home," Paul said, as the riders approached the farmstead. His expression changed as he looked over the buildings. It was just afternoon, but they could all sense something was off. "Something's up."

"John! Paul! You're back!" Meredith shouted from the porch. "Thank goodness. Things have gone strange here."

"What is it Ma? Where's Angela and the Strangers?"

"That's the strange thing. Come in, come in. George, take their horses."

The riders dismounted and let the youngest brother and a couple farm hands take their mounts. Everyone walked into the kitchen, to see two bright bars on the table, unmarked other than scratches on the side.

"Wow, are those real? Where did they come from?" Paul asked, his eyes widening.

"From Richard's bed. We found it this morning with a note thanking us for our hospitality. One bar is for us, the other was for Angela and Ryan. The room... all of their rooms, were emptied out."

"Emptied? Why don't you start at the beginning and explain what happened."

Meredith took a deep breath and poured cups of tea for them. "It started this morning. All three of them were sleeping late, but we didn't think anything of it, until Rick checked the horses, and discovered their horse, Holly, was missing, along with all of her tack.

"Angela, once she heard the horse was missing, ran right up to their rooms. I'd been by them a few times and heard snoring in there, and they were still snoring... but when Angela stormed into the room, they were deserted. Completely empty but for the bars and the notes." She laughed nervously.

"It's before your guys time, but in the old movies and sitcoms, there was a classic situation where if you wanted to sneak out of your room without being detected, you would record snoring or sleeping sounds and put it on a play loop with the door closed, and then you snuck out. It seems like they did just that thing, but how? Recorders don't work any more, nothing does," she sipped her tea and tried to calm herself again.

"No more impossible than invisible planes," Brian mumbled.

Meredith looked up. "What was that?"

"We'll explain later. What happened after that?"

She sighed. "Well, Angela read the note, and she was angry. Angry at them and at herself. She suspected them, especially that Joey, right from the start. She kept an eye on them all day yesterday, and even took the room next to the stairs in case they tried anything last night. And she swears they didn't go that way."

"If she says they didn't go that way, then they didn't go that way. When she's in watch mode, she'll wake from a dead sleep if you drop a pin in the next room," Ryan said confidently. "So how did they get out?"

"No idea. No idea at all. The doors were closed, the windows were closed and latched from the inside. There was no way at all for them to get out. She even checked the roof outside their windows, and she found a couple of boot prints, but not enough for all three of them.

"After she finished the search, she gathered up her own gear, took Boots and said she was going to track them down. They said they were going to Grand Bend so she's going that way. It's the only lead they have. She left before lunch."

Brian looked at his companions and they nodded. "If she took Boots, then she's serious. We have to go as soon as possible. Your sons can fill you in on our own impossibility that's on your border."

"Your own impossibility?... Sure sure, I can get some supplies ready for you guys."

"Thank you, Ma'am. That would be great."

"Meredith, did you or anyone around here, normally have gold bars around?" Ryan asked suddenly.

She laughed. "Gold bars? We're lucky to have a supply of gold coins. There might be some in Grand Bend but not anywhere around here."

Ryan nodded. "Well, Angela and I helped them pack and load up the horses. We saw most of their gear, and what we didn't see.... well, trust us, there's no way they had anything like those in the gear they had with them. Something I'm sure Angela realized too."

Within an hour, Brian and his friends were saying good-bye to their hosts and were back on the road. Angela's tracks were easy enough to follow, especially with her brother in the group. She was going for speed more than stealth, and hadn't put any effort in hiding her own tracks. What was strange was the lack of tracks from anyone else. By late afternoon, they were wondering what, if anything, Angela was tracking, when Ryan let out a triumphant shout. He pointed to the ground and waited for the others to catch up.

"That's them.... It has to be. Unshod horse prints, and I recognize those boots treads. And there are the strange claw marks again, as if that thing walked next to them for a bit," he exclaimed, pointing. "Looks like they were on a side road, and rejoined the road here. That's why we couldn't find them."

"How old do they seem?" Brian asked.

"Angela's a few hours ahead of us. As for them, they left these tracks about mid morning I'd guess."

"Right, guys. I know we're tired but lets try to catch up with Angela at least."

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The group looked ahead at the walled town, all of them feeling out of joint. Richard and Joseph looked at the city, and recognized modern brick buildings, even an occasional power pole still standing, repurposed for some other purpose. But in between them, was more primitive looking construction, stuff that Holly, Sean and Saroth were more familiar with. Buildings packed tight together, blacksmiths and tanneries and other smelly industrial businesses set up outside the concrete city walls, and a steady stream of pedestrians and horse drawn vehicles going through the gates, with armed guards watching on the walls. The final bit of incongruity was the set of train tracks curving around the city wall, shiny and rust free.

"Steam power doesn't work here. So why the train tracks?" Joseph wondered, before they saw why. A team of oxen appeared from behind the wall, drawing a small cargo train made up of stripped down rail cars along the tracks.

"Steam power doesn't work. But muscle power works fine, Pretty ingenious really." Sean commented wryly. The eagle had put his disguise on earlier that morning and walked with them the rest of the way. Holly, in her morphic armor, had also put her disguise on, once it became obvious traffic was increasing.

"Cool. I wonder how much track and rolling stock survived? Anyways, lets get going guys. They're still following us, and I want to get lost in the town before they catch up. Preferably, I'd rather be in and out before they catch up, but I'm not sure we'll be able to do that."

The past few days had been stressful for the group. They had tried to let Joseph sleep in, but he was up before dawn, still exhausted, and forced the others to push on. Sean stayed behind with the porter while the rest reluctantly trotted down the road. A few hours on the road later, Holly, Richard and Saroth had caught up with Joseph who was waiting for them on a guard rail with Sean, still looking tired, but more alive than undead.

The first night, they camped out under the stars again and pushed on. Joey and Sean served as their eyes, alerting them for anyone coming up on them, and as Joey discovered, finding out how close their tails were. Once he spotted Angela, Ryan and the strangers they were traveling with, he insisted on jumping the group ahead a few more miles. The days after, there was too much traffic for Joey to risk back jumping often, so they had no idea how close their tails were.

The group walked through the gates, unchallenged. The town was alert for threats, but not on a war footing, which was reassuring. Once inside the walls, the modern members were momentarily stunned by how compact everything was, scents included. The Keepers didn't even falter.

{For the first time since you guys took us from the Keep, I almost feel at home,} Saroth sent quietly, looking around.

Sean chuckled as well. "More humans and fewer morphs than I'm used to, but I agree big guy."

"Good, then you guys can take the lead. I don't have two sweet clues where to go from here," Joseph said, overwhelmed, trying not to wrinkle his nose. "Give me the modern world any day," he mumbled.

Holly looked around and nudged Richard to keep him moving. "Well, I can't read the signs, but purposes are pretty obvious compared to what I'd expect. Let's, as you said on the Tangle, go sample the local cuisine. Then we'll arrange for lodgings, somewhere far from the gates, and finally we can go shopping."

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Ryan and Bruno walked through the main market area of Grand Bend, scanning the crowd. They had arrived the day before, and started searching right away, but Grand Bend was the largest town in the region, which made for a lot of people to hide among.

They had checked the stables, but no horses matching Holly's description had been seen by anyone. On the other hand, they had found out that a group matching Saroth, Richard and Joseph's description had eaten in a restaurant near the gates, accompanied by a man and a woman who seemed to be good friends. After eating, the group had disappeared into the town, becoming impossible to find.

"Well we have some idea what they're looking for. They need supplies, and horses to travel with. From what they were saying, I think they were going to go back East so they may need weapons too," Ryan said, looking through windows.

"Out east? Why would they want to go out there? It's just wastelands," Bruno said, looking at the crowd.

"Well we're going out there. Maybe they've got the visions too, like Misty had."

"Well lets find them first and find out their real story."

"That assumes we can find them...." Ryan trailed off and stared at a stall. Two figures were bartering with the seller, seemingly on the verge of making a deal. Ryan didn't recognize them, but something about them was familiar.

The man turned away from a moment while the woman pulled out a money bag and took out a few gold coins. The man's eyes caught Ryan's attention, they locked eyes and Ryan flashed back to the night at the crater, when the eagle had stopped him from seeing the invisible shuttle. Impossibly, the man had the same sort of piercing gaze the bird had. Ryan began to kid himself that he was imagining things, but then man reacted. He tensed up and turned away, nudging the woman next to him and whispering to her. The woman didn't turn, but he saw her head turn slightly, then nod. The pair said their goodbyes to the merchant, the deal completed, and moved out into the crowd.

"I think that was them. Or at least the pair they picked up somewhere. Go find the others and question the merchant, I'm going to follow them," Ryan said, already slipping into the crowd to trail the pair.

The pair proved harder to follow than Ryan expected. From Joseph and his friends, he expected the pair to be as newbie in the town as Joey seemed. But this pair was different. They slipped among the crowds, the stalls and alleys with ease, without running or otherwise drawing attention to themselves. He cursed as he saw the woman using mirrors and glass store fronts to keep an eye on him without turning her head. She nudged the man next to her, and whispered something. He nodded and the two split up.

Ryan cursed and mentally flipped a coin before deciding to follow the man. He followed the man back into the market area and out the other side, heading for the gates. Ryan was on the verge of closing in and confronting the man, when the man ducked down an alley Ryan knew was a dead end. The scout broke into a jog to block the end before the man realized his mistake.

"Okay, who are you and what do you have to do with Joey and his friends?" Ryan called out, reaching the alley and looking down it. He discovered he was speaking to an empty alley.

"Where did you go?" he mumbled, glancing around to make sure he had the right alley, then starting to look for doors or other hiding spots. He drew his own short sword and made his way deeper between the buildings.

A stack of wooden palettes tipped over, drawing Ryan's attention. He turned towards it and took a step closer, just in time to see a large familiar eagle leap from behind. The big bird's wingspan barely fit in the alley as he flapped frantically to get into the air, the downdraft of the wing beats nearly knocking Ryan over.

"Sean! Wait!" Ryan called out, knowing what he had to have seen, but not believing it. The eagle turned its head to look back, and screeched, disappearing over the buildings.

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Joey paced the room, looking at his companions who were scattered around the room. "We have to leave. They're here, and they spotted Holly and Sean's disguises. It's only a matter of time before they find us."

"We're not leaving without the horses. We've already paid for them and the gear," Richard countered. "And there's no way you can jump with the horses. I don't think you're even up for jumping us out again."

"I can do it, at least you guys. The rest, we'll leave it. We've got more than enough gold to cover abandoning the gear."

Richard frowned. "I am NOT going to walk all the way to the east coast of Canada."

"We won't have to do that. There are a few other towns north east of here we could buy from. We just need to lose Ryan, Angela and their friends."

"Now why would you want to loose us? We were becoming such great friends, despite the fact that you lied to us from the moment we met," Angela's voice interrupted them, sounding annoyed. Richard's eyes darted to the doorway, but the baffle spell was still in place. The Keepers scrambled to put their disguises back on, while Joey looked at the shuttered window. Richard cursed silently at the oversight.

"I've got a crossbow pointed at the window here, and Brian and my real friends are covering the door, so don't try any tricks to leave again," Angela continued, her voice coming from the outside of the window.

Joseph made a cutting noise across his throat, staring at the shuttered window. Richard nodded and took out his phone, mumbled a few words and pressed the mute button. The air in the room suddenly felt thicker.

"We're isolated, soundwise at least. No sound can be heard from in here at all," Richard said quickly.

"What did you do? Why is it so quiet in there? You've got a minute before we storm the room," Angela shouted.

"Won't buy us much time I'm afraid... sorry. It's my fault. I should have baffled the window too. There isn't a balcony out there but she must be out there," Richard apologized.

Joey nodded and disappeared a moment. He returned a moment later. "She's out there all right. Hanging off a rope from the roof right outside our window with a crossbow aimed right at the shutters. Another is on the roof watching her, and one outside the door there. I don't know where the last two are."

"Thirty seconds!"

"I could get us out of here. But we'd be leaving even more behind," Joey said, thinking fast. He looked longingly at his uniform shirt, tossed on the chair, wishing he had time to get it on for its protection. "Stepford would kill me if I lost my uniform. Damn. We need time to think."

Robert frowned and nodded. "Keeper's room is on that wall. Let me get the pup tent closed and pull in the mute spell. Think you could phase us over to it?"

"Fifteen seconds!"

"Yeah, I think I can make it." Joey grabbed the padded shirt but didn't have to to put it on. He motioned the others to the wall while Richard closed down his pup tent, canceled the mute spell and pulled down the baffle. With the shirt over his shoulder, Joey grabbed Holly and Sean's shoulders and together the three walked through the wall.

Richard ran over to the wall and waited, looking at Saroth. "Where are they? It shouldn't take that long," he mumbled as Angela started counting down from five.

Saroth shrugged and faced the window. Richard turned to face the window as well, while Surah crouched between them. Richard held his phone in one hand, and pressed a button combo. The air in front of them glowed faintly, the shield spell forming.

At one, Angela didn't give them another warning. There was a slight pause and the shutters and window crashed inwards. The scout, dressed in leather armor swung in and landed lightly on her feet, the bow swinging around the room. A few vanes from the shutters bounced off the shield, causing it to flare.

"Okay, I know I heard all five of you in here. Where are your friends?" She demanded, the bow centering on them. The door burst in a few seconds later as Brian shouldered his way in.

Richard held up his hands, now empty, the phone slipped into its belt pouch. "Your guess is as good as mine," he said, mentally lowering the shield and running through the words to bring it back up if it was needed.

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Feeling the situation falling out of control faster than he could cope, Joey took the Keepers' shoulders in his hands and concentrated hard. His power spread over them pulling them just slightly out of sync with the rest of the world. When he extended as far as he could, he took a step into the wall and pulled the pair with him. The atoms of the walls resist their passage, dragging on them like thick molasses instead of the water it usually felt like, but it was a thin wall. The stickiness dropped away from them, and he dropped his power, gasping for breath. The Keepers tense under his grip, and a dog began growling.

"Well well well. I owe you a drink Misty. They DID come through the wall as you predicted. Mind you I expected more debris than, well, no debris," Ryan said coldly.

Joey's eyes snapped open, and he saw Ryan and Michelle facing them, with a big mutt growling between them. They also had arrows aimed at the trio. All of the Keeper's gear was piled up against the far wall behind the captors, the weapons purposefully buried under the rest of the gear.

"I don't know how you did what you did, but we're going to find out," Ryan continued, directing it to their prisoners. From the next room, a loud crash came, followed by more shouting. "And don't try any funny stuff. We've got all of you now. Toss that shirt onto the pile over there."

The teleporter sighed and raised his hands after lobbing the shirt where indicated. Holly raised her own hands, her eyes taking in the situation and figuring out what weapons might be in reach. Their captors were too good to have left anything handy.

Sean on the other hand, was distracted. He stared intently at the woman. "You've got the gift of the future, don't you?" he asked, unconcerned about the arrows pointed at him. "You're the one that Angela and Ryan said had visions of the future."

Michelle nodded cautiously, "I've had visions, yes. How could you tell?"

"You have an aura around you. You bring order to the magical energies in a way I've seen around other prophets," Sean explained, finally realizing he should raise his hands.

"Sean," Joey hissed. "Now is not the time for that."

Ryan grinned, as if glad to have a suspicion confirmed. "So you are the bird. And I disagree, now is exactly the time for this. You have a lot of explaining to do, starting with who you really are, and where you are from."

There was a knock on the door, and it opened after a moment, revealing Bruno with a length of rope wrapped around his shoulder. "Angela and Brian have the other two contained, with their cat. He wants them brought together in here if you've got these three contained. The other room has a window and door problem at the moment."

"Yeah they're contained. Bring them in."

A few moments later, Saroth and Richard were escorted into the room and told to stand against the wall with their friends. Surah padded in with them and leaped onto a chair, washing herself. The dog growled at her, but no one else paid the animals any attention.

Angela moved over by the window, while her brother took up position at the door. The other three set up along the bed and faced the captives.

"Now, you've lead us on a merry chase, but it's time to come clean. Who the hell are you, how did you do all those things you did, like walking through walls and making that fake plane invisible?" Brian asked, taking the lead.

Joey opened his mouth, his mind frantically trying to come up with something, but Ryan spoke up first. "And tell the truth. We know there's some weird things about you guys. How you left the farm without leaving the rooms. How you went back to that crater after Angela got you to the farm, how those two became that eagle and horse. How you seemed like you were talking about hockey in cities that don't even exist any more when we were listening at the doors. How you walked through the wall without breaking it down would be a damn good start."

Joey glanced at Richard. "Hockey?"

The wizard blushed. "It's my normal baffle spell. I didn't think to change it up. Makes it sound like a couple guys talking about a Leafs versus Red Wings game."

He groaned and slumped his shoulders. "The [Shield] really is in the details," he said, slipping the word in Speech. Weapons clinked as their captors tensed up and Richard looked startled but caught on. "Devil! I meant Devil! The Devil is in the details. I'm sorry, I slip up the sayings occasionally." Joey looked back, putting a bit of real panic in his voice, hoping they would think it was a normal slip.

Brian frowned and eyed their prisoners carefully. "Lets have no more slip ups then. Stick to plain and simple English and no one gets an arrow anywhere it'll hurt. Let's start with who you all really are."

"Joey, maybe the truth would be the best. Having some local help wouldn't hurt. Or at least it would get them off our tails," Richard said, half distracted as he mentally ran through the long Speech-sentence to set up the shield spell and prepare it to cast.

Joseph sighed again and nodded. "Okay, okay. You want to know who I really am? My name is Joseph Amadio, also known as Shutterbug. I am a member of Seed Seven, in Alpha Super City, near New York."

"New York's dead. Been dead for 25 years now, and I ain't ever heard of any Alpha City, let alone a 'Seed Seven'. Care to try again?" Brian taunted them, not believing the truth.

"Your New York is dead. Mine is still a thriving metropolis. I'd show you my badge and stuff, but I'm afraid its display is too technological for your world's Reference Frame."

Brian frowned, looking confused. "It sounds like English, but you aren't making any sense. Last chance buddy."

"I know, and it probably won't make sense unless you accept one simple fact. That I and my companions are not from your world. We arrived here on our shuttle that crashed down where you saw it, and we're on a mission to help your world and get back to ours."

Brian started to speak but Joey cut him off. "It's tough to swallow, but it IS the truth. Richard and Surah, they're from a different world than mine, but similar to what your world was a quarter century ago. And Saroth, Sean and Holly there are from a third world still. A world very different from our three worlds actually. And yes, Sean and Holly are the eagle and horse you originally met. It's part of their natures. Just like Saroth is this." In a smooth move, Joseph lowered his hand and pulled down on the dragon's mask.

The tall man disappeared, replaced by the humanoid dragon in bronze, his wings curled around his shoulders. A bowstring twanged and a bolt launched in the air, only to thunk in thickened air right in front of Holly's chest. She looked down at it and stepped to one side almost as an afterthought.

"Made it. Damn that was close," Richard mumbled, leaning against the wall, sweating.

Joey nodded his head in thanks, and looked at their captors. Between the sudden appearance of the dragon, and the arrow stuck in midair, they were stunned. Ryan's bow was now empty, having been released in his own surprise. "In for a penny, in for a pound. Say hi to them, Saroth."

The dragon nodded and waved a claw. {Hello,} he said. {It's good to finally be able to speak to you.}

The humans looked around, mumbling 'did you?'s to each other as they confirmed they all heard the dragon's voice. Only Michelle didn't seem completely shocked by the turn of events.

{I am a telepathic sender, just part of my curse. It is why I was asked to stay silent as I understand it is not a common ability on this world.} Saroth continued, trying to calm them a bit.

Joey walked in front of his own companions, one hand out a little to feel the edge of Richard's shield. He reached out and plucked the arrow out of the air and inspected it. "So, it seems we are at a stalemate now. How should we break it? We've got you out powered at the moment. You can't hurt us, and we could be gone literally in the blink of an eye, but I loath to waste all the supplies we bought.

"We on the other hand, if we wanted to," he flickered and appeared next to Brian. "We could have killed you all just as fast." He flickered back behind the shield, the arrow clattering to the ground next to Brian. "But we aren't like that. You seem like good folk, and you haven't really threatened us, just inconvenienced us. Annoying, but understandable."

Brian and his friends backed up a bit and glanced at each other, trying to figure out where to go from here. A couple of the weapons dropped down uncertainly.

Joseph continued calmly. "It's up to you really. You can let us go, go back to your normal lives and forget you ever saw people from another world. We'll just be a story you can share at the bar, about the people who can make arrows freeze in mid air, can walk through walls and turn into animals.

"Or you can continue following us, try to figure out what we're doing, maybe even stop it. I doubt you'd succeed but you would probably make yourselves more annoying for us, and force us to take more extreme measures. I promise I won't kill you or have you killed. But I could just as easily jump you Elsewhere, to Australia or to Europe or where ever. Basically to places so far away that by the time you got back here, we'll be long gone." He knew he was bluffing, but they didn't know that. Bruno gulped nervously and backed up a few more steps.

"Or..." Joseph flickered to stand next to Surah's chair, causing the humans to jump again. He reached down and rubbed the house cat's ears. She purred and rolled onto her side. "We join forces. As Richard suggested, we could use some local help. People who know the lay of the land, and who can keep us from slipping up like we did with you guys. It's easier to hide in a group of natives who are protecting you than to go alone, especially in situations like this. If you want to come with us, even part of the way, we'll tell you what we can. And if you decide to leave, there won't be any hard feelings." He reappeared next to Brian and lowered his voice. "Well no hard feelings as long as you don't piss us off before then. If that happens, see option two."

"Stop doing that!" Brian shouted swinging a fist in frustration through the empty space Joey had stood in.

Joey reappeared back behind the shield where he started, smirking though he tried to hide it. "Feel free to talk it over amongst yourselves. We can wait a bit."

Brian glared at him, and motioned for his friends to get closer so they could talk. Most of the weapons were down now, but Angela still kept them covered even as she moved in to listen.

"[You can be damned annoying when you want to be]," Richard said quietly in Speech, moving closer to Joey.

"[I know. I just wanted to keep them off balance. How's the shield holding up?]"

"[Well enough. Don't think I haven't noticed you pumping some extra power into it, Sean.]"

The eagle blushed and tried to look innocent. "I just wanted to help."

"[It was a help. It's a heavy spell to keep up for long, let alone to drop and bring up so quickly. Don't worry about it, but just be careful. You change the wrong sentence and you could freeze all of the air in the room. Or make it all condense in a corner, suffocating us.]"

Sean gulped and nodded.

Joseph watched the other group carefully, trying to hear what they were saying. They had switched to the Tolkien language he'd heard Angela and Ryan use, and they were speaking almost too quiet for him to hear. Angela kept her eye on him, keeping him from approaching closer.

"[They're using the other language. If you hear anything, pretend you don't understand,]" he mumbled as a warning and took a step closer. Angela glared at him, freezing him in place.

" - food with them. They don't really seem all that bad, and I admit I'm curious to find out what they're really about," Ryan said.

"But they lied to you right from the beginning. How can we trust anything they say to us? Especially with a story like they're spinning now," Bruno countered.

"It was needed. In their position, I could see myself spinning a yarn too. Hell, Angela and I have both had to do that a few times when we weren't sure of what was going on. It's just common sense. But I don't know, call it a sixth sense or something, but I trust them now. They've been pretty frank with us since he started talking."

"Well a six foot tall dragon is kind've hard to hide," Angela growled back to her friends.

Brian nodded. "But they didn't have to show us that in particular. Yes they lied from the start, but he put down a good deposit of truth to counter it. And don't forget back at the farm, they did leave those bars for both us and Matilda. They didn't have to do that. I guess we need to decide. First of all, following them is out of the question right?"

Bruno sighed and nodded. "Yeah, if he can do what he threatened, I'd rather not risk it."

"Right, then in that case, the options are, do we continue on our own mission and, as Joey put it, forget we ever met them? Or do we join up with them and find out what they're up to?"

"My curiosity is piqued. I want to find out more about them," Ryan voted.

Angela shook her head. "Not me. Misty is weird enough for me. But if you decide to go with them Bri, I'll go along."

"Fair enough, Angela. Bruno?"

"Me and Boots are with Angela. Lets finish your mission and get going home."

Brian looked back at the group they were talking about. "Michelle, we're following you as much as me. What do you think?"

Michelle was looking closely at the Keepers. She broke off her stare and looked at her cousin. "I need to check something first," she said, walking over to her travel pack. All eyes followed her as she dug around and pulled out a well worn sketchbook. She opened it up, moved a book mark and closed the book again before handing it to Brian. "Don't look, not yet."

She walked over to the other group, one hand held out to test for the shield, approaching Holly and Sean. Her fingers met resistance in the air a few feet in front of them.

"Drop the shield, Richard. As a sign of good faith," Joseph called out, curious about what Michelle was doing.

The resistance faded from the air but she didn't move. She grinned over at Joey. "You understood what we were saying, didn't you?"

He blushed and looked away. "Yes," he mumbled. "What I could hear at least," he added louder.

Michelle held up her hand to her friends to hold them still, despite the angry looks that went over Bruno and Angela's faces. She nodded to the disguised Keepers. "Please, I need to check something. Could you remove your masks?"

Sean and Holly didn't hesitate. They tugged off their masks, letting their forms shift and reform back into their morphic modes. Sean stretched and shook out his wings as a smile lit up Michelle's face.

"I thought as much. Brian, open the book to the page I marked there."

Her cousin looked at her suspiciously, and opened the book at the book mark. He nearly dropped it when he saw the sketch. Angela helped him steady it, but even she had an amazed expression on her face.

"You know I see the future clearest when I'm drawing. That's why we left home in the first place. But I've been hiding some sketches from you guys. Sketches of things that couldn't be. I had a few of them before we left but most of them happened last winter. I always figured I was just daydreaming or something, but now I see they were still of the future. Just a future I never thought would happen."

She pulled the book out of her cousin's hands and turned to show the sketch to the others. It was a charcoal picture, showing her in front of a morphic horse, a morphic eagle, and the humanoid dragon. The sketch was clear enough to recognize Sean's feather pattern and the bandage on Saroth's wing membrane.

"You are in more of my sketches, the ones I hid before. Perhaps you can help me sort these out? I have no idea what order these events will happen in, so if you can recognize the ones that have already happened, it may help us figure out what will happen."

Joseph nodded. "Of course. I take it that means you'll be joining us?"

"Or you'll be joining us. Signs seem to be indicating that. Angela, put that down please," Michelle confirmed.

Reluctantly, the scout lowered her weapon and the tension eased in the room. Michelle moved over to a table and set her sketch book on it before hauling the table closer to the middle of the room. The groups mingled nervously as they tried to get a view of what she had drawn.

"That's Carver's Plateau," Holly said, pointing to a scene with her and Surah guarding Richard under a dome of arrows, the barest hints of pencil strokes showing the dome. "That's when I met them and we were attacked."

"Who's the cat? Another one of your kind?" Bruno asked, pointing to the large cat in the drawing.

Richard chuckled. "Actually, that's Surah," he explained. All eyes went to the house cat who seemed to be dozing on the chair. She didn't even open an eye, though her ear did twitch towards them. "Wizards have different styles, especially when they need to fight. For feline wizards, they tend to pull in a more primal form to fight in. So don't underestimate what she can do."

Bruno looked strangely at the cat then at his own dog. "You can really talk to her? And she can talk back?"

"The Speech transcends all languages, or at least all languages in my universe. If you know what to listen for, you can understand anyone, and anything. Some wizards where I'm from have an aptitude for talking with plants, others with mechanical and physical things. I myself have an electronics aptitude which isn't all that great here. And any species with wizards can talk to others," Richard explained, sitting down wearily.

"Other species? You mean Aliens?"

"Aliens yes. I've met more than a few. Joey recruited me when Surah and I were visiting another civilization entirely. But my Earth has more than just human wizards too. The Whales and the Cats are probably the next most common wizards, but there were some events recently with the Dogs that blossomed their wizardry to full bloom. And there was something with some dinosaurs that I can't even begin to understand." Richard shifted his attention and nodded to the big war dog.

"[Thank you for not attacking right away,]" he said.

The dog looked surprised then shook his head. "[Master didn't order, and I always follow the Master. But I'd like to be following him to some food.]"

"[Typical canines. Always thinking with their stomachs,]" Surah said dismissively, sitting up and beginning to wash herself.

"[Typical felines, always thinking they're the top of the world,]" Boots snapped back with a snarl.

"[Take it easy you two, take it easy,]" Richard laughed and shook his head. Bruno and the others who couldn't understand Speech were watching confused, sensing something had happened with the series of growls and hisses, but not knowing what.

"Something going on?" Bruno asked, scratching Boot's ears when the big dog walked over to his master.

"Just said hi to them, and a bit of positioning. Classic Cats versus Dogs posturing. He said he was hungry too."

"He's always hungry, aren't you big guy?"

While they were talking, Michelle was going through her book, pausing at a few more pictures. The first one showed Joseph in a room with big windows looking out over a maelstrom. Another dragon, similar to Saroth faced the sketch-Joey, wearing a simple uniform with a blocky device on his wrist and a weapon at his waist.

"Nice pic of Jetfire and Mercury there. If we can get some tech working, I'd love a copy of it. I'm not sure if that is when I first got the mission or when we stopped in before coming here. In either case, it's safe to guess it's probably already happened," Joseph explained.

The next picture showed Richard carrying a cat carrier and the upper half of Joey's head. "That's the Crossing, a place in my universe. When Joey recruited me. He was showing off his invisibility suit, which doesn't work at the moment," Richard explained.

"Stupid Reference Frame," Joey grumbled and waved off any potential questions.

Michelle skipped ahead to another sketch. "This is the one that made us leave home. We aren't sure where it is, but I could feel it was East and that we had to go there. What I didn't show them was the rest of the picture."

The picture itself showed an old concrete bridge reaching across a large body of water. The view was angled so you could see along its length. In the forefront, clearly recognizable, were Brian and his companions, along with another figure, partially obscured. They were facing back the way they had come, where a mass of people were gathered, all armed, blocking the way back to land that way.

"You're crossing the continent based on a picture of you guys fighting a mob?... Wait a second, those are my swords!"

"That's not all," Michelle said, unfolding the page to show the rest. The bridge ended abruptly, as if it was cut off and worn down by years of weather. Holly was now visible at the back of the group, ready to help fight. Sean, Richard and Surah were crouched at the end of the bridge doing something unknown, while Saroth was leaping off the side, in mid change already.

"Damn, you're a good artist... But what does all this mean?" Holly asked, looking from the picture to the rest of the people in the room.

Michelle shook her head. "I have no idea. But I sense it's important. I haven't sketched anything else like it, but the visions of it do come to me regularly, too fleeting to get a good picture of, but too emphatic to ignore. That's how I knew we had to come this way."

"Maybe Saroth and I can help clarify your Vision a bit. Neither of us have any skill in precognative magic, but Electra taught us enough generalities we might be able to help," Sean offered.

Richard stared at the picture and shook his head. "I know that bridge from some where... I've seen it before but where?" Pensively, he pulled out his phone and started tapping at the screen, ignoring the stares from the ones who had never seen a working electronic device before. "North American Bridges, Concrete spans, let's say over one kilometer in length... Let's start East of the Mississippi inclusive." He mumbled further as he refined his search criteria, finally giving a triumphant 'Ah-ha!' and dropping the phone to the table. On the screen, a similar bridge arched over a calm dark blue expanse, one end lost in the distance.

"So what is it?" Joey asked, looking from the sketch to the picture.

"Confederation Bridge. Linked two of my country's provinces back home. Big deal when it was built since it's over an icy strait. And it's right near where the kernel is."

"How the hell does that work? I thought you said all of your gear was busted when you came here?" Bruno asked, staring intently at the lit screen of Richard's screen.

Richard turned it so others could see and tapped the screen, clearing the picture and bringing up a map, zooming in on where they were. "Our technological devices were knocked down to your world's limits, but this only appears to be technological. Despite it's appearances, it is really a fully magical object. It's my wizardry manual, a book of sorts holding all the information I need to cast my own spells and do my work." He pointed to the bars indicator at the top. "It's maintaining a surprisingly strong connection to my universe as well, enough that the Powers can keep it updated more than we expected. Still, they front loaded it with a lot of extras in case we do get cut off."

He brought up a map function and entered a couple of locations. "It's not as localized as it could be either. In my sheaf of worlds, the Powers can tap into the local kernel and update maps so we can know where we're going. But since we can't, these maps for example are of my world, which is similar but not exactly like yours. We are here now, and your vision picture there is... that's strange."

The screen showed a wand sparking on one end, flipping slowly as the device seemed to think hard on something. The screen went blank and a note appeared.

Negotiating a connection.... Connecting.... Local connection established....

"Something wrong Richard?" Joey asked, looking concerned.

The wizard shook his head. "I don't know. I've never seen this before."

The screen returned still showing the mid-Eastern half of North America, but the lines denoting the state and province boundaries were gone. The boundaries now shown were much smaller and more fluid, following natural boundaries.

"I recognize that layout. It's our world now. Did it find a map or something?" Brian said, leaning closer to get a better look. "We're there and that's about the limits of Twisting Snake territory there.

Richard looked concerned and shook his head. "I didn't do anything. It shouldn't have that data, but it does. I'll have to look into this more. In the mean time, I guess we have an updated map now."

He tapped on the screen a few more times to set locations. "So your picture vision places us there at some point in time. No idea when. We have to get from there to there, and I would assume avoid as many of the old cities as we can."

Brian nodded. "Calling them a mess is being unfair to messes. The entire east coast is still a mess, as is most of the west coast. When the Change came, the food ran out quickly, and only the strongest survived, eating off the weakest and denuding the land for miles around the old centers. As the years went by the surviving towns and villages took in some of the refugees from the cities, but now, the best way to describe the packs and gangs that survive is probably 'feral'. Closer to the coasts and to the Great Lakes, companies of young people often go into those death zones to salvage what they can find. The survivors, assuming they can get in far enough, usually have enough to get a plot of land and settle down."

"Right, then we'll avoid the cities and death zones as much as possible. Gonna be tricky though." Joey mentally reviewed the map in his head. "We have a few routes but it basically boils down to if we want to head north of the Great Lakes and come in down the Gaspe, or thread the needle between the Chicago/Golden Horseshoe Death Zone and the New York/Boston Death zone and come up through Maine. The northern route would be longer, and we'd have to cross the Saint Lawrence at some point; if we can't make boats or rafts, we'd have to risk finding the bridges or tunnels in Montreal or Quebec City. Not nice prospects. The southern route would be faster and easier, since winter won't hit as fast. But the Death Zones marked on the map there don't look nice."

"We hear word from that end of the continent occasionally, some of the towns survived quite well there. But they're effectively cut off from the rest of us until the DC to Detroit band can be cleaned up. They're trading more with the surviving Brits than with us," Bruno explained.

Joey straightened up and leaned back, his spine popping a bit. "Okay, there's still a tonne to plan for, but I'm starved. Get your masks back on guys, and lets head downstairs to get dinner." He frowned and remembered something else. "Richard and I will have to figure out what to do with our room too. You guys busted that window and door pretty good. I'm surprised no one's been up to check on it yet."

Brian grinned. "They would if we hadn't warned them about what was going on, and that they should keep their distance for now. We've been in the area a lot longer than you; the owner owed us a few favors from last fall."

"Lucky us. Well lets go get things settled and we can figure out how we're going to get to that bridge."

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Neal closed the door of his bakery and locked it behind him. He pulled the blinds closed and made his way to the back where the rest of the group had gathered, the ovens cooling a bit from their days work. He pulled the hood of the robe over his head and joined the others crouched in front of the Speaker.

The Speaker scanned over his flock, small for a town of this size, especially after the pounding they had taken the fall before, but big enough for his needs. More than enough to cleanse the area. He turned his back to them and supplicated himself to a potted evergreen.

"Forgive us Mother Earth, for we have sinned," he intoned, hearing the others pick up the words after him. "We continue to take from you without returning. We continue to abuse your resources even after you punished us. We seek forgiveness for what we must do to lure others into the light, to convince others to give up this blasphemous life People used to live. We prey that when our time comes, our souls may return to you and be forgiven for the waste we did in life, and that our actions in life may balance those wastes. Please forgive us, oh Green Mother."

He waited a moment after the prayer before standing up again, feeling the Understanding in his mind, the Certainty that what he was doing was Right and for the Benefit of all who survived the change. He raised his hands and addressed the dozen people in front of him.

"Fellow Geddonites, I have received a vision. Though our numbers are few, it is time. Time for this Blemish on the face of the Mother to be destroyed. Tonight we move, and teach all of the Lost ones that this is NOT the proper way to live; that they must embrace the Mother, not push her out. Tonight this blemish that is Grand Bend shall be burned off of Mother, and returned to her folds. Tonight, we mourn those who will perish not knowing the Word; but we will celebrate their return to the Mother."

He felt some uncertainty in the room at first, but as he spoke it faded away, the others stared at him raptly, fully committed to the mission they were about to perform. The plans had been all winter in the making, modified as more were recruited, waiting for the signs to go. Inwardly he wished he could have waited longer, until the dryness of summer made the flames easier to spread, but the urgent vision from Mother convinced him to go now. He didn't doubt Mother's will, and as he thought of it, he realized it made sense. An early burn would protect the growing plains and give Mother time to grow over the scab of Grand Bend.

He finished spreading the orders to his followers and blessed them one final time. Some may survive, most would perish in the inferno to come. All were ready for what was to come. In Ones and Twos, the followers left the bakery and headed out to prepare, until it was just the Baker and the Speaker remaining. Together, they prepared the store for its demise. Though the Mother had removed most forms of destruction from human control, fire was still a very effective tool. The Speaker let the Baker light the pool of oil they had spread out, and together the pair walked out the back door, closing it carefully behind them and disappearing deeper into the town.

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"So did you really understand what we were saying in this language?" Misty asked in elvish. The combined groups were relaxing over the dinner table, sipping drinks.

Joey grinned and replied in kind. "That I did. Your accent is different from what I'm used to, but it's close enough to what I'm used to. Not that it would make a difference."

"Oh? Why wouldn't it make a difference?"

"It's one of my abilities, like jumping and phasing. I can understand almost language fluently after hearing or reading a few words. Even a few languages I hadn't realized were languages."

"Wow... so no matter what we spoke in, you would have understood us?"

He nodded and set his drink down. "Elf, Klingon, Standard, Wookie, Speech, even sign language. If it can be used to transfer information between two people, I stand a good chance of figuring it out. Context is another matter, but I'll understand it."

Misty looked at the Wizards and the Keepers. "And you guys? Can you understand everything too?" she asked switching back to English.

"Not exactly. Before we landed, we had devices to translate for us, even between me and Holly and Sean. Saroth's telepathy seems mostly language independent but he sometimes needs help understanding what he's hearing and seeing. Context can be a pain when you come from a medieval world and plopped down in a high tech world," Richard explained. "After we landed, those devices didn't work any more, so Surah and I cooked up a translation spell so we could keep talking with each other and with you."

He smiled at her and looked at Angela and Ryan. "Though the spell isn't as good as the UT's. When Holly first heard you speaking in Elf, she could only understand about half of what you said. When Joey... well when he spied on you while you were doing the dishes that day, he recognized the language and helped us update the spell to handle it."

Angela frowned at the admission, and hid her annoyance with a piece of bread. Ryan leaned forward, realizing part of what was being said. "Wait, you said you recognized our language? So you've heard other people speak Tolkien?"

Joey nodded. "My world has a sister Fae world; in fact two members of my team come from there. And while my teammates would never speak it, a lot of the pixies and similar tricksters use Tolkien as a joke language between them. Much like the geeks use Klingon. And of course, I've traveled beyond my world on Tangle missions and once passed through a world very similar to Middle Earth, complete with Tolkien Elvish speakers."

The doors of the dining room burst open with a Crier ringing a bell. "Fires! Fires! The Thompson's Stables and Neal's Bakery are burning down! We need all the help we can get!" he shouted before ducking back out.

The group didn't need to be told twice. They stood up and rushed for the door and into the street, joining the crowds forming there. No fires were immediately visible, but the scent of smoke hung in the air.

"The fire hall is burning."

"So's the library. Someone torched the library!" another person anguished.

Joey looked around and pressed against a wall, pulling the others closer to him where he could. "This isn't good. Sounds like someone is torching the town."

"Yeah, definitely we need to find a fire brigade and help out. You guys have any tricks up your sleeves to help?" Brian asked.

"I'll need an air tank. Think there'll be any around? My gear is fire resistant enough to get people out, but I need air supplies."

"The fire department may have a couple of tanks, or maybe the hospital. They're a pain to refill, but they should be enough." Ryan said.

"Okay, Ryan show me where the nearest place might be. Richard, you got any plans?"

"I'll go get Surah and we'll cook up some spells to contain the fires as best we can."

Saroth was staring up at the skies, his invisible wings brushing against Angela and Holly as he felt the air over the town. {It's dry up there but not too dry. There are some clouds nearby that I can convince to unload if I pump it up with the river moisture. But they don't respond well to me. I'll need to be in the air, and I'll need Sean's help,} he sent.

Joey nodded and took Saroth's arm. "Okay. Cover me guys. I'm gonna jump Saroth and Sean up to give them some air, then grab Surah. Richard and Surah will do their thing. Holly you follow Brian's lead. I'll get a tank and Ryan and I will start checking buildings and make sure they're empty. Ready big guy?"

With no more warning, he and Saroth disappeared, only to reappear a few hundred feet over the town, on the edge of a pillar of smoke. They flickered again and appeared even higher up. Saroth let out a surprised roar even as Joey snatched the mask off of him and let the dragon go. Instincts took over, and the dragon swelled to full size and spread his wings in the updraft from the fire. He only lost a few hundred feet of altitude and was climbing back up when Sean appeared and was similarly left to his own devices in mid air.

Joseph appeared in their inn room, crashing loudly on the bed and wincing in pain. Surah jumped in surprise and hissed, tail lashing the air in the start of a spell.

"At ease, Surah. It's just me." He stepped off the bed carefully and stuffed Saroth's and Sean's masks into his pocket. "Ugh, even half a second of free fall can be too much. We've got an emergency, Surah. Someone's torching the town and Richard wants your help for some mojo."

"[I really wish you wouldn't call it it that,]" Surah replied stretching and shaking herself out.

Joey rummaged in his gear and pulled out his hood and goggles, and tossed them on the pile with the rest of his uniform.

"[Isn't that gear deactivated here?]" Surah asked, puzzled as he started pulling it on.

"Yeah it is. But even unpowered it's still very fire resistant. Good insulation in it too. As long as I can get a fresh air tank for it, I'll be able to go through the flames with impunity." He grunted and pulled hard on the pants to get the stiff fabric on. "Course if it were active, I'd be able to get it on a heck of a lot faster."

He pulled on the shirt and tossed a jacket on over it to hide its appearance. He stuffed the hood and goggles into a pocket and turned to Surah. "Ready?"

She leaped into his arms and curled up. The pair flickered and were back on the street outside the hotel. Ryan and Richard were still there.

"What's the situation?"

"More fires cropping up all over. Hospital, Town Hall, two of the schools, two or three in the market. Scuttlebutt says a half dozen arsonists have been caught or killed but they think there are more." Ryan reported. "Everyone's already headed off to join one of the brigades."

"How bad's the one at the hospital?" Joey asked, handing Surah to Richard.

Ryan shrugged. "No idea, but I think they have it contained. They caught it early enough."

"Right, Richard, you and Surah go do your stuff. Ryan you're my guide." Joey reached out and took Ryan's arm and the pair flickered, reappearing on top of their hotel. "Point me to the nearest place with a portable air tank."

The scout stumbled in surprise, only held up by Joseph's firm grip on his arm. He blinked rapidly and looked around to get his bearings. He pointed to a red brick building with large garage doors, both wide open, a few blocks away. "There. That's one of the stations. They probably -"

"- have air tanks." Ryan shook his head and rubbed his ears as they suddenly appeared in front of an open garage door. Joey left him standing there and ran inside.

The station was deserted, everyone busy out fighting the fires. Lockers hung open where the fighters had pulled out gear. "Keep looking down here. I'm checking upstairs," he shouted, looking up a fire pole and flickering to the top of it.

On the second floor he found what he was looking for. A strange hand powered contraption had a backpack tank connected to it. Other tanks were stacked on a rack nearby. He checked guages and picked a pair of tanks that were full, and found a face mask nearby. He took his discoveries and flickered back to Ryan.

"Hold this," he ordered, shoving the gear into the scouts hands. He pulled his cowl out and pulled it over his head complete with goggles. He shrugged out of the jacket and strapped the tank to his back after adjusting the tubes to the face mask.

"You all right?" Ryan asked, shouldering the spare tank.

Joey gave him a thumbs up, and lifted the mask. He took Ryan's arm and jumped them back to the roof. "Point me to the fires you think most likely have people who can't get out," he said. "If you need a better angle, just ask."

"Ugh, those jumps are rather abrupt aren't they? Uhm let's see...." Ryan scanned the cityscape, noting where the plumes of smoke were rising. "There! That big building over there. There are apartments in the upper levels that may not have been evacuated."

The teleporter squinted and saw the building Ryan meant. It was actually a block of three and four story buildings near the town's downtown core, with businesses on the first floor and living quarters in the upper floors. Most of the buildings looked centuries old and less then well maintained. The bottom floors were already engulfed in flames with only a minimal fire brigade on scene to help contain it.

"Try to find someone in charge down there to see if they know if the place is clear or not. I'll check back out periodically while doing my own checks. If the place is clear, we'll jump elsewhere."

"Got it." With those words, the pair was suddenly at street level, the stench of smoke filling the air, along with the crackling and popping of an out of control fire. Joey disappeared as fast as he had appeared, leaving Ryan looking at the backs of the fire team trying to contain the blaze.

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"Fire fire fire... three main parts to a fire. Fuel plus oxygen plus energy equals fire. So what can we do?" Richard mused to himself and to Surah as he ran down the block towards the closest blaze, the stables and granary.

"[Remove one of the parts. Any two are rarely a problem but all three together causes the fire,]" Surah said back.

"Yeah but which parts? We can't remove the fuel, too much flammable stuff to transform. If it was contained we could remove the oxygen, but we're in the open, it'd be almost impossible to pull enough oxygen away."

"[So that leaves the heat. Remove the energy and combustion stops. Energy transfers are easier to do then trying to work on the physical.]"

"True true. But where do we put it? We need a heat sink of some sort. Air's already saturated; we pump more heat into it and we'll probably start more fires." Richard ran into the crowd, holding Surah protectively in the crock of his arm while elbowing his way through with his free hand. Animal handlers were trying there best to get horses clear of the flames while a fire team was hand pumping water and trying to douse the flames. It was increasingly looking like a lost cause. He paused against the brick wall of a smithy to study the situation.

"[The river. It's spring time and barely above freezing. It should be able to take a lot of heat.]" The cat flicked her tail and leaped from Richard's arms to land on a piece of solidified air against a wall. "[River's a few blocks to the south. I'll go set up an energy outlet. You start setting up a mobile inlet,]" she called out, telepathically sending the initial structure she was thinking of.

Richard glanced around to make sure no one noticed Surah sitting in mid air. "Sounds good. Get going while I prepare things here." He turned his back to the fire and pulled out his phone, paging through to the energy management section to get what he needed.

The cat started running on air, climbing up to the top of the building and taking the roofs towards the river. With their mental link they refined the forming spells, making sure the connections were strong enough to handle the energy, but flexible enough for Richard to move it from fire to fire. He soon hand a bundle of spell energy wrapped around his arm, and could put the phone away and move to position behind the stables where there wasn't as much action yet. Flames were beginning to flicker out of the hayloft and from under the rafters.

{[Ready here,]} Surah sent.

Richard felt a pulse of power in the spells wound around his arm, indicating the link was made. He unwound some of it and ran through the casting, adding in the boundaries of the stables and granary to suck energy from, as well as the minimum energy state to leave behind. He pulled his phone out again and used it to check for the hottest spots, adding their locations in quickly as priority spots. With the pressure of the spell barely contained in his head, he unwound the last of it and threw it at the building like a net, activating it at the same time.

The spell net expanded quickly, propelled by wizardry more than his throw. It spread over the building, its strands beginning to glow as they pulled in the heat faster than the flames could generate it. The glow spread down the strands, brightening where strands combined together. Where they all compressed down to a single strand, they glowed too bright to see, the heat melting the old pavement but not quite igniting it.

Richard shielded his eyes and had to look away a moment. {Incoming Surah!} he warned, magically opening the link between his spell and the cat's.

At the river, Surah sat on a crate on the end of the docks, her forepaws stuck in a web of invisible energy connecting to another net of wizardry. With Richard's warning, she felt the web surge and a bright spot of light ignited in the air ten feet above the water. Nearly superconductive strands of wizardry split and spread the energy from the point down into a series of strands that spread out in the water, dissipating the heat. She hissed softly and quickly wove a couple more strands to spread the heat, even as the river began to steam. Back on the shore she vaguely heard a few reactions to the strange glow, but she ignored them, focusing on the magic she was handling.

Back at the fire, Richard kept an eye on the wizardry, using his phone to monitor the temperatures inside. It took a few minutes for the strands to suck enough heat out to put out most of the fires, and even longer to chill the place cold enough to make absolutely sure they were below the combustion point. By the time he mentally shut off his end, the fire brigade up front had stopped spraying water, and were trying to figure out why the buildings were frosted over. He waited long enough for the energy strands on his end to cool down, then pulled in the spell, already feeling exhausted from the effort.

{One fire out. Moving on to the next one. Let me know when you're ready for more,} he sent, already leaving the scene.

{[Give me a few minutes to cool off down here and add more radiators. I underestimated how much energy was going through,]}

{No problem. I'll check in when ready,}

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Holly and Bruno sat back to catch their breaths while Brian and Angela worked a hand pump for another squad of fire fighters. They were trying to save the city hall and the buildings around it, but it was going to be a tough battle.

"We could certainly use your friends help about now," Bruno commented bitterly, taking a swig from a water flask. After Holly had been taking two stints on the pumps for every one the humans took, he knew she was doing all she could do. But her companions hadn't been seen since they'd separated, and he had no idea what they were doing.

"They all have magic and other abilities. I'm sure they're doing everything they can do to help out," Holly replied, pouring the flask over her head and shaking it. Even with her illusion on, Bruno noticed how horse-like it seemed.

"Well what about Saroth? He's a dragon right? He should be able to walk into those flames and do something shouldn't he?"

Holly laughed softly and leaned back. "Not quite. Yes he's a dragon, but he's not a fire dragon." She looked up at the dark smoke-filled skies. She thought she noticed some extra movement, clouds thickening more than the smoke would allow for, but she couldn't tell for certain. "What he can do though will be seen soon... I hope. He's a weather wizard. If he tried hard enough, he could make it snow in the middle of a heat wave. Especially with Sean's help."

"And the others? Joey I understand. He's probably out there rescuing people or something. Seems to be his thing. But Sean and Richard? They're wizards. Can't they wave their hands and make the flames disappear?"

"Sean's different. He's not a wizard exactly. He's a wizard's best friend. He takes the spells they cast and makes them more powerful. He and Saroth have worked together for years, hence why he's up there now. As for Richard, I don't know all he can do, but he does have limits. He's probably waving his hands as you said, but he may not be able to do it as big as you want him to." Holly watched the pumpers and saw Brian wave tiredly for a replacement. She stood up and started to move in, but Misty got there first. She backed up to Bruno, nodding to some of the standby pumpers of the crew that just arrived.

"-dest thing I ever saw. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it myself. We were fighting the Johnston Stable fire when it went out. It got cold, like the middle of winter, and the fire went out. There was even ICE inside the place," one was saying to another substitute.

Holly grinned and tilted her head towards the new pumper. "THAT was probably Richard's work," she whispered.

"SUB!" an exhausted pumper shouted. Bruno and Holly both sprinted to replace the pair. As they got into the rhythm, thunder rumbled in the sky overhead and large dirty drops of rain began to fall.

"And THAT would be Saroth's doing," Holly called across the pump as the skies opened up.

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The dragon winced a bit as the air caught his healing wing, but the wing held. He circled slowly over the walled town and extended his senses. He felt a familiar bit of magical tugging as Sean untangled a portion of the telepathy spell to let them talk at a distance.

{How's it look big guy?} the eagle sent, circling in the opposite direction higher up.

Saroth frowned, {Ugly. There are a few clouds all around, but no major rain clouds. If we want to soak the town, we're gonna need to pump them up somehow- hello there, where did you come from?}

The bronze dragon twisted in mid air and focused eastward, towards the ruined city. His mental tone began to smile. {Big storm heading to the Witch but midway between us and it. Gonna take a bit to blow it this way but I think I can do it in time. You know the drill,}

{I'm ready. Go for it.}

The dragon completed one more circle over the town walls and reached out with his powers, mentally grabbing at the updrafts from the fires, and pulling them towards the walls and throwing them higher and faster into the atmosphere. The winds and smoke clouds were sluggish compared to what he was used to around the Keep, but with Sean's boost, they replied.

The winds outside the town picked up, blowing towards the town walls to fill in the low pressure he was creating, and dragging in what few clouds he could find in the local area. Smoke and clouds thickened over the city, on the verge of letting loose but not quite there yet. He shifted his focus a little, reaching out to the massive lumbering storm from the east, pulling the reluctant system along faster. The weather didn't speak to him like he was used to, but he was getting waves of disappointment and reluctance from the thunderstorm over being diverted from its goal of the ruined city's towers to tackle something that it barely noticed.

Suddenly, he felt the air shift over the river on the edge of the city, a massive amount of hot, steamy air rising from the previously cold dry air of the river. He pulled his awareness back in long enough to look down. {What happened there?} he sent.

The eagle dived down into the steam blob, then arched back up. {It's Surah. Looks like a major energy spell drawing from a fire and dumping it in the river. I couldn't see where it came from but it was probably Richard's work on the other end.}

{We should've coordinated better. Oh well, live and learn.} The dragon mentally grabbed the steamy air from the river and pulled its moisture laden load into the smoky clouds. It was the critical amount he needed. With a soft rumble, the clouds opened up and began dropping heavy dirty drops on the town below, but he could tell it wasn't enough.

He refocused on the big storm and sped it up faster, the winds under his control snapping off branches and blowing off a few roofs of barns in the path. The big storm began to twist in his grasp, a funnel of clouds beginning to extend downward. He kept a careful eye on the forming tornado, and moments before it reached for the ground, he sent a strong cycle of winds in its opposite direction, slowing the storm down a bit, but disrupting the tornado. He had to interrupt the tornadoes twice more before the massive, and now pissed off thunderhead reached the town.

{Now to get him to help out,} Saroth mumbled to himself, mentally reviewing all the weather pieces he was juggling in mid air. The thunderhead was about to let loose, but its load was too cold. Unless he could warm it up, hail instead of rain would pummel the scorched town. {Now would be a good time for another warm blast, Richard,} he sent hopefully, though he knew the wizard was out of his range and not attuned to him.

Nonetheless, as if the wizards had heard his wish, another blast of hot air rose from the river. Saroth grabbed the mass of air and smashed it into the heart of the thunderhead, lifting it higher in the air, but melting the forming hail. With a rumble of thunder that shook the ground, the storm let its load loose in a soaking downpour. He circled slowly around the storm, keeping the winds tight to hold it in position over the town. Hot spots slowly began to die out in the town below him, a couple extinguished abruptly, most of them put out more slowly, more naturally. He milked the storm for as much rain he could get out of it, redirecting the lightning it tried to throw into the river. When the downpour was reduced to a drizzle, he released the storm, sending his thanks to the sullen storm.

The greatly diminished storm floated away aimlessly, grumbling over its rough treatment but not having any strength left to do anything. Saroth flapped in the clearing sky, seeing the full moon break through, and feeling as exhausted as the storm felt.

{Great job Saroth. We better get down and check on the others,} Sean sent, already spiraling down.

{Sounds good. Find me a roof we can sneak onto. Joey's still got our disguises.}

{Follow me. I've got just the spot in mind.}

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Joey carried a tray of drinks back from the bar, staying phased so he wouldn't be jostled by the crowd packed in. He listened in on snippets of conversations along the way.

"-thing in the air. I saw it plain as day when the moon came out. Looked like a dragon or something..."

" minute it's a raging inferno, the next I could've made ice cream in there..."

"crawling on the floor when the angel appeared, walking out of the smoke. He picked me up and next thing I knew I was outside-"

" river burning. How can a river burn? In the old days it happened, but we - " Joey reached the table where both groups were gathered, solidified and placed the tray down. He grabbed a mug and slumped into a chair. "Well, they may not know it's us, but we're famous guys. Nice work all around," he announced, wearily lifting his mug. "To us, and all of the other heroes who saved this town," he toasted.

The rest of the crew was as exhausted as he looked. They raised their mugs and echoed his toast before taking sips.

"I don't know, I feel a bit bad now. All we did was stay at the town hall helping put that out. You saved what? A dozen people easily; Richard and Surah killed a half dozen fires on their own, and Saroth soaked the town to help keep everything contained. I'm feeling a bit inadequate." Bruno said glumly.

"Don't be too glum, chum. Just because you don't have the ability to handle multiple emergencies at once, doesn't make your contribution any less. The important thing is you did everything you could do to help out," Richard tried to reassure him.

"Aye, that's something you learn early in Heroing. You can't be everywhere at once, and you can't compare yourself to what others do. And don't dismiss your own efforts so easily. Once I'd checked all the buildings were clear, I was useless. And by the looks of Richard, I doubt he could've done that fire trick much more than he and Surah did," Joey added.

{And I only weakened the flames. There wasn't enough water left in the air to put them out completely. You and the rest of the fire squads had to do the last steps yourselves,} Saroth added. He turned his head suddenly and saw Brian approaching with a soot covered fireman, still in his uniform.

"Hey guys, I'd like you to meet Patrick Bradley. He's the Fire Chief for Grand Bend. Pat, you know my guys. And that's Holly, Sean, Saroth, Richard, Surah and Joey. New friends of ours."

The fire chief nodded to the table, a little surprised to be introduced to the cat who was busy lapping up a bowl of cream. He got over it quickly. "Nice to meet you. Brian mentioned you were all helping out with the fires, so I wanted to thank you personally."

"You're welcome. We did it gladly and willingly," Holly said politely. "I think we're all familiar with how devastating a loss can be; if it happened again, and hopefully it never will, we'd gladly help out again."

The rest of the table nodded and did another quick tired toast to the chief and his volunteers.

"So what brings you here? I would have thought you'd be investigating the fire sites, figuring out what the hell happened," Angela asked.

Patrick chuckled and sat down wearily. "I would normally. But being chief does have some advantages. I delegated the interviewing to others, and volunteered myself to go get meals for everyone, and to thank some of the civilian groups that helped out." He nodded to the bar where a pile of covered plates was slowly growing from the kitchen. "The sheer number of fires means we'd be working on them for weeks. But all the stories on top of that; it's going to be days before we can sort out truth from fiction. I mean, I know fires make people see strange things, but all those ice box extinguished fires along, I can't begin to tell if they're telling the truth or what."

Richard blushed and turned away to sip his drink. Joey grinned at his friend's predicament and shifted the conversation. "Do you have any ideas yet who caused this?"

"Geddonists. No doubt of that. We suspected they were expanding their forces over the winter, but we didn't know who was one until they made their move. It's looking like there were a dozen of them, but we only caught three of them. Another three were killed on sight, and the rest, who knows. We can only hope they got caught in the blazes they started."

"Damn, I was sure we'd gotten them all last fall. At least they didn't succeed. I mean the damage is bad and all that, but it could have been a lot worst," Brian said.

Patrick nodded and stood up. "There is that. Well, looks like the food is ready. I gotta get back to my teams and see what they found."

Brian looked at the bar and stood as well. "That's too much for one to carry. I'll help."

"So will I. I'm exhausted but I'm still on too much of an adrenaline rush to rest." Joey added.

"I don't know what adrenaline is, but I'm coming too," Sean stood up and slipped past Saroth.

The fire chief laughed and held up his hands to stop anyone else from volunteering. "Thanks guys. If you want to come, come. But I can manage it."

The rest politely declined to come along, leaving the four of them to pick up the boxes of food for the firemen. They were distributing the plates at the city hall scene, when a shout came from the scorched building. "Survivor!"

Meals were forgotten as the men and women jumped back into action, grabbing a stretcher and disappearing into the building, leaving the trio mostly alone. Joey studied the building and frowned sadly. "I checked that building. It was empty," he mumbled. "If only my gear worked...."

"Don't kick yourself over it, Joe. No one is perfect. Focus on the guys you did save instead," Brian tried to reassure him.

The stretcher was carried out with a badly burned figure rocking from side to side on it. His bloody lips mumbled a phrase over and over again. The firemen had angry and disgusted looks on their faces as they followed the stretcher out. The doctor who examined and began to treat the man seemed similarly disgusted.

Patrick rejoined them and shook his head. "If he lives, it'll be four Geddonists we'll have. But even in the best guess, he probably won't make it."

"He's a Geddonist?" Joey asked.

"Yeah. Strangest thing though. I recognize him, it's Michael, the town clerk. We weren't friends or anything, but I never took him to be someone who'd sign up with those kooks."

While they spoke, Sean was tilting from side to side, trying to get a better view of the injured man. "He's got a curse on him," the eagle blurted out.


"He's got a curse on him. Looks like a compulsion curse of some sort. Very strange."

Patrick looked confused, and followed Joey, Sean and Brian as they moved in for a closer look.

The doctors were trying their best to clean his burns, but their hearts weren't in it. The man thrashed in pain, but the words he said were crystal clear and unemotional. "Earth mother, please forgive me and take me into your arms," he said, repeating it endlessly.

"Are you sure, Sean?" Joey asked, stopping just outside the circle of doctors.

The figure suddenly sat upright and looked at Joey, the side of his face and eye burned beyond recognition. The figure spat out a line using sounds that shouldn't be makable by the human throat, and the figure stiffened, falling back completely still. Joey froze as well, in shock, while Sean's head tilted backwards, following something only he could see.

Joey turned back to Patrick. "You said you had 3 survivors. Where are they?"

"In the police station I guess. Why? What did he say?"

Joey ignored him a second. "Sean, go back and get the others. Tell them to go direct to the police station. Brian we need to get there NOW."

"Now hold on. I'M the one in charge here. What's going on? What did he say?" Patrick shouted trying to get in front of Joey. Others were beginning to look their way curiously.

"What's going on is bad. Really, Really, Really bad," Joseph said, stepping back a bit. "He said 'Greetings, Agents of the Tangle. This world is Our world. Leave or be destroyed.'" Joseph shuddered a moment, then recovered. "You guys don't just have a Geddonist problem. You have a Ragnor problem."

"Ragnor? What the hell is a Ragnor?" Patrick asked, trying to make sense of the situation.

Joey ignored him, stepping around the chief. The chief reached out to stop him, only to find his hand go through Joey like he wasn't there. "Sean! Get going. Brian, which way to the police station?"

"That way," Brian pointed. Sean was already running back to the bar.

Patrick seemed to recover from his surprise enough to start a shout. "Stop-"

Brian and Joey reappeared in the mouth of an alley a few blocks down in the direction Brian pointed. They faintly heard Patrick finish his line, "-them!" They only paused a few seconds for Joey to pick another location and disappeared again.

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Sean burst into the bar and started running to the group's table. A few people near the door looked up curiously, but most were too tired to notice him. Sean reached the table and grabbed a chair to steady himself, panting for breath.

"Sean, what happened? Where's Brian and Joe?" Misty asked.

"Going-... Going to the police station. Told me to tell you guys to get there as fast as possible," the eagle panted out.

"The police station? Why? Start at the beginning," Richard said, passing over the last of his beer.

The eagle poured some of it down his throat, the illusion having a hard time adjusting for his beak. He gasped for breath again and started speaking. "They found a survivor, in the City hall. I noticed he was cursed, with a compulsion curse, so we approached him. When he saw Joey, he said something in a strange language, and then the curse lifted, like it was a living thing. It rose up into the sky and disappeared."

Richard tensed and Surah stood up, hissing softly under her breath. "Did Joey translate it? Did he say what it was?"

"He did. It greeted him as an Agent of the Tangle, and warned him to leave, that this was their world. Then Joey said we had a Ragnor problem here and ordered me to get you guys to the police station."

"Ragnor? What the hell is a Ragnor?" Angela asked.

"Trouble. Big Trouble, that's what it is. We'll explain later. For now we-"

There was a commotion at the door when Patrick burst through the doors with a squad of his fire fighters. His eyes narrowed on their table. "Stop them! They're wanted for questioning!" he shouted, pointing.

Holly tensed and reached for her blade before remembering it was in their room. Bruno put one hand on Boots' collar and looked at Misty. Angela and Ryan stood up and moved to give themselves room. Misty looked from Patrick to Richard and back again.

"Are you going to take us to the police station?" Richard shouted out in the suddenly silent bar.

"Yes, you're going there."

Richard motioned downward with his hand. "Stand down guys. We're going to go peacefully. No need for cuffs if it's just questioning right?" He picked up Surah and approached Patrick. The Fire chief shied back warily, making Richard wonder what else had happened. Angela seemed a little disappointed, but she straightened up and fell into step next to her brother, the others filing out as well. The firemen cautiously surrounded them and escorted them out of the bar. A bit of disappointment over the non-fight filled the air.

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Joey stormed into the police station and walked up to the front desk where a man was typing up a report. "My name is Joseph Amadio. I'm an agent of the-" He reached to his wrist for his ID before he remembered where he was. "Shit doesn't work here. Look, I need to see the Geddonist Arsonists you arrested. It's a matter of multi-versal stability," he said, pounding on the desk.

Brian caught up to the teleporter and pulled him back a bit, making a one-moment motion to the desk sergeant. "Joey, calm down. You catch more flies with honey than by acting like a crazy maniac."

"Brian, you don't understand. We've got Ragnor agents here. Actual Ragnor agents. Usually when we arrive at their messes, we're doing clean up. This may be the first chance we've got to find out who and what they are and why they're doing what they are doing."

"You're right, I DON'T understand. And neither does the good sarge there or anyone else in this building. Up until a day ago, I didn't even know what the Tangle was, and I still don't know what the Ragnor are. So what makes you think your credentials would be any good here? Just take a few breaths, calm down and let me do the talking." Brian held Joey in his gaze until the man took the breaths and seemed to calm. He still flickered slightly, and was tense like an excited dog on its leash, but he was quiet.

Brian turned to face the sergeant. "My apologies. My friend has been trying to track down some information about the Geddonists, and got too far ahead of himself. We do want to go in and talk with them if possible."

The sergeant looked doubtful, but he stood up. "I'll check and see if it's possible. Just a minute."

Joey was pacing when Brian looked back. "Joe, what's going on? What the hell is the Ragnor?"

He stopped and looked back a moment. "The Ragnor... The Ragnor are trouble. We don't know much about them, but we do know they're behind most of the multiversal chaos the Tangle notices. They're the ones who collide Branes together, mess with Kernels, displace people from their universes, and basically just screw things up. We don't know why they do that, who they are or anything, but we know they exist.

"They're probably the ones behind the Change on your world. And if that Geddonist we saw is any indication, they have more than a passive interest in what's going on. Usually they put the events in motion and leave it, but this time, they left agents behind. Agents we can question."

"So you knew what was... in? What that curse thing was?"

"No. Never seen that type of creature behind. Nor heard its language before. But its tone was clear."

"Never heard it's language? Then how do you know what it said?"

Joey tapped his head. "Linguistic talent remember?"

"Right right."

The sergeant came back out with another man. "This is Lieutenant John McClain. He'll be listening in while you see the arsonists," he said.

"No I-" Joey started to say but Brian put a hand on his arm to stop him.

"That'll be fine. Lead on please."

They fell in behind the Lieutenant as he lead them deeper into the station. They went down a short corridor and down some stairs into the basement where rows of cells were. "Have you noticed anything about the prisoners?" Brian asked.

"Not much in particular. Their burns were treated and we tried to question them, but all they do is keep repeating a mantra. Sounds like your standard Geddonist crap about the Earth Mother."

"Are they in the same cell or separate ones?"

"Separate cells, the three at the end. We had the space, figured we might as well use it." He lead them past a few cells with a couple of obviously drunk people sleeping off their inebriation, and a long stretch of empty cells. The trio began to hear a synchronized mumbling from the cells at the end, almost too quiet to hear.

McClain took out a nightstick and clattered it on the bars of the cell. "Wakey wakeys ladies and gentlemen. You've got visitors," he called out. When the echoes died, they could hear the drunks stirring, and the mumbled chanting continuing uninterrupted.

"Let me try," Joey said, stepping up to the first cell. A young woman was in there, dressed well, but with burned hands. She was sitting on the floor, back to the door while chanting. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" he shouted into the cell. She continued mumbling without interruption.

He frowned and thought of the language he'd been warned in before. He could form the words but even thinking of it seemed to tear at his mind. He focused on the syllables and spoke again, in the harsh language of the Agent. "I know who you are. You work for Ragnor. What are you doing here? Where are you from?" he asked.

Like a switch, the chanting stopped and the woman turned to look at him. She stood up and shuffled to the door of the cell, her companions reaching the door at the same time. "What the hell did he say?" McClain asked, only to be shushed by Brian.

"We are the Meme, the One Idea. The Masters prepared this world for our coming, and gave it to us so that we may expand, taking over the world, the universe, the entire sheaf of universes in their name. You can not stop us. We are Many. We are One. We are unstoppable," all three said in their language in unison.

Joey winced and backed away a few steps, their words hurting his mind to translate them, the actual words hiding concepts deeper than the basic English translation he was mentally doing. Even Brian and the lieutenant seemed to sense a bit of the pain. He spat and continued. "You are nothing. You are discovered and You will be Destroyed. This world is already owned and it will be fixed."

"We are Many, you are Few. This world is Ours and soon you will be Ours as well. You can not stop Us. This world can not stop Us. This world is becoming Us. Its owners will be Us, it's citizens parts of Us, to be used and disposed of as needed. You will not stop Us. We are not afraid of You. You are no longer worthy of our attention. These members are no longer needed. These members will be destroyed."

Joey rubbed his forehead in pain, closing his eyes as he deciphered their words. He heard a muffled three-beat clanging sound and someone shouting. Someone grabbed him and he barely resisted the urge to flick away, remembering he was safe.

"Joe! Joe! Snap out of it!" Brian shouted, shaking him.

"What? What's..." Joseph recovered and looked recognizing the clanging sound. All three of the arsonists had gripped the bars of their cells and were pounding their heads on the bars.

"We need to stop them. John's gone to get the keys but they'll kill themselves before he gets back."

"Right, on it. Hold tight." He flickered the pair into the first cell and let Brian go to bear hug the woman. She resisted but the blows to her head had already weakened her. Joey flickered to the second cell and grabbed the teenage boy whose body was beginning to falter, his forehead battered inward. Before he could check the third cell, he heard one final clang and a thump.

"She's hurt badly, but I think she'll make it. She isn't struggling any more either," Brian called from the first cell.

Joey carefully eased the boy to the ground and checked his pulse. It was weak but surprisingly steady. His eyes were open, but unfocusedly staring out of the bloody mess his face had become. Joey flicked to the third cell, and flicked back. The man in there had managed to shatter his skull on the bars and squish his head between them before expiring; he was clearly beyond any help.

There was a commotion upstairs and heavy steps running down the stairs. Lieutenant McClain returned with a key ring in hand, followed by a few more officers, the Fire chief, Richard and Brian's friends.

"I've got the keys. Are they... How did you get in there?" John asked, momentarily stunned.

"It doesn't matter. Get these cells opened and get some doctors down here. They hurt themselves badly but we might still be able to save them," Brian called out.

Joseph looked up and spotted Richard. "Richard! Get a message out to the Tangle. We need reinforcements Yesterday. As much magic power and transportation as One-Eye can scare up. But hurry, they know we're here. They may block you."

Richard blinked and caught up with what was being said. He stepped over by a brick wall and pulled out his phone, earning strange looks from the natives. "Messaging Mode," he commanded, the screen lighting up. "Message to Tangle Priority List, Top Priority. Ragnor Agents on Planet. Need Help. Magic based. Send."

The spinning wand appeared for a moment with a flying envelope before it beeped in error. Error: No Path available to recipient: Tangle Priority List.

The wizard frowned. "Copy message; Mass Mailing. Send to Entire Address book."

The spinning wand reappeared and disappeared as quickly. Error: No path available to recipients.

"Diagnosis mode. Why are there no paths available?"

The wand barely had a chance to appear before the message came up. Diagnosis results: Transdimensional routes are no longer accessible due to unknown reasons. Suspected blocking by foreign agents.

He checked the top of the phone and saw two bars still glowing there. "But we've got 2 bars of access. How could we blocked?"

Current access is with local environment. Access to home settings lost ten minutes ago.

Richard cursed and deactivated his phone. He realized most eyes were on him now. "It's a long story," he mumbled. "Don't you have people to save?"

"Already handled, as best we can handle it," Angela said, nodding to the cells.

The doors were opened and an older doctor was finishing giving orders to two younger medics. "Was that a cell phone? Does that mean tech's working again? What I wouldn't give to have a working CT scanner right about now." the older doctor called out.

"Sort've, and no, it's not working again. Sorry Doctor. How are they?" Richard answered.

The doctor wiped his hands clean and sighed. "Both are pretty bad. Probable brain damage in both of them. We'll need to get them to the hospital and I'll see what I can do, but don't hold your breaths."

Joey looked around, noticing the police officers that were down had swords drawn and were looking at his group suspiciously. He sighed a little, his head throbbing and tried to get his thoughts straight. "Don't move them yet. Too dangerous. Richard, can you see anything left on them? Or on me? Sean was able to see something earlier."

"No, not a thing. But Sean's just upstairs."

"Someone please, get him. We need to know for certain. Don't move them yet."

"Hold on. No one is doing anything until someone starts explaining," a man stepped forward, stopping next to the Fire Chief.

Brian moved up next to Joseph. "Sheriff Brown, I can explain as best we can. But it's best to do what he says for now. He and his companions are on the up and up, so if he's worried about something, there's reason to be worried."

The Sheriff looked at Brian then at the exhausted teleporter. "Get his friend."

"And an aspirin if you have any. My head feels like it's about to split open," Joey called out.

One of the medics passed him over a pressed pill while another officer went back to fetch Sean. By the time he returned with the disguised eagle, Joseph almost felt his head would stay in one piece.

"Now what's this all about?" Sheriff Brown asked.

Joey held up one finger. "Sean, need your skill. See if that compulsion spell or anything is on anyone down here. Especially the three in the cells there and me. Remove them if you see them."

The eagle squinted and began to look around. He shuddered a bit and moved past some of the officers. "Damn Joey, what did you do? You're coated with it. The others have some remnants but it's got its fangs in you somehow."

"I thought so. Tear it out. Get it out of me before it can sink in deeper."

The eagle approached and reached out with his fingers. He hooked them into the air around Joey's scalp and he felt tugging. Sean studied carefully and moved, tugging and bunching up something invisible. "This may hurt a bit."

"Won't hurt any more than it already is-ARRRGH" Joey screamed in pain, feeling like his brain was being pulled out of his skull. In his mind, there was an echo of the scream that diminished quickly. Sean flashed a moment, his illusion fading a second before reasserting itself, and threw something against the wall of the jail. Joey collapsed, barely conscious, one of the medics rushing to his side.

"Got it all, I think," Sean said, stepping aside and looking down, concerned.

Joey let the medic check him and waved towards the prisoners. "Check them. Make sure there's nothing left. Then check me again. That stuff is nasty to the nth degree."

Sean checked on the others and pulled the blackness he saw on them off and smashed it against the wall. Some of the officers were rubbing their eyes in confusion, glimpsing the eagle's true form each time the spells snapped. The two barely alive ones twitched when the spells broke but otherwise didn't react.

"They're all clear now. So are you."

Joey stood up and waited for the room to settle. "You wanted them at the hospital right doc?"

The older doc looked confused but nodded. Joey crouched next to the stretcher the woman was on. "Be right back then." He disappeared with the comatose patient, and returned a few seconds later, appearing directly beside the young man. The pair flickered out, and he reappeared next to the Doctor. Before the old man could react, the teleporter grabbed his arm and the pair disappeared. Neither reappeared.

The Sheriff moved first. "What the HELL is going on around here? Where is he? Where's the doctor?"

"Probably all at the hospital," Richard explained calmly, though he had his shield spell ready to go in light of all the blades pointing at his group. "Joe's been going all out today. Once everyone was clear, he probably collapsed. Send a runner to the hospital and you'll probably find he's sleeping."

Sheriff Brown nodded and a young man took off back upstairs. Patrick frowned and looked at Brian. "Brian, what's going on here? How is all this happening? And how did you get mixed up in this."

Brian shrugged helplessly. "Really strange stuff. I'm not sure I can explain it all myself, but I'll try. Can we go upstairs and get away from this stink?"

The Sheriff nodded and pointed to the two drunks who had somehow slept through the excitement. "Go upstairs but don't leave. Jimmy, take those two upstairs and lock them in one of the old offices to finish sleeping off their fun."

They regrouped upstairs, Richard and the Keepers in one knot, Brian and his friends in another knot, and both surrounded by the tired fire fighters and police officers looking for answers.

Brian gathered his thoughts. "Honestly, I didn't personally meet them until today, or yesterday or whatever day it is. Angela and Ryan met them first, Angela's spent the most time with them. But based on what they said, I trust them."

"Trust them? You had reason not to? Who are they? What are they?" Brown asked.

Before Brian could answer, there was a commotion at the door. The runner came back in, escorting a nurse. "Shirley, what is it?" Brown asked, leaving the questioning for a moment to greet them.

"Hi Michael. Bruce sent me to tell you guys things were fine at the hospital," the nurse explained.

"Bruce is fine?"

"Yeah. Shocked at suddenly appearing in the lobby, but he recovered fast. He wants you two to get back and help with the patients." She pointed at the medics who'd been lurking and listening in.

"What about Joey? Is he okay?" Richard asked.

"He's exhausted, looks like he's got a bit of heat exhaustion too. Seen way too much of that today. Doc put him in a bed and ordered him to sleep, once Doc recovered from the disorientation of going from here to the lobby in a heart beat. How did that happen?"

Richard relaxed a bit and looked at the people gathered around. "It's a long, long story. Look, it's late... hell it's 4 in the morning. We're all exhausted. Joe couldn't jump over a blade of grass, Saroth can't raise enough wind to blow out a candle, and my head is too muddled to compose an English sentence, let alone a spell. How about we take a break, get some rest and come back tomorrow? If we tell you now, you'll go to bed and figure you dreamed it all anyway."

"I don't know what you're talking about, but I do agree. It's been a long day and a longer night." The Sheriff looked at Brian carefully. "Will you give me your word, you and your friends there will come back here, right here, at noon sharp. And we'll all have a nice long talk about what happened."

Brian looked at his friends, seeing a few nod their heads and Misty already asleep on her feet. He then looked at Richard. "It's not fully my story to tell. But I promise me and my crew will be here to tell what we know... and what we were told and shown."

Richard shrugged. "The time for Secret Agent Man is over, at least around here. You have my word that I will be here."

The Sheriff frowned at Richard. "Frankly, I don't know you from Adam, so your word ain't worth squat to me. But you," He looked and nodded to Brian. "You guys have earned my trust. You're all free to go. But don't leave town. I'm gonna warn the guards to not let you leave."

Richard yawned hugely. "Won't be a problem. Right 'bout now, you're gonna have a hard time getting me to leave the station here. Come on, let's get some rest."

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The Speaker hauled himself out of the water and looked back towards the town. The sudden rains had stopped, but the damage to his plans was obvious. Instead of the raging inferno removing this blight off the face of the Mother, the blight remained, smoke from contained fires still rising, the damage far less than planned. Mother was displeased.

But she hadn't given up on him yet. He had been watching the cleanup of the Town hall when his follower had been found and recognized the stranger. He didn't know what the Tangle was, but Mother did, and she knew what to do. While the strangers were busy figuring out what to do, he had backed away and followed the instructions in his mind, drawing the symbols and saying the words that hurt his throat. He didn't know what he did, but he could feel the power flow through the symbols and arc up into the sky, serving a dual purpose of silencing the strangers' calls for help and signaling other followers to strengthen the blockade and spread the Word. When it was complete, he knew what he had to do. Grand Bend was lost to Mother now, lost until they could recruit more followers. But Mother's agents would want to know more about the Strangers he saw. He had to leave town and move on. The only question was where.

Shivering in his wet clothes, he knelt in the mud and repeated the sermons, seeking guidance from Mother for the next step. As the sun rose, he felt the presence of the Mother in his mind, giving him instructions on who to seek out next, in the arch city to the east. This blight had earned a reprieve for now, but it's day would come. Now, he had a new mission, to spread the word to the lesser followers, warning them of the Strangers and asking them to learn what they could, all while he went to the arch city. He stood up, ignoring the aches in his body, and started walking. It was a long way to the city, with a lot of people in between. And unlike the Strangers, he did not have a mount to quicken his route.

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"You did what?... Oww!" Joey rubbed his temples and winced.

"I said I agreed to explain everything to them. I gave them my word," Richard explained again. Joey had appeared in their shared room mid morning, waking up the wizards. It was going on the third time he had to explain what was coming up. He handed over the aspirin bottle.

The teleporter swallowed a couple of pills and sighed. "I guess it's unavoidable isn't it? I wasn't exactly stealthy was I?"

"Not really. I wasn't either for that matter," Richard gave up on thoughts of going back to sleep. "So what happened to you? What did you find out?"

Joey shook his head. "Not sure. That language did a job on my mind; I'm still trying to put the pieces together. You sure you can't reach the Tangle?"

Richard tossed the phone over. "Local service only, See? Something's blocking us. Surah and I have been trying to break through it, but the blockage seems to be getting stronger. With Sean's help, the three of us might have broken through last night, but now, it's just too strong, too thick."

"The Meme is blocking us. It's a Ragnor agent of some sort."

"The Meme? What the hell is a Meme?"

Joey shrugged and sighed feeling the medicine taking effect. "I think I know, but it shouldn't be possible. Not on this world. Other Hero worlds have encountered it before, and I've heard it in other worlds too. Basically, it's a parasitic idea."

"A parasitic what?"

"Parasitic idea. A complicated one, sentient to some degree and apparently mystical too. It spreads among other sentients, taking over their minds so they only think the idea, strengthening the parasite and spreading it. Think the Borg without the nanites but with magic wands."

Richard looked doubtful but dropped it. "So how do we stop it?"

"If we're lucky, by finding the source. I think the Ragnor are using this place as an experiment somehow. This Meme is a complicated one and not quite capable of thriving on this world. At least not yet. The language isn't there yet to let it spread. This world doesn't have the right frame for It to survive well here. But the Frame is changing and It is expanding."

Richard nodded. "You know, that begins to make sense. It's pretty sneaky what they're doing. Scary too if you think it through."

"How so?"

"Think of it. This world has a Frame that's favorable for mystics and hostile to technology. Now for in-universe travel, Tech usually expands faster than Mystic, but for cross universe travel, Mystic usually beats Tech. By making this a mystic world, especially one with whatever that Meme is directing the world. Every world they visit, they expand their Field over. If it's a tech world, like most worlds in this sheath, the antitech factor will trump, sending the world into chaos."

"And giving the Meme another group to take over.... God, I hope you're wrong."

The wizard shrugged. "It's all guesses and speculation right now. I could be wrong. So what happened with you?"

Joey looked at the pill bottle and took a few more for good measure, chasing them down with a glass of water. "Linguistic ability, remember? The Meme spreads by spreading knowledge of it. Speech is a way to spread the knowledge. By learning its language, I learned the Meme.

"Luckily, I was learning from a many derived descendant of the original Meme. Those three knew just enough of It for It to take over their minds and dominate them. But not enough to spread further in an infectious manner. Not yet at least. Given enough time for the Meme to percolate in their minds and such, and they'd be able to spread it further."

"How many generations down do you think they were?"

Joey shook his head. "I have no idea. They could have been first generation, or they could be the hundredth generation. It does mean things became a heck of a lot more dangerous for all of us."

He ticked it off on his fingers. "I've got a Linguistic ability. I can translate It directly with very little parsing. Which means if I'm near someone with a firmer grip of the Meme, I could get netted easily.

"Saroth is telepathic. An infectious Meme that touches him could probably use that link to get him. And then he could use his telepathic speech to spread it even faster. We've already seen his telepathy bypasses language barriers.

"You and Surah have the Speech. I don't remember enough of the Meme to tell if Speech can translate it or not, but Speech gives you access to a wider language base than most people, making you more susceptible."

He sighed and flopped back on his bed. "Holly and our new allies... if they are still our allies after all this, are probably as safe as anyone else here. Which isn't all that safe but better than we are. And Sean's a wildcard. He may be safest since he can see the mem spreading like a magic spell, or he may be the most susceptible because he can see it. If it gets its tendrils on that Eagle though, with his power to boost magic...."

Richard groaned softly and shook his head. "Great. I think I'm gonna need some of that Aspirin. I think it's time to tweak the UT spell, limit it to just the languages we know we'll need and nothing else. Guess that'd be what? English, Elvish, Metamorian?"

"Add in French and Spanish. We may need those depending on where we go. And Miqmaq and Maliseet too. That should be enough."

"Right. It's getting near time. You want to go get the others, and give them the good news before Disclosure?"

Joey stood up and stretched. "Yeah I'll go get them."

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The station house was buzzing with people. Word about the events after the fire had spread quickly through the town, and now everyone who could make an excuse to be there was there to listen in and find out more of what was happening. Luckily, there was enough clean up work to do that the crowds weren't as big as they could be, but it was still chaotic.

Sheriff Michael Brown looked at the crowd gathering in his station and shook his head. "We're gonna need a bigger room. John!"

The officer looked up. "Yes sir?"

Michael paused, remembering the Town Hall had burned the night before, meaning the big council chamber wasn't available. "Grab a few able bodies and head to Conference Room 1 and make sure it's ready. Water glasses, note pads, enough seats, the usual. Maybe do a U-shape, plan on the strangers on one side, Brian and his friends on the other, and town folk in the middle."

"Aye sir, I think we can arrange that." Lieutenant McClain flagged down a few others and they headed upstairs.

"Mornin' Mike. Get any sleep last night?" Patrick walked into the station, followed by a couple senior members of his department.

"Hey Pat. A wink here or there and that's about it. Still trying to sort out the order of events and just what the hell happened. How 'bout you?"

"Same more or less. We're keeping the ice fires locked down for now until we know what happened, but we were able to wrap up the rest of the fire sites now. Found a dozen bodies, eight of which had to have been arsonists. Want a cup of Joe? From my own stash, fresh from down south."

The sheriff winced. "Thanks, I need it. A dozen bodies? Well, it could have been worst."

The fire chief poured a couple cups of coffee out from a big battered pre-Change thermos. "Would have been a lot worst without whatever angels were looking over us. Between that storm, the ice fires, and... well we saw it with our own eyes. That Joseph must have been the angel that got so many people out of the fires."

"I saw it, but I still don't believe it. The other guy was right, a day later and I'm already doubting what I saw."

"Well, we both made it through the Change, I'm sure we can get through this. And here come some of our answers now." Patrick nodded to the door, where Brian and his companions were entering. They looked as exhausted as everyone else in the station.

Brian scanned the room and approached the chiefs. "Morning, Gentlemen," he greeted them.

"Good morning, Brian. Care for a cup?" Patrick offered.

He shook his head, "No thank you. Never got a taste for the stuff. Tea's fine enough for me."

"So you ready to explain what happened last night?" Michael asked, flagging someone down to get a cup of tea. Misty and the rest of Brian's friends held back a little, in ear shot but out of the conversation.

"Soon enough. I'd rather Joey and Richard do the telling though; it's their story, and their mission."

"Fair enough. You think they'll show? It's nearly noon now. Maybe I should send people out to their inn and to the hospital to get them," Michael suggested.

"Don't bother going to the hospital. He's long gone from there," the older doctor joined the conversation, slipping between Angela and Ryan. "Windowless room, locked from the outside room, and he was gone. Given what he did last night I guess that's not surprising but still..."

Patrick poured another cup for the doctor. "Well we'll give them a few more minutes; we're still arriving ourselves after all. He probably went right back to his companions. How are the rest of your patients?"

"Marissa passed away this morning, she never regained consciousness. And John is still in a coma and probably will stay in one the rest of his life, however short it is. If we had any of the equipment we used to have, I could probably have saved them both."

"The lament of all of us who made it through the Change, Doc. You did what you could at least."

"If you don't mind me asking, have you figure out who the Geddonists were? I thought we had them wiped out last fall. How could enough of them have gotten in over the winter to cause all this damage?"

Michael sighed and shook his head. "That's the strange thing. There wasn't much 'getting in'. We're still identifying a few of them, but only two were out of towners so far. The eight others we have figured out, they were all locals who up until yesterday, never showed any signs of being a Geddonist. We're interviewing their friends and families, but so far the stories looking the same. Somewhat solitary people, but good, solid workers. The only commonality we've found so far is they became a bit more withdrawn around a month or so ago."

"And that would be my cue to come in. Good morning, ladies, gentlemen. From the sounds of it, I would guess that would have been when the Meme stopped being just an idea in their heads and actually started taking over." Joseph said, walking up to the crowd. Richard, with Surah, and the Keepers stayed back. The teleporter was in his uniform, scorched a bit from the night before, goggles off and cowl pushed back off his head.

"I'm sorry if I kept you waiting. I had some news I had to share with my companions first before we brought it up to you. Is there some place more private we could talk? And are we waiting for anyone else?"

"The Mayor's out of town, on a trade caravan to the south. So we're basically it, once the councilors get here. I'm having a conference room set up for us upstairs. This way please."

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"An idea... a living idea. THAT'S what's causing all this?" the doctor said incredulously. The meeting had been going on for hours, starting with Joseph introducing who he and his companions really were, covering what they had done during the fires. He had just finished covering his theory of the Meme.

"Not all of this, but it is probably what's behind the Geddonist movement. And it is probably the biggest threat on your world at the moment. It's already taken root. Once it figures out how to spread more effectively, your entire world could fall into its thrall. Once your world is effectively its own, it can spread, to other worlds in this universe, and other worlds in this sheaf. And all the way it'll have this technologically hostile reference frame to help it along," Joseph explained again.

"In a way, you're lucky. Your Change has probably prevented this Meme from spreading as far and as fast as it could have. It's taken years for the Geddonists to spread even this far; imagine if they had the help of the Internet backing it."

"All your base are belong to us," Patrick said, getting strange looks from the younger, post-Change people in the room.

Richard nodded in agreement. "I keep forgetting that while you are twenty years past my time line, your Change happened about the same year I'm from with a lot of similarities. But for those of you old enough to remember, yes, All your Bases, Lolcats, Rickrolling, Hamster Dance, they're all examples of fairly innocent memes that lit up the Internet in their days. If this Meme had those resources available, the world would probably already be lost."

Michael looked at Joseph. "But you said that this 'Ragnor' planted this Meme on this world and caused our collapse. Why would they do both of those at once?"

"I'm still sorting that out. The Ragnor's reasons for doing what they do are pretty inscrutable, even to the people who give me orders. And with us cut off from the Tangle, I can't even ask for advice from them. But my best off the cuff guess? It was probably needed. Living parasitic Memes are rare, so rare that I only know them in passing and Richard's manual has a minimal entry on them. What we do know is they require a very specific set of Frame criteria to even survive, a third dimension of criteria from the usual tech/mystic axises. Theoretically, that axis should be as diverse as the tech/mystic ones, but for whatever reason, the Tangle's scope of universes mostly covers ones where Meme's can't live.

"So, in order for the Ragnor to bring this Meme in to infect your world, it had to do some major editing of your Kernel. And as it is, that editing only made this world barely habitable for the Meme; it's basically mentalforming, terraforming on the mental plane, the minds its infecting as it goes. What we won't know until we get to it, is how much of the Change was made to make this place habitable, and how much was made for the cover up."

"Surely it was all to bring in this Meme right? Why do the extra work to hide the arrival of its agent here?" Michael pointed out.

Richard shook his head. "There are a few reasons. Uncontrolled Memes are dangerous; up there with Thaumagetic Annihilation and Grey Goo on the Threat Scale. The Tangle has a lot of sensors directed towards Frame shifts to allow memes. By doing the bare minimal needed to make this world habitable to the Meme, and hiding it with the other Frame changes, the Ragnor hid what was going on until it was almost too late."

"The other option was that the Change was a preemptive measure. This Meme already has an uphill climb to survive here. Where ever its from, its native language and even thought processes are completely foreign to normal humans. Those limitations are slowing its progress down. But even Memes have an ecology associated with them. If the Ragnor had left the Internet up while making the world capable of supporting living Memetic life, some natural, stronger memes may have come up that the Ragnor's pet couldn't beat in time. With mass communication killed, most native memes died with it," Joseph expanded.

He shrugged and scanned the room. "Those are just guesses that Richard and I hashed out this morning using our own resources. Whether they are right or wrong is unknown. We may never know. But with luck we will be able to stop it in time."

"HOW do you plan on stopping it? How can we stop it?" Patrick had been quiet through most of the talk once Richard had explained how he had put some of the fires out.

"Our plans stay the same; we just have a better idea of what we're facing now, even if it cost us the connection to the Tangle. Richard, Surah, Holly, Saroth, Sean and I will continue on to your world's Kernel. Once there we'll do what we can to either get a call for help to the Tangle, and-or to undo some of the damages done to your world.

"Brian, you and your friends are welcome to tag along as we discussed. If you want to back out, we won't hold it against you. But truthfully, given how many of my crew may have weaknesses a Meme could exploit, I would really appreciate it if you and your friends tagged along for various reasons including helping contain one or more of us if needed."

Brian looked at his friends to be sure, then nodded to Joseph. "We're still in. You've seen Misty's sketches; it looks like we're meant to go all the way. And even if we weren't, I want to see this to the end."

Joseph smiled his thanks and looked back at the town leaders. "As for you, probably the best thing for you to do is to try and get back to normality. Rebuild your town, plant your crops, do your business and survive. But stay alert to strangers, especially strangers preaching strange concepts. The Meme infects mostly by repetition. You hear of its concepts, even if you don't realize that's what it is, over and over again. And even if you dismiss them at first, eventually you can find yourself bored of hearing them and tune them out. But they're still in your head, gnawing at your subconscious, subtly making you think they are right even when you thought they were foolish at first. Until one day, you decide to visit that crank and listen to him again, or you talk about it to friends but you aren't making fun of it any more. And before you know it, you are a preacher, with the Meme subtly, or even overtly controlling what you do to spread it further.

"Even if I knew some of the things it was using to spread itself, I wouldn't dare tell you them and warn you not to think of them. Because even in telling you what not to think of, you will think of it. I'd be planting its seeds in your minds for it to nurture and grow. It'd be like asking you not to think of a pink polkadotted elephant.... Saroth, quick how many people just thought of elephants?"

The dragon startled and straightened up, looking around. He'd been leaning against the wall next to Sean since neither could fit in the seats. {Uhm, I'm not that telepathic. But I think I picked up at least four or five elephants.... Including myself.}

Joey smiled and nodded, turning back. "See? By telling you not to think of something, you thought of it."

Patrick frowned and shook his head. "Not a very nice picture you're painting."

"It's not a pretty subject. Just be on guard and be extra suspicious. It'll take a few months to get to the Kernel, and maybe longer than that to get word and help back, but as long as we are able to, we'll return and help once we're done our jobs. Meme's are dangerous in their own right, and even without the Meme, I want to get you guys the help you'll need."

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"We're going to have to start moving further south tomorrow," Brian announced as the group unpacked their gear for the night.

"Why?" Holly asked, unmasked for now and stretching out. They were on the remains of an old interstate, heading eastward, camped far from any signs of living civilization.

Brian nodded to an old sign, almost too rusted to read the 'St Louis 50' on it. "We're getting dangerously close to St. Louis. Wichita is almost tamed by today's standards; very few Eaters left in there. But St. Louis was bigger. A lot bigger. And indicative of most of the East Coast really. Too many people, not enough growing space. It'll be completely infested with Eater clans, and there aren't many safe towns nearby to help whittle their numbers down."

Joseph looked at the marker and the highway, and nodded. "Yeah, we should probably avoid that. Mostly."

"Mostly?" Brian turned disbelievingly towards Joseph.

The teleporter nodded. "Mostly. I want to take a closer look at it, since we're this close. Try to get a feel for what we're walking into, and see if the Meme is spreading in the old cities."

"Why didn't you do that when we went past the Witch? It would have been safer."

"As you said, the Witch is almost tamed. It's hard to get a good feel for what the wild clans are up to back there. And we went too far south to check Kansas City. But St. Louis we'll be close enough for some of us to do a quick side trip."

Brian looked at the rest of the group, who was watching the two leaders raptly. "I don't like breaking the routine we've established. It'll cut down on our own guard when we'll need it the most."

After leaving Grand Bend the group had found a workable pattern. Saroth and Sean took turns watching from the air, giving an aerial watch over what was ahead and around the group. Holly, Ryan and Angela were the second line of defense, riding (or trotting in Holly's case; she stayed full morph form most of the time) ahead and back tracking to make sure no one was slipping past the eyes in the skies. Bruno, Misty and Brian stayed near their cart of supplies (which Richard and Joseph rode) as the last line of watch. Occasionally Saroth or Sean would see something they didn't recognize, usually remnants of the old civilization, and they would signal Joseph to meet them ahead of the group to show it off. As the Keepers got used to the remains of the modern world, the false alarms decreased.

They didn't stay on the route the entire way. They often did side trips to various towns and settlements along the way, officially for supplies and information. Unofficially the stops were for a Meme check. As they moved further east, it was disconcerting to notice how many thralls and infected they were finding. Sean cleaned it up as best he could, but they often didn't have the time to go at it as thoroughly as they knew was needed.

"Breaking the routine is good. If we get too comfortable, we open ourselves up to being predictable. This trip shouldn't take long. Two or three days at most, to get there, look around and get back. Pure recon, no fighting."

"Yeah right. Heard that before." Brian sighed. "Who are you going to take?"

"Mobility is the key. I'm going to need both Saroth and Sean. Sean to look for the Meme, and Saroth to give me a lift." Joseph nodded to the two Keepers as he spoke.

"Both of our fliers? Well, we got by without them before. But I want you to take someone else. Ryan? You up for a trip to the city?"

The scout looked up in surprise, mirroring Joey's look. "Me? I guess I could go. Why?"

"Yes, why? Sean, Saroth and I can get out quickly if needed. No offense Ryan, but you'll probably slow us down," Joe pointed out.

"Saroth can carry two as easily as he carries one. And if there's trouble, Ryan can handle himself. Or you can jump him clear. The fact is, there's a hole in your knowledge. You know the urban landscape when it was a living city. Saroth and Sean know the fighting styles and necessities we're dealing with here. But they don't know what a real city environment is like, and you don't know what it's like without that electricity and stuff. Ryan fills in the blanks for all of you."

Joseph went quiet for a few moments then nodded his head. "Fine, Ryan can come if he wants, but ONLY him. Any more and we might as well all go. Be ready to go first thing in the morning guys. Richard, you figure out a way across the Mississippi?"

"Hard to say. Whatever my Manual's talking to now, it has a gross idea of what the lay of the lands is, but it's short on the detail work. But looking things over, I might almost think we'd have better luck crossing north of St Louis. More bridges to pick from. But based on our current position, I'm guessing there might still be a bridge across at Chester. There's nothing further south until around the old state line. If Chester's bridge isn't up then we should either find or make a ferry, or go to the city anyway." As he spoke he spread up a map from his phone, highlighting the spots he had in mind and their current position. "If I-255's bridge is still up we could cross there and stay out of the city proper."

Joey and Brian both frowned at that thought.

"That's dangerously close to the city," Brian pointed out, studying the map. "Outside yes, but in its death zone. "

"Agreed, too dangerous. You guys start making your way to Chester. If the bridge is down there, start backtracking, but stop around here. It should be safe, and a good spot to meet up if we don't rejoin you then. By then I should know how dangerous the interstate bridge is and if we want to risk it." Joey picked a spot on the map. "All right people, lets get this camp set up and get dinner cooking."

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The quartet flew over the remains of the suburbs of the city, high enough that the rusted remains of cars were all but invisible. Ahead of them, the ruined towers of the city rose higher and higher. The years hadn't been kind to the city. Winds, snow, rain and the sun had worked together, popping out most of the windows and rusting out supports. Some of the towers had collapsed, and others were tilting dangerously. One thing surprisingly seemed to be holding strong.

{What is that?} Saroth asked, sending along an image of the rust streaked arch he could just make out.

"The St. Louis Arch, probably one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. Or it used to be. Looks different from the one in my world, but I supposed you guys didn't have the Time Traveling Technomage try to turn it into a star gate like we did," Joey explained, handing the binoculars back to Ryan so he could look.

"Time traveling technomages?.... No I don't think we had that. We just have world kernal hackers and living parasitic ideas," Ryan shook his head and looked. "Looks like it's still in decent shape surprisingly. A few panels fallen off but it's still one piece. Is it hollow?"

"I have no idea. Never been here before."

{What's a tourist attraction?} Saroth asked.

Joseph chuckled and patted the side of the dragon's neck. Except for a brief lunch break the four had been in the air all day. "A tourist attraction is something, sometimes a natural feature, sometimes a built feature, sometimes something else, that is famous around the world and attracts people JUST to see that thing, or seeing that thing is a major reason for going there. Back when travel was faster, they were really popular to encourage visitors and their money to visit here instead of somewhere else."

The dragon rumbled softly, sending the feeling of laughter to their heads. {Sean wants to know if that makes us tourists then and if we can take a closer look at it?}

"In a way it does make us tourists, but we're here for another reason. We'll find a spot to settle for the night, the top of one of the old skyscrapers maybe, and head over in the morning. Looks like someone's turned the parkland around it into gardens anyway."

They reached the towers of the city and tried to assess the situation from above. They were too high up to spot much, but Sean's eagle eyes spotted movement on the cracked pavement of the streets, and behind mostly shuttered windows. They spotted more gardens on the roofs of some buildings, or in small parks and empty lots, but it was obvious what life there was in there was a hard life.

{Sean says he thinks we're being followed. And he's noticed signal flashes going between some of the buildings,} Saroth reported.

"I expected that. Just because they're wild ones, don't think they're primitive. Compared to us, they usually are. But there's been twenty years of fighting going on down there. The ones that survived are the strongest, nastiest and or the most innovative of the bunch," Ryan said. He chuckled. "I wonder what they're making of a dragon flying over head?"

"We planned on this. That tower over there, fifth one on the left, shaped like an octagon, like it's the sturdiest and tallest still standing. We'll go there first, but after we get some obscurity to throw them off our trails. Is there enough water around here for you Sar?" Joey asked.

{There is. It's gonna get chilly.} With that warning, the dragon back winged a bit and shifted his attention. Though neither Ryan nor Joey had any magical sense, they could feel the powers shifting through the dragon. Mist rose off of the rivers around the city, as the winds shifted and the pressure dropped. It steadily thickened under the dragon's power, forming an increasingly thick bank of fog that hugged the ground and slowly climbed the buildings.

Once the fog was two stories deep, Joey disappeared with Ryan, reappearing in the middle of the roof of their targeted building. Saroth banked a little and winged closer to the rivers to pull more water up for the fog.

They appeared on the centre of the roof, between a pair of rusting air exchangers. They tentatively made sure their footing was sure, then looked back out over the city.

"Damn, Holly was right. He really could make it snow in the middle of summer," Ryan commented.

Joey grinned. "Looks like it. But fog's all we need. Come on, lets check the upper floors and find a good spot to set up camp. Top floor is probably too damaged, but one of the lower ones might be habitable."

Joey jumped them to the roof access door and phased them through the door to the stairwell. They began to explore. The top floors, as expected, were uninhabitable. Full of mold, rotten office furniture, cracked TV's and monitors and rusting computer cases. Even 40 stories up in the air, they found signs that someone had made the climb to the top to search for food. Kitchenettes were ransacked and emptied out of everything including the sugar packets and creamer cups.

"No laptops," Joseph commented as they checked a lower floor. He phased his head through a door and looked around before pulling back out.

"No what?"

"No laptops. No wristcomps. No PDA's. Nothing. This is executive territory way up here. Those people would never be without their data. Even if the devices were dead, they still packed them up and carried them all the way down to the ground floors."

Ryan shook his head and shoved a door open into a bathroom. "If you say so. You know, just when I'm beginning to get used to you, you go and do something like that and freak me out again."

"Something like what? Phasing or Jumping?"

"No, talk like you expect the electronics to work, and how you know how all this stuff used to work. You're my age; my generation is all swords and bows. Not those things you said."

"I suppose so. But in my world, all that stuff does work. It's the setting I grew up in. Even with my powers and my sword skills, I feel naked with my suit disabled, my camera's blinded and my wristcomp dead. In any case, this floor looks good."

He stepped into an old cubicle room, with a few entrances but few windows. They ducked into one of the attached offices and looked out the window. Outside, the fog was ten stories deep and still slowly climbing.

"I'll fetch them. You clear some space among the cubicles in the big room for a camp. No fire though. With the fans stopped, these places have next to no ventilation in them."

Joey jumped back to the roof, then hopped over a few blocks to another tall building. He looked around to make sure the roof was stable enough for their weight and flagged the dragon down. The big dragon glided along an old avenue, getting smaller as he got closer to Joey. As he crossed the lip of the roof, he backwinged hard and shrunk even further, dropping and jogging on the roof in morphic form.

"Didn't think you'd make it there a sec. You were awfully small before you reached the building." Joey said.

{This was nothing. My tower is a quarter the size of this roof, and its balcony is an even smaller target. Though the winds blowing between all of these towers made things trickier,} the dragon boasted.

"If you say so." A screech interrupted their conversation, as Sean dived out of the sky, pulling up and flashing to morphic form just before he hit the roof. He dropped down in a crouch as he dropped the last couple of feet.

"Interesting place," the eagle said, looking around. "The watchers I noticed climbed up to higher floors as the fog rose, but I think we lost most of them. And any we didn't will be checking this place out, not the other building."

"Exactly as planned."

Sean turned around and pointed. "The arch is hollow. I could see inside it when I flew over it. Looks like they're using the land around it for farmland. There's a big meeting place of sorts a mile or two that way that still seems to be in use. The place was huge though, surely there can't be that many people in here?"

Joey squinted in that direction and could just make out the structure between the buildings. "Looks like an old ball field. In the old days they could fill it with people. Now it's probably mostly empty. How in use did it seem?"

"Very. It's been fortified all around. Seems like they're using it as the base, whoever they are."

"Makes sense. Circular structure, limited number of entries, easily sealable, and a wide expanse of open ground all around it to watch over. A ready made fort in the tough times. Anything else?"

"Yeah, I caught glimpses of the Meme's magic. Not much that I could tell, but I didn't see many people. With so little magic otherwise, the remnants of its effects are pretty clear."

Joey nodded and looked around one final time. Now out of Saroth's control, the fog was dissipating. "Right, lets go fill Ryan in on what you saw and get some rest. Tomorrow, we'll head down and check the arch and the ball field. Those areas seem to be the centers of action around here."

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With part of the group gone, the rest stayed even more alert. Holly and Angela took turns riding out and around on watch, while Sean and Surah maintained a detection spell around them. They left the old interstate highway and followed older roads, taking a winding route around long abandoned cars. They occasionally found recent signs of people, but did not see anyone in person until late in the day.

Angela was doing the forward watch and she spotted the riders first. She signaled back a warning, giving Holly time to morph back, put on her illusion and get dressed. By the time the pair of riders met the group, she was sitting on the front of the cart next to Richard and Surah.

"Ahoy there! Identify yourselves!" the lead rider called out once he was in shouting range. They were in plate armor, with arrows at the ready.

Richard pulled the cart to a stop and let Brian move ahead to speak. "Greetings. We be salvagers from Grand Bend, heading East." He introduced himself and the rest of the group.

"So you're going East? Any place in particular?" the lead rider stayed suspicious of them.

"Boston or Montreal maybe. Depends on which way the roads take us," Brian explained. He and his friends didn't have their weapons drawn but they had hands at the ready. Richard mentally had the air shield ready to form.

"You're a bit far south to get anywhere near there aren't you?"

"That we are. We're trying to avoid St Louis and find a way across the river. We heard the bridge at Chester may still be up."

The guards relaxed a little, lowering their weapons but keeping them ready. "That makes sense, but I'm afraid you heard wrong. The Chester bridge was washed out five years ago."

Brian frowned and glanced at his companions. "Damn. Is there any other ways across? A ferry perhaps?"

"Normally yes, but Geddonists burned the ferry and the Peterson's farm over the winter. A shame really, they were good people."

Brian cursed again and sat back on his saddle, thinking. "Is there any other ways across the river? We really need to keep going east."

The guard took his helmet off and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Hard to say. The years have been rough on the old bridges, and we haven't had the resources to build new. And the Geddonists have been especially nasty up and down the river, taking out the ferries. You might find a way across down at the old 155 at Boothspoint."

Richard slipped his manual from its pocket and turned around on the cart's seat, making a show of digging in a pack while the others talked, and checking the map at the same time. He offered Holly a bag of trail mix and caught Brian's eye, shaking his head.

"That's too far out of our way. How's it look northward?"

"North's a mess. Sure most of the bridges are still up in St. Louis, but the place is a nest of wild Eaters and Geddonites. It'd be suicidal going near there with anything less than an army. With an army though you might make it."

They all could tell the man wasn't telling everything, but they let it drop for the moment. "Well, we'll push on and find some place to camp for the night. If my map's right, Park Hills is just ahead isn't it?"

The other man finally spoke up. He was a younger man who looked similar to the first speaker. "It's close. Maybe an hour to go. That's where we're from."

The older man frowned a moment, then cleared his expression. "We can escort you back to the town and make sure you get through the gates before nightfall. I'm just not sure you'll be able to find a room in the inn however. Things are a bit busy there."

"We'll figure out something, one way or another. Thank you for the information, and the escort."

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"I don't think that's what Saturn intended when they advertised impact resistant door paneling," Joseph mumbled to himself. He was crouching phased in a pile of full oil barrels while watching a workshop where closely watched slaves were cutting apart car panels and sewing the pieces into leather armor. Even twenty years after the fall, the main source of material was still the excesses of the 20th century, especially here in the cities.

It was their third day in the city, and Joe was beginning to feel like they had seen enough. This workshop was similar to many others around the city. Slaves doing all the grunt work, overseen by the gang leaders, and all watched by the robed figures who kept a steady stream of nearly nonsensical words going. The robed ones were the most dangerous ones. They were the source of the headache he'd been fighting since they started spying. They were the voice of the Meme.

The teleporter backed up a few steps and disappeared, appearing in an empty alley. He groaned softly and rubbed his temples, patting his pockets for another aspirin. Even out of earshot of the Chanters, he could still feel the Meme clawing at the back of his mind. He popped a couple pills and chased it down with a swig from his canteen and waited. The headache diminished but did not fade completely.

He looked at his wrist and cursed the world's field again. He looked up at the sky, found the sun and decided it was late enough. He closed his eyes and reappeared in the shadow of a school.

They had found Kennedy Memorial Elementary on their first day, and been thoroughly sickened. The fenced in building used to teach the young. Now it was a market, where slaves were brought in to be auctioned off to the highest bidding gang, to be worked or to be eaten, depending on the owner's preferences. Not able to move around as easily as the other three, Ryan volunteered to mingle with the captured people to find out what he could.

He scanned the yard, looking for the scout and trying not to look at anyone else. There were about fifty people in the otherwise empty lot; the gangs had long ago torn out all of the old playground equipment and removed anything and everything that could be weaponized in the old school building. On platforms at each corner of the lot, more of the robed chanters stood, speaking their nonsensical words to the slaves. He finally found Ryan talking to a woman with a hopeless expression on her face. Ryan gave her a comforting hug and walked away, spotting Joey against the building and making his way towards him.

"Who was she?" Joe asked.

"Ashley. She's from a village called Grafton, north of here. It was raided just last week. Maybe a dozen survivors including her," Ryan's expression was hard as he looked back. "She's pretty far gone, and those damned chanters aren't helping. I've been talking to her and her daughter all day, and I've noticed them mouthing along with those robed guys when they relax."

Joey nodded. "She's all but infected then. We should get out of here, get Sean to look at us and tear that damn Meme's tendrils off of us, and figure out what we've all discovered." He took hold of Ryan's arm and the pair disappeared, reappearing back on the roof of the skyscraper.

It was another hour before Sean and Saroth returned. The men were quiet while waiting, neither speaking much other than Ryan asking for an aspirin. They were lost in their own thoughts and trying not to think of the other voice gnawing in the back of their minds.

"Hey guys, been waiting long?" Sean greeted them as he morphed back down and landed. There was a clatter nearby as the big dragon shrunk down and landed as well.

"Not too long. Welcome back guys," Joey answered.

The eagle took a closer look at the pair and his eyes widened. "What have you guys been up to? You're coated with that Meme compulsion. Just give me a few minutes here."

With that, the eagle set upon the pair, his talons grabbing the air around the men, pulling here, clipping talons together there. Both held as still as they could, trying to ignore the faint tugging of something unknown on their skins, and the more painful tugging echoed in their minds. On Joey, Sean found a particularly thick black thread. He took it in both claws and pulled hard, feeling the resistance. Joe's resolve snapped and he let out an anguished yell, feeling like the back of his head was being ripped off. Sean felt it pull loose and grabbed at the power in the strands, draining them dry.

"You're both clear. How do you feel?"

"Like I just landed head first on the road down there. But the Meme is gone for now," Joe whispered, hands on his temples as if he was trying to hold it together.

Ryan groaned, "Same... very much the same. Damn that thing is persistent."

Joseph got to his feet and wavered a moment before recovering. "Lets get back to camp and go over what we saw before it slips out the holes in my mind," he said.

As water heated over a tiny fire for bowls of dried soup, Joey sat down on an old plastic chair. "Twelve gangs run this city, or what's left of it. Four on the other side of the river, eight over here. By the looks of it, they have more than enough to be self sufficient, but they still Eat."

"It's an Us versus Them mentality, though these guys seem a bit more organized than what I'm used to out west. They had to live by eating human flesh, and now, even though they technically don't need it, it's become part of their rituals; their way to bind their followers to Them," Ryan explained distastefully. He glanced at the warming soup and seemed to be having second thoughts.

"Right. And whether by fate or by accident, we seem to have stumbled across them preparing for something big. What have you two noticed?"

Sean looked to Saroth who nodded. "Movement. Lots of movement across the bridges to this side. I'd say the four gangs over there are leaving a skeleton crew to maintain their lands, and every able bodied man, woman and slave they can get are over here now, gathering on the southern edge of the city with the gangs from this side. They seem to be gearing for war."

Joseph nodded in agreement. "That's what my scouting seems to indicate as well. They're working the slaves to death preparing weapons and armor, not to mention training up groups of fighters."

"They're preparing to war against Park Hills City, to the south. From what I heard in the slave pens, they've been hitting the communities on the edge of the old city hard, and people are getting ready to strike back. An army is gathering down there to march here and remove, or at least decimate the threat of these Eater gangs." Ryan ladled out bowls of soup and passed it around as he spoke.

"With the Meme's acolytes ready to sweep in on the remnants I'm sure. Those robed ones," Joey shuddered. "it's almost fully taken them over I think, and they're every where. Among the leaders, among the gangs, and among the slaves, spreading their word. I don't usually advocate the nuke from orbit approach, but it's looking mighty tempting right about now. Problem is, this isn't even the source of the Meme. It's strong here, but not its strongest."

Joey took a bowl of soup and slurped down some of the broth. "So the next thing to do is figure out what to do next. We should leave in a day or two to go meet the others, and I don't think spying will tell us any more about what's going on. On the other hand, there seems to be a big planning session slash pep rally slash kick off ceremonial ritual in a couple of days down at the old stadium. Being near that many Meme'd people will be dangerous, but it'll probably be worth scouting out."

{I agree. We've come this far, we should find out what more we can before we leave. But you two need to rest tomorrow. Stay up here and get your heads back together. You look horrible, and your minds aren't in much better shape.} The dragon stared the pair down, daring them to object. Neither did.

"Right, we rest tomorrow, stay tight here except for anything we need to do. Saroth and Sean can keep an eye on things from the sky and let us know if anything different happens."

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"I hope they'll find us. We aren't where we said we'd meet them," Misty said worriedly, looking around. They had set up camp in the army marching to St. Louis, currently camped out in an old state park off of the interstate.

"Surah's keeping a magic balloon raised up. Sean should be able to spot it from miles around. I am getting worried though. We should have met up a couple of days ago."

When Brian and his companions had reached Park Hill, it was obvious war was afoot. The entire city was the hub of activities, assigning orders to the fighters arriving from the surrounding communities. Mark, the younger of their escorts filled them in on what was happening. The Eater gangs from St. Louis had swarmed down the old interstate in the spring, destroying the towns that were barely surviving as it was. When Festus was decimated, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Word went out to communities all around the old city and a force was mobilized that rivaled the pre-Change armies to deal with the Eater threat once and for all.

Brian and Richard spent a long night debating their options once they found out what was going on, and finally reached a compromise. Brian went to Mark, their quasi-official local guide and volunteered their group to the forces, at least until the first intact bridge across the river, or until the job was done, whichever happened first.

And so, they found themselves loosely tied to the King Edward's Third Regiment from Park Hills City as they marched out to the city. A few days later, they reached the state park and waited while the spies and scouts returned. Unknown to Mark, there was another set of scouts they were waiting on as well.

"Are you sure you guys are up for this?" Angela asked, adjusting her armor and checking the edge of her blade. Rumor was saying the Eater gangs were on the move, setting up their own encampments in the remains of the towns to the north. It was going to turn into a waiting game as each side waited for the other to make the move.

Holly smiled, baring her teeth and honed the edge of her blade. "I've been waiting for something like this since we left my world. I can handle myself."

Richard squirmed uneasily, not used to the weight of the metal plates in the leather armor he had been fitted out with in Grand Bend to make him fit in better. "I'll be fine. It's just so many people. I want to protect them all somehow, but I know that's impossible."

"{ This is just a small battle in a much larger war. Keep your mind on the main goal, and concentrate on protecting us. That's all you can do.}" Surah said, nibbling on a chunk of fish. Mark was curious about why they insisted on keeping the pet cat with them, but they'd convinced him it was just one of their idiosyncrasies.

Angela nodded and looked northward, the city towers hidden by the trees. "I just wish I knew where Ryan and them were. I know they have their powers and can handle themselves, but they're late...."

"Who's late?" Mark walked up to the group's campfire, partially armored but with his helmet off.

The group went silent a moment as everyone tried to come up with a cover. "I was," Bruno spoke up first. He patted Boots' head. "Took Boots for a walk around the camp and I was late for dinner."

The young man looked at Bruno a second and nodded. "So how are you all doing? Fitting in fine enough?"

"Considering we're basically just volunteer mercenaries for your regiment, we're fitting in as well as can be expected. Don't worry, we'll stay by your side as long as we can. We don't leave in the middle of a fight," Brian said.

"That's good. We don't know when this will break, but I'm hearing it'll be in the next day or two. Best be ready." Mark stood up and looked up at the sky. The sun was setting but there was still enough light to see a few small clouds blowing with the winds. The soldier frowned and squinted. "That's strange...." he mused.

The others tensed up and looked around reflexively. "What's strange?" Misty asked.

Mark pointed. "That cloud. It's moving against the winds. Almost looks like it's coming our way."

They found the cloud quickly, and saw he was right. The puffy white cloud was cutting across the directions the rest of the clouds were following. A large bird seemed to be pacing it. They all realized what it had to mean at the same time. Brian stood up quickly and reached for Mark's hand. "It's probably just crosswinds in the upper atmosphere or something. Nothing to worry about. Thanks for checking in on us. I'll stop by in the morning for any updates," he said, trying to draw the soldier away from their camp. He nearly made it.

There was a woosh of air and a pair of thumps as Joey appeared, dropping Ryan to the ground before collapsing himself. Ryan was unconscious, and badly burned, especially his face and arms. His shirt and pants were scorched. Joey was little better, his uniform visible through the scorched remnants of his jacket, hands and face red with burns.

"What the hell?" Mark shouted, turning around at the noise and spotting the injured people. "Where did they come from?"

"Ryan!" Angela shouted, jumping to her feet and rushing to her brother. Richard was already in action, rushing to the cart and pulling out the portal to his pup tent to paste it to the side of the cart.

"Stay put!" Brian ordered Mark, already on his way back to help. He caught a first aid kit and a thermal blanket Richard tossed through the pup tent opening and carried them over to the burned teleporter and scout.

An eagle screeched and dove out of the sky, landing on the cart and looking over the scene quickly. He jumped off and plucked a mask from Joey's pocket and took off into the sky again. Surah began circling the injured pair slowly, making sure to leave enough room for the others to work.

Joey tried to refuse the help when Misty approached him. "I'm fine. Uniform protected me mostly. See to Ryan. He took the brunt of the blast," he gasped out, wincing, lips cracking.

"He's got enough help. Let me look at you. What... No don't explain yet. Wait for Saroth and Sean to get back," Misty said, checking his hands and washing them carefully then getting some salve from Richard's kit.

"Came back as fast as we could. Didn't know where you were. Lost everything at our camp in the blast. Never suspected they knew we were there. Should've known it...." Joey babbled, some of the tension easing from him as the pain eased.

On Ryan, Angela and Bruno were already doing what they could for the scout. He looked like he had caught a fire blast from the side, burning off the hair on his left side, leaving a badly blistered mess. They carefully laid him out on the thermal blanket and started tending to his wounds.

"Don't step on the line," Richard warned Mark as he tried to get in to help.

"What line?" the confused soldier asked and did a double take. The wizard had his phone out and was paging through trying to find the right spells to help.

"Just step over Surah. She's marking the line for you. And stay in the circle she's walking."

The soldier looked down and saw the house cat looking up at him expectantly. Ryan let out a soft moan, and Mark pushed the strangeness to one side in his desire to help.

"Brian, Holly, Saroth and Sean will need an escort through the lines. They're landing in a clearing, to the west. Sean doesn't have his disguise any more," Joey called out and coughed.

"Right, We'll go get them."

The chaos was beginning to attract more attention, but only Mark had seen how the two injured people appeared. Bruno backed out of Surah's circle and started to push people back to let the wizards heal. "It was just an accident. He tripped and fell into the campfire. He'll be fine," Bruno repeated endlessly, trying to keep people back.

Inside the circle Surah finished, Richard added his own elements, some pulled from the phone, others sketched by hand in the air. He double checked the spell and took a deep breath. "This is gonna hurt," he mumbled to himself.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Angela asked, looking up.

"No, healing spells require blood and are one to one in the pain sharing. Just don't interfere and don't let anyone else interfere unless Surah and I ask for it." The wizard looked around one last time, skimming over the magical speech glowing on the ground to his eyes, and drew a knife. He sliced his palm open and pressed the bloody hand on Ryan's bare blistered shoulder. Thankfully the burned scout had received enough pain killers he didn't feel the touch. Angela looked doubtful about what he was doing but she didn't stop him and kept Mark from interfering.

Ryan took a deep breath and focused on the pain in his hand and the still hot flesh under it. He began to Speak, feeling his universe condense down to the ring Surah had traced out. Angela and Mark faded into indistinctness, while Ryan, Richard and the cat became hyper-real, the only pieces of his universe. Nothing happened for a long moment, other than a surge of power as Surah came in with her part. And then it began.

Heat began to flow, drawing from Ryan's body into the wizard's through the cut. Richard saw his skin begin to redden, the pain steadily increasing as he pulled it from the injured scout. It felt like forever before he noticed any change at all on Ryan. But slowly the blisters began to shrink down, the ear reshaping back to a more normal appearance though still lobster red. He focused on the pain and the heat, spreading it over his own body and trying to take in as much as he could stand, but Ryan felt like he had an endless amount to be taken. With his skin red, and beginning to blister, Richard completed the spell. He collapsed down into Angela's arms and screamed in pain. Something pressed into his arm and the pain faded away.

Mark pulled the needle out of Richard's arm and helped Angela lay the wizard out next to the scout. Ryan twitched a little, but looked better. His left side was still hairless, but most of the blistering had faded down to red skin, and his eye and ear looked normal instead of the charred mess they had been when they appeared. He moaned softly and slipped into a deeper sleep.

"What the hell happened here?" Mark asked again, after making sure both were fine. Surah carefully broke the circle and jumped up on the cart near the still open pup tent entrance. She reared back on her hind legs and hooked a claw on the opening, pulling it closed.

"Sorry, I," Joey winced and shuddered a bit, sitting back down. "I didn't have time to make sure the site was clear. We were losing him, and it's hard to do first aid when riding a dragon bareback."

"Dragon? What? How did you do all that stuff? Who are you people?" Mark asked again, looking between the two newcomers.

Misty smiled to Mark and went back to the cart, fetching a canteen and taking a swig before offering it to Mark. Bruno made his way back after finally reassuring everyone that everything was handled. "It's a long story, and the ones best suited to tell it are either away or unconscious or wonky on pain meds." She glanced at Joey who had tilted his head up, staring at the stars appearing in the sky. "Please sit, stay with us while we figure out what happened, and we can tell you."

{How are they? Were we in time?} Saroth's voice called out in their heads. Mark's head shot up again, turning to figure out where the foreign thought came from. The others, used to Saroth's speech, easily spotted him coming out of the woods with Holly and Brian. Sean, still in eagle form, was perched on the disguised dragon's shoulder. A few people around nearby fires lifted their heads and looked towards them, catching a hint of the dragon's speech.

"They're fine now. Badly burned, but Richard and Surah did some healing magic and Ryan should make it. What happened you guys?" Misty called back.

Joey sat up and winced. "I can... I can explain. I should explain, it was my fault," he said.

"You're too high on painkillers. Just rest and don't jump out on us or do anything else stupid."

The teleporter shook his head. "No, I'm fine.... Just give me some water and I'll tell. Saroth and Sean can fill you in on the first days, but only Ryan and I know what happened on the last day."

"Who's Sean?" Mark asked Bruno quietly.

"The eagle. Now be quiet please."

Mark looked over at the eagle, who was staring back at him with eyes too intelligent for a normal bird. The soldier shuddered and looked back to Joey.

"This happened yesterday I think... yeah yesterday. We'd taken the day before off to give Ryan and me time to recover. The Meme has its tendrils all over that damned city, and our minds were falling apart trying to keep it out.

"Anyway, yesterday we went out near dawn, and set up on one of the tall towers near the old stadium where some big ritual or planning session or something was going to happen. It took a few hours but slowly people started filtering into the stadium. Leaders and their entourage went directly to the old field, the followers in the stands."

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"It looks like a tailgate party down there," Joey said, running a finger along the rim of his goggles to adjust the focus. Without the electronics he couldn't zoom in as much as he was used to, but it was enough to see a bit better even without binoculars.

"What's a tailgate party?" Ryan crouched on the roof looking through the binoculars, being careful not to cause a flash off the lenses. Down below, the parking lot was milling with the gang members, many gathered around BBQ pits built into the old parking lot. Closely watched slaves were in charge of the cooking going on, as well as other entertainments. All four watchers tried not to think about what types of meats were being roasted on spits down there.

"Ask Richard when we get back. Keep your eyes open for the leaders. And don't watch the robed ones."

A few hours of patient waiting finally paid off. One by one, a parade of vehicles approached the main gates of the stadium. Each gang leader arrived in a different vehicle among an entourage of similarly dressed people. Most were post-Change vehicles, designed to be pulled by horses, but there was one pre-Change limo pulled by a team, and an old police car pulled by another horse team. Once all the leaders had entered, the rest of the gates were opened, letting the waiting people in.

"Let's go," Joey said standing up and stretching. "Sar, you're to go near center field, under that big screen. Stay in that area and listen to what you can hear. Sean will stay eagle and keep an eye on it from above, signal if anything looks amiss. Ryan and I will try to get down close to the field from home plate. Anyone have any questions?"

They shook their heads no. Joseph took Saroth's arm in hand and the pair disappeared, reappearing in a dark room. Joey phased them both and made his way to the strip of light they could just make out. He peaked out through the door, and saw the old corridor was deserted. "It's clear. Remember, stay away from any of the robed ones, and at the first sign of trouble, get out of there."

{I will. Be careful out there.}

Joe waited to make sure the dragon got out safely, then jumped out himself. He reappeared next to Ryan and looked back at the stadium. "Anything?"

"Still quiet. Looks like the leaders are filtering onto the field. Too far away for me to tell what's going on exactly."

"Okay. I'll jump us in when you're ready."

The scout covered the binoculars and put them in a backpack. He hid the pack under a piece of sheet metal next to Joey's swords and nodded his head. Joseph too his arm and the pair disappeared.

"Shit! Where'd yah come from?!" a surprised voice called out after they appeared. Both men whirled around and saw one of the gang members pissing in a urinal, or rather pissing beside the urinal as he had turned in surprise. Joe didn't wait for him to recover.

The teleporter grabbed the man's arm and jumped them away. They reappeared in a dark room filled with the sound of wind, creaking metal and dripping water. Before the man could recover, Joe spun him and flickered a few feet away. He grabbed a rusted rod, flickered again and smashed it down on the back of the man's head. Joseph was gone by the time the man finished falling to the floor.

Joseph reappeared in the bathroom and looked around, rod at the ready. Only Ryan was there.

"Everything all right?" Ryan asked.

"Yeah, we're good. That fellow's gonna wake up with a splitting headache and a long walk down rusty stairs in the arch. Should give us more than enough time."

"Good let's go."

The pair found seats in the shadow of the upper level, looking down on home plate and a good view of the stage set up on the pitcher's mound. Despite the size of the crowds, the population difference pre- and post- change was obvious. Only the first tier of seats around the stadium were being used, the rest closed off and obviously not used for a long time. Their own section was all but deserted, the people sitting down in the first rows of their section not giving them a second glance. Before sitting down, Joey turned around and looked for the robed figures. To his relief, none were near by. He forced himself not to read their lips and refocused on the stage. He was a little concerned that the seats at the rear of the park were not being used, and he hoped Saroth had adjusted his plans, or at least was keeping a low profile if he was out there.

It took some time for things to settle down there, twelve seats along a long board room table on the stage, the seats facing the home plate and the crowd. Each seat was filled with one of the gang leaders. Behind them, a couple dozen more seats were filled, the first row with a white robed figure sitting and mumbling softly to themselves, their faces having the blank Meme-dominated look of the other robed figures. The leader's aides and seconds took up the remaining seats, when they weren't standing and listening to orders from their respective leader. In front of the stage, a pair of platforms on wheels was set up. Each platform had a trough on the bottom, and a wooden bar with six nooses hanging from it.

"So tempting," Joey mumbled to himself.


He glanced around quickly but no one was paying attention to them. "So tempting to jump them and drop them off the top of the towers. But I couldn't cycle fast enough to get them all. By the time I got a few done, the rest would be on the run." He sighed and scanned the crowd slowly.

Some unknown signal was given and the man in the center of the table stood up to the cheers of the gangs. His voice carried well, sounding clear without shouting even into the stands. "Greetings citizens of St Louis. We have much to prepare for, but first a prayer to the One."

A black robed figure shuffled onto stage, as if he had almost forgotten how to walk. Joey tensed and looked away. "Sing a song to yourself. Do something. Just don't listen," he hissed, beginning to run through a multiplication table in his head.

The figure began to speak, harsh syllables that sounded like no human language, or even human sounds. The robed ones picked up on the figure's speech, repeating it in softer syllables that almost verged on being understandable. The leaders and everyone else finally joined in on the mantra to the Mother Thought, the One Idea, the Unifying Ideal, their words understandable but not encompassing the entirety of the Meme. Even through the multiple layers of translation and their own attempts to distract themselves, they could feel it clawing in the back of their minds, trying to take root. When they stopped, Joey finished off the table and slumped down in his seat, sweating hard. Ryan similarly looked drained.

"That was rough," Ryan groaned, rubbing his forehead. "I tried not to listen, but I can still hear it."

"I know. Just don't think about it. Sean will have to decontaminate us again when we get back. I hope Sar's all right."

The first leader stood up again once the robed figure left the stage. He scanned the crowd slowly and nodded. "Let's get right to the point shall we? Time is short. Our agents in Park Hills have confirmed it. The city has declared war against us and as we speak they are marching towards us."

There was an angry roar from the crowd, and stamping feet filled the air. The man lifted his hands for silence and waited it out. "The army coming at is large. Large enough to crush any one of us by ourselves. But if we unite our own forces, we can beat them. Provide a united front like the One provides a united ideal for us, and they will back down." He turned and looked along the table. "So I ask of you, the leaders of the Gangs of St. Louis. Will you join us for this? Will you help protect our city and beat back these attackers?"

Without hesitation, the man at the end of the table stood up. "The Blues of East St Louis support this measure and make this offering to the cause." The white robed Meme-dominated figure behind him was guided up by a helper and escorted to the front of the stage. One of the nooses was lowered and looped around the figure's ankles while others removed his robe. Another figure, in a bleached white apron made a show of inspecting the figure before turning to the table.

"The offer is acceptable," he announced.

The chairman nodded his head. "The offer is accepted." The crowd roared its approval.

On his words, the aproned inspector turned back and with movements almost too quick to see, he slashed the figure's throat and wrists, and shoved him off the stage. Workers pulled on the rope, lifting the body into the air, blood draining from the wrists and neck. The sacrifice never resisted.

"I'm gonna be sick," Joey moaned, shuddering and looking away, the image of the body draining burned into his mind. Ryan didn't seem much better. They kept their eyes averted as one by one, the leaders stood up and made their offers, but nothing could block out the sounds and the roar of the crowd.

"It's worst than I thought it would be," Ryan mumbled, stealing a glance just as the tenth body was upended to drain.

When the twelfth sacrifice was accepted, the bodies were left there for a long moment. Joey and Ryan managed to bring themselves to look back, in time to see slaves pulling the carts off the field. The chairman stood there for a long moment, absorbing the roar of the crowd before finally motioning for silence.

"And so it is done. The twelve gangs are officially united in the defense of the city. The leaders and I will retire to the Governors house to finish our planning and to make sure the sacrifices were not in vain. Everyone else, please tend to what matters you need to. Your leaders will have your orders shortly. We move on the morrow."

The leaders all stood up as one to savor the cheers of their gangs. Ryan noticed some of the crowd was beginning to head to the exits and nudged Joey. "I think we're done here."

The teleporter nodded, looking more than a little green. "In more ways than one. Let's get-"

Across the field, there was a crackle of lightning and the Jumbotron screen lit up brightly for the first time in twenty years, many of its screens popping in the process. A sharp crack of thunder echoed across the stadium as the glow faded.

"Saroth," Joey mumbled, turning around and looking for the dragon. The wind was beginning to pick up on the field even as the leaders rushed for the exits. A figure leaped off of the upper level and wings spread out to catch the winds. It grew larger as he tried to gain altitude, even as arrows were fired at him.

"JOEY!" Ryan shouted in pain. In the moments they had been distracted, black robed figures had approached them. Ryan kicked out at one that had a bloody knife in her hand, his arm bleeding from a slash.

He didn't wait any longer. He grabbed Ryan's arm and the pair disappeared, reappearing on top of the old skyscraper looking over the stadium. The dragon was still flapping hard, out of arrow range and apparently uninjured. An eagle flew slightly in front of him.

"Sorry. His signal distracted me. Are you okay?"

Ryan flexed his fingers and checked the wound, rolling up his bloody sleeve. "It's just a scratch. Barely broke the skin. I'll be fine. Are they clear?" He pulled his pack free of the sheet metal and found the first aid kit. He began to wrap the wound.

"It looks like it. Once we get you bandaged up we'll head back to the base to wait for them. Then we're getting out of here. I've had enough of this place." Joey retrieved his swords and then helped Ryan.

"Agreed. Ugh, they just slaughtered them, and they didn't even react...."

"That's the Meme. There minds were probably dead long ago."

Joseph made sure Ryan was ready, and took his arm. The pair disappeared and reappeared in a black room. Joe briefly wondered what happened to the lantern they'd left with plenty of fuel to light the room, and what that smell was, when he heard a snap beside Ryan. The entire room lit up and a wall of heat flowed over them before he managed to jump away.

His face and hands were burning hot and his jacket was smoldering, but Ryan was his main concern. The scout had taken the full brunt of the blast. He knocked the scout to the ground and forced him to roll over until the flames were out. It was then that Ryan's mind caught up to what was going on, and he started screaming in pain.

Joseph pulled the scorched backpack off Ryan and grabbed the first aid kit again. The burn supplies were woefully small, but he used what he could, already seeing the skin blistering on the man's face, the left eye glazed over, the ear all but gone. A few blocks away, smoke billowed out of the top floors of the skyscraper that had been their base.

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"Sean and Saroth found us a few minutes later. We weren't all that hard to find after all, and helped me get Ryan stabilized as best we could. I was hurting, but he was our number one priority. I raided their armies for salves, painkillers and bandages, as well as a clean blanket for him to rest on.

"He didn't wake up, thank god. But it was rough. We took stock of what we had and it was woefully small. The fire took out everything we didn't have on us at the time, including Saroth's harness and Sean's mask and all of our notes, food and medical supplies.

"I stole some more food for us, and an IV and saline for Sean. They may be cannibals but they have a good stock of medical supplies. I wanted to leave right away, but Saroth refused."

{ No harness, flying at night and not knowing where you guys were, it was not a good combination.}

"Right right. So we stayed the night, keeping a watch both on Ryan and for anyone else coming up our tower. Once dawn broke, we made sure Ryan was in stable condition, made a makeshift harness from sheets for Saroth, and took off. Following the river, we could only hope we'd find you in time. And we almost didn't. Luckily Sean was flying further inland and noticed a hint of your magic before we got too far past where you were. We backtracked following the trail and found you here.

"I still don't know what exactly happened, it happened so fast. But It seemed to have found our base, and filled it with propane or something, then lit a flare and boom..."

Brian nodded. "Even people who live here tend to forget about that. Explosives don't have the boom they used to, but a fireball burns just as well as it used to if you set it up right."

Joey sipped water with cracked lips, and looked around. "So what are you guys doing here? I thought we were going to meet up down at Chester. Or at least further south than this."

"The bridges are out at Chester, so's the ferry and most of the other bridges going that way. So we hooked up with the army here to try and cross in the city. But we'll cover that later. You need some rest now, and we need to digest what you guys told us." Brian waited for Joe to finish the water before taking the cup.

"How's he doing? I got him out as fast as I could. Damn what I wouldn't give for a dermal regenerator right about now."

Angela looked up. "He's asleep. Both of them are. Real sleep too, not a coma. He looks like hell now, but it's better than what you brought in. What's a whatever you said."

"A device for healing burns and cuts and stuff. But it's somewhat high tech. My world's frame barely allows it. Richard's doesn't yet so we couldn't even put one in his pup tent if we wanted to. I'm sorry I dragged him into this, Angela. I really am. We got sloppy, very sloppy."

She looked down at her brother and wiped his forehead. "He knew the risks; we both did. Without you we wouldn't know half of what's happening now, and he probably would be dead now, or worst, one way or another. You should get some rest yourself. You didn't get out of there unscathed yourself."

"It's just... No you're right. The uniform only did so much. I'm just gonna close my eyes a bit. Wake me if you need me."

Brian looked at the injured, then the rest of the group and finally at Mark. He nodded to the cart. "Why don't we go over there where we can have some privacy and not disturb them."

"I'll stay with Joe, Ryan and Richard," Misty volunteered. Angela didn't have to say a word about what she was doing.

Together the rest of the group backed away from the injured people and their caretakers, stepping into the shadows of their cart. Surah jumped down and walked slowly around them, the eagle watching her movements and bobbing his head from Saroth's shoulder. Mark continued to look confused, his eyes going from the cat to the bird, trying to make sense of their behavior.

"{It's done. We'll sound like we're discussing fight tactics to anyone not in the circle,}" Surah announced, flicking her tail. "{You can morph too Sean, I've made a temp illusion that'll hide you for now. Just don't move fast. Holly and Saroth will be covered too if they need to take their masks off.}"

Sean nodded his head but made no move to change. {He says he'll wait until we get to that point of the explanation, for our guest's sake,} Saroth reported, nodding to Mark.

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The Speaker approached the city from the west, unconcerned by the Eaters within. They all knew the word of the Mother and would leave a fellow follower alone. He was eager to find the Acolytes in this city; doubts were growing in his mind and he needed reassurances that he was on the right path. Following the Strangers here had been enlightening. He had kept his distance, staying at least a day behind them and not entering towns until they had left. In their wake, he was dismayed to find lost followers. Former strongholds weakened, the people doubting and confused. He tried to mend the damages where he could, but he usually didn't have time. Mother's desire to hear what he knew of the Strangers took precedence over mending the network.

He walked between the increasingly tall buildings of the city, part of him looking on in awe, most of him focused on his mission. He regularly met others and felt his doubts easing. Most didn't hear the word as strongly as he did, but they were untainted. It made sense of course; the Strangers weren't even here. They had split off the road a day back, going south while his own path went north. He spoke pleasantly to the lessers, and sought guidance of the robed ones. Soon he was guided to an old school campus, where he was fed and given a bed to rest in. The Greater Acolyte would speak with him in the morning.

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"It's unreal. They just won't break. Chop one down and five more leap in to take their place." Mark paced beside the group's cart on the back edge of the Park Hills army. The Mississippi flowed beside them, dark and deep, protecting their flank but pinning the army as well.

"It's the Meme. They may act like twelve separate gangs, but the Meme is providing them a unity we don't have. They don't even have to give all that many orders; the Meme knows what it will do in the situations so anyone with enough information can give orders. That's part of the reason why taking out their leaders isn't doing as much as it should." Joey sat by the fire, holding his hands out while Misty changed the bandages. "I've taken out nine of those bastards so far, and confirmed maybe a dozen more dead, but their thirds and fourths and beyond just took their places and continued like nothing happened."

Mark stopped his pacing and looked at Joey. Since finding out what their group could do, he had become their contact to the rest of the army. Few outside their circle knew what they could really do, but the rumors and the stories were spreading. "Don't get me wrong. You guys have been an incredible help. Hell, the information you guys brought back on the city and the gangs alone was an unbelievable asset. And what you have done since then, even weakened with your injuries. I just wish I had a dozen more of you... all of you."

"And I wish my invisibility suit worked in this damned Frame." Joey sighed and flexed his hands a moment, making sure he could still get a good grip with the fresh bandages. He winced and nodded to Misty. "The fact is, if wishes were horses, we'd still be up to our necks in horse shit. A dozen more me's, and you greatly increase the risk of one of us falling to the Meme and unleashing what I'm doing to them on our forces. If my suit worked, I'd be able to slaughter them even faster... but it'd also mean technology worked, meaning guns and bombs and unmanned drones and tanks and radio and TV and so forth. At least the lack of tech is keeping people up close and personal for the most part."

The war had started a couple of days after Joseph's team returned. Ryan had recovered enough to stay awake through the day and feed himself, but was too weak to actually fight. He had taken over their little camp, making sure their cart was supplied, and the fighters had hot meals waiting for them when they backed off the front lines.

Richard wasn't much better after his healing spell. He stayed at the cart with Ryan, and had Surah set up magical sensors he could use to keep an eye on the battle field. He'd saved many lives by spotting the flanking attempts, surprise pushes and weak spots on the enemy's line.

Saroth and Sean stayed in the air, high above the battle field and doing what they could. Most of it was in the form of a steady cold rain drawn from the river, sapping the resolve of the less converted troops, and encouraging illness. Whenever they could find good targets, they would send down bolts of lightning, all the while leaving the Park Hills forces mostly dry and comfortably shaded without making it too dark.

Holly, Bruno, Boots, Brian and especially Angela stayed at the front line as long as their energy and arrow supplies held, moving forward to take the enemy on blade to blade when needed, staying back and killing with bow and arrow when able. They stayed at the edge of the fight, away from the main forces, as the fighting inevitably knocked Holly's disguise off (or she took it off to fight more naturally). Still, the stories of the war horse creature fighting on their side were spreading like wild fire through the Plains Hills forces.

Surah and Joey waged a two person war on the Gangs' rear flanks, sabotaging equipment, spoiling food and water supplies, stealing medicine and killing what they could. Robed speakers were their main targets, as they tried to silence the Meme and weaken its overall hold. Orders givers were their secondary targets, but they were finding that the Gangs were either smartening up or they were running out of leader uniforms. After the slaughter of the first day when Joey took down six of the original leaders and a dozen more secondary generals with the element of surprise, he was having a hard time identifying leader from follower.

"We can't keep this up forever," Brian announced, sipping from a bowl of stew. "They have the location advantage and shorter supply lines. And like it or not, they're better organized. We've got a numbers advantage but we can't keep it up forever. Something needs to be done."

"Any suggestions? We knock them down and more take their place," Holly ate as well, a bowl of oats with some stew broth. She had a bandage on one arm and across her hip, though neither slowed her down. Around the cart, Richard maintained a disguise field so the Keepers didn't need to mask themselves.

Brian shook his head and sighed. They'd realized the rock and hard place situation on the second day of fighting, and no one saw a way out. It was sapping their strength as surely as the gangs were. Every meal break, someone would voice the impossibility of their task, And every meal break, no one else could come up with a solution.

"Maybe if we can mute the Meme's voice around here it'll weaken it?" Angela asked. "I mean we've noticed it a few times, when we've knocked out a bunch of the robed guys, that side of the fight tends to become more chaotic. Without the Meme's stronger converts reinforcing them, the unity begins to fall apart."

"That would be an idea. If only we knew where the Meme source was in that city. It's a big place, and we're looking for a couple of guys. A big place where we can't even question the natives and if we spend too long near them we could very well become them," Joey sighed. "Great idea though. Just no way to act on it without a lot of luck."

Richard looked at Misty and nodded encouragingly. "A lot of luck, or a vision of the future," she said, holding her sketchbook tight to her chest. All eyes turned to her. "Look, while you guys have been out fighting and stuff, I've been trying to do what I can. Richard, Sean and the rest of you have been a huge help in refining my talent, but it's still very unreliable." She sighed and opened the book. "Still, I had a few visions earlier today that may be applicable. I've been trying to see in the near future and I saw these."

The first sketch showed a robed figure, talking to other robed ones in a large bowl shaped lecture room. The second, showed Mark, Holly, Brian, Angela, Bruno and a couple more soldiers crouched in the shadow of a building, looking across a grassy square at another heavily guarded building. A couple of robed figures were being escorted out of it.

The final sketch showed the same building in flames.

"It's hard to describe, and the visions, they fade as soon as I have them. I've gotten better at drawing more of the scenes but the details get lost. Still, I'm pretty sure these three are all related, maybe the same events. I just don't know where they are."

Ryan leaned over and winced, tilting his head so his good eye could get a good view of the sketches. "That guy. He's the Voice. We saw him at the stadium, giving that... blessing or whatever it was. I think he's the linchpin for the city, don't you Joey?"

The teleporter leaned in closer, his body phasing through Ryan's and Brian's shoulders. Both men shied back a bit. "Gah! Stop doing that!" Ryan exclaimed.

"Sorry, just habit," Joseph said, grinning and not the little bit sorry. He refocused on the pictures in the firelight and nodded. "Yeah, he's the guy on the stage. If we can take him out and a bunch of his stronger converts, the Meme's hold will weaken here. Not sure where he is though. It looks like a university maybe."

"Definitely a university. Cuts our search down to a few dozen locations though, if my manual's reading this right," Richard said, using his phone to take pictures of the sketches and taking a closer look. "The buildings look like they're an older style though. That might help narrow things down a bit."

"Dad grew up in St. Louis, before the Change. He might recognize the place. Could we... I don't know, erase Holly from the picture and show it to him?" Mark asked.

"No need. Just give me a few minutes here." Richard stood up and unzipped his pup tent. "{Blaster, wake up please,}" he called out, heading to the desk. The laptop screen lit up.

"How'd he do that?" Mark asked, peeking in with everyone else. Real magic, used as nonchalantly as Richard and Surah used it, still amazed him.

"In a word, Magic. That's his pup tent. A pinched off portion of his home universe, complete with his home reference frame. Sadly it is pinched off; we can't use it to communicate back to the Tangle or his world. But in it, his own tech works without a problem." Joey explained.

"So that thing on the desk is magic? Like that manual thing?"

"Not exactly," Richard called back setting the phone down on the computer and connecting them together. "The laptop is pure technology, no magic. I take it out of the tent and it'll die as fast as our shuttle did. But I have a knack for talking with electronics, especially ones I've been around a long time, so I could ask it to wake up when I came in." He focused on the laptop, and tapped on the screen a few times, mumbling in speech to it as he edited the pictures. "{Now, just some smudging here and there to hide Holly and make it look rougher... and then a print out and voila!}" The printer warmed up and printed a trio of pages.

"We'll want to dirty it up, so it doesn't look quite like a print out, but this should be safe to show around without rousing suspicions too much." He said, collecting the pages. "{Thanks Blaster, you can go back to sleep.}" The laptop's screen shut down and the wizard sealed up his tent while the others examined the pictures he printed.

Brian held one of the pictures and compared it with Michelle's original sketch, shaking his head. "We used to be able to do this sort of thing, didn't we?"

Joseph nodded. "You did. And if we succeed you'll be able to do so again. It's just a long road to travel."

Mark flipped through the pages and shook his head. "These are great. I'll pass these around quietly and see if any of the old timers know where this is.

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The Speaker approached the Voice and crouched down, lowering his head respectfully. The Voice finished reading a book and red stamped it, tossing it on a pile next to the fireplace. He sighed and stretched slowly, a helper acolyte pouring fresh drinks for the pair.

"Such a waste. So much written and all of it lies. The Word is the only one that counts, but we have to go through all the old writings to find what can be salvaged. A side project that should probably be put on hold in light of the current activities," the Voice said slowly in English as if he was having a hard time remembering the old language.

The Speaker stayed silent. The Voice motioned for him to stand up and sit down across the desk from him.

"Of course these current activities would be going better were it not for certain unaccounted for variables in play. We thought We got their spies here in their base last week, but Our own spies have discovered that they escaped somehow. These agents from the Tangle are wrecking havoc on Our plans for this region. As is, We will not be able to progress as far to the south and west on this side of the river as We originally planned. A minor setback, but a setback nonetheless."

The Voice sipped his drink, pensive while studying the Speaker. "I understand you were there, when we first discovered the Tangle agents here. Tell Us what you know of them. Who are there? What can they do? What have they done?"

The Speaker gathered his thoughts for a moment, and began his story, starting with the attempted cleansing of Grand Bend and moving on from there. The Voice listened and took it in, sorting out the details the Speaker had seen with what He knew as well. When the Speaker's story was done, the sun was setting, it's red rays lighting up the room. The Voice stood up and pulled on the heavy robes.

"Come. It is time to prepare a new set of acolytes for the front lines to shore up the Belief. And it is time to prepare you. You will still be a Speaker, but you will have a new task ahead of you. You will follow the Tangle Agents, and when the time is right, you will capture some of them. As many as you believe you can handle. These Agents are a threat, especially with their powers. But with the proper preparation, their abilities can be turned to our side. We trust you can figure out when and where the best opportunities will be."

The Speaker stood as well and stepped back, the weight of his task settling on his shoulders. "I understand, and I will not fail."

"We know you will not. Come, there is much to do."

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"You really should let me come with you," Joseph said glumly, looking at the dozen fighters preparing in the shadows of a brick building next to the rusting railroad tracks. He'd jumped them to the location one at a time.

Richard and Brian both shook their heads. "Sorry bud, but we've been through this many times before. You've done enough just getting us here. More than enough really. You need to keep your strength up to get us out after." Richard explained. He didn't voice their secret worry about letting the linguist close to the stronger Meme-infected again.

Brian checked his gear to make sure he had it all. "It shouldn't be too difficult. We just make our way into the city, avoid the patrols, find the university, make sure the head guy is in there, and torch the place. Piece of cake."

Sean silently glided out of the sky and landed, shifting to morph form in mid step. Some of the other soldiers shied back, still not used to the Keepers on top of the rest of the strangeness they had been briefed on.

After getting the modified copies of the precognative pictures, Mark had managed to find some older people who recognized the location, and even themselves in the picture. Partly influenced by the pictures, he picked a half dozen fighters he knew well and trusted, half pre-Change, half post-Change, and he brought them back to the Tangle's camp. There, they were briefed on who the strangers were, and what needed to be done, and then the planning started.

Sean gave everyone one final look and nodded his head. "You're all still clear of the Meme as far as I can tell. Be careful out there. The route looks clear enough from here to the hall, but there is a lot of activity on the campus. A lot of acolytes moving in and out. I didn't see the Voice though."

"He'll be there. He has to be right?" Mark said, trying to convince himself.

Richard shrugged. "Precognation is always a finicky power. Sometimes the events happen as described, but not as they appear to happen. We just need to do what we can and play it how it lays. Joey, get your ass out of here. You and Surah need to go back to the front lines so they don't notice we're gone."

The teleporter grumbled, but disappeared. Richard looked around briefly to make sure he was gone, then pulled out a handful of bead necklaces. "Put these on everyone, please. And keep them on until we're back to our camp. They're silence charms that I can activate. No sound out and especially no sound in. The closer we get to those Meme leaders, the riskier it is to hear them so we're gonna try to silence them. Sadly, they aren't as strong as I want them to be; they'll wear out in half an hour once active. But that should be enough time to do what we need." He checked the necklaces and nodded to Sean.

"Good luck guys. Signal when you're done and I'll get your lift out," the eagle said, shrinking back down and launching into the air."

Mark looked around one more time to see how ready everyone was. "Time's a-wasting. Let's get this over with."

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The Speaker stood on the stage and waited while the Voice spoke to the acolytes he was preparing to send to the front lines to reassure the troops. He didn't fully understand what was being said, but the feelings struck a cord in him, casting away the doubts that had developed on his trip from Grand Bend. With a final wave of his hands, the Voice wrapped up his speech, and the dozen acolytes stood up. Looking dazed and weighed down with the load placed on them, they filed out of the old teaching hall.

The Speaker felt the gaze of the Voice settle on him. He stepped up until he stood next to the Voice.

"Speaker, you have done well so far. But I sensed doubts in you from your long time in isolation to get here. Those doubts are gone now, but your new task is too important to let them resurface. Listen to me closely, I will prepare you for your future so those doubts will not return," the Voice intoned slowly, his eyes locking on the Speaker. He then slipped into the speech of the One, never breaking his gaze from the Speaker.

Paradoxically, time both seemed to slow to a crawl and to run at light speed for the Speaker. He had no idea how long he stood there, listening to the Voice as it Spoke. The words were nonsensical, but they stuck in his head, resonating in his mind and building up on the foundation he already had. He felt powers around him, not for his use, but available when and if he needed them. The last few remaining doubts lingering in the darkest areas of his mind were hunted down and killed, replaced with the certainty that the One Thought, the One Idea was the right one, and that all would be well when all believed in it.

It took a few minutes before the Speaker realized that the Voice had gone silent. His vision was blurry from staring without blinking for so long, and his head ached with the information he'd been told. He blinked his eyes and brought the Voice back into focus, the Voice looking as tired as he felt.

"It is done. Rest here for the night, then continue on your mission in the morning," the Voice said wearily. The man turned and left the room quickly, leaving the Speaker standing there. A guard entered a few moments later and guided the overwhelmed man out of the room and to the dormitories.

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A squad of armored fighters marched down the street, escorting a trio of robed figures. As soon as they turned a corner, a head peeked out from a darkened alley. It scanned the street one final time before running across the street and disappearing into the next alley. In singles and pairs, the rest of the group ran across the street. The group pressed back in the shadows of the buildings and kept looking to both ends, listening for any alarms. When it was clear there were none, they relaxed the barest amount.

"You sure you know where we are?" Richard asked the older woman next to him. She was in her forties, dressed in leather armor with a crossbow hanging at her side.

Shelly sipped from a canteen of water and passed it on down the line. "Sagan Hall is at the end of the alley, across the quadrangle," she said, nodding her head and pointing. "It's changed a lot, but the buildings are still basically the same. Never thought I'd ever be back here."

She had been a lucky discovery for the group. When Mark was showing the pictures around, she had recognized the buildings immediately. She'd been a student at the university before the Change, escaping the fall of St. Louis only because she'd returned home for the summer break.

"I never thought we'd get this far so easily," Mark mumbled back.

"It's the war. The gang leaders have got most of their forces on the front lines against most of our forces. Considering how organized your friends said they found this place, I'm not surprised they feel the place is contained. Still, don't let your guards down. Important places are sure to be well guarded still," his father, Michael, cautioned him.

The group moved to the end of the alley and looked out, immediately recognizing the scene from Misty's sketches. Unlike the rest of the city, there was a large presence of fighters around it. Armored squads marched patrols around the large building. Michael nudged those next to him and pointed to the buildings looking in on the quadrangle, indicating archer slits.

While the experienced fighters studied the scene, Richard tried a door into the alley and listened closely. He mumbled softly to the doorknob and eventually it clicked open. He eased the door open and glanced inside before motioning for everyone to back up and follow him.

Once the door closed behind them, Richard pulled out his phone and lit it up, flashing it around the windowless room. It was a storage room, empty but long deserted. The entire building had an air of disuse to it.

"So what do we have?" Richard asked.

"A heavily defended building. A frontal assault would be suicidal," Michael said, the others nodding in agreement. "Plus we don't even know for certain if our target is in there."

"Couldn't you use Magic and make us invisible or something like that?" Mark asked hopefully.

Richard shook his head and looked at the wall towards the Hall. "You guys may not have much magic talent yet, but the Meme does. And it's imparting its knowledge on to the infected. Those robed guys would sense a major magic like invisibility with ease. We need another way."

He refocused back on Michael, "And our target is in there. Just like the Meme could sense my magic, I can sense its magics, even if I can't do it as cleanly as Sean can. There's some major mojo going on in there and it's active."

"If they can sense magic, should we be using that device of yours?" one of the other fighters asked.

"My manual's safe. Or at least the glow is. If I were to cast something it would raise there attention, but this is passive, a barely noticeable drain on the local ether."

Brian looked around once more and stepped forward. "Right, well let's not give them any more time than they're getting. We need to clear those guards somehow to let another team in. Ideas?"

Shelly rummaged in her pack and pulled out a map of the university she had sketched out. "Why should we draw them away when we can go around them?" she said, smoothing the paper out. "There are tunnels between the major buildings we can probably take. Most of the buildings, including Sagan Hall, are connected by tunnels so people don't have to go out in the winter if they didn't want to. If we're lucky they're still there and lightly defended."