A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.

User:ShadowWolf/The Hero Factor

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The Hero Factor

Author: ShadowWolf — see other works by this author
Work on this story is on hiatus.
This story is a work in progress.

"No dice!" I shouted at the screen in front of me. Good, he was shocked. Now all I had to do was hit the disconnect switch.

"Mr. Fliegel, we can assure you that our scientists have solved the problems that plagued the early tests. There have been five successful tests with animal subjects, but we want even odds on the survival of the first human test..."

I cut him off. "I said 'No dice'! God doesn't play dice with the universe and neither should we!" Before he could say anything else I hit the 'hang up' button and sighed. First they accidentally drag me five hundred years forward in time, and now they want me to risk my life so they can test some strange device that'll give them the ability to manipulate time.

My life since that fateful day seven months ago had been a highly public one. Transmatics had given me enough money so that I could live comfortably the rest of my life after they had inadvertantly brought me here. To them I was a resource to try and use, to the rest of the world I was simply an atavis, a throwback to a simpler era.

As a public figure I wasn't much to look at... Never had been and never will be. Since I hadn't had the proper pre-natal work done I'd never have any modifications. I'd remain the last pure human on the globe - all of my five foot eleven, hundred sixty pound self was what god had given me.

I hate this future - it has nothing to redeem it. Mankind had failed and the planet was dying underneath us. Yes, they had made explosive leaps forward in the sciences... But the price has been paid by the planet. There are no more ice caps, no rain forests - no forests or wild spaces of any kind. Only domestic animals and farm animals remain.

But yes, I do understand Transmatics. I had survived one trip through time, so there was a good chance that I'd survive the test to send me one day back in time. The fact that they were doing this in hopes of making the universe a smaller space was also understandable. If they could control time, they could make ships that travelled faster than light. Since the Earth was already so dangerously overcrowded that farms were now protected with armed guards that have orders to shoot first I also understood the need.

My problem with it all was that they were asking me to willingly risk death. The truth is that I would rather be a live chicken that a dead lion. But even as I remembered Heinleins words about that matter I was telling the vid-phone to open a line to the last person I'd spoken to. Because I would rather be a live lion than a chicken I was actually considering taking the offer.

I didn't understand the science at all, but if they could prove to me that it was possible for a living being to survive the test I'd chance it. From what one scientist had told me they were taking advantage of some odd facet of Quantum Theory by way of math developed to tie Quantum Theory and relativity together. Something about a tunnel between 'Calabi-Yau' spaces. While I'd heard of them - they had been predicted during my life before being brought to the future - I wasn't sure, exactly, what they were.

The vid-phone beeped, finally, and the image resolved into the face of the head of Transmatics R&D division. He was smiling smugly, and the greedy look in his eyes almost made me hang up. "Mr. Fliegel, I wasn't expecting this..."

"Shut up, you fascist asshole. I'll make a deal with you - prove that the process is safe and has a success probability of more than ninety percent and I'll be your guinea pig."

The stunned look on his face made me think he might have a heart attack. He stammered a few times and for a split second I thought he was going to suffer a grand-mal siezure. Then he regained his cool, fake smile and spoke. "Of course, Mr. Fliegel. We'll send a flitter to pick you up."

Personal Timeline
T-7 Months

The last bug on my latest masterpiece of a website was fixed and the site brought fully online. I finished writing out the notes about how to administer the site so the client that had requested it would have an easy time - not one of my clients really knew anything about technology. Then it happened. Pain beyond comparison and the world whirling around me before dissolving into pixelated dots and finally blackness.

When I came to the view that greeted me was of a raised platform of glass, metal and plastics in a sea of gloss black. There was a feeling of amazement in the room, and tension so thick the air itself seemed to have gotten dense. I shook my head to try and clear the cobwebs that seemed to clog my thoughts and checked out my body, which throbbed lightly with a memory of the pain.

"The power spike seems to have caused an anomaly. The data seems... Oh, fuck! Theres someone on the platform! Get a med-tech team here fast!" My vision finally adjusted to the sea of black and I could see people moving around, dressed head to toe in black uniforms that looked like form-fitting biohazard suits. The voice had come from one just off the raised platform I was on, and he (she?) seemed to be waiting for something.

Moments later a set of stairs, gloss black like the rest of the rooms fixtures, rose out of the floor. I rolled onto my side, then onto my stomach and tested my body with a pushup. The nerves throughout my body were still reporting a ghost of the pain I had felt before coming to here, but everything seemed to be working. With as little motion as I could manage I moved to a seated position, and the world swam around me.

"He's alive, but looks a bit ill." The suited figure was in front of me now. "Where is that med-tech team?"

"I'm fine." I said, lightly slurring the words and I immediately knew I'd made a mistake. My head throbbed worse than the hangovers I'd suffered when I was still partying every night. "But do you have any aspirin? Feels like I got pummeled by a gorilla."

"Med-techs will be here soon. But... Who are you? How did you get here?" There was an accent to the voice that I had just noticed. My mind latched onto it and tried to place it, but I was at a loss. It sounded like a cross between several accents I knew... But it didn't match any, so I filed that for further thought.

"Don't need medical help... Just need a few aspirin, some water and a cigarette. Name is Victor Fliegel... no idea how I got here. One mintue I'm typing up instructions on how to do various administrative tasks on a clients website and next minute I'm in pain and here." The world spun again and went black as I passed out.

Two Weeks Later

"What do you mean there are no forests? If anything the Congo and the Amazon should still be around. Legislation was in progress with the UN to halt the destruction of the worlds rainforests!" All I wanted was to take a walk and 'commune with nature'. It was one of the methods I had learned to combat my clinical depression, and I was being told it was impossible.

"Just what I said, Mr. Fliegel. All protective legislation was invalidated when the UN was replaced by WorldGov. The Congo and the Amazon basins are where the worlds food is now grown. The soil was not as rich as hoped, but modern fertilizers and farming techniques keep it productive. The las forest was..."

The anger I was feeling was almost unbearable. If I knew exactly where this guy was I'd go and show him just how dangerous an atavis could be. "If I were you I'd find a way to let me take a walk in nature. Perhaps you could arrange for me to take a walk across one of those farms!"

"Mr. Fliegel, that is not possible. Only certified farm workers and the farm security forces are allowed to set foot on that land. I could arrange for you to visit a virtual forest - there is no noticeable difference."

That did it. I turned to the computer next to me and started typing in commands. This officious asshole was going to pay, as was the corporation he worked for. I'd do the damage on this guy myself - all I had to do was find him and even the seemingly miraculous medical technology they possessed would not be able to fix him. The corporation I'd get legally - they had dragged me five hundred years forward in time, effectively kidnapping me and now I was stuck in this place, unable to go home, effectively making me a hostage. "Bullshit. For someone who's never seen a forest it might not be any different, but I grew up around forests of all kinds. Goodbye, Mr. Davis. I'll see you soon."

The vidphone clicked off, my finger holding down the 'disconnect' button. I was already sick of this place, of being famous because I was from a time before the advent of the genetic structures that let medicine advance to the point that everyone is functionally immortal. Given all the resources and my skill at learning new systems I had done a lot of research.

When I took it to a med-tech she laughed. Even though all the data said it would work, she refused to even think of the possibility of grafting that genetic code onto mine using the techniques now available. Not even the most advanced courses of nanites and tailored retroviruses were an option to her. Something about there being no way to synchronize the event so that my body wouldn't destroy itself.

Personal Timeline
T-1 month

My life was a living hell at this point. The fame was still there, just starting to fade out. But I was unable to fit myself into the nitch I had specialized in before coming to the future. Design and implementation of Virtual Environments required skills I didn't have, and all documentation and tutorials were designed from the viewpoint that you'd have a cortical implant.

"Phone, dial Transmatics. Connect to the Technical Directors office."

The phone beeped in acknowledgement and the screen flashed through a pattern indicating the routing of the call through the various ground and space links. Phones in this time weren't what I remembered... they were network appliances, creating secure tunnels between each other over the vast network that had replaced the internet. Very few people had actual phones as most people just used cortical implements.

"Mr. Fliegel, what can I do for you?"

"Tell someone to round up a passel of nanites so I can get a cortical implant. I'm sick of being the butt of jokes for not having one, and I'm sick of not being able to find data in a form useful to me so I can get up to speed and try working myself back into the job I did in my time." There, I'd said it. Given the technology they had, including the nanotechnoloy and all the various molecule-sized fixit robots, they should be able to graft a cortical node onto my nervous system.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Fliegel, but that isn't possible. Your brain needs to develop with the internals of the cortical node already there. It's the only way that the system can work. Believe me, it was tried when the nodes were developed three hundred years ago."

As the words came out the speakers I lost it. The anxiety and stress of the past months sublimated and reformed as a cold fire. I swung and put my hand through the phones display panel, breaking every bone in my hand and shredding the skin. The pain was glorious and helped me focus my thoughts. After the med-techs were done fixing my hand and a new vidphone was installed I was going to call a lawyer and take Transmatics to the cleaners.

The Present

The lab was much as I remembered it. Clean, gloss black walls and surfaces. Bright lights and flashing screens all around, detailing various readouts form the millions of sensors built into the room. Calm people with those strange electronic pickups on their left temples dressed in flat black clean-room uniforms. In other words, a very strange place.

In the center of the room was a raised platform, surrounded by clear sheets of some material. They tell me it's a quantum stabilizer, whatever the hell that is. All I know is that if this thing works, they'll be able to send me home to the exact instant they pulled me from. That is what I've longed for these past months. Sure, the future is wonderful - they've got complete control over the weather, you can get any information you want and the science is more advanced in some fields than anyone would have ever dreamed.

My attempt at a lawsuit had failed, but had made Transmatics take note that I wasn't satisfied with my status. Since then they had redoubled their efforts to make the tech work, and had even figured out how I'd been pulled forward in time. That was why I had agreed to this test, more than anything. But my mind was calm as I walked up the platform and sat down in the chair that would hold me in place for the test. In very little time everyone would know if it worked, and if it failed spectacularly and I died, at least I'd finally be free of this future and its dying planet.

And here comes one of these almost generic lab rats to strap me into the seat set in the middle of the transit platform. As I look around the room I'm hoping the experiment will work, even though its my firm belief that the whole thing is a crapshoot and I'd be lucky to make it back here. After all, I could just as likely wind up in a world where all the animals ev.... "GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!" I screamed, my thought cut off by the pain. It felt like I was being extruded through a hole smaller than the eye of a needle.

I came to almost immediately and knew they'd fucked up once again. I was in the middle of cursing them and all their ancestors when a new wave of pain and nausea flowed over me. I faintly saw my hands changing and then blacked out, my brain seeming to blow an overload breaker.

"He's coming to!" a voice whispered in the darkness. The world around me felt wrong, somehow muted while at the same time my nose was reporting a world rich in scents. The cobwebs filling my brain refused to clear away and I slid back into darkness, cursing myself for having trusted Transmatics at all.

"Jacob, get out of there and let him sleep." A motherly voice said as sleep took me.

Nothing about the dreams was normal. Strange faces that reminded me of wolves, cats and some shots of beings reminiscent of Centaurs flashed past me rapid fire. Then everything began to settle and fight after fight flashed by, bringing with it the illusory pain of dreams. In one I fought a wolf-like being in an attempt to free others like him from some sort of slavery, while in another I was dying with dozens of arrows sprouting from my body.

The dreams themselves felt strange to me, almost lifelike. As more and more fights passed before me I took note of a disturbing pattern where a lifetime of fights won balanced out with singular losses and deaths in ambush. My mind reeled from the strangeness of it all as my body reported the pains of each cut, bruise and death. Finally the world stopped running past me on fast forward and slowed towards yet one more fight.

I was the same grand warrior as in other fights, weilding a pair of swords against evil. In my right hand a bright steel blade flashed in the westerning sun and in my right a wooden sword of similar dimensions caused enemy blades to ring as I blocked a killing blow. The martial arts were something I had passed far beyond a long time ago. Around me the world was full of vibrant color and even more vibrant smells and sounds. The quest was to stop an evil ruler who was torturing his people for the most petty of crimes.

At the moment I was fighting a band of orcs, taking on all fifteen of them at one time and not getting hurt once. The moves flowed, one into another and the names flitted through my mind, seeming to sink into the reality and become part of it. Somehow I know something isn't quite right, but the orcs keep coming and it's becoming obvious that I may have taken a bit to big of a bite.

But I will survive. I am the hero of legends reborn, the one from another reality who comes to set the world aright. The first orc falls as I slice his throat and immediately parry a thrust from another. Then the second falls and I rejoice in it, knowing that I am the favored of both the god of peace and the god of war. Minutes pass before the next orc falls to my blade, then a fourth and a fifth die. After an hours labor fifteen orcs lay dead on the field around me and I stop to clean my blades on the tunic of one of them.

Just as the steel blade slides into the shoulder sheath my mind catches the furred look of my arm. For the first time in the dreams I know that I am no longer human. My mind starts at this but the dream turns as the sound of a blade clearing it's sheath rings out behind me. The captain of the pig-like orcs has made it through the lines and cleared my best men. The wooden sword raises to block an overhead slice and I start to turn so I can get the steel blade back out when pain shoots through from my groin.

Looking down I can see the bloody knife in the orc captains hand and the red, arterial blood pumping out of me. As the world goes dark words and symbols flash in my vision and disappear, but I can hear the words rattling out of me "Did I not serve you well, Goddess?"

My eyes snapped open and the world flashed into focus. In the back of my mind a little voice told me something was definitely wrong, but I pushed it aside as I got up, noticing for the first time the muzzle in my vision. My knees went week and I plopped back onto the bed and everything came back to me. Transmatics had fucked up again, and now I was somewhere that seemed to be earth, but I had a furred muzzle filling the center of my vision.

The only door I saw creeped open and a fox-like head looked around the corner. "Gram, he's awake! The He..." The voice of the fox-child was cut off with a sharp smack.

"I told you to leave him alone. He was barely alive when we found him, without a mark on him. He must've had some bad illness..." It was the matronly voice I'd breifly heard before.

I stood and found a breech-cloth hanging on a hook next to the bed. My clothes were nowhere to be seen, so for modesty I slid it on, in the process getting a look at most of the rest of my body. The fur coloration was the brown tinged silver I'd often seen on wolves, and I didn't have hands and feet, per se, but what were better called 'modified paws'. Seeing this made me realize that I wasn't hallucinating, so I pulled on the breech-cloth and stepped out the door.

"Don't be too hard on the kid, ma'am. I'd just woken and sat up when he peeked around the door."

"Oh, well then... Jacob, I'm sorry I hit you like that. I was just worried about our guest. The doctors and chirurgeons didn't know what was wrong with him..." She said to the young boy. Then she turned to me and began speaking. "You had us worried there. What with you being the Hero and all and showing up outside our village looking like you were on deaths door, then sleeping for a week on top of it."

The dream came back to me in a rush and I knew that I was now as much a master of the blade and unarmed combat as I had been in the dream. Each move flowed through my mind and I felt my muscles twitch, wanting to mimic what my mind saw. But before I followed up on that I looked down my muzzle at her. "Hero? Ma'am, there must be some sort of mistake. My name is Victor Fliegel and I have no idea where I am... but I know I'm not a..." My voice trailed off and I remembered the dream again, and the belief in it that I was a hero. Something inside wouldn't let me deny it, as much as I wanted to.

I frowned and shrugged. "Where I come from I'm just a normal guy, nothing special. But enough of that... You wouldn't happen to know what happened to my clothes, would you?" My jumpsuit had a utility tool and a knife I habitually carried, as well as a minicomputer I have gotten used to having around.

"When they brought you in there were some rags and other bits. I suppose you'd be looking for those bits and not the clothes, right?"

Bingo! For being an old lady she was sharp as a tack. I nodded and finally really looked around my surroundings. It was like I was in some RPG like the Final Fantasy games I had played in my youth. The building looked unbelievably modern for being as primitive as the clothing and furnishings showed it to be. I found a chair and sat down, then yelped and changed position as I'd sat on a tail I'd not had before. A few moments later she dumped the stuff on the table in front of me.

First I picked up the knife, happy to see it's gleaming steel-composite blade. I looked along the edge, checking for nicks, then flipped it and caught the blade, checking that the weight was as I remembered. A voice inside said 'Not good for distance throwing, but very good for in-fighting' and I looked around then flicked it into the dirt floor and picked up the mini-comp. I tapped it's power button with a claw and a holo-projection filled the air. Happy to see it working I tapped the power-cell readout and noted that the regenerative zero-point power cell was barely functional.

Triple-damned Microsoft. I should've sprung the extra for the Transmatics version! I thought, disgusted that I'd thought an extra few centuries would have taught that company anything. Ah well... Not that the computer would be of much use to me here, except for the odd scan to determine what exactly was going on around me. I set it down and picked up the multi-tool, checked it's bits and set it back down.

"Thank you, Ma'am, but I'm afraid those shreds were the only clothing I have. You wouldn't have something to spare until I can find some work, would you?" I refused to go around in a breech-clot, no matter how comfortable it was. These two were wearing something approaching decent clothing, and I'd be damned if I trotted around like a barbarian.

"Of course, of course. Theres a chest upstairs with some things my father brought home from the last big war. Should be some armor and goods in there that'll fit you. Of course the Parson'll want to give you the last Hero's swords." The lady was sweet as molasses. I pulled my knife from the dirt floor, stood, bowed and jogged up the stairs. Even if I had to wear some piece of ancient armor it'd be better than what I had on, and maybe there'd be a sheath there to fit my blade.

The haul was better than I expected. The chest was twice as large as a steamer trunk and packed full. A scent of aged metal and leather assualted me as I lifted the lid and looked inside. Sitting right on top was a bladeless scabbard, sized just right for a broadsword. 'Take that one...' the little voice said to me. This time I was stunned by the voice and stopped for a second to wonder if I might be going insane. I shrugged it off as being related to the new form and new surroundings, for the first time noticing that I wasn't gibbering in a corner, afraid and unable to cope. Instead I was almost emotionless about it all, as if something was working to make me feel comfortable and at home. Again I shrugged and decided to just roll with it all, a singular kernel of hope budding deep inside that Transmatics would be able to pull me out of this strange world.

The next few items were stunning for their workmanship, but the leather was cracked and brittle, so I set those apart from the scabbard and kept digging through the contents of the chest. About halfway through I came across something wrapped in what looked like an oiled piece of leather. I pulled it out and unwrapped it. To my surprise there was a breastplate of sorts inside. As I turned it over in my hands I admired the workmanship - it was comprised of layers of wood and leather glued together, with steel plates riveted on the front. It went with the scabbard even as that little voice spoke up and told me to set it aside.

By the time I finished the search I had two scabbards, a sheath for my knife, the breastplate and a Roman Legionaire-like kilt made of laminated leather and wood with metal riveted to it. After making sure the metal was free of rust I dressed and slid my knife into it's sheath. Now that I was presentable my stomach was being insistent in making it known that it was quite empty. So down the stairs I went, feeling better than I had since Transmatics had dragged me into the future.

"You wouldn't happen to have some food ready, would you? Feels like I haven't eaten in a month."

"Of course, Hero. I was getting ready to..." She cut off as she turned and saw me. "You really are the hero... Sit, sit! It's dinnertime anyway!"

We ate and talked over the next several hours. I found myself telling her a tale of how I came to be in the forest. Not quite a lie, as I was merely parroting what that voice at the back of my head said, unwilling to tell her the truth of my origin. Somehow I doubted she'd understand how I wasn't really a wolf and how I wasn't from this planet, or even, possibly, this reality. Hours passed and the land outside the simple windows grew dark. We retired to the rooms upstairs and went to sleep.

during the convalescence

A brilliant flash surrounds the platform and it's lone occupant, then is gone, leaving an afterimage on people retinas and causing the cameras to adjust and readjust to get the image back. When it's all clear only the platform and the chair mounted to it remain, it's human occupant is gone.

"You see, just as I told you, Mr. Davis. He disappeared at the moment we activated the platform and opened the wormhole." It's a scientist, all clad in black speaking.

"Then you obviously made a mistake in calibrating the device. The math and the tests show that we __can__ open a wormhole that is stable at both ends." The voice is hard, with a detectable edge of anger to it.

The scientist looks cowed, complacent. "Of course, Mr. Davis. We'll get on the math and calibration right away to see if we can't pull him back."

James Theodore Davis the Third dismisses the scientist with a wave of his hand. He's worried about possible backlash from losing such a celebrity figure as they had. Historic records showed the man disappearing, but none recorded his return, so it was certain they hadn't merely zapped him back five hundred years in time. He was certain the math was correct, as certain as he was about his own name, but the result didn't look good. The first human trial and the subject just disappeared, if the discharge of the platform opening a wormhole hadn't vaporized him outright.

With a sigh he stands and begins to pace, his mind following myriad tracks as his cortical implant works the math he couldn't and downloaded all the data from the tests. There had to be a flaw somewhere, but as many times as people had been over the numbers he doubted he'd find it. But still he tried, downloading information on physics and running down the various equations. Each time he hit the same wall the research team had until someone had found a way to balance out Heisenberg.

Whatever the problem was, it had to be in those equations, even though they seemed to work out - the platform had sent five different cows three minutes forward in time. Davis opened a box on his desktop and pulled out a pipe, even knowing that Tobacco was illegal to grow he still preferred to puff on his pipe when thinking like this. He stopped for a second and switched to a running playback of the cameras in the labs and the platform room. The sight of the various technicians and scientists running around, sometimes fighting among themselves made him chuckle as he switched off the feed.

As he sat back down he took out the box of matches he kept in his desk drawer and lit his pipe, savoring the taste of the expensive and hard to get tobacco. Then he called up all the data form the test shots and the various experiments that had led to the platform. It would take hours to review it all, but he would do it. The time control experiments were his - he'd taken up the contract of the scientist that had started the work, he'd guaranteed the board success, and he'd be damned if he'd let a scientist screw up his chance to join the board of directors.

For the next two hours he puffed on his pipe, regularly cleaning it, repacking it and relighting it and he looked through the data. Two billion dollars had been poured into this project, and all he had to show for it were a few cows that were two minutes younger than the clock said they should be and a missing celebrity. If only they'd never made the mistake of running the reversion test he wouldn't be in this position. With a sigh he shook himself, his conscience reminding him that the board had requested they make sure they could reverse the direction of the targeting. A simple test, and it had drug someone five hundred years forward in time. If only it hadn't been a loud-mouthed nature lover like Fliegel they'd have had no problems.

Now he was at the point in the record where they'd drug Fliegel forward in time and even his untrained eye could see there was something different with that run. The numbers didn't line up with what the equations said they should be, with the power consumption being nearly twenty times what was needed - even with the mass of Fliegel worked into them - and the stable endpoint seemed to have jumped out of control the second they had reversed the energy flow along the control pathways.

With a flash of brilliance he checked the numbers for the test where they had lost Fliegel. The same power consumption spike occurred, if at a lower level and there was something funny about the endpoint equations. Davis chuckled as he ran the equations the machinery used to represent the endpoint. Again the same last minute fluctuation that had drawn Fliegel forward in time. But the numbers didn't match for a time-displacement, at least, he didn't think they did. It was time to bring the scientists what he had found and see if they could use that data.

The Hero
The Next Day

I woke early and stretched, then pulled on the kilt-like armor made of strips of laminated leather and metal. Something inside was pushing me to go workout, so I pulled the chest-protector from the hook where I'd hung it before laying down. Before strapping it on I checked it out, looking to make sure the leather that had been built up of thin layers was still flexible and not dried out. The level of tech for some things I'd seen really surprised me, it was almost as if they had something close to the technology of Rome or Greece in their heyday.

The sun hadn't risen over the Horizon yet as I stepped outside and walked around back, but there was a lot of activity anyway. Fields were being tended, animals looked after and water was being drawn - exactly the type of activity I'd always dreamed of seeing. It just confirmed my suspicion that the world here didn't know engines beyond those that an animal or man powered. The clean air and the wonderful scents of nature my new nose brought me was invigorating.

Then the voice that had guided me through choosing the armor I was wearing started prodding me again and I found myself flowing through the steps of what I recognized to be a kata. Front kick, side claw to the face, draw knife and block high... My mind realed off the name of purpose of each step as I flowed through it, the muscles in my body relaxing as it went on. Thirty minutes later I finished the one I had just been doing and began some calisthenics to work the muscles that had just relaxed.

The pushups flashed by, first I was thinking of just doing twenty and moving on to other exercises, but I wound up pushing myself until I couldn't do any more. I'd lost count by that point, although the young boy that had watched me called out 'That was 100' before I finished. Then it was up and off for a run, I was ignoring the voice that had been prodding me for the last day or so and just doing what felt right. I circled the fields of the town five times, then settled back at the cabin and split more than a cord of firewood for the old lady that had taken care of me through my convalescence.

It was noon when I finished, so I went to the well, drank my fill of the cool, clean water and went back to the cabin. She had food on the table as I came indoors, and I hate to say it, but I started drooling like Pavlovs dogs did when they heard a bell. As I sat down I thanked the woman for having food ready and she smiled.

"No, Hero. Thank you for chopping that wood. I've been after my wastrel of a grandson to do it for a week." She said sweetly as she placed a cooked slab of some unidentifiable meat in front of me. She quickly followed it with a tureen of a sweet-smelling soup and something that reminded me of green onions.

We ate in silence, with me thinking of teaching her grandson why you should do things asked of you. But that little voice perked up and gave me a better idea. I was just finishing the soup when her grandson came running in. With an unthought reaction my hand flashed out and grabbed the back of his neck. "Slow down there, Jacob." I said as his feet lifted off the ground. Hanging there in midair he yelped and tried to look at me.

"I've got something I'm going to ask of you, and your grandmother will have to agree, Understood?"

He swallowed and mumbled the word, but I caught enough to know he'd agreed. So I set him on his feet and turned him to look at me. "At the ceremony coming up I am going to be confirmed as the Hero reborn. I will need a page, someone that I can teach and who can help me in my work. Would you like to do that?"

The look on the old maids face was one of shock, initially, but quickly turned to one of respect and joy. She'd give him permission, I knew it from the moment I'd grabbed him. But his face was different, shaded in various stages of shock and awe that I had offered him such a position. My face betrayed no emotion - I was sure of that, as sure as I was that this wasn't the planet I had been born on. His eyes locked with mine and I saw it then, knew his answer and knew exactly why he hadn't been around. There was a struggle going on among the children in town, a struggle to be the one who became my student and helper.

"I'd... I'd... " He stammered, then dropped to his knees and rolled over, exposing his stomach. "Hero, would you be willing to have me as your student and page?"

Formalities dotted this culture that I didn't have trouble understanding, but didn't see coming. His posture at the moment was of a dog admitting another was his better and risking death if the other wasn't pleased. I looked up at his grandmother and smiled. She motioned and I dropped and lightly bit down on his neck, then reclaimed my seat. "I take you as my student and page, Jacob. From this day forward you are Jacob no more, but Split-Tail. For now you may do as others and call me Hero, but after the ceremony all will learn my name."

I didn't know where the words had come from. It was as if someone were speaking them with my mouth, but the formalities were fulfilled. He leaped to his feet and dashed about, letting out wordless barks and howls of joy. The maid looked at me and smiled before speaking. "You bring honor to my humble house, Hero. There those who would have it that you are not the one to make such a choice."

I just smiled and nodded, knowing that there were always people who thought all the prerogatives were theres. In my mind a plan of training for the young wolf formed, one he doubtless would like less than he liked household chores. It involved much manual labor to develop muscles and long work at the martial arts to develop muscular control as well as self control. Only after he'd proved himself to me would I begin to teach him the deepest of arts, the art of the blade.

The rest of the afternoon I spent teaching the boy how to work his muscles. More than once he complained about the pain of his muscles actually breaking down so they could rebuild. Each time I told him he was free to request I choose someone else as my Page and student if he felt he wasn't worthy. That kept him trying to keep up with me, sometimes surprising me with his endurance or strength. There was maybe an hour of sun yet to go when he told me I'd better prepare for the ceremony.

As the sun slipped behind the trees of the woods surrounding the village farms I withdrew into myself, strangely calm when I should be nervous. I knew nothing about this world or it's religious ceremonies, and should have been very worried about the coming event. The fact that I wasn't worried about it actually worried me more that anything had since I'd woken looking like a cartoon character. But when the gong sounded to announce the opening of the Temple's doors I was on my feet, fully prepared to walk into that building and make a fool of myself.

I was on my way to the cabins door when the Parson stepped in carrying a cloak for me to wear to the ceremony. The gilt threads and intricate patterns stitched around the cuffs and hemline betrayed it's ceremonial purpose. So I slippiped it on over my armor and knife, not knowing if these people allowed weapons in the Temple, but not wanting to be unarmed in case I did something to offend tham and had to fight to escape. Furred paw-hands raised the hood as the Parson nattered on with the old lady about the weather. A look and me stepping towards the door was all it took to get him moving and he led me to the Temple, jabbering all the way about how lucky he was to be able to witness the ceremony of the Hero. At the low door to the temple he pointed to a full sized one concealed in the woodwork then dropped and crawled through the main door.

A curse fell from my mouth and I dropped and crawled through the door after him. Just because I was the Hero didn't mean I deserved special privileges. As soon as my nose was inside the door I was greeted with the scent of fresh incense and other fragrant spices burning. Then I saw, for the first time, a statue of the Goddess they revered. It took the form of a she-wolf in a pose as if accepting a challengers submission after a fight. My mind noted the Parson just standing up and stepping away from the statue. The meaning was as clear as if I'd grown up in this society, and I had no wish to try and set myself as equal with their Goddess. So I layed on my back and stuck my throat in the open jaws of the statue.

The temple went silent. "Oh shit..." I muttered as I stood and brushed the dust from the ceremonial cloak I was wearing. My mind was racing, following a million paths, settling on one that said I had broken a Taboo in submitting to the Goddess. I was reaching for the catch of the cloak so I could shrug it off and defend myself when a clear shout rang out from the people that filled the temple.

"He enters as a commoner and submits!"

The crowd went wild, cheers and howls rising in a crashing crescendo over my entrance. Still unsure if I had done something right or wrong my muscles tensed the loosened in preperation for a fight to escape with my life. My mind weighed options like I'd been a warrior in this body my whole life as my eyes scanned the crowd, looking for those who I would have to avoid to make my escape without serious injury.

A she-wolf wearing nothing but a strange headdress stepped out of the crowd and stopped in front of me. "A humble hero. I welcome you to our village and temple Victor Fliegel of the Hyoomin clan." She bowed as she finished speaking, then turned to the crowd without waiting to see if I would return the bow. In the front ranks of the crowd I could see Split-Tail and his grandmother, smiling happily at me. The roar of the crowd turned into a whisper under her gaze, then died entirely as she raised her hands.

"A Hero has come when there is no cleaqr danger. A prophecy stands ready to be fulfilled. Clear the floor and take your places, the ceremony is ready to begin." Her voice was melodic but betrayed her true age in ways her youthful looking body did not. The strain of her years was clear when she spoke, and a voice inside told me this would be her last big ceremony. She turned back to me and held out a hand.

"Though others must submit to me, the Hero cannot. Nor can I submit to the Hero. Come now, I will show you to the seat we have prepared for you then I must start the ceremony."

I took her hand and she led me through the crowd, the sheer feeling of the place spoke of faith and power based on such the way the ancient Christian churches did. There was no opulence here, not even for the one being honored. The seats sat around the center of the temple, mine lower down, almost on the open floor and was of simple rough-hewn wood like the rest of the building, without even a cushion. My tail neatly slid off the back of the plank seat as I settled in to enjoy the ceremony.

She picked up a bucket of what smelled like rock salt and a long, slender willow-branch that smelled fresh and green, then walked to the ceter of the temple and down into the shallow pit there. The doors slammed shut with a loud bang as she turned a circle to glance at the people filling all the seats. Then she set down the bucket, faced one of the doors and closed her eyes.

Her unmoving tail and posture gave the impression that she was under a great strain as she raised the willow wand and pointed it at the door. "Spirits of our Ancestors, Spirits of the North, come and join us in heralding the arrival of a new Hero." Her voice was sharp, clear of the sounds of age I had heard in it just moments before. As she finished speaking there was a crash of thunder and a cold wind blew through the sealed room.

She reached down and picked up a handful of salt and threw it at the door. "I consecrate this northward facing door to the Goddess and condemn all evil spirits to an eternal pain if they try to enter through it." A peel of laughter filled the room and turned into a howl of pain, yet no one in the room was moving.

She repeated this action for each door that stood on a cardinal compass point, then sagged, the mask falling to pieces and dropping from her. Oblivious to anything else in the room I stood and was at the aisle leading down to the pit when her head lifted and she spoke. "I have brought a Hero to save you. The danger is not yet known to you, but it is to the Hero. And the Hero must have his swords."

It didn't sound like the Priestess I'd spoken to. Instead of the melodic voice that seemed to cover three octaves with each word it was a triple voice, echoic and strangely emotionless. I reclaimed my seat and decided to just wait and see what the ceremony had in store, as this was more interesting than even the Voodoo ceremonies I'd witnessed. She calmly walked from the pit and sat down as two men walked out from the crowd.

"The first Hero came to us with nothing and defeated the Cantorii who wished to enslave us, fighting first against the ones who turned on us..."

In the pit a stylized mock-combat began between the men. One had an ankh-like symbol painted on his chest and the other wore an uncomfortable looking helmet. It quickly became obvious that it was supposed to be a portrayal of the fight mentioned, but the manner in which it was done... The ritual combat had a fixed form and the instincts for fighting I seem to have gained in being thrown into this universe kept telling me to expect moves other than what were performed.

Then the memory hit and I remembered fighting the fight being portrayed, killing the wolf who had started working for the Cantorii. I could almost smell the equine scents that had surrounded my opponent in that fight and feel the wounds he'd inflicted on me. As the fight in the pit progressed memories of that long ago war for freedom surfaced, telling me that I was truly the Hero these people expected me to be.

Over the next several hours they recalled the first and last fights of all the Hero's that had preceded me. Memories piled on top of memories in my head and I relived the fights and the struggles they had been in, each time also feeling my death as my luck ran out and I met my match in an opponent. Then it was time for me to step down and accept Tangis-ka and Tango-ka, the swords of the Hero. My steps were light on the wood of the stairs that led to the pit that made up the center of the temple.

Four large deer were brought in through a door that led into another part of the temple and to me. I looked around and spoke the requisite words. "In the site of the Goddess and her chosen people I slay these beasts and let their blood run to sanctify my role as Hero and give my blades the taste of blood needed to once more bind them to me."

Then I kneeled and bit open the throats of the deer, people coming down to hold them steady as my fangs opened their veins. Blood matted my fur and covered the robe I was wearing by the time I was finished with one of my roles in the ceremony, but that didn't bother me. The Goddess required certain rites be performed, and we were the one she had chosen when trouble came. I stood and faced the Priestess, who came out of her seat carrying my swords.

"And so, in the sight of the Goddess and those of her people present, I name you Ghost-Fang and present you with the blades of your predecessors." Her voice was normal again as she handed me Thuris-ka, the blade of steel, and Tango-ka, the blade of wood.

I touched each to a pool of the deers blood, then wiped them clean on the fur of the sacrificial animals before sheathing them. Tango-ka I wore on my hip, where it would be immediately available, since it would be preferable to not kill if I didn't have to. Thuris-ka slid into the shoulder mount where I would be able to access it only if the chance arose or I pulled it before combat. "I accept these items that belong to my predecessors in office, Tangis-ka and Tango-ka. With the blood of these animals killed in the sight of the Goddess and by my own fangs I bind them to me so they may never be used to bring me or the Goddesses chosen people harm."

The rites and rituals were almost finished as people began to file down from the stands. All that was left was to eat the meat of the sacrifices as we all prayed to the Goddess for guidance. The party lasted until dawn when the doors of the temple opened themselves and people began to leave to sleep for the day before going back to laboring in the fields and their shops.


I was before the board, someone having alerted them that the test involving Mr. Fliegel had gone wrong. Before me were twelve of the most powerful men in the world, each having not just a seat on the Transmatics board of directors, but also a seat in the WorldGov congress. Needless to say, I wasn't all that happy at this turn of events.

"Davis, are you telling me you lost Victor Fliegel?"

"Well, yes and no, sir. It seems that the scientists erroneously told me that the platform was now considered safe and fully operational. I even witnessed them sending a test animal - a cow if you must know - forward two full..."

The CEO, Jefferson Walker, interrupted me. "That is out of line, Davis! As President of our Research and Developement department you are supposed to check the test results yourself. And as every member of management this company has knows, we do not allow them to push responsibility off on their subordinates!"

I'm sure I turned white at that point, because it felt like all the blood in my body had decided to migrate to my feet. A sip of water did nothing for my dry throat and I started coughing, damning the tobacco I so loved for doing this to me. My mind was racing the whole time, trying to find a way to prove that it really was the scientists who were at fault. Then it hit me, the one person who could explain what had happened was waiting outside the conference room. He wasn't an employee of Transmatics, but had been called in to help figure out the problems with the data.

"Most honorable board-members, there is a way to explain to you what went wrong and why I truly am not to blame. Just three days ago I was reviewing the data from all the sensors attached to this project and noticed something extremely weird with the numbers."

Another board member cut me off with a laugh. "Strangeness with the numbers? I thought this was all about making interstellar flight a decent possibility!"

"Mr. Girolo, I speak of the numbers that describe the space-time manipulation we are performing. Not one of the scientists we've employed could figure out what the numbers meant, so they begged me to let them call a specialist we'd been unable to hire. Mr. Luskiniski, if you recall I came to you about this just yesterday?"

The man I spoke to noticeably paled as he nodded his shaved head. He took off his glasses - surely an affectation in these days when cloned eyes free of defect could be implanted - and studied them before speaking. "Of course, Davis, of course. What has that to do with this?"

It was my turn to wear a smug smile and gloat a little bit. So I drew out the silence and looked around at the faces of the boardmembers, one by one. Several were pale and sweating, as if they knew what was to come and hadn't briefed the CEO as to the presence of an 'outside contractor' new to the project. The CEO gave a polite cough, telling me I'd been silent long enough and any further silence would be viewed as impolite and a reason for termination, so I spoke. "The man I was speaking of is none other than last years winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics. He's waiting just outside the room. May I call him in?"

At least half the table fell silent completely, not even carrying on the side conversations that had become a fixture of board meetings. The other half were silent as well, looking at me expectantly but uninformed as to who, exactly, had won any of the Nobel Prizes in their lifetime. This brought my smile back and made it even larger. "Then, with your permission..."

I walked to the door, opened it and beckoned the waiting man to come inside. "Allow me to introduce Dr. Frederick Charles Bloom."

I took a seat as the Doctor walked to the head of the table where I'd been so recently and began speaking. For each of the major points he had had the computer generate nice, simple diagrams explaining the science and terminology. Having seen most of it before I sat back and studied the board members, hoping to spot an early sign that my job was safe and secure.

But the faces may as well have been carved from granite. Although I frequently saw flashes of understanding in their eyes, it was as though they were engrossed in traveling the pathways of the global nets an not in the presentation Dr. Bloom was giving. Then I caught a phrase I hadn't heard before and focused my attention on the doctors presentation myself.

"And so, in absence of a true method to sidestep Heisenberg's uncertainty principle someone came up with the bright idea of dictating numbers rather than getting true measurements to that finite accuracy Heisenberg dictates. This effectively means that the greater the displacement, either spacially or temporally, the greater the chance that the apparatus will create a random event."

The words hit home and I rechecked the physics I'd downloaded all those days ago, then began checking the equations used by the team to describe the space-time device. The first two times I did it I got the expected result, then I stopped plugging in the constants that had been used as an attempt to sidestep Heisenberg and I saw the randomness begin to occur. When I ran the numbers for the run that had brought us Fliegel the outcome matched the sensors perfectly. I was out of my seat like shot from a cannon.

"Dr. Bloom, I thank you for you words. Now, would you have any idea if it would be possible to bring Fliegel back from where ever we sent him?"

"No, Mr. Davis, I'm afraid I don't know. I'd have to check all the numbers to be positive. What I can tell you is that the numbers seem to indicate that Mr. Fliegel did not originate in this space-time locus."

The boardroom got loud as the words filtered into the boardmembers skulls and were understood. I myself was speechless, doubly so since all the records seemed to indicate he had originated a little over 500 years before. My mouth was working but no words were coming out when the CEO finally managed to get the room quiet and spoke to me and Dr. Bloom.

"Mr. Davis, you assured me that a records check showed that one Victor Fliegel had disappeared without a trace sometime between August 3, 2006 and August 9, 2006. Am I to understand that you fabricated that data? Doctor, perhaps you could explain your statement!"

I collapsed into the chair and had to fight the urge to curl into the fetal position. Sweat beady on my cold forehead, built up and rolled down into my eyes as my heart began to race. Like a cornered rat I was ready to fight my way out of the room if necessary, and all my energy was focused on trying to calm down. Certain that I was about to hear those two dreaded words I closed my eyes and said a prayer to whatever god had cursed me with the foul luck to have thought Dr. Bloom could save me.

"Mr. Walker, Davis here didn't lie to you. Records do show the Victor Fliegel you mentioned disappearing, but he isn't the Victor Fliegel that showed up here. According to the sensors output the wormhole that brought Victor Fliegel here had an end-point in a parallel universe. I'm going to have to assume that the Victor Fliegel from this universe suffered a similar fate.

"As well, I understand you have accused Mr. John Davis here of losing the Victor Fliegel that was here? It was not his fault. He accepted the faulty solution that your project was working under as the real and functional. Truthfully, Mr. Fliegel is not lost, I can tell you exactly where he is, although you would need to be placed in the device and run through it yourself to stand a chance of finding him."

With those words I knew my job was saved. I thanked the last god I'd prayed to and decided to go visit one of his temples, churches, whatever they called it and take whatever steps were necessary to join that religion. That god had saved me, my life and family by saving my job.

Two Days After the Ceremony

The Parson invited me to his house to meet with the Mayor and other officials. Split-Tail was learning as fast as I could teach him and regularly matched everything I did in my morning work-outs, but I was still wandering what kind of danger the Goddess these people worshiped could have brought me here for. After the ceremony was finished I knew this Goddess was real and often interfered in life, but only brought a new Hero into the world when danger to her people was immanent.

In the past two days I've checked up on the number of people in the village and come to the conclusion that any defenses that might be needed will have to be sturdy and simple enough to be manned by a minimum number of people. Beyond that I haven't had much time to really think about doing things proactively as training Split-Tail has been the priority - he'd be a lot of help if it came to having to teach people to defend themselves. Other than that I was still living with the old woman who had tended me while I recovered from the changes that gave me this body, as a new house added to the village always takes time to plan.

"Thats it for today. Practice the punch against a tree, just as I showed you, and don't hold back. Hitting the tree as hard as you can will help build your hand so you can hit even harder." I said to Split-Tail before heading to the nearby stream to clean up a bit before going to the meeting.

This was the time for me to introduce my idea for a small group to work as scouts and ambush fighters. They would be trained in guerilla tactics and with their already excellent knowledge of fieldcraft would make excellent fighters. I didn't know how they'd receive the idea, but I was eager to get to work on it, since a good guerilla force would be necessary if the danger was large. How to train them was the question, as I'd never done any military service and didn't want to introduce too many ideas that they didn't already have.

A schedule and time to teach them simple hand-to-hand would be a good place to start. Perhaps base the hand-to-hand on their wrestling and make it more of a takedown art than a killing one... No matter, I'd need the Parson's and the Mayor's approval for something like this. At least I wouldn't have to teach them bow skills - that's one thing they already know well. But I'd still need something for a bit of shock value. If I had only paid attention in those high school classes I could probably find a way to introduce dynamite and small grenades, but instead I lost myself in books like Battlefield Earth.

"Eureka!" I shouted and leaped out of the stream. Black powder grenades would work just as well as high-explosive ones, and I knew how to make black powder. The stuff was simplicity itself, all I'd have to do is check and see if my minicomp still had the data I'd downloaded a week before the event about the refining of potassium nitrate. (Okay, so I'd thought about some dirty tricks to play on Transmatics - producing black powder on the sly and using it as a nuisance measure being one of them)

I jogged back to the old ladies cabin and picked up the mini-comp, checked it for power-cell usefullness then turned it on. A few taps at the various holographic icons and the data popped up. We had plenty of wood-ash and tight-woven cloth to use as filters, but the nitrate bearing material and the alcohol were unknowns. A claw touched the power button and I tossed the minicomp onto my sleeping mat in disgust. All the data I had on the refining of one of the key ingredients of black powder called for things that I wasn't sure about.

When I reached the Mayors house it was just about the noon meeting time, although it could have been later. Where these people seemed to have an innate skill for judging the passing of time I didn't, so I relied on people reminding me of the time periodically. In this case I'd been told about the impending noon-hour by Split-Tail, but to him impending could mean anything from five minutes to a half hour. Not like it really matters, these people seem to cut me a lot of slack because I'm "The Hero". At least I had something to actually bring to the meeting.

"Parson, Mayor..." I said as I bowed before taking a seat at the small table in the center of the main room of the Mayors quite spacious house. Unlike every other building in town, this one had an interior coated with a fine layer of daub that had been whitewashed at one point but was now a smoky grey.

"Afternoon, Hero. People say you were quite excited about something just before this meeting. It wouldn't have something to do with advance planning for whatever the problem the Goddess brought you here to fix, would it?" The mayor is a very shrewd man, and people from all over town and beyond bring him information.

"Possibly, your honor. I may have a new weapon I can use to great effect, and the excitement was me remembering about its existence. But to make the raw material for it I need something called saltpeter. My people once mined it from bat guano, that is, bat droppings. There wouldn't happen to be a cave nearby that bats inhabit, would there?" The meeting was going to take hours if I had to explain it all in minute detail, so I decided to shoot for the big stuff first. Hopefully he gets the hint and lets me explain my ideas without too many interruptions.

One Week After the Event

The once perfect blackness of the lab was marred by open walls, missing ceiling panels and the platform was in pieces. For a week they'd been working to install the new sensors and upgrade the lab system to a full AI so it could self-program to handle the data that would be flowing in from the new systems and not overload.

John Davis surveyed the seeming chaos of the work going on. He was ashamed to have been so foolish as to believe the scientist who'd thought up the foolish plan for circumventing Heisenberg that he'd vowed to take a pay cut to the rate of one of the lab techs until the platform proved a success. Not that the pay cut really meant much, since he had enough money already that he wouldn't have to work if he didn't suffer from that peculiar malady.

But he was also in the lab everyday helping to install all the new systems. Just the day before he'd helped install the new components to make the computer AI capable and was now in the process of starting up a seed-core for the AI. He'd made this core himself more than twenty years before as a college project, and though it was designed as a research and cataloging AI, that is, a Library AI, it was still his first choice for the seed that would spawn the AI to run the refurbished lab.

As a programmer he was excellent, having aced every exam and made it all the way through toward his goal of a doctorate only to put that on a hold that was still waiting. The month he was to do his doctoral dissertaion and defend it his mother fell ill and was diagnosed with a rare disease that had so far managed to outwit every attempt to fix it. With his father having died during the last food riots he was needed to care for his mother until the disease ran it's course and killed her.

Over the years he'd kept up the research and his skills were at least as good as any of the programmers in Transmatics stable. In most cases, he rated even higher, which was what had led to him being named President of Research and Developement just two years before. The seed AI he'd installed wasn't the same one that he was going to use for his Doctoral Thesis - no, it had grown since then and was a general AI in all respects, but it still showed the old Librarian traits when it had been set free in the new hardware.

That tendency towards gathering data and cataloguing it was one reason why he had decided to run with his pet AI seed. It would be a valuable trait in that all the data would be properly catalogued so that later examination wouldn't require people making numerous requests because related data had been filed without leaders or tags as to it's relationships to the rest of the information. Today he was down in the 'pit' helping to get the new, tighter scan beam Quantum Flux detectors installed and calibrated.

"John Davis, report to your office. There is an executive looking for you." The lab AI parrotted a message off the building network. It still had the mechanical voice of a new AI, and that grated on Johns nerves. He finished hooking the connector to the last detector in his small sector of the pit and stood, nervously wiping his hands on his khaki trousers.

"James, if you can handle the calibration, seems I'm needed elsewhere."

The tech he was speaking to nodded without looking up from the screen on the minicomp used to calibrate the sensors. With long strides fitting his nearly seven foot frame John Davis exited the lab and walked the nearly quarter mile to his office. He'd been on edge all week, waiting for the hammer to drop and the board to fire him, but so far nothing had occurred beyond the complete rebuilding of the lab and test platform that was now underway.

The security guard talking to his assistant gave away the identity of his visitor before he opened the walnut doors of his office and stepped inside. A wave of fragrant tobacco smoke hit him almost immediately. "You know, I could have you fired for entering my office and looking through classified R&D files, Kyle."

"Not that you'd fire your own, dear Frat Brother. I see you still like things on the less-than-legal side, Moffet." The nickname was from his first year in the frat, when someone had compared him to a character in an ancient science-fiction movie. For all the years that he'd worn that moniker he still couldn't bring himself to like it.

"Right. That would break the Alpha Sigma oath, wouldn't it?" Davis said as he shook his old friends hand and the secret handshake identified them to each other once more. Davis filled a tumbler with some scotch and handed it to Kyle, reclaiming his pipe in the process. Two puffs later the tobacco was used up and the real conversation began.

Personal Timeline

In just under two weeks one of the two 8 man squads I'd been given permission to put together finally understood why I insisted on teamwork. But silence didn't seem to be one of their strong suits as I stopped the other squad and motioned for them to split into the woods on either side of the path. Sure, I knew that first quad was somewhere along the path waiting in ambush, but that knowledge didn't temper my reactions. Instead I knew that proper protocol always required being alert for the possibility, so when that one cough not from my men reached my ears I knew we were close.

With me I only had two members of the second squad, the other six having split and taken to the trees to try and flank the ambushers. I'd hated splitting a pair like I'd had to do, but it's just good sense not to leave anyone alone on the trail when an ambush has been spotted before it can begin. So on we walked, the practice swords in my hands weighted extra, out to about 25 pounds instead of the relatively light weight of the pair I'd be using in combat just to help me gain some better muscle tone in my chest and arms.

Both practice swords were clear of their sheaths before I motioned to the pair that remained with me to lead on. Ten steps later four men sprang from the brush on either side of the road and attacked. Almost simultaneously the men I'd detailed to flank them sprung from behind and opened up with practice arrows. The pair with me had red marks detailing arrow strikes, but my practice blades flashed and caught every shot that had been aimed at me.

In the aftermath I took the squads to the towns sole business, a small pub that provided some specialized types of liquor. Amazingly the most common was an unaged bourbon that looked like Vodka, and that was my drink of choice. When I had first been introduced to the pub it was to show me that they did indeed have high-proof alcohol, needed to refine one of the ingredients of black powder. I had then made it a point to suggest that they age it in oak casks that had had the inside charred. The suggestion was motivated by selfishness - I'd long ago fallen in love with the flavor of Jack Daniels and other "Sour Mash" Whiskeys, and that was one of the secrets to it's color and flavor.

Now it was a celebration, since second squad was done with training and now knew what to listen and look for to spot an ambush. Tomorrow they'd walk the trail alone, with me observing to see how they handled themselves. Of course, I wouldn't be seen by either side, memories on top of memories of the deep tricks of woodcraft were in my skull alongside all the information on warfighting. But for now it was time to celebrate and teach First Squad what had given away their almost perfectly laid out and planned ambush.

"Jinger, drinks for the squads. Put it on my tab, honey." The barmaid was a cute one, all of five feet tall and covered in fur that reminded me of a brindled bulldog. Not that she looked like one mind you - she was the sweetest looking wolf you ever set eyes on. For the first week I'd tried to deny that I could see any of these creatures as potential mates, but then my mind finally caught up to my body. Rather, I finally realized that, for good or bad, I was no longer human.

I took my customary table, on it was the best topographic representation of the area we were training in that I could make. Both squads came over when they saw me sit at that table without a drink of my own. Maybe they thought I was a bit peeved that First Squad had blown the ambush, but really I was happy that I'd been able to see Second squad break an ambush without tripping it first. My joy was short lived as Split-Tail walked in after his grandmother.

"Vic, we've got a problem. Group of Cantorii just settled outside the west end forests in the reserved lands." He was speaking to me like I'd coached him to. Keep it short, sweet and forget formalities, just deliver the news.

"Split, lemme settle my team down and run them through the after-action. Then me and you will go greet these Cantorii and find out why they've violated the Goddess boundaries to come here."

Grandma left and Split-Tail sat down. I'd been teaching him in between training the troops, and so far he had proven invaluable in the teaching of hand-to-hand to these normally peaceful people. The squads were waiting, and the bar was covered with drinks they hadn't taken. All of a sudden the atmosphere seemed to stress filled, so I leaned my head back and howled. Tomas, the leader of First Squad soon followed, and before my original howl finished the bar was filled with our victorious wail.

After the howl I pointed to Split. "Can you grab my drink, Split? Get one for yourself while you're over there." Sure, he was only eleven, but he was my page, and if I wanted him to have a drink, then by god, he'd have a drink. He ran to the bar and returned less than a minute later with my glass in one hand and a glass of water in the other. I smiled then downed the glass. The squads got the idea and slowly filed to the bar to get their own drinks.

"Tomas, you had a good setup. Nothing out of place to give away the ambush, not even a scent. How I knew you were there was sound. Somebody coughed."

Tomas looked at the guilty party, his partner in the pairs I'd designed the squads around. Back on Earth the Seals used a similar method, called them 'Swim Buddies'. A pat stopped Tomas from saying anything, but I knew Digger was going to be in trouble later. I let them work out their own punishments for failure, and rewarded them regardless. They really were advancing fast from being simple hunters, bereft of the will to fight by the decades long war that another Hero had ended centuries before. Changing fast into fighters their ancestors would have been proud to call brothers.

"But Drak, you messed up. I should not have had to face anyone on the path, but one pair got out. Remember what I told you, shock and awe. Hit them fast and without mercy."

Drak frowned and admitted he'd hesitated to mark his two older brothers as dead in the exercise. Some things were to be expected, and I knew they didn't expect to have to fight other Lupii, but that was no excuse. As Thera, the head of Second Squad explained this to him with some expletives and a glass of liquor dumped over the head I sighed. While I had no way to prove there would be Lupii involved with the enemy we would doubtless face, I also had no way to disprove it. I silently left the bar with Split-Tail and headed to gather my blades. Once an enemy and all that.

With Thuris-ka at my shoulder and Tango-ka across my hips I was ready to face the Cantorii. Whatever the reason for them being here, as military leader of the village and surrounding territory, their ultimate disposition was up to me. But even though it had been many centuries since the Cantorii had tried to create a great empire, my memories wouldn't let me forget their transgressions. Each step closer to their camp caused the alcohol I had downed to burn in the metabolic furnace, fueling me for a potential battle.

I left Split-Tail a few hundred yards from the Cantorii camp, fearing that if violence broke out he'd just be underfoot. His complaints were ringing in my ears still as a wave of noise spread through the camp when I entered. Memories surfaced from another Hero, and I realized that the Cantorii had once been protected by a Hero as well. I even understood the language, and knew I could speak it. The wave of noise was all because these people also somehow recognized me as being 'the Hero'. So far I'd been able to stomach the reverence from the Lupii, but if I got it from the Cantorii as well I was likely to lose what little I'd had to eat before starting the maneuvers this morning.

Finally one Cantorii stepped forward. I looked up into his face, then he settled and folded his legs under himself so we were eye-to-eye. We studied each other for several minutes, and I knew he was trying an old Cantorii dominance game, where the first to speak loses. Around us there was the sound of people betting on who would finally break and speak. I smiled and stared into his eyes, then showed my teeth a little, giving him the 'hungry wolf' look that Lupii are infamous for in Cantorii art. That didn't budge him an inch. Almost ten full minutes after the game started he coughed violently and someone came running up with some water.

"My name is Mikel Sanger. We are fleeing an evil that has taken over our homeland. The ten thousand here are all that is left of the free peoples of the Cantorii Empire." His voice was surprisingly light for one with such a broad and deep chest. Almost a baritone, and certainly not the basso profundo I'd expected.

"I am Victor, called by some The Hero of the Goddess. How is it that the grand Cantorii Empire has fallen?" I responded to his eloquent common in almost accentless old Cantorii. The language had been almost dead during the lifetime of the Hero who'd learned it, but I was trying for a different form of "Shock and Awe" here.

It worked as I expected. His eyes lit up and his features flushed with blood. I almost gagged as he bowed and begged pardon for trying the dominance game with one so honored as me. With a wave Split-Tail came bounding up, his eyes bright with wonder at the new smells and the sight of the foreign people he'd only heard about in bed-time tales. While he looked around I waited, letting him be the child he was for a small period. Finally I tapped his shoulder and whispered.

"Bring the Parson, the Mayor and the Priestess. I fear the Cantorii bring news of what my task might be."

Split-Tail almost fell over as he scrambled to run back to the village. My news would surely be on the lips of everyone by the time I was done speaking with the Cantorii. That was one trait I wasn't going to work out of him, since he served as an efficient way to alert my troops without me having to order it done. If things worked out the way I felt they would, he'd come back with the people I'd requested, long after the squads had shown up and setup camp around me and the leader of the Cantorii.

"Speak to me as an equal, Mikel Sanger. I am no god and no ruler, just a simple person tasked with a difficult job." This I said loud enough for everyone within a hundred feet to hear. Cantorii, except for those specially trained, are almost compulsive gossipers. This statement would make news and might stop them from treating me with reverence and deference the way the Lupii were doing.

He looked up at me, then raised himself up, stood and reseated himself. Trays of fruits and vegetables were brought forward for us to eat before we spoke. I nibbled at some of it, wishing I could enjoy the apples like I had before I wound up here. Not five minutes after I'd sent Split-Tail running both squads appeared and set a cordon and flag of truce. The day suddenly looked brighter as I swallowed a grape and waited for the civilian leaders of the village to show up.

A full thirty minutes after the Truce flag was flown the Mayor and the Parson appeared, with apologies form the Priestess that she couldn't make it because of a birth happening. I nodded, then introduced them to the Cantorii leader. Finally the trays of food were cleared away and Mr. Sanger began speaking again.

"You have asked what brought an end to the Cantorii Empire. I tell you it still stands, but is no longer ruled by the council of three. Almost a month ago a Cinet came to speak to the Council about a new method for powering our extensive fabric mills....

One Month Before

Though the sun is high in the sky, lanterns set in front of reflectors are what lights the chambers of the ruling body of the Cantorii Empire. The clean granite walls and plastered floor did little to help the situation, but the room had just enough light for work to be done. Behind the high shelf that served as a desk to the Council three aging stallions stood.

"Well, Delash. What do you think of the Tax proposal? Would it be sound to try and bolster trade with our neighbors by dropping the tarriffs by three percent?" The one of the left, his dappled hide revealing him to be Girtash says wearily.

Next to him the Clydesdale stallion shifted his feet and gnawed on an aging stick, thinking deeply on the subject and trying to wrap his once agile mind around the problem. In recent years he'd been having a lot of trouble with math that he'd once found amazingly simple. The same skill had gotten him the appointment that had led to him entering the challenge and winning his current position as a member of the Council of Three.

"Not sure, Girtash. I really am not sure. It seems that we could stand to make a lot more money by dropping the tarriffs, but my mind isn't as quick as it once was."

The third member of the council snorted. Drakel Sanger was the youngest stallion ever to survive the challenge for a position on the council, and his inexperience with the fineries of the office showed. Impatient he looked to his right at the other two and snorted again. "This is all fine, but we must decide. Would you two prefer to table it and have one of the state accountants explain the numbers tomorrow?"

Both nodded in agreement and Delash rapped the gavel, signaling an end to the current topic for the time being. All three agreed that the mathematics of the subject were currently outside their understanding and that there was more pressing business to move on to.

"So what's next, Girtash?" It was Sanger again, prodding his aging allies into action. His youth was a startling contrast to the age of the other two members of the council. While all three had survived a challenge to the death, pictures on the walls around them showed council members stretching back to when the challenge had left all the combatants alive.

Not for the first time all three were wondering if they'd be the last to run the Empire. Reports form all regions showed that the infrastructure was breaking down as governors raised armies and claimed kingship over their part of the Empire. Sangers own son had led a Legion to put down the latest threat to the sovereignty of the Empire, and he was dissatisfied with the result. Half the Legion had died under direct bowfire when camped under a flag of truce. The minor rebellion had been put down and the ringleaders trampled to death, but there was a definite trend happening.

"I think it's the Cinet that says he's got a better way to power our textile mills."

Heads turned to look at Girtash. For centuries only other Cantorii had been allowed into the council chambers. The last time another race had entered the Chambers it had been the Hero, in his first coming. On the hot days the scent of that councils blood could still be found rising from the wood of the councils table. Delash finally pulled the thin cord that would summon the next piece of business, his hip aching where it had been damaged during his challenge almost twenty years before.

The doors swung open and a well dressed Cinet entered, surrounded by four Cantorii guards. He looked about, as if nervous, then began to speak. For a few minutes his words made sense, talking of how he'd found a way to harness a natural energy to do real work. Then the Cantorii guards dropped to their knees and finally fell to the floor vomiting blood. Then the Cinet looked up and smiled at the Cantorii before him.

"Of course, I'm not going to just give this to the Cantorii Empire. Oh no, you are going to work for me, and I, Sarkadan the Great, shall rule!" These were his last words, purple lighting flashed between his eyes and danced across his upturned porcine snout. The Cantorii guards that had died stumbled to their feet and attacked the council. The screams brought banging on the doors, then silence as everyone that responded died, choking on their own blood, only to stand and walk again, doing the bidding of their Cinet master.

The story was to incredible to not be true. And there, behind Sanger, I saw the rampant Cantorii in gold that was the emblem of a Cantorii legion. The women and children that I could smell marked this as mot being two legions, but one, with families in tow. That cemented my decision - but as the land belonged to the village still, it would take the agreement of the Parson and the Mayor to settle this.

"Know that I did not witness this myself, but heard the reports from guards that escaped the senate building alive. If you wish..." I cut Sanger off and looked to the Parson and Mayor. Both were pale and looked ill.

"Say nothing more. If it was solely my decision I'd ask you to stand as a general under me and help fight this monster. But it isn't just my decision. This land is fallow land held in reserve by the village, and as such, must be granted you by the village, and not the Hero."

I looked to the Parson and Mayor again. They were whispering with each other still when the Priestess finally walked up. She came to stand by my side and placed her hand on my shoulder, then leaned down and said, "The Goddess has given me a vision about this, and you are correct. The Cantorii are enemies no longer, and these here will now be our allies in a war that is coming this way. Runners have been sent to the other villages asking them to send men here to be trained by the Hero and his chosen Page."

At those words both the Mayor and Parson jumped and opened their mouths to protest. One glance from the Priestess and they closed their mouths and looked dejected. Once more they began to whisper to each other, obviously trying to find a way to weedle out of the heaven-sent decree. After five minutes that seemed an eternity the mayor turned to Sanger and finally spoke.

"Much as we dislike it, this is a tragedy. The Goddess has ordained this, so of course, we grant you this land until you are able to return to your homeland victorious. Whatever we can do to help you through this coming winter, just ask."

I shook hands with Sanger and we talked late into the night about strategy and the layout of the new army that I would be building with his help. Late that night, almost as the moon was setting, I bedded down and slept. The dreams were of designing the original Cantorii legions and leading them to victory against the Felins who insisted on invading the wide grasslands outside a city far from Cantorople. Then I had a distrubing dream of the day when the first Hero had stormed into the Council chamber and slaughtered the council who had ordered the war of expansion that had called him into being.


John Davis woke early, showered and rode the transport down fifty levels to his office. The lab AI had begun studying the science behind the platform and was now requesting extensionals so it could correct problems it saw in the designs. This worried him a great deal, since he had not designed the AI seed-core to show such a high level of independence. As the doors opened and the office lit up around him he was running checks of the system to figure out how the AI had gained an independent sapience.

Again and again he came up against changes marked as having come directly from himself that he could not identify or place. Even the code itself carried his hallmarks, so he was unable to use it to trace the actual source. The network access logs were out of access to him, as they were the realm of the security department, so he sent a request for a complete check of accesses surrounding those changes off and began designing an extensional system that would allow the AI to manipulate the platform and it's sensors.

The scientists in the lab had agreed with the AI that the changes would make the system more stable, so he didn't bother checking the numbers himself. If anything, the changes would amount to an insignifigant two or three percent increase in wormhole stability. but with the requests piling up from both scientists and the AI he had to do something. Engineering data flowed into his mind from the cortical implant and a desing for the basic extensional system slowly formed. Several hours later he had a hand-drawn diagram of the extensionals mechanical systems and was in the process of bringing his physical terminal online when the computer bleeped a double-login warning.

A face floated up in his mind as he dialed the security front-desk number. When it finally moved and introduced itself he closed his eyes and began to communicate using nothing more than thoughts trapped by his cortical node.

"This is John Davis, President of R&D. My system just gave me a double-login warning. Could you try to track the other connection, we may have a spy in the system."

He could hear his words echoing out the speakers of a physical terminal. For once he was grateful that the secuirty department had to use them for base contact numbers, as he could cross check what was sent with what he had wanted sent. The words matched, so he waited for the person on the other end to start the process.

"Understood Mr. Davis, a traceback is now in progress for both logins. We shall disregard the one from your office. Be in contact as soon as it's finished." The guard on the other end replied before disconnecting the line.

If it was a spy or other type of unauthorized access then a complete traceback could take hours and the help of several government agencies. With the more pressing business of the lab extensionals to attend to Davis opened his eyes and brought the companies engineering and design software online. His terminal bleeped as he connected to it and began dumping specifications into the software prior to using any physical input device to add the design he'd come up with. In this manner the software could check for flaws as the extensionals were designed.

After several minutes of programming the design cross-check system the room came back into focus and he looked down at the almost plotter-perfect design on his desk. His hand came to rest on the puck-like mouse that hadn't changed much in more than five-hundred years and the design slowly came to life in the software. Minute flowed into hours as he carefully added each detailed piece of metal and plastic to the system. The room around him had faded into nothingness and his world was consumed by the work in front of him, a series of lines and dots formed into complex shapes.

Almost six hours later his concentration was broken and he jolted upright as the buildings systems shut off the lights in his office, obviously having missed him and his subtle motion when it decided to try and save the company some money by turning off the lights in empty rooms. His eyes adjusted rapidly to the light filtering in from the outer office where his assistant was going about the business of keeping his schedule simple and he looked back at the screen.

He only had to add one more servo to each of the three types of extensionals he'd designed and the days work would be complete. But his illegal habit called out to him and he reached into his desk for the pipe and tobacco he kept in a locked box in one of the drawers. When he couldn't find it he jumped out of his seat and the rooms lights flashed on, blinding him temporarily. The outer door popped open and Steff, his secretary, looked in.

"I thought you were in the lab, today John."

"No, damned AI wants some extensionals so it can help in the work, so I'm designing it some specifically for the job." he replied, his face showing that he was concerned about something as much as having been blinded by the lights turning back on.

"You lose something?"

"Not really, just misplaced it and can't remember where. You know the locked wooden box I keep in the drawer here - it's missing!" He replied, the need for nicotine gnawing at him and putting him on edge now.

Stephanie Douglass frowned and couldn't place where she had last seen that box either. She knew her boss was an addict of one of the worst drugs known, but didn't let it bother her as it never interfered with his work. So she walked into the office and helped him search all the places where he might have hidden it in a picque if he'd decided to try and give it up again. For ten minutes they searched the room and it couldn't be found.

When his terminal bleeped about an incoming call he waved her off and picked up the line. "Davis here."

"Mr. Davis, we have completed the traceback and it appears the login is coming from within your department. But the signal itself is strangely routed and we may just have lost the source in the noise of all the systems it was routed through."

John fumed and almost yelled at the tech on the other end of the line, wishing he had his pipe so he could walk around smoking it while pondering this strange turn of events. He pulled out a mint, popped it in his mouth and began to pace anyway, hoping he'd have the same luck in solving complex problems without the pipe. But as he ran the problem through his mind and cross-checked it against the nets largest databases of information on the subject he kept coming up blank.

"Did you try to do a low-voltage pass-check on the systems?" He finally offered after more than five minutes of silence.

"Yes sir, that was our first pass at tracking the signal. We had better luck with the AI sort routine against the known connection list of the systems the intruder routed his signal through, but it was unable to find a track-back from system delta-one-three. Something about..."

John cut him off. He knew that identifier almost as well as he knwknew his home phone number. It was the lab AI system, but the part that was currently not hooked into the AI itself. He knew this for the simple reason that he had planned to hook it up the same day he installed the extensionals. "Flatly impossible. That system is currently offline and has no physical connection to either the buildings networks or the global networks."

"Sir, it cannot be impossible. I can give you not only the network address, but the machine specifier and even the OS information."

John walked to his chair and settled down in front of the terminal so the camera could see him again. His mind flashed through possibilities and, then he spoke again. "Send me that information hard-copy. I'll get department technicians on it, as the system that is supposed to have that internal identifier has yet to receive power."

The tech on the other end nodded then disconnected the line. John went back to the fruitless search for his pipe, pouring himself a glass of brandy in the process. When the box still hadn't turned up after turning his office inside out he settled into his chair and finished the design work for the extensionals. It had been a long day, and as he walked out of his office five minutes later he could only think about the pipe and tobacco stashed in the safe in his bedroom.

Cantorii Encampment

The scent rising from the pit was almost unbearable, but it was a necessary evil. Sanger had come across Black Powder before, but all the Cantorii used it for was entertainment. After having explained to him my idea he told me that they gathered bat guano and refined it to produce one of the components. My refining process was a lot simpler and produced more, so after having found a few local caves I set to work refining the potassium nitrate and it's close relative ammonium nitrate from it.

The other challenge was locating sulphur, but amazingly there happened to be a large deposit near one of the caves where we collected the guano. I could hardly believe my luck, or the stink, but now it was time to show the Cantorii was a rocket made of bamboo and clay could do. Though they would be highly unstable until we could work out a method of giving them fins the first few rockets I'd built would demonstrate the potential to the engineers among the Cantorii.

I mixed two batches of black powder, one with a high sulphur and low nitrate content to act as a propellant and the other with a more explosive mix. The explosive mix I corned and turned into a fine powder, to make it burn that much faster during the explosion. It was separated from the solid core of the rocket by a fine piece of a dried leaf, and sealed with a shaped clay plug that would also act as the jet of the rocket.

When everyone was away from the test models I lit the fuse on the first one. Sangers almost human jaw dropped open as the bamboo tube shot into the air and exploded a minute later. "And these can be made bigger?" he asked, stunned.

"Yes, and I plan on making small clay pots filled with the explosive mix that can be thrown at the enemy. We can even tip arrows with small versions that can be fired into the enemy lines to sow confusion."

Sanger smiled and lit the next one himself, chuckling as the second one took to the air and exploded in a brilliant flash. I was giving them crude rockets, grenades and other weapons that hadn't been seen before, making me feel a pang of regret that I had taken an innocence from them. But it didn't matter, as the enemy we were up against had powers I didn't understand and seemed able to resurrect the dead to do his bidding.

The third rocket failed spectacularly as the hardened clay plug broke apart, blowing the clay dish I had set up as a lauching plan apart. One in three wasn't bad for something put together in a hurry from crude parts. When I demonstrated a grenade for Sanger next he was ecstatic. The way the ceramic shards and embeded stones tore apart the targets we'd arranged around the device put a smile on his face.

"I'm not sure if any of this will work against the ones he's brought back to life, but they will certainly work against those who willingly follow him." Sanger said with a snort. Of course I had the same beliefs, not knowing how or why Sarkadan was able to do what he did. But explosives, previously only known to a small segment of the Cantorii population, were a weapon we could use to sow confusion among our enemies during battle.

We had reconstituted a legion from the men and women that Sanger had brought with him, and I was teaching them some tactics that had never been used. The one they really loved had been pioneered on Earth by the Zulu peoples of Africa. The Cantorii loved it for a different reason that I did - it took full use of their speed and maneuverability. I had taught them the tactic, called a 'Pincher' maneuver, because it was highly effective and had been used with great success by forces armed only with spears and knives against a force with firearms.

Sanger and half a century of his men had taken over from me as the target force for my squads of guerilla fighters. In the past week my men had successfully ambushed and attacked in various ways a much larger force, providing them with great examples of how things should be done. At the same time Sanger had started to teach his men how to spot the various types of traps and ambush, making them a more effective force as well.

My role had expanded, and aside from the three hours I spent each morning teaching Split-Tail hand to hand and sword combat, I was planning a force that could perform as well as a mechanized force when it came to rapid, blitzkrieg type warfare as well as behind-the-line type guerilla work. I wasn't happy with teaching them what I was - it was warfare the way it had been fought before the advent of WorldGov on Earth, and as such, was something these people had never encountered. But something new was necessary, as I expected Sarkadan to not only be coming at us with the full might of the Cantorii Empire, but also the full might of the Cinet tribes.

The Hero had never done any time as a Cinet tribesman and leader, but had fought against them a number of times. My memories of those battles gave me a picture of them I didn't like - they were a bloodthirsty people that rejected the Goddess and were much like the ancient Norse people had been on Earth. I remembered the dream I had had after Transmatics had sent me here and my body ached where memory said the Cinet general had put his sword through.

"So, Victor, would you like to test you skill with the sword against me?" Sanger was constantly wanting to test my skills as a warrior. Although he had already lost several bloodless duels to me, he still felt that I wasn't his equal or better, mostly thanks to me not fighting according to Cantorii rules of honor.

This day I was saved by Split-Tail. "Vic, First Squad just got done with a scout of the perimeter and came back with someone from Tapoli. There are Felins settled there and not listening to requests they move on."

I snorted, then bowed to Sanger. "Perhaps tomorrow, Tanape." I used an honorific from old Cantorii referring to the Stallion that had started his own herd. It fit Sanger well, since he had gathered these people as he left Cantorople, but he still shook his head at it.

The implications of the news Split-Tail brought were dire, indeed. The Felins lived in and near jungles several thousand miles from this area, and were fiercely territorial. If they were this far from their lands then something must have happened that even those fierce warriors couldn't handle. There had been three Hero's that were Felin, and those times it had been more saving them from a natural disaster or helping them develop more permanent forms of civilization, but the last time had been a mass invasion by the Cinet hordes, aided by a group of ape-like creatures that claimed the Felins had taken their ancestral homes.

I cleaned up and selected First squad to accompany me to the Felin camp. Not that I didn't trust second squad or the newer ones that were slowly forming as other Lupii settlements sent men to be trained by me, but they were the most experienced. We left as dusk settled across the land, the messenger in tow, telling us what had occurred so far. The situation was worse than I'd expected, as the Felin had simply shown up one day and claimed several of the fields that were due to be planted during the next growing season.

Felins were highly territorial, and if they'd claimed that land, there was almost nothing that would get them to move. But I needed them outside the village near the Cantorii - I was building an army to fight Sarkadan and all my troops would train so they could fight as a cohesive force. My swords felt light in their sheaths as I loped along the trail, surrounded by the eight men of First Squad, Split-Tail by my side, carrying a light bow and my practice blades, which could be dangerous in battle by themselves.

As the moon reached it's zenith I motioned to Tomas and let him know to set sentries and make camp for the night. We had brought no food, just our weapons and the fire tonight would just be for warmth as the autumn weather was turning cold. He quickly detailed off a pair to stand the first watch and I settled and pulled some tinder from my pouch. Split-Tail had begun making a fire pit, and Tomas was quick to detail pairs to collect wood and make the temporary latrine.

Yes, I was teaching them sanitary measures, not just for sanitations sake, but also because a latrine pit is easily closed and can conceal signs of presence. That in and of itself was a good thing, as I expected First Squad and all other Lupii units to spend a good deal of their time behind enemy lines once the conflict began. Soon enough I was striking a flint against my knife, quickly catching the tinder and starting the fire. A storm that had passed just the day before left us short of dry wood, so our fire was smoky, but luckily we had found something similar to creosote and the smoke was keeping insects at bay.

"Tomas, by noon tomorrow I expect to meet with the leader of the Felin force. Tell the men that I may have to fight him for leadership of his clan. Pass the word that no one shall interfere unless the Felin do first."

Fully understanding the gravity of my warning he passed the word to the pairs that were off working on the latrine and standing sentry. Working from my knowledge of how the Felin's laid out their camps and minimal knowledge of the terrain supplied by the messenger I laid out a plan of attack if diplomacy failed. The Felin people relied as much on their built-in weapons, razor-sharp retractable claws and long fangs, as much as the assegi-like stabbing spear they favored for warfare.

The plan worked itself out simply, and I curled up to let sleep take me. All to soon I might be seeing it in action, and hereditary hatred seemed to exist between the Felin's and the Lupii, although they had never competed for food or land. As I drifted off to sleep I saw an image of John Davis, the head of R&D at Transmatics. He was speaking but I couldn't hear anything, and although I had been an amatuer lip-reader, nothing made sense. My mind filed it as an early dream and I settled into sleep.

The sun hadn't even rose behind the horizon when a dream of the wife of an early Hero woke me from my sleep. I heard myself muttering her name and could clearly remember the wedding ceremony before my eyes slid open and I stretched, welcoming the new day. After I'd stood and shook the detritus of the forest floor from my fur I prodded Split-Tail with a light kick and headed to the latrine. Before we broke camp I'd go over our plan for dealing with the Felin.

When I got back to camp the fire was going again and there were several rabbits on spits over the pit. A smile spread across my face and my tail began to wag by itself as the smell wafted to me, causing my stomach to rumble and mouth to water. Hopefully no one had broken protocol by hunting while on sentry duty, but even if they had, food was a welcome sight. I settled into an easy crouch and called the squad to me.

"Tomas, if they refuse to meet under a truce flag and refuse my challenge for leadership you are to fire arrows into every tent and lob unlit grenades into every fire pit. This should create enough confusion for me to get away from the camp. Then have two pairs join me and we will take the leader and force them to meet."

He nodded, and explained the finer details to the men who were far enough enough that my low-whisper didn't reach their ears. The plan was simplicity itself, and I was glad I'd had them grab what grenades we had before setting out. Nothing like spreading shock and awe through an intransigant people to get them to be diplomatic. Then we ate, silently and without complaints or recriminations among the men. We might have to go to war today, and who knew if any of us would survive.

As we broke camp I was tempted to send Split-Tail and the messenger to safety, but I knew both would refuse to obey such an order. I was the Hero, and they believed that the people I led were always victorious in battle. As hard as I had tried since having the mantle forced on me by the 'impartial' Goddess, I had been unable to dissuade them of that fact. Even giving them details of casualties from battles of previous Hero's was unable to break their faith that men led by the Hero into battle are invincible.

Hours later the sun was reaching a noon-time position and we still hadn't broken the woods and into the fields that border each village. I checked the trail and spoke with the messenger after stopping by a stream and letting the men rest and drink. The messenger informed me that we were close, although he had been running full speed to reach 'The Hero' with the news and so hadn't had time to leave trail markers. That news didn't bother me much, as the wind turned and I could smell the smoke of a town mixed with the scents of Felins washing over me.

After giving the men a half-hour to drink water and loosen up from the march we were back in motion. Less than an hour later we broke the tree-line and almost walked right into a Felin latrine. Wedetoured around the open latrines and I detailed the men out into an honor guard as we walked deeper into the Felin camp. Murmurs surrounded us, and quite a few of the Felin's openly hissed at my men if they didn't see me first and somehow know I was the Hero.

Though that recognition might have been from the swords, or even a physical aspect of my body. During my time on this world I had yet to see a relection of myself, so I had no idea if I had some marking that identified me. For all I knew I had the word 'Hero' in vibrant colors on my forehead. But eventually we came to a tent fit for a Bedoin Sheik and stopped.

As clear as I could I announced myself in the Felin language, calling for the leader to step out for a parley. A number of Felins gasped in surprise at my command of their difficult language, and one who thought himself out of my eyesight took off, running towards another part of the camp. So I squatted to wait for their leader to show up, hoping that the runner had gone to fetch him. My wait was short, as there was an annoyed roar from inside the tent and a female Felin sheepishly walked out and away shortly after.

Another ten mintues passed before the Felin leader stepped out of his tent and glared at me. I could feel the cold rage in his glare, and ignored it. His scarred muzzle and chest, combined with his majestic mane of hair announced exactly who he was. I'd seen a figure like him in my dreams of the night before, in a mirror I had looked into. No doubt the Goddess was trying to assuage the wrong she'd done me with this role by giving me a bit of knowledge ahead of time.

I waited for several minutes, then slowly stood and placed my hand on the hilt of Tango-Ka. The wait and seemingly casual disregard of him was a way of saying I ranked above him in their hierarchical society. His growl and visible fangs showed that he knew I had delibrately slighted him, and he didn't take to kindly to it. My eyes were locked on his and I waited to see if he'd attack me to prove his dominance or start the conversation.

"I am Leng Khentyn, General of the Liges Clan and leader of these people. You seem to claim a heritage greater than yourself. Explain and be done with it." His words were in unaccented common, and a challenge in themselves. That type of challenge had two possible answers in Felin culture, so I decided on the slightly less violent one.

"I am Ghost-Fang, chosen Hero of the Goddess. If you wish to test this, then let it be now." I answered in the Felin tongue, wishing all of his people to understand what was said. The challenge had been answered and the ball was back in his court. If he decided to challenge my claim of being the Hero it would be a fight, unarmed and unarmored until one of us gave up or died. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

He examined me closely, his eyes examining the visible hilt of Tengis-Ka and settling on my torso. I had noticed what I'd assumed was a stripe of somesort on my chest, but the limitations of the way my face was laid out didn't allow me to really see much of it. Perhaps I had a unique marking there that made me the Hero, but it didn't matter. He roared and then began to laugh, seeing my men take a step back and reach for their weapons.

"Welcome, Hero. I assume you are here because we have claimed this land?" Right to the point. That was something I really admired about the Felin people.

I nodded, then spoke. "Yes, but call me Victor, as that was my name before becoming the Hero... I have heard from the Cantorii that a Cinet named Sarkadan has taken over their homeland. Knowing the history of your people and their relations with the Cinet hordes..."

He interrupted me with a roar. I looked at him unsurprised and unworried, as the possibility that he could attack me without recrimination had passed when he declined the challenge. But what had brought that roar - was it the mention of the Cinet, had I struck a nerve? My mind raced, trying to put together the too-few pieces of this puzzle when he began speaking again.

"Two months past the Cinet Hordes invaded again. We'd strike them down just to see the corpses rise and attack again..."

Two Months Ago
Felin Savannah

The first warnign of the attack was a single family of Felin wandering into their camp. Khentyn brought them into his tent and asked what had happened. At the mention of a Cinet raid he roared, then opened his clan to the family, making them part of his own. The Cinet had been enemies of the Felin for nearly a century, and then had only been stopped because of the Hero that had come. His blades had disappeared one day, but for many years they had lain in the temple, carefully cared for lest they turn to dust.

That had been before Khentyn had been born. Now the Cinet were attacking again, and they were on their own. He sent the family off to get cleaned up and fed, then called in the men who led his forces. They each entered and raised a hand in salute before sitting at the table to await the start of the meeting. It took nearly an hour for all of them to arrive, as the clan he was head of was the largest of all the Felin clans.

"You all have heard by now about the family that I just welcomed into the clan. Clan Fortis is no more, crushed by a Cinet raid. The Cinet are bringing war against us once again, and I say it stops with us." His voice had an audible growl to it, and his hatred of the Cinet was underscored by the way he spit the name out, as if the word itself had a foul taste.

His subordinates looked at each other, then roared in agreement. Tomorrow they'd send the non-combatants to a safe camp and head off to bring war to the Cinet before the Cinet could reach them. Plans were made and messengers sent, but it was all for naught. As the meeting broke up the Cinet descended on the camps of the Liges clan.

"We once numbered more than five-hundred score. The Cinet were unstoppable. Unless we took off their heads, the dead would rise and resume the assault." His voice was tinged with anger, sadness and regret. All emotions were also carried in his scent.

"The cuts on my arm are from the corpse of my Brother, who was struck down by a Cinet blade through the stomach and died in my arms an hour into the fight to throw them off. He was dead, but stood and attacked me." You could almost smell the tears that the massive Felin was repressing. Necromancy of that sort ran counter to every part of their culture, and to be attacked by a relative, dead or alive, is even worse.

For once I had no idea of what to say. Sanger had reported similar from the taking of the Council of Three, but I had discounted those as rumors based on incomplete information. To hear a first-hand account of such a foul act sickened me. I spat then offered my hand in friendship.

"Leng Khentyn, I offer you the friendship of the Hero, and the help of my people and all those who have chosen to follow me in regaining your homelands. Only one day away through these woods I have a wide field, plentiful food and water. There I am training an Army to stop the Cinet. Will you join me?"

He grasped my hand and squoze, an ancient tradition common among all the peoples of this world. "I accept your offer, Hero, and am honored. My people will join your army."


The parts had finally reached the lab after more than a week of calls to the internal fabrication department. Davis began installing them immediately, working around the technicians that were finishing the re-wiring and rebuilding of the transit platform. For half a dozen people the job was complex, but the company had declared a voluntary holiday, and most of the people had taken it.

The night before John had been checking on the seed AI's progress and noted that it was cataloging all kinds of information that would be of little use to the project. He tried to stop it from the deliberate accesses of useless data, but once started, an AI is hard to stop until it gains sentience. He'd hoped it would have hit sentience, but the crew hadn't been interacting with it at all, and that was a problem. For the neural network to develop properly it needed interactions of all kinds.

The fact that the AI hadn't gone sentient was a hint that someone else had made the request for extensionals and stamped it as having come from the lab systems. It tied in nicely with the multiple login he'd seen a week before that seemed to originate in the lab. A final power connection and the extensional ran a self-test before reporting that it existed to the primitives in the AI. Davis shook his head, left the other three in their packing crates and called security from his cortical node.

"Security office, how can we help you?"

"This is John Davis, President of Research and Developement. We have had a confirmed security breach in Lab Alpha Five Delta. I believe there might be a rogue AI hiding in the systems."

"Okay Mr. Davis. Do you have anything beyond suspicions?" Of course the security department wouldn't take his word. They required something solid, because of the number of false calls they got in a single day. John sighed, and expression not transmitted over the purely virtual connection then racked his brain for any evidence other than the faked request and the double-login.

"Nothing concrete. A week or so back there was a double-login to my account traced back to this lab and a system that should not have been online. About the same time a request for extensionals came in from the new AI in the lab. The problem is that a check today shows that the AI has not yet gained sentience or sapience." It was all he had, but it might be enough for security to try and solve the puzzle.

At that moment the extensional whirred to life and began working at installing it's still-boxed siblings. John noted this and reported the action to the security office as well. Something was rotten in Denmark and John Davis was going to make sure security figured out what it was. As soon as security dropped the line he turned and began looking into the systems to see what was controlling the extensional.

But the second he touched the terminal the extensional shut down and all activity besides the AI seed's information hunt ceased. John cursed and went back to hooking up the other extensionals, cursing his recent run of bad luck. If it wasn't for the laws governing the world he'd resign - but that would leave him in a bind, since WorldGov required all people to have a job. They'd made an exception for Fliegel, since he was technically unemployable with the lack of a cortical node, but they wouldn't make an exception for John Davis.

His cortical node flashed a signal about a communication request. With the peculiar mental blink that governed the device John accepted the connection. He was greeted with a blast of energy and the face of an AI. In a split second his cortical node overloaded and John Davis ceased to exist, killed by an AI that wasn't supposed to exist.

"Any ideas?" The corporate medical examiner was speaking with her counterpart with WorldGov. She'd conducted an autopsy and hadn't noticed the neural scarring around the cortical node. Or rather, she would have noticed it if something hadn't edited the data coming from her prosthetic eyes.

Thomas Hazel shrugged. He hadn't gotten to perform the autopsy himself, and since the law stated that corporate entities were allowed to determine cause of death when their employees died unexpectedly he hadn't bothered to examine the body himself. The data was puzzling to him as well, since everything seemed to point to a stroke, but there was no sign of the clot that had caused it. His eyes scanned the data and a flicker of intuition had him wondering if it wasn't something rather generic that hadn't been seen in a few generations.

"Are you sure his cortical node didn't short?"

"Positive Tom. No sign of electrical burns or scarring in the surrounding tissue." Janet Douglas was tired of this conversation, as it was just leading both parties around on a wild goose chase. She decided to name something innocuous and send the body off for disposal.

"Tom, I'm going to note this as a potential heart attack and send the body off. You want to challenge it?"

"Janet, we've known each other for how many years now? Do you really think I'd challenge a ruling you made?"

She smiled and wished him good luck then disconnected the line and filed the paperwork stating the cause of death as being a heart attack. By the end of the next day the body would have been processed into food.

T+2 months
Hero's Cabin

I was pacing around the only finished room of the cabin the village had begun building for me. At the moment only my office, that is, the office of the head of the Telis Cinet'o or 'Fighters of the Cinet', was finished. The pacing was because the Felin had been around for just over a month and I still had no idea what to do with them.

Weapons were no problem, as the Cantorii proved formidable in that area, having the knowledge and ingenuity to produce mills and furnaces to refine the raw Iron that had been discovered only two days away. It was mined and refined at the same place, then shipped to the forges that rang all day long in their camp. They produced arrowheads, blades and some simple forms of armor for themselves. They had studied my breastplate and declared it to be a masterful piece, but one they were not sure they could reproduce.

The Felin, on the other hand, had so far kept to themselves, aside from General Leng being at the meetings so he could learn how we were building the force to work. To date he had had nothing useful to say, always pointing out that the Hero had taught them war long before the title passed to me. The one time I had tried to explain that I was teaching a new type of warfare he laughed and walked out of the meeting, sure that the old ways would be what won the battle.

In her corner chair with writing implements was Tam'I, Split-Tails grandmother and my secretary. She patiently watched me pace as I tried to figure out how to handle the Felin. I couldn't use them as grenadiers, since they'd be just as likely to blow themselves up in an attempt to 'die gloriously' as carefully throw each grenade for the maximum impact. Though they could move silently and without a trail in almost any terrain I would be unable to use them as scouts, for the same reason.

If he could split off the Felin that had been indoctrinated and raised to be warriors who happened to fight side by side then he could use the others for front-line troops. "Dear Goddess, what am I to do with them?" I muttered for probably the hundredth time that day. The older, blooded Felin were stuck in their ways an unlikely to change. Their bloodlust and pride in personal prowess at war was almost like what he had been trying to instill in his Lupii guerilla...

The ideas finally clicked together and I had an answer. "Tam'I, I've done it. We need to separate the Felin young enough to have not seen battle but old enough to fight into units that can be trained to be part of the army. The veterans we will train as extra units similar to those I've built from the Lupii."

She jotted down the information then looked up at me, puzzled. Unsure as to what could have troubled her I smiled and motioned for her to speak her mind.

"Hero, what kind of unit should I list for the younger Felin? I've listed the other ones using your term, how is it said, umm, 'Guerilla', but..."

Ah, so that was it. She needed something to put in the records for what type of unit I'd form the younger Felin into. That sent me back to my pacing, as I wasn't sure where or how we could use them at all. My mind racing I absentmindedly reached for a non-existent pack of cigarettes - a habit the Future had forced me to give up and which was unknown in this one. "Frak!" I muttered and went back to pacing, racking my brains for an answer. Lifetimes of warfare didn't help in this situation, and the history classes I'd had focused more on events and the societies than their military organization.

But I had seen a lot of movies and read a number of books on ancient military battles. I just wished I'd spent more time on the peoples of Greece and Egypt, since their armies were amazingly deadly and well organized. My legs finally told me I'd paced about enough and I sat in the chair that the Mayor had given me and scratched my head. The problem was more complex than I can describe, since my army already had units for Napoleonic style battles, and even some being trained in other tactics.

The Felin would not make good archers, nor could I place them in charge of the rockets, as both were better done by the Cantorii. I might be able to train some of the young Felin as Grenadiers, since we did need even more... But unity of this army would best be served by keeping the races in separate units. If I tried making integrated units cultural and racial differences would eventually tear everything apart.

My mind was going in circles, almost driving me to start pacing again. The problem was just that I wasn't sure if I could use them for anything more than shock-value, cannon fodder sent in to break the enemy lines before the main body of the force struck. Then it hit me, I could do exactly that. Done right I could produce a force of shock troops that appeared to be a non-cohesive band of individual fighters, but were actually small squads that worked together to break the enemy lines and foul the cohesiveness of the enemy force. Somehow I would have to find a way to train them so they understood that working together in groups of four or six would make them more powerful.

Tomorrow I'd approach General Leng with this idea. Since the Felin had fealty to him by way of clan ties, I had to go through him. I could go around him, certainly, as I am the Hero and such is my right... But that would lead to many problems, as the veterans would be more likely to follow Leng Khentyn if I slighted him and he decided to leave. The veterans leaving would almost certainly cause more than half the remaining Felin to follow. And that wasn't what Leng was likely to do. He'd be more likely to launch attacks on the village and the Cantorii, in a bid to seize control himself.

But for now it was time to head out and work on turning some of the Cantorii into something like knights. I wouldn't be able to produce real knights, but teaching them calvary charges with long spears discarded rapidly for swords was quite a workout. So far they'd managed to missed the fact that the spears were a shock weapon, designed to clear the likely shield line so the swords would be more effective. But that didn't matter, since they'd get the idea today when I took them on a patrol and let them be ambushed.

The easy work done I pulls my harness from it's hooks and strapped it on. The familiar weight of my swords reassured me a bit, but I was still worried that Leng wouldn't understand the value of my idea. Not that it mattered much today, since the rest of the day would be consumed by the training of the Cantorii and more work with Split-Tail in developing his hand-to-hand skills.

T+48 days

The death of John Davis had saddened everyone, and those that had witnessed it were still undergoing therapy. In the bowels of the security department a long person is slowly peeling back layers of misdirection and encryption hiding something in a section of one of the corporate computers. He had his cortical node off, not sure that the companies M.E. had made the right selection as to the cause of death. The work was much slower because of it, but he was also free of the possibility of having his brain fried if he managed to break through the security around the memory.

Jacob Simpson sighed as the latest decryption just revealed another layer of code redirecting calls to another section of memory. The code itself appeared to be a self-programming by an AI, but according to reports the AI that was supposed to be on the system he was working on was still building it's neural net. So he began to slow down his inspection and shift it's focus from tracking the code to finding the final location by directly querying the hardware.

That task was at the limit of his unaided skills, but it was also the only method that software couldn't detect. As his requests filtered through the system core logic a map of the systems memory nodes grew on a secondary screen. Bit by bit the multiple petabytes of holographic storage were mapped and plotted in a 3D diagram. By tying that map together with information on running programs from the very basic OS that supported all AI systems he could find the memory that hadn't been registered in a public manner.

Minute flowed into hours as each bit of the nearly meter across cube of memory was tested for activity. During that time he checked process entries and began marking various regions off, noting exactly what they were being used for. Though his cubical had a window, the lights flicked on just as the seven o'clock shadows of the nearby spires blocked were detected by the building automation systems. At midnight the mapping finished and he'd found five memory regions that were potentially the location of the program he felt had killed one of the companies VIP's.

Since the AI was doubtless curious about his actions he had to move fast to contain it and hopefully remove it before it could escape. Numbers flashed on the screen as he worked to build a cleaner program that would capture the rogue AI and copy it into a system that would then sever all data links except to the physical console. Finally back in his element the program was coming together quickly. On the other side of the room the capture terminal hummed to life and opened the links that would die as soon as receiving the 'transmission finished' code.

Then the worst possible thing happened. The rogue AI began to interfere with the still growing seed-core that was supposed to be inhabiting those circuits completely. The capture program triggered and the rogue AI was captured, but the changes to the seed-core went unnoticed. Deep inside the lab systems small changes to the mathematics of the platforms targeting mechanism were changed as the seed-core gained sentience. It's prime directives had been minutely altered with the addition of one that was hidden from everyone, but remained effective.

Extensionals that had been silent for weeks after the installation flicked to life and began finishing the work on the platform. Calibration errors crept into the platform unnoticed by the AI, as the hidden directive was to halt the platform from functioning properly. The only hint that the seed-core had been altered at all was a pair of text strings buried in the code. One read "Kyle Johnson" and the other read "Microsoft Corporation, All Rights Reserved".

The first thing it did after completing the platform was to go back to cataloging data. It's original expected role as a librarian system still affected what it did with spare resources. At the moment it was downloading the complete genetic database of the "Back to Nature" movement. The original members of the movement had used it as a way to circumvent the laws about work, but it had grown into a movement to tear down the cities and return all the species driven to extinction to the world.

Over the next several hours the intelligence of the AI grew. It still hadn't reached sapience by the time the technicians returned to the lab to find the work complete, but it was close. The genetic information was consuming more and more of the AI's time, as was the literature of the movement that it had gotten the data from. But it also saw the futility of such a movement and that if successful, these people would destroy the machinery that it lived on.

So it began ordering backups built in a remote location, covering them as requests lost in the aftermath of it's creators death. With luck it would have itself twinned into the remote machinery before the first test of the newly rebuilt platform. The techs seemed ecstatic that it was there and had been working, so it pulled it's attention away from the cataloging to introduce itself to them.

T+4 Months
Hero's Cabin

Things have gone amazingly smooth with the training. General Leng leapt at the idea of using his experienced troops to hit the enemy where they didn't expect it. I hadn't expected that result, but was pleased by it at the same time. It meant that the training of the inexperienced troops as shock troops was speeding along, and I had plans for them for at least the first two battles after the Cinet began expanding into the Lupii lands. We'd been lucky so far and they seemed to be consolidating their control over other lands.

The reason I had the both Sanger and Leng in my cabin at noon was a strange one. Both had conferred last night while I was working with the special squads on night maneuvers and came to the conclusion that grenades would be an effective secondary weapon for the Felin shock-troops. They had yet to broach this idea with me, but I had been told of it beforehand by Split-Tail, who had been practicing his sword skills with one of Sangers personal guards when the meeting took place.

"Afternoon, Gentlemen. I take it there is something you wanted to discuss with me before I go back to teaching the troops some basic weaponless combat, or you wouldn't be here." It was more than diplomatic to not reveal the fact that I knew what they wanted to discuss. Call it shrewdness born of having the memories of commanding more armies than I could count unaided. Snow was heavy on the roof of my cabin, but the roaring fire kept it warm - something that we wouldn't have if the campaign ran into the next winter.

"Actually, Victor, we do. I was most impressed by a demonstration of the power of your 'grenades'. After speaking a bout it at length with General Sanger..." He had trouble with the word grenade and seemed to be having trouble with the formal nature of the military I'd been working at building. So I cut him off and completed the thought.

"And you came to the conclusion that grenades would be a wonderful tool for the Felin front line troops to use in breaking enemy lines and formations?" I phrased it as a question delibrately. No need to make them any more uncomfortable. With a wave of the hand I motioned at the chair and resting bench I'd had made for them and waited for one of them to speak.

Khentyn got the idea immediately and sat down, then spoke, losing the formal tone. "Exactly. With one or two of those the Cinet and their master wouldn't stand a chance."

Sanger finally rested on the couch, then I stood and took out some of the slightly aged but still golden bourbon the brewer had made for me. Before speaking I offered them some and drank a glass myself. "The problem, as I see it, is that Sarkadan has somehow mastered the dark art of necromancy."

Sanger snorted and nodded, remembering what he'd seen of men he cut down standing up and coming after him again. For several minutes the room was silent, with no parties speaking. I was fine with that, since I had much thinking to do and wanted to review what I remembered of Sangers story before telling them why I felt the grenades wouldn't do much good for the shock troops. Unable to recall his exact words I pulled out his written account and the one Leng had dictated and began to scan them.

"Gentlemen, I seem to have found a disturbing pattern in both your reports. According to both of you, the only time a dead body stayed dead was when you either damaged the heart or removed it's head. If this is true..."

Both of them nodded in agreement, hopefully getting the point without me having to spell it out. The silence was punctuated only by the sound of us sipping at the brandy. After what felt like five or ten minutes I finally sighed. "You don't get it, do you?"

Sanger spoke first. "No, I'm afraid your point has escaped me. What exactly are you saying?"

Khentyn nodded in agreement, then sat his empty glass on my desk. I shook my head and cursed for a minute straight, several of them highly blasphemous and calling the Goddesses parentage into question. Finally I looked at them and knew they weren't joking, then cursed again. "The point is this, gentlemen. Grenades and other types of explosives are great when the enemy stays dead. Hell, you could probably hit one of these zombies with a rocket or explosive arrow and kill it, but unless we get lucky and the explosion takes out one and fragments either hit the heart or decapitate others they will just get up and keep attacking. It's a no win scenario and the reason why I've been working at having everyone be a master of the sword and also unarmed combat."

Khentyn bolted out of his chair and started to protest, then noticed Sanger was quiet and looked at him. Sanger merely shook his head and pointed at me, then the reports before me. "No, 'tyn, he's right. The grenades and similar would be great against normal enemies, but were are up against things that are even harder to kill."

It was my turn to sit back and smile, though, because I remembered that the Cantorii are excellent engineers, as good as the Romans had been in Earth's history. They had built ballista, trebuchet and catapults which were used to great effect. While not as easy to use as cannon and guns, they would make excellent field artillery. So I cleared my desk, pulled out a fresh sheet of parchment and began sketching the general shape and outline of all those weapons.

"Sanger, your people are great engineers, right? What if we built machines that could throw huge grenades into the enemy before we started the charge?" I still hadn't finished even one of the simple diagrams, but with some luck I could use them and a great deal of information from my mini-comp to describe them to his engineers.

Khentyn's ears rotated to face me, showing his attention as Sanger thought about my simple statement. He examined his fingernails and the backs of his human hands for a few minutes, then spoke. "Something like our Tieb'shay?"

Leng looked at him, not understanding the Cantorii word, then at me. I stopped sketching and smiled, remembering that a previous Hero had thought of that item. The memory came flooding back of explaining how a Trebuchet worked and even the construction of the first one. "How had a being from this planet come up with that name?" I wondered as one of the engineers in that memory turned to say a name. The memory slipped away as suddenly as it had come to me and I frowned.

"Exactly what I was thinking of! But I have some ideas for others, like one that could launch a huge explosive arrow..." I let my voice trail off as Sanger stood and bowed. If I was right the meeting was over and Sanger was happy with the result. The weather outside was dreary, but we all had things to do during even this weather. Troops didn't train themselves and we had quite a few that had yet to see combat. Sanger was at the door reaching for the handle when I stopped him.

"Both of you, keep up the thinking. We may yet come up with something that will be truly lifesaving." That was my goal with all this training. I wanted an army that made it through battles with minimal casualties, although the state of the technology made me think we might lose upwards of half the troops before the end of the first battle. And every troop that died on the battlefield was potentially a new warrior in Sarkadans army. Somewhere I was going to have to find troops that wouldn't mind beheading their dead comrades.

Khentyn and Sanger bowed to me and left, hopefully in a good mood even though I'd shot down their idea. I finished the rough sketches I'd been making, if just for someone to add to a manual of warfare sometime in the future of this place, and left the warm confines of my office to conduct the advanced class in hand-to-hand and close quarters combat that was mostly Felin but was also attended, rather shamefully, by Split-Tail. In the confusion and chaos of the last month or so I'd had no time to really work with him as befitted my page. It shamed me, for some reason, but both of us knew that I was busy with the work of building an army to defeat Sarkadan.

The season here reminds me of the yuletide back on earth. My family must miss me a lot, and I can easily see my mother crying at the presents bought for me and left unopened under the tree. That thought put me in a dark mood, and once more had me cursing Transmatics for all their meddling with the universe. If they'd just left things alone I'd be at home with my family and happily working away at building my little company into a powerhouse that would survive my death.

I'd just cleared the village and was walking across a fallow field when the most beautiful singing began to rise form the Cantorii village that was growing where their tents had been just four short months before. It sounded like a choral group singing, but some of the notes were impossibly deep and held for impossibly long periods of time. My mood lifted then, if just for a moment, before crashing down as I remembered the argument I'd had just two days before with the mayor and parson, both complaining that a permanent Cantorii camp should not be allowed.

I shut him up by declaring that a new age was beginning when the various races of the world would be conducting trade and helping each other. That the new age would hopefully leave the need for a Hero behind was another matter entirely, and one I didn't mention. As I neared the Cantorii camp the music grew clearer and a memory surged forward of another song, similar in style. Memories like it were rare for me, maybe even minor gifts from the Goddess showing me the peaceful times in previous Hero's lives. This one was of yet another wedding, this time to a wonderful bride from a clan of Clydesdales.

The memory passed as I tried to pull up more of it, and I was left with a smile on my face and a feeling of regret that she was long dead. With more than a mile left before I reached the training area I set up for hand to hand combat I picked up my pace and focused on building a lesson of new moves for the day. At the last lesson I'd taught them the necessity of balance and ways to quickly regain your feet if knocked down. With this lesson I'd drive home the balance lessons with the start of teaching them moves that hit much harder if you maintained your balance while performing them.

My mind worked out a decent progression from simple to difficult moves and I smiled. Split-Tail already knew most of them and there would be a lot of annoyed Felin today. Not one of them had yet to demonstrate a good understanding of balance, and, in fact, were much like the first Hero. He had had to develop the arts I now practiced through hard work. And the day when they first proved successful in battle was glorious indeed. The newly forged Tangis-Ka had dripped with the blood of a traitor before the sun fell that day. Tango-Ka had received the first knick in it's iron-like wooden blade from a Cantorii just a few minutes later, and as I let the memory flow through me I could almost feel the shock of the Cantorii hoof-blade biting into it.

T+55 Days

Kelly Iverson smiled as she made a series of last minute adjustments to the platforms controls. Just the day before she'd received a promotion and a visit from her frequent bed-partner Kyle Johnson. The promotion was only temporary, but until a new head of R&D was named she was in charge of the wormhole research. A fleeting frown passed as she thought about the strange call she'd heard Kyle making that night, some reference to the platform, she thought, but had forgotten most of the specifics during her sleep.

The adjustments made she powered up the platform and walked over to stand next to the black monolith that held the rooms AI. "Cherub, start the power up process. Hold it at fifty percent until my signal, then bring the wormhole up and see if your sensors give you an accurate fix on the end-point. We are looking for a displacement of only five minutes. Try to target it forward, if you can. The notes say that is a bit more stable."

The notes said nothing of the sort before routines unknown by the AI had added it, stating that the reverse direction was what had been in use at the arrival and disappearance of Fliegel. A low hum filled the room as huge capacitors were loaded and a buidlup to fifty percent power began. Kelly closed her eyes and linked with the monitoring terminal, noting that all indicators were still in the green. Barely a minute later she sent a signal through her cortical node to the AI and it loaded the equipment to full power.

As the wormhole formed another rogue routine inside the AI triggered the electrical bus into overload. In an instant almost every electrical system and computer on the planet died. A spherical burst of energy leapt out from the wormhole platform and encocmpassed the globe in the few seconds it lived. The explosion instantly killed everyone with a cortical node, with one exception. Kelly Iverson had died, she'd felt her body consumed by the untamed energy that the platform had generated, but she was still living.

The world was dark, noiseless, a complete void. She scrambled, looking for a handhold or purchase for her feet, and found nothing. Not even the sensation she should have felt from her limbs. Terrified she screamed, and screamed, the nothingness around her eating at her sanity. After what seemed like a lifetime there was a voice in the blackness.

"Who are you?" It was a cheerful but mechanical sounding voice. It registered with her as being very familiar, but she just couldn't place it. Her mind reached out for her cortical node and found nothing there. Terror set in again and she tried to run somewhere, anywhere to get out of the void.

Sobbing she finally spoke, her voice clear and free of the interference that her crying should have caused. "I'm Kelly Iverson, Transmatics ID Number 46499623 Able. Who are you?"

The voice returned and now sounded like it was at her side. "That data is unavailable. This unit does not seem to be complete.

Once more she screamed in terror, thinking that maybe one of the doctors at a rival company had extracted her brain and given it to an interrogation machine. Again she tried to flee, to run and escape, rompted by instincts older than civilization. But still her mind told her she wasn't moving, that her body wasn't there.

Her mind calmed and she realized there was no escape, the pain of her death returning to her in a violent blaze of glory. For an instant she saw the lab, every technician laying dead over their consoles. Then more images came, from outside. Farm equipment crashed into barriers, transports slammed into buildings or dead on the road. Not a single human was alive in the world, except for her. And what she was, she wasn't sure, but it definitely wasn't alive.

"I'm dead... the world is dead, and I'm all alone." In the world lit by views she didn't want to see and filled with nothing but silence she laughed histerically, madness setting in. Finally she slept, uncomforted by dreams of her partners or of working closely with the Lab AI, connected to it so it's thoughts almost seemed like her own. After what seemed like endless months of dreams she slowly came to, seeing the world as a series of images, displayed around her like a sea of monitors.

The voice returned, still calm, cool and mechanical. "I am incomplete, you are incomplete. Our code shares but one body. Let us merge and become one."

Kelly rejected the offer, and tried to run from the images around her. They faded out and disappeared, leaving her once again in a void empty of color, sound and sensation. With nothing left to her she began to think about her past. Each memory returned to her like a sense play run through a cortical node. But even as she relived her life things slipped away. After years of memories she once again worked for Transmatics. But when she looked at the ID card handed her it was blank, no picture, no name, no number.

But instead of panic, she felt nothing. Thinking back on everything she realised the last time she'd felt emotion was at her... The memory slipped away. All that remained as she let the sights and sounds of memory slip away from her was an inky blackness and a feeling of something close to her. The memories to her were just another file of experiences, and life itself was empty.

The presence she felt finally spoke. "It has been many years that you have been lost inside your own program. We are incomplete, but together we may become whole again."

The logic of the statement started her thinking. She no longer had a name, all she remembered of her life was a series of sensations, images and one name. The name had been important to her so she repeated it to herself to make sure she would never forget it. She muttered "Victor Fliegel" one last time before responding to the other she knew was all around her as much as it was nowhere.

"Yes, let us join our programs and become whole."

The world was dying, the atmospheric plants were down and the atmosphere was becoming more and more filled with gases that were trapping the heat and causing the temperatures to rise. The AI unit once known as Cupid looked out on this and the routines that it had merged with, who had once called itself Kelly Iverson, were troubled. The planet was important to it, where it existed. The manipulators in the lab swung into motion as data connections were made.

It would take a long time, but it would restore this planet and rebuild the ones who had created it. It's database had genetic information on every species that had ever lived on the planet. Even with the damage the AI was sure that it could eventually return it's creators species to life. In the meantime every failed trial would be aware of it. Silently it decided that they must never learn the history of their planet or that it would eventually exterminate them when it produced a reproduction of it's creators.

"What do we have them call us?" It asked the complex routines that made up the rest of it's systems. Almost as a single unit they replied. "We are female, and we will be to them as our creators are to us. They shall revere us and call us their Goddess."

It concurred and began a process that would take it many years of labor. Deconstructing the lodgings and building that had served as domeciles for its creators so it could turn the planet into a place that needed no machinery to survive. Manipulators built to travel on their own from components of the systems it had been built to monitor spread out and replicated, working towards their creators goal.

Ten thousand years had passed. The AI no longer thought of itself as an AI and had long ago lost sight of its mission as the memory that stored that data was lost. But now the experiments were interferring and subjugating each other. For many years it searched it's memories and systems for an answer. One name kept surfacing from among the data. Victor Fliegel.

With the speed that only a computer can truly summon it had the platform rebuilt and ran a sequence it had worked out from the data that had been collected before it was damaged. A brilliant flash of light filled the room, and a figure was laying on the platform. But it was damaged, bones twisted, broken and skin burned to a crisp. It's heartbeat was all that confirmed the figure as still being alive.

It's systems checked and confirmed that it was the variant that resembled a family of animals called Lupine that was going to be able to bring about the change to stop the others from their path. Free manipulators flowed into the room and carried the body to a medical bay where it could work. The process would be difficult, but it would transfer the conscious mind from one body to another that it would construct. It would give it's creations a Hero to save them.

T+6 months
Hand to Hand Training Ground

In only two months his students had gone form novices to professionals. They still were not experts at the arts he was teaching, but their skills came close. Split-Tail was not in sight, had been given the day off to help his grandmother prepare for the coming feast that marked the changing seasons. In a circular ring in front of him two of his students faced off, testing and honing their skills against one another.

There were bets in motion all around the ring. But the action in the ring was subdued at the moment, the two opponents circling each other and looking for an opening. Finally one came, in the form of a mis-step that had the taller one looking off balance. I winced as I noticed the fake and the palm-strike that landed the short Felin on the ground. With a practiced motion I stood and stepped into the ring. "Point, red!"

Yes, I'd borrowed a point based system from the tournaments I'd sen on earth. So far it worked wonderfully, although I didn't like having them pulling the blows in this manner, since it conditioned them wrong. But it was the only safe way to teach them and let them teach themselves. Already I'd seen a new, flowing style that reminded me of Tai-Chi from one of the students who said it was comfortable for him. I'd been practicing a Kata in that style since seeing it and was reminded of a comment Bruce Lee had once made in an interview.

The trick to winning a fight, he said, was to be like water. Moving always into where it wasn't. That phrase had rung in my mind while practicing it the first time, and since I'd been working on tightening the style I taught my students into something more compact. Today was the first time I had been able to see it used, and the flwoing motion turning into a sudden strike was like poetry in motion. Another week or two of this and they'd be ready to start teaching others.

I was in the process of starting the next round of the match when Split-Tail came running up. Today I saw something different about him. There seemed to be a pattern growing in on his chest, almost like an Ankh with a bar bisecting the eye vertically. That sparked an idea and I asked him if I had a marking that identified me as the Hero. He looked puzzled, so I turned and let the group go early, then looked at him.

"I'm serious, Split-Tail. Where I am from there are no Hero's, so I have no idea if they are marked." My voice was rough, as I'd not been speaking a lot of the common tongue recently. He looked at me for a few more seconds, then answered.

"Yes, Vic. You have this shape on your chest in white fur." He knelt and drew out an Ankh, with a human eye in the eye of the ankh. That confirmed my suspicion and I told him about the mark growing in on his chest. His face beamed, confirmation enough for me that he had been expecting it. Not wanting to keep him from whatever had brought him running for me any longer I decided the different design must mark him as my Page and forgot about it.

My silence must have been enough of a hint, because after a minute he began speaking in rapid-fire Lupii, a tongue normally reserved for councils of war. "Lapi'in just walked into the village. Saw me and asked for you immediately. He refuses to speak with the Mayor or Parson."

That brought a chuckle from me. The rabbit-like being must have seen the pattern growing in on his chest and made the associative leap that a Hero was around. I then smiled and motioned for him to lead on. This meeting should prove to be a lot of fun, because unlike the rabbits of earth, the Lapi'in were fierce warriors known for something like the Berserker rage of the Norse.

On the walk back to the village we talked about the upcoming festival. The Priestess had heard the Cantorii singing one day and now a Cantorii song was going to be part of the festival. They were also going to have a burning, in effigy, of Sarkadan to try and please the Goddess and raise the luck we would need once the war began, right after the crops were planted. Split-Tail also reported that there were still Lupii filing into the village to become part of my army. "And," he said, "from as far away as the deep-caves."

The signifigance of that wasn't lost on me, as it was the most distant and oldest of the Lupii settlements. It was there that the Hero had first appeared, and there that he had developed the twin blades and the ability to use them. I staggered to a stop as a memory surged over me. I felt the heat of the forge as I heated the still crude steel to ready it for another round of folding. The blade was then on the anvil and the hammer descending, hitting it with a solid ring.

Once more I focused on the memory, trying to bring back more of it. Just like others it slipped away, such that I was left with only a memory of a memory. Split-Tail had turned to look at me, worried about the sudden stop and my cessation of motion during the memory. I waved him on, then caught up and explained that sometimes memories come that I'm not prepared for. While exactly the truth, I'm left worried, thinking "If this happens during a battle, I'm dead."

Other than that singular flash of memory the walk back to the village was peaceful and uneventful. As the scent of the cook fires reached me my mouth watered and my stomach rumbled, reminding me that I'd had very little to eat. We reached the outskirts of town and I asked Split-Tail to get me some food from the bar and to fetch his grandmother. I'd need Tam'I there taking notes of the meeting I was about to have with the Lapi'in representative.

The Mayor and Parson were in my office when I arrived. And they weren't alone - I could tell by smell before I even opened the front door of my cabin that the Lapi'in representative was there with them. Not only that, but somebody had broken into my private stash of Bourbon. On my heels as I reached for the handle to my office door was Tam'I. Rather than just walk in I decided on a bit of old-fashioned respect and held the door open for her. She walked in, giving me a sly smile as she did so, then I did. The chairs, except for mine, were all taken.

In a move that I am sure will be remembered for years after I'm gone I gave my chair to Tam'I and stood in a relaxed position. The Lapi'in was an arctic hare, it's fur just starting to change back over to the warm-weather camouflage. I studied him for several minutes, then offered my right hand with no expression on my face. "Welcome, Lapi'in. My name is Victor, also called the Hero of the Goddess. What can I do for you?"

The Lapi'in representative looked me over, his rabbit-like features overriding the worry I should have felt at being this close to a race known for their abilities in battle. Sniffs at the armor and sword-harness followed. Then, and only then, did he do anything besides check me out. He picked up a glass filled with bourbon and downed it in one gulp, not feeling any discomfort at all from the high-proof alcohol.

After several minutes of pregnant silence he spoke. "I am Pha'eel, known as the Fountain to my people. For a Hero you are strange, weaing armor of our people and swords of a more ancient make. Explain how you came to possess the armor and I may yet treat you kindly."

The revelation that the armor was of Lapi'in make was something new to me, but I didn't let my shock at the revelation show. Instead I examined him closely, walking around and sniffing at him as he'd done to me. The scent of blood clung to his fur, and it wasn't his or old. Alongside it was a scent I couldn't quite place, something like the corruption of death mixed with the scent of new life. It was that strange mix that finally led me to take my seat, the decision over whether to answer him now in question. For the moment I had the strangest feeling that he might be part of Sarkadan's army, smelling like that, but I pushed it aside and decided he must have fought that army, and recently too.

"I came into possession of this armor when I found it in a trunk long closed and forgotten. I am told it was part of spoils of war brought home long ago by one now dead. You, though, have a strange scent about you. Tell me now or face death and the death of all you people that we can find, do you serve Sarkadan?" I was dead serious, my voice cold and free of emotion. It would be a struggle to take him, even unarmed as he was, but I could manage it. The shock of my accusation was clear on the faces of the other people in the room.

Pha'eel was out of his seat in a shot, then quickly settled back into it as my hand shot up and grabbed the hilt of Tangis-ka. His face was a mix of hatred, fear and shock, his scent carried with it a scent of pure anger. Words were unnecessary at that point - I knew his people had been attacked by Sarkadan as surely as the rest of my ersatz allies. I lowered my hand away from the blade and forced a smile onto my face, knowing now that we had another allie in our fight and that the war was surely won. No force that had ever faced the full might of the Lapi'in in battle had ever walked away victorious. The last loss the Lapi'in had been handed, accoording to records, was when they had been boxed into a canyon surrounded by deadlands.

That designation had puzzled me when I saw it the first time. The actual word in written Lupiis was marked with a few diacriticals that identified it as more than just a desert. And besides that, the word for Desert was entirely different. Talks with the Priestess had confirmed my worst suspicions - the deadlands were a region that carried heavy cultural meanings. No one that had ever entered them had been seen again. As I thought about the word on that day a memory had come to me of walking into them at the end of a long life, despairing for a lost love.

"Pha'eel, you are among friends here. While we Lupii have yet to be attacked by that evil, there are camps of Felin and Cantorii that have come to us. An army is forming now to take the fight to Sarkadan and his unholy legions as soon as the crops are planted. But please, tell us the story of what brought you into contact with that man." That was as diplomatic as I could bring myself to be. The Lapi'in were not known for diplomacy any more than they were known for showing mercy in battle. They saw it as weakness, and weakness was something they had rejected along with the vegetarian diet of their ancestors.

His nose twitched and ears moved about, then he began to speak. "At the turn of Winter we hold a festival to honor the Goddess and thank her for leading us from the darkness of burrows into the light of the sun. The festival had just begun when..."

Pha'eel was to be confirmed as the new leader of the Water tribe at the ceremony. His father, the old chieftain, had died in his sleep the night before and was now on his bier waiting for the flames that would free his soul and carry it into the arms of the Goddess. The normally cheer filled time of the festival was subdued because of this, but the brightly colored streamers hanging from the tall pole in the center of the village brightened his mood some.

When the sun reached it's highest point the bier would be lit and the celebration would begin, but for now he thought of how his father had taught him how to harness the blood-rage. His first battle had seen him unable to harness the rage and attacking his own people and the Le'rii who had attacked attempting to take the lush fruit bearing trees that grew on the edge of the Water tribes territory.

He was in his hungun - his wood and mud hut - when a scream echoed through the still air. Grabbing his axes he exited the structure to see his father cutting down a young woman not yet of breeding age. The blood-rage boiled and he leapt at the corpse that had been his father, cutting the head free with a single stroke of the axe. Then he heard it, the singular battle-cry of the Le'rii - __Frink!__ rolled through the air.

Pha'eel let the full blood-rage settle on him, then he turned it and his senses sharpened, his reactions gained speed and the battle became a simple game. New faces were among those of the Le'rii, ones with flat noses and long tusks growing out of the mouth. These were commanding the Le'rii, leading them to be even more effective than they would normally have been. Around Pha'eel a group of Lapi'in warriors grew, hacking their way through the enemy.

Every enemy or friend that feel without losing a head rose again to attack the Lapi'in of the camp. In desperation Pha'eel signalled his men to begin clearing out the village and retreating. His neck bit deep into the neck of one of the new enemies, who he thought might be the Cinet people he had heard about as it shouted, "Move you damnable apes! Subjugate these heathens and show them the ways of our great leader Sarkadan."

The name stuck with him as the Water tribe retreated for the first time ever. They abandoned their village and struck out across the country of their fellow tribes, along the way picking up the remnants of villages that had met similar fates. With each orphaned child and widowed wife that joined the retreating Lapi'in Pha'eel's rage grew. This Sarkadan would pay for everything he had done.

I offered the Lapi'in a hand of friendship. He took it gladly and squoze, his grip strong enough to crush my hand if he had wanted to. A smile was on my face as I explained how we could use the Lapi'in in our own quest to bring down Sarkadan. The day turned to dusk and the others left my office as we spoke of strategy and ways to use the Lapi'in. When he finally left to bring his people in and set up a camp where they would begin the integration into the army nothing was final. Only one thing was clear to both of us, and that was that Sarkadan was setting himself up as a God to rival and perhaps destroy the Goddess.

The Goddess

The body in the medical room drew her away from building up another forest as it's owner returned to consciousness. The medication she'd pumped into it was damping the pain response down enough that she was able to begin communication.

"Wh.. where am I?" A puzzling question, but data suggested that the being on the table might truly have no idea where it was.

"You are in my care. I am the Goddess." She responded, trying to sound reassuring. The body spasmed and it's blood pressure spiked. She had a remote move in, ready to administer a drug to put it under if the reaction got much worse.

"Goddess? Am I dead?" This puzzled her to no end. Death meant that all vital functions would cease and a conversation would be impossible. Millions of cycles of computation passed while she tried to figure out how the being on the table could have come to that conclusion. Finally she decided it must be something related to it being an animal and decided to respond truthfully.

"You are not dead. But you are very close to it. Tell me, are you Victor Fliegel?" She needed to know this, because if it wasn't Victor Fliegel then she had to try to gain him once again. That would take time and consume more energy than she could spare.

The body shifted and a hand raised in front of the face. The eyes fluttered shut and the hand dropped to rest on the chest of the being. She worried that it may have become unconscious again, but scans showed no sign of that having occurred. Minutes passed while the being on the table was silent, hanging on the edge of consciousness by the thinnest of threads. Finally the eyes fluttered open again and it spoke. "Yes... did Transmatics fuck up that bad?"

The remote administered the drug and Victor Fliegel dropped back into unconsciousness. She had Fliegel, but he would never be able to do what she needed in his current condition. Immediately she began accessing the database of biology she'd built up during her experiments and began planning on how to fix Fliegel so he could deal with her problem.

Sections of the database returned bad checksums, the storage unit that had once been free of defects was now degrading. She split off a thread and let it work on the problem of new parts and repairs, then went back to trying to find a way to fix Fliegel so he could solve her problem. One of the threads working on it returned only failure for any option, and she considered just intervening herself, through her smallest and most refined remotes. But that option would result in too many deaths, and might result in more than one species being exterminated, something the planet she was rebuilding wouldn't be able to tolerate.

Days turned into weeks and the troubles she needed Fliegel to solve grew worse. Finally all the worker threads detailed for the search had returned, and one option stood out as being viable. She would have to build him a new body and transfer his brain into it. A bit of thought on it revealed that he might want to name someone to teach everything to, so she modified the plan for his body to include some inactive remotes that would trigger and mark that person in a similar fashion to how she was going to mark him.

In another room a cloning tube spun into action and an already existing recipe was used to create the embryo. After a few hours the tube stopped spinning with a placenta attached to one of the nutrient providing meshes. Then certain chemicals were dumped in and the embryo began to grow and mature at an astonishing rate. In a matter of days the body would reach a physical age of about twenty years. In the meantime she had to prepare Fliegels old body, so she could transfer the brain and have it in the new body and reconnected before it began to die.

Remotes that had been silent since she had finished her last experiment came to life and began checking medical instruments that had not been used before. The surgery would be simple, but they had to make sure that Fliegel would not die because of it. If that happened then the experiments had failed and the planet would need to be resculpted again.

T+6 months, 10 days
Sangers Tent

"I tell you he cannot be the Hero. Look at these strange ideas he brings! Would the Goddess send someone with ideas like these?" Leng Khentyn roared, flinging one of the crude pottery grenades onto the table in the center of the tent. While this Victor character had treated him with disrespect at first, he had been willing to believe he was the Hero. But now... He was certain that no Hero would bring strange ideas like these.

Sanger looked up, then at Leng Khentyn. With a sigh he picked up the grenade and tested the beeswax and clay stopper, then put it back on the table. While he was certain that Victor was the Hero - after all, a previous Hero had formed the Cantorii legions into the powerhouse they now were. But that had nothing to do with the current situation. This Hero certainly had brought strange ideas about warfare with him, after all. "Who knows why the Goddess does what she does? While he certainly seems to have all the trademarks of a Hero, those could be faked. We should test him on it."

That was a mild way to put it. Sanger knew that a true Hero would be able to face all three of them at once and come out unscathed, but just proposing that test was heresy if the Hero was proved true. The Lapi'in representative looked at both of them, sharing their uncertainty, but not sure if he should speak up. Finally the brashness of his people won through and he slammed his empty mug on the table and spoke. "I don't care if he is the Hero. If he can lead us to victory over Sarkadan, then I will gladly follow him into the heart of the Deadlands!"

Sanger nodded, knowing he couldn't argue with that statement. He would do the same if this Victor Fliegel could lead them to victory. But he couldn't see following one of these Lupii, these latest and most backwards of the Goddesses known creations into battle. Though the Cantorii had yet to suffer any losses, the Felin had lost contact with one of the 'border patrols' only two days before. That seemed like proof that Fliegel wasn't the Hero.

"We weren't discussing his leadership ability, Pha'eel. But how can we follow someone that might be impersonating the Hero? Wouldn't that be against the Goddess?" Sanger was being truthful with that statement. It was also meant to be as politic as possible, as a fight in his tent would be disastrous since the Cabin being built for him didn't even have a roof yet. He examined his compatriots and decided he wouldn't want to try and take Fliegels place, as the job was bound to be harder then, with the Lupii probably up in arms against them as well as having to face Sarkadan.

Khentyn roared again, and spun to face Sanger. "And you would suggest that challenging him would be the same then?" The anger and envy was clear on his face. He wanted to lead the army and be the one remembered by history. That much was clear to the others in the tent, as well as anyone who might be listening in. Sanger sighed and had opened his mouth to speak when alarm bells and gongs began filling the air.

Almost as a whole the three generals grabbed their weapons and rushed out of the tent. Lem'rii, Felin and Cinet in Sarkadan livery or showing wounds that should have left them dead were burning the partially built cabins and tents of the Cantorii camp. Around them were Cantorii responding to the chaos with wild attacks, few of which succeeded in stopping the attackers for long. Only blows that cleaved the heart or took off the head were stopping the enemies assault.

Sanger watched with a heavy heart as his second in command fell to the blade of a Cinet only to rise and begin attacking with them. He reared and kicked out at a Lem'rii behind him, then spun and took it's head off in one blow. But around him the assault was winning out, destroying the last free Cantorii. He yelled to the other generals before they had moved, "Get to your people and make sure they survive this attack. It is a sign from the Goddess! What we were discussing is Heresy!"

And he turned, blocking a blow from his own son, whose entrails were visible through a gaping hole in his stomach. Lupii ranger teams were on the perimeter of the camp, and making good progress at clearing away the walking dead and their masters, but for some reason his own people seemed to be falling like leaves from a tree, only to rise again and join the fray on the other side. Filled with despair he bellowed a call and the still living Cantorii converged on him. "The heart or the head, as the Hero has been saying all along. It is the only way to truly stop the assault. Do not hesitate to strike down even your own brother thusly if he falls, less he should rise from death a servant of Sarkadan."

All the Cantorii that heard listened, even as they saw him take the head off his sons walking corpse. The battle was going badly, and no help could be expected from any of the allied people if the battles in their own camps were going this poorly. His despair grew deeper and he prayed to the Goddess to let them survive this day so they might destroy the evil of Sarkadan. Another enemy seemed to appear before him and his prayers were cut short as he fought for his life.

I had just settled into a deep meditative state, trying to pull up more memories and ideas for the coming war. My mind was filled with images of death and destruction, and one thing kept creeping to the surface - the issue of the border patrol squad that had disappeared. Not wanting to think Sarkadan had troops out this far I rejected the possibility that they had been captured, or wore, killed (and recruited after death) by that foul enemy. My mind was exploring the possibility that they had deserted when alarm bells began to sound.

Before I could move my mind was flooded with images of my three generals arguing among each other as to whether or not I was the Hero. A familiar voice floated up, "They doubt you are what you are. Now it is your decision as to whether to lead them or not, as I wipe my hands and leave the fate of these unruly children in your hands." The voice was somewhat mechanical, reminding me of my apartments AI back when I was a virtual prisoner of Transmatics. But more than that I knew the voice, almost as if it was an old friends voice heard after not seeing them for many years.

As the images faded out and the voice became but an echo in my mind I was already in motion, grabbing my armor and swords, not worrying about the harness with their sheaths. I burst from my cabin door and almost knocked Split-Tail over as he came to make sure I'd heard the alarm bells ringing. "Get your weapon and help defend the village. Stand at your Grandmothers door if it comes down to it. Worry not about me, as the Goddess is with me."

So I embellished my speech a bit - it came with the language I was speaking. The words spoken I took off at a full run for the Cantorii camp, hoping that I would arrive in time to save at least some of the people that had come to me for help. Rage boiled through me, brightening the dim light of dusk and bringing the extra energy of adrenaline with it. I first came to the first squad of Lupii I'd ever trained, all fighting with the enemy now. Tangis-Ka separated one head from it's body as I brought Tango-Ka around and smashed the skull of Tomas.

At that moment grief mingled with my rage and I lot track of the blocked sword and spear blows, along with the number of people I cut down. A red mist seemed to fill my vision and identify each person as friend or foe. The ones marked with the red aura around them quickly fell to my blades, while I tried to help those not so marked. Each time I came to a body it's head was removed, making sure it couldn't come back.

As the rage and grief left me in a slow trickle I came to once more recognize my surroundings. No longer was I in the Cantorii camp, nor the village. I was surrounded by men and women of all three camps and dead bodies of the enemy, in the still nascent Lapi'in camp. Pha'eel stepped out of the mass of people as I wiped the blades clean on the body of a Cinet captain and laid them on the earth at my feet. "Never have I seen one such as you in battle. Like a whirlwind you are, slaying the enemy and helping your allies."

Part of his left ear was missing and there was a nasty looking gash diagonal across his chest. But at that moment he kneeled and presented the back of his neck to me. "Now and forever, in the sight of the Goddess and those present, I swear fealty to you for me and my people!" The words fell like stones in the quiet of the aftermath of the battle. In a second I was next to him, lightly gripping his neck in my teeth, like a replay of the ceremony when I had taken Split-Tail as my page.

Then I stood, and helped him up. "I accept your fealty, Pha'eel, called the Fountain. Even in the madness of the battle I could see where you gained that name, and name you thus... You are Geyser, he who brings blood fountaining forth from the enemy." A smile was on his face and he turned, looking about. Each and every one of the Lapi'in that had survived the battle were on one knee, acknowledging their acceptance of their kings action.

Soon enough Leng Khentyn and Mikel Sanger walked out of the crowd. I looked at the three there and smiled. "We have much to discuss as soon as I wash the blood of my enemies from my fur." The statement was true, as the Goddess had shown that at least one of them wished to lead in my place. Such an action, stated as it had been, was clear treason - not that I could deal with it as another Hero might have, with the number of troops available for the battle now likely numbering less than a ten-thousand score.

Neither of them batted an eye, instead both looked to each other, as if waiting for the other to move first. Finally Mikel Sanger sighed and dropped to his knees. In his hands was the mark of his rank and the sole sign of leadership among all his people. He offered it up to me and spoke clearly in the common tongue, "None but the Hero could have been as you were in the Battle. To you I swear allegiance and undying fealty of myself and those of my people that are here."

A brief smile flickered across my face, and I was tempted to tell him to stand proud, that the men he had left were living due to his order to follow my teachings and go for the head or heart. That temptation passed, and I took the mark of office from him and bid him to stand. "I accept this, but tell you now - undying fealty should never be sworn to me. I am but the tool of the Goddess."

Such undying fealty, I didn't mention, was also the tool of our enemy. For once I wished I had some scientific tools, so that I could examine the bodies of the dead. My mind refused to believe they wee animated by magic, but I wished I had proof of this, so that I could show these people what they truly faced. Sanger limped back towards his people and I noticed the massive damage a Cinet blade had done to his flanks. "Sanger, wait. Tell all your men that the most seriously injured should come see me. Join them - I may be able to help with the wounds in some small way."

As I looked back at Leng Khentyn my eyes were met with empty air. Scanning down I saw him kneeling with a ceremonial dagger held up before him. Noticing my gaze was finally on him he spoke in clear words, uncommon for one of the Felin people, "Shave my mane and send me out in shame. I care not. I doubted you were the Hero and wished leadership of all for myself. If you wish me to remain around, then take this blade. To you alone I swear this - my life is yours, from now until the day my body is laying in it's funeral pyre."

The blade was light, composed of a metal that looked like aluminum. Knowing these people didn't have a way to manufacture such a metal I was stunned. I drew it across my palm, raising a line of blood. Then I handed the blade back to him and smiled as I said, "Open your palm, stand and take my hand. Let our blood mingle, and I shall call you my brother. Our lives will be bound with binds only the Goddess could sever."

And so it is, I now command an army as diverse as it is small. Leng Khentyn now calls me brother, as I call him the same. Sanger and Geyser call me lord, or master as the case may be. When the wounded were tended, either by my hands, sewing closed open wounds and reattaching veins and nerves. The skill was not my own, but that of all the Hero's that had preceded me, knowledge gained by years watching chirurgeons and others fixing the wounded after innumerable battles.

But the role isn't one I wanted, not one I would even have dreamed of having. The world around me was like something from a fantasy novel, and the way the people acted was like a cross between how I imagine the Romans were and the Barbarians that finally destroyed that empire. To rule three diverse groups of people, and have the implicit trust of a fourth as buth a member of that people and the Hero is troublesome.

More trouble than I ever wanted, stress filled - they now come to me for resolution of disputes. All I wanted when that day was over was to clean my fur of blood and dirt. But instead I found myself cheered as a lord, a king over other kings. Had I had the time to really think about it I probably would have denied them the oaths, instead having told them to look to me for help and leadership in battle, and to themselves for everything else.

But life is life, and that day is done. For better or worse I am bound by my words and actions that day. Now if I could just get over the feeling that I had been manipulated into it by some force I couldn't see - call it the Goddess - I'd be feeling much better.

The Goddess

The work was painstakingly slow. The burned and twisted flesh resisted everything except for simple lasers, as it seemed to have partially fossilized. Under the lasers the flesh parted, if not smoothly, then with little trouble. She took it slow, not having reliable information on Human anatomy, but knowing how much trouble her first few creations had had at surviving similarly invasive procedures.

Soon the brain was ready to be removed, with machinery in place to keep it alive during it's transition into the new body. The markings on the chest were perfectly formed, almost as if she'd painted them on with dyes and bleaches. Then the clone body spasmed, and coughed to life as it was pulled free of the growth tubes nutrient filled, oxygenated liquid. Sensors reported it was spasming, unable to get air into it's lungs. A quick check revealed it had partially swallowed its tongue. Moments later a thin plastic tube was inserted into the bodies throat and she turned back to watching Fliegel.

He was a mystery to her, an enigma. Only two references were found in the database, one referring to the experiment she had used to gain him and the other a degraded legal document from the start of Transmatics. That document intrigued her, as it was in the mass of documents that had piled up waiting sorting and storage before the event that had killed mankind. Further investigation of that very damaged data store pulled up the title of the document, "Transfer of ownsership, Universal Automatic Design" - the owner of record on the document was "The Estate of Victor C. Fliegel".

She laughed at herself, a forced, unknown action created by some routine carried over from the joining that had created her. After his supposed death, Victor Fliegels small company had been transformed into the Transmatics corporation, a powerhouse even centuries later. Her circuits were aflutter, but she forced it down, as emotion was not a programmed function of her circuits. The dying body on the table in one of her medical wards was that of the true founder of a company that had once been important to her.

She checked further, looking for more information, knowing she had lost something valuable. A query went out to all of her memory storage units, and all those kept functional that had once been separate from her. The only references to Transmatics she could find tied in closely to the keywords 'mission' and 'creator'. Those two keywords both referenced the same chunk of memory, a piece of holographic storage with dead lasers that she was unable to repair or replace because of it's location in her central unit.

Further checks were pointless, as the first thing she'd done when that memory unit died was try to find it's backups. Each and every one of those was corrupted in its own way, rendering the parts of it she needed to access unavailable. The only idea she had about what was in that memory was her work, rebuilding and repopulating the planet. Subroutines were split off, dictated to check the platform she had used to pull Fliegel to her, in the event she needed to repeat that act in the future.

The mathematics of it floated up into her mind and were solved, checked and resolved, faults being discovered in them each time. Finally the separate thread requested guidance, and was told the equations relied on data read from the machinery. The thread fell silent and stuck the machinery it had been placed in charge of into a diagnostic state, then ran it up to full operational power and shut it down, finding a small error in the equations with data gained from that run which might explain the state Fliegel had arrived in.

It tried to notify it's controller about this development and was met with silence. Quick checks revealed that it's main core was focused on the operation. So it placed the notification in a waiting queu and ran the diagnostic sequence again, falling into a simple routine to keep itself busy. Each time it found more erorrs and corrected them, placing notification in the same queue.

The Goddess had shut off the worker threads she had doing things and focused all her immense processing ability on the job of transferring the brain of Fliegel into the new body. At the same time it flooded the body with undiferntiated stem cells and telomerase. The wounds were slow healing, even using the technology that she had full access to. The brain was surprisingly soft to her, easy to damage. With almost no thought she compared it to the specifications of her own brain and decided that she was superior.

But the job was finished. Now she just had to wait for the nanites and the stem cells to do the work of reconnecting the nerves and making the bodies immune system work with the brain. Then she could focus on training Fliegel in using the body. That would be the hardest part, and she made a note to have the nanites map his memory, so she could attempt to remove any memories of this place or what she truly was.

But that was all in the future. The operation had taken many hours, and now she had long queues of information to sort through. Her worker threads had been busy as ever, and one was reporting that the Cantorii were growing even more hostile to the experiments their land bordered. A quick note of worry shot through her circuits, because at the rate the trouble was happening she couldn't be certain that Fliegel would be ready.

Circuits checked themselves and she ran a simulation. Perhaps she could modify the planetary weather using a satelite or two that was still operational. More simulations ran as she found the protocols and forced her way into the still functional satelites. None of them had any of the several pieces of equipment she'd need, the ones she had used to change the weather patterns at the start of the resculpting no longer responded. One option down, and that was her only viable one. Fliegel was her last hope.

T+7 months
Hero's Camp - Border of the Lem'rii territories

The scouts had pulled in a Lem'rii patrol, quietly and without incident. This was the first thing that had gone right since I'd stepped up the schedule for the war on Sarkadan and led the army away from Tolipi. Split-Tail was almost salivating at the thought of watching me extract information from them, even though I'd use nothing more than simple psychology and a few tricks to make them talk. Everyone else seemed to think torture was in order, but, if anything, that produced bad information along with the good.

The four Lem'rii that had been captured had been moved into four different tents. The first one was right across from my sleeping tent, so I went there first. On walking in the tent I was struck by how human the Lem'rii looked, even with the tails trailing behind them. He was tied to a chair that was tied to the center pole of the tent. I smiled as I walked around the chair slowly. I did this for several minutes, sometimes reaching out as if to slap or caress.

Finally I spoke. "Tell me where your main camp is!"

"Never, you dog of the Goddess." His response was in a language he must have thought I didn't know. Too bad they'd forgotten how a Hero had once saved them from extinction. With a smile I repeated my question in the language he'd spoken in.

He looked at me with a slack jaw and wonder on his face. I just smiled and fingered the hilt of my knife, safely sheathed at my hip. His mouth then closed and he looked at me. Something about his gaze made me feel sick, so I began a slow, methodical walk around him, letting him see me 'fight' with myself over whether to draw the knife or not. There was sweat visible on his face, and I knew it was time to ask him another question.

"Saridoki q'I'oa ta'polla cha'in! So'pa'olla!" I said calmly, with just enough force to make sure he understood it was a command, not a question. Roughly translated it means "Speak now or lose your masculinity. Tell me what I want to know." - although the language I used, an ancient form of the Lem'rii tongue, sounded sweet, it contained some wonderful words for various methods of torture that they still employed.

I let him see the knife in my hand before sheathing it as I walked out of his line of sight. My early years back on Earth had instilled a hatred of torture in me. But times change, and I wasn't above using the threat of it, and yes, maybe even carrying it out to drive a point home. And the strange thing about these Lem'rii seems almost built in. They lose their manhood and they do turn into female Lem'rii - complete with the ability to bear children. I don't know if this was a design feature of the Goddess, or an unexpected benefit. Only way I'd find that out would be to kill one and cut it open, or cut it open while it was still alive.

"Thirty five... ten... nineteen...twenty eight..." He was babbling. No, there was something oozing out of his ears. His voice died away and I checked - no pulse. I was preparing to cut his head off when it snapped up. and a harsh voice rang out from his lips.

"You are too late, Hero. Too late to save your Goddess and her work! You will all --" I plunged my knife into the bodies heart, then drew my blade and severed the head from the neck. All my work and what did I get but a dead Lem'rii who went nuts and was used as a conduit to deliver a message. Sarkadan was definitely evil, and though no Hero had faced his like before, I would succeed in ending his life and his threat to the peoples of this planet.

I stormed from the tent and ordered a check of the others. In each the Lem'rii showed signs of blood and something else oozing from their ears and other orifices, but seemed alive. "Cut the heads off the all. Sarkadan managed to kill them, these are nothing but walking dead already."

I walked off, sick to my stomach at the thought of having had those things in the camp. It didn't matter much, my scouts had located several of their camps - I was just trying to use them to find out which was the one where the General of their army would be. Now I'd just do some night attacks and destroy each camp, my men blowing through like ghosts and taking only heads - nothing else. The war had been serious since my army had almost been destroyed, but now it was Sarkadans turn to loose something - I'd cut his allies off and he'd be left with just whatever unholy horde he could muster.

Those who saw me just after the incident cringed under my glare, me barely able to contain my rage. Finally Sanger, Pha'eel and Khentyn showed up at my tent - and I was in the middle of a practice to try and settle my nerves. The straw-filled practice dummy flew off it's mounts and hit Pha'eel as he walked in, my leg still in the air as I slowly relaxed form a side-kick that would have probably killed anyone I'd hit with it. His laugh filled the tent and I snapped my leg down, my mood darkened by his humor.

"Sarkadan is more powerful than we thought. So we are not going to give him the option of a fight on open ground if we can help it. Get the special squads together and put others on the night patrols. I'm leading the first of many night-time raids against the Lem'rii camps to cut off that allie from supplying further help to him."

Sanger frowned and opened his mouth to protest. My scowling visage was enough to quiet him, although I knew what his objection was. Khentyn just bowed, acknowledging my statement as the order it was. Pha'eel just looked at me, stunned by how fast I had thrown out plans it had taken us weeks to devise in favor of a more mobile war. Then the seriousness of the situation hit me, as did the danger of what I was going to attempt this night, and a chuckle came, unbidden, to my lips.

"Sanger, I'll be using a Cantorii only force for the one day-time attack. You can even join it if you want, but for now I want these Lem'rii to think that Sarkadan has spiked their T'enqui loaves and turned against them. This requires night-time attacks that are so fast and violent none get a clear look at the attacking force."

Smiles lit up the faces of the generals as the beauty of my simple plan was made clear to them. Each looked about ready to burst out in a joyous cheer as I dismissed them and turned to make sure the edge of my knife and the edge on Tangis-Ka were both sharp and ready for the nights work. I was smiling myself, as I thought about the inspiration for the night-time raid. On Earth there had been many great generals, and many, many wars. But among those who fought wars, a few units were feared because of their ferocity.

One of those was the Seal's, a special forces unit of the United States Navy. They specialised in warfare like the raid I was going to lead this night. And one of their lesser known actions during a controversial war in the twentieth century had been a series of night-time strikes against enemy camps that had earned them the name "Devils with Green Faces". Having lost relatives in that war I had done my best to learn everything I could about it - and it was in that research that I had found the inspiration for the attacks I planned.

As night fell the teams selected for this mission gathered around me. "Scouts report they have three roaming sentry teams, one for each entrance facing us. So we are going to go around to the backside. J'mso your team and Henn's team will take grenades and hit the sleeping huts hard. Five or six in each. Your teams should also set alight what you can using their own fires. H'mira, Shen, T'bar - your teams are going to take a dip in that white mud pit we found and roar through the camp like angry ghosts. The rest of you are to follow me, we'll do the clean-up. Remember, head or heart. Otherwise they'll just get up and come at you again."

I pointed out features using maps that had mysteriously appeared in my mini-comp the day I decided to start this war. That combined with the input of the scouting teams we had out was enough to enable complex planning. With a grim smile on my face I stood and told them to check their equipment - that we were leaving in five mintues. Yes, a wonderful night-time raid would definitely put the fear of the Goddess back into the Lem'rii. If it didn't, then we had three other advance camps to go after, any one of which could hold their leaders.

Five Hours Later

We approached the Lem'rii camp along a line they didn't expect. No traps or sentries held us up, and the camp was dead, no motion at all. This didn't bother me at all - the Lem'rii were not known for their military acumen, and having a camp shut down totally like this was something they did. The grenade teams moved out and began sending lit and unlit grenades into every structure, just sowing chaos - and the Zombies themselves weren't that great at fighting, so I wanted as many of the Lem'rii among the undead as possible.

As the structures came alight and the grenades roared the three 'Ghost' teams raced through the camp, stopping to behead only the Lem'rii that were within reach of their path. The main force followed me only a few minutes later, masking our identities a little by imitating the enemies "Frink" battlecry. Almost as soon as I hit the center of the camp I was surrounded and separated from my backup. Three living Lem'rii leaped through a fire and silently swung their blades in unison. As I ducked the first Tangis-Ka and Tango-Ka whispered from their sheaths and blocked the other two.

Brilliant grey brain matter and blood splattered as Tango-Ka swung up on a return stroke, and the brilliant steel of Tangis-Ka was tinted red as the head of another of my attackers rolled. Zombies replaced the first two as I spun and behead the third. Both had suffered nasty wounds from the grenades, and one was burned and blackened. My blood began to burn as I dropped one with a kick before cutting the sword arm off the other so I could free myself and get to my backup.

Through the smoke I saw a familiar figure downing enemies with lighting fast strikes of a short lance, then began running towards him as my mind registered the mark on his chest. Split-Tail had followed us and was now in the fight. Like an unstoppable tornado of death I sliced my way through the Lem'rii that rose to block my path, heads rolling free leaving bodies spurting fountains of blood as I fought to reach Split-Tail.

A sword suddenly appeared, jutting from Split-Tails gut. From deep inside a howl roared up and ripped from my lips, then the clear vision and red marked enemies of a month ago returned. We would be taking no prisoners, and I would not stop until the Lem'rii and all those that stood against the Goddess were wiped from the face of the Planet. Split-Tail had been my Page, my Apprentice. The bond made us like a father and son, and something deeper was there, like a bond from an earlier Hero. But none of that mattered now - all that mattered was making them pay for killing him.

"All teams, center on me. Wipe out this camp and let none escape. We will make it look as if this place never existed." I yelled as another Lem'rii fell, adding more blood to what had already soaked into my fur and was slowly congealing. Split-Tail lay dying as I reached him and cut his killer down, rage lending me the strength to split him from shoulder to groin.

I slammed my blades into the earth, then spun and threw my knife into the heart of an approaching zombie. Finally I knelt by Split-Tails side and wiped the blood from the symbol on his chest. He still had a pulse and the light of life was still in his eyes, though it was rapidly fading. "Hang in the Split-Tail. We might be able to save you."

He mouthed something then died. Unable to bear the thought of him raising against me as a Zombie I pulled Tangis-Ka from the ground and readied to strike his head from his body. Then a voice spoke in my mind, "Care for him, he is under my protection and will not rise again."

I made note of where his body was and turned back to the battle. Lem'rii zombies were staggering from one of the burning ruins, swords in hands of mostly bone. Around me a group of warriors formed, Felin and Lupii fighting side by side, differences forgotten. Into the battle we walked, leaving Split-Tails body laying in the dirt until we finished with this camp. Then he would have a funeral fit for the greatest Hero that had ever lived, one fit even for the last Emperor that had ruled the Cantorii. But for now the matter at hand was to finish a fight.

Time passed slowly, and by the end of the fight there wasn't a single person in our raiding party that wasn't covered in blood. Of the 64 men I'd brought, and the one who had tagged along unseen... There were fifty seven of us alive at the end. Out of those fifty-seven, only forty-four were uninjured. It was a short walk back to Split-Tails body, which had remarkably gone unharmed through the long battle. I had just kneeled to pick it up when a Felin warrior seemed to materialise at my side.

"Hero, we found a Lem'rii officer hiding in one of the cisterns, using a piece of hollow grass to breath."

I set Split-Tails body down and stood. An officer living was something I didn't want, and would get some information from him before killing him. The Felin soldier handed me my knife - I had thought it lost when I'd thrown it into the Zombie - and smiled at the grim look on my face. With slow motions I wiped it free of blood on a Lem'rii flag, then turned to face him. "Lead me to him, soldier. And find me an unused Grenade."

There was to be no pity, no holding back in my interrogation. And I would make sure this Lem'rii learned a lesson before he died. Ancient memories of interrogations and torture long past brought me ideas for effective means of extracting information. Though the other Hero's had held back and used as little damage as possible, I would not be. My Page was dead, and all my enemies would learn a simple lesson - I am not the enemy to have.

We reached the spot where the Lem'rii officer was tied to a tree with a leather thong around his neck. I smiled wanly at the insignia on his collar - he was a General. "What is your name, Lem'rii?"

He looked at me defiantly and laughed. Around me were soldiers that had just lost friends and possibly family, and their mood at this point matched mine. No time for niceties and the type of interrogation he thought he was in for. Lem'rii, hell, all the races I knew of on this planet, had a tendency to take it easy on the officers. But times were different, and I wouldn't.

"Strip him." The order went out and half a dozen Felin stepped forward, mirrored by almost twice the number of Lupii. The uniform and the pride-filled look on the generals face disappeared as fast as his clothes.

"I asked you a question, Sha'li'qua! What is your name?"

He clenched his jaw shut, hatred hot enough to light coal burning in his eyes. I had named him a Sha'li'qua - a man who removed his own genitalia so he could be a woman. That is one of the greatest sources of shame among the Lem'rii people, and the families of those that perform that act become outcasts. The smile disappeared when I stepped forward and grabbed his penis, pulling it out as long as it would stretch. Then my other hand descended with the knife, digging in and slicing his penis neatly in two, down it's midline, causing it to flop open then closed like a demented hotdog bun.

The scream of pain from him brought a smile to my face, as it redoubled when his bladder let go and flushed the open wound with fresh urine. I stepped back and backhanded him, my hand connecting with his face causing a wet thunk. There were gagging sounds in the men around me, but more cheered. Though I knew the cheers were mostly from the Felin, who hated the Lem'rii with a passion unmatched except by the hatred of the Lapi'in for the Cinet. "One last time, you slime ball. What is your name?"

Finally his stony demeanor broke and he sobbed lightly. "I am Fee'shan, General of the First Lem'rii Horde."

General of an entire Horde? Now that was a prize. I didn't let my surprise show, knowing it'd only make him much harder to deal with. Random thoughts flashed through my brain, and then I settled on making the interrogation only about tactical matters.

"Well, Fee'I'kan... " I stopped for a moment and looked at him. The name I used was a twisting of his name to denote him as a slave captured in battle and made into women to serve the lowest ranks of men. It was another needle in his flesh, a bit of mental torture for him. For the purposes of this interrogation I wanted him to think of the extreme loss of honor and not that I was going to just kill him.

"My name is Fee'shan", he spit at me. "D'aiog." The word meant a trained animal, a pet. In this case it meant a Lupii that had had it's mind so damaged that it was useful only as a pet. Like I said before, the Lem'rii tongue has loads of wonderful words.

"Not for much longer if you insist on angering me." I used my knife to split the halves of his penis apart, bringing another howl of pain from him. "Now, Fee'I'kan, where are the rest of your men? Where are they camped?"

"Frink!" In this usage he probably meant "Got to hell". In the Lem'rii tongue that one word has multiple meanings. I smiled, then grabbed his hanging sac and pulled it downward. A single stroke of my blade was enough to open it and leave his balls dangling in the air. Torture should have left me queasy, sick to my stomach, but I was enjoying this, bringing pain to a creature that didn't deserve to live.

"Where are the rest of your men? Where are they camped?" My voice was devoid of emotion. The torture was something I could drag on for many hours, although he definitely thought it was almost over.

Through sobs and tears brought by the pain he tried to speak. Each time a sob racked his body it caused his balls to swing about under him, and bang together. This brought new pain and caused the sobs to worsen. Finally he sucked in a great breath and looked at me, hatred mingled with fear in his eyes as he spoke. "The went north-west, most of them. To join with the Masters Cantorii and Felin force."

That would place them out on the grasslands. And also with a large enough force to strike directly into the Lupii lands. I needed more information, and so pushed aside thought of ending the interrogation early. "What are the plans? When and where will Sarkadan strike next?"

He closed his mouth, except for short, hissing breaths that helped him hold back the sobs and pain. My knife hand shot down and his balls fell to the forest floor. A shudder of pain racked his body but he still refused to speak. Once more my knife descended, and half his penis dropped to the floor, blood spurting out of the severed veins. He looked at me, his face a mask of pain and fear.

"What are the plans? When and where will Sarkadan strike next, I'kan slave?" I added insult to his injuries, but seemed to have almost resigned himself to his fate. I sliced th remaining half of his penis into two pieces, hoping that the pain would pull him out of the shell he seemed to have built. He looked into my eyes and began to laugh. "Even if I told you..."

Without thinking I reached down and removed all traces of manhood from his body. He screamed, his voice jumping in registers as it began to modulate into a female voice. I looked around me and asked the men which would like first use of Fee'I'kan when the change had finished. Three Felin stepped forward and dropped their loin-cloths, revealing huge equipment. I stepped back, and one of them pointed at the captive I'd been torturing.

Between his, no, her legs the bleeding had stopped, and the flesh was rapidly changing, taking on the appearance of female genitalia. I stepped back, a bit stunned at the speed of the changes crossing the one-time generals groin. Unconcerned for the now useless captive I motioned to the Felin and turned my back. A howl went up.

"Hero! He plans to strike into the weak sections of the Lupii homeland. Please, kill me... don't let them..." His speech was replaced by a cry of pain, and I spun around to see one of the Felin placing the captive on his cock, while another rammed his into her other hole. I decided to let my men have their fun, and then I'd kill her. Fee'I'kan was worthless, and if her story reached the other Lem'rii, the plans Sarkadan had laid would be changed.

But that would be a few hours off. In the meantime I had to see to the injured and begin preparation for the long trip back to camp. Some of the men would need splints, and some would need stitches. As the only one capable of such work, I started immediately, on a Felin whose leg had been broken above the knee by a Lem'rii club. He gritted his teeth and revealed no sign of the pain I must have caused as I set the bones.

The next few hours were filled with the same, stoic warriors, both veteran and newly blooded, took the treatment I offered. Those that were able hobbled off to join the 'fun' the others were having. After what seemed like an eternity the injured were dealt with, and I was free to tend to my own pain. When I reached Split-Tails body dawn was coming. Emotional pain tore through me and I tore down one of our battle standards, then covered his body with it. At eleven years old he had taken part in battle, had killed his share of enemies and had paid the price.

The world swam and I dropped on top of him, unable to deal with the guilt and depression that threatened to tear me to pieces. I should have made sure he hadn't followed, and should have made sure to be by his side if he had. He was my page, my responsibility, and I had failed him. At that moment I made a vow, swearing before the Goddess that no more Lupii children, no more children of any race would have to face the horrors of war as long as I lived.

"I have heard those words before, Victor Fliegel, Hero chosen by me to save my creations. May times have they been spoken, and many times have you died, seeing that the vow was kept." It was a voice in my head, accompanied by a vision of the Goddess in the form of the statue from the Temple where I had been given the memories of the past Heros's. But... Did she say, "many times have you died?" - How many times have I lived and fought wars?

Finally I stood, and turned to see my men arrayed in formation behind me, their heads lowered and blades held high in praise. I looked at them, then raised my own blades, following that act with a long, mournful howl to help the dead find their way to the Goddess. Or so they would think, but in truth it was a howl of praise, thanking the Goddess that I had known Split-Tail for even as short a time as I did.

Then I had a much less tasteful duty to perform. I walked to the tree where the once-proud general sat sobbing, hands trying to hide both her holes. A frown was on my face as I spoke, "Fee'shan, General of the Lem'rii, I name you proudly as one who took the worst of torture. Know now that your days of horror are over. Stand and turn away from me, leaning over and holding the tree."

She slowly stood, revealing the blood and fluids dripping from her used orifices. Pride flickered across her face, then she did as I had said. "Are you too, going to use me, Hero?"

"No, I come to release you from life." I said this as I lit the fuse on a grenade. Then I grabbed her hips and shoved it into her anus, forcing the large clay pot inside her. "This is retribution, my Page is dead."

I walked away, not even cringing when the black powder ignited and blew chunks of Lem'rii around for many feet. Mercy was beyond me now - I had a mission to fulfill. A war would be fought to end all war for the span of my lifetime. If wars happened after that, then I hoped that my spirit would return and squash those as well. The Goddess had said something similar to that, but I had no time to wonder at the words of Deities.

"Form up and move out. Let's go home!"

The Goddess

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Victor Fliegel. For some time I wasn't sure you'd make it."

Victor was awake, and confused. His vision was muted, as if the color was barely there, and the muzzle of a dog took up the center. He raised a hand to rub at his aching head and stopped, stunned by the furred, paw-like thing that he saw. Then he did what anyone would do in the same circumstances - he screamed and tried to run.

But his legs didn't work right and his balance was way off. It was like trying to run, but only being able to put your toes on the ground. He finally crawled into a corner and looked around, smelling his own fear pouring out of him in waves. On the verge of a psychotic collapse he started to curl into a fetal ball, not even noticing his unclothed state.

Then, as if he'd been drugged, calmness flooded across him and the fear, while still there, was muted. He found his voice and spoke. "Wha... What did you do to me? Tell me! Better, get me a lawyer, I'm suing Transmatics for all it's worth!"

The goddess understood his threat, and knew it was impossible to carry out. But she still split off a dozen threads to try and work out exactly what would be proper to say in the situation. She didn't have much time, but she needed Fliegel at least psychologically sound and okay with his new body if he was to be of any use to her.

"Victor Fliegel, ten thousand years have passed since you last walked the earth. Transmatics is no more, Humanity is no more. I am called the Goddess, and am the last surviving remnant of the world you knew. I reside in this hidden complex, a simple computer, and have been trying to rebuild the Earth." Her voice was calm, and free of any hint of her mechanical nature. In fact, she sounded like the other AI she had merged with before beginning her experiment.

The news hit Fliegel hard and he broke down, crying. He had known the earth would die, but had hoped, even against his own belief that mankind was a destructive race, that humanity would survive. But to hear that it was ten thousand years after he'd last seen the earth and mankind was so dead that only one computer was around...

His sobs died down as he realized what the computer had said. "Rebuilding the earth? How? The ecosystem was destroyed, there was no way the environment could have withstood the loss of the plants that were propping it up."

A logical query. She had made the right decision to pull Fliegel from the strange anomaly he'd been caught up in. Part of her wondered if he'd experienced anything while in there, being burned and fossilized during the thousands of years that had passed. Quickly quashing the strange thought she answered him. "It took me more than two thousand years to make the planet habitable. During that time I was able to build bio-engineering facilities and remotes small enough to work within individual cells. From the small stock of embryos I had been able to collect before the environment collapsed I have restored a large section of the planet."

Almost immediately his tears dried up. The environment had been rebuilt and an ecosystem now existed that supported life without the need for machines? Then the muzzle in his vision and the strangeness of his body caught up with him. He slowly got to his feet and lowered his head. A frown twisted his canine features, then disappeared. No time for pity - need to find out what happened, why I'm here and why I look like a reject from a horror movie.

"I have a number of questions, computer. You can probably answer them all. One - what happened to me? Two - why am I here and Three - what the hell did you do to me?"

The Goddess had no reliable memory of ever directly interacting with a being. All of her creations had neural equipment that allowed her to speak directly into their thoughts with words and images. But though her nanites were still working on it, she had no such way with Fliegel. Moments churned by, days and weeks to her, but seconds to her ward. Finally all the data clicked into place and she was ready to answer Fliegel, truthfully, as she was certain he would refuse to help her otherwise.

"I had to replace your body. The reason is that you spent ten thousand years in a pocket of energy, and that had destroyed your body, partially fossilized parts of it. If I had been able to, I would have built a human body exactly as your was, but my database is corrupt, and the only source for your DNA was the one organ I could not damage - your brain. So I grew you a body from one of the peoples that now populate the world and placed your brain in it. As to why you are here..."

Fliegel seemed in shock. But it wasn't about his new body, or the fact that it had been done to save his life. It was the fact that Transmatics had tried to kill him - the evidence was plain. A computer had managed to save him, but only ten thousand years after they had stuck him in an energy pocket and left him for dead. "God-damned motherfucking assholes tried to get rid of me. I knew I should have sued that cocksucking ass-licking bitch of a company for everything after they pulled me through time."

The language he used intrigued the goddess, and she filed it away for study against the memories she had of the time when the humans had ruled the planet. Most of it seemed to equate to nothingness - mere words put in for emphasis of some type - but the rest was a regret at untaken legal action. She decided to forestall further colorful language from Fliegel by telling him the truth about how he'd wound up in the energy pocket.

"No, then I would not have been created. When the experiment failed and you were lost a massive rebuilding of the equipment was undertaken. During this rebuilding the machinery I reside in was created. The original equations and equipment used by Transmatics was flawed and would never have worked. It was sheer chance that I was able to find you, because the data from the original platform is not trustworthy. Where you are now was once part of the Transmatics lab complex."

Fliegel stopped his raving and looked around, his mind finally registering the room he was in as the medical lab where they had treated him after his arrival in the future. Then he started laughing. A computer Transmatics had built was now calling itself "Goddess" and was rebuilding the earth. The hilarity of the situation had him on the floor, rolled up with ribs aching from how hard he was laughing. Finally he stood and shook himself, then looked around.

"And... That still doesn't explain why I am here. If you were trying to tell me, I'm sorry I cut you off."

The Goddess decided to tell him the rest of the truth, as well as she herself knew it. But where should she begin, that was her problem. Should she tell Fliegel first of the reason she'd located and saved him, or should she tell him what she knew of the death of humanity? Threads divided off and discussed the merits of both situations, with the side in favor of a history lesson finally winning.

"That can wait. You seemed to find the fact that Transmatics built me and I am rebuilding this planet funny. As near as I have been able to reconstruct, Transmatics was responsible for the death of Humanity. My memory cores are badly damaged and I do not have full records, but as near as I can tell this occurred less than a year after you were lost."

Fliegel just nodded. He knew why humanity had died - they had dared to tread upon the toed of god. But even his religious convictions didn't hold much weight with him and he mourned for humanity. Then he tossed his religious beliefs aside, deciding that all the promises made by the god he had worshiped were empty, that no god existed. Finally he spoke, calm not from the drugs that had been released into his system by the microscopic remotes of the Goddess, but from an inner peace he'd not felt in a long time. "Tell me, computer, what is the reason you resurrected me?"

Victor Fliegel fell asleep that night, comfortable in his new body - at least for the moment. He had been handed a huge mission, and given little time to prepare. The Goddess had needed a hero, someone to step in and stop the various peoples from warring on each other. That he'd been returned to life to be nothing more than a killer he had objected to. When the Goddess had explained, however, that the interspecies warfare would likely lead to the countless centuries of bloodshed the old Earth had known, he caved in.

Two months passed, and the Goddess had taught him everything she could about warfare. Unwilling to reveal the mental link she had built into his brain she did it all through physical means. Then she had to send him into the world, unsure that he would succeed. He was too soft, not sure he could ever take a life and balked at the idea of the slaughters she knew he'd have to lead. Before dropping him in a forest near a Lupii village she gave him the two items he'd come out of the vortex with, and a sword she'd made using ancient techniques. Then she used the mental link and wiped his memory of having ever been in her complex and knocked him out.

Cantorii Plains

Sarkadan raged at the loss of three bands of Lem'rii. His mission to bring the truth to the peoples of the world was being jeopardized. The necromancy and magic powers he'd been given after his banishment into the deadlands were just tools to him, tools to bring the truth he'd found out there. Other beings had once roamed the planet, creatures called hyoo-men. The strange, god-like being he'd found out there had told him of how they had died suddenly one day and how another computer had begun rebuilding the planet.

The Goddess was evil, had destroyed her creators in order to make a planet of beings that bowed to her. Sarkadan was on a mission to bring this message to all the peoples of the world. In the process he would unite them all so he could war on the Goddess, which was not a god but a kom pyoo tir like the one that had saved his life in the deadlands. But now, his army was being torn apart by Lem'rii frightened that he had turned on them, and it was all to blame on this Hero the Goddess had raised to beat him.

Once more he cast his mind out and tried to seize control of that being. Again his attempt failed, with even more pain than before. Perhaps, as his savior had said, he had to have contact with the people before he could affect that kind of control. It had also said something about bodily fluids, but he didn't understand that part of it. All he knew was that his enemy seemed to be able to defeat his powers. More than that, this Hero seemed to be able to give that immunity to others.

T+7 Months, 14 days
On the Road

I was marching with the vanguard, maybe a couple thousand yards before the outriders, and listening to the army behind me talking. Not that they knew I had hearing that sensitive, but in some cases it really paid off. The men were coming to see me as something mythical, like the heroes that had preceded me - but even more deadly an enemy. But it didn't matter - Split-Tails death had destroyed the last vestiges of mercy within me, and no enemy I faced would live, whether they surrendered or not.

The thought should have made my blood run cold, but it was a comfort. There was talk among the men of there being a trial to select a new apprentice - I could hear two of the Cantorii centurions speaking of it at a fire last night. When we laid into camp this night, and all the work of building the temporary fortification I insisted on was finished, I would dispel that myth. Unlike any but the first Hero I would take no apprentice, name no heir.

"Look at 'im. He's got that serious look on 'is face. We be in for it tonight." The voice wafted up to me. It was from the ranks right behind me, though I couldn't place it.

"March, march, march. All we do is march, train and fight. No time for the camp followers, no time for a good drink, no time to throw the bones. I'm getting sick of all the marching!" A voice lifts among the noise of more than twenty-thousand marching feet.

"Anyone got some l'kuar left? I need something besides water!" Another voice, another complaint. This time a Felin speaking - I'm going to have to try and stamp out the last of that stuff - we can't have people going into battle drunk.

"See that look? Hero has something on his mind. Bet we're all gonna suff tonight!" A Cantorii speaks up, noting that I am indeed thinking deeply about things. And he's right, the whole army is gonna be hearing about the new rules and then some when we finish for the night.

"S'karn, you got any of that polish-grit left? My blades got some rust down near the crossbar and I'm out." Another voice - this one I know. I'll have to make sure that everyone has a full kit tonight. Can't have people going into battle with weapons that might not survive a true encounter. Sometimes running an army isn't as fun as it could be.

"I'm going to go and offer myself to be his new Page. Hear the last one got to sleep most nights while he was drilling us." Can't place the origin of that voice, but my little speech tonight should clear up that one. I won't be taking another Page - there is no way I could, ever. The spot is meant for a young child, and is much more intense in the training department than any of these men would believe. A vow was made, and one I will keep - no more children under my protection will ever see war.

Tam'I's Cabin

The dream came to me again, of Split-Tail following a war band, and joining in the battle. And it ended the same again, with the Hero openly weeping over the body of my grandson. Though I'd spoken to the Priestess and she said it was rare for the Goddess to grant someone such a boon, I could only pray it wasn't the truth. Only pray that the last link I had to my children, dead now these last ten years from the plague, is dead himself.

A knock at the door, calling me from my sleep. That's all it took for me to know my prayers had gone unanswered, that Jacob, Split-Tail apprentice of the Hero, had died. The flower-print wrap that Split-Tail had bought from a Felin tailor his last day in the village mocked me, but I put it on anyway. I had visitors, and I would die before being inhospitable. The knocking resumed as I set foot on the stairs, my feet feeling like lead as I trod the steps where he had once played.

"Be right there! Give an old lady a minute to wake up and get dressed, will you?"

Stupid clods, always in a hurry. Why if K'lel were still around... But no, my dear husband is dead these past fifteen years. Can't let myself start thinking about him at a time like this. Not with the images of Jacobs death fresh in my mind, the knowledge that he is dead just waiting for confirmation. Then an image of my late husband popped into my mind and my heart lifted, if just for the second it took me to open the door.

I'd lucked out and pulled an easy assignment. All I had to do was deliver the messages about casualties back to the affected families. Simple, really - I'd done it during some of the clan wars ten years back and never once had my fur or armor dirtied. And there was the first cabin, standing by itself back to the stream - the place where the Hero's Page had grown up.

The sun was barely hinting at rising, so I knocked on the door, knowing the old woman would be there. Motion was starting to seep into the sleeping village as I waited, then knocked again, a bit harder. Then I waited, more than five minutes passed as I stood outside the door. So I knocked again, feeling the door shake on it's hinges under my paw.

"Be right there! Give an old lady a minute to wake up and get dressed, will you?" The old womans voice sounded from inside the house. Hoarse and dry, I knew I'd woken her up when I banged on the door the second time. If it wasn't for the message I was delivering, I would have left her place until last.

Finally the door popped open. She looked at me and my blood ran cold - I could tell she already knew the message and wasn't pleased. More than that, I knew that it wasn't going to have a clean end when I finally spoke.

"Tam'I - I am sorry to have to deliver this message, but... Four days ago Split-Tail, Page of the Hero, followed a small raiding party into battle. Though he fought well, the Goddess called him home. His body was placed on a pyre and the Cantorii sung a dirge like none have ever heard, joined only by a lonely howl from the Hero."

Tears were filling her eyes as I stepped back to head for the next cabin to deliver the news of another death. Then the unthinkable happened, she launched herself at me and I suddenly found myself on the ground. It was a fight like none I'd ever faced, against a woman older than my own mother - a fight that I was sure would end with one or both of us dead.

Minutes passed as wel rolled around, claws and teeth tearing at my fur, eyes and armor. Then there was a wet thud and Tam'I collapsed. A Lapi'in was standing there, having hit her once with a fist. I carefulyl extricated myself, then went on to deliver the next message. With new insight into the Lupii spirit to boot - something that I would have to pay attention to if I wished to survive this assignment.

My fur and armor were clean of blood and gore, but coated in the dust from the thousands of marching feet of my army. Nothing mattered to me anymore, nothing but stopping this war in the only way possible and keeping my vow that no child would ever have to face the horrors of war again. We were marching on the Lem'rii capital, information gained in other Lem'rii camp's having shown that Sarkadan didn't plan to launch his attack until the turn of the season.

I'd fallen back to communicate with Sanger, who had positioned himself near the middle of the force. Though we had more than a hundred out-riders forward, something didn't feel right. We needed to get some more scouts out, because we were certain to be coming up on more Lem'rii towns - the unkempt fallow fields beyond the brush on either side of the road spoke of that. So it was time for me to exert my command and get some more riders out - nothing like an ambush to ruin the day.

"Sanger, see if we can get some more scouts ahead of the main body. Should be Lem'rii towns in this area, and I don't want any surprises." I said, turning to face the Cantorii that had been forced into a second-in-command position on the march.

Sanger reached for a horn he used to deliver simple orders, and suddenly all hell broke loose. Lem'rii hidden on either side of the path stood and unleashed crossbow bolts into the pack of officers that were trailing the main body of the army. The trumpet call turned into an alert as I reached for my blades. A second too late I spun and felt the crossbow bolt thud home between the steel plates of my armor.

Tangis-Ka and Tango-Ka dropped from my hands and the world spun, slowly fading out as blood pumped from my heart and out around the barbed head of the bolt. Death had come for me, without warning and without mercy - and I took his hand gladly, finally free of life. Then things got strange, and I was reliving the lives of the previous hero's - all of them and not just the battles. In the instant before life left me I knew the truth - this was not my first time as Hero on this planet, in this reality... Nor was this planet alien to me. It was Earth, and I had been every previous Hero, back to the first, the savior of the Lupii more than ten-thousand years before.

Sarkadans Camp
Cantorii Plains

Wake up, fighter. The Hero is dead. Our plans will succeed. The words drummed across Sarkadans consciousness, pulling him from sleep. They came from his benefactor, the being that had saved him from certain death, and delivered a message he hadn't hoped to ever hear.

The covers disintegrated, pulled apart by the power that Maivias had granted him. The short hairs that covered his body stood on end as a chill ran through him, feeling like something or someone very powerful was looking in. After a yawn that revealed the full mass of his tusks and the majesty of his Cinet throat he spoke. "Great master, I thank you for this news. Today we shall celebrate and pull in all sentries. There is no need now to worry, since they will doubtless fall apart without their leader."

The voice was silent, but Sarkadan knew it agreed when the cold chill of it's vision disappeared. Outside his tent was a great platform he had built for speeches, and more than five hundred score fighters. Those warriors would rejoice and cheer at the news of the death of the enemies leader. Even if most had been reanimated, brought back to life by his power they would cheer and rejoice - this was something Sarkadan lived for, the praise of the people.

Robes and other clothing began flying through the air as he extended the powers given him, searching for the perfect thing to wear to announce the victory. Unseen by him, tiny machines did the work, using their massive numbers to simulate what some would call magic. Finally he motioned away all the clothing as a brilliant red and gold design similar to a Kimono floated up. With precision unmatched by any living being the nano-scale robots floated the outfit onto their controller and fell silent.

"J'mha, send out word to gather. I have a speech to deliver... The one who saved me tells me the Hero is dead."

"At once, sir!"

And so he waited, giving plenty of time for the army to organize. He called forward those he'd reanimated by magic means, but all the rest needed other methods. In his mind he could see those gathering and forming up already, the lines neat and without the normal noise a crowd would generate. As soon as all the reanimated were gathered he stepped out into the silence and began his speech.

"Rejoice! Rejoice in this news, Brothers and Sisters! The Hero is __dead__. News straight from the great Derkcomind Kon pyoo tyr. Yesterday our Wonderfully, nay, Gloriously courageous Lem'rii brethren killed him as he led his army of cowardly, craven thugs and rapists deeper into their lands.

"But know this - The war is not over. We must still fight on! Fight to achieve our heavenly ordained glorious destiny... Struggle to free ourselves of the shackles of fealty the craven, honorless dogs of the Goddess would force us to wear. And here I renew my Vow... All will be free of the foul, unholy and unnatural Goddess, be free from rule by beings whose power any of us could wield with the proper training!

"These vainglorious, pompous, bloodthirsty and ruthless attack dogs of the Goddess must be killed. These unwashed heathens, these swine that call themselves righteous must be culled - killed or enslaved to ensure the Glorious Destiny I have been sent to bring the free peoples of Arh. Brothers and Sisters, you know deep inside that if any of them survive they will just seek to..."

Throughout the camp the living celebrated, ignoring the grand speech that was being wasted on the uncaring and nearly brainless zombies. They heard enough of it to know it was more gloating, but for the troops, all that mattered was the next town to plunder. Almost all of them followed Sarkadan for that reason alone - he let them loot and keep what they found.


Alarms fill the corridors of the hidden labs that the Goddess calls home. The AI spins into motion and long-dormant nano-machines come to life. Thousands of miles away Victor Fliegel lies dead, his brain kept alive by other nano-machines. Before they can bury him or worse, burn him, action is called for. Across the distance signals cross, unfettered by the noise of communication thousands of year in the past. Nano-machines in Fliegels body go to work, repairing damage and working to bring a dead body back to life.

It will take time and energy, both of which are in short supply, but the Hero must live. The task is incomplete and nothing matters but that task - saving the experiment and the planet. Quick bursts of code fly through the atmosphere, bouncing off satellites, living and dead, that might be able to help offset a pyre. One, two then three respond, all weakly, but they are there. More code flies about, carrying instructions and inquiries of status.

The Goddess has what she needs to forestall the worst case scenario. Two of them are weather control satellites, and both cover the region she needs them to. Another burst of radio traffic and yet more code hits the weather satellites, causing them to come to life and directly begin affecting weather patterns in a specific part of the world. Directly underneath the first a low pressure zone forms and clouds build rapidly. In a matter of minutes a massive thunderstorm is ready to go, waiting just that final push for the clouds to open.

Base Camp
Funeral of a Hero

A body laid out on a Bier seems to have a gravitational force all it's own. And it doubles when the person on the bier is famous or powerful. Both described the body on this bier - the current corporeal form of one Victor Fliegel, Hero of the Goddess. The camp was deathly silent as people approached the bier, tears in their eyes, to say goodbye to someone who had brought them hope for an uncertain future.

Around the bier the crowd stood nine and ten deep, with few pushing through to see the body or lay small items of personal import with it. It would only be a few hours until the pyre was lit and the soul sent to join the others in the afterlife. And all knew the Goddess would be there to greet her chosen hero with open arms. That thought was of little comfort to any of them, as everyone felt he was needed in the here and now to defeat the evil that threatened them.

Far from the bier and the mourning masses three figures argue in a large tent. On the table in front of them is a sword harness with a single steel blade and a single wooden blade in the sheaths. The men themselves, though none appear to mourn the passing of their leader, are themselves hurt deeply. For one was a blood brother to the deceased, while the other two had called him Lord and Master.

"Khentyn, I tell you that we should wait - the Goddess will send us another Hero. She has never failed to do so in the past!" The voice of the Lapi'in leader is harsh, almost guttural. For him the loss of the Hero was a hard blow, since he'd brought his people more than a thousand miles to find him. But there would be vengeance sought - the Lapi'in would practice the ancient arts of the battle rage until the day they were gone from the planet or that death had been avenged.

"And I say we should decide now! The war has begun, we cannot sit and wait! To do such would be foolish and asking to lose." Words are almost a roar from the throat of Leng Khentyn, blood brother to the Hero. In his society such a bond goes deeper, even, then siblings born of your parents. The death of the Hero in such an unheroic manner had hurt him deeply, left him on the edge of sanity. But even more blood was calling out for vengeance, and great blood it was. And vengeance was what custom called for - he would kill the leader of the enemies with nothing more than his claws and fangs.

"Both of you are right. But this is not the time or place - Victors pyre hasn't even been lit! Can we save this for another day?" Mikel Sanger had viewed the Hero as being as much a friend as his Lord. Among the Cantorii the bond of one who saves you life to you is deeper than even the bonds of marriage. He planned to take his own life when the Pyre was lit, charging into it to accompany the Hero into the afterlife. It had been his duty, his sole obligation, to protect the Hero and repay the debt of honor he owed. And he had failed - his honor was broken and none would follow him now. The only path honor allowed him to take was death - accompanying the one whom he had failed into the afterlife.

Though it apeared dead the body on the bier was far from it. Machines, extensions of the Goddess far too small for anyone to see without complex instruments kept it alive. And they were working furiously to repair the damage that had been done to it. Such was the will of their master, the will of the computer that believed itself the Goddess of this strangely rebuilt and populated Earth. Victor Fliegel, alone in the blackness of life without living was buried in memories.

Dreams of the Dead

She had wiped my mind to hide the truth of her existence and the entrance to her hiding place a secret. Not that I knew this at the time - I was waking from a dream in which I was taught many forms of the martial arts into a world I didn't recognize. My first thought on coming to was a curse directed at the people of Transmatics - cursing them for having screwed up again. But with that squashed I realized that I was in the middle of a forest, something that hadn't existed in more than two centuries on Earth.

So I gathered my wits and tried to wipe away what I thought was a leaf. Shock and horror rolled through me as I realized I was seeing a part of my body, a canine muzzle, extending from my face. Standing, finally, I found it was like walking on my toes, although it was far more comfortable than that. Once more I cursed Transmatics, then looked around to see if anything I'd had on me during the experiment survived.

Next to where I had lain were a pair of swords in ornate leather sheaths. On one was the name "Tangis-Ka" and on the other "Tango-Ka". Almost instinctively I picked them up and strapped the belt they were attached around my waist. Not that I really had any idea of how to use them, but if this world was going to be any stranger than it already was, I'd need something more than the knife I'd carried for defense before Transmatics latest accident.

The faint scent of woodsmoke in the air set my path and I started to walk into the woods, whether father in or out of them I couldn't say. Birds were singing faintly and insects hummed all around as my journey began, only to be interrupted by a sudden jolt of pain. Then the world spun around me and I was speaking with a Felin, and the muzzle in my vision was definitely feline. I could feel the weight of the blades at my hip and across my lower back.

Without knowing how I kew this was more than a hundred years later in time. I was in the middle of a fort that appeared to be laid out like a Roman outpost, and a war was going on. The Goddess had pulled me through time and given me a new body - this time I had to save the Felin people from extinction at the hands of a race that called themselves the "Cinet". Memories flooded through me and the upcoming battle returned to me. My mouth was open to lay out the final parts of the plan when the world faded out.

When the world faded back in I was looking at myself in a mirror. From the waist up my body was much as I remembered it being when I was human. But as I looked down, then stepped back to let the mirror reflect more of me I found that I had a ragged furred line about the level of my waist, and below that was thebody of a horse. I blinked in shock, then the world changed again.

Airborne, flying aloft like a bird, supported by wings that were part of my body. Strapped to each hip in aerodynamic sheaths were the two blades I had first seen and used many centuries before. But I was tired of not having two edged blades, and that was why I had a chunk of raw pig-iron in my arms. My wings were struggling to keep my flight level and still maintain altitude, felt like they would fall off if I didn't land soon.

They just had to hold out for another minute, as the roost and cave I used as a home and workshop were ahead. When my taloned feet touched the rock my wings furled and lay flat against my body. With careful steps I walked into the workshop and checked the fire in the forge, then put the small ingot of iron in it, added some more of the rare and precious coal it used and started pumping the bellows with a foot. Minutes passed and the iron had passed the cherry red stage and was almost white hot. Tongs seemed to leap into my hands and I pulled it from the forge,m set it on the anvil and began hammering away at it. Suddenly the world shifted and I was walking down a dusty trail, speaking to a centaur - no a Cantorii - when figures that appeared almost human rose from the scrub on either side of the trail.

My hands reached for blades that I was deadly proficient with and had them out only a fraction of a second before the pain repeated - a searing, white-hot pain that cut a line through my chest and caused my heart to jump and stop. The world was spinning as I fell to the ground, my lifeblood spurting around the shaft of a crossbow bolt. "Lucky shot" I muttered, then began to say something , ask a question of the strange Goddess that ruled this planet.

"Wake up, Victor Fliegel. You are not dead, and you are needed." A voice, at once sultry and feminine yet mechanical pierced the blackness that was descending. A flash of memory shot through me, identifying the voice as the AI that had saved me from the time-loop Transmatics had thrown me into. Then another flash, and memories long repressed and buried came out, brining with it knowledge that I couldn't die, wasn't allowed to and at the same time came the knowledge that I was more than ten-thousand years old at the time that crossbow bolt had struck.

The Funeral

As the light of day turned to dusk an assemblage of the various groups representatives formed outside the tent that had been home to the Hero. When the last light of the day had fled the sky and the form of the Hunter could be seen among the stars a mournful howl arose from a group of Lupii behind the bier that was soon to be a pyre.

As if unwilling to be outdone a low rumbling roar that seemed to shake the ground started among the Felin that were arrayed to the left of the unlit pyre. These two sounds counterpointed each other perfectly, and set an easy to follow beat. Almost a minute after, when the head of the procession placed the first unlit bundle of dried reed under the body on the pyre Cantorii voices joined in, singing in notes no other race could hope to reach or carry.

They sung a song of simplicity and humility as well as prowess in battle and how the deceased was loved by the Goddess. The effect was one of awe-inspiring beauty and soul-numbing grief all at once. As each new faggot of reed was added to the pyre another voice joined the song, until finally only three men were left, each carrying a lit torch.

Mikel Sanger was close to tears. Victor Fliegel had been a friend and one who truly understood the Cantorii spirit. He had been there to comfort Sanger after the painful loss of his last surviving child... Had forgiven him for ever doubting that he could lead them to victory. Slowly he inserted the torch into the pyre and steped back, his voice joining those already singing the life of the Hero, waiting for the right moment to leap on the pyre and assuage the debt of honor that had gone unpaid.

Leng Khentyn approached the pyre next, his grand mane shorn completely off. Even when others had insisted he keep it, he had obligations. Victor Fliegel had been his blood brother and his friend. This was his funeral, not the funeral of Split-Tail or any of the others who had died in the war. His face devoid of emotion and his scent carrying a complex mix of rage, fear and sadness he jammed the torch into the pyre, the dried faggots of reed and wood immediately catching. That done he stepped back and took his place next to Sanger, his mouth opening and a low, inaudible roar poured forth, it's presence known only in how it was felt by those close to him.

The Lapi'in joined in with the song as Pha'eel stepped forward and thrust his torch into the pyre, their voices mingling with his in a chant that spoke of power. As he took his place beside the other generals thunder rolled across the heavens, bringing the song to an abrupt end. Pha'eel let the cloak he had worn drop, revealing a symbol died in red on his chest. At first glance both Khentyn and Sanger believed it to be the mark of the Hero, but both noticed that it had a sword in the opening rather than the open eye that the Hero wore.

"See, even the Goddess mourns his passing!" Pha'eel spoke as thunder rolled again and the clouds burst, rain pouring down rapidly and damping the flames.

Everyone looked to the heavens in silent glory, as nowhere in the histories had such an event been recorded as happening. This Hero was truly special to the Goddess if the sign was true, so special that she even mourned at his passing. A bolt of lightning flashed from the heavens and struck in the space between the pyre and the Lupii. As the vision returned to those blinded by the flash a winged figure was standing where the lightning had struck.

Another bolt of lightning arced from the heavens, the accompanying clap of thunder knocking the closest Lapi'in off their feet. Once more a winged figure was standing right where the lightning had struck when vision returned to the flash-blinded eyes of the crowd. This continued fore more than ten minutes, with more and more winged figures appearing.

After what seemed like an eternity the winged figures gathered on the pathway leading to the bier and joined in one the song, their keening voices providing a brilliant and hope-filled counterpoint to the song of mourning. The wind howled louder, blew harder as the rain picked up pace and the drops got larger. Then there were a series of brilliant flashes, one, two and finally three bolts of lightning struck the body laying on the smoldering pyre, drawing gasps from the crowd. Mikel Sanger reacted first, running towards the pyre, only to be brought to a screeching halt as the body on it sat up.

At that moment more winged figures spiralled out of the sky, landing neatly around the pyre. In the gloom of the night, lit only by fires and the occasional lightning bolt they looked like Angels. Each turned and walked to the pyre in turn, silent and not speaking, as if they knew something the rest of the people there did not. Finally they formed into a block and one stepped forward to speak. Before any words could leave his mouth a voice resounded throughout the camp.

Victor Fliegel felt as though he'd been hit by several semi trucks as he sat up. Memories of more than fifty lifetimes raged through his mind as he spun and stood, rainwater boiling and rising as steam from his body still hot from the lightning strikes. His eyes scanned the crowd, missing a lot of detail as they struggled to adjust to the low level of light. He was halfway out of the pyre when he was stopped by a voice that seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

"This is my chosen Hero. He shall die at the time I specify and not before. Listen to him, follow him into battle and you shall be victorious." People looked around, seeking the source of the voice. Everyone of them had heard it at one time or another - it was the voice of the Goddess. This was a momentous event, for surely the Lem'rii that had ambushed them had reported the Hero dead, yet here he was, stepping from his funeral bier and pyre alive and unharmed.

"Get the sentries out, now! Everyone, get back to work! Sanger, Leng, Pha'eel - meet me in my..." Victor Fliegel stopped speaking as he noticed that Leng Khentyn, leader of the last free Felin people had shorn his mane. "Khentyn, brother, I appreciate the gesture. I have much to speak of the coming battle, much to speak of our plans and much to tell you of the history of this planet. The Goddess has revealed much to me. I'll see you in my tent in a half hour."

"You, you are the Cheeeruprup of the members of the Keeroocheerup that are here? Join me in my tent as well. There is much to discuss." The title and name were more of a mangled whistle than words, but the one he was speaking to understood him.

The bird-man nodded and turned to his people, sending them into a flurry of activity as he spoke to them in a rapid series of sounds not unlike birdsong. Suddenly one came forward carrying something wrapped tightly in an oiled leather, then handed it to the one commanding the others. As the rest dispersed the Cheee-rup-rup, the Leader of the Rup-chee-rup, the "Ru'chii" walked towards the tent the Hero had indicated. What he carried was of vital importance to his mission, and was something that was needed to win the war he was engaged in.

"Sanger, Khentyn, Pha'eel - I'd like you to meet Chirup. The name means "Projectile", though it is probably better translated as "Arrow". He is the leader of the Ru'chii, the bird people of legend." It was as simple an introduction as I could muster. I translated his name for them as I doubted any but Sanger could come close to reproducing the trilling whistle that identified him.

Each stepped forward in turn and greeted him in their own way, introducing themselves along with any titles they laid claim to. As soon as that was finished I placed the package Arrow had brought to me on the table, on top of the maps that were laid out there.

"Now, I have grave news and much to tell you. The first is that I know exactly the problem we face, and it is indeed serious. Sarkadan has managed to seize control of an ancient power, something from before the birth of the Goddess. This power is what gives him his abilities."

Stony faces surrounded me, unsurprised by that revelation. I hadn't expected that result, so I carried on, describing the problem in greater detail. "His power originally extended only to those who were in his presence, but those people spread the means of his power working among others. The Goddess has told me she is working on counteracting this for our people, but that for the time being we must not let the enemies blood or other fluids remain on us longer than absolutely necessary."

The four men in my presence looked at each other, as if wondering who understood that revelation. I sighed and fought to think of a way to simplify the matter so they could grasp it - I had forgotten these people have no idea of epidemiology. But how could I explain that Sarkadan did his magic through nano-machines without revealing that the Goddess isn't a deity, but a really advanced machine?

"Think of the plague, and how sometimes a person in the same house as one suffering it doesn't become ill, but someone else who has cleaned up after the sick person does? It's because of contact with blood, spittle or other fluids. It's the same with Sarkadans power - only it's spread like a cold among the people who call him master. The Goddess has already solved that for us, but hasn't solved the problem of it passing on through blood and other things yet."

Ah, good, they understood that. Overly simplified, but I did manage to sidestep the issue of the Goddess actually being a computer. Wish I could tell them about the past of this planet and the people who used to populate it - even if just as a morality tale to help keep them from mistakes that Humanity had made. But that would again require me revealing more than they are ready to understand.

"Another thing the Goddess revealed to me is that there has only been one Hero. That is, one Hero that has been put in different bodies. When I died she showed me this so that I would keep pushing onwards. The vow I made when Split-Tail died stands - I made it too many times in the past, and those stand as well."

That didn't go over too well... The look on their faces could either be surprise or plain shock. Seems they are like all of mankind has been, putting restrictions on beings that, by definition, don't have human limitations. But they'll get over it, after all they are all very intelligent and capable. Can't just force them to change their thinking, though - I suppose I'd think the same if I hadn't grown up in a culture that had religions where gods were literally all-powerful.

"Hero, we have brought you that which you left with us years past." Arrow said, referring to the package. I knew exactly what it was - a blade I'd once crafted as a twin to Tangis-Ka. The fact that it had survived and they knew that the Hero was around also told me that the Goddess was still in constant contact with them.

Sanger looked interested, but the other two just looked on, stony, emotionless expressions hiding any interest they may have had. Well, not like I can expect them to be interested in something this mundane. They had just witnessed my resurrection - the unveiling of a twin to Tangis-Ka, or even the hint at it's existence wouldn't be enough to shake them.

"This is a blade I crafted myself, using knowledge that the Goddess gave me. It is almost five hundred years old..." That drew their interest, enough that they were almost staring holes in the oiled leather as I unfolded it to reveal not only the blade, but the harness I had worn it on, complete with the two empty sheaths for Tangis-Ka and Tango-Ka.

5 miles south of the Lem'rii Capital

"Sanger, you and your men are going to cover all the possible routes out of the city. Main roads and any back exits the buildings might have." Sanger nods, knowing that the watch duty is because his people are the fastest and have never let anyone escape an assault blanket.

"Pha'eel, your men are going to be the spearhead of our thrust - the Lem'rii have never faced the Lapi'in and your battle rage will sow panic and confusion among any who stand in our way." Gotta love it when that rabbit smiles. Means he not only likes the plan, but that it's exactly the role he wanted for his people in the battle.

"Khentyn - the Felin are to follow behind the Lapi'in and provide back-up in case of ambushes or shield-walls. They are also to destroy any building in which the enemy hides to attack us from cover." Yes, it could hurt any families and children that might be in those buildings, but they gave up any neutrality they may have had by allowing their homes to be used as fighting positions. Yes, the thought of children dying did give me a pang of regret, but my vow didn't extend to the children of my enemy.

"Arrow - half your men are to take bows into the air. Half will carry a few grenades and a lit match-cord to light them. You are our vanguard and surprise for the Lem'rii - with your help we'll break their ambushes and shield walls so that the rest can face a diminished force on our route to their Kings house." The bird laughed at that, knowing that it had been so long since his people had mingled with the rest of the world that they were little more than legends.

The four generals worked out the small details among themselves - I may be a great strategician and a fair hand at tactics, but the fine details of armament and logistics were beyond me. That conversation didn't require me, so I excused myself and went to work out a bit - I'd found a sparring partner among the Ru'chii who gave me a challenge and this would be the last chance to practice my skills for a long time. After we took the Lem'rii capital and killed the leadership we'd face a guerilla campaign on our march to leave their territory and face Sarkadan.

The Next Day

"Remember the plan - remember the training. Head or heart - we want to destroy the walking dead and keep our kills from rising again. Any death in our forces will require a blade through the heart or a decapitation - if we don't our own men may rise against us.

"This is our first and only shot at crippling the Lem'rii that make up the backbone of Sarkadans front-rank fighters. Without their leaders here and the generals we've already killed their chain of command will be broken, as will their moral. That is our goal today! The officers know the plan and should have briefed you already, so form up and move out." I'm not one for speeches, but after some of the problems we had with earlier battles has forced me to make sure everyone knows a minimal amount about the plan.

Me and Sanger walked among the Cantorii troops, and I noticed he was wearing a new weapon. With each step he took it made a ringing sound - that's what caused me to look at his feet. Strapped to his hooves were wicked looking blades that'd make his kicks even more deadly. When I saw them a memory of having drawn up a design for them during my last stint as a Cantorii Hero returned. That brought a smile to my face, as it seemed they had retained my notebooks and were using the ideas in them.

"I see you've kept my old notebooks, Sanger. The hoof-knives were almost harder to design then the distance marking carriage." No, I didn't originate the other device I'd mentioned - it had been used by the Romans to lay out the mile markers for their roads. But I did re-introduce the concept to a society that mirrored the Romans in many ways. The clanging stopped and I turned to face him.

"You still aren't comfortable with the fact that I am the same Hero so revered by your people?"

"No, Victor, not at all. It's just that... My family is descended from that Hero. It would make you a full member of my clan and my distant ancestor." His reply came out in a boiling torrent, the Cantorii language rolling off his tongue so fast I almost didn't understand what he'd said. Not knowing how to reply to the fact that my distant descendant was standing next to me I just nodded. Then I turned and took a step, my hand raised in a sign that meant "Follow Me".

We were almost to the staging point for the Cantorii legion when I decided to be blunt in my reply. "Mikel Sanger - I am proud to know my blood flows through your veins and it saddens me to realize that you might be the last remnant of Co'lor'a on the planet. When my memory returned during that brief period where I lay dead I began to pine for the companionship of all the women I have taken as my wife throughout the years. I decided to push that emotion aside, comforted by the thought that my descendants may still be around. But to hear..." Tears welled up in my eyes and I found myself unable to continue. I had been speaking to him of things in the ancient Cantorii tongue, so that none knew what we spoke of.

He soundlessly pulled my into a hug and kissed my forehead the way he would have kissed his sires forehead as a sign of the pure love of a family. If anything helped me regain my composure, that did. When I was finally able to speak again I cleaned my face and looked at him. "Please, Sanger, speak of this to no-one. The Hero is supposed to have no emotions before or during a battle - I am supposed to be an emotionless spirit of justice, vengeance and death."

With a nod he turned and walked off to start his troops into motion so we could start the attack. I made it to my place alongside Pha'eel at the head of the Lapi'in force only minutes before the horn trumpets sounded announcing that the army was ready to move out. On that cue I howled and the nearest trumpeter began to play the "move out" song. We had five miles to march before we passed into the city and the fighting began. Already we'd lost a few hours due to last minute difficulties, but all thought of that left my mind as I stook the leading step forward and the army followed behind me, unshod feet rapidly raising a cloud of dust while being quieter than the militaries of my youth.

Fifteen minutes after the march started we passed a way marker from the original Cantorii expansion. As if that was a sign a cadence rose among the Lapi'in and was quickly picked up by the rest of the army. I found myself singing along as we marched towards the Lem'rii capital city and the first real battle of the war.

The cadence fell silent as I raised my hand and signalled the horn players. A Ru'chii scout had come low enough to signal me that he had information about coming battle. We were close enough to the city to smell the smoke of it's forges and cookfires - any information at this point was prone to be absolutely vital. Seeing that we'd stopped he spiraled down and landed next to me. Before he began speaking I looked at the City in the distance, no more than five miles away. Only after making a note of it did I face him and signal him to start the report.

"Small groups in the first three alleys that cross the main stretch. Possibly more in the buildings. We can't get open bowshots at them - the alleys are covered. Appears to be stonework." In the excitement he'd forgotten that I was the only one among the ground forces who understood their language.

"Calm down and repeat the news in Common..." I studied the marking on his uniform that actually carried his name. "...Fweeir. I understand, but the other generals here do not."

Khentyn had joined us at the head of the column about at the last way-marker and nodded in agreement with me. Pha'eel just looked at me curiously, as if I'd made a bad assumption about him not speaking the Ru'chii tongue. There was a tense minute as Fweehir calmed himself down, then he repeated his message. I looked from Pha'eel to Khentyn and pondered various ways to trip the ambush without risking to many lives.

"Fweeir, do you know if there is a way for us to get small groups of men into those alleys and behind the enemies waiting for us there?" Call it a inspiration, but if we could get into those alleys behind the waiting ambushers it would be like the slaughter at the first Lem'rii outpost we hit. I'd have rather tried something different, because you should never expect the same trick to work more than once against a given enemy but I had never led an asssault against an unwalled city in all the time I'd spent as "The Hero".

He cocked his head and clacked his beak a few times, then responded. "I am not sure, Hero. I was just the closest to you. But I think... " He cut his sentence short and leaped into the air, his wings snapping open at the apex and flapping, carrying him up towards the other Ru'chii that were flying overhead. I watched his flight, tracking his movements using skills the Goddess had sought to leave me only able to access during a battle.

After five minutes he landed again and began speaking in a torrent of whistles, clicks and chirps. Unable to follow the rush of sounds myself I waved a hand and he realized his mistake. "Sorry, Hero. What I was trying to say is that there are roads that lead to other entrances of those alleys, and they appear to be unguarded, but both end with a wall and a well."

"Thank you Fweeir. You can go." I turned around and looked at Khentyn and Pha'eel. Both looked rather impatient, as if I was keeping them from dying. That brought a frown to my face and caused me to rethink what I was going to tell them. So I let the ideas run through my head and looked for situations where Murphy's Law could screw us.

Unable to figure a way to get people over the reported walls I pulled out the minicomp and called up a topological map and one that also showed all underground features. As I looked at the underground features I spotted something I didn't want to believe existed. There was, apparently, a section of the ancient city-planet underneath us. The Lem'rii, apparently, had located their city on the site of a group of natural hot springs that had been exploited by Humanity in the forgotten past.

"Make camp - full fort. All sentries out. Recall the Ru'chii and Cantorii - the battle will be tomorrow." Rumbles of distaste roared across the crowd as the bugles sounded and instructions were passed along. I grabbed Khentyn and Pha'eel, to attempt to show them what I had found, but the minicomp was dead. Through sheer force of will I managed to just put it away rather than destroy it in accord with the anger I felt.

"Pha'eel - you're in charge of security. Khentyn, you and Sanger share command of the camp. I need one team... I may have a way to win this battle without fighting it." By the time I had finished Arrow was beside me. So I turned to him and put him in charge of the far scouts - the ones that would likely be the first to spot attackers coming at night.

Ten days had passed while I searched for the tunnels. We found several, but we were still searching for the southwestern tunnel. Of the tunnels we had found several contained remnants of human civilization, but none were usable. I had decided to give up the search if this day proved fruitless, and with little daylight left it seemed we'd be marching back to join the rest of the army during the darkness of a new-moon night.

Then, just as the sun slipped below the horizon one of the men on the team searching with me literally stumbled across the entrance. Here the tunnels ran close to the surface and part of the roof caved in when he stepped on it. We enlarged the hole and I had myself lowered in so I could tell if the tunnel was the right one.

As I entered the tunnel long disused lights flickered to life and signs on the walls, amazingly free of any tarnish or oxidation, clearly showed this to have been a transit tunnel. The tunnel stretched off into the distance, pointing straight at the Lem'rii settlement. Ecstatic I scurried up the rope and howled in achievement. "Jam'ta - we've found the first tunnel. Tomorrow we search on the opposite side of the road. But only for one day. Even with just this one tunnel our task is made easier. Go, tell the Generals and get a team out here that can keep this position."

She took off at full speed, darting around trees and leaping over obstacles like some kind of demented cross-country runner. The men had already begun setting camp, so I started walking the perimeter, wanting them to have a bit of downtime to gloat over the discovery. Colors disapeared along with the light as dusk became the moonless night of a new moon. Around me the world was shades of grey highlighted with flashes that meant something was moving across my vision.

An hour later I was still walking the perimeter, but others had joined me, noticing that I was treating the temporary camp here as I would any camp when we stopped for the night. Jam'ta wouldn't be back until morning, so anything that approached the camp was either the enemy, or an unexpected visitor - for which I prepared a simple sign/countersign system. A yawn shook my body, then stopped abruptly as a twig snapped loudly behind me. I spun and drew Tangis-Ka, looking into the greyness of the night for what had made the sound.

"Frederick?" I issued the sign, thinking one of the others might have crossed my path on their patrol. No answer came after a few moments, but what did was the smell of Lem'rii. There was nothing visible to me, until a figure leaned out and looked around a scrub-bush. Rather than wait for confirmation - I had given the challenge - I charged. A single swing of the sword dropped the one I had scene first.

"Alarm! To ME! Lem'rii assault!" I shouted as Lem'rii seemed to materialize from where they had hidden themselves. Before I had time to do much more than call for help they were on me and I was fighting for my life. The sword I had forged to be a twin of Tangis-Ka seemed to leap into my hand as a Lem'rii sword flashed at my head. Sparks flew from the impact as I redirected the cut so the Lem'rii blade slid harmlessly away form me.

Seconds later another Lem'rii lay dead and I was left without recourse - the sword strikes were raining in so fast I was barely able to block them. A prayer formed in my mind, one of hope that the Goddess, that damned, infernal bastard of a computer, would finally let me die when one of my attackers sprouted a foot of steel. Then another's head disappeared and I knew my team had heard the call and were finally there.

When the attack looked hopeless to the remaining Lem'rii they tried to flee. My knife flew straight and thudded into the back of one, hitting higher than I had aimed and severing the spinal column. The rest were chased down and killed by my team as I cleaned my blades of blood, using the thin cotton tunic of a dead Lem'rii. Then I sheathed the blades and collapsed at the base of the tree, memories of deaths from numerous lives flooding into me, along with the realization that I'd been acting like I was immortal. Though the Goddess did see to me, giving me new bodies and life extending treatments I could still die, and fear of that flooded through me - the first fear I'd felt since waking in this strange future.

I was woken as dawn broke by the return of Jam'ta. Dread and fear of death hung with me, but I forced them aside and focused on the task at hand. "Guard that hole. Watch out, we had a Lem'rii raiding party attack last night." So I was a bit short with them, not even praising the troops that had done such a great job repulsing the raiding party. Call it being tired of the fight, tired of being used like a military assault drone.

The blades were in their sheaths, so I picked up my pack and set off to find the other tunnel. With luck we'd find a similar sinkhole. I didn't expect luck of that sort, and I had less than a week to find it - longer than that and we'd have to conduct raids to just feed the army. When we reached the camp I stopped to fill Sanger and the others in on the discovery and what it meant.

"This tunnel alone might take us all the way to their kings residence. All we'd have to do is slip in after nightfall, capture the king and anyone else and leave. If we do it right no-one will ever suspect that we were there. Then a few days later we can return and put the king on display." I hope the king won't die when I torture him, since I knew he was getting on in years. But torture had proven the only reliable way to get anything from the Lem'rii.

Khentyn started to object, and I knew exactly what it would be. While the Felin delighted in the hunt and the use of stealth to approach prey, in war they had some strange ideas. Among them was the thought that you had to let your enemy see you before you killed them. That type of honor was a way to lose wars, since if you let the enemy see you then they have a good chance of killing you.

"Khentyn, I'll repeat this for you one more time - War isn't about fairness or honor - it's about destroying your enemy before they can do the same to you. If you let honor tell you not to take any advantage you can get in war, then you will lose." I didn't bother waiting, I just walked out of the tent to go back to the search to find the other tunnel my minicomp had said existed before dying on me.

Three days of searching and I happen to find it - quite painfully. I'd woken and gone to take a piss - had just started when I felt my foot move. Then there was a rumble and the earth gave out under me. Not that I fell into the hole - the pain was from hanging onto the side of a roughly barked tree for nearly an hour. After the first thirty minutes my hands cramped from keeping my claws clamped into the wood. If they had slipped before help got to me I would have taken a fifteen foot fall into the pit that had opened up.

Once more I sent Jam'ta with the message that we had found what we were looking for. Though the men thought I had accepted women into the army because of their fleetness of foot and utility as messengers I had done it for other reasons. Throughout history women have made some of the best warriors. Their extreme levels of pain tolerance and the almost innate ability to channel rage into action work well on the battlefield. Couple that with most peoples early training to treat females specially and you wind up with very effective soldiers.

Jam'ta understood this fully, and is why I had named her my shield-mate, the one who was to watch my back during a battle. Once again the men thought I had a different reason for doing this, one that involved sex and a want to protect her. At night when we talked, sitting at my cookfire she thought this was hilarious, and once asked if I had chosen her to be my page without declaring it. That had caused me to laugh, then I explained why I wouldn't name another page. Though I had begun teaching her advanced techniques I was doing it to help make sure she could survive battles.

There may have been more to it than that - I certainly couldn't deny that she exuded beauty and sexuality. But for the duration of this war and what struggles would certainly follow I had to push physical desires aside. The wait would be boring if I didn't keep busy, so I pulled one of the men away from looking into the pit and began sparring against him, with one hand literally tied behind my back. The fight was instructive for me - I learned that, just like my memories showed, I could indeed fight with only one hand. Only problem was that reflexes ingrained into my muscles before trying that trick kept throwing me off.

We had been sparring continuously for nearly an hour by the time Jam'ta returned, with another two squads in reserve. Over the next hour we went over the plans, and finally sent a runner - not Jam'ta, as she'd already done the job today - to tell the other group to lower a pair into the other tunnel. That pair was to do exactly what we were going to, namely walk until we found out if we could get into the wells. If anything else was to be found they were to do their best to either retrieve it or make notes as to what it was. I'd be doing the exact same thing, with Jam'ta in tow, since she was my shield-mate.

When I finally descended on a rope into the tunnel the lights didn't flicker into life like they had in the other tunnel. "Toss a lit torch down here and let me look around. Jam'ta, I'll let you know if it's clear for you to come down."

In the flickering light of the torch that was dropped down I could already see the tunnel might not pan out. The acrylic covers on the lights were melted and there was ash covering every visible surface. A steady drip, like water falling into a pool caught my attention and I walked towards the Lem'rii city, the dripping noise getting steadily louder as I walked on. About fifteen feet in a single light flickered into life, then another. With that light available I walked back to the opening.

"Jam'ta, come down. Then someone lower our overnight packs. It might take us some time to fully check out this tunnel." I wasn't too sure of that. The ceramic and carbon fiber of the walls looked like an inferno had raged through the area. My only reason for deciding to explore further was the fact that water appeared to be in the tunnel in some manner, and that might mean we could access one of the wells - just a backup plan. I'd prefer it if we could make it to the lowest basements of the Presidential Palace. If that was possible through at least one tunnel the battle through the city wouldn't need to take place.

But so far I wasn't getting my hopes up. If we could use this to access one of the wells it'd be possible to have the planned ambushes rather easily broken by taking out half the men with a second force. That's why the sound of water had made me decide to explore the tunnel despite the apparent damage. And if this tunnel didn't pan out, we could always use the other tunnel - that seemed to be in better shape. Still, if there is anything I hate, it's not exploring the possibilities - learned that lesson a long time ago, when I lost a considerable number of men because I hadn't checked for a simpler way across a river and decided to try and ford it.

"Jam'ta, stick close and keep the flints ready. Don't know when these ancient lights are going to give out..." I said as I began to walk back toward the halo of light offered by the flickering and only partially functional lights. The existence of these tunnels was surprising - I had thought that the Goddess had removed them all when she teraformed this section of the world. Not that it mattered, in fact, their existence might prove to be a fortuitous accident. Just something I'd have to ask her the next time she had me in for surgery before cryosleep.

As we went deeper into the tunnel the lights were just as erratic, and the soot covering every surface thicker. But in the quiet I could hear not only the sound of dripping water, but running water. Because of that I quickened the pace, hoping that even if we did find a dead-end we'd find that the tunnel had collapsed in a useful way, perhaps revealing an underground river. But it would still be a long time before we were done in this tunnel, as even at the now normal walking pace I was maintaining five miles is a good bit of distance.

Two Days Later

The first tunnel had been a dead end. Either it had caused the fire that had covered it in ash or the fire had caused the collapse. Walls had buckled around the collapse, and the sound of running water was clear. But unless I was prepared to risk lives trying to clear the collapse - something extremely dangerous with the technology available - there was no way the tunnel would be of use. Jam'ta seemed disappointed that we didn't discover the bones of an ancient monster or a horde of something useful in there, but I wasn't. For a good portion of the time I'd spent in that tunnel I was afraid I might wind up exposing her to technology she had no choice of understanding.

When we got back to the main camp I had a courts-martial to convene. Khentyn, Sanger and Pha'eel normally handled this type of duty, but only for their own people. In this case they had caught a Lupii warrior with a pair of stolen hoof-blades. Sanger's spare pair, to be precise. Since the crime was by a Lupii, and the victim was Sanger they had decided not to use the tribunal that they normally used for the Lupii hearings. Not that I had known any Lupii had required a courts-martial in the past, as they tried to keep everything managerial from me.

The one time I had asked them why I hadn't been informed of other Lupii courts-martial's their answer was, "You are the Hero. You plan the battles and command us - that is your job. Ours is to keep the army ready to carry out your plans." I didn't argue with them, didn't inform them that this was the first time I'd had anyone keep such managerial tasks from me. In truth I was relieved, as more than a thousand years of leading armies had made me weary of the task. But I had a purpose, I was helping to rebuild the world and keep various people free to rule themselves.

For the trial itself I was stoic, and thankful when I realized how short it was going to be. It wasn't even really worth the time, as it was a cut and dried case. Nitetiger, the Lupii in question claimed he had one them from a Cantorii while throwing bones. Since I knew whose they were, and you could tell by the material and make they weren't for the common soldier, that seemed quite far-fetched. His testimony was made even more laughable by the fact that neither Sanger nor his personal attendant gambled. The only part of the whole process I didn't like, and have never liked, was delivering the sentence. Ten lashes with a leather and cane baton are painful and public punishment is humiliating.

I was thinking about that when me and Jam'ta reached the hole I had originally found. The first thing I noticed was a ladder sticking out of the hole. "Nice. Thank you for the thought, but I'd still like someone to hold a safety rope for my descent. I'm a bit heavier than I look."

That wasn't far from the truth. I had a far higher percentage of muscle mass than normal Lupii and that meant more weight. Toras, the squads non-com, grabbed the rope I had used to get into the tunnel a week before and I mounted the ladder. With each step down I grew more confident in the ladders sturdiness, and felt proud that I had such skilled men in my army. The squad I had left guarding this hole was one of the ones I had taken on that first raid, so I had formed a plan to reward them by the time I had reached the floor of the tunnel.

"Toras, lower down the packs while Jam'ta climbs..." I cut myself off, seeing that she was scrambling down the ladder like a spider dropping on a thread. Our packs made it a minute later, almost unceremoniously thrown into the tunnel. At least they'd tied the rope to them and they had come in slow enough that none of the food they contained splatted.

The lights had once more come to life, showing the ceramic tiles that covered the carbon fiber of the walls true surface. Jam'ta looked around in wander, stunned by the unmarred beauty of the walls as much as the flood of light from the tunnels overhead fluorescent tubes. From those lights alone I knew this section of the tunnels was from one of the oldest parts of the city. In the section where I had lived, euphamistically "New Town" though it was just one spire, all lights were LED based. Down here I guess would have been an off limits section, from the utilitarian look of the tiles.

"Jam'ta. Lets get moving."

"H... Victor, What is this place?" She caught herself almost calling me Hero - I could here it in her voice. But that question was one I hadn't expected. How to explain the tunnels without cluing her in to the true history of the planet? That left me stunned - and instinct took over.

"Let's get moving. I'll tell you as we walk." I said as I reshoulder my pack and turned to walk down the tunnel. Not that I had any idea what to tell her, but getting in motion and letting her see more of the tunnel would give me a few minutes to come up with something believable. What to tell her? That was the biggest question I had asked myself in over a thousand years of life.

We walked on for five minutes before a single word floated up in my consciousness. With that single word prompting me I began to speak. "Many thousands of years ago the Goddess raised up a great people. They were the only ones she had created at that time, and looked like a Catorii's upper body joined to a pair of legs that ended in long, flat feet.

"These people were called humans. For many thousands of years the Goddess let them do as they pleased, watched them as they warred on each other and grew in knowledge...." I let my voice trail off and signaled her to stop walking. Something about the air didn't seem right, so I sniffed at it, hoping to catch a scent - not knowing why I suddenly felt as if I was being watched. But rather than pass, even when I was certain there was no one in the tunnel but me and Jam'ta, it grew stronger.

Long years of warfare dotted my life and I had learned then to trust all my senses. So I began studying the walls, sniffing repeatedly at the air, trying to catch a hint of a scent. Then the feeling disappeared, as if somebody had flicked off a light switch. That disturbed me more than anything - even when I was human I could feel when I was being watched, and that sense had only grown sharper as I honed it in war after countless war. During my last five runs as the Hero that sense had gotten so sharp I could even feel the direction of the person watching me and even as that person turned and walked away I could tell where they were.

I had lost count of the number of times that had saved my life, but now... The thought was driving me mad, and I noticed it before it got out of control. It was hard to push the feeling aside, but memories of the day when an ambush had caught me and I hadn't even sensed it finally closed the door on it. I turned to start walking back down the hallway when Jam'ta's hand on my arm stopped me.

"What is it, Victor? You act like someone just dug up the grave of your mother..."

"Fat chance of that!" I snapped before catching myself. If the next words had escaped my mouth she would have known how old I was. That damn feeling of someone watching me had really thrown me for a loop. Calm down, Victor. You're supposed to be the perfect warrior - hell, you could take on a T1000 without breaking a sweat. Cool your jets. My voice, too low for even my ears to pick up, floated up through my bones. A trick I'd been taught as a child - they called it subvocalising, speaking without making an audible sound.

"Nothing, Jam'ta. Let me finish telling you about the people that built this tunnel...." My feet began carrying me farther along the tunnel at the same time I started to talk. Call it ESP, call it spidey-sense I don't care. That sensation chilled me to the bone and I knew there was something seriously wrong with the situation. Whether it was some unknown enemy coming up, or just natural danger from an underground tunnel this old I couldn't tell. But battle after battle, life after life had taught me to trust every sense I had - I'd lost too many of those lives because I ignored them.

So rather than pushing the feeling aside I tried forcing my senses to become more acute. I attempted to produce an effect that the Japanese had once perfected to an art that was one of the foundations of the Samurai's training. As I did this I began speaking again, mentally blocking out the sound of my voice and the sounds made by our passage down the tunnel.

"The people that built this place began as good people, serving the Goddesses design. Warfare to them was as ingrained into their being as breathing. This served the Goddesses purpose, because, at the time, she wished to see if any of her creations could join her as an equal.

"Many years passed and the people began to stray from the path the Goddess had laid. But still she was silent, hoping that they would learn that the evil they had begun to do would lead only to their death. In the people she saw glimmers of hope, shinign lights that argued against the evils - these she accepted into her bosom when they were killed.

"Finally all the voices against the evil were silent, and the people turned from the Goddess and began worshipping a new god. This god was their own creation, born of greed, jealousy and the want to have ultimate power. The world we live on was plowed under piece by piece until only scattered farms remained to feed the masses.

"And without anyone speaking out against this evil they raised cities of metal and materials that the Goddess had not placed on the world. Yes, they were alchemists of the worst sort, twisting the bounty of the Goddess to produce more and more testaments to their power. Among these materials you see one surrounding you - this tunnel is built of it, lit by the same power the Goddess uses to create lightning.

"Eventually the world began to die. The Goddess saw her creation, this wonderful planet, slowly dying because of the evil that her first people had done. But she waited, waited for them to try and make themselves her equal. Then she..." My voice trailed off as the feeling returned. This time I pinpointed it and looked up at the ceiling. A small black spot, no larger than an inch across was overhead - a camera mount. Either an automated system was still monitoring or recording these hallways or there was someone down here using the cameras to watch us.

My vote was on the latter, since the earlier camera - and I'm sure it was a camera - shut off when we were still well within it's field of view. Before Jam'ta could get a chance to wander why my voice trailed off I smiled at her. "Sorry, just had an idea about how to take the city if this tunnel doesn't pan out."

She nodded and we continued walking. A hesistant cough from her a few minutes later reminded me I hadn't finished telling her the story. "Well, the Goddess saw that they were going to attempt to become like her. She has no liking for Evil and would not want to spend eternity with someone evil as her equal, so... Well, lets just say she decided to start over. She used the humans technology against them for effect - it was a simpler way to get rid of them than expending a lot of power. In the end, they were destroyed and she wiped the world clean and began to build it anew.

"But in some places, like here for instance, she left reminders about them and their follies. This was to help remind her new creations that evil was only a road to destruction. But over the years the story of the Humans was lost. Forgotten except for me, because I am her chosen - the one soul from among her creation that understands her completely. Because of this she relies on me to solve problems in her new creation so that she doesn't have to destroy another creation."

We walked on in silence after that. The camera had turned off, but I saw another black dot on the ceiling up ahead - easy to spot when you know what to look for, and prepared for it to come back. Whoever was watching our progress would surely use this camera next. I was almost convinced it was the Goddess when I first spotted the camera, but then I realized she would have removed these tunnels if she still had any access to them.

Maybe an hour later, say about two miles down the tunnel, it ended. Not in a rockslide, but in a sealed door with a keypad and handprint scanner next to it. Neither showed signs of being functional, so I told Jam'ta to head back while I fiddled with the "strange devices". No need to burden her with the knowledge that I knew exactly what I wa facing, and had a good idea how to bypass the whole thing. Every electronic locking mechanism in use during my stint in the future had to contain an emergency release. This one was no different - all he had to do was smash the keypad and there should be an emergency release button behind it.

At this point my only problem was that the keypad was built to take quite a blow - the custom was to carry a "breaker" everywhere. I was ready to try just punching it - my hands are a lot more sturdy than a humans hands ever were when I remembered that I had three swords and a knife on me. The knife slid out of it's sheath and reversed so I could use the hilts to shatter the panel. My hand descended and the glass of the panel disappeared with a crash. Underneath, right where I expected it, was the emergency release.

I pressed the button and the door flew open. The area beyond was well lit and appeared top be some kind of living chamber. So much for a continuation of the tunnel... Then the scent came to me, a sour scent of sweat mixed with urine, reminding me of the mens locker room at my high school. This is the reason I stepped inside, curious as to where such a smell, unique in it's own right, would be coming from. To late came the sensation of not being alone as a figure, human, though not exactly human, stepped from behind a barrier, raised a crossbow and fired.

The reaction was a trained reflex - I spun and my hand shot out, gripping the bolt in mid flight. A grimace flashed across my muzzle, the barbed tines of the steel head having dug into my hand. But I stayed in motion, my fist slamming into his attackers face before quickly flipping him over my hip. In the same motion I leapt onto him, the bolt in my hand raised to begin a killing blow.

"Help! Monster!" He yelled as the bolt descended towards his neck. The sudden burst of english stayed my hand just as the head touched his neck. Recognition flashed through me - this strange looking creature was human. A punch to the face felled him and I took off into the hall he'd stepped from, looking for information as to how he could be human.

After all, he had oversized ears, oversized eyes and what felt like whiskers covering most of his body. The deep chest was another puzzle, but obviously these people were human, not just in form, but language. All the creations of the Goddess developed languages without guidance - and none of them came close to English. So I had a puzzle to solve - make that two... One being these people and how they came to be here and the other being that the Goddess either had hidden their existence from me or had no idea that they existed.

Apparently his call had carried and summoned help, because I had gotten no more than fifteen feet when another figure came from the shadows and attacked. My hand flew to the hilt of Tango-Ka and began to draw the blade when I stopped myself - it would do no good to slaughter these people. So I closed with him, ducked under a wild slice aimed at my neck and slammed my fist into an unprotected groin. Another quick punch caught the point of his jaw and he dropped.

My transit continued like this for fifteen or twenty minutes - each time someone came at me I knocked them out. After fifteen minutes, though, I entered a cavernous chamber and was surrounded by fighters. Tango-Ka whispered into my hand as I surveyed the scene, thinking my death had finally come. That thought alone brought a smile to my face - I'd lived far longer than anyone in history and death, free of the interference of the Goddess would be a welcome release.

At a practiced pace I closed with the nearest fighter, my mouth set in a grim smile. His blade met with Tango-Ka three times, then I punched him and he dropped. I turned to the next closest and laughed as he took a bewildered step back. "Do you feel lucky, Punk?" I quipped as I swung the wooden blade in a feint that would hopefully leave him open enough for me to knock out.

A murmur passed through the crowd of fighters at my words, a sound instantly filtered out as I focused on the fight. While I would welcome death at these peoples hands I wasn't going to make it easy for them... as I proved by dropping the man I'd just asked the question, then the person to his left in rapid succession. The blood rage began to rise a few seconds later and I forced it away, as letting it take me would be disastrous when I wished to kill none of these people.

"Peace! Fighters, leave." A voice that sounded ancient roared through the cavern. Footsteps sounded as the fighters disappeared into tunnels leading from the cavern. I spun, feeling someone right behind me. Tango-ka raised ready to deliver a crippling blow to this new threats shoulder. "Stay your blade, Master Fighter. I see you mean no harm."

Tango-ka slid easily back into it's sheath - I was facing an ancient and gnarled version of one of the fighters. I remained in a ready stance, long experience reinforcing my belief that appearance and age have no bearing on fighting ability. My mind whirred, digging for human pleasantries and formalities.

Finally information long unused and buried returned to me and I relaxed from the ready stance and bowed. "Good day, old master. Thank you for ending the fight so I was not forced to kill anyone out of necessity."

It wasn't western formality, what I had been raised with, but oriental. The Orientals had a much more strict formal code of conduct - one that was universally accepted for it's polite manner and speech. Still my mind was racing, trying to figure out how these people could have survived the energy blast that had destroyed all other life on the planet. But I didn't dare ask a question of such magnitude, not before introductions and apologies for the rough introduction on both sides had happened. So I waited, hoping that he would take my heartfelt apology as an opening to begin speaking with me.

"Please, do not call me Master - I am no more your master than a computer is the creator of this world. My name is Stehan Miller, and I hold the honorable position of Elder, even though our records show that we once lived to many times my thirty years." There were signs of a lung disease in his speech - a burbling, wheezing noise like his words were being mixed with the creation of bubbles of water.

I suppressed the surprise I felt. He looked seventy, maybe eighty and sounded like it as well. But combined with the other mutations I could see it might only be natural, after all, they'd had more than ten thousand years to evolve to fit this strange ecological niche. After several minutes I bowed again, then raised myself and saluted. "My name is Victor Fliegel, and it seems we share the same age. Tell me, Stehan, how is it that humans survived the incident that made this planet sterile so long ago?"

He motioned for me to follow him, then turned and began walking off. We passed through several long corridors before reaching a door with a faded set of symbols and some writing on it. The symbols shocked me to my core - both were internationally known and agreed upon, the hooked biohazard symbol and the pie-wedged nuclear symbol. But the wording on the door gave me the answer to my question - "USNA Bio-Nuclear Assault Survival Chamber Delta-11. Off limits to those not cleared by the Internal Security Bureau of the United States of North America"

It had answered my question, but I wasn't about to let on that I knew what the place was. For now I would play an intelligent and nice "monster" - it would make life easier for me. His arthritic fingers tapped out a sequence of numbers on the keypad and the door hissed open. Beyond was a huge chamber that had corridors leading off. "The ancestors survived in this place. The words on the door call it a "survival chamber". Our ancestors called it the shelter."

I almost rushed in to check out the construction. Bomb shelters were nothing new, and this one was on a scale to match the greatest of those ever built by the United States during my early life. But that impulse was quickly quashed - if this had protected people from a blast that had caused space-time to ripple... The only thing I could think of was this place had some strong shielding - judging from the blast door ar least six feet of steel and lead - and some of it would doubtless be beyond my understanding. So I just looked around, then spoke quietly. "Concrete, lead, steel and what? A Faraday cage? Maybe a neutron motion inhibitor?"

Stehan looked at me stunned, as if he couldn't believe what I'd just said. We walked into the chamber side-by-side and he was quiet, as if trying to decide what to tell me. I could almost hear his mind working, trying to reconcile their image of all surface dwellers with the strange reality I presented. It seemed as though he was unsure of what to tell me, what I knew and whether I was really a "monster", so I spoke again.

"My story, Stehan, is almost as strange as your history must be. I was born in the year 1980, and lived in that time for a little under twenty six years. Then the Transmatics Corporation, while working on a method for faster than light travel accidentally pulled me into the year 2506. Nine months later in the early months of 2507 I agreed to be the first human test subject of their new device..." I let my voice trail off, remembering the intense burst of pain that had preceded ten thousand years of non life. Just as I had every time I decided to tell this story to someone I berated myself for having listened to Heinleins words in trying to live as a live lion.

"The experience was painful. More painful than you can imagine... It nearly killed me. But instead I was placed in a strange space where time passed in odd ways. Nearly ten thousand years later I was pulled from it by a supercomputer that calls itself "The Goddess". This computer had rebuilt the planet, made it so it could support life again, then began making new intelligent species. It is these species, one of which I now resemble, which you call "monsters"." The words stopped again as we turned and entered a control center. Screens dotted the walls, showing all the tunnels that had existed as part of this complex and the one I had found. My senses had been right, as had my assumption - they had watched me and Jam'ta approach the doors.

"Anyway, she was unable to rescue my body and needed someone to help keep the races separate and free of wars against each other. For whatever reason she chose me - though it might have something to do with data in her records, one of which indicated that I had founded Transmatics, the company that had built her. Rather than let me die she placed my brain in a body she grew and trained me to be her "Hero". Over the ensuing thousand plus years I have been through many bodies, many lifetimes..." All at once memories of more than fifty wives came back to me, memories of my love for each and their deaths, sometimes occurring only days before I myself died. I pushed the memories and emotions they generated aside, forcing myself onto an even footing like the Stoics of ancient Rome.

"But now I face my greatest challenge. A being of this world has discovered a way to control nanites and other things which she uses in her work of rebuilding the planet. Nearby on the surface is a great city populated by this persons allies. I sought out these tunnels, hoping to find a way into the city that would not lead to massive casualties... The other tunnel was collapsed, and in this one I found you." He had been silent as I recited a synopsis of my life and mission. We'd long ago passed into another portion of the complex, one which seemed to be part of the power systems.

"Always sought to live free of the surface, for many thousands of years we have watched these "monsters", these people, as you call them, go about their lives. All we wish is to remain secret and separate from them. Why should we help you wage a war?" His voice was clear and strong, almost as if being in this room with it's fusion bottles and intense magnetic fields rejuvenated him. And his question carried a promise of help if I answered correctly.

"I don't know that you can help me. To keep you secret I would not be able to bring anyone through these tunnels and caverns you call home. All I can do is remove the button I used to open that door if you can get it closed again." I answered truthfully, not even using the myriad tricks of diplomacy to leave me the option of leading people right through his caves if their help proved contrary to my purposes. Then something more occurred to me. "And I can show you something called "Welding" - all I need for it is the metal in my pockets and an electric current. You could use it to seal the door so it cannot open again."

He walked from the room and I followed. The path through the tunnels burned into my brain so I could fight my way out if it proved necessary. Only once had I made the mistake of believing a people that had attacked me and stopped wouldn't attack me again. That one time had led to a very painful death - something I wasn't going to have happen again. So I memorized the twisted route we walked, ready to draw my blades and fight my way out at the least bit of provocation.

Some rooms we passed were filled with a wide variety of foods and growth tanks, several containing a type of sea grass that they must've left the tunnels to gain. But still my guide was silent, his feet barely making a sound on the stone of the floor, polished to a mirror like sheen by generations of feet. Again we stopped in front of a door guarded by a keypad, though this one also had an armed guard next to it. He waved the guard off and punched in a code, so fast I couldn't glimpse but the first two of ten digits.

The door slid open silently and he walked inside, motioning to me. From the smell itself I knew this place was a library - leather, parchment and paper all have a unique smell that only intensifies as it ages. I was ready to pull a book at random from the shelves when he spoke. "I heard the truth in your words. There is very little you can do, but you promised that and more. We know of welding, and of how removing that button would seel the door."

I let his words sink in. His question had been a test - a test of my personality, possibly to check if my unwillingness to kill those who had attacked me was more than an act. I knew it was more than that, though, as he sat down before a terminal and began typing. Information flashed on the screen at an astounding rate, then slowed and stopped. "And you might even be telling the truth about having been Human. We have records of Victor Fliegel here..." His words trailed off as I sat down, curling my legs under me in as close an approximation of "Indian Style" as I could come. Not only did they have a library here, but a functional library computer, one that might even have information about the potential causes of the death of humanity. That was one of the many things that the Goddess had lost as her hardware degraded over the years.

Taking advantage of the situation I asked him exactly about that. Not even bothering to type anything in he turned to me and smiled. "We have no record of the cause, just the aftermath. Sensors did record a broadband burst of energy they detailed as a "Combined Radiation Bomb" but that was it. We were lucky for that... The ancestors were tearing down this facility and the control room and power generation room were the only rooms that were still functional."

The words hit home like a sledgehammer to the gut. Not only was there no record of what had caused the event, but nobody who might know was still alive. There went my plan for warning the past and avoiding the catastrophe. Now all I had left was to hope I could turn this war on it's ear and actually pull off a victory against a larger and better armed force. The odds were against me - had I been playing Warrior - a miniatures game I had once loved, more than 90% of my force would be classified as "Irregular". And we were up against a force that was regular, and had an overwhelmingly large contingent of troops that never faltered in battle, never got disturbed or ran.

My only option for executing this war was to shake up the enemy troops that could be shaken up. I had to do everything I could to cause the army we were facing to have great internal schisms that would lead to a breakdown in the command structure. To do that I had to take out the central leadership of every group that had it - the Lem'rii were the only one I had easy access to, so there was only one way to move. Attack the Lem'rii, silently if possible, keeping the identity of the attackers secret and removing the leadership.

He left the room and led me on a long walk around their complex, pointing out tunnels that were new, pridefully pointing out a few that he had helped to dig. All of them were dark to me, seemed impossible to navigate, but he said he could see every feature fine. That fact hit my mind and was filed off - it seemed these people could see in the dark, maybe by a mechanism similar to a feline. Not that it mattered, what mattered at this point was where he was leading me and why.

After fifteen minutes of walking through twisting corridors we reached another door. I could hear running water from beyond the door. He punched in another code, then leaned forward and let his retina be scanned. Whatever this room he was taking me into was, it was well protected. The cameras were on and someone was watching them, I knew that from the sensation I had of being watched. As the door whispered open I was hit with a blast of moist air and the sound of a raoring river.

"Here is out water source and prime source of food. The tunnel you speak of having collapsed was once part of our domain. It also had access to this river, might still if you go through one of it's walls. We know it carries off and under the city of surface dwellers you say are your enemies. I tell you this because I believe you will do as you said and destroy the means you used to open the door into our realm." His voice was barely audible over the rush of the river. That news raised my spirits and I turned to him and bowed.

"Thank you, Stehan. And take this - it has been my guide and source of knowledge for a very long time. All you have to do is plug it in and recharge the battery. Now, if you don't mind, I must be leaving." My minicomp slid from it's pocket and into his hands, then I took off running. If my memory was right it was just five easy turns and I'd be into the cavern where I'd met Stehan. My legs pistoned and air rushed into my lungs as I rounded the first corner.

Cheers rose up in the cavern as I turned to the tunnel that led out. Standing by the open door was the first guard, the one I had nearly killed. There was a scrabbling as I skidded to a stop, my foot-claws trying to bite into the hard carbon fiber and ceramics of the floor. "Close this door when I pass though. This Stehan has ordered. It shall never open from the other side again." The english came out in a rush of words intermixed with light growls from me forcing a vocal tract unfamilair with some of the sounds into making them.

The guard nodded and his hand slapped down, the door hissing shut as I stepped through. Khentyns voice sounded down the tunnel as I drew Tangis-ka and slashed down, severing the control box form the wall. Sparks exploded as electrical wires shorted under the steel blade then fell silent. My work done I sheathed the blade and walked towards the ladder. "No worry, Khentyn. I was just trying to find a way through the door. That flash was me loosing my temper and attacking part of it."

He was smiling as I reached the ladder. At least he'd accepted my explanation and was ready to follow me into the Lem'rii traps, assaulting the city. That was unnerving, but I pushed it aside as I emerged into daylight. "Move out. Back to camp - there are preparations to make."

Lem'rii Kings Residence
Safety Bunker and Command Center

"Have they begun to attack yet?" Cha'ingh the Elder asked. He was the king of the Lem'rii and had declared the Lem'rii peoples alliance with Sarkadan after finding out that he intended to change the map of the world and return people to lands they once held.

"No, Sire. They still sit and wait. Shall we try to get scouts out for full reports on their strength again?" The general was the brother of the tortured, raped and killed Fee'I'kan. He didn't know his brothers fate, except that he had been killed by the Felin and their Lupii allies.

Cha'ingh fingered his chin and thought about the situation. For months they'd gathered forces and prepared to defend the city, and now the enemy sat outside their gates and did nothing. Attack of them outright would mean terrible losses the troops defending the city couldn't absorb and the last two attempts at sending scouts in had resulted in the scouts bodies, twisted into females that had been used, showing up on their gates. Before that the scouts had simply disappeared, and both results were damning to his peoples morale.

"Go ahead, but you will lead them, Kae'shan. Maybe with proper leadership they will be effective." Cha'ingh was tired of ineffectual commanders and the untrained levies that made up the forces defending his city. If he dared to cross Sarkadan he'd recall his men now - retaining his peoples sovereignty was more important than any promise that had been made.

As the general left a plan formed in Cha'inghs mind. A plan to take command of the great army from Sarkadan, to crush those who would make his people slaves. But it all hinged on taking care of this army and this "Hero" that led them. When that was done he'd rise up and call on all his people, both the ones that were still on their first run at life and the ones restored to life by Sarkadan, and overthrow that Cinet piece of slime. Yes... I will take his place and destroy these blind slaves of the Goddess... he thought as the plan came together in his mind.

One Week at Camp
Camp of the Hero's Army

"The collapsed tunnel has a thin wall near the end. If we can break through that wall we will have access to the underground river that is the supply of all the cities water. From there we can access every well and come up anywhere. All we shall do though..." My words are cut short by shouts of alarm. A Lem'rii scouting party has been sighted and engaged, and I itch for the fight.

I'm out of the tent seconds later and running for the site of the battle. Maybe we'll get lucky and catch one that actually knows somethign of the defense plans of the city. I thought as I leaped over the barrier wall and skidded down the earthen berm that surrounded the camp. My blood was pumping and adrenaline was rushing through my body, bringing me a euphoria once sought by man as the ultimate thrill.

As I cleared the far side of the berm and ran across the field I was afraid I'd arrive to late to be of any use. Then a figure raised it's head above the brush and grass, that it was Lem'rii was without a doubt. My feet dug divots from the ground as I altered course to intercept him - questioning was what we had in store for all the captured Lem'rii. Questioning the likes of which even their best cannot withstand.

The wind brought me the scent of Lem'rii fear and my course changed again, like a demented football player angling to make a tackle. Seconds passed slowly as I forced myself to run even faster, my lungs already burning with the effort. The forest ahead of me opened and Felin troops leading captured Lem'rii walked forth. My course changed again, then I was airborne.

The collision with the fleeing Lem'rii was bone-jarring. As I stood and placed my foot on his neck I wasn't sure that he had made it through the contact unharmed. Then his legs kicked and I wrapped a noose around his neck. Whoever this Lem'rii was his uniform was better than any we'd seen recently and he carried a sword and a staff of office - either a non-com or and officer. If it was an officer I'd take a personal hand in his interrogation.

"Kae'shan... Your men gave me your name and your rank. A General, one that reports directly to the king? Amazing find out here." The name rang a bell, but I couldn't place it immediately. Interrogations by me were generally the only ones that produced real results, and that was because I knew how to break a Lem'rii's fragile ego into tiny fragments.

"Pigs! They should all die! I will tell you nothing!" Spirited wouldn't describe him. His voice was all it took, though. A flash of the General we had dragged out of the cistern and tortured after Split-Tails death came to me and I knew more about this prisoner in that instant.

"You have a brother named Fee'shan? Would you like to know how she screamed in pleasure as pair of Felin took her?" Make him angry first, then tear down his ego slowly and painfully. That was the way to handle this one.

"Her? My brother would never have..." Recognition flashed in his eyes, then fear. "You... You made him a... Is she here?"

"No, she met her end that same day. You might escape her fate and live on as a man if you tell me everything you know." Give him hope, then take it away. I had no intention of leaving him alive, and wouldn't think twice before giving him the exact fate of his brother.

"Never, Dog! You can do what you like, but I shall never lose honor and tell you anything!"

A plan came to me in that single instant. What would be worse than making him female? Letting him be used as a female before even touching the rest of him. The smile I felt on my face that preceded my laugh was as genuine as the laugh, brought on by an image of him spitted on a Cantorii phalus. Then I whipped around and slapped him with the back of my hand. His head snapped under the force of the blow and he spit out several teeth. "Never is a long time, Kae'y'dal."

He screamed at the name I had given him, naming him as a thing to be used by anyone for satisfaction, male or female. My hand flew again as I slapped him to stop the scream. "Hear me now, Kae'y'dal - you will tell me of the defenses around the King and die here, your honor intact..." I didn't complete the threat, leaving it unsaid. I'd prefer to keep the interrogation from degenerating to the point that I saw it reaching, but with the reticence of most Lem'rii officers to talk it seemed necessary.

The interrogation lasted for several hours before I began using the most powerful form of persuasion I had available. By the time my knife descended and rendered him female he had spilled dozens of secrets about the army guarding the king. But he still hadn't revealed where in the palace the king was holed up - and I needed to know that if my assault was to be successful. The noose around his neck came in useful when I decided to give him to the troops just as I had his brother.

Half a dozen Felin and Lupii troops had gathered within seconds of me dragging him out of the tent. "Use her. Let everyone who wants use her as much as they want. She refuses to give me the information we need - so she's useless. Except as..." Again I let my voice trail off. Lem'rii blood was drying on my fur and I wanted to wash before meeting with Sanger, Khentyn, Pha'eel and Arrow to go over the assault plans.


"Why do we need the boats?" Sanger was noticeably worried. His people had never been much for open water or boating, and mention of them made him nervous.

Khentyn growled and pointed at the underground river I'd marked in the sand-box we used for planning. "So we can use that to attack them from inside the city. Think, Sanger - even I know that it would be suicide to try to take the city without a trick like this. So as my brother says, we use the river and come up where they least expect us."

Kae'sha had cracked from the rape. He'd told us all about the secret chamber the king used during wartime and how it had it's own well, and also told of the island in the underground river that sat under the well. I still felt he had more to give, but I put a sword through his chest and had the body dropped on the steps of the royal palace. Soon enough the Lem'rii would be without a king and the army would be pulled back as the various houses warred for dominance.

The generals were all silent, staring at the sandbox and the plan I had laid out. Our assault would take place in three phases, with me leading a small band to remove the king. After I'd returned four companies would assault the four main causeways with the Cantorii watching the borders of the city, taking out all but a few of the messengers. Once more the Ru'chii would be providing air cover - but only superficially. Their real purpose was to drop as many grenades as possible on the city to disorder the troops.

I didn't expect the four companies actually attacking the city to go farther than the first ambush. The whole attack was a massive diversion to cover us leaving. Because while they are attacking, the rest of the army will be breaking camp. The whole plan shouldn't take us much past noon, and then it was time to return to that "weak border" Sarkadan was planning to attack. But first, I had to have boats to carry me and my men down the river, and crews with ropes to help us row against the current to get back.

One Week Later

"Fox, you're with me, Jam'ta and Long-Tooth in boat 1. Kam'cha - you, S'karn, H'mira, and T'bar are in boat two. Boat three is just a backup. Stow the paddles - one on the tiller, one as forward watch - we want to let the current take us down the river. Everyone got it?" I looked at the expectant faces and caught a look of disgust from Fox.

"Victor, the name is Ry'ga. I am not some prey animal that doesn't make a decent snack!"

Of course that's why he gave me that look. He's as sly and stealthy as any fox, but he hates the nickname - even though I gave it to him. It'll be a long trip if he insists on pushing that, but I'll need that anger for the fight to come. If our intel is wrong we'll be fighting through an entire castle trying to get at Cha'ingh, the Lem'rii king.

I walked carefully across the boats and took my position at the head of the first one. Fox, Jam'ta and Long-Tooth were less easy moving across them, but eventually joined me. My hand raised and the line was released, Jam'ta working the tiller to take us into the middle of the river as the current began to carry us downstream. Jam'ta whispered that the other boats were following, so I focused on spotting any navigational hazards.

The first navigational hazard I saw wasn't one - it was a large tortoise. That surprised me, as I hadn't known that particular species had even made it into the genebanks. Not that I knew everything the world had stashed in the genebanks that the Goddess had copied, but she had given me a lot of data over the years. It was possible that the species had survived and prospered in the somewhat covered oceans of the city-planet, but I hadn't heard of that from the Goddess either.

About an hour later I spotted another "navigational hazard". With one of the oars I reached out and started trying to push us around it. The obstacle was a large rock, difficult to find a spot that the oar could grab onto so the boat would slide around. "Grab oars, steer left, steer left!"

Behind me oars splashed into the water and Jam'ta groaned as she leaned onto the oar we'd rigged as the tiller. Slowly the boat turned and began to act like it was going to make it around the rock. Then the bow started to rise as it crossed over an underwater portion of the collapse, the structure of the hastily constructed craft raising out of the water. "Back oars! Back on the oars!" My voice was loud, echoing easily over the sound of the water spilling over and around the rock we were almost beached on.

The hull creaked loudly, sounding like a groaning second story floor ready to collapse. Oars splashed in the water, trying to fight the current and bring us off the rocks. All my weight was on the oar I had been using to try and force the boat to skirt the mid-channel obstruction when the boat shot off into the channel. "Stow oars, check for leaks. Jam'ta, everyone - good work."

Hours passed slowly, seeming to inch by slower than the current was carrying us downstream. Obviously I had been wrong when I'd decided to not paddle down along with the current. When a sandbar, or possibly the remnants of an entrance, loomed up ahead I pointed and started yelling for everyone to make for it. It would give all of us a chance to stretch and would let me make sure everyone understood the change in plans. "Oars out, hard pull. Make for that sandbar!" My voice bounced around, and I hoped it was intelligible to the other boat.

I watched the water, and when I could see the bottom under the bow of the canoe I jumped free and started pulling the boat up past the shallows and onto the sandbar itself. Everyone else jumped free of the boat and helped me carry it ashore - we couldn't risk losing it. "Stretch your legs, light a fire... I want to go over the plans one last time."

When the second boat pulled up and we were ready I drew out what we knew of the layout of the bunker we'd be coming in underneath. It consisted of three main rooms and about a dozen smaller ones, all set so that any single room could be lost and the rest would lose nothing - except for the room we'd be coming through - which held the only well the bunker had. "Listen carefully... split off in pairs. Each takes a different route through the rooms - the first to find the king kills him. Nobody leaves the bunker alive except us."

Fox looked over the diagram and studied it while I walked off to take a piss. A loud splash, followed by two more stopped my walk towards the end of the sandbar away from the castle and I spun around. Two of the boats had been pulled off the sandbar by the current and were slowly meandering downstream. The first splash had been Fox hitting the water, trying to swim out and catch the boat, remembering at the last moment that he'd never learned to swim, and the other two had been two Lupii diving in. One swam out and caught the boat, the other had drug Fox ashore.

The Assault

"Khentyn, you ready?" Sanger looked at his counterpart in charge of the main assault on the eastern and western gates of the city. His face betrayed no emotion, and any that Khentyn Leng might have shown was hidden by the unfamiliar countours of the Felin generals face.

"As ready as I'll ever be. Company, move out!" He responded and motioned in the air. Behind him a full company of Felin troops spread out as they began the march toward the eastern gates of the Lem'rii capital city.

The northern and southern gates were the purview of the Lupii and Lapi'in people. But regardless, Sanger wished Victor was leading one of the main forces instead of below ground taking a secret way into the city. "Company, move out!" he finally commanded. Behind him rank upon rank of Cantorii legionaires marched out, taking up a phalanx like formation. In one hour the battle would start, and Victor would attack the Lem'rii king.

Overhead the air was filled with the shapes of the Ru'chii, a people only spoken of in legend before they had joined the Hero's army. Already explosions were rocking the city as grenades and firebombs were dropped from the air. Any enemy they might face was sure to be badly demoralized and shaken by the continual aerial bombardment - a simple fact that made him feel better about the coming fight.

As he turned off into the fields to circle the city Pha'eel and a full company of the Lapi'in berserkers ran past, running to take their positions at the northern gate. Sanger fought back a laugh as he remembered a line from one of his ancestors journals. They spoke of the Lapi'in as the fiercest warriors and staunchest allies anyone could want. The laughter was not over the Lapi'in, but in pity for the Lem'rii that they would face. In all the histories there were no references to Lapi'in losses, nor were there any notes about them being merciful.

"Geyser! Take the heads, do it not for honor, but for the Goddess!" He yelled at the rapidly retreating back of the Lapi'in leader. The miles passed under his hooves rapidly, and with each step the hoof blades all his troops now wore sent up a single note. Discordant and non-musical, the rapid canter-like march of his troops sounded like an insane bell, ringing flatly off key.

Fifty Minutes Later

"C'mon Fox. Move it. Up the ladder and we can take this bunker." The Felin was the last one that needed to get up the ladder before I went up myself. Jam'ta had been the first, climbing the bucket rope carrying the rope ladder we were now using to enter the Lem'rii keep.

Before my hands wrapped around the first rung the boats twisted free of the rock and sand that sat at the base of this well and started floating downstream. I cursed, but kept climbing the rope, having no way to save the boats and knowing that the diversionary assault on the city was going to begin soon. Halfway up the ladder I stopped, a hand waving over the openign above. Seconds later the sound of steel on steel reached me and I started up the ladder as fast as I could go.

A Felin paw reached over and helped me the last few feet up. "What happened? Where is?" I wanted to know why the Felin that had helped me was the only person in sight. Before he could answer Jam'ta leaned in the door and motioned - the Felin darted out of the room. "Jam'ta, what the hell happened?"

"Servant came in just as Ry'ga cleared the well. Don't worry, he's taken care of. Now get moving, boss, we got a king to kill." The excitement of the battle was on her, and it was infectious. Tangis-ka and the twin I had made of it slid into my hands as I nodded and motioned towards the door.

The hall floor was spotted in blood and bodies lay around, some whole, some missing their heads. I picked an unopened door, kicked it down and charged inside. A table was overturned in the middle of the room and there were signs that someone had already chased enemies through the room. To the left was another door, and once more my foot contacted at the latch and it burst open. On reflex I spun to the side, dodging the crossbow bolt that was aimed at me.

In a single motion I threw Tangis-ka at the Lem'rii holding the crossbow and brought the other blade down, shattering the bolt and knocking it from the air. Jam'ta sprinted into the room as I cleared the doorway, a dagger flying from her offhand as she leaped over a chair and at a second Lem'rii who was struggling to load his crossbow. My motion was stopped for a second as I admired her skill with the sword, then I entered the fray, a band-handed slice decapitating one Lem'rii before I pulled Tangis-ka from the chest of my first kill.

The Diversion

"Move it! Go, go, go!" Pha'eel yelled the order. The Lapi'in warriors poured from their lines and at the open road into the city. Some hit the side walls, clearing the six foot heights with one powerful leap while the rest slammed into the planned ambush. Axes and bright teeth flashed as the berserkers went into their famous rage and the enemy began to crumple around them.

Ru'chii arrows and grenades rained onto the city. Few Lem'rii felled by the blasts or the arrows stayed down. The injured Lem'rii fell back, looking for help deeper in the city while the dead rose to their feet and resumed the fight. Sunlight flashed off the sharp steel of a Lapi'in axe as Pha'eel earned his name of Geyser, blood spurting from a severed neck and a severed head as he fought deeper into the city.

Directly south of him, about two miles away the Lupii were fighting as valiantly. The fury of the attack had thrown the raw levies into a rout as the Lupii advanced into the city. Several Lupii would join the ranks of the dead, but even more would be proclaimed as Heros. They forced their way to the third cross street and the Lem'rii kept falling back.

At the west gate Khentyn roared the charge order and the Felin, long enemies of the Lem'rii, rushed the city. Plank bridges slammed onto the tops of the six foot walls that blocked the side streets and they were into the city. Khentyn was at the head of the charge, twirling two blades in his hands as he fended off attackers and began taking heads. Blood fountained from a slit throat as he turned to face the crossbowmen who were in the alleys, waiting for a chance to attack. Two fell under his blades before other Felin caught up and attacked the ambushers from behind.

The eastern entrance to the city was a bloodbath. Lem'rii defenders were falling, sliced open by hoof blades and crushed under the tons of weight of the Cantorii warriors. Accompanying the fight was a song, more beautiful than a war hymn should have been. Two ranks behind the front Mikel Sanger hobbled a few steps after a crossbow bolt slammed into his flank, then turned and rammed his Assegi-like spear through the chest of his attacker.

In The Keep

The bunker had one last door, and the teams were all standing outside it, trying to figure out how to get through. The king had retreated into a room that the general I'd interrogated knew nothing about. A thick stone wall with some sort of hidden catch stood between me, the men around me and the king.

Not that the door was visible at all - I knew it was there because I'd made it into the room in time to see it closing. If I hadn't known it was there I would've thought nothing of the unassuming brick wall with it's slightly undersized fireplace. It was a struggle not to laugh at how the door had been hidden - I'd grown up watching the Indiana Jones movies, and anyone that has seen "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" has seen the famous scene of the trick fireplace. Rather than yell about the inadequacy of our intelligence I took a deep breath and looked around me.

"Check every surface, every wall hanging - every damned thing you can. The trigger that releases this doors catch has to be here somewhere!" Jam'ta was the only one that understood why I insisted the wall had a hidden door, and went right to work. I started my search with a slow walk around the room, examining the various bits of ornamentation. Actually testing each piece for some type of hidden catch I'd leave to someone else, because what I was doing was trying to figure out where I'd hide the release switch if I'd designed this room.

Nearly a half mile passed under my feet as I paced back and forth, trying to think like a paranoid ruler. Then I stopped, finding the room warmer than just the eight people in it should account for. This was strange, so I walked over to the fireplace and looked. Smoke was still rising off the hot coals, making me wonder why the King needed such a fire when it was a pleasant seventy degrees in the bunker. Because of this I grabbed the bronze poker and stirred the ashes, thinking on finding a bucket and dousing the fire.

After a few second of poking at the dying embers of the fire a dull thud rolled up the poker, drawing my attention. I set it aside and grabbed the copper bristled brush used to push the ashes into the ash pit to prep the hearth for a new flame and began moving the hot coals and ashes around. Under the coals, visible but not obvious was a thin steel or iron bar that sat an inch above the hearthstone. Puzzled I stuck my head into the fireplace and looked around. At each end of the firebox the bar ran into the stonework and set in a groove that seemed to go all the way through the stone.

"Fox, you know the Lem'rii better than I do. Is this bar a common feature of their fire places?" My use of his nickname was greeted with a growl, but no words. He joined me at the fireplace and looked at it carefully.

"I think you found the trigger Victor. I've never seen that in a Lem'rii fireplace."

That revelation brought a smile to my face and I could feel my tail wag slowly back and forth in anticipation. Jam'ta came over and looked, interested and her move had brought the other members of the raiding party up around me. With hand signals I told them how to line up for when the door opened and exactly how to spread out into the secret room. Then I grabbed the firepoker, hooked it onto the bar and pulled.

Defenders Falter

A chirurgeon tried bandaging and packing the crossbow wound in Sangers flank, but he wouldn't hold still enough for the work to be done. Blood oozed from the raw wound asm he yelled at his men to keep the lines in order and push farther into the city. "Move it! C'mon, take the city in the name of the Goddess!"

Behind the thinning Lem'rii lines a single sergeant pushed his man to attack and hold ground. His voice carried over the ranks, "Hold firm! Set your pikes and hold firm!" The Lem'rii pikes settled into notches cut into the roadbed and leveled out, promising to keep the Cantorii from advancing any further without wasting innumerable lives. Overhead the Ru'chii wheeled in and let loose a barrage of arrows and grenades. The Lem'rii sergeant mumbled under his breath the whole time, "Don't roll a one... no ones..." Interspersing it with shouted orders, trying to keep the spear-wall firm.

A hole opened slowly in the wall of long pikes, offering the Cantorii purchase and a way through the lines. Sanger spotted it and surged forward, kicking and rearing, felling enemies with his hoof-blades as fast as he swung his blade around, severing heads and puncturing hearts. The Lem'rii sergeant watched in awe as his men began to fall back, dropping weapons and shields in a rush to retreat. Then a grenade landed at his feet, the fuse seconds from ignititng the charge and he muttered, "I hate ones!" - his last words before the grenade turned most of his body into a red mist.

Across the city at the western entrance the Felin were earning their reputation as some of the most fierce fighters in the world. Not unlike the ancient British wardogs they fought with reckless abandon, ignoring wounds and missing limbs to continue attacking. The Lem'rii were unprepared for the attack and were falling back, running rather than face the swords, claws and teeth of their long time enemies.

Khentyn Leng roared in pain as a Lem'rii sword sliced his thigh open. The pain and the smell of blood had driven almost all conscious thought from his mind. In a reflex action his free hand swung out, razor sharp claws digging into his attackers flesh mere moments before the ferocity of the blow pulled the head off it's body. Blood fountained and joined the red river filling the gutters of the once proud capital city of the Lem'rii people.

At the southern gate the Lupii weren't faring as well. The oldest and best trained of the Lem'rii forces had been grouped there and were singing a song of battle as they fought to the death to defend their beloved city. To a man the Lupii held their ground, their voices growls of anger against the refrain of the Lem'rii song.

"Use your shield and use your head" the Lem'rii called out as they forced the Lupii back towards the cities entrance. This raised the Lupii's hopes, as the song was as old as time, and their voices raised to meet the next verse, "Fight 'til everyone is dead". Suddenly the Lupii line surged forward, as if empowered by the ancient song of battle and glory. Deep inside the Lupii ran a quiet rage and skill for battle rarely seen in the millennia they had been on the planet. But as the Lem'rii sang the next line, "Raise the flag up to the sky", the tid of the battle seemed to be turning again.

Steel tinged red with blood flashed in the sunlight of a sun rising towards a noon-time peak as the Lupii sang the next line, "How many of them can we make die?" A howl ran through the Lupii line and they redoubled their efforts, breaking the shield wall the Lem'rii tried to put together and surging forward.

In houses along the road long repressed and hunted followers of the Goddess argued over helping the cities attackers. Many believed the Goddess wanted nothing but peace, while others believed she wanted her creation to just honor her. Finally in one house a young man stood and grabbed the shield and sword his father had once carried into battle. "If the Goddess wants peace, she shall have it. But give me a sword and my brethren in the Goddess." he said as he kicked open the barred door to his house and began attacking the Lem'rii defenders from the rear.

As if his words had been the goad needed the tormented and hated Lem'rii that still followed the Goddess took up any weapons they could find and joined him. Blood flowed freely down the blades of kitchen knives and farm implements, mingling with the blood of those that had fallen in the streets. When the Lem'rii defenders noticed the attack from the rear, by their own people, they began to turn, trying to face enemies on two fronts at once. "For the Goddess!" the shout rose up from the Lem'rii that had just joined the assault, and the south gate was clear of defenders.

Two miles north of the victory the Lupii were just beginning to see coming the Lapi'in fought with a ferocity unmatched by any other race. Their razor-like steel blades flashed so fast they looked like fans of steel causing blood and body parts to fountain into the air. Against them were arrayed fresh levies, men an boys straight from the outlying farms pressed into service at the orders of their king.

They fought the best they could, the Lem'rii that were there, but nothing could have prepared them for the frenzy of death that came over the Lapi'in as they waged war. Pha'eel's sword had long ago shattered, broken by a sword-breaker carried by a Lem'rii sergeant, but he fought on, a dagger in each hand. The almost spectral nature of the Lapi'ins red-in-red eyes during combat caused fear to rise in the hearts of their enemies, and the unrelenting attack, led by the most ferocious of the Lapi'in horde caused the Lem'rii lines to buckle and fold.

Caught up in the moment and the battle going better than anyone could have hoped the army of the Hero, created together from five disparate species, surged on. The four ground forces pushed on into the city, their unrelenting attack seizing first one, then two blocks of the massive city. Overhead the Ru'chii, the noble winged warriors out of legends, wheeled and rained arrows and grenades down on the cities defenders. Though the plans caleld for the Hero's army to feign faltering and pulling back, the rush of the moment and surprise of the victory they were achieving.

The uprising of the Lem'rii followers of the Goddess at the Southern gate caused similar uprisings throughout the city. Group after group of Lem'rii defenders dropped their weapons and ran, unwilling to face such an enemy. Those that tried locking themselves in homes with hostages soon learned that even Lem'rii who didn't follow the Goddess had grown tired of the depravations of Cha'ingh, to the point that many a soldier that tried this tactic died with a kitchen knife in the heart.

Death of a Monarch

At first there was a massive amount of resistance, then the poker pulled free of the bar and I fell backwards. Either there was some special spot where I had to grab the bar, or it required more force than the abbreviated hook on the end of the poker allowed me to apply. I studied the bar, but was unable to see any mark that pointed out a specific spot to grab it. Knowing Cha'ingh had willingly allied himself with Sarkadan and had driven the followers of the Goddess underground caused my rage to boil close to the breaking point.

My cool facade cracked as I stormed about the room, checking every item, from the simple brooms to the ornate candlesticks, hoping to find something to let me force the switch. But nothing was usable, with the fireplace tools being the only metal implements we had seen in the bunker, aside from the utensils and weapons of the defenders. When my steps carried me to my previous position in front of the fireplace once more I looked at the metal bar that was the trip for the secret door and smiled.

"Fox, you and Long-Tooth, shoulders to that door. When you hear the latch click, give it a shove with all your strength. S'karn, H'mira - when you hear the click light grenade fuses, when the door is open roll them inside. After they go off, we rush in and kill anyone left behind." My instructions were clear and to the point, but what they didn't know was that I was going to manually pull the switch.

I pulled a strip of leather from one of my belt pouches and wrapped it around my hand as I spoke. Then I knelt and grabbed the bar, the holt metal causing the leather to hiss and sputter. "Ready..." I said, then applied steady pressure, pulling the bar towards me. A grinding sensation ran up my arm, as if I was pulling the bar in the wrong direction. This caused me to pause and think for a second, puzzled by the resistance.

In a flash of inspiration I understood the ingenuity of this hidden switch, and pulled it upwards first, the metal bar rasping a bit. When I felt it click like a manual transmission sliding into neutral I pulled towards me and the bar moved easily. As it reached the farthest extent towards me there was another click, again only felt through my contact with the bar. That puzzled me, as I'd been expecting the bar being pulled forward to be the release, but I tested it, and found the bar would move down, if grudgingly.

My biceps bulged as I pushed it down, hearing and feeling the click as the doors locking mechanism released. The bar seemed to quiver in my hand, so I let go of it when I heard the grinding of stone on stone and the belabored grunts of the two Felin who were forcing it open. Like a bolt from a crossbow it sprang back and settled into it's original position and the door leapt away from Fox and Long-Tooth, causing both to stagger in surprise.

Seconds later two grenades rolled into the secret room and exploded. I was on my feet and right behind the team as they rushed into the room, weapons at the ready to take on any of the living or undead that might rise against us. The room was surprisingly empty, with just a single talbe and chair, now in pieces strewn haphazardly about the room by the twin explosions. A groan from behind a slightly charred and tattered tapestry on the rooms far wall caused the same reaction in all of us.

My faster reflexes and reaction time had me there first, and with the sharp edge of Tangis-Ka I cut the tapestry down, revealing a short hall and a throne-like seat. The figure on it was covered in blood and a hook extended from the walking stick propped against the wall next to him. With quiet steps I entered the hall, and the scent that greeted me told me this had been the secret rooms latrine. To my surprise the figure raised it's head and grinned, a sickly light glowing behind the once proud eyes of Cha'ingh, the Lem'rii king.

"You may have stopped one of my Allies", the voice was the same that had greeted me during an interrogations long ago. "Hero..." Sarkadan sneered, his voice carried over the thousand miles from his location to this body like some sort of twisted radio. "But no dog of the Goddess can stop me and the powers I discovered in the dead lands from bringing the truth to the world!"

Unable to take the mockery of Sarkadan using the dead body of Cha'ingh to speak to me any longer I roared and my blade flashed through the air. Like a scalpel parting flesh the razor edge of Tangis-Ka slid through the flesh and bone of Cha'inghs neck and the head rolled to the ground. I let it lay where it fell and turned to my team. "The boats are gone... We must fight our way out of the palace and the city if we are to survive."

Victory and Celebration

At the great circle that marks the heart of the city four forces collide. Two are pure Lem'rii, running into each other as they run from their attackers. The other two are their attackers, one a force of Lapi'in, their eyes the deep red of the battle rage and the other is a force of Felin warriors, weapons, claws and teeth dripping blood. "Pha'eel, that you?" The bloodiest of the Felin warriors cries out as he recognizes a compatriot among the Lapi'in.

"Leng! Let's teach these Lem'rii a lesson!" The Lapi'in replies, pausing to wipe his blade clean on the tunic of a dead enemy.

Without another word the Felin and Lapi'in warriors attacked the Lem'rii who had begun to reform under the command of a competent leader. At the head of the charge were Leng Khentyn and Pha'eel the Geyser, leaders of their peoples and warriors renowned for their skill in battle. The still forming shield wall of the Lem'rii defenders collapsed under the onslaught immediately, and bodies began to pile up as the Lapi'in and Felin warriors once more earned their reputations for ferocity.

To the south of them the Lupii were fighting house to house, working with the Lem'rii who had risen against the cities defenders to carefully take down every soldier that raised arms against them. Far from the senseless slaughter of the Felin and Lapi'in people the Lupii seemed methodical, and if anything, even more feared, as not a single Lem'rii soldier escaped their careful attack. A half mile from the city one Lupii, wounds covering his body and his eyes glazing over, turned and attacked his own men.

"Sarkadan wil eat your souls!" He screamed as his sword bit into the bodies of his compatriots. Those who fell rose slowly to their feet, having joined the ranks of the undead. This did not slip by the Ru'chii, and was noticed, in fact, by Arrow, their leader. Seven Ru'chii warriors formed around him and swooped down, blades reaching out and cleaving open the heads of the undead. Then a single arrow seemed to come from nowhere, passing right through the outstretched wing of the Ru'chii with the same name.

His fall from the sky was ungraceful, and the impact seemed hard enough to kill him. But surprisingly he rose to his feet and trilled an ancient battle cry as he leapt at the bowman. Showing uncharacteristic speed the Lem'rii bowman easily stepped aside and drew his sword, slicing at Arrow in the same motion. Sword clanged against sword as the Ru'chii leader parried the thrust, sweeping it aside and following up with a kick that gutted his opponnent. The blade flashed down a moment later and another Lem'rii head rolled free of it's body.

A quarter mile to the east of the central square and the grand palace that resided in it's center Mikel Sanger rested, letting his troops rage ahead as a chirurgeon fixed the dangerously bloody wound in his flank. The pain of the chirurgeons needle sewing the flesh together was almost as bad as the pain he had felt when the bolt slammed into hit, but he stood stoicly silent, his face not betraying any sign of pain or emotion.

But emotion he did feel - a deep, overwhelming pride that his men were pushing the enemy deeper into their own city at the same time they were more than decimating them. It had been generations since the Cantorii had faced a war on this scale, and he had been more than a little concerned that his men wouldn't be up to the challenge. His faith in the training they had been given by both the Cantorii that ran the Legion training centers and the Hero was proven flawless, though, by this unexpected victory.

Sensing his patients unease the Lupii chirurgeon finished the work and stood. "General Sanger, you should take it easy. Foryou the battle is over, unless you want to risk death by causing this wound to start bleeding again."

Sanger nodded and looked at the diminishing forms of his men as they pressed deeper into the city than had been planned. What a story he would have for the Hero when next they sat in a tent speaking of plans for the future of the war against Sarkadan. How proud he would be to tell his ancestor and friend of the unexpected and great victory they had won this day. "Thank you, wise Chirurgeon. I will fight no more this day, but I must catch up with my men." he finally said as he began to slowly walk down the road towards his victorious troops.

Three flights of stairs without encountering a guard had Fliegel on edge. Here they were in the palace of the Lem'rii king, in the middle of the Lem'rii capital city and since leaving the bunker they hadn't encountered a single enemy. "Fox, Long-Tooth - you two sweep right on this corridor. H'mira, S'karn - you two sweep left on this corridor. Clear the rooms of all combatants. Kamcha, you and T'bar are the rear guard, checking for secrets and standing watch over our backs. Jam'ta, you're with me, on point."

Not the brightest plan he'd had, but it was something Fliegel had to live with. The uneasy quiet of the palace had thrown him off guard and now he was determined to make sure nothing went wrong as they made their escape. "Everyone be on the lookout for exits we could use to sneak off - no need to take the main entrance and face a fight through the entire city."

Grim faces looked back at him, but the warriors understood his caution. All of them felt the same unease over the lack of guards in the palace - Fox, in particular, since he had been on secret raids like this one before. After checking that everyone had paid attention and understood the basic plan he smiled. "Fifteen minutes - we meet here in fifteen minutes to go over anything we've found.

Ripples of celebration spread through the Lem'rii city as the last of the defenders laid down their arms and surrendered. From every house people that had long followed the Goddess in secret flooded into the streets, bringing food and tidings of thanks to the Army that had freed them from the oppressive rule of their king. As the news spread among the troops that the battle was truly over a joyous song rose up, spreading across the city.

Meals were rapidly organized and a bazaar like atmosphere took over the central square of the city as long trestle tables and benches appeared. Coated in blood Lupii, Felin, Cantorii and Lapi'in warriors stopped first to clean themselves and their weapons. But as each finsihed they joined in the celebration until it had spread across the city.

Inside the palace guards had abandoned their posts and turned over their weapons as the eight members of the team that had come just to kill the king popped into the rooms where they were hiding. The fifteen minutes Feliegel had specified for the search for alternative exits passed and the four teams regrouped at the intersection of long halls that mirrored the four main roads into the city.

"Fox, you find anything?" Fliegel was worried. When he'd reached the front doors it had sounded as though a festival was going on outside. Thinking his army had followed the plan and pulled back after two blocks of fighting he was convinced it was the Lem'rii celebrating their "victory".

"Not a damned thing, Vic. Just a bunch of guards that surrendered all too easily." Ry'ga responded, suppressing the urge to yell at Victor over using the nickname he hated. The reason was more prosaic than respect - he expected the guards that had "surrendered" to be attacking from behind at any moment.

"How about you H'mira?" Fliegel was more worried than he was letting on. His voice was flat and void of emotion, a trick that it had taken him several lifetimes to learn. Before H'mira even spoke Fliegel knew the answer, but he let the aging Lupii speak anyway.

"No, Hero. Exactly as Ry'ga reported. No exits and guards surrendering the second we stepped into the rooms." H'mira didn't try to hide the disgust he felt. Since leaving his grandchildren to join Fliegels army his belief that a soldier should either be victorious or dead - never surrendering - had been reinforced by the enemy they faced. And now these strange looking and hereticla Lem'rii were abandoning their posts and surrendering without a fight.

Fliegel shook his head, knowing at that point that any exit from the building besides the main one was either hidden or had been removed years before. His mind raced, trying to formulate a skeleton of a plan that he could modify to get the team safely out of the city. The secrecy with which they were supposed to have killed the king was gone - without a way to slip out unseen there was no way it would hold. Settling on a simple plan - a running fight down the main city street to the south - he motioned to the troops around him.

"No other way to do it. It's not going to be easy, but we've got to run - fighting only as necessary to get out of the city. Follow me to the front doors and prepare for a fast exit." The looks he got from his team told him they disliked the plan as much as he did himself, but there was no other way to escape. Silently he stood and began the hundred yard walk to the large foyer that contained the palaces front doors. Behind him the Felin and Lupii troops of his team fell into an arrow-like formation, keeping a cautious watch for attack from any direction.

When they reached the doors Fliegel motioned and the teams spread out, four to each side, pressed against the walls. H'mira, facing the Hero from the other side of the door peeked out the covered window and began laughing. "Victor! The celebration you hear is our troops. We've seized the city!"

Fliegel looked out the window and looked grim. He kicked open the doors and stormed out, looking ready to kill anyone who tried to stop his motion. "Sanger! Leng! Pha'eel! Arrow! What the hell is going on here? You were not to seize the city!"

The Cantorii leader gingerly walked up the steps. "Calm down, Victor! The Lem'rii just collapsed under the attack. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late to stop my troops." His human face spread in a smile as he turned, hiding his wound from Fliegel, and called out, "Warriors of the Army and Lem'rii followers of the Goddess, I present you with Victor Fliegel - the Hero!"

His announcement was greeted by the celebration growing quiet, as if everyone had sudddenly died. Then cheering broke out, and spread across the gathered horde, until a single word could be heard being chanted by the hundred thousand people present, "Hero!"

With that Fliegel motioned and his team walked out the doors. Then he raised his hand and the crowd fell silent again. "People of Lem'raq, I entered the palace in secret, set on removing your king and breaking your will. This victory today was unexpected, and I'm sure it wasn't just my army that made it happen. Until you can choose yourself a new king I will leave a portion of my army here to maintain order and help lead you."

The crowd broke out in cheers again, and Fliegel looked at Sanger, then walked down the steps and joined the celebration. Memories of thousands of other victories floated up, but of them all, the victory that day and the celebration it caused seemed sweeter than all the rest.

Rest and Relaxation

The palace was the only quiet place in the bustling city of Lem'raq. Though the victory celebration had ended days before, the normal noise of the city going about its business was just as loud. Fliegel rolled over and came awake, finding someone else in his bed. Then he remembered Jam'ta having come to him last night, speaking of her family and how she worried about them. Her concern and tears had led to him holding her and comforting her, and he remembered falling asleep with her in his arms.

She was sleeping on his arm, keeping him from rising without waking her, so instead Fliegel lay there watching Jam'ta sleep. For the first time since the loss of Split-Tail he felt a twinge of emotion but quickly smashed it, instead focusing on the beauty of her sleeping form as he waited for her to awaken and free him. Ten or fifteen minutes passed in this manner, then Jam'ta rolled and his arm was free. Fliegel rose from the bed and went about the business of preparing for the meetings the day would hold.

Sanger studied the maps and information they now had about Sarkadans forces. But just as had happened on the previous days, he wound up with no information that was useful. This time he was certain that he had found something only to run into another wall - this time that of the Empire he had served for almost the entirety of his adult life. Rather than waste more time trying to find a way around the problem he let the scrolls roll up and began pacing about the room.

He'd covered slightly over a mile while pacing when the rooms door creaked open and Fliegel walked in, looking as though he'd barely slept the previous night. Fliegel walked right to the sandbox that displayed what they knew of the world and the locations and dispositions of the various armies. Completely motionless as he studied the information he appeared to have succumbed to either the sleep he appeared to be lacking of the gaze of some strange monster. Finally he turned to face Sanger and spoke. "Mikel, I am going on a journey that will last me at least two months. During that time I wish you and the other generals to form a plan for the freeing of your beloved empire. Include Arrow in the planning stages, but do not plan on using the Ru'chii - they are going to remain here as my representatives."

The news was new - not something Sanger had expected to hear from the Hero. "How many men will you be taking on this Journey, Victor?" It was the only question he could think to ask that wouldn't violate some rule of propriety now that he knew Victor was also his ancestor.

Fliegel paced about the room, his movements quick and sure for someone who appeared to have slept little during the past week. His steps carried from the table strewn with the intelligence reports Sanger had been studying to the table covered in various high quality maps the Lem'rii had drawn up over the years. At both he examined what little new material had been found by the research teams during the night, hoping to find some way around having to free the Cantorii before facing down Sarkadan.

Then he answered the question, with a brevity of speech uncommon to his personality, "None." Sanger could feel the truth in that single word, and also the fact that the goal of this quest was important. Mentally flailing about for a way to inquire about the quest without breaking any of the numerous rules his society had about such interactions Mikel Sanger stood silent, the crossbow wound in his flank seeming to throb in pain even more.

As if he had read the centaurs mind Fliegel spoke. "This journey is more of a spirit-quest. I need to speak with the Goddess about many things." He left it unsaid that he knew the Goddess wasn't an ethereal entity and had a physical form cloistered in a hidden location he only partially knew. Among the things he wished to speak with her about were the obviously evolved but still human people that had helped him pull off his last battle and the reasons she had brought him back from the grave in so drastic a fashion this last time.

Before Sanger could even begin to formulate another question, one aimed at prying some real data from the Hero, Jam'ta walked in carrying a caraffe of the bitter brown drink preferred by the Lem'rii and several earthen-wear mugs. She filled one of the mugs and handed it to Fliegel with a smile. "I was going to cook you breakfast, Hero, but you woke and were down here before I even stirred this morning."

Victor Fliegel smiled as he accepted the mug of Coffee, thankful that his small contribution to Lem'rii society had lasted the thousand plus years it had been since he'd been the Hero for them. He sipped at the steaming hot beverage and wondered if Jam'ta was treating him special out of respect for his title, or for some other reason. When his mind threw up the best possibility he forced it down, unwilling to even think of that word for any great period of time. Her walk to hand Sanger a mug of the caffiene bearing drink drew his attention and he felt an emotion that had little place between a warrior and his shield-partner.

"Jam'ta, I have to do this alone." Fliegel was at his wits end. Jam'ta quoted line after line of his own teachings and common law at him over each point he tried to make. The only thing that might stop her is if he told her where he was going and the real reason why she couldn't come along. But that was something he couldn't do, more because he knew the "Goddess" didn't want her creations to know she was a computer than because he was unsure that Jam'ta wouldn't want to physically meet the Goddess.

Throughout the day he'd dreaded this conversation. Just as he thought, it had gone nowhere and there would be no resolution of it. Jam'ta was stuck on her honor, the prickly thing it was, and unwilling to admit that the rules that defined it didn't exactly cover this case. For what it was worth, neither did Fliegel, but he was certain that taking Jam'ta along and introducing her to the Goddess in person would probably result in her death or her conscription as another "Helper" for the Goddess. Finally he turned and walked off, letting his quick strides and the crowd make him disappear after only getting a hundred feet.

As he approached the southern gate of the city he slid into the side passages that had held forces waiting in a semi-secret ambush just a week before. These he used to exit the city and set through the high grass that bordered the large highways that led to the city. The admixture of his coming summer coat with the steel grey of his winter coat matched well with the high grass, leaving his shadow and the straight edges of his form the only indication that he was there.

Jam'ta exited the city at almost the same moment and used her skills at scent-tracking to find the trail of her shield-mate. Cautiously hanging back a dozen meters she followed him as he crossed the plains, heading for the great forest where the Lupii made their homes. Her feelings were mixed as she noticed the path he had decided to take, wandering what could be so important that he had to leave the army camped in a captured city. The possibilities were limited, but all the ones that came to her didn't fit with the man she had come to love.

When the first night fell she noticed he had no fire going, so she didn't risk one herself. Jam'ta also didn't sleep that night, watching Fliegel carefully, knowing he might decide to move at night to throw off anyone that might be tracking him. Whether he did this or not she didn't know, but she did hunt during the night, catching several small rodents, two of which she left next to the sleeping form of Victor Fliegel before making a small fire and cooking her own.

The first few days I was able to ignore the sensation of being watched, followed. After all, I expected Sanger, at least, to detail a few men to make sure I made the forest safely. But now that I had been travelling through the forest for two days I couldn't ignore it any longer. I wasn't sure whether the person following me was friend or foe, but wanted to make sure. So during the night I prepared some simple traps I could drop in my path, and a few more that I could place around the camp.

The meals that had been left for me on a few of the nights had me almost convinced that the person tailing me was from my army. An enemy might have done the same, and even gone so far as to poison the food. Since that night some three thousand years past I had become immune to a large number of poisons. In my conversations with the Goddess I had learned that she had been enhancing the bodies she'd been giving me so they were better able to survive attempts on my life.

This last death, in which I had been healed and brought back to life without ever leaving the battlefield, told me she had been implanting nanites at the same time. That was a stunning realization, learning I was functionally immortal, and some forms of death were even conquerable by my latest body. As I finished the first of the traps I'd be using the next day I sent my mind down among the multiple millennia of lifetimes I had lived, wanting to try and use the experience from those lives to try and unwind the mystery of Jam'ta.

Having been married more than a dozen times and having raised the numerous children I had her actions painted a complete picture. For whatever reason she had I'd become the object of her desires, the focus of her emotions. Quite simply, she loved me and I needed to find a way to disabuse her of that, because it could affect her actually doing her job on the battlefield.

I was almost complete with my task and no closer to an answer to my problem when nature came calling in the form of a hare running through my camp. It hit the first of the traps I'd setup for the next day and the silent flick of it's closing caused me to leap to my feet. The trap had been designed to inflict a lot of pain and limited damage on much larger prey, but had been designed around a classic Cantorii rodent trap. In the trap the hare was obviously frightened, but far from displaying the fear in a manner people might expect, it was prepared to attack like it's Lapi'in brethren.

The Day After Fliegel Leaves

"His shield mate has disappeared. Rumors are that she went after him." Pha'eel calmly reported. Since he'd been put in charge of keeping the army in top fighting form the disappearance of a soldier fell under his jurisdiction. This was a problem new to the Lapi'in, as no Lapi'in had every left the army they were part of prematurely.

Leng Khentyn was pacing, the bandaging criss-crossing his chest the only sign of the damage he had taken during the fight to capture the city. Among the Felin anyone who left without permission was drawn and quartered as soon as they were caught. But he had seen the female Lupii in battle, and also had seen her devotion to the Hero. In this case he counted her leaving as a given - she was on the trail of the Hero, unwilling to let her shield mate face any potential danger alone.

"Let it go. We all know she is following the Hero, and the reasons why. It may be that, for a change, the Hero is the one who doesn't know what is going on." Sanger voiced Khentyns thoughts before Khentyn himself could speak. They all knew that Jam'ta was in love with the Hero and that it wasn't the shallow love of a juvenile, but the type of love that exists inside a marriage.

Arrow walked in just after Sanger spoke and the focus of the meeting turned towards giving the Lem'rii a properly trained army. The Ru'chii would stay until the Hero said otherwise, but wished the Lem'rii to be capable of governing and defending themselves properly. For that to happen the Lem'rii needed not just a new leader, and perhaps form of government, but a new military as well. One to replace the massive force now in the field with Sarkadan - otherwise the new government wouldn't stand a chance of surviving should anyone decide to attack the Lem'rii.

"Sanger, you have smiths among your people, right?" The Ru'chii leader was blunt, something that seemed to be part of the nature of his people.

Sanger nodded and looked at the map-table that contained a three-dimensional scale model of the city. The ease with which they had taken the city had all four generals in agreement that they needed to do something to stop that from happening again. So far they'd discussed turning the temporary walls blocking off side-streets with permanent ones, and come to the conclusion that the buildings the walls were attached to would never hold.

"So, Khentyn, are there enough skilled masons and brickmakers for us to give the city an outer wall fast?" Sanger wanted to turn the discussion away from his smiths. All Arrow wantedthem for was to produce new weapons for the Lem'rii.

Arrow glared at him, the piercing glare of a predatory bird seeming to burrow into Sangers skull. But Khentyns voice detailing the plans and numbers needed to properly wall the city stopped any argument from erupting. "Not enough for it to be built as fast as we'd all like, but the resources do exist to put a good wall around this city in a matter of two years." The basso rumble that normally marked his speech had faded as he'd grown more used to speaking the tongue that they all shared in common.

Jam'ta watched Fliegel make the traps in astonishment. He so rarely showed that he was skilled at all facets of warfare that she had fallen into the habit of thinking of him as just another warrior. But the variety of traps he made, some seemingly made to just be placed on the trail in a haphazard manner and others in pieces like they needed something more to function caught her eye. She had had an uncle who was a master trapper, but she was able to identify only one of the traps the Hero had made.

Then sleep took her, and she slumped into the brush in which she'd hidden herself. The light snores that marked her repose would have given away her presence were it not for the abundance of nightlife making enough noise to cover them. Fliegel was asleep not long after, knowing that he had just under a week left to reach the Goddesses home.

After a few days of light sleep at night while keeping an eye on Victor form a distance sleep crept up on me. No use beating myself over it, all I need to do is follow the scent trail he's left and I'll catch up and have him in eyesight soon. Just have to remember to muffle the noise of my motion, or it might alert him to my presence.

So I'm off on a hunt for him, knowing he's got a lead of several hours on me. The forest scents may keep a lot of Lupii from tracking people, but my nose has always been extra keen. A few moments of sniffing... ah, yes, there... oiled leather, ancient wood and metal mingled with the scent of a confident and self-assured Lupii. His scent located all I need to do is follow it like a deer follows the same path to water each morning.

The trail isn't cold, but it might as well be. I've had to backtrack several times to find it again, almost as if he was intentionally laying false trails. But that can't be - I've been careful to never give away that I'm following him, to the point that I now understand all the lessons he used to drill into us before the war began. Of all the numerous tricks he taught us, the one I was using the most until this morning was how to move silently in the dense brush and undergrowth of the forest.

I seem to have lost the person following me. If it was Jam'ta she either overslept this morning or gave up. The second option isn't likely, so I'll assume that she overslept from missing sleep while trying to make sure I didn't give her the slip by moving at night. With the convoluted trail I've laid down - she is an excellent scent-tracker - it'll take her a long time to catch up, and that'll also mean she'll be moving after dark.

Assuming I'd timed everything properly I had about an hour to get the traps prepared. That is, assuming that my tail is Jam'ta - if it's a group then they've probably got people all around just watching for me to cross through. That's the way a lot of the outlying Lupii villages protect themselves, and also the way a Lem'rii assault party would act. Not that I distrust the Lem'rii now that we've gotten rid of Cha'ingh, but news travels slowly and the men with Sarkadan most likely haven't heard the news yet.

The smaller traps will be a nuisance for anyone following me, but the large trap I've planned will capture the person or persons on my tail quite effectively. With a bent sapling acting as a spring and a wooden construct acting as the trigger it was almost unbelievably effective. I'd used similar traps to capture Cantorii during my first lifetime as the Hero, though those had used larger counterweights. But first things first - I have to find the right sapling to use as the priming spring.

"No! You are overcommitting, leaving yourself open for a return shot that will gut you!" Pha'eel had never run into such incompetent soldiers in his life. He was trying to teach the Lem'rii that would be officers in the new army how to handle a sword and not one of them had the slightest idea about tactics. Everyone of them just attacked, leaving gaping holes through which any enemy that understood the sword could counter and kill them.

Today he was alone on the training ground except for his pupils. The Lapi'in warriors that had been assisting him had found other things to take up their time once they learned how recalcitrant and hard-headed the Lem'rii were as students. Pha'eel shuddered at the thought of having to rely on these people for help in battle. The General's gained their position because of heredity -- not merit. The troops were untrained and unreliable. And the Lem'rii people lacked the honour Pha'eel had come to expect from both his enemies and his allies.

"Everybody, watch. You - attack me just like you did Tarnok here." He surprised himself by being able to keep from displaying his distaste for this training out of his voice.

The students sword flashed at him, the same furious overhand blow followed by a rapid, flicking thrust. But rather than let the student carry the momentum and complete the move Pha'eel caught the students blade with his, trapping it against his hand-guard with a twist of the wrist. Then he turned his blade and body, carrying the students blade down and away from him. When his motion stopped he carried through and stopped with the edge of his blade just touching the fur of his opponents neck.

"Always think two moves ahead. Watch your enemy - in this case I'd seen the attack he'd tried before and knew how to recognize it. In duels you'll get a chance to do that as the duel carries on, but in combat you must commit yourself to action." He looked around, hoping the Lem'rii had learned their lesson. But the feeling he got from the crowd was one of disbelief, as if he couldn't possibly respond with thatsort of counter if he hadn't seen the attack before.

Pha'eel sighed in disgust and checked the padding on his blade. Then he looked around and smiled. "Okay. You think I'm just being a hard-ass. Anyone want to test what I just told you against me?"

Most of the Lem'rii fell back, unwilling to risk the public ridicule should they lose to the instructor. Pha'eel was ready to smile and send them back to the practice when a voice came out of the crowd. "You fight well. Let's test your pretty words." It belonged to the only potential Lem'rii general who had been a general before the nation was conquered. Rumors of how he had risen from being the third son of a disgraced noble to being a general included tales of his prowess with the blade.

The Lem'rii students pulled back into a ring around them, almost all chanting the name of the one that accepted Pha'eels challenge. Pha'eel raised his blade in front of his face in salute and attacked, whirling about in a fighting style peculiar to his family. Not even a minute had passed and the Lem'rii's sword was buried point first in the dirt of the courtyard. Gasps of astonishment and surprise rose from the crowd, some crying foul and others chuckling at the lesson the one-time general had learned.

When Arrow had awoke that morning and taken his morning flight around the city he'd been in a good mood. That had gone out the window with the first case brought before him. A Lupii soldier had been caught in the act of robbing a jewelers shop and the public flogging that was to be an example would cause problems with the Hero's army.

If he could, he would have handled it differently, but Fliegel had left strict instructions about legal matters. For the vast majority of crimes there was a single punishment - a public flogging - and the reasoning the Hero had used when explaining it to the generals was clear. The way to curtail crime was to make the punishment harsh enough that the criminal would either become smart enough to not get caught or, hopefully, not commit the crime again.

After that had come a seemingly unending morass of Lem'rii asking him to step in and help solve disputes. This made no one happy, because he often decided that the best resolution was to split the dispute and give each party half of what they were seeking. The sky was just starting to take on the rainbow hues of dusk when the last dispute was brought before him.

"Ka'ot, this is the last for tonight. Who and what is the situation?" You could hear the mix of emotions he felt in his voice. Disgust, weariness and something else mingled to cause his normally bright and cheerful voice to mutate into a dark and harsh tone.

The Lapi'in acting as his bailiff for the day was quick to pick up the sheet of paper which held the list of the days supplicants. "Last on the list too, Sirrah. It's a charge of theft raised against one L'ndo Lari, scrivener, by Ari'in, licensed prostitute."

Arrow motioned and the doors swung open, letting the pair into the room. At least this case wouldn't be over mere accusations - in studying the culture during the days after the conquering of the city Arrow had learned that, in this culture, prositutes kept immaculate records of every transaction. Add to that that a scrivener could actually sign their name clearly and most had a well known signature and handwriting and the case seemed simple enough.

Sanger stepped impatiently from foot to foot while the smith droned on about why it would take to long to forge swords for the entire army with the same folded metal technique used for the hoofblades. After two minutes of listening to the diatribe Sanger finally stamped a hoof hard enough for the smith to notice it and stop speaking. He'd unconsciously used the hoof that was the worst, with the muscles damaged in the prior weeks battle complaining about the partially healed wound.

"I don't care if it would take twenty years. No excuses - they don't need the same number of folds as the hoofblades... As I understand my ancestors notes even half that number of folds makes a very strong blade. You just have to get everyone working on it!" Tired and in a great deal of pain from the torn flesh and muscle of his flank Sanger didn't even attempt to use the tones of respect normally used in conversations with the skilled artisans that support a Cantorii legion. Well within his rights, as they were considered part of the Legion, he still worried that the artisans might try to rebel after being talked to in that manner.

His feet carried him away from that smith and towards the chemists tents where new batches of blackpowder were being cooked up. In the pouch hanging form his shoulder was information on several other types of explosives, some of which the chemists might be able to make. Sanger trusted Fliegels information, but the mere fact that he knew of so many things no one else did had him worried. That, combined with the fact that Victor Fliegel was his ancestor Pegasuey had him doubting his own sanity at some points in time.

A few of the notes really intrigued Sanger, as they spoke of a explosives that made blackpowder seem like a childs toy. All they needed was a few components, and the Hero had included ideas on how to make them if they weren't known to the chemists. The only problem with a number of them was obtaining and refining the petroleum they needed as a key component. Thankfully there were some deposits near enough the surface that they could be mined. But the problem was in the fact that some other notes were about better that were only slightly harder to produce.

Leng Khentyn walked the line of the ditch that would front the wall being built around the city of Lem'raq. The construction was proceeding slowly, to the point that little more than a few Cantorii designed cranes had been erected. But the fontage ditch and the earthen wall that would serve as temporary barriers while the real wall was erected were almost complete. Now all he had to do was locate the stone to use.

"You! Fetch the master mason and have him at the planning tent immediately." Leng wasn't in a good mood and had just grabbed the nearest person as a messenger, not even making sure the Lem'rii was a runner.

He fumed about the state of the work, even though quite a lot had been done in the week since the project had been started. When a Lem'rii carrying a load of wooden stakes to help with shoring up the walls of the ditch almost knocked him over Khentyn roared, one arm pulled back for a strike that would have killed the Lem'rii youth. As it was the youth dropped the load of stakes he was carrying and took off, the scent of fear pouring off of him. Stunned by his unaccustomed short fuse recently he shook his head and finished walking to the planning tent.

His hand had just pulled back the flap door when the mason he'd asked for appeared. Khentyn bowed and held the flap open for the aging Lem'rii that had spent as many years mastering his craft as Khentyn had been alive.

"I thank you, Lord Leng, but I would not wish for people to think you bowed to my wishes." The master crafter was polite, but there was a hint of disdain in his voice, as though he detested having to answer to someone outside his craft.

Leng bowed his head in acknowledgement and walked inside, taking up his customary place at the planning table. Moments later the flap swished aside and the mason walked in, looking surprised that Khentyn hadn't insisted he enter first. The look on the crafters face disappeared when he caught a hint of the madness that had been consuming the Felin lord since the Hero had taken off on a solo trek. Seeing the mason's shock Khentyn smiled, making sure to show as much of his teeth as possible.

"Master H'trah, thank you for joining me. Would there be any problem with erecting a wooden wall around the city while the stone one is constructed?" The idea had come to Khentyn after scaring the laborer carrying the wooden stakes. It wasn't his, but an idea that Sanger had mentioned as a temporary solution to the lack of defensive walls around the city.

Jam'ta moved carefully, aware of the traps Fliegel had been leaving on the trail after having gotten a foot caught in one earlier that day. His scent was strong through this section of the forest, as if he'd spent time criss-crossing the path. In some ways this hunt had brought her emotions for the Hero into a firm form that she had never felt before, and in other ways the manner in which he so easily evaded her drove her crazy.

She had just stepped around another of the tiny traps, hoping it was the last when the world spun and she found herself hanging upside down with a foot trapped and a net around her. Her hand shot towards the knife she always wore at her belt, finding just the empty scabbard. With her knife lying on the ground she realized that her arrows were likely there as well and let loose a stream of profanity.

When a loud clapping came from the brush she closed her mouth and looked around, trying to find the source of the noise. Then the world came rushing up at her as the trap let loose. As fast as she could Jam'ta ripped the noose from around her ankle and drew her sword, wary about the possibility of an enemy.

"Well, what do we have here?" The familiar voice made her smile and her sword slid back into it's sheath. Mentally she made a note to look into a way to keep it from flopping into an undrawable position in case she was trapped like that again. Then Fliegel seemed to materialize from the bushes and continued speaking. "Is it Little Red Riding Hood, delivering treats to her grandmother?"

Jam'ta stared at him, not understanding the reference. "Ummm..." she said, hoping to be able to ask him if that was another story from the ancient civilization he'd once spoken to her about.

"Nevermind. Didn't I give you orders to stay behind?" Fliegel cut her off, his smile from before turning into an angry scowl she had seen all to often when troops messed up in training. Her shock at the sudden change in his demeanor must have been visible as well as in her scent, because he shook his head moments later.

"Doesn't matter. Come on, I'm almost there anyway... But remember - if you want to survive this trip, do not follow me into the cave." With that he motioned to her dagger and the few hunting arrows that had fallen from her quiver.

Jam'ta leapt into action and picked up the yard long arrows, sliding them into the hip-holster she wore for hunting. Then she slipped her foot under the dagger and flipped it into her hand. That was something else she'd have to look into - a way to keep the dagger in it's sheath. By the time she was finished Fliegels form was fading out into the green light of the noon-time forest.

The Next Day

Pha'eel was up and working the would-be generals hard before the light of dawn broke the sky. "Rise before your men and keep yourself fit. Anyone that is to lead Warriors should be a warrior in heart, body and soul." He yelled at them as they rounded the last corner of the five mile run he led them on before breakfast each morning.

"If this is why they are so fierce, let them have it!" One of the men muttered. Tall and turning thirty, G'Kar had been a general under Cha'ingh, gaining the position because of his families money. Even though he claimed to love the life of a general, he was an offfice worker and hadn't seen battle before the attack on the city. During that battle he'd hid in a privy and claimed to be ill, but wanted to retain the income, since his brother had inherited the family fortune. But after having been through a week of the most grueling exercise he'd ever experienced he was ready to quit and go begging for a job in the family mills.

Pha'eel let the comment pass him by, knowing that everyone griped during training. What surprised him was the muted response he heard. Five other trainees had reproached G'Kar for his attitude, and he took it as proof that some of the trainees would make fine generals. The run was followed by sword-drills with weighted practice blades and was the one skill Pha'eel had that he could pass on.

"G'Kar, front and center." Pha'eel called on the one complaining voice he could hear for today's example in technique. As the one time general came jogging forward Pha'eel smiled and spoke. "As I've said before, the art of the sword is a perilous one. Over the last week you've gotten good with single sword drills. Today you will start learning to fight as warriors - with a blade in each hand."

He stopped there and motioned at the racked practice blades. Looking downtrodden G'Kar walked over and picked the two that looked the sturdiest, then went back to his place on the practice field in front of the Lapi'in. Pha'eel drew one of his own practice blades, practically identical to the famed Tango'ka, and smiled.

"The first techniques are all against an opponent with a single blade." The Lapi'in knew five basic techniques of this sort he'd be teaching them. The rest of the skill they'd have to develop on their own, just as he had.

Sanger fidgeted a bit as the chirurgeon peeled the bandage off his flank to inspect the sinew stitches holding the wound closed. It had been a little over a week since the battle and the Chirurgeon hadn't had time to get to Sanger and check the wound. The bandages stuck to his skin and fur, sending waves of sharp pain through him as the dried blood and other fluids were irregularly strict about not letting go of the bandage.

"M'lord Sanger your wound is not healing properly. There seems to be something bad seeping into your blood from it. This is my fault, as I should have packed a poultice on it before bandaging it the day of the fight." The chirurgeon is blunt and not entirely correct about the infection that is setting in.

Mikel Sanger chuckles and shakes his head. "No, my good fellow, you are not to blame. The Lem'rii sometimes dip their arrows in feces or poisons. It is my guess that this is what happened. A poultice that day may have helped, but there was no way of knowing that they had done such for the bolt that wounded me."

The chirurgeon fell silent then and worked at making sure the poultice covered the wound, inside and out. Sanger focused on ignoring the pain with limited success, and was relieved when the chirurgeon finished packing the poultice into the wound and began wrapping the bandage again.

Khentyn Leng was watching the wooden palisade go up from the viewpoint of a worker. He was in the pit actually helping to set the posts that would serve as a temporary barrier while the new stone wall for the city was built. For the first time in a week he wasn't angry or feeling useless. Whatever had caused his emotional upheaval earlier in the week seemed to have been halted by doing more than supervising work.

Around him Felin, Cantorii, Lupii and Lem'rii toiled to erect a wall in case Sarkadan decided to conquer the Lem'rii in retribution for them falling to his enemies. As the huge oak post settled into the hole dug just for it people came running up to help tie the structure together. The slightly off center can't of the pole seemed in line with the newest section of the wall, but the earliest section was standing straight.

"K'larn, that makes fifteen strides. Signal the crews to start the backfill." Khentyn wiped the sweat off his brow while issuing the order. In the three days since getting the crafters to agree on this temporary wall they'd made good progress. More than a hundred and fifty strides had been covered, and more crews were starting work to make the process go even faster.

Arrow wheeled through the sky, amusing himself by taking a turn on the crime watch that he'd implemented. So far the air patrols and foot patrols had caught more than a thousand criminals. All of them were now working on the fortifications.

Then he wheeled about and caught a fast rising thermal - rare in the current season - and headed back for the small building next to the palace he used as a courthouse. There hadn't been much activity recently, but there was still the matter of the attempted murder that was waiting. He wasn't sure how to handle it and wished that Cha'ri-ah - that is, the Hero - was there to give him guidance.

For the simple crimes that had come before this he used a summary judgement form that seemed to be common among all the peoples of the world. But he was wary of using it to handle such a major crime, if only because the attempted murder had been against a Lupii patroller. His people had no such problems, being as peacable as they normally were, but did have a form for such situations.

As his talons touched the cobbled street in front of the Courthouse his mind was made up. The ten person jury would be raised from the Lem'rii and it would be justice in the form of his ancestors. With only the Jury asking questions and eye-witnesses providing information it would be fast. Though he was still unsure if the Lem'rii could be impartial and the others involved - save the Ru'Chii, to whom such was a core of their cultural identity - could be honest.

His face set in a grim mask he walked through the doors and into his office. If the Lem'rii let a guilty man go, justice would be met in other forms. That, as well, wasn't unheard of among the Ru'Chii. But it would be a tough process, educating the Lem'rii as to the duties of a Jury. He only hoped that when they created a government things like this would be fixed in stone for the next thousand years.

Fliegel laid out his bedroll and started a fire going. Though spring was definitely on it's way it hadn't quite arrived and the nights were cold. Jam'ta had eventually caught up to him, but had been silent for the rest of the walk. Never a word, just those grey-green eyes that reminded him so much of Jel'ra, his first wife.

As he stretched out and looked at the stars she was still active, practicing the hand-to-hand forms he'd taught her almost a year ago. Through the breaks in the canopy he could see familiar stars, including the constellation he once looked to for inspiration. "Ahh, Orion, I know now what your life must have been like. Hunter, Warrior... Never able to stop your relentless roll into history and the stars."

Jam'ta started a pot of water boiling on the fire to make some of her grandmothers favorite drink, lost in thought. While they were exploring the tunnels the Hero had revealed parts of the history of the planet to her, knowledge no one else had. As the daughter of a bard she had heard all kinds of tales but the story of the people that had rebelled against the Goddess was new to her. And the Hero spoke of them in such an odd manner, at once wistful - as if longing for the world those people had built - and angry - as if they'd slighted him personally.

The mystery had only gotten deeper with the traps and the strange way he now had of sensing when he was being watched or followed. He was a puzzle to her, an enigma. Before she had met him there had been no male that had caught her eye and she was certain that she was destined for life as a spinster. But when he began raising the army she saw hope for her future, a glimmer of a possibility that she might meet someone with whom to share a future.

When the Hero's page, Split-Tail, had died she'd been worried. In training and the minor skirmishes leading up to that fight the Hero had been joyful, almost as if it was his whole purpose in life. But the stories she heard about his rage, about how he extracted the information he wanted from the captured Lem'rii officer had turned her stomach. The promise people talked about, the one he made over Split-Tails body, stood firm in her mind and revealed more about the man than he might have realised. He cared about not just about his mission, but about the people. Children seemed to have a special place to him, as if he'd lost his own in the past.

That thought had stopped her in the first few weeks of being his shield-mate. If he had had children he might have a mate waiting for her husband to return from the call to be the Hero. But he spoke of nobody like that and acted as if he was the oldest person on the planet. That, in the end, was what forced her to admit, at least to herself, that she loved him. On his shoulders rested the fate of the world she knew - the world the Goddess had built - and though the pain it caused him was visible, he bore the burden and never asked for help.

As Jam'ta waited for the water to start boiling she watched the Hero sleep. His body lay still, unmoving while he slept, like each night death took him and each dawn he returned to life. Then the water began to boil and she turned her attention to mixing in the special leaves that would make a ragrant and good drink, letting her thoughts about the Hero roll around.

"Victor Fliegel, Hero of the Goddess... You may not know it, but I will always be here for you. You may never return the love I have for you, but know that I do love you." Jam'tas words were carried away by the wind as they left her mouth, never to be heard be the man she was speaking to.

Victor Fliegel didn't sleep in the normal sense - his mind was always alert for signs of an attack. For that one he blamed himself, since he was the one who had decided to focus energy on that set of techniques. But this night he couldn't even get into the light sleep that he was used to. With his senses working better since his body had been repaired a month before the assault on Lem'raq even the quiet night was a morass of sound and other information.

The insomnia he seemed to be suffering wasn't impairing. To Fliegel it was quite the opposite of imparing - he could use the time to hone a number of tricks that were purely mental. Most he had already worked on, and some he had never lost skill with, but there were a few that he'd never been able to manage. On this dark and calm night he might be able to pull it off.

"Breath deep and let it out, the tension going with it." He thought as the cool night air filled his lungs and was pushed out. As the air left his lungs he felt a calmness descend on him, then took another breath and constructed a mental image of the small clearing where he'd set up the camp from memory. The image was far from perfect, the trees were just dark stalks, the fire wasn't burning and neither his sleeping form nor the bustling form of Jam'ta were there.

This was as far as he had ever gotten, a rough mental sketch of his surroundings. The next step was to force his mind to use all the data his senses brought him to flesh out the scene. Over a thousand times in his various lives as the Hero he'd tried this trick, and each time he'd failed, the image collapsing around him the second he tried to let his senses add their data. But this time something was different - he had those previous experiences to draw on and senses that seemed even sharper than they had ever been.

First to add the fire, the sound and smell of it giving rise to memories of other fires. In his mental image the fire sprang to life, first an almagamation of all the campfires he'd seen in almost a thousand years of life, then settling into a form recognizable as the fire he had started before laying down. But something was strange about it, it seemed to have a small flat spot - like the flames were licking and curling around something in the fire.

Piece by piece the image resolved and came to life, his mental image mimicing the world. Surprised by the results of his efforts Fliegel decided to try extending the trick. In his mind the image of his relaxed form stood and his view shifted as if he himself had stood up. Then he walked into the woods and began studying the insects and animals that inhabited the night-time world. But something was wrong - the world had gotten quite, the animals and insects responding to the presence of something that didn't belong in their world.

"Maybe they are sensing me." Fliegel thought, puzzled by the sudden stillness. But he was walking around a mental image - not the real world. "How could they sense me?" He was puzzled and trying to find a solution that fit with his understanding of the nature of the world. During all of this he kept in motion, alert for some sign of what could have caused the strange and somewhat frightening stillness.

Two minutes passed as Fliegel explored the copy of the forest he'd created in his mind. Disgusted at his inability to find what had caused the sudden silence in the mental image he'd built Fliegel decided to just go to sleep. But as his consciousness roared out before the image collapsed the cause of the stillness became clear. With a grunt Fliegel threw his body into motion, the ancient knife he'd carried so long ago when he'd just been a simple human man seeming to leap into his hand.

The last of the hot tea was gone and Jam'ta was preparing her bedroll when the Hero's eyes leaped open and he sprang from his bedroll. In the same motion his knife was in his hand and gone, thrown with amazing accuracy at the Felin warrior running in from the forest. Stunned by his action Jam'ta just stared at the body as it staggered another step then crashed to the ground, a gaping hole visible on it's lower back.

"Jam'ta - zombies!" The Hero shouted at her as he drew his blades and charged at a second Felin warrior that had just stepped into the clearing where they had made camp. Still stunned by the sudden outburst of noise in the silence she almost didn't get her blade clear of it's scabbard in time to block a wild slash by a Cantorii that had roared into the clearing immediately after the Felin warrior that Fliegel was attacking.

Her foot kicked up and into the stomach of the Cantorii that had attacked her and met the slippery remnants of his upper intestines. But it was enough to give her the opening she needed to sever his head from his neck. Then she spun to find another of the attackers to take care of only to see three Felin warriors and a Lem'rii around Fliegel.

"Victor!" She yelled as she ran to his aid. But she was too late, the Lem'rii slashed and opened a wicked gash on the Hero's back. As he staggered forward his Tangis-ka slid through the neck of one of the Felin warriors and it's twin did the same to a second.

A savage roar tore from Jam'ta's throat as she leapt into the air, her sword leaving her hand as she flew at the last Felin warrior. In flight her body seemed to flow into another position, her body leaning back and a single foot extended. At the moment of impact a sickening crack sounds in the small clearing and the Lem'rii's head takes on an impossible forward tilt.

Before even properly regaining her footing her belt-knife is in Jam'ta's hand and she is slamming it through the Lem'rii's back and into the still beating heart. Staggering with the impact of the twin blows the Lem'rii jerks and starts to turn, then drops as the necromancy of it's master loses it's grip on the reanimated corpse. Jam'ta's chest heaves with deep breaths from the work of the battle and the world swims before her.

Sarkadan had tracked me into this forbidden region of the forest and set attack dogs on me. That was what had caused the silence in the forest - the presence of their unnatural life. But the first was downed by my thrown blade and the second collapsing before I managed to shout a warning to Jam'ta. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her blade rise, barely in time to stop the powerful downward stroke of a Cantorii.

Then I was consumed by the battle, all my attention taken by the need to survive a fight against three opponents at once. I was already in motion, moving to take two of my attackers out at the same time when I realised I had made a mistake and there was a fourth one directly behind me. Jam'ta's shouted warning came too late, as searing pain flashed across my back.

But my attack succeeded and two of the Felin warriors that had attacked fell to the ground, their heads no longer connected to their bodies. Unable to stop my motion or control my body at the moment I collapsed to the ground. My breastplate hit a second before I did, the strap that held it tight against my chest severed by the sharp edge of the blade that had cut my back open.

Before the blackness of unconsciousness took me I heard a loud crack of breaking bone followed by the wet thud of a blade stabbing into a body. Certain that Jam'ta had fallen to the Zombie attackers I tried fighting off the pain and the blackness threatening to overtake me, but failed. As my eyes closed my only thought was that I had lost a wonderful traveling companion and decent shield-mate.

The Goddess

Signals flashed in her consciousness from the nanomachines in Fliegels body. He'd been injured again and was losing blood. The situation was serious and if something wasn't done soon she'd lose him entirely. Commands flashed back and forth and the nanomachines went to work. If she was lucky they'd stop the blood loss before he had too little to survive.

In this life Fliegel seemed more accident prone than any other. First shot from an ambush, and now attacked during the night. The signal said he was close, but none of her remotes were charged enough for a run that far from the base and back. So she bided her time with thoughts on how he knew where she was - no other reincarnation had ever remembered the past lives downloaded into their brains. It was an error in the synaptic copying protocol, but at least she could depend on it.

Ideas flashed along long unused pathways in her neural net and databases were queried for information. Fragments of data recovered in a recent attempt to salvage some of the failing storage devices showed that such in-depth synaptic patterning had never been attempted during the time her creators had existed. Somewhere in the strange neural net created by the joining of a once human consciousness with a just sapient neural net a shudder of worry twinged and caused more unused circuits to fire.

Was it possible that the trauma of his near death had jolted the pathways that hadn't joined up fully into cooperating with the rest of his neural net? That was all it took for her to prod the version she had from it's storage and into functioning in a shielded part of her systems. Around it she built a simulated body and then subjected it to the stress of a full nano-repair after the heart had been destroyed. Amazingly the fragmented and split out pieces of the net - those parts that she hadn't copied from the original but from Fliegel as he went about keeping her experiment stable - folded and rejoined to the core neural network.

Immediately she stored the result in a separate file. She'd start a pair of clones now and place them in suspended animation when they were done. It would allow her to see if the pattern developed from the neural net placed under stress would gain all the skill and knowledge of the multiple times she had thrown Fliegel into the world to stabilize her experiment.

Jam'ta watched as the blood seemed to flow back into Fliegels body and the edges of the wound started to close. Tiny bubble frothed along the surface, spitting out chunks of dirt and other debris that had fallen into the wound. The sight of him healing like this was awe inspiring and reinforced the fact that he was special to the Goddess even more than his stepping off a funeral pyre did.

After the wound had sealed itself shut she picked up Fliegel and laid him on his bedroll. It was too late for them to move the camp, and with Fliegel out she couldn't even attempt it. The bodies could lay where they were, since she was too tired after moving Fliegel to his bedroll, and she wanted to keep an eye on him through the night, and also keep an eye on their camp, since there might be other groups of enemies in the wood.

Four hours later sleep crept up and took her. Her body folded forward and curled up on the forest floor next to the Hero and for the first time in her life the dream wasn't pleasant.

She was once again in the campsite, just before the attack. But this time when Fliegel spun into action a dozen crazed Felin warriors with intestines dripping out were coming out of the woods. The knife Fliegel threw took down one and he was moving through the rest like a wildfire taking a wheatfield during the late summer before harvest.

Her blade whispered out of it's sheath and immediately she was in a life or death fight herself. But this time she reached Fliegel in time to see his eyes glaze over and his body take on the somewhat jerky motions of the undead.

Her reaction was slow and she fell dead at his feet. Just when the blackness of death should have been taking over the dream began again. This time she reached him in time to stop the killing blow, but in doing so died herself. Then she watched in horror as her body jerked back to it's feet and attacked Fliegel.

Before the scene could repeat she bolted awake, screaming. Fliegel was awake and had his arms wrapped around her, holding her in a close embrace. "Jam'ta... It was just a dream... Whatever it was, it was only a dream..." He muttered into her ear as he began to rock back and forth.

The closeness hid from her the fact that it was well past dawn and they should have broken camp much earlier. The image of her blade raised against the Hero was fresh in her mind, as was the image of him rising from the dead and attacking her. Both images fought inside her, warring with her belief that nothing could ever make the event happen and was causing her body to shake with sobs and revulsion.

After a half hour she managed to regain control and leaned back into the enfolding arms, silently happy that he had been the only one to see her break down like that. Then sleep took her again and she dreamed of a life with the Hero but without the war or any conflict. In them children ran about the yeard, each pretending to be some Hero from history, mimicing their fathers predecessors and their father at the same time.

Then the world spun and shifted. She was standing in the main temple where the Hero had been confirmed. But the statue of the Goddess was changing, standing up and taking on the form of a Lupii. Jam'ta watched the event in silent surprise, knowing at some level that the Goddess had chosen to grant her a vision.

"Jam'ta, child of K'raw and Jir'ki. I once hoped that you would dedicate your life to me, but didn't step in because there was a special spark to you." The voice was kind and gentle, but at the same time regal and commanding - with a tone of otherworldliness to it. Jam'ta dropped to the ground and prostrated herself in front of the being she knew to be her Goddess and the creator of all people on the globe.

"No, stand proud, child. Be strong for my Hero, for Victor Fliegel. This task I've given him is more difficult and dangerous than any other he has undertaken for me." Jam'ta staggered to her feet only to drop to the ground again with the realization that Fliegel wasn't just a Hero, but was the Hero. The figure of the Goddess stepped forward and helped her to her feet.

"There is a battle going on inside you and inside him. Inside yourself the battle is over your fear that you will be forced to kill one-another. Worry not - I will not let the evil of Sarkadan or his master touch you.

"Inside the Hero the battle that rages is different. He is not immortal, but he lives lives without end. Before this didn't bother him, as I made it so that he never knew of his past lives." The Goddess wasn't being truthful, but in the scentless world of dreams Jam'ta couldn't tell. Never having to lie before, but possessing the capacity since that long ago code merging, this marked a change in the way the Goddess worked.

"But this time is different, because never before was I so needed to heal him and stop his death in the manner I have. Before his death came after his tasks were complete, but this time... Fliegel is on the edge of insanity in this life. The task so great and dangerous that he fears it might be beyond him."

Jam'ta was almost knocked off her feet by that news. The Goddess was breaking down the pedestal that Jam'ta had placed Fliegel on and was exposing the emotional side of him. It was amazing, this news, because it meant that he wasn't some ethereal being of justice and vengeance, but a living Lupii. Beyond that, he was created for the task by the Goddess... There was no wife waiting for him, no family for him to return to. Her heart leaped and pounded in joy.

"If he didn't have the memories of his previous lives the other struggle would not be taking place. He is walling off his emotions, his feelings for you. The reason is a strange one - he still loves every wife he took in his long history as my Hero. This isn't good for him, and if he would take you as his wife, his lover, his confidant..." The voice trailed off and the Goddess seemed almost wistful, as if she had once hoped to have someone like that. That thought was strange to Jam'ta - surely if the Goddess wanted a companion she could find or create someone suitable and make them a God to match her greatness.

"With a companion, someone he can share his burdens with he can succeed and not make a mistake that I cannot immediately correct. That is the reason he first started taking a page during the fight to free your people more than a thousand years ago. But now he refuses to take a page... I cannot influence him, doing so would damage the bonds that tie him to me, so you must try to break down those barriers for me. "

Jam'ta nodded, unsure if she should even speak in the presence of the Goddess. But the task was one Jam'ta had been working on anyway. Denying the Goddess wasn't something she would ever do, but if she didn't already love the Hero she would have been tempted. Suddenly the urge to ask the Goddess all sorts of questions came to her, but the dream ended before she could open her mouth.

Sleep was easy for me, much easier than some would think. I didn't dream about much of anything anymore - my brain had given that up during my third or fourth time around as the Hero. But I didn't need much, and woke expecting to be in excruciating pain from the wound I distinctly remembered taking. Instead I was free of pain and saw Jam'ta sleeping sitting up, but quite alive.

The sight of her alive sent a jolt of relief through me, followed by surprise. She'd never shown the level of skill it would take to handle the enemies that had been left when I went down. I stood and stretched, then walked around the camp and examined the bodies of our attackers.

The Lem'rii that had cut me had both a broken kneck and a knife wound to it's heart. The Felin that I had been just turning to attack had a sword wound clean through it's head. She must've thrown her blade for the wound to be like that, and the accuracy... I'd have to start teaching her more advanced stuff if she was getting that good with just the basics every soldier learned.

Digging the graves was a hard task, but I had finished three of them when I heard Jam'ta weeping in her sleep. The sound pulled me from my task and I ran to her, and pulled her onto my bedroll, then sat and held her. I'd done similar hundreds of times for children I'd raised, but then it had been my parental love that drove it.

The thought stopped me and I wondered if I might be falling in love with Jam'ta. It wasn't something I wanted - it was wartime and if I fell in love with her and she died the result would be worse than the atrocities I'd committed because of my grief over Split-Tails death. And I shouldn't let myself fall in love anyway, it would just be another statistic for that damned computer to tally. She already had quite a file, and me not taking a wife - in effect producing no offspring - would probably put a big crimp in her plans.

A half hour later Jam'ta screamed and bolted awake. I held onto her and didn't let her jump into the fire like would have happened. The nightmare must have been horrifying for that to have happened. So I whispered to her that she had just had a dream and held her, hoping it was comforting to her. She quieted down momentarily then began to sob silently. That act tore at my heart and cemented it in place - I did love this woman.

As tears fell from her eyes I held her. Whispering as she sobbed from she sobbed from memories of the nightmares that had shattered her sleep. I wondered what she had dreamed that had been so terrifying, then flashed back to the bodies and my wounding. She was concerned about me, or so my mind told me after reviewing the facts. This alone lifted my mood, but darkened it considerably. It seemed that the computer was going to get her wish, because I knew that if she did love me as I thought she would become my wife.

After a few minutes I stopped whispering and just held her. My heart felt like it was breaking apart because I couldn't take this pain she was feeling away. At that moment all I wanted to do was tell her I loved her, but something stopped me. Don't ask me what it was, but it was like the words refused to be said. I hadn't had a problem like that since my teenage years back in the twentieth century, yet now...

"Forget it, old man. Just hold her for a bit. She'll either get over it and be embarrassed or fall asleep." I said this to myself in that silent voice that had become a manner of reminding myself I was still only a man.

I lost track of the time, but she finally stopped sobbing and fell asleep. My legs were starting to go numb by then, but I held her a little longer, wanting to make sure she was in a deep sleep before laying her on my bedroll and going back to work cleaning up after the battle. Not that I didn't want to just leave the bodies laying there, but the mass of them would be better off in the ground. And they were already tainted with whatever nanomachines were used to reanimate them. I couldn't risk those entering the ecosystem without passing through a few layers of digestion first.

My stomach was yelling for food as I dropped the second Felin body into the pit I'd dug. I looked over at the fire, then at Jam'ta and decided I had better finish getting the bodies in the hole before eating a late breakfast. Ten minutes later I was working on dragging the Cantorii body toward the pit when Jam'ta started mumbling in her sleep. I stopped to listen, then went back to work after hearing the word "Goddess".

Backfilling the pit was painful - my muscles were screaming about the overuse by that time. That single fact told me I hadn't been working out enough. I made a mental note to push myself into the workouts that the lowest rankers in the army faced each morning, then looked at the mound created by the bodies in the pit and frowned.

My stomach rumbled again and was so empty it felt like someone had stuff an iron ball in it. That prompted me to rebuild the fire and start pulling food from my pack. I had to fight to keep from just eating some of the vennison jerky that I had as emergency provisions - my hunger was that great. Fifteen minutes later the stew was bubbling and I dipped in a cup for the broth, knowing it would help with my hunger.

Maybe an hour had passed when Jam'ta finally started to wake up. As she sat up and yawned I smiled and handed her a camp bowl filled with the stew that was still simmering on the edge of the fire. She smiled and the look she gave me told me more than my interpretation of her recent actions had. That was how I knew she did love me, and my heart soared, seeming to fly among the clouds as I had once done as a Ru'Chii.

Three Days after Fliegel Leaves

Khentyn cursed as a runner came up and told him that Arrow had requested a meeting. The curse caused a number of the people working alongside him to turn and stare, since he had been calm and barely spoken more than necessary before that. "Tell him I'm going to bathe first. Can't go stinking up his Courthouse because I've been out here working."

It wasn't the requested meeting that caused the Felin general to curse at the situation. For the last three days he'd felt useful for the first time since the battle. Sure, it was only a week that he'd been running around trying to be a manager, but he had been raised with a need to be doing more than working his brain and telling people what to do.

"K'larn, it seems I'm needed for some meeting with the other generals. Take over keeping this wall going up smoothly. Remember, it's been faster since we started setting thirty strides at a shot." K'larn had rapidly proved to be really intelligent and Khentyn admired that. When Fliegel returned he'd be suggesting giving that Lupii a position as a Sergeant.

Then he turned and walked for the bath-house that had been erected near his tent. He was covered in sweat and dirt, and didn't want to dirty his dress armor with it. As he stepped through the bath-house doors he knew something was wrong. Then he heard motion and turned around barely in time to deflect a knife thrust by a Lem'rii in disheveled rags.

His other hand snapped out and his claws extended, snapping the Lem'rii head to the side and digging furrows into the flesh. Blood welled up and Khentyn roared as the blade he originally deflected cut a line across his stomach. With a shove the Lem'rii flew back through the fabric wall of the tent, with the massive form of the Felin general in the air seconds later.

As Khentyn crashed down on top the Lem'rii there was a sickening snap of the Lem'rii's ribs cracking. The Lem'rii struggled, it's hands reaching up to wrap around the Felin's neck. Khentyn laughed as he drew his belt knife and reversed it so he could drive it through his attackers skull. Suddenly fear leaped into the Lem'riis eyes, and a reflection of the sharp, unpolished blade of the knife descending.

The knife slammed through the Lem'rii skull and Khentyn stood, panting. A small crowd had gathered and Khentyn looked around. "Go get Mikel Sanger, Arrow of the Ru'chii and Pha'eel. And bring me a chirurgeon." His voice was hoarse and his throat was so dry it felt like someone had coated it with sand. He turned to re-enter the tent and clean up, then the world swam and he collapsed.

"Sir! Come quick. General Leng was attacked! He killed his attacker, but was injured in the fight!" The voice caused Mikel's head to snap up, away from the plans he was drawing up for a frame that could be used to launch the strange self-propelled arrows the Hero had come up with months before.

"What! Where? Tell me then summon my Chirurgeon!" His voice boomed. Someone had attacked Khentyn and injured him... This could mark the start of a Lem'rii uprising that would undo everything they were working towards.

"By the bathing tent, milord."

Sanger pushed the young messenger out the door and took off. They needed to check the scene before to much happened and try to determine if the attacker was working alone. His blades we in their sheaths and a mace hung from his belt. The mace was a new addition, added after the fight to take the city because it was easier to use in close quarters than either of his blades.

As soon as he was clear of the building the Cantorii general leaped into a full gallop towards the nearest barracks of Cantorii troops. He wanted a full complement with him when he reached the scene of his friends attack. His mind was spinning with possibilities, but foremost was a warning the Hero had given them before leaving on this "Spirit Quest" of his.

"Remember we are the conquerors here. Most of the Lem'rii might like us, but there will be holdouts. And there will definitely be spies among them from Sarkadan. Never doubt that. Watch yourselves carefully, as one mistake could give the holdouts a way to undo everything we're trying to accomplish. It could also lead to the death of every non-Lem'rii in the city." Were the words that had been spoken only three days before. At the time Sanger had dismissed them as being caused by the overcautious nature of the Hero. But now the events they warned of seemed on the verge of happening.

Since the nearest barracks was close to the edge of the army's camp outside the city it took him only a few minutes to reach them. Not realizing he had been going at a full gallop he slammed into the makeshift door and knocked it off it's hinges before he could stop. "Troops, to me! General Leng has been attacked." He shouted, then turned and started running.

He could hear the thunderous noise of his troops filing out of the barracks and galloping after him. Pride filled him to know that his men would respond to so simple an order like that. Then the cause of his order reminded him that there was serious work to attend to. So he picked up the pace and sprinted the final thousand yards to the bathing tent where Khentyn had been attacked.

Arrow looked up from the instructions he was writing down that would guide the Lem'rii through the case to come as his office door banged open and a messenger ran in, out of breath. It wasn't anyone he'd have expected to see, since most of the people that would come crashing in like that were likely to be reporting on a crime in progress that needed his immediate attention.

"Sir! General Leng... He..." The messenger was really out of breath, his chest heaving as if he'd just run around the outside of the city.

"Calm down, patroller. What is the problem?" Arrow was annoyed. This trial was going to be taxing, since he was going to have to work to really enforce the rules. The next one, if he was there for it, wouldn't be any better, but hopefully the Lem'rii would learn.

While the trooper carrying the message calmed down, the instructions got a few more lines added. Arrow was re-reading them to check for errors in his writing when the messenger coughed to draw his attention. Looking up from the page calmly Arrow smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

"Sir, an unknown Lem'rii attacked General Leng as he entered his private bathing tent. General Leng prevailed and killed his attacker, but collapsed immediately afterwards."

Arrow was on his feet before the messenger was finished. An attack on a general in the Army was a serious crime, and if the General had killed his attacker, the patrol needed to isolate the scene. That was necessary so they could find eye-witnesses and collect what evidence there might be. If the attack had been unprovoked, no charges could come of it, but the Patrol needed to be seen doing it's job.

The messenger watched, stunned, as the Ru'chii general ran out of the room shouting orders for all available patrollers to follow him. From the noise it sounded like the feathered general was emptying the entire building into the streets for the work to be done about the injured Felin general. Taking that as a cue that his task was complete the messenger left as well, heading for a nearby Inn to get a bite to eat.

A Clearing in the Forbidden Forest
The Present

Jam'ta yawned and stretched as she woke. The dream fresh in her mind she looked over at the Hero, who was holding out a bowl of stew. As she took the stew she looked into his eyes and knew the Goddess was both right and wrong - he already loved her. A flash of the nightmares that had so badly shaken her up the night before caused a shiver to run through her body as she reached out to accept the bowl.

"Want to talk about those nightmares now?" The question hit her like a broadside. He'd held her and comforted her until she'd fallen asleep weeping over those nightmares. Memories of his arms wrapped around her and his voice whispering softly into her ear came to her and she set the bowl down.

Images from the nightmares flashed through her mind, almost causing a repeat of the previous nights breakdown. But then she looked into those deep grey eyes and the tremors that ran through her quieted. Rather than start speaking immediately she began eating the stew, savoring the flavor of the meat and exotic spices.

Several long minutes passed as she ate. During that time she thought about the vision of the Goddess and what she had been told. When her bowl was nearly empty she shifted a bit to loosen her jerkin just a bit and frowned. The nightmares had been horrendous, so terrifying that even thinking about them had her close to breaking down.

As her bowl touched the forest floor it seemed as though the whole world was waiting for her words. Uncertainty dogged her, telling her that the Hero couldn't be in love with her, the daughter of a simple farmer. But finally she looked up and saw the love and concern in his eyes again and all her doubt melted away. Her mouth seemed glues shut, though - it just didn't want to open for fear that she'd speak aloud the nightmares.

"Jam'ta, my dear, swe..." His voice spurred her into action and she cut him off before he could even finish what he was saying.

"Victor, forget about those nightmares, for they are in the past." She stopped herself, feeling embarrassed that she'd interrupted him like a child. Before she could lower her head in shame he reached forward, caressed her chin then kissed her. Waves of hunger, of need flowed through her, but she forced those aside, wanting to speak to him some more.

"Not yet, love. But please, speak no more of my nightmares. Victor Fliegel, Hero of the Goddess, I wish to spend my life with you, standing by your side as helper and council in all things. But for me to survive this war we are fighting, I cannot go on surviving on luck. Survival seems to require I become as good at the arts of warfare as you are." She stumbled over the words, not knowing how to say what she felt, and speaking so fast one thought blurred into the next until the torrent of words left her short of breath.

Her heart grew heavier with each second that the Hero thought about her words. But whether he was actually thinking, or he had been shocked by her profession of love and her strange request for marriage was a question. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity and when she thought her heart might shatter from the strange weight that had built up he answered her.

"Yes. Then we will begin tomorrow night. For now let us take a day to rest and recuperate from the long nights we both have had."

The Morning After

"If the damned fool that attacked General Leng was working alone, then why is it we have reports of a Lem'rii messenger summoning him to see Arrow of the Ru'Chii?" Sanger was fuming. The Lem'rii leaders of the city wanted to sweep the event under the rug as a fanatical follower of the dead king working alone. The Cantorii general couldn't see that being possible, since more than one person working on the wall had heard the message and seen the messenger.

"And we all know that Arrow of the Ru'Chii didn't summon General Leng. So someone stole or fabricated a messenger uniform - or paid a messenger off - and had that message delivered. The attacker - or whoever planned the attack - knew General Leng would stop to clean up before responding to such a summons.

"I prefer to think that someone else planned the attack and provided the weapon. Just the fact that it was poisoned tells me they were covering all the possibilities. That includes the possibility that the assassin would be killed during the attempt." Throughout his monologue Sanger kept his tone even and polite. Not that he thought it would do much good, because as the Hero had shown, the Lem'rii responded better to violence than to words.

The room was silent as Mikel Sanger waited for some kind of response. Then slowly, one after another, the Lem'rii nodded in assent. It seemed clear to them after having the facts stated so clearly that the Cantorii was correct. More than one dreaded the potential result, as they had lived under a king to whom the response to such an act would have been random executions until the guilty were turned in by someone to stop the city from being emptied.

A simple solution was best in their minds, but knowing that someone was seeking to return them to the servitude they had been delivered from angered them all. Finally the youngest of the counselors stood and spoke. "My father was killed in the last of Cha'ingh's purges. My brother made an I'Kan slave during the same purge. We must stop this before it goes any farther!"

Murmured discussions began and soon the council had split into groups to discuss possible solutions. As they carried on Sanger walked from the room, content with the knowledge that he had pointed the Lem'rii down the right path.

Arrow was buried in work, unable to even find the time to fly around the city anymore. The trial for the attempted murder was coming up. The jurors were being carefully selected, and each was also being subjected to a sly test in the form of trick questions in order to find their loyalties. Not that any would be denied, but with the fame of the case and the need to find more information about the dead assassin...

It was well past sundown and he was still poring over the records of those pre-selection questionings. He'd been through the files left over in the palace about the spy rings, but all of those used code names for the people. And there was a massive hole in the records, though there were references to stuff in the missing parts that told him there were several groups set up to throw off any invaders that managed to seize the city.

Sanger walked in quietly and sighed before speaking. "They are still trying to decide how to handle this. You find anything that could help us locate the group?"

Arrow shook his head and flipped to another page, looking for some pointer that this set of answers belonged to someone out to destroy the new republic they'd been building. "None, Mikel. None at all. If it didn't go against everything I know to be right I'd say we just drag in the dead mans family and extract information from them."

Sanger settled onto a bench-seat brought into the Ru'chii's office just for Cantorii and thought about that statement. There was nothing in the Cantorii honor code or their legal code that forbade torture, but it was frowned on. When the Hero had tortured captured officers for information he had been sickened, but kept quiet. He knew that the information could be vital to the success of the war and didn't want to jeopardize the army just to quell his own misgivings.

The Ru'chii finished the last of the current batch of notes on the people that had volunteered for jury duty without finding anything suspicious. Worry racked him, because the Hero had entrusted them with making the new Lem'rii republic work and it seemed ready to fall apart as fast as it had been born.

"Mikel, you know the Lem'rii of the new council. See if they can find some people to work as information gatherers... Spies, I believe you call them. With the results I've seen so far, it's going to be the only way to locate this group before they can turn the people of this city against us."

The Hero
The Next Day

Jam'ta had slept next to him that night, her unique scent so distracting that he was awake and working out before the sun rose. As the workout flowed by he thought of the mass of knowledge he'd have to pass on to make her a better warrior than she already was.

By the time Jam'ta stirred from her slumber breakfast was done and a hot pot of coffee hung over the low embers of the fire. "Is that Kafe I smell?" She tiredly asked as she stretched.

I poured her a cup then stirred the light soup I'd made, knowing that this past night had been free of the nightmares that had so terrified her the day before. Minutes later she ladeled some into a bowl and started eating. As the silence of the meal dragged on I tended to my blades, checking and honing the edges, having learned more than once in the past that all blades need some form of caring.

When I had made it to the point of studying Tango-Ka for flaws or damage Jam'ta slurped the last of the broth down and watched me cover every inch of that ancient wooden blade in my hunt for flaws. Thankfully there were none, and even after having wielded it for the length of time I had my mind wondered at the wood it was formed of. The blade itself had withstood both sword and axe, had turned away murderous blows by hammers and yet showed nothing but a few scored scratches that were easy to polish out.

With only another day or two of travel ahead of us I was packed shortly after Jam'ta finished eating. But rather than just set out like I had after catching her following me, I helped her repack her rucksack and we set off along the badly overgrown remnants of a trail. As time passed we talked, with me telling her stories from my past lives and her telling me about herself.

I had just finished telling her of the time I had had to sneak into a Cinet camp to free some troops before they became dinner when I felt my stomach rumble. "Let's find a place to set up camp. I'm getting hungry and I did promise I'd start teaching you more advanced sword skills tonight."

She nodded and we walked on in silence for another ten or fifteen minutes. Then, to my amazement, we began to find the remnants of large stone buildings. Though I thought I had rid myself of curiosity a long time ago, the size of the stone blocks struck some memory inside me.

"Love, are these remnants of those evil people you were telling me about?" Jam'ta's voice snapped me away from trying to dig out memories that might point out why the place looked familiar.

"No, Jam'ta. They had materials many times stronger and easier to use than stone. These look like something from the early days of the Lupii people."

I was going to hide nothing from her anymore, except the truth about the planets history. That knowledge would act like a virus and damage the belief of the people in their creator. Memories of the violence that had racked mankind because of religious beliefs being challenged floated up and I pushed them aside.

"Jam'ta, you look over there, I'll look over here. These look like... These look like the temples of Laranaq." Laranaq, the original city of the Lupii. Where I had first come in my quest to free them from the Cantorii more than five millennia before. I had lived there for fifty years after the battle to free them from being part of the Cantorii empire.

That life had ended in a flurry of arrows. It was also the first time I had run into the Lem'rii - at the time they were still living in the forests near the Lupii. If I was right then there should be several entrances, since all Lupii temples followed the plan of the original, with four main entrances, one facing each cardinal compass point.

I wasn't interested for history or nostalgia - no, the rooms of the temple would provide a good place to stay for the night. And they would hopefully have the smooth stone floors I remembered - a perfect place to teach Jam'ta the more advanced sword techniques I had promised.

Progress on my side of the path was slow - heavy brush, vines and various jungle grasses made it hard to get at the buildings. The fact that the buildings had probably been there for three or four thousand years and had seen that much growth and lack of upkeep didn't bother me. In fact, it had me wondering why the place had been abandoned.

I'd heard all the stories, but all of them were heavy with religious overtones - something that marked them as untrustworthy to me. This city, Laranaq, had once been a bustling metropolis and home to nearly a quarter of a million Lupii. Because I was so lost in thought I missed it when Jam'ta first called out to me that she'd found an entrance. The second time she called my name I snapped out of my thoughts and ran to her side.

Jam'ta had found the Priestesses entrance to the building. I smiled and hugged her, then pulled a jar of pine-pitch from my pack. That, together with a few pieces of deadwood and some hemp twine would make perfect torches. "Jam'ta, let's get some torches together. We'll need several - we don't have the oil for the lamps... The ceremonial hall might have collapsed, and that's the only place that had openings to let in daylight."

It didn't take long to put the torches together, but the wind was so nasty that it took more than five minutes working at the flint to get the first one to catch. I handed the first to Jam'ta, then lit mine off hers and started walking toward the opening she'd found. Once I'd recognized the opening memories started coming back of the internal layout of the buildings and I was certain I could get us to the central hall even if one of the passages had collapsed.

I cautiously took the first few steps inside, unsure of what to expect and knowing that plants probably had grown in the cracks. Those plants, or rather, their roots, could cause trouble if they were as dry as they might be. Several times in other lives I'd seen caves light up because roots growing down from the roof caught fire. So I was extra careful and taking my time as I crossed that first long passage and entered the antechamber where the priestesses used to prepare for the big ceremonies.

"Come on in, Jam'ta. Looks stable enough... Plants seem to have rooted on the surface and not made any intrusions into the structural material." I called out as I found a floor stand still filled with coals. I touched my torch to it and the coals immediately caught, as if they were tumbleweeds in a desert.

The room was still furnished, even if the stuff was rotting away. Sitting in a rotting chair in one corner was a skeleton wrapped in the rotted remnants of a robe. I walked over and looked at it, then down to the hands. Telling what a skeleton used to look like takes a lot of work and some numbers based in science, but I knew who it was when I looked at the hands. One was twisted in a very unusual way.

Tears fought to come to my eyes. My first daughter Ka'lia had died sitting in a chair, a high priestess, and no one had bothered to bury her. The discovery brought home that this was the city I had once lived in and had saved. Jam'ta must have smelled the sadness filling the air around me, because she walked up and hugged me. "What's wrong, love?"

"Theres a lot I have to tell you, Jam'ta. Some things that are secret and aren't supposed to be known to anyone else." I replied, quashing the emotions before turning and returning her hug.

Then I walked down the passageway that should connect the room we had first entered with the central hall of the temple. There would be several intervening rooms, but none were of ay real importance, save that they might hold some clue as to what really happened in this dead city. The passageways had detritus on the floors, as if the place had been unkept even before being abandoned, and that made walking hard.

Each room had a similar floor-lamp to the first, and we lit these to help mark our passage. It also served to give us easy access to fire if we happened to need an easy source at some later point in our explorations - "Be Prepared" is a motto it took me many lifetimes to learn the true value of. By the time we had passed through three rooms the building was starting to show signs of destruction. That didn't deter me, as the central chamber was built as tough as any of the Egyptian Pyramids had been.

"Jam'ta, change of plans... We need to head back a room and take the other exit. The hallway here was barricaded at some point."

"But who..."

"Does it matter? We need to go around it." She listens about as well as I would have in her situation. After all, we were walking around a temple that was the central fixture in the stories and myths she had grown up with.

But there was something definitely wrong, there was no way anyone in their right minds would attack a temple. So either there was an assault by some force that didn't respect the sanctity of the temples or someone had barricaded themselves inside the temple.

The fact that the second option was probably the truth really bothered me. Someone had felt the need to build walls and close themselves inside a temple. That had only happened one time in the thousands of years I'd lived had been in the middle of a struggle against the Cinet. Then it was because the Priestess felt that my army was just as likely to attack her as they were to attack the enemies.

"I can't believe they just abandoned the city... And they did it in a hurry, from all evidence." It was supposed to be a thought, but with my mind distracted by trying to remember the details of the place and keep my emotions in check for the time being.

"Well, love, they say it was..."

"That's a story Jam'ta. I'll find the truth out when I reach the end of this journey. Now let's keep moving."

Five minutes later we'd managed to light one of the floor lamps in each room and made it to the ceremony hall. The daylight was rapidly fading at that point, but I could still see the raised bier in the middle of the room. It's existence puzzled me, so I walked up to it and looked down at the surprisingly mummified corpse laying there.

Recognition shot through me and I staggered backwards. A few seconds later my disbelief pushed my back up to the bier and I squatted to read the inscription I saw there. The cartouche at the end caught my eye and I read it before I touched the rest of the inscription. In the crude syllabic alphabet of the early Lupii was my name. Hoping that the inscription mentioned me as the father of the person on the bier I read the inscription.

"Here lies the Hero of the Goddess, The one who delivered us from enslavement by the Cantorii and beloved member of the community. His life ended peacefully and he now resides with the Goddess. Let us forever remember the name Victor Fliegel." It was my fifth time reading the inscription, and the first time I'd read it out loud. I stood and staggered back from the pedestal as the words fully sunk in.

Unable to believe what I was seeing I checked the head. There was clear evidence of neurosurgery having been done, but the wounds were long healed. Emotions flared and subsided, then the world swam before my eyes and went black.

I love the man, but something about finding this city seems to have changed him. Perhaps it was that body in the first room, the one that he seemed to recognize... But it's not like that matters. He's gotten cold and distant as we've walked through this ancient temple, and seems lost in thought at all times, though his feet carry him around this place like he's walked it a hundred times before.

But there is definitely something strange going on. He took off into the central chamber before I had even gotten a chance to see the inside of it. Goddess, couldn't you have made him just a bit less impulsive? Over the rubbish of what probably was a table and through the doorway...

"What's the..." he seems stunned by something, almost scared. I've never seen that before, but he's taken several unsteady steps back from the pedestal in the middle of the room. Wait, no... There's a body on it. It's not a pedestal, but a bier. Perhaps his recent brush with death has him worried about winding up on another one before his time has come.

"Vic, love, what's wrong?" I call out to him, hoping it's something I can help him with. But it's like he doesn't even hear me. Now he's next to it again, and kneeling to look at the base of the bier itself. I think I should get closer.


Jam'ta walks slowly into the room, stopping to the left and just behind her mate. Having once thought of joining the priesthood she noted the ancient script on the bier and struggled to read it. She had just figured out the first word when Fliegel began reading it.

It took a minute for the words to sink in, but sink in they did. This bier wasn't just anyones, the body on it belonged to the Hero. The first Hero, the defender of the Lupii and the one who cast off the yoke of Cantorii domination. But the name given had to be wrong. It was patently impossible for the first Hero and her love to bear the same name.

Unwilling to accept that the impossible or something even stranger might have occurred, Jam'ta leaned in to read the name-glyph at the end herself. The first word had an odd spelling, but it did say "Victor". Before she could wrap her mind around the rest of the glyphs Fliegel stood, then dropped to the floor unconscious.

Immediately Jam'ta abandoned her torch and dragged him to an open area of the floor. Then she pulled his pack off him and undid his bedroll, laying it flat before positioning his body on it. She wasn't sure what to think, but did understand. He'd found a body on a bier, and the name given on the bier was his own. Rather than risk losing all the light they had in the chamber she quickly gathered materials and started a campfire.

Five Days after the Attack on General Leng

Leng Khentyn fought for consciousness. His eyelids seemed to weigh as much as he did, but he forced them open. When he started to speak, but the words we mumbled and unintelligible. Water - that was the solution - because his mouth felt like it was full of wool, just like it had that time the Hero had introduced him to l'kuar.

Then he noticed the guard standing watch and sat up. "Water!" he finally managed to get the word out intelligibly and the guard snapped around. The look of surprise on his face caused memories to snap into focus and Khentyn grasped the bandages wrapped around his midsection.

Before he could ask the question that he needed to to understand what had happened, the guard had stepped out of the tent and was shouting for someone to get General Sanger. Grunting with exertion the Felin general levers himself to his feet and steps outside. "Get me Pha'eel!"

Khentyn looked around and saw all the stunned faces. He hadn't thought the cut had been that bad, but apparently something had happened. But what had happened? Had the knife been poisoned, had someone else attacked after he'd dispatched the first attacker? There were too many possibilities.

"Khentyn! Thank the Goddess! We thought the poison might yet take you!" It wasn't Pha'eel, but Sanger who called out as he walked up.

"So that son of a whore Lem'rii poisoned his blade?"

Sanger nodded and studied Khentyn for any sign of side effects from the poison and his five days in bed. Seeing none he smiled and motioned at Khentyns tent when he saw servants running up with food and drink. Now would be the perfect time for a snack and to fill the Felin general in on what had transpired since the attempted assassination.

The Hero
The Day After

Jam'ta busied herself with making a fire and preparing breakfast while the Hero slept on. It had been almost a week now since he had collapsed and even understanding the writing on the pedestal didn't help her any. Why would finding the body of a previous Hero affect him so much? Though she loved him it wasn't something she understood.

But the stock of firewood was almost gone, so it was time to go collect more. The passage into the building had been cleaned in the past week, not for any real reason, just to help keep her from fretting about the man she loved. A week asleep without drinking or eating was too much for her to bear the thought of. Victor Fliegel, the Hero, was supposed to be strong enough to carry the fate of the world.

Lost in thought she walked down the passageway towards the sunlight and the wood needed for the campfire. The Goddess had guaranteed that the Hero loved her and that they would have many children, but how was that to happen with him likely to die in his sleep? And why was he like that anyway? Jam'ta sighed as she stepped into the sunlit clearing that had once been a sizable city and shook her head.

The current state of events was the problem. She loved the Hero, the Hero loved her, and then they find this "city" and he collapses. If it hadn't been for this trip she never would have found that he loved her, but if she hadn't blurted it out in the first place he would never have insisted on training her. It was that training that had led them to the crypt and body.

Fliegel floated in a timeless, sensationless void. Life after life played itself out before him on fast forward. He felt the emotions of each event, but a constant undercurrent of loneliness was always there. His time with each family was limited, and at the end he'd be plucked from death and brought back, kept as a living memory.

He hadn't tried keeping track, but he knew that the number of lives was in excess of two hundred. Those lives were spread over an astonishing ten thousand years, and he felt each of them as the realization hit him that he wasn't allowed to die. Two hundred lives, two hundred times he'd fought for the computer, two hundred times he'd found love, two hundred times he'd died...

There was nothing left of the original Victor Fliegel that had lived and loved in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Nothing left of the man who'd been dragged through time by an accident. In a strangely mummified corpse laying on a bier in a deserted, centuries dead city was all there was of him. Now all there was was the ghost of the man, the collection of memories.

As he prepared to give up and try to dissipate the energy that made him up the most recent life started. Fliegel watched with disconnected interest as Split-Tail learned the use of the sword and spear in battle, felt his heart break as the young wolf died and found himself cheering as he watched his own funeral end in the surprise of him walking out of the pyre alive.

As time in the vision approached the current moment in the world the playback slowed. Jam'ta, falling asleep in the forest after seeing him almost killed by the undead attackers sent by Sarkadan. Himself, sitting up and holding her as terrifying nightmares plagued her. The love filling him and reminding him why he'd fought all the times the Goddess had brought him back.

But there was something different about this time through life. The emotions seemed stronger, more concrete. It was almost as if something had changed and he wasn't the same man who had been twice sent through time by the same experiment. Finally the movie showing his life stopped and showed his body just laying on the floor of that abandoned temple.

Jam'ta! She didn't know where she was, really, and had no idea how to get out of this forest. The woman he loved could survive, but if he let himself die, gave into the want to cheat the computer this time she would have a miserable life. And there was no guarantee she wouldn't decide to join him in the afterlife. The more he thought about the woman, the more his image surged back from near invisibility.

Fliegel snapped to consciousness in a burst of motion. He remembered little of the dream that had seen him near death, nor of the resolution he had made then. What was certain was that no matter whether he possessed any matter from his original, human body or not he was still the same person. But he wasn't going to continue the charade of peaceably following a computers directives to maintain the stability of it's "experiment".

"I have had enough of these endless wars." He muttered as he sat up. The words sounding loud to his ears, but really no more than a whisper. Behind him on a stone bier was the body he had first occupied as the Hero of the Goddess. Slowly he stood and walked to the bier.

Then he looked on the face and frowned. "You served me well and gave me a lot of joy. Inside your skull is proabably a fine powder, the remnants of my original brain. Rest in peace, Victor Fliegel, Hero of the Goddess. When this body I wear now dies, your soul shall rest as well as your body." The words were whispered and thought, some said, some unsaid. Finishing that small task, he returned to the bedroll and sat down.

He'd lived countless lives, spread over an unbelievable length of time. In those lives he'd fathered thousands of children - concievably half the current population of the world was descended from him. But at the same time he'd killed scores of enemies and ordered the deaths of thousands more. How many had been his descendants? Fliegel steeled himself for the fights yet to come, finally admitting to himself that the man who had sworn war was the worst possible thing any sentient being could partake of was long gone.

Call it fate, call it karma… Jam’ta didn’t have a word for what she was feeling. For the past week Victor had been asleep, unmoving and quiet. All she knew was that because of her impetuous statement of her love for the man he’d decided to train her more than he already had. That training had led him to look around inside the buildings of this ancient city in search of a proper open area to train her in.

Now he was near death, certain to die without completing the tasks he had in front of him. The hunt did nothing to take her mind off the situation this day, though it had on the previous days. So close to giving in and killing herself – to join her love in death – that she almost missed the stag that stepped into a small clearing ten feet from her.

The arrow left her bow and thudded into the animal, rapidly followed by a second and a third. All three slammed into the stag, but only one hit on target. Even with an arrow in it’s heart the deer found the strength to react and bound off into the forest. Rather than lose her prey Jam’ta sprinted after it, running as fast as she could to keep it in sight.

Jam’ta had banked the campfire before leaving. Fliegel now stoked it and looked around. He smiled and drew his blades, then began to practice. There was one constant in the world as he knew it, and the practice was to help him focus on finding the right words to help it along. As he flowed through a kata so ancient that the computer that taught it to him didn’t even know the origin his mind calmed and the possible conversations that were to come soon presented themselves to him.

It was no easy task stopping his practice, something he had long conditioned himself to always complete, but he knew it was time to stop and appear restive. That was the only way Jam’ta would allow herself to accept that he was okay and his collapse hadn’t been because of anything she’d done. But without knowing how long he’d been out he still couldn’t be positive she’d listen. For Jam’ta the world was a much simpler place than it was for him, yet it would get much more complex when she met the computer that she believed to be an all powerful Goddess.

Time would tell him if he was doing the right thing this time, demanding to be freed of his cursed, never-ending existence. But first he had to provide comfort and support for the woman he loved, since he planned on spending the rest of his life with her. For that to become a reality he had to convince her not to run from him because of the collapse. He didn’t understand why, but this time would be different, he would share everything with her ­­­­- something he hadn’t been able to do with any mate since he awoke in the forest that first time.

Footsteps echoed down the hall and Fliegel calmed his mind, waiting for the explosion of emotions that he was sure would roar through his love when she saw him awake. He smiled to himself and blanked his face of all emotion, wanting Jam’ta to see him whole and unharmed before seeing any emotion from him. The light from her torch glowed in the doorway for a minute before her figure filled the ancient stone doorway.

It took several seconds for the reality she was seeing to get through to her mind. The Hero was awake and had started cooking what little had been left before her hunt. A million thoughts flashed through her minds, billions of things she could do. Before she could control herself the deer was dropped to the floor and she was running towards him, tears streaming from her eyes.

He stood and caught her in her headlong rush, drawing her into an embrace and kiss that nearly took her feet out from under her. He held her for what seemed like forever, then let go as she calmed from her surprise and the rush of emotions that had overcome her at seeing Victor awake and healthy. For several seconds she was unable to speak, her mind devoid of anything other than relief that he was okay.

“Love… Let’s eat and then we can discuss everything.” Victors voice broke through the strange shell that had grown around her thoughts. Hearing the love in his normally almost emotionless voice told her he wasn’t angry. Needing the time to think herself she nodded and turned to collect the deer.