The sun, the sky, the rain, the wind…

Nothing is permanent. Soon all of this will be gone.

"Forever and a Day"

Written by Al Kristopher

One: Six

Night. Not a usual place to start a story, but this was the beginning of all things, and soon might have been the end. Brenda McIntire went to bed late that night, starving and aching all over; her body had been pushed again at work. Work. Never a more accurate description; there was nothing but work. Work and work, then come home, try and shake the weariness out, get fed, some rest, wake up, do it all over again. Monotony and insanity. It was madness, and it wasn't even what you'd call a life. Just a time, it was just a time, it was just…well, that's all it was. Poor dealings, making something better than it's not, or worse than what it should be. Let's just say that Brenda McIntire went to bed tired, and expected to wake up the same way.

But something was going on the next day that made her routine break. Surt's soldiers had come again, the ninth time that month, and would more than likely demand the same things they had asked for the last time. It's not like they were bandits; they were just unwanted, and hated, but never openly. You couldn't show them how much you hated them, not with your face or your actions or your words. You had to be quiet and take it, because that's the kind of people who lived. And it wasn't all-out stealing either; Surt told them they were getting a good deal. Protection, he said, absolute protection. Better than the Aegis Shield. And it was true; that little town had known peace since the day he came into power.

Peace. If ever such a word could be said honestly in that time. Peace. What a joke. Nobody knew peace. Sure there were no wars, because Surt's soldiers wiped them out. Surt Technology made sure that every possible enemy didn't stand a chance. Surt Transportation even went so far as to parade out into distant lands and hunt—hunt for the enemy, like they were foxes or deer, helpless deer torn apart by the hounds of the man named after the God of Hell. And the town prospered because it had this false peace, it became wealthy and strong, in turn making Surt's people wealthy and strong. After all, when one person benefits, everybody does.

So nobody resisted for the ninth time that month. Such, they said, was the price of peace. Brenda hated it but she had no choice. What on Earth could she do? She was just a cashier at the grocery store, some dumb kid with a head for math and an untapped knack for leadership, if she ever got her head on straight. Surt's enterprises were mountains, encompassing and impassable, cold and frightening all at once. And no savior would step in and see to it that things were put to right. The world had gone dry on saviors, but it was bad times, and nobody wanted to be a hero. All the heroes that had ever lived were either dead or would soon be counted as a grave-filler. Nobody stood up to Surt. Nobody helped those under his stern thumb. Nobody did anything. They just worked and slept, delving deep into quiet madness, stupefying monotony.

For as long as Brenda had been alive, and longer still, this was the law of the land. It had been that way since her parents' time, and it would be that way in her child's time. Back in the old days, or rather in fairy tales people only thought were the old days, a savior would always meet a celestial herald during the beginning of their quest, and this herald would guide them on their journey, be a beacon of light in dark times. No such nonsense existed here, and Brenda knew it to be true. Of course, truth can change; it's rather flexible, to be honest. And on that night, of all nights, Brenda McIntire got a new definition of truth.

But why was she chosen?

The vision was too clear and too real to be a dream. This was no angel, for it had a human face, a human voice, human features and, above all, human—or rather, female—characteristics. The woman had great golden skin, deep and dark and almost red, yet glowing like bullion, rich and thick and almost unbelievable. Her hair, in contrast, was shorn short and so white that it was painful to look at; Brenda had never seen anything so blazing before, whether in a dream or the waking world. But the greatest and most disturbing trait of this woman was her eyes, all three of them, and the way they were fixed, one constantly looking in a different direction: to the left, to the right, and straight forward. She said her name was Etherea, and she knew who Brenda McIntire was.

Brenda, of course, wanted to deny what she was seeing, and hearing, and soon feeling, as the woman laid her golden fingers on Brenda's face. They had the suspected ghostly feel to them, but at the same time they were soothing, very gentle, and even warm. Brenda feared the thing in front of her but it was no use convincing herself this was a dream; the glowing Etherea, aptly named, could not have fooled her senses. Of course, if the illusion of the woman sent shivers down Brenda's spine, imagine how she might've felt when the golden-white lady spoke, telling her things far too outrageous to make sense.

She said, plainly, that Brenda had been chosen to free the world from the grasp of Surt—and not just the world, but all of time itself. She would not be alone in this unthinkable quest, for she was guaranteed allies, though a specific number was not discussed. Brenda felt too sick and weighed down to really believe Etherea, dream or not, and the mere thought of rebelling against Surt was punishable by torture. Her tongue was far too tied up to argue against the glowing woman, or even to speak anything outside of denial. There was a difference between the unlikely hero and the impossible one, and Brenda, she herself stated, fit well into the second. Etherea argued her case, stating that she had indeed chosen the right person for the job—and not just the job, but to lead it as well. This, of course, caused more concern than Brenda was used to, and she became faint and swooned.

………

Waking up in her own bed, three hours after sunrise, helped convinced her that she had had a dream. She stirred herself, took a shower, ate, and prepared herself for a long and numbing day at the store, where she would work not only for herself, but indirectly for Surt as well. The dream was shoved back, considered fanciful, and soon forgotten in the stress of the real world. Brenda McIntire was now a cashier, nothing more, and she would spend all her days working and waiting for some other hero to come in and save them all.

But that day was different, as different as any day could be from the norm, for there was such a conflagration of fuss going on that it rendered Brenda immobile. Surt's secret police was out in force, and the moment she stepped outside her house she knew something terrible was happening. Her family and friends were being rounded up by the police, many beaten right in public spectacle, and many more arrested. Brenda couldn't help but gawk at the living nightmare, and might have been among those taken into custody had not strong hands taken her back into her home and slapped firmly over her mouth.

"Don't speak!" hissed a familiar voice, that of her uncle. Brenda's heart raced and her eyes darted around wildly as he slowly uncovered her mouth and whispered to her: "There's been some trouble brewing since late last night. I think Surt's men found word of a rebellion stirring, and general insurgence across this place. Not being the kind to stand such a thing, you can imagine why he'd come down on us with the full hammer's weight!"

"But I don't understand," Brenda insisted, as quietly as she could. "There's not been anything of the sort for years. How could they treat us this way when nothing's gone wrong?" Her uncle sneered and looked away, dark thoughts boiling in his mind.

"It could very well be something neither of us are aware about," he ruminated. "And, for that matter, Surt himself. He knows somebody's stirring dissent, he just doesn't know who, hence the widespread arrests. But I'll bet it's just as easily an excuse to lock us all up for crimes we didn't commit, or worse still!" She didn't need to hear any more; Brenda may have been young, but she knew what that meant. The worst thing yet was that she panicked, thinking for a moment that someone had gotten wind of her dream, somehow. That her slumbering visions was the cause of all this disruption did not escape her as a possibility!

"What will we do?" she wailed. The older man took a ragged breath, looked about the dark room, then stared his niece in the eye.

"I'll tell you what we're going to do. Marcus and the others have always prepared for this eventuality, seeing as how easily Surt loses his temper, and what paranoia he has. They've dug secret underground tunnels all over this place, every one of them leading well out of this town. If I'm not mistaken, there are several groups of people already making their way through those tunnels—women and children, or whoever is still around. I'm only glad I could pull you away." Brenda immediately knew what he was referring to, and like all people who are drawn between bravery and cowardice in a crisis, she hesitated.

"You're sending me there? But what about you? What about this place?"

"It's a murderous mess," he said despondently. "But nothing can be done about it now. There's no stopping Surt, but we can hide, split up, send our loved ones away. Even if one of us escapes, it's a blow to him! Brenda, listen carefully."

"But uncle!"

"Listen!" he stated. "This house is one of the places that leads to a tunnel. Look inside the basement, directly to the left of a shelf. You'll come across a doorway, but it's well-hidden to blend in with the area. Kneel down and feel for a loose plank, then lift it up with all your might. This is one of the doorways; go through it and whatever happens, close it behind you, and run as fast as you can! It will lead you safe through this place, and if fortune is with you, you'll see other refugees along the way. Here, take this too." He thrust a sack into her arms, or rather a jacket wrapped around several things.

"There's two day's worth of supplies in there," he stated. "Sorry, but it's the least I could do. I hope to God you find better shelter. Now move!"

"But uncle!"

"MOVE!" he shouted, thrusting her into the door that led into the basement. He locked the door on her and wouldn't open no matter how loud she knocked or screamed. But even her sounds were drowned out when the front door was knocked down, loud voices erupted, and gunfire went off. Brenda screamed—but forced herself to be silent, fearing she would be heard. She stayed frozen with fear, until better judgment took over and she forced herself to turn away, down the stairs into the lower depths of the house. That was, by far, the worst moment in her whole life.

The basement walls were all boarded up, planks in every corner, and there was a bookcase and a table, and some barrels full of things Brenda had never bothered to ask about. She went to the bookcase, her forehead drenched with the sweat of terror, and knelt down to feel for the loose plank. Even this was well-hidden, concealed almost perfectly, for it barely jutted out an inch. She dug her fingers underneath the loose board and lifted, raising a door that was perfectly hidden to all other eyes. In an instant she darted through, and was very careful to not make a sound as she closed the door tight. Then, grasping the jacket-sack in her arms, weeping uncontrollably through a torrent of emotions, she sprinted and kept going until she could go no longer: from a dash to a run, then to a jog, and finally a labored walk, till at last she stopped, her legs sore from all the strain. But she could not give up now.

The tunnel must've been going for miles and miles, countless lengths well past the town, either into the deep woods or the dark mountains, or perhaps underneath a swamp, or into a bear's cave, or worse still, the lair of Surt himself. Brenda knew these tunnels had to come out somewhere safe—why else dig them?—but who knows what might have sprung up since their creation? Dreadful thoughts didn't help her escape, so the only thing to do was fling herself into the embrace of fortune and hope not to be crushed. It seemed a night and a day passed before she finally came to the end of the tunnel, facing a dead end and a ladder going up. Brenda hated climbing ladders, but if she didn't want to be buried, she would have to ascend it.

Since she had gone into the tunnel early in the morning, she expected to come out at night, or at least a different morning, so long had she been in there. But the time of day was indeterminable; the sky was bleak gray, choked with clouds, not a single ray of light or darkness poking through. The heavens frowned upon Brenda's presence, and as she stood there in the desolation, thoughts of hopelessness and instability threatened to crush her. She forced her legs to move again, and even though an appetite was the last thing on her mind, she crammed food into her mouth and chewed, knowing she would need her strength to get to her destination—wherever that was.

Brenda stumbled until she felt she would collapse, no hope of finding any shelter or friendly face in sight. At last she dared to look back, and but for the pillar of smoke coming up in the distance, she would not have been able to see her home. They had set fire to her own town! Regardless of the grief and terror she felt, a deeper sense of vengeance rose, the kind of fury that had been nestling inside of her restlessly, waiting for but a spark to ignite its deadly passion. Even if it was a hopeless affair, she would bring Surt down and make him feel the sorrow of her family and all those under his thumb, no matter what!

That evening, if any time could be called evening under that dark sky, she fell asleep in as safe a place as she could find—roosting amidst stones and rubble, relying upon their aegis to protect her—and in her dreams, saw the vision again, just for a moment.

It said, "It is almost time. Now, for the others to come to you." And though Brenda did not understand it, it was her only comfort in that abandoned place, and she clung to it, even if it was Insanity.

………

178 A.D., Italy

Ahh—this was the life. Champion by day, celebrity by night. No wonder Cassius didn't bother to leave—they loved him too much there. It's not every day you wake up just to lop off the heads of traitors, spies, wild animals, and more heathens than you can count, only to retire to what may as well be a palace where a throng of beautiful women awaited your every command. Such was Cassius' life, hard though it was at times, but he loved every minute of it. He had practically been born into the arena—his father was a gladiator himself, and his mother a famous archer—and it seemed, even at his young age, that he would stay there as well. Unlike most gladiators who came and went, Cassius was popular and had earned the praise of many high officials, even the governor.

Today he played before some lazy oaf who held little real power, and the usual throng of people crazy for blood. He would not fight long—an hour, at the most, just to placate everyone—but he would most likely race, and swoon several flighty damsels during the process (the thought brought to his mind several concubines he had seduced, and the many death warrants now out for him because of it). Then it was to the baths, and his masseuse, and his banquet of fine foods, and finally a few hours of training with the young and the old, those who were to die in his stead.

But a man, he knew, should not try to be content and fat all his life; they should seek out new challenges, new territory to rule over. The Circus was becoming dull, and the Coliseum predictable. No enemy could stand up to him, man or beast! Why, had he not tamed that lion using only his fists? Had he not slain three hardened soldiers with only stones and a weak axe? Had he not given the governor himself an impressive show, worth the lives of countless heroes? He was the best, he knew, and it sickened him. There was naught but to lie down quietly and end up a clown, something to be dragged out for amusement and put away. He was the plaything of Rome!

"It makes me ill inside," he told the woman next to him, one of many nameless faces he had seen and forgotten. She didn't care what he said or what he did, as long as he said or did it to her. But he went on: "It makes me grow sick! I am ill, green in the face, prepared to faint for the jest of it all! Were that I not a champion, I would yet find meaning to my life. I would have a peak still to climb! Oh, fie upon the man that smiles when he reaches his apex at a young age! I would trade all my gold and accolades for a true test, or at least old age, that I may die quickly knowing I've done my part!"

The words of the woman were useless. He disregarded her and sent her home, bidding she take some of his food, as much as she desired. He couldn't eat it all anyway, and being generous made him feel good. If only he could do more! But there was no point: Cassius was nothing more than an interesting show, not a gladiator but a jester, something audiences came to see, and saw, and were pleased—but there was no challenge, no glory in it. He was a true conqueror, but he could never conquer his thirst.

"If only," he said with a laugh, to himself, "this damnable era of peace were not here. If only I had been born in the time of Caesar! I would've made a fine warrior in the Gaelic battles. That would give me credit! And to die in them, after I have seen the top of the mountain! Oh, what man could wish for less? And yet here I stay, in this loathsome cage, though I have constructed it by my own hands." Cassius both hated and loved his life, as he hated and loved what he did. For he, in the flower of his youth and strength, could do little but suffer for years, until he became too old and weary to do anything but sit and stare. Then he would be dragged out, one last time, made a fool of, then…

I won't go through with it, he swore himself. I'd rather end my own life! To live to be a doddering old man, without sense enough to remember I used to be a warrior…bah! Fie on this life!

"O Fortuna," he breathed as sleep took over him, "let my words be heard. Hear my prayer. If there is a greater path, a better place, let me see it and live in it. All I desire is to test myself, whether in pain or greatness. Even if death becomes me, I shall be happy, knowing I have seen the heavens and was within their reach! Fortune, gods, all who govern time and life, may my prayer be heard."

That night, though he did not expect it, Cassius' prayer was answered.

Etherea. The vision called itself Etherea.

Though Cassius woke up in a sweat, gasping for breath, he knew his words had been heeded and some goddess now favored him. Without any hesitation he got out of bed and girded himself for great battle, placing the shining bronze armor over his chest, arms, legs, shoulders, and head; wearing the shield in front, the sword and dagger at his side, the lance behind and the axe in his fist; finally he donned a great lion-skin, throwing the beast's mane around his neck so that it flowed like a robe, an stole away into the darkness, for his faith in the gods was strong.

Nobody came forth to challenge him that night, for every man and woman alive seemed at rest, even the arena guards. Armored as he was, Cassius could've knocked down anything in his path, even the bodyguards of the Emperor himself, but he met no opposition as he ran. When morning came, the warrior's absence would be noticed and searches would be organized, but here he was silent and swift, aided by the golden three-eyed goddess who had came and spoke to him in his dreams. She instructed, and he obeyed, thinking any adventure, even with a creature whom he had never encountered, was far greater than lounging around, waiting to rot and die. Every step of the way, Cassius pledged himself to this newest muse, swearing fealty to Etherea if only she could guide him.

Such a willing subject, he was. This made glad the woman's heart, and she took him and directed him until even his body could not bear the strain. When at last he came to a stop, resting underneath a grove, she came to him and, quite literally, snatched him away to the land of his dreams. He discovered himself in a gray realm, the sky cloudy but not quite black, and collapsed in a deep sleep before any other sensation could take over. Etherea's words lulled him, though he knew not their meaning.

"Two have now gathered. We must prepare for the others."

………

828 A.D., China

Isolated deep in the forests of ancient China was a great temple, dedicated to the physical and mental training of bodies and souls; a Shaolin temple. For ages, monks gathered there to center their minds, gather their strength, seek truth in prayer, and find ultimate enlightenment. The old kings of China, or those with wisdom in their heads, required that all their soldiers spend three years studying in the temple, so that they could be prepared to face any foe without fear, even death itself. This was one of many; what made it special was that it caught the eye of a Seeker.

The Master Instructor was a man named Kao Yi, but his students lovingly dubbed him the Atman, the innermost essence, the supreme self. He was a man of peace, mercy, and love, and though he treated his students well and loved them, his training methods were not for the feint of heart, nor the timid. Master Atman's council was pricelessly sought by many rulers, though he kept his own except in a great crisis, choosing to live and teach in his temple. He had many great students, but his greatest were Xiang, Ker, and Chang and Li Jyin, who were brother and sister.

After early morning exercise and study, Master Atman gathered his students for a special session. That night, a dream came to him, showing a woman clad with gold, her hair whiter than the moon, and her eyes forming a great triangle on her face. She was like an ethereal goddess, and was a being of good quality and wisdom, for she showed great respect to the Master and called him by his title. She had told him that, among his students, one would be selected for a great quest, possibly the greatest quest any man or woman in that era had ever embarked upon. It was imperative that the absolute strongest be sent for this mission, and so, taking this dream seriously, the Master thus gathered his pupils, favoring the four who showed the greatest skill and discipline.

"For the honor of one of our own to be chosen," said an older student, not one of the four, "we your pupils will cheer all the harder for these four warriors!"

"If only they could all be sent!" cried another. "Time and again they've proved their worth!"

"Was your vision so specific, Sifu?" asked another. Master Atman nodded slowly.

"Yes. You are correct when you say that any of these four are worthy to be sent, but my dream spoke only of one. Let a tournament of skill decide who will go and who will pray for the one that departs. And remember, there is no shame in loss, nor is there joy in victory. In every aspect of life, shame and joy may lift us at our darkest moments, and cast us down when we are at our highest. I trust you will all remember this."

"Yes, Master," they chimed. The tournament began quickly, first with Chang fighting Ker. Chang was a brutal warrior who relied on a deadly calm to strike, and a ferocious balance of power and resistance to keep himself in fights longer; Ker could have beaten him, though, if he had been given a weapon, but since he did not excel in bare fighting as Chang did, the victor went to him. Chang's younger sister Li faced off against Xiang, evenly-matched since they were both women. The fight at first seemed hopelessly in favor of Xiang, for she brought everything forth and pummeled Li as if the woman were a tree to be felled. All through the fight, though, Li remained stoic and focused, as deadly as her brother, and waited for her opponent to wear herself out.

The ending of it all was a blur; Li ended up being too tough and too quick to defeat, and Xiang backed down with a smile (she had secretly not wished to go, since she feared leaving the temple). Now it was just a matter between the siblings, who had been rivals since birth, and knew each other as well as they knew themselves. There was no trick they could pull to overwhelm one another; this was a test of endurance, all to see which wanted the victory more. Chang loved his sister, and did not want her to endanger herself, and so fought with all his heart so that she would be safe. All of the students, men and women alike, cheered for their favorite, while some cheered for both. Even Master Atman seemed drawn into the fight, much like a calm stream is drawn into a lake.

The duel could not be called a draw, and dragged long into the day since both warriors agreed to taking several rests. However, in the end, just around the late afternoon, Li barely managed to triumph, though she injured herself doing so. Chang was starting to grow rough on her, and struck harder and harder, forcing her to retaliate with equal strength, for the love of adventure and foreign lands was greater in her heart than the love of her brother, though she detested her victory. Chang bowed in respect when he was defeated and the students cheered, but afterwards he distanced himself in his room, refusing to eat or speak to anyone, even his own Master.

"He was looking out for her," the students concluded. "That's why he was so rough. He had to hurt her in order to save her. Nobody wants a loved one getting involved in such dangers, even if the task is honorable. The only reason he's not weeping for joy and embracing his sister is because he fears for her life. She proved herself here, but the temple is far different than the outside world, and she will be alone."

Now that last statement was false, but nobody knew it yet, so of course there was an air of gravity in the air once Li was prepared to leave. She bade farewell to every student in the temple first, then embraced her Master and kissed his hands, before finally going to see her brother. He allowed her inside, and said nothing, but wept for her as they held close, best of rivals and closest of siblings. Every student pitched in to give Li some money, or food, or supplies she would need on the road, but Chang provided a greater service and gave her a memento of the temple, and their bond as siblings: he tied his favorite red ribbons around her ankles and wrists, and etched into her shoulder a symbol of victory. When Li left the temple, she did not look back, and was soon lost in the forest surrounding it.

When she woke up, the sky was dark, but not completely black, as if it was filled with dust. She did not know where she was or how she had gotten there, but remained calm and waited for something to happen. She was comforted by the dream she had, for it resembled her Master's: she interpreted it as a sign that she was on the right path. But no matter how calm she was, Li could not understand what the golden woman meant when she said, "The third has arrived; I can only hope the remaining ones find their way."

………

1192 A.D., France

In a flourish of trumpets, scores of armored warriors, the king's knights, rode out from the castle upon horseback, guided by the flapping standard of their liege. They were among the finest, each of them hand-picked by His Majesty to embark upon this latest mission. It was an age of prosperity when the land did not know war, and although many brave knights were Crusading abroad, these few stayed behind for more domestic affairs. One such affair was their task, a brutal week-long march into uncivilized country where a lord's son was held captive, guarded by men who cared no more for love and mercy than they did for the life of the boy they held.

A man named Perrault was esteemed leader of this group, clad in shining steel and silver, wearing a red cloak to distinguish himself from his men. The brotherhood of knights behind him consisted of many good names: there was Sir Gerard the Fearless, Sir Eduard the Noble, brothers Francis and Walter, Sir Lavile the Just, Sir Richmond the Daring, and Sir Gregory the Loyal, just to name a few. Among the group was their squires, and a flaming-red tapestry of the royal Queen and the royal Princess, the two ladies for whom the knights swore their oaths to and served. It was a beautiful day, perfect for riding, but great sorrow would be had before the journey's end.

In spite of this task, which was daring and heroic enough on its own, the King had a more mysterious job for his loyal knights. An evening ago, a council of his royal advisors had stirred him from sleep, begging for his audience. A great mystic sage, the likes of which no man had ever seen before, came to them each in a dream, speaking to them through a voice that was most strong. The enchanted one, a lady shining white and gold like the sun, bade the councilors to speak with the King about an urgent matter. Grave peril, far more insidious than anything an infidel could conjure in Jerusalem, was to beset the land very soon if a brave warrior, the best the kingdom had to offer, were not chosen to face it. The King pondered long this mystery, but a solution came to him by the morning, for he understood what he must do.

Of course! The noble's son! Any knight worthy enough to rescue this boy and return home for the glory was no less desirable to grasp this new mission in his fist! Why if anything, the man who personally saved the boy would doubtless be the chosen one himself, so why not complete two jobs in a single stroke? Yet even then the King was troubled, for he had lost many valiant warriors, and though it was a high calling, loathed losing yet another. But he had made an oath before many witnesses, and he could not back away from it now. Perrault and his companions would have to see it through to the end.

For many days and nights, the entourage of warriors rode, sometimes at great speed and sometimes at leisure. The city they left behind before the second evening, and few travelers from then on out met them along the lonely road. Presently, during the dusky hours of the third afternoon, a gathering of foes awaited the knights; bandits they were, but not foolish ones, and not at all foolish enough to attack or rob so many armed men. They stayed their ground and showed no signs of their devilry, but speaking to the group was by far the most difficult thing they could do.

"We don't know nothin'," said one as Perrault questioned him. "We didn't see no persons taking your boy away. This road ain't been used for days, except by us."

"So perchance our path is mistaken," suggested Gerard. He looked to his companions, drew his sword, and pointed it at the gruff man. "Good sir," he said, "if thou hast told my brothers a lie, I shall cut thy tongue out and use it to grease the wheels of milady's carriage! If, however, thou art true, I shall deliver thee a portion of the reward my brothers shall receive in this endeavor." Now of course, the only reward the knights were getting was the praise of the King and a banquet in their honor, but the bandits didn't know that. Their faces glowed at the mention of a shared reward, and all of a sudden, yes—they did remember there was somebody going down that road, now that it was mentioned!

With that in mind, the team continued on their journey, aided by the guidance of the bandits. They knew it was wrong to lie to them, even if they were bandits, and even if it was a noble cause, but as Sir Walter said, "They are but thieves anyway, and their reward is caught ignobly by their own hands. If anything, they owe us the debt." They knew that wisdom had favored their brother, and so with a clearer conscience, proceeded. For two days and a night they rode, quietly and cautiously, their banners and symbols now hidden, their armor silenced, their weapons covered. Who knows what spies lurked now, and how they might go about spotting the ensemble?

That evening, they came upon a small hut lit with some flickering light indoors. Not knowing whether it was the abode of their enemy or a humble hermit, the knights cast lots to see who would investigate. The luck fell to Sir Lavile, and so after parting with his gear and distancing himself from his good brothers, he approached the hut and knocked on the door.

"Who goes?" came a weary answer.

"A traveler seeking rest for the night."

"I only have one bed," came the reply, "and I am stricken ill. Pray find another home."

"Good sir, I have money for which to pay you service. Tis' late, and I know no other abode for miles."

"You will survive; you are young," came the voice. Lavile chewed on his lip, still not knowing whether to press the man, or smash the door in. He spoke again, sounding urgent.

"Friend, I am parched and starved from my travels. Will you not donate a crust of bread and some cold water? Did not the Christ Himself say that those who open the door for those seeking aid shall be blessed?"

"I'm a poor man, and I have nothing."

"Will you even begrudge me a light to see in this darkness?!"

"Go away." That cinched it: no person in the kingdom could be so cruel. Lavile called for his sword and a suit of mail, and broke the door down with three kicks. As he spotted the lone inhabitant, dressed very much like a rich person, clinging to a child who looked not his own, anger flashed in Lavile's eyes.

"Wretch! Scoundrel!" he cried. "Is it not enough that thine heart is made of stone? Will you also keep this boy who is not yours, and suffer his lordly father grief? Surrender him and I shall not split you in twain!" The man knew he was cornered and outmatched—Lavile looked and spoke like a knight, and fought like one as the door could attest—so he did the only thing he could do, and ran, throwing Lavile the boy to distract him. The man broke through the window and rushed across the countryside, but at least half a dozen other knights had been prepared for this, and were ready with their bows. The entire mission was over and done with in an instant.

The knights returned unscathed less than a week later, coming home (as they were promised) to jubilation, gratitude, and a feast fit for their kind. The King himself toasted to Lavile, who had performed flawlessly, and second to Perrault, who had seen his fellow men through a crisis without even an injury. The boy was returned after the feast (he was more than happy to stay for that!), and once the knights filed their report, the king took Lavile aside.

"We are indebted to you, good sir knight," he said. "Surely thou hast saved this kingdom and one of its valued lords from a great trouble."

"I merely acted in the same manner that my brethren would've, Majesty," replied the knight. "Any one of us would've done the same. The lots simply fell to me; t'was chance that favored my hand, nothing more."

"There is more to this world than chance and luck, Sir Lavile," said the king softly. "But I am happy nonetheless. As it is custom, your reward for completing this task is to be set upon another—a harder, more dangerous, more rewarding task. Does this please you, Sir?"

"It does, Highness, especially if it pleases thee."

"Well-said," he smiled. "Come. I know little of the details of this new quest, so it is best to talk with my councilmen. I shall await for the morning before telling them of your arrival." Lavile bowed again, and kissed the king's hand dutifully. If the King had known what was going to transpire that night, he would not have bothered alerting the council: in the darkest hour, when all were asleep, Lavile suddenly had an attack of amnesia, and woke most late. As his eyes became adjusted to the dark, a most peculiar sight awaited him: he was not in his room, nor in his night clothes, but fully-armed and ready for war, standing in a desolate area with a sky as gray as his horse.

"What devilry is this?" he muttered, clenching his weapon. The knight looked round, hoping to spot anything to guide him, and saw in the great distance a light that was not quite light. It did glow, but it was solid, not spread out like normal light is, as if the thing were an earthbound star. As he stared at it, it became nearer, until the thing took a shape, one worth kneeling to. It was a lady, golden and white, more beautiful than any he had seen.

"O fair one," he spoke, "if this is a dream, then truly, tis' my greatest, and I am loathe to wake from it. I beg of thee to tell me what has happened, and where is my room?"

"When you wake from this dream," said the woman, disappointing Lavile a little, "you shall know everything. Until then, I shall accompany you, and keep you at my side. Does this please you?"

"O my lady, I would know no other happiness."

………

1522 B.C., Greece

The forest blurred past the mounted warriors, leaves slashing like knives, sky above pouring down tears of joy, sun beaming back through the soupy mist. The earth trembled with each hasty step as the beasts thundered on, their riders whistling and yelling, competing in the thunderstorm, and the prey they sought came closer by the second: t'was a hunt! When the animal came in sight—a leopard most noble and worthy of this chase—three mounted warriors took to their bows, and three to their javelins, while the others guided their steeds elsewhere, preparing to cut the beast off and ensnare him.

Though the good leopard was a quick prey, and knew to take paths that had never been tread before, these warriors, the Amazons of old, were no mere children when it came to the hunt. Five of them chased the beast at a time, others weaving around, some remaining should the leopard decide to come back and give everyone the slip. Upon the leader's word, a volley of missiles sang out to smite the beast, yet each failed to hit its mark. Truly a creature worthy of their time, and now the thirst for their trophy was far greater! It now swerved into a familiar stream that led into a waterfall, and the Amazons stopped, knowing it would soon be trapped. Many of their company remained behind with nets to catch the beast if it turned round, while only a few pursued further, dismounting to creep up on foot.

The stream wound through their jungle swiftly and came into an open area where a great bird could soar for a whole day without finding roost. The forest was far, far below, so great a distance that the waterfall that had formed from the rushing stream extended long into the sky, creating rainbows in the morning and moonbows in the evening. The leopard soon skidded to a halt, half its body submerged in the water, the other half showing signs of animalistic panic. It saw that its path was stopped, and would not risk plummeting down into the depths despite the number of pursuers on its tail. It turned around, facing its doom.

Three warrior women greeted it with careful, respective eyes. They loved the beast fiercely, for it was a grand creature and had given them an excellent hunt. If this were any other day, they would've let the beast go, so great was their adoration for it, but today was a coming-of-age ceremony, where one girl from the tribe would prove her mettle against the leopard, and the one partaking in the ceremony was the daughter of the guard, Nalia.

"I hail thee, most noble one," said she, who had came with her companions into the jungle, and now stood almost knee-deep in the stream, armed only with a crude dagger and a spear. She showed no fear for the leopard, for she could look into the eyes of any woman or animal and not shirk back. "I hail thee," she said again, holding her hand out in peace, "most noble beast. Know that I am Nalia, daughter of the guard, and I am at the age when I am to be crowned a Woman of the tribe. I beg of thee, noble leopard, to fight as you are accustomed to, so that I may claim your life honorably, or die in the attempt. What do you say?"

The creature yawned.

"You bore him with your words, sister's daughter!" called one of the two women that had came in with her—her aunt. "See? The animal mocks you!"

"I am not accustomed to simply attacking them, mother's sister," replied Nalia, keeping her eyes on the great cat. "However, if thou art so impatient, I shall accompany even you. Observe, you, and you, my cousin!" Her aunt's daughter, the cousin she spoke of, simply crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. Nalia jumped at the beast using her spear as a vaulting pole, and came down upon it with her knife. Of course, even the biggest cats are quick, and this one was no exception; it darted round and made a dash for the exit, but was frightened away by the two older Amazons.

Nalia thrust her spear at the creature the moment she could, and it took everything the cat had to jump away. Despite not having much ground to maneuver on, they were both balancing well, and soon were circling and studying one another as true foes ought to. Nalia brandished her spear (she recovered it) to show the beast she was neither defenseless nor cowardly; the leopard shook its head, growling. It suddenly lunged at her, but Nalia had prepared for it, and jammed both her dagger and spear at the creature. She only grazed it with the longer weapon, but her dagger was plunged right into the leopard's head, impaling its skull cleanly. It howled in pain and wriggled around for awhile, so Nalia uttered a prayer for its soul as she thrust her spear into its heart, ending its misery.

When she returned to her comrades with the cat in tow, they all raised a cheer.

There was great feasting and jubilation in the tribal village once Nalia returned. Now it was customary of all Amazon women-to-be to learn how to skin their prey, and be it boar, bear, leopard or lion, they were all expected to be proficient. Nalia quickly had the beast's hide, and made a fine mantle out of it, even using its head as a sort of cap. The leopard's flesh was made into meat for the banquet, its bones into tools and weapons, and its blood was mixed for dyes, stews, remedies, and anything else; not a bit of it was wasted. The celebration lasted all night, and little needed to be said of it, save that many important people, mostly her family and the Shaman, doted heavily on their new sister.

But the next morning was much more solemn. As Nalia helped clean up from the celebration (for new women had to experience both hard labor and great joy), the Shaman called for her to come into her abode. This was very rare, because usually if the Shaman needed to speak with somebody, she would just send somebody to deliver the message (she was an old, wise, venerated matron). Nalia obeyed without hesitation, and came into the Shaman's hut and kneeled, kissing the woman's feet in respect.

"I summoned you here because of a dream I had," said the Shaman, her voice as calm and still as the morning air. "I am descended from eight Shamans who could interpret dreams and see into the eyes of Fate, so this came not as a surprise to me. In my dream, I was told that there would come a time where a woman from our tribe would be needed for a great task. I was also told to send our newest woman to face this task, and I marveled that this vision, which I had never seen before, would know of our heritage. I could not question it, so I've spent the better part of this morning in meditation."

"Grand Mother Shaman," said Nalia, for this was how everyone properly addressed the matron, "do you really suppose that I was meant for this task?"

"It would seem so. You are our newest woman; the last one was your cousin, and that was but a year ago, and the next will not be tested until the new moon. I have learned to trust in my visions, even the strange and foreign ones, but I do not know what to do with this one."

"Are you certain that is what it said?" she asked. "Because as you know, I am neither great in battle nor by blood. Could you not send Sherze, or Mallis, or Ouira our great?"

"This vision did not seem to be interested in that sort of greatness," answered the Shaman. "These things tend to have their own way. I don't disagree with them, and neither should you."

"Forgive me for it, then," said Nalia as she lowered her head. "If this be the will of Goddess, I will do it happily. Yet you say you know not what to do!" The Shaman sighed, shaking her head slowly.

"I'm sure this thing I saw in the night will provide. A Goddess did it resemble, so perhaps now that we have our candidate, it will take care of everything." The Shaman's wisdom was strong, although Nalia questioned it for the rest of the day. With this doubt in her heart, it became no surprise that she was astonished to find herself far and away from her village during the night, underneath a bleak gray sky with nothing to accompany her but a voice.

"That, then, is five, yet another is required. O my children, have patience! Soon…"

………

3211 A.D., Zone 913

Renalt had not known the intimacy of a bed for nearly a week, but the way he and his fellow survivors lived, even an hour's rest was a precious luxury. No matter; he was engineered to go for very long periods without sleep or even rest, and could push his body to dangerous new limits that might have killed a man his age a century ago. Those days it was commonplace to be at your best, at your peak, because otherwise you would die—survival of the fittest. Renalt hated this life of his immensely, but there was nothing he could do to change it. Nothing, that is, except to fight and keep hold of the slippery worm called hope.

"I hate this," said Laurel, growling quietly. He shifted in his seat and sneered. "I'd rather die than wait! It'd be better for us to just see the enemy and go out, all guns blazing, than to sit here with our nerves on edge."

"Shut up," whispered Renalt quietly. "I can't hear myself think."

"Oh, that's nice. Our Unit Sixteen is in deep meditation. H-hold on." Irritated, Laurel reached into his pockets and pulled out a comm device. After screening him for ID, the device played a recording from Lieutenant Colonel Bridger, the leader in Zone 913.

Units sixteen and forty, it spoke, there is an Aerial Reaper bearing in on your northwest, and a Make-52 Ground Assault Vehicle flanking it. Our reports also suggest that there are Soldiers in your vicinity. I am sending you Squad five as backup. Report back in an hour. It flickered away, and Laurel sighed as he shoved it into his pocket again.

"Well?" said Renalt dryly. "You got your wish."

"Yeah, yeah. Just what we need, Soldiers and a GAV. You think that Bridger's trying to embarrass us further by sending in his dogs?"

"Could be," said Renalt casually. Laurel chuckled.

"You don't worry about anything, huh? Ya haven't slept in almost a week and yet here you are, quiet and serene, ready to let the animal out of its cage at a moment's notice. Well, I have this to say: I got stuck with a worthy comrade." Renalt ignored him completely and stood up, shouldering a large rifle.

"We should be going," he said. "Be sure not to forget your effects."

"I know, I know. It's a good thing we came half-prepared at least." Laurel picked up the nondescript green duffle bag he had kept in his lap and followed Renalt, through winding hallways up into the sub-surface. Not a soul alive had ever seen the sky or the sun—some people even called them myths—but with the surface covered with noxious fumes, freezing nights and scorching-hot days, who would dare risk the trip? The sub-surface sufficed, at least for these people.

The lift carried them halfway there; they had to climb by hand the rest of the way. It was only foolproof in effect; the lift was vulnerable to hackers, explosives enthusiasts, even those wild monsters that had evolved up on top. At least the ladder was safe, if a trip to the sub-surface could indeed be called "safe". Renalt and Laurel had prepared as best as they knew how, and with the promise of an entire Squad coming in to support them—a dog of a squad, yes, but enforcements nonetheless—it looked like they would live to see another hour. The doorway to the sub-surface had to be opened by hand, which was difficult when one is looking up at it from a ladder. Both men had it opened and slipped through in moments.

The sub-sky was already aglow with the lethal fireworks and crossfire of the deadly war. Familiar machines, such as the GAV, its stronger version the GOV, and the Aerial Reaper clouded the landscape. Soldiers, mechanical creatures who learned and fought at a speed faster than humans, marched in perfect formation and opened fire upon anything they did not recognize as their own. The sub-earth itself ripped apart with fantastic explosions, sending man and machine both flying. There was noise and terror and death everywhere, but Renalt and Laurel had seen it so many times, it had now become commonplace.

"There," pointed the elder of the two; "over there. As if Bridger could distinguish anything specifically going for us in this mess!"

"He's a careful man," replied Renalt, curt as ever. Wiggling into position, he found safety underneath some rubble, clicked a button on his collar (rendering him camouflaged against all basic visual receptors), took careful aim with his rifle, and fired. The blast erupted into the air and carved straight into the forehead of a Soldier, obliterating it instantly. The blast soared on and shot down a Reaper; the other Soldiers stared at their comrade, amazed by its death, and collectively incorporated a stronger cranial defense system into their design. The new models would all have them; these would not. Renalt knew this, and took shots whenever he could, but the Soldiers had also learned of his location, and scattered like ants.

"One down, a zillion to go," muttered Laurel with a smile. "What an age to be a weapons developer, eh? At this rate they'll never stop making new stuff for us to use against those things. Of course I'd sell my skin to know where they come from and how to stop them completely." Renalt would too—they all would—but there was no way they could pull that off. The sub-surface was infested with sentinels, many of them programmed to destroy anything not bearing the special mark—

The Mark of Surt.

"Down!!" shouted Renalt, pushing Laurel hard into the ground. An explosive flare sent off almost directly above them, nearly taking Laurel's head with it. Debris and fire rained down on them, but if that was the worst, then it was a blessing. More missiles and explosives went off, some thankfully distant, others uncomfortably close. Laurel cursed and opened his green duffle bag, revealing several dark-blue orbs inside. He took one and threw it into the conflagration, then plugged his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. Renalt merely looked away.

The sound and the light was horrific, and the destruction more so. Eighteen Soldiers were wiped out, and many more had their circuitry scrambled thanks to the deadly wave of noise coming from the bomb. Of course, now they would work to fix the problem, but according to the developers, it would take them ages to weave around the bomb's intricacies. Whatever—at least the things worked, though they were a disaster to all sides.

"Isn't Squad five supposed to be here?!" screamed Laurel over the chaos. Renalt didn't answer, not that anyone would be able to hear him anyway. Another explosion rocked the area, blasting Laurel to his feet and Renalt out of his position. He fiercely whipped out his rifle and brandished it, daring for anything and everything. Beside him, Laurel groaned, vaguely fumbling for his own weapon. Good, at least he kept his senses.

A shot came out just as he was about to touch a smaller gun. The beam of scorching destruction first went through his hand, then his spine, and finally his head, burning clean through each time. Renalt had seen hundreds of allies, comrades, and even friends die right in front of his eyes, and this one affected him no less: he merely treated it with contempt, coolly focusing on whatever had killed poor Laurel. It was a Soldier.

"Let's see how fast you learn," he hissed, aiming for the forehead. The monster quickly jumped aside before the blast could kill it, and a second enemy, unseen until just that moment, swooped in and kicked Renalt's rifle away. One might then think him defenseless, but Renalt had seen worse scenarios and walked out of each one with just as much nonchalance. He quickly grabbed the head of the Soldier that had disarmed him and thrust it into his knee, causing the armored faceplate to crumble. He then lashed the monster like a whip, snapping its neck in two. The other Soldier coldly watched its fellow machine die, choosing rather to learn than to attack. It went after Renalt with chilling silence, now believing it had an advantage since it had seen him fight.

But all Renalt had to do was pick it up into the air and break its back over his knee, and he could call it a day.

The skirmish was a success, or whatever counted as one in those days. The enemy had been repulsed and the survivors escaped with few casualties. The loss of Laurel was not particularly crippling; his clone was already in development and would be ready in a month. After Renalt reported, he was sent to the Physical Rehabilitation center for his daily rest. Since sleep was so rare and the human body needed to be alert at all times, scientists and engineers came up with a device that allowed people to restore their energy in a matter of moments. It wasn't nearly as effective as a good night's sleep, but it did the job and it did it fast. All Renalt had to do was swallow a pill, endure a pinprick, and sit in an enclosed chamber for five minutes.

When he awoke, Renalt was asked to report to the committee in sub-basement 5. He had never been that far down before, nor had he ever spoken with or even seen any of the members, so he knew it was something dire. Renalt knew his way around the underground compound, and soon came to the restricted doorway that led into sub-basement 5. As usual, there were guards, but they had apparently been alerted to this summons, and let him pass. The lift took him well below the sub-surface, well below anything he had ever set foot on, but there was no cause to be nervous. Renalt showed no emotion at all as he leaned against the supportive wall of the lift, except perhaps slight boredom.

"Come in, unit sixteen," the committee bade him. "Come in, and please remain standing." Renalt walked inside; the room was dark, lit only by a kind of harsh white spotlight in the center, and several softer lights glowed on the dozen or so men and women that consisted of the committee board. Renalt knew he was not presentable in his battle clothes, but that could be forgiven. These people stressed haste and action over formality.

"Unit sixteen," said a voice; Renalt never learned their names, "do you know why you have been summoned here?"

"No."

"Do you suppose this has anything to do with your mission earlier today?"

"No."

"Hmm, your assumptions are correct. How are you feeling, unit sixteen?"

"I just am," he bit. "I have no feelings now." The committee hummed in disapproval and peered closer, as if they could budge him with their stares.

"Unit sixteen," said a different voice, "do you know anything about the Chronological Distortion Theorem proposed by the late Dr. Mell?"

"I know of it. I know very little about it."

"Then you must know what the proposal was."

"I know it was absurd," he replied, roughly but honestly. "The very idea of time travel is ridiculous."

"Yet Dr. Mell did not think so!" cried yet another voice. "He labored long and hard, even at the very end, to come up with a viable, applicable way to traverse the chronosphere and enter into another era. Since his passing, many others have taken his place, but none have succeeded in matching his brilliance."

"Until," spoke the head of the committee, "now." Even Renalt had to smile at that. Oh. So that's what they were leading to.

"Hmph. So you say this quackery has come to fruition?"

"This…quackery you speak of was the hope of a million souls!" stated the first voice. "Dr. Mell selflessly gave his life to this science, in the hopes that someday, we could send somebody into the past, and revoke all this damage you see around you every day." He gestured to the general direction of the sub-surface, but Renalt knew what he meant regardless. If anybody saw catastrophe every day, it was he.

"I'm assuming this summons has something to do with…myself activating that false contraption," Renalt stated. The head of the committee confirmed it.

"In this you are right. We have seen your records and reports, and know what a good man you are. You're one of the few who have not been cloned, you have a loyalty and seriousness to the mission that seldom few have these days, and as of yet, you are the only man that has ever survived a direct encounter with a Soldier." As an afterthought, she muttered, "Not only survived, but actually fought them a number of times."

"Why do I have the feeling," sighed Renalt, "that this is just an excuse to get rid of me?"

"If you choose not to undergo this task, we can send others. We just thought you would like to know that you were our first candidate."

"If I go," he said coldly, "I go alone."

"All the better; we've only the method to send a single individual anyway. Well, do you accept?" Renalt attempted to grin, but it ended up looking more like a sadistic scowl.

"Anything to get out of this dump."

………

Present Day

Brenda McIntire was stiff all over, but considering what she had been through, it was the least of her troubles. Vaguely she remembered her uncle had given her victuals inside the jacket she had used as a blanket, so she dug in and found the means to eke out a breakfast. During her meal, she began to seriously contemplate her situation, and wondered how she was going to survive now. She knew her best bet was to look for other survivors, but since she hadn't seen any since leaving the town, she wouldn't know where to look. When breakfast was gone, so were her hopes.

Suddenly she picked up the sound of gravel being softly disturbed. It was the beat of a human foot, coming in her direction. Brenda didn't know how to defend herself, but she had plenty of loose rocks around and was a pretty good aim. She picked up some of the sharper, heavier ones and set to watching the area where the sound came from. It ended up being a person, all right, but it didn't look like one of Surt's police. Brenda had to squint hard: no sun meant little visibility.

"Who's there?" she said, raising the stone. A voice called out to her, but she didn't understand it. "Friend or foe!" she demanded, but the voice kept on going, oblivious to her words. At last she saw the person it belonged to, and stared hard with her mouth open. It looked, to her eyes, very much like a Roman gladiator.

This was unbelievable enough on its own, but soon the stranger, whom Brenda could not understand, was joined by others. There came a woman roughly her age, Oriental by the looks of it, but any fool could tell by her strong limbs and sturdy frame that she was a fighter. The woman stared at Brenda and the man in awe, but then another person arrived: a knight, or a man in armor, glancing around him. Brenda couldn't blame him for his astonishment, and frankly wanted to know what was going on when a fourth person, another woman, stepped forth cautiously. She was dressed like an Amazon, and quivered in fear and excitement as she joined the group.

The really terrible part, of course, was that nobody could understand anybody there.

The confusion would've turned awful if a sixth and apparently final being hadn't shown up. Brenda and everyone there recognized this being, and one or two even knelt in reverence. It was the gold-skinned, white-haired, three-eyed woman, the one called Etherea, the one who had came to each of them and brought them there, to that time, for but one single purpose. Brenda personally felt ready to faint as the woman came to the center of the team and spoke, her voice too real and too rich to be a dream.

"Welcome, one and all, to the task that has been appointed to all of time."