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Prologue Edit

Dianara is not the only powerful being in the universe. Others exist, and its freedom does not please them. Many of them are good, but some are evil. And they are to be watched....

Chapter 1: Stirling Edit

Militeregnum

Present day

As James strolled down the road towards the town, he spotted someone familiar “Stirling?“ he asked, “What are you doing here?”

Strider jumped at hearing his name. But he recovered fast.

Glancing around to see if anyone was watching, he practically tackled James into some nearby bushes.

"How do you know that name?" he demanded, holding James by his shoulders.

"What are you talking about?" James asked, clearly confused. "We don't have time for idiocy like this!”

Stirling pulled back to look at James, still holding him by the shoulders. "We? I've never met you, and if I did, it wasn't recent. Stirling is smashed."

James groans. "First, get off of me." He paused at the remark about Stirling. "Second, what? And third, yes, we. You need to get to Avant Gardens. Exeter expects you there! What are you doing here, wherever here is?"

Stirling was visibly taken aback at the mention of Exeter. He took his time getting off of James, and appeared very contemplative. "I... can't come.” He declared.

James groaned and stood up slowly, holstering his pistol and dusting off his suit. "What do you mean? 12 hours ago, you and I were on Nexus Tower."

Nexus Tower

12 Hours Ago

“Come on, move!” James yelled at the various rank ones he had gathered up on the outskirts of the tower. As they began to cross a corridor, plasma fire shredded the air, forcing them to fall back.

“Well, great,” James muttered. He looked, seeing no way across, when a Rank Three Samurai ran up behind him.

“You need help getting these newbies to safety?” He asked.

James thought for a moment. “Yeah! We can’t have them getting burnt up.”

“Well, I can cover you.”

“You sure about that..uh…”

“Stirling.”

“Are you sure about that Stirling?”

“Yeah. I can distract them, maybe draw them away. I’ll lose them, and then get to the shuttles.”

“Fair enough.” James replied. “On my mark. 3, 2, 1, GO!” James and the younger soldiers ran, while Stirling raised his sword and shield, charging the mechs, and bowling them over.

Militeregnum

Present day

James paused, and eyed Stirling, noticing a few differences between him and the Nexus Tower counterpart. "Wait..."

Stirling chuckled. A humorless chuckle.

James swore softly, and kicked a small rock angrily. "BLASTED DIMENSIONS!" He yelled out.

"Listen, messenger, you tell Exeter-"

"NO! YOU SHUT UP AND LISTEN YOU IDIOT!"

Stirling was taken aback at James outburst, but he responded in kind: "SSSHHHHHH!"

James grabbed Stirling by the shoulders. "I'm not a messenger from Exeter! Well, not your Exeter. I'm not from this dimension, or universe, or world, or whatever you want to call it."

"Then what the drick are you? I haven't been at Nexus Tower for...”

James thought at first. "Look, this may not make sense, but reality is complex beyond what you know. There are different, interpretations, I suppose of reality. I'm from one of those."

"...OK. I understand what you mean. Like how it is with the Battle of Nimbus Station."

James was shocked at his reaction. "Well, that's a lot less violent a reaction than I expected. Most people are a bit shocked by that. But yes, like Nimbus. Except infinitely more complicated."

"Right of course, because when is it SIMPLE?" he replied sarcastically. "What are you here for?"

"Right now, looking for somewhere to hide. And a replacement. But that's another story altogether."

"Well, sir, you picked a crummy place to hide. I'd have gone to Pet Cove." Upon realizing how un-manly that sounded Stirling's face turned blank.

"Well, I don't think that I'd find a good replacement for me at Pet Cove." James said in reply.

"Of course, we of the Sentinel faction don't hide. Even those just previous to it." Stirling shrugged as best he can with James' hands gripping his shoulders when he mentions replacement.

“Regardless of hiding, I need to find someone to replace me." James remarked, releasing Stirling. "And I'm not sure who that is. They'd probably be hyperactive, violent, handy with firearms, and reasonably intelligent. Know anyone like that?" James inquired.

..."Yes..." he said. Then his eyes fell. "Or at least I did."

"Well, could you at least point me to them?" James asked, noting Stirling's reaction, but continuing his questions.

"I'm sorry. I can't help you. The person you're describing is... wait. You're from another dimension!"

James raised his eyebrow. "Really? I never would have guessed."

"And if you're met 'me' in your dimension, wouldn't - couldn't- that mean you have a Perry in your dimension too?!"

James paused. "What is a Perry?"

Stirling shook his head rapidly, getting excited. "Perry! Peragrine Wanderthistle, Rank Three Daredevil, with Valiant."

"A daredevil? I'm pretty sure sanity is another requirement for my job."

"About yea high, great pilot...sorta. Very hyper, deceptively intelligent, A crack-shot."

James thought. "Never met him. I can't ask Hael about him, because if I go back there, someone's probably going to shoot at me."

"...and my best fri- what? You're an enemy of the Nexus Force?"

"Well, you see, I attacked my best friend, murdered our only source of information about the being intent on killing us all, and then was driven off by Nexus Force members." James explained.

"Hmm...Yeah, that would do it."

He added "To be fair, the man I murdered destroyed my planet of birth."

Stirling's eyes steeled. "Then you had every right. Good Job."

James's hands curled into fists. "What? He wasn't attacking me. He was offering a deal. He had his handgun holstered with the safety on, and he had has hands in the open. I had no right!"

Stirling's brow furrowed. "He destroyed your planet, as you say. Do you or do you not enjoy knowing he can't do that again? Or really, anything, again?" Before he could respond, Stirling continued "You don't have to think about him, or it, anymore. It's done, it's not a problem. Unless you just want to dwell on it, get guilt from it." Stirling said, waving his hands dismissively.

James exploded into rage. "IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ENJOYMENT! I COULD HAVE CONTAINED HIM WITHOUT KILLING HIM! FOR ALL I KNOW, I KILLED MILLIONS BY KILLING THE INFORMATION HE HAD!"

"You could've- You would've, YOU SHOULD'VE. But you DIDN'T. What's the point now?" retorted Stirling.

After a few moments of silence, James replied. "The point is, I can't do my job anymore. If I did something like that once, I could do it again. And I can't have people die because I lack simple self control."

Stirling stared hard at the man in front of him. "Alright, fair enough sir. If you need a place to sleep for the night, I have a camp and supplies a ways west from here. I was heading into town for supplies, but they can wait."

James nodded thankfully. "I can help pick up the supplies. As for staying there, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, that's fine with me. Still, something's wrong with this planet. What's going on here?"

Stirling poked his head out of the bushes, then extricated himself upon finding the coast was clear. "This is Militeregnum. We're in Civil War. …well, war is too strong a word."

"How so?" James inquired, intrigued, as he followed Stirling.

"You see, there's this dictator on the throne right now. His name is thedude. He has absolute control of Morcia, the kingdom we're in right now. He's also extending his control to the other kingdoms, one by one. Aquilla, Elephantaria, Britay..."

James smiled. "Well, I can't handle intergalactic wars. But I might be able to help with international. First though, we need to get those supplies and get back to your camp. I've had an idea..."

They were nearing the gate. Stirling flipped a hood up. Then stopped. He looked back at James. "All right. You'd better be a good actor." Stirling said, realizing there was no turning back. The guards were already looking at them. A brown leather 'ranger' type, and this hipster in black and purple.

"I am. Well, I hope I am. In retrospect, this may not blend in."

" 'Really? I never would have guessed' "

James groaned. "That's not going to go away for a while, is it."

"Don’t worry, most of the readers have no idea what you're taking about."

"Hey! You're breaking the 4th wall convention of 2001!" James replied. "Only Deadpool is allowed to."

Stirling and the other walked up to the gate. As he expected, the guards lowered their pikes. They were both lightly armored, and had hats like conquistadors.

"Fellows, please. It is Strider. We don't need all this."

"Relax guys! We're not dangerous at all! Well, I may be unstable, but he's fine!" James remarked before he could stop himself. "Oops." He added after a moment.

Strider half turned to the man. "He really doesn’t have self control!" he thought.

"Good sirs, this fe- oh forget it." and he slugged the mustachioed one first.

James drew his handgun and pulled the trigger on the second. However, it clicked, and he swore. "What?!?!?"

The other one brought down his pike on the other two wrestling on the ground, but ended up missing, to his relief. James thought for a moment, then tackled the other. He drew a knife from the soldier's belt, and stabbed him through the head, smashing him. Stirling was still tussling with the other pikeman, but it only took a few more moments for him to choke-hold him unconscious. Getting up, Stirling viewed James's handiwork.

"You're effective, I'll give you that."

James realized that Strider wasn't pleased. "Well, that's training for you."

Stirling quickly dragged the other unconscious pike man towards the other, and threw together a scene that made it look like one had smashed the other. "We have 5 minutes, if we're lucky." He said, as they walked into the small hilltop town.

James smiled. "Tell me what you need, and we'll only need three.”

Stirling handed him a small list, and added, "And get yourself some decent cloths. I'll get the other half of this stuff."

"Well, I make no guarantee about clothes." James replied. "Not enough time. Meet you by that farmer's house outside the city?"

"Sure."

With that, Strider blended into the crowd, disappearing like a ranger into shadow.

Approximately ten minutes later, Stirling was sitting in a chair on the porch of the Farmer's house. They were having a leisurely talk, a casual sharing of news from afar and nearby. Suddenly, the farmer, whose name was Jethro, pointed in the distance. "Is THAT your appointment?" James was running from a group of armed and armored men, yelling, and notably with no suit jacket.

"The one in the purple shirt, yes."

"If you've got trouble with the town, I'm sorry but-" began the farmer.

"RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" James yelled, cutting over him.

"That's alright, I was just leaving." agreed Strider."Thanks for the lemonade." Picking himself up, he ran north east, hoping James would follow.

James hefted a backpack over his shoulders, stopping it as it nearly fell off. "JUST RUN! LEAD THE WAY! IF YOU HAVE WEAPONS, FEEL FREE USE THEM!" James managed to catch up with Strider, and ran alongside him. "Where to?"

"We can't lead them west. They'll find my camp. We have to lose them. They're not well trained. They all want a swordfight. Look. No bows. We can lose them in this patch of forest up ahead. Climb one of those trees.”

"Heh..." James remarked. He pulled his pistol, ejected a round, thinking it was the source of the earlier malfunction, and fired twice, hitting a pair of guards. The third shot clicked. James swore, pocketed it, and looked up at the trees. "Agreed. We can probably throw them off without climbing though. If we outrun them, then backtrack, they'll get confused."

Stirling thought for a moment then nodded, and they began to speed up.

After a few minutes, they had managed to lose the guards, so James turned to Stirling. "You do know where we're going, right?

"Yes. It's over that way. Other side of the hill."

"Great." James remarked. "I 'm getting tired of people trying to kill me."

"Like I said, wrong dimension!"

"Smash me. There, that better?" James quipped as they hit the summit of the hill.

"Yes." said Stirling, taking a glance around. No one following them.

"Wonderful." James relaxed, and began to walk calmly. "So, this is your camp?"

"Right down there. In between these two hills. Not very defensible, and after today I'm going to have to mosey on..." Stirling pointed at a frugal setup, a small dark blue tent, with a campfire, and a box, with firewood stacked up against it.  The remains of a campfire with a rickety stick-built spit were in the middle of the camp.

"Well, long as I have a place to sleep tonight, I'm fine." James remarked.

James laid down his backpack near the campfire, and sat down. "Well, this isn't bad."

"I have another tent in my inventory. Just a sec."

"Naw, I like to sleep in the open. Besides, too large means it's hard to move fast." James commented. Though if I could have a bedroll, that'd be nice."

Stiring had a gray fabric and poles in his hands. "Are you sure? I don't care for the tents, and if we really had to move that fast, I'd leave them behind.

He shook his head."Yes, I'm sure. I don't like tents. PTSD."

"Don't know what that means, but ok. Here's the bedroll."

"Thanks. Seeya tomorrow." James frowned. "Assuming we survive that long."

“Anything else you need, lemme know."

"I'm good, thank you though. " James paused, and added, "Oh, and by the way, I never said: My name's James."

Stirling paused just short of entering his tent. He turned back. "Thank you, I appreciate that." Stirling stuck a hand out to James. "Please, call me Strider." James shook his hand, and grinned.

“Nice to meet you, Strider."    

Chapter 2: From Nexus Tower to another Dimension Edit

Nexus Tower

11 hours, 58 minutes ago

As James rushed into the shuttle, Theo began to close the hatch, and power it up. "We're not going to see the tower again, are we?" He remarked, as they began to take off. The shuttle itself was bulky and grey, with a large Nexus Force logo on one side, scuffed up and faded. The interior itself was not much better. In the back were two benches for troops, and there was a single pilot seat in the front.

"Honestly," James replied. "No. It's gone."

Theo sighed, and sat down in the rear, letting James take the front. "Well, at least we made it."

James began to respond, but his watch began to beep urgently. He looked down at it, and swore.

"What is it?" Theo asked.

"Long story. Simmons, take the helm. Theo, meet me on Chanora when I call you. If I don't call in five hours, come anyways." With that, James disappeared.

Chanora

5 minutes later

James popped up in a war zone. The city that had been the capital of the KOTSK had been torn apart, leaving nothing more than flaming rubble. "Oh no..." James muttered. From his right, a man popped up from a hatch in the ground.

"James! The King needs to see you!" The man cried. "Come on, move!"

James thought for a moment, before running over to the hatch, and jumping onto the ladder, as the man climbed down. He shut the hatch, and clambered down. "So, what's going on here?" James asked.

"Julritan attacked. They managed to destroy all major cities. You were lucky a patrol didn't see you."

"Agreed." James remarked. "But what is his Majesty doing in an old C.O.D bunker?"

"After they were dissolved," The man hopped off the ladder, and was shortly followed by James. "The C.O.D abandoned this place to our government. It's the only place the Julritanians haven't raided."

"Blast." James muttered, as the man led him down a well lit concrete hallway. "I knew Chanora would fall some day, but not like this."

"Welcome to the modern age, James." Remarked a well dressed man who had just rounded a corner. He wore a red cloak, and carried a sword on his side. He had a majestic crown on his head, jeweled marvelously, but he walked without any sense of pomp or arrogance.

James saluted. "Your majesty, sir!"

"Relax James," Leo remarked. "You can call me by my real name.I'm a king of a bunker, not an empire." He added wryly.

James immediately left his position of attention. "Well, Leo, glad to know you aren't too panicked. I would be."

"Well, we can't do anything without backup. Do you have anyone else?"

"Need to call them, but I can have three friends come here. They're pretty good in combat. And one is a literal genius." James replied.

"Well, I'll take anyone else I can get." Leo sighed, and turned. "I need to check on the wounded. I'll have the major fill you in."

The man who had brought James into the bunker spoke up. "I'm Major Martin, sir. I'll take you to the holo-room, get you up to speed."

"Great." James replied. "So, now I find out how the world ended."

Stirling's Camp

Present Day

James grabbed a knife and a rock, set up some tinder, and began striking the knife on the rock. "Hey Stirling, wake up!" He cried. He then looked up, and saw that the sun had not yet risen."Oops..." He muttered.

Some quiet muttering from the blue tent was heard."Just a moment."

James thought for a second, then continued striking the rock and the knife, till he managed to spark up the tinder. He slowly built up small trigs, till he had a minuscule fire.

Stirling emerged from his tent. "Early start?"

"Yeah, old habit from boot camp. You got any dead animals?" James inquired.

"Not a problem. Be right back" He said, pulling out his bow.

"Gotcha. I'll try to get this blasted thing large enough to cook." James added some more tinder, and some larger twigs. "Should be good once you've caught something large enough to eat. Then we need to talk."

A few minutes later, James had created a decent fire, and Stirling had returned with a dead rabbit. James grabbed a knife, took the rabbit, and sliced open its stomach, then scraped out some nasty gunk. He then tore off its skin, and set it off to the  side. After this, he skewed it on a stick, and began to roast it.

"They cover that in survival training?"

"Nope. I like to camp though. It's more of a necessity being the mother of invention kinda thing." James replied, slowly turning the carcass.

Stirling nodded, watching James. "So, you need a replacement... Does it pay?"

"Well, yes. But the primary pay is room and food, as well as ammo and supplies. Not too much free money, though if you have any, there's not really time to use it." James replied. "It's a good job, but only if you like it."

Stirling nodded and began pacing. "You need to find people. I need to find certain people.

James noted this, but looked back down at the carcass, as it began to brown. "Yes..." He replied.

I haven't been able to find them by myself...And those I have found are now dead or missing... again." Strider smirked and looked at James "I may be bad luck"

"Well, that must be frustrating." James quipped, before pulling the rabbit offthe fire, and inspecting it.

"But..." Strider resumed pacing. "There is one thing I haven't tried."

James became interested. "Go on."

"Remember how I told you about the evil tyrant thedude that's ruling Morcia right now?"

"Yes. Nasty things, evil tyrants are." James replied.

"Well, there's this story that I hear about constantly, like a bad folklore story, about these group of knights that stood up to him before he took over.

"Well, I think we know who won that one."

And they were called the Knights of the Olde Speech, or something like that, and they fought against thedude specifically to stop his bad grammar from spreading or something ridiculous like that.”

James paused for a moment, then began chuckling, His chuckling turned into a torrent of laughter. "That's absurd!" He cried.

"I know, right?! What would that even look like? A bunch of poets with pens fighting Rouges with wormholers?! But still, the story persists."

"Where does it go?" James asked.

"Well, there's tons of ways they spin the defeat slash disappearance of these guys, from that they actually defeated thedude and left, but then thedude came back or something, to that they were angels and went up into the sky. But from what I gathered, if any of it's true, there may be some of these...Kotos, still around.”

"I don't know what to think about it. Want to try and find them?" James inquired.

He paused, then spoke again. "In retrospect, maybe not a good idea."

Strider shrugged, a note of exasperation in it. "I have nothing to lose."

"Well, I have an entire dimension. But, what the heck? Could work." James began to slice the rabbit. "At least breakfast's ready."

"Nice. Then it's settled. We'll start a search to find the truth about these 'Kotos'. See who they really are."

"Yeah. It's our best chance. My Janra's only two ways, here or Chanora, so I can't find a replacement somewhere else." James handed Stirling half the rabbit. "When do you want to get going?"

"Your what???" Stirlng barked, glancing between the rabbit and James.

"Janra. It's an inter-dimensional portal opening device." James replied. "It's how I got here."

"Oh." Strider said, still confused. "Let's eat, then we can head out."

"Fine by me." James replied, taking a bite of the rabbit.

Chapter 3: Truth and Friendship Edit

As the two were walking, Strider spoke, breaking the rhythm of their feet brushing the tall grass.

"You know," said Strider. "I knew him."

"Knew whom?" James asked in reply.

"The Guard. He let me in the first time because I slipped him a few coins, but still. He was a harmless sort."

James paused. "I'm sorry...it's just instinct at this point. I have no idea what you are, but me? I'm a soldier. If someone tries to kill me, I kill them first. I didn't know how many may back them up, so I wanted to be quick."

Stirling nodded, but his face was still at the ground. "I'm a soldier too, but I suppose it's different for me. I've fought the Maelstrom, not other minifigs. now I have to fight these. My fellow Morcians. There's nothing evil about these people! Only misguided."

"Yeah, welcome to my world." James replied. "The first person I killed was my brother. Though he was trying to kill me, I still did destroy him. Yes, I know you use the word smash, but it happened in my dimension."

Strider shook his head. "I mean, I've seen maelstrom infect minigures, and then get put down... But that's stopping a evil." Stirling paused."Your brother...Why was he doing that?"

"Well, they're still trying to kill you. As for him, I was running from home." James replied. "I had a good reason."

"Care to share it?"

"My father headed an intelligence agency that killed thousands to uphold a secretly tyrannical regime." James replied. "Yeah, I had a bad family."

Strider's eyebrows jumped. "Ouch. Sounds like you're heading full circle here." he said, motioning to the land around them.

"Yep." James smiled at the irony. "Of course, the man who destroyed that planet? He employed a similar logic to yours." His smile faded.

Strider blinked. "My logi- No, I'd never do that! That's a whole planet's worth of difference."

"Why not? It kept the Filoran government from killing billions in the future. Of course, there were other ways to stop them, but, then he didn't have to worry about them being able to do it." James spat out. "Let me make one thing clear Stirling: I may have killed billions of innocents by killing Mar...I mean Timore. In the same way, he killed billions by destroying Filora. And he only saved a small margin more."

"That's Anarchy! Survival of the Fittest, or most Powerful!" exclaimed Strider. "No one can stand with logic like that! At least, not until there's no one left to challenge! There will always be a weaker one, and more powerful one, until there's just one!"

"Perhaps." James remarked. "Just make sure your logic doesn't end in a way that you don't want it to."

"Logic is logic. You can't change how it ends. Just how you act on it." countered Strider, calming down. He shook his head. "An entire planet..."

James chuckled. "Different views, based in different forms of logic, have different ends. You yourself acknowledged that there are different types of logic. Take the communism, versus capitalism, versus mercantilism debate for instance. All are based in logic, but all have different ends. And yes, Stirling. An entire planet."

"It's devilish. How does weaponry always advance further than defense? No wait, I know that answer."

"Minifig nature." James replied. "We are flawed beings. But it's not the worst thing that's been done in my dimension."

"Oh Lord, I don't want to know." muttered Strider.

"Neither do I. Honestly, you have to feel sorry for the man who did it." James pointed out. He looked down. "Still, let's move on."

"James. How do you handle the... Remorse?"

"Me? I just kind of do. I'm diagnosed a bit sociopathic, after all. Because of a certain accident." James replied.

"Still, one thing tears me apart, and I have to confess it to you, Strider. You may not want to ever be around me after this one."

"You mean, other than cutting your knuckles on your brother?" asked Strider, glancing sideways at James.

"No. I put a bullet through him. No knuckles were used. But yes."

"Of course..." coughed Strider.

[[Music]]

James became still and stared at the ground. "Look, Strider," James handed him the backpack of supplies he was carrying. "Remember that worse thing that I told you about?"

Strider stood, holding his pack's strap in one hand, and James's in the other. "Yes...?"

"Well, it was the destruction of an entire galaxy. And the perpetrator? Well, that was..." James began to cry. "That was me."

Strider's eyes jumped open from their exhausted glare to wide open. James began to back away, leaving Stirling with the two bags. Before he could stop himself, Strider took a small step back himself.

"A...Galaxy?"

"Trillions of people..." James was only able to mutter these three words around the tears.

"Wh... Which one?"

"I don't know." James replied. "I..try to forget..."

Stirling set his pack down slowly, his eyebrows knitting together.

"Please don't kill me..." James muttered, backing away slowly. He had, in a few moments, changed from a hyperactive, confident soldier to a wreck.

"Don't run." Strider said, betraying no emotion.

James paused. "I don't think I could if I wanted to." He replied.

A few moments passed. "How did you do it? And can you do it again?" Both questions were asked in a voice of stone.

"Explosive device." James replied. "The only of its kind. It took exactly 5.312 seconds to obliterate all those systems...I remember the exact number of people. So to answer your question, no. Even if there were more devices like it, no."

Stirling looked away from James. "So you're a traitorous, backstabbing, murderous, genius,"

James didn't stay to hear it all. He simply began to walk away.

"fanatical, covert, agent. With experience in all sorts of ways to dismember people. You've been desensitized to the point of sociopath, and-"

"YOU DON'T KNOW A BLASTED THING!" James cried out all of a sudden.

Stirling looked back at James.

"DO YOU HONESTLY THINK I HAD CONTROL THEN? NO! I DIDN'T! I FELL INTO THE VERY FABRIC OF REALITY, AND MY BRAIN COULDN'T HANDLE IT! I COULDN'T STOP MYSELF!"

"So you blame insanity?" The voice was softer, but still questioning.

"Yes. I'm desensitized, I'm a sociopath, but that's because if I ever turned back on my emotions, it would tear me apart more than I already have done by myself." James showed Stirling his watch. "When we first designed these, I was a tester. Time travel can be dangerous when done wrong. We messed up. I ended up losing my very mind. For a while, I didn't even know who I was. I lived around 1000 years with my very existence tied to this watch."

"Your... 'Janra'?"

"No, it's just a teleport watch. Janras are much safer." James replied. "And like I said, I'm a soldier. I'm not a covert agent. I'm not fanatical, treacherous, murderous, or backstabbing, and I don't dismember. I just know how to kill."

A few seconds passed. Both James and Strider were watching each other. Strider spoke.

"You're James. I met you yesterday, because you didn't exist here before then. . . To my knowledge, "amended Stirling. "You do a blasted fine headshot, and I think this place needs you as much as you might need it."

James paused for a moment. "Denying the past won't change its existence." He stated, breaking the dead silence that had arisen.

Strider grit his teeth. "It's not my past. If it was, then yeah. You'd be dead. But obviously..."

"Well, I did try a few times."

"...You're here to find... a... replacemen- what do you mean? You've tried to kill youself???"

James paused. "I need someone to do what I've been doing since I regained my sanity. That's keeping people alive, and yes. I did. After I destroyed that galaxy I just had realized what I had done, and there was a gun nearby. Luckily, the round in the chamber was a dud." James added a wry remark. "Still sure this planet needs me?"

"Good! Good on the failed suicide, and good that you have a conscience. James, you're here for a new start. I'll give that to you... But only if you give it to me. This planet does need you. Or at least, if that's too much, then, take it as I could really use you."

He didn't know how to respond. "Well...that may not end well."

Strider shook his head. "With someone else around, the demons of fear, doubt, and their agitator, loneliness, all fade" Stirling stuck a hand out towards James, smiling.

"Perhaps, but I'd prefer to avoid making friends. I've never had anything good happen when I get attached." James replied, his face darkening. Then he became cheerful. "Ah, what's the worst that he could happen?" He shook Strider's hand, then picked up his backpack. "Back to work."

"You could get abducted, or smashed. That's what's happened to all my other previous companions!" joked Strider, laughing nervously.

"Well, you're cheerful." James replied. "Now get moving already."

"Righto. We need to make some serious headway, unless we want to camp out in the open plain tonight."

After a long day of travel, filled with awkward silence, occasional conversation, and constant wariness, eventually the two travelers reached a nice, thick forest,and in a few minutes had located a suitable, and sheltered, camping site.Behind them was a large rock, and in front was a small clearing. Above them,the tree branches blocked any possible rain. "Well, I like this."James remarked. "Seems safe enough."

"Two ways out, vantage point, suitable shelter. " Strider nodded. "It'll do."

"Well, better get settled in. I'll get firewood, you set up a good campsite?"

James inquired, before remembering that Stirling had wood.

Stirling pulled out his bow.

"I'm going to assume you never learned archery?"

"Well, once, five years ago, because of some idiot orcs." James replied

Stirlnig began fiddling with tinder. "Now that sounds like an interesting story."

James groaned. "I'll tell it if you don't laugh at the liquorice part."

Strider stopped and looked up at James. He was grinning. "Liquorice?" he managed.

James grabbed some would from the sacks, and hauled it over the Strider. "Look, wargs name people because of their clothing color, and I wear black and dark purple. Do the math."

"I take it Liquorice was back on the menu."

"No, they were friends. Ish. I threatened to shove explosives down their throats." James replied. "But only as a joke." He added.

"I'll bet you meet the most interesting people, inter-dimensionally traveling."

"Unfortunately, yes." James replied.

The fire was reaching a suitable heat, so James began to look through the bags for food, and then when he found some meat, he went back to the fire. Before cooking, he looked Strider in the eye. "If you want information from me, why not just ask? I don't like when people fish for stories."

Strider glanced up from the fire.

"What? You aren't really subtle." James remarked. He quickly ran back to the bags, grabbed a pot, vegetables, and water, then ran back. At this point, he grabbed a log, stripped the bark, and began to chop vegetables on it, as well as the meat.

"I'll admit. I was trying to figure you out earlier today. But then I got more than I bargained for. So to speak."

"Yeah, well, that's your fault." James replied. "Still, why didn't you ask?"

"Agreed." Strider dug through his pack, searching for something. "As for not taking the direct approach... I wasn't sure how'd you react. Most people clam up when asked directly."

James nodded, as he poured the vegetables into the pot, and added some water. "True. Still, I'm not most people."

"The more I learned, the less I expected you to talk about it too. But I guess that's part of starting over. Getting it all out...Aha!"

"True. And then suppressing it." James jumped at Stirling's cry. "What?

Strider pulled out a small collection of jars. "Spices and zest." he winked.

Before responding, James switched to the meat, and began to chop it into smaller pieces. When he finished, he poured the meat and its juice into the pot. "Already got you covered." James replied, grabbing a small silver container from his coat.

"What's that?"

"Best liquor my side of the universe." James replied. "Alcohol will cook out in a stew, but the taste stays."

Strider raised his hands in surrender. "I concede. Monsieur Chef! You have me beat. Basil and cumin have nothing on extra-dimensional brew!"

"I'm not French!" Protested James. He quickly looked around. "Got anything I can put this up on? If not, we'll need to build something."

"Right here." Stirling said, pulling out a small grill brick from his pack. "And the stands are..."

Stirling began burrowing into his pack, eventually putting his head in there.

James groaned. "For a soldier, you really aren't organized.”

"Good grief, I thought they were right next to the grill!" came the muffled reply.

"Oh, just let me look at this point!" James shot back.

He pulled his head out. "Whatever. I'll use two regular bricks." he said, pulling out two 1x2 bricks, and 4 clips. Snapping them together, he gestured grandly. "Tada."

James glared. "Ok, this will work." He placed the pot on the bricks, and then began stirring. After a minute or two, he poured in 3 precise drops of liquor, and closed the bottle.

"When you say 'best'... do you mean 'strong'?"

"Well, all liquor is strong." James remarked. "Though I am careful to keep portions low to save it. Honestly, it's been widely considered the best, not for alcohol content, but because of flavor. In other words, I'm sparingly using it because it's expensive, and I only keep a small amount with me."

"Reasonable." Stirling commented, as he placed the jars back in the pack. "Like a soldier."

"Yeah, this is my last thing. I'm gonna miss this stuff." James checked the soup. "Grab some bowls, dinner's ready."

After dinner, they slept in a similar fashion to that of the previous night. However, around 1:00 in the morning, there was a large yellow light, and a loud noise, awakening both of them. Strider charged out of his tent, Samuria sword in hand. He slipped into his defensive stance, as his bleary vision cleared. James reacted similarly, then swore when he saw whom it was. "Stand down, Stirling." He said, as a man walked out of a large vortex. Eventually, the light became bearable, and the scene became clear. Theo was holding a gun in one hand, and a glowing gem in the other.

"James," Theo stated, "we have a problem."

"Strider," James remarked, "This is Theo, a former friend of mine. Theo, this is Strider."

"Great. Who are you?" Theo demanded at Stirling.

Strider flipped his Samurai katana into the dirt, and leaned on it. He had no shirt on, but was still wearing his Samurai leggings. "The Local."

"Well, throw some clothes on. We need to talk about this idiot." Theo said, gesturing towards James.

"You can go, Stirling. He's ok." James turned back towards Theo. "What are you doing here?"

"You need to come back, James." Theo replied.

Strider shrugged, and headed back into his tent.

“I didn't abandon Chanora by choice, Theo.” James said. “I left because I failed. I snapped under the strain. I can’t do…it anymore. I’m not looking for a break, or escape. I’m looking for a replacement.” James began to lose his straight face. “A replacement for me. You don’t know much about me, Theo. You were a friend of mine, but, I’m not simple as you think. I need to leave.” Tears began to pour down his face. “I don’t want to. You've never seen me cry, have you? Well, now you have. Look, Chanora is my planet. It’s the ONE HOME I’VE EVER KNOWN! BUT I CAN’T STAY! I CAN’T DO THIS, whatever it is. I want to, Theo. But I have to leave that dimension, and everyone I know. I have to seal it off from here.” James held out his Walther to Theo. “Take this. It doesn't belong here.”

“Why are you giving me your pistol, James?”

“Because you’re my replacement, Theo.” Theo began to protest, but James continued.  “You take my job. And when it becomes too much, give that thing to someone else who can take the strain. But no matter what, DON’T DO WHAT I DID! Because, God removed that mark from my soul. But he didn't undo my action. I chose to do wrong, and now the consequences will be felt by all in that dimension. I can’t afford to make that kind of mistake again. So Theo, good luck. Oh, and, one more thing.” James reached to his wrist and unstrapped his watch. “This thing will take you where you want to go, tell you what you need to know. You've got things from here. So, goodbye.” James began to close the gateway with his Janra. It was a small, green gemstone, rough around the edges, and glowing. As he held it in his hands, it glowed brightly.

“Wait, James, we need your help! JAMES! STOP! PLEASE!” Theo cried, as the dimensional energies began to pull him back towards Chanora.

“Seeya round, Theo. “

At this moment, the gateway closed with a thunderous clap. James's face lost some of its cheerfulness, and he turned towards Stirling.

“This outfit doesn’t blend in here. Where can I get a sword and some simple clothing?” He paused, then handed Stirling his Janra. “You can break this. I don’t need it anymore.”

Stirling looked at the thing in his hands. "It's beautiful." He said.

"It's also an extremely magical artifact, which if misused can blow your brains up." James replied.

"Ahem. Right." Stirling said, withdrawing it from his face.

"Just please get rid of it. And seriously, where can I get some better blending clothes?"

"I can get you a sword. As for Clothes... I don't think I'm your size." he said, withdrawing a sword from his pack.

"Agreed. Know of any villages in this area?" James asked, taking the sword.

"There may be one more north of here."

"Ok, let's work on that tomorrow. I think we've earned some sleep."

"Definitely," Strider said, crawling into his tent.

Chapter 4: To the Village Edit

James groaned as he woke up, and began to pack up unnecessary gear, though he built up the fire again. Once the sun had risen, he awoke Stirling. "Wake up!" James yelled over to the tent. "I would use a bugle, but I kind of left that at home." He added as an afterthought.

"This is getting embarrassing," Strider's voice emanated from the tent. Some rustling was heard, and a moment later, he emerged, casually dressed from the waist up, and fully armored from the waist down. His Katana hung on his hip. "You're more of a light sleeper than me. Or maybe it's the tent."

"Well, I don't need to sleep that much. I wake up a bit earlier than most, though I guess that now I can sleep in till like 6:00 A.M. or something." James chuckled. "Still, we need to move. I don't know about you, but I want to find this 'KOTOS' soon."

"What do you hope to find? For all we know, it really is just a legend." Strider asked. He snuck a hand into his pack in between James' packing of it, pulling out some buttery croissants and a Sentinel Super Soda. "Not trying to be a downer, just looking at worst case scenario." he added, proffering a croissant.

"I have no idea. I just feel like I've heard that name before..." James took the croissant, and bit into it. "Thanks." He jumped all of a sudden. "I know where I've heard that before! There's this place called Unemployed Alley, that semi-transcends dimensions. I was there, looking for a job, when I noticed a paper advertising a group called KOTOS! Sound familiar?"

Strider's featured scrunched in concentration. "Hmm... Nope. Can't say it does."

James groaned. "Ok, look: Basically, the KOTOS does exist. But their advertisement depicted them more as swords for hire, rather than poets. So, if we find these guys, we may stand a chance against thedude. First, I do need some gear. I don't want questions from thedude's men. So, village, then Knights."

Strider's eyebrows jumped at James' deductive reasoning. "Of course! So that means they are real." he smiled to himself. "There is hope."

"Assuming they're still alive. In my experience, sometimes the heroes don't make it out." James replied. "Trust me. I've lost alot of friends along the way here."

Strider nodded stoically. "I don't doubt it." He picked up his pack. "Let's get going."

James did likewise. "Lead the way, Strider. I'm just a tourist." He paused. "That sounded better in my head. Lets just go."

For some time, the two trekked through some dense forest. Not much was said, as all energy was focused on weaving their way through the trees. Eventually, the forest gave way to a road, and up in the distance, along the relatively small dirt road, there was a sign hanging in the overarching trees. "Welcome to Willowby."

"Well, this seems better than some towns I've been to." James remarked. "To be fair, the last city I was in before this dimension was burning."

"It's not fortified either." Stirling said, looking beyond the sign at the town. It was a collection of buildings.

"So we might not get chased out again?" James inquired with a smile, remembering his mistake earlier on.

"I'm more worried about getting in." Strider sighed, gesturing to James' purple shirt helplessly. He broke into a smile.

"Well, I have an idea. I have a story I can sell to the town guards." He replied.

Stirling crosses his arms, and raised a mocking eyebrow. "I'd love to hear this. Still, we'll see if there even are guards. Tailor's, straightaway."

James nodded. "Just in case, I'm a traveller from the east. I've travelled many hundreds of miles to sell our rare cloths, but I was robbed of my wares in transit, and what I wear is all I have. I'll sell my clothing for some normal clothing and some money."

Strider began walking as he considered James' story. "That is so crazy, it might work." he said. "And depending on how well you sell it, you may get some currency... Any currency from your other place?" Stirling asked.

"No." He sighed. "It's a completely different method of money" He paused, then grinned. "Actually, I have something..." Strider stopped and turned around, curious. "How's gold going to sell here?" James inquired.

Looking around quickly, Strider said, "Well, thedude is trying to implement paper money, but so far, it isn't working well. Coin is still best, and highest value IS gold. There's also regular Iron, copper, and tons of other various metals made out of coin, but what validates it as tender is the image of a face. Most often thedude, but you see a few of Matthias.”

"Well, I have some gold money. It's an old Chanoran coin from the pre-credit times." James replied.

"Does it have a face?"

"Yes, an old Chanoran monarch." James replied.

"Great. We might be able to use it on someone less-the-wiser. Say it's some ancient guy."

James shook his head violently. “I will not cheat a man for my own benefit. I’ve seen it too often on my planet.”

Stirling looked up from scrutinizing the coin and instead scrutinized James' face. "You have a very odd sense of morality. Every time I think I've calibrated your moral compass in my head, it turns out it's a moral Gyroscope instead." snarked Strider. "Besides, money is worth what people think of it."

"Well, not exactly. I'm willing to kill if I or someone else is about to be if I don't. But if it unnecessary, then by definition I'd prefer to save the soul of an individual than kill them. I'm willing to lie to protect us from being attacked and keep everyone around us safe, but I'm not willing to make someone's life worse by cheating them." James reached into his pocket, and added. "Besides, money is only worth what it's backed by. It'd be better to sell the gold to the local smith, being as it's rather pure."

Strider sighed. "Alright. I think you may get less, selling it to the smithy, but it's better than nothing. It is your money." he reasoned, resuming his walk into town. Passing by the first building, people were giving them curious and wary glances, but they turned away when Strider's cloaked and hooded gaze moved to them. No one was approaching them, and for now, that was good news.

James whispered as they entered the tailor's. "Let's just get this done." He turned towards the tailor, hoping he would get his act right, and put on an accent. "Good afternoon. I am coming from a land many miles away. However, someone stole my wares, fine cloths. If you are interested, I would be willing to trade my clothing for money and local clothing, so that I my guard and I can return home." He said to the tailor.

"If your cloth was stolen, maybe you need a new guard." The tailor remarked with a snort.

"I hired him to protect me AFTER my wares were stolen." James replied, making sure to seem offended. "I would not trust an imbecile with such a task."

Strider grunted and shook his head affirmatively, his hand on his Katana.

"I'll give you a pants, a shirt, and a cloak for that...whatever this is." The tailor said as he examined the shirt. "It's dirty, but it's like nothing I've ever seen. As for the pants, I'll give you four gold pieces." 

"That a good price?" James asked Stirling. Strider pretended to consider for a moment. Then he nodded at James, who turned back to the tailor. "You've got yourself a deal." James said.

A few minutes later, Strider and James exited the building. James was wearing a light brown shirt, dark brown pants, and a long grey-green cloak. On his belt was his sword and knife, and he had the hood over his head. "Well, now we blend in. Let's find this Kotos..." James stopped speaking as he saw guards rushing towards them. "looks like we have friends. Now would be a good time to run!"

Strider turned to see the guards. "But we haven-"

"Stop, fugitives, in the name of thedude!" one of them yelled in a clear voice.

"Oh, Crux." muttered Strider as he sprinted to catch up with James, who's cloak was streaming away. "What did we DO?!" he yelled, completely nonplussed.

"Well," James replied as he ran, "I smashed three guards in the last town after assaulting one. That may have something to do with it, being as black and purple stand out here!"

"I suppose word travels fast!" Strider stated, as a arrow whizzed by his ear. "Lovely." They were nearing the edge of town, and the edge of the woods was a few dozen meters beyond that.

"I have a plan!" James cried. He paused, then groaned. "I don't have a plan!" He exclaimed, drawing his knife and throwing it back to impale one of the guards. "You know, if you shoot them, they can't shoot us!" 

Strider's eye betrayed a flurry of emotions all at once. A split second later, one emotion surfaced over the rest.  

"FINE!" He yelled, equipping his Samuria bow before jumping and turning, not slowing down. He slotted a regular arrow, and pulled back. The Imagination Tech inside the Nexus Force Issue weapon ignited the tip with fire, and added two more imagination-construct arrows on the top and bottom of the real one. Then he let go, and completed his 360 spin, still maintaining his running speed. 

Three Guards went down, shot in the knees. Others behind them tripped, but 4 were able to continue after them. 

James drew his sword at this point, turned to face the small squad approaching them. "I'm tired of this." He remarked. As one of the guards drew his sword and swung, James parried, kicked the man in the knee, then stabbed him. Another approached, and James threw the first clash, and then the next, forcing the man to back off. James disarmed him, and punched him across the jaw.

"We don't need to draw this out!" bellowed Strider, more in frustration than anything else, as he used his Katana to parry multiple foes. Jumping back, he then shot arrows at point blank to pin them to the ground.  Painfully.

"I'm not drawing it out!" James replied. "We just can't outrun them." James slashed at another of the few that remained, then head butted the last. Stirling began counting the unmoving bodies, but James was already running again.

"Just follow! Don't count! That's the worst thing to do!" James cried out.

Strider shook his head. "Gaah!" He grabbed the youngest looking live one by the shirt.

"AHH! Please! No! I don't wan-"

"Shut up! You tell your friends, or who's left of them, that we won't let you all off so easy next time. STOP HUNTING US... And we'll stop hurting you. Otherwise, you won't have anyone left to defend."

The young guard nodded violently, his eyes filled with terror. Strider tossed him back, then dashed off after James.

James turned towards Strider. "Smart move." After a few minutes of running, they came upon the camp James grabbed his pack immediately when they returned. "Grab and pack that tent now, Strider." He began to destroy traces of their encampment as he said this.

"You don't have to tell me twice." he said, stuffing the bedrolls into his pack.

"That's a relief." James said.

General silence reigned as the two swept up every trace of the campsite. Then they headed out, and the birds began to sing again.

"SHUT UP!" James yelled at them after a moment, with more than a small amount of fury.

Strider carefully unraveled the map of Morcia he had with him, as he walked. "Where are we going?" James asked. Strider’s eyes darted around the map till they landed on Calibus Tower. "Strider?"

He sighed, then closed his eyes.. "We've got you decent travellers gear..." he began to reason. "We need to find the Kotos..." he continued. “The Kotos were all over Morcia when they were around, but where was their...base..."


"I have absolutely no idea." James replied. "You know this place's history."

"Only the ancient. And then there's a gap. I only recently came to-" Strider snapped his fingers. "Of Course. I'm an Idiot."

"Really? I never would have guessed." James remarked.

Strider glanced at James. "Touche."

"You deserved it." James replied with a chuckle.

Strider nodded. "Probably. But I have an Idea now."

"Go on..." James requested.

"Only recently have I come back to my home planet here," explained Strider, as he rolled out the map again. "When I got here, the whole battle with thedude and the Kotos had already been resolved, and you-know-who won. But I met a farmer, who told me alot of stories that I didn't really believe 100% at the time. He was from the older generation, if you take my meaning." Strider continued.

"Farmer, eh? Sounds like our writers needed some inconspicuous plot device characters to tell us about stuff they couldn't intelligently convey." James quipped.

Strider stared blankly at James. "I'm trying to make it believable here."

James sighed. "Just go on."

"My idea is, we stir up some more trouble. See if we can find someone who knows about these Kotos. Someone like the farmer, but hopefully closer, because his house is pretty far from here on foot."

"Yeah. Who knows? Maybe they'll reuse the farmer plot device." James remarked. "Oh wait, two fourth wall breaks in one chapter is a bit overdoing it.'

"I think we passed the line of respectful reverence in chapter 2." Strider grinned at James. "Our only problem now is that we're probably wanted in every town and city within a week's distance, if not all of Morcia." Strider grimaced, turning back to the map. "Any town we go into, we'll have to remain disguised. These hooded cloaks MIGHT work, but..."


"They might not. Well, if we find out where Talmid was last seen..." James paused. "Wait, what did I just say? Who's Talmid?"

Strider glanced at James. "...That IS familiar..."

"Oh great." James muttered. "I know what's going on. Not the first time, but still not cool. Look, we need to find someone who knows a fellow named Talmid. We need to do it with subtlety, but also quickly."

Strider sighed and scanned the map again. "Well, if we can't safely get into towns for information, perhaps we can get information from... Travelers." Strider thought aloud, tracing the roads to a three point crossroads. "Here. It's near that first town we went to, on the hill, but we wouldn't need to go near the town. We'd just need to observe and question folks as they come and go. It's a crossroads, so there will be plenty of people, and plenty of news." Suddenly Strider snapped his fingers again. "Yes! Mr. Richardson mentioned a 'Talmid'!"

"Richardson?" James inquired. "And that sounds good to me."

"Mr. Richardson," Strider nodded. "Wonder how he's doin'," he thought aloud, as he rolled up the map and altered his heading to meet with the road. "When I and Perry," he chuckled softly at the memory, "crash-landed here, Mr. Richardson took us in, even though it was his field that we had landed in."

"Well," James remarked, "Sounds like a nice guy. Lets go say hi..." James was cut off as a man in a hooded cloak with a cheerful look jumped out in front of them, as did another behind them. James jumped and drew his sword, brandishing it at the men. Their clothing was a uniformed marsh green color, and the two of them has small bludgeons. However, before either Strider or James could attack, the first one reached into his coat and revealed... A mug, as he grinned.

The one behind them suddenly yelled, "WATCH OUT, HE'S GOING TO MUG YA!"

Then their hoods fell back, as the two greenclad teenage boys began guffawing uncontrollably.

Chapter 5: The Merry Band Edit

James lowered his sword warily. "Who are you?" He inquired. "And do you greet everyone like this, or does the universe just hate me today?"

No one answered immediately, and Strider appeared deep in thought. Then one of the boys, the one behind them, spoke, having sufficiently recovered. "Well sir, we are a part of The Merry Band. Perhaps you may have heard of us?"

Strider's head snapped up in recognition, while James shook his head, turning to Strider. "What's with these guys?" He paused, then added. "And are they working for you-know-who?"

Strider turned to James, wonder slapped upon his face. "I think I know these people!"

The same boy interrupted, and began encroaching on Strider's personal space. "Well, if you know us, then you know why we stopped you!" he said congenially. Turning to James, he said, "We do NOT work for you-know-who; How-dare-you!" Then he turned back to Strider. "What's getting you down?"

Strider directed his attention to James. "Their entire purpose way back when was to spread merriment to those in need of it. Apparentl-"

"You two are in desperate need of it!" the boy interjected. "What can I do to cheer you up?"

"You can tell us where on this blasted planet Killian Talmid and the Knights of the Olde Speech are." James's eyes became steely. "Otherwise, you're wasting our time."

The boy's eyes went wide, and he took a step back from James gaze. "Woah, you need serious help."

"You don't know the half of it" Strider replied.

The other boy, who had been silent all this time, removed his hood and spoke. "The answers you seek, are not here in the open. . ."

"Yes, well, then we'll go somewhere we're safe." James agreed. "Lives are at risk, and I don't have time to waste."

“... Come with us." he said, mysteriously.

"That doesn't ryhme!" exclaimed the other boy.

James turned to Stirling. "Strider?"

"I couldn't find one for 'seek!'" the quiet one replied to the vocal one, as they began walking into the forest.

Strider contemplated, then asked the retreating boys, "Is Carlos still around?" The boys paused, and the more verbal once visibly winced.

James looked down. "I'm sorry."

"Did you know him?" the quieter one asked.

James shook his head “No. I have, however, lost alot of friends. So I sympathize.”

Strider replied. "He was a good colleague, and saved my life more than once."

"Then you may want to see him before he's gone." the boy said, moving again.

"What is he talking about?" James asked.

"I have no idea."

"Well, let's follow." He said.

The louder boy sighed exasperatedly, and turned around. "He's on his deathbed, people! You wanna see him or not?"

"Not a very merry way of putting it," the other boy chided.

James turned to Strider. "You go, I'm gonna find out where Talmid is."

Strider frowned and found himself staring at the ground. He didn't want to possibly lose Carlos, yet another friend! Not when he could still give a last goodbye... but he also didn't want to leave James alone... With a start, Strider realized he still didn't trust James completely.

"Young man," Strider asked the quiet one. "Does the Merry Band know the whereabouts of Kotos?"

James looked past Strider, impatience written all over his face, as he stared at the two boys.

The boys looked at each other, then at the men.

"Yes, and no." the vocal one said. The quieter one made an 'iffy' motion with his hands, and a face to match.

James paused. "Elaborate, please."

The quieter one's face contorted with unease. "We have correspondence," he said, looking around worriedly.

"How fast can you get them a message? Tell them it's..." James's brow creased. "Tell them it's the falcon." Strider slowly turned to look at James, completely incredulous.

"The Falcon?" Strider echoed.

"The Falcon..." the vocal one re-echoed.

"Yeah, though most just say Falcon. It's a nickname." James said in reply. "Why do you ask?" He inquired.

The quiet one nodded. "I will relay that. Hopefully it will reach them.

Strider shrugged. "Y'know what, if it works, I'm all for it. Just seems strange. I thought you said you'd-" he cut himself off. "Never been ... In this area before" he finished.

"Well...I don't know that anymore." James replied. "We need to talk. Not around these folks."

"Agreed. But not now."

The two boys were leaning together, staring at the men. The vocal one spoke. "So, like, we going?"

"Yeah, we are." James said, adding, "Please stop staring."

"It makes him twitchy," Strider added before he could stop himself.

James began to walk, elbowing Strider. Roughly. He chuckled, or was it coughed? Either way, with the two boys leading the way, they went off the road and into the thick forest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The quiet one held up a hand, and out of instinct, James's hand went to his belt and sword. "We're here," the vocal one said. The Quiet one made a whistle like a songbird, and a few other songbirds answered.

"Ok," James relaxed, though he hid his knife sheaf in his sleeve. "Nice code, by the way."

"Old fashioned, but it works." replied the vocal one.

"Old fashioned is sometimes the best." James remarked. "That's my experience." The trees gave way rather suddenly, and above them, quite clearly, were about 4 others, similarly clad like the boys amidst the tree branches. One of them hopped down, and landed relatively light in front of them. A "Ow." slipped from his lips.

"Nice poise, but you're taking too much of the impact in your knee."

"Bryan. Robin. Who are these people?" he asked the vocal and quiet one, respectively.

Bryan replied. "They want to talk to the Kotos." he said matter-of-factly.

The Guard, who was taller than the boys, and appeared to be around his 50's, almost 60's, but very fit and trim, frowned.

"And you told him that he could 'just use the Camp phone', is that it?"

"Well, yeah, bu-"

The quiet one, Robin raised a hand. "The very brown one is a friend of Carlos."

This made the guard's gaze shift to Strider and James. The man's face was etched and stony. He was currently frowning, and there were lines on his face that showed he did alot of that. But there was something about his face that suggested he would had a brilliant smile, if he only tried. His attire was also slightly different. It was a deeper green than the light marsh of the boys, and he had a bronze pin of a leaf and arrow. On his belt, a walkie-talkie was hanging on his right, next to a few pouches. On his left was a short-sword. A quiver of arrows poked out from his Cloak on his back, but no bow was to be seen. He did not wear gloves, so Strider was able to notice his hands. They were rather average, except for the fact that they did not seem callused enough to belong to a forest man. Upon getting a good look at his features, Strider thought there was something remotely familiar about him.

"Did you even get their names?" the man said. He seemed to suddenly be preoccupied as he stared at the others.

"Err... Well."

"No." said Robin for Bryan.

"If you want to know, my name's James. Though I used to go by Falcon for a while." James remarked.

"Strider." said Strider, knowing the reaction that would occur. The guard blinked twice and straightened up. Robin turned around casually. Bryan was confused by the other two's reactions and gripped a concealed knife. James noted this and loosened his concealed dagger. The three others in the trees armed their bows.

"Stirling, I think they aren't happy." James remarked, preparing to hit one of the bowmen with his knife. Strider simply stood, arms limp and looked rather annoyed and bored.

The guard raised a hand, and weapons were lowered. "If you are Strider, then you know the story that was told when you were last here. What was it?"

Strider replied immediately. "There were lots told by my previous associate, but the one I told was the Legend of the Dragon."

"What was the crowd favorite?"

"Favorite Story, or favorite... Uh, Thing?"

"You tell me."

"Well, I and Perry did sing "The Merry Old Inn", but to be honest, I'm trying to forget that."

The man smiled. "Welcome back, Strider." and he threw his arms open in embrace.

The man released Stirling, who groaned, and turned to James. "The name's Mercedes." he said, offering a hand.

"Nice to meet you, Mercedes." James replied, accepting the hand. "Can we PLEASE speak to KOTOS?" He added. "It's a bit important." Mercedes nodded.

"Yes. Right this way. They're good!" he said aloud to the men in the trees. Bryan gave thumbs up to everyone in the vicinity, while Robin quietly followed after Mercedes.

"Wait...we should visit Carlos first."

Strider glanced at James thankfully.

Mercedes looked at the boys, who became downcast. "Very well," conceded Mercedes. Mercedes lead Bryan, Robin, James and Strider through the camp. There were many people of all statures and walks of life. And lots... lots... of children. But that was not so distracting as the myriad display of uncoordinated things all about them. Next to a hastily built hovel, stood a large pavilion tent of neon green. Next to that would be something as odd as a teepee.

"It's even more mismatched that I remember," stated Strider.

"Yes, well, outlaws can't be choosers," replied Bryan.

"He's not wrong." James said with a chuckle.

They walked passed a group of kids following an older gentleman, who had a VR headset on, and was mumbling. "Pikachu went this way."

"Well then..." James remarked. After that, they passed by an RV, and out stumbled another familiar face.

"Mrs. Hucklepatt!" Strider exclaimed.

"Who's this?" James asked.

The old woman, who had a small basket looped in her right arm, and a cane in the other, nimbly recovered from her stumble down the steep RV steps. "Mmm? Who's that now?"

"Gemma, you remember Stirling Silverstine," Mercedes said.

Gemma Hucklepatt reset her specacles, and squinted up at Strider, her bent-over back making her a head shorter than Strider. "Oh, yes. Johnson hit you with a frying pan."

Stirling smiled. "And you patched me up. it's good to see you again."

"Back when I could patch people up, dear." she said, a hint of sour hiding in her voice. "Who's that?"

Strider shook himself, and made with introductions. "James, this is Mrs. Hucklepatt. The Band's Healer."

"Way back when, dear." she amended. "Now I just assist the machines, and the other novice youngsters" she said, proffering a frail hand to James.

James softly, cautiously, took her hand. "Pleasure to meet you."

She shook it, and stared directly at him for a moment. "I can't heal all wounds, though." she said. Turing to Mercedes, she said, "I know where you whippersnappers are all headed. Won't keep you waiting, let's go." she said, hobbling along.

"Indeed." James replied, following.

A little more walking showed more misplaced, outdated, or futuristic things, all meshed together.

Eventually, Mercedes stopped outside a relatively large house that resembled a modular build, but it was all metal.

"So, is this where Carlos is?" James inquired.

Mercedes nodded. "Headquarters."

Strider surveyed it with his eyes. "That's no cloth pavilion."

Mercedes chuckled. "Nope. Not like last you were here."

Mrs. Hucklepatt bustled to the door. "Come on, slowpokes!"

As they all filed in, it became apparent there were quite a few others there. Strider recognized a few. Mercedes was able to clear a path into a back room, whereupon two guards, upon seeing him, gently stopped him short of a door.

"Sorry sir, but Carlos asked to see Johnson alone." one of them said.

"Tell him Strider has returned." Behind Mercedes, Strider sighed.

"I have a bad feeling..." Strider whispered to James.

The guards glanced at each other, then one knocked. There was no answer.

"Only one way to find out." James replied.

The same guard knocked harder, and this time a voice rang out, gentle and firm. "Come in, quickly." The guard popped his head in and delivered the message.

Quiet whispering.

"He says, 'bring him in.' " the voice replied gently.

Strider walked forward, and was sent into the room, the door closing behind him.

"What's wrong with Carlos?" James inquired to the guard.

The guard glanced at James, then at Mercedes, who gave a sad nod. "He's got some sort of space infection." The man replied. "It makes him reaaally irritable, but that's not the worst of it." the guard shivered involuntarily.

"Just bloody well say it!" James exclaimed.

"He- Well, I don't know what it is!" The guard said. "It makes him purple, and his skin sorta melts away, but doesn't-"

James stopped him. "MAELSTROM!" He yelled out. He shoved aside the guard, and threw open the door with a cry. "I HAVE A SOLUTION!" The guards tried to stop him, as he barged in, but James had the element of surprise. He was in the room in a flash, and reached into a pocket and withdrew a small vial of blue energy. He ran up to the partially infected Carlos and smashed the vial, causing the energy to swirl into Carlos, healing his wounds gradually. Strider backed up from the bed, surprise melting into a smile on his features as he saw what James had accomplished.

"And this is why you should never keep me out of a secret room!" James shouted to no one in particular. "Oh, hi Carlos. Nice to meet you." He added.

On the reverse, the other man in the room, also leapt back in surprise, but it melted into confused fury. " Why, HOW DARE YOU!" he yelled. It was the firm, soft voice from earlier. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!" He made to leap at James from across the bed, but Strider restrained him casually, with a smile.

"I just saved your friend's life, and the lives of everyone in the camp." James replied with a grin. "You're welcome."

"James, this is Johnson. He's a bit of a hothead, thinks well on his feet, and has bested me in combat. We met when he was stealing from me, and then won by frying pan." Strider introduced the angry man.

The other man in the bed twitched irritatedly, for awhile, but at the mention of his name, his eyes opened groggily.

"Well, Johnson, think twice before attacking someone." James said. "As for combat, his form is all wrong, but I'll deal with that later."

"Hmm? What? Great gobs of 'h'uacamole! I'm 'tirely h'ealed-ed!" Carlos exclaimed, in a bizarre accent that sounded something like Hispanic to James.

"Of course you are!" James replied. "Pleasure to meet you, Carlos. I'm James."

Carlos sat up, feeling himself in disbelief. He was wearing a Polka dot medical gown and sleeping cap to match.

Then Carlos became aware of his surroundings, First his eyes alit on James. "James?" Carlos grabbed James's hand, and shook two fistedly. "You've sah'ved-ed my life! h'I dunno how, but y'have!"

James stopped dead in his tracks before replying. "Merry Band of the Woods...M...B...O...T...W...." he jumped. "Have you seen a girl with brown hair in a braid, red button down shirt, and brown coat?" He paused and added "Oh, yeah, you're welcome..."

Carlos paused, and his eyes were drawn to the ceiling, his thick mustache tweaking one way in thought. "Y'hes. H'Ive seen a few."

"The one I'm looking for is named Rebecca. She's a bit more inquisitive than most, she'd have been here around five years." James commented.

He hopped out of bed. "H'entirly healed! Sir James, you h'are a mh'iracle worker!" And Carlos began to jig in his Gown.

"Carlos, please, focus." James said with a facepalm.

"Whatever I can do to help, h'I will!" He said, still dancing. By now, quite a few faces were poking out of the doorway's frame. Finally, Carlos took notice.

"My Merry Men!" he exclaimed, Spreading his eyes and arms wide. "Sir James, the Miracle Worker, has saved your Leader! ME!"

"Carlos, PLEASE!" James asked desperately. This elicited cheers from everyone in the hall, and one could practically feel the excitement and words flying out the door.

"CARLOS!" James yelled. "FOCUS! I'M LOOKING FOR A FRIEND I HAVEN'T SEEN IN YEARS!"

Strider just smiled and leaned back against the wall, even as James began panicking. Johnson simply stood, slack-jawed.

"Strider," James turned to him. "Can you please help me? I'm looking for someone who could help us."

Strider shook his head smiling mischievously. "Last time I was here, I was on your end. I like this."

"Stirling, I'm looking for my wife!" James replied.

Strider slipped off the wall and landed face-first on the floor.

Carlos turned casually to James. "You were asking about a pretty lass? Brown Hair, Braid?"

"Yes." James replied.

"Eyes, m'boy. Need the eye color." He tapped the corner of his eye, and winked. Taking his sleeping cap off, Carlos procured a notepad from it, and began writing.

"Um...blue. Her mother's a Jew...oh, wait, you don't know Earth ethnicities."

"Juice?" Carlos squeaked. "That's a new one."

"JEW!" James yelled. "JEW! OPEN YOUR EARS!" He calmed down before speaking again. "Sorry, it's just...I'm a little bit stressed."

"Johnson!" Carlos barked to the slack-jawed man, entirely unaffected by James' volume. "Get me a Q-tip. Actually, 3. And something to drink. This man is making me thirsty."

Strider got up. "Your WIFE???" He was still hung up on that fact.

James groaned. "Yes Stirling, I'm married. She's a C.O.D Intelligence Division Agent, last time I saw her she was headed to this world on undercover recon. The only info I had was 'MBOTW'."

Strider glanced around, somehow unable to look at James the same way again. "I'm sorry, I just... well, never would have guessed. Gratz, I suppose." He said awkwardly, rubbing the back of his head.

"We've been married for seven years Strider. You're a little late." James said with a chuckle. "Now come on. Carlos is gonna be a bit slow, but we can find her." He added.

Carlos had been writing this all down, and now he was chewing on the eraser end of his stubby pencil. "I need to speak to Miss Smith."

"Don't worry about it, Carlos." James said in reply. "Celebrate with your people. I'll find her."

"H'I need to spea'hk with Miss Smith," muttered Carlos. "She might know this H'Bekka."

The three of them exited the room, and Carlos immediately began talking with others who were still there.

"Master Stabb, I need you to scout the North Perimeter, we're too close to the Capitol. Mercedes, do you know where Miss Smith is, it's urgent."

Once they exited the building, James frowned, till he saw the person he was looking for. "Schranta!" He yelled. A woman in the distance glanced over, and yelled in reply

"Rinshla!"

Rebecca ran over and began to yell. "BLAST IT WALTERS! YOU'RE RUINING A PERFECTLY GOOD OP!" 

Strider glanced at the two. "I take it...?"

James grinned. "He knows, you can drop the cover." He turned to Strider. "Stirling, this is Rebecca. Rebecca, this is Stirling."

"James, I'm undercover!" She whispered sharply.

James sighed. "Rebecca, I'm fired. Besides, this planet has its own problems, and we could use your help. And also, maybe after 5 years I was missing the company."

"Hello, Mrs, um. Rebecca." Strider said. "I'm not part of this, uh, C.O.D. thing." clarified Strider. "Just a local." He smirked as he remembered the line from Chapter 3. (Yes, another 4th wall break, we were due.)

She turned to Stirling. "You can just call me Rebecca. After all, you wouldn't call this idiot Mr. James. As for that, don't worry about it. It's not important. Well, actually, it is, but it doesn't affect you."

"Yup," agreed Strider. "Cause if it did happen in this dimension, he'd be smashed," he said, pointing a thumb at James.

"Oh..." She paused. "You mean...that."

Immediately, Strider regretted saying anything.

"Well," James said to break the silence, "If you think this relationship is weird, you should meet my cousin."

"You mean, weirder than all this?" Strider motioned to all around them.

"He greets me cheerfully, we catch up, then he tries to murder me." James replied.

"That is weird, but I'm still hooked on the fact that your wife is in another dimension, and that she nearly punches you in the face after not seeing you for 5 years." Strider said casually. "In fact, it may be good that I'm here." He quipped.

"Well, I just broke her cover." James replied. "And she didn't actually punch me."

"I said nearly. I'm betting that if I wasn't here, she would have. Amiright, Miss?" he asked, a smirk hiding in the corner of his face.

"No, I'm an intelligence agent, I have self control." She replied. Strider's features twitched, as he tried to contain himself. Lots of humorous retorts came to his mind, but he knew none of them would help the situation. So he tried very hard to say nothing.

James replied by hugging her. "Come on, after five years, you have to be a bit homesick."

As he released her, she conceded. "Fine, yes. But still, I spent years building an identity, and you just broke it!"

James grinned."It doesn't matter, these people are on our side. I just saved their leader's life."

Strider nodded and imitated Carlos's dancing and grandiose hand motions "Sir James! The Miracle Worker!" he laughed. "Best fun I've had in a long time."

Rebecca groaned. "See, this is why I'm not that homesick. This idiot goes around doing whatever in Ranschlar he wants."

"Ha. Ha. Ha." James said.

"So, why do you need me?" She asked after a brief moment of Strider laughing. All of a sudden, she stopped. "Wait, why did you come here? You've clearly been here a while..." James grimaced, and Strider switched his gaze between the two.

"Strider, I need to talk to my wife. Alone." James said. "I'll be there in a moment."

Strider clapped James's shoulder. "You've got it. I'll be at the Mess Hall."

Strider began walking, wondering which way the Merry Band had pitched the mess hall. Spinning around, he glanced back at James and his wife. Something caught his eye. Rebecca's fists were clenched.

Mildly worried, Strider kept walking, while glancing out of the corner of his eye. The two seemed to be arguing, but instead of calming down, as Strider expected, the twosome's argument was escalating. In no time at all, they were yelling at each other, and James seemed red in the face. Strider was completely surprised, and was considering running back over to break it up, when Rebecca seemed to make some sort of declaration, to which James had no response, and then the two turned around and stormed off in opposite directions.

Strider was clueless. "What went wrong?" wondered Strider. "He should have just kissed her," he concluded, clueless as he was about romance.

Strider took a moment for reflection. He decided that if James wanted to talk, he knew where to find him. The Mess Hall. But what if he didn't want to talk, but should? "Emily would know what to do about this," thought Strider, thinking of his older Sister.

James approached Strider as those thoughts bounced about his head, downtrodden. "She's not coming with us." He said. Strider didn't notice James, so deep he was in thought, standing with his chin on his fist which rested it's elbow on his arm. "Strider!" James tapped his shoulder.

Strider pulled himself out of his reverie. "Sorry, James. I... What happened?" he asked. Then he added. "No, nevermind. Not my place. Sorry."

"Let's just get something to eat. I'd prefer not to dwell on it." James replied. "You're fine, I'd ask the same in your place." After a moment of misery as they trudged, James added. "The worst part is, she was right."

Strider hit upon the possibility that he might need to talk, but wouldn't really want too. So he simply nodded, and walked in the direction that he thought the Mess Hall might be in. "I wouldn't know about that," he said neutrally.

"Well, it was something you have an opinion on. And it does affect you." He scratched the back of his head. "You said I was justified in killing the man who destroyed my planet, remember?"

Strider slowed down to walk beside James. Now he REALLY regretted bringing it up. He sighed.

"Well," he started uncertainly. Then, "Yes. I said that. I still stand by it. What did she say?" he finished, hoping to not repeat the argument.

"Well, she disagrees. And she's right. That was murder. She's not wanting to spend time around me for a bit after I killed her brother." James looked down at the ground in shame.

Strider stumbled. "Oh Lord." he said, stopping, he rested with his hands on his knees like he'd been punched in the gut. "Did- Did you know?" he asked a second later.

"Oh, I didn't tell you..." James frowned. "The thing is, I did know. His real name is Marcus. He's tried to murder us both repeatedly, but she still keeps trying to get him into psychological care. What I can't tell her, by protocol, is that he's not dead."

"It's a small Multiverse," Strider muttered. "Wait, not dead?" Strider too, frowned. "Technically, you shouldn't be telling me this either then, right?"

"Yes. That's the issue. He has a device...he replicated my accident, with a few small tweaks. But I can't tell her, that's what security protocol says. So yes, he's not dead. But as far as my wife is concerned, I killed her brother." James grimaced. "Technically, I have a loophole with you. Besides, until about fifteen minutes ago, I had forgotten. As far as I was concerned, Marcus was dead."

Strider stared at James for a moment. Then he said some very un-soldier-like words. "Screw protocol."

"DAMMIT STIRLING!" James yelled. "Look, I want to tell her! But, if I do, she'll chase him like she always does, and eventually he will kill her."

"Well, CAN he die?"

"No." James replied. "Unless we can disable the loop, no."

"Well then, James, you've got yourself a big pickle," Strider said, beginning to toss his hands around, clearly aggrivated. "And I can't tell you what to do. Just what I would do. And it's probably the worst advice you'll get. Ever."

"Of course. I leave my dimension, only to have the same old problems come back." James seemed in despair. "Strider...I don't want your advice, because there's no solution other than go down fighting.

Strider continued anyway, and was moving with a nervous energy. "Go tell her, follow her mad crusade, and do it all for love. Forgettabout me, forgettabout yourself, forgettabout the whole stupid World, or Universe, or Mega-verse or whatever the drick it is, but just you and her." Strider's voice broke. "Because I can't do that ever again!" he finished, turning motionless.

"That's not love." James replied. "That's sentiment. Love is keeping her alive, instead of encouraging a suicide mission."

Strider kept his eyes on the ground as he snorted in derision. "Yeah, keeping her alive in a lie."

"So what, I just get her killed?!?!"James faltered after this outburst. "I...er..." He groaned. "You're right. I owe her it. If nothing else, I can't...I can't just lie to her."

Strider looked up, his eyes somewhat red from suppressed emotion. "I have no idea which way the Mess Hall is."

"I'm sure you'll find it, I'll be there in a short while. Or half an hour. Or a full hour. Depends on how long we take to settle it." James began to laugh to hide how he really felt. "There are people who know this place all around us and not once did you consider asking them for directions?"

Strider tried to smile, but found it too painful an effort at the moment. "I got... A little distracted." he said. Then added, "Not just because of you two; other phantoms." Strider waved his hands tiredly.

"I'm a phantom? Wait, did I die and not notice?" James asked. "Ok, now I need to focus. . .Wish me luck, I really need it."

Strider tilted his head at James. "I'll bet. Good luck. She's acts more redheaded than brown." Strider began walking away. "Just kiss her!" he added.

"First, I can tell you that a Jew isn't gonna be a redhead. Also, that is a terrible idea." James replied.

"Never said it was a good one!" Strider paused mid-step. "Drat! This place is getting to me! I sound like Peragrine!"

"I give up on humanity." James remarked. "And I seriously need to meet this Perry person."

Continuing to mutter, Strider walked off in a random direction. James himself lost any sense of false cheer, and began to walk off to find Rebecca. When he did, she was packing a suitcase full of electronic devices and weapons. James awkwardly approached and tapped her on the shoulder.

"What do you want, James?" Rebecca asked, turning away from her suitcase and weapons.

James looked Rebecca in the eye. “I know you probably don't give a darch, but I am sorry.”

“Apologies won't bring Marcus back.” She replied. “He's dead.”

James felt a deep guilt, and stopped speaking for a moment, before finding the words. "He's not exactly...dead."

"What's that supposed to mean?" She asked. "Don't tell me you've finally cracked. Again." He was visibly hurt by what Rebecca said, and she immediately regretted it. Nevertheless, James continued.

"Look, he time looped. Like I did. I didn't know until recently..."

"Well then why didn't you tell me?" She asked. "Why wouldn't you?"

"Because you'll probably go on some idiotic quest to save him and he'll kill you!" James replied. "You can't beat him without breaking the loop, and you can't break the loop without his cooperation."

"Why are you always so protective? I'M NOT A CHILD!" Rebecca shouted.

"BECAUSE OF CHARLOTTE!" He cried out.

"James..." Rebecca's voice became weaker. "That was years ago."

James shook his head. "Still recent enough."-

"Yes, and I still remember the details. I don't like that image." She averted her eyes, trying to remove the memory.

“Well," James looked at the ground with shame. "I failed her. If he was willing to kill a child, he's perfectly willing to kill you. And I don't want to see that happen."

"I'm not defenseless like her, James." Rebecca gave him a glare. "I know it hurts you to remember that, but you need to stop beating yourself up."

"It's not just that!" James contradicted. "If nothing else, I share a sense of duty with Charles. And I know my job. So yes, I l shouldn't have ever lied to you. But I also won't let you get yourself killed."

"James, I have some sense of logic. I know when to quit." Rebecca looked him in the eye. "I inherited that from my mother."

"She was definitely the smartest person I knew in my life." James replied. "Nevertheless, please just promise me you won't just chase him again. If you do, at least ask me to help. Because let's be honest, he's family. And no one is without emotion when dealing with family." James shook his head, as if something was bothering him. "My point is, I'm sorry."

"I'll accept that apology." Rebecca seemed conflicted herself. "James...what's going on? Five years ago, you'd never have tried to murder someone, or lied to me."

"I've been having memories of...IT coming back whenever I'm in Chanora." James looked up to heaven for a second. "Lord knows I've struggled with it. That's why I left."

"Damn...look, James, I'll fix Chanora. You help Strider. And maybe after this is all fixed, maybe we'll switch to this planet." Rebecca sighed. "Look, maybe we can't do Chanora anymore, but we could help this planet."

"Thank you." James seemed more than relieved. "Thank you."

"With what you've told me, I need to get back fast. But for the record, have a beer for me." Rebecca closed and hefted her suitcase. "Now I need to kill my boss."

"Thanks. Good luck. And a bit of advice, he favors his LEFT arm." James replied. And with that, they both walked off, relieved and troubled simultaneously.

Eventually, after a few minutes of wandering, James found the mess hall. It was a collection of open-air tents, with the typical mis-match of things. Mostly tables. Ping pong tables, fold out tables, Fancy wood-carved tables, it was all there.

James thought of looking for Strider, and decided to stick to what worked for him normally. "HEY STIRLING!"

Strider raised a mug when he heard his name. He was sitting on the fringe of the 'Hall' at a relatively normal Picnic Table, with attached benches. A few dishes of various forms were around him. The only one sitting at that table.

James strolled over, and sat down. "So, where do I get a good beer around here?"


Strider did not look all that well, but he replied groggily, "Y'gettet yerself," as he waved his mug over to the middle of the tents, where there was a large sort of open aired kitchen.

"How much have you had?" James asked.


"Not 'nuff" he replied. "Still hav'n flassba*hic*s of Em'ly and 'h'Austin, and... an...” He trailed off as he took another swig.

James grabbed the mug from his hand and threw it away violently, causing beer to sail around.

Strider blinked rapidly, at a lost to where his mug had gone. Then he saw James, seeminly for the first time. "Fam'ly." He said, weakly bumping his fists on the table.

"I've seen too many people make that mistake, I won't let you." He noted strength of the alcohol in Strider's breath, and swore. Strider plopped his head in his arms, which landed on the table.

"Gone."

James groaned. "I'll talk once you're sober." He turned to someone else, but then changed his mind. "You're not the only one." Then he turned to a nearby fig, and said. "Keep him sober, will you? Once he's able to speak like a human, then grab me."

Strider frowned slowly as he looked up. "H'I'm Slowber! Talk now, Ju... Ju..." Strider's eye fluttered without focus as he tried to remember James' name.

"Like I said, when he can speak." James walked away.

Chapter 6: Message Sent Edit

The next day, Strider awoke in a small tent. Instantly, he wished he could be transported to space. The hustle and bustle of camp life assaulted his ears, and the pressure of an atmosphere crushed his ear's drums.

James walked in, seeming disappointed. "Good morning, Stirling."

"Good grief," he whispered, carefully placing his hands over his ears. "Don't yell." Then he glanced down at the cot he was lying in.

"I'm not yelling, you idiot. You got drunk." James replied.

Strider's eyebrows scrunched. "What? I'd never do sucha..." he paused. "Where are we?" His eyes widened in slow realization.

"We're in the tent that a couple of other guys and I had to carry you to." James replied. "I don't care how hard losing your family was, you can't just TRY TO KILL IT WITH SOME BLASTED BOTTLE!" Strider curled up under James' verbal assault. It hit directly home. "Home."

James stopped. "I'm sorry. Really, I am. I know what it's like. But I've also seen too many friends try to drink it away."

Through ringing ears, Strider replied, "James, James! I'm.. I'm sorry!"

He sat on the cot, hugging himself in shock and confusion... and disappointment... In himself.

"It's fine. Just please...PLEASE don't do it again." James reached into one of his pockets and grabbed his wallet. He opened it, and pulled out a few photographs. "See her?" James pointed to a small girl, no older than two, in one of the pictures.

Strider leaned forward, curious. "A friend? No, relative?"

"My daughter, Charlotte." He sighed. "Well, she was."

A sort of recognition rolled across Strider's face, and a hint of a soldier came into his features again. "I'm guessing you noticed the past tense there." James added.

Strider froze, then nodded. "That's why I fight." Strider said. "To defend those who are unable to defend themselves."

"Likewise. But I couldn't defend her." James showed him another picture. The same girl, in the same outfit. She was on the floor of a house with a bloodied hole in the back of her head.

Strider closed his eyes. "And I just got wasted." Utter contempt of self crawled out across his face. "What, a, hero." he mocked himself, as he clenched the thin blanket.

Chanora

C.O.D Bunker  

With a circle of energy, a gateway opened into Chanora. Rebecca walked through, carrying her briefcase, and found herself faced with a gun. Which was then lowered as the user realized whom it was. "Rebecca!" Theo exclaimed, grabbing and bear hugging her. "How you doing?" 

Rebecca groaned. "Why are you so ridiculous?" 

"I'm allowed to embarrass my sister." Theo replied. "Still, why are you here?" 

"James said you'd need help." She drew her pistol. "And he's not coming back, so someone had to."  

"Well, glad to see you." Theo seemed relieved. "James wants me to take his job in the Kingdom." 

"Well, he has a good reason." Rebecca seemed downcast. "We probably won't be coming back here." 

Theo sighed. "Well, let's deal with Dianara."  

"First I need to talk to Joseph." Rebecca set down her case and primed her handgun. "Where is he?" 

"Sector five." Theo replied. "I'll come with." 

"No, you won't. I'm going to bring him in." She shook her head. "You'd get in the way if he resists. But I need to deal with him." 

"Ok...have fun?" Theo seemed uncertain.  

"I'm a professional, Theo. Fun isn't what I do." Rebecca seemed a little out of sorts. "I'm going to deal with him." 

Morcia

Camp of the Merry Band 

Martin released the Pigeon. As it flew out the skylight, the old Kingsguard turned to Strider and James.

"Thank you." James said. "Glad to at least be a bit closer to contact.”

"The message is sent. Let us hope the Kotos find it before thedude."

Strider nodded. "Now what?" he wondered aloud.

James turned to Strider. "We need to talk. Which we do way too much in this book."

Strider nodded, patting James on the shoulder. As they turned to leave, though, Martin spoke up.

"Ah, use the room. I have other things to attend to. The other pigeons are probably all irritated they weren't picked. I'll have to talk to them."

He continued to spout excuses as he left the room to the others.

"Work for you?" asked Strider.

"Well, as long as he's not listening in." James replied.

They both waited, till Martin's voice was no longer discernible over some very exited cooing a few doors down.

James spoke up after the silence. "What happened?" He asked. "To your family, I mean."

"Oh. Great." Strider seemed put off by the question.

"Hey, I've told you the truth up to this point. It's about time you do the same." He replied.

Strider shook his head slowly. "No, it's just, ah..." a soft chuckle escaped him. "Yes. I'll tell you, but it's not really..." he sat down in a lawn chair, the words not coming for how he felt.

"I don't know where to start." he stated, knowing James' impatience for stuttering.

"Just try." James replied, this time seeming patient. "If you can't, don't."

Strider's eyes searched the room. "I haven't really had the chance to since now." he said.

"Well...if it's too hard, don't." James shook his head. "You still don't trust me, do you?"

Strider jumped in his seat. "NO."

"I'm not surprised. Can't blame you." James seemed disappointed in himself. "Personally, I wouldn't either."

"No!" Strider put his hands up. "I trust you. I'm... Not sure when that happened... but yes." He relaxed back into his lawn chair. "I trust you."

"Not your best move. How many days have I known you? Four, five?" James seemed a bit confused.

"I think... I think it was after I met your wife. That, and you took care of me at my weakest point. . . Those two together make some merit, and they both happened just yesterday. Also! Actions speak louder than Time."

"Fair enough." James replied. "Admittedly, I've known people to save my life one day and try to murder me the next. I guess I'm paranoid. But that's off topic."

Strider relaxed. "You ever sort out things with your wife?" he asked.

James nodded. "Yeah. We're good."

"Good, Good." Strider nodded. "That got me thinking. That whole, uh, thing, with you an' her. 'Member when you came up to me, and I didn't even notice you?"

"Yes?" James replied. "Something was bothering you."

"Yeah. Now, I know this is nothing alike, but seeing the Lady in your life reminded me of the ones in mine, sorta." Strider snorted. "Or maybe I'm just getting softer. Anyway, the lady I thought of was my sister, whom, like the rest of my family, I haven't see for decades.”


"Why not?" James inquired.

"Because I joined the Nexus Force at a young age." Strider stated.

"I understand." James replied. "You're lucky to have a sister you can miss, you know."

Strider bobbed his head. "James, do ... Since we're asking personal questions so casually," Strider began.

"Go on..." James said tentatively

"Do you have any family you don't have to pretend or tiptoe around?" he said softly.

"Well, there's...um...Theo is my brother-in-law, but we aren't on good terms. All my siblings by blood want to kill me, or at least the ones still alive do. Rebecca would be the only one I can think of. James sighed. "And, well, I get to see her once after five years, and then she leaves again."

Strider's elbows now rested on his knees. "James. I could never be you."

He continued.

"If... Whenever you want to talk. When ever you need someone you can totally trust. I want you to know I'm here. I hope you'll stick around after this war."

"Don't really have any choice but to stay." James replied. "As for the war, we'll see if I survive. And if you do."

"My family is based in loyalty. Trust. Honesty." Strider started. The words were making sense now. "I heard about Militeregnum coming under attack a few years back; I didn't think much of it, the whole galaxy seemed under attack at that time to me."

"Yeah, well...that's the dangerous thing with news." James shook his head. "You can never trust what people say."

"Maelstrom was spreading exponentially, and if the threat wasn't Maelstrom, it was criminals taking advantage of Chaos. Anyway, after some time, I had to take a vacation from the frontlines, and I and Peragrine..." Strider slowed down. "Peragrine was my pilot, and we ran into the blockade. And that's when I started understanding..."

He nodded in reply. "So, you came home to find out you had lost the very thing you had been fighting for."

Strider glanced sidelong at James. "I'd left the Homeland open. Forgotten my roots."

"Ironic, isn't it." James remarked. "You were hurt by doing the very thing I want. Forgetting."

This elicited a wry smile from Strider. Then he continued. "Heard my father, Harrison Silverstine, was smashed. Nothing on my Mother, or two brothers, or my sis. Me and Perry- Well, actually just Perry, broke through the blockade, and crash-landed here in Morcia. Then I went to go find my family."

James seemed caught on a previous sentence. "Your...father. What was he like?"

Strider closed his eyes and leaned back. "It's been almost 2 decades since I saw him last. He was kind, but firm. Very firm. He liked to work and get his hands scratched up and dirty. Hated paperwork and politics and desks." Strider smiled. Popping an eye open, he mentioned, "The Silvestine clan are all miners. Metalsmiths. I imagine now, he has grey-white straight hair, a gray short beard, but not many wrinkles."

"Kind?" He inquired, as if the word was foreign. He seemed confused. "I never get it. What do people mean when they say their father was kind?"

Strider drummed his fingers as he thought of another, more accurate word. "Just?"

"Hmm..." James seemed ponderous. "Just."

Strider seemed to hit upon something. "Compassionate. My father would want Marcus saved."

Upon hearing himself say that, it struck Strider.

James visibly flinched at this word. "I want him saved...but I can't. I can't save him. That's the worst part. Or maybe it's knowing how much it'll hurt her when I have to kill him."

"I... Don't have the answers for that." Strider apologized, even though James didn't ask him.

"I can't blame you." He thought, then added. "Strider, never get involved with a girl. Doesn't matter how nice or pretty she is, your life is already stressful enough."

At this, Strider was able to laugh, fully.

"Still, I think I cut you off." James said apologetically.

"Ah, yes." he calmed down. "Where was I? Oh, Travelling. I had a few adventures, met the Band in that time, and found Austin! My closer brother.”

"Is he still alive?" James inquired.

Strider's smile crumbled instantly. "He told me all he knew, and I went to Silverstine Keep, our home, to confirm his story. Got back after finding nothing left, and enemies on top of that, and he was gone. Him, and Perry, and all these other people. Just entirely annihilated...or missing, but what's the difference?"”

Strider's voice was wavery, and it was obvious his emotions were the same.

"And you think my life is hard?" James asked. "At least I'm not very attached to my family. You lost everyone you love."

"As far as I still know, yeah."

James paused. "I said lost. I didn't say they were dead."

"Well at least Austin is gone forever, and I only have the memories of a day or two with him. 'Oh, I'm just going to skip out for a minute because of a premonition, and I'll see you later; Yeah, see you later, baby brother.' Bam. Gone. Burnt up and buried by Rogues."

Strider made little 'poof' motions with his hands. A small silence began growing in the room.

"At least he was doing what's right." James said to fill the void.

"Yeah...After that, I've gone back to the same travelling, by myself, with no luck. Then you showed up and you know the rest."

"Yeah. Well..." James thought for a moment. “How exactly did thedude take over Morcia?”

"That, I have no idea." Strider answered. "Well, not the details anyway. Obviously, he has the power." Strider began thinking aloud. Then he realized. "You've never seen a BarneyBot, have you?"

"BarneyBot? As in a robotic version of that monster they made a TV show about?" James asked. He shook his head. "Oh, wait...now I remember. Yes, I've seen one." He sighed, and looked Strider in the eye. "This planet needs more than you, or me, or knights in shining armor. It needs hope."

Chapter 7: 'Nothing' Edit

Chanora

C.O.D Bunker

Joseph was holding a gun on the door, expecting an attack. Instead, he say Rebecca enter, and relaxed, lowering the weapon. “Agent Walters, I am so glad to see you.”

“Sir.” Rebecca replied. “Why are there Chanoran government agents in here?”

“Well, I’m afraid we’ve been dissolved.” Joseph spread his hands. “I’m the Director of an office room. They’re too afraid to come for me thankfully.”

“Well, sir you don’t need to worry.” Rebecca drew her pistol in a flash before he could react. “I’m perfectly fine with coming for you. Now put those hands on the table flat.”

Joseph complied. With a British accent, a male voice stated: “Subject identity: Joseph Rogers. Hostile: Rebecca Walters. Security clearances: ALPHA and OMEGA.”

“You’re omega?” Joseph cried out. “But…but…I’m…”

“Brit, initiate override code 394, voice authorization Rebecca Walters.” Rebecca said to the AI.

“Overriding security…James Walters restored to Military Division Director.” Brit said in its usual manner, and Rebecca smiled.

“Joseph, get away from the desk. Get on the ground, hands behind back.” Joseph complied, then drew a knife from his belt and threw it. Rebecca caught it by the handle, and threw it into the wooden floor. Then, she slammed him to the ground, and handcuffed him.  “I used to respect you.” Rebecca added. “And now look where we are.”

“I had the chair…” Joseph cried. “I was sitting where I wanted to be, where I SHOULD have been, not where that murderer should have ever sat. You just killed the C.O.D!”

“You killed it the second you ordered the destruction of Kolhestra.” She replied. “Now come on, we need to get you to the king.”

“YOU OWE THE C.O.D YOUR ALLEGIANCE!” He shouted.

“The C.O.D,” Rebecca shook her head, “is gone. I owe allegiance to nothing."

"Then I'll have no qualms with doing this!" He slipped out of the cuffs, and pulled a weapon. Before he could shoot, Rebecca leveled her own gun on him. "You wouldn't shoot me." he said with a smile. "James's made you soft."

Rebecca began to lower her pistol reluctantly raising her other hand in surrender, as his trigger finger tensed, then shot him in the chest. He fell, his pistol going off as he did so, narrowly missing Rebecca. "I'm not James." She replied to the dead body.

Morcia

Merry Band of the Woods

1 week later

The arrow quivered as it stuck in the bulls-eye of the hay target.

"Nice shot." commented Strider as he watched the short Master Scout, Stabb, relax.

"Agreed." James replied. "Mind if I have a go?"

Stabb smiled and stepped aside. As he did so, James withdrew a throwing knife. He then threw three in rapid succession, each slicing off one feather of the arrow. “Man I love blades."

"As do I, but I prefer mine to stay in my hand." Strider said.

James nodded. "That's what a sword is for." Stabb withdrew his own knife, and flipped it around expertly before throwing it at another target. He gave a thumbs up to James.

"Why throw away your melee weapon, when you have a much more dangerous ranged weapon, in the bow and arrow?" asked Strider, getting up to take a shot. "I just don't get it."

"Well, you know..." James smiled nostalgically. "I miss the old Walther, and these are closer to a sidearm."

As he pulled the string to his cheek, Strider glanced at James. "Not going to be the last time you say that, I'll bet." he grinned. The short man next to them seemed to ponder something a moment. Then he raised a finger in exclamation.  Strider didn't immediately notice, as he was focusing on the shot. James, however, did.

"Go ahead." Stabb began rapidly making hand motions, as Strider turned to see, having finished his shot. James replied in sort. Strider watched as the two had a silent conversation, in what he assumed was sign language. James noticed, and told him. "They've got some weapons we can take."

Strider's eyes lit up with curiosity. "Really? That would be great. At least some arrows, because my Imagination-Powered Samurai Bow here is sometimes unreliable.” As Stabb led the way through some tents, Strider said to James, "Maybe you can find a better ranged weapon than your toad stickers there. " As they spoke, with a swirling sparking a gateway opened. Rebecca ran through, closing it almost immediately.

James jumped. "Rebecca, what's going on?" Stabb turned around, instantly tensed and ready to strike, as the portal had appeared in between him and the two others. "Relax, she's on our side!" James yelled. Stabb let confusion show on his face, but he straightened up. Meanwhile, Strider studied Rebecca's disposition. Her clothing was burnt, her face covered in dry blood. She seemed like she had just escaped some great destruction

"So, you're here for our help, or you won?" Strider asked

"It's...it's..." She fell to the ground, blood pouring from a head wound.

James rushed over and began to assess the trauma. "Stabb, get a medic!" Stabb had moved to catch her, but quickly acquiesced to James' direction, while Strider fished out a First Aid kit from his pack.

"Here.”

"Thank you." James began rummaging through, grabbing a cloth and wiping off the wound, then trying to staunch it as best he could. "Strider, do you have any idea how to deal with head wounds?

"Keep it elevated, stop the bleeding, and hope it's not brain damaging?" rambled Strider. "She needs more than just first aid." Stabb returned with help rather quickly, in the form of a buggy and two other people with blue leaf pins.

"No, no, it's just a slice." James replied. "Looks like a falling object, sharp. I'm more worried about the stomach wound." He pointed to a large cloth bandage on her side. "It's definitely not properly dealt with." He turned up to see the medics. "You two, she's got a sharp object wound on the head, and what appears to be a stabbing in the stomach."

The two healers took in the situation quickly and efficiently. "Let's get her on the buggy-gurney." one of them said. Together, they all lifted her onto the gurney that was trailer hitched behind the buggy.

"Was she conscious before?" asked one of the healers. "Did you see what hit her?"

Strider shook his head, while James said:

"Yes and no. She came through a Janra gateway."

One of the healers stared at James blankly while the other simply took in the foreign word in stride. "We'll rush her to the medical tent, feel free to meet us there." he said, getting into the Buggy seat as Stabb got off. The other healer hung on to one side of the buggy as it took off. James nodded, than as soon as they left, walked up to a building and kicked it violently. Stabb raised a questioning eyebrow at Strider.

"His wife." Strider clarified. Then he put his attention on James, trying to understand the reaction himself. "We gonna run after them?"

"Yeah." James replied, his voice wavering. He began to walk in the direction the buggy had gone, and Strider followed. The threesome quickly picked up speed, the other two keeping up with James, who was almost sprinting. As they passed Carlos' building however, a voice rang out.

"Hey!"

"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" James shouted in reply, seeming aggressive at best.

Strider and Stabb glanced back, to see Carlos scampering up to meet them.

"h'I've got a reply to your mess'h'age!" he said jovially as he waved a tiny slip of paper in the air. James paused to look back, then moved on, leaving Strider and Stabb to deal with him. Strider took note of James leaving, then, taking a deep breath, as much as to rest as to remain calm with the poor timing of Carlos, he replied.

"That's great, but-"

"It came by telegraph!" Carlos exclaimed.

Strider stopped. "Aren't telegraphs wired?"

"WIRELESS Telegraph!"

"That's utterly pointless," Strider began to argue, but then cut himself off and said, "Rebecca just showed up, mortally injured."

This, surprisingly, elicited the wanted reaction from Carlos, and he began to take off in the same direction as James. "That Missus has some explaining to do! She missed the meeting last Tuesday!" he yelled. Strider rolled his eyes and began running after him, Stabb matching speed.

James, hearing this, turned to face Carlos. "SHE WAS IN ANOTHER DIMENSION!" He had a fire in his eyes. "THE MEETING DOESN'T MATTER! WHAT DOES IS THE FACT THAT MY WIFE IS DYING!"

"DON'T TALK LIKE THAT!" screamed Strider suddenly from the back of the moving line.

"INDEED!" yelled Carlos from the middle. "IT AIN'T OVER TILL THE FA-" here he was tackled by Stabb, and the two tumbled and fell behind.

James swore. "Some day, I am going to kill that son of a brick." He then turned, and took off again. Not a minute later, they were at the medical tent. "How bad?" James asked one of the medics as he entered.

A medic turned to James. He had a face mask on and full scrubs. His complexion revealed his Easterner ethnicity. "Many wounds. Very extensive. But hopeful. She is responding well."

James was relieved. "Ok, thank you." He paused."Is she conscious?"

"Not quite. Soon." the doctor assured with a hand.

James acknowledged. "Please tell me when she is." The doctor and returned to the patient. Strider breathed a sigh of relief, but James exited the building abruptly, troubled by something.

"I wonder what happened...?" Strider said aloud.

James shook his head. "I've seen a gateway close like that before." He replied. "Only once. I hoped I'd never see it again. It closed...because there was nothing on the other side."

Strider slowly realized what James meant by 'nothing.'

"Are you certain?" he asked in a familiar stone tone.

"Yes." James looked down at the ground. "Chanora, Kolhestra, all those planets, those GALAXIES, THE WHOLE DAMNED UNIVERSE! It's...it's dead."

Strider stared off into the distance, and saw all the life in it. Then his eyes alit on Carlos who had a business-like face most probably for Rebecca. Next to him was Stabb, who seemed worried.

Strider stopped Carlos with his voice as he came into speaking range. "She's not conscious right now, Carlos." When Carlos didn't stop his forward march, Strider put an arm out and held Carlos back from entering the tent.

James still seemed caught on the realization of what had happened, and his face was blank.

"Carlos..." He was able to say softly. "Please, just go." Carlos gripped the arm to stop himself from falling over, and slowly traced the arm back to the owner. Then to James, who's morose manner was deafening. Carlos looked back at Strider, and made to talk, but Strider suddenly seemed taller, and stared him down with a face Carlos had never seen before. Carlos muttered an excuse, and quickly walked away, followed by Stabb.

"My...dimension just...died." James was wavering now. He sat down on the dirt, and sobbed a bit. After he stopped, he simply stared off into the distance, crying. Placing a hand on James shoulder, Strider tried to be as comforting as he could, by standing by and warding off curious onlookers. After all, nothing he could say could change facts. James didn't have the energy to say a word, so he stared blankly into space. "Why...what..why...why...why...why...why..." James couldn't say anything else. He just kept repeating. Eventually, he stopped and curled up into a ball.

Strider sat down and simply kept him company. After a moment, he leaned over and whispered, "Thank God you're wife's alive."

James didn't reply. Strider leaned back, and resumed his position. Just then, the doctor came out, and upon seeing the two men, simply signaled Strider an 'all clear' sort of sign, then, disappeared back inside. After another moment, Strider informed James softly. "She's awake." Once James had made no motions, Strider made to pat him comfortingly on the shoulder, then thought better, and got up to go check. James waited, but eventually got up. His face was still blank, but he managed to lift himself up. He shook his head to clear the blank emotion out, leaving himself neutral, before he entered the tent, finding Rebecca on a bed, with blood on the sheets, but none seemed to be pouring from her.

"James," She said. "Chanora is..." He nodded, and she ceased talking.

James sighed. "How did it...do that?"

"First it killed home, then...it just...rampaged." Rebecca replied. "It didn't even survive itself."

"Did Theo...?" James asked, and she shook her head. "Yetta?" She repeated the motion. "O'Malley? Simmons? Jeffy? Leo?" Rebecca responded in the same way to all. "They're gone." She said. "No one...no THING survived. The dimension ceased."

James sat down in a nearby chair. "How'd you get wounded?" Rebecca paused. "Marcus." She sighed, and continued. "I don't know if he's gone." Strider glanced up at James.

He groaned, and gripped part of the bed tightly. "If he's all that's left...and Dianara made it a void world...he's not looped. He's one of the only people left...we have a duty to save him."

Strider reluctantly spoke. "You think he's here?"

"I know him well enough to believe so." James replied. Strider's eyes began darting around, organizing thoughts in his head as he grew silent again. "Look, Strider, if nothing else, he's not looped. He's not indestructible. We might...might be able to help him. And we don't exactly need to worry about Chanora." He added. Strider didn't seem to hear. "Strider?" James asked, before giving up. He turned to Rebecca. "How long do you think you'll be in here?"

"Well," She replied, "They said it'll be around three weeks. Not a short time."

"Chart says more than a few internal injuries." Strider offered, not looking up.

"I'm not surprised." Rebecca groaned. "I mean, I was stabbed, punched, kicked, and all in all beaten by my own brother." A flash of a response shone in Strider's eyes, but it was gone in a blink.

James sighed, and said "Hrianlach rans wanniuh.", or, in English 'He doesn't like family conflicts.'

Rebecca shook her head. "Cachra, Marcus rianla mianla riania.", or 'Marcus will bring him into this.'

"Rianla charanya, kinya hrola." James muttered, 'He doesn't deserve that.'

"Really, James?" A voice asked. "Chanoran after that dimension is dead?" Behind him, a man in a blue suit with gold pinstripes asked.

"Get away from my wife." James drew a throwing knife, and glared.

"She's also my sister." Marcus replied. "I can speak to her when I wish."

"Screw you, Marcus." Rebecca told him. Strider's eyes went wide, and if any had looked then, they would have sworn there was a bonfire in each. He quickly moved around the bed to James's side.

"So polite." He grinned viciously. "Who's your pet?" "He has a name." James swore.

"But you can call me YOUR DEATH." he voiced. Heat was coming off of him. But he did not move.

"Don't kill my brother." James commanded. "Even if he is murderous and wants to kill me and my wife."

Strider's eyes moved to James, but the rest of him remained rigid. "You're insane," he said. With apparent effort, he added. "But alright."

James sighed. "Strider, you told me your father would have wanted to spare this man. If he was able to make someone like you, then I believe he is very wise."

At the mention of his father, some of the rigidness was released, but Strider hoped it was only noticeable to James.

"Such sentiment, James." Marcus replied, ignoring Stirling. "I'm touched. Nevertheless, I will finish my job. See you in 3 weeks, sister." He ran off, and James did not chase him.

"Let him go, Strider. We attack now, and he'll kill the people in this camp."

Strider's jaw was clenched, and he clearly did not share James' sentiment, but again, he followed James' wishes. As he turned to James and Rebecca, he asked, "What did he mean, finish his work, and three weeks?"

"He heard my recovery time." Rebecca stated. "He's gonna TRY to kill me. Of course, when I'm not ambushed by him being a little biashl, he doesn't stand a chance."

James seemed disturbed nevertheless. "Why does he even?"

"I don't know" Rebecca replied. "Insanity doesn't explain it."

"He did make a good point." Strider said, abruptly. "You two are going to have to teach me Chanoran."

"No." James replied. "If Chanora is gone, well, the language ought to go too."

Rebecca nodded. "I think that at this point, we should just let the memories...die..." She faltered. "I can't believe mom is gone..."

James hugged her gently. "I know."

Strider's head drooped. Shoulders slumped. As James and Rebecca held each other tightly, he quietly took his leave. James released her. "The universe is full of cruel irony."

"I know. I just...she went through so much to get to that point only to die." She rolled her right hand into a fist.

"I...understand." James replied.

"Can I just have some time to think?" She asked.

He looked Rebecca in the eye. "Just...yell if you need anything."

Chapter 8: Faith and Friendship Edit

As James exited the medical tent, he greeted Stirling outside. "Did I ever tell you about Rebecca's mother?"

Strider was looking out over the camp. "I don't believe so. No."

"She came from Earth. About 70 years ago. Born in Germany around 1920." James frowned. "She's Jewish, her name's Yetta. C.O.D was able to save her and two others in '42 without changing the timeline. I think you would know why she needed saving. The ship that saved her had some...issues, didn't get to Chanora till 1973. Thank goodness for cryo sleep. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a wife."

“So, dimensional traveling is something pretty regular then. Or... Was." Strider said.

"No, Earth exists in my dimension too." James replied.

"Hmm. Interesting. We don't have a 'Earth' here, but we did make contact with it once, at the beginning of the war. It's been a big help."

“Hey…you got anyone calling themselves Catholics?” James asked, suddenly intrigued.

"It was an idea from Earth. Some minifigures in the Nexus Force had taken to it, when I'd last heard.”

"Not surprised." James smiled. "I'm guessing mostly Assembly. Engineers always seem to gravitate towards Christianity. Anyways, are there any priests on this planet? God did say keep holy the Sabbath, and I'd like to stick with that."

Strider finally looked away from the view, such as it was, and looked James up and down. "I'm sure there's one here in the camp." he said. His expression was thoughtful, the corner of his lip awry. "Come on, let's try asking someone."

They began to walk about, and after being directed numerous times eventually found a minifig in his thirties, with a beard, dark hair, a black shirt, and a white square in his collar. "Hello Father!" James shouted over.

"Hello, ..." The priest began.

"James." James told him.

"Hello James. I'm Father Henry." The priest smiled. "I'm glad to meet you." He shook James's hand. "I heard your wife has been wounded, I've been praying for her. Is she ok?"

"Thankfully, yes." James replied.

The priest smiled, then turned to Stirling, grinning. "And here is Strider! I particularly liked your rendition of The Merry Old Inn with Perry!" he teased with a friendly laugh.

Strider had followed more slowly, with his face showing mild curiosity, but at the reminder, his face broke into a grin that he covered with a face-palm. "Oh dear. I had hoped a good year would put that in the past." he said.

"Ah, well...I'd like to remind you whose fault performing that was. We didn't make you do it!" Henry laughed again, patting Strider on the back, and turned to James. "How can I help you?"

"Well, to be quite honest, I'm just looking for mass and reconciliation if at all possible." James replied.

"Well, I just might know someone who can help you." The priest paused, then added. "Is your wife conscious? Carlos complains about it a bit, but I like to check on the wounded."

Strider jumped. "Carlos! I'd totally forgotten!"

James smiled with gratitude. "Yeah, she is, but...she may need a bit of time alone. Our old dimension, our…universe...is gone. She just lost all her family" James and Father Henry were downcast.

"James, I'm..." The priest began. "I'm sorry."

Before James could reply, he jumped at Strider's remark as well. "Oh dear lord."

"Don't worry, I've got it. This is important, and if that guy is pestering her, why I'll," Strider began to mockingly make a fist, then glanced at the priest... "Um..."

James began to laugh. "Only you would make threats of violence in front of a Priest, Strider. Come on, I'll handle him. Thank you, Father.”

“No problem.” Father Henry nodded. “God bless.”

Strider looked back over his shoulder at the bearded fellow, as he began to run. "*Father?*" thought Strider, a sardonic look on his face.

James noted Strider's expression as they ran. "What?" He asked.

"Nothing." he said, focusing on the task at hand.

James nodded, and began to hear shouting. "That's Carlos, isn't it." he remarked.

"Not sure."

They rushed into the tent, finding that the yelling belonged to more than just Carlos. A few doctors were trying to talk Carlos down, while Rebecca tried to ignore, being too tired to respond.

"What's going on?" James asked furiously as he barged in. "There's wounded in here, you idiot!"

"h'I know that, but h'I need to h'know what's going on h'ere!" Carlos exclaimed, just as much to the doctors as James. "h'I can't have p'h'rtals p'h'ppin' in my camp all h'illy nilly!" He didn't seem overly angry any more. Just mildly upset, and frazzled. A new look for Carlos. James muttered some cursing under his breath, then grabbed Carlos and dragged him out of the tent.

As he did so, Strider gave a 'just a moment' signal to the doctors. As he walked out to join James, one of the doctors called, "Just don't make another patient."

James shook his head. "I'm here to answer questions, not break your leader. I don't feel like undoing my work." James turned back to Carlos. He looked him in the eye, causing the Leader of the Merry band to flinch. "Ask me your questions."

Carlos noted Strider coming out, and said, "I j'h'st need to know what's going on in m'hy c'h'amp. Why's Miss Rebecca g'h'one for a f'hew days, t'h'en, blammo, h'accordin' to m'hy M'h'aster Scout, s'he h'ppears in a br'hght bl'hue p'hortal, 'hntirely MANGLED, and ..." here Carlos let off, and made jerky motions with his hands. "What the hay, man?!"

James sighed. "Look, she and I aren't from this universe. We're from a different one. Her job was to figure out what this universe is like. However, we had an emergency at home. So, she went to deal with that. Then...well...our universe died." James began to tear up, trying to hold back his crying. "All of our world, she was trying to save it, and couldn't. Our family, friends, everyone we've fought against and for is dead." James continued. "The only survivors are her, myself, and her brother...who...well...he's the reason she's injured."

Strider stood to the side, arms crossed. At the mention of Marcus, his brows furrowed. Then pointing at the two of them, he said,"You both mean well to the other."

"I know." James replied. "But...well...he was yelling at my injured wife."

"h'ntirely misconstrued," stated Carlos. "She's like a little clam. Doesn't talk much. Got to talk loudly to get her attention. Oth'wise, she jist h'ignores a f'h'ellow." he said. He continued before James could respond. "That's another thing! She's totally single till just 'h'a few d'h'ays ago, then blammo!"

Strider facepalmed.

"No, we've been married for seven years." James replied. "She was scouting this area, so she had to construct a false identity." he said with amusement.

Carlos's large grin mellowed out into a neutral smile. "7 years, and you've not been together for all that time?"

"Welcome to military work." James replied. "Technically seven years and ten months, but yes."

He shook his head. "Still, five years isn't bad. I know some people who've been sent on ten year gigs." 

Carlos backed off from James, and began to dust himself off. "'h'Well, I've been w'h'orking with 'her for... Hmm, p'rhaps f'hive, h'all the while calling her Miss H'becca. I may have to h'pologize! But before that."

He held his hand out, and his demeanor changed to mournful.

"Sir James, the Miracle Worker. I am sorry for yelling at your wife, Mrs.... Erm."

James shook his hand with a solemn tone, not particularly sad. "Walters." He replied.

"Mrs. Walters." continued Carlos. "As you already have relations in the Band, you are welcome in our ranks and our camp, any time of any year. Well, moreso than ever before. Carlos thumped his freehand over his heart and popped two fingers up. "'h'I owe you m'h'life!"

James nodded. "Thank you, but...I don't think we have the same style of operation."

Carlos finally let go of James hand. "That may be true. But allies are something you will find quite welcome in this land."

"I'm good with friends. All of mine are dead." James said, without a hint of humor."

Both Strider and Carlos gave James the same look.

"Oh, so I'm chopped liver?" Strider said, with no emotion.

"No, that was a joke." James replied with uproarious laughter, before realizing that Strider wasn't amused. "Sorry...that's my sociopathy showing . . . It's a coping mechanism. It's what I did when my planet was destroyed, my daughter died...yeah."

Carlos was, however, apparently unable to breath as he found the joke immensely well delivered. Finally wheezing, he walked away, yelling over his back as he left, "This is going to be tons of new p'haperwork- wait!" Turning around, still chuckling with his whole body, he walked up to James and draped an arm over James shoulder.

James was awkwardly still, unsure of what was going on. "Strider, I met this guy a couple of weeks ago. Please explain."

Carlos leaned in conspiratorially, pulling Strider and making a complete huddle as Strider shrugged.

"h'I never heard any h'of this, did I?" Carlos asked, all winks. "No P'h'aperwork, h'Identif'h'cation, or h'nformation l'h'eakage?"

"Carlos," James replied "That information doesn't matter, because that world doesn't exist." He turned to Strider. "I'm sorry."

Carlos grinned, and closed his eyes blissfully. "No p'h'aperwork!" Doing a poor imitation of a PBJ dance, Carlos broke the huddle and began skipping down the lane. "See you around, Merry Men!"

"Strider," James said as Carlos left. "I'm sorry. I know that joke was...well...yeah...but it's how my mind functions. Why do you think psychologists treat me like a piece of meat?"

Strider shook his head. "No, James, it's your world. Almost literally now. I'm sure I'd be way worse off. If you want it to just fade, that's entirely your decision." Strider paused for a moment. "Well, yours, your wifes, and Marcus's, but I think we can legally say he's not able to make that decision. What with, insanity and all."

"Insanity, yes." James shook his head. "But the way I said it...I don't actually view you as a tool."

Strider smiled as he waved a carefree hand. "I know."

"So, what now?" He asked.

Strider's eyes sought invisible thoughts for a moment then he burst into action. "DRAT! The message!"

James jumped. "Oh great!"

Throwing his hands up in exasperation, he tore off in the direction of Carlos.

"CAARLOOOOSS!!!"

James followed, tramping up a swirl of dust, before stopping again. "You get Carlos, I need to check on Rebecca!"

"You got it!"

And with that, the two separated.

Chapter 9: Message's Reply, & New-Old Gear. Edit

In about ten minutes, James caught up with Strider and Carlos in the mess hall. "So," he asked, "What's the message?"

"Do you know a 'Thingguy', 'Falcon'?" asked Strider.

"I have no idea." James replied. "I haven't been here in about three centuries. Or for you people, a decade I think."

Carlos tilted his head at James. "You'h've aged well, James! You'll have t' tell me your s'h'cret!" he quipped.

Strider shook his head. "You probably don't want to know. How about a 'Guardian', James?"

"Yeah, I remember him. Old fellow." He said with an thoughtful face.

"Well, that guy has responded."

James perked up. "He's still alive?" He said, making it clear he was joking. "I assumed he'd have died a few year before I met him."

Strider smirked, and handed him a parchment, as Carlos dug into his casserole.

James read it quietly to himself. "'To the Falcon, whom doth seeketh KotOS'"

He grinned. "OLD ENGLISH!" He continued to scan the letter. So, the KotOS is disbanded..." he said, frowning, "But mister dramatic here says we have a chance. . .He's sending us a knight named Nathaneal Thingguy. . .A few days out from us."

Strider pursed his lips. "Nathanial?"

"Yup." James replied. "That's what it says."

"I've known a few Nathaniel's, but nothing's ringing a significant bell." Strider shrugged. "I guess only you can instantly remember people?" he teased James.

"I don't ever remember on will." James replied. "It's things I forgot, like, for a while my name." he said with a sigh

Carlos spared a moment from shoveling casserole. "h'I did that once. h'It's v'h'ery hard to c'h'ome down from h'renaming yourself 'h'Elephant'." he said sagely.

"Yeah...WAIT, WHAT?" James exclaimed. "What is he talking about?"

Strider waved his hands as if warding off bats. "Best not to ask."

"I'm beginning to learn that." James grinned.

Carlos nodded. "It all started here; well, maybe not HERE here, but at the Mess hall here, where-"

"Nope! Nope." Strider got up from his food. "I'm going to, um.." he glanced at James for help.

"We're going to look at those weapons Stabb told us about earlier." He interjected.

"Very good idea!" Strider said, relieved. And with that, they quickly made their escape, as Carlos somehow missed them leaving as he told his tale to the empty table.

"...And the waitress said, "I know a surefire way to make sure that Coffee doesn't keep you awake!' And that's how I got decaf. But little did I know, that the decaf came with it's own type of punch! "

"So, where to?" James inquired after they had exited the mess.

"I think that cache spot is over on the west side," Strider said.

"Great." He smiled. "I wouldn't mind more weapons."

"I wouldn't mind a decent shield. Had to ditch it awhile back."

"Pity. I liked that one." James said with a smile. "It was very shieldy." he said, teasing

Strider raised an eyebrow. "You've never seen my shield. I had to get rid of it before I met you!" he said.

"Not in this dimension." He replied. "In mine....It saved me and a few low ranked fellows."

Strider smiled, a case of interdenominational self-pride. "Then you know how well I could use one!" he said.

"Well, yeah." James shook his head. "When we're off this planet, I'll show you how I handle a pistol. . .Or at least, if we're off of this planet."

"I used to have a Space Ranger Zipgun, but I didn't bring it with me, for obvious reasons."

When they arrived at the pile of weapons under a small tent, James went from smile to full on grin. "This is awesome!"

He went and grabbed a small handful of knifes, one sword, and as well as a bow and quiver. He flexed the bow, frowned, then picked up another one, flexed it, and seemed pleased. Last, he filled his quiver with broadheads.

Strider walked around the pile a few times, surveying the assortment. Eventually, he pulled the only metal shield he saw, which was scratched so much, that whatever emblem was on there was indiscernible. Now, it was largely gray and amber streaks.

"Not bad." James said, inspecting the shield. "I like it."

"Slightly heavier than my other...Or perhaps I've gotten out of practice!" he realized with a hint of worry.

"Yeah," He noted Stirling's form. "You're holding it a little too high, and your arm's all wrong."

Pulling out his Katana with the other hand, he tried a few combinations. "Oh yeah. This is not good," he chuckled slightly.

"That," James replied, "is why I'm thankful that we have three weeks to get back in shape."

Strider laughed out loud, dropping the shield and slapping his knees.

"Oh boy." he said, as he continued to peruse the goods.

Eventually, he found another quiver, and loaded it with various arrows. For a bow, he quite liked the bigger ones, especially the longbows, for their string tensity, power, and distance, but instead settled for something that he could still carry on his back, though it stuck out of his cloak rather awkwardly.

"That's not...subtle, is it?" James pointed out.

"A bow isn't suspicious on a trapper or a ranger," Strider said. Tweaking his face, he attempted a wrinkly disgruntled look. "'specially wid all those reb-bulls out there."

"Your face looks like like a dead rat." He said.

Strider sighed, his face returning. "I'll bet. Perry was always the better imitator.

"Still, this regular wooden bow is less conspicuous than my practically glowing blue Samaria Bow," he said, comparing both in opposite hands.

"Well, come on. We need to get to work." And with that, James began to run to the target range as Strider followed him.

 Chapter 10: The Split Edit

The next few days were largely the same. Training, endurance. Rebuilding old strengths. Finding new weaknesses.

Around one week in, Rebecca was recovered enough to start rebuilding her strength and skill.

"I suppose you'll ask her if she wants to train with us?" Strider asked James as they entered a small tent where, after she was stable, Rebecca had been relocated, to make room for other patients.

"No." James replied. "I'll be asking her which target she's taking."

"Ah." Strider appeared relieved.

"I'll take which ever one is open." She replied as they entered. "I may want multiple, just to practice switching."

James rolled his eyes. "Show off." he remarked.

"It's logical!" she said in reply. "Besides, with some stunts you used to pull at the shooting range..."

"Please don't go there!"

Strider's eyes shifted mischievously. "Jaaames? What sort of-"

"NO!" He cried.

"Wow. That bad, huh?" he asked Rebecca, grinning wide.

Rebecca grinned as well. "He liked to bounce bullets off of walls into targets, he sometimes would put the target out of his weapon's effective range and try to get bulls-eyes. Things like that. Then there's the time he brought a bazooka to the range."

"I used non-explosive rounds!" James said.

"NO YOU DIDN'T!" Rebecca exclaimed. "AND WHAT ABOUT THE DUAL-WIELDED ANTI-TANK RIFLES?"

"Y'know, that actually doesn't surprise me. Sounds quite sensible, considering." Strider complimented, his hands on his hips.

"Still showing off." She pointed out. "Anyways, can I please kill some wooden boards? I'm tired of being cooped up."

"Cummon, I think there's a bazooka in the back we can use," Strider said, enthusiasm gushing.

"Bazookas are his thing. I prefer to kill silent and quick, then move on to the next target." Rebecca quipped.

James shook his head. "I like to have fun sometimes."

Strider shrugged. "I'm just glad I don't have to cross swords with either of you two."

James grinned. "As am I...for your sake."

After another two weeks, they were back up to an acceptable point in combat abilities. At this point too, Marcus made a move.

Merry Band of the Woods

5:00 A.M.

As the sun slowly rose, another knife hit the target, as James threw as best as he could. It landed in the center of bulls-eye, but before he could appreciate it, he heard a child scream.

He swore, then ran to the direction of the noise. Then, the noise stopped. Another voice shouted, then also stopped. James looked around, gazing around trying to find the tent from which it came.

"No...!" Strider whispered, looking around as he tried to figure out which direction to charge.

Rebecca had been cleaning a weapon, but ran out of her tent armed. "What's going on?"

"I don't entirely know." James replied. He pinpointed the origin of the sound, then ran in that direction, followed by Rebecca and Strider. They ran into a small red tent, weapons drawn. However, all they found when they arrived was a note, attached to a knife which impaled one of the band members. Bryan. He was still breathing, but a small child's mangled corpse was near him.

Strider yanked the note from the knife, as James quickly checked on Bryan. The note had an odd character on it, rather blocky. However, before Strider got a good look at it, James exclaimed, "He's alive. I'm gonna get a medic!"He ran off quickly, as Rebecca began to clean the wound.

"Chanoran?" presumed Strider.

"Rinschlarant." Rebecca muttered. "Yes. It's Marcus." She looked over at the child, shaking his head. "...someone's gonna have to tell his mother her little boy isn't...well..."

Five hours later

Around 10:00 in the morning, Strider found James and Rebecca in a tent, packing weapons, food and water into a haversack. "Oh," James turned to face Strider. "Hi."

"It's about time!" Strider said, shouldering a pack.

"Strider," He looked Stirling in the eye. "You aren't coming with."

Strider's eyes and brows shifted around like lost worms. "You can't be-"

Rebecca interrupted him. "Every time we have a friend with us, Marcus kills them."

"You need all the backup you can get." he tried.

"He just casually killed a child, stabbed a man, and slipped out of one of the most occupied areas of this camp undetected." James replied. "You're no hard kill."

"Then- Th-" he sighed. "You can't be serious?! What have I been training for? What have I been waiting for? To have you two just waltz off and me play the Banjo?"

"In this scenario...you're not coming out alive. All you'd do is die without helping us." James shook his head. "Sometimes...he doesn't go for collateral, but this...this is something in him I've seen only once. I never thought it would get this bad. Oh, and earlier you told me to run off like an idiot after him."

Strider slowly bobbed his head. "Yeaaah, I did say that. And yeah, I get the guy is super-stringy-evil. That's why I've got to come." Strider said, slowly, as if that would help in understanding. "And if that's how I'm going to die; helping my friend try to win back his brother... In-Law, then I'm quite all right with that."

"Stirling, you won't help." James sighed. "You'll just be a weapon he uses against us."

Strider grimaced. "I'm nobody's weapon, and I'm not asking you to protect me!" he said, suddenly loosing his cool.

"LIKE KACHR YOU AREN'T!" James also grew angry. "HE WILL USE YOU AS A WAY TO KILL US, AND THEN KILL YOU! YOU WON'T DIE POINTLESSLY, YOU'LL DIE KILLING US!"

"DO YOU TRUST ME?"

"Yes...but I also know that trust won't keep him from killing you. I've trusted alot of the people he's killed." James quieted down. "That didn't save them."

Strider's frame deflated. "You're right, of course. It's your last tie to your old life..."

"It's not my old life." He looked to the ground. "I don't want to see another friend die."

Strider looked up and at James. "Same here. You two should finish it however you want. Just... knock him under the jaw for the 'pet' 'k?"

"I make no promises." James hefted his pack. "Seeya Stirling. Or, at least, I hope I do. I'll meet you back here once this is done." James then walked away, as Strider watched with his hands in his pockets, and a dour expression.

"You know," Rebecca said as they walked away, "You could have handled that a lot better."

"Well, he's pretty stubborn." James replied.

Rebecca seemed annoyed at something. "Well...you know...he's not just a thing you can throw on and off."

"So what, I should have let him come with and get himself killed?!?" James exclaimed. "What kind of friend would do that?"

"You could have talked to him first!" Rebecca was simply frustrated at this point. "You always have good intentions, but never do it right!"

"Well, I don't know how to!" James exclaimed. "Look, I always WANT to help, but end up making things worse! I don't know what I'm doing wrong! But for once, right now, we're doing something I can help with. So can we please just TRY to do this right? Arguing..." James lowered his voice. "Won't help him. And right now, you two are more important than I am."

"You're so obsessed with helping." She sighed. "James, you're a good man, but you can't solve everything. If you keep trying to, you'll make things worse."

"But if I don't try at all, I'll never make anything better." He replied.

"I didn't say not to try. I said you can't do everything."

"But how do I tell when people are hurting? We both know I'm only good at that around half the time, if even that." James seemed thoughtful. "I don't do emotion."

"That's literally what sociopathy is!" Rebecca remarked with a more joking expression.

Strider watched them as they quite clearly bickered on down the avenue between tents and other constructs. Many various thoughts swished in his mind, but eventually, they all boiled down to nothing, as the two disappeared around a corner. Finding a new focus point on the ground, Strider kicked a large pebble absentmindedly.

"Well, he's gone. Now what?"

No one was there to answer.

Morcia

Forest

James and Rebecca walked on in silence, both inspecting the tracks Marcus had left. Neither had an idea of where they would end up, but both knew it may not end well. He had been traveling haphazardly, leaving a trail of broken branches, false lead offs, and backtracking. "Where is he going?" James muttered.

"Most likely the ruins of an old fort. It's a bit to the north, but it would make a good hiding spot, and all the real trails indicate this direction." Rebecca replied. "Haven't you looked at a map since we got here?"

"Yes, but there's no ruins marked on any I saw." James seemed intrigued. "This would be cool just for the sake of seeing that. Are we tourists now?"

"Well, we aren't employed," She sighed. "So I GUESS that joke works. On the same note, I'd recommend not trying humor. It appears emotion isn't the only thing your sociopathy destroys."

"I liked that one." James made imitated a pouting face.

"Shut up and get moving. We're at most a quarter mile out." Rebecca said with dead seriousness, beginning to run.

James nodded, and began to sprint behind her. When they saw the ruins, they immediately slowed down and drew their weapons. In the ruins was a large computer, which seemed to be functioning. Around it were crumbled stone walls, and rotting old wooden beams. "How is he running electronics on this planet?" He asked

"I don't know." Rebecca seemed uncertain. She nocked an arrow, and drew back her bowstring. "But he's here." James nodded, readying his throwing knives.

"I'll scout ahead." James sighed. "I still don't get why he's allowed to have a computer, and I don't get a simple sidearm!"

"That's how life works." Rebecca replied. "Just accept it." 

"I will accept nothing of the sort!" James whispered, before running ahead. He stayed low, sticking to the walls of the old fort, and, eventually, found something odd. A bloodied knife the ground. He inspected it intently, then picked it up, throwing it into a small leather pouch he had on his belt. 

"Oh look." Marcus grinned. "It's James."

"Hello, Marcus." James saw Marcus holding a bow up to his head, and slowly laid down his throwing knives. Marcus himself wore ranger clothes. "This is quite a nice little base of operations."

"I know!" Marcus perked up. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"I was being sarcastic. It's terrible." He shook his head. "Why did you follow us here?"

"Well, I was looking for somewhere to go with all the stuff in our old universe, and when I saw you going here, I just thought about all the wonderful memories we've made." Marcus seemed nonchalant. "I thought we could make some more!"

"MEMORIES?!?" James was enraged. "YOU KILLED MY PLANET, YOU KILLED MY DAUGHTER, AND YOU TRIED TO KILL MY WIFE! WORST OF ALL, YOU HELPED THE DESTRUCTION OF OUR UNIVERSE!"

"And you'll never forget it." He replied. "Will you?"

James shook his head. "You've made memories, but I just want to know this: what did you do with him?"

Marcus was confused. "With who?"

"With Marcus Jefferson." James began to force Marcus to back into a corner. "With my brother. With my FRIEND. The man I knew would always have my back. What have you done with him?"

"I am Marcus!" He fired his bow, but James saw it coming, and sidestepped. He punched Jefferson in the stomach, and repeated his question.

"Where's Marcus?" Tears poured from James's eyes. "What's wrong with you? What happened?"

"I..I...back off..." Marcus began to cower, crying in fear.

"I'm not going to hurt you. What are you scared of?" James allowed stress to show in his voice. "Marcus, I don't want you dead." He didn't reply. Instead, he reached into his pocket, and grabbed a knife. He jumped up, and stabbed at James, who parried with his own weapon.

"Drop the knife, Marcus." Rebecca approached, carrying her bow. Marcus reluctantly complied, and James bound his hands quickly.

"I don't get why you think you've won." Marcus grinned slightly, then cut through his bonds with a small knife he had hidden in his hands, and stabbed at James. James fell to the ground, as Marcus disappeared. Swearing, James clutched the wound.

"I've got some medical supplies in my bag, I can bind it till we get back to the Band." Rebecca began to staunch the wound, then bound the staunching cloth tightly.

"That son of a gun..." James muttered. "He doesn't even know how to stab." He grinned, then stood up, slightly shakily. "Did you see that wound? It's a graze at best."

"Well, you're lucky." Rebecca replied. "And yes, of course I saw it! I literally cleaned it out!"

"Well, true." James leaned against a wall. "But we need to get moving."

Rebecca shook her head, and stared at James incredulously. "What? You just got a knife wound!"

"I've gotten worse and survived!" He said, wincing slightly at a sharp pain in his wound. "I've gotten worse and fought in a warzone for another five hours!"

"Because you had a proper medic nearby! You've bled way too much, you can't even think. At least a day of waiting to replace all that!" Rebecca protested.

"Ok, fine. But every minute we waste is more distance between us and him." James gave up, and groaned, sitting down.

"How do you go from dead set on killing him to dead set on saving him?" Rebecca asked, sitting down next to him.

James thought for a moment. "Well, I guess it's a mix of guilt and the fact that there's now a chance."

"You are ridiculous." She said. "Thank you, though."

"You don't need to thank me for something I owe you." James stated, groaning slightly. "Although your brother is kinda...well..."

"He's an achran?" Rebecca suggested.

James facepalmed. "I was going to say something more polite, but yes."

"It's better to say it like it is." She shook her head. "Besides, he's my brother. I'm allowed to call him out." 

"Perhaps." James said in reply. "But he's scared of something."

"He's SCARED?" Rebecca asked in shock. "Of what?"

"I don't know. The second I started to ask him what happened to the old him...he panicked. That's why he stabbed me." He seemed disconcerted. "I think Marcus...well...he's not himself. I don't mean the normal not himself, I mean that he's lost his basic personality."

"So, effectively, a full mental shift?" She inquired. "How would that have happened?"

James sighed. "Most likely, intentionally. Or at least, semi-intentionally. As a coping mechanism."

"Coping...with trauma?" Rebecca suddenly grew cold. "Could it have been caused by...exposure to plasma? In large quantities?"

"Well...how much, and what variety?" James began to think.

"He was a plasma packager in college. At some point, he accidentally got a burn right across his left arm from pure Hrinai plasma. It may have stayed in his system..."

"That would have done it." James groaned. "That stuff has a habit of messing with people's heads. If it was when he was in college...back then they wouldn't have recorded that. Didn't know the full effects of that stuff."

"So we just get it out of his system?" Rebecca inquired, with a glimmer of hope.

James seemed downtrodden. "No. Once it alters the mind, its changes are permanent. Best we can do is subdue and lock up Marcus."

“Then we’ll do that.” Rebecca lost any sense of hope, and showed no outward emotion. Inside her, however, was a conflict of anger, frustration, sadness, and despair. James said nothing, he merely sat on the ground in thought. Eventually, he picked himself up, and walked around the crumbled wall, occasionally leaning on it for support. Once he had gotten to the other side, he saw what he expected: Marcus’s computers. Rebecca followed, intrigued, then internally kicked herself for not checking them earlier.

“These things…” James began, staring intently at the large paneled screens, “They’re definitely functioning normally.” He began to type rapidly into a keyboard in front of the systems, pulling up a functional log.


Rebecca noted something familiar on the logs. “That code there, 2149B?” She said, pointing at one particular screen. “That means these computers are in Nexus Tower. This world’s Nexus Tower.”

“Oh dear…” James muttered. “Of course. He linked it through an inter-planetary portal.”

“Makes sense. Whatever it is on this planet that keeps tech from working won’t affect something not here.” Rebecca shook her head. “He’s smart, even if he is mad.”

“Well, we might be able to use this to our advantage…” James began, pressing even more keys. “If I can get it to connect to the Nexus Force’s databases and have it print out all information on this planet, we’ll have some idea of what’s going on here beyond what we already know.”

“Right. I’ll keep you covered.” Rebecca turned around, and drew her bow, nocking an arrow and pulling the string back.

James continued to type, until with a whir the printing device of the computer dispensed several sheets of paper. “Got it, let’s go.” He paused, then sighed. “Wait, I have a knife wound still. Bleh.” He handed her the papers. “Look, I can still move. Come on, you need some help, and I can still shoot properly.”

“Fine.” Rebecca took the papers, and put them into a satchel. “But the second you start getting worse, you stop. Having an incapacitated idiot to take care of won’t help me.”

“Such kind words.” James replied sarcastically.

“James, I have to view this objectively.” Rebecca said. “I’m trying to keep you alive as well as Marcus, and everyone on this planet.”

Morcia

7 miles south of the Ruins

Marcus sat under a tree, sobbing in terror. His mind, distorted by chemicals and the time vortex, was in conflict with itself. However, one voice continued to speak over the others in his head. It called for blood and death, and the destruction of all he saw. Eventually, he stood up, and grinned. As he stood, he noticed an older man walking down the path, and grinned even wider. “Good afternoon, sir.”

“How are you?” The man asked in reply, smiling back.

“I’m feeling like blood.” Marcus drew a sword, and before the man could do anything, cut him down. As the body fell, Marcus sheathed his sword and drew his knife. He carefully removed the man’s scalp, cleaned it off, and put it over his own hair as a wig. He then used some mud to make himself look older and to blend the skin lines. After this, he swapped clothing with the man, taking his hood and what little of his clothing was not blood-soaked. Then he began to walk down the road to the north, with an inkling of a plan.

Merry Band of the Woods

Around 9:00 in the morning the next day, and old man hobbled into the camp. His face was dirtied, and his clothing in a similar condition. Additionally, he had a prevalent limp. As he passed through, Strider particularly noticed him as familiar, then shook the thought from his head. He would come to regret this very soon.

After passing Strider, the old man, seemed a little more relaxed. He began to hobble up to a large tent from which sounds of food and conversation came. As he entered, he grabbed a small meal of a croissant, and sat down next to an odd individual. This individual had a bushy mustache, bushy eyebrows, and bushy hair, all of which was still quite black, even though he seemed a bit old to have no grey hairs peeking. This was Carlos. "Hello." The man said. "Is this seat taken?"

Carlos waved a hand towards the seat as he took a bite of his burrito.

"Mhrhm!" he said, smiling.

"Beg pardon?" Carlos nodded vigorously as he chewed and patted the seat welcomingly. "Ok, thank you." He smiled as well, while reaching into his pocket. As he sat, the man's posture changed ever so slightly.

Downing the big bite of burrito with a swig from his mug, Carlos finally spoke. "So, what brings you to the Leader's Mess?"

"I'm new here." The man replied apologetically. "I've been hounded out of town by thedude's men so many times that I figured I had no choice but to come here."

Carlos nodded, a smile filled with understanding. "Aye. No dh'oubt for some h'innocent h'act or h'nother." Carlos said, draping an arm around the old man, and proffering the mug with the other. "D'y'see these other's here?" asked Carlos, waving the mug-hand to the other leaders assembled around the table.

"Yes." The man nodded. "And as for what I did, I only killed about ten people." And with that, he tore off his added scalp, slapping it onto Carlos' face, then drew a knife and stabbed Carlos.

"Hup!" As the hair slipped off, it revealed a deeply perturbed Carlos. He slowly glanced down, and saw his hands grasping the knife..."Not a Parlor Trick," he deduced.

As the knife was below Table view, few others understood what had just happened, and most were curiously observing the man who had just lost his hair.

A woman off to the left and across the table, cast a query to the old man. "Sir, are you allright?"

Marcus merely withdrew the knife, then threw it at the woman. "Yes."

Carlos glanced up just in time to see Gemma Smith fall to the ground. Before her body made contact with the floor, everyone was out of their seats. But even before that, Carlos had his hands around the old man's neck. Marcus stabbed him twice in the chest with another knife, and shoved him away, turning to the others. "Someone needs to die!" He exclaimed. Multiple voices began exclaiming.

"Who ARE YOU?" Demanded a 50 year old man in full armor.

"YOU WILL!!!" Screamed a red-haired man of 20, in response to Marcus, as he leaped over the table with a short sword.

"I am Marcus Jefferson." He replied, throwing a knife into the charging man as he spoke. "And you?" As he sidestepped the redhair's tragectory, he landed headfirst into the ground.

"I am Armsmaster Fiddleton," the armored man said, making no move to attack.

"And who are the rest of the living here? I need to find Stirling Silverstine." Marcus inquired. A short fellow with an undicernable age moved like lightning towards Marcus's knees, with a knife of his own. Marcus stabbed him as well. "For the last time, WHERE IS STIRLING SILVERSTINE?" A small sob was heard to Marcus's right. "Oh shut up!" He exclaimed. "You sound like a little girl!" He caught himself. "Apologies, that slipped out.” Next to the soaked form of Carlos, a man of about high 30s with blonde hair was knelt down, and mourning.

"Still, you're as bad as my brother after I killed his daughter!"

Johnson waved a irritated hand at Marcus. "Strider's not here." he said, keeping his eyes focused on Carlos.

Fiddleton spoke. "Mr. Jefferson, if you'll stop spilling blood, we can arrange a meeting with you and Strider.

Marcus shook his head. "How about this? For every hour I don't have Strider I kill another person!"

Practically everyone screamed "No," but only two people did anything about it. An old man with a sword cane, Martin, moved from Marcus's left, while Johnson moved in from his right.

As Martin came forward, he cried, as loud as his old lungs could, "Free men will never bow to the likes of you!"

"Well, you see..." Marcus punched Johnson, stabbed the other, then flipped around the knife in his hand and stabbed Johnson. "dead men will. And who said you were free?" With that statement, everyone lost control, and converged on Marcus. Alas, that only included Fiddleton, Mercedes, and Mrs. Hucklepatt. Marcus kicked out Mercedes' legs, elbowed Hucklepatt, causing her to fall, and then punched Fiddleton along the jaw. "I'm not done here!"

Fiddleton withdrew a handcannon from the back of his hip and fired, as he staggered backward. "You're done smashing!" he said disjointedly, in a low voice that was meant to be a yell.

Marcus took the round to his stomach, and fell to the ground, only to laugh and get back up. He undid his shirt, showing a bullet-proof vest. "No, I'm not." In the moment that Hucklepatt and Fiddleton were getting up, a sound from outside made them all pause.

"Hello, Carlos?"

It was Strider.

Marcus drew a pistol, and leveled it on Strider as he entered. "Come on in, Stirling."

“I was wondering if there was any news on-"

Marcus shouted "Sit down!" Strider did no such thing, and with a serious but blank demeanor, he walked straight to Marcus, and the gun. Marcus sighed, then shot Strider in the left leg. "Nope."

Fiddelton flinched at the gunshot. Then he said. "SDOH!" the first raising of his voice since Marcus had shown up. His jaw hung unnaturally to his right.

"No." Marcus replied. He shot Fiddleton in the head, then turned to Strider. "Want to help me catch my brother?" Strider looked around, resting heavily on his left leg.

"Stabb, Gemma, Martin, Johnson, Fiddleton, Mercedes...CARLOS..." "Mrs. Hucklepatt." He said, surprised.

Mrs. Hucklepatt was sitting on the wet floor, her hands on her knees. "Nothing I can do, sonny."

"An answer would be nice." Marcus commented.

Strider refocused on Marcus. "Sure." he said.

"Thank you." He smiled. "Let's get to work." Marcus drew a phone from his pocket, then dialed a number, putting it up to his ear. As he did so, a few miles away, just as James and Rebecca started to leave, the computers lit up. "Hello! I have a friend of yours who wants to talk to you!" Marcus said. He handed the phone to Strider. Strider calmly accepted the phone, and waited for someone on the other end.

"Hello?" James's voice asked

Strider raised an eyebrow at Marcus. "Should I talk?" he wondered.

"Speak." Marcus stated, with his gun on Hucklepatt.

Strider nodded casually. "Heeey, James." He began, as if talking to a chum.

"Strider, what are his terms?" James asked. "What does he want this time?"

Marcus grinned, hearing the conversation.

"Well," Strider said. "Hey! Mark! Whatcha want?"

"I want my sister. Here. One hour." Marcus replied. "I can expedite their travel. I keep horses at their location."

After a moment, he added, "'Cause you know what I want, James, will you give me that?"

"No." James replied angrily. "I won't. I heard Marcus. Tell him it's a deal." Here Strider smirked devilishly, but it faded when James replied.

Strider shrugged at the phone and then tossed it lightly to Marcus. "You heard him."

Then he proceeded to kick around at the various stuff in the area.

Marcus did not catch the phone, instead, he shot it. "Yes, I did." He smiled, then fired one round from the gun into Hucklepatt's arm. "If you interfere, I will end her." he paused. "You may want to help." Marcus added as blood poured from her arm.

Mrs. Hucklepatt and Strider locked eyes. Worry poured out of Strider for a moment, but then he blinked and indifference glazed them over.

"She's a healer, she can heal herself." Mrs. Hucklepatt began to do just that.

"You really are cold." He smiled. "Just remember, a bullet through the head is hard to fix."

60 minutes later

Around the camp silence reigned. No one knew what was going on, but all had been avoiding the main tent. There were a few unfortunate new bodies piled just inside the doorway, and all possible weapons had been tossed out a window, thanks to Strider being a bit too fond of kicking them around. As the silence prevailed, Rebecca walked into camp, holding a knife. She stormed into the leader's tent, and saw an odd scene. Marcus had his gun up to Mrs. Hucklepatt's head, and Strider was lividly restraing himself.

"Hello, Marcus." Rebecca said coldly. "What do you want, and why do these people have to be involved?"

"Hullo Dearie. I'm quite ready, if you are." she said, with eyes that told she was QUITE ready.

"I want you dead." Marcus replied. He punched Hucklepatt over the head with the butt of his pistol after her comment.

"Why?" Rebecca asked. "WHY BRING THEM INTO IT?"

"Because I want to hurt James specially when I kill him." Marcus replied. "You're my sister, I'm trying to be nice to you.” As soon as Marcus had let go of Mrs. Hucklepatt, Strider jumped him from behind, sending the two to the ground, where Strider sat on his neck, and pinned his arms out.

"BACK OFF STRIDER!" Rebecca yelled. "This is between me and my brother."

"HA!" laughed Strider, obviously happy to be able to expend some energy. "THIS IS NICE?! Right, Right. He's listening." he said.

"I don't care." Rebecca’s eyes grew cold. "You aren't going to get yourself killed over this.”

Strider wasn't able to look her in the eyes, but neither did he move off Marcus. "I agree, I agree," he said, nodding vaguely in Rebecca's direction.

"I have a plan." Rebecca seemed calm enough.

Strider took a deep breath. But it didn't help. His eyes were still shifty. He glanced down at Marcus. "Whaddya think, buddy? Is it foolproof?"

"Shut up and get off of him you blasted idiot!" Rebecca yelled out again. "IF YOU DON'T STOP DISOBEYING ORDERS SILVERSTINE, SOMEONE WILL DIE!"

Strider was shaking and twitching greatly. "It... It better be..." His grip loosened visibly.

"Just back off and let me handle it." Rebecca stated. "Now, Marcus," Marcus suddenly threw off Strider. "What do you want exactly?"

"To kill you and your husband." He replied. "If I don't get that, these two die."

Marcus jumped up after this comment. He drew a knife, then leveled it on Rebecca, who prepared to throw her own. Marcus did so with his left hand, his right hand holding a gun on Hucklepatt, so that Rebecca dropped her own knife. Strider fumbled around on the ground, confused for a moment, but quickly regained his footing and was stopped by a stab of eyes from Rebecca. Before he could do anything, an arrow slammed into Marcus's back just as he prepared to shoot Hucklepatt anyways.

He fell to the ground, dropping his gun, and James entered through the back of the tent. "Well, I win." James remarked. He cuffed Marcus to a tent post, and turned to Strider. "What did I miss?"

Strider twiched his vision between the three, then shook his head and exclaimed before he thought, "What took you so long!"

"Well, you know, the fact we thought he was somewhere completely different!" James

replied.

"Ow..." Marcus muttered.

Strider jumped as he realized Marcus wasn't dead, and pulled a knife from James' belt, then backpedaled over to Mrs. Hucklepatt. "Don't kill him!" James yelled. "It's not his fault!" Fear and determination were mixed in his eyes.

"It doesn't matter. He's the cause of ... THIS." Strider barked.

"BUT." he said, holding a hand up to James.

"He IS your brother."

"Strider," James said in reply, "He killed my planet. He killed my universe. He killed my daughter. But, I killed a galaxy. You didn't kill me for that, did you?"

"Just hurry up, will you?" Strider snapped

James groaned. "Look, Silverstine, I don't know where to put him. I don't even know what tech he has on him. He's found a way around the tech barriers..." Marcus disappeared on these words.

When he did, James jumped. Rebecca drew a weapon, and Strider yelled and jumped at the empty space.

"AGAIN!" He yelled at he stood up. "We have to do THIS," he gestured to the room, "ALL OVER AGAIN!"

"RIAK!" James yelled, kicking the tables, causing one to splinter slightly.

Rebecca merely picked up the pistol. "He's not gonna run." She replied.

"Then, do we go after him, or forti- No, he'll just find us; We need to find him," Strider began thinking aloud.

Rebecca picked up the pistol, checked it, and, finding it was the same model as hers, put in an old magazine she had in a small satchel. "He'll come back."

"Do we really want that?" Strider pointed to the room again.

Rebecca shook her head. "I'll deal with it." She primed the handgun. "One way or another."

Strider facepalmed. "And I presume you're going to, James?"

James shook his head. "I'm not getting in the way."

Strider signed and leaned against the wall. "This is all so stupid. . . " he muttered.

"Welcome to my world." James replied.

Strider scoffed, then made for the door.

James grabbed Strider and sat him down in a chair before he could leave. "Not that simple."

"I don't care." Strider said, getting up again.

James gave up. "Fine. You know, I was going to try to save you and every person in this camp, but because you're tired, go ahead and get everyone here killed!"

Strider pulled out the knife he had taken from James. Turning, he seemed about to give it to James, then he turned back around, and proffered it hilt-first to Rebecca. "If you want help, you know we're both here. But I'm not going to just sit around and wait to be ambushed. You both have my word that I'm not going to touch him."

"STRIDER!" James yelled. "WILL YOU LISTEN FOR ONE MOMENT? Also, please, my wife carries enough weapons already. But I need you to come in here!"

When she didn't grab the knife, Strider let it drop, and he walked out the door.

He grabbed Strider by the hair, and whispered into his ear. "Look, we have a plan involving you, but he's probably listening. So be a soldier and listen to orders!."

James could hear Strider grinding his teeth. "It's about time," he hissed.

"Well, be quiet and follow me" James began to walk off to the woods. "We're going to set a little trap."

Chapter 11: Theory and Practice Edit

As James and Strider both lay behind a log holding their bows, Strider muttered, "I can't believe you're using your wife as bait! I should be it!"

"Well, you know, he wants her. Now get your arrow ready." James nocked an arrow into his bow. "We only have one shot." As he said these words, he noted a small flash.

As this flash occurred, Marcus teleported in carrying a gun, and Rebecca raised her own.

Both men tensed up. One was able to remain calm and relaxed, while his emotions remained bottled, for the time being, while the other used his emotions to grant him the accuracy he would need.

As they watched, some conversation went on between Rebecca and Marcus. Marcus reached into a pocket and withdrew something boxy. Rebecca began to waver.

"Oh dear..." James muttered.

Strider felt like he couldn't breath without being heard, so he simply aimed for the box, instead of Marcus.

"Don't shoot the box!" James whispered. "That's a detonator!"

Strider rolled his eyes, and wondered what he was supposed to shoot then, if shooting Marcus would have the box drop.

Rebecca meanwhile began to surrender. Then her weapon flared, and a shot cracked out. Marcus fell to the ground, and the detonator harmlessly clattered on the dirt.

"Well," James said, "so much for cornering him."

Strider, still holding his bow tense, advanced into the clearing.

"Relax." Rebecca told him. "He isn't going to recover from a bullet through his head."

Strider did a double take and nearly shot the bow into the ground where he had it pointed. "You smashed him???"

"Killed." She replied. "He was going to kill everyone in this camp, I had a shot. I took it."

Strider swallowed hard. Loosening the bowstring, he slung it on his back. "...Congratulations, and so sorry." he said flatly.

Rebecca spoke in a similar tone, "It's my job."

James came out from cover, his bow lowered. Strider turned to James. "Well, I got my way." he said. Again, flatly, as there was proper mood for the situation.

"THIS WAS NOT IN THE PLAN!" James cried out randomly. "WE AGREED NO KILL SHOTS!"

"He had his hand on a detonator!" Rebecca argued back.

"Then you could have shot his arm! Why go for his head?"

Strider turned away from them and examined Marcus.

His forehead had a bloodied hole in it, he had some stains on his clothing, but other than that was fairly intact. Next to his left hand was a small black box with a switch.

His hair was black, his face around mid 20's, and his demeanor aggressive.

A voice cut through Strider's thoughts. "YOU TRIED TO KILL HIM!" Rebecca said in her own defense. 

"Yes, but I came back from that!"

"Tell me how he was. Before." Strider said softly, not really caring if they heard him.

James and Rebecca stopped arguing on these words. "He..." Rebecca began. "He was nice. He stuck with his promises, his friends...he was a bit protective as a little brother."

Strider fluffed Marcus's hair. "You tousle his hair alot?"

"No." Rebecca replied. "Well...yeah. When he was around five I'd screw around with it. Also, please kindly stop messing with my dead brother."

Strider pulled back his hand immediately. "Sorry."

"It's...fine. But..yeah. He was nice. A bit hyper." Rebecca grinned. "Alot hyper till he grew up. Then he started around college age going into plasma studies. Got a job in plasma transport. He loved science."

Strider smiled and straightened up from his squatting position next to Marcus.

"Go on," he motioned.

"Well...he was a good friend of James." She added.

"James?" Strider prodded.

"Oh man, the things that idiot did with explosives..." James grinned. "You should have seen us."

"I was a bit busy here, I guess!" Strider laughed. "Sorry I missed the show."

"No," Rebecca replied with a facepalm. "You aren't" Strider laughed even harder.

"THEY BLEW UP MY TEXTBOOKS!" She cried out.

"I THOUGHT THEY WERE THE OLD GRADE-SCHOOL ONES YOU WERE THROWING OUT!" James said. "BESIDES, I BOUGHT YOU NEW ONES!"

Here, Strider began guffawing outright, as he lost his balance and fell over. As he did so, several people peeked out of their tents, confused as to why he was laughing next to a dead body. James realized this, and facepalmed. "Can we please clean up the body before we discuss this?"

Strider gradually, but quickly, calmed down.

"We're going to be cleaning up alot more than just one."

Rebecca nodded, and groaned. "How many did he kill?"

Strider shook his head. "7. Maybe 8, if Master Stabb doesn't recover. He only left Mrs. Hucklepatt 'unharmed'. Basically everyone in the room."

James shook his head. "I'm not even surprised. We should probably deal with the bodies though, tell the families."

"I'm sure she's already working on that. Let's go help..." Strider said, as he turned to return to the leadership tent. James followed without any words, simply thinking. At the leadership tent, there were a few Blue-leaved men, moving and wrapping the bodies.

Mrs Hucklepatt was overseeing it all, seemingly none the worse for wear, except the sorrow welling in her eyes.

James approached her and said quietly, "I'm so sorry..."

Rebecca turned to Strider, with a slightly sad smile. "She reminds him of his grandmother."

The Missus reached out for James' hand, as another wrapped form passed them. "It's not your fault."

"Well, it kind of is." James shook his head. "If I had taken him out the first time we found him...well..." He sighed.

Her wrinkled, spindly hands wrapped around James rough, and full hands. "Don't blame yourself, boy." She demanded softly, looking at him.

"Yes ma'am." James replied in kind, still internally kicking himself. "One moment," he withdrew, "I should probably help with the...clean up." Mrs Hucklepatt raised a worried eyebrow, but let James slip away. James looked around, but saw the bodies had been removed, but not the blood. He turned to face Strider, and shook his head.

"Tell me that in all your travels, you found out something that takes out stains like that.

James facepalmed. "Yes. Seltzer water and lemon. Or wear red."

Strider nodded, and together, with Rebecca, they got to work.

~~~~

Later, as Carlos's golden-wrapped form exited the scene, Mrs. Hucklepatt whispered, "This makes me leader, till further notice."

"Well, not many better qualified that I can think of." James replied.

Mrs. Hucklepatt bowed her head. "I... I'll do my best, dearie." Rebecca smiled slightly at James's awkward nature, almost amused.

A small crowd was around now, and made way for the horse-drawn cart containing the fallen. They would be buried a ways out from the camp's current position. Unlike in olden times, there would be no big ceremony, no noticeable commemerative...

Instead, they would move camp immediately. James himself waited till the crowds had dispersed, before wandering to the burial site, and sitting down by Carlos grave and the others. He sighed, then talked to the grave quietly. "I'm sorry. I truly am." James thought for a few minutes, then spoke again. "It's really my fault. Should have brought that idiot Strider. But...well...it's too late now.” The trees rustled in response to James' words. The wind was soft, and quiet. Like the birds. The bushes ahead of him shivered. And spoke.

He glared at the sky for causing the wind, but did not shout. Instead he turned to the graves and continued. "Well, tell God I'm sorry. But now, I have to do work. Seeya Carlos, and the rest of you." He lifted himself up, and walked down the road, knowing he would get to the camp eventually, but not caring.

"Why'd you come here?" asked a man whom James did not know. He had a sword, but was otherwise like any other Merry Man. "Getting them killed not enough, you had to check?"

"Because it's my fault." James replied. "If I screw up enough someone dies, I owe them at least this." As he spoke, he let his hands stay to his side, close to his knife.

"Blasted right, it's your fault," the man said. "Since you've got here, it's been nothing but secrets, and peril, and chaos for us," he said. "No one knows anything, and our leaders are all tight-lipped, having meetings with you day in and day out, something about kotos, and other worlds, and Maniacs!"

"Which hasn't actually been my fault." James replied. "You weren't in danger till Marcus came here to kill us, and we hunted him down to PROTECT you people.We made miscalculations. As for our secrets, I'm a soldier. I have to follow this thing called security protocol!"

"Marcus? Is that the psychopath that you brought with you from your... what was it- Portal-land?"

"First, he was a pathological killer. Psychopathy simply means one's conscience is impaired, emotions are the same, and they don't understand emotions. We didn't even bring him, he followed when we thought he had died." James held back a few tears with his last words. "And it was called Chanora when it still existed."

The man with the sword was now clearly confused by all the terminology. "So, now that you're finished with that, uh, pathologi-killer, you're done here?"

"No," He shook his head. "We're going to deal with thedude.

The man seemed surprised with this. "thedude? But why do YOU care? He's not your problem, this guy was. And we were just collateral." he ended with sarcasm.

"Because I've seen people like him before." James replied. "And it's generally my job to stop them."

"So, what, you and your sister are just going to settle in with us now? 'Cause our name's the 'Merry Band', so we must be all 'hunky-doorey' and be willing to let you in?"

James facepalmed. "For the last time, she's my wife, and no. We're going to meet up with the KOTOS and work with them."

The man leaned back, and rolled his eyes. "Oookay." He counted something off on his left hand, while his right sword hand was lax. "This is not going as I thought it would," he muttered. "I guess that's all the questions I wanted to ask!" he said more aloud.

James tensed up, and prepared to draw his knife as the man shouted and counted down. "Really, for an ambush attempt, you're being rather shoddy. I mean, your signaling is clear to me, you approached me armed, and you didn't even think to consider which one of us has more skill." He grinned. "I'm over ten thousand years, how old are you?"

The man shrugged. "I'm alone if that's what your wondering. I just wanted answers for why my brother had to die." James stopped speaking immediately. His face went blank, and he lost the fighting stance. "Like alot of people. Just looking for answers. Thank you, I suppose." With that, the man turned around and walked off to camp.

"I'm sorry!" James called out. "I'm used to...I'm used to everyone I run into wanting me dead." The man waved a casual goodbye over his bent shoulders. James groaned, wishing he had handled the situation better, then drew his knife than began hacking at a tree ferociously, swearing and shouting. After he had burnt off some steam and vented internal anger, he sheathed the knife, and began to walk back to camp miserably. The perimeter of the camp had compacted a bit, as after the quick burial, everyone had gone straight to packing. As James walked in, he noted a man on a horse riding in. This man's most notable feature was his unshaven beard, and the glinty, if a bit tired, look in his eye. "Whom exactly art thou?" James inquired.

He wore some mismatched and clearly used armor, and his black horse had some light gear that was of the same wear. He slowed down as he approached James. "Art thou Carlos?" Before James could answer, he continued. "Nay, thou couldn’t not be."

James shook his head sadly. "Carlos is dead. I am James." The horse whinnied at this news.

James gave it a look. "You relater to ranger horses?" He asked, before turning back to Thingguy "Thou art Thingguy, art thou not?"

The horse somehow looked vaguely offended, but neither of the men noticed.

"Indeed, I am," replied Thingguy, as he dismounted. "And you are Sir James, the Miracle Worker." Here he winked.

"Don't go there." James's demeanor was without humor, only sorrow and regret were clear. "We need to get to work."

Thingguy picked up on this, and straighened out his smile. "Wilt thou informest me of what is taking place here? Why art the Merry Men moving again? And where is the other, the Silverstine?

"Strider's here somewhere. We're moving because of an attack." James gestured for him to follow. "I'll take you too him."

"It is fortunate I ran into you. I only just arrived. I feared there may not be anyone to meet, it's been too long since the message said I would arrive."

"Setbacks happen." James began to walk, and Thingguy followed. As they approached Strider, James waved, and he acknowledged. Strider turned from his current project of collapsing tent-poles. "James, who is this guy?"

"Thingguy." James replied. "I'm going to let you two talk, I need to...think."


"That's a dangerous past-time, James." Strider warned, frowning. "Don't do anything sudden."

"I won't." He shook his head. "But I've lost alot in the past month." Strider watched James walk off, but eventually turned to Thingguy.

"Silverstine?" the armored man said.

"Yes, please, call me Strider."

"I understand you want to join Kotos?"

"Not exactly."

"Well, then what... Exactly?"

Strider considered a moment. "I need to find the other Silverstines. Then I can join your honorable crusade.” It was Thingguy's turn to consider. Behind him, his horse made quiet chuffing noises.

"Yes, yes, in a minute, Deadneat," he muttered.

Strider stared at Thingguy strangely. "...Are you talking to your horse?"

Both Thingguy and Deadbeat froze and moved their eyes only as they focused on Strider. "Don't you?"

"Um. No. Last horse I had blew itself up."

The other two stared at Strider, and an awkward silence ballooned between them.

the three. "Pffffbt." snorted Deadbeat.

"I agree," whispered Thingguy. "You'll have to tell us that story sometime, Strider," Thingguy said. "But first, business. What can you tell me about the other Silverstines?” The two men and the horse began walking as they conversed, and shared information regarding many various things.

Epilogue Edit

James and Rebecca approached Strider and Thingguy, who were sitting at a small fire, discussing the reign of thedude. They were in a small campsite, and a few weeks having past, they were at the edge of a new forest. The horses were tethered up nearby, eating grass, and nickering quietly with Deadbeat glaring at the three Strider, James, and Rebecca had brought.

Rebecca was the first to speak, while James began to gather their weapons. "We need to go."

Strider looked up at Rebecca from his sitting position on a stump. "How long?" he asked tentitivly.

"Not sure." She replied apologetically. "There's something going on. You haven't noticed it, you're not from our dimension. But...something is moving."

Strider's eyes drew to slits, then they relaxed. "All right. Well, if you even need an extra hand," here he slowly stood up, and rubbed his left leg absently. "you know who to call."

"Thanks." She smiled. "Pleasure to meet you." James stood up and handed her one of their packs.

"Seeya round, Strider." He turned to Thingguy. "I hope to see you again, Nathaniel." Strider suddenly jumped at James and grasped him in a bear hug. "Bloody...!" James began. "Don't jump me!" Rebecca laughed at this, and he glared. "Oh don't you start."

"I will miss you, James," Strider said, his voice husky, and his face somewhat obscured by the bad light.

"Well, you know, we've all got a job to do." James replied in a flat voice, showing no emotion.

Strider stepped back, and regained his composure. "Yes. As soldiers." Thingguy remained seated, with his cup of stew, passively observing.

"Yessir. Seeya mate!" James began to stroll off, as did Rebecca, who nodded to Thingguy.

He nodded in return. "You guys go through alot together?" Thingguy asked Strider as they watched the others fade into the forest.

"No. Not alot. Just a little spot of hell."

 

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