Live To Fight On

by mmrrph

When they arrived back to town the others were standing around Buck and JD, and it was clear the men were recounting the events that had just occurred. Nathan was checking each man thoroughly for signs of trauma and Chris was scanning the crowd for them. His penetrating stare found them and he stalked to the pair, looked up at Dovan still astride the tall black and asked,

“What´s going on here? What the hell is a Rakshasa, and what´s it doing here?” Dovan held up a hand and shook her head. This was not the place for such an explanation. Chris´ eyes got very narrow as he appraised her. “This is the kind of thing you need our help fighting?" She nodded.

"So you have accepted?" The gunslinger bobbed his head tersely, tension making the movement sharp. She looked into the distance then focused back to him, silver eyes unreadable. "For this I thank you, more than can be defined in the terms available to me." Her eyes flashed and Chris felt a warmth start in his middle and spread through his entire person, the sensation making him feel light of limb yet powerful at the same time. The feeling faded as Dovan sighed, her eyes closing some to him. "It is regretful things must now be as they are, as there is much more to learn, much more for you to be told, much more I had hoped for you to understand before engaging in this clash. I believe the events of this morning have caused my foreseen timetable to be altered, and I fear all things have accelerated to a dangerous pace that will challenge us to even be able to act in time. I believe our next action should be to seek out the enemy so you may observe their threat first hand. They are active now - my killing of the beast will have awakened them. I will explain what of this I can along the way. Are you prepared to ride?” Chris just gestured to JD, who trotted off to the livery to get the remaining horses. Dovan regarded the leader thoughtfully.

“This was something I had want of explaining to you in a better way, had more time for you all to learn and prepare. This puts us at a great disadvantage. All the knowledge and training I would have given you before must now be condensed into but a few days. If you feel you are no longer willing given the circumstances I will understand.” Chris held up a hand and pursed his lips.

"We've agreed. We'll be ready."

"I truly hope so, Mr. Larabee, not just for your sake. I will do whatever is in my power to hasten the process for your understanding, but have no illusions -this undertaking from here on out will try your very soul." He simply nodded, knowing what she spoke was the truth and accepting it. He did not hold the morning's events against her, nor did he feel manipulated into having agreed to join her. Though he didn't know quite what she meant with her words something in him vibrated with understanding and righteous purpose. Saved Buck´s life…and can´t fault her for the presence of whatever that was…she ain´t responsible for it being here. And we can't back out now, no matter what she thinks or says. Not only did we give our word, we're all tied ta this somehow, like JD said. Best to run head-long into it guns blazing then let it take us by surprise 'cause we decided ta be cautious for once. He watched JD approach and accepted Pony's reigns. They rode out and Chris gestured for Dovan to take the lead. She set an easy pace towards Devil's Canyon. For a little while she allowed them to travel in silence, but broke into their thoughts once they were well clear of town.

"We have precious little time to prepare. When we arrive it will become clear to you the nature of this struggle we are to embark upon, and it will doubtless raise questions for you which I will answer the best I can. If you have any presently, it would make advantageous of the time we have now." Nathan maneuvered so he was riding along side her. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the carved disc, his own representation of the marking they all shared. Dovan accepted it and studied it, then handed it back without comment. He raised a brow.

"What do you think about it?" the healer asked.

"It is beautiful. Obviously created by someone with a true gift." Nathan sighed and shook his head a little. He pursed his lips and tried a different approach.

"We've all got one, least, something with a similar design in it. What does it mean, and why have we got them?" There, try not answering any part a' that one. Woman's as stubbornly set on jus' answering what ya ask as Ez always seems ta be.

"They do not mean anything specific which I could point out and detail for you. No reason for the materials chosen to have been used, no symbolism wrapped up in the differing styles of the emblem you carry. The concern of the mark is nothing so concrete as that. The importance is on the emblem itself, not the method of its having been constructed." She paused a moment and fingered the medallion around her neck lightly before continuing. "I would believe the design itself is self explanatory, being a star of seven radiants. The colors simply suit your, ah, blended style. The mark found you like anything else in this life we are meant to have or understand - it simply does, but with no clear way of divining why or even exactly how. You were probably gifted with them as best suits your chosen paths. Just as your items all differ in style, so would the ways they would enter into your life. They are unique as each of you are, appealing to that within you that would elicit a want to treat them as something worth keeping, something that would captivate and hold your fancy. Think of it as your calling card, something which represents you all as a single entity. It was a way for you all to connect and determine you shared something tangible, yes?" Nathan smiled as he remembered all they had talked about and the way he felt after learning they had the talisman in common. It had definitely sparked something that led them to feeling a greater depth of connection with each other, and to this cause. "And just as it signified for you that your paths are intertwined, so would it for others." JD wrinkled his brow. All seven men had been listening attentively, wondering the same that Nathan had asked about and seeking understanding.

"How could it be the same for others? All of our stars are different, on different stuff too. Not like we carry a flag or something." Her eyes flashed and he had the distinct feeling he'd just answered his own question.

"That is true, JD. At this time you have no advertised method of displaying your marker. If you were in need of a standard to raise, and were responsible for choosing the design for it to be emblazoned with, what do you now see as being on this banner?" JD smiled.

"That's easy. This," he held up his pocket watch. Dovan nodded.

"Exactly, Mr. Dunne." JD lowered his hand and once again found himself tracing the outline of the star inset into the silver backing. Up and down his finger went, and he counted to seven over and over as his finger cycled through the points on the star. His finger stilled and he looked at her.

"This star has seven points. Makes sense for us, but what about you?" Dovan smiled but wasn't able to answer, as Ezra's drawl floated his way.

"My dear Mr. Dunne, she is the circle." At the younger man's look Ezra continued. "We are the seven who form the star, the seven who found one another and have lived content in that since our decisions to remain together. She is the one who prompted us to embark upon this shared cause which concerns us all. She is the final addition to make us whole, but outside of the bond we have made." The gambler did not turn to her for confirmation, but instead saluted and flashed a grin before trotting up to ride along side Vin again. JD accepted his explanation, the words making sense to him, and Dovan did not add or correct the gambler's words.

"Well, whatever part you are, I'm glad you're here." He said finally. Dovan smiled again, and JD felt warm from head to toe. She spoke softly and it felt like the words tickled his skin.

"Me too, Mr. Dunne. Me too." The rest of the ride was in comfortable silence, as no one else had a specific question for her. It was clear they had all decided to be patient and wait until they had seen what they were riding to find before asking more of her.

+ + + + + + +

"Allah be merciful." Josiah's deep voice came out on a mere breath and threaded its way to his companions. They had ridden to within 100 feet of Devil's Canyon, then dismounted and walked the remaining distance. Dovan had duck-walked her way to the gorge's rim and lowered herself to lie on the rocky ground, her head popped out over the yawning opening in the earth. The rest of the seven had followed her example, and when revealed, the contents of the canyon had left them speechless until Josiah's utterance. The men watched in mute horror as a gathering horde of fearsome creatures below them shimmered and undulated like a filthy wave. The sheer number of bodies in the ravine made it seem as if the walls themselves were alive, having the appearance of an anthill recently disturbed.

“They are orcs,” Dovan explained in a low voice. “They are an army sprung of darkness and evil, sent before their master to scour the earth of any potential threats to his coming. They know no fear, nor fatigue, nor pain.” She allowed them time to digest and take in the reality of the dark army below them. Vin's whispered voice cursed and he said,

"Where'd they come from? I was jus' here, and there wasn't any sign of anything, especially this kind of anything." He looked at Dovan who shook her head.

“I will answer your questions elsewhere, for we must away from here. If we remain too long they will be able sense our presence.” She crawled backwards for several paces before backing into a stand. They mounted their horses and rode some distance away from the canyon, stopping for water and rest at a cool copse of trees along the riverbank. It was a secluded spot away from the main trail and would be perfect for the discussion that would surely come.

After the horses were seen to the seven and Dovan clustered together, sitting in the tall grass and leaning against trees and the occasional boulder. There was a noticeable pall over the group, a sober quality to their countenances reflecting the inner turmoil they were all experiencing. It was Buck who broke the silence.

“Now you tell me pretty lady, jus´ what in Hell were those things?” His voice was rough and his eyes narrow but lit with apprehension. “You said you needed us fer a fight. And that´s somethin´ I´ve never run from. Ever. And on any day, good or bad, I´d be inclined to strap on my pistol and ride out with you. But that,” he jabbed a thumb back over his shoulder, “is somethin´ like I´ve never seen. You said the odds wouldn´t be good, but Jesus! There were more of those critters then I could count. A fuckin´ army for God´s sake! Now you explain to me how this is gonna work, how we´re even gonna stand a chance against that, hell, how we even fight ‘em. Cause I´ll tell you this missy,” he leaned in close to her fair face, “if you know some secret ta kickin' their ugly asses, I´m sure interested in hearin´ it.” Dovan looked at Buck square in the eye and was pleased with what she saw. He was definitely afraid, but a little fear and a lot of healthy respect for what they were facing was a good thing. But beyond the fear was determination, fierce and burning in a swath that cut across his entire aura.

“You deserve a complete explanation, which is what I had fully intended on providing from the beginning. Please understand I was not trying to mislead you. But if I had said outright from this onset of this venture what you have just seen, can you honestly say you would have believed me? Your natural reaction would have been to humor me at most, send me on my way with a wink and a smile, then laugh after my back had turned and never think of me again.” She regarded the group and saw the truth of her words reflected in them. “You had to see for yourself the reality, see on your own the true nature of the enemy I have asked assistance in facing. This way was shocking for you - of that I have no doubt, and I have great remorse for employing such tactics. They were unfortunately necessary now that we will be forced to act instead of having the luxury of time for me to have explained. Even after the Rakshasa you could not have comprehended the extent of the threat imposed by the coming darkness, for it was just one being among you. This method made it undeniably clear.” There was a pause while the group each considered her words, until JD said without looking up,

“It´s okay. I understand your reasons. I hate to admit it but I wouldn´t have been able to take you seriously if you´d come into the saloon and started on about some ‘dark army of evil creatures´ gathering in the canyon and you needed our help to defeat them.” He met her gaze with a quirk of a smile on his face. “Think I´d agree that it woulda seemed a mite peculiar.” His smile faded as he continued. “But Buck´s right. Looking at them, seeing just how many there were, how huge they are…well, I´ve no idea how we could do anything against them. How can we even begin to know what to do? I don´t even know what they are really, much less how to kill them.” Dovan´s face gentled, her expression relaxing and eyes opening up as she looked at the young man. His fear was as palpable as the rest of the groups, but with an openness and vulnerability the others had overcome and outgrown. But JD was more than his fear as well, however, and Dovan felt the strength of his energy flow between them - a strength that in time would rival all those present.

“I have every faith you will know what to do, that you will be able to bravely and competently enter into this battle. And the few things you are not aware of I will assist you with.” She reached out and patted JD a few times on the shoulder before holding it in a tight grip. “Do not worry. This is possible to overcome, and you are capable of doing it.” She squeezed once and let go, her hand falling to rest in her lap. She closed her eyes and centered herself then took in and released a deep breath. “I will do my best to explain. Have patience however, as the story is somewhat lengthy.” She opened her eyes again, and seeing the ready faces of the men before she was restored to confidence. They would not fail her.

“Mr. Tanner has asked where they came from, and though I will start with that it is something which will not be clear until the full telling of my explanation." She looked at the tracker, "They traveled here through the void, as all things can. They used it as a type of shortcut, a method of getting to this particular place from wherever they were in a very short time." Vin nodded his understanding. At Dovan's urging he had been practicing being within, and the potential uses for traveling and being in that plane were presenting themselves to the sharpshooter, and the list was still growing. Everyone else looked slightly lost but willing to wait for understanding as she had promised would come.

"What you will be fighting is nothing like you have known in this reality, though you are not unfamiliar with them. They are creatures now thought of as myth if remembered at all. It has been an eon since they have walked the material plane, and centuries since they last tried to break the barrier. There was a time when the two planes existed as one - man, myth, energy and ethers - all intertwined and coexisting in a single world. But the forces that ruled the dark essences became greedy for power and domination and launched a campaign of destruction on the rest of the world. This was the first time any such battle was waged between the forces that make all things, and a deep chasm was wrought that has never been healed. This marks the creation of the entities we now perceive as being separate - good and evil.

For centuries the battle raged, neither side gaining or losing ground on the other. It was a world of chaos and unrelenting turmoil. Finally there came the joining; a group of men who came together from the far realms to fight as one. They rode as one across the vast expanse of the world to the very heart of the dark force´s position, taking out the lesser lords and creatures as they went. The final assault lasted nearly a year, each side taking countless causalities but neither willing to surrender. With the help of a powerful mage the joined ones at last were able to conceive a solution. A barrier was created as a way to trap the evil forces into the world of ether, separating them from the solid plane. It is because of the barrier that man today believes such things as orcs to be myth, for time as the solid world knew went on and on, the world of the ether fading from memory and understanding. The barrier remains to this day, though there are hardly any beings who walk the solid aware of its existence for it has been so long since the seal was first created.

As all things that are made, there are irregularities in energies, and the barrier is no different. Its energy is like a tide in ebbs and flows, at some points very strong and at others very weak. And like anything long imprisoned, the dark beings have come to sense these shifts, and try to use them to their advantage. We are presently on the verge of a time of weakness in the barrier´s patterns. It is a state which is most often exploited by the darker forces in attempts to expand their territory into the solid." Buck chuckled, his warm voice breaking in.

"Guess that pretty much explains why there ain't any marauding herds a' unicorns and fairies trying ta take over and establish themselves a Happy Land somewheres." Everyone smiled at his words, laughing a little and enjoying the levity his comment brought to the conversation.

"I would agree your assessment is correct, Mr. Wilmington. The creatures of good tend to employ more subtle methodologies when in the solid." Dovan's smile faded a little, and she continued. "The army you saw today was just the very beginning of what is possible to come. On their own they would never attempt to mount such an offensive. Lesser demons such as orcs and others have no such ambition as nothing but baser thoughts rule them. But the greater force that leads them does. A dark, consuming desire to enter the solid sphere and destroy the barrier, crush those who inhabit this plane, thus being able to rule both completely.”

“You mean like the Devil?” JD asked with a whispered voice. Dovan regarded him for a moment before speaking.

“Yes and no Mr. Dunne. Using this term…devil…is far too much a simplification of what we are facing. It is that, yet not at all. The Devil, Loki, Yama-omba, Tonagma, Hsiao Wu…and so many other names too countless to list - these are all greater forces of evil that man has faced within our existence. The devil is just one symbolic incarnation of the dark essences. As I have said, when the world was conceived and new, all things were as one. The time of the uprising came when evil had evolved to exist in autonomous patterns from anything else, inhabiting twisted and dark shells of flesh created by their dark forces.

The solid world as you perceive before you now is as barren of ether as it has ever been, all the centuries that have come after the barrier erasing any remnants of the one world. That sealed by the barrier is like a vast sea of energy that exists just below all solid things -not displaced or physically ‘under´ anything, but instead just beyond. The barrier that now exists keeps all things separate, not just the evil, so our understanding of how our lifecycle works has become shrouded by the trappings of invented religions and mythos. When as one, all things could easily perceive the other, so knowing the principles for how life was woven was an intrinsic part of all beings.

Solid forms are gatherings of energy from the ether, a single vessel holding all necessary essences for life and existing on this solid plane. The ether is much harder to grasp, much more mutable. All solid beings were at one time adrift in the sea of ether, but through a course of conception they gathered enough strength and mix of essences to be able to cross over into the solid. The mix is always different, which is why we have such variety in all the different things we are able to recognize. Most beings are balanced, coming into form as a neutral entity - like horses, the sun, most people, our entire world. Sometimes the mix is particularly strong one way or the other, giving us things of great good. But that also means some of the beings chose to cross over by building an essence driven by evil.” She looked over to see JD´s brow had furrowed, showing his confusion over her words.

“Consider it this way,” she explained. “There is nothing in this existence that is all or nothing. There is no pure evil, just as there is no pure good. Good and evil are like all other things. Forces of energy that shape the universe, essences that come together to form all living things. Everything flows through everything, making it possible for people, things, energy, to all tap into one power or another.” She paused, searching for a way to explain the phenomenon.

“Think of it as a spectrum, with evil being on one end and good at the other.” She motioned with her hands, indicating a spot on the ground for ‘evil,´ and another for ‘good.´ “All things follow this continuum. Their individual makeup decides where along this scale they will fall. Some things choose to find power in good. The strongest of these being someone you familiar through God.” She placed a hand on the far end she´d indicated was ‘good.´ “Other beings choose their power in evil. That is where your Devil comes in.” Dovan jabbed a single finger at the opposite end of the imaginary line. She exhaled a breath before continuing. “For the most part these forces are kept in check, balanced in one another. This means most things exist somewhere around here,” she moved both hands in to the center of the line. “This creates the two dimensions of our universe, and the types of beings that populate them. There have always been forces of evil in the world, people who are ruled more by darkness than light, and they will continue to be born into this realm. There is no stopping this phenomenon. Remember though, just as greater evil is possible to form by these laws, so the same allows greater good to make conception.” She looked meaningfully at each of the men in turn before continuing. “It was when evil tried to bypass the immutable law of nature that all things are in all things that the balance became unhinged, leaving us where we are today, worlds divided.

Right now the barrier between the solid world and the pool of essences just beyond is at its weakest, and this is how the banished creatures are able to cross over into the solid plane. A rift has formed in the veil at the same place the canyon exists. While not in the same place exactly, it is enough to allow the evil beings of the beyond to cross over into the solid world much faster and stronger than would normally be possible.” Dovan stopped in her accounting and realized it was nearing dusk. She looked at the setting sun and suggested they should return to town before dark, offering to finish this discussion at the saloon. The seven nodded and soon they were riding in silence back to the small hamlet, each one digesting in his way the information presented by their strange visitor. When they arrived JD and Buck offered to see to the horses. Dovan slipped quietly from Dragon´s back and the animal trotted off on its own. She smiled and shrugged.

“Dragon does not like the indoors,” she explained simply. Vin grinned in understanding. They made their way into the saloon and ordered drinks, a pot of tea for Dovan and JD, brandy for Ezra and whiskey for the rest. When Buck and JD had rejoined them Dovan continued her discourse.

“You all are vital parts of a whole that is necessary to fight and defeat the army preparing to wage war. It will require all of your combined strengths and my assistance for you to have a hope of overcoming them, but the task before you is not impossible.”

“I´m thinkin´ we´re gonna need a little more than your assistance,” Nathan´s voice was questioning and slightly critical. “Don´t really care what you say makes what - what I´m thinking we´re gonna need is an act of God.” Dovan shook her head and opened her hands to encompass the group before her.

“Your waiting for a single moment of divine intervention from a benevolent god will be a futile endeavor. There is nothing more coming, no heavenly force that will amend the horrors we have witnessed, no one else to accept responsibility for the fate of our worlds than you. This ‘act of God´ you seek has already occurred Mr. Jackson.” Her voice was surprising, as it was imbued with steel and a heat that had never been present before. “Do you think it was accident that the seven of you should have come to this place, drawn here and deciding to stay even though your original intent had been carried out? That by remaining you have become more to one another than a band of mercenaries thrown together for a single common purpose? It is no coincidence you are here, together, with enough time to have bonded as brothers and become stronger for your bond, and within proximity of the breach.” She finished with a curse and threw her hand in a dismissive gesture. The curse came in a strange tongue, one not recognized by any of the men present, though none could deny it sounded familiar all the same. Josiah nodded his head thoughtfully and said quietly,


“Destiny is nothing more than a law of nature,” she said shortly. At Josiah´s dark look Dovan held up a placating hand and smiled gently, the calm and steady presence she had been up until now replacing the angered woman of moments ago. “I mean no disrespect to your beliefs Mr. Sanchez, but it is true. Our idea of destiny ascribes it as being an oftentimes-irrational force, which chooses to swoop into our lives from time to time, shake things up, then leave again without even saying goodbye. It is not so archaic as all that. What you are now you have always been, and will always continue to be. What happens when the essences that make you solid grow weak is when your current vessel fails to function and you ‘die.´ But this does not halt the chain of your existence; it is merely the leaving of a corporal shell. After this failing those essences which make you returns across the veil to the ether, and there you remain until you are once again strong enough to return to the solid.” She smiled again, eyes flashing. “Here is where ‘destiny´ comes in.

Like tends to be attracted to like - and they also tend to follow a similar path, which in turn leads them along overlapping timelines. You all are attracted to one another; your essences recognize a like force and thereby draw you to the other. It will happen again and again through time as you reincarnate into solid beings. And it is possible for it to continue happening because you have all become so closely meshed that your individual selves have deteriorated into a shared essence. It is not a negative deterioration and should not be seen as such. Rather it is a relationship that is fundamental to you all, makes you stronger - makes you the people capable of engaging in the fight for which I sought you out. That is why you will continue to find one another in your past and futures. You are all inexorably linked. You need one another, completely.” She leaned back in her chair and gave an artless shrug. “See? Laws of nature.” Josiah shook his head but couldn´t hide the smile.

“Think I´ll just stay with calling it Destiny, Sister. Has a poetic simplicity I prefer.” Dovan laughed.

“So be it Mr. Sanchez.” Her eyes clouded for a moment before she swept her arms across the table, as if to clear it. “Enough of this. It is not as if these are things you do not know. They may not be something you are aware of yet, but they are something you have innate understanding of. The only thing holding you to your ignorance are your reluctance to accept what you know in your hearts, to embrace a truth you cannot openly prove. If we had more time I would delight in engaging in further discourse with you, allow you the time to come into this place gracefully, but we do not have such a luxury.” Dovan stood. “I will meet you all at dawn and there we can decide the best course of action. Meet me at the clearing along the river where we spent the afternoon, but first see that you get some rest. You will need it.” She waited a moment for the men around her to agree, and after she had confirmation of their assent she turned from the table and glided into the night beyond the saloon. Josiah´s face was split by a huge grin and he said in an almost jovial voice,

“See, I told you Brothers this was meant to be!” The others groaned and chided, but his smile was returned and remained on the faces of the seven as they broke for the evening to return to their respective rooms, heeding the advise to get some rest and wondering just how they would survive the coming battle.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning found them all assembled and waiting for her, and not even Ezra had complained about the hour. Chris paced a little impatiently and shook his head,

"Been enough time for her ta get here. Wonder where she is?" He scanned the horizon again for some sign of her, but there was nothing different from the last time he'd looked. "Maybe we should split up and look for her." Everyone grumbled a reply but before they could act JD pointed behind Chris. Dovan had arrived. Dragon was walking next to her, his long easy gait matching her stride, the tall black loaded with many large burlap items. She reached up and took a long object from his pack, and then leaned her head to his and whispered something. Dragon nickered in response and trotted to the water for a long drink before taking up position behind the waiting peacekeepers. He flickered an ear and stood, eyes and senses alert, but at her nod the huge head bent and strong teeth began methodically cropping the wet grass along the riverbank.

"I apologize for my tardiness, but I had a bit more trouble procuring the necessary items than I had anticipated." Her brow wrinkled and she said almost to herself, "The longer time goes on the harder it becomes to find these again." Instead of explaining what 'these' were, she simply unwrapped the item in her hand and held it up for them to inspect. They remained silent, impressed and a little hesitant about what it seemed she was offering for them to carry into battle. Buck let out a long whistle through slack lips.

"The enemy we will be fighting cannot be conquered using guns. The orcs and others will be able to come harder and faster than you will have time to load your weapons for use. It is imperative you learn at least minimal lethal handling of the weapon required.” She tilted it towards them, its fine point blinking in the sun. "This is the Arren." She threw the strange weapon Ezra´s way and he caught it by the grip, using the hilt to balance it before it twisted from his hands. Ezra turned the immense sword around in his hold regarding the elegant instrument. It shone as if imbued with an inner source of light - the silver-white blade true and curved on its inside edge, the outside edge notched with great blue-tipped teeth. Ezra had thought it would be too heavy to wield, as it was as long as his whole arm, but the balance and build of the blade made it light and his movements with it deft, unencumbered. He sliced the air in an arc over his head experimentally - once, twice, a third time. A sound of vibration that was almost a cry built as Ezra swung the weapon again and again, until there was no end to the keening resonance. He brought the sword to a stop, both hands on the grip to still its movement. For a long moment the humming continued, filling the air around them. Ezra grinned, green eyes sparkling.

"Nice," was all the gambler said. He had used the weapon as if born to it, like some prior learning had been tapped into and remembered. Dragon had stepped forward and Dovan retrieved the remaining blades from his back. She passed them out, one for Buck, Chris and Josiah. Chris held his and moved it about before asking,

"How long do ya think we have ta learn this?" She answered without hesitating.

"Today, tomorrow." She ignored their exclaimed responses, lifting a larger bundle from Dragon's back and handed it to Vin, who frowned at the ungainly heap she passed to him. He shifted the weight in his hands and unwrapped it carefully, looking like he was worried the contents could bite him if he wasn't careful. His efforts revealed a quiver filled with heavy arrows made entirely of a silver metal, and a matching bow that was almost half the height of the sharpshooter. He eyed the items warily.

"Your skills will be most effective if you are paired with the Karok," Dovan walked to him and gestured at the bow and arrows at his feet.

"Effective? What am I supposed ta do with something I can't hardly even lift?" the sharpshooter asked. Dovan smiled and picked the Karok up easily, bracing an arrow and then letting it fly. It traveled a great distance from them, embedding in a rock several miles downstream. The flight of the arrow had been accompanied by a peculiar whistling sound the projectile created as it flew. Vin looked at the weapon with new appreciation. "Nice."

"The Karok must be armed as such," she explained, showing the tracker how to place the arrows and ready the bow for firing. When it was loose, the bow looked broken, not ready for use at all. The grip was formed of interlocking metal arms, the draw a tightly woven cord of metal and silken threads. When a bow was braced, the force would pull the grip first into a straight line, then pull the grip's ends back until they were stretched in the opposite direction they were when at rest. This allowed tremendous force to be applied to the arrow. She fitted an arrow onto the draw and held the Karok to her body, pulling steadily back on the base of the arrow. Vin watched fascinated as the grip straightened then pulled tight the other way. Dovan indicated where his hands should be and how to release the arrow for striking before letting the grip relax again. She handed it to the sharpshooter, who was now anxious to give this new weapon a go.

"Take this and practice. If you have questions, let me know. I believe you will have no troubles with the mechanics of the Karok. Remember this however: the weapon seems heavy, almost so that it would be impossible to fire effectively. You must not use its weight, rather use its lightness. And when aiming the arrows, think not of hitting your target as you see it. Close your eyes and allow the target to find you, and the arrows will always hit as you desire." Vin nodded in understanding. Kinda scary how this is all starting ta make sense ta me this way. Dovan was smiling as if she'd heard him and Vin flushed just slightly. Her smile widened to a grin.

"Retrieve the arrow I have fired. Go there within, as it will be good practice for you." She glanced at Ezra, still parrying the Arren and showing the others how to hold and balance the great sword. "Take him with you." Vin raised his brows. "I believe he will be as adept at being within as you have proved yourself to be. If I were you I would merely hold him by the shoulder and bring him along with you. You can explain as you go. He will get the idea." Vin grinned back and turned from her, carrying the Karok. He walked a few paces before stopping and turning again to face her.

"Thanks," he held up the bow and arrows. "For this, for showing me what I asked, for helping us ta win this fight." Dovan's grin softened and her eyes subdued, changing to a pewter color.

"It is I who thank you, Mr. Tanner. It was not you who came to me, remember that. And as for showing you...well, these are things which you already knew. I am simply pointing them out."

"Think we'd been in this fight eventually, and think ya know it too. Not likely for that army ta start up against all of us and no one notice, 'specially us. And like ya said, laws of nature, our pasts and futures and all, we probably couldn't have avoided this if we wanted. You helping us, coming ta us like ya did, it gives us a chance. Guess that makes us even." His voice was still calm but the blue eyes had darkened, his sincerity having altered the indigo depths. He followed the void so he could whisper into her ear without actually moving,

"And I'm thinking it's about time ya called me Vin. Can't hold ta having known ya for all this time and you still being so formal. Goes for the rest of 'em too." Her eyes widened then flashed with bemused pleasure. Thought that would work. Vin chuckled and he saluted her with two fingers before making his way to Ezra. A sensation made his scalp tingle then he felt the words inside of him,

As you wish, Vin.

Vin tried not to smile as he approached the men practicing with the curved swords. Damn, got me again.

Dovan watched as he stopped next to the gambler and motioned towards the arrow. Ezra accepted easily and they walked away together in the direction of the stone she had fired at. Vin brought a hand up and clasped it around Ezra's shoulder and the pair shimmered then disappeared. Dovan smiled and walked to the remainder of the men.

"Already you have improved and it has been only a few minutes. I believe in two day's time you will be adequately prepared." Nathan walked to her side.

"Supposing since ya didn't pass one of them to me I'm not needing one?" She smiled and nodded.

"Your skills will be required elsewhere. You could be most deadly with the Arren, Nathan, of that I have no doubt. But your abilities with herbs, medicines and healing will be what is most needed from you." Nathan warmed at her compliment, understanding her reasons for not arming him as well. He thought for a moment.

"If I'm going ta be responsible for taking care of these guys during this, I'd better make sure I got everything I can think of. It okay if I go off looking for the stuff I'll need?" Dovan patted him on the shoulder.

"By all means, Nathan. Take your time and consider carefully everything out here available to you. Gather whatever seems to you is right, even if you cannot think of an immediate use." The healer nodded and trotted away, mounting his horse and riding off to go in search of the rapidly growing list he was already ticking off in his head. JD was standing and looking expectantly at her. Dovan put an arm around him and drew him aside, talking softly to him for a long moment. She handed him the weapon he would need and requested he take it and practice its use, promising to assist him should he find he needed it. "I will explain to you tomorrow the rest of what you must do. But for now focus on learning the weapon, become comfortable with its feel." The young sheriff nodded and gripped the weapon in a hand then went upstream until he could be out of sight behind some trees to practice. Dovan returned to the rest of them and grinned, gesturing for Chris to step forward with his sword and for Buck and Josiah to observe for the time being.

"Now," she said, "let us learn how the Arren is used."

+ + + + + + +

They had returned to town at dusk, coming to the saloon to ease their hunger and thirst before planning the actual attack. The seven ached from the efforts of their day, but it was a reassuring ache, one that gave them the sense they would not be entering into the battle ill prepared. They ate their dinners in relative silence, enjoying just being together before having to move onto the serious matters ahead of them. Dovan finished her meal and pushed her plate to the center of the table.

"The best way of overcoming such a force will be to split ourselves into pairs, each team responsible for carrying out a specific component of the whole that will be required. I believe I have determined the best course of action," she turned to Chris. "If I may?" she inquired. Chris smiled a little and waved a hand.

"This is your show. I'm just along for the ride." Wouldn't really know how ta begin anyway. If she's got an idea, I'm happy ta hear it.

"Buck and Ezra will go in search of the breach, Buck to defend and Ezra with the responsibility of sealing the barrier again." Brows shot up in question over green eyes, so Dovan answered the implicit question. "You will know when you get there," she answered cryptically. Ezra fought to hold down a less than complimentary retort, a struggle which Dovan neatly ignored. "Josiah and Nathan will be positioned at the mouth of the canyon, and it will be their sole objective to prevent any of the creatures from escaping through that route." Both men nodded, remembering the narrow channel which allowed the only ground access to the canyon. "Chris and I will fight our way to the leader and destroy him. This action will be required to happen before anything else of significance can occur. The breach cannot be healed until this time, and Josiah and Nathan will not find their position threatened so long as Asmodeus stands. When his death is accomplished the army before us will fall into chaos and they will turn on each other, for the power binding them together as one will be gone." She looked at JD and Vin in turn. "Your roles require you act alone. Vin, you will need to remain on the ledge just below the mouth of the gorge. From this place the Karok will be of most use to us all. JD," silver eyes bore into him, and a secret warning flashed as she spoke, "I will explain your part to you later, while we travel to the camp. It cannot be known to anyone else." The young sheriff squirmed a little but his resolve was strong, so instead of blanching like he wanted he simply nodded his head a little.

"Once we have arrived at the canyon I will provide a distraction so the rest of you can gain position inside without being noticed. I will then signal Chris and we will begin our initiative, and by grace may we succeed." Josiah raised his glass.

"Amen to that, Sister Dovan, amen." The eight shared a toast and a comfortable silence. After several minutes Chris stood and stretched, stifling a yawn.

"We should get some rest. Tomorrow we have ta get up and get everything packed for the night we're camping close to the canyon. Best ta get an early start so we can practice some more. Know I could use it." They all nodded in agreement and parted company, going to their respective places of rest until the few remaining hours until dawn passed and they would once again be returning to the ever- nearing reality of the battle to come.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan turned slowly in his clinic, wondering what exactly to bring with him. How am I gonna know what ta give anybody if they get hurt by one of those things? Kinda doubt a little bandaging will do the trick. When I was out gathering yesterday, it all seemed so clear, like I knew without thinking what ta get. But now I jus' don't know. He sighed and continued packing the bag he´d gotten out for his medical supplies. He was worried his minimal healing skills would fail the others. A whisper of sound had him looking up, and he was a bit surprised to see Dovan standing in the door. She reached out and knocked unnecessarily on the open door.

“Mind if I come in?” she queried. Nathan just shook his head and motioned her forward. He stood then, hands on hips, his doubts and questions about him like a mantle.

“How large is your supply of herbs and medicines?” Nathan considered this, mentally cataloging the contents of the clinic and his reserve stash.

“Pretty good since I had all of yesterday. And the medicines I can't jus' go get from nature were all restocked jus' a few weeks ago, so they're all full or barely used yet.” She nodded, satisfied, and stepped forward to press a small pouch into his hand.

“Bring everything. This will provide a way for you to procure more afterwards of anything you are unable to find on your own.” Her eyes smiled at him and she squeezed his larger hand for a beat before releasing it. She walked away and said over a shoulder, “The only thing I would ask you do not bring is your doubts Mr. Jackson. It is beyond question your exceptional abilities will help aid our salvation.” Nathan watched her go with a slack jaw. He rolled the pouch in his hand and felt many heavy coins shift inside. Must be hundreds in here…but I gotta admit it ain´t the money that´s the thing I´m thankful she surprised me with. He went to the back of the clinic to gather everything he had, and carefully hid the coins before coming to the front again. After everything was loaded into the two largest sacks he had he walked resolutely for the door, looking back at the interior of his clinic, his home, and made a fervent prayer it would not be the last time he or any of his companions saw it. He pulled the locked door firmly shut and descended the stairs to his horse and prepared to ride. It wasn´t long before they were all ready, and Chris led the way to the place they´d decided to make camp the last night before the battle. They rode out of town together, each man lost in his own thoughts about the possibility of losing each other and their home in this town, wondering just what tomorrow would hold, and trying not to consider the outcome if they failed.


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