Seven of Chaos

by Debra Noellert

Chapter 1-6 | Chapter 7-11 | Chapter 12-14 | Chapter 15-17 | Chapter 18-22

Sweet and succulent, Ezra couldn't remember the last time he'd enjoyed a more delicious peach cobbler. It was a shame that the magic dish that created the dessert only worked within the Sanctuary. Ezra would have loved to have such a platter in his own kitchen. Next to him JD was gobbling down a traditional Elvin stew, which he swore tasted just like his mother's. The oak table they sat at provided chairs for as many as fourteen, but only four others joined them.

Josiah sat beyond the table in a well-stuffed chair as he conferred with at least a dozen mages and two other Sunbird Priests. His group had taken over the cushioned seats and tables that made up the living room. The discussion seemed most intent between Josiah and a Reptiad mage, who despite his low second rank seemed to be the leader of the mages.

Across the table to the left, a railing guarded the drop to a lower level that housed, what looked to Ezra, like a cross between a library and an Apothecary's shop. Nathan was down there now replacing the medicinal herbs he had used on Buck.

Cabinet covered walls provided a kitchen area across from the sunken living room. At the far end of the Sanctuary an eye-catching relief was carved into the marble wall. It portrayed a twelve-foot tall, muscular man. Ezra had heard Tyrchon tell Vin that the image was of Len, the wizard that created this Sanctuary some 500 years ago. To the right and left of the relief, stairs rose to a third level. Two balconied hallways provided access to numerous other rooms. Tyrchon said those were comfortable bedrooms, each including a bathing area.

One of the bedroom doors on the right opened and Buck walked out, his arm around the waist of a female Rider who leaned comfortably against his side. Ezra found himself simultaneously awed and irritated that Mr. Buck was apparently so unconcerned by recent events that when given a chance to help plan their next course of action, he felt his time was better spent getting laid.

Across the table from Ezra and JD sat Chris Larabee and the young man Ezra recognized from the Imperial Ball as Lachlan. It was Lachlan who had met them on the mountainside, riding an impressive emerald stallion and leading a small herd of horses. Swinging off his horse, the young man approached Chris extending his hand. "Christopher? It's good to finally meet you in person. Please, call me Locke. Only my Grandmother calls me Lachlan."

Chris returned the handshake saying, "It's just Chris. I didn't expect to see you on this side of the Ward Wall."

"A sorceress I know with a perchance for clairvoyance sent a message that we'd be of more use to you in Chaos than in Corners. I sent the rest of the Lancers ahead to fortify our Sanctuary defenses. In fact, on the way here the Emerald Horse and I picked up some stragglers that I think you might recognize."

Looking past Locke and his stallion, Chris saw the herd included Pony, Saint, Unicorn, Phoenix, and Peso. Chris, Buck, Nathan, Josiah and Vin each claimed their horses, leaving Ezra and JD the only two riders that needed mounts. Locke whispered in his horse's ear then asked Ezra to step forward. The Emerald horse neighed and stamped his hoof. From the herd came a ruby red horse with a thick purple mane and tail. Swinging up to the equine back, Ezra informed everyone that his new horse's name was Chaucer.

The Emerald horse turned its head towards JD and the youth immediately stepped forward. A neigh brought attention to a mount that looked half rat, but before it could scurry more than a few feet towards JD another beast ran between them. Black with a spotting of silver spikes the horse charged the rat-horse nipping and kicking to drive it back. Chris started to move Pony between JD and the wild mare, but JD dodged around Pony to throw his arms around the neck of the black, studded challenger.

"JD?" Ezra's voice carried more than a hint of concern.

"Miracle," gasped JD, "it's Miracle!"

Ezra looked confused for a moment then realization struck. "You mean that's your father's horse?"

JD nodded burying his face in the mare's mane. The mare responded by nuzzling the young man, even as its fierce spikes mysteriously retracted into its body.

"Looks like she's your horse now," said Chris. "Mount up. We've already been here too long."

JD's face lit up with a grin and a whoop as he leapt onto Miracle's back. Miracle launched forward, galloping down the mountainside with more ease than any horse had a right to. Locke and his Emerald stallion quickly took up the challenge and within seconds the two teens were racing neck and neck. The others followed, reaching the Sanctuary in minutes.

Sitting at the table, Chris and Locke were flanked by the Elvin scout Vin and his Human counterpart, Tyrchon. The four men had sketched out the area around the Glass Cliffs that would soon become their battleground. Strategies and tactics were tossed back and forth, strengths and weaknesses pinpointed and plans modified. But Ezra was doubtful that even the best strategy could defeat a demon army that so easily outnumbered them.

For his own part, Ezra had already reported all that he knew of the Black Church's plans. Josiah now possessed what little knowledge Ezra had of Marquay's wand. He'd passed on the information he gathered to the appropriate members of the military. Ezra's job was done. Now it was time to sit back and let the Chaos riders and the Imperial army deal with the threat. But Ezra hadn't expected to become so emotionally invested. He didn't want to sit back and let others deal with the threat. He wanted to see the Black Church's defeat and participate in Marquay's downfall personally. Even though his duty was finished, he wasn't ready to let go. No doubt his mother would be quite disappointed in his lack of control.

JD finished off the last couple bites of stew and did his best to not look out of place sitting, as he was, surrounded by the best warriors the Empire had to offer. JD tried to follow the plans being made. But the truth was, he only understood about half of what was being said about 'force vulnerabilities' and 'flanking maneuvers'. Maybe it was part of a swordsman's training. Locke was the same age as JD but he seemed to know exactly what Chris and the others were talking about.

Just then JD noticed that Ezra had finished his meal and was now paging through the book he had carried with him since their escape from the tunnels. JD's eyes were drawn to the brightly colored image of a large snake-like conveyance that seemed to be carrying hundreds of people. The word TRAIN was written in bold print at the top of the page. "Incredible! Where did you get that?" JD asked

Aware of the attention JD's exclamation had drawn, Ezra replied in a more moderate tone. "I liberated this tome from the dark mage Marquay. He claimed it was a pre-Chaos encyclopedia for children."

"May I see it for a moment?" asked Tyrchon. His eyes darted quickly over the image. "Nagrendra, would you come here?"

The large Reptiad that had been talking with Josiah stepped up to the table expectantly. "Do you require my assistance?"

Tyrchon turned the book entry towards Nagrendra asking, "Does that look familiar to you?"

The lizard man's tail tapped the ground as he studied the image. "Yes, I remember seeing something similar in Spiriastar's. . . asylum. This book is in excellent condition for a pre-Chaos relic. But I can't help but wonder why a Black Church mage would bother with it."

"Justification," Ezra spoke more to himself than the others, but when he saw the questioning looks he explained. "In between bouts of abuse and torture, Marquay tried to convince me that the City of Sorcerers was orchestrating the destruction of all pre-Chaos science and technology in an effort to keep our peoples ignorant and more easily controlled."

"Even if that's true," asked Vin, "how does opening the door for a bunch of demons going to fix the problem?"

"I did point out that flaw in Marquay's logic," assured Ezra. "His response was to give up on converting me and resume the torture." Vin grimaced in sympathy with Ezra.

"I'm hardly a fan of the City of Sorcerers," said Josiah, "but a conspiracy the likes of which you're describing seems a bit far fetched. Cardinal Burton of the Seekers had a much more benign reason for the rather gaping hole in our knowledge of the scientific arts. When the Chaos wave first hit, science was of no use. Only magic could hold Chaos at bay. The first several generations of Chaos Riders focused their energies on seeking out magical items that would give our mages an edge in the fight against Chaos. By the time people finally started seeking out other types of knowledge, it had already been destroyed by Chaos. Burton would likely give up his rank just to get a look at a book like this."

"So these things really existed. People used to ride those trains, the way we ride wagons and coaches. What else did they have?" JD didn't wait for an answer. He started turning pages, exploring the past wonders.

"Telegraphs and steam engines. If Marquay is to be believed, the Old Empire was in the midst of some sort of scientific renaissance with new inventions being announced everyday."

"If the information in this book is so valuable perhaps we should copy it so it isn't lost again," suggested Locke.

"Does that book have anything on weapons?" asked Larabee. "We could use an advantage or two right now."

"I don't see anything like that, Sir," said JD as he continued to page through the book. Nathan was now looking over his shoulder. Buck had also rejoined the group.

"Guess we'll have to win this battle the hard way," surmised Vin.

"Well, my staff and Tyrchon's sword should give us some advantage." Nagrendra hefted a three-foot ruby rod, which was capped with a red crystal hand clutching a large, radiant white diamond. But then he glanced at the scout's long sword uncertainly. "Assuming of course this isn't the wrong battle."

"Wrong battle?" asked Chris.

"It's a mixed blessing/curse that my sword carries," as Tyrchon spoke he drew the long and surprisingly slender blade. "I'm told this sword was ancient long before Chaos darkened our realm. The Imperial sword crafters I've taken it to have no idea what it's made of, but I have yet to encounter an object that I couldn't cut through with it. According to the legend I was told, the sword bearers who wielded it in the past were skilled warriors who became undefeatable when they drew it in battle. Unfortunately, each sword bearer eventually tried to use his or her sword in a situation where all its might was useless. They were consumed and then either broken or killed by their conflict."

"But how do you know which battle will be the wrong one to use your sword?" asked JD.

"I don't," admitted Tyrchon. "That's why I named it Restraint. To remind me to look at all my options and not just charge into battle."

Chris usually didn't waste time on legends and tall tales, but for some reason the weapon pulled his gaze. There was something so familiar about it. Chris forced himself to discard his distraction. "I don't see any way to avoid a headlong battle. When we left Corners there wasn't a mage powerful enough to stop Marquay's spell casting. That means our only way to prevent a demon invasion is to deny them access to the tunnels."

"The precipice is the key," Locke asserted. "If we can take the precipice they have no way to reach the tunnels or the Empire. The question is how do we take the precipice when they have three thousand and we have only eighty?"

Silence grew as no one could provide an easy answer. Then the air became electric. At the head of the table a small blue white sphere appeared. It grew in size then burst, leaving a small, cloaked figure in its wake. Every person in the Sanctuary had a weapon trained on the potential threat that had appeared in their midst.

"Hold!" ordered Locke. The command was obeyed, but it was clear that several were unhappy doing so.

Nagrendra stepped forward to push the hood off the small figure. The beautiful young face revealed brought a smile to the reptile man's countenance. "Xoayya, Chaos has been kind to you," he said, embracing the child.

A moment later Locke followed suit, saying, "It's good to see you looking so well."

"I'm sorry if my sudden appearance caused concern," said Xoayya.

"Perhaps," volunteered Josiah, "we were simply uncertain what to expect from a sorceress who had allied herself to Fialchar, Lord Disaster." Again bodies throughout the chamber tensed. Nagrendra appeared ready to challenge Josiah's comments. But it was the whisper behind him that captured Josiah's attention.

"It's not Xoayya's fault that the City of Sorcerers was too incompetent to see her properly trained. And, I won't allow her to be criticized for actions she took to protect the lives and happiness of her friends, myself included," growled Tyrchon.

Recognizing the voice of a man in love, Josiah chose not to take offence.

"Perhaps he should criticize my actions," Xoayya's defense of Josiah surprised everyone. "I think we both know that my choice to apprentice with Fialchar was more than a bit influenced by grief, as well as my own stubborn ignorance. My only defense is that when I agreed to the deal I knew it would be short-term." Xoayya shook her head. "I didn't risk sneaking away from Fialchar just to review my questionable life choices."

"Can you help us defeat the demon-church Alliance?" asked Locke.

"Indirectly," said Xoayya. "I know how the rift can be sealed. But I can probably help you most effectively by teleporting the Seven back to the Empire, and continuing to divert Fialchar's attention."

"Perhaps we want Fialchar's attention," countered Locke. "He's so determined to be the one to conquer the Empire that he'd probably be willing to attack the demon alliance just because they dared to usurp his position. He's done similar before against the Shadow demons."

"No, Locke." Xoayya's denial was desperately emphatic. "Fialchar has some clairvoyant ability. Enough that he's seen this battle will have no true victor. Both sides will be weakened, which will leave his position that much stronger. What he hasn't seen, what I've managed to hide from him is the presence of the Seven. If he notices their arrival in Chaos, he'll do everything in his power to destroy them, body and soul. That's why you need to let me teleport the Seven back to the Empire. The Ward Wall can't stop his passage but it does cloud his visions. And once the Seven are beyond his notice, we'll all be a lot safer."

"Now hold on, Darling," said Buck. "You keep saying 'the Seven'. Are you talking about us seven?" Buck waved his hand to indicate the others he'd come through the Ward Wall with. When Xoayya's nod showed that was exactly who she meant, Buck said, "Chris may be mean enough to scare the rattle off a Viper. But Ezra and JD have never been to Chaos before, so they couldn't have drawn anyone's attention. And I don't see how any one of the rest of us could be enough of a threat to make Fialchar even spit in our direction."

"Any one of you isn't a threat, but all of you together are." Xoayya hesitated. There was so much to explain and so little time. "Perhaps you would understand better if you could see what I see." Stepping over to Chris, Xoayya asked, "May I hold your hand?"

Chris's eyes narrowed for a second before he silently offered his left hand, saying nothing as Xoayya chanted her spell. Instead of the familiar tingle he expected, Xoayya's spell washed over him like a cool rain on a hot summer day. His eyes slipped closed as he relaxed into the revitalizing sensation in spite of himself. A collection of gasps caused his eyes to snap open again. Chris wasn't surprised to see his old friend Buck beside him. But he was surprised to see Buck was glowing. A soft gold white light radiated from his body. The core of the glow seemed to be coming from a flaming feather embedded in his chest. Shooting off from the feather were six shimmering strands that connected Buck to JD, Vin, Ezra, Nathan, Josiah and Chris, himself. Each man possessed his own burning feather with glittering strands. The strands wove the Seven men together in a manner none of them could explain.

"Phoenix feathers!" said Josiah, his voice rumbling with awe. The two Sunbird members, who had been watching with the rest of the Riders, each dropped to a knee and began to pray.

"Not to sound ignorant," started Locke, "but what's a Phoenix feather?"

When Josiah appeared too stunned to answer, Xoayya explained, "A Phoenix feather is best described as a mark of destiny, perhaps a mark of the God's favor if you prefer. The Lost Prince Jhesti would be an example of a man whose soul bore a Phoenix feather. But unlike others who have carried destiny's mark, these Seven men have always been bound to each other in every one of their incarnations." Xoayya turned from Locke to Chris. "The first three incarnations have been long since lost to history. But in your fourth incarnation you were known throughout the world as the Magnificent Seven - seven men who forged an alliance that not only brought worldwide peace, but also launched a renaissance that benefited all humanity. When it was learned that several of the Seven had been reincarnated, the ruler of the time, Emperor Watson, decided to provide them with the best education and training the Old Empire could provide. The Emperor believed that the Seven were sent by the Gods to stop some horrible evil. So he had them trained in combat as well as politics and negotiations. As they grew Watson made them his most trusted advisors. Finally, the last of the Seven was born." As Xoayya continued with her tale, her hands flicked, then mist formed above the table. From within the mist came the image of a young brunette.

"Mama!" Though JD's gasp was barely more than a whisper, it drew several concerned glances. Ezra, who knew JD's mother had died just three months before, laid a supportive hand on his shoulder.

"During her labor," said Xoayya, "she had a powerful clairvoyant vision which she refused to share with anyone but the Emperor." The image shifted to the women holding her babe as she talked to a dignified older gentleman. They began to move and speak for all to witness.

"I'll try to describe what I saw as best I can," the young mother said to the Emperor. "I watched as a horrible evil attacked our world shattering everything in its path. This Calamity, long held captive by chains forged by the Gods, will be unleashed by its acolyte Corruption who seeks to control its power. The Seven will be the only brake on Corruption's ambition. Twice..." The brunette closely cradled her infant son. "Twice Corruption will tear the Seven asunder. But they will be united a third time. And strengthened by the bonds of blood and soul, they will destroy Corruption and his master will again be chained."

"Hearing the prophecy validated many of the fears and hopes Emperor Watson harbored for his people's future. But it occurred to him that the forces of evil might use the knowledge of the prophecy to trick fate and change destiny. So after swearing the young mother to an oath of silence regarding her vision, the Emperor told his people only the first half of the prophecy then he changed the second half saying the Seven would have to face Corruption twice before fate would decide the destiny of our world."

"Corruption. That's how Fialchar sees himself," mused Locke. "In fact, the exact words he once spoke to me were, "My dear child, I am Corruption."(#3) Locke then shook his head. "But you know how I feel about predestination, Xoayya. I prefer to put my faith in free will. You do these men no justice, saddling them with prophesies to fulfill. I know that personally."

"Yet, even you have to admit that if someone believes something strongly enough, they can make that belief a self-fulfilling prophesy," argued Xoayya. "At the very least the belief creates a blind spot to exploit."

"Is Fialchar's belief in the prophecy strong enough to be exploited?" Chris spoke for the first time since Xoayya's arrival.

"Fialchar's belief in the prophecy was so strong that before the magic symposium where the Seal of Reality was to be presented, Fialchar gathered all the wealth that he had accumulated over the previous fifty years. Then he begged, borrowed and stole even more so that he could hire a virtual army of assassins. After consideration he decided not to attack Josiah or Nathan since they were honored guest speakers and their absence would certainly draw attention and concern. Perhaps even delay the presentation of the Seal. But the other five had no magic abilities and thus no reason to attend the symposium. In fact, it was a time of holiday and most people were spending time with family and friends."

The mist again formed a picture this time of two men walking down a mostly deserted market street. Ezra was more than a bit disturbed to see one of the men carrying his face. And next to his doppelganger walked another JD. The clothing and hair were different, but it was definitely them.

The two men looked relaxed and unguarded. JD turned to walk backwards so he could face his friend as he talked, obviously trusting Ezra to warn him of any hazards. The mist didn't reveal what alarmed Ezra but suddenly he was drawing his swords and JD was following suit.

Menacing figures surrounded the two. Ezra and JD fought back to back with blades in each hand. But they could barely hold at bay the dozen attackers harrying them. Ezra gasped and then slumped back against JD. JD immediately lunged forward, swinging wildly to drive their opponents back. He snatched a small vile from Ezra's belt and smashed it at their feet. The resulting smoke and confusion was enough for JD to drag Ezra to the relative safety of nearby building. JD checked Ezra and found a nasty stomach wound that was pulsing blood. He started searching for something to bind the wound with, but Ezra grabbed his arm.

"Run, JD, get out of here!" urged Ezra.

"No, I won't leave you!" insisted JD.

"Think, JD, if we've been attacked, how long until the others face the same. You need to warn them, and to do that, you have to survive." Ezra's whole will was focused on making JD listen to him.

"Okay, but I'm only leaving to get you help. I want you to hide, in case they start searching the buildings. Don't do anything foolish, just stay alive," ordered JD.

"Rest assured there will be no foolish heroics on my part. Now you should go while there is still time," pleaded Ezra.

JD crossed to a window, and was surprised by the number of enemy warriors simply milling about outside. A red sparkle drew JD's attention to a mage casting a spell. "No, please no," whispered JD as suspicion turned in his gut. Two glittering arrows formed, shooting out from the mage towards the building where JD and Ezra now hid. Seeing the warriors turn to charge their location, JD quickly shoved a table and shelf up against the door. Looking down, JD found himself covered in a halo of red. So was Ezra. The magic arrows had done their jobs. JD and Ezra could go nowhere without leaving a bright eye-catching trail behind.

"You could still escape," said Ezra. "Out a window or a back door." Shattering glass and splintering wood drowned his last words out.

"No," said JD with accepting calm. "I'll stay here with you instead. If I'm going to die I'd just as soon do it standing beside my brother." A few moments later the fierce and deadly battle was over.

Back in the Sanctuary Ezra and JD were both looking decidedly unwell. As the vision from the past had unfolded the two men had not only watched it, but it had triggered the past life memories buried within their souls, allowing them to relive the incident. And there were few things more sobering than living through one's own death.

"Aw hell," cursed Vin as he saw his own likeness in the mist.

The Vin of the past was traveling through a forest. He used the cover of its boughs and foliage to evade the arrows of his attackers. Circling around to eliminate the first two was easy enough, but Vin realized dozens were hunting him. He'd managed to avoid all but a few minor injuries, but he was bleeding and desperate for escape. Taking a chance, Vin drew the assassins in by playing dead. He forced his body to stay limp as the first of his enemies drew close enough to poke and kick him. When his ears told him he'd lured in enough opponents, Vin rose fluidly to his knees. He knocked several off their feet with his axe while others fell to the bite of his sword. A few intense seconds of combat left a scattering of eight bodies around Vin. But the victory was not without price. Vin now had a jagged cut in his side and a stab wound in his chest that felt as though it had damaged his lung. Knowing he had killed only a third of the enemy in his attempt to open a corridor of escape, Vin ran.

"Fialchar's first mistake was underestimating the connection between the Seven," said Xoayya. "The others all felt the deaths of Ezra and JD. Instinct pulled the survivors to each other. Fialchar's second mistake was relying too heavily on his paid murderers."

A quiet ranch sitting on a grassy hill suddenly burst into flames. Next, what looked like a typical tavern collapsed in upon its self.

"Though their homes were destroyed Chris and Buck were unharmed. Fialchar's less than scrupulous servants never bothered to verify their location. If they had, they would have known that the two had been call away by the Emperor just hours before to settle a nearby land dispute. Even Vin might have survived the initial attack had the assassins weapons not been coated in poison."

The past Vin burst through a set of double doors. Within dozens of people moved about wearing the stereotypical flowing gowns and cloaks of wizards and sorceresses. Vin managed to stumble a few feet before collapsing. Nathan was the first to reach him. Kneeling, he started to utter a healing spell. Vin knew it was hopeless. He could feel his body shutting down. But there was one last thing he needed to tell his friend. Vin had always believed a smart warrior was one who learned as much as they could about their enemy. The first assassin he had backtracked and captured had been forced to endure some painful questioning. Vin hadn't learned nearly as much as he wanted, but he did have a name. Hopefully it would be enough to help the others. "Fialchar! Fialchar hired assas . . ."

"Vin!" the shout came from Chris, who had Buck and Josiah close on his heals. He skidded to a stop and knelt down next to his friend.

"I felt JD and Ezra die," gasped Vin.

"We all felt it," confirmed Chris. "And we'll make whoever did this pay just as soon as we get you fixed up."

"Fialchar did this. You've got to stop him." Vin had just finished when a static shock zipped through the air.

Josiah sensed the unleashing of extraordinarily powerful magic and instinctively threw up a warding spell to protect his friends. Screams, cries and hysterical laughter preceded a tidal wave of Chaos magic. As Chaos washed around them everything changed. One wall became a waterfall that began flooding the room, another became a soft dough that sagged and folded in on its self. Some of the people in the room vanished. Others transformed into animals both meek and wild. One poor man became a marble statue, while a woman walked in circles with her internal organs hanging outside her skin. Sweat beaded on Josiah's brow as he fought to maintain the ward against Chaos. "Nathan, I need help," he pleaded.

Nathan shifted way from Vin to focus on bolstering Josiah's magic. Chris and Buck could do little more than watch as madness reigned around then. Working together Josiah and Nathan expanded the ward spell to include others. Those magic users that were relatively unharmed lent their abilities to Josiah's and after several long draining hours much of the city was protected. The rest of the world was now ruled by Chaos. After stabilizing the ward into a giant wall, Josiah tried to figure out what had happened. Seeing Vin's still body on the floor, Josiah realized that his friend had lost his battle with death in the midst of the Chaos wave. It pained Josiah greatly to know that he hadn't even noticed his friend's passing. Yet his end was clearly not unmarked. With the third death of the Seven, Buck's eyes had become hollow voids. Chris meanwhile looked the epitome of sorrowful rage.

"By all that is holy, what has happened here?" demanded Nathan as he struggled with his own grief.

"A group of magicians created the Seal of Reality," spoke up a twenty-something man with black hair and narrow eyes. "And in their arrogance they did nothing to safeguard its protection. Seconds after the Seal was presented, Fialchar destroyed it."

"Len?" Nathan was uncertain what to say to the powerful young mage he had known for several years.

"You'll be going after Fialchar, next. I'd go with you but the Chaos wave has driven my master insane. She's now compelled to unmake."

"Unmake what?" asked Nathan.

"Everything," answered Len. "It falls to me to stop her, if I can. Fialchar will likely be at his Green Keep. Father always goes there after a victory."

"What about your wife, Zin?" Chris couldn't see the sword-wielding warrior allowing her husband to face such danger alone.

Pain flashed across Len's face, "Spiriastar killed her three days ago. In the time since I've hid our son from both she and Fialchar."

"Three days? But it's only been a few hours since..." Buck couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"A few hours for you, five days for me, years for others, a few even felt time travel backwards. In the end it doesn't matter. We all have duties to do and we'll do them no matter how unlikely our chances of success." Len turned to go then hesitated. "Nathan, when my father fights, all that he thinks about is how to win," warned Len. "But sometimes the best way to get what you want is to simply deny your opponent a victory." Len looked ready to say something more, then changed his mind. " I wish you luck."

"The same to you," returned Nathan.

Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah set out for the Green Keep. They crossed the safety of the ward, leaving other mages to continue its maintenance and expansion.

Josiah tried to recall everything he knew about Fialchar. He was a mid-level apprentice who spent more time engaging in politics than seriously studying magic. Fialchar's son, Len, had surpassed his magic abilities years before. In fact, it seemed impossible that Fialchar could have created spells strong enough to shatter the Seal of Reality. He had to have had help! Josiah remembered the debate about the Seal. Many had insisted it was impossible to make an object that encompassed all aspects of reality, while a few argued it could be done. Always in the background, was Fialchar, antagonizing both sides. The few times Josiah had tried to enter the supposedly theoretical debate, he had been called away by unexpected duties or emergencies. Looking back, Josiah wondered if Fialchar had helped encourage those distractions to keep his attention away from a debate that was moving beyond the theoretical to the dangerously real.

Josiah was certain that the Chaos Wave was the 'Calamity' that JD's mother had predicted so many years ago. According to her prophesy the Seven would face their enemy twice before fate was decided. But Josiah had always felt something was missing from the prophecy. He had even asked Emperor Watson if there was more to it. The Emperor had countered with a request that Josiah trust him and not ask again. Josiah had acquiesced at the time but now he wondered how the prophecy had truly ended.

They were about to challenge the corruption known as Fialchar. The Seven had been diminished to four. Josiah and Nathan were still weak from their building of the Ward Wall. For them the Chaos Wave had flooded their world but a few hours ago. But there was no way to tell how much time had passed for Fialchar. He could have had weeks or even months to prepare his defenses and combat spells. Josiah didn't even have his wand with him. He had thought it would be unnecessary at what was supposed to be a symposium on theoretical magic, and left it at home.

Chris and Buck were elite warriors but neither possessed even a trace of magical ability. That would make them vulnerable to Fialchar's magical attacks. "Chris, when we enter Fialchar's Keep, you must let Nathan and I take the lead. Once we have him distracted with our spells, you and Buck will be free to attack."

Chris nodded silently as he continued on. He had noticed with detachment how Chaos continued to ravage the lands around them. Yet despite the madness all about, nothing hindered their passage. It was as though Chaos itself feared these four men.

Nathan spotted the Keep first. He and Josiah entered the lair, defusing magical traps along the way. It was almost amusing to finally reach their deadly foe, only to find him calmly preparing for a bath. Josiah and Nathan were launching attack spells before they took their first steps into the room.

The initial spells bounced harmlessly off Fialchar's protective shield. But when one forced the shield to collapse Fialchar went diving for his staff. He began attacking Nathan and Josiah with fireballs and lightening, never noticing the other two warriors that waited hidden in the hall. "How did the two of you get past my magic barriers?"

"Quite easily," taunted Josiah, "considering how sloppy and ill-conceived they were. No wonder you garnered so little respect from your peers."

"Yet I've destroyed my peers as well as those considered my superiors," bragged Fialchar. Chaos had changed the man, though only a bit. His skin looked to have turned into a metallic foil that coated his muscles. His beard was a curly, fine wire. His voice had taken a tinny quality. "I've even reduced the Magnificent Seven to the troublesome two," he mocked as he danced around the room to avoid one of Nathan's spells.

With Fialchar's back to the door, Buck stepped through the entrance and thrust his sword into the dark wizard's kidney. "I think you need to learn how to count," Buck snarled in Fialchar's ear. Then he withdrew his edge with a violent jerk.

Fialchar's shocked expression only grew as he saw Chris step beside Buck. "No!" he denied, "You're supposed to be dead. I saw your homes destroyed."

Both men stood firm despite the implications of Fialchar's comment. "That probably would have killed us if we'd actually been home when it happened," was Chris's sardonic reply.

Nathan took advantage of Fialchar's distraction to cast his most powerful curse. A shower of Red sparkles fell upon Fialchar sinking into his skin. Fialchar wailed as thousands of insects infested his body. The small creatures swarmed upon his right arm gnawing his flesh and muscle even as he shook it about trying to dislodge the tiny army.

The four men closed on their weakened prey. In defiance Fialchar shouted, "Cuaifeach iomghoath!" His raised staff flashed brightly, and the storm began.

Josiah was lifted off his feet and spun around the room until a wall brought him to a brutal stop. Buck was blown into Nathan and the two were tumbled around by the gale. Chris had managed to cling to the doorway but the cyclone prevented him from pressing an attack.

In the center of the whirlwind stood Fialchar. A flash of red indicated a curative spell that healed his wounded kidney. But there was only a fizzle by his arm when he failed to dispel Nathan's curse. "You won't defeat me! I am Fialchar, the avatar of Chaos! I am Corruption!" He roared. His staff glowed red until the man himself was veiled in a scarlet halo. "Tine!" Fialchar pointed his staff at Buck and Nathan, still tangled in the windstorm.

Chris groaned as Buck and Nathan were incinerated and two more chunks were torn from his soul. Across the room Josiah was conscious but dazed and only partially aware of how desperate their situation had become. Chris was unwilling to wait helpless while Fialchar picked his next victim. Eyeing the swirling squall Chris kicked off from the wall and launched himself into the wind. He felt the gust combine with his body's momentum to guide him towards Fialchar. Chris knew he'd probably only get one swing, so he targeted Fialchar's staff hoping that without it Josiah could overcome Fialchar's magic.

Fialchar saw no threat in the airborne warrior. He was at the moment, quite certain of his invincibility. Those others never would have even scratched him, had they not taken him by surprise. In fact, he had let Nathan and Buck die too quickly, too painlessly. He had the unlimited power of Chaos at his fingertips. Done correctly he could both enjoy the slow torment of his enemies and create an unending testament to the folly of those who would dare challenge him.

Fialchar never had the opportunity to choose a favored torture. Chris was blown close enough to attack. The logistics of swinging a broadsword while being whisked about a room certainly complicated Chris's ability to aim. But what his sword stroke lacked in finesse it made up for in brute strength. His steel cleaved through Fialchar's staff severing his conduit to Chaos magic. As the sword continued its swing it sliced off Fialchar's left arm. Chris had only enough time to see Fialchar's face fold in agony before the backlash of now uncontrolled magic flung him into a ceiling support, snapping his neck.

Josiah tried to force his thoughts into some sort of order, even as pain battled to overwhelm him. The last of his brothers was dead. He had to ensure their sacrifice was not for naught. Fialchar spelled a magical bandage on the stump of his left shoulder. Then he began to chant. Josiah identified the spell as one designed to funnel the Chaos magic around them into Fialchar's very being. The spell would increase his power a thousand fold and make him an evil God among men. Again, Josiah wished his own wand were with him. He would have to compensate with a counter spell that was much less complex, but hopefully no less effective. Fialchar had shattered reality in a selfish attempt to garner vast power, with no regard for the millions of lives he would be destroying. Josiah thought it fitting to deny Fialchar that power. Focusing the last of his strength and will, Josiah hurled his last attack.

The invisible magic hit Fialchar mid-chant. He stuttered then chanted faster trying to continue his weave. Suddenly the Chaos magic no longer answered his call. Thwarted once again, Fialchar wasted no thoughts on slow lingering deaths. He picked up Chris's sword with his bug-infested right hand and turned towards the sole surviving member of the Seven.

"I see your future, Fialchar," said Josiah in a hoarse tone. The legion of spells he had cast since the Chaos wave hit had finally caught up with him, leaving him too drained to even lift his head. "I see a long life of frustration, with everything you most desire forever beyond your grasp."

"I still win," declared Fialchar. "Because you have no future at all." He plunged the sword into Josiah's heart, eliciting only the tiniest of sighs as the last of the Seven died.

Stunned silence dominated the Sanctuary as the images faded back into the mist.

"I find it most unfair that Mr. Vin, Constable JD and myself were denied the opportunity to challenge Fialchar face to face," Ezra's offended tone prompted several chuckles from the Lancers around them. It was enough to ease the tension in the chamber and also let Buck, Nathan, Chris and Josiah process what they had seen and remembered without the pressure of everyone staring at them.

"Yeah," chimed in JD. "Things could have been totally different if we'd been there. I mean, we could've helped . . . somehow." Imagining himself facing Fialchar he quietly admitted, "not sure how, but we could have tried."

"I don't think fighting Fialchar is something I'd actually wish for," countered Vin.

"And yet," said Xoayya, "the three of you caused Fialchar the most difficulty in your next incarnation."

"We did?" came three surprised voices.

Xoayya couldn't help but smile at JD's evident pride in knowing he'd somehow managed to create 'difficulty' for Fialchar. Vin still looked somewhat disbelieving, while Ezra's look was decidedly calculating. "By all means," he asked, "please elaborate."

"After the battle," explained Xoayya, "Fialchar remained in his keep to lick his wounds. He repaired the damage from Buck's attack. Then he crafted a magical arm to replace to one Chris severed. To make it so lifelike he had to bind it to his life force, which means it's a small but continuous drain on his energies. His repeated attempts to break Nathan's curse all failed and he still suffers its affects. But it was Josiah's spell that would have the most far-reaching consequences. Most mages, with time and study, are able to grow and strengthen their magical gifts. But Josiah's spell permanently crippled Fialchar's ability to grow magically. In the five hundred years since he's learned much and laid claim to many magical artifacts, but he's still no more powerful than he was before Chaos. And that is something he still curses you for." Xoayya's last words were spoken directly to Josiah.

Josiah was torn between pride and dismay. Hadn't he said to Nathan just the night before that it would take a better mage than him to deal with Fialchar?

"Almost a year had passed, by Fialchar's reckoning, before he left his keep to see what Chaos had made of his world.

But in the new Empire twelve years had passed. Fialchar was quite dismayed to find that every one of the Seven had been reincarnated during his convalesce. He wasn't about to wait for them to grow into adults and challenge him again. So he kidnapped the children from their own beds." Within the mist a new image coalesced.

A cage of bars held seven children from the age of eleven to three years old. Outside the cage Fialchar had drawn markings on the floor, with gemstones laying anchor at their intersections. Foul incense burned from dozens of candles that encircled the room.

The Seven boys, who had spent hours trapped in the cage, had lost enough of their fear to try an escape attempt. It helped that the cage they were in was better suited to holding adults than children. The bars were just wide enough that the three smallest boys could sneak through. Their plan, to run all the way back to the Empire, get their parents and come back to rescue the older boys was unlikely to succeed. But it was the best the seven tired and frightened children could come up with.

Six-year-old Ezra, and five-year-old Vin, slipped silently through the bars, pulling three-year-old JD with them. They had crept two-thirds of the way across the room when Vin inexplicably tripped and slid across the floor.

"Run!" shouted Vin when he saw Fialchar look their way. Ezra raced for the door dragging little JD at his heals. Fialchar cut them off, knocking Ezra to the ground and picking up JD by the scruff of his shirt. When the three-year-old was turned to face the monster known as Fialchar, he reacted in the only way his young mind could. JD opened his mouth and released a flow of noxious, acidic spew that hit Fialchar right in the face. When JD's stomach was empty his lungs took over powering a scream that could have shattered every window of even the largest cathedral.

"Shut up!" shouted Fialchar, shaking the child with one hand while trying to wipe away the vomit with the other. Amazingly, JD's only response was to scream louder. Suddenly something small and hard struck Fialchar in the hip. Turning with JD still in his grasp Fialchar saw Vin scoop up one of the candles off the floor and hurl it. This one hit his shin.

"Stop scaring JD!" yelled the boy. "Let him go!" Vin grabbed more candle ammunition.

"Don't touch those," ordered Fialchar, "you'll damage the spell."

"I'll damage everything you've got until you send us home," threatened Vin. "Did you hear me? Send us home!"

"Home," sneered Fialchar. "By the time I'm done with you brats your parents won't even remember you existed." Fialchar had advanced several steps towards Vin when a needle pain thrust into the back of his thigh. Reaching around Fialchar plucked a pocketknife with a small two-inch blade from his limb.

Still in the cage, Nathan shivered. The tiny knife had been a present from his father, despite his mother's objections, for his eighth birthday. The gift was so dear to Nathan that he kept it with him all the time, even sleeping with it under his pillow. Throwing the small weapon had been the only thing he could think to do to stop Fialchar from hurting Vin.

"Enough!" roared Fialchar raising his hands. He released JD, but the boy didn't drop. Instead he floated above Fialchar; causing JD's screams to change in tenor yet not diminish. Vin, too, was lifted off the ground by an invisible hand. His response was to throw his last two candles at Fialchar's nose. Ezra was not nearly so calm about the new development. He scraped his fingers along the floor searching desperately for anything to hold on to. But the magic swept him up too, and floated he and the others back over the cell where they were unceremoniously dropped. Eight-year-old Buck managed to catch JD, who stopped crying once he felt safe again. But Ezra and Vin's descents were much less pleasant despite the others attempts to catch them.

Josiah watched Fialchar replace and relight the candles Vin had thrown. At eleven years old Josiah only knew a little bit about spell casting. But what he did know told him that the spell Fialchar was casting was going to be very bad. Josiah also noticed something that Fialchar seemed to have overlooked. Vin's earlier fall had wiped away one of the chalked symbols. And when Fialchar had knocked Ezra to the ground the boy had landed on two sapphires, which he had secretly pocketed before being deposited back in their cell. Now, Fialchar was chanting his spell totally unaware that several of its key components were missing. Turning towards the other boys, all huddled together, Josiah whispered, "Don't worry, we're going to be okay."

"I sure hope you're right," said Vin. "'Cause I want another shot at him."

"Me, too." agreed Chris.

"We will," assured Josiah. He wasn't sure where his certainty was coming from, he just accepted the feeling as true. "We'll all be fighting Fialchar again."

Fialchar's chant reached its apex and brilliant light filled the chamber. When the room returned to normal the seven Boys had been reduced to ashes. "Finally," creaked Fialchar's metallic voice. "Now, that I've obliterated the souls of the Seven, no one will ever threaten me again." As Fialchar strutted from the room the image, and the mist that held it faded away. "He tried to obliterate our souls," said Nathan. He knew he shouldn't be shocked but he was.

"He failed," Chris pointed out the most relevant fact of the whole story.

"But he'll try again if he learns we've been reincarnated, correct?" Ezra liked his odds of surviving Chaos less and less.

"Unfortunately, yes," confirmed Xoayya. "Fialchar still believes the spell he cast to destroy you worked. It threw your souls so far through time it would never occur to him to even look for you now unless . . ."

"Unless we became involved in something that would draw his attention," reasoned Ezra.

"Exactly," said Xoayya. "Fialchar may not be willing to participate in this battle, but he will be watching it. Fialchar loves to watch his enemies die, especially when they're killing each other." The redhead shuddered a bit at her master's pastime. "But if he sees even one of you fighting amongst the Lancers it will spell doom for all."

"I guess we'll be trying to take the precipice without you," Locke said to Chris.

But Chris wasn't willing to hide in safety while others sacrificed their lives for the Empire. "You're trying to send us home, which means you don't think we're ready to face Fialchar, or fulfill the prophecy."

"The prophecy said: strengthened by the bonds of blood and soul. For all intents and purposes you've just met. You tell me if you think you're ready," Xoayya challenged.

Chris left Xoayya's challenge unanswered. He knew Buck's skills and abilities as well as he knew his own, and he was fairly familiar with Nathan. But the others were a mystery to him. He'd liked what he'd seen from Josiah and Vin. Even JD and Ezra had surprised him with their adaptability and perseverance. But it would take a lot of work to make them into the type of cohesive fighting force he'd want to take against a foe as experienced as Fialchar. On the other hand, there was no time like the present to begin a little hands-on training. "If we're not ready to face Fialchar, and we can't fight the demons because Fialchar might notice, then it would seem that our abilities should be turned against those of the Black Church. You said earlier that you could teleport us to the Empire. Can you send us to the caves?"

Before Xoayya could do more than nod, Josiah said, "I'm betting the way to close the rift that you spoke of is going to involve the retrieval of my wand."

"Your wand?" asked Nathan.

"A simple gold wand just twelve inches long with a teardrop ruby at its cap?" Josiah looked to Ezra to confirm the wand he had seen. Ezra gave a wide-eyed nod, unconsciously rubbing the place the wand had hurt him. "Two lifetimes ago I made a wand that would allow me to use both forms of magic. Back then magic wasn't seen as Chaos or Imperial, good or evil. There was simply Focus magic and Dispersion magic and I was skilled at both. Had I not thought the wand most likely destroyed by the Chaos wave I might have used it against Fialchar. Somehow Marquay found it and is planning to use it to rip a hole in our Ward Wall. In this case what can tear a rift can also repair a rift. It's simply a matter of getting my wand back."

"Somehow I doubt that Marquay is going to turn it over peacefully," said Ezra.

"It wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't a challenge," said Chris. Ezra found the grin on his face quite unsettling.

"You're sure you want me to send you to the Black Church caves?" Xoayya wasn't certain this was the best way to protect the Seven.

"Marquay and his Churchers have been calling the shots ever since we learned of their plans. It's time we took the initiative away from them."

"Perhaps we should go too," spoke Keith, one of the two Sunbirders. "As priests of the Sunbird it is our duty to protect those who bare his mark."

"No," countered Chris. "The Valiant Lancers are going to be too outnumbered already. We can't afford to take anymore from their number." Locke nodded a silent thanks.

"Besides," added Josiah when it looked like the priest would continue to argue, "Marquay will likely open the rift the moment we appear. The best way you can help us is by preventing the demons from entering the Empire and surrounding us."

"It's decided then," said Locke. "We'll deal with the demon army. The Seven will handle the Black Church. Hopefully we'll all be able to toast each other when the battle is over." A murmur of agreement passed through the group.

Chris took a quick glance at his new party to be sure they were ready. Then he turned to Xoayya. "Do it." A soft chant, a blue glow and Xoayya and the Seven disappeared.


Ena paced back and forth across the length of the room. "This is an unmitigated disaster!" she hissed. "First, the two prisoner mages escape, with the help of a spy who has been moving amongst us for . . . who knows how many months. Then aforementioned spy destroys the blood sacrifice. We finally capture the spy only to have him escape before we can extract anything beyond the most miniscule of details from him. And, if that weren't enough, we have the Constable of Corners and half a dozen Chaos Riders reeking havoc in the very heart of our headquarters, leaving dozens of our most loyal members dead. Our spotters on the surface say several of our tunnel exits have already been discovered. Even now Riders and Imperial Reservists scout for more." Drawing in a deep breath, Ena took a moment to regain her composure. "The only reasonable thing to do is accept our failure, in this instance. We should grab what we can and run while there's still time. Oh, but wait! We can't run, because when the escaped mages and the spy and the Constable and the Chaos Riders finally decided they'd done enough damage and were ready to leave our supposedly secret caverns, they did so using our clearly not-so secret, escape tunnel. Then, they collapsed it behind them so that no one else could use the escape tunnel without first digging through several hundred thousand tons of rock. Why are you just sitting there staring at me? Do something!"

"Calm yourself, Ena," said Marquay in an infuriatingly relaxed voice. "We are still a long way from the disaster you're so eager to point out."

"But all our plans..." started Ena.

"Plans are no more than a trail map to a mountain spring. The map might be destroyed in a fire, the trail could be washed away by a storm. Does that mean the mountain spring is unattainable? Of course not, it only means we must find a different way to reach our goal. That's what Chaos is all about, my dear, innovation and adaptation. You speak of the members who have died. But I say look at those still with us. Survivors who watched their brothers and sisters be brutally slain. They are more resolved than ever to fight Imperial tyranny. The attack erased the illusions held by many, yourself included, that we could relax and drop our guard because our goal was almost achieved. But so near to our victory we must be at our most vigilant. We must adapt and overcome every challenge our enemies throw our way to prove ourselves worthy of Chaos."

"You sound as though you'd like to thank them for what they did," Ena spoke somewhat petulantly.

"I don't hate all Imperials the way you do, Ena. Misguided though they are I can still respect their abilities, if not their choices, like the spy for example. You might be interested to know his real name is Ezra. I cast a clairvoyance spell that revealed a great deal to me. I'd always thought there was something familiar about the man. It turns out that I once crossed paths with his father, Constable Standish. I had thought he'd be an excellent addition to our cause, but I was quite young at the time and others overruled me. Such a waste." Marquay shook his head at the unpleasant memory. "And of course the Empire has used his father's death to manipulate him into his current career. It's a shame really."

"You're not still thinking you could convert him?!" Ena couldn't understand why Marquay was so preoccupied with the spy.

"To have Ezra's intelligence and abilities bound to our cause, I would be willing to dedicate quite a bit of time and magic. But such things will have to wait for another day. Our immediate concern is finding a new source to power our Ward rending spell."

"Well, I believe we're fresh out of spare enemy mages," Ena's petulance had spiraled into sarcasm.

"Ena," Marquay chided, "have you heard nothing that I've said?" He rose from his chair to stand before her. "Innovation. Adaptation. Think outside the box or be trapped by it."

"Those are just words! There is no way to rend the Ward Wall and then sustain its opening for more than a few minutes, without killing yourself." Ena pointed out.

Marquay laid a hand gently against Ena's face, a look of extreme disappointment in his eyes. Suddenly his fingers jerked to the side, his nails scratching her cheek. "Draiocht sioc." Ena's body became unnaturally still while her eyes swiveled in panic. "It's a shame that you couldn't come up with a better answer, Ena. Now I will have to use your life-force to power our spell." Marquay dabbed the blood from Ena's face with a silk cloth. "I realize that it must be crushing to know that you'll likely die even as our dreams finally reach their fruition. But at least it will be in a worthy cause, and there is still a minute possibility you could survive. After all, anything can happen with Chaos."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Tsvala walked across the precipice, barely noticing the way others cleared a path. The Storm demons stepped back out of respect due to a War Queen. The Hobs scurried away in fear. Which was probably for the best since alliance, or no alliance, she was still as likely to step on a Hob as ignore it. In fact, the stink of Hob fear mixed with their usual scent of raw sewage was so strong that Tsvala was tempted to rip out a few throats just to improve the air quality. Allying with the stupid beasts had not been Tsvala's first choice. She still had a hard time understanding why several powerful Storm clans had declined to join her army. Their reasoning seemed absurd to Tsvala; that it would be wrong to take such aggressive action against a people who had so recently helped them defend their own border from Spiriastar and her crystal army. The Empire hadn't helped them defend the clans, a few stranded Chaos Riders had. That was but one instance of cooperation preluded by centuries of pillaging and invasion. She had pointed this out to the other clan leaders, but Litviro and several others had still refused to join. Needing larger numbers for a successful invasion, Tsvala turned to the other tribes. After all uniting foreign tribes had been quite successful against Spiriastar's army. It was known that the Empire was based on four allied races. Tsvala liked to think of her current actions as beating the Empire at its own game.

The Flames had been surprisingly eager to join but their numbers were few and spread far apart. A mere fifteen were amongst her ranks. The Vipers were vicious and worthy allies, but it had taken repeated acts of good will to bring them to her perspective. Hobs, on the other hand, were so lacking in skills, that the best thing that could be said about them was that they were numerous, and Tsvala intended to shove those numbers right down the Empire's throat. She didn't expect many Hobs to survive but they should at least be able to clear a path for her invasion army of Storms, Vipers and Flames. No more would Imperials attack her clan then flee behind the Ward Wall where she could not follow. This time the fight would be on the Empire's home ground and there would be nowhere for them to run.

"The human sorcerer has signaled he is ready to begin our magical attack on the Ward Wall," growled the male Storm before Tsvala. She appraised Akvan, the wizard who had been her mate for many years. "Are all of your magic users ready? The signal came earlier than originally planned."

"We understood the timetable might change when the Chaos Riders discovered our position. All is ready, my Queen." Behind Akvan, the other demon mages waited.

"Then begin. Let us see how brave the Imperials are when they can't hide behind their Ward Wall. I'll order our fighters forward." Tsvala turned away as the growling chant started.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Several hundred Humans, Elves, Dwarves and even a few Reptiads had gathered in the giant cavern known as the Plaza. Many were dressed for travel with torches and packs of supplies, including a small pink amulet that would enable the wearer to understand and speak the various demon tongues. Their job would be to lead groups of demons through the tunnels to the Empire. Marquay knew opening the rift wouldn't be enough. So while some Black Church members dug tunnels, others found safe hideaways from which the demons could launch their attacks. It was now common knowledge that the authorities had discovered some of the tunnel exits, but all were ready to help their demon allies fight their way free of the caves. Still others had come to simply wait in nervous anticipation for what was sure to be the most historic moment of their lifetimes.

"Master Marquay," called Garvey, "I've had Neal and Quillon start the spell casting. But I haven't seen Ena yet." Garvey was usually following Ena's orders, since he was a rank-three mage and she was rank-four. But he was hoping his initiative would show Marquay how valuable he was.

"You did the right thing, putting Neal and Quillon to work," praised Marquay. "And there's no need to be concerned for Ena. Her energies have been dedicated to helping our cause in another way. Join Neal and Quillon, I have a few more ingredients to add before I complete our circle." Garvey smugly joined the two lesser mages. Marquay pulled a bloodstained silk cloth from his cloak. He added it to the spell brew. A few whispered words ensured that the still damp blood on the cloth bonded Ena's life and magical energies to the rending spell. Satisfied by the immediate power surge, he pulled out the ruby wand. Once its crystal cap took on a radiant glow Marquay stepped towards the others ready to lend his voice to their song of power.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Darkness greeted the Seven as they materialized in the damp underground. Josiah started to whisper a light spell, but Ezra beat him to it with a lantern. After taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light Chris admitted, "I don't recognize our location. Do any of you know where we are?"

"We're straight burrow, almost half a mile due West of the Plaza, between some of the living quarters and the Purgatory exits. Right?" Buck answered with certainty, letting Ezra confirm his statement with a slight tilt of the head. When Chris raised an eyebrow at his old friend, Buck said, "What? Did you forget I'm a Dwarf? I grew up in tunnels like these."

"I thought you grew up in a Pleasure Temple," said Chris.

"I surely did. In Besdan, everything is under ground, even the Pleasure Temples." Buck's grin turned serious. "But if I remember Ezra's map right, there isn't a way to easily reach the Plaza with out risking a lot of traps."

"There is a possible way not on the map," volunteered Ezra. "More than once the building of a passageway was abandoned when the rock formations encountered proved too difficult to dig through. One such passage exists between here and the Plaza, enabling us to avoid both traps and discovery. It will be a tight squeeze, especially for Buck and Josiah, but I believe we can make it."

"We need to hurry," said Nathan. "I can feel them churning the magic for their spell."

"Lead the way," directed Chris. Ezra did lead with Buck and JD behind him, Josiah and Nathan following in the middle and Chris and Vin taking up the rear. They reached a boarded-up hole in the wall without drawing any attention.

"I know we should be glad that we haven't run into anybody yet. But all this quiet is making me nervous," whispered Nathan.

"Me too," agreed JD. The crack of splitting wood echoed through the tunnel when Buck ripped the boards away from the entrance.

"No doubt," explained Ezra, "the occupants of the caverns have all gone to the Plaza to witness Marquay's grand achievement. The man loves to work an audience."

"Wonderful," Chris spoke dryly. "That means more people to fight our way through." Chris noticed Vin was fidgeting beside him. "Problem?" he asked.

"Never been much for small places," Vin admitted, gazing at the hole in the wall. When Chris's only reply was to raise his brows questioningly, Vin assured, "I can handle it. I've dealt with worse."

"I recommend removing your weapons and pushing them before you when we have to navigate the crawlspace," instructed Ezra. He removed his own weapons and scooted down the tunnel. The group made good progress given the conditions. They were able to run, albeit bent over, through most of the shaft. The section they had to crawl through was about 30 feet long. As predicted Buck and Josiah had the hardest time squeezing through. Buck managed with a bit of shimmying. But Josiah had to resort to using a construction spell to reshape the rock around him. Vin crawled through without ever slowing and was breathing quite hard when the tunnel widened again. The group strapped their weapons back into place.

For a moment Nathan and Josiah both froze. "Was that . . ." started Nathan.

"Yes," confirmed Josiah. "The Black Church has started without us. In a matter of minutes a rift in the Ward Wall will open."

"And in come the demons," JD shuddered.

"Okay, we're going to make this simple," began Chris. "Our initial attacks need to be focused at the Black Church mages. Try to get as close to them as you can without drawing notice. Our primary goal is to get the wand from Marquay to Josiah. Buck, you and JD should consider yourselves Josiah's bodyguards."

"I hardly need such protection," protested Josiah.

"Until one of us can use the wand to seal the rift, you do," insisted Chris. "As for the rest of us, we stay together, and watch each others backs. If we can reseal the Ward Wall the Black Churchers will likely scatter in defeat."

"We hope," tossed in Buck.

The Seven warriors moved further into the heart of the caverns. They could hear the murmured awe of the crowd gathered in the plaza. There was enough light filtering from up ahead that Ezra turned out his lantern. Their first view of their battleground showed that the large numbers of Churchers were all focused on the lights show Marquay was providing. He and three other mages were gathered at the center of the three tunnels, which led to Chaos. The Ward Wall was like a shimmering red curtain that shielded all three entrances. But the middle one was starting to fluctuate its color, shifting back and forth from opaque to translucent. Giving short glimpses of the demons waiting on the other side.

Vin motioned silently to a ledge that had been built into the left side of the cavern. Ezra recognized it as the workstation for Isleen. Ezra had often wondered if the Dwarf had resented the nature of her birth, and built her work area so that she could look down on others for a change. Regardless of the female's motivation she had constructed a sturdy wide ledge with a three-foot railing of solid rock. Which would provide the group with both high ground and a natural defense from below.

They moved cautiously behind the crowd, edging their way towards Isleen's ledge. A glance at the Ward Wall showed a small rift the size of a melon had opened. It continued to grow at a steady pace. A few feet from the ledges stairway, Vin silently smothered a woman blocking their way. Chris snapped the neck of her companion, but no one noticed the sound of breaking bone beneath the cheers of excitement as the first demon stepped through the rift. Marquay welcomed Tsvala on her first steps into the Empire.

Halfway up the steps, Vin recognized the War Queen and instinctively aimed his arrow. A squeeze on his shoulder was accompanied by the reminder, "The wand is more important than the War Queen." Vin realized that he couldn't yet get a clear shot of Marquay so he continued up the stairs hoping for a better view.

"Kelly," called Marquay. A muscular blond woman stepped forward. To Tsvala, Marquay explained, "Kelly will guide your first squadron."

"And I will go with them," Tsvala's words were a series of growls translated by the magic amulet. Kelly bowed to the War Queen, then turned about and jogged out of the Plaza while the crowd cheered the storm demons' passage, even as they scurried to get out of the way. The Storms paid the people no mind. They knew they had a war to wage beyond these rocky walls.

On the ledge Vin and JD readied their bows, Josiah and Nathan whispered chants, Buck and Chris moved a desk and shelves to provide even better cover, and Ezra guarded the stairs. "I've got a clear shot," informed Vin.

Chris moved up beside him, and then glanced at Josiah and Nathan to see if they were ready. When they nodded, he gave his order. "Fire!"


Locke and his Emerald stallion were the first to top the ridge overlooking the glass cliffs. The Emerald horse's ability to fly when it wanted to left the other mounts all struggling behind, as they tried to pick their way up the steep mountain trail. Locke drew his sword when he noticed movement a few yards ahead. He lowered the blade when recognized Tyrchon loping towards him.

"It's not good," the scout announced. "Demons are already moving into the tunnels in small groups. It was mostly Hobs, with one or two squads of Storms interspersed. Do you think they've started to tear the Ward Wall already?"

"According to Nagrendra, they're close. That's why I came ahead of the rest. I was hoping that if I could see the terrain for myself it might give me a better idea of where to direct our attack." Locke's eyes swept back and forth across the landscape. "It looks even worse then when we sketched it out in Sanctuary. They'll see us coming down the mountainside and have plenty of time to marshal their defenses."

"We could steer towards the Hobs on the obsidian block. As a group they're the most likely to break before our advance," advised Tyrchon.

"They're also a good distance from the precipice and its tunnels. The War Queen did a good job of staging the battlefield. All of their best troops are between our goal and us." Looking to Tyrchon, Locke asked. "Is there anything you can tell me about these particular Storm clans? I know you fought beside quite a few of them when you were trying to stop Spiriastar."

"Actually," said Tyrchon, "from what I've seen, none of the Storm demons I allied with against Spiriastar are involved in this army. I can't be certain with the numbers down there. But I didn't see any of their clan markings."

"So maybe not all Storm clans liked the idea of invading the Empire," mused Locke.

"It's probably why the Hobs are here. The War Queen couldn't raise the army she wanted, so she's compensating by using Hobs as fodder." Tyrchon paused and gave Locke's horse a considering look. "Do we have any mounts besides yours that can fly?"

"Unfortunately, no." Looking back down at the Glass Cliffs, Locke came to a decision. "We'll flank the demons by coming down the mountain just above the glass, obsidian break. It will put us within twenty yards of the precipice. Their numbers will be close to our own, until they can bring up reinforcements up the trail."

"That's going to be a hellish decent," warned Tyrchon. "We're libel to loose a lot of good mounts, and probably their Riders as well."

"Maybe not," said Locke, "My cousin Kit once mentioned a spell that gave one of his soldiers amazing sure-footedness. Let's see if Nagrendra can design something similar for the horses."

Nagrendra, Kit and the other Riders were found not far away, climbing the last few meters up the mountain. The diligence of their scouts had allowed the mounted war party to thus far escape detection. But every soldier knew they were living on borrowed time.

After listening to the young leader's suggestion, Nagrendra considered the practicality of Locke's idea. "You want a conveyance spell that will grant sure-footedness to all of our mounts so we can charge down a steep mountainside into a horde of demons," he verified. At Locke's nod he began pointing out the pros and cons. "Well, the charge itself should be quick, which means we can save energy by crafting a short term spell. But if we do, it will make retreating by the same path impossible. And short-term spell or not, you're asking me to cast sixty separate spells just moments before battle. I'll be too drained to fight."

"The other mages and I could share the burden," suggested Keith. The Sunbird mage would have preferred to accompany the Seven, but he accepted his duty to the other Riders. He was determined to serve them to the best of his ability.

"With a dozen mages that would mean about five spells per caster," calculated Nagrendra. "Still a drain, but not nearly so significant." The Reptaid's eyes returned to Locke. "It will take at least twenty minutes to fashion the spells to work as you want. Are you willing to wait that long?"

"I'll have to be. It's our best chance for success," answered Locke.

"Gather the other mages," Nagrendra instructed Keith. "All except Sorcha, I want her to keep her focus on the Ward Wall." Keith hurried away.

"Can you tell how well the Ward Wall is faring against the attack?" asked Locke. Despite his natural curiosity, Locke found many of the rules and laws governing magic and its affects somewhat confusing.

"Not well. It would seem that our enemies designed an effective barrage. Sorcha is monitoring how quickly the wall is weakening. When the rift is large enough for troops to move through, she'll alert us," replied Nagrendra. Then he began to cast the necessary sure-footed spell on his own muscular warhorse. Moments passed as he moved on to craft spells for Kit's mount, then Tyrchon's and then a forth horse's hooves were spelled.

Cantering steps drew Nagrendra's attention to a bear faced pony and it's Rider, a shorthaired blonde woman with cooper skin and Chaos filled eyes. "Our time is up!" warned Sorcha. "I felt the demons moving through the rift in the Ward Wall."

"Sorcha, help spell the last of the horses," Locke ordered. Without waiting for a reply he continued, "Those whose horses have already been spelled, form up beside me!" Locke urged his emerald horse further up the mountain. They needed to continue south along the ridgeline if they wanted to come down in the right location. When he spotted his target directly below, it took just the slightest urging to get the Emerald horse to leap gracefully down the mountainside, his hooves always a foot above the ground.

Kit's mare and Tyrchon's gelding followed gamely enough. But several of the other horses hesitated at the steep decent. Spelled hooves could do little to convince a horse that charging down a cliff was a good idea. Only the fact that they were trained warhorses, used to blitzing into demons and death allowed the creatures to overcome their instinctive fears. Firm commands from their Riders guided the horses the first several steps over the edge. The horses relaxed considerably when their hooves magically found solid footing. The Riders had their own difficulties with the decent. The incline was so steep that the Riders had to literally lay back on their horses, an uncomfortable position even without their armor and weapons. A couple of Riders were hard pressed not to slide off their mount's backs. The last of the Riders joined the charge and the many hooves caused a small avalanche of obsidian and crystal shards to rain down upon the demons on the path below.

Because this part of the path to the precipice had seemed so inaccessible there were few designated guards. The Hobs in the area scattered in terror when they saw the cause of the falling crystal. The Storm demons determinedly drew their sabers. Locke's horse stomped through their front ranks, while he swung his sword to help clear a path for the Riders behind him.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Arrows sailed across the cavern towards the gathering of Black Church mages and demons. Cries came from two of the lower ranked mages as Buck's arrow sunk into a hip and JD's found a shoulder. But the missiles Vin and Nathan had aimed at Marquay struck an invisible barrier and then fell harmlessly to the ground. "Construction magic!" Nathan spoke the words like a curse.

Their opening attack brought a swift response from the demons and Black Churchers assembled. At least twenty of the Churchers ran at the Seven, weapons raised. The demon War Queen looked ready to deal with the threat.

"There's only seven of them," shouted Marquay. "Let my Black Church followers deal with the Riders. It's more important that we continue to move your warriors through the caves. The success of your invasion depends upon it." As he spoke, a troop of Hobs scurried after their Black Church guide. Tsvala glared at the Riders on their perch above the crowd. She disliked the idea of avoiding a fight, but she heard the logic of Marquay's words. She couldn't be distracted by a minor scuffle when there was an invasion underway.

On the other side of the cavern the Seven were debating the merits of plan B. "So much for easy," sighed Vin. "It looks like shooting the wand out of Marquay's hand isn't a possibility."

"It also looks like Locke and his Lancers failed in their attempt to stop the demon army's advance," added Ezra as he knocked two Churchers down the stairs.

"Marquay and his mages managed to work their spell even faster than we expected," Chris pointed out. "The Lancers will do what they can, but we can't afford to rely on their support. Josiah, isn't there some way you can take the wand from Marquay magically?"

"Now would seem to be the time to find out," said Josiah. He set his gaze upon the wand and gathered his magic and will. "Cagadh cara duinn focas agus anord filleadh go do crudoir laimhe."

The calm facade Marquay had presented to his allies slipped as he felt the wand he had found so many years before in Chaos drawn from his hand. He wasted no time countering the spell. Josiah may have crafted the wand in a past life, but that link was strained by 500 years of distance. Marquay, on the other hand, had spent the last fifteen years in direct possession of the wand. He had used that time to uncover its secrets and bind its power to him. Josiah's impromptu spell managed to pull the wand from Marquay's fingers and float it several feet across the cavern. But then it stopped, wavered for a moment and suddenly flew back into Marquay's grasp.

Josiah cursed his failure even as he shouted, "Cover!" to warn the others of Marquay's retaliatory attack.

Marquay could no longer afford to assume that his followers would defeat the Chaos Riders. Not when the Sunbird Priest seemed to have a surprising connection to his looted wand. Marquay sent several bolts of lightening towards his adversaries. It wasn't nearly as powerful as he'd have liked. But too much of his energies were focused on maintaining the rift. He had to keep it open for the demon invasion to continue. Marquay decided the best way to protect the wand, and thus the rift, was to move it beyond the reach of the Priest and his allies. Marquay didn't even check the success of his attack before fleeing the Plaza with the wand.

When Josiah had warned the others to seek cover, they had immediately ducked down behind the dubious protection of the balcony railing though Ezra, standing at the top of the stairs, could do little more than crouch as low as possible. Only Josiah remained standing. He knew it would take too long to build a barrier strong enough to deflect lightening, so instead he conjured a lightening rod in the middle of the cavern. The rod redirected and absorbed much of the lightning's electricity. But those unfortunate persons that stood near the rod all felt the sting of errant shocks. No one escaped the deafening thunder, which was only magnified by the enclosed cavern. Many clutched their ears, staggered by the physical force the sound carried. Several seconds of eerie silence followed.

The cavern floor was a rolling mass as those who were able scrambled back to their feet. Some made ready to charge the Seven's position, while others continued to guide the steady flow of demons. The three remaining mages both wounded and not, did the best they could to seek their own shelter behind some shelves and barrels.

"Anyone hurt?" asked Chris.

"I'm good to go," answered Vin.

"I'm just getting started," assured Buck.

"I'm fine," said Nathan as he aimed his dagger at the not quite hidden shoulder of one of the wounded mages.

"I'm okay," answered Josiah, "but Marquay fled the Plaza with the wand."

"I'm alright aside from the ringing in my ears." The group was quiet for a moment before JD asked, "Where's Ezra?"

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

This is insanity! There was no other way to describe it. Ezra took a moment to focus his will and activate the magic hidden in the finely crafted boots he wore. There is no rational reason to voluntarily dive into the midst of ones enemies, not even to retrieve Josiah's ruby wand. He secured the filched cloak more closely around his face. Buck and JD would do their best to protect Josiah, and with the others helping they should be able to hold off the hordes for a few more minutes. Maneuver past the reeking troupe of Hob demons. Six maybe seven more minutes, until their numbers became too great, until two of my only friends are torn limb from limb. Ezra ruthlessly shoved that thought aside. Finally, the entrance to the mage quarters was in sight. Josiah is an experienced warrior mage. JD is inexperienced but has proven quite determined during the recent unpleasantness. Slip like a shadow into the corridor. The others are all trained soldiers. They will be able to protect each other. A sudden warmth in the toes of his boot warned Ezra that he was nearing a magic barrier of some sort. My own skills are of little use in an endeavor such as group defense. It makes sense for me to be the one to retrieve the ruby wand. Ezra lifted his right leg, hoping that these boots were as good at dispelling magic as the Lord of Shadows had assured him they would be. Of course, I probably should have told the others what I was doing, but I didn't know myself until I was halfway across the Plaza. Ezra kicked hard against the invisible magic barrier. Arches of fire scattered from his foot. When the concussion from the lightening strike knocked me off the stairs, I looked up to see Marquay scurrying away like the rat that he is. With so many of their enemies dazed and confused I had to seize the opportunity and launch into pursuit. The flickering flames consumed the last of the magic barrier and again the corridor was dark. Besides the others will be too busy battling their enemies and protecting each other, especially Josiah, to spare even a thought in my direction.

It would have been logical to assume Marquay had retreated to the place he knew best, his own quarters. But Ezra's memory told him that there had been a notably absent mage. Ena was Marquay's second in mage craft and a near constant companion. It made no sense for her to be missing during their most ambitious spell. Was there a worse idea in the entire world than challenging an evil mage in his stronghold? The door to Ena's quarters silently opened beneath his hand.

"Well hello, Ezra," crooned a voice. "I've been hoping you'd be the first to arrive."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin leaned over the half wall to get a better look at the area around the stairs. "He ain't down there."

"Across the Plaza," directed Buck. "He just ducked into a tunnel. Looks like he's turned rabbit." The words were spoken with sadness but little rancor. This wasn't the first time he'd seen a soldier flee when faced with overwhelming odds.

"He's not running out on us!" defended JD. "He wouldn't do that."

Vin eyed the tunnel where Ezra had disappeared even as he fired another arrow. Turning away, Vin's gaze met Chris's and both men realized where Ezra had gone. "The Wand!" they spoke simultaneously.

"You think he's gone after the wand?" asked Buck. At Chris's nod he shook his head. "I take back what I said earlier. He's not a coward, though it's a toss up as to whether he's suicidal or just plain stupid."

"Probably both," muttered Nathan before chanting a spell to recall his first two daggers even as he threw a third.

Buck continued, "There's no way he can fight a mage as powerful as Marquay on his own."

"I'll go after him," insisted Josiah. "I should be the one to face Marquay anyway."

"Not an option," countered Chris. "As long as that rift in the Ward Wall exists we need you here." Several Churchers had decided the stairs where too dangerous an approach and tried to climb a ladder to reach the besieged Riders. Chris thrust his sword through the first person to reach the top and then shoved the ladder and its other attackers to the ground. "See if you can eliminate the lesser mages. Then find a way to seal the rift, with or without the wand. Because if you can't, not only are we as good as dead, so is the rest of the Empire." Chris ducked a small volley of arrows while continuing his dance of parry, block and thrust with those who charged the stairs. "Vin and I will go after Ezra."

As if expecting that decision, Vin set a handful of arrows down next to JD's quiver. "Extra ammo," he told the young Constable.

"Buck, it will be up to you to hold the stairs," instructed Chris. Buck nodded and moved up beside him.

"We're going to need an opening to get past this crowd," observed Vin.

Without further prompting JD, Nathan and Josiah launched a combined volley of arrows, blades and fireballs into the mix of demons and people below. The crowd responded by ducking and diving for cover just as they'd hoped.

"Good luck, War Dog," rallied Buck. He planted himself menacingly at the top of the stairs and watched Chris and Vin dart lethally through the cowering creatures below.