Pro Patria Mori

by Rhicy

Alternate Universe

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of MGM, The Mirsch Group, Trilogy, CBS or any others with claims. I do not expect to profit from this story.

Authors Note: Pro Patria Mori follows Dulce et Decorum est. You will also need to have read my story Eternal in order for some of this to make sense. Several people asked me to write about the various lives the Seven had lived and here is the second instalment. This fic deals with one of tougher lives the boys experienced - in fact one of the worst - so there is a warning attached.

This fic involves demons and such, so sensitive readers be warned - you may find this disturbing. I've read a lot of Raymond E. Feist and David Gemmel, and they have partly inspired the 'demons' and such scenes in this fic.

Additionally this is deathfic out of necessity and plot device - there is a Void scene at the end of the completed story. Warnings aside, I would like to thank all the wonderful people who took the time to email me about "Eternal" and .... I really appreciated the kind words and encouragement. Thanks <g>.

This fic is set in a fantasy world, thus the lack of 'modern' swear words. I've taken the title from a Wilfred Owen poem, of the same name. Huge thanks go to the writers who inspired scenes in this work of fanfiction especially SasseyJ and Stacie. Thanks also to Brigitta for her support and encouragement. [and for introducing me to the asylum that is writing M7 fanfiction - you rock girl!]

Oodles of thanks to my beta, SilverWolf for her skill and patience. [thanks pard]

I would love feedback, so please don't hesitate to email me. : )

Size: Approx: 120K

The blue-tree forests of Luor were the home of the People. Known by no other name save that, the People were wild and fey, living strange lives tied to the forest and nature. Their skin was tinged a light blue, matching the trees of their home, while their hair was the colour of sea-green grass and spread like a cold fire down their shoulders and backs. The entire nation were fierce warriors, a mere child capable of taking down a bear, let alone a human. Aggressively protective of their forests, no human had entered their woods in centuries. Save a select few.

As Chris bowed awkwardly, giving the traditional tree-friend greeting, he could not stop the lurch of his heart as he mouthed the phrase Vin had taught him. 'Vin.'

Vin was one of the few humans who the People considered their friend. He had lived with them under circumstances that Chris still did not fully understand. Vin had told him on a bright three-moon night as the Seven rode near the Blue Forest the words Chris would need to say to the People, should he ever meet them. Vin is saving us yet again, Chris thought, since without the greeting, the People would have killed the intruders.

A tall, willowy thin man bowed in reply to Chris's words and spoke the completion of the greeting, ending by introducing himself as Dourn. The five warriors behind him, relaxed and lowered their weapons, surprise painted on their blue faces.

"Who taught you what to say?" Dourn asked. He was clad only in a loincloth, no other decoration on his body, save a large dolphin tattoo over his heart. The warriors behind him had cured leather loincloths, arm guards and shin sheaves, armed with bows, arrows and knifes.

Chris sank to his knees as the last of his strength seemed to fade, now that he was certain the People would not kill them. "Vin. Vin did."


Groaning inwardly, Chris racked his brain trying to remember if Vin had ever mentioned another name by which the People might know him. Nothing came to mind and Chris grimaced as the warriors tensed at his delay.

"Light! I don't know what you knew him as. Human, fairly tall, blue eyes, long brown hair, cocky grin."

The five bound humans behind Chris tensed as the warriors notched arrows to bows and prepared to draw them back. Dourn stared blankly at Chris, waiting for the right answer.

"Hell, I don't know! Damnit, he stayed with you, you've got to remember him. He ain't that easy to forget."

Five blue tipped arrows were drawn back in large blue-wood bows, each pointing unerringly at a human heart. 'Damn, that demon-spawn might have won. The blasted greeting isn't enough!'

"Wait!" Chris shouted. He glared up at the tall man, blatantly ignoring Vin's half-remembered caution not to stare at one the People. "Vin told me what to say. He never told me any other name he might have had with you."

Lack of any concern gazed right back at Chris, Dourn meeting him stare for stare. "Blasted hell! He's got one of your flaming dragons tattooed on his back! That's gotta mean something!"

Instantly the warriors lowered their bows, turned around and disappeared into the forest. Dourn briefly touched his own dolphin tattoo and knelt down to Chris's level. "We remember Vin."

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat propped up by a blue-oak, his hands resting easily on a full stomach. He gave a small sigh as he felt the warm sun on his face. 'Never thought I'd feel that again.' Buck's injuries had been healed, all the cuts, bruises and scrapes had vanished under the healing touch of a lithe blue maiden. Buck would have tried to 'make time' with her had the circumstances been different, but considering the recent events, not even Buck could summon up the gumption to flirt. The six had been healed, feed and cared for by several maidens who had appeared as if out of the trees themselves. Long billowy hair had touched their ankles as they moved around the humans, shy smiles gracing delicate alien features. Buck sighed again, moving his bruised shoulder slowly, feeling how the newly healed muscle moved.

He turned a watchful eye on the small clearing, noting where each of his friends lay. A tousled black head lay curled up near his legs, the rest of JD tucked in somewhere beneath a grey blanket. The young man had succumbed to exhaustion and trauma, practically passing out as the beautiful young girl had tended to his wounds. 'Kid doesn't know when to play it right. Supposed to use your battle scars to get the girl, not fall asleep.' Buck couldn't blame JD though, fatigue plucked at his eyelids as well. Only a remaining after-rush of adrenaline kept the battle-hardened warrior awake. JD's arm was in some sort of cast, and he had taken a draft of a pain-killer to help him sleep. 'Well the kid will have at least one dreamless sleep for now. Can't say the same for me.'

Buck looked to his right where Nathan also lay wrapped in a blanket. The young women had healed Nathan first, their skills sending him into a pain-induced slumber, one he had yet to awake from. For the first time in hours, Nathan's face was not taut with pain or exhaustion. He slept peacefully as if he were in his parent's house and not in a hostile forest. Josiah sat next to Nathan, his eyes closed in meditation.

Like all the monks of Tar El Ar Josiah never slept. Instead he relaxed his mind into a trance-like state and dreamed of the Tar El Keep, walking it's gardens and pathways in his mind. Buck had at first scoffed at Josiah's claim that he no longer needed sleep, and that his trances were an even better restorative than sleep. However, Buck could not deny the fact that Josiah was never tired, even after days without rest, able to take multiple watches if given the chance for half an hour's trance. While Josiah might no longer be a full fledged Tar El Ar, he still used their techniques and sent his mind to walk the dream paths of the Keep. Now, deep within 'heathen' lands, Josiah walked paths of a God who would tolerate no other beliefs. The stark contradiction in Josiah's way of life was incredible. An ex-monk who worshipped no single deity, frequently prayed to a strange river god and whispered magic words of the sea people, restored his body and mind by invoking a technique mastered only by the most devout of Tar El monks. A walking contradiction did not begin to describe Josiah.

'Speaking of contradictions and contrariness.' Buck mused, as he turned to his left and watched Ezra. The stubborn cityborn man was sitting stiff-backed, fighting an overwhelming exhaustion. He would stare blankly at the clearing, his eyes slowly drooping and suddenly jerk his head, shaking himself awake, only to begin the cycle again. Why the fancy man didn't just give in to his body's call for rest, Buck didn't understand. 'No, no I do. I can't rest either. What a pretty pair we make.' It was strange seeing Ezra's hands empty. He was always playing with something, tossing a dagger, handling dice, shuffling cards. The man could not be still for a minute, unlike Vin who could ...

Buck broke that chain of thought off abruptly, immediately seeking out his oldest friend, unaccountably feeling guilty for thinking about - Vin. Chris was seated a good 7 metres away from the others, his knees pulled up to his chest, his chin resting on crossed arms, a distant, pained look to his face. Everything about Chris's posture testified of anguish. The tense hunch of his shoulders, the reflexive whitening of knuckles as unseen fingers clenched, minute muscle contractions in his legs. The man was anything but still, but rather radiated a sense of restrained violence, as if every fibre of his being were aching to explode and only Chris's iron will contained it. Give Chris the opportunity to do violence and heaven help the blighted soul who stood in his way.

After his initial conversation with the People, Chris had withdrawn into himself, shutting everything out, focused on a soul miles distant. While none of the five remaining soldiers could fool themselves into feeling any emotion save those associated with sorrow and anguish, Chris was well and truly wading through a mire of black despair and anger. Buck contemplated approaching Chris, but wisely decided to keep his head attached to his body awhile longer. He was thus surprised to see the tall man of the People crouch next Chris. 'This should be interesting.'

+ + + + + + +

Chris shut soul-weary eyes, the empty space inside his chest making the small amount of food he had choked down, sit uncomfortably in his stomach. A grief-shaped shudder rippled through his heart, escaping in an uneven sigh. Chris had shut his mind down, every thought, idea, concept, memory and inclination was being held firmly in check. Only raw emotion surged through Chris, and he made no effort to understand or act on it, he simply let it flow through him. Violent anger swirled around pockets of grief, despair lay lurking at the bottom of his heart, bubbling to the surface. Relief was alternately chased away by rage, only to be brought back by utter incredulity and horror. A maelstrom of emotion raged inside the black-clad chest, brief glimpses emerging to peak through haunted eyes. The only action Chris could take was inaction, because he knew with a soul-deep certainty that if he let anything loose, acted on any impulse save inactivity, he would self-destruct in such a violence-filled manner, who knew who he would take with him. And Chris refused to give up on Vin.

Chris finally realised he was being watched and turned to face the unwanted intrusion. He was mildly surprised to see the tall blue man from earlier. Unwilling to engage in any polite conversation, Chris turned his gaze to a bent blade of grass, not caring how rude he appeared. Dourn remained on his haunches, studying Chris, unperturbed by the silence, in fact he seemed comfortable with it. 'Just like Vin,' Chris found himself thinking. Vin's always still and quiet. 'Hell one second he's nowhere to be seen, you blink and there he is, sitting next to you as if he's been there all along. Blasted hunter can sneak up on a mountain wolf and steal it's hide without the damn thing noticing.'

Chris abruptly stopped his musings, furious that he'd allowed himself to start thinking about Vin. Lashing out at the man who had inadvertently reminded him of his missing brother, Chris's voice sounded like flint grating on granite, "You do that often?"

"Do what?"

"Forget people!" Chris snarled, focused intently on the bent blade of grass as if it held all the answers he needed.

"I needed to be sure that you were true friends."

Chris turned his head to give the man a killer glare, biting back the urge to punch his unwanted guest in the face. Dourn saw the barely checked anger and continued, "Vin would have only shown men he considered close friends that tattoo. When six humans appear unannounced the middle of our forest, we tend to ask questions to the sole survivor."

'Yeah, just like that damn demon planned - Vin nearly gave up his soul only to have us die at the hands of a people he considers friends,' Chris fumed silently, again ignoring the blue man.

"Although I might have been wrong to spare your lives."

Chris responded immediately to the threat, bolting to his feet and grating out, "WHAT!"

Dourn stood slowly and faced Chris head on, unafraid of the fury-filled human. "Vin was a fool to bond with the likes of you!"

Chris's fist smashed into the blue man's mouth, and as he stumbled at the unexpected blow, Chris's left fist connected with his kidney, sending Dourn to the ground. Chris stood over Dourn, who wiped green blood from his split lip. "You always hit people who help you?"

Silently, Chris locked eyes with his 'host', not giving an inch. The two soldiers still awake, watching the confrontation nervously, Buck half tempted to intervene. Ezra flicked a quick glance Buck's way and shook his head. Let Chris sort it out.

The minutes dragged by as the pair glared at eachother, a battle of wills waging. Dourn tried to get up, but Chris took an aggressive step closer, forcing his antagonist to have to crawl backwards if he wanted to get up without bumping into Chris. Not about to give in to the human, Dourn stayed seated, fingering his split lip.

A pale, dirty hand snapped upward as Chris offered to help Dourn stand up. Suspiciously Dourn took the offered hand and pulled himself to his feet.

"Got any other smart comments?"

Dourn's face split in a cocky grin so reminiscent of Vin's that Chris felt as he'd been punched in the stomach. "Reckon I know why he likes you so much."

"Go to hell!"

"He's not gone you know." Chris was startled to hear Dourn voice the very thing he had avoiding. He couldn't 'feel' Vin anymore, it was like a wet blanket was smothering him, he knew Vin was there, he just couldn't feel him. Nothing, no emotions, no pain, no ... anything. For all Chris knew Vin was dying, and unable to feel him, believing he was alone.

"What the hell do you know about it?' Chris snapped, his green eyes flashing in anger.

"We changed your connection, so you wouldn't feel his ..."

"You did WHAT?" Murderous fury faced the blue-forest man and he took a quick step back avoiding the advancing warrior and stammered, "It's just while you're in the forest and it won't affect you physically anymore..."

Rage-stiffened fingers cut the stumbling explanation off by landing squarely on a blue-skinned chest and roughly shoving Dourn back a step further while steel grated against rock and Chris said, "You got some balls sticking your nose were it ain't wanted!" Another fisted punch was thrown in the blue man's direction, Dourn's own hand catching the blow.

Shoving Chris's fist away, the Dourn shouted, "Hey! He's my friend too!"

Chris scanned the angry man before him, half prepared to tear into him and then turned to walk away, dismissing him as inconsequential. Furious to be dismissed by this human, Dourn launched himself onto Chris's back, sending them both to the ground.

Chris found himself flat on his back, an angry blue man on his chest and a fist waving in front of his nose. "Listen up you ignorant ape-man! Vin is NOT lost to us!"

+ + + + + + +




The words swirled around his mind, meaningless in the face of the agony coursing through him. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced, feeling razor sharp claws shred your very being. Twisted, black talons ripped the shreds away, and a different kind of pain was felt, as parts of 'him' were tasted, savoured, relished, tainted, weakened, changed from his soul into ... something else.

The physical pain was pushed to the back of his mind as he tried to endure the metaphysical, writhing against chains of black magic, keeping his spirit from fleeing. There was no relief, no quarter given as the gorging took place. Claws too eager and clumsy in their haste severed tendons and lifelines.

Desperate to reach the one soul he needed, an abiding sorrow filled the heaving chest as nothing but a 'sense' of the soul remained. No emotions, no thoughts, nothing - a hollow in his heart. Questing thoughts were suddenly crippled as malicious teeth hobbled his mind, locking it away in a fiery prison.

Soundlessly Vin screamed, until his own mind with filled with the sound, no answering echo sounding back.

+ + + + + + +

The night was cool, a rare dark night when none of the three moons would rise. Instead an incredible vista of stars arced across the heavens. Misty tendrils of distant star streams mingled with bright dog-stars and planets, painting an awe-inspiring portrait of the universe. As Josiah gazed at the night sky, a vague feeling of familiarity sang in his soul. He knew a sight like this, a sprawling scene of the universe and Josiah studied constellations long remembered. The soft clomp of a horse hoof brought him back to the here and now.

The six men were riding slowly through the night, on horses the People had given them. After sunset, they had been lead out of the Luor forest and directed on their way. Their saddlebags were filled with enough food to see them for the two day journey back to the human army's encampment. Cloaks, weapons and anything else they might need had been provided. It had been like Vin's ghost was hovering near them when the People had said farewell. The humans were fully aware that it was only due to Vin's friendship that the People were helping them, and Vin's presence seemed to permeate the air. And Chris couldn't get out of there fast enough.

The six were strung out in single file, a habit too ingrained to break. Only JD was leading, not Chris, who was occupying Vin's position, watching their back trail, covering the rear. Silent black shadows mimicked the six's passage, no sound was uttered, no word was heard. Five men felt too weary and drained to make a sound, the other was wrapped in deep thought.

Chris kept his horse's head turned to follow Ezra, acting automatically, his heart and mind darkened with thoughtful contemplation. He remembered the first time he had seen Vin's tattoo. The Seven had been riding patrol for the army. Vin had lead them high into the mountains, an area the demons were known to frequent. Where once ancient dragons had ruled, now demons lurked and spawned in old dragon lairs. Chris had been surprised by the beauty of the deadly mountains and had listened to Ezra's astonished exclamations which mirrored his own amazement with a slight chuckle.

Sprawling mountain ranges had risen to majestic heights, snow-capped giants dwarfing the hills and valleys which lay beneath them. Glacial streams cut through ancient rock laughing as they fell into raging white rivers. Green and blue trees climbed the mountain slopes, shading the land, dappling the green meadows which blossomed with every shade of wild flower.

Such unexpected moments of tranquillity and beauty were few and far between for the humans plagued by wars and hardship, and a reverent silence fell over the Seven as Vin showed them his beloved mountains. Craggy peaks whispered memories of better times as the wind wound itself through cracks and holes while tall trees danced in celebration of their freedom to live and grow. A gentle smile had settled on Vin's face, unknowingly reflecting the one on Chris's. Warm sunlight skittered through trees and grass, following the passage of the Seven.

As the noon sun climbed to its peak, Vin had lead his friends through a tunnel of tree branches, the trees themselves stretching to reach the heavens, in some sort of slow race to beat their neighbour to the sun. Each of the men squinted in turn as bright sunlight pierced shadowed depths and they arrived in a hidden clearing. A quiet pool lay in the natural circle, which was wide enough to be warmed by the high noon sun. Rocks and a sharp incline hid half the pool from view but JD and Buck saw only one possibility.

Before the rest had even dismounted the rough and woolly pair had shucked sweaty armour and leathers and had dived off the rocky incline into the crystal clear water. Buck's startled shriek at the water's cold grip, had made JD laugh so hard that he had been unable to defend himself from the subsequent dunking Buck delivered.

A knowing nod from Vin had assured the rest that it was safe to let their guard down and enjoy this moment of frivolity. Nathan and Josiah had also quickly undressed and joined Buck and JD, albeit in a less exuberant manner. Ezra had taken one look at the now very muddy ground were his companions clothes rested and had moved to a clump of trees, in order to disrobe in privacy and on drier land.

Chris, riding in a despair blackened night, found himself smiling as he remembered Ezra's rather vocal argument with Buck and JD, the pair of hooligans cavorting in the pool and the proper gentleman disrobing on shore.

"Really Messrs Buck and JD, such wild acrobatics are hardly fit for members of the royal guard."

"But we ain't in the Royal Guard, Ez."

"Yes my dear young simpleton, I am aware that we do not report to said prestigious cohort. My comment was merely to suggest that we, as envoys of the human race, should comport ourselves in a manner befitting our station and should strive to emulate the pristine behaviour of the royal guard who stand as triumphant examples of how even the lowest menial sword-seller can represent the human race in a befitting fashion." Ezra's voice was coming from behind a well-proportioned shrub with various articles of clothing being neatly hung on the branches.


"Hell JD, don't you know that Ezra treats every patrol as if it were some all important ambastardly mission."

"Ambassadorial, Buck." Came the muffled voice as Ezra shrugged out of his shirt.

"Whatever! It still amounts to the same thing. Ezra wants us, as in you and me, to act like them nancy fops in the royal guard."

"They are not fops Buck. Merely well-dressed, distinguished and well-endowed officers assigned with the extremely honourable duty of protecting the King." A slightly tousled head had appeared briefly to deliver it's blistering remark, only to disappear again as Ezra bent to remove his boots.

"Do they wear floppy feather's in their helmets?"

"Yes, I believe the tail feather of the huny pheasant is an essential item in the uniform of a royal guard." The sound of Ezra hopping on one foot as he tried to get his last boot off punctuated his explanation.

"Floppy feather equals fop!" Buck exclaimed delighted at his conclusive logic, slamming his hand on the water. Ezra merely rolled his eyes, unseen behind the bush.

"Buck, ain't the royal guard good fighters?"

"JD your attempt to speak basic common is abysmal. I would suggest you try study my own refined speech patterns or at least Josiah's and emulate better quality speech."

Completely ignoring Ezra's last remark, Buck laughed and said, "Good fighters! Even though they dress like carnival clowns, they can definitely dish up a hell of an ass-whopping!"

"So you think I could join them? I am pretty good with a sword and the quarterstaff. In fact ..."

"JD I seem to recall an instance when you declared that you could both ride and shoot with equal dexterity, only to demonstrate your talents at aerodynamics and aquatic submersions in short order .... I think?" Ezra paused, a slightly puzzled look on his face, "Did such a humorous event actually occur? I seem to vaguely recollect such theatrics but ..."

"Yeah, yeah Ez, I remember. The kid was all piss and vinegar, showing off his colts .... But hell, I only remember JD having one horse? What in blasted name then is a colt? And don't you dare say a young horse, Ez. 'Cos I know!"

JD also scratched his head, trying to recall the incident - it seemed familiar. Unbeknownst to the arguing trio, Nathan and Josiah had sunk up behind Ezra. Slipping between the trees they came behind Ezra, who was carefully folding his pants.

"Wasn't JD wearing some sort of round hat ... Noo I ....... AAARRRGHHHH!!!"

Josiah and Nathan had each swiftly grabbed an unsuspecting limb and bodily tossed Ezra over the bush and into the pool, drenching Buck and JD with icy water.

"You boys sure talk up a storm of horsedung. " Josiah laughed as Ezra was forcibly dunked by the wet pair in payment for their drenching.

Sputtering in indignation, Ezra pulled away from a second dunking attempt so flummoxed at his undignified entry, he could barely articulate his outrage, "That is uncalled for .... It wasn't my fault ... My last clean pair of underwear .... At least you could have warned ... stay back you .... Cretins! ..... I could have landed on some unseen underwater ... this silk does not wet well ...damn this waters cold!"

Buck burst out laughing, "Sheesh, took ya long enough to notice. Hell, Ezra's so shocked he can't even talk all fancy like."

Gathering himself, Ezra flicked excess water from his hands and face and looked meaningful at Buck and JD. "Gentlemen." Together the trio turned to face the two pranksters on shore, who stopped laughing and took off at a run.

Vin and Chris off to the right of the fiasco, watched the ensuing chase. "For an old guy, Josiah sure can move," Vin quipped as Josiah evaded a speedy JD.

Chris snorted and finished grooming Ezra's horse. "How'd we end up taking care of the horses again?"

Vin turned from watching a three man-deep mountain stumble past as JD and Buck hung on Josiah's back trying to stop the huge man from reaching the safety of the trees.

"How'd you think? We lost a bet with Ezra."

A lily-white flash dashed after a darker blur as Ezra pursued Nathan who raced to help Josiah.

"Oh yeah."

"Quick grab his arm Buck."

"That's my arm you blind ignoramus!"

"That's cheating Nate, you can't use JD against us!"

Vin lead JD's horse to were the other four horses were tethered and grinned at the huge splash which was followed by a screech.

"Now that's more like it!"

"Damn it's like trying to move a mountain!!"

Chris ducked as a wet pair of pants went sailing over his head to land in a nearby tree.

"Those came from some island whose name you couldn't even pronounce!"

Finally able to tend to their own mounts, Vin and Chris worked side by side, sparse economy in their movements as they made quick but thorough work of the grooming. A triumphant roar from Josiah and Nathan brought twin heads up and the pair watched as a spluttering trio rose from the water. Bellowing, Buck lead a concerted rush out of the water, barrelling his shoulder into Josiah and toppling the man sufficiently for the other two to knock him over with their momentum.

"Pin him! Pin HIM!"

"JD, please not in my ear. And I'm sufficiently wet without you adding to it."

"Stop jabbering Ez, and grab Nate!"

"You want me to what?"

The five man wrestling match rolled on the grass. Grown men, hardened in the heat of battle, as tough as any group of soldiers in history, let go of their cares in each others company, their friendship transcending any inhibitions or false attitudes. Exalting in the brotherhood that pumped in seven hearts, the spectre of war was banished for a time in the warm sunlit clearing as a different kind of conflict ensued.

" -'help'-."

"Oh this is just wonderful! I hope mud comes out."

"Brothers, this game is called dunk 'em and run!"

"Josiah, grab Ezra before he slithers away."

"JD pounding on my back is not helping!"

"Sorry Buck, I thought it was ... No not again!"

"Quick while he's distracted Ez!"

"Come here you slippery little fish!"

Vin and Chris watched, laughing at their friend's antics, the shoreline a battlefield, the combatants covered in mud and ... weeds?

Chris stripped off his armour, laying it in a pile near Vin's growing mound of clothing. He shrugged his undershirt off, stretching in pleasure at the feel of the sun of his bare skin. Vin had his back turned to Chris as he removed his own undershirt. Chris was about to bend over and tug off his boots when something surprising caught his eye.

Etched in exuberant flight, it's wings outstretched, sinewy neck gracefully arched and serpent-like tail snapping in the wind, was a dragon captured in ink and blood. As Vin moved his right shoulder, the dragon swerved upwards, racing to reach the sun. Muscles tanned a deep brown, moved the dragon in airless flight as Vin unbuckled his sword belt, and propped it against a handy tree.

A flash of smiling blue eyes winked at Chris as Vin turned his head to one side, watching the combined weight of four men dunk Josiah as Nathan changed sides.

Acting on impulse Chris reached out and touched the dragon, half expecting to feel scales and leathery wings. Smooth, warm skin ended that momentary belief and Chris found himself saying, "It's incredible Vin."

"Got it while I lived with the People. It's some sort of spirit-mirror. Didn't rightly follow all the wiseman was saying. Stuff about the marks reflecting your nature." Vin shrugged and turned around to face Chris.

Chris remained silent a couple of seconds, unsure what to say. Most humans followed the god Ar. And Ar had commanded in no uncertain terms that tattoo's were the mark of evil. Chris had abandoned any pretence at religion long ago, only getting a priests blessing for Sarah's sake. Now here stood his best friend with a tattoo and Chris realised he didn't care at all.

"We gonna stand here all day? I know as folks get older they tend to take longer to make their minds up - but this is ridiculous."

Chris shoved his cheeky friend towards the water, muttering under his breath about his choice of companions.

"JD you even think of putting that fish in my boots and I will ..."

"Well Brothers, here come two souls in dire need of some water. Should we oblige them?"

Four pairs of incredulous eyes stared at Josiah. "We ain't that stupid old man!"

Chris felt the warmth of that memory keep the night chill at bay, as he returned to the present. The pleasant memory faded in the light of present circumstances and Chris returned to the quandary at hand.

Dourn had taken Chris aside after their altercation and told him a few things that had had his mind in a whirl ever since. Two things in particular stuck out and Chris focused on them. Firstly Dourn, who turned out to be some sort of wiseman apprentice, had told Chris that their world had very weak barriers. The walls of spirit, dimensions, time and probability were exceptionally weak. This was why there are so many deities and powers in the land, many of the 'gods' were interlopers from other worlds and dimensions. The demons had broken through a dimensional wall millennia ago, fleeing a dead world, in search of more souls to devour. In fact even the great god Ar, was not a local - but actually some disposed godling from another time and place. Many powerful creatures were drawn to this physical plane, endangering the mortals who lived within it's physical realm. The People were set as guardians to help balance the power and prevent too many 'visitors' from interfering.

Dourn had continued with something he considered equally important. He told of an old legend that said that new dragons were never born. He explained the confusing statement by declaring that apparently a dragon who died was reborn in the next egg laid by a female. Thus no new dragons were created, only old ones reborn and at a certain age remembered their old lives. Thus in the thousands of years of dragon history, it always revolved around the same souls battling and plotting against eachother. If ever the few remaining dragons could lay sufficient eggs, the entire dragon race would be reborn - literally, with all the knowledge and magic of the ancient days. Which was why demons destroyed any and all dragon clutches they found.

How these two facts related to eachother escaped Chris. Dourn apparently found them to be significant and had left Chris with a knowing look. As the black-armoured soldier rode behind his friends he tried to find some connection between all this and Vin. The answer hung tantalisingly close, just at the edge of his understanding, but eluded his grasp every time he thought he might have it. Usually Chris could see vague connections were none seemed to exist, but this one remained frustratingly elusive.

A half forgotten phrase Chris recalled Josiah rumbling, sprung to mind. "Some things we are never meant to understand."

'Well I'm not accepting that this time. It all means something and I'm going to figure it out.'

+ + + + + + +

The cave was fairly large, completely devoid of any stalactites, too newly formed to carry such features of age. The rough uneven floor was covered by debris and bones, evidence of the cave housing a very foul creature. The latest meal lay shivering against the furthest wall, dank shadows hiding most of it but not the smears of blood on the floor. A shaky hand moved weakly, dried blood breaking as muscles shifted after remaining motionless for so long, fresh blood oozing at several jagged tears.

Vin awoke from his frenzied nightmares to the real one he was living. Every muscle, tendon, nerve-ending and patch of skin shouted in a concert of pain. Sharp rock abraded his bare back as he stirred, the slight pain insignificant compared the soul-pain he felt. Mangus lacked the finesse and power to feed on Vin's soul without having to injure him physically. His arms and legs were a mass of cuts and lesions, used as conduits to reach the soul. Mangus had so far avoided injuring Vin in any vital place, lest he accidentally mortally wound Vin and end his torment. A stark reminder as to how careless Mangus could be, when in the midst gorging himself, was the mangled remains of Vin's right foot.

What had brought Vin back to consciousness was the sensation of 'knowing'. He could feel Chris again. Not like before their separation, which was only few days ago but seemed several lifetimes of pain away. Faint emotions drifted along the bond, the occasional flash of direction. And what Vin felt with a hope-ridden shiver, was Chris moving nearer. Shuddering at a spasm of pain, Vin closed his eyes and sought Chris out, reaching out along the connection.

Mangus arrived in the cave, laughing in pleasure at his latest conquest. After every 'meal' Mangus would leave the cave to check the surrounding tunnels. He had Vin hidden in the abandoned tunnels of Kelltor, far from any other demon lair. Feeling brave, with new magic filling his empty chest, Mangus would visit old friends.

"I told Kerf I would wipe that smirk off his face one day, and now I have."

His concentration broken, Vin looked up at Mangus and immediately averted his eyes from the grisly sight in Mangus's hand. He stared dispassionately at his pants, the only item of clothing left to him. Vin tried to take a deep breath to calm his pounding heart but had to stop when a lancing pain shot through his bare chest. Arching his back in response, his breathless gasp did not escape tight lips, the silence heavy with pain. A footfall sounded near his ear as Mangus leered over his writhing prisoner.

"What no congratulations or accolades? Come now VIN, say something."

Vin closed his eyes wearily and tried to find the strength to turn his back on Mangus. He managed to shuffle from half-lying on his side, to lying on his back and had to stop to catch his breath.

A spine-chilling shadow fell over him, as Mangus knelt next to him. "Ah come on Vin, I want to hear one of your little 'taunts' Vin. You know like ... go to hell. Or maybe something like 'Is that right?' huh? Vin huh?"

Vin tried to ignore Mangus, but it was little hard as the demon played with one of the cuts on his arm, saying in a sing-song voice, "Nothing? Why on earth is that Vin?"

Capturing Vin's face in his hand, Mangus turned Vin to face him, half-shouting, "Maybe it's because I locked that flaming jaw of yours shut! Finally got some peace and quiet."

Digging his claws in hard Mangus snarled at the defiant eyes, "You're not supposed to do that anymore. Remember ... you gave yourself to me. None of this!" He shook Vin roughly, willing the defiance to fade into fear. Stubbornly, despite knowing he would pay for it, Vin glared at Mangus, resisting the only way he could.

"You'll learn soon enough," Mangus whispered softly and Vin closed his eyes bracing himself for the coming pain. Mangus tossed Vin onto his right side, exposing his back to the demon and hissed, "Let's see if you manage to scream this time."