Pro Patria Mori

by Rhicy

Alternate Universe

The human army lay sprawled across the land like a living sea. The demon attacks had become so bad 5 years ago that practically the entire human population had gathered together into one gigantic force. Isolated pockets of human dwellings remained, but the focus of the war was on the massive human army. It was a logistical nightmare to run, with civilians and soldiers needing food, shelter and supplies in such large amounts, the supply-masters were hard pressed to provide for the multitude. The man in charge of the walking city was Lord Cross.

Second only to the King in power, Lord Cross commanded the army, organised tactical assaults, planned foraging parties and tried to keep his people fed and safe. The King was inaccessible, besieged in his capital city by a demon army, unable to reach his people and offer them protection. It was left up to Lord Cross to take the helm. The Lord relied on a handful of trusted men to help him enforce his commands and keep the multitude moving. The Seven formed part of that select handful and so when Chris strode into Lord Cross's tent, he was greeted with delighted shouts of surprise. What Lord Cross did not expect was Chris to stride right by his proffered hand, and slam a balled-up fist into his second-in-command's face.

"You sent us into a flaming trap, Jason!" Chris expressed his anger at the betrayal by landing another two blows to the man's stomach, a third connecting solidly to his jaw. Jason clutched his broken nose, blood streaming down his face, and stammered around loose teeth, "I don't know what you're talking about!"

Chris was about to continue beating an answer out of Jason, when a large hand caught his arm, halting his movement. Without looking around, focused intently on Jason Chris snarled, "Let me go Josiah!" The quiet murderous fury implicit in the fierce growl, sent shivers up the spines of every other man in the room.

Unconcerned, Josiah merely cautioned, "Now Brother Chris, you weren't thinking of keeping this vile traitor to yourself, were you? Afterall, you do need to share."

It was then that Jason, sprawled in the carpeted floor noticed the five other men ranged behind Chris. Six stony faces honed in on him, even the kid's posture showed him to be intensely riveted on the quivering man of the floor. Despite their icy demeanours, their eyes gave them away. Anger and grief speared Jason to the quick, the desire to do far more than beat the crap out of him, danced in their eyes.

"What in the hell is going on?" demanded Lord Cross, slamming his fist onto a map covered table.

"Just providing a cleanup service, sir," replied Nathan, the only one of the Seven inclined to answer. It was then, that Cross realised that there were six dangerous men in his tent, and not the usual seven.

"Where the hell is Vin?" Cross shouted, stepping in front of Chris, cutting the hunters off from their prey.

"Ask Jason." Chris growled, his icy green eyes boring into Lord Cross.

Somewhat startled by the venom in Chris's voice, Lord Cross turned to question his second-in-command, only to see Jason scrambling to his feet, slicing a slit in the tent flap with his dagger and trying to slip through the hole.

Lord Cross was abruptly shoved aside as Chris and Ezra raced after the escaping traitor, following him through his hastily-made exit. The remainder of the Seven or rather six, raced back out of the tent entrance, splitting up to chase down their quarry.

"Will someone please tell me what in Ar's name is going on! And what are you lot doing just standing there?" Cross shouted at his guards, "Help them get Jason! I want answers!"

Jason sped through the encampment, stumbling over scattered belongings and campfires, feeling the close proximity of his pursuers. As he raced in and around tents, wagon circles and sentry lines, Jason could feel twin green eyes boring into his back, as Chris and Ezra kept pace, dogging his trail no matter how he tried to loose them. A sudden movement on his right, caught his frantic eyes, a brief man-shaped shadow paralleled his course. A second shadow on his left caused a terrified gasp to cut through his heaving chest. Jason realised that this was how a deer must feel being hunted by a pack of wolfs, his wolfs were armed with swords however.

Hunting in complete unison, the Seven chased Jason, cutting off possible exits and breakaways, merely by suddenly making themselves seen. Buck and Josiah raced to either side of Jason, Chris and Ezra at the rear, practically snapping at his heals, driving him on, ever forward, unable to stop and take a breath. An abrupt realisation hit Jason, 'Where are the other two?'

As if summoned by his thoughts, Nathan and JD appeared in front of him, blocking his avenue for escape. Coming to a grinding stop, Jason turned around to see Chris and Ezra slowing to a gradual amble, slowly stalking him from behind. Buck stepped out from behind a tent and Josiah cast a enormous shadow over the surrounded man as he moved into the light. The six surrounded Jason, each with a sword drawn, circling the horrified man like a pack of hungry wolves.

Dead silence fell over that part of the encampment, as men and women in neighbouring tents, drew back, allowing the six the move freely. Firelight glinted off six deadly blades, and cast strange shadows over six faces intent on only one thing. Jason.

Tall, good-looking with a build that had many women flocking to his bed, Jason no longer looked as self-assured as he usually did while acting his part in the command tent. Blood streamed from his nose, covering the bottom half of his face, his clothing was torn in places where errant poles and spears had cut him during his desperate flight. Chest heaving with exertion and fear, Jason noted with panic that the six men surrounding him, were hardly breathing heavily, as if that run had been insignificant. His nervous tremors flicked his dagger, pointing it at each man surrounding him, the blade quivering with fear.

A chill wind from the snowy mountains, blew through the camp, guttering torches and camp fires. It chilled the sweat on Jason's face, which continued to pour despite his stationary body. The silent regard of the six men, was making the sweat patches beneath his arms grow. 'Why didn't they say anything?' A desperate look grew on Jason's face, as fear clawed at his stomach, whispering to him all the terrible things the six would do to him, if he didn't do something soon. A man faced with what he considered a fate worse than death, toyed with his dagger, his grip tightening as he prepared himself.

A play of light directly in front of him, drew Jason's eyes towards it. He gulped down on a very dry throat as Chris's steely gaze met his terrified one. Chris twirled his wicked blade in the firelight, his hands moving in unconscious skill, the razor sharp blade softly whistling as it gained momentum. Chris took a small step forward.

An answering rasp and whistle dragged Jason's mesmerised eyes from Chris, to the humming axe Nathan was swinging, it's double-headed halves singing a hymn of death. Another weapon slicing through air, startled the terrified man who whipped around to see Josiah hefting both a war hammer and sword in a perfect dance of air.

Only Chris moved closer, the rest merely keeping their weapons moving in a frighteningly beautiful choir of death. Practically hypnotised by the moving blades and weapons, Jason allowed Chris to move closer, his unseen hand fingering a rope behind his back.

The abrupt arrival of Lord Cross's guards, their armour and clatter breaking the spell the Six wove, sent a bright spike of fear in Jason's eyes. Before Chris could move the few paltry feet to reach him, Jason sank his half-forgotten dagger into his own stomach, mouthing soundlessly at the pain.

Even as Chris reached Jason to check the wound, he knew Jason was dead. "Damn dagger was poisoned!" Chris growled, wiping the blood off his hands, in case the poison had tainted the blood.

Shooting a deadly glare at the inept guards, Chris pushed past the crowd who had gathered once the fight seemed to be over. A startled yelp from a surprised guard and then an answering thud, opened the way between the guards, Chris's fist a powerful motivator. The five disappointed soldiers followed in their leader's wake, leaving the mound of garbage for the guards to take care off. JD's harsh whisper-shout echoed through the silent camp, "The blighted scum died too quickly 'specially after what he done."

Buck's answering growl drifted up into the brilliant night sky, "Dead right kid!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin floated on his back in a sea of memories, hiding in a vast array of experiences, as Mangus abused his soul further. Brief glimpses of times-gone-by floated by him, his subconscious lapping in ripples at his hidden form. Above him, arced a blue sky, thoughts and feelings sailing like clouds above him.

A sharp slicing pain cut the water near him and Vin allowed the memories to touch him, hoping to escape the pain by accessing those memories.

Instantly he could feel the sensation of a chair beneath his back. He didn't need to look to his right to know that Chris sat beside him, a black sliver in the corner of his eye. The warm winter sun seeped through Vin's buckskin jacket, the wind blowing up the scent of dust and horses. Silver spurs chinked in the late afternoon shadows, as Chris moved his feet on the porch. "What cha thinking, Cowboy?"

Vin smiled as the memories continued to float by, unconcerned that many made no sense to his present mind. The sensations grew in intensity...

The feel of Chris's arms as he clung tightly to Vin's waist, as the great bronze dragon winged it's way through the sunset sky. Dragon hide beneath his fingers, air streaming over the contours of his face. Purple and red clouds breezing past as powerful muscles beneath his legs, cut their way through the air currents. Chris's elated shout in his ear as the pair topped the mighty cloud mountains, the world spread beneath them, coloured in oranges and reds, a silver river snaking through the russet plains.

Chris's back to his, in a cold, dark place, filled with the sounds of machines. A wry grin flashing in the light of an ochre laser as the enemy fired.

The sight of Buck and JD falling off their chairs with laughter, the little wheels on the chairs spinning in accompaniment to the tears streaming down their faces, as Ezra walked through the office's glass doors with bright pink hair.

Nathan's brilliant smile in a crowded room, with smoke and music pressing heavily on the heads of the patrons. The sound of chips being dragged across a wooden table, as Nathan beat a flabbergasted Ezra with four smiling ladies.

Josiah's quick wink and then studied frown as he nailed his own thumb, whilst fixing a church roof. A distant thud as JD fell off the roof - he was laughing so hard, Nathan raising patient eyes to the sky as if pleading with the creator to save him from a pack of idiots.

His wife's surprised giggle as Vin caressed her bare neck, his unshaven whiskers lightened by the moonlight through the window as they tickled her skin. A soft cry from a crib interrupting the tender moment, his heart filling at the sound.

Ezra's confused face at the small gift on his desk, stars streaming by in the observation window. Ez's delighted grin at the small pack of antique cards, which he shuffled immediately, the cards moving as if on their own accord.

The sound of joyful laughter as Chris swung twin boys in his arms, their blond hair mirroring their father's in the sun. A dark haired girl jumping in anticipation at her own ride in her father's arms. Chris roaring with laughter as four children wrestled him to the ground and tickled him, calling for Uncle Vin to help them.

Buck's terrified visage as he stood before a wedding altar, a wickedly-delighted bride at his side. Sweat patches growing as the eternal bachelor tied the knot with a stammering squeak of "I do."

JD with grey hair and wrinkles surrounded by a clan of children and relatives, posing for a photogram, on his 101st birthday.

Josiah arm in arm with Maude, showing her his prize Arcadian Azalias, Ezra following them with a suffering look directed at the back of his mother's head.

Nathan and Rain standing stunned as they saw their brand new house, the six builders covered in dust and grime, proudly grinning at their accomplishment.

His mother's hands on his bearded face as she wished him happiness with his new bride, his father's hand pooling a sensation of warmth on his shoulder.

The quiet cool depths of the green forest, seated with friends beside a roaring fire, chuckling as a fancy-dressed Ezra and JD tried to eat the greasy meal without messing their finery.

Nathan sleeping on a boat deck, the twin suns burning his green skin, unaware that Ezra and Josiah were sneaking up on him with an icy bucket of water.

Chris's hand clasped to his fore-arm, a dry voice saying, "Watch your back, pard."

The fierce pain had eventually found him even in his memories, the stabbing sensation dragging him from the embrace of treasured memories, and as they floated past him once more, Vin wondered if he would ever feel such joy again.

+ + + + + + +

Lord Cross looked up expectantly as Chris stormed into his tent, dragging with him an atmosphere of barely controlled rage. One cautious glance at the stony, clenched face and Cross knew the chase had not gone well. Chris's desire to vent his pent up anger tremored through the tent, and Cross hoped no one would oblige the deadly man. Josiah and Ezra followed Chris into the tent but remained at the entrance, giving Chris space to prowl the few steps available in the close quarters.

Cross's questioning gaze directed itself to what he considered the least volatile members of the Seven, only to find barely checked anger streaming from Josiah and Ezra as well. Unwilling to tempt the smouldering cauldron of Chris's wrath, Cross wisely nodded at Nathan as he too stepped into the tent.

Nathan studied his companions and sighed, "Jason gutted himself before Chris could get hold of the slimy worm." There was a thunderous crash as Chris overturned a chair, vile curses blighting Jason to an eternity of pain, spewing from his mouth, as if Nathan's words had opened the floodgates to his anger. Three days of reigning himself in, checking his violent urges and desires exploded forth. To come so close to getting the answers he craved, needed and now to have them snatched away, brought his anger to boiling point. No longer able to or rather no longer dwanting to hold his anger in, Chris escaped the confines of the tent, his silver edged armour glinting as his passed the torches.

Inside the tent, Lord Cross, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah heard the sounds of wood splintering and crashing. "I guess Buck and JD found something for Chris to vent on?" Lord Cross ventured.

"Nope, they're in Jason's tent going through his things."

Lord Cross cringed then, wondering what Chris was destroying outside. He couldn't think of anything near his tent that Chris could use as a punching bag, and that made him even more nervous.

Lord Cross had learnt very quickly that one did not command the Seven. You gave 'suggestions' and if Chris agreed, then the rest would usually follow, usually. "Mind filling me in?" Cross suggested to the trio standing before him.

Ezra took a deep breath and launched into an explanation of the last three days. Lord Cross had no trouble following the convoluted language as Ezra wove metaphor and higher vocabulary into an extravaganza of words. Cross and Ezra both hailed from Stone City, whose populous prided themselves on 'correct' speech. As Ezra made his words jump hoops and sit up and beg, Cross heard the pain hidden behind the façade. Ezra only got this verbose when he was truly upset and this was Ezra at his best.

"... Whereupon the arrival of your goodself's ineptly attired and club-footed minions distracted the vile creature sufficiently that he perceived his immanent capture and plunged a loathsome blade into his craven heart, dying far too swiftly considering the magnitude and horrendously monstrous nature of his criminal activities, a fatal venom speeding his flight to the netherworld where - if justice prevails - a truly fitting torment awaits his black and twisted soul. Needless to say the craven coward would have endured a far more hellish treatment at our hands should the perverse demon-friend have remained in the land of the breathing a few moments more. Hence our fearless leader's tirade and considerable anger, considering he was most anxious to express his severe disapproval to the misanthrope who elicited the separation of a dear friend from our midst and necessitated the courageous self-sacrifice of the best man amongst us."

"Thank you Ezra," Lord Cross interrupted, fully aware that if unchecked Ezra would continue for a good while longer, his own agitation fuelling his quicksilver tongue. Cross remained silent a moment, reviewing the dreadful story. He glanced at Josiah as if considering something and finally said, "Once Chris is ready, I think there's someone you boys should meet."

Cross paused at the sound of shattering wood, a strange look on his face, "On second thought, the sooner the better. Get Chris."

+ + + + + + +

A small tent sat in the shadows, hunched over itself, seeming to draw the reluctant darkness nearer it, whilst the neighbouring tents seemed to shrink away. There was more space than usual around the tent, as if the owners of the surrounding tents had been very reluctant to pitch anywhere near the dirty brown thing.

Cross lead the Six into the tent, which surprisingly seemed to fit all of them. The tent was filled from floor to roof with scrolls, books and parchments, far bigger inside than it appeared outside. The seven soldiers could all stand quiet easily together in the tent that seemed on the outside barely big enough to let one man sleep in. A prickly sensation sat at the back of the visitors necks, Josiah's eyes narrowing as he studied the tent. As a monk he had learnt a lot about magic and power and this tent reeked of sorcery. It was certainly the home of one of the most feared humans alive. A magician.

"Morte!" Lord Cross called and movement from near a tall pile of scrolls revealed the dusty little man. His clothing blended in with the pale brown of the papers scattered around him, making him practically invisible. A small, mousy face peered at the soldiers, overly-large spectacles hanging precariously from his nose. Wild, whitening hair stood up at all angles, his mouth covered with ink stains from where he absentmindedly chewed on his quills.

Ezra was vaguely reminded of a picture he recalled seeing of a very famous man who had invented some ... weapon, but the man's name escaped him. The little magician at first seemed put out by the intrusion and opened his mouth to complain when suddenly his eyes widened as he noticed 'all' of the visitors. Scrambling to his feet, he hurried forward, staring intently at the six men in particular.

"Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating." He shuffled even closer and peered at the six, his mouth pursing in concentration. "Never seen one like it. Incredible." Unafraid of the towering black frame of Chris, which radiated unbridled fury, Morte approached him, muttering all the while and when he was practically on top of Chris, his beady little eyes snapped up to meet Chris's angry green ones. "Oh my!"

Morte placed a trembling wrinkled hand on Chris's chest, right above his heart and mumbled, "Riiiiigggghhht ... here!" At his words a blue light flashed in the tent and immediately Chris buckled to his knees, a heart-rending scream pouring from a pain-anguished mouth. Chris hugged his arms around his chest, and hunched over his knees, continuing to scream. Initially too shocked by the sudden scream to do anything but stare, Nathan snapped to his senses and bent to help Chris, the others not far behind. Buck and Josiah grabbed the little man who stood studying the screaming man with complete fascination, unconcerned by the pain he was causing.

"Stop it NOW! Whatever you did, stop it or I will rip off that scrawny head of yours and shove it up your ass!" Buck bellowed. Startled by the threat and the increasing pressure on his arms, where very large hands held him, Morte stuttered, "What? Oh this ...this ... ahh... hold on." He tried to move his arms but Josiah refused to let go, instead squeezed tighter.

Yelping in pain, Morte stammered, "I need to touch him to put it back! Let Go!"

Glaring at the puny magician, Josiah rumbled, "Then do it." Morte bent down and touched the shuddering black-clad back and Chris's scream was abruptly cut off. Silence fell, no one willing to speak after that horrific sound. Cross noticed five furious heads turn to glare at Morte and he stepped up quickly to avert a disaster.

"What did you do?" Cross asked in a calm detached voice, hiding his own shock and anger. Incredulous at how calm he sounded, Nathan was about to demand an explanation when Lord Cross held up his hand, asking them to wait. Morte still shaking from his brush with a towering rage in Josiah, stammered, "Lord Cross! I just wanted to see why the bond was dulled. Some powerful magician dampened the bond and I was just ... curious."

"Curious!!" Buck yelled, "Curious!! Why you little ... . Chris went through that just so ... you ... could ... .... oh damn." A sad realisation sunk in and Buck stopped ranting, his mouth opening in horror. The others also realised what Buck did, and a palatable sadness fell over the group, as they watched their leader rock on his knees, still shaking from the after effects.

JD felt sick to his stomach as he realised what Chris's scream meant. Vin was in incredible pain. Despite the strength of the bond, Chris only felt a portion of the pain Vin did, and if the agony from his connection to Vin had sent Chris to his knees, what on earth was Vin feeling? Ten times that, a hundred times? Guilt stabbed at JD, here he was safe, all due to Vin, and he hadn't even thought about what kind of pain Vin was going through. Usually you could tell by Chris's behaviour, but since the Luor forest, Chris hadn't felt any pain. And it had been easy to forget that Vin was still alive and in a hell of a lot of agony.

Guilt-ridden eyes met Buck's and JD saw the same guilt on Buck's face, as well as on the rest of his friends'. Uneasy silence fell over the group, all eyes on Chris who had yet to regain his feet.

Lord Cross cleared his throat hesitantly and asked Morte in a soft voice, "Have you completed the preparations?"

"Hmmm?" Morte queried his eyes darting around the tent, flashing to scrolls and books and then back the man on his knees. "Oh, oh! Oh Yes! I have finished - and ... yes ... and with these ... ah ... men! ... we ... it should work."

"What should work?" Buck asked, resisting the urge to help Chris to his feet, knowing his offer would be rejected.

"Morte has found a spell which could end the war," Cross explained, rubbing his hands over his biceps, trying the remove the goose-bumps from his arms. Chris's anguished scream had raised every hair on his body, and they were still standing up.

"A Spell? How can a spell help end the war?" Nathan queried.

"By sending those thrice-cursed demon-spawns back to where-ever the hell they came from!" The raspy, hoarse voice grated out of an abused throat, Chris standing up as he said it, nailing Morte with a mortal glare as he absently rubbed his abdomen. One chilling thought was swirling around Chris's brain, he had to reach Vin. Hooded green eyes were not focused on the little man who was fidgeting in front of him, they were focused on a brief glimpse of a dark cave, filled with pain.

"Yes. Yes. Exactly," Morte tittered excitedly, "I found an ancient scroll which contained the spell to banish the demons from our world. The writer apparently died before he could tell anyone about it, killed by demon-friends who destroyed all his work, this scroll survived only through a protection spell."

"Which is why we need to move quickly. If Jason was in contact with other demon-friends then they may know of Morte's discovery. We have to act now, before something tries to stop us."

Ezra mused aloud, "Indeed, one well-timed suicide mission, specifically placed in the middle of our camp would indeed create sufficient confusion for the demon's vile minions to retrieve the scroll. I am still at a loss as to why Jason felt he had to remove the seven us. None of us suspected him."

"Perhaps he was merely acting on orders - just sending the demons some lunch," Morte quipped apparently pleased with bad joke he had made.

As Morte's words broke through his semi-trance, Chris effortlessly grabbed a fistful of the little magicians robe and soon the pair where nose to nose. "Cracks like that are likely to get a body eviscerated, with a dull spoon."

"Chris," Lord Cross warned, noting with alarm that none of the others seemed inclined to intervene, "We need him, no matter how ... tactless he is. Please put him down."

Chris waited, as if considering the request, and with no warning dropped the little man, who landed awkwardly on his feet. "Really! How rude!" Morte tried to flatten the crinkles in his robe, with no luck. "Get on with it, Little Man! I ain't about to stand around here listening to you ramble on."

"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted," Morte shot a meaningful glance at Chris before continuing, "Jason may have had some obligation to fulfil, some part in a bargain he made. Or the demons finally noticed your exceptionally ... ah .. 'colourful' souls and took steps to get you."

Josiah tugged at his beard, considering the magicians reasoning, "Our souls? What is so unusual about our souls?"

"Flame our souls, Josiah - Vin's is the only one we need to worry about!" Chris snarled, turning on Josiah.

"Chris, we need information first and foremost - the better we understand the situation, the easier our task is," Ezra tried to clam his leader down. Chris was completely still, unmoving in his anger. When Chris was pacing or cursing it was easier to deal with him - a few calming words or pointing him in the direction of something or someone breakable. But this statue-like stillness was frightening, it meant Chris was focusing his energy on something else other than his anger.

Buck quipped up with, "Chris just hear the weasel out, alright?"

A brief nod from Chris and Morte blurted out, "Ahh your souls ... well ... several things .... Firstly they are very .. strong I think is the word and secondly .. there is a bond uniting all of you together. Yes, it's particularly strong with him," Morte pointed at Chris with a dismissive finger, " and ... whoever it is currently enjoying the attentions of a demon. But needless to say, you all are connected somehow, tied."

"At the risk of sounding as dimwitted as Buck, I would offer the conjecture of 'So what?' The demons still tried to eat us," Ezra queried, fighting off a sharp nudge from Buck.

"It's all connected somehow. You, the demons, the spell. I haven't quite figured it all out yet. But I do know this - you six are the only ones who will survive an attempt at casting the spell. Actually ... survive might be a bit hopeful. I ahhh..."

"Cut to the chase, old man," Chris snapped. Blank eyes bored into Morte, Chris's face expressionless, save a small sneer of derision as he glared at the magician. Buck, standing slightly behind Chris, knew that despite the stony expression gracing his oldest friends face, Chris was fighting a turmoil of emotions. If Vin had been with them, he would have been able to sense the tumult and done or said something that only Vin would come up with, to ease Chris's pain. But Vin wasn't here - that was problem!

Lord Cross took over when Morte hurried to the back of the tent for something. "Magician Morte has prepared five gourds which contain the spell components. A group of volunteers will need to go into the heart of Kelltor and cast the spell. And it will, somehow, take the demons from our world."

"Somehow!" JD squeaked, "You mean you ain't sure it will work!"

Lord Cross shrugged, "We're running out of options. Hell, right now we are just running, period. The demon-blades have helped defend us against attacks, and even route demon strongholds, but we are not strong enough to remove them completely from our cities, and forts. The human race will be forced to wander like nomads unless we find a permanent solution. We don't have the time to wait for future sons and daughters to take back our homes. The demons grow more desperate by the day as we push into their ancient homes - they will strike at our heart - soon."

"So five idiots get sent into Kelltor and hope for their own souls sake, that some misbegotten spell will work!" Buck exclaimed.

"No five ordinary volunteers would not stand a chance. You six, however, might!" Morte had returned bearing five mesde plant gourds, the white and brown streaks on the skin mingling in a riot of directions. "These gourds once opened will cast the spell, and the spell-bearers must stay alive until the spell in completed. You will have the additional concern of ensuring that no demons latch onto your souls and try to drag you with them. The demon dimension is not a nice place to visit."

"Wait, wait. You're talking like we're already going. We ain't said we would," JD pointed out, garnering a supportive grunt from Buck.

"There any chance of freeing Vin?"

Morte stared at Chris for a moment and opened his ink-stained mouth to frame a denial when he seemed to change his mind and said, "A slim chance. One of you would have to find the demon who knows his name, find a way to sever their link and then ... make sure his soul goes to the afterlife and not with the demon."

"How do you severe the link?"

"Haven't a clue. It's never been done before. But that doesn't mean it can't be done," Morte's attempt at an encouraging smile, failed miserably.

Chris raised a trembling hand and felt the shirt over his heart, touching the place where Morte had ignited his torture. The indescribable pain that had flowed through his soul shook him to the bone as he remembered it. Everything had hurt, screamed in response and all Chris could do was give voice to the soundless scream streaming across their bond. Vin's scream.

"I'll find a way." And with those words, the rest of the Seven pledged their own commitment to the task ahead.

+ + + + + + +

Six silent statues stood guard over the fallen seventh. Hands and faces etched in grey stone silently gazed at the crumbling form of their companion, it's legs broken in half, the stumps jagged in the force which severed them. Carved hands rested on giant swords and axes, as if the builders had prepared the warriors to burst into action at a moments call.

Age and time had not been kind to the statues, long cracks and splits raced across torsos and legs, rain and wind adding to the erosion. Once proud faces, seemed sad as rainfall had carved tear marks into stone cheeks. Sightless eyes were riveted on the fallen statue. It's face was turned to the open sky and almost all of it's features were gone, save a corner of a mouth which made it seem as if wry grin graced it's ancient face. This statues hands touched no weapons, but instead reached towards a statue cast in shadow.

JD felt the hairs on his arms rise in response to the wind that whistled through the statues, sounding like voices whispering, urging him. JD was trailing his friends as they made their way through the ancient entrance to Kelltor. According to legend an ancient city had once stood above the caves of Kelltor, it's citizens mighty warriors and exceptional craftsman. They had perished in the first wave of demon attacks, as the sinister fiends crawled through caves and tunnels to reach the surface, coming into the heart of the city itself. All that remained of that forgotten city were these seven statues and the name, Lanetre.

Chris was leading, using his sense of Vin to guide him. The bond had sharpened as the six journeyed closer to Kelltor, until Chris knew exactly where Vin was, as he stood at the cave mouth. No pain streamed through the bond, no emotions, only purpose. Chris barely paused as he entered the tunnel mouth, his steps firm as he set out to find his brother.

JD hefted his gourd, cursing it's heaviness and took a last look at the world behind him. In the darkening twilight the statues were silhouetted by the sunset. For a brief instant JD swore he saw Seven statues standing together, their arms and shoulders touching in shadow. He turned to call Buck and saw that Chris had entered the cave. As JD quickly turned to look again, the statues were lost in the falling darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Fear coursed through his veins as he followed Josiah's broad back in the stygian darkness of the tunnel. Even though he had been barely conscious during his last time in these caves, Nathan remembered enough to set his heart racing. A phantom ache worried his stomach as the recently healed wound seemed to stir at his memories.

The tunnels were empty, the six had yet to meet any demons. Six black demon-blades cut the air as they marched though the tunnels. If a demon came near them, the blades would glow a faint green in warning. So far there hadn't been a flicker.

Lord Cross was creating a diversionary action up on the surface. He would lead an attack against a demon-held fort, hoping draw away many of the demons, so that the six would not have to fight their way through to the main cavern. Chris seemed to know exactly where to go, his steps unerring despite the darkness. Nathan sighed and rubbed his new scar, keeping a watchful eye on his blade.

The plan was anything but simple. In fact it had far too many loopholes and ifs as far as Ezra was concerned. Chris would leave them eventually to go find Vin and the five 'sacrificial' lambs would somehow find the main portal cavern. Once they had found the cavern, they would have to break the gourds in the four corners of the room, and the fifth in it's centre. Somehow manage to do this whilst fighting the inevitable horde of demons that would be present, trying to stop them. Then the spell would happen, and begin to transport to demons home - and the five of them had to stay alive until whatever it was - formed. Then they had to prevent their souls from being taken with the demons or else experience an eternity in some demon dimension. Not hard, not difficult at all. 'As Vin would say, 'Like hell!' And we cannot be too premature in our actions, Chris needs time to find Vin and separate him from that disgusting demon. No problem. No problem at all.'

Ezra snorted sarcastically, shaking his head in wonder. Behind him Buck, was humming softly. The tune seemed familiar and as Ezra strained to catch the tune, a name sprang to mind. 'Battle Hymn of ... something or other. Hmm, I wonder where I know that from?'

Buck on the other hand was unaware that he was humming, rather he was deep in thought. 'Now there was Mary and Jane. And Kate and Janet. Cheryl, Nicky, Martha, Paula and Bridget. Stacy, Heather, Peaches, Connie and the twins. Ah, the twins! Wait, I lost count, oh yeah - Marget, Kerry, Ursula, Gina, Bonnie, Violet and Dee or something. Sarah, Sally, Susan, Sue, Sugar and Bertha. Or was it maybe, Betty? Shoot that can't be all ... think stud - who else? Oh right, Justine, Holly ...'

'Holy spirits, be with us as we brave these foul dungeons. Guide our steps and sword arms. Help Chris find Vin.' Josiah walked immediately behind Chris, his hands glasping his gourd tightly. 'Never thought I'd be going back into these tunnels. The creator must have been asleep when He handed out brains to this lot. Including me.'

Chris sent out his thoughts, trying to locate Vin. A growing sense of urgency was clawing at his stomach, he needed to find Vin soon. The six of them had a narrow window in which to reach the cavern before the demons clued on to what was happening. Even now as he strode towards his brother, his mind whirled, trying to find a way to free Vin. The answer lay somewhere amongst all the garbled information he had. Dourn's cryptic stories, that damn magician's hints and innuendoes and his own gut instincts all mingled in to a mess of clues.

'What the hell do dragons have to do with Vin? Why are our souls so different? And what does that mean? Weak barriers? Demon portals? Flame it all!' Chris thrust the questions away, frustrated that he couldn't grasp the answer when it lay so near his understanding. In the sudden silence of his mind, a familiar twang drawled, "Stick to what you know best, Cowboy."

In the rank tunnels of the demon strong-hold, Chris felt an all encompassing peace settle over him, chasing away doubts and fears. For a lingering moment, he felt Vin, felt his pain as if it were a distant emotion, but felt him none-the-less. The passage forked directly ahead and along the right tunnel a voice seemed to whisper, its words too faint to hear. Chris stopped and faced the tunnel mouth, feeling his soul drawn down into it's murky depths. A rancid odour floated up on a vagrant air current, out of the left tunnel and Chris knew he had to send the boys down that one.

"It's time."

At those awful words, a tense hush fell over the group. They moved together automatically, age old instinct guiding their feet and hearts towards eachother. Uneasy and unwillingly to utter the goodbyes that needing saying, they stood for a few moments simply looking at each other.

"Why do I get the feeling this is turning out to be a goodbye? Don't you fellas remember, the hero always gets the girl."

"And lives happily ever after." JD completed Bucks sentence, his heart pounding.

"What no quip Ez? No stunningly elaborate comment?" Nathan asked, his white teeth a stark contrast against his black skin.

"Alas no, dear sir. I fear that words seem to have failed me in this hour of necessary departures."


Chris stepped forward, his face barely seen in the tunnel gloom. "It's been one hell of a ride, boys. Have a feeling we'll be meeting up pretty soon. All of us."

Throats too tight, and lips too clenched, six brothers nodded in agreement, shaky hands reaching out and touching Chris in farewell, as the five men filed down the left tunnel, leaving a solitary figure in black, watching them go.

+ + + + + + +

A single head peeked around the cave wall opening, green eyes taking in everything. Once the area had been surveyed the head was withdrawn. Ezra motioned his companions back, drawing them away from the narrow shaft of light.

"Whacha see Ez?"

"A great deal, JD. It appears we have found a disused entrance into the cavern. Most demons are too big to use this narrow entryway and it seems the hole is not guarded nor frequented sufficiently that our presence will be noted."

"And?" Buck prodded, his moustache a dull grey from the layers of dust the five humans had disturbed in their passage through the abandoned tunnels. All five of them were coated a dull grey, Ezra somehow less grey than the others.

"That is were our run of fortune ends. This all important cavern is the same one we visited last time we graced these despicable caves, and it is as before, full of demons partaking in a most vile repast."

"Light! You sure?"

"Certain about what Nathan? Certain that we are outnumbered at ten to one? Certain that our chances are minuscule of even surviving 5 seconds in that horrendous cave? Absolutely certain that I desire nothing more than charging into that monstrous place and somehow rescuing all those unfortunate people from a fate worse than death? Certain that my heart is beating so fast at the prospect of going in there again, of my own accord, that it feels as if it about to spontaneously combust? Yes I am 'sure.'"

"Easy Brothers, we need to stay focused if we are going to make this plan work." Josiah's resonate voice soothed fraying nerves and rapid pulses.

"What plan Josiah? So far it's all been very vague. Cast the spell and survive. How do we do that?" Buck snapped, unwilling to be placated.

"I tend to agree with Buck. Lord Cross and that insipid magician seem to expect some miracle to occur simply because 'we' are the ones in involved. Chris is understandably far too concerned with reaching Vin to be of much use to us and where as in previous times when Chris had not provided a plan, Vin had been there to do so. I fully acknowledge it is not beyond our own considerable abilities to formulate a plan, but I find myself drawing a blank in this case."

"Yeah - what Ez said," JD muttered feeling very insecure about engaging an enemy that had come way too close to killing him before, without all the Seven present. "It just ain't the same without Chris and Vin. I mean if we were all together - nothing could stop us but ... we ain't."

"Who says we are not Brother JD? While Vin and Chris might not be physically with us, they are in spirit and in purpose. Chris's mission is just as vital as ours - we are together in this," Josiah spoke with such passion that his words managed to lift JD's head and the young man met the older monk's gaze and was pleased to see Josiah's belief reflecting in his knowing blue eyes.

"Belief and 'spirit' is one thing Josiah. But we are still two men short and heavily outnumbered. I believe in our strengths as much as any of us, but what chance do we have to succeed against such overwhelming odds," Nathan said, his eyes downcast.

"Forgive my rudeness Brother, but what a load of crap! I know we are all frightened, hell I'm so scared - that by the end of this, I'm going to need to change my drawers," a half-hearted chuckle rose at Josiah's words, "but we are going to do this! And succeed! Because we have to, because lives depend on it, because Vin depends on it - Chris is going to have enough of a fight that any help will be essential. We are going to do this because we are who we are. The Seven of us have never backed down from a fight, never quit because it is too hard, never given anything but our all - even if it kills us. And mark my words, there are Seven of us - together." Josiah caught each of his companions startled gaze, willing his confidence to them.

"I have watched as Seven men as different from each other as night is to day, forge bonds of brotherhood that I can only believe are stronger than we in our limited vision can understand. I know you all felt it, because at some time or another, you have each told me how drawn you were to this group, how right it felt, the sense of completeness that sang in your soul. I felt it too and I know this," Josiah waved his hand in the space between the men, including them all in his gesture, "this thing tying us together, no matter how inconvenient it seems at time, this bond is real and is stronger than life itself."

The four men hunched over their knees, shuffled uncomfortably under Josiah's scrutiny and revealing words. His impassioned speech echoed the feelings of their own hearts and as Josiah continued, each man looked at each other across their small group. "I have no clue how we are going to accomplish this mission, but I know we will. And frankly if I die in there I'll be glad to die rather than have to live the rest of my worthless life knowing I chickened out on the best thing that ever happened to me. This," Josiah slammed a large fist into the cave floor emphasising his words, "US! When Chris said he was going to get Vin, we all agreed automatically. Not because we were afraid Chris would beat us into a pulp if we didn't but because Vin is our brother! And here we are, facing death! A very, real possibility of death! JD said that together the Seven are unstoppable. Well today we gonna have to be unstoppable - separately. Because do not doubt, Chris will free Vin, even if it kills him."

"Okay, okay. Josiah. Enough with the lecturing! Sheesh - as if we'd 'bug' out." Buck snorted interrupting the tirade. "We got cha. You feel a little 'passionate' the seven of us. Understandable considering woman run a mile when they get a whiff of you," Buck's broad smile and flippant joke did nothing to hide his true feelings, which shone from his eyes like a beacon. And were reflected in the faces of his friends, brothers.

"Quite so, Buck, quite so. Right back to more pressing matters, surviving the first five seconds."

Low chuckles echoed in the tunnel, as five brothers bent their heads and began planning to take on the impossible, again.

+ + + + + + +

The darkness was complete. No light penetrated the tunnel's gloom. The air lay thick and musty, sluggish as if nothing lived to stir it. A shadow cloaked in blackness equal to the stygian depths, threaded it's way through the tunnel. A pale hand, unseen in the darkness, felt the cave wall, helping to guide the feet that stepped forward into unknown areas. Green eyes struggled to pierce the darkness, unable to see anything. All his senses cut off, no sound to guide, no light to direct, only the feel of rock beneath his fingers, assured Chris he still walked in a tunnel.

Not relying on physical sense, Chris followed a different trail, scenting along a different scent. His soul pulsed in response to the presence of it's other half, somewhere up ahead. As he drew nearer, sharp pains attacked his heart, brief and fleeting, but growing in intensity the closer he drew to Vin.