SIX LORDS

SIX LORDS

 

Beyond the farthest sea, behind the most towering mountains, at the back of the remotest valley of the most lost land in the world, there is a door into another universe. I have been there. I have seen it. This is my story; the tale of six lords.

 

            The six of us set out with ten soldiers apiece, that no one would be set above the rest. It was a polite fiction, as Lord Beornus and his ten mountain men were clearly worth twenty of my woodland archers in this open country, while Duke Shabus' ten could probably have killed the other fifty without much resistance. But then Shabus of Garn hails from a rougher land than the rest of us, and I was just as pleased that the King of the Narrow Land hadn't come along with a company of his Samurai. I ranged myself with the Prince of Moritania,  just as I had in the last war. Beside us rode the "little Kings" of Clavia and Tischbein, whose lands were smaller than my own Knightsmark. We rode proudly, but with little state, and you could hardly tell the exalted from the low by costume. In our eyes was a flicker of fear, and a flicker of hope. How near each of those flickers was fanned to a fire, you must judge for yourselves.

            Behind us rode the wizards, in a coach piled high with magical scrolls and objects. Their skins fairly crawled with fear, for it was they who had foretold the peril that had sent us all out like beggars on the road.

            We had ridden hard, driving our horses to foam, for three days. An evil rain fell about us like watery blood, making everything slippery and hard to grasp. Finally we drew up, gasping as if the air were congealing, and the wizards had formed a circle.

            "Stay calm," old Ardeen had croaked, "And pray to whatever gods you commonly invoke, for it appears that the very stuff of which the world is made is coming apart in this place." They began their ceremony, calling upon Names which have been sacred since before the world was invoked to be. We stood still, sixty warriors and six lords, whispering our prayers to the gods or daemons who we hoped favored us. I sent a fervent prayer up to bel-Mardük, repenting my sins. The Prince of Moritania inquired in a low voice what sins I could possibly have upon my conscience; I began to describe the ones I was repenting. The Prince had a couple of sins that topped those, so I told him about an earlier set of sins. Shabus of Garn was trying to pray to the Purple God with a straight face and ignore us, but finally he began snorting with laughter and calling us liars. My sergeant began to avow my reliability, saying he had witnessed part of the last sin by mistake while retrieving his horse from the stable. Even the devil-worshipping King of Clavia was giggling. Muffled snorts of laughter were threatening to drown out the wizards' chants, which seemed to grow stronger and more confident as we joked in the very face of death. Suddenly life was flowing back into the world, into the air and ground, and the clouds faded and the sun was bright and the grass was green, and we were sharper and brighter and faster, ourselves again. With confident shouts we mounted our horses and began to ride, while behind us the wizards broke their circle to reveal the wizard Harkas of Vane dead on the ground, having given his life to repair the break in our reality. His body burned with witchfire until it was consumed and his moaning ghost flew around us for a few minutes as we rode, all our laughter quenched.

            We rode as fast as we could to the nearest transfer gate, formed of ancient magic under no limitations we understood. Ardeen said it was the kind of magic which was causing the destruction of our world; I understood nothing then of what he implied.

 

FIRST LORD

 

            On the third night we came upon the sacred place by accident as we rode away from the path in search of a place to camp. The scouts called us to this spot, but old Ardeen tried to order us back.

            "It's too good," he said, waving his arms around. "It's a trap, or something else." His wave took in a wide green meadow running down to the edge of a spring-fed pond, backed by high cliffs of a gritty stone. A thin waterfall trickled from the highest cliff and a few birds flew.

            "Bah," replied Shabus, bald dome gleaming in the fading light. "We came here to confront the mysteries, to plumb the dungeons if need be, though I for one avoid the curst places. If a trap it be, let us spring it wide while there's yet light, and sleep in comfort tonight." He stalked forward boldly, like an ape in his furs and leathers, and drew his curved sword. "Ho, spirits of the glade! We beg your attention. Give us leave to camp here tonight, or show your displeasure." He listened for a moment. "No? Then I'll urinate in your pond, and be pitching my tent on your nice green ground." And the mad barbarian sheathed his sword and swaggered over to the lake's edge, hauling his wolfskin trousers down as his men, and most of ours, howled with laughter. Old Ardeen sighed and covered his eyes. Shazbot, the youngest and most pugnacious of the wizards, began to ready a fire spell.

            At a most inopportune time, it came out of the water like a running horse: a skeleton waving the leg-bone of another skeleton in its bony hands. Duke Shabus had a choice between modesty and drawing his sword; he got the sword out barely in time to parry a slash from the staggering lich. Pants around his ankles, he fought the thing around a tight circle with lightning-fast parries and cuts, and somehow found time to call out, "If it gets me, boys, remember me this way! Yahooo!" as he jumped back. He avoided the clubbed femur and knocked the skull from the neck, taking a scratch from the right arm as he chopped away the left, and with a kick knocked the bony thing sprawling long enough to pull up his pants. The green meadow had turned to brown, and the water was like clotting blood in the twilight. Clouds seemed to gather. 

             His attack drove the headless zombie back and took off the other arm, at which the thing fell apart and stopped moving. Shabus took a shaky breath and glanced at the scratches on his arms, which were turning luminous green. He choked and fell to his knees, poisoned. "At least I died with my pants on," he wheezed as he kicked and expired. Green foam came out of his nose. The wizards worked over him for a few minutes, pronouncing only that he would not rise as a lich now. Shazbot cursed luridly. The sky was ugly and yellow now, and darkening quickly.

            Ardeen glared at the cliff. "This evil is part of our world, and not the evil we came to defeat, and yet I would see it razed. Fellows, what say we perform a Ritual of Deconstruction upon this foul place." It was not a question. The other wizards nodded grimly and began opening their packs.

            "What can we do?" Shabus' captain Feargus asked grimly, staring at his Duke's body where it lay.

            "Run," advised Sees Clouds, the Eastern wizard, looking up from his pack of nasty supplies. "Run fast, get away. Don't look back."

            We quick-marched as fast as we could, but somehow the wizards caught up with us and passed us, giggling like a pack of naughty kids. We all increased our pace, then a big bang and whoosh occurred behind us. The wizards relaxed and began lighting torches from one's burning finger. "Now, we look for a place to camp," Ardeen announced. "Er, don't mention to the other wizards that we did that. It's strictly forbidden." He looked pleased with himself.

            Damn Shabus, I thought. Now we are five.

 

SECOND LORD

 

 

            We rode out in the morning and took a rocky path. By morning it led us to a tiny defile between two rock walls. The walls and the passage had an odd, grainy look.

            "This is more of the wrongness," Ardeen declared. "An intrusion from another reality, poisoning our laws and structures. Here we must contend with the wardens of that reality to discover which of us will survive. We must be cautious, and go quietly until we see what is afoot."

            "Faint heart never won fair lady," said the little King of little Tischbein, hopping down from his horse, "and I would not be reckoned among the feebler of these doughty companions, but we have encountered our first trial and already lost our fiercest warrior. So, with your permission I will essay this trial myself. Oh, and my squire will come along," and the little man indicated a hulking youth easily twice his size, "to hold my lantern, of course."

            We all nodded, of course. Norton of Tischbein was a fierce fighter and commander of armies. I had beaten him on the field, and we had pounded each other with wooden swords in the practice yard. I hoped he knew what he was doing. Lanterns aloft, the two men vanished into the crevice. There was a smell of sulfur, and of ozone, and of death.

            We waited. A faint, eerie music came swelling up, instruments no man could play tuned to an alien pitch. We tried not to tap our feet. Two more men in Tischbein's colors lit lanterns and vanished into the dark after their ruler, and more were preparing to go.

            Just like that, the rocks turned black. The music came booming out at a horrid volume and little dark men, horned and footed like goats, came out of the wall and began slashing with fiery swords. They got seven or eight soldiers as they came, then Shabus' big barbarians turned the tide with their longswords. I took care to stand well back from the devil-worshipping soldiers of little Clavia, who sacrificed to things uglier than these. We beat the devils back and rushed the cleft in the rocks, finding the last pair of men dead only yards from our help. Ahead the cleft widened into a big firelit cave, and there we found the King of Tischbein dueling for his life with a huge red demon. The hulking squire lay dead at the cave's entrance, head almost ripped off. The thing was huge and had the reach on him, but Norton's life experience of fighting bigger men had preserved him so far. With a tricky jab and twist, he disarmed the thing by striking off its sword-hand, then drove his blade through its chest. The remaining hand caught him by the throat and crushed the life out of him. With a boom, the thing's gushing blood caught fire and the two burned together.

            Just like that, the rocks were gray again. The bodies of the slain became eerie cages of wire as they vanished, even our dead. The odd look was gone, the music an unpleasant memory. Ardeen and the wizards were chanting as we marched along.

            I looked at the Prince of Moritania. We both looked back at the remaining lords, Beornus and Clavia. Now we were four.

 

 

THIRD LORD

 

            We slept in dense forest, sleeping in shifts and expecting an attack that never came. We were a sorry lot as we set out in the morning, Tischbein and Garn's forces led by their captains. We had all sustained losses, my troops losing two men, and our little army numbered around forty-five now. Beornus had taken the point with a nod to each of us, as if to say that he would be the next to contend with the evils.

            After a few hours we left the forest and rode out into a vast steppe of gray dirt, riddled with horse-laming gopher-holes and unpleasant cacti. We saw our next opponent an hour before we were close enough to contend with it. It was that huge.

            Immensely huge, it was taller than any tree. I thought it a man in armor, but no man could have arms that thin, or a head that tiny. It was walking back and forth, head swivelling, and arms swinging, seeming not to see us. The ground shook with its steps.

            "Gods of the System! How can we fight THAT?" The Prince breathed. It could have crushed a man with each step.

            "Beornus," Ardeen the wizard spoke quietly. "Are you not of the shapeshifter blood? I have heard the tale of your great Ancestor…"

            Beornus shrugged. "I was taught those tales also. In my house they were deemed true, but there have been no shapeshifters since that man's grandson."

            "Would you risk the curse?" Sees Clouds asked him sharply. Ardeen nodded silently, eyes on Beornus'.

            "Even a bearling would be dwarfed by that thing," Beornus mused. He DID look like a bear. His ancestors had been were-bears? Still, how could that help us?

            Sees Clouds and Ardeen grabbed his arms and bellowed awful words. They echoed like thunderclaps, causing the huge armored thing to look around quickly. Beornus shivered and became a large bear, glowing with a fierce light. "Go! Go! Go!" Sees Clouds shrieked at the bear, pointing towards the huge thing. With each step Beornus began to grow.  Ardeen whirled and waved at us all.

            "Scatter!" he screamed. "Get far back!" I'd begun backing my horse when the wizards grabbed Beornus, and was already in full gallop. The ever-watchful Prince of Moritania was right behind me. I looked back to see the awful bear swell up to a huge size, seizing the empty suit of armor with its huge paws. The empty man fired a bolt of fire from its long nose; Beornus ducked it but it went on to explode in the midst of our fleeing troops. Men were thrown burning through the air. The Prince and I jumped over a wounded horse and got some distance, reining in upon a hill to watch.

            Beornus struck the metal man again and again, finally knocking it down and ripping the left arm from its socket, but it got back up again and set fire to his fur. The bear-man slapped at his head, putting out the flames but leaving ugly raw spots, and threw the monster down again, stamping on it savagely. The head burst open and two men jumped out, running across the gray dirt in wide-eyed panic. I saw them taken prisoner, but my attention was on the larger conflict, as Beornus crushed the thing's head, bending its nose. Had the men been its pilots, I wondered? Why did it fight on? I realized there must be at least one man left, standing by his station in this great war machine against hopeless odds—

            —and the huge thing exploded, sending the bear flying back in a blaze of fire. The operator must have fired his nose-cannon, not knowing it was bent. A huge fireball rolled towards us, searing the air. There was no escape. We were all dead. Sees Clouds roared one word, two syllables which our minds refused to grasp.

            I hear those syllables in dreams sometimes, and wake screaming in horror.

            Sees Clouds seemed to fall to pieces, as if small demons were claiming pieces of him. He screamed for long seconds. The world went gray. There was no vast plain, no huge burning metal man, no screaming wizard. It stayed that way forever.

            Forever ended and I raised my head from what seemed a second's death. Men and horses lay stunned upon the unburned plain. Sees Clouds was a statue of burned meat, a look of horror on his cooked dead face. The fireball had passed harmlessly. The metal man was a twisted wreck. We were alive.

            "Sold himself to every devil in the underworld for the time and power to save us all," Shazbot explained, staring in repugnance. "I wouldn't have had the nerve, even if I'd thought of it. Gods of the System! I wonder where his soul is now?" The dead eyes were like boiled eggs.

            Litter-bearers were bringing in the now normal-sized body of Beornus, which grinned and opened its eyes as it approached. "I guess my line can claim to be shape-changers again, by the Gods," he remarked. "I'll have to put that bear-paw back on my coat of arms again when I get home."

            Ardeen made a few passes with his hands. "I think you'll make it," he said. "Your broken leg will heal straight and clean if you'll stay off of it, and there's no infection. But don't fool around getting back to Dragon's Chair, and stay in bed when you get there." Dragon's Chair was the seat of Count Drache, several leagues west, the closest safe point. "Send us more armed men if you can."

            Beornus had survived, the tough old bastard. Might even sire more children, and the shape-changing gene was active again. Could make for interesting times.

            But now we were three.

 

           

FOURTH LORD

 

            Ardeen and Shazbot had only two other wizards now, and these were apprentices. We collected twenty-eight men, not counting the four who went back with Beornus' litter. I sat around the campfire with the wizards and the Prince and King. Crickets chirped.

            Corun of Clavia turned his handsome face to the eldest of the wizards. "Ardeen, they're killing us quickly. Have we accomplished anything?"

            Ardeen's keen countenance wrinkled with thought. "We've certainly repelled incursions of alien systems into our universe, but we haven't dealt with the source, or come closer to finding it. We HAVE succeeded in making ourselves this force's greatest enemy, and perhaps it will summon us or seek us out."

            "Wonderful," groaned the Prince. "You mean we're just wandering around looking for trouble?"

            "That is how our system is constructed," Shazbot grinned. "All of us are either looking for trouble or dodging those who are looking for trouble, or perhaps protecting the weak from those who are looking for trouble. We must follow our system instead of falling into these alien mindsets."

            "In that case, sending a werebear against the steel giant was a symbolic defense of our whole world order," guessed one of the apprentices. "So we're calling the whole middle world to stand with us when we encounter these intruders."

            "So we have done something after all," snapped the king of Clavia. "Thank you." He was a dark figure in the gloom, as we all were. The three of us and the two wizards and two apprentices were all hooded against the chill night air, and Corun's breath turned to steam as he went on. "I meant to say that I reckon it to be my turn now, as poor Tischbein has gone before me. We seem to be each meeting our doom or destiny, and as Beornus rode first this morning, so shall I ride at dawn. I will meet whatever intrusion the Gods of the System send me, and defend you all as best I can."

            "Will you now?" inquired the eighth person sitting about the fire, robed and hooded as we were, in a copper voice. How long had he been sitting there? Our skins crawled into horrid goosebumps, and the night air was still and dead. The fire seemed to burn cold, and the strength ran out of our limbs so that we could not move. Twenty feet away burned other fires, with noise and motion and armed men. They seemed unreachably far. My head nodded over on my shoulder so that I could barely see, and my eyes began to close. I tasted blood. The eighth person had the feet of a goat, I noticed sleepily. We had all been taken easily, and were dying without a struggle. Ardeen seemed to be moving his hands; probably the reason we were still alive at all. Even the crickets were quiet now.

            "Naar Yactha, al-aleike Ha-ar Kaokh," rang the voice of Corun, not sleepy at all. "Oh Powers That Hunger, my dark patrons, come to me now!" There was a cold flash of green light, and a glowing green imp stood in the fire. By the lurid light we could see that the eighth person had no nose, and his face was a shrivelled wreck like a winter apple.

            The hooded person stood and drew a black scythe. "I claim these lives, as I claim this world!" None of the soldiers seemed to notice a thing.

            "Fight our champion," invited the imp. "Hell is cold." Corun rose, released from the spell and glowing green, and drew his sword.

            They fought, silent and deadly, all around our swaying bodies. Corun parried a jab and turned it away, but was too late to prevent the scythe from stabbing one of the apprentices. He aimed a furious swipe and knocked the scythe-blade away from Moritania and I, so narrowly that it ripped my sleeve. His sword crashed against the thing's arms and it staggered back, then decapitated Shazbot with a quick hooking movement. Ardeen slurred a syllable and a yellow field surrounded the headless wizard; his hands began groping for his severed head as the King of Clavia drove the reaper back away from our helpless bodies. The green imp was wringing its hands and moaning in the fire.

            The reaper swiped at me, extending its pole. Its eyes were nasty. Clavia stepped inside the overextended arms and drove his sword through the rotten chest. "Naar Kalistoma voq," he began, but stopped dead as the scythe came back around and pierced his side.

            They fell together. "Our champion has won," intoned the imp happily, vanishing. "Hell is cold." The noseless reaper vanished too, choking "No! NO!" as it faded. Clavia’s body was gone. The soldiers whirled around and ran towards us as we began shaking off the effects of the spell.

            Shazbot picked up his head and set it upon his neck. The apprentice was dead.

            I looked at the Prince again. He shrugged. Now we were two, a Prince and a Knight.

 

FIFTH LORD

            We questioned the two men taken from the head of the metal monster, but understood little of what they said. They were Corporals Wilson and Schmidt of the 8th StepTank Division, called the Berserkers, and their sergeant had been killed firing the last shot inside the thing. They came from a world they called Earth, but it was not any Earth we had ever heard of. They wore small clocks upon their wrists which rivalled our finest timepieces, and bore shiny cards with their faces imprinted magically. No one had ever heard of them or their 'steptanks' before. They had become lost during a battle with other huge walking forts, and found themselves here.

            Deciding that they were not our enemies, but had been brought here to unwittingly disrupt our world, I enlisted the two in my guards. Schmidt revealed that he had retained a sidearm, a tiny pistol, but had realized that we were not the enemy he had expected and held his fire. They seemed good, decent men, ordinary soldiers. I hoped they would survive the coming fight.                                                                                 

            Ardeen told us we would have to fight almost for every inch now. "We have drawn something's attention, just as I hoped. Whatever it is that seeks to destroy our world is watching us now, and cannot avoid drawing us closer. We must make our strokes count, sell our lives dear. Every enemy we defeat will symbolically strengthen our world."

            "And every death on our side?" I asked quizzically. Shazbot met my gaze silently. I realized that he had not spoken since re-attaching his head, that he was in fact dead himself, animating his corpse by spells.

            "Don't die," Ardeen warned us. "Bad idea."

*****

            An hour later they hit us. Each step seemed to carry us miles, and I realized that we had crossed into Ardeen's symbolic warfare, that we were almost personifications of our world as well as ourselves. Ardeen, Shazbot, and the apprentice Dice all seemed to be wearing the tall, pointed hats wizards wear at home, and we all seemed taller and more imposing.

            But the things opposing us were also bigger and better, and they were hard to kill. Fleshy men with green hair, firing weapons blindly at us. Winged demons, hurling fire. Huge shambling white bearlike things, hurling lightning and tearing with their claws. Zombies with whips and axes, moaning and lurching.

            I fought like one possessed. My father, who never thought me much of a fighter, would have been impressed. My horse was killed under me; I slid to the ground and began carving with my father's warblade. With each swipe I killed a zombie, destroyed a shooter, disembowelled a devil or fiend, defending myself with quick flicks of the tip while I killed with the edge. The clouds boiled past me and the tile floor clicked under my heels. Floor? When had the field become a room?

            One of the huge things loomed up and time stopped while I fought it. A bolt struck me fully, knocking me backwards. My sword fell from my hands. Shazbot came out of nowhere and made a sign at the creature, which SCREAMED as its fur burned away. I grabbed my sword and cut off its paws, then its head. I turned to see Shazbot burning in a stream of jellied fire, screaming silently as his flesh dissolved. The fire reached for me; I recoiled frantically. My ally the Prince of Moritania swung his big waraxe at the men directing the fire. There was a boom and a flash, then Moritania was screaming in the fire along with the man he'd struck as the fire-weapon burst open.

            Corporal Wilson, strange uniform and all, tackled me out of the way. He grinned as he armed himself from a corpse, whose uniform resembled his except in color. "The damned Blues," he explained. "My enemies! Maybe my friends are here, too." And they were! A party of green-clad soldiers waved at him, then fought their way to our ranks. "Friends!" Wilson shouted into his wrist-clock, pointing to us. In the din no one could hear more than a snatch, but the Greens immediately began attacking our devilish foes. The tiles under us were smooth and polished, and the roof above was low and dark.

            It was TOO low, and coming down fast. There was no way to go but forward, and we cut down devils as we went. Behind us we heard screams as the ceiling crushed friend and foe alike. Ahead of us was the blue flicker of a transfer gate. I shoved Ardeen through and tried to shove Schmidt, who shoved me through. Several soldiers of Clavia and Moritania fell on top of me, and I struggled clear. Wilson helped me up and we waited while several more men stepped through, their clothes ripped along the backs as the ceiling had descended. The last man through was crushed as his head emerged. He wasn't Schmidt.

            I took stock. Ardeen and Dice. Eight soldiers, two of mine, two of Clavia's, three of Moritania's, and Wilson. We stood in a dark room, with a faraway dim light.

            I was the last of my six comrades, and the final battle was yet to come.           

 

KNIGHT’S MOVE

 

             We stood in a huge dim room, filled with odd objects. I stared into the dimness; could I see walls a long, long way off?

            "There," pointed Ardeen. I saw nothing, but trusted the ancient wizard's Sight. We started off in that direction, swords out. Wilson had one of the shooting-things still, and a long knife stuck through his belt. The Clavians had their tridents ready, and the Moritanians were hefting their short fighting-spears. It was nerve-wrackingly quiet and our feet made a lot of noise on the polished floor.

            Were these shrouded things furniture? Chairs and sofas never intended for humanity, draped in cloths until the owners returned? I realized we were only seven just as a Clavian near me was snatched and eaten by a giant bug. Instantly my sword flashed out and the thing crunched into death. Ardeen waved both hands furiously and three more giant bugs leaped from concealment and were slaughtered as they flopped in pain.

            Five men and myself went forward, watching our flanks better now. Six humans, I thought. Against what? Ardeen's eyes glowed green like a cat's. Five humans, I thought, and a wizard.

            We all felt it. We all stopped. Ardeen pointed to the sky. "There," he said simply. A red line crossed the sky, lit up the world. We were standing upon a rainbow, curved back upon itself, a giant disc with a hole in the center. We ran for the hole as the light came down.

            I cannot tell what happened except that the wizard's magic saved us. One of the Moritanians fell off, then another. We were standing still, then running through a huge room of green and silver lines. "Don't touch that!" barked Ardeen as one of my soldiers grabbed a wire to steady himself and vanished in a puff of filthy smoke. The apprentice Dice was running in front, shaking dice in his hand and turning according to the numbers they showed. We followed, jumping high over another silver line, rounding big silvery humming cylinders. Ardeen cried out words of power and we seemed to vanish and reappear in another strange room.

            We were flat, was my first impression. The wall behind us was somehow the wall in front as well, all made of glass, and we were staring at letters of fire in a strange alphabet. Ardeen and Dice and Wilson were there, and my last man and Moritania's last as well.

            "Holy Mothers of the Glow," cried Wilson. "We're inside a machine!"

            We were staring at a huge face, which seemed to see only the letters before us. He spoke in a thunderous voice.

            "I've got the last password now," said the face, turning away towards another dimly sensed  presence. "Anything you want to save before I wipe it all?"

            "We could save some files and sell them back," rumbled another giant.

            "Naah, too risky," decided the first. His hands did something. He frowned. "I've hit some kind of defense again. These dumb guys with their elves and trolls and fairies, how can they hold out so long? Why don't they play somethin' sensible anyway?"

            "Gods of the System," breathed Ardeen. "I see it all now. System indeed." His eyes flashed green. "My time is come."

            A network of silver sparks flowed out of Ardeen's hands; his body melted like wax. His voice boomed out at the men above us: "YOU WHO WOULD CHALLENGE US, KNOW THAT YOU ARE DOOMED! FROM THE RANKS OF THOSE YOU THREATENED, THROUGH YOUR MOST POTENT TRAPS, WE HAVE COME. NOW FACE OUR CHAMPION, MILADY CYGNETTE, KNIGHT OF THE SWAN."

            I gasped as glass broke. I was thrust forward, seeming to grow as I stumbled. I was facing two young men, raggedly dressed, in a room smelling of socks and cheap liquor.

            "Chicks in chainmail!" said the one closest to the door. "Hey, mama, where'd YOU come from?"

            "They've traced us!" cried the shaven-headed one, seated before the broken glass-faced box that must be the machine Wilson had said we were inside. "She's from the fairy-people," and he snatched out a sidearm like the one Schmidt had shown me, and I slashed his wrist off, beheading him with the backswing, then turned to face the other one. I opened his shoulder with a jab and knocked him down with the flat. He was only a youth, barely shaving, and I would have killed him except that he opened his eyes very wide and said "Wow! Wotta woman!" He was staring at my breastplate instead of the sword, and I realized he was no soldier, or even a wizard, but merely a witness to what his older friend had somehow intended to do to our world, some kind of mechanical Ritual of Deconstruction. My point stopped at his throat.

            "I'll kill you next time, don't think I won't. Friends of mine have died because of you," I stopped because he had fainted. Before the seated dead man the machine blazed with magical fire. It reached out to me, and I could hear Dice screaming at me to come on, NOW!

            I flung myself toward the expanding green fire, and felt Wilson's hand catch mine. Ardeen's voice seemed to follow us, calling "Go, escape, remember!" We whirled through a haze of fire and lightning, finally landing on our sides in a flurry of dust and branches and rolling down a hillside. Wilson reared up in front of me and was hit by a big branch that would have marked my face; I rewarded him when we finally made a cold camp hours later. Ardeen had given his life to give me the chance to strike that blow for us.

            We were home, or were we? It was our own familiar land, but we met no one we knew. The very names of the kingdoms were unfamiliar. I saw Mount Doom from afar, but the lands once called Clavia, Moritania, Tischbein, all the little duchies and knightsmarks, had been erased as if by some Ritual of Deconstruction. It was the price we paid, Dice remarked once, that we lost everything by saving the world. Worldsaving is its own reward, and our world is a lovely and magical place, although peopled by a cantankerous bunch. Gone also was the land called Erewhon, and with it my own modest knightsmark and lands.

            This is how I came to be a wanderer in the middle lands, bearer of a knighthood rendered meaningless and fighting in others' battles until I find a home again, and why my wizard Dice has powers unknown to this world, and why my sergeants Wilson of the Green Berserkers, Harbin of Erewhon, and Milton of Moritania wear the uniforms of no known kingdom.

            Yes, it is a long story. Another stein of ale? Now, tell me about this dragon you want slain…