AWD: Knights - Episode 7

by Alexius Steinman

WARNING: The following contains language and subject matter that may not be suitable for all audiences.

The silence was palpable after the explosive sound of the bridge collapse. The containment room for the reactor core loomed ahead of them, a cylindrical structure stretching the hundreds of feet from floor to ceiling, more than fifty feet in diameter. Massive pipelines and thick tubes snaked away from the softly glowing chamber and disappeared into the shadows. The Knights approached warily, ready for combat, ready for an ambush, ready for anything. Anything except the cackling voice that suddenly blasted, metallically jarring, over the loudspeakers. Lilith gave a strangled squeak, and Sid just about jumped out of his skin.

“Welcome, Knights!” it said, muffled as though the speaker was to suppress a fit of laughter. The group recognized the voice and the attitude at once.

“Jet.” Will growled, his hands tightening on his pistols until the leather grips creaked.

The voice continued, oblivious to Will’s anger. “I knew you’d eventually wander your way down here. After all, you’ve proven to be more resilient than cockroaches! Now as you probably already know, Nazarus is waiting for you just behind those doors. Vengeance, retribution, justice – whatever other banalities have brought you here – they’re all within your reach. However, Nazarus being Nazarus, and you all being...considerably less, well...going in there might be a bad idea. But since I know you’re going to charge in and try to save the day anyway – against all common sense – I feel obligated to...enlighten you as to the complexity of your situation. Because I mean, surely, you didn’t think it was going to be so simple, right?"

“A trap?” Sid whispered.

“Or some kind of trick, “Justice muttered.

Jet continued. “So let me start by sharing a little bit of this facility’s history. When the reactor was active it fueled four major cities. The energy coming in from the nexus was shunted off to the generators in each city, and the flow was conducted through a series of valves. Energy was constantly circulated between those generators and the reactor, passing through the treatment facility for purification before beginning the cycle again."

"Now this nexus was especially potent – seriously, the energy output on this thing blows my mind – and so there was a persistent concern about a system meltdown, which, as you can imagine, would’ve been catastrophic. That’s why the reactor was eventually shut down – it was deemed too unstable.”

“I don’t like where this is going,” Lilith said, her hand absently patting Widget’s head.

“Our plans require the kind of power that only an Etherium reactor can provide, and so obviously, that’s why we’re here. So if you want to...stop us – and I have to assume that’s why you’re here – you’d have to shut down the reactor itself. Unfortunately, therein lies your dilemma. You see because ordinarily, whenever the reactor was active, the output valves to the four generators were left open in order to evenly distribute the energy throughout the system. But today it seems someone...”

An inappropriate cackle momentarily interrupted his speech. “Someone has gone and closed all the valves except one. Can you guess which? It’s the one that runs to Aeon City.”

Raine and Lilith both gasped, and even Ark visibly paled under his dusky skin.

“The Laconian capital,” he breathed.

“If you attempt to shut down the reactor now, it would only release all the pent up energy through the one open valve and then...KABOOM! Right under the streets of Laconia! The resulting explosion would not only destroy the city and vaporize all of its inhabitants, but the radiation would poison the land, the sea, and the air for miles in every direction. It would become the next Sea of Ruin.

“You can’t possibly open the other three valves, and return in time to shut down the reactor. You can however...shut the valve to Aeon City. Just go to the 47th floor, and you should be able to find it. Now of course, by concentrating all of the energy here in the core, you’re only accelerating our timetable, but that’s precisely the brilliance of this little setup. Also, doing that will mean abandoning any false hopes you have of actually stopping us, because by the time you return, our plans will have already come to fruition.”

“What a rat bastard...”, said Sid venomously under his breath.

“On the other hand...”, continued Jet, “You’ve really got no reason to trust me. I could be lying! Or Nazarus could be lying to me! You never know with that guy! But either way, you’ve got an important decision to make. And whatever you’re gonna do, I wouldn’t wait too long. The clock is ticking.”

There was a soft click, deafening in the silence left by Jet’s ravings, and the loudspeaker went dead. They were left standing alone in the dark, carrying a burden heavier than any of them thought they could bear. Raine growled low in her throat, all the hair on her tail bristling straight out like a bottlebrush.

“It’s not enough for him to force our hand, he has to patronize us too,” she snarled.

“Force our hand?” Will said incredulously. “You can’t tell me you believe any of that! He’s just a tool. He’s saying whatever nonsense to buy Nazarus some more time.”

“Will’s right,” Justice said, nodding. “Nazarus could be sending us on a fool’s errand to save his own he can disappear like he did after Black Atom just to pop up again and claim more lives. I think we should go in there and put a stop to this.” She cocked her guns. “Permanently.”

“All those people,” Lilith murmured numbly, like a sleepwalker mouthing the words.

“An explosion of that size would wipe out the city; there wouldn’t be anything left but a poisonous crater. Everyone would die...”

“Oh c’mon Lilith, he’s one of the bad guys, he’s full of it!” Sid interjected.

“How do you know?” Lilith shot back, sounding a little angry.

“Look, no offense, but we all know that you’re pretty sheltered cooped up in that shop all day-”

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” Lilith cried. “That I don’t know what’s going on and you do?”

“No, I was just, you know... Look, you don’t know it is out here!” Sid snapped, exasperated.

“Neither do you, but at least I can admit it instead of trying to be a macho asshole!”

“Stop it!” Ark said, stepping between them. “This is no time for dissention in the ranks.”

They fell quiet. Everyone looked at Raine. The Blade-Savant closed her eyes and sighed heavily. When she looked up, there was a deep regret etched into her features.

“I appreciate how you feel, especially you,” Raine said, looking at Will. “And believe me, I’d like nothing better than to give you a world where bad guys always lie and good guys always tell the truth.” Her voice dropped. “Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple.”

“Damn it, I'm telling you. Nazarus is lying!” Will yelled, his voice almost breaking, taking on a hysterical edge. “I know he is. He’s a lying, murdering bastard!”

“Enough!” Raine barked, her voice reverberating off the walls lost to darkness and distance. Her voice sounded like it was made of iron, and it reminded them all that she was a savant and a leader for more than her swordsmanship. Will fell silent.

“Like I said, I wish he was lying,” Raine said, her voice tightly controlled. “But he isn’t. I know Nazarus and...well, you’ll just have to trust me on this.”


“But what, Will?” she cut him off. “Even if he is lying, we don’t dare take that chance. Are you willing to risk the life of every person in Aeon City for your own personal vendetta?" She looked up, her eyes scouring the group. “Are any of you?”

There was no answer; Sid’s eyes slid down to his shoes.

Raine pursed her lips. “I didn’t think so. We have to think of those people first – that valve needs to be shut.”

“So we’re just gonna let him go?” Will said vehemently. “After all that’s happened?”

“You’re right, Will,” Raine said, almost gently. “We can’t.” She was silent, deep in thought. The Knights could tell by her face how hard the decision was. Weighing lives now against lives later and even against lives lost in the past. None of them ever wanted to have to make a choice like this one.

“Alright,” she said at last. “We’ll split up. Justice and Sid, you go with Lilith to shut down that valve. Will and Ark, you’re with me...we’re going to try to stop him.”

There was no argument now. Everyone knew what had to be done. Sid, Justice and Lilith got to work getting back across the huge chasm, getting out Grapplers. Meanwhile, Ark, Raine and Will headed for the core, to face the man who had once been a teacher, a friend...a man who was now their deadliest enemy.

The doors to the core slid open noiselessly but for the soft hiss of sterile, pressurized air, automatically opening at their approach. The trio now stood in the vestibule, a chamber where nanomachines would inoculate anyone going into the core against the deadly Etherium radiation. The Knights had all been inoculated prior to leaving on the mission but the program was automatic, and wouldn’t allow them into the facility until satisfied they were protected – a safety precaution for techs and laborers of a time long past.

Now the three Knights stood in tense silence as the tiny machines slid over their skin en masse like curtains of beaded mercury. They all knew that the fight ahead of them would be the hardest they had faced, and that it was very possible they wouldn’t return. Every Knight was prepared to die in the field, trained for the eventuality, but training can go only so far when death is waiting behind the next door.

Finally the little nanomachines’ programs were satisfied, and they retreated back into their storage chamber, waiting for another visitor who they would probably never see. Whatever the outcome, when the battle between Knights and Nazarus there was a good chance no one would be back here again for a long time. The door to the inner chamber slid open softly.

The central reactor core was a giant crystalline cylinder that stretched up above their heads until it was lost in darkness. The inner walls were dotted with multiple levels of crescent-curved walkways connected by metal ladders. Straight down was a lambent green glow that could only be the Nexus itself. Huge spiky clusters of emerald Etherium sprouted thickly along the walls below them, sending an occasional fractalized crystal vein upwards like ivy climbing a building. The entire place pulsed with energy. It was blood-warm, and though the center was airtight, there seemed to be movement all around them, pressure ebbing and flowing like a heartbeat. It was like being inside of a living thing. But these subtleties of sensation barely registered. Straight ahead, suspended in midair over the center of the chamber, the Knights saw a strange platform surrounded by marble pillars.

Born of mated magic and technology, the pillars and platform were covered in arcane symbols, runes that glowed fiercely with green ether. Cables trailed beneath the platform like jellyfish tentacles, encrusted in a coat of luminous jade that seemed to be growing even as they watched. And floating above the platform, her profile dancing with purple fire, was Sasha Divine. Wings outstretched, hands clasped before her, head bowed in concentration, she looked like a dark angel. Her eyes were closed softly, as though only sleeping, and that calm was an unsettling contrast with what loomed behind her. The wall at her back seemed to have a circle cut out of it, cut out of the universe itself, and replaced with a sheet of roiling, twisting green that churned like an angry sea.

“A Gate...”Ark whispered.


Three heads snapped up. The scene before them had been so transfixing, so unreal, that they were only vaguely aware of the tall, dark man standing to one side of the portal. A man who wore a sword burning with blue light slung across his back.


He held a bizarre book in his hand, enclosed in a heavy case of silver, lines of blue light tracing runes and diagrams on pages as thin as dragonfly wings and otherwise blank and transparent. Nazarus closed the book gently and set it down on the metal walkway, flipping the top cover shut, and locking it with several finely wrought clasps. Then he stood up.

“A Gate to the Dreaming.” He turned away, blatantly ignoring the three Knights to stare into the boiling depths of the portal. “Beautiful, isn’t it? No chains, no confines, none of the dull, filtered, processed power we use to fuel our little world...just pure energy. Truly amazing.”

He turned at last to look at them, a steady, unwavering gaze. Suddenly, Will was overwhelmed by the memory of his world before the Black Atom Catastrophe. How many times had Nazarus looked at him like that after a well-executed training session? How many times had he worked with this man, ate with him, fought alongside him? How could he just stand there so calmly when it was so likely that one of them would never leave? Will bit his lip so hard it bled, a warm coppery flow trickling into his mouth.

“You're early.", Nazarus said, apparently neither surprised or troubled by the fact. His voice was sincere, as calm as if he were debriefing them after training. “I had expected it to take you a bit longer, but now I see you've divided your forces in order to shut the valve and "deal" with me. That decision has Raine Merovich written all over it.”

He gave her the same stoic gaze, but something different touched his eyes, something deeper. “You always were a fine leader,” he said quietly, as if Ark and Will were miles away. “Always trying to do everything you could to protect them, to protect everyone – you’re a better person than I am.”

He shook his head ruefully. “Unfortunately, you've had a fatal lapse in judgment this time. By splitting your forces, you’ve probably killed them all. Skilled as they are, three Knights in either situation just aren’t enough. The team you sent to the valve will not survive the tests I’ve placed there. And, although you might count as two, Raine - the three of you won't be enough to stop me, either. I gave you two options so you could choose one or the other.”

His eyes narrowed sternly. “Not both.”

“Not everything works according to your plans,” Will said coldly.

Nazarus stared at his former student for a long, cold moment. Then he sighed and shook his head. “If you could only see what I’m doing, Will, what it will mean for everyone...”

He turned away from them, gazing once again into the green tides of the Gate. When he spoke again, his voice was distant, solemn.

“Tell me..." he said slowly, “if you knew you could improve the lives of everyone in the world, everyone now living and everyone who has yet to be born...but the price was that a million people had to die...” he turned to them, and his eyes were quiet, sincere. “Could you do it?”

He stared at them a moment, then shook his head. “No, of course you couldn’t. That would be too devastating. But what if it was only a thousand? Or a hundred? What if you could create a better world for everyone you know and everyone to come after you, and all you had to do to make it happen was kill a single innocent child. Could you do it?”

His eyes moved over them, measuring, evaluating. “No,” he said almost gently. “No, I thought not.”

“It is...difficult to accept responsibility - to do what’s necessary for true change. It’s hard to accept even the suffering of the few, and even when weighed against the good of the many. But to make only the small changes, the comfortable changes, is to only treat the symptoms, while the real causes of sickness and suffering continue unabated. I don’t really expect you to understand, but I do not take this lightly. I know that my actions may cause great destruction, great pain, and demand great sacrifice. But I do not ask anything of others that I would not freely give myself.

He turned back to them, his eyes calm as still waters. “My life, my very soul – I offer them willingly because I have seen how the whole world can be saved in return. I will do what must be done.”

There was a silence for what seemed like an eternity.

“How melodramatic,” Ark quipped. “Did you rehearse that in front of a mirror?” His words were light, but his tone was as hard and heavy as stone.

“You really believe all this messiah bullshit, don’t you? And maybe your little lackeys buy it, but to me you’re nothing but a self-righteous bastard. You think you’re the first murdering psychopath who claims to be working for the greater good?”

“Ark...” Raine started quietly, but the mage was livid.

The other Knights looked at him with either surprise or anxiety. After all, this was Nazarus he was talking to like that. Nazarus himself, on the other hand, showed no reaction at all. His face was carved out of granite, expression serious and unchanging, eyes leveling against Ark as if taking a measure of his worth.

Ark continued in a chill voice. “I understand that betraying people who believe in you is sort of your modus operandi.” His eyes flitted to Will for just a second. “But perhaps you could step down from the soapbox long enough to explain what the hell you’re doing to that girl!” He stabbed a finger at Sasha, still hovering motionless in the center of the chamber, oblivious to the exchange below.

“That...girl?” Nazarus said incredulously, his eyebrows arched. “Just what are you playing at, Ark?”

The elf’s face darkened, but he gave no response to the cryptic remark. Nazarus shrugged. “Anyway, to answer your question, Sasha happens to be a willing participant in this process.”

Ark’s gaze fell to the floor and he brought one hand up to his face. “Just...let her go, Nazarus,” he said, his fire suddenly diminished.

Nazarus shook his head. “No. I won’t.”, he said plainly, “And who’s playing messiah now? You can’t save someone who doesn’t want your help – who rejects your help. Like I said, Sasha’s here because she wants to be. In fact, what I said before wasn’t quite accurate. She’s not merely a participant in this process. She is the process.”

Ark’s head snapped up, his eyes wide as he came to a sudden revelation. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me...that she’s the one opening this gate? How? She... I mean no one...has that kind of power.”

“We can thank the Black Atom scientists for that. Remember them? Well, the technology we...secured from their lab was the prototype for an Ether Magnifier – a biomechanical interfacing device that allows external power sources to amplify the internal processes of living things. The original schematic was intended to have wide-spanning applications in medicine, biological enhancement – and inevitably, weaponization once one military or another got their hands on it. But nothing quite as...ambitious as this.”

Nazarus turned his back to the Knights and faced the gate, holding his arms aloft as if to extol the arrival of a god.

“Creating a gate that size...” said Raine quietly, almost to herself. Then with a sudden intensity, “Just what the hell are you bringing across?”

“In order to implement the grander part of my plans, I require a certain...artifact. Unfortunately, access to it is not barred merely by location or circumstance. So this gate will not only bridge the gap between our world and the Dreaming, but will part the curtain of space and time itself. You see, because the artifact –"

“Enough of this!”

At the sound of his outburst, everyone turned to look at Will in surprise. His expression was carefully blank, his face a mask, but his knuckles were white and beads of sweat dotted his brow.

“I’ve been standing here, patiently, listening to the two of you go back and forth about plans and gates and artifacts and whatever else. I don’t even know why. Maybe I still held onto the hope that you really did have a good reason for everything you’ve done. But that was stupid. I don’t even understand half of what you’re talking about, but I know it all amounts to nothing but more lying and scheming.”

“Lying and scheming?” Nazarus looked genuinely struck by Will’s words. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Will.”

“Tell that to the people who died in the Black Atom catastrophe,” Will blackly, his voice low. “I’m done. I don’t even care what you’re doing here, anymore. I’m here to put an end to it.”

Nazarus’ face softened. ”I know,” he said sincerely. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why I chose you, you know. You have conviction.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Will yelled, “You chose me? Chose me for what?

“This. I realized that you - as people faltered, and failed, and even died all around you - you would have the conviction to see it through to the end. That’s why...what you felt then, the hatred you feel was all in preparation for this. I chose you, because you are so much like me.

Will laughed unexpectedly – a sort of anxious, manic laughter that one would expect from someone about to lose all control. “You really think you’ve got it all planned out, don’t you?”

He reached back for his gun case. “Then I guess you already know what comes next.” he said, metal panels sliding open at his touch. “But before this is over, know this. I will never be like you.”

Nazarus only smiled gently and shook his head. “We’ll see. Time changes everything.” “But for now...”

He drew his sword. With a crackle of energy surging from his hand, the mighty blade Chaos Law broke into segments, each one burning with an unworldly blue light. The segments began to circle him, a psionically controlled halo of razor-edged shards.

“Come stop me, Will Ramses.” With a swipe of his hand, half of the segments went flying away from him and shot straight toward Will. “If you can!”


“It should be just ahead,” Lilith said as she, Sid, and Justice moved double-time down the corridor.

The hallways were getting much larger, and it did seem like they were approaching some sort of open space. It was obvious that the original builders of the facility hadn’t had anything to hide; signs done in bright cheerful colors clearly marked the path to the Aeon City conduit. They were in a new part of the facility now, a section that seemed much more high tech and intact than the upper levels. They rounded a corner and saw a door at the end of the hallway.

A small blue placard on the door labeled it as the Aeon City Conduit Control Valve, and politely informed them that no unauthorized personnel were allowed beyond this point, and a proper security clearance badge would be required to enter. “This is it,” Lilith said, approaching the door. To one side was a small gray box with two glowing red lights, and a long slot obviously intended for swiping a key card. Lilith reached for the small electric utility box she kept on her wrist, pushed a few buttons that emitted soft beeps, and withdrew a thin metal rod attached to a wire.

“Old school security hardware,” she muttered, slipping the hairpin-thin rod in to the slot. She made a few infinitesimal probing motions with the rod. There was a cheerful ping, the red lights turned green, and there was the click of the door unlocking. Lilith stood up smugly, sliding the rod back into its holder.

“Piece of cake.”

“I’ll go first,” Justice said in a low voice. “Sid, you cover Lilith.”

“Right,” he said. Justice pushed against the door.

It gave easily and quietly, swinging into the room without a sound. Justice was equally silent as she moved into the room, guns out in front of her as she scanned the area. The room was fairly large; to her left a colossal pipe at least twice as tall as she was ran out of the wall with the door in it and disappeared into the opposite wall across the room. Directly above her the ceiling was a normal height and covered in the usual collection of pipes, bars, and cables; the thirty-foot wide section above the tube clearly kept going up beyond her vision.

Cat-like, she eased over to the place where the low ceiling ended and peered cautiously up past the lip. The pipeline lay at the bottom of a long shaft, sixty feet long by thirty wide. It was ringed by floodlights illuminating the center of the huge conduit, and Justice could see that the shaft was intersected every few floors by metal bridges, but the ceiling was much to far away to be visible. It just kept going upward into the distance. Justice frowned. She didn’t like the setup, but what choice did they have? She turned back to the door and motioned for Sid and Lilith, making a hand gesture for silence. The younger two Knights made their way to her.

“We all know it can’t be this easy,” she said softly, “but we don’t have any options. Sid, stay close to Lilith, and I’ll stand guard.”

“There’s the operations control panel,” Lilith said, pointing. They looked. At the center of the exposed pipeline was a small terminal covered in buttons with a small display screen in the center.

“Let’s go,” Sid said, and they moved out into the pool of lights. Justice moved in a little apart, her guns pointed up into the emptiness above them.

Lilith seemed right at home as soon as she reached the terminal, punching a few buttons and bringing the screen to life. “The system’s pretty simple to operate, but it’s pass-protected,” she muttered. “I need a code to get in and shut the valve.”

“Can you do that?” Sid asked.

“Sure,” she said with a shrug, “but it’s going to take me a minute.”

“Get started then,” Justice said, still looking upward. The floodlights were lancing bright fluorescent beams directly into her eyes, shecouldn’t see into the darkness beyond... “I don’t like this.”

“On it,” Lilith replied, digging out a small set of clips from her wrist utility box and locking them onto a pair of nodes below the console. Instantly, number sequences began flashing rapidly on the screen.

“This seems pretty quiet,” Sid said. “Maybe Will’s right – maybe Nazarus was lying and there’s nothing here at all.”

“I don’t think so Sid,” Justice said. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Far, far above them, there was a creak of metal shifting.

“What was that?” Sid said sharply, moving closer to Lilith.

“Something moved up there,” Justice said, her guns cocked now.

“Rats?” Sid asked.

“No, I think it was something bigger...” Justice squinted into the darkness, her eyes trying to block out the harsh glare of the floodlights. She heard Widget start to bark. There was definitely something moving, but it looked like it was hanging in the empty space in the middle of the shaft...and it looked like it was growing. Her eyes widened.

“Move!” she yelled, dodging backward.

Sid slammed into Lilith, knocking her aside just before the mechanical spider from the elevator hit the ground with an earth-shattering crash. The floor panels buckled and gave under its weight; the force of the fall created a crater of twisted metal beneath it. Right away, the three Knights could see that it had gotten a patchwork repair from the damage of the last encounter.

“We meet again!” Jet Aries voice echoed through the room.

“He’s in the shaft!” Justice hissed.

“You’ll find it a bit harder without your leader or your precious sorcerer!” he continued. “And Lilith...I’m done toying with you.”

Sid heard the heavy click and grabbed Lilith, tumbling with her in a confusion of arms and legs an instant before the roar of the gunshot and the ominous thud of a bullet digging into the floor. Jet screamed in outrage. Sid lay sprawled on top of Lilith, their faces inches apart. He swallowed hard.

“Are you okay?” he asked weakly.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Oh. That’s good.”

“Uh, Sid?”


“You can get off me now.”

Blushing, Sid leapt to his feet and pulled her up with him as Jet’s shrieks rang through the room.

“Damn you, all of you! Spider, attack!” With a roar of gears, the spider lurched to life.

“It responds to voice commands!” Justice shouted. “Sid, after him! Make him turn it off!”

Without wasting time to respond, Sid focused his energy and activated his Springing Chi. Felling the energy surge through his legs, giving him unnatural balance and jumping, he leapt twenty feet to the top of the conduit and sprang up into the shaft after Jet.

“I’m going to try for the cockpit!” Justice cried as she ran at the spider.

“Widget, go for the optics system!” Lilith yelled.

The metal dog dashed across the floor, outpacing Justice. Using the advantage of his small size to evade the crushing arms, he made it to the hull and scrambled for the array of laser-armed eyes. The spider bucked frantically, trying to get at him with its many arms, but this only gave Justice an opening to dive for the cockpit. The spider diverted its attention to swipe at her as she tumbled past, and there was a sudden blast of black liquid.

“Good boy!” Lilith cheered.

Widget had emptied a blast of scalding HM Grip across the spider’s optical array. Normally used an industrial adhesive for vehicular mechanics, the tarry black substance coated the surface of the spider’s eyes, blinding it. It tried to burn through with its eye-lasers, but the heat only brought more of the sticky gunk dripping down. The spider wheeled wildly, its structure screaming in protest, and began to lash out with blind strikes.

“We’ve got it now!” Lilith cried.

There was a resounding clang as one of the legs caught Widget and flung him of the hull, sending the dog flying over the pipe with a yelp.

“No, I think we just made it mad,” Justice said.

Meanwhile, Sid was having trouble of his own. He was shooting back and forth across the shaft, pursuing Jet, but the engineer’s monkey characteristics were keeping him just ahead. Not only that, but Jet had the advantage of five opposable appendages where Sid only had two. Jet kept sending piles of metal debris hurtling down at Sid, and he’d almost been knocked of the wall twice. And every so often in the pursuit Jet would turn and fire an explosive blast from his gun.

Most of the shots had been aimed at various pipes and cables near Sid; he’d been hit with a searing blast of steam when Jet had blasted a pipe next to him and almost electrocuted when the monkey man had struck a cable near his ear. In addition to utilizing the treacherous environment, several of the gunshots were definitely meant for him. Some had been very close, too close for comfort. The pursuit was dragging on too long, and soon Sid would exhaust his Springing Chi and fall.

Darting across the empty air of the shaft, Sid positioned himself above Jet, slowly, desperately driving the Nemesis agent downward. At least on the ground, he might have a fair chance! Jet leapt on to the top of the pipe and Sid followed. For a moment they paused, facing of in fighter’s crouches. Below them, the giant spider raged, trying to smash Lilith and Justice.

“Are you Lilith’s little bodyguard now?” Jet taunted as the two circled.

“Damn right!” Sid snapped. “You’re not going to get one hairy paw on her without going through me.”

“If that’s what you want!” Jet snapped and leveled his gun at Sid.

Suddenly there was a flash of metal streaking between them, and Jet was staring in confusion at his empty hand. They both looked down. Widget stood on the floor, gun clenched in his jaws.

“Here Widget! Nice boy!” Jet said coaxingly, leaning down toward the robot dog.

“Bring it here!”

With a heavy crunch, Widget crushed the gun in his mouth. Sid could swear that somehow, his flat metal face looked smug.

“Stupid mutt!” Jet screamed. “I’ll kill you!”

“You’ve got bigger problems!” Sid yelled, and launched himself at Jet.

“This isn’t working,” Lilith cried, wedged in a corner just out of the spider’s reach.

Justice was covered in blood and livid bruises, still attempting to reach to cockpit. Up on the massive conduit, Jet has wrenched Sid’s hand in a small joint lock. Sid howled; it looked like most of his fingers on that hand were broken. Lilith could tell he had burned through his supply of Chi while chasing Jet, and now he was tired and losing ground. Lilith slammed her wrench on the floor in frustration. Wasn’t there anything else they could do?

“Get back!”

The voice was unexpected, but Justice and Lilith had enough training not to waste time questioning orders. They scrambled back from the spider as six tiny, blinking balls zipped across the floor directly toward the spider. There was a massive concussion accompanied by a billowing fireball; when it cleared the spider seemed badly singed and much less coordinated.

“Swift!” Justice cried.

“Heard you could use a hand,” the savant called with a grin as he sent another handful of mini-grenades arcing toward the spider.

There was the distinct sound of metal being blown apart and cables tearing. Swift grabbed a long bar holstered at his waist and flicked a switch. With a buzz of energy, the long, bright line of a laser whip uncoiled like a striking cobra and lashed toward the spider. Already injured by his mini-grenades, the spider whirled to face this new threat, legs hammering viciously at the floor. One of the deadly pincers reached toward Swift. With a hissing crack of the laser whip, Swift sent the vibrant energy coils twining around the brutal metal limb. The claw shivered and went limp, paralyzed by the flow of energy surging through its circuits. Maneuvering stiffly with its frozen claw, the spider reared up violently and tried to pull away, but Swift held fast even as he was dragged around the room at the end of the whip.

“Kimi, now!” he yelled.

Behind him there was a streak of movement, little more than a violet blur racing toward the spider. It was Kimi Vazraka, one of the Academy’s foremost experts in Ninjutsu. Her thick purple and black fox-tail streaming behind her, she moved through the room without a sound, streaking low to the ground toward the spider. Temporarily incapacitated by the waves of energy from Swift’s whip, it was no match for her speed as she jumped nimbly onto the helpless claw. Leaning over the joint connecting the pincer to the body, she traced a strange, burning sigil onto the metal – a magic glyph.

Justice recognized it, eyes wide, and took advantage of the spider’s distraction to hustle Lilith across the room, as far away as possible. Following right on their heels, Kimi flipped off the creature’s hull and ran for the far side of the room, Swift cutting off the energy whip to do the same. Free, the spider took an unsteady step toward them, unaware that the rune was getting brighter, and brighter...

With a concussive blast of sparking purple energy, the sigil exploded. The light left them temporarily flash-blind, but as the green spots cleared from their vision, Lilith and Justice could see that the spider was worse for the wear. Its massive claw and two of its right legs had been blown completely off of the body; the machine now staggered drunkenly to one side, struggling just to stay balanced.

“No!” Jet shrieked, risking a look at his creation, but a series of rapid blows from Sid demanded his attention. Swift and Kimi looked up at the two combatants locked in melee on the pipe, in their own world.

“I’ve got this,” Swift told her. “You take care of him.”

Kimi nodded wordlessly. As silently as a fox, she shot across the distance to the pipe and vaulted up onto its peak, landing crouched behind Jet. Jet’s attentions were already divided between Sid and the wreckage of his spider, he hadn’t even seen Kimi. But Sid did. Determined to hold Jet’s attention, Sid planted one hand on the ground and used the last of his strength the send a flurry of kicks at the leering, simian face. Jet leaped backward, evading the young martial artist’s exhausted strikes.

“That’s it?” he cackled. “That’s the best you can do? You fight like a girl!”

Suddenly he felt the touch of cold, sharp metal pricking at his throat. He froze. Kimi stood behind him, the long tine of her sai pressed into the underside of Jet’s chin.

“Turn the machine off,” she growled, her voice low and deadly.

Jet remained motionless for a second, his mouth working noiselessly. He risked a glance back at his captor. Ringed in a halo of black, purple streaked hair, her face was like a dangerous, impassive calm in the center of a lightning storm. Her eyes may have been the color of amethyst, but somehow seemed as dark as onyx. Jet swallowed.

“Spider, stand down,” Jet said, a slight stutter in his voice. The spider stopped struggling and sank to the floor, the metal groaning under the strain.

That’s better,” Kimi said, removing the point from his throat and backing up slightly. Suddenly Jet crouched, and before Kimi could stop him, launched himself toward the ceiling. With a strength born of terror Jet managed to find a handhold on the edge of the shaft and pull himself up.

“He’s getting away,” Sid yelled as the group heard him bounding up the shaft. Kimi crouched and prepared to spring after him. Then Jet’s last words came echoing down the shaft, followed by wild laughter.

“Spider, self-destruct!”

Everyone turned in horror as something deep inside the spider started beeping, and the beeps grew closer together. Before the others could move, Swift ran across the room, digging into his satchel as he went. The beeps were coming faster and faster, but he was almost there. He reached the spider just as the little beeps were so close that they flowed into one continuous sound and slammed something small and square into the side.

Nothing happened. The beeping stopped. For a long moment everyone seemed frozen in place, staring at the spider. Then the group began looking around nervously, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” Swift said. “I shut it down.”

“What the hell was that?” Justice asked.

Swift grinned at her. “EMP burst. Anti-machine in a box.”

"And you didn't use that from the start...why?"

"The spider's internal systems were too heavily shielded before, but after we opened him up a problem."

Lilith stared at him. “If you keep things like that around, I don’t think I want you in my workshop anymore,” she said, only partly joking.

Swift laughed. “I don’t blame you.”

As Lilith turned away to finish decoding the security system and close the valve, Swift turned to Justice. His face was oddly serious, bringing a worried frown to her face.

“Look,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “I have to go.”

Justice’s brows knitted. “You’re leaving? Why?”

“I have something else I have to do here – direct orders from Dr. Capra. But don’t worry. Kimi’s going to stay here until you guys finish up, though I think that’s the last we’ve seen of Jet for one day. When you’re done, go help the rest of your team. I’ll meet you topside.”

Justice nodded. “Be careful, okay?”

He gave her a faint smile, reassuring. “Always.” As he turned to leave, he heard Lilith talking to Sid as he limped over to the console.

“Thank you...for saving me,” she said quietly. Swift almost hear Sid’s mouth widening in a huge grin.

“No problem.”


Looking down the barrels directly into his old mentor’s eyes, Will unloaded the entire clip from each of his handguns so rapidly that it sounded more like machine gun fire. Moving too fast for the eyes to follow and making a sharp buzzing noise like a swarm of hornets, the bullets whizzed toward Nazarus. He didn’t even flinch, and it became clear why a fraction of a second later, when all the bullets slammed into a glowing blue energy barrier that had been invisible prior to impact. The shield buckled slightly, rippling like water as the bullets struggled to bore their way through. But then the metal slugs took on the same blue light, and they disintegrated in soft bursts of metallic ash.

Voicing the scream of a berserker, a man half-mad with rage, Will charged across the walkway straight for Nazarus. In his mind’s eye, Will could see his hand tightening on Nazarus’ throat, his other fist smashing that carefully blank expression into a bloody pulp. His mind was almost boiling with the heat of his fury, and he was so overcome with it that he was even willing to take on one of the deadliest fighters in the world. Waiting with a solemn expression, Nazarus was ready.

Will lunged for him, but Nazarus twisted aside, and then they were locked in combat. The young Knight gave it everything he had, pummeling wildly with his fists. Nazarus’ limbs seemed to move as quickly as Will’s bullets, but Will saw a tightening of his jaw under that calm exterior, a sheen of sweat beading on his skin. It was taking a lot of Nazarus effort and concentration to block him, maybe more than the ex-Knight had bargained for. Fueled by the sight of his impact, Will redoubled his efforts, struggling fiercely to connect with his blows. Nazarus was forced to take a step back from his old student, then another...

Will was face-to-face with Nazarus now, so close he could feel the heat and energy radiating off the other man. It was the only thing that saved him. Only inches away, Will saw the blue fire bloom in Nazarus’ eyes and then the hiss of metal tearing through the air. Gathering himself, he lunged over the walkway railing just as the pieces of Chaos Law pelted down in a strike that would have cut him in half.

Flying through the air above the Etherium encrusted depths of the core, Will twisted in midair, reaching for his pulse rifle. Nazarus leaped out after him, moving higher. Nazarus advanced on him like a dark bird of prey as Will swung the gun around to bear, each man racing to get his attack in first. The gun spat out a bolt of energy just as Nazarus's elbow smashed into Will’s chest. Will was flung violently backward by the force of the blow and slammed into the wall of the container as Nazarus used the momentum to vault back onto the secure footing of a nearby walkway.

Will staggered forward onto his hands and knees. His chest felt like a tremendous weight was crushing it, and stars burst in his vision as he gasped for breath. The air ran into his lungs like fire. Sweat dripping down his face, Will scanned the area. Nazarus stood on the opposite side of the corridor wearing a slight but unmistakable expression of surprise. His left hand was clapped over his right shoulder. Nazarus pulled his hand away slowly, looking at it with furrowed brows. Clearly etched in angry black and red was the shallow wound from a pulse rifle. Nazarus looked at it with something also like confusion. Then slowly, he turned toward Will. Even though his body was crackling with pain, Will managed to give him a mad, twisting grin. Nazarus wasn’t invulnerable after all.

Trying to take advantage of Nazarus’s distraction, Raine had been slinking closer to her target, moving low behind the railings like a tiger on the hunt. Suddenly Nazarus’ attention snapped to her. He raised a hand. With the scream of metal, Chaos Law ripped through the walkway where she had been standing only moments before. Feline reflexes allowed her to twist out of the way like a gymnast, but she felt a scorching wave of energy sear past her.

Close, too close!

Jumping up to perch on the walkway railing, she launched herself out into space above Nazarus, her blade glowing with white heat. She sliced her sword in a vicious semicircle through the walkway above him, trying to crush him. Using Chaos Law as whip, he hooked it into another platform across the room and swung out of the way just as the metal wreckage crashed through the place where he had been standing. The platform tore loose under the weight and went tumbling down toward the pulsating radiant green in the bottom of the chamber. As soon as it smashed to a landing, green crystals began to grow on its surface, crawling over the metal like scavengers on a dead thing.

Ignoring the blood dripping into his eyes, Ark shouted an arcane incantation. He slammed his staff into the walkway platform he now shared with Nazarus; the metal rippled and bucked like the ocean during a storm, and then lashed upward to wrap around Nazarus like an iron cocoon. It held for moment, trapping Nazarus’ arms and sword against him. Then he glared, his eyes glowing balefully, and the segments of Chaos Law tore through the metal shell like cloth and shot towards Ark. There was a cadence of rapid gunshots and the harsh pang of bullets striking metal as Will blasted most of the segments off their course. But one got through. The gleaming silver buried itself in Ark’s shoulder like a harpoon, unleashing gouts of blood. The elven sorcerer screamed in agony as he was lifted off his feet and the blade fragment began pulling the energy out of him, glowing brighter while Ark’s skin became dull and colorless.

“No!” Will yelled, grabbing a heavy launcher and squeezing the trigger, focused on Nazarus through the crosshairs.

A line of massive circular blades flew out of the launcher in rapid succession, tightly packed and one in purpose, they sliced through the air toward Nazarus. With a gesture, Nazarus yanked the blade out of Ark, calling it back along with the rest of the shards of Chaos Law to block the deadly metal rings. Acting in tandem, sections of Chaos Law swirled around their master, deflecting the discs. The air itself warping around him with the force of the power output, Nazarus invoked the alchemical power harvested from Ark, channeling it into the walkway beneath him. The metal structure pulled loose from the wall, bolts and struts whining and snapping, lifting Nazarus away just as the discs exploded beneath him with an ear-shattering racket.

The walkway, now free of the chamber wall, reared up like a giant snake with Nazarus perched atop its head and dove for Will. With a flash of steel, Raine was suddenly in front of her student, blade raised. Nazarus leaped off as she slung her sword, tearing through the animated walkway with a metallic splintering, cleaving it in two. The pieces fell to either side of her, hanging in tatters out over the chasm.

Raine had barely a moment before the pieces of Chaos Law came shooting in at her from all sides. With a desperate swipe she managed to parry the shards aside with a blast of wind, but they drove her back, away from Will. Suddenly a dark figure blocked the space between them. Still controlling the segments of Chaos Law to hold Raine at bay, he moved for Will. Will brought his handgun to bear and fired, the barrel belching a slug at Nazarus. Faster than the eye could follow, Nazarus held his hand in front of the gun, coating his palm in a sheath of power. The gun might as well have been a slingshot; the bullet crumpled against Nazarus’ flesh and fell to the floor.

Nazarus was in Will's face an instant later, delivering his attacks with cold precision. He sent a sharp jab to the tender inside of Will’s wrist, sending the gun flying from his grasp and spinning through the air. Grabbing the exposed wrist, Nazarus twisted it harshly, yanked a howl out of Will as his strained joints held him in place. Will swung with his free hand, but Nazarus leaned back out of his reach and planted a crushing kick directly in the pressure point beneath Will’s raised arm.

Pain shot from Will’s side to his temples as he felt one of his ribs crack under the blow. Before he could even draw a breath, Nazarus swiped at him with another kick, this one striking the backs of his knees, that sent Will sprawling backwards onto the metal grating. He struggled to move away from the blow he knew was coming, the blow that would take him out of the fight for good, but he couldn’t get his muscles to react quickly enough. He saw Nazarus draw back his fist, saw the strike lancing down at him...

There was a heavy bang, and the sound of flesh striking steel. Somehow, a thick metal plate had surged up between himself and Nazarus, acting as a shield. The dent where Nazarus has struck was pushed so far into the metal that it almost brushed Will’s nose. Will looked across the room. Ark was laying on the floor, drained and exhausted, but his staff was in one hand and his other palm was pressed flat on the walkway. His shield had saved Will’s life – the blow that had pummeled a ten-inch deep impression in solid steel would have crushed Will’s skull like an overripe melon. Unfazed, Nazarus turned grimly toward Ark, who had dropped his staff and was fighting to get to his feet. Nazarus raised a hand.

At that moment a wild war-cry ripped the air, as Raine fought her way free of the swirling shards long enough to send a violent tremor through the walkway. Nazarus was forced to leap to the safety of the next tier of walkways. Springing up to his level, Raine brandished her sword and charged. The pair fought along the walkway, Nazarus using Chaos law to create openings for a crippling kick or strike. They were closely match though, and Raine seemed to be holding her own. The air was broken with the clang of steel on steel.

Will watched it all as if in slow motion, his mind clicking wildly through strategies and sequences and formations. He knew it was no use. Nazarus had worked with them for years, trained them himself. He knew all their moves almost before they did, and what little they had that he didn't know wasn’t enough. On the other side, Nazarus had greatly adapted and advanced his Broken Rhythm fighting style in the time since his betrayal. Will saw clearly that he and the Knights were holding their own, barely, but they couldn’t gain the advantage. And while they were all beginning to tire from their other combats of the day, Nazarus was fresh for this fight and he seemed inexhaustible. It was only a matter of time, before Nazarus gained the upper hand. And once he got it, Will knew they were all finished.

He set his jaw. If they were all destined to die here, then so be it...but they were Knights, and they would be Knights to the last. All three of them would hold off Nazarus until their final breath left their body, because every moment that they stopped Nazarus here was another moment of life for the innocent people he threatened. Grimly, he whipped out the pulse rifle and sent a blast streaking toward Nazarus. The ex-Knight deftly evaded by swinging from the railing down to the level below, landing next to Ark with the grace and soft-footedness of a panther. Gasping heavily and looking half dead, the elf was reaching for his staff, trying to choke out the words to a spell. Nazarus kicked the staff to the side.

“I taught you well!” he called to them, raising the hilt of Chaos Law and pulling all the fragments of the sword to him. They locked together like puzzle pieces, forming a single, deadly blade. With a roar, a panting, sweat-soaked Raine pointed her sword at him and sent a blast of electricity arcing from the tip. He held up a hand and it stopped short of touching him, crackling and spitting against some invisible barrier.

“You’ve fought well,” he yelled, “But while you've chosen to stay with those useless hypocrites at the Academy and stifle your talents, I've had the freedom to exceed even my own expectations.” he lowered Chaos Law and sent a blast of energy at Raine and Will; they tumbled aside as the blue light melted the walkway and sent huge globs of molten metal dripping down into the core.

“I am twice what I was then,” Nazarus continued. “But my strengths go far beyond mere combat. Now direct your eyes towards the Gate, and witness my greatest triumph!”

He swung his hand to the portal, as if willing something out, drawing it to him. Everyone in the room felt the energy surge from the green Gate, forcing them to stagger as it washed over them. Only Nazarus still stood unaffected, his hand outstretched.

“Come,” he hissed softly, his eyes shining like a man possessed. “Come to me, that I may remake the world!”

There was something moving just behind the Gate, a shadowy shape that was twisting, trying to take form. “Yes!” Nazarus shouted. “It is mine, at last!” Then his face changed, changing from the look of an impassioned zealot to one of doubt, even fear. The dark shape behind the Gate twisted and heaved, coalescing into something massive, and overwhelming dark presence. Struggling to regain their breath, unable to look away from the rippling Gate, the Knights could tell that this was not what Nazarus had intended. Ark’s face had gone pale, a mask of terror.

“No!” Nazarus shouted.

Sasha Divine screamed. The green crystal shards began to shatter explosively as the sound went on and on, a shrieking wail like a thousand worlds dying that beat against the walls and the minds of everyone trapped in the core with it, struggling to break free. The Knights fell to their knees, streams of blood dripping from their ears as the unearthly sound shook the entire core. It cut off so abruptly that it sounded as if some unseen hand had reached out and choked it off forcibly. The silence rang heavily around them as their hearts thudded heavily in their ears.

One heartbeat. Two. Three...

With a roar that shook their bones, their very souls, the dark shape burst through the Gate. It was an image of overwhelming horror. Will saw a black tentacle, covered in red-toothed suckers, a huge claw like a praying mantis with its shell pitted and crusted in the dregs of the Dreaming, and one massive eye that swiveled toward him. When the eye fell on him, Will felt a presence, predatory and full of malice, probing into his soul, picking at his innermost core. Something gave way in Will’s mind and he looked away, clasping his head with the hands as if he could physically hold his sanity intact. Still suspended over the Gate Generator, Sasha screamed again, this time a purely human howl of abject terror. Ark, who had frozen as he lay struggling to get to his feet, mouthed the word as Sash screamed it, a single name for a creature that had laid waste to an entire nation. The name of death itself.


The creature’s eye fell on Sasha. After years trapped in the Dreaming, he was famished, starved for the succulent life energy on which he fed. Lined with endless rows of long needle-like teeth, his maw gaped open in hunger. Only partially through the Rift and unable to emerge completely into the material world without power, he darted out with one twisted, clawed hand and snatched the black-winged summoner.

With a cry of rage, Nazarus flew at the aberrant monster. Chaos Law suddenly became the spine of a much larger blade, formed of burning white light. Ziasetht bellowed as it bit into his nightmarish limb, spraying thick black ichor that sizzled and hissed where it landed. With a thunderous cry that shook the core and brought jagged chunks of crystal raining down on all of them, Ziasetht lashed out with a tentacle to crush the little creature who had dared harm him. But without the chance to feed and regenerate his power, the misshapen behemoth was still sluggish, and hampered by being trapped half-in, half-out of the Gate. The tentacle slapped wetly against the wall, scraping huge gouges into the crystalline chamber as Nazarus leapt aside and moved in for another strike.

Will didn’t see any of it. He was still clutching at his head, fingers knotted in his hair as he struggled to regain his senses. He should flee, they should all flee, run from this place and never look back. Every nerve in his body screamed at him to move, to get to his feet and get out of this hellish nightmare chamber, but he couldn’t move. He was frozen, unable to do anything but stay crouched on his knees as the horror inevitably overcame them one by one. He rocked back and forth, his mind retreating down a long dark passage. Who was he? What was he doing in this place? He knew, somehow, that these answers were important, but he couldn’t remember the. He couldn’t remember anything that had come before, just a huge red eye that filled his vision and looked into his soul with a gaze devoid of pity or mercy, and then darkness. He felt that he was falling, and that he would keep falling forever...

Suddenly a sound entered his awareness. No, not just a sound. It was a voice, the voice of someone he knew. It was muffled, somehow separate from wherever he was, but it seemed to be calling to him. Against all reason, Will began to smile slightly. Why am I smiling? he thought. He knew he was locked in some terrible place, and that nothing was worth smiling at, but he still felt the corners of his mouth pulling up. Why?

Because it’s Sid, and Sid is funny...

With a bang, everything came snapping back into place. He was Will Ramses, he was a Knight, and his old mentor had just summoned an abomination from another realm. He took in his surroundings, and saw that chucks of the core chamber were raining down everywhere.

“We have to get out of here!” he yelled. He could hear the valve team shouting outside. He had to get out to them and evacuate the team. Struggling to his feet, trying to ignore the lingering rubbery feeling in his knees. He turned to Raine.

“Grab Ark and head for the exit!” she yelled. “I’m right behind you!” Moving like someone just awoken from a long sleep, Will fumbled his way down the ladder and ran awkwardly to where the elf still lay on his stomach.

“Ziasetht...”Ark breathed. “The Devourer, the Avatar of Destruction...”

“We know already!” Will yelled, trying to pull the elf to his feet and grabbing his staff. “Come on, we need to go!”

Ark clutched wildly at Will’s shirt, a hunted look in his eyes. “If the creature comes through, it will destroy this world and everyone on it!

“If we stay we’re going to be dead way too quick to anything about it; this place is coming down!” Will said, pulling the elf’s good arm over his shoulder and helping his teammate toward the inoculation vestibule. “We’ve gotten rid of this guy before, but there’s too few of us, we need to get help first!”

Together, the pair limped through the vestibule, followed by Raine. Ark and Will almost fell out of the door into the waiting arms of their teammates. Will felt Ark being taken from him and saw Sid pulling the elf’s arm over his shoulder; then Justice was getting him to his feet. He noticed with a vague, disjointed sort of interest that Kimi Vazraka was there, as silent and distant as ever.

“Will, what’s happening?” Justice asked, holding her face directly in front of his and trying to get him focused. “Where’s Nazarus?”

“We have to leave, all of us,” Will said. “I’ll explain later, but we’ve got to get everyone out. Raine’s right behind us...” he turned to look at the entrance to the core. Raine was standing there, looking at him, her ears lowered out to the sides.

“Raine?” he said quietly.

There was a resignation in her eyes. “Lead them out of here, Will,” she said.

Will stared at her, not comprehending. “What? But Raine, what...”

Understanding, and horror, crept over his face.

“Oh no, Raine, no!” he tried to get his legs under him, to stop her, but he knew it was already too late. Raine’s hand moved to the panel on the wall next to her and the heavy door slid closed with her on the other side, locking with a terminal thud. There was a small, transparent crystal window at head height; she watched sadly as Will stumbled to the door, struggled in vain to open it.

“What’s going on?” Justice yelled behind him.

“It’s Raine. She’s going back in!”


“The door's locked!” Will whirled and looked at Justice. “Try to shoot through it!”

In an instant Justice had both guns up and fired at the edge where the door met the frame. The bullets stuck into the door with a thick ‘thunk”, barely half an inch into the metal. Will already had his plasma rifle out and sent a beam at the door from close range, but it only spattered against the metal and left nothing but a few scorch marks. Will turned desperately to Ark, but the elf was only standing with Sid’s support, barely able to hold his own staff. It was no use – the door had been built to contain an enormous power, to hold back the flux of pure, living energy into the material world. The door was meant to keep things sealed in, and now Raine was using it for that exact purpose. There was nothing anyone could do.

“Please Will.” Raine’s voice crackled to life on his communicator. He looked up, meeting her eyes through the glass. Her gaze was gentle, resolved. “There’s no time.”

“Don’t do this!” Will yelled, banging his hand on the glass.

“I have to go back and try to stop Ziasetht,” Raine said. “Nazarus and I will shut down the core – that will close the Gate and keep him from entering this plane.”

Everyone just stared, rooted to the spot. No one seemed to be able to take it in; no one knew what to do. Lilith was staring to cry.

“But if you shut down the reactor, you’ll blow up this whole facility!”

Raine nodded quietly. “I know,” she said, her voice soft.

“Please! You don’t have to-”

“I do, Will,” Raine said firmly. “Nazarus won’t be able to do it alone. Now, as my last order as your leader, my last request as your friend, please...” her eyes locked with his, pleading. “Go now.”

Will took one step back, then another. His gun dropped from numb fingers, because he realized that he had to do it. He had to take the team and leave her here. Raine looked out at all of them through the panel. Lilith was crying in earnest now, and Justice looked lost. In shock, Sid had let Ark slide to the floor, and the elf nodded to her slightly, his face drawn with emotion. Kimi, her features composed in an expression of solemn respect, bowed deeply.

“I want you to know that I’m proud of you,” Raine’s voice rang from each of their communicators. “All of you. And I’m very sorry to leave you. You are some of the finest Knights I have ever known, and it was my honor to be your teacher, and friend.” she pressed one palm to the panel and closed her eyes. When she open them again they glittered with tears, but her voice was steady. “I hope you will remember that I died doing what I thought was right.” she turned away from them, back toward the chamber, and the enemy. Somehow, even through the door, they could all hear her sword ring as she pulled it from its sheath. Her voice came through one last time.


The com line went dead.

“No,” Sid whispered, staring helplessly at the door. “No!”

“Justice, help me get everyone out of here,” Will said, struggling to take command despite the gaping hole that had just opened inside him.

“Sid,” Justice said, “we have to-”

“No!” Sid screamed and ran to the door. “No, I won’t leave her!” he was pounding on the door, striking it in a mad fury.

The fingers Jet had broken crunched sickeningly against the metal and left a print of blood, but he kept pounding at the metal. Justice ran to him and tried to pull him off, but Sid struck at her, flailing and fighting to drive her away.

“She wouldn’t leave us, we can’t leave her. We can’t!” he shrieked. “Raine! Raine!”

Sid suddenly went quiet and slumped to the ground, unconscious. Justice took her hand away, releasing the incapacitating hold on his neck.

“I’m sorry, “Justice said as she picked up his limp body. Kimi had Ark on his feet and was keeping him upright, and Lilith seemed willing to be led from the building.

“Let’s go!” Will yelled, signaling them to move out. They set off at a run.


Nazarus stood one the walkway, Chaos Law brandished before him, as the malevolent Ziasetht towered over him. As the long, grasping talons reached for him, he struck out suddenly with his blade. The sword flew apart into its separate segments and wrapped around Ziasetht’s clawed limb. Nazarus yanked with all his might, sending a surge of power up the blade. With a cry from Ziasetht like the howl of a hundred different creatures and voices, the coiled shards of Chaos Law tightened and ripped through the monster’s limb, severing it with a gout of tarry blood. The hideous claw fell to the floor as Nazarus drew the blade back, readying for another strike. Suddenly, like a thing with a mind of its own, the severed claw leaped at him and pinned him to the floor. Struggle as he might, it held him fast. What passed for Ziasetht’s head moved in, looming over him with its maw open wide.

Suddenly there was a feral cry, and something shot past him and straight toward Ziasetht. With a flash of steel, Raine plunged her sword up to the hilt in the creature’s eye and unleashed a surge of electricity through the blade. His scream ripped the air as he tossed his head mindlessly, seeking to end the agony. Raine jumped back onto the walkway and sliced open the claw holding Nazarus.

“You came back,” Nazarus said in surprise. Ziasetht bashed his head against the sides of the chamber, thrashing mindlessly, seeking some relief.

“Of course I came back,” she replied, her sword trained on the monster. “You need me for this one.”

He looked at her strangely, emotions playing beneath the grime and blood on his face. “Yes,” he said solemnly. “Yes, I do.”

“Thank me later,” Raine said, jerking her head toward the reactor control panel. “We’ve got to shut down the core and stop this thing.”

Nazarus nodded, his face a mask of determination, and grabbed his sword.

“I’ll keep him busy, you activate the termination sequence,” Raine said.

Ziasetht turned to glare balefully at her, one eye reduced to a ruined socket full of desiccate, blackened tissue. He growled ominously.

“Just like old times, huh?” Nazarus yelled.

Raine gave him a look that might – just might – have been a smile. “Just like old times,” she said.

Then they both got to work. Fortunately, the loss of his eyes made Ziasetht focus his attention on Raine, and she was careful to keep it that way. She stayed as far from Nazarus and the panel as she could get, holding the monstrosity at bay with flame-laced strikes. Soon the air was saturated with the smell of seared flesh and burning hair threatening to choke her, her throat thickening in repulsion. She held her ground, her face set in determination, slicing brutally at any limb or other misshapen body part that happened to come near.

Suddenly a klaxon began blaring a shrill warning from somewhere in the chamber. With a snarl of surprise, Ziasetht abandoned his attacks on Raine and turned to stare at the Gate which still held him back. It was shrinking. Though it was a wordless torrent of noise, his howl was undoubtedly a cry of frustration. From somewhere, a recording announced in strangely calm female voice that there were thirty seconds to core shutdown. Ziasetht’s form began to flicker, parts of him becoming transparent. Raine sighed and leaned forward on the railing, her sword still in hand, as Nazarus came up beside her. Like her, he was covered in blood and bruises, but alive. He leaned over the railing next to her; they watched Ziasetht’s final, mad thrashings.

Raine looked at him seriously. “Nazarus...what was that? With Will? What do you think you’re...?” she trailed off, unable to find the words for what she felt.

Nazarus ‘s gaze fell to the floor. He seemed to be considering something, then opened his mouth as if to respond, only to close it a second later – so tightly as if to never speak again.

“Then why any of this?” she asked. “You owe me that at least.”

He nodded as the voice kept counting down. “I do.” he shook his head. “As you know, I’ve always been a man with ambition, a man with big plans. Eventually those plans became too big for the confines of the academy. Then they became too big for the confines of this world. And so... “He shook his head sadly, his voice rueful. “This one would’ve changed everything... ”

Without warning, a thick black coil looped around Nazarus, yanking off his feet and him toward the portal.

“Nazarus!” screamed Raine, leaping after him, and digging her sword into the rubbery meat of a tentacle.

“This time, we’re going together!” she shouted, as they were both pulled toward the rapidly shrinking Gate. Bracing herself, she gave a powerful jerk and pulled her blade through the meat of the arm. Nazarus looked at her, and grinned.

Whatever lay ahead it was good to truly feel that, for once, he wouldn’t face it alone. Waving a free hand, he sent the pieces of Chaos Law plunging into the monstrous tentacle. There was a roar from beyond the shrinking green veil. Fighting side by side, Nazarus and Raine were pulled through the portal. A second later, it vanished completely.

The glow in the base of the chamber increased, then began to rise up. Huge portions of the chamber fell inward, disappearing as they hit the climbing wall of green. The energy surge had almost reached the walkway where the Book of Mammon lay forgotten.

There was a burst of black light. A man stepped out of the pool of darkness, or at least someone who looked like a man. He wore an immaculate white business suit, which mixed oddly with the razor-clawed golden gauntlet he wore over his right hand. A mask of the same gold covered his face, marked by three vertical slits like the slash of some creature’s talons. Behind those slits, there was only void. The man bent and picked up the Book of Mammon, then gave it a quick examination before tucking it under one arm.

“Seems it was too soon for you.” he said, caressing the metal edge of the book casing. “But there will always be another time.”

He turned and walked back into the black light moments before the Etherium covered the spot.


Sirens wailed as the Knights reached the surface. Those who could move fast were helping those who couldn’t. Sid was awake now and running along with them – he had expended his fury and now just moved along numbly with the others. They burst out into the open, beneath the clean sky and burning sunlight. Before Will’s eyes had even adjusted from the darkness, he heard the blessed sound.


The helicopter was just ahead, waiting for them. Gabriel Swift stood on one of the rungs, yelling something inaudible and motioning for them to hurry. Will hustled everyone to the helicopter, making sure that everyone on the team was strapped in and safe before he got in himself. After all, it was what Raine would have done. The helicopter surged upward, carrying them all away to safety.

Minutes later, they all looked down through the open sides as a massive sliding noise reached them. As they watched, a huge section of the island itself collapsed inward, like a popped bubble of earth and stone. Rays of green began to shoot out through a growing web of cracks in the islands crust, outlining the dying landscape. Seconds later, the entire island was hidden by a burst of blazing green light. Shock waves went surging outward from the explosion, and the light was so brilliant that everyone had to look away, their eyes watering. When they looked back, there was nothing left of the island but a few crags and a wide swath of muddy water where the sea had rushed in. It was gone.

Lilith turned to Sid, sobbing wetly against his chest as the side door slid closed and wrapped them all in silence. Tears streamed down her face, cutting twin tracks through the layer of dirt on her skin and soaking into his shirt. Sid laid his face on her hair, his jaw clenched as tears traced their way down his own face. Justice put her face in her hands. The rest of them hung their heads, unable to express the deep emptiness they all felt inside.

It was a moment before they noticed the quiet voice in the cabin. It was Ark. He was looking out the window as the thick, downy clouds scudding slowly through the azure sky, and he was speaking soft words as if from memory, like a childhood prayer.

“May we remember those who have gone ahead, and those left behind,” he said in a low clear voice, gazing out at the world moving by below them. “May the sun light your way, and lead you at last to a safe haven. May we not mourn your death, but celebrate your life. May you remain a part of us here, in heart and mind. And may we remember that wherever our life’s journeys take us, you are with us. Always.”

The group listened in silence as the helicopter turned, taking them home.


The darkness was everywhere. It surrounded him, clutching at him, whispering his name. Nazarus was on his knees, torn and bleeding. He was exhausted, pushed beyond the limits of mind and body. Only sheer will kept his fingers closed on the hilt of Chaos Law as he struggled to rise. Ziasetht grinned at him, the hideous visage stretching into a grotesque parody of a human smile. The face split like a wound, fully exposing a jagged garden of teeth, as he pulled the unconscious body of Sasha Divine toward him. With a bloated red tongue, Ziasetht licked his lips.

Nazarus got to his feet, forcing his weapon up but he knew it was too late. He would never make it there in time, and the monster knew it too. He could feel the horrific presence laughing at him, laughing at his puny attempt at a rescue. He had to try. Pooling the last reserves of his energy, he prepared to send Chaos Law toward the beast in a last, futile attempt.

A flash of silver whirled through the blackness directly toward Ziasetht. He turned toward it, surprise somehow etched in his inhuman features. Coursing straight and true, driven by the pure power of an air elemental, the blade slashed through Ziasetht’s forearm. He bellowed as the limb fell, and Sasha’s purple and black-feathered form rolled gently free. The blade returned to the hand that sent it. Raine gripped the blade with white-knuckled fingers, panting. She raised the sword, and pointed it at Ziasetht. He snarled and growled a challenge. In this domain of pure energy, his will was already forming him a new forearm, new flesh twisting out of the wound and warping into a fresh shape.

Raine looked at Nazarus. He nodded at her. Somehow, in the bleak darkness, cut off from all light and hope, they both managed to smile. The two turned as one and charged...

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