*** *** ***

24 hours - Police HQ

*** *** ***

Sam Ranier sifted through the reports as he tried to figure out exactly what had happened the day before. He shook his head. There was way too much to explain. The shoot out at the wrecking yard had been bad enough, but then a private security firm had raked him over the coals for not responding to the reports of gunfire and explosions.

There were other things that had crossed his desk in the last twenty-four; the mysterious deaths at an exclusive magic school, the black-out over half the city, the riots because of the black out; what looked like a gang war with zombies. It was almost enough to make him wish the Star had refrained from reinstating his rank. But it was like Finagle had told him: he had to be there. He had to be the one who was 'in the right place at the right time.' Still it was hard to be on the administration side of things instead of in the middle of the action.

Finagle for his part had been questioning 'witnesses' and establishing a two part report. There was the official report, which kept referencing weather phenomenon, equipment malfunctions and mass hysteria. Then there was the one he kept staring at. From the way it read, it was a wonder they'd managed to survive everything.

In a few weeks, when things had quieted down, he figured on finishing the second report and delivering it to Boomer and the others. It didn't help that everybody had disappeared, not that he blamed them. From the bodies and damage, he knew they'd had their hands full.

At least he had gotten a call from Boomer, but he really didn't say much of anything. The message was short and to the point. 'Mission accomplished,' was all he said.

When he finally pulled himself out from under the paperwork, he was virtually alone. Ranier reached into his desk and pulled out a lock box. Carefully checking to make sure nobody was around, he opened it and pulled one of the small packets out.

He hadn't done anything like this in a long time, but he knew he needed it. Hell, he deserved it. After everything that had happened, he figured nobody would begrudge him a little indulgence. He carefully opened the packet, making sure not to spill any, then slowly sifted it into his cup.

"Is that what I think it is?" a voice asked from behind.

"Dammit," he swore as he turned around. "Boomer! You scared the drek out of me!"

Sam looked back at his cup and then at his friend. "Pure Columbian," he answered almost reluctantly.

"You shouldn't do that by yourself you know," Boomer countered. Ranier was about to say something when he noticed the two steaming cups in Boomer's hands.

"Water?" he asked hopefully.

Boomer nodded and handed him one. Ranier nodded as he dumped the water in his cup. Then he reached back into the desk and pulled out a second packet.

"I knew I could count on you," Boomer answered as he emptied the packet into his cup. "Cream?"

Ranier shook his head. "I can usually afford one or the other on my salary. Besides, I kinda like it black."

Boomer nodded as he inhaled gratefully. "Ah... real coffee."

Ranier smiled. "Want to tell me about it?"

"Give me a few," Boomer answered. "Its been a very long day."

Ranier shook his head. The phrase 'very long day' didn't even begin to sum up his day. Some how, he suspected the same was true for Boomer.

*** *** ***

36 hours - Wilson Base

*** *** ***

Gina groaned as she tried to get out of bed and couldn't. Her arms and legs were too tired to function. It had been a very intense thirty-six hours, but it had finally settled down some. Enough that she was able to collapse into an exhausted heap.

Most of the casualties had been taken care of, but with some of them it was still too early to tell. The four worst cases on the ward were Mercury, Rico, Bear and Geoff. Of the four of them Mercury was the worst off. It had taken Gran and Sable working together to figure out exactly what spell Ellingsworth had used on him. Then it was up to Kenny to undo the damage. Even now there was telling for sure how successful he'd been. Only time would tell.

Then there was Rico. She thanked whoever it was who had designed the fuse embedded in his datajack. Without it Rico wouldn't have survived at all. The only problem was, she wasn't really sure he had survived, at least not his mind. She knew it would have to wait until he regained consciousness, but it was going to be a very tough wait.

The most amazing recovery however went to Bear. When they'd finally managed to bring him in he'd been so badly burned she barely recognized him but, less than 12 hours later, he looked like he had just gotten a little too much sun. When she'd checked on him, she'd been so surprised she'd almost dropped his chart.

All he'd say about it was 'I'll explain later.' That was one explanation, she wanted to hear.

Rounding out the top four was Geoff. The wound didn't look too bad now, but she knew he was going to have to undergo physical therapy if he wanted full use of his leg back. The fact that Kenny had worked on it while the battle still raged told her more than the current charts ever would. She was glad Kenny was there for him, otherwise...

'No,' she scolded herself. 'Don't play what if.' She knew that if she fell into that trap she'd never get out of it again.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to a seated position.

"Bout time you got up," she heard Kenny comment.

She would have glared at him, but she could hear the exhaustion in his voice as well. "Tell me again why we do this..."

"Beats working in the emergency ward," Kenny answered. "Work at your own pace, set your own hours..."

"As long as they're twenty-four seven right?"

"Sounds about right, but hey between you, me, Joey and anybody else we can get a hold of, it works out to what?"

"Twenty-four seven for everybody," Joey groaned from the next bed. "No offence, but I can't wait to go back to med school, where I can actually get two consecutive hours of sleep every now and then."

Gina laughed. "Who's turn is it to make the rounds?"

"Bear's got it," Kenny answered.

"Bear?" Gina asked trying to sound stern. "The condition he was in when he got here? What happened to him anyway?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Kenny answered as he shifted in his chair.

"Try me," Gina asked as she looked around. In addition to Kenny and Joey, she saw several of the TwoBears team in varying states of exhaustion sprawled about the break room.

"He merged with a fire elemental."

"Merged?" she asked incredulously .

"I told you, you wouldn't believe it."

"You're serious?"

"Hey, will you keep it down over there?" one of the other occupants groaned. "Some of us are trying to rest.

Kenny nodded. "Why don't you try and rest, I'll go see if Bear needs anything."

Gina tried to say something, but was asleep again before her head hit the pillow.



*** *** ***

36 hours - Dark Sphere

*** *** ***

"What do you have to say for yourself?" Sallow demanded.

"There is nothing to explain," Chiltred answered as he looked back at the Master of the Dark Sphere's second in command.

"You had one of the Guardian Light here, in our realm. According to Briar, he was his prisoner by rights and you let him go," Sallow told him. "You have much to explain."

"There is nothing to explain," Chlitred answered. He knew that Briar would try to turn this all around and blame some one else for his failures. What he hadn't realized was that Briar would try and blame him.

"The Guardian came after a captive Briar took that he had no rights to," he added.

"According to Briar," Sallow continued, "he had every right to the Guardian."

"Possibly," Chiltred countered. "But he refused to accept the Guardian's offer and was trying to kill him rather than accept his surrender."

"That was not your problem."

Chiltred shook his head as he raised himself up. "I am responsible for what happens in that level of the sphere," he hissed. "He shed the blood of the pure."

"It was his to shed."

"As a captive, yes. That would have been his right. But he did not capture the guardian, or accept his offer of trade. Instead he fought. Do you have any idea what a guardian's blood does to those of us of the Sphere... to the sphere itself?"

"Enough," the Master's voice echoed through the antechamber. "I have read both reports and taken...opinions... into consideration. Send him in."

Sallow smirked at Chiltred as he bowed and gestured to the door. Chiltred merely nodded and walked into the Master's office.

He had been here on three different occasions throughout the years, each time he'd been there it looked different. This time it was decorated like a medieval feast hall, complete with fireplace and high table.

The Master sat at the high table. Briar already stood before him and was waiting for Chiltred to join them. Even as he neared the table, Briar turned back to the Master and began complaining again.

"Enough," the Master urged, but when Briar continued, he yelled, "ENOUGH!" The hall echoed with his rage.

Chiltred bowed towards the Master then faced Briar.

"What do you have to say for yourself?" the Master asked Chiltred.

"I have done my job," Chiltred stated. "And in doing so prevented Briar from making a terrible mistake."

The Master nodded. "Please explain to our servant why it would have been a terrible mistake," he prompted as he stared at Briar.

"The blood of the pure, such as a Guardian, is like a poison to us," he explained. "It can destroy us, and destroy the Realm. The floors were already burning where his blood was shed."

Chiltred shook his head as he continued. "Worse, if you had taken him as your prisoner, while he was still pure, then his pain and suffering would have served to purify us."

Briar shook his head, denying what he was told. "You robbed me of my prey."

The Master looked at them once and nodded towards one of the doors. Silently, one of his servants moved out of the shadows and opened it. Another man entered carrying a bottle couched on a cushion. Chiltred watched the man walk carefully to their Master. Looking, he recognized the contents of the bottle: blood.

The Master smiled as the servant approached and knelt a this feet. "Chiltred. You have interfered in the actions of Our servant. Yes or No?"

Chiltred let out his breath and knelt before the Master. This was not expected. "Yes Master," he answered humbly.

"Briar, why did you not accept the guardians offer the first time?"

Chiltred forced himself to continue looking down as he heard the Master open the bottle and swirl its contents in the bottle.

"I'm waiting," he prompted when Briar didn't respond.

"I do not know Master," Briar admitted. "But I would have accepted if I had known..."

"ENOUGH!" the Master's voice rumbled throughout the chamber. The acoustics of the room, picked up its harmonics creating and almost grating rumble.

Chiltred cringed. He hated it when the Master got this way. It usually meant that very unpleasant things were about to happen and he knew this time was no exception.

"Chiltred," he growled. "You will look at me when I address you."

Chiltred looked at the Master, who smiled at him and poured some of the blood into the chalice. The Master's smile widened as he swirled it around in the glass. "Do you know what this is?"

"It is blood sir,' Chiltred answered softly.

"And do you know who's blood it is?" he demanded.

"No Master," Chiltred answered. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the victorious smile play across Briar's face.

"It is the blood of the guardian you spared." The Master answered softly. "The blood you tried to keep Briar from spilling."

Chiltred looked up at him in shock. That the Master had brought this thing into his own chambers and played with it now could only mean one thing: punishment.

"Stand," he commanded, and Chiltred obeyed. He would follow the Master's orders, for they were what defined him. "Draw your knife and dip it into the chalice."

Chiltred steeled himself against what was to be and did as he was ordered. As he did, the Master smiled at Briar. "As I told you, he will be punished for intervening on the Guardian's behalf."

Chiltred waited as the Master turned his attention back to him. "Now Chiltred, you will remove your shirt and hand your knife to Brair."

Chiltred nodded and again did as he was told. As he handed Briar the knife he saw the sadistic smile in the man's eyes.

"Briar," the Master called. "Cut his arm with the knife."

Chiltred screamed in agony as Briar did as he was told. The blood on the knife burned like acid and continued even after Briar had pulled away.

"Good."

Chiltred clenched his teeth together but the pain was evident in his labored breathing. Worse, the wound seemed to close itself, sealing the blood inside his veins.

"Again."

It took everything he had to control himself as the pain ripped through him. This time he could see the smile as Briar took his time, dragging the knife across his chest. The third time, Chiltred fell to his knees. By the sixth he was begging for mercy, by the tenth, he could no longer even scream.

"Enough," the Master ordered after it had continued for almost an hour. Chiltred lay sobbing on the floor until the pain finally abated enough that he could rise. By then Briar was seated, watching him, smiling.

"Do you apologize for your actions Chiltred?" the Master demanded when he was finally able to once again kneel at his Master's feet..

"I did what I felt I must," Chiltred answered as he fought the pain. "I did what I thought was best for your realm and its inhabitants. I will not apologize for that, and I will do the same again if the need arises."

"Very good," the Master answered as he once again faced Briar. "For you will now teach Briar exactly how big a mistake he has made. What he has done to you, you will return to him a hundred fold."

Chiltred looked at him in surprise, but the Master was already concentrating on Briar. "Briar, you are no longer my servant, but my prisoner. You have had your retribution on my loyal servant, now he shall have his. You endangered our realm, our subjects... our cause. You will be punished just as you punished him, and you will be shown the same mercy you have showed Our servant. When it is finished, when I am satisfied, then you will be sent to work in the mines for a year."

"But Master," he objected.

"I have spoken," the Master informed him with a wicked smile. "You must learn your place."

With one gesture, Briar disappeared. "Chiltred?"

"I do not understand," he answered as he looked at his master.

"I had to make sure you didn't let the guardian go for other reasons," the Master told him as he studied his servant. "For until Briar is taught his place, or a better replacement is found, you will be carrying out the duties of the Dark Singer."

Chiltred looked at the Master in disbelief, but he merely gestured towards the door. "Seven days. You will keep him in the pit for seven days. Try to break his pride, not his spirit. I like his initiative and his drive, he just lacks a certain refinement."

Chiltred nodded, then left. No matter what he did, he couldn't get rid of the unpleasant taste in his mouth.

*** *** ***

Three Days - Great Hall of the Long

*** *** ***

Auri exchange a worried look with Minh. When Azra had arrived with her, he hadn't even thought that something might have been wrong with his brother. Instead he had concentrated on healing Minh and Kai. They both had. It wasn't until they'd finished caring for them that he had finally noticed Azra's wounds.

Even then they hadn't looked that bad. By the morning, his injuries had healed enough that there seemed no need to worry about him. They'd even joked about it and everything seemed fine.

Seemed. Almost a day later Azra had suddenly gasped and fallen to the ground. They watched helplessly as his brother had writhed in agony until he could barely breathe. The attack had lasted almost an hour, and for that hour there was nothing they could do but watch him suffer. Auri had tried to heal him, but there was nothing to heal. He could find nothing wrong with his brother. Even the injuries from the day before were healed.

When Azra had finally regained his senses, even he couldn't explain it. Auri had hoped that that would be the last of it, but off and on for the last few days, the attacks had continued. Each time, when he thought none of them could take any more, it would stop.

After each episode, Azra would lay there staring at them, a look of unreasoning pain in his eyes. Harder than seeing what it was doing to his brother, was watching Minh. She would hold Azra, call to him, try and sooth his pain as best she could. But she couldn't reach him, none of them could. Then it would begin again.

"Why?" Azra groaned. It was one of the few coherent things he said.

"Azra," Minh called softly. "Azra, listen to me..."

"No more," he begged. "Please, no more."

She cradled his head in her lap and began crooning. The sound had an almost hypnotic effect, but it only lasted while she hummed. When her voice would break, the screaming would begin again.

"He cannot take much more," Minh told Arui softly.

"I know," Auri answered as he tried to think about what had happened. He had to find the cause, but he was loath to leave Azra in his current condition.

"Go," she told him. "I will stay with him. You must find what is happening to him."

Auri nodded then left. He had no idea what was happening to his brother, but he knew where to start. As he left, he could hear the screaming start again.

*** *** ***

Four Days - The Great Hall of the Long

*** *** ***

Minh held Azra as reason once again left him and he was lost in the raging storm of pain and agony. It was too much for her. Tears of sorrow and frustration fell from her eyes. "Please," she cried. "Please..."

As the tears fell, Azra opened his eyes and looked at her. For the first time in almost a three days, there was recognition in his eyes.

"Dearest lady," he gasped. "Do not cry for me."

"Azra?" she called softly.

He nodded. "How long?" he finally managed to ask.

"Three days," she told him.

He nodded. "Where is Auri?"

"I don't know," she answered softly. "He went to find out what was happening to you. That was yesterday."

"Find him," Azra implored her. "Quickly."

"I cannot leave you," she told him sternly.

"You must," he told her. "Go, I will be fine."

Minh merely shook her head. "No," she pleaded with him.

"Minhaillreth," he urged. "Listen to me. You must find him. There is only one place where this could have come from."

She looked at him and gasped, "No."

"Go," he urged her again. "If he goes there, he will be in great danger. Go."

Reluctantly she eased his head off her lap. When she pushed herself off the ground, her legs refused to respond.

"How long have you sat there?" he asked as she began massaging her legs.

"Since it started," she told him.

*** *** ***

Four and a half days - Astral Plane

*** *** ***

Auri paced the astral planes surrounding the DarkSphere. He dared not set foot into their realm, but he needed to find out what was happening. It had taken far too long before the so-called 'Master' had finally sent a messenger to talk to him.

He was tired of waiting, when a shadow appeared before him. "Why does one of the Four seek an audience with my Liege?" it asked.

"My brother suffers," Auri answered. "As he has for the past three days."

"The past three?" the figure asked, suddenly appearing very human.

Auri was surprised by the almost disheartened look the man gave him. "You know what it is?"

The figure nodded, then bowed his head. "I will speak to the Master," he assured Auri. "But I fear that he will not stop it."

"Stop what?"

"The punishment," the figure told him. "I will explain later."

That said the figure vanished, once again leaving Auri alone. When he returned, the man bowed his head. "The Master bids me tell you that your brother's suffering will end in four days."

Auri could see the regret in the man's eyes. "I am truly sorry."

"What is happening to him?" Auri demanded barely controlling his temper.

"Briar shed his blood in our realm," the man told him. "The Master is teaching him what the blood of the pure does to our kind. It would seem that the contact is having the same effect on your brother."

There was something in the man's voice that made Auri study him closely.

"Tell your Master," Auri growled. "That he has overstepped his bounds. If my brother's suffering does not stop immediately... we will level his sphere."

Chiltred nodded and vanished.

This time when he returned he carried a bottle with him. "The master bids me tell you that he did not realize how serious the situation was."

Auri didn't miss the relieved look in the man's eyes as he took the bottle from him. "I am truly sorry. Your brother is an honorable man, and does not deserve to suffer so."

Auri nodded. "Tell your Master, I appreciate his cooperation in this matter."

Chiltred looked at him and nodded. "Go now guardian, for those who have been cast out of the sphere lurk in these parts. They do not fear the repercussions of their actions, and would gladly suffer the fires for a chance to lash out at one such as you."

"Thank you," Auri countered. Then he bowed and was gone.

*** *** ***

Six days - Wilson Base

*** *** ***

"Duck, we got to move!"

Duck looked up from the equipment as Tracker burst into the room. She could tell by the way he moved his balance was still off. "Tracker, do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Its 2:00 AM," he answered. "Friday morning. "We have three hours to break into the bank and collect the token."

"The bank!?" she asked.

"First National, the security job. We're supposed to run a Tiger Team on them," he reminded her.

"Three hours?"

"Three hours."

"Sure," she groused. "No problem. You got any plans?"

"Actually I do," he answered. "We break into the vault. Get the token and send it out via courier in the morning."

"You are evil," she commented as she smiled. "How do we break in?"

"I can't think of everything," he told her as he started packing up her equipment.

Duck sighed as she shouldered her pack and shook her head. "Didn't we just leave this party?" she asked.

Tracker shrugged. "Just another day."

*** *** ***

One Week - Wilson Base

*** *** ***

Gina smiled as the last name was removed from the critical list: Mercury. Odds were he'd never work as a sniper again, but he had survived. As she looked at Wulf and his team, she smiled encouragingly.

"He's going to make it," she assured them.

"What about your brother Rico?" Wulf asked gently. "From what I understand, he saved us all."

Gina nodded. Now that she knew something, it didn't hurt as much to talk about it. "Its going to take some time," she admitted. "He's got a lot of work ahead of him, probably some serious retraining, but overall, the prognosis is good."

She looked at Meri as Ni held her protectively. They'd all suffered too much. She could see it in their eyes. "If you'd like to stick around here for a while, I'm sure something could be arranged," she told them.

Wulf smiled gratefully.

*** *** ***

Two Weeks - Playful Dragon

*** *** ***

Duck looked around as the others started heading upstairs. Sam had called them together to give them the results of his investigation. It would be the first time in two weeks they had all gathered round to discuss what had happened.

She did a double take as she saw a man sitting in one of the back booths. Something about him reminded her of Tracker. It definitely wasn't the man's looks, but he reminded her of him just the same. As she watched, he looked up from the computer he'd been typing on and scanned the area. Boomer and Lightning were heading for the stairs at the time and the man looked at them and shook his head and went back to working on his computer. She shrugged, there were a lot more pressing things on her mind.

Looking back across the room, she saw Bear talking to Gypsy. Bear was signing to him, but the crowd blocked half of his signals. The one part of the conversation she could catch was Bear's offer of four and Gypsy shaking his head and signing three. Sometimes she just didn't understand the man. Fortunately, Bear seemed to set him straight. They joined her at the door and Gypsy smiled at her.

"You will visit me no?" he asked as he took her hand and kissed her on top of her head.

"Of course," she answered. Gypsy nodded then put her hand in Bear's and walked off. Bear merely winked at her.

"Lets go upstairs," he told her.

*** *** ***

Minh looked at those gathered and thought about those who could not make it. She thought about those who were lost in the fight and bowed her head. There were too many, and yet, she could see them in the hearts of those gathered.

Once everybody was seated, Ranier signaled her to kill the lights. As the lights dimmed, he began his presentation.

It was numbing; learning how long all of this had been going on under their noses; realizing that if Briar had not grown impatient how it could have gone. Still some how they had managed to not only survive, but succeed as well.

Briar had waited, slowly building his army in the physical world. As they grew, and he was able to bring more of himself into the physical world he began seeking out certain people. Fortunately for all of them, he did not understand the technology. That was where Aerocomm had come into play.

Max had used their systems to feed Briar information. He supplied Briar the information he needed so that he would target Duck and Tracker. They were to be Max's bait in reclaiming what he thought was Aerocomm's property. The reports from Allison provided even more on the subject.

The faux Duckware scam had also been started by Max. His way of isolating Duck and Tracker, making them more vulnerable.

The code was only supposed to effect the two consultants, but it had leaked out. One of the consultants had sold one of the counterfeit firms to a young promising Decker. He'd also sent a copy to an old college friend, who in turn burned three more copies of it. It had spread at a dangerous rate before they were able to shut down the server that delivered the kill command. All tolled 15 people had died before they'd been able to contain it.

Several of the missing mages had resurfaced. The phych-wards had their hands full trying to undo the damage Briar and MindBender had done. Kenny's brother Fen was a prime example but even he was progressing.

A kind of numbed silence fell over those gathered as they realized how bad things had really gotten. When the lights came up, even Duck was grim. It was Rabbit who broke the silence.

He stood, glass raised and smiled. "To us and them like us: damn few, and they're in the phsych-wards!"

Tracker raised his glass with an answering toast of, "Spuszcza!"

*** *** ***

Minh smiled as she drifted from table to table, greeting friends both old and new. They had indeed survived. Some more than others she realized as she caught the haunted look in Duck's eyes. For some it would be a hard climb back. Fen, Rico, Kai even Duck would have to rebuild themselves, undo the damage that had been done.

It would be a while she knew, but she also knew that they would come around. She had it on the highest authority.

*** *** ***

Duck and Bear looked around and nodded. It was time for them to make their good-byes. They waited until the gathered Wilsons had grouped together, then made their way to the table.

"Duck! Bear!" Lightning called. "Leaving already?"

Duck nodded reluctantly. The room was getting a little too crowded for her.

"Well, we'll see you back at base right?" Boomer added.

"Actually," Bear answered. "We're going to leave for a while, a year, maybe more."

"What?" Kenny asked in surprise.

"We need some time together," Duck answered softly.

"Where are you going?" Tracker asked in a surprised tone.

"Visit the family," Bear told him. "Visit Gypsy at the farm. Help him with the horses," he added barely able to keep from smiling.

"Horses?" Rabbit perked up. "Since when does Gypsy have horses?"

"It's something kinda recent," Duck admitted with a shy smile. "He's picking up four of them," she added looking at Bear for confirmation.

"Four," he agreed.

"Uh-hu," Tracker commented. Then smiled at her. "Bout time girl," he stated as he stood and hugged her. "Well past if you ask me," he added as he shook Bear's hand. "You two be careful."

Rabbit looked at them and muttered to himself. "Only four!?"

Duck laughed and kissed him on the cheek. "Its the thought that counts," she told him.

"I'd have given five," he told her.

Duck bowed her head then smiled at them. Suddenly the room wasn't all that crowded. She was among friends.



The End