An icicle wind creased the midnight clouds. Shrouded in a deep hood, Lord Blackthorn watched from the peak of a tower as his armies battled among themselves. Inhuman voices snarled and snapped. Iron clanged against iron. Sharp echoes danced atop the dreary black crags surrounding them.

The dusky valley paled with moonlight sown over a tumbling snowscape. Campfires made constellations across the ghostly scene. The dark tower rose alone in the center. At its base rallied a troop of grotesque, tusked orcs, wielding axes and spears against a smaller group of goblins. The orcs taunted their diminutive cousins. The goblins answered with swinging blades. Around them all stood a circle of human Chaos Guards, goading the skirmish with laughs and jeers and volleys of copper coins.

Blackthorn regarded the conflict with stoic eyes. His gloved fists curled over the stone bulwark.

A shadowy figure appeared from behind the gold light of a brazier. Exedur crossed his arms against the chill of the winter evening. In his gentle voice he said, "Lady Gavrielle summons you, my lord."

The nobleman motioned to the conflict below. "Behold the army I'm taking into battle."

The assassin glanced over the tower's edge. Bestial curses leapt up from below. "They're warriors. It's their nature to fight."

"They hate each other. They've only come together because of me. But internal strife will ruin us."

"Leave them to it. They're animals. They're evil."

Blackthorn's gaze turned to ice. "No. They're men. They need to be reminded of their dignity."

He raised a hand and rasped the words of a spell. The low midwinter clouds cracked open and spat a fork of lightning into the midst of the squabbling troops. The smoky blast scattered orcs and goblins. The Chaos Guard fell silent.

Blackthorn watched as the combatants dispersed. "Honor must be tended like a garden. It nourishes civilization."

Exedur made no reply, except to motion toward the doorway of the tall, coarsely hewn tower.

The nobleman knelt before Lady Gavrielle, who cradled his head in her palms. The bare stone room glowed and pulsed. Fronds of white power leapt from the sorceress' hands and splashed over Blackthorn's weakened body. His pale, naked skin drank energy from her spell through a webwork of cracks and wrinkles. His limbs quivered with strain. He wept as she forced healing magic inside him.

When she finished, he clung to her voluminous skirts and gasped for breath. Her familiar scents were succor to his ravaged lungs. She draped a black cloak over him, stroking his short, white hair. "Just a few more of these," she murmured, "and you'll be something close to healthy again."

Blackthorn blinked tears from his blood-darkened eyes. "This was the last one. Our time is used up. We must act."

Gavrielle flinched. "So soon?"

"It's been three days since I escaped. British and Nystul could have reached any place in Britannia. By now they know I'm free, and I doubt they'll delay the Binding on my account."

"I know. Butů" Her voice drifted into silence, then she crouched beside Blackthorn and took his hands. The room filled with the rustle of her gown. "I'm not ready yet. Please."

He caressed her with a trembling palm. "I understand. But the time has come."

"Nytsul's still my grandfather. Don't take Shadowghast with you, Blackthorn."

"I have to." He placed a small kiss among her golden curls. "I need it to stop the spell."

Gavrielle pulled back, far enough to meet his gaze. "That's not true. You only carry that horrible sword because it gives you another edge against British. It's nothing but extra ammunition."

He indulged a lengthy sigh. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. I can't afford to fail, Gavrielle. I am profoundly sorry."

Her frown hardened. "Why are you so cruel to me?"

"I make sacrifices when I have to. If that means I'm a cruel man, I accept the burden."

"Stop casting yourself as a villain. You're not evil, Blackthorn."

He shook his head. Deep shadows pooled across his craggy features. "The people of Britannia think I am. Look outside that window. I'm leading an army of orcs and Chaos Guards against Lord British. History won't remember me with fondness."

"The orcs serve you because you champion them against persecution. That's not evil. And frankly I've always hated the term 'Chaos.' I think you only use it to get a rise out of British."

He almost smiled as he looked away. "You know me well, but think about it. My life's work has been nothing but destruction. British codified the Virtues and all I've done is try to tear them down. British wants to unify Sosaria and my only answer is to attack him for it. What is 'evil,' if not the destruction of good things?"

"I won't listen to this! I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in you."

"Then you're going to help me attack British?"

She squinted. "I am helping. But you know my limits. Don't push them."

"I'm not here to test you. I have a job to do. Please be strong for me."

"If I was weak, you'd've broken me a long time ago. But there is such a thing as good and evil, my lord, and you know where I draw the line." She cupped his cheek with her hand, then stood. "Please don't force me to show you how strong I can be."

Her voice ebbed on the last few words. She turned away from him and swept out of the room, her luxuriant dress stirring a sweet breeze.

Blackthorn rose to one knee, the cloak draped like a half-shadow over his ghostly flesh. "By the twin moons, with the Codex itself I couldn't conjure a more amazing creature than that. Don't you agree, Exedur?"

A silhouette resolved in the dark corner. "You knew I was here?"

"I'm never without you now, am I? You're my own shadow."

"I'm looking after you, my lord. You still haven't recovered."

"My assassin is now my protector, eh? These are backward days. Well, my champion, fetch me some clothes and my best weapons. We've got a rendezvous with another lady, one far more dangerous than Gavrielle will ever be."

Exedur glanced at the door through which the noble girl had exited. "If you say so, my lord."

The great hall shook with the roar of twenty daemon lords. The filthy creatures threw open their vast wings and lunged at the collection of humans in their midst. They were answered by a spray of searing white light that blasted through their otherworldly flesh. Prongs of raw energy like silver tree trunks cut gory swaths through the rampaging daemons. Then glittering blades flashed and stroked. Missiles punctured hellish bodies. Still the monsters pressed their attack.

Standing tallest among the humans, Lord British swatted away a giant claw with his serpent-blazoned kite shield. "Nystul, cast me a circle! Iolo, Gwenno, cover him! Geoffrey and Shamino, get behind these brutes and drive them towards me! I'll lure them in."

Fully armored, the monarch stood between Nystul and the charging daemons. Each stroke of his glowing longsword cleaved a gushing wound across a monster's torso, into which relentless streams of missiles poured from the crossbows of the grizzled Master Iolo and his regal Lady Gwenno. Giant corpses piled like a barricade. Then Sir Geoffrey and the ranger Shamino attacked the daemon horde from the opposite side. Shamino's speartip blazed with magical flame. The knight's platinum blade screeched through the air like a bird of prey and pierced enemies as a hawk pierces clouds. In moments the monsters retreated toward the other humans.

Then Lord British fell to the swipe of a daemon's barbed tail. Gwenno screamed and rushed to his side, just as the rest of Hell's lords converged. The two disappeared under a mountain of wings and talons and putrid, growling bodies.

Nystul threw up his hands and shouted an incantation. A ring of light encircled the daemons. With a collective howl they whirled around and smashed against the invisible walls that now trapped them. Quickly Lord British leapt free, holding the limp Gwenno in his arms.

"Handily done," he panted, nodding to Nystul. At his side appeared Iolo, snatching his wife from the monarch's grasp.

Gwenno stirred and looked up at the bearded archer. "Smile, you old codger," she grinned. "You'll never be rid of me."

Iolo laughed. The lady climbed to her feet and tended to Shamino, who was laid out by injuries.

Sir Geoffrey sorted through the dead. With an approving smile he shouted, "Sire, Stonegate is ours!"

Lord British held up his sword triumphantly. Then he sheathed it and murmured to Nystul, "Dispose of the daemons as quick as you can. Let's not wait to get started."

The old wizard frowned. "We should not be hasty. I would think that's obvious."

"Listen to me, my friend. Blackthorn's out there somewhere. He's got an army. If he finds us he'll make these daemons look like mongbats by comparison."

Nystul scowled. "He won't find us, my lord. No one can track us through my cloaking spells. "

"I trust your sorcery, but I won't underestimate Blackthorn again. We start the Binding as soon as this room is cleared." He moved toward the exit. "I'll be back when Sir Geoffrey has the Virtue Guards in position."

Bitterly the wizard mumbled, "My lord, the next time I meet that blackguard I'll get rid of him permanently. He degrades Britannia with his presence." Only the daemons could hear him, though, and in their rage they appeared somewhat less than interested.

In a bleak room of the tower in the valley, Blackthorn stood before an empty chair. The moon outside the window flung a rectangle of shining silver across its carved wood. No other light touched the chamber.

The nobleman wore plate armor and a coat displaying his bladed cross emblem. In one hand rested Shadowghast exposed, its crimson blade subtly clouded. Blackthorn's voice was grave. "Lady Gavrielle is occupied?"

"She's taking inventory of your reagents." Exedur lurked in the corner: eyes in the gloom. "We have some time."

"Good. Let's start. Remember, don't get distracted by conversation. We're after one thing only. And keep your senses sharp."

Blackthorn worked the gestures of a spell with his off hand. After he murmured a cryptic verse his fingers spewed a shower of bright flares that leapt through the room and revolved around the empty chair. As the flares diminished to wisps of smoke, he sucked in a deep breath and held it.

A shape now rested in the chair. Blackthorn made out the long curves of a silver serpent, slithering with a gentle, sensuous whisper. But the silver was only moonlight, baring the languid outline of a woman's flesh. Her naked legs were drawn up into the seat, furtively sheltering the rest of her body. Immodest strips of dark clothing seemed to vanish in the deep shadows. Her black hair glistened like a feline's coat. Every movement of her skin against itself was magnified into a constant, tantalizing sigh that breathed from the very stone of the tower.

One finger touched the lush contours of her lips. She gazed at the nobleman with labyrinthine eyes. "Why, Lord Blackthorn, you accepted my invitation. And here I thought I'd been spurned."

The witch-queen Minax, ravager of Sosaria, opened up a mysterious smile that sent a tickle through Blackthorn's flesh.

He returned a blizzard stare. "No games! You know what I want."

"Of course. You want me to tell you where the fortress of Stonegate is, so you can march your little army to it. You're in luck. I have that information." She leaned forward in the chair, metallic light spilling across her shoulders. "Make me an offer for it."

Blackthorn grinned darkly. "Don't waste my time. We both know what's at stake. If British succeeds, all your work will be for nothing. Your kingdom will vanish. You can't afford not to tell me."

"Which is why you've got to let me fight beside you. Honestly, Blackthorn. You couldn't stop me from conquering a single facet of a single shard. How can I trust you to keep this spell from destroying all of the shards at once?"

"Your trust means nothing to me. I'm the only chance you've got to survive. You're going to tell me where Stonegate is, because I'm holding all the cards. You have no power here, Minax."

Her large eyes sparkled. Her head cocked to the side. "And yet you've got Shadowghast unsheathed."

"I can't take chances now. Time is short." He tightened his grip on the sword, its hilt embedded with the knucklebones of an ancient sorcerer, one with whom Minax had been intimately acquainted.

She pulled her bare toes underneath her and reached out a hand. "You flatter me, my lord. May I see it? I have such fond memories of that finger."

"Where is Stonegate, Minax?"

"Don't get upset. I'll tell you. You're correct, of course; you've got me over a barrel. But if I'm going to salvage your insurrection, you can at least be so kind as to answer one question. I know you have a plan to stop British and Nystul. What happens after that, Lord Blackthorn? You can't win without bringing British to his knees. Will you take over his throne? Wear his crown? The land must have a king, you know."

The nobleman grimaced. "That's none of your concern."

"Isn't it? Soon you'll be a ruler on equal footing with me, at least in the herald's registry. That makes us associates. Personally I think you and I can work together. My presence right now proves it."

"No bargains, Minax!"

"Very well, let me tell you what's going to happen. You'll kill British, take over his throne, tear down the shrines and recreate the kingdom to your own liking. Am I correct so far? And then, because you're an honorable man, you're going to recompense me for my help today."

In the corner, Exedur choked on a breath. Blackthorn glanced at him.

"My lord..."

"Don't listen to her," warned the sorcerer.

"I've just seen it. What she said. You will be king."

"Be quiet, Exedur."

"And..." The assassin looked up at Blackthorn. "And you will repay her."

"With the Vortex Lens." Minax reclined and smiled. She draped one arm over her shoulder and across the back of the chair. "I like your pet, Blackthorn. I could have a lot of fun with him."

"She's deceiving you, Exedur. It's an illusion."

"No, my lord! I know my own senses. It's real."

The witch trailed her fingertips lazily across her throat. "Look again, little prophet. See how well I'll treat you when your master is king of Britannia and you are my personal pet."

The young assassin blurted out a groan and fell to his knees. His arms clutched his own torso. Breath eluded him as his limbs began to shake. Drawn like water downhill, his clouded eyes fastened on her languorous body.

Blackthorn sneered. "Leave us, Exedur. Now!" His arm whirled and Shadowghast slammed the stone floor in front of the assassin. A blossom of sparks erupted. Exedur flinched out of his trance and staggered backwards. Without a word he dashed from the room, banging shut the door behind him.

Minax laughed, like discordant bells. "He'll never trust his visions again, you know. Well, as you say, trust is meaningless."

Blackthorn growled, "I'm getting tired of you, lady. Let's finish this."

"Don't be sour. I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other. Until then, you'd better start deciding. What will your kingdom look like?" She smirked. "What cause do you serve, Blackthorn?"

"Not your cause, you diseased child. I don't serve evil."

A heavy moment passed, during which a smile built like storm clouds on the witch's face. Then she burst into musical laughter, a symphony of unbridled mockery. "My goodness, Blackthorn, but I do look forward to your reign! Compared to British you're as lively as a jester. Here is what you seek. You're now in my debt, black prince."

In a painful glare a runestone appeared on the floor between them.

Blackthorn did not look at her again. He shook his head, blew out a heavy breath and exclaimed, "By the mustering stars, power has made you tedious, woman! Begone from here!" With a stroke of his hand he summoned back the ring of sparkling flares, whirling around the chair.

As she faded from view, Minax the witch-queen blew him a kiss. "Watch for me soon, my newest pet."

When she was gone Blackthorn knelt and picked up the rune. It tickled his palm like a sensuous tongue. Cursing he hurled Shadowghast at the empty chair, which split in half with a noise like a snapping whip. The ghostly blade stuck in the hard floor. Coils of smoke snaked up its length.

"Damned temptress," he hissed, twirling the rune in his gloved fingers.

He found Exedur crouched like a gargoyle on the summit of the tower. The moon was lurking behind a crag, throwing a shadow over half the valley. Blackthorn winced at the high, icy breeze. His wrinkled face pulled into sharp lines.

"It was just a spell," he said. "She was toying with you."

The assassin did not move. "I used to work in the name of destiny, but how can I rely on my visions anymore? She's stolen that from me. Now there's nothing left to serve." He turned a dark glance onto the nobleman. "Except you, my lord."

Blackthorn kept his gaze. "Then I'll teach you how to shape the future, instead of just watching it. But Exedur," he pointed a finger, "don't act so ingenuous. I know you haven't stood by me out of loyalty or altruism. It's time for you to confess. Why did you seek me out in the first place? What have you foreseen?"

The young man blinked and offered a slight smile. But as he opened his mouth to speak, another voice cut through the wintry air.

"Blackthorn! You did it!"

They followed the voice to the rooftop doorway. In it stood Lady Gavrielle, uncloaked and stern-faced.

"Answer me!" she shouted. "You summoned the witch, didn't you?"

His lungs felt cold as he sighed. "I have the rune now. We're ready to march."

Her flesh darkened red. Tears painted her cheeks. "Then you clearly don't need me anymore." She turned her back to him and started down the steps.

Blackthorn strode after her. "Gavrielle, don't --"

"No more!" She spun and jutted her hands at him. A torrent of magic bolts barraged him. Blackthorn toppled backwards, his chest screaming fire in a dozen places. Lying atop the tower, he struggled to sit up as his own magic gently healed him.

Gavrielle's angelic features seethed with anger and seasoned fatigue. "You knew my limit, yet you made a deal with her anyway. I won't abide that. Not ever, your lordship. Good bye."

She vanished down the tower steps. Blackthorn watched her go.

The moon sank below the jagged mountaintops. His face dissolved into the dark. His voice was as thin as a shadow. "She was the only thing waiting for me on the other side of tonight. She's all I had left."

Exedur helped him to his feet. "Would you have done anything different, if you could?"

Blackthorn leaned for a moment against the coarse stone of the tower. Then he rose to a proud stance and ground his teeth. His eyes were a raptor's. "Get the troops ready," he snarled, "and don't ask me that question again. By my blood, I'm sick of doubt! Now we move out. It's time to fight."

Inside the ancient fortress of Stonegate, the blackened ceiling of the great hall loomed eighty feet above the floor. The rafters were a latticework of titanic wooden beams. They might have been mistaken for iron, so hard and dark were they from countless ages of torch fires and hearth smoke. From above they seemed to cage the giant chamber beneath unbreakable bars.

Fresh flames now danced in the great hall. Nystul was lighting a wide ring of braziers in the center of the floor. Inside was a smaller ring of candles atop tall, thin stands, ornately wrought by a master's hands. In the center of this circle was a small podium. Upon it lay a disk of blue crystal, in which glimpses of a black place shifted and twirled.

Lord British stood in front of the podium and gazed at the fabled Vortex Lens. He still wore his weapons and shining armor, wiped clean of the blood from the earlier battle. His helmet lay on the floor beside him. His brow glittered with sweat.

The old wizard Nystul lit the final candle and clasped his hands together. "My lord, we're ready to begin."

The monarch exhaled a tremulous breath. It fogged the chilly air. His large eyes reflected the color of the lens. "Nystul, are we doing the right thing? Can we really succeed?"

"As I've told you, we can most assuredly cast this spell." He tugged at his full, white beard. "As to whether it's the best course of action, my own conscience is at ease. But my lord, only you can make the final decision. The fate of Britannia is your burden, as it has always been."

British traced the edge of the lens with a steel-sheathed finger. "We're putting things right again. We're finally undoing the evil of Mondain. We owe this to the people of Sosaria."

Nystul nodded. "As you say, my lord. Let us start. Hesitation is the death of good deeds."

With a grave sigh British stepped back from the podium. "I'm ready. Let's rewrite this world."

In unison they began to chant.

The armies of Lord Blackthorn growled like a horde of wild beasts. In the blackness of the predawn they waited at the base of the tower, a swarm of steel helmets and black cloaks and battle-pocked shields. The tips of spears and halberds danced over the crowd like anxious stallions. A thousand swords, meticulously sharp, captured the light of endless torches and bit the darkness with their glowing fangs. The troops barked and shouted in a rising, blood-hungry frenzy.

From the peak of the tower Blackthorn inspected them with stern eyes. The mounted Chaos Guards were herding the others into marching formation. When he judged that all was ready, he threw up his hands and flung from each a giant, forking bolt of lightning. The flash and thunderclap drew all eyes to him.

"Warriors of Sosaria!" he bellowed in a voice that hammered the walls of the valley. "Hold tight to your weapons and listen to me! Tonight we go to face a legend. Awaiting us are the best soldiers and sorcerers Lord British can field. This will be unlike any battle you have ever known. But look around you! Never has history seen an army like ours. Never before has man and orc and goblin and ettin stood together for a single cause. When British's soldiers set eyes upon you, they will learn a new kind of fear! They will understand what it means to wake the god named Chaos!"

A booming cheer soared from the ranks of firelit warriors. Even the horses joined in the clamor, until Blackthorn lifted his hands again. "Tonight I face Lord British himself. I fight in the name of life and freedom. I fight for every being across Sosaria, even for those who stand against us, even for those who sneer at our anger and mock our cause! Tonight I stand against Lord British, and with these hands I shall take back our world! That is my grave duty. And my last allies, my most loyal companions, your duty tonight is simply this: Let no man or god stand in my way!"

The dark troops roared with bloodlust. Blackthorn unsheathed Shadowghast and held it overhead, as if its crimson blade could suck yet more fury from the masses of soldiers. Then he stepped away from the edge of the tower and glanced to his side.

Exedur stood close by. The assassin wore the same shadowy clothes as he had the night Blackthorn first captured him, on the way to murder Lord British. The young prophet handed the nobleman a small pouch. From inside Blackthorn withdrew the witch's rune. He clenched it in a gloved fist.

Exedur leaned close to him, speaking in his gentle voice. "You're sure you can do this? You don't want to overtax yourself before we even get there."

Blackthorn's grin was unrestrained. "Tonight I have no limits. Stand back."

He lifted the runestone in the air and began to chant the lyrics of a spell. As his resonant voice strengthened in volume the magic symbol began to shine, until a shaft of white light thrust up into the sky. On the lowering clouds the rune traced itself in bright, undulating lines. Blackthorn's sorcery called down the cloud cover until the glowing symbol hovered above the army. Its magical light washed away the dark of the snowy valley.

The air split open. A vertical cleft the height of the tower sputtered fire and wind as it parted, groaning like a giant wooden gate. Soon it was wide enough to admit the marching column into the inky portal. The Chaos Guards shouted commands. The black army heaved forward into the darkness beyond.

Exedur murmured to Blackthorn, "Now you must confess, my lord. You've got the top room of this tower filled with magical reagents. How do you intend to use them on the other side of that gate?"

The sorcerer shook his head. "Never overlook the obvious." He crossed his wrists and barked another verse; and the stones of the tower shook. Exedur crouched to keep his balance as granite blocks cracked and rumbled. The roof pitched. In an instant they were rising into the air, sorcerer and assassin and rooftop together. Exedur peered over the edge to find that the top floor of the tower had dislodged itself from the rest of the structure. They were floating on a squat cylinder of coarse black stone. Broken granite dribbled from the jagged lower edge of the circular wall. High above the chaos army they glided, soundlessly closer to the violent cleft in the air.

Blackthorn moved his open hands as if the action controlled the hovering platform. His face pulled into furrows of concentration. "I'm taking the reagents with me, Exedur. Simple as that. But dammit, my eyes are still tender. All this light and dark is blinding me." He closed his eyelids, whispered to the ether, then opened them again. A bright red glow pulsed from his sockets, as if his soul was volcanic.

"That feels better. Now show me the way to Lord British, Exedur, and I'll deliver you a miracle."

Looming overhead, his broad cloak roiling behind him like a thundercloud, Blackthorn led his black troops forward to the waiting fortress of Stonegate.

When Sir Geoffrey burst into the great hall, he felt Nystul's stern voice bellow in his head: Halt! Do not interrupt us!

The knight looked to the center of the room. Encircled by slithering flames, Nystul and Lord British sang peculiar chants that manifested as a wafting, tinted mist. Intricate aurora patterns shimmered in the air under the tall, dark ceiling, painting the chamber with a multicolored glaze. Geoffrey gaped at the crisscrossing patterns of light. He squeezed shut his eyes when he realized the old wizard had been shouting into his skull for many moments.

Quickly, Sir Geoffrey, what news?

The paladin was familiar with the mental communication. It's Lord Blackthorn! His army is attacking!

And Sir Dupre? What of his forces?

Blackthorn opened a gate large enough to march his troops through. He bypassed the ambush set by Shamino and Dupre. There's no sign of the Serpent Knights.

I predicted as much. You know what to do, then. Prepare yourself as I instructed you.

It will not be easy for me, sir.

I know, Geoffrey. But yours is the most important charge of all. You must not fail.

I understand, Nystul. Good luck to you. The knight made little sound as he exited.

Within the circle of light and fire, Nystul peered into the powerful, undulating imagery of the Vortex Lens. Under a frosty beard he indulged in a smile.

Wedged in a spine of foreboding mountains, the fortress of Stonegate from a distance resembled several castles stacked atop each other. Turrets and towers of grey stone leapt toward the sky in a chaotic dance. The granite walls were high and heavy. The fortress had a dour aspect, like a golem squatting among the sharp cliffs, waiting for an unknown master.

As the impending dawn stole stars from the sky, Stonegate emitted a ghoulish shimmer from a crust of midwinter ice. A single bridge spanned the chasm separating it from the mountain roads. Icicles dagged the bridge's underside like the fangs of a predator's skull. Clusters of bright flame lit both ends.

An army in shining mail arrayed itself to defend the bridge. The Virtue Guard formed a dauntless line at the edge of the silent chasm. Their shields glistened with five hundred silver serpents.

Facing them was a force of black-swathed soldiers emerging from a bright fissure in the air. The invaders did not display the austere dignity of the Virtue Guards; rather they roared and howled and bellowed in voices that were not always human. Siege engines crawled along in their midst. Overhead floated the nightmarish vision of their master, Lord Blackthorn, a dark apparition with blazing red eyes perched on a platform of ragged stone.

For a moment the two forces gazed at one another across a space of crisp, dark air. Then Blackthorn called down a talon of lightning from the clouds. It struck the ground between the armies, damaging only the coarse earth; but the stroke blasted away the chill of the battlefield. The two sides lurched forward with rampant war cries. They clashed to the staccato percussion of weapons upon shields.

Among the armed soldiers fought wizards of all disciplines. Flashes and sparkles erupted from the melee. Explosions rocked the battleground. The sullen crags of the mountain range lit up with the brilliance of sorcery. Most devastating of all were the spells of Lord Blackthorn, hurled down from his hovering stage in thunderous, ravaging volleys. The fearsome power of the nobleman seemed to weaken the resolve of the Virtue Guards. The army of Chaos pressed their assault. Soon siege engines were throwing new bridges across the chasm. Dozens of orcs fell into the abyss, victims of clouds of arrows, yet dozens more reached the walls of Stonegate with scaling ladders. The Chaos Guards followed close behind.

Grim-faced, the wizards of Lord British turned their attention to Blackthorn himself. They launched cascades of elemental power at the dark lord on his flying platform. In response he swatted away the attacks with magic wards and ghostly Shadowghast, and rained down upon them a stream of booming, derisive laughter.

The first amber bolts of dawn revealed a battle turned against the Virtue Guards. But the sun warmed their courage. They pushed back with renewed spirit. Shouts of furious defiance suggested the day was only beginning.

In a stone corridor dotted with torches, three figures waited before a tall wooden door. Sir Geoffrey gazed down the hallway, his hand propped on the hilt of his platinum sword. His eyes were sharp as daggers.

Next to him stood the archers Iolo and Gwenno. They were singing a soft tune from ages past. Their low voices braided lyrics that spoke of the sorrow of an ancient, dying king.

They stopped when Geoffrey raised a mailed hand. He pointed down the corridor. From the gloomy distance a figure appeared, moving closer with long strides.

"Blackthorn," muttered the knight, hefting his tower shield into place. "I'll be damned. Nystul was right."

"Load up," said Iolo, though his wife's crossbow was already cocked.

Blackthorn spread out his hands as he approached. "Gentlemen! My lady! Shouldn't you be outside right now? Your troops aren't faring well."

The knight donned his helm, though his faceplate was lifted. "Master Nystul predicted you'd make an illusion of yourself as a decoy in the battle. It's only a matter of time before our mages deduce that. The tide will turn when they do."

Blackthorn blinked slowly from under his gaping hood. "Quite likely. No matter. The battle has served my needs already. There's only three of you standing between me and the spell chamber, instead of an army of guards."

Sir Geoffrey lifted his chin. "We three are sufficient, my lord. Your magic is useless in this corridor. Master Nystul has arranged it." He slid his gleaming sword from its scabbard. It made a sound like a rush of wind. "It's the blade for you, Lord Blackthorn, if you're going to get past us."

"Ah, the famous White Falcon. I've always admired that sword, Sir Geoffrey. Care to meet mine?" When it emerged, Shadowghast was as quiet as a crypt.

Master Iolo grimaced. His long, wiry beard exaggerated the expression. "A weapon not even a daemon would forge. You've truly embraced the dark this time, haven't you?" His crossbow lifted. Gwenno's aim matched his. "Drop it, if you please."

Blackthorn stroked his chin with a glove of ebon chainmail. "Death serves in my camp. I have no desire to live beyond my deeds today. That's why I'm going to win." He glowered at the archer. "Fire on me, Iolo."

"I'll write you a proper dirge, my lord," said the archer, then squeezed the firing lever.

Blackthorn swept Shadowghast in the path of the quarrel. The sword pulled true to the missile's trajectory. Iolo's bolt shattered into brilliant sparks as the crimson blade cleaved its steel tip.

Lady Gwenno fired a simultaneous shot, though it flew astray. She yelped and stumbled forward. A man in black crouched behind her, pulling a short sword from her back. Master Iolo abandoned his crossbow and in an instant two rapiers were flashing in his hands. His twin blades engaged Exedur's double short swords in a dazzling cyclone of clanging metal. Cuts appeared on each combatant. Neither seemed overmatched.

Blackthorn and Sir Geoffrey locked eyes. Their weapons streaked at one another, crashing together in mid-arc. When struck, the platinum White Falcon let out a screech like a hunting hawk. A burst of white light exploded from the impact.

"Nice," said Blackthorn. "Try me once more."

They hurled together. In rapid beats their blades smashed again and again. Sometimes the impact expelled flashes of white with a falcon's cry. Other times it glittered the color of blood. The warriors circled. When a blow deflected from the knight's tall shield Blackthorn noted aloud, "You came prepared, Geoffrey! Your shield doesn't crumble at Shadowghast's sting."

"Nystul enchanted it. I learned from his experience fighting you."

"Indeed?" The pale-skinned nobleman carved out a series of strokes in the shape of his favorite rune, then ducked low, pirouetted and thrust Shadowghast directly at the shield. The crimson blade pierced steel and wood with a loud crack. Its point lost momentum inches from Sir Geoffrey's gut. The knight clipped short his breath.

"Don't take tactical advice from a scholar," offered Blackthorn, wrinkling his nose.

Iolo and Exedur charged into their duel with a quick, deafening rhythm. When it seemed as if youthful endurance might prevail, Lady Gwenno reappeared, healed and angry, sword and dagger in hand. Unable to engage both attackers, the assassin ducked aside. The couple pursued him in practiced tandem.

The magic swords banged together with flashes decreasingly red. White Falcon's blade whirred through the air to the sound of beating wings. Lord Blackthorn bled from several shallow cuts.

Sir Geoffrey pressed him back from the wooden door. "You can't beat me, my lord! Abandon this madness."

The nobleman's response was an unexpected, vehement slash down the center of the knight's tall shield. It split in half and fell to the floor. They exchanged a few more ripostes and then Shadowghast cracked the side of the knight's full helm. The steel dissolved to grey dust and spilled off of Sir Geoffrey's head and shoulders.

Blackthorn squinted his bloodshot eyes. "We're all mad here. And I will win."

A second figure lunged at him. Lady Gwenno had suddenly switched targets. Blackthorn dodged a rapier thrust to his low quarters. He answered with a swipe at her shoulder. She parried it with ease, though her weapon turned to soot and burst into a cloud. By reflex he shoved the point of his sword at her lightly armored chest.

Sir Geoffrey snarled, "Not her!" and dove forward to interpose White Falcon. The platinum blade found its mark. Shadowghast clanged away. Yet the knight was off-balance and Blackthorn's instincts served him. A second later his crimson blade rested against Geoffrey's uncovered throat.

The knight gulped for breath. "Don't bother bluffing, my lord. Kill me or leave. I won't surrender my post."

"You die for a noble cause," murmured Blackthorn as he slashed open Sir Geoffrey's neck. The vile magic of the red metal fountained through the soldier's body. With an expression of agonized shock, the knight stared down as his body transformed to an ashy grey. Like a delicate eggshell he fell apart under his own weight. Blackthorn shut his eyes for an instant and spat a sorrowful hiss.

Iolo cried out and rushed him. The warrior's dual rapiers struck like snakes. Blackthorn felt Shadowghast wrested from his grip. It clattered a few yards away as Iolo's sword tip punctured his side. The wound buzzed with pain.

Like a whirlwind Exedur fell upon Master Iolo. Distracted by Blackthorn, the archer was unprepared. The assassin buried both short swords into Iolo's sides, then twirled and held his blade against the chest of the unarmed Gwenno as she scrambled to reach her crossbow. She froze and glowered.

The young assassin motioned to his master. "Shall we finish them before Iolo recovers?"

Blackthorn snatched Shadowghast from the ground. "No. My lady, take this." From a pouch he withdrew a small runestone. "Spells don't work here, but a rune should. This one will transport you back to Britain. There may still be time to save both of them."

The archer scowled but grabbed the rune. As she knelt beside the ashes of Sir Geoffrey and the still body of her husband, her expression revealed a blend of fury and pity. "What length does your evil go?" she muttered. Then the rune cast a glow about her and she vanished with her fallen comrades.

Exedur sheathed his gory blades. "You lied to her. There's no hope for the knight."

"But Iolo can be helped. And now they're both safe and far away from us."

The assassin frowned as he quaffed a healing potion. "There's another presence here, my lord. A feminine one."

"I know. Minax must be up to something. Monitor your senses, but be wary of her tricks."

The young man swallowed hard. "I'm afraid to look at the future, my lord."

Blackthorn inhaled deeply. "So am I, lad. So am I."

Shadowghast carved a black gash in the huge door. The two men kicked it open and stepped inside.

When he entered the great hall of Stonegate, Exedur screamed and collapsed to the floor. In wild torment he pawed at his head and face. Blackthorn knelt beside him and whispered, "Your senses got us this far. But I was afraid they'd turn against you like this when we're so close to a dimensional nexus. Be strong, prophet. I go alone from here."

He rose and walked toward the center of the room, where a kaleidoscope of sorcery swirled in giant, concentric columns. Inside British and Nystul chanted their parts of the Spell of Binding. The azure Vortex Lens rested before them on a pedestal.

The air seethed with strange qualities that the nobleman struggled to identify. He had the odd sensation that the world he knew was a crystallization of abstract elements, and that here in the spell chamber the concrete world was unfocusing, slipping in subtle ways back toward the abstract. The feeling was distractive, intriguing. He blocked it out by tightening his fists and curling back his lips.

"British!" he shouted, stalking the perimeter of the ring of braziers. "I've come! Check mate!"

The monarch stood in a whirlpool of light and color that whipped his hair and livery. "Don't interfere! This is not a game, Blackthorn."

"Don't patronize me! I gave up everything to come here. I have nothing left now but to stop you. I'll die to do it."

The white-haired Nystul continued his chants as he watched the two men. He sheltered private thoughts behind narrowed eyes.

Lord British looked into Blackthorn's pale, ravaged face and smiled. "Give me ten more seconds, my friend, then do what you must." He stretched out his arms to each side. His hands he flattened like blades. Then he punctured the air itself, and with each hand opened up a hole. Beyond each rupture in space was another room; another great hall pulsing with magic; and another Lord British casting a spell with outstretched hands.

Blackthorn widened his eyes and peered closer. The scene was astonishing. Through two holes in the air he saw two other Britishes. Beyond each of them was another cleft in space, through which another Lord British was visible. As Blackthorn made out more and more detail, he realized that the chain stretched in both directions farther than he could hope to discern.

British and Nystul had opened gates to other shards. Their counterparts on those other shards had done likewise. Blackthorn realized the truth of the assertion that lawful order might indeed bind them all together.

Yet he also recognized that he was correct, as well, for each Lord British in another world was distinctive in his own way. They were not identical men; they were men with a common past. Individuality had asserted itself since the Gem of Immortality was rent into shards. After the Binding, what would be lost from these alternate Britishes? What treasury of adventure and insight would be sacrificed by erasing the parallel timelines?

Then the nobleman witnessed something that shook his entire body. Scantly visible through the rips in the air, lurking in those mirror Stonegates, were glimpses of other Blackthorns. He saw himself in an infinite chain, each image his reflection after a different set of life experiences. He saw what he might have been, what he might still be.

They were parts of himself that were missing. In a mad, magical sense, they were his brothers.

He formed his mouth around each word: "British, I won't let you kill them."

He swept his blade from its scabbard and lunged into the kaleidoscopic colors of Nystul's protective wards, erected to contain the force of the Binding.

The old wizard stopped chanting and barked out a new spell. Blackthorn saw the bolt of magic streaking towards him. With Shadowghast he smashed it from the air, only to be hammered by a dozen or more similar attacks. From the floor the nobleman growled his own incantation and launched a swarm of flaming stones at Nystul. The protective wards repelled the fireballs. Backthorn cursed.

Nystul motioned to the Vortex Lens. "You have no hope against the Codex. Cease this undignified assault."

Blackthorn glared back. "Stop me."

"With extreme pleasure."

An abrupt swell of glittering wind enveloped Blackthorn. He felt himself rise from the floor. Shadowghast seemed suddenly heavy, until he realized why. He could not move. The paralysis extended to his mouth and tongue, preventing him from casting a defensive enchantment.

His sword flew from his strengthless grip and clanked into a distant corner. Nystul opened up a grin that chilled the nobleman. "Let's settle this right now, Blackthorn."

"No!" Lord British looked away from the Spell of Binding long enough to shoot the wizard a stern look. "He's harmless now. Leave him be to watch."

Nystul grumbled, "As you wish, my lord," and returned to his chanting.

Lord British smiled at Blackthorn, suspended in a glimmering cyclone. "My friend, I'm glad you're here. Of all people I want you to see this." Consulting the Codex he called out another verse of the spell, to which he added, "The Virtues have guided our shards toward a common destiny. Let the Virtues now partition our worlds, so that component by component we may bind them all together. The Principles shall be our meter - Courage, Love and Truth. Let now the shards be likewise divided."

His every word was echoed by the Britishes beyond the rifts.

"Bring us first the lands to the east! I call to myself Moonglow, the city of Honesty, and everything that surrounds it."

An unusual calm seized the room. Blackthorn was not sure what was going to happen next, but his mind raced for a means to stop it.

The battle clamored outside the walls of Stonegate. The Virtue Guards were joined now by many Britannian Rangers, who had secured the fortress from its prior monstrous inhabitants. Though their captain, Lord Shamino, had accompanied Sire Dupre and his knights many miles away, still the ferocious rangers punched holes in the offensive formations. The sun had barely crested the mountaintops, yet the momentum of the conflict had nearly reversed.

Then a rumbling sound stilled the melee for an instant. It rolled across the rocky crags from somewhere to the east. The thunder was followed by a strange apparition in the eastern sky. Obscured by the waking sun, a long, thin shape like an impossibly large ribbon seemed to be rising into the sky. It arched across the heavens and began to descend towards the battlefield.

Both factions feared some new, terrible sorcery; but the ribbon did not strike the troops. Rather it punctured the roof of Stonegate itself. At close range, the soldiers could make out what they were seeing.

It was a titanic stream of swirling blue liquid, oceans of it, leaping high into the sky from very far away and pouring inside Stonegate. The roar of the flow rattled stones and scabbards.

After a few moments the battle resumed, though its fury was diminished.

The giant stream of blue fluid smashed through the ceiling of the great hall. When it struck Lord British it condensed beyond all reason into a sphere in his left hand.

Blackthorn strained against hope to break his paralysis. The sensation heightened that he was witnessing some raw, elemental form of substance, something more fundamental than the ordinary scope of matter. The notion fascinated him, though he knew it was only the hypnosis of the Codex.

Lord British continued to chant: "Bring us next the lands to the south and west! I call to myself Jhelom, the city of Valor, and everything that surrounds it."

The wracked Exedur still squirmed on the floor, just by the door to the huge chamber. Unnoticed, a small figure appeared beside him. A soft hand laid on his soaking brow. A stray golden curl drizzled over his shoulder. Then a white glow streamed from the woman's fingers into the assassin's skin. He stopped writhing. His eyes opened, glazed for a moment, and then by degrees regained the glint of lucidity.

Exedur looked up and offered a hint of a smile. "My lady, you are divine."

Gavrielle pressed a finger to her lips and scrutinized the proceedings from the shadow of the broken, wooden door. Her eyes darted with immediate, anxious purpose.

An enormous column of red liquid blasted through the ceiling of the chamber and condensed to a sphere in British's right hand. Identical events were transpiring beyond the rifts in the air. Blackthorn marveled at the sheer volume of both fluids. He strained to discern some clue about the nature of the substances. When he did, his body fell cold.

The liquids were some elemental phase of matter. Yet Blackthorn detected ghosts of what the matter had been before reverting to this fundamental state. He sensed mineral objects, like rocks and houses and buildings. He sensed living things, like plants and livestock and wild animals. And he sensed people. Confused people. Terrified people.

Blackthorn, what can I do?

The voice in his head sounded like a miracle. Gavrielle, can you free me?

I don't have a tenth of the power to break through those wards!

Then forget about me. There's one rune left in my pouch. Try to get it.

The girl cast a quiet spell. A small stone nudged itself out of his belt pouch and leapt into the glittering whirlwind.

I have it. What does it do?

Just activate it, before he kills anyone else!

Lord British seemed oblivious to Lady Gavrielle. "And last comes Britain, the city of Compassion. I call to myself my adopted home. To this world I offer the gift of unity. Never again let a Britannian's soul endure the pain of incompleteness."

The storms of fluid ceased. Blackthorn looked at the spheres in British's hands and saw death and horror and ruin. His stomach wrenched at the sight.

British now reached through the fissures in the air. He was preparing to take his counterparts' hands, forming a human chain that draped sideways across time. When the ground shook again, Blackthorn knew the end was closing. In moments all of Sosaria would flow into a yellow sphere, British would link hands with his mirror selves and the Gem of Immortality would fuse together into a whole. Or perhaps be destroyed in the attempt.

Hidden in the shadows, Gavrielle remotely activated the rune. A bright beam of white light burst from its face, spinning wildly as the runestone tumbled in the cyclone. Nystul and British startled.

The light congealed into a thick glare, from which a slender figure emerged. She held a blue crystal staff in one hand and wore a grin like a thousand hungry sharks.

Minax the witch-queen threw out her arms and said, "Blackthorn, you did call! And I thought you didn't respect me."

Lord British paused, his face taut with concentration. Across the room, Lady Gavrielle shrieked.

Nystul's face purpled with rage. "Devil! To the flames with you!" He flung his arms into intricate gestures, generating an aura of pulsing energy.

Minax laughed. "Ahhh, this is delicious! Toss your little magicks at me. I'm feeling hungry this morning!"

The flood of violet flames that roared over the witch illuminated the great hall beyond even the colors of the wards. Minax toppled to the ground and screamed. When the assault was over she looked up with astonishment.

Nystul's eyes burned. "Now I am mightier than you. My wrath is your doom."

The witch snorted. "You flaccid old octopus! You should know better. I can't abide false arrogance!" With two fingers she hurled a shower of blackness at the podium in the center of the room. The spell streaked around the Vortex Lens for a moment before swallowing it. In an instant the blue crystal disk was gone.

Nystul howled and plunged his hands into the blackness. The spell dissipated around his fingers. "No! Where did you send it?!"

Minax climbed to her feet. "Somewhere safe. Now let's see who's mightier!" With a twirl of her crystal staff she whacked the sorcerer onto his back. Then her eyes shot forth twin columns of purple fire identical to Nystul's spell. The old wizard choked and writhed in the relentless inferno.

"Stop it!" Gavrielle charged forward, hurling bolts of magic at Minax. The attacks dispersed harmlessly when they struck Nystul's wards.

Gavrielle, stay back!

When the witch-queen's spell ceased, Nystul lay still on the smoking floor. His granddaughter lunged through the wards and rushed to his side.

"Now," grinned Minax, "let's do something about this spell of yours, shall we, O King of Britannia?" She thrust out an open palm, from which pumped spheres of light. Where they impacted the vortex of swirling colors the wards cracked and shuddered. Then she turned her assault onto Lord British. Several glowing missiles slammed into his abdomen.

Straining to maintain the Spell of Binding, unable to defend himself, Lord British cried out in anguish.

The scenes beyond the rifts revolved away. The red and blue spheres were plucked from the monarch's hands and vanished into the hungry blackness of the ether. Wild images shot past. British pulled his arms to safety, then doubled over from the pain of Minax's attack.

The walls of Stonegate began to shake. Granite stones were blurring and dislodging and transforming into an elemental golden fluid. Blackthorn knew the spell was flying off course. His mind strained against his paralysis. Watching British reel under the witch's spells, he sensed a tide of raw fury rising inside him, a red, scorching blaze that felt as if it would consume him from within.

He nurtured it to its peak.

Minax turned to face him, delight curling her lips into a smile. "Such rage, Lord Blackthorn! I could bask like a lizard in the heat you generate. Is it for me? I'm flattered."

That's not all I have for you he said in his mind, though only Gavrielle could hear it.

The witch-queen walked toward him, her long, graceful legs cleaving through layers of colored light. As she reached out to him she opened her mouth to speak. No words emerged. Instead she coughed and flared her eyes in shock.

Behind her crouched Exedur at the extension of a skillful lunge. The crimson sword Shadowghast punctured the flesh between the witch's shoulder blades.

Her skin, as smooth as a river stone, began to grey. To the ceiling she turned her face and cried, "Mondain, not me! Why? I was faithful to you!"

Shadowghast made no answer, except to penetrate her with its scarlet sorcery. Minax fell to her knees, screeched in agony, and collapsed on the ground. From the impact rose a cloud of powdery dust -- the only remains she left behind.

Hurry, Gavrielle! Heal Nystul! We have to stop the spell!

The girl unleashed a healing spell. A flash of white lit the room. A bloody Nystul toiled to his feet, leaning on Gavrielle's shoulder. With a grunt he swirled his arms. Blackthorn stumbled forward, free to move again. The old wizard looked invigorated after dispelling the paralysis. He began a haunting chant and the damaged wards began to repair.

Blackthorn doubted they would be restored quickly enough, though he had no time to reflect on the consequences. He rushed to the injured Lord British.

The king stared now into one of the rifts with a look of amazement.

Figures appeared on the other side. They were not human, nor any race known to Sosaria, yet Blackthorn recognized them at once. He had seen them in Exedur's prophecies. He had conjured them in visions from the Codex. They were warrior inhabitants of a nightmare world of smoke and iron, of fumes and oil, of brickwork and smokestacks and pipelines and other lifeless, stirring things. Two of them crouched inside the rift. The female's lush hair was the color of molten lava. Her inhuman face was proud and strong. The male wore an expression that reflected British's own -- confused, capable, regal and courageous. Their clothes and strange armor were in tatters. Bloody wounds striped their flesh.

Behind them a holocaust rushed upon their heels. Lord British reached out his hand to help them.

Nystul lunged forward. "No, my lord! We don't know --"

This time Blackthorn intervened. "Follow his judgment! It's all we have now."

The wizard shot him a disdainful glare. "What a waste your life was, Blackthorn."

Lord British took the hand of the male being in the rift. An inferno flooded into the room.

When the holocaust overtook them Blackthorn covered his face. He knew Nystul's wards were designed to protect against any sudden eruption of power; so he squirmed with surprise when the heat began to singe his flesh. The others cried out as well. Through the flames Blackthorn saw Nystul pushing towards the rift. Glowing barriers appeared at the wizard's command, but the inferno pulverized new wards as quickly as he could erect them.

At last the aged sorcerer shrieked inside the mouth of the flames. In the deafening howl of torrential fire Blackthorn watched Nystul wither like a wax doll. Then the flames ceased and the old man was gone.

Lady Gavrielle wailed, "Grandfather!" Her large eyes, once innocent, now turned on Blackthorn. They were fierce with hatred. Behind her the hall was vanishing in a great surge of golden light.

Lord British reached his other hand in the opposite rift. Tears traced the monarch's face.

Beyond the second rift was another enigmatic person. She seemed to be a young girl in a leather tunic, draped with a brightly patterned mantle. Yet she was not human. Spotted fur covered her exposed flesh. She had an animal's ears. Around her was a crystal city more glorious than anything Britannia had ever known.

Lord British's movements grew more frantic as the golden light devoured Stonegate. After a pause, the furred girl placed her small hand into his. With a thunderclap her world rushed upon him. A flood of raw, complex energies deluged British. Shouting a spell he seized control of the flow, and like the red fluid before he gathered it into a shifting, rotating sphere. When a huge bolt of power slammed him from the opposite rift, he collected it in the palm of his other hand.

So stood Lord British with a world in each hand and a third collapsing around him.

Then something black and foul and nebulous leapt upon him from the beautiful city of crystal. British shouted in pain.

The catlike girl targeted a mysterious rune at him. Blackthorn staggered backwards from the sheer volume of mana that poured over Lord British. Even so the foul, malevolent presence continued to envelope his body. When the monarch was no longer visible, Blackthorn reached out his hand. Exedur tossed the crimson blade into it.

He drew back Shadowghast and prepared to strike. "May history forgive the folly of great men. British, brace yourself!"

He slashed the black malevolence with his fearsome sword. The shapeless, putrescent entity lashed tendrils at him.

In that instant the two rifts in space exploded, flooding the air with heat and sound. Outside the ring of braziers the world condensed to a titanic bolt of golden light. All else was pure ether, black within black. The golden light streaked high above them. The two spheres British had collected from the rifts soared into the air, smearing out into streams of sorcerous energy. Three fountains of power blasted out in three different directions.

The malevolence from the rift snapped itself around Blackthorn. He reeled from the grotesque, agonizing intrusion. As he sensed his body corrupted and breaking, he realized that the foul entity was no longer attacking British. The reason was clear -- it had already consumed him.

Lord British was gone. Not even a corpse remained.

Death rushed over Blackthorn in agonizing waves, yet the torment of his body and soul was meaningless to him now. He had nothing left to grieve with; every piece of himself was spent. Only a shell remained, haunted by the ghost of a man who might have been a hero. Now the shell became food for scavengers.

His last act before oblivion swallowed him was something he had never tried before. It gave him a small, but horrific measure of peace.

Blackthorn despaired. Then he was gone.

The room was stark white. Its appointments were simple -- two chairs and a table between them. A calm, heavy silence thickened the warm air.

Dressed in a simple white gown, Lord British sat in one of the chairs. Across from him was a mysterious woman, wearing the colorful layers of a gypsy's clothes.

"Welcome back," she said in a relaxed voice.

"Where am I?"

"Where you came from."

British creased his brow. "Earth?"

The gypsy woman chuckled. "No. Earth was your home for awhile, but you didn't begin there. Of the majority of worlds you've traveled you have no memory."

"I don't understand. Who are you?"

"A watcher and an accomplice," answered a masculine voice. The gypsy was gone. British now addressed a figure in a hooded robe of midnight blue. Deep shadow concealed the man's face. "I observe the tides of change in the cosmos and sweep up what flotsam they leave behind."

"I know you. The Time Lord. Why did you bring me here?"

"I didn't. You initiated a cataclysm unlike anything I've ever seen. Your own spell cast you here."

"The Ritual of Binding! I lost control over it! Blackthorn interfered and Nystul... perished." He thumped his fist on the table. "Tell me what happened! Did we succeed at all? Was everything lost? Please, I have to know if that's why I'm here!"

"All was not lost. Britannia remains, though changed."

He raked his fingers like a claw through his blonde hair. "But the spell was a failure. The shards didn't rejoin."

"Indeed they didn't. But you did rescue two worlds from oblivion."

"The strange beings in the rifts?"

"They are Sosaria's distant past and far future. Left alone both races would have vanished through their own misfortunes. Only your courage and compassion kept them from that fate."

"How? All I remember is taking their hands."

"You pulled fragments of their worlds into yours. Though none of them are yet aware, Sosaria now shelters three races of men. Three continents, each from a different part of history. Only time will reveal the consequences of the juxtaposition."

"Then send me back! I can forge bonds with these new people."

The enigmatic figure did not reply.

"You won't send me back?"

The Time Lord paused, as if considering his words. "You can't go back, Lord British."

"What? I have to! There's --"

"Your time there is over. New worlds await your arrival."

"I refuse to accept that! I have work to do!"

"Their memory of you is all that remains. That isn't cause for regret. All that Britannia is, you have given it."

British leaned forward on his elbows. "You're saying I died in the cataclysm."

The gypsy's voice answered him. Her smile was almost mischievous. "So it appears to those you left behind. But you don't die. You travel on. Britannia was never your ultimate destination."

He gazed into the empty air. "I can't... believe it's over."

"It isn't over. Your footprints will never fade from Britannia. You shaped a world of rich treasures and virtuous character. Children who idolized you have grown into men and women who seek to walk your path. That's your legacy, Lord British. It's a marvelous thing." She took his hands across the table. "You're the grain of sand in the oyster's shell. See what beauty you made."

British let out a soft, sad laugh. "And now I'm to travel to a different world and start my work over again."

"It's a challenge best suited to your talents, don't you think? You don't remember, but you've done it countless times in the past. Someday I'll tell you the stories."

He shook his head slowly. "Not now. I just want to know one thing. What happened to my friend?"

"Blackthorn? He hasn't perished, though death is close. All that's left is a single ember in the ruins of a man. If there's no one to fan it, he will die."

British rubbed his eyes. His rested his face in his hand. "Blackthorn, we're a pair of headstrong fools. Remember me for my friendship. I'll do the same for you."

"No one in Britannia will forget you, British. Rest easy on that. Now, would you like to see your next home?"

He looked up into the gypsy's face. "No. Just show me where the road starts. I'll find my own way."

The Time Lord grinned. "Naturally. That's what you always do."

They rose from the table and walked out, leaving the white room with the echo of fading footsteps.

In a burst of sparkling light a small group appeared on the turret of a high castle. The chaotic roofs of the city of Britain cascaded across the lands to the south. To the north a tremendous ball of fire seared the morning sky.

Three people huddled atop the central tower of Castle Blackthorn. Exedur stooped over Lady Gavrielle, who was kneeling on the ground. Laid out before them was the blackened, desiccated creature that once had been Lord Blackthorn. From the ruins of his face stared two wide eyes. No conscious mind was discernable in their tangles of swollen veins.

"It worked, my lady!" said Exedur. "You got us out in time. Can you stabilize him? We can't stay here long."

"Don't speak!" snarled Gavrielle. "There's something still inside of him."

The assassin snapped back, "Save him! Please, my lady!" He tugged the black mask from his youthful face. "We haven't got much time. Word of our attack is bound to reach the city soon. Castle Blackthorn might be razed to the ground by this time tomorrow."

The sorceress ignored him. With a careful touch she stroked the nobleman's wasted cheek. "You'll never recover from this one, Blackthorn. You're dying. But dammit, I can't let you. Despite all you've done, good and bad, I can't bear the weight of it." She gazed into his bulging eyes. "Take this from me, my lord, as testimony to my forgiveness."

She laid her hands on his bloody brow. A gentle glimmer sparkled over his body. Then Gavrielle's face tightened with pain. In a violent spasm she wrenched backwards onto the wooden roof of the tower. A black, putrescent shadow rocketed from Blackthorn's brow and plunged into her chest.

Exedur crouched over her, though he had no answer to her peril. Helpless he watched while the amorphous malevolence spread over her body, in seconds shriveling her flesh atop small bones, her eyes swelling into veiny white screams in the mummified horror of her face. Then the black, thrashing entity devoured her, skeleton and all, and bubbled away like the shadow of vanishing smoke.

The assassin staggered back and clutched his heaving stomach.

For a long moment he chewed on his lip and tasted the tears that rolled onto it. Then he caught his breath and turned to examine Blackthorn. His face lit up. "My lord! You're with me! Hold on, we're getting out of here. I'm going to find help for you. I'll see you through this if we have to travel the length of Sosaria. I'll find the answer!"

Quickly he wrapped the lord in the softness of an ornate rug. Only Blackthorn's face remained exposed. Almost lost in the wastes of blood and dried flesh was the track of a single tear, arcing down from his blood-heavy eyes.

A sound fluttered out of his ruined lips. It was too faint for anyone to hear.

Exedur lifted the nobleman in his arms and hurried to the rooftop entrance of Castle Blackthorn. After a final glance over the city, he stepped inside and slammed shut the door.

The cold morning stillness that followed was heavy and slow moving. It hid memories of a troubled past, and silent dread of the future.

It portended the days and years ahead, a time in which the souls of the land would be tried like never before. It announced the origin of a new world. The stillness, however, was not destined to last.

A cataclysm, of course, is always a beginning.

By Austen Andrews
Copyright © 2000 Electronic Arts, Inc.