The man stepped out lightly onto the beach, looking as if the day had been made solely to match his beauty. He was so perfect that he could have come straight from a Renaissance painting - golden-brown hair curling lightly around his angelic face, and a white cloth chiton wrapping around a muscular figure that would have made any number of sculptors reach for their chisels. The only incongruous note was the bronze of his legs, which almost exactly matched the shield at his side. He gazed around the gorgeous landscape with a carefree smile, when a tinny voice in his ear interrupted him.
"Remember, Brygos, you're not here for the scenery! Find that monster. Who knows what havoc it could be causing?"
"Fear not, machine," said Brygos, "the beast will not escape."
Something caught his eye, and at once he was moving, dashing lightly over the sand, dropping into a crouch when he found what he was looking for - the deep imprints of clawed feet, hauling something from the sea onto the land. The imprints were deep, and clearly fresh, since sand was already starting to fill them in.
Wasting no time, the hunter rose and raced towards the treeline, following the tracks. They became a little harder to follow when he left the sand behind, and he slowed to spot the broken branches and crushed undergrowth that marked his prey's passage.
"This place seems empty of humanity. What do you think could bring the monster here?"
CHE made a sound almost as though it were clearing its throat - the whirring of some of its processors, perhaps, an imitation of life. "I'm not sure. My memory banks hold very little information about this island." The tone of its voice started to imitate that of a professor, lecturing on an interesting and obscure topic. "Hydras are strange creatures. Intelligent and naturally extremely strong, they have a taste for magical energy, and they've been known to hunt artifacts and sites where such energy gathers. If the island is home to such a location, perhaps that-"
A crash from up ahead cut off whatever else the machine might have said. Brygos stopped looking for tracks, and simply ran directly towards the noise, bounding up from the ground and kicking out, bouncing off a tree trunk and up into the branches, where he sprang lightly from treetop to treetop. Moving this way, it took only moments before he saw the source of the noise. The hydra was as enormous as its tracks had hinted, each of its five necks as thick around as Brygos' torso. It was lashing at the trees, tearing several out of the ground altogether. He only understood what it was doing when it paused for a moment, gathered up a couple of tree trunks, and hauled them over to a ravine, hurling them in and snarling when they didn't span the whole gap.
"It's building a bridge," said CHE, in a shocked tone.
"You did say they were clever."
"I did, but I didn't realise...well, this just means that you have to take extra care."
Brygos grinned. "Yes, of course." And he dropped down, landing in a crouch at the edge of the clearing.
Immediately, the hydra whipped its heads around and saw him. Five pairs of eyes narrowed, five sets of jaws opened wide to hiss and show sharp fangs, and the monster moved to attack, with shocking speed. It closed the metres between them, and one of its left-side heads lashed forwards to attack.
It was too slow. Brygos leaped into the air, the monster's teeth closing just short of his feet as he soared upwards. Another head swiped in from the monster’s right, and he slammed his shield against the side of its jaw, throwing himself off to the side and landing lightly.
He laughed aloud, the sound bright in the clear air, and the hydra wheeled around to face him again, snarling, spittle dripping from its fangs. Its necks reared up, fanned out, and five sets of eyes locked onto Brygos'. They narrowed.
"It's a little human. What are you doing here, little human?"
"I'd ask you just the same, my scaly foe. Why are you here?"
A couple of the monster's faces showed broad, unpleasant grins. "You don't know what's on this island? Then I'm not going to tell you." Two grinning mouths shot forwards, one lashing in from each side. He leaped back out of the first one's way, and as the second came down he deflected it with another glancing blow of his shield. Then his flashing legs took him inside the monster's guard, closer to its body. One last thrust forwards and he dived, sliding along the loose dirt and under its belly. As he passed under its foreleg, he lashed out and the edge of his shield cut a deep line into the beast's scaly underside. It roared and screeched, and a clawed foot clumsily lashed down at him - but he was already out the other side, leaping up to his feet and spinning back to face his target with a confident grin.
"You'll need to be faster. Unless you want to tell me what you seek?"
This time when the monster turned towards him, its movements were slower, pained, and its jaws snapped and hissed in rage. "Never." It stepped towards him, one huge, earth-shaking step after another. "Run away, pathetic little human, and perhaps I won't chase you down and eat you."
Brygos grinned, and this time he took the lead, moving forwards and avoiding the first clumsy strike that came down. Another came in from his left, and then all of a sudden there was another mouth - he jammed his shield desperately into it, and huge teeth gripped tightly and tore it out of his grip. Then the centre head darted in and grabbed his waist, hauling him high into the air and letting him land hard on his back.
His head was spinning, vision moving in and out, as the serpentine beast stepped closer. Its tongues tasted the air with malicious glee. "You should have run, human. Poor, weak thing. You had no idea what you faced."
The faces were getting closer, and he could feel its breath on his face, and while he'd faced death before, this seemed more certain than it had ever been. He didn't even have time for much of a prayer. And nevertheless, it seemed like it was answered.
Out of nowhere, a bolt of silver light struck the monster in the chest and flashed into a blinding explosion that sent it stumbling back, roaring at the pain of its wounds. It shook its heads to clear them, then focused on something behind Brygos' shoulder. He tried to turn, but he couldn't move enough, or his saviour was standing too far back.
But he could still hear him:
"Away from him, monster! Be gone from this island! Or do you think you can face the power of the Argent Archer?"
The beast was still clearly dazed, but it was nothing if not resolute, and it lumbered forwards again, straight into another silver shot. This one sparked with energy that crackled along the beast's skin, making it twitch and leaving jagged marks. It hissed in pain, reared up - and suddenly retreated, dashing rapidly back into the cover of the trees.
The Archer stepped forwards, and Brygos finally caught a hazy glimpse of the man - an impression of tall, slender strength. He watched the trees for a moment, guarding against the monster's return, and being apparently satisfied he turned and crouched to take a closer look at Brygos.
"Dear me. That hydra certainly gave you a nasty bite, didn't it?"
"It's nothing that I have not felt before." He tried to grin, but couldn't quite manage anything more than an awful grimace, and as he glanced down he realised how bad it really was. The hydra had only had him for a moment, but its teeth had gouged a line across his whole stomach, as well as scoring some marks on the metal of his legs. He realised that one of his hands had been unconsciously clapped against the wound, and it was drenched in his own blood.
But this could be fixed. "You need not fear for me. I've something here..." He reached out and called up his holo-scroll, the device that would allow him to travel back into the future and have CHE heal him, though hopefully without adding more metal to his body. At first it didn't work, and he scowled, flexed his hand - and it flickered to life. For a moment. The scroll buzzed, stuttered...and failed, blinking out completely.
Brygos was stunned. He tried to stammer something out, to call back the scroll, to do anything to save himself, but blackness was crowding around the edges of his vision and pressing inwards, and he faded into disbelieving unconsciousness.
The man stepped out lightly onto the beach, looking as if the day had been made solely to match his beauty. He was so perfect that he could have come straight from a Renaissance painting - golden-brown hair curling lightly around his angelic face, and a white cloth chiton wrapping around a muscular figure that would have made any number of sculptors reach for their chisels. The only incongruous note was the bronze of his legs, which almost exactly matched the shield at his side. He gazed around the gorgeous landscape with a carefree smile, when a tinny voice in his ear interrupted him.
When he woke, he wasn't sure where he was. He was in a bed that was comfortable, though not luxurious, and the room was dim, lit only by a single faint glow, perhaps from a candle somewhere. He checked himself carefully, running his hands across his stomach, and was stunned at what he found. He’d been expecting crude stitches or a rough bandage over a gaping wound, but instead there was a thin line of scar tracing a crooked path across his skin. How long had he been here?
Light suddenly streamed in as the door opened, and Brygos blinked his eyes against the glare.
“Ah, lovely, you’re awake! I hope you aren’t feeling too dreadful?”
“Much better than I would expect! I feel as though I must have slept for days or weeks.How long is it since we two faced the beast?”
“The hydra, you mean?” The man came into the room and sat down at the table, and Brygos got his first proper look at him. He'd been right to see the slim muscle of his body - though it made him look more like an athlete than a warrior. He was handsome, too, his clothing well-fitted and, while hardy and unadorned, not cheaply made. All this was crowned with a very attractive face - deep, dark brown eyes were framed by dark brown hair, and fine cheekbones led to a beard of the same colour, that hid a pleasantly firm mouth. “Around nine hours, I believe. Night is starting to fall - though I must say, I’m a little unfamiliar with the way time passes here, the days seem to go much more quickly than I’m used to.”
"Nine hours? But in this age no one could heal-"
In the faint light, he caught a glimpse of the man's smile as he pulled an arrow from where it sat on a table in the corner of the room. Its tip glowed faintly, with the warm and soothing light that had suffused the room since Brygos had woken.
"My powers do much more than help me to fight monsters. It was not terribly difficult to get your wound closed up, and after I did that I simply brought you to my home to rest." He placed the arrow back on the table, balanced easily on its nock, and with a gesture turned its light from a faint glow into a torch that forced the shadows from the room, then turned to Brygos with a smile. "And it seems to have done the trick quite nicely."
"Indeed it does." He threw back the bedsheet and rose, stretching the stiffness from his muscles. His scar definitely felt tight, but perhaps given time it might improve, and as far as he could tell, there didn't seem to be any other damage. That was fortunate. His close consideration of his body distracted him enough that he didn’t notice the Archer’s discomfort until the man cleared his throat. Brygos looked up to see him looking away, face flushed.
“I’m sorry, friend,” he said, “sometimes I can forget that others do not think of nakedness in the casual way my people do.”
“Not at all,” said the Archer, “I should have thought of that. Your original clothes were ruined, I’m afraid. Let me, um. I will see if I can find you something, excuse me.”
He bustled over to a wooden wardrobe, opened its doors and pulled out a pair of trousers and a loose doublet.
“I’m afraid that the trousers may be a little tight for you, but they should be better than nothing. I will let you change - join me in the next room when you are dressed.” And he left with uncomfortable haste.
Alone again, Brygos considered his surroundings in the arrow-light. It was a small room with stone walls, and lacking windows. Despite that, it seemed cosy enough. The furniture looked fine and expensive, and what he'd touched was comfortable, as well. Still, it was a peculiar place for someone with wealth and education, such as the Archer seemed to be, to spend their time. No doubt that mystery would be solved sooner or later.
He pulled on the clothing he'd been given. The doublet was fairly straightforward, a flowing garment that was almost familiar. Trousers were another story - though the principle was clear, they were rather tighter-fitting than anything he was used to from his own time, and his metal legs were unyielding against them. He struggled to pull them up and fasten them, tested his movement, and found them uncomfortably binding and restrictive. Still, with any luck he wouldn't be doing any fighting before he returned to the future and found a change of clothes.
With that thought, he remembered his holo-scroll, and pursed his lips. He hadn't heard anything from CHE since he'd woken, which was not a good sign for the scroll. He took a look at the bracer that was its physical component. Outwardly, it seemed fine, the organic metal having healed more quickly than his own body. But that was only part of the problem - if its connection to the future had been broken, it might be impossible to fix. Still, he stretched out a hand and summoned it up.
The results were no better than they had been on the beach. The image of the scroll buzzed into life for a fraction of a second, showed a blank screen, then fizzled out without showing any sign of a link to CHE. Concerning, but there was little he could do about it at this moment. And since he was properly clothed, it might be time to talk with the Archer - at least he could find out a little more about his situation.
He stepped into the next room, and the other man looked up at him from the book he'd been reading and smiled. "Excellent. You look very well in those clothes." He cleared his throat. "I have realised that I was a very poor host to you, in that I have not introduced myself."
Brygos smiled back. "Perhaps, but I have done no better, sir. My name is Brygos, but they also call me Chronoist, as I fight monsters all through time and space, to change humankind's fate."
The Archer met this solemnly, and if he had any doubts about Brygos’ rather extraordinary statement, he was polite enough not to let them show. "Indeed. In that case, the name my parents gave me is Hugh Lowsley, but I am also known, perhaps more widely, as the Argent Archer. I preserve the world, and particularly this island, from mystical threats such as...that hydra."
Brygos didn't miss the hesitation, and its hint that the Archer was telling him only part of the truth, but nor did he waste time dwelling on it. It was fairly clear, after all, that this man could have harmed him if he had wanted to. Let him have his secrets. "If that's your mission, then this meeting was all but impossible for us to miss."
"Quite, quite." The Archer considered that for a moment. "Tell me. I hope that this is not a personal question, but when you were on the beach earlier, there was a moment when you called on something and seemed rather confused when it failed. What was that?"
"That was my holo-scroll. It is the way I travel throughout time, and keep my link into the place I've learned to call my home."
"And it is broken, now?" He frowned. "That is serious."
"Truly it is. My only hope is that if I allow it time, it may absorb ambient chronal power, and be relinked."
“Has that worked in the past? How long might it take?”
“This has never happened to me before. I do not know if it will work at all.”
The Archer pursed his lips and considered that for a long moment. He tapped his fingers on the table, closed his book, and tutted under his breath. Then he looked up at Brygos again, and made up his mind.
“Well then. I don’t know if this will help either, but if we are looking to give your device energy of some kind, I know a place that may help. It is a long way, but you’ve had quite a rest. Are you able to travel?"
Brygos assessed his body. The pain was much less than he would have expected, mere hours after being nearly torn in half, but it was still very much present - a persistent ache in his midsection that nagged at him whenever he moved. On the other hand, he couldn't even be sure he had any way to get back to the future, and if this might help him...
"I'm ready to leave this very moment."
Outside, the air was cooling as the sky purpled into evening. Brygos waited at the door as the Archer gathered his things from the house - although, as he'd now found, 'house' might not have been the right term. 'Cave' would perhaps be more accurate, as it was dug into the side of a small stony hill. It was impressive, in a way, that it was at all pleasant inside.
Hugh came out, with a hood over his shoulders and a quiver at his waist. He was also carrying Brygos' shield, and he passed it over, careful of its sharp edges. "If you do make it home, I imagine you will want to take this with you."
"You're absolutely right, I would indeed." He took it, hefted it comfortably. Strange to think of the travels this simple thing had been through with him, and now it might take no more. They might both be stuck in this unfamiliar time for good. But no use dwelling on that.
Hugh nodded stiffly, and led the way up the hillside. There were no paths or roads, no signs of human habitation at all, and as they walked, the plantlife grew thicker and gathered close around them, blocking out the light of the moon. There was a green, earthy smell, and the sounds of small animals and insects chattering and wriggling, hunting and mating. As they walked, Brygos followed carefully in Hugh's footsteps, and watched him as he moved. It was strange. The Archer didn't seem to be an especially confident person, from what he'd seen of him. The other heroes he'd known had been born to fight, warriors for their country or their family. Defenders of humanity. Just the same as he was, he supposed. In some way, the Argent Archer was different. He wasn't doing this because it was what he wanted to do - and yet, here he was. It was a mystery.
But if he wasn't a warrior, there was certainly at least one circumstance in which he felt confident, and this was it - this place, this island was his natural home. Every step he took was precise and perfect. Once or twice, Brygos even thought he saw the plants shift to give him a better footing, but really that seemed unlikely. He had known a few strange things, but had never known nature to care about what individual humans did - if Gaia existed, she was a very distant goddess.
They had been quietly walking through the darkening forest for around an hour when the Archer stopped. His head tilted, and to Brygos it seemed as if he was almost sniffing the air. He half-turned so that Brygos could see his face.
“We’re coming up on a change in the terrain. It isn’t anything too severe, just a peculiarity of this island. Don’t be alarmed, but do be careful.”
As they resumed walking, Brygos redoubled his focus on Hugh’s movements and the scenery around them, and it wasn’t long before he sensed a change. The first thing he noticed was the smell - a strange mix of ash and ice. Then he started to see light up ahead, mixing with the faint starlight that was filtering down from above. It was a strong glow, but unsteady. It shifted, almost like - he tensed - wildfire. He flicked a glance over to Hugh, but the man seemed as confident as ever, striding forwards on long, strong legs without any hint of concern. An attitude not matched in Brygos - as they came closer, the glow only intensified. It was certainly fire, and in a magnitude he'd never seen. But if the Archer was confident, then so was he. Nobody would call Chronoist a coward!
When they stepped clear of the treeline, it was into crisp white snow. Brygos' eyes took a moment to adjust to the light, and when they did, he was torn between wonder and horror. Stretching before him was an incredible expanse of snow beneath a covering of trees - but where those they'd just left had been leafy and vibrant, these were certainly dead, and they were covered not with leaves, but with a flame that blazed and shimmered, without consuming the trees on which it sat. It was strange, and clearly unnatural. He shot a glance to the Archer, who had paused in his progress. He was standing quite still, just looking out at the flames, and faintly smiling.
"This place is incredible, isn't it? Its environment is constantly shifting and changing, never quite the same twice. And it comes up with the strangest things. The most beautiful."
Looking at Hugh, he found he had to agree.
After another hour or two of walking through the snow under the strange trees, even Chronoist was beginning to feel weary. The soft snow pulled at his every step, and the flickering light overhead made him tense and on edge. Not that there seemed to be much to be wary of - apart from a few small furry things running away from them, they hadn't seen another living thing since passing the snowline.
They hadn't been speaking, either, and so there was no sound apart from their breaths, their footsteps, and the crackling of the unnatural flames. The skin over his healing wound felt sensitive, almost raw in the chill, and the ghostly warmth from the fire did little to help. He almost started to ask how much further it was when he noticed the terrain was levelling out, and knew they had to be getting near to something. In all this time, Hugh had told him nothing about their goal - only that it might have some source of energy. But it seemed like now he might find out more.
Up ahead, the snowy slopes gave way to an isolated peak, and in its side there was a dark, gaping cave.
Brygos frowned. There was something about the cave that seemed strange, unsettling. Dangerous. He had never dealt much with magic, but whatever this was it seemed more than just magic. It was...wrong. It shouldn't exist here.
He glanced over at the Archer, and was not reassured to see him slowing, cautious. He did the same, and raised his shield. The Archer shot him a look, though, and shook his head.
"There's one last obstacle in our way. I must ask you to meet it as gently as you may - if possible, offer no violence."
Then he turned to face away from the cave, opened his arms to show empty hands, and said: "You can come out. We know you're following us."
Chronoist turned, keeping his shield down at his side, and tried to suppress his shock as the hydra came slowly out of the trees, its claws gouging deep footsteps into the snow, all five of its heads hissing with breath that steamed in the air. "How? How did you know?"
The Archer gave an offhand little smile. "I am the guardian of this island - I know everything that it wants me to know, even something as small as the flight of a single bird. I've been aware of your presence since you first stepped onto the shore."
"Then you also know that you cannot stop me." The monster gave a hissing laugh, and even Chronoist had to admit it sounded unnerving, coming from five throats. "I've watched you, humans. I've learned your movements. You may have fought me off before, but you'll never be able to do so again. Get out of my way unless you want me to eat you."
The little smile, half-hidden in his beard, wasn't shaken. "As I am a gentleman, I will warn you again. You cannot hope to beat me, especially not on my own territory, the very seat of my power. But still, if you retreat I will not pursue you."
Chronoist shifted uncomfortably, wary of the monster's power. But it didn't move, and it seemed to be considering its options. One of its heads flexed its jaw, an apparently innocent movement, and suddenly Chronoist was moving - and in the same moment the beast was lunging, shockingly fast in its rush over the rocks and snow, charging at the Archer. He hurled himself forwards, his legs throwing him into the air, and his desperate dive just barely brought him in front of the writhing mass of mouths. The centre head caught his shield in its grip, and another came in to attack him, receiving a metal foot in the teeth for its attempt. He felt one of the fangs shatter under the kick. Another head snaked towards him, but a silver burst of light knocked it back as another of the Archer's arrows hit and exploded. The monster roared in frustration, and Chronoist was hurled aside with a thrash of its neck, turning in the air and landing gracefully, sliding to a stop then rushing back in. The monster was almost on the Archer, two heads lunging forwards, and Chronoist threw himself up high, landed heavily on the thing's back, and before it had a chance to respond, smashed his shield down into a gap between scaly plates at the base of its middle neck.
The thing screeched in pain and its necks thrashed wildly, the ones on the far left and right sides reaching back to try and dislodge him. He kicked the left one hard, smashing more fangs and deflecting its attack, spun to face the other and saw a shining arrow hit it and encase it in ice. In utter rage, the monster smashed that frozen head down towards the Argent Archer, sending him scurrying back, trying to bring his bow to bear on his attacker. Chronoist rammed his shield again into the wound he'd created at its neck, cutting deeper, and again it screeched, and reared up to dislodge its attacker.
In that moment, the Archer found his feet and steadied himself. He raised his bow, took careful aim, and released, sending a shot deep into the thing's chest.
The hydra made one final thrashing attack, trying to take both of its enemies with it in its last moments, and Chronoist leaped from its back, rolling into the snow. He raised his shield, but there was no need - finally, with a roar of fury and hate, the monster died, its body kicking up snow as it fell.
The men both breathed hard, catching their breath, and shared a glance of relief. The Archer was the first to regain his decorum, pulling back to his full height and frowning.
"Thank you, but I wish you hadn't attacked. We might still have resolved things peacefully."
"I truly wish we might, but you are wrong - the monster had decided to attack before I ever moved. I only came to your defence, when it tried to kill you."
Hugh's lips were pursed. "Hmm. Well, perhaps so." Then he let go of his irritation, losing the stiffness in his shoulders, and sighed. "I truly wish this role involved less death. I never asked to become some sort of soldier."
His face was dragged down hard with sorrow, and Brygos was deeply moved. He had long ago become used to fighting monsters to the death, and felt it perfectly moral, as generally their destruction prevented the deaths of others. But clearly that was not how this man had been raised. He stepped closer, and placed a hand warmly on his shoulder.
"That you can show compassion even to those who would destroy you, that is truly to your credit. But I wish you would not so deeply regret your victory. I would rather have you living, than this beast."
Hugh gave him a weak smile, not quite meeting his eyes. "Thank you, Brygos. That's very kind of you, but I will be fine. Let's continue on."
He nodded, looked back at the cave, and almost flinched. It wasn't some tiny gap in a distant peak any more - instead the peak was towering over them, the cave an enormous mouth drawing in its breath to suck and swallow them down. He hefted his shield again, as if it would be any protection against the massive pile of stone.
As they stepped into the darkness of the cave, Hugh once again broke the silence.
"I've brought you here because I hope that it might help you with your problem. The energies it holds are strange, after all - even I do not fully understand them. But I must ask that whatever happens here, you will tell nobody about this place. There are...certain people who would want to exploit its power, if they were able to find it, so secrecy is an important part of keeping it safe."
"I promise not to tell a living soul."
Hugh smiled, just faintly. "Thank you."
And then, turning a corner in the rock - they were there.
The cavern was dark and deep, and it was impossible to tell how large it might have been. Even compared to the tunnel before it, this darkness was incredible. Impenetrable. Then there was a faint purplish flicker, and Brygos realised what he was seeing.
It was a titanic vortex. A swirling mass of black energy, with faint purplish storms flicking over its surface. The sense of otherwordliness was intense now, overpowering. And strangely...tempting. There was something here that called to him, that told him to claim it. To make it a part of himself. Perhaps fortunately, he had no idea how he would even try to do such a thing.
"Try it again. Your...device. See if it will work."
He nodded, and reached out his hand to summon the scroll. It flickered up, and his heart froze as the image stuttered and flickered out. He gritted his teeth. He would not be stuck here, adrift in time! He could not! He gestured again, forcefully, and the image flicked into life, strange symbols whirring across its surface. It shimmered and almost faded, and he focused desperately, his fingers flexed - and the image stabilised, solidified, the strange energy from the rift doing enough to keep it active.
"-there? Repeat transmission: Brygos, if you can hear this message, please respond. Our connection seems to have been disconnected, and-"
"Brygos? Oh my goodness, I was so worried, it's been such a long time, what happened? Are you okay, are you hurt? Wait, let me get a proper lock on you."
"Do not worry CHE, I am just fine. I met someone, he helped and healed me."
"Okay, okay great, here we go." The air split open, a gleaming, shining corridor showing stark against the darkness of the cave, and the men shielded their eyes against the sudden glare. "Alright come on, don't make me hold open the doorway too long."
He turned to Hugh. "I thank you for your aid. I must admit, I'd worried I would never make it home."
The Archer smiled, a little awkwardly. "I'm glad to prove you wrong. I suppose if you are going to be...travelling time, then we are not likely to meet again."
That hadn't occurred to Brygos, but he supposed it wasn't likely. That gave him a surprising amount of pause. He'd hardly had time to meet this man, or to see him fight, and yet he would regret leaving him here. But there was no alternative. He reached a hand forward, and Hugh clasped it firmly. "It seems this is farewell. Well, do take care. When I fight hydras, I will think of you."
The awkward smile quirked. "And the same to you, sir."
"Brygos? Come on, the doorway has to close."
He stepped through the door, turned back, and raised a hand to wave goodbye as it slid shut.
"So who was that?"
Brygos blinked, and it was only partly due to how bright the light was in the compound.
"Come on now, don't be coy. The two of you seemed pretty friendly, for having only been out of contact for less than a day. What happened?"
"I'm not sure what you mean. His name is Hugh, he helped me to survive when all seemed lost. The hydra, during battle, broke my scroll, and he helped me to travel to a place where it could draw on ambient energies and reignite its link to this future."
CHE somehow gave the silent impression of surprise, then: "You were beaten, and he helped you? What is he, a warrior like you? He didn't look it."
"He's strong enough - but no, he's not like me. He has some mystic power, and with it he defends his island from all threats that might wish to steal the wonder at its heart."
"Interesting." CHE whirred, the sound carrying softly down the steel corridors. "I admit, I'm not as knowledgeable about magic as I am about science and technology, but this man seems of some interest. Did you get the rest of his name?"
"He called himself Hugh Lowsley, and told me that others call him the Argent Archer."
"Hmm. Not a familiar title, but I'll see what I can search up. And you should get some rest - after a trial like that, I'm sure you're exhausted."
Brygos made to object that he'd had quite a bit of rest already - then he realised how heavy his body felt, and just nodded, trudging slowly off towards his room.
Another day in the compound, another lonely breakfast of tasteless gruel before another summons to the control room. He rolled his shoulders, releasing their tension as he strode into the large metal-and-concrete chamber. CHE had powered up the main screens, a massive set of displays that dominated one wall of the room. Brygos got straight to the point.
"What mission is it that you send me on?"
"A tricky one." Images flicked up on the screens - giant, bulky figures, each with a single eye in the centre of their face. "There's a clan of cylopes. Normally they aren't much of a problem, since as you probably know already, they aren't usually that clever. Impressively stupid, actually. But this bunch are led by a real monster: Steropes." Another image came up, and this one was noticeably larger, more scarred, and more muscular. An imposing figure indeed. "Not only is he the ugliest of the bunch, he's also the most cunning. Analysis of the time stream shows that if he continues to live, he kills a number of heroes, and ultimately leads a successful attack on a human country, creating a small monster-ruled nation of his own."
"A turning point towards the world we know."
"Quite. If he is not able to make this attack, that alone might alter the timestream significantly. It would be a major victory for our cause." There was a whirring of the portal machines powering up, preparing his doorway into the past.
Brygos smiled easily. "I understand. But still, I don't quite see - why do you say this mission will be hard?"
"Don't get cocky!" The speakers crackled with CHE's irritation. "It won't be as easy as you think. The time window won't open directly at Steropes, so you'll have to fight through his clan, every member of which is much larger and stronger than you. You're experienced enough, but there's a lot of them, and they could easily kill you if you aren't careful. And there's more. For some reason my scans won't focus clearly, but I can detect that there are other humans involved. They might be heroes, they might be innocent bystanders, but whoever they are, the improved timestream hinges on their survival."
"So, not only must I kill the beast, but must also protect these other people?"
An alarm blared, red lights pulsing, as the machine noise rose to a crescendo.
"Yes, and there's no time left to discuss it. The portal is opening - good luck!"
Every step the monster took hit the ground like a hammer, shaking the trees, rumbling in the earth, and rattling the bones of the women standing in front of him. He chuckled, darkly.
"Stupid little humans. Should never have come here - now you die." It emphasised the point by raising its fist, brandishing an enormous club made from most of a tree. It swung once, slowly, taunting, and laughed when the women darted back, then raised it for another swing.
Suddenly there was an opening in the air, and a man leaped down from it with a yell, plunging a bright spear towards the monster's heart.
Somehow, the giant sensed him coming and twisted to the side, and instead of landing a killing blow, the spear only raked a burning line down its side, scraping over its ribs and tearing a ragged roar from its throat.
Despite the deflection, Chronoist landed gracefully, crouching with the spear held to his side. He shot a brief glance at the women. They were strangely dressed, one in a bright red bodysuit, the other in something purple and skin-tight. But most of the people he met throughout time were dressed in ways that seemed peculiar to him. If only he'd had the opportunity to get a little more background from CHE! Never mind that - regrets would hardly help him fight.
"Fear not, ladies! I've come to protect you!"
There was an inelegant snort, and one of the women stepped forward. "Yeah, sure, whatever. Thanks for the distraction. You ready?" This last part confused him, until he realised it wasn't directed his way, but to the other woman. And when she nodded, they flashed into action.
The one who'd spoken went first, moving so quickly that she transformed into a red flash, striking against the monster's legs and throwing it off balance. Before it got the chance to respond, the second woman acted - she cast her hands forward, and gusts of wind materialised, hurling the monster from its feet, its huge head cracking against the ground. The cyclops wasn't done, and tried to heave itself upright with hands near the size of Brygos' torso. That was when the first woman laughed, and yelled "Not so fast!" She raced up its rising body, along its chest to its head, leaped into the air, and landed fist-first, right between its eyes.
It went down with a crash, and lay still.
The woman stood, zipped up to Brygos with that same incredible speed, and flashed him a cocky grin. "You said something about 'protecting' us?"
He nodded with all the grace he could manage - this woman was brash, arrogant, but obviously she had some reason to be.
"I must apologise for my mistake in thinking that you were at any risk. I can see that you are powerful, and hope that you'll permit me to join you in fighting against these impressive monsters."
She frowned, considered him, and flicked a glance to her friend, and as she did so, Brygos got his first proper look at her, and was shocked to realise she was plainly not human - if the bony spines jutting from her arms and legs hadn't told him that, the pinkish purple of her skin would probably have done the trick. "What do you think?"
"I am thinking he is strong and brave. Maybe he can be full of use?"
"Yeah, maybe. Alright, you can join us for a bit."
He bowed his head gratefully. "Then I most truly give my gratitude. I'm glad to have allies in this fight, for I hear Steropes is most dangerous."
"Uh, Stare-oh-who? Listen, buddy, we're just here because the Archer said there was something weird happening on this island, so like..."
Chronoist's eyebrows raised at that, and before he could say anything, there was a rustling in the trees as someone pushed through him, and then a cross voice called out:
"Honestly, Blur, I wish you would listen more and not run off. And did you have to take Tempest with you? I swear-"
The rustling cut off as the Archer pushed his way into the clearing, and so did the speech, when he caught sight of Brygos.
"You?" He sounded astonished, and Brygos couldn't tell whether or not he was pleased. "You, here?"
"Indeed I am, Archer. I've come to help your team to face this vicious monster clan."
"Oh." He blinked. "I see. I'm sorry, clan? I don't-" He seemed to spot the fallen cyclops for the first time, and started back a little. "What the devil is that?"
"Big giant monster," Blur confidently announced. "Tempest and I took it down. You're welcome."
"Goodness." He took a few steps closer. "I've never seen such a thing. I mean, I knew this island had monsters-"
"Dinosaurs aren't monsters, they're basically just big old-fashioned birds," interrupted Blur with a contemptuous eyeroll.
"But surely you have faced worse things than this, at some point in your life as warrior?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly describe myself as a warrior. And no. Most of the things I've faced have been far less, ah, human. Apart from the size of it, this creature could almost be ignored in the heart of London. If it were to disguise its face."
"Perhaps it could. But more importantly, I'm told their leader is more powerful and cunning than any foe that I've faced - and, I suspect, the same is true for you."
Hugh might have said something to that, but Blur didn't give him the chance. "Okay, buddy, you need to cool it. I can tell you think a bunch of yourself, but we're not any kind of pushover. Hugh's got his magic arrows, and my girl Tempest is an alien who can control the weather and do all kinds of crazy lightning stuff. And then there's me, you haven't seen even like a tenth of the crazy stuff I can do. Plus the fact that I'm a time traveller! Yeah, you heard me. Traveller in time. I'm from the distant, future year...of nineteen ninety-nine." She preened and posed.
"Indeed? What a coincidence, for I am a time traveller too, but from your past." The words were said with a neutral tone, but they got their desired effect - she bristled, and gave him an irritated look. "Copycat. Whatever, I was a time traveller first."
Chronoist wasn't entirely sure that claim made any sense, but he didn't speak again, and Hugh interjected: "Well, regardless, it sounds like you know a little more about the situation than we do. What exactly are we facing here?"
He nodded, summoned up his holo-scroll, and gave a brief overview of Steropes. He glossed over the part about the destruction or enslavement of all humankind, instead just letting them believe that this was a powerful, hostile creature that would kill every person he came across. It wasn't really a lie. At worst, it was an omission, and only of the least important elements. There was no point in going on about the importance of the situation - they were here, and that was enough.
That did bring up a question, however.
"I fear it must be asked - why came you here, if you knew not the threat these monsters pose?"
Blur opened her mouth to answer, but instead the Argent Archer cleared his throat. "I sensed the gathering of...certain powers nearby. I thought it likely that certain individuals I have fought before were behind them. Given the presence of these creatures, it seems that I was incorrect - but if they're as dangerous as you say, we have no choice but to assist you in fighting them."
Brygos tried to keep a neutral expression, but he was confused. He'd thought that Hugh would trust him a little more, given how they'd fought together the first time they met. Apparently whatever he was hiding was more important to him than their friendship.
Never mind that. "Then your assistance would be most welcome. While I am only here for Steropes, to reach him may be rather challenging. As the scroll will show you," and he flicked it to display an aerial image of the cyclops camp, "he is building an army of monsters strong as himself. This host will be a barrier to our assault on their abhorrent champion."
Blur shrugged. "Whatever. Pretty sure me and Tempest can take them down by ourselves, you boys can just sit back and watch."
Chronoist pursed his lips and tried not to show his frustration. "Mayhap you are correct, but to be safe I think we ought to go in carefully. We should attack only once we are sure that there is a clear path for our approach."
Hugh nodded. "Quite. They do say that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted, after all."
"Fiiiine." Blur rolled her eyes. "We can do recon or whatever."
"Marvellous." Hugh turned back to Brygos. "You are the most familiar with the situation. What do you recommend?"
He twitched a finger, and the view on the scroll pulled back, showing more of the island and a small blip that marked their location. "As of this moment, we are standing here. If we should head straight up along this pass, that will allow us to come to the camp without facing too many on the way. Blur, of course, may scout and lead us onward, and when we meet foes, we can take them quick. In this way we can fight to best effect." And more importantly, it somewhat avoided exposing any of his new allies to the danger which CHE had warned him about.
"Scouting and leading. You got it." And Blur did as her name suggested, dashing rapidly in the direction of the camp. Hugh turned to the others, and smiled a little wryly.
"Shall we follow?"
Despite Blur's speed, as a group they could only travel as quickly as their slowest members, and since Tempest and the Archer could not maintain more than a normal, steady walk, that meant their progress was taking quite a while. Brygos was almost tempted to dash forwards and leave the others behind. It might have worked, and would have the benefit of keeping those two safely out of the battle - but there was the question of Blur. He was certainly not as quick as her, and perhaps not as strong, so if she wanted to come with him, he would be hard pressed to stop her, and she would be in more danger without the others there to back them up.
No matter how he looked at it, this was the best approach. But that didn't mean he wasn't chafing at their slow progress.
An animal moved in the undergrowth, and when he caught a glimpse of its toothy smile showing through the ferns he almost reached for a weapon, but Hugh raised a hand to forestall him.
"Don't worry. The local creatures here can be dangerous, but the small ones will not attack alone, and the large ones are loud enough that one can hear them approaching from far off. A group like ours should have no problem with either." He frowned a little, but accepted it. This was Hugh's native time, after all, not his own.
Tempest - or Portja, as she'd told him was her real name - was walking ahead while Hugh and Brygos followed together. There was a comfortable silence as they walked together, and it took Brygos' mind back to the first time they had met. It had been a month or two, from his perspective, but he was not sure how long it was for Hugh, and wasn't certain how to ask such a question.
Rather fortunately, it seemed it was on his mind as well. "It has been a rather busy year for me, as I imagine you can see."
"I truly can. Your new allies appear to be most mighty, and you yourself are looking much more confident than before."
"I suppose that I am. There have been a number of threats which I have overcome, and they have forced me to grow into myself." He coughed lightly. "I don't wish to be rude, but you seem...changed as well, since last I saw you. When you fought the hydra, you were bold almost to a fault. Now, you are even advising Blur to be measured and cautious." He smiled, just a little. "Not that I am unhappy to have the backup, in that respect."
"Indeed, you are correct. My attitude has changed, and that from pure necessity. My overseer, CHE, has warned me that I push myself too hard, and take risks which I should not. I have learned to take more care."
"I'm glad to hear it. I would not want to think that my saving your life had been wasted, after all." Hugh suddenly flushed. "I mean - I'm sorry, I simply meant to say that I am happy that you are more cautious, I did not mean to-"
"Your words were taken just as kindly as I know that you intended them to be."
"Thank you." He cleared his throat. "I must have been out of society too long, I am not usually nearly so clumsy in expressing myself."
Whatever Brygos might have said in response was cut off as a flash of red entered the clearing, and resolved itself into the shape of Blur. It looked at them, eyes flicking back and forth, with an aggressive urgency.
"Found sentries. Fighting them now. Come quick." And with those few words, she shivered for a moment, and turned to dust.
Chronoist looked on in horror, but the awful sight had somehow left the Archer and Tempest unmoved. Hugh clapped him hard on the shoulder. "You can move very quickly, yes? Go, run, find the sentries. Tempest and I will follow!"
Confused but willing, he ran. His legs flashed into movement, and the wind rushed past him as he pushed them to their limits. It took only moments before he heard the crashing of the giant monsters ahead, and moments more before he saw them. There were two of the beasts, one with a tree-club, the other empty-handed and flailing with fists alone. And incredibly, between them, the flashing red of Blur.
As he approached, he saw her leap onto the chest of the brawling monster, and rush upwards - and split into two people. One of her continued up onto its face, dodging clumsy fists, while the other leaped off and smashed into the club-wielder, knocking it back before vanishing again into emptiness.
Incredible - and no wonder the others had not seemed shocked at her dissolution, it must have been a trick they were familiar with. But despite her abilities, she was pushing herself hard to fend off these creatures, and she might not stay lucky forever.
He dashed forwards, and reached out an empty hand. Wordlessly, CHE provided what he needed, his burning spear appearing bright and shining and ready as his shield formed on his other arm. He hurled himself along the ground and up into the air, and the staggering cyclops turned just in time to see him start to descend. It raised the club too late, much too late, as the spear came down and buried itself, burning, into its chest. His feet hit hard on the chest of the falling beast, and he wrenched his weapon free, backflipped, and landed just as its body fell back with a heavy crash.
The other monster glanced over for the slightest moment, and Blur capitalised on that distraction, bouncing herself up and kicking its jaw. It smacked a fist down, barely missing her as she bounced away and landed on the ground. She flicked a glance at Chronoist.
"Nice of you to join!"
"You are most welcome - and I in my turn must thank you for your most timely warning."
They scattered as the monster slammed a fist down, and its one-eyed glare locked onto Blur as she rushed away, just as she stumbled on the shockwave rippling through the uneven ground. She fell hard, right front of it. Chronoist's blood ran cold - if she died, who knew what might happen to the timeline. The thing swung a huge arm down, and he dived into its path, shield out, barely in time to block the blow - and not strong enough to fully resist. The monster's might drove him to his knees, which whirred in mechanical protest, and it roared before throwing another immense, crushing strike. The weight of it smashed him down. He couldn't take another hit like that.
Fortunately, he never had to. In the brief moments since his death-defying dive, Blur had risen, and now she was dashing up him, her feet pounding up his back, sending her up, over, and the monster leaned back as the zipped up. She split in mid air, and both versions of her hit the cyclops hard, rocking its head back on its neck, stunning it for a moment. A moment was enough. Chronoist rose sharply, his spear in hand, and leaped with his spear outstretched. It flared, and once again sank deep into a monster's flesh. It roared, flailed...and died.
Blur dropped onto the ground, panting, and a moment later Chronoist did the same. They both knelt there for a few long seconds, just catching their breath.
Then she turned her head, and nodded at him in appreciation.
"Good fight. Thanks."
Tempest and the Archer didn't take much longer to arrive, and were gratifyingly impressed with the size of the monsters when they did. Portja had gone directly to Blur, speaking softly to her and calling her Krystal. When he saw them share a kiss, he realised that he ought to give them what privacy he could, and turned his attention to Hugh, who was giving him a look of concern.
"Are you alright? Are you hurt?"
Brygos shook his head. "I thank you, but I am perfectly well."
"Good. It looks like the sentries gave you both quite a bit of trouble."
"More than a little, that is very true." Hugh still looked worried. "But she and I both managed to defeat our enemies. And now, we're getting near - the cyclops camp should be past the next rise." He stood, carefully, and felt the aches in his body as he did so. Hugh's brow furrowed.
"All the more reason for you to take care. The monsters will wait a minute - let me look at you."
Brygos turned to face him, and spread his arms in an open gesture. He had banished his weapons when the fight had ended, and was left standing in only his sandals and chiton. Hugh stepped in, lowered his head and raised his hands to check Brygos' chest.
"I trained as a lawyer, not a physician, but I should still be able to tell if you need my healing." He prodded a muscle. "Is there any pain there?" Brygos shook his head. He was suddenly aware of Hugh's proximity, the smell of his hair and the warmth of his hands. He couldn't help but think it had been a long time since he'd experienced real companionship. Oh, he'd met people throughout time, here and there, but never for very long. It was a jarring thought to realise that since that fateful day when CHE had found him dying, Hugh was probably the person he'd spent the longest with, and even now that was barely more than a day, all told.
But he had a mission to complete, so he bit down on his feelings and kept quiet as Hugh touched and poked him.
Eventually he seemed satisfied, and he stood tall again. "Well, if you are really this unhurt, then I suppose we're okay to keep moving. Tempest, Blur, is everything alright?"
The women nodded, and Blur said "It'll take more than that to put me out, Hugh, you know that."
"I certainly do. Well, now that we've arrived at last, let us take a look at the enemy."
They'd found the perfect spot to hide among the trees and gaze down at the cyclops camp, and what they saw was not encouraging. The holo-scroll had shown them a little of the camp, but looking over it now, it seemed far more intimidating. The cyclopes had cleared a large, untidy area and filled it with huge tents, firepits and even a few stone buildings.
"They are organised. This is no nest of monsters, it is an army." The Archer sounded horrified, but Chronoist only nodded grimly.
"Indeed. Their order is the true source of their threat to humankind. We stop that here."
"But how can we? There are four of us, and impressively empowered though we may be, the two of you were almost outmatched by a pair of their scouts. It looks as though there could be fifty or more of the things down there."
"We have no need to fight each single one. The true threat is the leader, Steropes - when he is dead, our mission here is done."
"You sure?" said Blur, her scepticism painted blatantly across her face. "Seems like this bunch could do a lot of damage if we just leave them here."
"My friend CHE has examined the timeline, and swears that, should Steropes be destroyed, the other monsters never organise into the legion they'd be with his rule. They argue, fight, and then disband their group."
"So we're going on what, just your word and some guesswork by a future robot? Cool cool cool, that's fantastic."
Tempest rested a hand on Blur's shoulder. "It is not the strangest thing we are ever doing, yes?" At that Blur frowned, but cocked her head. "Guess not. Alright, monster boy, what's the plan?"
He looked again at the camp below. It was hard to discern its organisational structure, if there was such a thing. Tents seemed crowded wherever they would fit. But still- "There. That tent is the most central, it is the heart of the camp, yet the others leave a wide gap around. He must be in there."
"Okay, sure. Doesn't look easy to get there. Not for the rest of you slowpokes, anyway. Ideas?"
Brygos spotted something, just at the edge of the camp, and smiled widely.
"One I think you'll find pleasing indeed."
The pens were constructed out of logs about as thick as Brygos' torso, clumsily carved and shaped to form heavy walls, and looking at the creatures that were held in them, he was glad they were so solidly built. A couple of the smaller ones seemed to scent him as he arrived, perking up their lizardlike snouts and baring sharp teeth, shuffling back and forth on feet that were tipped with daggerlike claws. Meanwhile, an enormous mound of flesh and feathers that lay in another pen rumbled and breathed slowly in its sleep, filling lungs that he could probably fit inside. Although of course it was the mouth and stomach that he really needed to worry about. It snuffled in its sleep, and he caught a glimpse of teeth which looked almost as long as his arm.
Blur appeared beside him, bouncing on her toes and grinning at him. "Big and scary, aren't they?"
"They are impressive beasts, that is the truth."
"Alright, well, you'd better run around and get into position. I can handle this from here, I'll give Portja the signal when they're loose, and you don't want to be around when they get free, do you?"
He certainly did not - dealing with the cyclopes would be difficult enough on its own. Lightly and quickly he sped away, circling around the camp as closely as he dared, getting to his agreed position. And just in time - as he hit his mark, he saw lightning strike down from the clouds, once, twice, three times booming across the clearing and setting fires in the underbrush, and he heard the dinosaurs roar in answer. He could just imagine their panic, rousing them and sending them into a frenzy, hurling them against the other end of their pens only to find that the gates were somehow unfastened. That would lead them to push their way free, running into the camp, and yes, there were the answering shouts from the giants who had discovered their captive creatures were not so captive any more! He crept a little closer, to where he could see the chaos that was erupting, as the milling giants were met with a tide of angry and frightened dinosaurs who expressed their emotions with growling throats and lashing claws. Some cyclopes were rushing towards the noise, knocking down tents as they went, while others stood around in confusion and uncertainty.
Those remaining few were startled into motion by a bellowing voice that cut across the din: "What are you idiots doing? Get out there! Put those things back in their cages!"
Chronoist grinned as, at last, Steropes appeared from his tent. He was even larger in real life than CHE's briefing had suggested, and where the other cyclopes wore skins and loincloths, he had somehow made himself a few pieces of metal armour, including a heavy-looking breastplate, along with an enormous and unwieldy sword. He smiled. Things were starting to look like even more of a challenge!
He waited only a few moments, to allow the last of the other cyclopes to lumber in the direction of the distraction, then burst from his cover and sprinted into the clearing, summoning his shield as he went, then skidding and turning to a graceful stop right in front of the warlord.
For a moment, the monster looked shocked, then that expression twisted into anger. "What's this? Some pathetic human?"
"I have come to conquer you!" continued Chronoist, "Surrender, or you'll surely be destroyed!"
The monster blinked his single eye, then let out an enormous laugh. "Ha ha ha! Oh, human, you have spirit! It will be a pleasure to crush you." And that giant blade swung down.
He dashed aside as the sword smashed into the earth, and hurled himself forwards, leaping up towards the breastplate. An enormous hand smashed into him from the side, fortunately hitting his shield and not his torso, but still hurling him away, sending him tumbling until he got his feet under himself and slid to a stop.
He gritted his teeth and glared, and the monster laughed again as he grabbed his sword, wrenching it heavily from the ground and swinging it back and forth. "Weak. All you humans are the same. Why do you even bother trying?"
Chronoist opened his hand, and with a flicker his spear was back, the light at its head once again growing into a strong, steady flame. It reflected in Steropes' huge eye, and the gleeful expression on his face dimmed a little. He took heavy steps towards the little hero, and brought his sword around, held it ready to strike. Chronoist circled to the left, his quick steps keeping pace with the monster's giant ones. He narrowed his eyes, and waited just a moment as the beast came closer and closer...
An arrow arced high overhead, and he squeezed his eyes shut for just a moment as it suddenly burst into light, a flash that he saw through his eyelids, and the cyclopes roared, blind and angry and afraid. Steropes had clapped his free hand over his eye, and lashed out with his sword in a quick arc that sent Chronoist diving back out of the way. Another blind swing, wider this time, gave him his opening - he darted in and jabbed his spear at the warlord's exposed shoulder, the flaming spearhead marked a red line there on his skin, and he roared again. His hand came away from his eye, and although it blinked hazily, it locked on him, almost glowing with his rage. Knuckles the size of a man's fist whitened on the grip of his sword, but still he kept himself back, his anger straining against his caution.
He shifted one foot, lowered and widened his stance, and raised the sword between him and his small enemy. No more jokes, no more taunts. The sounds of flames, shouting, dinosaurs roaring, all faded into the background as the two warriors locked their gazes.
Both moved in a single instant, weapons lashing out, and the spear was knocked aside by a sweep of the sword. Chronoist held onto it tightly as his enemy let go of his sword for a moment, freeing that enormous right hand to lash out as a backhanded fist, and he twisted in the air, felt the force of it ripple his hair as it passed close by his head. His spear was still pulling him to the right, so he struck out with a foot and as it landed on Steropes' breastplate he struck with his shield, straight at his face. The razor edge of the shield bit deep and carved another red mark, this time up over the monster's eye, sending blood pouring down and blinding him again. He flipped back to the ground and, as Steropes lifted a hand to wipe back the blood, carefully aimed the spear - and thrust it through his throat.
There was an awful burning choking sound, and he wrenched the spear free, letting it vanish back into time as the giant body fell into the dirt.
Suddenly the chaos and noise crowded back into his consciousness, and he turned away from the body to see a vision out of nightmare. As he and Steropes had fought, the fire had spread, and so had the battle between the cyclopes and their former captives. As he watched, one of the larger dinosaurs charged a cyclops, knocked it to the ground and stomped hard on its chest, then continued on its path and ran full speed into the jungle. Another cyclops swung a tree trunk left and right, fending off a group of the little dinosaurs, but failing to notice the one that had circled around to flank him. It leaped onto his head, claws ripping at his skin, and when he dropped his weapon, the others darted forwards and he fell under the weight of their numbers.
Where were his allies? In his desperation to defeat Steropes, he'd almost forgotten about keeping them safe. And, as if he'd summoned her by thought alone, Blur was suddenly there at his side, breathing hard and glaring.
"Fantastic. Let's grab the others and get the hell out of here." She grabbed him by the wrist and suddenly she was moving again and he was half-dragged along in her wake, his legs moving as fast as they could and still not keeping pace. Lightning flashed somewhere ahead, and then they had arrived to find Tempest and the Argent Archer surrounded by enemies and fighting back in a frenzy. The Archer fired two shots that burst into huge translucent silver globes, and the cyclopes that were caught in their glow found themselves slowed, pushing their way through against an impossible force. On the other side of the little circle, Tempest raised her arms, and strong winds buffeted another knot of enemies, knocking them backwards and off-balance. They were fighting incredibly, and the determination on the Archer's face made Chronoist's blood pound, as he loosed another shot that turned a patch of the ground to loose sand, slowing them again as Tempest held them back with her winds and blasts of lightning. But they were losing, the monsters regrouping and gaining ground. He glanced at Blur, and could see the same thought in her mind as she nodded. She ran up to Tempest, said "Go limp!" and grabbed her around the waist. Chronoist mimicked the move - he looped his arm around the Archer, and said "We're finished here, now hold on fast to me."
The Archer loosed one final shot, then dropped an arm around his shoulder, and Chronoist didn't waste another second - he hefted him off the ground and sped away as fast as he could, legs pushing to the limit as they pounded the earth, leaving the fire and chaos of the camp far behind.
When he made it back with Hugh to the lookout where they'd planned their attack, they found Krystal and Portja already arrived, stretching out and watching the destruction unfolding below. Her speed really was very impressive. Before today, he'd thought he was the fastest human he was ever likely to meet, but lately he was learning there were many stranger things - and people - in this world than him. It was an odd thought, but comforting in its way.
He put Hugh gently on the ground, and turned to look out over the camp. The little that was left of it. The flames were still blazing away on one half of the area, while the other half was mostly a smoking wreck. The dinosaurs had all escaped, leaving a trail of bloodied cyclopes stomped into the dirt. Coupled with the death of Steropes, this would guarantee that these cyclopes would never be able to regroup and become an organised threat to humankind. A job well done.
Hugh clapped him firmly on the shoulder, making him almost jump in surprise. "Everything went to plan, then?"
"It certainly seems so." He smiled, and Hugh smiled warmly back. "I must thank you."
He waved a hand, dismissive. "Oh, not at all. After all we were already here - if anything, I ought to be thanking you. Who knows what might have happened, if we had been here and hadn't had your help?"
"You are gracious indeed," he said, and he felt warmth filling him at the praise. He didn't usually stay around long enough for anyone to thank him. Hugh's smile was a soft note contrasting against the sharp edges of his beard and warming his dark eyes. They had a kind look to them, something gentle, unlike those of the warriors he'd known in his earlier life. They drew him in and held him for a long moment. Then suddenly Hugh turned and shook his head, as though clearing it from a mental fog, and coughed. Brygos blinked as well, gathering himself from his distracted state.
"But now I must depart. The work is done, and CHE will want to know that once again we've had success."
Hugh nodded, not meeting his eyes, but staring out over the ruined camp. "Quite. I think that we will leave as well, since there does not seem to be anything left for us here."
"But had you not some quest on this island? You told me you sensed something, what of that?"
"We came here in the first place because there seemed to be some disturbance affecting my island's heart, like ripples meeting the shore, and it is my purpose to defeat dangers which would cause something like that. But nothing that these cyclopes were doing seems likely to cause that sort of disruption. I would have expected to see some sort of magic used in their defence, but they didn't show any capacity for such a thing. And Steropes didn't either, did he?" Brygos shook his head. "No, I didn't think so. It's puzzling. I'd thought perhaps it was from..." He pursed his lips tightly. "Well, clearly not. Never mind."
Again, that secret. "Won't you remain to uncover the truth?"
Hugh shook his head. "Would that I could. Whatever the source of the ripple was, it has dissipated now. That mystery will, I fear, remain unsolved."
The portal opened at Brygos' back, the shining doorway as incongruous as ever against the island's untouched wilderness. He extended a hand to Hugh, who took it carefully but warmly.
"I do not know if we will meet again. And yet, this second meeting gives me hope that we will reunite in our futures."
Hugh coughed. "Yes, quite. The, ah, the same to you." He let go of Brygos' hand. Brygos smiled, turned, and stepped into the doorway, which closed behind him as if it had never been.
A hot breeze ran through the trees, carrying the faintest smell of ash.
Krystal stepped forwards, with a broad grin. "So."
"Well, I mean, you told us about this guy. Told us a few things. But you never told us he was hot."
She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Hugh's raised themselves in response. "I didn't think you cared for such things."
"Oh, I didn't say he was my type. Really not. But he's pretty clearly yours. And I mean, academically, I can see the appeal, you know? Pretty decent shoulders."
"I don't know what you are talking about."
"So what, that long lingering handshake and all those deep gazes, those were just between friends, huh?"
She raised her hands in mock-surrender. "Sure, okay, none of my business anyway. Aren't you taking us home? We've been on this crazy island too long already."
His eyes were narrow and sceptical, but he drew back his bow, released it, and a portal sprung into existence. In contrast to the high-tech one used by Brygos, it was dark, sparking with intricate glowing lines that marked its edges and defined its path. He gestured broadly, and first Krystal stepped into it and disappeared, followed closely by Portja. Finally he took one last look around, stepped in, and let the portal close behind him.
None of them, as they left, had noticed the little presence that lurked in the undergrowth. It was an ugly thing; an eyeball made of shadows and smoke, about the size of a human fist. It watched as the last traces of the portals disappeared, then crept closer for a moment, focusing tightly on the place where the Archer and his friends had vanished. It seemed to search around the area, drifting here and there, looking at nothing that a normal eye could detect but staring very intently as it tracked back and forth. Then suddenly it rose and, perhaps satisfied, hovered back into the darkness under the trees and quickly faded away, leaving not a trace to show it had ever existed.
CHE listened through Brygos' summation of the events on the island with interest, and more than his usual amount of patience. At one or two points in the story his face seemed to flicker, an expression Brygos had learned usually came just before an interjection, but this time he kept silent and waited for the end, and when it came he remained quiet for several long seconds.
"Another meeting with the Argent Archer. And this time he had friends with him. That's very...interesting."
Brygos cocked his head, curious.
"It's strange that the two of you keep meeting. Twice now. Given the way you travel, that's very unlikely, nothing in my simulations accounts for it. I've researched through my data banks after the first time you ran into him, and there's very little information on this Archer - he seems to have kept a low profile, for an individual of such power. But I found a little more detail regarding the island you told me about, and the power he is guarding there." CHE seemed almost hesitant, but Brygos simply waited patiently, confident that the machine would get to its point eventually.
"The energy of that place, it's what is known as Void magic. From what I've been able to determine, it empowers champions - like this Archer, perhaps - to defend itself from being taken over by evil. Every century or two, a new one rises to protect the place, and that's of incredible importance, because the magic has almost unparalleled potential for abuse. It's very powerful, very versatile, but it's also dangerous - if used improperly, it can be deeply harmful to, well, everything. Time, space, minds...anything."
"I see. This magic, then, is the source of your fear?"
"I wouldn't exactly say fear," said CHE defensively. "It's just...there are very few specific, confirmed uses of Void magic that I am aware of. Very few. But I am intimately familiar with one time it has been used; to create me."
Brygos started, and he gave a shocked look at the face that flickered on the viewscreen. "I thought you told me that you didn't know the circumstances surrounding your birth?"
CHE paused for a long, uncomfortable moment. "I don't. For whatever reason, I was made with knowledge of the world and a mission to complete, but very little about myself. I don't know who made me, and I don't really know why. All I've got are inferences and guesses. But examining the powers of this Archer, this Hugh Lowsley, I can tell that his nature and mine are related."
"Are you suggesting what I think you are?"
"It is only a theory, based on the rarity of the ability and a few other little elements. There's no way for me to be sure at this point. But there is a possibility he could be my creator."
He stood there for a moment, stunned.
"Travelling through time was always strange, but never so strange as it has now become. To think that I might have met your father before he ever thought of making you!"
"Well, human minds were never really built to understand the true nature of time. Mine was, of course, and even I find it challenging to figure out some of its stranger loops."
Something in CHE's tone was bothering him. "It seems to me that this revelation is cause rather for joy than for concern. If I were you, and knew not my own birth, my fondest wish would be to find that truth of origin. Why are you so afraid?"
"You and he seem...close."
"I'm not entirely certain what you mean. We work quite well, but have met only twice."
"That's true, but still. There's a bond between you. Not that I pretend to be an expert at human relationships, of course, but you seem to care about each other. And that's fine, that's okay, it's just...it's his power."
"You are avoiding telling me the truth," said Brygos sharply, "you do not wish to say that which you mean. Cease this prevarication, have it out."
"Fine. Fine. Brygos, I'm worried that your closeness will mean you will want to take him with you through time, at some point. You might want to show him your home, or other wonders you have encountered, or...it doesn't matter. That can never happen." A diagram of the Void Heart flashed onto a screen. "If he were to come through one of my portals, it's possible that his power could interact with mine, and link me directly to this opening into the Void. That link through time could do any number of things. It might do nothing, it would probably do nothing, but on the other hand...well, one scenario is that we would just explode." A viewscreen displayed that grim possibility, a giant fireball tinged with purple and black streaks bursting from the hidden compound. "Which you might think is bad enough, but it's not the worst case. No, that's the one where his power winds back on itself, cancelling its own history in favour of a new path. In that case, it would eliminate my - and your - existence from the timeline, making a new one where we never lived. Now, given the things you and I have done together, that would probably mean that the new timeline was locked into the way way it was before we met - monsters ruling, humanity crushed beneath their claws." He paused for a moment. "I feel like that's something we want to avoid."
Brygos looked at the viewscreens, with their dire predictions and scrolling equations. "You say the chance is small?"
CHE whirred. "Less than a hundredth of a percent."
"That's small indeed. But machine, never fear. I simply will not take him through your door. Then there's no risk."
"Alright. Thank you." CHE sighed. "I just wanted to be certain."
"And now you are assured, I will to bed, for this day has been more than long enough."
"Goodnight, Brygos. Sleep well."
It should have been just another day, another mission, but when he woke to the sound of alarms, Brygos knew something very out of the ordinary had happened, and he was dressed and arming himself almost before he was really conscious, rushing to the control room at breakneck speed.
"Good, you made it. There's not much time to explain-"
"Then be brief, machine, what is happening?"
"Something is threatening the timeline. Something related to Void magic. You remember, the source of power for the Argent Archer?"
How could he forget. In the past week since CHE had told him about the danger it posed, during quiet moments between missions, it had kept creeping into his thoughts - that the power wielded by Hugh, a powerful and noble defender of the world, was so dangerous that it might threaten the entire timeline. It was almost beyond comprehension. Words failed him, and he simply nodded.
"It looks as though the magic is...turning in on itself somehow. Clashing with itself. If it were something organic, I'd say it might be an autoimmune problem, but in this case I don't know how I'd describe it."
"And Hugh may be involved? Say he is not!"
"I'm sorry Brygos, but it seems to be coming from his time. One way or another, he's in danger, serious danger."
"Then open up the gate and send me through."
CHE's face on the monitor looked at him, calculating.
"I will. But Brygos, be careful. We've never sent you into something with this little information before. It could be anything. It could be the Archer himself that's causing this problem, do you understand? Can you bring yourself to stop him if it is?"
Brygos stood a moment, though every part of his body and soul was urging him to demand to be sent through immediately, and damn the consequences. He took a deep, thoughtful breath.
"Machine. I know that you have cause to doubt my sense of self preservation. But I do not think that you can suggest I would do any less that my utmost to save our world from destruction, at any hands - even those of one I...count as a friend."
CHE considered him for a moment, while the alarms blared and red lights pulsated urgently on the walls. Then he seemed to come to a decision, and the portal whirred into life.
"Alright, go, good luck. And Brygos?"
He paused just in front of the opening gateway.
"I hope that you can save him."
Brygos nodded, and stepped through.
The doorway opened onto a dark forest, and above the trees, night was falling fast. He scented the air, and recognised the strange mixed smells of Hugh's island - snow and ash, earth and swamp all blending together. No wonder CHE had sensed Void power - perhaps that was all it was, something wrong in the Nexus that was twisting the energy that lay there.
Then he saw a flash, and heard several cracking rumbles, flashes of what looked like lightning except that it was not coming from the sky. It looked close to where he stood, and at once he was moving fast, flickering through the trees, pushing himself hard. He tried not to think about what he might find when he arrived. Just focus. Just run.
The trees were thinning ahead, gaps widening, then he was out into a clearing where moss had spread itself over scattered boulders, and a thin stream ran back and forth across the uneven ground. He bounded up onto one of the larger stones, and from that vantage point, caught another lightning flash, and saw it striking something indistinct and blasting it into dust. The sudden light illuminated a lot of other dark shapes closing in. That, at least, made things simple.
He moved, lightly springing from one stone to the next, his shield appearing a moment before he arrived at the battle, and he swung it hard into one of the vague and shapeless enemies. It went through easily, trailing smoke as it went, and revealing the shapes of bones underneath, surrounding a heart wrapped in green flame. Someone shouted something, something important, but he couldn't understand it - his whole mind was occupied with the spectre in front of him. A skull loomed out of the smoke, as indistinct as the rest of the monster, and on reflex alone he struck out again, his shield slicing it in half.
That had the appropriate effect - the skull crumbled and drifted apart, and the rest of the monster dissipated - except for the heart. Freed of the bones that had caged it, the flames flared up and burst into a violent explosion, and he was hurled back, tumbling and trying to land on his feet. He hit, skidded, and stopped, then looked around to get his bearings, and found himself surrounded by familiar faces. Tempest and the Argent Archer were fighting back against the shadowy attackers, and barely spared him a glance, but Blur gave him a solid glare. "I told you they explode, weren't you listening!? Get up!" She grabbed him and hauled him to his feet, then darted back into the fight. Duplicates split off her, charging into the fray, giving one or two hits, and then vanishing again. None of her individual hits were doing much damage, but the sustained assault seemed to confuse the monsters, making them hesitate and lash out. As he watched, one of them even burst into that green flame, taking a duplicate with it as it dissolved.
Blur zipped back. "Come on, get into the fight! We have to defend Tempest!" Why only Tempest, and not the Archer as well, Chronoist wanted to ask, but she didn't seem interested in a long discussion, instead throwing herself back into the fight. He joined her, legs striking against another of the monsters and letting him bound off before it blasted him. He grinned - now that he knew what he was doing, he felt sure they would win.
Then more enemies drifted out of the darkness, Blur was blasted by an exploding shade, and that new confidence took a hit. Still, he charged in again, and brought up his shield as one of the monsters tried to swipe its claws down his side. He ignored that one, letting it pursue him as he focused on one that was heading towards Tempest and the Archer. It started turning towards him just before he struck it, the sharp edge of his shield slicing through an insubstantial spine. He threw himself into a backwards leap that carried him over the head of the other shade, and shoved it forwards into the dying one just as it exploded. That was more than enough to turn it to dust.
Despite everything he was doing, the horde seemed endless. The Archer was firing again and again, and Blur was keeping a perimeter against the shadows, but it was tightening moment by moment, and before long it would be gone altogether. He dashed back to the others, ready for some final, desperate move.
Then he realised he hadn't been paying attention to Tempest. She'd stopped casting bolts of lightning or little gusts of wind. Instead, she had her arms raised, teeth gritted, and as he watched, the clouds boiling into the dark sky swirled into a huge spiral, circling around where the four heroes stood. The monsters got closer, grinning skulls seeming eager to devour them. He gripped his shield, holding ready. Then Blur zipped back to their sides, and said: "Now."
Lightning struck. Long, thick fingers of it that reached down from the clouds and forced their burning way through each of the skeletal shadows. One after another, the shades shattered, splintering into smoke and shadow and bright red flames that lit up the night for just a second before they were snuffed out.
In the aftermath of those blasts, the island seemed utterly silent and dark.
He stood still, as his vision slowly returned. None of the monsters had survived, and all that was left was faint traces of drifting smoke. He squinted, stepped towards it. The smoke looked unusual - and as he looked closer, he realised what was wrong. The smoke that made up the monsters had a faint, purplish tint - the very same shade he'd seen storming across the Nexus of the Void.
He turned to look at Hugh, incredulous.
"The essence of these creatures is the same as the power I know that you protect. Archer, can this be true? Are you to blame?"
Hugh looked at him, looked deeply into his eyes, and for a moment Brygos could see an almost infinite sadness hiding there. Not a new feeling, no longer burning raw, but one that had been buried a long time, had matured into a deep ache, and now resurfaced.
"Not in the way you mean - but yes, these monsters are here because of the Nexus. And in a way, it is because of me. Come back with me to my home, and I'll explain."
It had been a long time since Brygos had been in Hugh's home, and it was very different now from what he remembered. It seemed as though he had either been able to bring workers to the island to construct it, or, perhaps more likely, he had developed his powers and made it from nothing. The previous version had been barely more than a cave, while this was something like a manor house, elegant and cosy, with high ceilings and wide open rooms that were comfortably furnished, though an arrow theme and the heaviness of its construction pointed at the martial tendencies of its owner.
The four of them gathered in a sitting room around the fireplace, Brygos and Krystal in comfortable chairs, while Portja perched on the edge of a desk and Hugh paced in front of the fire. Brygos desperately wanted to prompt him to begin, to say anything that would clarify his statement about the monsters on the beach, but he could tell how difficult this was. Even Krystal, insensitive as she usually was, was quietly waiting, so he did the same.
And after what felt like an eternity of patience, Hugh gathered himself and spoke.
"I have not wanted to share this with you, because I do not want to share it with anyone, and because of all the people in the world, you are the last whom I would wish to think poorly of me. The very last. But if we are to be fighting these monsters, it is important for you to know why. And more vital still, that you know who we are truly fighting."
For a moment he paused, and seemed lost for words. Brygos wanted to speak, to encourage him somehow to continue, but didn't know what he could say that might help.
"My brother and I were close, growing up. Close in age and close in attitude. We were both intelligent, worldly young men, and when our parents tragically passed away, we were well prepared to take on the demands of our gentlemanly status. I, as planned, went into the law, while my brother spent more time on managing our family estates. He did this adeptly, but it left him much time for his own pursuits, and I regret that I...I kept myself so busy with my work that I did not attend as closely as I might have to what, precisely, those pursuits were."
He fidgeted, adjusted his clothing. "You must understand that it is, in London, currently somewhat fashionable to have a small interest in the occult. There are some who appear to truly believe in its power, and others who do not but simply participate out of some social impulse. There are still others who revile it completely, and when last I was in town it was evident that throwing yourself in with that crowd would isolate you entirely from many people of quality. It is difficult to be so isolated, and perhaps I was therefore too forgiving of my brother's interest. Too willing to dismiss it as merely fashionable.
"Nigel has never been one for half-measures, however. I should have known this. He threw himself into his new passion with a great energy and effort. He purchased strange old volumes, and researched long into the night. When I finally became concerned, I approached him, and tried to dissuade him. But he persuaded me that it was not only harmless, but actually beneficial. He claimed that he was advancing modern natural science by alternate means, that the power he searched for would benefit all humanity.
"I do not know if he believed it, truly. Perhaps he did."
He stopped again, staring into the fire, and for a long moment Brygos was not sure if he would continue. When he did, it was in a soft, low tone that spoke of creeping horror.
"One day, I came home and found him in his study. He had marked arcane symbols into the wooden floor, and was chanting something in a language I had never heard. A language...not of this world.
"I tried to interrupt him, to call him to stop his ritual, but he did not regard me. I tried to reach him, and found my way blocked by an invisible force. In that moment, I knew that it was more than some academic interest - he had been right. There was true occult power in the world, and he had found some that he could call on. But that discovery only filled me with terror and despair.
"Even as I called to him, the room grew dark as if night were concentrating itself within our home. It was thick as smoke - soon I could not even see my hand before my face. I shouted, and my voice was swallowed by that ink-black nothingness. It was not mere dark, but an emptiness, a void not meant for humans to know. Then it started to clear, and the light of candles came back as the darkness fell away. But it was not truly gone - only concentrating itself. That dark power drew into my brother, and he was changed, no longer was he the gentleman I knew. Instead, there was a tall suit of pitch-black armour that towered over me. He looked at me through his mask, and I could feel nothing of brotherly affection in that gaze. It was cold. So cold.
"I recall the sight of his gauntleted hand as he raised it towards me. That dark power gathered again, and I could do nothing but watch as it lashed out towards me. It connected, and I fell into darkness."
Brygos shuddered. He was not unfamiliar with magic, but the sort Hugh described seemed to be utterly vile. And that it would corrupt a good man into a monster was unspeakable.
"I woke hours later to find a doctor standing over me. It seemed that the servants had summoned him after they discovered me lying senseless in my brother's study. I could not explain my state, nor Nigel's absence. I could barely explain anything at all.
"I attempted to return to as much normality as one might hope for under such unpleasant circumstances, to rebuild my life without my brother in it, but it was futile, as rumour and vicious gossip surrounded his disappearance. Despite the fashion, nobody would have believed the truth. People read books of magic, they speak what they claim are spells, but few if any truly recognise the power there, you understand? The police even became involved, and though they could find nothing to suggest foul play, their open involvement shattered my solid-seeming reputation as though it had been glass, and I was forced to withdraw from society entirely. I was ashamed, and I was abandoned. Even many of my servants left to find work that was further from my poisonous scandal.
"That is when I realised there was a call sounding within me.
"You see, ever since the day when I saw my brother change, there had been something inside telling me to leave London. I had ignored it. I had told myself that it was merely a strange reaction to his disappearance, a kind of insanity. But with my removal from society, I had nothing left to distract myself, and I realised it was no madness. It was my destiny. And I had to follow where it led.
"It was not easy to charter a ship to take me to an unknown island. It took a vast quantity of my wealth, but I consoled myself by considering that I might die in the attempt, and then I would have no need of money. The captain found the journey difficult to chart, but the closer we came, the stronger was my call. In the end, I found my way.
"Brygos, the first time we met, you saw the Nexus of the Void. You know its magnificence, and its terror. But I do not think you can imagine my feelings when I walked on that island and was almost escorted to it by the land itself. And I think even you would have been shocked had it spoken to you as it did to me. It did not use words. But I felt it, deep within my heart, where it had been pulling for months. It told me of its power, and its weakness. How it might be used by evil people to dominate the entire world, and more than that, even places beyond which we know nothing of. It offered me the chance to take up arms in its defence. And I knew then that my destiny was to say yes. To seek out and oppose my brother, that Dread Knight, in all his works."
He looked seriously into Brygos' eyes. "No doubt this seems an incredible coincidence to you - that my brother should seek power and use it for evil, and that I should then simply have a similar power granted to me. But understand this: that coincidence is an illusion. The power of the void, the power that calls at the heart of me and allows me to do as I do, is the same that my brother uses. The difference is in how it came to us. Mine was granted, willingly and for a noble purpose. His was torn free with an evil ritual, tainted with greed and blood, taken only with the intent of gaining more power. When Nigel took the power in that way, it dominated his mind and twisted him into the most sinister version of himself imaginable.
"Ever since I was granted this power, my duties have been double - to defend this island and the Void's Nexus, and to seek and stop my brother. He has always sought to find this island, he has hungered to take its power for his own. Now at last the worst has happened. We have defeated his first move, but this was only the slightest trace of his forces. Soon he will come himself. His army will attack in force. And if they defeat us, it will not be long before he has the strength to overpower the world."
The final words of Hugh's speech were still resounding in Brygos' head, even now that so many had come after them. The group had discussed a few of the more prosaic details - that his brother had attacked a few locations of power across the world, and they had defended against them every time. That they now believed that all these attacks had only been feints to draw them out and let him track them to their base on the island. That the first wave of monsters had attacked not long before his arrival, and how they had developed the desperate plan to push Tempest's powers to their limit.
It was overwhelming.
He had to focus on what was simple. Hugh had set out a strategy - he and Portja would stay close to the Nexus, and try to prepare the area as much as they could, while Brygos and Krystal would act as a first line of defence, trying to delay the attackers and break their formation before retreating to meet the others. They would also be sentries, since for some reason Hugh's sense of the island was ineffective in tracking these void-powered creatures. The plan seemed sound enough to Brygos. The only downside was that it involved him standing here, in the dark and cold of a clearing near to the shore, waiting patiently to be attacked.
He heard a rustle and raised his shield, then relaxed when he saw it was Blur, pushing her way lightning-fast through the undergrowth. She glared at him - but he was beginning to realise that sometimes, she glared at people out of a general impatience and frustration with the world, and not because she felt that they had personally wronged her. Though this realisation barely made her less intimidating.
"This is boring. Have you seen anything?" He shook his head, and she scoffed. "Typical. This jerk already attacked us, least he could do is show up to finish the fight."
"Perhaps he means to catch us off our guard by waiting until we lose our focus."
His tone was mild, but she recognised exactly what he was saying; her glare intensified for a second, and she zipped off, then was back moments later. "Well, he hasn't hit us at my spot in the last minute, how about yours? No?" He indicated the emptiness in front of him, nothing but quiet trees and stones, and she made a face. "Exactly."
They stood together in uncomfortable silence for a minute or so, and he realised that he ought to attempt something to relieve her obvious irritation and boredom. Unfortunately, conversation wasn't his strongest suit - he hardly got any practice at it these days. CHE was an undemanding companion in that respect. He cast his thoughts around for some topic, and used the first that came to mind.
"Forgive me if this is too forward, but how did you and Portja become lovers?"
She almost jumped when he broke the silence, and took a second to process the words he'd spoken. "Oh, right. Romance. Well, it wasn't really that complicated. I got to this time by accident, you know? My boss and I were doing an experiment on this freaky crystal from Russia or somewhere. Something went wrong - not my fault - and the crystal gave me a weird electric jolt. I passed out, and woke up in the wrong century with weird superpowers, so it wasn't long before I ran into Hugh. Birds of a feather or whatever. He was the only person to have any sort of idea what I was dealing with, so I stuck with him. Wasn't long before Portja fell out of the sky - and that's a whole story that I'm not even going to go into right now, if you want to know it you can ask her yourself - and joined us too. So then it was the three of us, travelling the world, dealing with whatever. All sorts of stuff, not just this Dread Knight rubbish. What with spending all that time together, we all got pretty close, and I realised that I liked her a lot. She's really smart, and she's probably the nicest out of all of us. Way more than me, that's for sure. One night over dinner I told Portja how great she looks and how cool she is, and the rest is pretty much history."
He smiled. "You make it all sound so very simple."
"Man, relationships aren't that complicated. If you want to be in one then you chase it, and then when you're in it, you work to keep it. Easy."
He thought of Hugh. "I'm not sure if it always works that way..."
Blur glowered at him, clearly knowing exactly what he was thinking, and unwilling to accept any of his doubt or self-pity. "Yeah, it basically is. Look, I'm not saying this because I like you, alright? But you seem like kind of a decent guy, and you're being an idiot. You and Hugh obviously care about each other, but he freaks out every time you show it because he's kind of just built like that, and then you back off because you're confused about what he wants and you're trying to be all respectful or whatever. I'm not saying he's blameless or anything, because he's clearly pretty bad at communicating, but you are not helping yourself. You just need to get it together and tell him what you want, make him give some sort of clear answer, then you can take it from there, okay?" She waved a hand dismissively. "Or whatever, you can keep messing around and die wondering, I guess."
He considered it. She was rude, certainly, brash and a little too honest. But she seemed to be feeling more strongly about this than her words alone would suggest. She'd stopped looking at him, and was glaring into the trees. He lifted a hand for a moment, then thought better of touching her, and just said: "I thank you for your insight, honestly.
And when this current crisis is resolved-"
"You'll what? You'll disappear again? Listen, future boy, your whole life is a crisis. His pretty much is too, and he doesn't even have the excuse that he's skipping straight there, that's just what it's like. If you keep waiting for the perfect moment, it's never going to come." A finger jabbed him hard in the chest as she punctuated her words. "Tell. Him. How. You. Feel. Idiot."
And with that final insult, she dashed back into the trees.
He thought about it. When she said it like that, it seemed simple enough - just tell him. His own feelings were clear, after all. And if they weren't reciprocated, was that really the end of the world?
Then a sudden rustling disrupted his thoughts again, and Blur was back.
"You've another insult to deliver?"
"Hardly. It's time. The enemy's here."
And behind her, dark, smoky spirits began to emerge from the trees.
The monsters drifted up the shadowed hillside, and Chronoist got as good a look as he could in the moonlight. About half were the same shades they'd fought before, drifting along in their shrouds of smoke, but now they were joined by other types - taller, cloaked things with enormous scythes, and heavily-stomping creatures hefting black axes. Every one of them was skeletal, and every one he could see had a burning green heart.
He shot a glance at Blur. "You're quicker. Let the others know that these have landed now, so that they may prepare. I will slow them down as much as I may."
She nodded curtly and vanished into the dark, leaving him alone to face the monsters. He smiled, grimly, and waited for them to approach.
The first among the crowd was one of the Reapers, which raised its scythe in two skeletal arms as it approached, preparing to strike down. He darted forwards as it swung, inside the reach of the clumsy weapon, and thrust his shield up inside its ribcage, smashing and shattering bones with surprising ease. He drew the shield back, ready for another explosion, but nothing came, and he grinned as it dissipated. Intimidating though they might be, at least the new monsters didn't have that particular danger about them. Then a blade sliced through the smoke, and he was back to ducking and weaving away. The axe-blade came down, barely deflecting off his shield, and he reached out with his right hand, using the gesture to call to CHE for a weapon - hopefully one that would be effective against these creatures. He felt an answering weight in that hand, swept it forward and up, and a crackling blue-white blade of energy swept through the monster's armour as though it barely existed.
That axemonster fell to pieces, but the moment it had taken to kill it was enough to give the other creatures time to advance. Skeletal hands reached out for him, grasping at his arms and legs, and he forcefully pulled himself free, retreating a few paces and flicking his sword up in a defensive pose. A couple of the shades glided closer, and he flicked the blade through them, darting back again as they burst into light, but for each of them there were a dozen others still advancing out of the darkness, swarming around him - and past him, heading uphill. He desperately sprinted across the stones, heading off the charge and facing down a trio of reapers, whose weapons eagerly moved to attack him. He ducked the first, severed the second with a swipe of his sword, and cut into the third monster's chest before it even had the chance to adjust its aim. The remaining pair backed away, the still-armed one trying another attack which he dodged, though just barely, before he hammered his shield into its chest, crushing the ribcage inwards. It was still fading into nothingness as he flicked out his sword at the last of the group, cutting straight through its skull and flourishing the blade.
More came, and were cut down. Another axemonster stomped up, hammering its axe down onto his shield, shocking him with its bestial strength. One of the shades capitalised on its ally's success, grasping at his wrist, forcing him to take its arm off with a blow of his shield before kicking out to knock the axemonster off balance. It took half a step backwards, then advanced again, swung again, a horizontal sweep that he ducked underneath, spearing his sword into its chest under the armour. It died, and more of the shades took its place, only to be hacked apart by his sword.
And still the others were advancing, around him, past him. It was a smoky tide, a stormcloud of monstrous enemies, and no matter how many he destroyed there seemed to be more on the way. He gritted his teeth in frustration - and retreated up the hill.
As he crested the ridge, he took one last look backwards at the tidal wave of ghosts. For a moment, it looked as though there might be something back there, a strange light that stood out against the darkness and the monsters' smoking hearts. Then it was gone, swallowed up in the dark, and he turned and kept moving.
When he made it to the plateau, he almost ran straight into Blur coming the other way. She stared at him in confusion and horror. "Shit, you're already back here? How bad is it?"
"I could not hold them back. Nor can I say with confidence how many there may be. Perhaps there is no end to the monsters that our foe may summon from the abyss."
"So: bad." She rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Right. Come on, strategy meeting." Her hand grabbed his arm, and once again he was stumbling and running to try and keep up with her effortless speed. Fortunately, she wasn't taking him far - only a little nearer to the cave entrance, outside which the Archer and Tempest were preparing themselves. She was sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, apparently deep in thought, while whatever he was engaged in was interrupted by his turning to greet Chronoist. He looked as though he'd been lost in thought, only now returning to the present, but as Chronoist approached that expression hardened into grim focus.
"You're here already?"
He would have responded, but Blur cut across him: "Yeah, infinite ghost army, worse than anything we've faced before, blah blah. What's the plan?"
He nodded sharply, and a little of that distraction crept back into his eyes. "Of course. I have prepared the ground as much as I may, while Tempest is preparing her powers. Her work in our earlier skirmish taxed them a great deal, but she says that she may be able to bring them forth again and provide us some support in that way. With this, and you both fighting, we may have a chance against the army. A chance." He shook his head. "But of course they are not the true threat. We must try and locate their leader, and subdue him. Everything else will be for nothing if we cannot."
Chronoist had his doubts, but once again Blur voiced them more sharply than he might have. "Subdue? Okay, look, I know you don't want to hear it, but we're not out to subdue anyone. I know he's your brother and that sucks, okay, but he's too dangerous for us to take it easy on him. If we don't go into this expecting to kill him, we might not get the chance."
"How dare you." Hugh's voice was trembling icy. "How dare you speak to me that way!"
"Pff, 'how dare I.' I dare because you're being an idiot and you're pretending that we can get through this just by hoping really hard and believing in ourselves! Show me that you're taking this seriously, or I'm out, and I'm taking Portja with me!"
Brygos had almost forgotten that the alien woman was there, but hearing her name, she turned her head to face the conversation - though she stayed sitting, and her eyes stayed closed.
"I will not be going."
Krystal flinched, and darted to her girlfriend's side, crouching low. "But babe, he's not going to take this fight seriously. And I don't want you getting hurt because of him!"
"I am knowing he will fight as hard as you. And you do not want to leave our friends to fight this by their selfs. Do you?"
Krystal frowned, glared up at Hugh, and said "No. Argh, fine!" She stood, zipped up to him and waved a finger under his nose. "Alright, I'm staying, but you'd better do this for real! If someone gets hurt because you don't want to fight properly, I am never going to forgive you. Never!"
Without waiting for an answer, she dashed off, taking a point nearer to the forest and pacing back and forth. Hugh looked at her for a long, quiet moment, and then glanced at Brygos. "I am sorry you had to see that."
He didn't know quite how to answer that. "There is no need for an apology."
"Well," Hugh shrugged. "I must confess, this is not the first time she and I have had this disagreement. She feels that, given the danger of my brother's powers, we cannot take any risks. Even the risk of letting him live."
"And I see that you feel differently."
"Perhaps." He stared into the night, and Brygos wondered if he was imagining the hordes of monsters that were, even now, making their inexorable way closer. "Even with everything I have seen, I cannot shake the fact that somewhere behind all of this," and he waved an arm out at the night, "he is still my brother. To kill my own brother out of fear..."
"It would be tragic indeed. But tell me: how would you feel if your merciful act caused harm or death to come to your dear friends?"
Hugh looked at him, miserable, and he instantly regretted his words. "So you think as she does. You think I should kill him."
"I am not saying that. All I will say is that you should consider all the risks. You worry about facing your regret if you kill him without giving the chance for repentance. Blur wonders what he might do if you treat him in this honourable manner. Neither perspective is wrong, and it speaks well of your character that you would wish to show him mercy if you can. I will respect you whatever you choose. But I would beg you, when you make that choice, to think of your friends here, as much as of the brother you may already have lost."
Hugh was still staring into the darkness, and his expression was full of inexpressible sadness. He ran his hand underneath his eye, wiping away an invisible tear. But when he spoke, his voice was once again level.
"You are right, of course. If I had my choice, I would risk nobody at all. But it seems that choice is denied me. I must risk harm to someone, and since I must, I ought to choose with care..."
There was a sudden flash from the other side of the plateau, hemispheres of silver light clashing with deep green as the defences which the Archer had laid down began to activate. He and Chronoist shared a glance, but there was no more that needed to be said - so without a word, they advanced to join the fight.
Each time one of the shades crossed into the silver glow it burst into flame and collapsed, and even the stronger spirits seemed to find it difficult or painful to push through. One of the axemonsters reached the other side, and was instantly hurled backwards by one of Blur's duplicates, a final blow which was more than it could handle - like so many of its companions, it turned to dust.
Blur glanced back over her shoulder as Chronoist approached, with the Archer trailing some distance behind him, and smiled. "Nice of you boys to join the party!"
"I'm sure you never thought we'd leave all this glorious battle for your fists alone?" And he swept his sword through another monster, despite its attempt to block with its scythe. This new sword was wonderful - lighter than the xiphos he was familiar with, but certainly no less powerful for that. He whirled it around, and it cut easily into the next, and the next after that, splitting their spectral skulls and letting their dust drift away on the breeze. They were as endless as they had been, but the defences were keeping them controlled, as the weaker ones were still being destroyed and the stronger were slowed enough to be manageable. A glowing arrow sliced through a monster's skull, and Chronoist grinned, feeling confident again that they might win this.
Then the glowing hemisphere flickered, shone brighter than ever - and faded, died.
The spirits reacted immediately to the removal of the barrier, surging forwards over the open ground. Chronoist brought up his shield, deflecting an axe strike and then severing a grasping hand, but backing away against the tide of enemies, and from the corner of his eye he could see Blur doing the same, striking again and again, splitting off duplicate after duplicate, but inexorably falling back. Arrows streaked over his shoulder, spearing a few monsters, and then one of them burst again into a silvery orb, and the Archer shouted: "That will hold them, but not for long! Back, towards the cave!"
The three of them fell into a fighting retreat, with the Archer in front, Chronoist guarding his back every time something got too close, and Blur defending both of them with her greater speed. He risked a look over his shoulder, immediately wished he hadn't. All across the edge of the plateau the glow of their defences was flaring and fading out. The approaching army made no sound, they couldn't be seen against the night, but he could imagine them out there. Drifting inexorably through whatever was put in their way. Unstoppable. Irresistible. An endless horde.
He turned back, gritting his teeth. If he had to die today, it would not be as a coward. It would be the death of a warrior.
By the time they made it back to Tempest, the Argent Archer was breathing hard, great heavy breaths tearing up from his lungs, while Chronoist and Blur were doing only a little better. Tempest, of course, looked as well as she had when they'd left her, still sitting cross-legged, meditating and focusing her mind.
Blur crouched beside her. "Babe? Tempest? The bad guys are coming. If you can do anything, now's the time."
She didn't open her eyes, just nodded, and somewhere out in the dark sky, thunder rolled. Her eyes opened and she smiled, almost without a care, as soft rain started to fall. It fell on the stones and on the grass, and a scent started to rise. The smell of earth. Life. Brygos wondered, faintly, what season it was here - it smelled as if it might be spring.
Well, if Tempest did nothing else, she'd raised his spirits, and he smiled as he watched Blur heave her to her feet. Then he turned, to face the approaching darkness.
There was very little light, most of it cast by a few arrows which the Archer had set around them, but it was enough to illuminate their enemies. There was no formation that Chronoist could discern - the ordinary shades were dominant, but the axemonsters and reapers were scattered through in no discernible order, along with a few stranger creatures he hadn't noticed before - a number of large, crawling, misshapen things, and eyes that hovered above, silently watching the scene unfold. They all moved together now, even the quicker monsters among them keeping an even pace with the rest as they approached the little group, and the cave they guarded.
They came closer and closer, and Chronoist hefted his weapons, but the Archer held up a hand - not yet. So he held himself there, ready, waiting.
They got nearer. Still nothing.
They got nearer. He could have seen the whites of their eyes, if they had had eyeballs.
They got nearer. The Archer's hand was still up.
They seemed so close.
"Tempest?" said the Archer. "Once again, if you please."
The sky tore apart, blazing blue-white tendrils of lightning reaching down, flickering across the ground, digging furrows into the earth and tearing countless monsters apart. There was explosion after explosion as the shades were hit, their red flame a sharp contrast against the pounding electrical discharges that rumbled and roared through them, cutting their army into pieces, shredding them. The noise and light seemed to go on forever, and Chronoist turned away and shut his eyes against it, unable to bear the brightness, and even then he could almost see it through his eyelids. He almost thought he heard shrieking from the ghostly things as the incredible power tore them apart.
There was one last rumble, and finally the noise and light came to an end, and he turned back to face the enemy.
What little was left of them.
Gutted by the shields and the lightning, the infinite army had become just a few, scattered remnants, disconnected and drifting around a scarred landscape. A couple of the closer reapers made a dash for them, and Blur sprinted towards them, smashing them to pieces with a laugh. She split again and again, and each version of her showed obvious delight in finding groups of shades and tearing them apart, fists and feet shattering ghostly essence. At last she bounced back, and Chronoist could see the joyful, savage smile on her face. "Nice work, babe! You got them!" And Tempest collapsed, her stamina exhausted and purpose fulfilled, into her grateful arms.
But the Archer shook his head, and he wasn't smiling. "It's not over yet. Not nearly." He raised a hand. "Look, out there."
Chronoist stared into the darkness, and when he realised what he was looking at he almost recoiled. The army had been made to overwhelm with numbers, and it had been a threat like he'd never seen. But this...
It was one single warrior. Yet the danger he felt, the evil and passion for death that emanated from this figure, was more intense than ever. This, then, was the Dread Knight - a man wrapped in armour the colour of night, with an enormous black claymore gripped in his left hand. He glanced back at the Archer, and even in this strange half-light, he could see the colour had drained out of his face.
"Hugh? Archer?" he said, but there was no answer. "Please. This man is our true foe. Do not surrender now because you loved the person he once was. You have to fight!"
The Archer blinked, and nodded, a little too sharply. "Yes. Of course." He pulled himself up, and prepared a shot. "Be ready, when I fire."
When the arrow was released, Chronoist was only a step behind it, racing towards the dark, imposing figure. The distance closed fast, and he was near enough to see the intricacy of his breastplate and the designs of his helmet when he the arrow reached its target.
He'd been expecting some show of the Archer's magic, something to harm or delay the monstrous man. And perhaps that would have happened - if it had hit. Instead, the man simply reached up, and took the arrow from the air as easily as if it were a pomegranate he were pulling from a branch. He regarded it through his mask, and then effortlessly snapped it in half and threw the broken pieces aside.
Chronoist was too close now to change course or his mind, his headlong charge was taking him towards the armoured man over the stony ground. His sword came up, forwards, striking to the heart, and suddenly that black claymore met it and knocked it aside. His momentum carried him past, his speed kept him just out of the returning sweep of that sword, and he turned fast, skidding a little on the damp earth and raising his shield just in time to catch a heavy blow from that sword. The weight of it bent him down, one knee hit the dirt, but he swept his own blade up to hold it with his shield, wrenched it aside and rose sharply, one metal foot snapping out towards that dark helmet. The Knight weaved aside, inhumanly quick, pulled his sword away with the left hand and jabbed out with the right. For a moment, Chronoist thought that he'd dodged the blow.
The next moment something dark and indistinct hit him hard and hurled him up and back, tumbling and crashing against what felt like every rock on the plateau. He stopped finally, lying on his back, coughed once, and spat blood on the ground. Everything hurt except his legs - and those he only hoped were undamaged. He tried to look, but when he moved his vision went red.
He turned his head as much as he could bear, trying to see what was going on. The Knight was walking forwards, ignoring him, heading straight towards the cave. Arrows came streaming towards him, and he knocked each one aside with that sword, a flurry of movement that Chronoist could barely follow with his eyes. But he did manage to see the arrow that was fired straight up, overhead, to burst into a second moon. The Knight shielded his eyes against the sudden light, and Blur struck. Four of her darted in from all sides, one striking at his eyeslits while another rammed both feet into his knee. Again and again she hit, pummelling weak point after weak point, and incredibly, it looked as though she might drive him back. An arrow even made it past her assault, hitting that dark armour, scarring a line into its surface. He stumbled one step, then another, he was off-balance, he looked as if he might fall-
Chronoist tried to yell when he saw the danger, to warn her, but all that came out was a croak. One of the duplicates moved in to strike at the Knight's side and suddenly he shifted his weight, gripped his sword tightly, and as she jabbed another punch at his face - he caught her fist. That gauntlet gripped tightly and hauled her around in front of him, pulled her up as though she were weightless, as though her struggles against his strength meant nothing. He raised his sword, readied it, and thrust.
There was an agonised scream, and then she and the other duplicates crumbled away, leaving only the real Blur remaining - and even she was half-collapsed, clutching a hand to her chest where the sword had cut through her double. The Dread Knight advanced on her slowly, swinging his sword once again up to the ready.
A silver arrow streaked in, and the sword flicked again, batting it back at the Archer before it burst into stunning light, making him stagger back and cover his eyes.
He couldn't just lie here. Not when someone was in danger. He clenched a fist, and that small movement gave him the strength of will that he needed. Rolling onto his front he pushed himself up - it was agonisingly slow, but he got his feet under him, and he still had his weapons, and he was moving again. The monstrous man was standing over her now, too close. Would he make it in time? The sword came up, he was too far away - then Tempest, almost immobile and half-collapsed on the ground herself, cried out and blasted one last spark of lightning. Nothing like the immense show from earlier, this was a tiny shock that nevertheless hit the man's armour and made his body twist, stunning him for just long enough that Chronoist could make it to him, finally close enough to lash out with his energy sword. That weapon, which had so easily torn through ghostly armour, only slashed across the surface of the dark metal, leaving a long furrow but drawing no blood. It did, however, call the man's attention, and once again his hand came up, snapped out.
He'd expected to feel another crashing blow, so he was surprised when the attack came from behind. He tried to twist and face it - and found that he couldn't. Already, something was locking around his wrists, his ankles, and growing heavier, while another heavy metallic band wrapped around his mouth, and in his moment of shock he saw the same was happening to Tempest and Blur, dark chains forming around their limbs and bearing them down, immobile.
The Knight loomed over him, saw his weakness - and the man laughed. And for the first time, he spoke.
"Your allies are useless to you, brother. Face me yourself. Or are you too afraid?"
The Archer stepped forwards, eyes clear again, his bow raised and ready. "Never afraid of you. But I know what you've given your soul to, and I cannot let you through. Surrender. Please."
That laugh, again. It was a rich, warm laugh. In another life, perhaps another world, Brygos could imagine that this man might have turned out very differently. A gentler sort of man - perhaps he could even have been as noble as Hugh. But whatever he could have been, he had turned away from that, and so Chronoist tried to turn his head, to catch the Archer's gaze, to warn him not to let his guard down.
"I will never surrender. But perhaps, if you get out of my way, I would have no reason to kill you and your friends." The sword came up, pointing lazily towards Chronoist. "This one, for example. He seems important to you." He saw the Archer's eyes flick towards him, and the depth of emotion that flickered across it made him thrill with a strange joy for a moment, before terror and dread drowned it. This wasn't the time for the Archer to let fear rule him, for him or anyone else.
But agonisingly, his bow began to lower, aim dropping towards the ground, and that dark figure stepped forwards. "Come, then. This way."
Chronoist wanted to shout, to say anything, to tell him not to give in, but his voice wasn't any more free than his limbs were. In mad frustration his eyes flicked back and forth, looking for anything that might free him, and from the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something incongruous - an arrow, almost completely hidden in the grass, lying there with its point in the air. The tip was very faintly glowing. He flicked his eyes to the right, and there was another, and another. A set of hidden markers, describing a small circle which, lured by his brother's apparent surrender, the Knight was stepping towards.
He took the final step, over that invisible line, and instantly the trap closed. The circle came to life as a silver line snapped around its edge, and suddenly the Knight screamed and fell to one knee. He tried to rise, pull himself forward, but his darkness was boiling off him - that armour, that had moments ago seemed so impenetrable, was boiling. It bubbled away, bursting into smoke that flooded into the air, a pillar that poured into the sky, a cloud that spread and joined into those swirling above.
Finally the noise stopped, the smoke cleared, and where the Dread Knight had stood, there was a man. Rising from the ground, naked but unafraid, a strong and handsome man with some of Hugh's appearance, but darker hair and perhaps a little more height. He stood there, chest heaving, staring out at the Archer, who was looking back almost stunned, seeing his brother's real face for the first time in years.
"Of course." His voice was rich and calm, even soothing. Hugh's, by contrast, was barely holding back a tide of emotion, and shaking with the effort:
"It's so good to see you. To really see you, without your armour."
"And you, brother. Now tell me, what is this you've done?"
Hugh nodded. "Ah, yes. I'm sorry, Nigel, I set up a trap for you. This circle cuts you off from your powers. I thought it might be the only way that we could have a proper conversation."
"A conversation." That smooth voice was flat and nearly expressionless.
"Uhm, yes, exactly. Because I think your powers may have been affecting you. You were always such a good man, Nigel, but when you started looking into this magic, you changed. It changed you. Now look at what you've done!" He gestured at Tempest, Blur, Chronoist, all still restrained, barely even able to struggle against their chains. "Is this who you wanted to be? Some monstrous warlord?"
"Is that what you think of me?"
Hugh almost flinched. "What do you mean?"
"Oh come now, little brother. You know me, you know who I am. I don't believe I have ever been a rash person. Do you really think I would make such a mess without a reason?"
"Reason? What reason could possibly justify all you've done! You've attacked the world again and again just to find this place!"
"Exactly. This place. You know what is in that cave, don't you?" He gestured behind Hugh, at the dark mouth that, once again, seemed like it was swelling and rising over everything before it. "Not some little artifact. Not a source of spells for second-rate magic-workers," and the words were barbed as he spat them, "but real, limitless power. Power that is ripe to be taken."
"It has to be protected! Nigel, please, humanity is not meant to take something like this for themselves!"
"Oh, grow up, brother." He stood strong, hands clasped behind his back, confident and commanding. "It doesn't matter what we're meant to do. All that matters is what we are able to do. And if we don't take this, then our enemies will." The voice dropped lower, almost gloating. "Do you know what's out there, Hugh? The things that want this world? I do. I've seen them. There are infinite horrors out there, waiting to swarm our world, and if I don't take this power from you then one of them will do it." Hugh had flinched back, horrified, and in that moment Chronoist glanced back at Nigel - and saw what he was hiding. Behind his back, concealed against his arm, something dark was growing. Somehow, he'd regained a shred of his power, and it was forming into a long, black-bladed dagger that came to a wicked point. And the man was stepping forwards.
The chains were sapping his strength and blocking his mouth, but they hadn't taken away his will. He thrashed against them, and when Hugh glanced his way, he flicked his eyes at Nigel's back. Don't trust him, look out!
Perhaps it could have worked. If he'd noticed sooner, if he'd been able to speak, if, if, if. Instead, Nigel took one last step - and lunged. That knife whipped out, his unnatural speed returned, and he slashed out at his brother, one single stroke. There was a grunt of pain.
Then Nigel dropped to his knees again, and the chains holding Chronoist down were gone. He rushed over, and saw the arrow that was lodged deep in the former Knight's chest. He was holding it with one hand, his expression one of confusion as he let the dagger drop and disappear. He looked up at Hugh, and his mouth opened, but whatever he might have said was swallowed up as the arrow began to burn. The flame burned all the way along the shaft, and cracks of that fire spread all across his body. He didn't cry out, didn't even show any pain. His face dulled and smoothed into something like peace. Then the fire spread, consumed, and his body turned to ash, crumbled, collapsed.
Brygos looked to Hugh, and was just in time to catch him as he, too, began to fall. He cradled him, lay him back, and suddenly found himself staring in horror as a growing redness spread itself across his silver doublet.
"Ladies!" he shouted. "He's hurt! Please, come, give me your aid!"
Portja was the first there, Krystal turning up moments later, both poised at Hugh's side, both seeming just as confused as Brygos about what could be done. He looked at Hugh's face, which was growing paler by the second. "Come, Hugh, you healed me the first time we met. Don't tell me that you cannot do that now?"
Hugh lifted a hand, a silver glow gathered, and Brygos dared to hope. For a second. Then the glow vanished as Hugh coughed, a deep, painful noise. "I cannot. My power is too spent, and I am too weak to force it any further. I fear this may be my final hour."
Krystal slapped him across the face, hard enough to leave red marks. "Don't you say that! After all that we've been through, you're going to give up like this? Pathetic! Pull yourself together!"
His head had been rocked a little aside, but he turned it towards her again. "Krystal. I'm sorry to leave you without a guide in this world. I know that's terribly rude of me. But I've seen the way you and Portja rely on each other, and I believe-" another cough cut him off. He grimaced, painfully, tearing into Brygos' heart.
"Don't - gorgeous man, your life is not yet done. You cannot die, not now, not when there's so much left to do. You've a life to live, and foes to slay - please, I beg you. Don't leave me."
Hugh smiled up, faintly. "Poetic. But I've done what I had to. My brother is...gone. The world is safe from his greed for power. If I have to die..." he coughed, and a little red stained his lips, "then it was worth it."
He closed his eyes, and his chest was barely moving with each slight breath. But Brygos wasn't done. His lips were in a firm line, his eyes were hard, and when he spoke it was shockingly smooth, despite the feeling of trembling under his throat that threatened to rise and overwhelm him.
"Machine. CHE, did you hear?"
A light hum, and then: "I did."
"I owe this man my life - you owe him, too. We cannot let him die here, after all that he has done."
"You know I can't do anything! It's too dangerous. If I were to bring him through time, the risks...not even I can tell what would happen with any real confidence."
CHE's words were reasonable. And unacceptable. "If you refuse to help him, be aware: I'll fight for you no longer, nevermore. I'll cease to be your loyal soldier, and the future that you fear will come to pass."
CHE was silent for a long moment.
"Brygos. Please. You have to realise how dangerous it could be. If I pull him through my doorway, with power like he has, it could endanger all that we've worked for. We've come so far, built so much! You have to leave him. Brygos, you have to let him die."
Brygos stood still, felt wet tears flowing over his cheeks. He didn't dare speak, just shook his head. Wind blew over the trees, and the smells of the island drifted past, the rich scent of living wood blending with distant snow and ash, all mixed with the scent of the rain that was still softly falling. He crouched down at Hugh's side. The man's chest was almost still, now, the beautiful soft breeze barely making a difference, and the blood that flowed there seemed to be slowing.
He raised a hand to Hugh's face, gentle as he could be.
"I cannot. CHE, I cannot. I would give all that I am, all that I've done, if it might save him from this fate. I would risk that to give him even but a single day."
CHE's metallic voice sounded again in his ear, softer now.
"You really care about him that much?"
"I do," his voice caught, "I love him more than anything. I cannot bear to lose him in this way."
A door opened, a metal pathway into the future. "Then bring him. Quickly."
Brygos picked up the fallen archer, carefully, gently, and carried him into the doorway as it smoothly closed behind. In the last second, he looked over his shoulder, to see Portja and Krystal standing together, watching them disappear, their faces full of sorrow and hope.
The medical room within CHE's complex had hardly been made with comfort in mind. It was large enough, and there were a few patches of fabric softening its edges, gentle yellow lighting avoiding a harsh, hospital tone. There was even a chair by the bed. But it was still a brutally functional room within a rather Spartan complex, and it felt like it. Brygos, however, had put comfort aside. That wasn't his concern. Nor, despite CHE's urging, were food or water, and only when flatly ordered did he bother cleaning himself of the blood and dirt he'd gathered during the fight - something he'd accomplished as quickly as possible, before dressing again and returning to that bedside.
The surgery itself had not taken long. That shadow-blade had gone deep, cut harshly, but also cleanly, and CHE told him that the wound had been comparatively easy to deal with for that reason. But now, Hugh's abused body had to heal itself, and even with the help CHE could give, that was taking its time.
So he stayed.
He kept silent for much of the time, lost in thought, staring at Hugh's face. How little, he thought, how little I really know of the world. He had been familiar enough with his own time - or at least, the small area of it that he had travelled around. He realised now how little that part truly was. But even now, with the expansion of his horizons, he had only hopped in and out of time, as though crossing a stream. He had been a stranger everywhere, and a true citizen of nowhere. Not even this time could honestly be called his home.
But what else could he do? Could he find a time and place that suited him, settle there, have some sort of a normal life? CHE had made it clear that his duty was too important. Well, then, did that mean that this would be his life forever, always jumping through time, always another battle, and only CHE to share his story? The thought had never bothered him before, but now it seemed painful. Now he felt the lack of others beside him. Others like Hugh - and Portja, and yes, even Krystal, sharp and unkind though she was. What had changed? Why did this idea seem so much more awful than it ever had before?
Hugh took a deep breath, his slender chest rising and falling under tight bandages. Instantly, Brygos put his thoughts aside, and watched as his brow furrowed, eyelids began to shiver and then, ever so slowly, his eyes opened. He looked around, bleary and unfocused in the soft light, until at last he found Brygos' face and focused in.
"Brygos? Is that you? Where are we?"
"It is me, my friend, I've brought you into the future, so that we might have the chance to heal the grievous wounds you had been dealt."
Hugh raised a hand to his chest, running fingers along the bandages there. "I see. And was it you who healed me, or..."
"Actually, that was me." CHE's face appeared on a panel at the side of the room, that pale blue vague-featured head floating in a digital void. "You had some pretty severe injuries, but fortunately Brygos brought you here, and we were able to fix everything up." Brygos noted that, delicately, he had not mentioned their argument about whether they could save him in the first place.
"I see. Thank you, then. Thank you both. And, Brygos..." He paused for a long moment, before looking into his eyes. "I am sorry for dismissing your wish to save me. I thought I was already dead, and I was perhaps too willing to accept that. I owe you my life."
CHE looked uncomfortable for a moment - if he had been a human, he might have coughed and excused himself - before his image on the screen simply faded away, giving the pair some privacy.
"You owe me nothing, truly. All I did was what, as one I'd fought beside, I ought to do for you. We need not talk of debt."
"Is that who I am to you, then? A fellow warrior?" Hugh's brow furrowed, a little. "It's strange. When I was dying, there on the island, I thought I heard you say something else about your feelings." He coughed suddenly, and his hand clapped hard against his chest as though it could hold his lungs together. Brygos' hand was barely slower, pressing against Hugh's. Their two hands rested there together, and their eyes locked. Brygos swallowed, heavily.
"I ought to get you home, now that you're well. The ladies surely want to know you live."
"They will be alright for a little while. And I'm sure that CHE can drop us off just after we left, in any case." Hugh didn't break eye contact. His eyes were so dark, so deep, Brygos had never seen anything like them. He felt a heat rising, and something choking his throat. How could he say anything now, with Hugh so vulnerable, so weak?
Then he had the sudden thought of how Krystal might react if he didn't say anything, and that gave him the strength he needed.
"It's far from easy to put into words the way I feel towards you, for it's such a mix that I hardly know where to start. I do think of you as a friend, and one I've been both proud to know, and glad to have with me in facing down our mighty foes. I feel a deep respect for you, as well, because I've seen the kind of man you are. You've shown your strength, your mercy many times. And I would never wish to break our bond - I value your friendship so deeply. But..."
He paused, and Hugh prompted: "But?"
"That is not all I feel. In the short times we've spent together, I have come to know a love for you that's deep and passionate. If that is not a feeling you return, I would be happy to remain your friend. But you are right: it's best to speak this truth."
The words were out, and it felt as though he'd climbed a mountain - he was exhausted, breathless. And that tightness in his throat was back, as he waited to hear what Hugh would say in response.
At first, that was nothing - he was quiet, for what felt like a long time, although in reality it might not even have been a minute. But at last, he opened his mouth.
"Some people of my acquaintance would tell you I do not handle my feelings well. Even that I tend to shy away from them. And perhaps this is true. But I do not want to avoid these feelings any more." His heart was beating like a hammer on his ribs as Hugh looked at him with those beautiful eyes. "The truth is, I feel as strongly towards you as you've just told me you feel for me. The truth is, I have felt this way almost since I met you that first day on the beach. The truth is-" and for a moment words seemed to fail him, and instead he reached up an arm to slide his fingers into Brygos' curling hair. Those fingers, slender and still a little weak, nevertheless pulled him down irresistibly into a soft, deep kiss. His eyes closed, and he leaned into it, bracing himself with an arm against the bed. Lips parted and his tongue brushed out, tasting the sweetness of that gorgeous mouth, and Hugh's responded by flicking lightly over his teeth. Hugh's fingers were tangling in his hair and pulling him close, and he let his own hand caress Hugh's bare shoulder, enjoying the feel of the muscle under smooth skin.
Finally he had to pull back and take a breath, and as he did, he caught the corner of a smile pushing past Hugh's usual smooth facade, and he couldn't help but grin back, which expression in turn was enough to pull the full-blown grin onto Hugh's face, a splash of gorgeous ivory against his dark beard.
"I doubt that anyone could tell us now that we have not openly shown our hearts."
"Quite." Hugh tried to diminish his smile, to regain his decorum, and couldn't. "Yes, quite." He opened his mouth to say something else, but coughed, his hand once again grabbed at his chest in sudden pain, and Brygos felt a pang in his own. "I'm sorry, I fear I am not entirely well yet."
"Well, you have come back from the brink of death. Perhaps you should relax, try to rest. If it would help, I might offer to tell you stories of my life in antiquity, before I met CHE, when I was merely a mortal hunter of deadly monsters."
Hugh looked at him, weakly, and smiled. "I believe that might work very well. I would be delighted."
Suddenly on the spot, Brygos cleared his throat. "Well. It has been some time since I was last called on to tell the stories of my deeds. So may the muses guide my tongue to tell the story of how I came to defeat a manticore, whose tail and vicious teeth gave mortal humans ample cause for fear..."
As Brygos told his stories, his voice gradually became stronger and more confident, and Hugh, resting back in his bed, gazed up at him, feeling despite everything a level of contentment that he had not remembered he could feel. He spoke for long hours, until Hugh drifted back into a deep sleep. A heavy, dreamless, healing sleep. And Brygos smiled down at him, and he too was content.
In the silent darkness of its cave, the Nexus of the Void pulsed. Its energies stretched, tangled like tendrils through space, through a crack in time. They reached into a far future, and found another trace of their essence. Tendrils met, linked, and as their connection silently sparked, a shockwave echoed out of the Nexus. Imperceptible, completely invisible - except to the few who knew how to look.
On a far off planet in distant space, something felt it. Something that turned from its meal, stared up, and flexed long, vicious, hooked claws. It grinned wide and stretched out an arm, reaching, reaching towards the distant Earth. It hissed in pleasure and anticipation.